Monday, October 29, 2012

What it Means To Be A Priest

Hebrews 5.1-10

The writer of Hebrews tells us a great deal here about his understanding of Jesus, but he starts with his understanding of what it means to be a priest. Of course, in the traditional Methodist understanding of priesthood we are all priests, so perhaps he is also telling us what it means to be a Christian.
Part of our job is to be a go-between, a bridge, between God and people on the fringe of our church life - people who are supporters rather than joiners - and people in the neighbourhood too for whom we are their community church. A lot of people look to us to do God shaped things for them. They're not ready yet to it for themselves. They might never be ready! They want us to do religion vicariously for them, on their behalf.

Of course, being a Christian doesn't mean that it's necessary for us to do anything on behalf of other people or that we have to represent them to God as a priest would normally do. None of us needs an intermediary, we can all approach God directly if we want to and - as the writer goes on to say - Jesus has made this possible for everyone by his once for all time sacrifice to make us acceptable to God no matter how unworthy we might otherwise be. But quite a lot of people, who would call themselves believers in a fairly loose and undogmatic way, or who think of themselves as honest seekers after truth, do look to us - the regular churchgoers - to do religious things vicariously for them. They're glad someone is praying and they would like us to pray for them in their hour of need, and perhaps help them to have a dignified funeral for their loved ones, or provide a worshipping community where they can celebrate weddings and baptisms. In that sense they do look to us to fulfill a priestly function for them. And being a righteous servant, getting alongside them in Jesus' name, is a priest-like function, a representative role.

You might say, 'What, me? I'm not good enough to lift other people and their concerns up to God! But isn't this what we all do every time we offer our intercessions, our prayers of concern for other people? And the writer reminds us that when we do this we must remain conscious of our own weakness. We can pray for other ignorant and wayward people, he says, only because we know how weak and wayward we are, and because we also know that we are loved and accepted by God through Jesus. We can deal gently with other people only by first recognising that God has dealt gently with us and we no longer need to offer anything to God as a way of saying sorry for our shortcomings. And, of course, representing our community to God and praying for them is something that we can do and an honour that is given to us only because we are called to it by God. The priestly task of a christian, or a church community, is not a job in the ordinary sense. It's not something we apply for or choose for ourselves. It's a vocation that is entrusted to us.

Anyway, enough about us! What are the implications of all this for what the writer believes about Jesus?

The first thing he says is that Jesus was chosen or appointed by God to take on the priestly task of representing all of humanity, and indeed the whole of creation, to God and making it an acceptable gift. I think he perhaps differs from other New Testament writers in seeing Jesus' mission as a vocation given to him at a particular point in time rather than something he was born into. He isn’t perfect from birth, he is made perfect through suffering. In the writer’s understanding Jesus is a man to whom was allotted a unique and timeless task, a role that stretches back to the beginning of all things and forward to the end if all things, but he is a man who was made perfect for the task rather than someone who was born perfect.

Whether that's quite the same as what the Creeds have go say about Jesus I'm not sure and maybe the difference has to be acknowledged, although we might think that what the creeds say is the logical conclusion of the writer’s line of thinking.

The second thing the writer asserts is that Jesus is not the sort of high priest who was in charge of the Jerusalem temple in his own day. Instead he belongs to a much older pattern of priesthood. He is a royal priest according to the order of Melchizedek, who had been the king and priest of Jerusalem in the time of Abraham. Later Israelite kings also modelled themselves on the pattern of Melchizedek, but the writers of the Old Testament didn’t entirely approve and only hints of this kind of royal priesthood remain.

However, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews hasn’t forgotten this tradition, and he includes a quotation from Psalm 2, one of the psalms once used at the coronation of the ancient kings of Judah, when explaining how Jesus was called to the priesthood. ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you,’ God tells the king during the coronation ceremony, and those are the same words that Gods uses when he designates Jesus as the true and everlasting high priest.

Jesus understood that the kind of priesthood he was being called to was a new and radical kind where he would be offering himself as a sacrifice, not animal or human substitutes, and the writer tells us that he wasn’t immediately reconciled to the idea. He offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, hoping to be saved from death, and the writer insists that God heard him even though in the end Jesus wasn’t spared and he understood that he must submit to suffering and death for our sakes in order to be able to complete his work.

The Gospels also describe Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, but Hebrews does so with an amazing amount of psychological realism. He is clear that Jesus really did not want to accept the way of the cross and was dismayed and desolated by the knowledge that he would have to submit to such a terrible death. This is why we can be sure that, no matter how afraid or alone we might sometimes feel, Jesus understands our feelings and is there with us.

Celebrity Come Dancing & The Righteous Servant

Isaiah 53.4-12

This passage resonates so strongly with the experience of Jesus that, from the very beginning of the Church, Christians have identified the subject of the prophecy with him. Yet the Prophet identifies this person only as the righteous servant - perhaps the faithful remnant of God's people who had been taken into exile with all the unfaithful ones. 

One of the most striking things for me about Celebrity Come Dancing is the way that the dancers are punished for the mistakes of the celebrities. Indeed some of the dancers are harnessed over and over again, series after series, with people who have two left feet, or are seriously overweight or who just can’t dance. No matter how hard they work, and sometimes they work very hard to choreograph creative and entertaining routines and then dance until sweat pours off them, they are doomed to be condemned by the judges. The righteous share the fate of the unrighteous. And thus it ever was.

In ancient Babylon the righteous servants of God had shared the suffering of the other exiles, but in their case it was undeserved. Their punishment was a perversion of justice. People lumped them together with all the other sinners and assumed that they must have done something terribly wrong, but they had been wounded for the transgressions of the whole nation.
The suffering of the righteous will not be in vain, says the Prophet. God has not forgotten them and will honour them, especially for the way they have been willing to endure hardship with, and have prayed for, their fellow sufferers, even to the point of death. The Prophet says they will be allotted a portion with the great.

There can be little doubt that Jesus was inspired by this passage and modelled himself on the righteous servant. Luke tells us as much in the Emmaus story.

The passage reminds us that none of us can escape the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. We can never be immune from, or sheltered from, the calamities which befall the community around us.

This is true whether we're talking about the impact of the recession on the life of our church, or about what it feels like to be the church in a community where mines and factories have closed and people have been left behind while others were prospering.

Do we always remember to stand alongside and pray for those who are being hit hardest by unemployment and falling incomes? What practical things are we doing to support them and show our solidarity with them? And do they know that what we are doing, and our simply being alongside them, is meant to be incarnational - that it is our way of mirroring Jesus' own identification with struggling humanity?

I was at a conference this week where a vicar shared with us two recent encounters with his parishioners - one an elderly bus driver who had suddenly lost his wife and was feeling very alone, the other a single mother with six children, living on benefit but full of passionate love for her demanding brood. What does it mean, he asked, to be a righteous servant to these ordinary people?

How, without making them feel self-conscious or singled out, can we affirm people like these, encourage them, remind them that - in their daily struggles - they are loved by God and upheld in prayer by the church?

Jesus, Downton and The Million Pound Drop

Mark 10.17-31

It would be easier for a great ocean liner to float on a puddle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

My wife, Helen, is a local preacher and she usually gets me to look at her sermons. She generally writes them before I sit down to think about mine, so it can be very difficult when I find that she’s used some excellent illustrations because then I find that I want to borrow them. Fortunately she’s in another circuit, so I can go ahead  with a clear conscience - anyway - and share with you two of her illustrations about today’s Gospel passage.

The first is from the television series Downton Abbey, so I hope you’re some of the many millions who tune in faithfully every Sunday night! The central couple in the story of Downton Abbey, around whom all the others revolve, are Lady Mary Crawley - the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham - and her cousin Matthew Crawley, Lord Grantham’s heir. Throughout the different series they have had a stormy, on - off sort of relationship, and that’s chiefly because of Lady Mary’s biggest character flaw. She has a number of character flaws actually. She can be flirtatious, bossy, spiteful and impulsive, and some of these character flaws have got her into trouble in the past. But her biggest flaw, which has nearly ruined her relationship with Matthew on more than one occasion, is her love of money. It can be easier for a great ocean liner to float on a puddle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Now, in fairness, one of the reasons why Lady Mary wants to have money is to be able to better protect the family inheritance. She’s not just a spendthrift. But on the other hand she can’t contemplate a life of genteel poverty, or even middle class affluence. She needs to be filthy rich.

When, briefly, it looked as though Lord Grantham and his wife Lady Cora, the Countess of Grantham, might have a baby son who would disinherit Matthew, Lady Mary wasn’t sure she wanted to marry him after all. How hard it is for a rich person to do what’s right, what will make them happy even, when money is at stake. Their first care can so easily be for security, and for the little inconsequential luxuries which they have come to expect as an everyday part of life!  

And are we so very different from Lady Mary? The days of great country houses, where the aristocracy whiled away their time in genteel pleasures like huntin’ and shootin’, or attending dinner parties and balls, may be a thing of the past, but don’t we all face the same challenges on a smaller scale? How can we be truly happy? And how much money, or how many possessions, do we need to make us happy? Do we need a little, or quite a lot, or are we the sort of person who must have the very latest thing?

Last week we were talking to a family friend, a young man who has just landed his first job after university. We congratulated him on his success, which had come only after a lot of interviews and heartache. ‘Next time I see you I’ll be in my Porsche,’ he said. Of course he was joking, but as the Poet Horace famously said, ‘Many a true word is spoken in jest.’

And so to the second illustration, which is not about rich people as such, but about people who are tempted by riches. The Million Pound Drop is compulsive viewing on Channel 4 around bedtime. Avoid it if you can.

The compulsion doesn’t stem from the game itself, which involves answering eight fairly trivial questions where the answers often have to be guessed - because the question could be something like, ‘What was such and such a famous person wearing when they walked down the red carpet at a London gala premiere tonight?’ Instead, the fascination lies in watching the reactions of the contestants. They’re not generally clever people battling their way to a well deserved prize, because cleverness can only get you so far in this game. Rather, they’re gamblers, people ready to stake all on a hunch. So the real compulsion of the programme lies simply in watching them as they go through an increasingly stressful and gut-wrenching experience, which almost always ends in disaster although it might end in a big, big win.

Only the other week a very lucky couple went home with £300,000. It was the biggest amount that anyone had ever won. And it is always a couple who are competing, never an individual, so not only do you get to watch the stresses experienced by each of the competitors, you also get to see the strains put on their relationship as they try to decide the right strategy for the next round of the game.

The rules are these, a security guard solemnly gives the couple a million pounds, in bundles of £25,000. They have to spread this fortune over a series of trapdoors, each one linked to a different multiple choice answer to the question. They can’t spread the money evenly over all of the trapdoors because they must always leave one hatch uncovered. And anyway, the more evenly they spread the money, the less will be left at the end, because once they have decided how to spread their bets all but one of the trapdoors opens, swallowing any money left on top of it.

As the bulk of the million pounds disappears from their grasp, or even if they are lucky and it’s still there after all the incorrect trapdoors have opened, we get to see the nervous looks, the anxiety, the desperation, the naked greed etched on the faces of the contestants. Often they begin with a devil-may-care attitude. After all, they came into the studio with nothing so, if they leave with nothing - as they often do - what does it matter? But as the game proceeds gold fever begins to grip them. They scream - in horror or delight. They weep uncontrollably - tears of joy or despair. They cling to one another or - while they’re trying to decide how to place the bundles of money - they argue.

It’s riveting television, but it’s an undignified spectacle. You get to see what it would be like if someone accidentally opened a suitcase full of money in the High Street on a windy day. As it swirled into the air everyone would be after it, passers-by scrambling to get a piece of the action.

The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil. And perhaps it’s the love of money, rather than wealth itself, which is the real obstacle to entering the kingdom of God. Certainly, generations of Christian commentators have veered towards this seductive solution in their attempts to water down the impact of what Jesus had to say about wealth. It isn’t money that’s the problem, they insist, but it’s corrosive impact. If we can guard against trusting in money - and just use it as a means to an end - we will be all right.

That’s the attitude of the people who enter the studio to play The Million Pound Drop. They’re not going to let the game wind them up. They just want to win a few quid, it doesn’t have to be the whole million. If they do win a lot, they’ll probably give some of it away anyway. And so on. But it’s very hard to have money in your grasp, even a comparatively small amount of money, without finding yourself drawn to its siren call. Why should we not put our  trust in its power to make our lives easier? Why not stake everything on the security it appears to offer?

Why else do some people insist on huge salaries or obscenely large bonuses which they know will make them unpopular with everyone else? Why do they want bigger houses than they really need, or more than one house, or other inflation beating investments of various kinds, from fine art to gold bars?

The disciples were dismayed when Jesus said that a rich person cannot easily enter the kingdom of God, not because they were rich but because they were thinking, ‘If rich people are in trouble, then who can be saved?’ They lived, after all, in a culture which saw wealth and status as signs of God’s approval. But Jesus will have none of it.

Of course, the million dollar question is, ‘When does it become harmful to have money and possessions? When does the acquisition of wealth tilt over from being reasonably prudent to becoming a dangerous obsession? Is a modest pension all right? Is a desire not to be a burden on others compatible with Jesus’ call to follow him? Is a determination to look after yourself - and not rely on others - a good attribute to have, or does it tend to encourage an unchristian degree of self-reliance?

There was a party political broadcast the other night in which the prime minister was extolling the virtues of making our own way in life and not being dependent on state handouts. He insisted that most of the population agree with him about this, and they probably do, but of course when we get ill, or frail, or fall on hard times , we do want a safety net to be there, don’t we? Being self-reliant has its limits. We still want a helping hand when all the other options run out. It’s only scroungers and work-shy people that the electorate wants to cut out of the deal.

And there is a further problem with self-reliance. As we acquire more and more possessions, and surround ourselves with a stronger and broader safety net of our own making, does that perhaps make us less willingly to share with the unfortunate and the deserving? Do we become harsher, more judgmental, more certain about where the boundaries should be drawn between those who ought to be helped and those who ought to fend for themselves? It’s not inevitable, but it’s a very real danger that our attitudes can harden to an unchristian degree.

Of course Peter and the first disciples were radical followers of Jesus. They had left everything to follow him and Jesus recognises this - he refers to home, family and ancestral lands, all given up for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. We are told that they will be rewarded a hundredfold for their commitment.

The Prosperity Gospel, or Health and Wealth Gospel, is an interpretation developed in the United States, by people who take absolutely literally Jesus’ saying that his disciples will be rewarded one hundred times over for following him. They believe that God wants Christians to prosper and will make it so for them if they have enough faith. Of course, believers have to invest in order to accumulate, so tithing to the church is compulsory, otherwise how is the minister going to prosper? But the basic principle is that, in the end, the disciples of Jesus will make good.

The problem with the Prosperity Gospel is that it ignores the last part of the saying: ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’

It would be possible to imagine that Jesus wants to give his disciples a free entry to The Million Pound Drop competition, if it weren’t for the mention of persecutions. What’s healthy and wealthy about being persecuted a hundred times more than other people? And that suggests, of course, that the houses and fields which come as part of the package might be metaphorical ones - mission fields, preaching houses, and so on - and the new family members might be members of the family of God. Because the health and wealth which Jesus is offering here belong to the age to come. He promises riches beyond our imagining, but they are riches which rust and moth cannot attack. Peace, joy, hope, love - these are the rewards of enjoying eternal life.

Last week there were a lot of stories in the news about the poor harvests around the world this summer. ‘Did this mean,’ journalists asked, ‘That there will be a shortage of food?’ One of the experts wheeled out to comment said that there was no need for anyone to go without enough food. All that is necessary is for western consumers to let go of some of our greedy habits.  If we eat less meat and waste less of the food we grow or buy the problem could be solved. Of course, one or two other commentators said this was a touch simplistic but they couldn’t disagree with the general tenor of the argument. If we gave up some of what we enjoy - endless supplies of cheap, perfectly shaped food of all kinds - the poorest people on earth could have enough to eat.

Similarly, some economists now argue that, if everyone in employment agreed to work shorter hours - perhaps three days a week - we could put an end to the scourge of youth unemployment and longterm unemployment. There would be a price to pay. We would all have to settle for lower wages and fewer rewards, but the whole of society could be more content.

Jesus’ challenge to the rich man, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,’ is as relevant now as it was then. Is it a challenge which shocks, grieves us, or perplexes us, or is it an exciting opportunity to discover an entirely new value system which we find ourselves willing to seize?

Jesus the Bridge

Hebrews 1.1-4 & 2.5-12

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews begins by reflecting on the way that God has spoken to his ancestors through prophets like Moses, whom he would have believed to be the writer of Genesis. Genesis, as its name implies, talks about the creation, but the writer of Hebrews says there is something missing from its account. All of the things that Genesis describes were created through Jesus, God’s living wisdom.

He uses terms to describe Jesus which border on ideas that were later branded as heresy. Jesus is a bridge between God and creation. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s very being. But is that quite the same as being God? Some later readers interpreted Hebrews as meaning that Jesus is not the same as God but like God, more like him than human beings but not totally and exactly the same. Whatever the writer really meant, these later interpreters were condemned for their pains.

The first men and women fell short of God’s plan for humankind. Their relationships with one another and with him were never as perfect as he had intended but Jesus has offered a sacrifice which makes purification for, or wipes out, those mistakes.

Human beings have been given a special role, the role of working in partnership not just with one another but with God. In the days before most people could afford to own a book, even copies of the books of the Bible, the writer cannot remember who said that human beings have this special place in creation. It’s actually the Psalmist. But, in any case, says the writer of Hebrews, it’s not really true yet - except in the person of Jesus who, by his own death on the cross, has tasted death for everyone. What does that mean? The Contemporary English version says that it simply means Jesus died for everyone, but I think it means a bit more than that. It means he has tasted our death, he knows what it will feel like for us to die and he will be there to hold our hands. So now he is not just the one who was present at creation, he is the one who will be present with us at the end too.

Jesus, not Adam, is the person who takes priority in all things. He died because God wants to complete and bring to perfection the project which he began  with Jesus in Genesis. The men and women who are described there, and their descendants, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Elsewhere we’re told that being married is also like being in the kind of self-giving relationship which Jesus offers. So Genesis tells us that human beings are meant to live together in relationship, and Jesus shows us how.

How did Starbucks get its name?

Genesis 2.18-24

How do things get their names? For instance, why are Starbucks coffee shops called Starbucks? Was there a Mr Starbuck? Well, yes there was, but he was a character in a book, in the novel Moby Dick. The founders of Starbucks named their coffee shops after him because he loved coffee.

Or what about the colours we paint our homes with; where do they get their names? From professional paint namers, of course! All of the names are carefully chosen to sell more paint. Barley White is supposed to conjure up the image of a warm summer’s day, with skylarks singing overhead and poppies bobbing gently on the breeze as we stroll through a field of harvest white barley. Love Note is supposed to remind us of the love letters we either sent, or received, on tinted lilac paper before the invention of mobile phones. Soft Stone is supposed to make us think of country cottages or dry stone walls. Tuscan Sunset is supposed to conjure up that romantic holiday in Italy. And Antique Map... Hang on a minute! Who chose Antique Map? Probably the same person who dared to name another colour Ancient Artefact. Don’t those names make us think of dusty old libraries and museums rather than sparkling new homes or cosy firesides? 

And what Trenchcoat - which is actually a sort of camel colour? Doesn’t that remind us of soldiers floundering in mud? Well, maybe not. Maybe it takes us back to that oh so fashionable coat we owned in the Seventies. (Actually, I had two trench coats!) But talking about mud, surely the worst name for a colour has to be Muddy Puddle! Who chose that one? It makes me imagine some crazed paint boffin mixing all of the colours together to see what you get. I certainly wouldn’t want it on my wall.

Where do things get their names? What about zebras, for instance? Where does that name come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s a Congolese word, though some people think it comes from a Latin word, equiferus,  coined by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder and meaning wild horse. But how do you get from equiferus to zebra? #Or what about duck billed platypus? The duck billed bit is easy. The platypus has a mouth like a duck’s bill. But where does platypus come from? Actually, that’s an easy one. It’s a scientific name derived from two Greek words, ‘platus’ meaning flat and ‘pous’ meaning foot. Apparently the duck-billed platypus has big feet too!Genesis Chapter 2 is a story designed to explain why things are the way they are. Why are cows called cows? Why are sheep called sheep? And so on. The answer given in Genesis is probably closer to the truth than we might care to imagine. While their wives were out toiling in the fields, or grinding corn, or cooking the dinner, a group of men sat round the fire and got down to the serious business of finding a name for everything! Whatever they chose to call every living creature, that became it’s name.

Of course,  there’s a name for the business of naming - etymology, and to this day some lucky people make their living from naming things, like the people who name paints. Adam is a name. It means, ‘made from the earth’, and also ‘good looking’. To call someone Adam is to suggest that he might be a bit of a hunk, apparently. But it’s also a collective noun, meaning humankind or sometimes mankind, and a singular noun meaning ‘a man’. So Adam is a word with an intriguing range of meanings. 

According to Genesis, what sets human beings apart from all other living things is their curiosity, their desire to investigate things, delve into their origin, find a name for them, identify them and classify them. There’s something a bit godlike about this capacity. All other creatures just get on with the business of living, but human beings have to sit down and ponder over the meaning of it all. And Genesis insists that it’s something which God positively encourages us to do. It’s a collaborative venture with him. For naming something is not just about putting it in the dictionary, it’s also a way of recording it for posterity and saying that it matters. In the whole of creation on our planet, only human beings keep a register of all the other living things and mark it with a cross when something becomes extinct, or with a highlighter pen when it’s endangered. And, of course, naming and recording things is only the first step towards protecting and looking after them, to sharing in God’s stewardship of creation. 

How sad, then, that we often fall short - as a species - of that ideal. I saw a poster recently which said, ‘Human beings are the only species which believes there is a God, and the only species which behaves as though God doesn’t exist.’

So far, then, Adam could be male or female really - except for the well-known tendency for men to do all the sitting down jobs while women get on with the chores, which suggests that the etymologists were probably male. But then the story veers in an alarming direction, at least if you happen to be a feminist, for it tells us that the first woman was a variant form of the original male of the species. And, of course, it’s only a small step - though not actually a necessary one - from saying that men came first in creation to arguing that they have priority over women and can tell them what to do.How paradoxical then, that modern science should have turned the Genesis narrative on its head and proved that women came first, and being male is a variant of the original female form of the species. All of us begin life in the womb as female and then some of us take on male characteristics, and the first genuinely human being was a woman.

This unexpected turn of events reminds us that it is best not to make false assumptions about the superiority of any one human being over another. We’re all born equal under God and we have a shared responsibility to care for one another.

In our English translations, however, the name Woman, which Adam gave to his wife, certainly reinforces the Genesis version of events. Woman derives from the Anglo-Saxon word wiman, meaning ‘a man who is a woman’. It’s also closely related to another earlier Anglo-Saxon word, wifman, meaning ‘a man who is a wife’. And that’s clearly how Genesis conceives of women - they are derived from men, and subordinate to them, and intended to be their wives and helpmates. They’re mutant man, men who have become women or wives.God had noticed men were lonely, so the story goes, and not very well organised without a partner to help them. None of the other animals could do the job, so God created women to fill the vacant position. As the fridge magnet puts it, ‘Do you want to talk to the man in charge, or to the woman who knows what’s happening?’

Notice how this is the first marriage, and there are no registers, certificates, vows or ceremonies. A man simply leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, and they become one flesh. The word ‘clings’ is a rather odd expression. It suggests a drowning man clinging to his wife to keep afloat rather than finding a partner to help him through life’s ups and downs. But, on the other hand, the Contemporary English Version says only, that ‘a man...marries a woman, and the two of them become like one person’, which is far too lame. The Authorised Version says that a man shall ‘cleave unto his wife’, which is - I think - a much more robust idea. 

To cleave to someone means to join yourself to them and be faithful to them. It carries much more the idea of two people becoming one flesh, almost as if they were stuck together, reinforcing one another. Using the word cleave makes the first half of the verse complement the second half in a way that the image of two people becoming more like one another, or clinging to one another simply fails to do.Dr Janet Reibstein is an academic from Exeter University. A few years ago she published a book, based on her research, which she called 'Best Kept Secret'. It was about one hundred happily married couples who had , in some cases, been together for as long as fifty years. One of the most interesting things she discovered was that, once people had been together for at least nine years, the longer they stayed together after that, the happier they become.That first nine years are the most important, she says, because that's the period when a couple move on from the most intense feelings of love for one another – when they're completely wrapped up in one another - into a phase of their relationship where they begin to give more energy to other things. It's also the time by which most couples have had children, if they're going to have them, and parenthood changes their relationship too. It takes commitment, and a certain amount of resilience, to get to year nine, but Dr Reibstein says it's worth persevering because couples who succeed in building an enduring relationship are happier, healthier and more successful - on average – than people who don't.

Dr Reibstein describes four ingredients of this kind of relationship: first, ring-fencing some time every so often just to be alone together; second, remembering to say 'thank-you'; third, making the effort to see life from the other person's point of view; and finally remembering to do things together which are fun. Doing the washing-up together is not enough. Dr Reibstein says that even the happiest couples will have bad spells – the for better for worse moments – but if they've made sure that their relationship includes those four basic ingredients they'll be able to cleave to one another through thick and thin.

The kind of relationship described in ‘Best Kept Secret’ is a far cry from the traditional interpretation of what Genesis means, with its hints of male dominance and superiority, but I think it’s the right interpretation of what it means for people to be true helpers and partners to one another. Two people becoming one flesh is not about one partner submitting to the other, it’s about two people seeing life from each other’s point of view and walking in each other’s shoes.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Jesus and the Superhead

James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38

‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us,’ said James, ‘Make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes ... is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.’

I know someone who entered the teaching profession about 20 years ago and climbed up the slippery pole to become a headteacher, first of a village primary school and then of a large urban primary school on what I suppose we might call a sink estate. He was what the newspapers like to call a super head. He established a groundbreaking rooftop garden, won plaudits from the parents and raised educational standards and rates of attendance.

He had two OFSTED inspections in that time, the first one which was judged to be satisfactory and the last one which was judged - as James says it should be - with greater strictness. He and at least one other teacher were sacked and two others resigned rather than explore new ways of working.

His mistake, and - as James says - all of us make many mistakes, was to fail to raise all of the children in his school to the average level of attainment, which is the expected level for children of their age across the nation. Now you may say that children from tough estates will always perform, on average, less well than the national average. You may also think that in order to have an average level of attainment, some children are likely to rise above it and others are - unfortunately - likely to fall below it. It’s very hard for everyone to be average. But those are now the rules, and headteachers whose children do not at least reach the national average can expect to be judged with great strictness.

Of course you may also be wondering whether this new policy might have something to do with the fact that there is a shortage of headteachers. People are understandably reluctant to stick their heads above the parapet. You can be a super head for three years, and enjoy a super salary to match, but then along will come OFSTED to knock you off your perch!

How would ministers fare, I wonder, in such a rough and tumble world? What if they were only allowed to continue in office so long as their average congregations were going up year on year? What if they were only permitted to continue preaching so long as the congregation could complete a short test on the way out of church summarising the three main points of the sermon? What if, as well as membership increasing, the number of churches in a circuit had to be constantly growing? Most ministers are used to managing decline. What if they were told they had to go out and grow the Church in order to be judged successful?

I think we would see a lot of changes in a world like that - shorter sermons, more use of computer technology so that services were full of pictures and little movies instead of words, more services taking place in converted shops, or in schools and pubs. Ministers would have to take less notice of the people who were already members and spend most of their times reaching out into the community to try to make new members while the existing congregation fended for themselves.

Would we want to be part of a church like that? Truly, honestly? Maybe that’s why it doesn’t happen, nor is it likely to happen, perhaps, unless Michael Gove applies to be the Church’s general secretary.

But then again, the Methodist Church is a bit more ambivalent about this idea than we might care to think. Michael Gove may not yet be at the helm, but there has been at least a half-hearted attempt to learn new, sharper ways of working from the world of business and enterprise. People often say that if the Church were to be run like a business, many of its branches would need to close, and when they say that they’re not necessarily suggesting that it would be a bad thing! But Methodists don’t just talk about a bit of rationalisation here and there. There are also now Fresh Expressions of church, and there’s something called Venture FX too.

You may wonder what exactly Venture FX is. This year Conference was told that it’s a programme designed to target ‘the growing number of people in our society who do not engage to any meaningful extent with Christian faith and the life of the Church.’ It is made up of pioneers whose ‘starting point is the community where they are based and, although they work closely with the wider church and value the “mixed economy” environment, they seek to make disciples of Jesus and form new ecclesial communities in the places where people are’, focusing especially on the under-forties. ‘Mixed economy environment’ and ‘ecclesial communities’: that’s enough jargon to satisfy Michael Gove himself! Venture FX costs quite a lot of money, but Conference has just committed itself to keeping the programme going without any cuts to its funding. The cuts - because there will have to be cuts - will be made elsewhere!

So why is the Church nonetheless ambivalent about embracing the lessons of the market? Because, I suspect, the way businesses are run is a bit too directive. We don’t feel entirely comfortable about adopting the same methods. Captains of industry would understand where James is coming from when he talks about keeping the whole body in check with a bridle, like riders keeping several hundredweight of horse under tight control in the dressage events at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, or like the pilot - or captain - of a great ship setting its direction with a tiny rudder.  But is that how we want to run the Church?

It’s also possible for groundbreaking programmes like Venture FX and Fresh Expressions to boast of great exploits when they aren’t really setting on fire the cycle of nature. but instead making only a fairly small dent in our decline. We may choose to employ techniques borrowed from the marketplace but I suspect we’re still wary of the hard sell.

And, whatever James might think, we continue to hope for miracles, don’t we? We hope that one day a whole load of new and probably much younger people will turn up and reinvigorate the life of our existing churches so that they suddenly pour forth the fresh water of new life and growth alongside the more brackish water that we’ve become accustomed to drinking, or that our church will be able to produce olives and figs at the same time, lively modern worship which attracts outsiders sitting snugly alongside more traditional worship which comforts those who have been around for a long while. James says that it ain’t possible, but we continue to hope that it is!

Finally, there’s what Jesus has to say, isn’t there, about success coming out of failure. Peter is a Venture FX kind of person. He’s looking for a messiah in the mould of Elijah or Elisha - a miracle worker who can conjure fire out of the sky, begin and end droughts with the snap of his fingers and even raise the dead. Jesus offers him a messiah who ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and [only then], after three days, rise again.’ He rebukes Peter who, he says, is setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. This encourages us to think that the ways of the Department of Education and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills are not necessarily God’s ways. God’s way is, perhaps a more dogged, less flamboyant, way of living and achieving, which takes on board suffering, and struggle, and decline and baptises them with Jesus’ transforming presence.

And yet Mark juxtaposes the story about what happened at Caesarea Philippi with a saying of Jesus which is perhaps more Venture FX than traditional Methodist. ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ In other words, only by being daring, by trying new things, by stepping out of our comfort zone, can we hope to get to where we’re meant to be going. Jesus does suffer, but he doesn’t submit to suffering as a way of life, but only as a means to an end. His aim - and therefore our aim - is to bring profit to the Kingdom of God, but the right kind of profit.

And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? Michael Gove aims to get greater profit from the world of education - not necessarily in terms of making money out of it but in terms of getting a better return on his investment. Every school must be at least average, or better than average, and every pupil must attain the average or else what does it profit us to invest in education? The Church aims to make mission more effective, and more profitable, by targeting money towards new ways of being Church so as to engage with younger people by doing something fresh and innovative which excites and attracts new markets. And we struggle to discover what it means to follow a Saviour who calls us to suffering and surrender in order that the whole Church might become more perfect and we might save its life and turn our own loss to profit.