Friday, October 26, 2007

How Not to Be Very Bad

Luke 18:9-14
As followers of Jesus it's okay to feel good about ourselves. In fact, that's an essential part of being true to Jesus' teaching. We're not called to beat ourselves up all the time, like the Christians and Muslims who - in various times and places - have gone around striking themselves with whips to punish themselves for their sinfulness. Jesus wants us to be repentant, but repentance is not about wallowing in guilt. It's about learning to love ourselves and about receiving the strength to change.

However, it's definitely not okay to feel good about ourselves if that leads us to look down on other people. Being a follower of Jesus isn't about being better than anyone else.

It's doubtful that Jesus saw anything wrong with being a Pharisee as such. His teaching has a lot in common with the teaching of the Pharisees. Like Jesus' own followers, the Pharisees were happy to draw on the best ideas about God and goodness, wherever they come from. Like Jesus' followers, they were a popular movement supported by many ordinary people. Like Jesus and his followers they didn't have much regard for the Temple and its elaborate system of sacrifices, believing that personal prayer and piety was much more important. Like Jesus and his followers, they also thought that merit has nothing to do with who you are, but is entirely dependent on the kind of person you become. When the Temple was destroyed one of the leaders of the Pharisees told his followers not to mourn, for there was another way of being close to God, and that was to practise loving kindness. The Pharisees also had a favourite saying, 'A learned outsider is better than an ignorant High Priest.' That isn't very different, is it, from what Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where an outsider from Samaria has compassion on the victim of highway robbery while the priest callously passes by on the other side of the road? The Pharisees were very conscious, too, that some of their number were insincere and they tried to weed out hypocrisy. Like Jesus and his followers, they believed that everyone was called to lead a holy life, not just the priests and leaders of the nation.

So where do Jesus and the Pharisees part company? There are two things which separate them. First, Jesus and his followers teach that the only way to be holy is by relying on the grace of God, whereas the Pharisees teach that we can be holy by carefully obeying the Jewish Law - not just the part written down in the first five books of the Bible but also an equally large collection of oral teaching passed down, they believed, through the generations.

This first difference between Jesus and the Pharisees leads naturally to the second one. If we happen to think, as the Pharisees do, that we can become holy or righteous by obeying the Law of God, then there's a danger that we will feel very pleased with ourselves if we keep the Law and - worse still - there's a danger that we'll begin to treat other people, lawbreakers, with contempt. If, however, we happen to think - as Jesus and his followers do - that we can't do anything to deserve God's favour, but must rely entirely on God's grace, that should make us more humble, not only about ourselves but also in our attitude to other people. Even if they seem much less holy than us, and much less obedient to God, even if they're not good and kind but are selfish and greedy or unkind, is there really so very much difference between them and us? There - but for the grace of God - go we! And, anyway, today or tomorrow we might fall from grace. Or we might deceive ourselves that we are much nicer people than we really are.

This is where the Pharisee goes wrong in Jesus' story. He assumes that he's a better person than the tax collector because he thinks he's a nicer person than he really is, when everyone who listens to the story can see immediately that the Pharisee is a thoroughly unpleasant man, puffed up with pride and full of contempt for other people who are different from him.

Of course, it's easy to laugh at the Pharisee in the story and then to fall into exactly the same trap. We begin to compare ourselves to thieves - the kind of people who steal the lead from church rooves, or laptops from cars, or mobile phones from children. We compare ourselves to drug addicts who become so desperate for a fix that they will steal from their own families and friends. And we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And then, if we're not careful, we compare ourselves to people we think are just a bit roguish - scroungers, idlers, people who seem either to have no values or else very different values from ours, perhaps people who swear a lot, or drink a lot, or gamble recklessly, or whatever. And we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And, if we're not very careful, we compare ourselves to adulterers, and to people who live with a series of different partners, or who get divorced for what we consider are not very good reasons, or who have casual affairs, or whatever, and we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And finally, if we're not very, very careful, we can find ourselves looking down on someone, and treating them with contempt, just because of the job they do. 'He's never had a steady job, of course,' we might say of someone. Or, 'She doesn't have any skills.' Or, 'He's a plumber, but he's a Polish plumber.' And before we know where we are, we've become just like the bad man in the parable, the person who went down to his home feeling justified when, in fact, he was not justified at all.

Jesus told the story not to attack Pharisees, but to remind us all to be humble. If a Pharisee can get it wrong, he seems to be saying, anyone can get it wrong. Because here are a group of people trying so hard to be holy and yet missing the mark completely just by forgetting to be humble. If we are to avoid the same trap we have to repeat into the mirror each day, as we comb or hair or shave, that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight

2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18

This passage purports to be Paul's farewell message to his protégé and successor Timothy. Like the three hundred brave soldiers from Sparta who defended Greece against a huge invading Persian army at Thermopylae, Paul senses that he is going to have to sacrifice his life for the cause. Whereas the Spartan soldiers died in the cause of Greek nationhood, to buy more time for the City of Athens to get ready to take up the fight, Paul is going to die in God's service, and for the sake of the Gospel. And just as the death of the Spartans and their king Leonidas was not really a defeat, but the beginning of the end for the Persian invaders, so Paul knows too that his death will not be the end of the struggle to bring Christianity to a disbelieving world. Generations of people since have been inspired by the Spartans' last stand, and similarly Timothy will be inspired by Paul's example. For, like the Spartan royal guard he has fought the good fight. Like an athlete, he has finished the marathon. And, like a true and steadfast believer, he has kept the faith. But he's not a special case. The writer recognises that countless other Christians will do the same and will share with Paul the crown of righteousness when they appear before the Son of Man on the Day of Judgement.

And yet Paul's final days have been tinged with loneliness and sorrow. At first, when he needed help, no one came to his support. Only the Lord Jesus stood beside him, to give him strength. He feels like Daniel, apparently all alone in the lion's den but actually not alone – for he Lord is with him to rescue him from the lion's mouth. But, when Paul thinks of being rescued – like Daniel – from every evil attack, he's not expecting to come through his final ordeal unscathed. He doesn't speak of being pardoned by the Emperor and sent on his way to Spain, where he had intended to go on proclaiming the Gospel after his visit to Rome. He speaks instead of being saved for God's heavenly kingdom.

What does this passage have to say to us? On a very practical level, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, we are reminded that life can demand very real sacrifices from some people. Whatever the merits of the war they're involved in, the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan find themselves confronting a ruthless and fanatical enemy inspired by a bloodthirsty perversion of Islam. If they do not fight the good fight and stay the course on our behalf, many moderate and peace-loving Muslim people in those countries will be let down and abandoned to their fate, and fanatical Muslims everywhere will feel encouraged. But if they continue to resist, in the face of bitter opposition, they will not only take more heavy casualties, they will also risk being painted as meddlers and invaders interfering in a culture and a faith to which they do not belong. It's an unenviable task and there seems to be no easy way out, no obvious way of being rescued from the lion's mouth.

For Christians there are parallels with our own personal life. The Lord stands alongside us in times of suffering, pain and hardship. He rescues us from evil attack, but that doesn't necessarily mean we shall be snatched from the jaws of death. Eventually we shall all have to be rescued and justified through death and in spite of it.

There are also parallels with church life. We are called to persevere even when times are hard, when we face vandalism and indifference, hostility and even persecution. When the going gets tough we are called to feats of endurance, for that is when the tough get going. Will we be rescued from the lion's mouth if we stand firm? Yes, but not necessarily to carry on with business as usual. Just as the Spartan soldiers had to lose their lives to save their nation, and just as Paul's life had to be poured out as an offering to God, maybe we have to be prepared to sacrifice some things, to let go of some things, in order to be reborn and find new life.

When I was a child I was fascinated by a book which my grandparents had about feats of derring-do in the Second World War. It was illustrated by colour plates depicting various heroic events, and one particularly gripped my imagination. It showed the last stand of HMS Rawalpindi, a lookout ship on patrol near Iceland in November 1939 to prevent German battleships from slipping into the Atlantic to attack allied convoys. Her crew encountered the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and were able to signal their presence to the British fleet. But, with no chance of escape, the captain and crew refused to surrender and the Rawlapindi was pounded to bits. The picture showed a sailor, up to his knees in water, firing a gun at the distant cruisers while a colleague sits holding his head in his hands. The caption read, 'Burning like a piece of paper, HMS Rawalpindi goes down fighting. It is the proud tradition of the Royal Navy that she never scuppers a ship.'

This story came to my mind once during a church meeting, when people started to talk gloomily about possible closure. I suggested that we shouldn't cut and run. While being realistic about what the future holds, we should be ready to fight the good fight and endure to the end. That church didn't close. It was reborn, in a new form, as a community centre shared with the nearby Anglican Church, and it is still running the race.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Reflecting on Next Week's Bible Passages

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Jeremiah is writing to people who find themselves living as exiles in an alien land. They are not to give up hope. They are to assume that there is still a future both for them and for their faith. And they are no to try to attack or sabotage the society in which they now live, even though its values and culture are alien to them. Instead, they are to work for its welfare, because if it is a flourishing and successful society they will flourish and be successful too.

Many theologians and religious leaders have understood this to mean that Christians, and Jewish people, should not get involved in politics or in trying to challenge or change the society around them. Instead, they have concentrated on trying to build up and encourage the faithful. At best, they have seen the Church - or their faith community - as leaven in the lump, influencing what happens around them quietly and in almost imperceptible ways. At worst, they have left the rest of society to its own devices and have encouraged believers to draw their wagons into a tight circle in order to keep hostile people, or people who thought and behaved differently from them, safely on the outside.

But I don't think this is what Jeremiah means. He had, after all, been very involved in trying to change the hostile society around him when he was prophesying in Jerusalem, and even went to prison for his pains.

If we believe that God has shown us the right way to live, then seeking the welfare of the society around us means trying to change it for the better and influence the way people think and behave. This can happen on two levels - as we try to communicate what we believe and as we try to put our faith into action in daily life.

While, in normal circumstances, we should be law-abiding and not try to sabotage the way society is run, Jeremiah does not mean us to imagine that it is wrong to subvert and undermine any alien values - such as materialism and secularism - which shape our society at the present time. On the contrary, if we are really seeking the welfare of our society, what choice do we have but to seek to change and challenge everything that is wrong with it? And if we want the Church to flourish, how can this happen unless other people come to believe in the Gospel we proclaim and share its values with us?

Christians today often feel like a tiny beleaguered minority in an alien land or city. Jeremiah speaks to us in a way that perhaps he did not speak to earlier generations, giving us fresh reason to hope and keep steadfast.

How should we be seeking the welfare of our city, and our community, today?

2 Timothy 2:3-15
The passage from 2 Timothy begins with a series of rather gnomic observations taken from ordinary life - describing the outlook of a soldier, an athlete and a farmer. Greek-speaking people loved terse sayings like this and used them all the time as a way of helping them to remember important lessons from life. But the writer, perhaps Paul or a follower of his teaching, acknowledges that the meaning he wants the reader to extract from these sayings will only come to those who are prepared to reflect carefully and prayerfully about them.

That said, the saying about the soldier's life seems relatively straightforward. Christians mustn't be distracted by other agendas. Their job is to accept the suffering and self-denial which is an inevitable part of carrying your cross and following Jesus. Soldiers, too, accept that suffering and danger may be part of their lot, and in return the nation makes a covenant with them to take care of them, and their families, if they are hurt or killed. In the same way, God makes a covenant to keep faith with us if we are faithful to Jesus.

The saying about the athlete also seems reasonably easy to interpret. People who try to win by cheating are likely to be found out, just like the athletes who have been brought down - and have lost their medals, fame and sponsorship - by taking performance enhancing drugs. There is no shortcut to discipleship, no easy route that bypasses the way of the Cross. To imagine that there might be is to delude ourselves.

The last saying, about the farmer, is a little more tricky to understand. After all, Jesus said that the workers in the vineyard who had toiled all day, and done the lion's share of the work, wouldn't get a larger share of the proceeds just because some of their colleagues had come to the job late in the day and only put in a small amount of effort. He also said that the first would be last, and the last would be first.

So what does it mean, in the context of the Christian Gospel, to say that the farmer who does the work ought to have the first share of the crops? Only, I think, that while we can never earn God's grace, and while it is also true that grace is freely given to all who ask for it, something is expected of us in return for what we have received. It is those who, in response to his love for them, are prepared to die for Christ who will live with him. It is those who are willing to endure hardship for his sake who will share his glory. It is those who keep faith with Jesus who will find that he keeps faith with them.

This is somewhat controversial, not least because it seems to be at odds with Paul's earlier teaching, in his letter to the Romans, where he says that we are justified by faith alone and not by anything we do ourselves. Is the writer of the letters to Timothy a follower of Paul who wants to modify that teaching, or is it Paul himself who is modifying it because some people have taken it to extremes?

This is what he had to do elsewhere in his letters when he was responding to Christians who mistakenly thought he had been teaching that we can go on doing wrong, even after we become followers of Jesus. These misguided interpreters of his teaching thought he was saying that God's love revealed in Jesus means we will always be forgiven, no matter how badly we behave. 'God forbid!' was Paul's horrified reply.

Whoever wrote 2 Timothy, the author is in no doubt that we do need to be approved by God. We cannot make ourselves holy or righteous. But, at the same time, only those who were prepared to work for the Gospel, and who need not be ashamed that they let Jesus down, can expect to be approved. To argue for any other interpretation of the Christian faith is just playing with words, in the writer's opinion, and leads to spiritual ruin.

This is a very rigorous understanding of what it means to be a Christian - the sort that often becomes popular during times of persecution or when Christians find themselves in a tiny minority? Is it something we feel comfortable with, or do we find it easier to believe that faith is the only thing necessary for Christians to be put right with God?

Is there any overlap here with what Jeremiah was saying in his letter to the exiles in Babylon, who also needed to remain steadfast in hard times, but who were encouraged to continue trusting in God?

Luke 17:11-19
This isn't a story about the importance of good manners. The grateful man with leprosy didn't just return to say 'thank you', he came back to praise God and because he had faith in Jesus.

The others took their healing for granted, but perhaps they still praised God in their own way. The difference is that they didn't see Jesus' intervention as decisive. Their healing was a life changing event, because it meant they no longer needed to live as outcasts from society, but it didn't change the way they looked at life.

This bring us to the meaning of the phrase, 'Your faith has made you well.' It's not just about physical healing. The word used by Luke to translate what Jesus said means 'to be made whole' or even 'to be saved'. The man's faith changed his life around completely, whereas the other nine lepers were only healed of one disease.