Monday, August 27, 2007

The True Meaning of Holiness

St Luke's story of Jesus' visit to the synagogue describes an encounter between right and wrong.[1] A place of worship might seem a surprising place to find wrong being done. Do we expect to encounter wrong-doing when we come to church? Isn't it a place where we expect to find only goodness, holiness, purity and love – a haven of peace and tranquillity in a sinful world? Isn't it supposed to be 'the house of God'?

The conflict between right and wrong in the synagogue that day hinges on two totally different understandings of what it means to be holy, and therefore what it means to encounter God. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews sets out the difference very starkly in his description of the difference between Moses' understanding of God and the understanding which Christians have.[2]

At Mount Sinai, when Moses took the people of Israel into the desert to receive the Law, the God they encountered there was terrifying. There was blazing fire, and darkness, and tempest – a huge and frightening thunder storm. And then there was a voice which could not be endured, like finger nails scraping on a blackboard, which told them that if even an innocent animal set foot on the holy mountain it must be put to death for invading God's holy space. Only Moses could safely approach this awesome place – because he was God's chosen prophet and leader – and even he trembled with fear because he was meeting a God who demanded total purity.

Contrast that experience with the Christian's encounter with God. We come not to a wilderness place lashed by thunder and lightning, not to Mount Sinai enveloped in threatening cloud, where we can only stand at a distance and listen to God's terrible voice; we come to the New Jerusalem, where we find a completely different kind of mountain top experience. This isn't a tempestuous encounter, it's a celebration, a festal gathering where angels, and the righteous who have been made perfect through their faith in Jesus Christ, party with the assembly of the firstborn, the original band of disciples and apostles. There isn't anything fearful or terrible about this encounter with God, instead its a joyful occasion filled with praise and rejoicing.

And yet some things don't change. God is still the judge of all the world and if we refuse to obey the one who is speaking to us from the New Jerusalem we do so at our peril, for we need to be made righteous if we are to enter God's presence. But there is a new covenant, or understanding, in place between God and creation. It isn't the covenant which Moses mediated to the people of Israel, which was based on fear. It's the covenant which Jesus mediated to us through his death on the cross, which is based on love.

The writer of 'Hebrews' pauses here to comment on the futility of the way so many human beings behave. Like the teenager who killed eleven year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool last week, there are many people who imagine that our significance and our sense of worth and importance come from our own power and status. For the vast majority of people who think this way, that sense of power and status is based on the size of their pay packet, the model of car they drive, the clothes they wear, the person on their arm when they go out at night, or the neighbourhood they live in. For some fitness fanatics it might be based instead on the size of their biceps or the distance they can run. For criminals it comes from carrying a knife or a gun. That's the kind of power which the Bible says Cain wielded when he murdered his brother Abel. It's a kind of power based on competition with our fellow human beings, and even on violence and aggression. But true significance and power, the kind that cannot be shaken or destroyed, comes from the total opposite. It's based on self-sacrifice, compassion and love. That kind of power, the power of Jesus, speaks a better word and has a far more enduring legacy than the fleeting power which is based on bullets and guns, or money and what it can buy. If we fail to listen to this enduring message of love we shall find ourselves back in the position that the cowering people of Israel were in at Mount Sinai, and there will be no escape from God's consuming fire.

Ancient Greek people imagined that heavenly things were more permanent and real than anything on earth. The writer of 'Hebrews' can't resist drawing on this idea. Whereas Mount Sinai, where the people of Israel had their terrifying encounter with God, was on earth, the New Jerusalem and the mediator of the new covenant are in Heaven. That simply underlines, for the writer, the permanence of the new deal which Jesus is offering. Perfect holiness, a holiness which nothing can diminish or tarnish, comes about through following the example of Jesus, not the example of Moses.

Centuries before the New Testament era, the Prophet Isaiah has a similar insight.[3] If the people of Israel get rid of slavery and exploitation, stop pointing the finger at wrongdoers and speaking evil of other people, if they offer food to the hungry and help the afflicted, then they too will leave the darkness and gloom of the tempest behind and find themselves basking in the bright sunshine of noonday. The Lord will then be able to guide them continually, and satisfy their needs and make them strong. They will flourish like a watered garden. They will be like a spring of water that never runs dry. And they will find themselves living in, and helping to build, the New Jersualem.

So far, so good. But the Prophet adds a further twist. If the People of Israel really want to be holy, acting with justice and compassion will not be sufficient. There is one thing more that they will have to do. They will have to refrain from trampling on the Sabbath by pursuing their own interests on God's holy day. Only if they follow the Ten Commandments by honouring the Sabbath, and stop using it to go their own ways and serve their own interests, will they receive the promises which God made to Jacob, that he would be the father of a great nation whose influence would spread to the ends of the earth.

Christians have used this same passage to justify keeping Sunday special and no wonder, because surely even Jesus would not have approved of treating the Sabbath just like any other day, as an opportunity to make money and get things done. This is what the leader of the synagogue must be thinking when he keeps telling the crowd, 'There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.' He's on solid ground, isn't he? The Bible appears to back him up. The nation of Israel will never flourish while people ignore the Sabbath and forget to keep it holy.

Jesus accuses him of being hypocritical because, he says, no one would leave a dumb animal without water on the Sabbath so why not heal human beings on the Sabbath too? But the leader of the synagogue isn't against healing people. He just thinks that someone with a chronic illness, like curvature of the spine, can safely wait until another day to seek a cure. Even if it 's contrary to God's will that she should suffer in this way, and even if we see illness as the work of Satan rather than an unavoidable bi-product of creation, isn't it more important to focus on God – and to take delight in worshipping him – on his holy day?

So why is this encounter a clash between right and wrong, and who is in the wrong here? The answer, of course, is that the leader of the synagogue is wrong, even though he seems to have the Bible on his side. And he's wrong because, while it certainly was important to keep the Sabbath holy, he's operating with an out-moded idea of what holiness means.

Holiness is about helping people to be put right with God. That should always be our first priority, at any time and in any place. If it means missing church, or interrupting our routine, or changing our traditional way of worshipping, so be it.

And being holy is the same thing as having compassion on those in need and loving our neighbours. Isaiah was right about that. But he would have been mistaken if he had imagined that keeping the Sabbath holy and honouring God was in conflict with helping people in need.

Actually, of course, he never says that it s. He says that serving our own interests on the Sabbath is wrong. No where does he say that we cannot help other people. The leader of the synagogue is jumping to conclusions. He assumes that serving the interests of other people will always be the opposite of taking taking delight in God., but the cross, of course, is the evidence that he is wrong. The crucifixion of Jesus is the most holy moment in history – the moment when God's glory is most perfectly revealed. But it isn't a moment when God is being honoured. It's a moment when God in Jesus is being put to shame and made to suffer because of his great compassion for humankind.

Finally, encountering holiness requires us to be open and receptive to what God is doing. And God can't be put in a box. The way God encountered people in the past may not be the way God chooses to encounter us today, or tomorrow. Just because God met people at Mount Sinai doesn't mean that he couldn't also be encountered on a cross. And just because we can often encounter God in prayer, or worship, or contemplation doesn't mean that we can't also encounter him in action and in other people.

One of the things that is most characteristic of people's meetings with Jesus is that it's a decisive moment in their lives. There and then they have to decide how to respond to him, whether to recognise that they are meeting someone holy who has been sent from God, or whether to see him as someone who is challenging God's will. The leader of the synagogue makes the wrong call. Because he's trapped in one particular way of thinking about holiness, he sees Jesus as an unwelcome disturber of sabbath worship. But the entire crowd rejoices at the wonderful things which Jesus is doing.

Can we, like the crowd, be ready to welcome changes and challenges, and to rejoice at the wonderful things God is still doing through his Spirit working in our Church, and in our world, today?

[1] Luke 13.10-17
[2] Hebrews 12.18-29

[3] Isaiah 58.9b-14

Friday, August 17, 2007

Reading the Signs of the Times

If we think purely about the weather for a moment, people are certainly trying very hard to interpret the signs of the times. Do the floods and the bad summer we have had point to signs that the earth is getting warmer, or are they just a fluke?

More and more experts believe that the bad weather isn't just a coincidence. In fact, only this month, scientists from the Meteorological Office in London calculated that things could get much worse. Until now, they say, natural phenomena such as the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean have stopped temperatures from climbing as fast as they might have done, but by 2009 nothing will be able to compensate for the effects of global warming and new records will be set.

So it seems that a rough ride might be ahead, at least as far as the weather is concerned. And at last, very slowly, people are beginning to take notice and to think about changing the way we behave, to try to prevent the weather getting any worse. We have to hope and pray that these changes in behaviour will be in time to make a difference.

Of course, people also try to predict other things that they think are likely to happen, and to recognise the signs that they are coming. But prediction is a difficult game. When I was a child, people said that – by the time I was grown up – we would all be driving cars with wings, which would take off up the road and fly us to work. But in any case, they said, we wouldn't need to go to work very often because no one would need to work more than three days a week. And some of us would be lucky enough to live on the Moon. Blue Peter even built a giant model, made out of toilet rolls and sticky tape, of what a Moon city would look like.

Mind you, never mind flying to the Moon, when it comes to something as simple as money, people can't predict what's going to happen even a few days ahead. Only last week I read a newspaper article which promised that there wouldn't be a stock market crash around the world because the problems in America, which were making the money markets nervous, don't apply anywhere else, and because the world's central banks – such as the Bank of England – would be able to stop it happening. Already that prediction looks a bit wobbly.

Jesus knew that the weather in Palestine is very predictable. I've never been there, but it seems that when cloud builds up in the west it's going to rain, and when the wind blows from the south it's going to be scorching hot. He takes for granted that the crowd knows how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but then he makes a much bigger assumption – that they also know how to interpret the present time and yet they aren't bothering to do so.[1]

What does it mean to interpret 'the present time'? Some people think Jesus was warning that the end of history was very close, but two thousand years have gone by since then, so that doesn't seem very likely. Some people think Jesus was warning that there was about to be a terrible war between the Jewish people and the Romans, who ruled Palestine at that time. But if so, what did he expect the crowd to do about it?

It seems more likely that Jesus thought people were failing to appreciate the importance of his own work. God was giving them a chance to become his friends, and they were ignoring it.

If that's what interpreting the present time really means, then people are still getting things wrong today. They may be beginning to understand about global warming, but they still don't understand the importance of Jesus.

In another part of the Bible, the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer says that we are really lucky to know about Jesus. He says that there have been many brave and wonderful people, who really trusted God, and who are fine examples to us all. But, because they never knew Jesus, they are less fortunate than we are, because we can always look 'to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross...'[2]

What is it, exactly, that makes us so much luckier than people who never knew about Jesus? It's two things. First, we can see what a good person Jesus was and try to follow his example. And second, we can see how much he loved us, because he was prepared to endure the shame and suffering of being put to death in order to help us find our way to God.

Of course, when Jesus was talking to the crowds about how to interpret the present time, he hadn't yet been killed on the cross. But they had been given the incredible opportunity to meet him face to face and see what God is like. How could they fail to appreciate what was happening?

We, too, have been given a wonderful opportunity – to look at the life and death of Jesus and learn from them the truth about God, and about love and about life. Let's not be like the people who fail to see the signs of the times. Let's try to understand what Jesus means, both for us and for our world.

[1] Luke 12.54-56

[2] Hebrews 12.2

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Conspicuous Consumption

We live in a society which, even more than in the time of Jesus, measures quality of life in terms of the abundance of our possessions. Yesterday we were in a car dealer's looking for a little car for our daughter and her husband. On the wall I noticed a colourful map of the city of Manchester, which is where she lives. Red areas indicated people who live on welfare benefits. Yellow signified people who suffer from considerable disadvantages compared with other people. Blue represented happy families, and purple areas showed where people live when they are conspicuously affluent. You can imagine which were the car dealer's favourite kind of people.

My daughter was interested in buying a basic Fiat Panda - a little city car, easy to park, great for running around the City on short journeys and very economical on petrol. However, to test drive it she had to drive the sports' model - which has a 100 brake horsepower engine. Now if you wanted a racing car, would you buy a Fiat Panda? I don't think so! The only reason there's a model with a 100 brake horse power engine is because Jeremy Clarkson, the presenter of "Top Gear", said that the Fiat Panda would be a great little car if it had a more powerful engine, so Fiat immediately rushed out a version with "vavavoom", in case anyone took his advice.

Surely, though. anyone who bought such a car would have more money than sense. And isn't that the problem with a lot of the things which people make and sell? Many things for sale in our society are a waste of money - designed to appeal to people whose values are all wrong, and who have more money than sense.

The farmer in Jesus' story[1] was just such a person. He literally had more possessions than he knew what to do with. He built bigger barns to store the surplus in, as an insurance against things going wrong in the future, which maybe wasn't such a daft idea. But even then he had far more than he needed, so he decided to enjoy himself as much as possible and become a conspicuous consumer, spending as much as he could as fast as he could in a desperate bid to be happy. His good fortune didn't last long, though, because he died and discovered that, of course, you can't take your material prosperity with you. As far as the Market was concerned, he was a huge success. Today he would have been one of the purple people on the map of Manchester, the people who have 'made it big'. But in spiritual terms he was still a pauper.

What should the farmer have done? Jesus was very keen on people being moderate consumers of earthly possessions. He urged his followers to pray for enough to meet their needs, but no more. And he urged people to have counter-cultural values - to store up a secure legacy in heaven rather than building an insecure one on earth.

It's very hard to follow Jesus' advice exactly in modern society, though some people do come close. Some members of religious orders, for instance, have no personal possessions. But even then, there have been difficult decisions to make. Hundreds of years ago the Franciscan order was divided by a bitter dispute about whether - to be true to the teachings of Jesus and St Francis - it was necessary for members of the Order to rely entirely on charity, giving away any surplus that they received to the people in greatest need, or whether it was sensible for the Order to invest some of its surplus to create a secure source of income for the future. The Franciscans didn't keep any of the money for themselves, of course. The were only saving it to help the future work of the Order, in case there should be lean times ahead - times of famine or flood - when the charitable donations might dry up. But some people still felt that this was a betrayal of the values by which Jesus and St Francis had lived.

It's even harder for ordinary Christians to be entirely true to the teaching of Jesus. We are all encouraged to have insurance policies and to build up personal pensions for our retirement. And with there being so many uncertainties about pensions these days, some people buy a big house as a kind of pension - with the intention of selling it and downsizing when they are older. Is that the right kind of thing to do?

It's difficult to criticise people who behave in a prudent way, and seek only to avoid becoming a burden on others. But certainly, once people start to indulge in conspicuous consumption - building their status on the kind of clothes they wear, the sort of car they drive and the size of their house - they have departed from the way of Jesus. What a pity that people don't take more interest in being 'rich toward God' - doing what is right, helping those in need, praying for the coming of God's world order and trusting in God's love above all else.

[1] Luke 12.13-21