Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why Little Children are Special

Why are little children special to Jesus? Not because of their innocence. Even quite small babies quickly learn to be very manipulative. They know just when to cry, when to smile, when to throw a tantrum, and how to go limp all over so that it becomes very difficult to lift them up and put them into a pushchair or sit them up to the table,

Nor are little children special because they are humble. Tiny children think they are the centre of the universe – that everything revolves around them and their wants. They expect to eat, sleep, be wakeful and be amused just when it suits them. Sensible and capable parents have to begin, quite early, to teach their children that other people are important, too, otherwise they become spoilt.

Nor are little children special because of their openness and trust. Children go through phases. Immediately after birth they are very trusting indeed and will happily go to anyone who is prepared to look after them and make the right soothing noises. But very soon they become extremely suspicious, especially of strangers, and will burst into tears or cower behind their mothers and fathers if forced to be with someone they don't know or don't like. It's only later, once they start talking and interacting more with other people, and learn to be a bit more independent of their immediate family, that they generally become more open and trusting again.

So if it's not these things which make little children special to Jesus, what is it that is so special about them that we are told to become like them? I think what made children special was that they were at the bottom of the pile in the world where Jesus lived. They had no rights, no privileges and often not much opportunity to have fun or simply be themselves. The kingdom of God belongs to those whom no one else thinks is important – the people whose opinions are not valued; the people who, like the children of bygone times, are expected to listen but who are never heard.

The crowds who flocked to see Jesus instinctively knew that he cares for children and brought them to him, but the disciples – despite all that they had seen and heard – still did not seem to understand this. They thought that children are an unnecessary distraction from what Jesus had come to do. Clearly, they were blind to the truth, but maybe we shouldn't be too critical of them because the truth is not always easy to see. [1]

A Buddhist proverb says that three things cannot long be hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth. But sadly that's not really the case. Problems can be so familiar, so ordinary and so routine, that they can go unrecognised for years.

This is how it was with child abuse. People have sometimes seen it as a modern issue, but actually it's an age-old issue which was simply overlooked, as proved by the hundreds – and perhaps thousands – of people who have come forward in recent years to say that they were abused as evacuees during the Second World War.

And this is how it was with bullying which, for as long as schools have existed, was just assumed to be part and parcel of normal school life. Despite the immense psychological harm which it inflicted on children, who often hated and feared school because of the bullies when they might otherwise have enjoyed it, teachers just seemed to shrug their shoulders and assume that there was nothing much that could be done about it. Or else they would pretend that bullying didn't exist in their school just because no one – or hardly anyone – ever owned up to being bullied. But now that bullying is more out in the open, it has rapidly become the single biggest reason why children phone Child Line for help and advice.

And this is how it has been ever since commercial television began broadcasting adverts which exploited children and their parents to sell toys, snacks, fast food, films, sugary breakfast cereals and drinks, and much else besides. As a result, children's health has been damaged, their hopes and dreams have been manipulated, and their pocket money – and their parents money – has been raided to make profits for big corporations.

And that's before we get to all the child soldiers, child refugees and child disaster victims from around the world. They continue to be the most vulnerable people, the people at the bottom of the pile, the people with whom we must identify if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

And it's not just children with whom we are asked to identify – but anyone who has been reduced to childlike vulnerability: asylum seekers, minority groups, people who are longterm unemployed, or who have lost their homes and possessions, their health, their pensions, or whatever. We are asked to identify with them because God identifies with them! In Jesus, born in a manger and crucified on a cross, he became one with them that they might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And we must become one with them to if we want to be heirs of that same Kingdom.

This is something which the Church is called to do, but it's also something which we are called to do as individuals, if we would be followers of Jesus. We are called to imagine what it was like to be a little child, to see things from a little child's point of view, to pray for the weak and the vulnerable, to stand alongside them, to support them, to act to help them, just as God in Jesus acted to help us.

In the final analysis, we have to acknowledge that we are actually like little children as far as God is concerned. We all need to acknowledge our dependence on God. We all need to recognise our vulnerability to sin. We are all weak and in need of help. And that help is at hand. If we receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, Jesus will still lay his hands upon us and bless us – just as he blessed those children long ago.

[1] Mark 10.13-16

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pope Benedict's Harvest of Trouble

As so often, this weeks's lectionary chimes uncannily with the news headlines. In the third chapter of his letter, the author of the Epistle of James writes: 'The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.'[1]

Sadly, Pope Benedict has found himself sowing a harvest of trouble for himself, and for other Roman Catholics, because he did not pay enough attention to the need to be seen to avoid partiality and hypocrisy, while showing mercy and gentleness in our assessment of others.

In so far as it correctly represents his remarks, I believe the English translation of his recent controversial speech reveals three ways in which the Pope failed to heed the advice of James.

(1) He critiqued Islam for being, by implication, less influenced by philosophy
and reason than Christianity. In so doing he over-stated his case to a considerable degree. Some branches of Islam have not been influenced by philosophy and reason, but philosophy and reason scarcely influence some branches of the Christian faith too. Pope Benedict cited the very close linkage between Greek culture and the Bible as proof that Christianity is a 'reasonable' faith, but overlooked the close interest which Muslim scholars took in Greek philosophy during the so-called Dark Ages, when European Christians were scarcely aware of its existence.

(2) He asserted that Christianity - because of its reasonableness - has always been opposed to forcible conversions, whereas Islam - because of its greater reliance on the concept of direct revelation and its willingness to assert that God is not bound by logic or reason, (again, a gross over-simplification) - is more liable to allow that a God of peace and justice could, at the same time, sanction mission by conquest.

However, this is no more fair than his critique of Islam for being unphilosophical. Muslims certainly have advanced their faith by conquest but they are still playing catch-up when compared to Christians. The Roman Catholic Church in particular has a very poor record when it comes to forcible conversions, and threatening people with death if they didn't believe the right thing, though Protestants don't have clean hands either. Furthermore, Muslims have a better record of peaceful coexistence with the followers of other faiths.

(3) Pope Benedict quoted a passage from the dialogue between a Christian emperor and a Muslim theologian in which the emperor asserted that - in so far as the Prophet Muhammad was responsible for anything new - it had been evil and inhumane. Although the Pope was careful to say that he was only quoting a very ancient text, why did he quote it at all? It certainly wasn't germane to his argument. I think it was an inflammatory thing to do given the Pope's status as the primary spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church. He must expect his words to be scrutinised.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was asked about the Pope's lecture on BBC Radio 4 and said, very wisely, that we must listen patiently to one another's stories. Christians must listen to the Muslim story of how Islam came to be, and Muslims must be prepared to listen to our story. He also said that, in appropriate circumstances, we must give one another permission to challenge these stories and be big enough to cope with the hurt that might cause - but a publicly reported lecture was perhaps not an appropriate occasion to do.
[1] James 3.17-18

Thursday, August 24, 2006

This Teaching is Difficult

When many of his disciples heard [what Jesus had to say], they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” [1]
Anyone who has heard the teaching of Jesus has to sympathise with those first disciples. His words about Holy Communion may no longer have the same power to shock seasoned churchgoers, because it's an established ritual of the Church which many of us share in without any more thought than we would give to a picnic in the park. But, for many people outside the Church, the idea that we can meet Jesus simply by sharing bread and wine is at best ludicrous and at worst a serious stumbling block to faith.
I guess it offends them in the sense that it offends against their notion of common sense. Perhaps they would find it easier to accept if they understood that Jesus is not proposing any magical or supernatural change to the bread and wine we share. He is simply promising to be with us, in spirit, as we come together around the communion table.
The sharing of holy communion is simply a way of cashing in that promise. It gives us the special confidence of knowing that Jesus is indeed with us, even when he feels far away, because he promised to be there when we share the bread and wine together.
However, let us leave on one side the meaning of holy communion. What about the rest of Jesus' teaching, especially his teaching about lifestyle and morality? This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?
No wonder that some people do not believe in trying to put God first, and to love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves. No wonder either that there are some people who claim to believe in these values, but who betray them when they are put to the test. No wonder people turn back and no longer go with Jesus and his followers. It ain't easy to be a true Christian!
So why do any of us try to persevere? Because as St Peter put it, even if we wanted to follow someone else's way, 'Lord, to whom could we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'
Peter himself was to betray Jesus when it came to the crunch, but he didn't allow that to stop him from coming back to the teaching which he knew, from bitter experience, is difficult to follow, but which he also knew to be life enhancing and life giving.
[1] John 6.60—69

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Two Roads

Over the last few months I have been thinking quite a lot about a poem written by the American poet Robert Frost, which is called 'The Road Less Travelled '. It goes like this:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And, sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
One of the problems with doing two jobs – my day job in the community and the job I'm actually paid to do in the Church - is that there are only 7 days in the week and 24 hours in the day. So, more or less since I arrived, I have been squeezing my work for the Church into weekends and stolen hours. It has been possible for so long partly because I was relatively young and energetic when I arrived, and mostly because of the patience and forbearance of my family.
Someone once recalled how, growing up in a manse, he scarcely ever saw his father. He was always told that his father – who was the minister – was busy and wasn't to be disturbed. I don't think it has been quite like that in our house. One of the privileges of being a minister, in fact, is that you can work flexi-time and be available to do the school run and attend every concert and prize-giving. I once missed a colleague's induction service, at which I was supposed to offer him a welcome on behalf of the Circuit, because I clean forgot about it and was standing on the touch line watching my younger son play rugby. But nonetheless, there have been many times – especially evenings and weekends – when I have not been available.
In the first circuit where I worked, as the minister's assistant in a large inner city church, a member of the congregation described the minister's wife as a saint, because she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to enable him to devote long hours to church and community commitments. Well, despite having her own career as a community worker, my wife has been that kind of a saint too. She even decorated our manse, virtually throughout and in baking hot weather, while I continued working on the preparatory stages of the Building Blocks project and on many other things.
Much as we have enjoyed our time here, and relished the opportunity to work alongside people who needed and appreciated our help and support, we have been uncomfortably aware for a long time that our lifestyle has been unsustainable. It has lacked what people now call work-life balance. And so I have found myself standing at the fork in the road which Robert Frost describes. In fact, it has been more like a crossroads, because I have also been doing ecumenical work and inter-faith work for the Church alongside the community work and the circuit work. Often I have found myself wondering which way to turn.
I have always had the feeling, which is doubtless shared by a great many ministers and lay people, that if I went further down any one of these roads, much more could be achieved than is being achieved now. By dithering at the crossroads I have prevented many things from reaching their full potential, whether it be ecumenical opportunities here in Leeds 11, or opportunities for fresh expressions of mission and evangelism both here and at St Andrew's, or opportunities for greater engagement with people of other faiths, or opportunities to make our community work more secure. There has always been the feeling of doing a little bit to advance a great many things, without ever being able to do enough about any of them.
Of course, this is a dilemma which we all face to a greater or lesser extent. There is always too much to do and too little time to do it. Team work has relieved some of that burden – such as the very welcome way in which Steve stepped in to take over the task of organising circuit young people's work, just at the point where my wife and I were beginning to feel too middle aged to sleep on any more church floors! Doubtless I could have carried on with the eternal juggling act here and in future circuit appointments, as many other people do, if something hadn't happened to force me to choose which path to take.
The thing which has finally compelled me to choose, as many of you know, has been the need to spend more time with my mother. It's always been a struggle for ministers to weigh the comparative importance of marriage vows, baptism vows, ordination vows, and the injunction – in the Ten Commandments – to honour your father and mother. Jesus himself faced the same dilemma and actually said that, at times, it is necessary to leave our families behind in order to do the will of God. So it has been a struggle to know what to do about my mother's illness, and that struggle has resulted in yet more compromises. We have visited her less often than we really feel is right while, at the same time, neglecting the manse garden, which has inevitably become more like a natural garden and – at times – more like a rain forest.
I have found that I could not travel all these paths and be one traveller. And so I have looked down the various paths as far as I could, and wondered where they might lead. And sometimes I have tentatively explored them, without going so far that I reached the bend in the undergrowth which would have left the crossroads behind. That is, until now.
I suppose that, in choosing to spend more time on community work and less time on circuit work, I am taking the road less travelled – at least by Methodist ministers – though I hear of more and more ministers branching out into new areas of work. Also, I have to say that it wasn't our first choice – since we actually decided that I would move to be the superintendent of a larger circuit, closer to where my parents live, only to find this particular road was a dead end.
I expect one day to return to full-time circuit work, perhaps sooner rather than later. But having said that, I'm also aware of Robert Frost's description of the way one road leads to another, so drawing us further and further away from the place where we began. It is often difficult, and not even desirable, to retrace our steps
It has been a great privilege to be a minister here, despite the many tensions and stresses which the work has brought. Although I know that, once we have passed the bend in the road, it won't be possible to look back, we shall miss you all and carry you in our thoughts and prayers.
We came here because this circuit was a priority appointment and we were especially asked to come. I'm not sure the reasons why the circuit was made a priority were the right ones, but it was certainly the right decision. In my view the work here should remain a top priority for the Church and I am only sorry that the category of priority appointments has been abolished!
Last summer, someone from the Anglican Church described Faith Together in Leeds 11 as one of the most important projects attempted by the Church anywhere in the country, and I don't think they were far wrong. When those four young men blew themselves up in London they put this community under an intense media spotlight which still searches us out from time to time. Only last week the cameras were back in Beeston when the Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain visited Hamara, but last year – when Muslims and Christians stood shoulder to shoulder as fellow believers from our community, at impromptu news conferences, and at the two minute silence and at the tributes to the victims in St Pancras Church, I think part of God's reason for our coming to live and work with you was revealed. It remains a source of amazement to me, actually, that when I told the Principal of my training college that I was going to study Islam as part of my preparation for ministry, he laughed! That decision, to study Islam, was probably one of the most significant decisions I have ever made.
The groundwork which members of this church, and this circuit, had carefully prepared with our Muslim neighbours and colleagues over the years, showed its value at that crucial hour. Our work and witness together was an important – and very concrete – part of the community's collective 'No!' to what the terrorists were trying to achieve and helped to provide some of the binding which held people together through the crisis.
I have described the work we have done together here as a collective achievement, in which I believe we have all worked together as a team. I am grateful for your prayers, help and encouragement, as we have sought to know and do God's will. I am mindful that if the work here had depended on me, it would have failed completely. Instead, many people have played key roles in helping the circuit to achieve milestones such as the Investors in People award, the enduring success of our Live at Home Scheme, the creation of the Building Blocks and Faith Together projects and the memorable and inspiring acts of circuit worship which have breathed new life into our tradition of circuit rallies.
One of my guiding principles has been the teaching of the Chinese sage Lao Tsu, who said, 'Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say "We have done this ourselves.”'
When we look back on the past achievements of this circuit, if you find yourselves saying, 'See what Steve has done, or what Neil has done,' then we will not turn out to have been very good leaders. For these milestones to be enduring, you need to feel, 'Steve and Neil may have helped us, but we have done this ourselves.'
And, of course, even our most enduring achievements are not ours alone. Our work will only succeed if it is inspired and guided by God. We need to be wise, and the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians defines wisdom as 'understanding what the will of the Lord is.' [1] In his best moments, that is what King Solomon managed to do. In return, we are told that God rewarded him with long life. [2] Well, it isn't always so. But if we do the will of the Lord, God will sustain us and encourage us, which is why the Letter to the Ephesians says that we should aim to get drunk with the Spirit of God, like the first apostles on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit came to them at nine o'clock in the morning. The Spirit which the writer has in mind is the Spirit of thanksgiving and rejoicing in the power and presence of God. So let us, whether w e are looking back or looking forward, go on 'giving thanks to God the Father, at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
[1] Ephesians 5.17
[2] 1 Kings 3

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Happy, Healthy Church

The Letter to the Ephesians was probably written a considerable time after the death of St Paul. In the meantime he had fallen out of favour and then regained his popularity. People were clamouring for more of his teaching and Christians of long-standing found themselves hunting through their lofts, packing cases and blanket chests, looking for some of St Paul's missing letters which had been circulated long ago around the young churches in his care and then discarded or forgotten.
If losing a letter from St Paul sounds sacrilegious or careless then, in fairness, we need to remind ourselves that St Paul never crafted his letters as though he intended them to be kept for posterity. He dictated them, often in great haste, in a kind of shorthand that our careful English translations paper over and conceal. He was addressing immediate problems and often he was writing to people who disagreed with him intensely. Little wonder, then, that some of his letters did not survive, and that others survived only in fragments.
It's fashionable now to claim that St Paul invented Christianity, reshaping the original teaching of Jesus into something quite different but, in fact, during own his lifetime St Paul never had much influence on the shaping of Christianity. Like so many writers and artists, his enduring reputation was forged only after his death. At the time, other people appeared to win the arguments and only with the benefit of hindsight did Christians come back to St Paul's teaching and rediscover him as one of the Church's greatest ever theologians and pastors.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians seems to have been one of this new generation of fans. He had read all – or almost all – of St Paul's surviving works, and probably St Luke's biographical account of St Paul's ministry too. He may also have had in his possession some fragments of a letter written by St Paul to the Church in Ephesus. Around these he constructed what he believed St Paul would have wanted to say if he were writing to the same church now.
It's clear that he believed St Paul would have been greatly upset by disunity within the Church, so he makes a touching plea that members of his congregation – or of the different congregations in Ephesus – might bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. [1]
The writer is a realist. He knows just how difficult it is for Christians to get along even with one another. It takes every effort that we can muster to bear with one another's faults, failings and foibles. Not only that, but it takes every effort to reach out to one another across the divide between different generations, genders, cultures and races. Being one family under God is a nice idea. We talk about it when people are baptised, and it's the cosy concept which underpins our family services. There is even an organisation that has been set up to help us become more 'family friendly'. But the very fact that we need an organisation to help us do this proves what the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians already knew. Being one family is far from easy. In fact, he says it can only be achieved if we are united to one another by God's Spirit and if we allow God's deep peace, which passes all understanding, to bridge the many divides which separate us. Just as God is undivided, so we too can be undivided – but only through the grace of God, bestowed on us by Jesus Christ.
The writer embarks on a little digression at this point, quoting a creed used by the early Christians, which he uses to prove that Jesus Christ gives us the gifts that we need in order to live and work together in unity, and that these gifts are powerful enough to overcome every obstacle. Echoing the teaching of St Paul himself, he also says that we don't necessarily receive exactly the same gifts – but instead we are equipped by the Spirit according to the measure that we need, including any gifts we might need to carry out special tasks that have been assigned to us such as teaching, or evangelism, or pastoral care. But his key point is that – one way or another – all of us are given gifts to help us do two things. The first thing is the basic work of Christian ministry – which is, serving God in our daily life and work, whatever that might be. The second thing is the building up of the body of Christ, where we all share the same basic responsibility to help one another become more like Jesus Christ – and not just to become a little bit more like Jesus, either, but to measure up to the full stature of Christ; to think, and speak, and act exactly like him. Nothing less will do!
That incredible image – of being exactly like Jesus Christ himself – brings us back to the writer's main theme of getting along with one another. We mustn't be immature or behave immaturely. Instead we must strive for complete maturity in every aspect of our faith and life.
And we mustn't allow ourselves to get drawn into power struggles or devious schemes. I think that what the writer means by his colourful references to trickery, craftiness and deceitfulness is the tendency which all of us have of trying to persuade other people – even in church meetings – to do what we want rather than what God wants. When we're really serving our own interests – trying to keep things the way we prefer them to be, or to protect our own role in the church's life, or simply to have a quiet time and avoid being shaken out of a comfortable rut – that's not something we're likely to admit, is it? Instead, I guess we're all tempted to dress up our motives as something better and more noble than they actually are, to claim that we're only concerned for the best interests of the Church, or for the effectiveness of the Church's work, or that the will of Jesus Christ himself might be done. Of course, the only mature approach is to be honest both with ourselves and with others, and to confront our true reasons for doing things or for resisting change.
There is a difference, however, between speaking the truth and speaking the truth 'in love'. In many churches I have come across people who prided themselves on always speaking the truth, and they have seldom minded how obnoxious they were – or how many people they upset – in the process. After all, they had the perfect excuse for being nasty. They were only speaking the truth.
Interestingly, I have found that these same people didn't usually like it when others spoke the truth to them. Plain-speaking wasn't a two-way street! Nor were they always humble enough to recognise that they might still be wrong even when they were absolutely convinced that they had truth on their side.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians had met people like this too. That's why he's careful to qualify his statement by adding that we must speak the truth only in love. Love is always honest, and it can be angry when things are wrong and need to be put right. But a person who speaks the truth in love will be patient and kind, and will keep his or her self-control even when other people are losing theirs. Above all, speaking the truth in love is about being positive and constructive. It's about seeking to build something better rather than simply knocking things down. It's aim is to make the whole body stronger and more effective, not to cut others down to size, or teach them a lesson, or undermine them. And the writer concludes by reminding us that the mark of an effective church is always first and foremost that it is a loving church.
To sum up, then, what – according to the Letter to the Ephesians – should we look for in a healthy, happy church? We should look for a group of people who are making a real effort to find a sense of togetherness and shared purpose that will bridge all the differences between them. We should look for people who are keen to serve God in their daily lives and to encourage and build one another up whenever they meet together. We should look for people who are really striving to get the best out of life by measuring up to the pattern set for us by Jesus Christ. And we should look for a group of people who try to decide what to do with honesty, integrity and love. Then we shall have a church which is worth belonging to, which builds us up and helps us to grow. If we belong to a church like this we shall be able to do the works of God and we shall find ourselves working not just for the kind of goals which are here today and gone tomorrow, but for goals that will endure forever.
[1] Ephesians 4.25 - 5.2

Saturday, July 22, 2006

You Can't Always Get What You Want

When I was young I was a hit with the girls! So much so that, at age two, I was invited by a little girl to her birthday party. She was about four or five years old at the time, and she made it known to her parents that her idea of a dream party would be to have me come along as her guest of honour, which – because I was cheaper than a magician or a trip to the cinema – I duly did. She was not alone at the party, of course. There was a whole gaggle of her little girls friends in attendance too, and I was the star attraction. For a time they attended to my every whim and found it amusing to follow me around wherever I went, allowing me to do whatever I wanted to do. But then they discovered a snag. I wouldn't settle to anything. If one of them picked up a skipping rope, I wanted to skip. If another one picked up a balloon, I wanted to play with it. If someone had a doll, I must have that doll right now. And after a while – of course – they got tired of me, and I had to be rescued by my mother until it was time to have the birthday tea.
What those little girls had discovered was that tiny children always want what someone else has got, and they never want anything for very long. Fortunately for me, of course, I grew out of that phase. Because I've never again been as gorgeous as I was when I was two, I started to get much less attention from girls – but at least I didn't put my friends off so quickly, because I learned that you can't always get what you want.
That's the title of a Rolling Stones song:
You can't always get what you want,
but if you try, sometimes you just might find,
you just might find
you get what you need!
What do you want? England to win the football world cup again? Or maybe a British tennis player to win Wimbledon, just once in your lifetime? Or a winning lottery ticket? Or a perfect romance? Or a satisfying job? Or an easier life? Or a new kitchen? Or a fast car? Or maybe you just want to be healthy, or happy, or to be together with those you love? Maybe you want to put the clock back to a golden time in the past, or to turn the clock forward to a rosier future?
Well, as the Rolling Stones sang, 'You can't always get what you want!' Even when we want good and noble things like world peace, or everyone to agree to put an end to global warming, we can't always get what we want.
Some people's response – when they find out that they aren't going to get what they want – is to give up. They become cynical. Or they become so laid back that they almost fall over. Or they take a couldn't care less attitude to everything.
But if you don't give up, if you try, sometimes you might just find – not that you will get what you want, but that you just might get what you need!
Jesus' friends, the apostles, were having a good time. They had been following Jesus for a year or two, and learning how they could help to continue his work. They were making a difference. They were doing things to make the world a better place, and they were teaching people how to get much more out of life. There was a buzz going on around them. Good things were happening. But there was so much going on, and so many people were coming to them to seek help, that they didn't even have enough time for lunch and dinner breaks. The pressure was constant, and it was getting to them.
So Jesus suggested an away-day. 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,' he said, and off they went together in a boat to a deserted part of the lake shore. But you can't always get what you want, can you? 'Many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them,' so that they were just as busy and pressured as they had been before they set off. Jesus realised that he couldn't turn his back on such a crowd of needy people. Instead he had compassion on them. He began to teach them many things, and his original vision for a quiet day went out of the window.
The same thing happened when they moved to a different part of the lakeside. Again, people rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard that Jesus and his friends had gone to stay. In fact, 'wherever [Jesus] went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.'
What was going on here? Jesus and his friends weren't getting the rest which they craved, that's for certain. But were the sick people who were brought to him, and their relatives, friends and carers, getting what they wanted?
Sometimes I guess they were. But I suspect that, even when Jesus was in town, and even when you could touch the fringe of his cloak, you didn't always get what you wanted. Because you don't always get what you want, do you? But if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need!
These were people who hadn't given up just because they couldn't get what they wanted out of life. They were still prepared to keep on trying – trying to make things better, trying to overcome disease or disadvantage, trying to learn new truths or build a better life, trying to get to Jesus. They had faith that things don't necessarily have to stay the same, and what they had realised was this: if you try, sometimes – not always, but sometimes – you just might find you get what you need!
God doesn't deal with what we want. God is only interested in what we need. Sometimes, what we want and what we need are the same. Sometimes they're very different. And, sometimes, even when we do need something very badly, God still can't meet our needs in the way we might want them to be met. It's only when we've got ourselves to the right place at the right time, so that God's will can be done in us, it's only then that we will get what we need.
You can't always get what you want,
you can't always get what you want,
but if you try, sometimes you just might find,
you just might find,
you get what you need!
[1]Mark 6:30—34 & 53—56

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Death Be Not Proud

Over the last two weeks, the anniversary of the 7th of July – and its aftermath in Beeston – brought to my mind John Donne's poem,
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
The poem is a declaration of faith and hope in the face of all that might otherwise cause us to despair. I remember the words being read out at the end of the TV adaptation of Olivia Manning's novel 'Friends and Heroes', part of her trilogy of books about life in the Balkans during World War II. The scene is an old tramp steamer full of refugees fleeing from Greece as the German army invades. The engines have been cut and the ship bobs silently on the waves, hoping to evade detection by the encircling U-boats. Even the passengers hold their breath, fearing that – at any moment – a torpedo might be skimming across the waves to blow them all to pieces. And then, in the stillness, as the sunset casts an orange glow over the sea, the hero of the novel, Guy Pringle, begins to read aloud from John Donne's poem:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
I guess Fay Weldon, who wrote the adaptation, thought it was a suitably dramatic thing for Guy to do, given that he was supposed to be an English tutor, just like Olivia Manning's real husband. But, again like her real husband, he is also an atheist, and probably the last person in the world who would take comfort himself, or invite others to take comfort in, John Donne's poem. Nevertheless, it made a very affecting ending to the programme, and the scene has stuck in my mind ever since.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
Death is not mighty, says Donne, because it cannot choose when to strike. It is the 'slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men'. It was chance that decreed which people would be passengers in those train carriages, and on that bus In Tavistock Square, on the 7th of July last year; and it was chance which decided which of them would be killed and which would live. It was desperate men who carried out those acts of savagery, and it was the State which then over-reacted and – in its own desperation to prevent further acts of terror – gave the fateful orders to tail and shoot Jean Charles de Menezes. John Donne wrote his poem four hundred years ago, but nothing much has changed. Death is still the 'slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men'.
An atheist like Guy Pringle might not take comfort in John Donne's poem, but – if they ever read the poem – the terrorists might have found echoes of their own reasoning. 'Those, whom thou think'st. thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death,' says Donne, 'Nor yet canst thou kill me.' That thought was surely what must have motivated the terrorists as they triggered their bombs. They must have told themselves that, though they were about to die, yet they were also about to live more full than ever before. Death would not destroy them. They would be translated to Paradise.
Just as 'much pleasure' flows from rest and sleep – which are only pale imitations of death – so much more pleasure must surely flow from death itself, reasons Donne, as he looks forward to everlasting life in God. This kind of reasoning is, of course, one of the things which makes religious fanaticism so dangerous. The most ardent believers are never afraid of dying because they believe that, no matter how good their prospects might be here and now, they will certainly improve after their death. And isn't that what all religious believers are supposed to think, except that – unlike the terrorists – we don't believe it's our job to give God a helping hand and bring death on!
John Donne was himself a Church of England clergyman and never a fanatic of any kind, but – be that as it may – he strikes yet more cords with the way that modern terrorists think. He says, 'Soonest, our best men with thee do go.' He means that it is usually the best and most committed believers who tend to take the greatest risks, and do the bravest deeds, and who have the least care for their own health and safety. He's not, of course, advocating that believers should be reckless, or that they should seek out death. He's merely giving poetic expression to a fact of life – that, on average, where people are more concerned about the well-being of others than they are about themselves, they will tend to die sooner than those whose only concern is for their own self-preservation. That's not just common sense, of course, it's also a central plank of the Christian's understanding of how we should all live and die. Still, it's more than a little disconcerting to think that Muhammad Saddique Khan probably encouraged his own recruits with the same basic idea that only the good die young.
These reminders of the ways in which religion can be twisted by the terrorist mindset are bound to disappoint and dismay us, but fortunately, like John Donne, I have been able to save the best part of the poem until last. 'Death shall be no more,' says Donne. 'Death thou shalt die.'
In saying this Donne doesn't mean to cheapen death or to deny its impact. I'm never happy, when people ask me at funerals to read poems which tell us that death is not real – that the person who has died is not actually gone – because that it untrue. We do have to confront the pain and loss which death inflict because, if we are not honest with ourselves, we shall never learn to cope with them. Pretending that death does not really matter is never a solution to grief.
This, however, is not what John Donne is trying to tell us. He's not denying the reality of suffering and death, only challenging their permanence. Death is for real, but it is not forever. It will be overcome. Death, too, shall die.
Donne is referring, of course, to the resurrection – to the central Christian conviction that, from God's perspective, no one dies forever because we always live on in the mind of God himself and so, at the deepest and most profound level of our existence, we shall all meet one another again in God, even after we have died. And, eventually, there will be no more dying, or grieving or pain. For all these former things shall pass away and only life and love will endure.
Yet there is another sense in which John Donne's words are also true. 'Death, thou shalt die' is a reminder that nothing which death achieves can ever be permanent. There will always be some kind of new life springing up in spite of death, to replace the life which has been lost and to challenge and negate death's achievements. This is what King Herod discovered, to his chagrin, when Jesus appeared in Galilee, preaching a message of Good News from God which was not unlike the message of John the Baptist, whom Herod had only just silenced. He had thought that John's troublesome teaching was gone for good, but here was the same kind of thing being proclaimed all over again. [1]
How many times will people like King Herod need to kill the prophets of God in order to silence their message? The answer, of course, is that the message can never be silenced. The Herods of this world would have to go on killing good men and women until the end of time if they really wanted to keep God's messengers silent.
I think this is the abiding lesson for people in Beeston as we look back on the 7th of July. 2005. The terrorists hoped that their bombs, and the threat of more like them, would call into question the Government's policy of attacking members of the Muslim community in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even that limited aim has not succeeded. If anything, like Pharaoh when he was challenged by the ten plagues in Egypt, Tony Blair has only hardened his heart and become more determined than ever not to give way.
On a broader canvass, I suspect the terrorists also imagined that death and destruction could make a difference where positive or non-violent means of protest don't succeed. They failed to appreciate that the ideas of peaceful protest, co-existence and non-violence, which they thought they could overthrow, cannot be so easily killed off.
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And, soonest, our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls' delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
[1] Mark 6.14-29

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Touching and Being Touched by Jesus

In this week's lectionary story [1] we see some extraordinary scenes of high drama. First a leader of the synagogue falls at Jesus' feet and begs him for help, not once but repeatedly. How undignified! What must the other villagers have thought?
No doubt some sneered to see him brought low, but others must have felt sorry for him. His daughter wasn't really little. She was twelve years old – almost a grown up by the standards of the time. So, unless she was remarkably short, the expression, 'my little girl' has got to be a term of endearment, a sign of the man's great love for his daughter. Later, Jesus borrows the same turn of phrase himself when he goes to heal her.
The story contradicts the idea we sometimes have that women were not valued in the ancient world. Here we see that fathers could love their daughters every bit as much as they loved their sons.
As the scene unfolds, a woman turns out to be so ill, and so desperate, that she is prepared to sneak up on Jesus just to touch his clothes as he goes by. And, when she is found out, she too ends up falling down before him – this time in fear and trembling. Not only that, but she blurts out the whole embarrassing story about her illness, about the misery which the doctors have caused her instead of making her better, and about her shortage of money. But, unlike Jairus, it's not desperation which causes her to fall at Jesus' feet. It is alarm that he might be about to punish her. What must the other villagers have said to one another as they listened to her story?
For the whole of the time that the little girl had been growing up in the village, this woman had been battling to overcome her illness. Where had her money come from? Again we are often told that – in the ancient world – women had no money unless they were widows. But the money to treat her illness might have been given to her by her husband so, again, perhaps she was valued and loved just as much as Jairus' daughter.
She discovers, to her embarrassment, that it isn't possible to be a secret friend of Jesus. His disciples try to reason with him when he demands to know who touched his clothes. There is a huge crowd pressing round them. It could have been anyone. But Jesus continues looking all round, searching for the needy person who has found wholeness by believing in him. She must come out into the open, so that others can know she has at last found peace and so that her own faith can be affirmed.
Then, there's the way that Jesus brusquely throws the mourners out of the house, accusing them of making a commotion – a fuss about nothing. 'Jairus' daughter is not dead,' he tells them. She's only sleeping. We know exactly what they thought. Tears of sorrow turned to scornful and derisive laughter. Jesus must have lost his marbles. He must be several knives and forks short of a full picnic set! And yet, to everyone's amazement, the girl gets up and immediately begins to walk about.
What are we to make of this? Even if the girl wasn't really dead, but only in a coma or unconscious, it is remarkable that she should be walking around and eating food straight after meeting Jesus. And if she was dead, is this a promise that all of us are only sleeping when we die and will one day wake up again and be with Jesus?
In some ways these stories of dramatic healing can seem strange to us because we are not used to such things, but in other ways the stories are oddly familiar. Today illness continues to have huge implications not just for the person who is unwell, but for their family too. The lives of carers can be blighted by strain and sadness as they watch a loved one, especially a child, slowly succumb to ill health. Or families can be bankrupted by the cost of having someone who needs urgent or expensive treatment, such as a new wonder drug not available on the National Health Service, or when one of the family breadwinners can no longer earn a living.
The transformation in the lives of the two women is also a reminder of the way that encountering Jesus always transforms the life of the believer – sometimes in very dramatic ways. Meeting Jesus is never a non-event.
And the story is a reminder of Jesus' openness to women. They are certainly every bit as important to him as the men he meets. But then we have also seen how important his daughter was to Jairus, and how important the woman must have been to whoever paid for her expensive treatment. If we proclaim Jesus as the first male supporter of feminism, as some Christian feminists have been tempted to do, are we perhaps being unfair to some of the other men in Palestine at the same time?
Finally, the thing that makes Jesus' experience of the story different from our own understanding of it is that he would have seen both the woman and the girl as ritually unclean. The woman would have been seen as unclean, or unholy, because of her illness, the child because she was dead. To touch or be touched by them was supposedly to be cut off from God. Or, at least, that was the standard view at the time. In challenging him to work a miracle for them, Jairus and the woman knowingly ask Jesus to overlook that risk. But, of course, Jesus knows something they don't know, but we do. These things do not cut us off from God. God's love is no different from our love. Like our families and our true friends, God goes on loving us come what may. In fact, God's love is broader and deeper than our love. Nothing can cut us off from it at all. When Jesus asked, 'Who touched me?' it was not so that he could complain about being made unclean. It was so that he could celebrate the breaking down of yet another barrier between people. In him we are all one.
[1] Mark 5.21-43

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Servants of God

What does it mean to be a servant of God? In this week's lectionary passage [1] St Paul give us his CV and asks us to judge whether he has lived up to his calling.
As I listen to it again, I think he would have felt very much at home in the modern job market. He's not at all reticent about his achievements. Instead, he recognises the pressing need to go out and sell himself, or – as he puts it – to commend himself and his team to his readers. He wants them to know exactly what his team has done and the commitment which this has demanded. It could be called 'boasting', but St Paul calls it 'speaking frankly' and 'openly', and he urges his readers to do the same.
I think St Paul is not just describing his own work, and the work of his colleagues. He's also setting out a pattern for all kinds of Christian service. And it's not a pattern which applies only to people who are working as ministers or missionaries, I think it's a pattern for everyone who is a disciple of Jesus, because Jesus has called us all to become servants of God.
So what does it mean for us to be servants of God in the places where we live and work? St Paul says it calls for endurance.
Being a Christian is like taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Young people who are working towards the various awards are asked to stretch themselves and put themselves to the test, above all in the expeditions which are the culmination of each stage of the scheme. Not long ago one of my sons took part in the silver award and – by the end of the three day expedition – another member of his team was suffering from hypothermia. They achieved the award only because they drew on their own experience and training to make the right decisions to get them safely out of danger. If they had made the wrong decision, not only would a Search and Rescue team have been scrambled to look for them but – also – one of the team members might have died. They were being put through hardships and afflictions to test their endurance.
The trouble with a great many Christians is that we tend to see our faith as an insurance policy, when we should think of it as an endurance test. We hope that God is going to save us from harm, not put us in danger, forgetting – of course – that Jesus Christ himself had to face the supreme test of being crucified for doing what he knew to be God's will. And we are servants of Jesus Christ. Can we expect life to be easier for us than it was for our master?
Not long ago I saw a TV programme in which Christians were fervently praying that the weather would be sunny at someone's wedding – and, of course, encouraged by that kind of example and by the story of the stilling of the storm, people are always jokingly asking me to ensure fine weather at events like the Beeston Festival Mela. However, Christianity is not a protection plan. It doesn't promise us that we can avoid storms and calamities. It doesn't guarantee us a life of peace and tranquillity. Instead, what we are offered is peace IN the storm. When we are in trouble, Jesus will be with us to reassure and encourage us, and to strengthen our resolve. He will give us the resources we need to endure to the end.
This doesn't mean that God will never rescue us from danger. But it does mean that we will only be rescued so that we can fight another day. Our mission as servants of God, should we choose to accept it, is to go on struggling to do what is right.
For St Paul and his companions, this meant enduring beatings and imprisonment. Even in the inner city of Leeds we would hope to avoid that fate, and we must continue to work to avoid things like riots from taking place. But we must expect sleepless nights, affliction and hardship. Those things are part of what it means to be a disciple, not just here but anywhere. They come with the territory.
St Paul goes on to describe a more attractive kind of test which we must face as disciples of Jesus. He asks if we can mirror the character of Jesus in our own behaviour and demeanour. It's just as big a test as any physical ordeal.
A story is told of an argument between John Wesley and another famous preacher, George Whitfield. Wesley was arguing that a mutual friend had attained the state of Christian perfection – which is to say that the man they were talking about was a perfect mirror of the attitudes and behaviour of Jesus himself. 'Take me to him and I'll prove he isn't perfect,' said Whitfield so Wesley took Whitefield to meet the man. But, immediately, on entering the room, Whitefield snatched up a jug of cold water and threw it in the man's face, whereupon the man responded with some choice – and most unChristlike – remarks. So much for Christian perfection!
Actually, I think the story is apocryphal. I'm sure George Whitefield would never have done anything so unkind, even to prove a point. But it's a reminder that being like Christ is a mighty test of our endurance. Night and day we are called upon to be examples of purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love and truthful speech. If we could really be those things, even for part of the time, we would be wonderfully effective servants of God.
The trouble is, of course, that whenever we lapse from the Christ-like standards which we are called to live by – whenever we are impure, ignorant, impatient, unkind, worldly, deceitful or untrue – we give powerful ammunition to anyone who would like to oppose us. They can point at us and say, 'See how these Christians actually live. See the difference between what they do and what they say!'
And, unfortunately, there ARE people who would like to oppose us. Someone wrote to me not long ago to say that, despite the good work we were doing in Beeston, he still believed that all religion is basically dangerous and misguided. And he is the son of a famous Methodist minister! People like that are only too happy to treat us as impostors, as people on the road to nowhere – leading ourselves and others to destruction rather than to salvation.
Fortunately, on the other side of the equation, we have the power of God to help us. And we have weapons of righteousness to strengthen us as we try to what is right – the Spirit of God within us, the Scriptures, the prayer and support of the Christian community, the tradition of the Church, Sunday worship and midweek fellowship. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be knocked down, but – so long as we rely on God – we can never be knocked out.
Being a servant of God can seem like a thankless task. It's not a route to material riches. It won't guarantee us a good time. But it does remind me of what one of my children once said on Christmas Day. At the foot of his bed was a little sock with a few tiny presents to open – some chocolate coins, a little toy, that kind of thing. Downstairs, another pillowcase full of gifts was also waiting for him, but he was too young to know that. Nevertheless, he turned to us after opening the contents of the stocking and said, 'I have everything I need!' If only we had known he would say that, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and money getting ready for Christmas!
However, that's exactly what St Paul says about being a servant of God. It gives us everything we need. Even when they seem to have nothing, servants of God possess everything.
[1] 2 Corinthians 6.4—13

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Time to Talk of God

Do we spend too much time analysing the mission of the Church and trying to work out how to do it better? Perhaps that's inevitable in a culture where organised religion – and especially organised Christianity – is in decline. Most of us have seen mission initiatives come and go, often without any sustained impact. We are bound to start asking ourselves, 'Where are we going wrong and how can we do it right?'
The Methodist Conference report, 'Time to Talk of God' spends a whole chapter looking at how we can get back into conversation with the dominant culture of our time. It concludes that Christians need to be talking to their neighbours and colleagues about the things which really matter to them.
What then are these pressing issues that we should be prepared to talk about? They are things like: how to help people feel they belong to something or someone in an increasingly fragmented society; work / life balance; spirituality as opposed to religion; the difference between right and wrong in an age of uncertainty. All of these issues – and many more – can give us a way into conversation with people about the things of God.
So is this where we have been going wrong? Can the Church's persistent decline in the West be blamed squarely on our failure to talk to people outside the Church about the right issues, the issues that really interest them? The writers would say that, up to a point, the answer is 'Yes!' Often, Christians talk only to one another, and only about things which don't seem to matter to anyone else.
But, in fairness, the report isn't all about analysis. Like the parables in this week's lectionary[1], it also leaves room for the Spirit. Our task is to get into meaningful conversation, to go deep and get real, to make ourselves vulnerable by sharing what we honestly think and feel about some of the big issues facing us and our world. We are like the sower who goes out to sow the seed not knowing how – or even whether – it will germinate and grow, but ready to nurture it if it takes root, and to gather in the harvest.
And who can foretell how big the harvest might be if we really got into conversation with our friends and neighbours about the important things in life, and left trivialities behind? Some tiny seeds, planted in the right soil, can grow as big as a tree.
[1] Mark 4.26—34

At Home or Away

Perhaps because the country is currently in the grip of World Cup fever, one phrase stood out from the passage in St Paul's second letter to Corinth that is included in this week's lectionary.[2] 'Whether we are at home or away,' says St Paul, 'We make it our aim to please the Lord.'
It makes a big difference to football teams whether they are at home or away, and no one seems to know quite why. Occasionally, when non-League sides are competing in the FA Cup, it's because they know about – and can exploit – some of the idiosyncrasies of their pitch, things like slopes, bumps and hidden depressions in the surface. Professional sportsmen shouldn't be affected, of course, by the roar of the crowd. They should be able to blot it out and concentrate on the game. And so should referees. However, a statistician recently analysed Premiership matches and found that referees consistently award more free kicks to the home side than to the away side. He thought that, sub-consciously, referees might be responding to the partisanship of the crowd.
Whatever the explanation, there certainly is a home advantage in the World Cup. The home nation has won on several occasions since the competition resumed after Word War II, including – mostly famously – when England won in 1966.
In the lectionary passage, St Paul talks about the advantages, and disadvantages, of being at home or away. Being at home in the body may be a comfortable sensation because, after all, most of us have never had an 'out of body' experience, but it means that we are away from the Lord. St Paul would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
I wonder if this is a false distinction. Do we really have to wait until we are away form the body to be with him? Isn't the Lord with us now?
St Paul has an answer to those questions. Yes, the Lord is with us now – but only if we have faith. We cannot actually see him face to face and, however confident we may be that he really is with us, wouldn't it be even better if we could?
Does this mean that we will have to wait until we have died before we can really know Jesus as his first disciples did? The logic of St Paul's argument so far suggests that we will. But then he has second thoughts. If we surrender our lives entirely to Jesus, and begin a new way of living, because we have put our whole trust in the love he showed for us when he died on the cross, we have in a sense already died and gone to heaven. We have left behind the attitudes and appetites which used to shape us; we are dead to our old way of living since we no longer live for ourselves. We live for him! So that means we can know him – perhaps not in the old human way, face to face, but in spirit and in truth.
[2] 2 Corinthians 5.6-10, 4-17

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Looking at God

Some people look at God and see mystery, and often they look no further. They assume that the mystery is unfathomable, that it will never be possible to know for sure what God is like.
Some people look at God and see the universe and everything in it, and assume that they are one and the same. They see that God is in everything that exists, and in everyone they meet, and they imagine there is no more to God than that. They don't see how God could also be above and beyond the universe.
Some people look at God and see Jesus – a God who is one of us, who laughs with us and cries with us, and shares our pleasure and pain. But all they see when they look at God is Jesus.
And some people look at God and see someone who is a constant source of power and inspiration. Theirs is a God who guides their everyday thoughts and decisions and gives them strength when they feel weak.
And all of these ways of seeing God are more or less right. God is a mystery too deep for us to fathom. But God is also in everything and everyone that exists, as well as being greater than the sum of all things. God meets us in Jesus, and he is with us all of the time to guide and empower us. God is all of these things. No one way of looking at God can tell the whole story.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The God of Storm, and Peace and Blessing

Psalm 29 is a song which people sang or chanted during worship in the Temple dedicated to God in Jerusalem almost three thousand years ago.
Its subject matter is very daring, for it takes the characteristics of the pagan storm god, Baal, and reassigns them to the one true God.
The psalm is addressed not to other people on earth, but to the beings in heaven. They are asked to praise God using a description which pagan worshippers had probably used when praising Baal.
Baal was supposed to be the god who spoke in thunder and torrential rain. But now his worshippers declare that it is really the one true God who speaks with a voice like thunder.
Baal was supposed to be the god whose powerful storms lashed the trees and sometimes split them in half. But now his worshippers declare that it is really the one true God who sends the violent winds and shakes the earth.
Baal was supposed to be the god who sent bolts of lightning. But now his worshippers declare that it is the one true God who does this.
Baal was supposed to be the god who presided over the life-giving floods which brought fertility to the parched earth after the winter. But now his worshippers declare that it is the one true God who sits enthroned over the flood waters.
Baal is revealed as a fraud. People had imagined him to be responsible for storm and flood, but now we are told that the power of the one true God was really behind these things all of the time. He is the true storm God. But, unlike Baal, he is also more than a storm God.
He isn't a one dimensional being, someone who just cares about the weather and the seasons. Nor is the one true God really a 'he'. The one true God is a spirit reigning over the whole universe, giving strength to creation and blessing us with peace.
But Christians would go further than the Psalmist and say that the one true God is also a spirit which fills the universe and is present within everything that exists – including you and I.
Finally, Christians would also say that the one true God came and lived among us, and died for us on the cross, so that we might realise just how deeply God loves and cares for us. And the person in whom God lived like this was Jesus, who showed how much he was in harmony with God not just when he stilled a storm and took control of the winds, but when he gave up his life as a ransom for many.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Hour Has Come

Jesus said, 'An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.'
There is nothing prophetic about this saying, of course. There have always been people who believed that by killing someone else they were offering worship to God. Jesus' own enemies were motivated by religious zeal when they had him crucified.
Ironically, the persecutors of the early Christians sometimes attacked them for being atheists and denying the existence of the gods, because they refused to worship idols. And, as soon as they got their own hands on the levers of power, Christians began killing one another for believing the wrong things. They were even more enthusiastic about killing the followers of other faiths – especially Islam – whose expansion for a long time threatened the very existence of Christianity. Those who killed the Church's mortal enemies were easily persuaded that they were offering worship to God.
For most of our lives these destructive and primitive ideas seemed like ancient history, but they were still festering beneath the surface of contemporary events, waiting for a chance to break out again. In countries as far apart as America and Indonesia, Nigeria and Britain, Muslims and Christians have been killing each other again with renewed intensity since 9/11. Often, these murderous attacks have been carried out by mobs motivated by simple thoughts of revenge or by an 'us and them' mentality, but sometimes people have sincerely believed that by killing the followers of another religion, or even someone who didn't agree with them, they were worshipping God. That seems to have been the motive for the July 7 attacks on London. They were carefully planned expressions of devotion to God.
Of course, Jesus says that whenever people think that killing someone is an expression of worship, they are wrong. Those who do this, he says, 'Have not known the Father or me.'
Nevertheless, Jesus is under no illusion that both Christians and the followers of other faiths will – from time to time – convince themselves that it is not only right to kill their opponents, but that it is a way of offering worship to God. To imagine that religion is only ever a force for good is, sadly, just as misguided as imagining that it is always a force for harm.
The only safeguard against getting religion wrong is to be open to God's Spirit. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of people who claimed that it was God's Spirit which was urging them to commit murder, but that doesn't change the fact that listening to the true Spirit of God is the only way to guarantee having the right understanding of sin, righteousness and judgement.
Sin is not about being different. Fundamentalists imagine that anyone who disagrees with their harsh version of religious faith is a sinner. If you have a different point of view, or different politics, or a different lifestyle, or a different kind of faith, you deserve to die. And, in fairness, that's the view which Christian crusaders have adopted just as stridently as Muslim suicide bombers. But it's wrong! Sin is not about being different from the true followers of God. Sin is about not knowing God and, since God is love, anyone who teaches us to hate our fellow human beings does not know God and must be every bit as much of a sinner as the people they are targeting.
Righteousness is not about being better than other people – about drawing a distinction between those who deserve to die and those who do not. It's about being like Jesus, and since Jesus has gone to the Father, only the witness of the true Spirit of God can remind us what Jesus is really like. Without the advocacy of the Holy Spirit, we shall be tempted to remake Jesus in our own image and even – in extreme cases – to come up with a murderous and hateful image of Jesus, an image which seems to be encouraging us to kill other people as an act of worship. That is not the righteous Jesus. Nor is a murderous God, the righteous God of Islam.
And judgement is not about visiting God's wrath on other people, whom we happen to think deserve it. The judgement of the world is not ours to decide. It has already taken place, on the Cross, and the values of this world have already been condemned. But these ungodly values have not been judged by blowing their followers to pieces or by putting them to the sword. They have been judged by one man's innocent death to bring attention to a radical new way of living, a way of complete obedience to God's love and complete submission to God's will. Any religious movement which is triumphalist, which seeks to impose its will on other people whether they like it or not, has nothing to do with the true Spirit of God which points us to the Cross.
As we face new situations and new challenges, like global warming and the best way to control new and hazardous, but potentially beneficial, scientific discoveries, we shall have to turn increasingly to the guidance of the Spirit. The answers to every question will not be contained in the Scriptures because problems like the right way to use genetic engineering were not even on the radar screen when the Bible was written. But how will we know that we are listening to the right Spirit? The answer, says Jesus, is that the right Spirit gives glory to him – and to his way of righteousness and love.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Putting Jesus' Disciples Back Into The World

In this week's Gospel passage, Jesus says in his prayer: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.'[1]
Far too often, the Church has not heeded that prayer. It has been more than happy to take Jesus' disciples out of the world. However, Jesus' disciples share the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. We have not had to be browbeaten or persuaded into leaving the world behind. Many of us have been only too willing to join the headlong retreat.
Let's face it. The world can be a tough place and the Church can seem like a welcome escape. Not only that, but people who don't amount to much in the world's estimation can become very important in the Church. And that's basically a good thing, because it's a sign that the Church can turn the values of the world upside down.
The Church's openness to different ways of calculating people's worth means that it sometimes manages to recognise the talents and abilities of people who would struggle to gain proper recognition in the world outside. But this ability to nurture disciples and grow their talents turns bad when two things start to happen.
First, the Church's ability to promote and build up people who have never before had a chance to play a leadership role can be a bad thing if they simply copy some of the bad styles of leadership which they have seen played out at home, at school or at work. The Church needs to help people find a different way of leading which copies the style of the Servant King.
People who behave in church in just the same way that they have seen their boss behaving during the week can cause a lot of harm to the Church's life and mission. The current preoccupation with bullying in the life of the Church is a reminder that the Church has not paid enough attention to getting leadership right. It has taken people out of the world to be leaders, and then permitted them to bring destructive ideas of leadership with them from the world. instead of teaching them more positive and constructive ways to lead and guide the Christian community.
But second, the Church's ability to grow its own leaders becomes a bad thing when it encourages people to retreat from the world and focus their time and energies exclusively on church activities. Jesus didn't want his disciples to be taken out of the world. He wanted them to be equipped to face the world head-on and change it.
If we are helping people to discover their hidden potential to make a difference, shouldn't we be encouraging them to use their gifts to make the world a better place? Despite claims to the contrary, the Methodist Church hasn't always done a great deal deliberately to improve the lives and working conditions of ordinary people or to campaign for democracy. Instead of speaking out against injustice, its leaders in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries fell over themselves to make protestations of loyalty to whichever Government was in power at the time. However, almost in spite of itself, the Methodist Church did change Britain for the better, because it educated and inspired generations of Trade Unionists and politicians who were not content to stay inside the Church. They used gifts nurtured in the Church to go out and take on the world.
Jesus said in his prayer: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.' But the Church, like all institutions, is greedy. It needs people to feed its own life. Without an endless stream of volunteers to collect money, keep its buildings in good repair, train its ministers, circulate its news and information and formulate its rules, how could the Church keeping going? So it sucks people out of the world in order to renew itself.
This is not an entirely bad thing. The Church is the body of Christ on earth. That means, it is meant to be a sign and a foretaste of what God's Kingdom is like and to model different ways of living which demonstrate God's love in action. So people who live in religious communities, for instance, where they devote themselves to prayer, are not necessarily escaping from the world. They are releasing themselves from the overwhelming busyness of daily life in order to focus more clearly on the needs of the world and to pray for them.
When the Church remembers what it is for, when the focus of its energies is on helping its members to change the world by prayer and action, then no time spent working for the Church is ever wasted. But the Church easily gets distracted. People convince themselves that their own agenda is the same as God's agenda.
A congregation can convince itself that keeping an old Victorian building going is a vital sign to the community of God's presence, when really it is a comforting reassurance to an ageing group of people. A treasurer can become convinced that building up large reserves will secure the Church's mission for years to come, whereas – in reality – he or she may simply be starving the Church's mission of vital resources in the present.
The only way to safeguard ourselves against these mistakes is to constantly repeat the prayer of Jesus: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.' It should be the motto carved above every church door.
The Kingdom of God and the Church are not the same thing. The Church is supposed to be a sign of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom has to be built in the world, for it is in the world – and not just in the Church – that God is to be found, and that is where the energy of Jesus' disciples must be channelled.
The Church is the place where we should be able to find the truth. The Church should be there to guard and protect its members from the insidious pressures and dangers of the world. The Church should remind us that the world is not enough. We belong to a higher power from whom, in the end, we take our orders and to whom we owe our allegiance. But that power, which is vested in Jesus, has also given us to the world and sends us into the world to do his will.
[1] John 17.6-19

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sharing the Good News With People of Other Faiths

Together with other local Christians, clergy and lay people, I find myself – from time to time – giving thought to how we share our Christian faith with people from other religious backgrounds. It is a ticklish issue, because converting from one faith to another is a huge decision to make and it may not be appropriate for everyone. Becoming a Christian is always a life changing event, but for someone from another faith background it can sometimes cause immense dislocation and hardship, including estrangement from family members and friends who cannot accept their decision. It may even cut a person off from their entire cultural heritage, so it is not something that we can expect people to enter into lightly or thoughtlessly. Nor is it likely to be easy for them to make a gradual progression or pilgrimage to Christian faith. At some point they may have to choose whether or not to make a radical break with their past, unless they decide to be secret or closet believers. And they may decide to remain within their own faith tradition, while being open to new insights and truths from our Christian heritage. That is up to them. It is not for us to decide.
Does the story of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch [1] shed light on this dilemma? I think it may.
First, Philip is not set on pursuing an automatic collision course with people of other faiths. At this stage in Christian history there was still much debate about whether or not Gentiles, as well as Jewish people, could actually become followers of Jesus. Philip only approaches the Ethiopian because he is guided by the Spirit. Is this a reminder of the need for sensitivity when we encounter people from other faiths? I think it is.
Second, Philip is only inspired by the Spirit to join the eunuch because the man has already embarked on a spiritual journey of discovery. He is open to new ideas and, in fact, he is actively seeking them out. He has begun to wonder whether the Jewish faith has more to offer him than his own inherited faith and culture, and so he is reading the Jewish scriptures.
To have obtained a copy of the Prophecy of Isaiah was a huge step to take, even for a wealthy person. It must have been handwritten, and therefore very expensive and difficult to obtain. And the eunuch must have been reading it in Greek, which is unlikely to have been his native language. Here was someone who was thinking very seriously about his relationship to God and whether he needed to go in a different spiritual direction to be put right with God.
He must have been introduced already to some Jewish ideas, but this passage – which was probably written about the faithful remnant of believers exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem – had not yet been explained to him. Philip is able to give it a new spin, because it doesn't take much imagination to see that it could be a very powerful and emotive description of the way Jesus' life had ended.
The eunuch is so impressed by the Gospel message that he insists on being baptised immediately. Was Philip right to agree to this sudden demand without any further preparation? We have already seen that the man must have been thinking deeply about his spiritual journey, so in a sense this is no flash in the pan. It was the right thing to do given the stage which the eunuch had reached.
People often ask for baptism, and it is tempting to play God and try to make a judgement as to whether or not they are ready. Obviously, it would be wrong to baptise someone without any preparation, especially if they are converting from another faith, but it would also be wrong to impose too many conditions on them. Sometimes baptism is a stage on their journey, and a powerful way for God to continue working in their life and influencing their spiritual growth, rather than a final destination.
So it was with the Ethiopian eunuch. He continued on his way rejoicing, but without Philip – who was snatched away by the Spirit and commanded to go to the nearby city of Ashkelon or Azotus, which is its Greek name.
It would have been tempting for Philip to continue with the eunuch, perhaps all the way to Ethiopia, there to found the Ethiopian Church. Instead he gives the official space to assimilate the progress he has made and decide for himself the pace and scope of any further changes in his life. No doubt, if he had wanted to, the man could have sent for Christian missionaries to come and help him later in his spiritual journey. Perhaps that is what he did. Or perhaps he decided to become a secret Christian. Or perhaps he slid back into his inherited faith and beliefs when he returned home.
It is not our task to decide how other people will come to God. Our task is to be ready to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, and to the clues that people give us, so that we may share our faith with them at the right time and in the right way.
[1] Acts 8.26—40

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Four Abiding Truths of Methodism

The heart of the Christian message is contained in just three sentences from the first letter of John. John says, 'We should believe in the name of [God's] Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.'[1]
John Wesley's message became distinctive, in his lifetime, because of his repeated emphasis on four things: everyone needs to abide in Jesus; everyone can abide in Jesus; everyone can know that they abide in Jesus; and everyone can abide in him completely. This is not quite how Wesley put it, but it's what he might have said if he had published a sermon on this particular passage. They are the four 'abiding truths' of Methodism.
In his 'Notes on the New Testament', Wesley says, 'This [passage contains] the greatest and most important command that ever issued from the throne of glory. If this [command] be neglected, no other can be kept: if this be observed, all others are easy.'
What does it mean, then, to 'believe in the name of Jesus Christ'? I think it means to put our trust in everything which Jesus stands for or represents. In particular, John says that Christians believe Jesus' life and death define the true meaning of love.
Older people will remember the 'Love is...' cartoons. At one time you could get them on postcards, tea towels and aprons. They always depicted a naked, but totally innocent looking, man and woman. Beneath them would be a caption like, 'Love is... never having to say you're sorry.'
In his letter, John gives us the Christian version of that slogan. 'We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.' The unique thing about Jesus' death is not the horrid way he died, nor his innocence of the crimes he stood accused of committing. The unique thing is that – by dying in this way – he claimed to be speaking for God, and showing us what God is really like. God is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for us, and – indeed – has already done so in Jesus. This is what we are asked to believe.
But trusting in Jesus, abiding in him, is not just a matter of intellectual commitment. We also have to walk the talk. John says, 'Let us not love in word and speech, but in truth and action.' And just in case we don't know what that means, he gives us a concrete example: 'How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?' In other words, whenever we've got something to spare – even if it be only a tiny amount – we are not abiding in Jesus if we refuse to share it with a brother or sister in need; and that applies not only to our personal lives – to the way we spend our own time and money, but also to the way we run our churches and our communities.
If abiding in love involves this kind of commitment, we might well ask ourselves, 'Who, then, can be saved?' Knowing how selfish and self-absorbed human beings can be, it sounds like a tremendous challenge. But Methodist tradition has always insisted that it is not impossible. It can be done! Everyone can abide in Jesus. Everyone can love in truth and action. Everyone can walk the talk if they really want to.
Not only that, but everyone can know they abide in Jesus. John says that even the best of people, who have totally committed themselves to laying down their lives for brothers and sisters in need, will still have doubts. They will wonder, in their heart of hearts, 'Am I really good enough?' But, says John, God knows us better than we know ourselves, and the truth of our actions will speak for us even when we ourselves remain unconvinced.
He goes on to give us three signs to look out for, which will prove beyond doubt that we really do abide in Jesus. First, our personal prayers will begin to be answered, because we won't be making selfish or unloving requests any more. We shall find that we are only asking for what pleases God. Above all, that means we shall be asking how we may lay down our lives in his service.
Second, if we abide in Jesus – if we trust in him and commit ourselves to living in his way – he will also abide in us. We shall begin to feel that he is with us.
And, finally, he will give us the power to do those things which would otherwise be impossible for us to do by ourselves – to actually let go of self, trust in him and commit ourselves to the way of total love. And the power to do all these things will come 'from the Spirit that he has given us.' In other words, we shall know that we abide in Jesus because we shall find ourselves able to abide in him more completely, until there is no room left for doubt.
Abiding in Jesus can be a sudden transformation, sparked by a realisation that it's all or nothing, now or never. It can be triggered by a crisis, by the need to make a decision one way or the other. But it can also be a more gradual process – a journey of discovery, a journey deeper into what it means to trust in Jesus Christ.
[1] 1 John 3.16—24

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Be Known To Us In Breaking Bread

There's nothing so irritating as someone who doesn't know what's going on, especially when everyone else is glued to the news because of some headline grabbing event that has stirred things up. The two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed companion – probably his wife, cannot believe it when the stranger asks them, 'What things?' [1]
We've all been in the same situation, haven't we? 'You mean to tell me that you don't know! Where have you been?' we ask, incredulously. 'Haven't you seen ”The News”?'
Of course, there's more than a smidgen of irony here. If the stranger has lost touch it's not because he forgot to turn on the TV news bulletins. He's been dead and buried! And all the time – whether he was alive or dead – he was at the very centre of the events they describe. When the two disciples explain how Jesus of Nazareth was handed over to be condemned to death and crucified, and how – since then – his body has disappeared from the tomb, the stranger knows exactly what they are talking about! He has been there and done it.
St Luke's decision to gloss over the stranger's explanation of what it all means sets a precedent which soon gave rise to a dangerous trend in early Christianity. All manner of people came up with ready explanations of precisely what it was that Jesus had shared with his disciples during his resurrection appearances. Their starting point was always that Jesus needed to interpret the secret truth about himself which is hidden in the Scriptures. And, of course, they – and they alone – had the low down on what it all really means. Forget the obvious interpretation, this is the truth which was revealed to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, or to Thomas on the Mount of Olives, or to Judas Iscariot.
This to misunderstand entirely what St Luke is trying to say. There is no big secret. We already have the key which will unlock the true meaning that lies concealed within the text. If we want to understand the God whom the Old and New Testaments are pointing us to, we simply need to keep in mind that God's Go-Between, Jesus, had to suffer before he could enter into his glory. Those were the only rules of the game and, once we have recognised that, some of the long narrative of salvation history begins to make sense – the forty years which the people of Israel had to spend in the wilderness, their exile to Babylon, the prophecies about the Suffering Servant who would redeem Israel, and the story of Jesus himself.
St Luke never claims, in any case, that knowledge is the key to understanding. The disciples listen, but they do not hear what the stranger is saying to them. The moment of recognition comes not as he unfolds the secret mysteries to them on the road, but in the simple act of breaking and sharing bread. It is only then that their eyes are opened and, with the benefit of hindsight, they remember how their hearts burned within them while he was opening the meaning of the Scriptures.
Readers of books like The Da Vince Code are easily convinced that there are still conspiracies and secrets waiting to be uncovered which will reveal the truth about Christianity. This so amused Peter Smith, the judge in the recent trial of Dan Brown for plagiarism, that he concealed a cryptic message within his Judgement, using a code which he had invented especially for the occasion, 'The Smithy Code'. The judge said he didn't see why his ruling shouldn't be fun – a view that surely can't be shared by the losers in the case, the authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.
But the really exciting thing that is waiting to be discovered is not a secret at all. St Luke explains that it is this – we can encounter the risen Jesus ourselves as we gather around the table to share Holy Communion. He is with us, and makes himself known to us, every time the bread is blessed and broken.
[1] Luke 24.13-49

Thursday, April 20, 2006

There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth

(More reflections on John 20.19-31)
The Bishop of Oxford wrote an article for one of the Sunday papers [1] in which he criticised non-believers for not taking religion seriously. He didn't mind them being doubtful, he said, but he did mind if people simply dismiss faith out of hand without thinking through the arguments in its favour.
For instance, he noted that when people want to attack religion they always focus on the worst examples – the Crusaders sacking the city of Jerusalem and murdering its inhabitants, the Spanish Inquisition torturing heretics, Muslim terrorists blowing themselves to pieces, or people who insist that the world was made in seven days because they think that's what the Bible tells them they must believe.
The Bishop cited the example of the scientist in Korea who falsified his results in order to claim that he had made amazing advances in the field of cloning. Just because there are a few rogue scientists, we are not expected to stop believing that science is a good thing, so why should we stop believing in religion because some people get it wrong? Shouldn't both science and religion be judged by their best endeavours, not by their worst examples?
The bishop also noted that non-believers are always accusing religion of being irrational when, again, nothing could be further from the truth. Religion does involve faith, but at its best it also involves reason and experience, and looks for beauty, truth and goodness.
Of course, non-believers make these assumptions because they don't want religion to be compatible with modern life and they don't want it to make sense – otherwise they might have to change their minds. As a result, they play into the hands of religious fundamentalists and fanatics. They make it seem as though we must all choose between blind faith and the evidence of the world around us, like the person who accused me the other day of using 'scholarship' to study the Bible, as though scholarship were the opposite of faith.
The example of Thomas shows us that this can't be true. He isn't prepared to live by faith alone. He wants to bring reason and experience into the picture too, and they help him to believe.
People have often said that Thomas was wrong to demand proof, but Jesus doesn't actually say so. He merely points out that most of us will have to come to faith in him without getting such strong evidence to convince us. However, that doesn't make it wrong to test our faith against evidence, or reason, or experience. It just reminds us that evidence and reason can only take us so far. They cannot prove the existence of God, or that love conquers death. They can only suggest that these things might be true. Faith has to take us the rest of the way.
On the ministers' email group which I belong to someone suggested that, just as some of us are better at maths, or English, or carpentry, or needlework, some people have a gift of discernment that makes it easier for them to be spiritually aware. Perhaps that was a problem for Thomas – he was just not as spiritually aware as some of the other people who had seen Jesus. If so, he was to learn something that non-believers could do with taking more seriously as well: that there are more things in heaven and earth than are sometimes dreamt of in our philosophy.[2]
[1] Richard Harries, The Observer, Sunday April 16, 2006
[2] Shakespeare's Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why Selfishness Doesn't Pay

I listened to a deeply depressing radio programme the other day. It was about selfishness.
One man said he had persuaded himself that it was right to buy a Porsche with a legacy which had been left to his wife. His wife was a gifted pianist and she had been given explicit instructions to spend the money on a better piano, but she had agreed that there was nothing much wrong with her existing one, leaving the way open for her husband to buy himself the Porsche, instead. 'Is that selfish?' he asked, 'I don't know.' The depressing thing was that he needed to ask!
Worse still was a woman who described how she had been challenged by her new husband to rethink her own attitude to self. 'Soon after we were married,' she said, 'We found ourselves running along a platform to catch a train. A man with a limp was running to catch it too, and I found I just couldn't overtake him – I had to slow down. My husband got really cross with me and afterwards he told me I would have to decide whose side I was on – was I on the side of the Salvation Army or was I on my own side?'
Of course, if the husband had wanted to be more sophisticated he might have argued that it was selfish of the man with the limp to arrive late for the train, and then try to hold up all the other passengers who had taken the trouble to be on time. Or, he could have argued that a more sensible thing to do would have been to overtake the man and then stand poised, with one foot on the platform and the other inside the carriage, until he caught up. That way all three of them could have caught the train instead of missing it.
Such sophistication would have made the husband seem less unpleasant, but it would have been wasted on his wife. She had immediately seen the good sense – she said – of being on her own side from now on. However, I thought that, given the same choice between taking the side of the Salvation Army or being on my own side, I – for one – would have had to choose the Salvation Army.
The only sensible contribution to the programme came at the end when somebody said, 'Selfish people may get what they want, but it will never be enough.'
The Easter Story affirms that loving self-sacrifice is the ultimate success story. Total unselfishness can triumph, even over death. Thomas [1] finds this so counter-intuitive that he wants to see proof. Very astutely, he realises that it is the marks of his crucifixion which will prove whether the risen Jesus is simply a wish fulfilment or the real thing.
Would any group of sane and balanced people wish that suffering and self-denial might be the gateway to eternal life? Of course not. What the disciples really want is for the whole episode to have been a bad dream. So – if the risen Jesus can show Thomas the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the spear in his side – then the appearances cannot be a case of colourful wish projection.
When Thomas sees the nail marks he knows at once that the crucified and risen Jesus is for real. This is not a 'happy ever after' ending but a promise that, while selfish people are doomed never to find the fulfilment they seek, unselfishness actually works.
[1] John 20.19-31