Monday, May 30, 2011

The Antidote to Rapture Fever

Acts 17.22-31, John 14.15-21

Last weekend the world as we know it was supposed to end. So said Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio, a Christian radio station based in the United States. A series of calamities, including another huge earthquake in New Zealand, would herald the Rapture, the moment when the risen Jesus is supposed to take his true believers to live with him in heaven, leaving sinners behind to endure the world’s dreadful fate.

On Monday 23 May, when the Rapture had not happened after all, Mr Camping emerged from his home to declare himself flabbergasted that his predictions had not turned out to be true. He said he would be looking for answers, but that he would not be returning the donations sent to him by people who had believed his message and wanted to help him spread the news.

Of course, when people make silly predictions about the end of the world they bring all believers into disrepute but Mr Camping and his followers have been the object of particular ridicule. One group of detractors have been thinking up wayside pulpits suitable for the build up to the Rapture.

I liked the suggestion that a suitable church car park sign might be: ‘Free parking for the Rapture. Please leave your keys!’ Another suggestion was, ‘If you’re preparing for the Rapture, please remember we accept post-dated cheques!’ Or how about this, suggested by someone who obviously enjoys horror films. ‘After the Rapture, beware of zombies! We have holy water - please enquire within.’ A more down-to-earth idea - so to speak - was, ‘After the Rapture, please leave a message’, presumably because the congregation wouldn’t be there to take messages face to face.

But, of course, most congregations didn’t expect to be raptured and weren’t disappointed. One person noted wryly that if God had ‘raptured’ the Methodists, no one would have been more surprised than the Methodists themselves!

So finally, how about this mission-focused wayside message for congregations still in business after a Rapture event: ‘Jesus loves you if you’re left behind’?

However daft we might think Mr Camping was to announce that the end of the world, and the Rapture of true believers, would begin on Sunday 22 May, Paul certainly tells us that God has fixed the day when the world will be judged. He says that the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that he will also return as the just judge of all the human race, to sort out the sheep from the goats.

Paul got several different reactions to his teaching. Some of his hearers scoffed at him, just like the people who have scoffed at the pronouncements of Mr Camping. Some people took Paul so seriously that, just like some of Mr Camping’s followers, they sold all their possessions in readiness for the day of the Lord’s Return. But - unlike Mr Camping - Paul’s advice is not to concentrate on the future. Instead, he thinks we should focus our attention on the here and now, for God is not just the God of the End-times he is the God of the present moment, the one in whom we live and move and exist every day. And he’s also, of course, the God of the past, who has determined all the eras of history and the limits of every empire and civilisation.

He is a God who cannot be pinned down. He does not live in shrines and churches built by human hands, or conform to human plans and predictions, or limit himself to the scope of human ideas. He is the transcendent Lord of the whole cosmos, past, present and yet to come.

In many ways the culture which Paul addressed in ancient Athens was not unlike our own. His audience was mildly sceptical about religion, and very doubtful about specific doctrines and moral codes, but nonetheless interested in spirituality and ready to consider the possibility that out there somewhere is an unknown force which really does make sense of everything. Paul’s challenge was to channel that vague spiritual awareness into an interest in the God made known in Jesus. That’s pretty much the challenge facing us too. Quite a lot of people are ready to believe that there’s more to life than meets the eye, but they’re not so willing to be told what to do or what to think.

Paul was asking people to have faith that God has shaped the past, that he is shaping the present - our present - and that he is shaping the whole of time. Perhaps it’s easier to talk to people today about hope - the hope that there really is a meaning and a purpose to the whole of life, that there really is a force for good at work. Like Paul we have to meet people where they are.

In John’s Gospel Jesus also talks about coming back to be with his friends, but he doesn’t mean it in the sense that Harold Camping or even Paul use the term. For John the return of Jesus is connected to the indwelling of his Spirit with the believer. It’s more like the idea of living and moving and existing in God. So for John the return of Jesus isn’t a future event.

Harold Camping now feels that he was mistaken about the date. The end of the world will begin in October, not May. But John says that the return of Jesus isn’t connected at all to any future catacylsm. It’s actually about opening our lives to his Spirit all of the time. If we do that, he will not leave us bereft. If we receive and obey his commands, he will disclose himself to us.

Like us, John experienced the cynicism and ridicule of the world beyond the Church. He felt this was inevitable, because there will always be some people - perhaps the majority of people - who will not open themselves to the possibility of God’s presence with them in Jesus. And if people don’t open themselves to Jesus’ Spirit then the idea of his coming to be with us will always seem crazy. And, of course, total weirdos like Harold Camping - who predict the end of the world next week or the week after, only make the real coming of Jesus seem dafter still. And, as a result, they will neither see him nor know him.

One suggestion for a wayside pulpit on the Rapture theme was, ‘Left behind and loving it’. If that’s just about having a laugh at the expense of a bunch of very silly people, it’s not very profound. But if it’s saying that meeting Jesus where we are now is the real way to discover his love and enjoy life in all its fullness then it’s the best answer to Rapture fever.

The Ideal Church in a Hostile World

1 Peter 2.19-25, Acts 2.42-47

Today’s reading from the First Letter of Peter seems to have very little in common with the modern world. It’s about upholding and justifying the ancient institution of slavery.

Christianity was very attractive to slaves. In his working life Jesus might have been more middle class than plebeian, but he endured the death of a slave when he was hanged upon a cross and he preached the equality before God of all people, male and female, rich and poor, Jewish and non-Jewish.

However, as slaves flocked to join the Church, so it’s leaders became increasingly anxious to explain to the government that the new religion was not subversive or dangerous. Slaves were not to demand equal rights to match their spiritual equality with their owners. Instead, they were to put up with injustice and suffering, while remembering that - in doing so - they were imitating the path which Jesus had walked.

‘When he was abused, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he uttered no threats,’ says the writer. In fact, being treated unjustly was to be considered a badge of honour.

The slaves were to think of themselves as free men and women, but only in so far as Jesus has set them free from sin so that they could begin to live for righteousness. They were still to submit to their owners, even when their owners were unjust and cruel. Their consolation was that they knew Jesus was their ultimate master, and he was both perfect kindness and perfectly just, ‘the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls’.

No Christian would seek to justify slavery now, but - of course - many of us are still what Marxists would call ‘wage slaves’. We don’t have owners, but we do have managers and bosses, some of whom can be very unjust and even vindictive at times. We wouldn’t expect to have to put up with a beating, but might we be expected to suffer all sorts of other minor humiliations and unjust criticisms in order to set a Christ-like example in the workplace? I know ministers sometimes feel that way and I’m sure lots of other people have the same sort of experiences.

I was amazed one day, talking to my female colleagues in my day job, when some of them began talking about the sexual harassment they had endured in the workplace, especially when they were much younger and had first gone out to work. Managers and supervisors had routinely cuddled and squeezed them. One or two had even chased girls round the office - or wherever - begging for a kiss. The women seemed to feel it was just something they had had to endure as graciously as possible, with quiet resignation.

Of course that was ten, fifteen or even twenty years ago. Perhaps we live in less forgiving and more equal times now. I know from experience that employers and managers often live and work in fear and trepidation of the dreaded employment tribunal, where wrongs against employees can be spectacularly righted. And yet, did you know that - in most cases - people who have been employed for less than one year have virtually no employment rights at all and can still be hired and fired at the whim of their employer? If you’re young, or new in post, times may not be so very different from the days of ancient Rome.

So what does this passage have to say to us about how we conduct ourselves at work, or when we’re dealing with our own employees? Surely it reminds us to try to be kind, forbearing and respectful to everyone, even when they don’t always deserve it. Sometimes we do behave well and yet find ourselves having to endure a tongue lashing from managers or customers. Behaving graciously under fire is a true test of our Christian convictions.

Mind you, if the writer is suggesting that we are supposed to be doormats, putting up with constant abuse, I am sure that is wrong. But we are supposed to try to diffuse conflicts, avoid retaliation and trust that our own Christ-like conduct will the be the best response to injustice and will stand us in good stead if things finally do come to a head and we find ourselves making a formal complaint or submitting a grievance.

In the earlier service this morning we saw that the Church is supposed to be a place of comparative safety and security compared to the world beyond. It’s not perfectly safe, because there are still people in the Church who are not dedicated to following the way of Jesus but have climbed in some other way, like a thief clambering over the wall of a sheepfold to attack the sheep.

However, those who are truly committed to the way of Jesus, though never perfect of course, should be safer to be around than some of the rapacious and unkind people we sometimes encounter outside the Christian community. If that turns out not be true of any of the Christian communities we know, then it says something about how close or far away they are from Christ himself.

That is what is so shocking about the catalogue of child abuse uncovered in the Roman Catholic Church in recent years, and the way it was covered up. None of the Churches escapes its share of blame for failing to deal with pastoral abuse, harrassment and bullying in the past - whether by ministers or lay leaders - but the Roman Catholic Church sometimes seemed to feel that it was better to pretend to be a safe and secure Christian community than to admit that some wolves or rustlers had got in amongst the flock. This is a reminder that the Church and its members always have to be on their guard, to look after the vulnerable and to make sure that those who seek the protection and support of the Church really are safe from harm and will be surrounded and supported, by and large, by a loving and caring community.

And so we come to the picture in the Acts of the Apostles of what the ideal church should be like. If the early Church really was like this, it certainly didn’t last for long because - by chapter five - people were already being expelled for hypocrisy and double dealing, and when we get to the Letters of St Paul all of the problems of today’s church are already much in evidence. But here in Acts chapter two we are told that the first Christians met constantly to hear sermons and Bible study, to pray and to share holy communion. And these were not once-a-week Christians; this pattern of spirituality was a daily routine.

Not that they were they a bunch of kill-joys or spoil sports. Instead they shared their food and possessions with unaffected joy, filling their lives with praise and impressing all the people who came into contact with them. Not surprisingly, the Lord was able to add daily to their number.

We live in more cynical times, I suspect, and in a nation renowned in Europe and throughout the world for its particular cynicism, shallowness and lack of spiritual awareness. But even so, if we could manage to be just a little bit like the joyful and enthusiastic church described in the Acts of the Apostles, and if we could make sure that we were a safe and secure zone where people can shelter in the love of Christ and away from the casual injustices and petty cruelties of the world, could we not also add new members monthly, if not daily, to our number?

Do You Feel Safe?

John 10.1-10

Do you feel safe? I think it’s easier to feel safe when we’re with other people rather than when we’re alone, isn’t it? And I guess we all feel much safer when we’re among friends than when we’re among strangers.

If we’re alone in the house at night we can sometimes think that we’ve heard the strangest noises, can’t we, sounds like the creaking of the floorboards, or unexplained thuds, or distant shouts and screams - and then it’s easy to imagine the worst, isn’t it, and to think that we might be in danger!

Jesus promises that with him we can feel safer. First, he offers us the chance to come into his sheepfold, his place of safety, which is the Church. Here we should be among friends, people who are also trying to follow him and do his will. And second, he says that he himself will keep watch over us, especially when we’re facing the sort of problems which other people can’t protect us from - serious illness, or the end of life.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to take care - even when we’re in church. Ministers spend a lot of time nowadays being warned about the need to safeguard children and vulnerable adults from harm, and to carry out health and safety checks, and so on. About five years ago the people at headquarters even sent round a memo reminding us not to allow anyone to come and shoot rabbits if they were eating the grass or the flowers in the churchyard or the car park. They were worried in case any passing pedestrians got peppered with gunshot! Now I ask you, how often does that kind of thing happen in a churchyard?

The point is, of course, that the church may be a safer place to be than the world outside, but it’s never going to be completely safe. Someone once paid for an advertising campaign which said, ‘Christians make better lovers’. That was certainly eye catching! But the advertisements didn’t say, ‘Christians make perfect lovers’ or ‘All Christians make good lovers’, because those claims wouldn’t be true.

All we can say is that, so long as we remain vigilant for people trying to climb into the sheepfold some other way than through the gate, the church ought to be a safer, friendlier and more cosy place to be than the world outside. And that’s because we are all together tying to follow the good shepherd, who doesn’t want us to be anxious or afraid, but to enjoy life - life in all its fullness.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Jesus the Lover of Our Souls

Song of Solomon 3.2-5, 8.6-7, Revelation 1.12-18, John 20.11-18

There is something highly charged and emotional about the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden near his tomb on Easter Day. Perhaps the way their meeting is described owes a literary debt, at least, to today’s verses from the Song of Solomon.

And yet the Song of Solomon is a love song. It isn’t describing a spiritual encounter. The young woman seeks the physical consummation of her love. For her, spiritual longing is not enough.

The setting for the poem is night time, not early morning as in John’s story. The woman has drifted off to sleep and when she wakes up she expects her lover to be close by. Perhaps she left him sitting on the couch catching up with some urgent paperwork or playing a game with his friends. She calls to him but he’s not there. He seems to have gone out of the house. When she has finished searching indoors she goes outside to look for him. Is he still with his mates? Or is he getting some fresh air?

The night watchmen want to know why she’s wandering about by herself in the middle of the night, so she asks them pretty much the same question which Mary poses to the gardener: ‘Have you see him whom my soul loves?’ Then, hurrying on, scarcely has the young woman passed the night watchmen when she finds her lover at last and she’s so overjoyed to see him that she holds him tight and won’t let him go.

In the same way, first Mary sees some sentinels standing at the tomb of Jesus; John calls them ‘angels’, ‘messengers from God’, although they don’t have much to say. Like the night watchmen in the poem, they ask her what is the matter but, although she tells them why she’s weeping, Mary doesn’t wait for their reply. Turning quickly away she speaks instead to the gardener and puts her urgent question to him. Whereupon Jesus says to her, ‘Mary!’ and she recognises him and - just like the young woman in the poem - tries to hold onto him, such is the intensity of her feelings.

Her love is just as emotional as the young woman’s, but it cannot be physical. Jesus may be the lover of our soul, but we can only fly to his bosom in a metaphorical, highly spiritualised sense.

In the poem the young woman warns her friends not to fall in love until they are sure they are ready for the intensity of feeling that it will bring. Are we ready to love Jesus with the same intensity shown by Mary Magdalene, or is he still just a casual acquaintance, or someone whom we want to keep at arms’ length? Are we afraid of letting him get under our guard?

What Mary had discovered was that though death may be strong, love is stronger. It can survive death and continue beyond it - most especially the strong love of God. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. You can’t take your money with you when you go, but you can take love beyond the grave.

Paul discovered something similar when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. He let Jesus get under his guard and found out that Jesus is still loving and caring for his people.When they are hurt, he feels persecuted too.

Revelation describes a different kind of encounter with the risen Jesus. Like Mary in the garden, the writer turns and like Paul - as well as Mary - he hears an insistent voice. But the figure he sees is ‘one like a Son of Man’, the figure from Daniel’s vision where a champion is sent by God to confront and overcome all the tyrants and oppressors of the earth and rule on God’s behalf.

Like Daniel’s leader, he wears a golden belt or sash as a symbol of his authority. I’m not sure how far ancient kings really went in for sashes. If anything, modern kings and their tailors seem to have mined the idea from the Book of Revelation. But I’m sure you get the picture. This is the risen Jesus depicted as supreme ruler rather than intimate lover.

More than that. The vision of Jesus mixes elements of the Son of Man with another figure in Daniel’s vision - an Ancient One with snow white hair sitting on a throne of fiery flames, who is none other than God. So the writer is making clear to us that he sees the risen Jesus as Son of God as well as Son of Man.

At first the two images - Jesus as lover and Jesus as Lord Almighty or king of all the earth - might seem diametrically opposed, but on closer inspection perhaps those first appearances are deceptive. Prince Wiliam expects one day to be king, not of all the earth but at least head of the British Commonwealth, and yet the latest set of Royal Mail stamps - available from your local post office as of last Thursday - depicts him as intimate lover. Perhaps you can be both lover and king!

Some ornamental lampstands stood in the Jerusalem Temple, to provide light but also as a symbol of perfection, and the writer of Revelation must surely be referring in some way to them. Jesus has replaced the worship of the Temple for, in his death and resurrection, he has become the new Temple not built with human hands.

However, the seven lampstands also symbolise the Church, and in particular seven churches which were especially close to the writer’s heart. So pastoral concern for ordinary Christians is still absolutely central to this image of Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth.

And, anyway, how is it that the Son of Man has become all powerful and all conquering? Not by fire and the sword, but by dying on a cross. So this image of the victorious Jesus is still a celebration of the triumph of self-giving love. Jesus is supreme because he was dead and now he is alive again for ever and ever. He represents the undying quality of true love, and that true kind of love is love divine love, a power which nothing can overcome.

Jesus and Yuri Gagarin

Matthew 21.1-11

Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut, has a number of things in common with Jesus.

Like Jesus, he was treated as a celebrity. After he became famous, crowds of people flocked to see him, wherever he went in the world.

Like Jesus, he blazed a trail on behalf of the whole human race. He was the first person to go into outer space. Jesus went to Jerusalem on a mission to change the course of history by putting human beings right with God.

Like Jesus, he died tragically young. Jesus was probably about 33 when he died, and Yuri Gagarin was 34 when the plane he was testing crashed in mid-flight.

Like Jesus, he was very brave. When he went into space, no one knew for certain whether space ws a safe place for people to be, or whether his tiny spaceship would return safely to earth again. Jesus knew when he rode into Jerusalem that he was facing certain death. But he went willingly because he believed that it was his duty, his calling from God, to die in order to show us just how much God loves us.

Of course, there are also lots of differences between Yuri Gagarin and Jesus. One of them flew planes and spaceships, and the other one was a carpenter. Only one of them is the figurehead of a world religion and only Jesus said and did lots of memorable things.

Space travel has given us the non-stick frying pan, whereas Jesus gives us the opportunity to discover a totally new quality of life. Finally, only Jesus was raised from death by God so that he continues to be with us even today.

Is The Pattern of Our Life Determined For Us?

John 9.1-41
This passage raises some fundamental questions about Jesus and his opponents. Which of them is really living in darkness, whether they recognise it or not? And who can cast light on the situation and bring glory to God?

Sometimes, as with the choice of David as the new king of Israel, which is today’s Old Testament reading, things are not as obvious as they might first seem. Perhaps what we need, as we thread our way carefully through life's many challenges and pitfalls, is the discernment to recognise what is right and the integrity to do it.

Jesus makes clear here, as he does elsewhere in the Gospels, that congenital disabilities are not anyone’s fault. They’re just an inevitable bi-product of evolution. This was a controversial idea at the time, but I guess it’s a pretty commonplace assumption now.

However, John still sees an element of determinism in this story. In his view, Jesus’ meeting with the blind man has been programmed into the unfolding pattern of events ever since the beginning of the universe.

In a sense this conclusion was inevitable. If we believe - as John’s Gospel asserts eslewhere - that Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection were all determined by God before the universe began, then it follows that every chapter of his life was also mapped out, including this encounter with the blind man. Everything that took place in his life, every miracle and every meeting, was designed to demonstrate God’s power.

At one time we might have gone on to say that the same is definitely not true about spiritual ignorance. John Wesley famously said that everyone can be saved from sin and can know that they are saved. However, that affirmation has always been disputed and is perhaps not quite as easy to defend as it might have seemed even twenty or thirty years ago.

On the radio recently I listened to a discussion about freewill, and believe me there’s a huge debate raging about how free we really are to make any choices in our lives - even about such humble things as what to choose on the menu at a restaurant - because who we are, and what we decide to do, is certainly affected by our genes, by the way our mind works and by our upbringing.

Take the example of someone with autism. Their choices are certainly far more constrained than other people’s. A little boy with autism might bite one of the childcare workers looking after him at school or nursery, but no one today would dream of telling him off whereas another child might be dealt with quite severely for doing the same thing. We make allowances for people who have autism.

And, of course, if we make allowances for people suffering from behavioural disorders like autism, shouldn’t we also make allowances for people who have large appetites. When they eat an extra slice of a delicious cream cake, or put on too much weight and need expensive hospital treatments, is it really their fault? Or what about people who have anger management problems? If they lash out at someone and break the other person’s nose, should they be taken to court or sent to see a psychiatrist, because maybe they’re not totally responsible for what they do? Where are we supposed to draw the line between decisions that we’re free to choose to make, and decisions which have been mapped out for us and which are hard - or even impossible - to avoid?

Most people, of course, do want to believe that we have some moral autonomy - that we are free to make certain decisions. Without that idea there could be no punishment for crime. There would be no point in paying tribute or giving awards to people who are exceptionally good or kind, and no amount of moral education in school would make children and young people behave any better.

Even so, some religious people remain deeply pessimistic about our freedom of choice - the more extreme followers of John Calvin would be a case in point. Calvin, who was one of the original Protestant reformers back in the sixteenth century, taught that human beings are unavoidably sinful. There is nothing we can do to prveent ourselves from disobeying God’s will. But God has divided human beings into two groups - the people he has decided to rescue, in spite of their sinfulness, and the ones who are doomed to remain forever ignorant of his love and power. Calvin likened this to the choice a potter makes when she fashions a lump of clay. One lump may be destined to become a vase for flowers, another to become a chamber pot. Once God has decided how we will turn out, there is nothing we can do about it.

Calvin went further. He said that none of us can ever be certain whether we are part of God’s elect, the people who are going to be saved from sin, or whether we belong to the rest of the human race destined to be cast into outer darkness. But this was a bit too pessimistic for most of his followers, who tended to look anxiously for signs that would reassure them that they were going to be all right. Going to church on Sundays looked hopeful to them. Reading the Bible and praying seemed like good signs, too. Doing what the minister said was encouraging sign. After all, why would God let people do any of these things if they were actually ignorant of his purposes and devoid of his grace?

Staying in bed all day and being lazy or slothful looked bad. In contrast, working hard for a living looked hopeful, so long as hardworking people weren’t greedy or selfish and didn’t exploit their fellow workers. Being kind and compassionate - well, surely they were positive proof that God’s grace must be at work in us, since hadn’t Calvin warned that no one is capable of doing good without God’s help?

John Wesley started life life as a follower of Calvin’s teaching, and he spent years trying to convince himself that God’s grace was at work in his life too. But eventually he decided that Calvin had been far more pessimistic than necessary. Yes, we are by nature so self-centred that we are incapable of doing God’s will and being truly loving and kind. But, God’s grace can make a difference to everyone’s life, not just to a favoured few. If we allow him, he can set us free to choose to become more like Jesus and, once we’ve made this decision, we can know that we belong to him.

If truth be known, the Bible is a bit ambiguous on all these points. It’s possible to select some verses which appear to support Calvin’s position. But it’s equally possible to find many others which appear to support Wesley’s more optimistic view. And today’s passage is surely one of them.

For example, why should Jesus have been sent to be light for the world, if human beings are mostly incapable of seeing the light? And why is it urgent to get on with his work since, according to the teaching of Calvin, nothing he does can change the outcome of a single person’s life?

The miracle witht he blind ma is mentioned in Mark’s Gospel as well as by John. Jesus has a little fit of spitting in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. First he either spits into his own hand and then rubs his spit onto a man’s tongue with his finger, or else he spits directly into the man’s mouth to cure a speech impediment. And then, in this story, he spits on - or puts his saliva on, a man’s eyes to cure his blindness. John says that he made a paste with his saliva and used it like an ointment.

John says that the miracle happened in Jersualem, and that the man washed his face in the Pool of Siloam. Mark says that it happened in a considerably more out of the way place - Bethsaida in Galilee. We can’t know where it really happened, or whether indeed there were two very similar miracles which happened in different places. But for John the miracle fits into a pattern of controversy stories where Jesus ends up arguing with the Jewish authorities about his mission.

In Mark’s version, as well, the miracle seems to happen on an ordinary day, whereas in John’s Gospel it definitely happens on the Sabbath - thereby heightening the sense of controversy. Jesus has done some work on the sabbath, by making an ointment and spreading it on the man’s eyes. ‘Is that permitted?’ the Pharisees ask.

Well, actually, it’s yet another part of this story where there might be room for debate. If the man was likely to bump into Jesus again, on another day, then perhaps it was wrong for Jesus to heal him on the sabbath because it wasn’t strictly necessary. But if they were unlikely to meet again, and this was the man’s one chance of being healed, then the Jewish Law would certainly encourage them both to go ahead, even on the holy day. Of course, Jesus does find the man again - after he’s been expelled from the synagogue for defending Jesus - so perhaps the Pharisees had a point!

The whole controversy element of the story is the other thing which is missing from Mark’s account. Only John tells us about the prolonged dispute which the miracle seems to have caused, first with the man who had been healed, and then with his parents and finally with Jesus. Sometimes John implies that the dispute in the story was only between Jesus and the Pharisees. Sometimes he talks disparagingly not just about the Pharisees, but about the Jews.

Mark’s Gospel also contains disputes between Jesus, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. But if John has heightened the tension it is perhaps because - by the time he wrote his Gospel - the relationship between Jewish people and Christians was getting much worse. Shortly after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Roman authorities in the year 70, some synagogues began to expel Jewish Christians and denounce them for claiming still to be Jewish. This wasn’t universal. In other places, Jews and Christians continued to mix and even worship together for another 300 years, but in John’s community a decisive and very acrimonious split had already happened. Is this hostility between the two faiths read back into his account of Jesus’ life? If so, it could explain why John presents the Jews as wilfully refusing to believe, first that the man had actually been born blind, and then that Jesus is capable of doing anything good.

Of course, a convinced Calvinist would argue that the Jewish leaders in Jersualem had been born ignorant of God’s will and were incapable of being changed, because God’s grace was evidently not at work in them. But here Jesus seems to come down on the side of John Wesley. The Pharisees, like all of us and like the blind man himself, have the capacity to see the truth. Indeed, they already claim to know what God wants. So they are, in Jesus’ view, deliberately closing their minds to the light which he has brought into the world, whereas the blind man has chosen to open his mind to Jesus, as well as having his eyes opened by him.