Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Spirit and The Glory of the Lord

Exodus 33.7-20, Psalm 36.5-10, 2 Corinthians 3.4-18, John 16.4b-15

The Lord used to speak with Moses face to face. Exodus tells us that was a unique privilege, something enjoyed only by the prophets of God. But Pentecost ushers in a new reality where the Lord speaks face to face with all believers.

Exodus tells us also that Moses was afraid God might not go with the People of Israel on their journey and might leave him to lead them by himself. But God reassured him, 'I will go with you.' Wishing to press home the point, Moses reminded God that only when we enjoy God's power and presence will other people be able to recognise that we belong to Him. Pentecost is a restatement of that promise, and of its outcome. We are shown to be Jesus' disciples and God's people by the presence of His Spirit with us.

The passage from Exodus concludes by saying, 'No mortal may see me and live.' Moses may see God's goodness and hear God's name, he may
speak to God face to face but they cannot see one another face to face. This is a reminder of the otherness and transcendence of God.

There is a very ancient tradition within the Christian faith, and within other faiths too, that we cannot say what God is like; we can only say what God is not like. So, for example, we can say that God is not hateful or unjust. We can say that God does not lack compassion for everything He has made. But, by the same token, we cannot say exactly what God is like. We cannot say that God is love, or God is just, or God is compassionate, because no single human word or concept can ever sum up what God is truly like, even in a single facet of His nature. That, I think, is the angle from which Exodus is coming. We cannot get up close and personal with God. We cannot have a face to face meeting where God's inner nature is completely revealed.

And yet - while it is true that God can never be completely known and understood by human beings - the Christian doctrine of the Trinity surely qualifies and nuances this ancient understanding. For doesn't the Gospel say that God's Spirit dwelling within each one of us can bring us into a direct encounter with God, a true and authentic intimacy which allows us to have a very personal experience of what God is like? Yes, we still see only part of the truth about God. Yes, we can never fully comprehend God. But anyone who has lived with another person knows that we can meet someone face to face, and have a genuine personal encounter, without ever fully knowing or understanding them. So, for example, if a man can live for fifty years with a woman without ever fully understanding what makes her tick - and vice versa - can't we have a genuine relationship with God, through the Spirit, without knowing everything which there is to be known about God?

And of course there is also the historic encounter with God, the face to face meeting, which was made possible once and for all in the person of Jesus. In the life and death of this unique human being, God's nature is laid bare and we do see face to face, even if it is only through the filter of other people's testimony. So, when Jesus dies for us on the cross we really can say that God is love even though we couldn't have worked this out just by thinking about God or contemplating the meaning of words. That one act crystallises and focuses the nature of God's love, even when we cannot pin down the precise meaning of the idea of loving.

The Psalmist certainly thinks we can know God more completely than perhaps the writers of Exodus imagined. He, or she, speaks boldly about God's nature and sees it mirrored in creation. So God's steadfast love may not be something that we can fathom or measure precisely, but we do know that it is greater than the vast expanse of the atmosphere, stretching from the Earth to the clouds and beyond. We know that God's righteousness is bigger and vaster than the mighty mountain ranges. We know that His judgements are more profound than the deepest oceans. We know that His compassion at least extends to every human being and animal and that everyone is welcome to take refuge in the shadow of His wings. We know that Nature contains an abundance of delights which God intends all of creation to enjoy. We know that God is the source of light and life. What more do the upright of heart need to know? Doesn't this way of understanding things give us an opportunity to see God face to face in the world around us?

Certainly, this is another ancient way of comprehending the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the agent of creation, God's presence and life force in all things. And, in Jewish theology, this understanding of God's presence in the universe also extends to include His Wisdom, which is revealed by the natural world. The Gospel of John - borrowing from earlier Jewish reflections on the teachings of the Greek philosophers - introduces a third idea, that of the Logos, the active Word of God, which fills creation but which also filled and spilled out from the life, death and words of Jesus. So Jesus and the Spirit within creation are one - drawing their power and their essence from the same source.

Paul claims that same power and presence as the source of his own authority and vocation. In a striking phrase, that comes just before the beginning of our passage from 2 Corinthians, he says: 'The Spirit of the living God... [has been] written... on the pages of the human heart.' And this is not just something which happens in the lives of Christian ministers, it is a gift to every believer, the fulfilment of the covenant promise in the Book of Jeremiah. 'There is no question' therefore, says Paul at the beginning of this evening's passage, 'Of our having sufficient power in ourselves. We cannot claim anything as our own. The power we have comes from God; it is He who has empowered us as ministers.' Or as Martin Luther once said, when someone congratulated him on his achievements, 'The Word of God did it all!'

Paul says that Moses' prophetic encounter with God was truly glorious. But it was not enough to put right the relationship between God and the human race, because other members of the People of Israel found that they could not even look on Moses after he had spoken with God, let alone meet God themselves. The radiance shining from Moses, the pure charisma, was just too great.

They found themselves in a similar position to an experience I had when I was at school. The deputy head of the school taught us GCE, and then A-Level, history. He had piercing blue eyes and I found that, however hard I tried, it was never possible to meet and hold his gaze. After a second or two it was always necessary to break away and look down or away somewhere. Well, that's how it must have been to encounter Moses after he had been to the Tent of Meeting, and that's not a satisfactory way for God to be communicated to believers, through an intermediary whom no one is able to look at face to face.

But the glory which shone from Moses face was, says Paul, no glory at all in comparison with the still greater glory that comes from having God's power permanently located within each one of us. Not only is this a more direct and satisfying way of encountering God but, whereas the aura around Moses gradually faded, this is an enduring experience of God's presence and power.

Of course, as the ancient tradition affirms, we cannot see directly into the face of God. We cannot know everything there is to be known about God, just because His Spirit is within us. Paul is careful to say that we only see 'as in a mirror', a reflection of 'the glory of the Lord' - a bit like watching an eclipse of the sun reflected in a bucket of water. But nevertheless, God's glory is revealed to us 'with ever increasing' intensity and it has the power to be transformative - to change us into new and better people.

In a somewhat bitter aside, Paul draws a tenuous comparison between the veil which Moses wore to protect people from his piercing gaze and the veil of ignorance and disbelief which Paul felt was clouding the minds of his Jewish compatriots and preventing them from recognising the truth about Jesus. But we'll pass over that, because it has no bearing on Paul's main argument, and go instead straight to the reading from John's Gospel where John talks again about the Advocate who speaks up for us, like a lawyer defending our interests in an industrial tribunal or a court hearing, helping us to show the world that it is wrong about sin, justice and judgement and has a warped and misguided perception of all these things.

In an industrial tribunal, the advocate would be trying to show - or telling us how to explain - where the procedures followed by our employer fall short of or deviate from the best practice laid down by ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. In the case of the Spirit, its advocacy is about spiritual and ethical matters.

The Spirit helps us to explain that sin can only be understood properly by looking at the life and death of Jesus. Sin is not, as most people assume, a word invented by religious fanatics to prevent everyone from having fun.

I was reading an article the other day written by a young Palestinian woman who complained that her family used to have fun and enjoy themselves, gossiping with Christian neighbours, dancing at parties, flirting with other boys and girls, priding themselves on their beautiful hair. But then they started attending lessons at the mosque about sin and how to combat it, and now they're all totally miserable. They avoid their Christian friends in the street. They sit like shy retiring wallflowers at parties. The cover their hair and faces with veils, or they wear prayer hats and grow long beards - in the case of the men. And they look thoroughly miserable, or at least that was her interpretation.

Christians have their own version of this, of course. In the same magazine I read an article by a young woman who was beaten by her evangelical Christian father for going to a party. But this is a total misunderstanding of sin, because - according to John - sin is really the attitude of mind which rejects the love of God revealed in Jesus. And justice is only really understood when we appreciate that the way Jesus showed us, in His life and death, was vindicated by God at His resurrection. And judgement is only put in its true context when we understand that the values of the world have already been condemned and put in their place by the vindication of Jesus.

This isn't the limit of the advocacy of the Spirit, of course. John boldly asserts that the Spirit 'will guide us into all the truth'. Sadly, as the history of John's little Christian community soon made clear, when it became riven by faction and disagreement about the truth, being guided into the truth is not plain sailing, even when we have the Spirit to advocate for us. The true voice of the Spirit has to be distinguished from our own prejudices and opinions, and the only way to make that difficult distinction is to ensure that what the Spirit seems to be saying to us is giving glory to the life, death and teaching of Jesus. Anything else is a blind alley.

And that brings us back to where we began, in the Book of Exodus. It is very hard to know the truth about God. Nature helps to reveal what God is like. And the Spirit, dwelling within us, helps us to have a personal relationship with God. But only that unique, once-and-for-all face-to-face encounter with God in Jesus can confirm that what we are hearing is the truth - not the complete truth, but a reflection of 'the glory of the Lord'.

Babel and the Euro Zone

Genesis 11.1-9, Acts 2.1-8 and 13-21, John 14.8-17

The authors of Genesis were obviously fairly wedded to the concept of the nation state. They didn't share the ideals of the people who conceived the European Super-State and the single currency. They believed that the different nations and languages into which the human race is divided were no accident of history but something willed by God to prevent human beings from getting above their appointed station in life and grasping at equality with Him.

Of course, in many ways it's a positive development when human beings collaborate together. But it does depend on what they are collaborating to do. If their aim is to dominate nature and their neighbours, collaboration may simply allow them to make an even more spectacular mess of things than when they were competing with one another. And even when human beings collaborate for good, to try to save the planet from disaster, there is still the danger that we will become too self-reliant and forget our need of God. So, on balance, Genesis is not in favour of working together and sees the mosaic of different nations, languages and customs as part of the created order.

The recent problems faced by the Euro-zone certainly remind us that working together and forging a common identity may be laudable but it certainly isn't easy and lots of things can go wrong and threaten to bring back Babel with its cacophony of chaotic background noise. Perhaps the Eurocrats were in too much of a hurry, like the enthusiastic builders of the great city in the sky, and cut too many corners in their attempt to reach quickly their eminently desirable goal of peace, harmony and universal prosperity.

Of course, like the Euro-zone, Babel is a real place - the City of Babylon with its hanging gardens, was one of the seven wonders of the world. The peoples there didn't speak one language, but their masters were forging a common identity and a shared culture in their mighty new Empire which spanned the Middle-East. But, by the time that Genesis reached its final form, the Babylonian Empire had come crashing down. Was this God's judgement on the Babylonians' hubris?

We might think so, and yet Acts understands God's will quite differently from Genesis. With the exception of the writer of Revelation, who was fond of describing Rome as the new Babylon and its ruler as a painted whore, the New Testament writers were broadly in favour of the Roman Empire and saw it as a pretty good thing. They believed in a single language - in their case a simplified version of ancient Greek - and they were willing to adopt many, though not all, aspects of a shared classical culture. It's against this background that Peter describes the Holy Spirit as unifying humanity and reversing the chaos of Babel by bringing a new shared understanding and a common allegiance to Jesus.

Moreover, not only does the Holy Spirit reunite the different nations of the Earth but it also overcomes the biggest and oldest divide of all - that between men and women. According to Peter and Paul, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Instead we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Peter reminds the astonished crowd that being inspired by God's Spirit is not just a male prerogative. After all, hadn't the Old Testament prophets said, 'Your sons and daughters shall prophesy'?

There are other ancient and enduring divides which are overcome in the Spirit, too - the inter-generational divide and the class divide. 'Young men shall see visions', and 'old men shall dream dreams', and God's Spirit will be poured out on handmaids and male servants, as well as on their masters and mistresses. It's all very inclusive and democratic. Here at last, true harmony is being restored. And, contrary to expectations, this is the fulfilment of God's intentions, not part of some gigantic global conspiracy to thwart Him.

We often concentrate on the flames like tongues of fire which seemed to settle on the believers' heads, and on the different human tongues which they spoke on the Day of Pentecost, but just as amazing is the unity of purpose which the Spirit gave them, regardless of age, gender, rank or race. Pentecost is about the creation of a new humanity, prefigured in the Christian community gathered together in congregations like this one all across the world.

Do we feel part of that global reality, which spans time as well as distance and unites us with Christians of the past and Christians of the future? Do we feel that we are all one big happy family with other believers? And do we manage to get along within our own congregation? Are we filled with the Spirit and centred on Christ, galvanised by a shared vision of what God wants us to be, or are we fractious and divided? Do we allow petty differences of opinion or belief to divide us, or do we celebrate the fact that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, no matter how they might differ from us in other ways?

The unity which the Spirit confers on believers is, of course, but a reflection of the essential unity which lies at the heart of God's nature. God is Himself in community. Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in Him, and the Spirit of truth - the Advocate - is their joint gift to the universe, and to the human race.

Actually, someone I know well has been in need of an advocate this week, a person who could tell him what to say and how to put across his case so that he can defend himself and make the strongest possible impression in a hostile environment. A lawyer friend offered him very sound advice and helped him to transform his situation.

How like the role of the Spirit that is, helping us - if we will only listen and take heed - to know how to express our personal faith and proclaim the Church's mission in a world where people are often not on our wavelength and where we need special wisdom to know how to get our message across and communicate with them. Once we start to describe the Spirit as the arch-communicator we are back where we began, of course, with the Tower of Babel. Perhaps it's not unfair to describe the Spirit as God's spin doctor, helping us to try to reconnect with the fractured communities which the Babel of competing nationalisms, faiths, cultures and languages has created.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Life Beyond Death

Isaiah 38.9-20, Psalm 86, John 11.27-44

We can't be exactly sure what the people of ancient Israel believed about life after death. Some experts think they believed in a shadowy existence. King Hezekiah clearly expected it to be soulless in the sense that it would have no real substance. Like the writer of Psalm 30, which we used in our morning worship a few weeks ago, he believed that it wasn't possible to have a real relationship with God in Sheol. Some experts think that Sheol, the place of the dead, wasn't even an actual place where dead people were supposed to go. Instead, they think it was a virtual place - a way, in fact, of referring to how we all live on after our deaths, in the memories of those who knew and loved us. So I can still remember my grandparents as if it were only yesterday that I last saw them,whereas it's more than 25 years since the last one died. And if i tell stories about them, as I sometimes do, to my own children then my grandparents will live on - in an attenuated form - in their memories too. Is that how the past members of our church live on, just in the memories of those who knew them?

'Only the living can confess you,' says the King. But what if there is real life beyond death? Then, of course, it would be possible for the people in Sheol to confess God's name and for past generations of Christians everywhere, and past generations of church members here, to join us in worship now. Except, of course, they wouldn't be in Sheol - the place of the dead - any longer, would they, because God is not present in the Hebrew concept of the afterlife. So people would in fact be saved from the pit of death. They would have been raised, or restored to life, or become able in some sense to live on in God.

Resurrection doesn't reverse the process of dying. Instead, as the King astutely observes, if God is to save us from the consequences of death it has to be by standing surety for us. Someone who stands surety for us assumes responsibility for our actions or our debts. So, when we die, God is able to raise us to new life only because - in Jesus - he has already stood surety for us. He has been through death on our behalf. He has been to the afterlife, the place where God is not supposed to be able to go, and thus he has been able to destroy its hold on the dead for ever. Sheol - the place where it is impossible to see the Lord - no longer exists.

Psalm 86 seems to foresee this development. Hezekiah and the writer of Psalm 30 believed that Sheol was the place where we are beyond the reach of God's help, whereas the writer of Psalm 86 says 'You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.' Of course, the writer might be speaking metaphorically, and the following verses do seem to imply that, but for Christians that is exactly what God is able to do. He can raise us up from the depths of Sheol, the twilight place of the dead, the place where otherwise we would live on only in other people's memories.

Perhaps part of the reason why God is able to overcome death, and destroy its power, is because - just as we live on in the memories and imaginations of our family and friends, we also live on in God's memory. But whereas our afterlife in other people's memories is finite, and will come to an end when they - or the stories about us - come to an end, in God's memory we all live on for ever.

Is there an echo in John chapter 11, verse 32, of the idea that Jesus destroys Sheol, the afterlife or place of the dead, when he enters it after his own death? 'If you had been here,' says Mary, 'My brother would not have died.' In other words, the life force of Jesus - and his power to save - is so great that we simply cannot die, or remain dead, if we are in his presence. We simply have to live on in him even if our physical existence has come to an end.

John shows us that God in Jesus hates to see the suffering and pain which death causes. Death may be an inevitable part of the created order, but it's not meant to be a full stop, a final end, to who we are and what our lives have meant. In fact, it fills Jesus with indignation to see death apparently triumphing over existence.

The onlookers wonder why a person who is able to restore sight to the blind cannot prevent his friend from dying, but - of course - that's a fundamental misunderstanding. Jesus cannot prevent people from going blind, any more than he can prevent people from dying. What he can do is to restore their sight, and restore them to life. Death is inevitable, but Jesus can set us free from its power.

What are the implications of all this? We are supposed to live in a society which has left religion behind, which no longer seeks comfort in the idea of resurrection and which confronts death head on - believing it to be the end even more completely than the people of ancient Israel believed that. And yet, what are we to make of the reluctance of so many people to donate their body organs - or the organs of their nearest and dearest - to someone else if they die prematurely in an accident or from a sudden fatal illness? And what are we to make of the fuss about the harvesting of body organs from babies who had died at Alderhey Hospital a few years ago, which led to the consultant in charge being struck off the medical register and the payment of compensation to grieving parents? And what are we to make of the need which so many people feel to have a grave to visit, or a book of remembrance or a garden of remembrance, which they can associate with the loved ones they have lost? Or what about the roadside shrines which have sprung up in recent years to the victims of car accidents? Aren't these all signs that people continue to need to believe that death is not really the end - that by tending the grave, or the last resting places of the ashes, or the scene of death of people they loved they can keep a real and vital connection with them? Isn't this just a modern version of the Old Testament idea of Sheol, the place where the dead live on in our memories or in the shadows?

Perhaps people need to hear again the good news that there is something better - that we can be delivered from the depths of Sheol, the place of the dead, by a God who goes there with us - or ahead of us - in Jesus.

And finally, what about the implications for the Church? We have already seen that, if the dead live on in Jesus they are with us now, part of the vast congregation of believers which stretches across the centuries and continues to sing God's praises. But what of churches themselves? Can they die? Yes, of course they can, but when they do - if they die pointlessly, because of a lack of vision - it fills Jesus with the same indignation that he felt about Lazarus when he died. And, of course, when Jesus is still with us - filling our life together and shaping and energising our vision - we cannot die, or at least we cannot remain dead. His life force means that we must inevitably be reborn even if the old way of being church sometimes has to give way and die. Change is inevitable, but decay is not. The Church must keep on being renewed or rising from the dead.

Scenes from the Passion of the Christ

John 14.23-27

I don't know how many of you are familiar with a series of books called 'Where's Wally?' They show extremely complicated pictures of crowds of people doing lots of different things and the reader's job is to find where Wally is hiding in the picture. He can always be identified by his red and white bobble hat and football scarf, and because he always looks a bit of a Wally. But even so he's often very hard to find. The books are all designed by someone called Martin Handford, and the latest one, 'The Great Paper Chase', was only published this year. But it isn't an original idea. The first person to think of hiding someone familiar in a complicated crowd scene was a painter called Hans Memling.

If you Google for Hans Memling's "Scenes from the Passion of the Christ" you will see that Memling, who was a German painter working in modern day Belgium 540 years ago, decided in 1470 to create a picture which we could justifiably call 'Where's Jesus?' He conceived it as a way of depicting all of the things which happened to Jesus in the last week before his death and resurrection. And he sold it to two of the people portrayed in the picture, who are kneeling in prayer in the foreground at either side of the panorama.

If we look at the whole picture it's very hard to see Jesus at all, but as soon as we start to zoom in on what's going on we shall begin to realise that actually he's not like Wally - hidden somewhere in just one tiny corner of a crowded scene - instead, he dominates the whole picture, because he's everywhere.

I've introduced you to this famous picture, which now hangs in an art gallery in Italy, because it covers most of the events which have dominated our church services here at Sandal since we last held a Parade Service at the beginning of Lent. Here, at one stroke, you can see the Easter story unfold, and I thought that would be a good thing to think about today, which is the last Sunday in the year when Christians traditionally think about Easter. But looking at these scenes also reminds us why there is a church in Sandal.

There have been Christians in Sandal for about 1500 years, but Methodists only began meeting here two hundred years ago. And actually their churches weren't very successful at first. Sandal wasn't a very big place at the time and perhaps people preferred to go to the parish church because, after only 13 years, the Methodist church closed. It was only when Sandal started to grow that some local Methodists tried again, and once more their attempt to start - or plant - a new church failed after a just few years. It was only 113 years ago, in fact, that the modern Sandal Methodist Church began meeting, in an old barn opposite the parish church. And for a long time it was still a fairly small church. Despite moving to this impressive building in 1906 it still had fewer people coming to it than are here at our service today.

So it's not true that churches used to have lots of people going to them in the past and have got smaller in modern times. This church actually had its highest membership, its heyday if you like, less than twenty years ago, in 1994, and it's still has many more people involved in its life than it had for most of its history.

But what's all this activity about? It's not just about people coming together to join in everything from Guiding and Scouting to the choir and messy church, or going out to work with community groups around the area. It's not just about having fun or being serious. It's about being reminded, in everything we do, about the life and teaching of Jesus and sensing his spirit, moving among us to guide us and inspire us to live and die with him. If we keep the focus on Jesus everywhere, in everything we do, perhaps our church will find that its true heyday is yet to come.

God's Election Manifesto

Acts 11.1-18, John 13.31-35, Revelation 21.1-6

I wonder what you've made of the election leaflets that we've had through our doors over the last few weeks? Perhaps you haven't looked at them, in which case you won't know that we have the youngest parliamentary candidate in England. He says he represents a real change from the traditional career politicians. Perhaps that's because he hasn't yet had much of a career of any kind. Aged 19, Alan Belmore looks more like a 13 year-old in the picture on the front of his leaflet. Not surprisingly, he's not really chasing the grey vote. Another picture inside the leaflet shows him discussing politics with an ardent admirer, perhaps his girlfriend. The caption says he's with a group of young people - but there's certainly no one else visible.

Are children and young people going to influence the way you vote on May the 6th? Perhaps they should. Young people are blamed for most of the crime and anti-social behaviour in our communities and we're often very wary when we see groups of young people hanging around on street corners. But actually, young people themselves are far more likely to be the victims of crime than we are. They're also more likely to be unemployed at the moment, especially if they've no work experience. And young people in care, or leaving care, are particularly vulnerable. We need a positive vision for how we're going to give young people a stake in society and how we're going to support struggling families to look after their children and young people better. But is that something which is at the heart of the debate between the political parties? What are our local candidates saying about young people and families in their election leaflets? Even Alan doesn't have anything very specific to say. He's just calling for more facilities for the young.

A poster on the way to Wakefield shows a smiling Gordon Brown next to the caption, 'I've released 80,000 prisoners early.' If that's the level of debate on the subject of prisons it's disappointing because there are some important issues which need to be addressed. Most of the prison population have mental health or substance abuse problems, or learning difficulties, so getting crime down further - and it has been going down dramatically anyway - means doing something about these problems if we really want to reduce reoffending.

David Cameron promises on the back - or is it the front - of Ann Myatt's leaflet that he will fight back against crime - but he doesn't say how. Christians have been at the forefront of developing a new approach to crime, called 'restorative justice', where the offender is asked to take responsibility for the harm they've caused to their victims and put it right, by saying sorry but also by doing something practical to make amends. Not everyone thinks that's a good idea. Would you want to meet the person who had stolen your wallet or your handbag? How could they - or someone like them who had committed a similar offence - make amends to you?

So what do the politicians have to say about these things? Are they just churning out the same old discredited statistics and alarmist stories? David Cameron talks about fighting back against crime as though it's still on the rise, whereas the crime rate is actually lower than it's been for many years.

Ann Myatt is not only old enough to be Alan Belmore's mother but she's also a hospital consultant so health figures very prominently in her election leaflet. Even so, she doesn't say anything about the biggest challenge facing the health service. As we all grow older, how are we going to afford the extra health and nursing care that older people inevitably need? And how are we going to solve the pensions' crisis? Ian Kitchen from the BNP wants to increase the old age pension by taking money away from the help we give to developing countries to reduce global warming, but that doesn't seem very wise unless - like Mr Kitchen - you happen to think that climate change is non-existent.

Of course a lot of the political debate - on TV, on the radio , on the Internet and in the newspapers - has been about the economy. Everyone agrees that there are going to have to be cuts in public services and higher taxes, to pay for the bail out of the banks. But should we pay more national insurance, or should we have higher pollution taxes to help persuade us to reduce the energy we use? And how are we going to make sure that the cuts in public services don't bear down hardest on the most vulnerable people in our society - the elderly, the unemployed, the sick and the poor?

None of the leaflets say anything about that at all. Jon Trickett has a lot to say about what has been achieved in the past but nothing at all about the future, except that he's going to keep trying to bring more jobs to the constituency. Actually we've had a cornucopia of leaflets from Jon Trickett and my wife was very annoyed to find that - among them - he had sent my son and I a personal message about immigration, but seemed to have missed her out. Until we discovered - in the bottom corner of another leaflet, this time about the health service - a very discreet address label showing that it had been sent to her!

But in common with all the candidates from the main political parties, all of Jon Trickett's leaflets are very policy lite. Will it be all right, for example, to reduce spending on our schools? Or what about increasing the financial burden on students and reducing the money spent on universities? Should we have more vocational courses in schools and colleges, training young people to do a particular job rather than developing their minds? Do we need better discipline in schools, as David Cameron said in one of the televised debates, and if so how is that going to be achieved? And what's the role of social and moral education in our schools? None of the candidate has anything to say about these questions.

Or what about living in a multi-cultural society? Is it something that we feel good about or something which frightens us? Do politicians play on our fears about this, or do they have constructive ideas about how we can make things fairer all round? What role should the UK play in the world? Should we still be trying to be a world policeman - sorting out failing states like Afghanistan, or should we retreat and try to create a Fortress Britain that keeps troublemakers out? And how do we feel about the whole European project? Is Europe another bogeyman that politicians can use to frighten us, or does an ever larger European Union strengthen our economy and help to make the world a safer place?

The only ones who have anything to say about immigration are Ian Kitchen from the BNP and the independent candidate, Ian Womersley MBE, who says it's time to apply the brakes to the immigration gravy train and close the door. 'A recent example of lax immigration, ' his leaflet says, 'Is that a Portuguese national is allowed to claim child benefit, yet he does not work or pay any contributions to tax and national insurance.' It seems that before any of us goes to France, or Spain, or Portugal in future, Mr Womersely wants us to have a pre-arranged job, because that's what he wants other EU citizens to have before they come here. So my son's summer trip around Europe might not go ahead if Mr Womersley gets elected. Mr Womersley wants us to build up our relationship with our old allies - presumably the Americans and the Commonwealth - instead of being part of a European super state.

Mr Kitchen, however, doesn't have much time for Americans either. He says that the war in Afghanistan is only being fought to protect American oil companies. His leaflet says, 'At this election there is a clear moral choice: the BNP and peace, or the warmongering politicians.'

It would be easier, of course, for the BNP to take the moral high ground if their leaflet didn't contain an outright lie. 'I'm sick of asylum seekers coming here,' a young woman is quoted as saying, 'And being sent to the front of the queue!' Now I'm not sure what queue she's thinking about. The leaflet implies, without quite joining the dots, that she means the queue for pensions, housing and health care. Well I work with asylum seekers, and I can definitely say that the only queue asylum seekers are liable to go straight to the front of is the queue for deportation.

Mr Womersley says he's going to fight for some things - to do with the rights of migrants from the EU - which are actually already the law, so that shouldn't be difficult for him to achieve. He also has a dubious statistic in his leaflet, that the government has spent more than a billion pounds each year on housing for immigrants - presumably he means things like housing benefit to low income families - and I hope he went to the hustings meeting last night and that someone asked him how he justified it. But in fairness to him the other candidates have much shorter leaflets, pick and choose the issues they want to campaign for, by-pass the more difficult ones and fight shy of using any statistics at all.

The questions I've been asking, the ones which the candidates sometimes seem to shy away from, all come from the election website of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. They've been posed by different Christian experts. They're the kind of questions we should all be asking ourselves as we make up our minds how to vote.

I think it's instructive that today's reading from Acts is about the recognition by the first Christians that their faith could not be confined to one particular race, or culture, or religious tradition. If God is the father and creator of the whole human race then, as Peter realised after his vision, the Christian message must be intended for everyone and we have no right to draw distinctions between ourselves and other people or say that we somehow deserve better life chances than they do. Ian Kitchen's call to electors to 'Get even' on immigrants and foreigners by voting BNP doesn't seem to sit very comfortably with this passage.

John chapter 13, verses 34 and 35 remind us that Christians live under the commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ to love one another as he first loved us - and, of course, he loved us selflessly and without limit. When it comes to putting our cross on the ballot paper this means putting ourselves in the shoes of other people.

I expect you've seen some of the election posters from the Conservative Party which begin 'I've never voted Tory before but...' and then go on to explain why, this time, the person in the picture has lost patience with Labour. Of course, this has led to all kinds of mischievous changes to the posters - either on websites or on the actual billboards themselves. One poster was altered to read, 'I've never voted Tory before and I never will because Mrs T stole my school milk.' Another said simply, 'I've never voted Tory before, but I will this time because now I'm rich.' A third said, 'I've never voted Tory before, but being made unemployed sounds fun.' A lot of the changes have been much more scurrilous than that and I dare not repeat them!

Some people have actually suggested that the Conservatives designed this advertising campaign very cleverly to encourage people to poke fun at them because at least it gets us, and young people especially, talking and thinking about politics. It creates what the pundits call 'water cooler' moments. And maybe that's no bad thing. But, of course, as Christians we should not be casting our votes purely out of self-interest. We should be asking ourselves what is in the best interests of everyone, and especially what is in the best interests of those who are most in need.

And that brings us, finally, to the passage from Revelation Chapter 21, which is God's election manifesto. For Christianity promises that one day God will make all things new, and life on earth will be as it was always intended to be, a perfect mirror image of heaven. God will dwell among his people on earth, just as they now dwell with him in heaven beyond this life. And the centre piece of God's manifesto is the election slogan, the catchphrase, the soundbite which sums up the Gospel message: 'There will be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!'

As we go to cast our votes, and I hope we all will vote, we will have to ask ourselves, 'Which Party, which candidate, is - in my judgement - most likely to bring that promise a little closer?' Looking at the leaflets, they might seem a rather unpromising bunch but human beings are never perfect, and we all know how imperfect political institutions can be. Perhaps you will be thinking that we just have to choose the least worst candidate. Or perhaps you think the choice is a little better than that, and one candidate stands out from the crowd. But what we do have to ask ourselves is how the people who govern our land can help us to bring closer the new heaven and the new earth. And - after election day - we must remember that governance is a two-way process. Politicians can't make things better - if that's their aim - by themselves. We must work with them.