Saturday, March 25, 2006

Thinking About Priesthood

The role of a priest is to represent the rest of the community and make offerings and sacrifices on their behalf to God. That's why the Methodist Church doesn't have priests, because it doesn't believe that we need a special priesthood to present our offerings and sacrifices. Instead, it believes in 'the priesthood of all believers'.
People sometimes say 'the priesthood of all believers' means that everyone can make their own direct approach to God. In fact, it does not mean that. It means that the whole congregation, gathered together in worship, can approach God without having to depend on a priest to represent them.
Instead of priests, the Methodist Church calls people to be ministers. The difference is that, instead of presenting sacrifices and offerings to God on behalf of the people, a minister is a servant of God and a shepherd or pastor to the congregation.
Other churches do have priests, of course. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches call people into the priesthood and give them special authority to present the offerings and sacrifices of the people to God. In Anglican Churches, the priest first presents to God the people's gifts, or offerings, of money, bread and wine, and then presents the people themselves as a holy and living sacrifice to God.
That isn't so very different from what happens in a Methodist Church, except that in a Methodist service the whole congregation offers its gifts and itself as a holy and living sacrifice. The minister presides at the service, but only for the sake of good order and not because he or she has any special kind of priestly function or status.
Is this supposed difference between Anglican priests and Methodist ministers a real one or an imaginary one? You might think that telling the difference between what ministers and priests are actually doing in the service of Holy Communion is a bit like working out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!
Whatever Methodists may believe about priests, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrew or Jewish Christians does believe in priesthood and he knows that his readers believe in it, too. [1] In Christian Churches, anyone can be called by God to be a minister or priest, but in orthodox Judaism only a descendant of Aaron, the brother of the Prophet Moses, could become a priest. No one else could make offerings and sacrifices to God on behalf of the people.
This didn't mean that someone had to be especially good in order to become a priest, nor do you have to be especially good to become a Christian priest or minister today. On the contrary, an ordinary person, subject to the same weaknesses and failings as everyone else, is better qualified because they are able to understand how we feel. They can sympathise with us when things go wrong and we feel we need God's forgiveness. And they can appreciate how hard it is, sometimes, to understand the mind of God and the meaning of life.
There was a lot of publicity recently about the vicar who has had to stop functioning as a priest, for the time being, because she can no longer say the words of forgiveness which Christian ministers have to speak on the congregation's behalf during the service. Her daughter was killed by one of the suicide bombers last July, and she does not feel able to forgive him, at least for the moment. But that's all right. We can't expect ministers and priests to be any different from the rest of us. When we would feel angry and resentful, they will probably feel the same. If we sometimes find it hard to forgive, so will they.
Most Jewish people at the time of Jesus were happy to accept that, although anyone called by God to the priesthood need be no better than the rest of us, they did have to be members of the clan of Aaron. But not everyone felt that way.
The Book of Genesis tells the story of a mysterious priest called Melchizedek. [2] He lived long before the time of Moses and Aaron. He wasn't even a descendant of Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. But the legend tells us that he was a priest of the Most High God, the maker of heaven and earth. Like a priest at a communion service he offered bread and wine to God on behalf of the people, and he gave Abraham God's blessing.
As it happens, Melchizedek had two jobs. He was a priest, but he was also the King of Jerusalem, so whenever the kings of Israel and Judah wanted to make their own offerings and sacrifices to God – without a priest to stand in for them – they appealed to the example of Melchizedek. What was good enough for him was surely right for them.
It wasn't just kings who appealed to the example of Melchizedek for support. Anyone who wasn't a descendant of Aaron, but who felt that God was calling them to be a priest, could claim to be a priest like Melchizedek. At the time of Jesus a group of people called the Essenes became dissatisfied with the Temple in Jerusalem and its priesthood. Deciding that the Jerusalem Temple was hopelessly corrupt, the Essenes established their own community – deep in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea – at a place called Qumran. There they set up their own order of priests, who offered gifts and sacrifices to God for them following the example of Melchizedek.
And, of course, if the first Jewish Christians wanted to describe Jesus as a priest, he could only be a priest like Melchizedek because he was a descendant of David, not a descendant of Aaron. And like Melchizedek, he was a king as well as a priest, for the first Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed leader or king of God's chosen people. Again, like Melchizedek, Jesus had offered gifts of bread and wine to God when he broke and blessed the bread, and blessed the cup of wine, at the Last Supper in Jerusalem.
Like any good priest, Jesus offered prayers and supplications to God. But, unlike even the best of the priests in ordinary temples and churches, the first Christians believed that Jesus had been reverent and obedient to God to the point where he was able to be made perfect in suffering, for his final act of obedience had been to offer the ultimate sacrifice to God.
Believing that he had been sent with a mission to reveal God's unconditional love and compassion for human beings, Jesus had become convinced that the only way he could reveal the depth of God's love was to offer his own life as a sacrifice. So he allowed himself to be arrested and put to death by his enemies in the hope that the human race would see in this self-sacrifice a sign of God's forgiveness and an opportunity to make a new beginning in their relationship with God.
Other priests have offered animals, money or gifts of grain and sweet smelling incense as symbols of the people's devotion to God. Jesus offered himself, as a sign of reconciliation between God and humankind. For the Jewish Christians, to whom the Letter to the Hebrews is written, this made Jesus not just a priest like Melchizedek, but the perfect priest who offers the perfect sacrifice. After this, the only sacrifice that is necessary for Christians to make is the sacrifice of our grateful hearts and minds. All that we have to do is to obey Jesus, and live for him, in order to be put right with God for ever.
In the Eucharist or service of Holy Communion, we remind ourselves of Jesus' offering of himself and lay claim to the power of that sacrifice to change our lives and our relationship with God. Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians believe that, in the Prayer of Thanksgiving, the priest is offering the sacrifice of Jesus to God again. For Methodists and Anglicans, the prayer is more usually understood as a reminder – a calling into the present – of what Jesus did for us once and for all time on the Cross. But all Christians are called to respond to the prayer by offering themselves as a holy and living sacrifice to God, for Jesus' sake. If we will do this, if we will put our trust in Jesus, he becomes for us the source of new life, and a new and everlasting relationship with God becomes ours for ever.
[1] Hebrews 5.1-10
[2] Genesis 14.18-20

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Coming Into The Light

I was fascinated to discover that this week's Gospel reading contains some very pertinent advice for anyone who is contemplating doing secret deals, like the ones the Labour Party – and other political parties – have done with donors.
'People love darkness rather than light,' it says, and they 'do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed'.[1] The writer goes on to make the assumption - which many onlookers make when a secret is uncovered - that when people prefer secrecy and anonymity it is 'because their deeds are evil'. This may not be a fair assumption to make, but isn't transparency the only way of ensuring the true purity of our motives? If everyone knows what we are doing, and we tell them why we are doing it, they're less likely to harbour dark suspicions about what we are up to. If we come to the light, it suggests we have nothing to hide.
Of course, human nature is a bit more complicated than this. We can be incredibly devious when we want to be. We can tell everyone that our motive is only to do what is right and good, when – concealed beneath the surface – there is a very different motive which may be so unkind, or selfish, or unpleasant that we cannot even admit it to ourselves. So people will say that they are doing something for the sake of their children, or in the best interests of their family, or for the good of the church, or for the people they work with, when the truth is that they are doing it for their own benefit or to get even with someone – and they may not even realise this themselves.
Jesus is the one who brings secrets into the light. And that is the sense – and the only sense – in which he judges us. He doesn't point the finger, and he doesn't put us under some kind of harsh and unbearable spotlight, but – all the same – he does offer us the chance to find out what's really going on beneath the surface.
It's a bit like being in a dimly lit room. We can't always see clearly what's in the shadows or in the darkest corners; we can't pick out patterns or details; unless – as the comedian Peter Kaye put it in one of his stand-up routines – we turn on 'the big light'. Jesus is the big light, the light in the middle of the room that will bathe everything with a strong, and intense, but gentle illumination.
How do we know that the light of Christ is not harsh and piercing like a spotlight? Because St John's Gospel promises us that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it.
I guess this is why the Archbishop of Canterbury has just given an interview to The Guardian in which he says that he is trying to resist the tendency – by the media – to 'press the button to have an Archbishop condemning x, y or z'. That, he says, is what Archbishops seem to be expected to do. 'They condemn things.' But it isn't a Christian thing to do. Jesus doesn't set out to condemn us, his purpose is to save us.
If we are condemned, it is not because Jesus – or anyone else – points the finger of accusation at us. We can only condemn ourselves, by discovering that we don't – after all – want our real motives, our real self, to come to light.
John 3.16-21

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Prayer for the Week Beginning 19th March

Lord Jesus, you call us to follow your way rather than to live in the way of the world. You call us to be guided by your teaching rather than by the wisdom of the people around us. You call us to build up riches in heaven rather than to seek the kind of riches which the marketplace can offer. You call us to be faithful rather than popular, famous or fashionable. You tell us it is better to appear foolish to others rather than to do what is wrong or unjust. You tell us that it is better to lose our life for your sake and for the Gospel rather than to gain the whole world. Help us to follow you in good times and in hard times and to find our reward in knowing that we have done your will. Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Church as Marketplace

'Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!' [1] I remember once quoting Jesus' words to a friend while we were looking round Exeter Cathedral. One of the aisles had been entirely taken over by a makeshift shop selling postcards, key rings, mugs, books – the usual mixture of spiritual resources and tourist paraphernalia. I only intended it lightheartedly, as a kind of ironic comment rather than a criticism. I wasn't a minister then, but I understood well enough how much it must cost to run a cathedral. However, one of the volunteers running the shop overheard me and was stung by the implied rebuke. 'We do have some free leaflets!' she insisted, stuffing them into my hand.
Unfortunately, of course, it's the impression we make which matters most, not the good intentions behind what we do. People seldom find out about our good intentions, so all they are left with is their own impression. That's the problem with all the thermometers outside decaying churches, showing how much money has been raised towards the roof fund. Saving an architectural gem by putting a new and waterproof roof on it may be a very worthy intention, but the impression given to passers-by is that we are always grubbing around for money. Is that the message which the Church wants to give out, I wonder?
Was this the kind of question which was in Jesus' mind when he accused the Jewish leaders of turning the Temple into a marketplace? Pilgrims went there for a spiritual encounter - to meet God. What they got was a chance to spend money. And that risked devaluing the whole experience by making it seem just like the rest of life – the life they had come to get away from.
The world is run by accountants now, and we have had to come to terms with concepts like 'full cost recovery' and 'value added'. In learning the language of the market, have we ourselves turned the Church into a marketplace, a social enterprise?
I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with our motives. We want to help people. We want to provide a space where they can come to worship and reflect on Sundays, and where they can find practical help during the week. And someone has got to pay for it. In the old days it might have been paid for by grants and donations, or by money in the collection plate. Now we have to charge fees or raise income. It's all in a good cause. But, can the Church's mission be turned into a commodity, something people buy like any other goods or services? To quote a catchphrase, 'What would Jesus say?' Would he think that we have turned the Church into a marketplace?
'Full cost recovery' is about making sure that we are not subsidising things which somebody else – the Local Authority, the Health Service or some other arm of Government – ought to be paying for. So we reluctantly turned away the Police, who wanted to hold surgeries for local people, because they said they didn't have a budget for room hire. And we have had to tell other agencies, who are doing good work for the local community, that we can no longer give them free accommodation. If the work is important, and if they want to continue it, they will have to meet the true cost of doing it. Perhaps we never should have subsidised them in the first place. Perhaps they needed to know what the true cost was. I don't think that 'full cost recovery' is an unchristian idea when it is applied to organisations which have ample funding, and which have – in effect – been sponging off the Church and relying on the good nature and gullibility, even, of local Christians.
It's a different matter when we apply the principle of 'full cost recovery' to individuals. We can't charge people for coming to church, or even put pressure on them to pay their share of our running costs. Personal giving has to be an act of generosity, an open-handed response to God's goodness and love. God does not attempt to recover the full cost of salvation from us. The price would be too high! In response to God's great generosity, we can only feel challenged to give what we are able and seek to imitate the example of Jesus. His disciples were to remember – when they read the words of Psalm 69 verse 9 – that zeal for God's house had consumed Jesus. We can only hope and pray that zeal for God's house will consume those who are inspired to come to worship or meet with us.
And what about those who come to us as individuals in desperate need, with nowhere else to turn? It is surely part of the Church's mission – in imitation of Jesus – to give to them without expecting anything in return, so long as we can be sure, once again, that in helping them we are not subsidising, unbeknown to ourselves, some agency or department which has already been given the funds to support them. And that, of course, is one of the ways in which the term 'value added' comes into play. It is not just good accounting, it is also sound stewardship, to make sure that we use the scarce resources at our disposal to add value to our communities. If, by helping others, we duplicate services that another organisation is providing, we are not adding value to our community. In fact, that other organisation might end up under-performing, failing to help as many people as they should, and perhaps even having to return some of their own funding to the source from whence it came. That would mean we were subtracting from the common good instead of adding to it.
But 'added value' has another meaning. Part of the value which we add to people's lives when we help them may be something intangible which other organisations cannot replicate. If we are in touch with the Spirit of Jesus, the work that we do will not just be another form of social enterprise or service delivery, it will be a sign of God's love and compassion which may cause the people who receive it to believe in Jesus' name, just as many people in the crowds who witnessed Jesus' signs believed in him. If we allow God to infuse all that we do with that kind of added value, not only will our mission be more effective, but it may then be worth offering our help and support to people even when we cannot recover our full costs. And that's why we keep a small 'Samaritan Fund', available to use at our discretion, to provide help to those in greatest need or whom we believe will especially benefit from the kind of support which the Church can offer.
Are we turning God's house into a marketplace? That's a question which we must constantly return to as the financial squeeze on churches and charities gets steadily worse. The prevailing culture says that the marketplace is a good place to be, and that social enterprise represents a viable and better alternative to charity. The marketplace can be highly efficient, but it can also be a cold and forbidding place which excludes some of those who need help most of all. If we are to be the Body of Christ, the Church can learn from the marketplace and benefit from the marketplace, but we cannot become the marketplace.

[1] John 2.13-25

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Losing Life to Find It

Self-denial is a counter-cultural idea. It is very hard for Christians to espouse it when all around us we hear siren voices promising us happiness and fulfilment through various forms of self-gratification. If we live a life of self-denial, which Jesus acknowledged would be very hard to do, it can be difficult to escape the sensation that life is slipping away from us and we are missing the best that it has to offer. [1] Far from saving our lives, we can all too easily appear to be losing out.
Yet, at the same time, modern communications make us uncomfortably aware that, for the majority of people in the world today, self-denial is not a life-style choice, it is simply inevitable – part of their fate. If Western Christians moan about the hardships of self-denial we make ourselves look self-absorbed, shallow and self-pitying in comparison with the vast majority of our fellow Christians, and fellow human beings, who must cheerfully embrace a far harsher existence than we do.
Of course, we also know deep down that money does not really buy happiness – or, at least, it buys a very precarious and fragile kind of satisfaction. But if we dare to romanticise the sufferings and hardships of the world's poor and disadvantaged majority, by insisting that they are in many ways more likely to be content with their lot and more alive to what really matters than wealthier people are, we risk looking complacent and unconcerned about the tremendous, and tremendously unjust, disparities in life chances between the different people living on our planet today.
So, despite the protests of various revisionists, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that denying ourselves is a more authentic way of being a Christian than pleasing ourselves. But self-denial is only authentically Christian if we deny ourselves by living for others. This is what Jesus means by taking up our cross and following him. He does not mean that we need, literally, to seek out martyrdom and intense suffering because these things are intrinsically good. He means that we must adopt his priorities and goals if we want to find the fulfilment, peace and self-understanding which he knew and which are the birthright of every human being.
His priority was the well-being, what he called 'the salvation', of other people. By helping others we can truly follow Jesus' example and more surely help ourselves than by a narrow focus on self. The search for self-discovery will always prove elusive until we forget self and focus on our neighbours and on God.
[1] Mark 8.27-38

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Closing The Gap

According to St Mark, the heavens are torn apart by the coming of Jesus, just as the curtain in the temple will be torn apart by his death. [1] St Mark is thinking of the way in which, once you have snipped the edge of a sheet of cloth with a pair of scissors or a knife, it can easily be ripped into two pieces just by tugging on it with your bare hands.
But what does it mean to say that the coming of Jesus tears the heavens apart? Let's deal with what it doesn't mean first. It's not a reference to the sky, or to Jesus physically coming down through a gap in the clouds. St Luke speaks of Jesus being taken up to heaven in the clouds, but St Mark does not.
Here, 'heaven' means 'the dwelling place of God'. Suddenly and dramatically – with the coming of Jesus – the dwelling place of God is with us, in human history and human life. It's an idea vividly portrayed also in the Book of Revelation – though there it is still seen as a future event. The writer of Revelation says that, at the end of history, when all things are completed, there will be no need for a Temple in God's Holy City because 'its temple [will be] the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb' and everyone will see them face to face. [2] But St Mark is not talking about the future. He's talking about a past event. God is already face to face with us in Jesus.
Again, though, we have to consider what this does not mean. It doesn't mean that, before the coming of Jesus, God was in his heaven, separated from humankind by an unbridgeable gulf or chasm. God's Spirit has always been immanent in the world – that is to say, God's Spirit is in all things, and all things live, and move, and have their being in God. [3] God and creation cannot be separated. Whether St Mark recognised this, I don't know. But St John certainly did. And, what is more, he recognised that the face of God which we see in Jesus was already moving and working in the world long before Jesus himself was born. That's why he describes Jesus as 'The Word' of God, which 'was in the beginning with God' and through whom 'all things came into being'. [4]
The idea of the heavens being torn apart by the coming of Jesus mustn't be interpreted in a simplistic way, therefore. It doesn't mean that the history of God's inter-action with human beings starts here. What it does mean is that, in Jesus, we get a unique opportunity to meet God face to face. And St Mark is certain that Jesus knew just how special he was. At his baptism, God had made him aware in a new and compelling way that he had a unique role to play in bringing human beings together with God and helping them to understand God.
What does it mean, then, to 'repent and believe in the good news'? Long ago John Wesley pointed out that 'repenting' has two different meanings. [5] The obvious meaning is 'a change of direction' – making a new and better start in life. The more subtle meaning is 'understanding yourself', 'coming to terms with yourself', or 'becoming more self-aware', 'more truly yourself'.
The other evening Helen and I watched a programme about two fathers trying to get to know their children better after divorcing or separating from the mothers. It was a journey of self-discovery for the men, a kind of repentance. One of them had to appreciate that leaving his wife after twenty-five years was not just something which he had needed to do in order to be more happy and fulfilled. It was also a very self-centred act, which had caused deep hurt and pain to his wife and children, and made it very hard for his children, in particular, to trust him. The other one had to learn to let go of his anger and resentment towards his partner for leaving him. Only by going through this process of growing self-awareness and self-understanding could either man make progress and build a better relationship with their children and their former partners.
Another television documentary later the same week told a similar story, but this time focusing on a programme to rehabilitate troubled teenagers by making them trek through the American wilderness. Helen and I wondered whether, when they returned to real life, the young people would relapse into their former ways – abusing drink or drugs, smoking heavily, lying in bed all day, truanting and running away from home. But, in fact, none of them did. They really had repented.
In a sense, Jesus' baptism and temptation is part of his own journey of growing self-awareness. In his case, of course, it is not a process of discovering and dealing with hidden inadequacies and flaws, but a way of exploring and discovering who he was meant to be and what he was meant to become.
Jesus invites us to go on a parallel journey in which he will give us the strength and the motivation to let go of those things which are holding us back and find our true potential in him. In fact, as John Wesley observed, repentance and faith are a twin-track. We can 'repent and believe'. Repentance helps us to know ourselves not as we fondly imagine we are but as we really are deep down inside, and faith in Jesus makes it possible for us to rise above our true selves and become the person God intends us to be.

[1] Mark 1.9-15
[2] Revelation 21.22-22.4
[3] Acts 17.28
[4] John 1.1-3
[5] John Wesley's Sermon on 'The Repentance of Believers'