Thursday, December 08, 2016

The greatest of the prophets

Matthew 3.1-12 / Matthew 11.2-11
John the Baptist was an Old Testament prophet living in New Testament times. He clearly branded himself as an Old Testament prophet by dressing like one, eating like one, acting like one and speaking like one. What you saw on the outside of the tin, the packaging if you like, the label, was certainly what you got inside the tin. He was genuine Marmite - and, just like Marmite, some people loved him and others hated him.
He was like an Old Testament prophet in that he hung out in the Wilderness and collected his followers there. Then he took them to the Jordan River in conscious imitation of Joshua, who led the people of his own day out of Exile and into the Promised Land.
He was like an Old Testament prophet in that he forecast trouble ahead and then warned people that just saying your prayers and going to the synagogue on the Sabbath would not be enough to ward it off. John wasn't like some of the other protesters of his day. He wasn’t trying to launch a renewal movement, putting right what had gone wrong with conventional religion. He wasn't trying to inject new life into the temple or the synagogue, or make them more relevant. He wasn’t trying to set up Messy Synagogue sessions. Even though - like many other prophets - he was the son of a clergyman, for him conventional religion simply wasn't the right way to get closer to God.
Instead, the only  answer was a radical fresh start, a new life in which people could literally remake themselves and begin all over again, symbolised by baptism in the murky waters of the River Jordan itself. John was like an Old Testament prophet because he spoke of ancient warnings coming true, of a national catastrophe that only those who joined God’s new covenant people might hope to escape, and of a way to inherit that promise by turning back to God.
And last but not least, John the Baptist was like an Old Testament prophet in that he wasn't afraid to tell kings that they were on the wrong side of the argument, propping up a bankrupt system instead of making room for something new and challenging. And, like an Old Testament prophet, he wasn't afraid to condemn kings and rulers for doing morally dubious things or living dissolute, immoral lives.
Whatever he’d actually intended, John was certainly the forerunner of Jesus’ own ministry because it was when he met John that Jesus felt the time had come to embark on his own mission. John is then, for Christians, the hinge between the Old Testament way of thinking and a radically different New Testament approach to holy living. This is because John’s warning that the old way of doing things was no longer good enough was certainly taken up and amplified by Jesus.
Different he may have been, but there were similarities between Jesus and John. Like John, Jesus thought of himself as a prophet inspired by God. But not an Old Testament prophet. The crowds called him the Prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee and he told the people of his home town that a prophet is always without honour when he goes back to his roots. In one of his parables he even compared himself to the last of the prophets sent by God to challenge Israel to repent and he told the king’s representatives that, like the prophets of old, he would be put to death in the capital city, far away from the king’s jurisdiction. One of the charges against him at his trial was that he was a false prophet who couldn't even predict who was going to hit him next.
So how is the Prophet Jesus different from John. Like John he consciously imitated and repeated the words of some of the Old Testament prophets, but unlike John he burst out of the straitjacket of Old Testament prophecy. He didn't simply imitate the old prophets or compare himself to them, he modelled a new way of being prophetic. He dared to say that the exile of God’s people really was over and that this time the people weren't being expected to make their own way home, instead God was coming to meet them, to be with his own in an exciting new way.
Jesus spoke with an entirely new kind of authority. He wasn’t simply recycling what the Old Testament prophets had said. He wasn’t even setting up a new school of thinking, like John or some of the other famous rabbis, who reinterpreted the Old Testament for changing times. Everyone who heard him recognised that he was saying something new. Tom Wright says, ‘He was not reshuffingly a pack of cards that had already been dealt.’ Instead he was a game changer.
He was a bit like someone launching a new political party and inviting others to join him. Lots of people have tried it, haven't they? The TV presenters David Icke and Robert Kilroy Silke, the former MP George Galloway and the former Trade Union leader Arthur Scargill have all tried to break the mould of British politics. But Jesus was more like the Scottish Nationalists or the UK Independence Party. He was announcing the coming of a new era, a new kingdom. It remains to be seen whether their new dawns will yet prove to be false ones, but his was the real thing, the start of a new dawn in history, a new worldwide movement. His teaching wasn’t like Donald Trump’s pitch to the voters, a load of exaggerations and wishful thinking, but a solid blueprint for remaking society in the way God wants it to be.
Another distinctive thing about Jesus is that he used a lot more stories than earlier prophets had done. I heard about a project the other day where, instead of constantly bemoaning mobile phones teachers were being shown how to use them to help young people tell their own stories. One young woman had put together a photo story using her phone. Another had made up a rap about her feelings of despair when her boyfriend was sent to prison and had then uploaded it onto the internet. Instead of being the enemy of education, an unhelpful distraction from what they ought to be doing, their phones had become a means of self-expression, of telling their stories.
Jesus realised the power of storytelling. He was certainly not the first person - or the first prophet - to take an example of something happening in the real world and use it to tell a story that reveals a totally new approach to life. Some of his stories build on images and stories first used or told by earlier prophets and rabbis. But like the people using mobile phones to create a new way of storytelling, Jesus’ parables take storytelling to a new level. Other people told a few memorable stories. He told lots.
And the totally stand out thing about Jesus’ stories is that they’re always tales of the unexpected. Tom Wright says that people would have thought the stories sounded familiar but that the ending or the meaning was wrong somehow. In other words they were subversive, just like Jesus’ new movement in which he could speak with authority because he was setting up a new order, a new way of living and a new understanding God’s world.
But perhaps the most distinctive way in which Jesus was a different kind of prophet is that he did wonderful things to back up his message.  His opponents never called him a phoney. They never said he was manipulating people into thinking they’d seen a miracle.
Now, of course, Old Testament prophets sometimes did miraculous things too, just as they sometimes told stories, and there were other faith healers doing the rounds at the time of Jesus, just as there are now. But once more Jesus’ wonder working is on an epic scale by comparison. However, to call what Jesus did miraculous or supernatural is an anachronism. That is to say, it projects back into the past our own way of thinking about how the world really works. For the contemporaries of Jesus what he was doing was surprising, unusual and wonderful, but not completely outside the natural order of things.
They thought of Jesus the wonder worker more like we would think of a surgeon operating on someone’s brain tumour by inserting a microscopic wire into a vein in their leg. We know that it’s possible, but it’s totally out used our normal experience.
Like a groundbreaking surgeon, Jesus came across yet again as someone with great power and authority, a very different kind of prophet. And Jesus himself seems to have understood his healing ministry as a way of beginning to include people in the new world order that he was bringing about. Like the stilling of the storm and the sharing of bread with a huge crowd, they are signs of the new world breaking in upon the old one and subverting it. Things that by rights should have made Jesus unclean, like touching a dead person or someone with leprosy, actually brought them back to life or made them well again.
All of this is pointing to one inescapable conclusion, that Jesus was not only a prophet but more than a prophet. In fact, the Gospels also say that John was more than a prophet; someone extra special who was more than just the sum of his parts. But if that were true of John it must be even more true of Jesus. In the end Jesus himself told his disciples that to describe him merely as a prophet was not enough, leading Peter to confess that Jesus was also God’s chosen representative on earth.
So what does all this mean for us, two thousand years later? Do we recognise that Jesus is giving us a blueprint for a completely different way of living from everyone else, or are we still trying to squeeze him into a mould that works better for us, perhaps by allowing us to carry on more or less like our friends and neighbours - but just trying to be a little bit nicer or holier than them, or a bit more forgiven.
Are we still resisting some of Jesus’ more radical claims upon our time, our hopes and aspirations, our future lives? Do we truly recognise his authority and power over us, or do we merely pay lip service to him? Do we treat him just like any other prophet or great figure from history, or do we see him as supreme over all things - and not just in theory but in practice?
Are we letting Jesus shape the way we tell our stories? Like those young people who were set free to tell their own stories by a radical new way of using their mobile phones, do we allow Jesus to set us free from the predictable version of our life story, the well-worn version of where we are heading, so that we can explore - hand in hand with him - unexpected possibilities, surprise outcomes, new twists and turns?
Finally, are we allowing Jesus to heal whatever is broken in our lives, to restore our peace and wholeness, and to include us in the new world order he has ushered in? That doesn't necessarily imply that we should expect supernatural or miraculous things to happen. As we've seen, Jesus and his contemporaries didn’t even use those categories. They wouldn't have seen anything supernatural about what he can do, but they would have been prepared to expect the unexpected. I think Jesus wouldn't want us to rule anything out, but instead to trust in his power and authority, his capacity to surprise us and to do something more or different from what we might expect.
And all of this is possible because Jesus is a prophet like John the Baptist but, also like John, he’s more than a prophet, and he’s greater than John or all of the other prophets. He’s God’s chosen representative, bringing an end to our exile from God, not by asking to make a tortuous journey to God but by coming to be God with us.

Monday, November 07, 2016

The Infinite God

Luke 20.27-38
The world's great religions often record controversy stories, where people come to the spiritual  leader intent on putting his wisdom to the test, or even to outsmart him and prove that he isn't as enlightened as he makes out. Christianity is no exception and the Gospels contain a number of stories where Jesus is put to the test like this.
Today’s story is one of them. The Sadducees were an aristocratic group of rather sceptical people who did believe in God but put definite limits on his power. They didn't believe in an infinite or absolute God, for they held that our relationship with God can’t continue beyond death. He is God only of the living, of the present order, not a God who - at least in terms of our relationship with him - was, and is and is to come.
Their question about the unfortunate woman who was forced by custom and practice to marry  one brother after another is not a sincere quest for truth, because they don't believe that either the brothers or the widow survived death. They're simply trying to show how absurd it is to suppose that God can overcome death and grant us life beyond it.
Perhaps they're also trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and another religious group, the Pharisees, who shared his belief in a God who is all powerful and can overcome death. Will Jesus say something which sets his ideas at odds with theirs? Jesus responds, however, by suggesting that the Sadducees’ idea of God is too small.
How old were you when you decided to count all the numbers and then realised that it couldn't be done, at least not before teatime anyway? Or that, no matter how wonderful it might be, heaven goes on forever and ever, and that's a long, long time to sing the same hymn over and over again?
The ancient mathematician Pythagoras said that the cosmos - the whole created universe - can be divided into two kinds of things, things which come to an end and things which go on for evermore. Men, he said, are easy to work out. You could take any man and work out what makes him tick. It's a task which very soon comes to an end.  But women, he said, are a mystery that he can never be fathomed, no matter how hard a man might try. I think Pythagoras  was probably joking, or exaggerating anyway. But Jesus says something similar about God, and I think he really means it. God is the great I Am. Like the time it would take to count all the numbers, his time never comes to an end and he is simultaneously God of those who are long dead, those who are living now and those who are yet to come.
It was Pythagoras who first realised that not only can we never count all the numbers in the universe , because there will always be another one, and another, but also there are some individual numbers which never end, and it was the Prophet Moses who first understood that God is outside time and space.
If we get out a pencil and  paper and divide the number one by three we will never get the exact answer. We can get closer and closer to the answer, to the point where it no longer matters very much,  but if we tried to do the sum in an exam we could keep working it out all the way to the end and run out of time to answer any more questions. In the same way, if we try to work out when God stops being present for us, we'll never arrive at such a time. The time is always Now for him. He is the great I Am.
This may sound impossible, it certainly seemed impossible to the Sadducees, but it's like the question  that children ask in the back of the car, 'Are we nearly, nearly there yet?' It was another Greek philosopher, Zeno, who realised that the answer will always be, 'No, we're not there yet!'
That's because if we were in a rocket going to Mars it's a journey of millions of miles and for a very long time there would still be a long way to go, but if we were a flea inside the rocket, and we were trying to crawl from the tail to the nose cone, we might still have a long way to go even when the nose cone was about to hit the surface, and if we were a microbe inside the flea we might still have a long way to go just to travel from the tip of the flea to its toe, and if we were inside an atom inside that microbe we might have even further to travel, and so we could go on forever, with the distance we had to travel getting smaller every time. So we always never be nearly, nearly, nearly there.
Well you might think Zeno didn't have enough to do. And you'd be right because he was an aristocrat. But the point is that, whether the distance we've got to travel is very big or very small, there's always a bit further to go. Journeys seem never ending when the kids keep asking, 'Are we nearly there?', because in a sense they are never ending.
And the passage of time is a bit like that, too. It's relative, which means it seems to pass very quickly when we're enjoying ourselves, and very slowly when we're having a torrid time, but for God time seems to go on and on for ever, without beginning or end. At least, that's what Jesus tells the Sadducees.
But of course our journeys normally do come to an end. And we don't keep counting for ever. We get bored and decide to do something else instead. Travelling and counting have the potential to go on for ever, but it doesn't actually happen in real life. Whereas Christians would say that life after death and God do go on for ever. And we don't just mean that in theory they could go on forever, we mean that they actually do go on for ever.
Plotinus, one of the earliest influences on Christian ideas about God, said that God is not just infinite, he is the infinite. He’s not just the sum of all things that already exist and have existed in the past; his kingdom also contains infinite possibilities, and it’s infinitely perfect. It doesn't have to deal with awkward issues like widows who are still married to several men at once; in heaven all such problems are automatically ironed out and resolved.
Christians haven’t always agreed with Plotinus that God is the infinite. But all Christians have at least agree that in heaven and on earth, whatever we might mean by those terms, God is all knowing, all loving and all powerful.
Where do we get this kind of idea from when we think about God? Not from looking at the world around us, to be sure. When people do that they either come up with something like a nature god, or a nature goddess, a Mother Earth figure, or they come up with gods and goddesses who are just superhuman versions of ourselves. So this idea of God’s infinite capacity for love, and knowledge and power must come from somewhere outside ourselves. The French philosopher Rene Descartes said that only God himself, or God's grace at work in us, can possibly inspire us to think of an infinite God. He implants the idea of his greatness within us.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant took Descartes' argument a stage further. He agreed with Descarte’s critics that - even with the help of God's grace - we can never really know what it might be like for God to be timeless, or infinitely perfect or powerful, all knowing or all loving, because these things are totally outside our experience. But he said that grace can still inspire us to believe that these things are possible for God even when we can't imagine them ourselves.
Kant said that two things particularly inspired him. When he looked up at the stars he believed in God's infinite power and when he looked deep within himself he believed in the infinite worth of every human being. It doesn’t matter how numerous the human race might become, God will never  lose track of us.
He sees the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street not because he's an avid birdwatcher but because he has an infinite capacity for love. However many creatures there might be, however many worlds might be created, God will always find room in his heart to love everything and everyone. So when a widow dies after being married to several husbands God is infinitely concerned for the well being and happiness of each one of them, just as he cares about each wildflower and each blade of grass.
This doesn't just mean that we can have hope in God for life after we've died; it also has implications for our lives here and now. No  matter how unimportant we might think we are, no one can ever be justified in treating us as expendable, or insignificant. We can never be just collateral damage in an explosion meant for somebody else. We can never have been put on earth just for someone else's amusement. We're always the centre of God's attention. We always matter infinitely much to  God because he has an infinite capacity for love.
The ancient thinker Epicurus pointed out a long time ago that we don't need to fear death because we won't be there to feel it when it happens. His followers said that death is just like a dreamless sleep. The modern philosopher Thomas Nagel begs to differ, though. He says that, so long as he isn't in terrible pain, and so long as his death wouldn't save other people from suffering, he would always choose to go on living if he possibly could. But perhaps we don't need to fear death for another more comforting reason, because God knows us and loves us, before we're, born, throughout our life and even after our death.
The modern religious philosopher John Cottingham says there's something within human nature that always make us reach out for more, what St Augustine called 'the restlessness of the human heart'. He observes that if we put a horse in a nice big field with lots of grass it will be happy. It won't look for anything else from life. But we're different. We always want that little bit more. We always sense that something - like the fence in the field - is stopping us from going that little bit further.
Time, for example, is a greater limiter.  Just think how much more we could achieve if time didn't go so fast and if life weren't so short. We say to ourselves, 'If only we had more time!' Does this restlessness come, as Descartes and St Augustine thought, from a God who calls us to look beyond ourselves and our own situation and imagine something better even when it's just a vague feeling that we can't put into words?
Unlike the horse in its field, no matter what our life is like  we can always conceive of something more, something greater or better. We  can always imagine a heaven or a utopia where everything is perfect, and someone dwelling there who is beyond all limits, someone like God, and that's true even if we're not believers.
The sheer size and beauty of the natural world and the universe beyond point us to God's grandeur and infinite power. The moral rules that guide us and tell us - deep down within - what we ought to do, point us  to God's love. And the scientific laws and the logic which shape the way things are, point us to God's infinite wisdom and knowledge. Of course, these pointers could be purely imaginary. The Sadducees thought that God was not as boundless as we like to believe.  But they could also be real pointers to an absolute being who can actually overcome all the boundaries of time and space, including death itself.
The novelist Iris Murdoch thought the Sadducees were right. She said that no one as great as the Father Jesus believed in could possibly exist, but she said the hopes and dreams that lead us to believe in such a God do exist and are 'incarnate in [our] work, and knowledge and love.'
I think she stumbled there upon an important truth, the truth of incarnation. We know that God is all loving because his love is incarnated, that is made visible and tangible, in the work and the love of Jesus, and most especially in his death on the Cross. And we get a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of God in the way Jesus dealt with other people and handled controversy, which brings us back to where we began, with a group of people who were trying to outsmart Jesus but found themselves outwitted in their turn.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Rest & Recreation

Genesis 1.27-31, Luke 10.38-42
I heard a programme about rest and relaxation on the radio recently and it set me thinking because, down the centuries, the Church has been a champion of rest, constantly reminding people that Sunday is the Day of Rest - modelled on the first Sabbath, when God rested after all the hard work of creating the universe. I even heard of one church council which recently tried to ban Brownies from having a fun day on a Sunday because it’s the Day of Rest, and that despite the fact that the Brownies were planning to start the day by having fun in all age worship!
We might think that’s going a bit too far, but - be that as it may - the Church  has talked endlessly about quiet times, prayerfulness, meditation and retreating from the stresses and strains of the world.  We’ve set up - I use the word ‘we’ somewhat loosely here - contemplative orders of monks and nuns. And whether we’re contemplatives or not, we’ve focused in on the still, small voice that cannot be heard in the whirlwind and the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Of course, rest is not the same thing as relaxation. We’ve not been quite so keen on  that. When Christians have rested it has generally been for a purpose, for re-creation, to recharge our spiritual batteries, to listen to God, to gain new strength for the fight. We haven’t talked so much about resting just for fun, like the Brownies, or even about recreating and recharging our physical selves. But we have emphasised the need for people to find health and wholeness. We’ve advocated a daily rhythm of work, rest, mealtimes and prayer.
Alongside the emphasis on rest, there’s another contrary impulse within Christianity - the restless impulse to be up and doing. Perhaps it’s particularly prevalent in Protestantism, although that perception has been exaggerated sometimes. As the story of the Brownies illustrates, Protestants have believed in contemplation, prayer and stillness, particularly on Sundays, just as fervently as anyone. But Christians have also talked a lot about vocation, about doing God’s will, about being productive and useful members of society. Idleness has been elevated to a sin.
In a 24/7 society it can be more easy than ever for Christians to overlook the need for rest, to have the aspiration - as one minister put it to me - to wear out rather than to rust out. Alongside the contemplative orders of monks and nuns there are the active orders of people eager to go out into the world after they have prayed, to teach, to preach, to care for the sick and to engage in all kinds of mission.
In the Gospels, Jesus sometimes seems hectically busy, but that’s not always his own fault. People come after him. They intrude on his rest and he is too compassionate to turn them away. Yet he’s also driven to seek rest and time for contemplation and prayer, and he makes a point - in his stories and in his own actions - of talking about - and making time for - relaxation over meals, for what is sometimes called ‘table fellowship’. And if he doesn’t go jogging or play squash for recreation, he does do an awful lot of walking and fishing.
Mention of fishing raises one of the dilemmas about rest and relaxation. One person’s work can be another person’s way of chilling out. When I was a hospital porter one of the most miserable assignments was to work in an evening on A&E. It wasn’t especially miserable because of the accidents and emergencies. What really made the job frustrating and tedious were the volunteers, who came in on a regular basis to get practical experience of dealing with trauma victims. They insisted on doing all of the work because for them it was a form of leisure activity. They were enjoying themselves and finding fulfilment. I had to be there in case they didn’t turn up, but if they did, my shift would pass very slowly. It was a case of enforced rest, which is never quite so much fun.
Sometimes when the first disciples went fishing they were doing it - as they did after the first Easter - to give themselves a break from the stresses and strain, the uncertainty and fear, of their day-to-day existence. But more often they went fishing as a job of work.
And this plays into a wider questions which has troubled Christian thinkers. Is rest ever a waste of time or does it always have a recreative purpose? If we use it to build up our physical strength, or to increase our grasp of knowledge, or to broaden our skills and experience, or to deepen our insights into life, or to pray and reflect on what is going on around us, then - as we have seen - rest itself can become a form of work. Even the most unrepentant workaholic can then embrace it and celebrate it, like the minster I once worked for who claimed that he worked a 90 hour week.
When you unpacked this preposterous claim it turned out that he was including reading the newspaper and novels and poetry, and watching “News Night”, in his working week. That’s fair enough, so long as we’re upfront about what we’re claiming. But we’re back to fishing - one person’s recreation on a beautiful summer’s day is another person’s back breaking toil on the high seas. Reading - for instance - can be both rest and work, depending on whether we’re a professional academic, or a book editor, or a clergyperson or an ordinary member of the public.
Was God really resting when he stopped work after creation, or was he absorbing and reflecting upon all that he had made? Was Jesus resting when he went away to a quiet place to pray, or was he wrestling with his own doubts and fears and strengthening his relationship with God? Was this, in fact, a vital part of his work? Are the members of contemplative religious orders retreating from the world or bringing all of its problems and dilemmas to God in prayer?
Modern medical practice has turned its back on the idea of rest cures and bed rest and is now encouraging patients to be more active, to get out of bed as soon as they can and to come to terms with any pain or discomfort they might feel. There are even Active Patient programmes, where patients take charge of their own therapy and condition management. Recreation has been medicalised. It has been turned from a form of joyous escapism, down-time if you like, into something we must engage in if we want to stay healthy, live longer and ward off a whole range of hideous diseases.
And the Church, as we have seen, has always found itself balanced uncomfortably on the horns of this dilemma, urging us both to take rest and to work if we want find life in all its fullness. So where should we go from here?
My grandmother had a catchphrase, ‘Be still, bairn.’ It was an admonition against all forms of fidgeting and unnecessary noise. It was, however, bairns who had a peculiar duty to be still. I never heard her encourage adults to embrace stillness. We live in a society that needs to be still, but instead, the pace of life is incessantly speeding up. It’s not easy to resist. Church leaders encourage us to switch off our mobile phones sometimes, to refuse to be distracted, even while bemoaning that we haven’t yet picked up and read their latest email urging us to do this or that before the sun goes down.
The definition of a good church member or a good minister is often assumed to be the same as a tireless worker. We ask older people to do more and more as retirement becomes a distant dream for younger people, and we invent a ceaselessly round of extracurricular activities for those who are still working. When I stopped working fulltime for the Church I realised how burdensome this must seem. We need to foster a better balance between work and rest, to promote activity only when it is essential, to encourage rest wherever possible, and to cut down on old activities if we really must make room for new ones.
We need to campaign for the end of a culture which, by keeping wages low, forces people to work long hours in order to make a living, prevents them from volunteering, or studying, or caring for their family and neighbours in whatever spare time they have left, and prevents them from reflecting on their lives and discovering new challenges and opportunities.
We need to remember, above all, that rest is not the absence of work. It is the opportunity to find fellowship with one another, or to be still and know.
As I may have said before, I’m often reminded of the story of the man who hit a low point in his life. Somewhat at a loss, he made an appointment to see the local vicar whom he found sitting in his garden on a deckchair, with a pile of books beside him and listening to the cricket on the radio. His immediate reaction was that he was clearly wasting his time coming to see such an idle person. But then, to his immense surprise, the vicar turned out to be a fount of thoughtful, sensible advice, and he went away reflecting that perhaps sitting in the garden, reading books and listening to the cricket is not such a bad idea after all.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Prodigal Father

The word ‘prodigal’ means ‘wastefully extravagant’. By this definition, who is the most prodigal person in the story? The younger son runs through all his assets and does so not in reckless business ventures, which would be bad enough, but in dissolute living. However, the most profligate member of the family is the father. He's prodigal not only with his wealth, but also with his good name and his love, which he showers on both of his undeserving sons despite their ingratitude and their readiness to publicly humiliate him.
Let's start with the younger son. We all know people who dream about what they'd do if somebody died and left them an inheritance. Perhaps we sometimes have that dream ourselves. To cater for that appetite lurking in us, there are even programmes on TV about detective agencies which spend all their time tracking down the distant relatives of wealthy people and giving them the good news that they've inherited a substantial amount of cash.
It even happened to my mother, who got an unsolicited phone call out of the blue call from one of these agencies to tell her that various scattered members of his family had inherited a tidy sum from a distant cousin of my mother's aunt, who had herself died without ever suspecting he existed. One portion of the money was supposed to pass to my great-aunt but it now passed instead to the beneficiaries of her own estate. Of course, what had started as a substantial sum of money was not exactly a life changing amount by the time it was divided up between a great many distant relations, but it was certainly better than a slap in the face from misfortune!
And a slap in the face is precisely what the younger son gives his father when he announces that he isn’t prepared to wait for him to die; he wants his share of the inheritance now! Of course, the ungrateful son dares not spell this out explicitly to his father’s face. He talks about the share of the property that will belong to him, but what he means is the share of the property that will belong to him when his father dies. He simply can’t wait. He wants it all, and he wants it now! That is truly shameful behaviour.
The writer Tom Wright comments that it’s the equivalent of saying, ‘I wish you were dead!’ The obvious response called for in this situation is for the father to browbeat the son into submission or disown him, but instead he indulges the request even though this is bound to bring dishonour to the whole family. After all, what sort of relationship must you have with your father first to wish he were dead and then to go far away and pretend that he really has died and no longer matters to you?
And when the son returns in absolute disgrace, having squandered his inheritance, he only brings further shame on the family. First, he shames himself because he ought to have recognised that he was no longer deserving of his father’s sympathy. As he himself admits, he has broken every moral code. What he doesn’t seem to recognise is that he has no right even to be taken on by his father as a hired hand. But in returning anyway, he also shames his father, who will now have a worthless good-for-nothing living under his roof as a permanent reminder to everyone of how his family relationships have broken down.
Yet how does the father respond? With an amazing and prodigal generosity that further undermines his own dignity and social standing! Forgetting all decorum, he runs to greet the worthless son, and then throws a party for him with enough food not just for a whole family but for a whole village.
You’ve heard of a hog roast, which is enough to feed at least a hundred people. Well this is an ox roast! According to the Whole Roast Ox catering company, even a fatted calf would produce enough meat for at least five hundred servings. This is more like an extravagant wedding celebration than a home-coming.
But the father’s prodigality doesn’t end there, because - of course - the stay-at-home son still has to be placated. Again, the socially acceptable way to behave would be for the elder son to seek a private interview with his father to set the record straight Instead, he sulks outside, forcing the father to leave the party and go outside to persuade him to come home. Once again the dysfunctionality of the family is laid bare. In front of the whole village the father is once more put to shame. Yet how does the father respond? He doesn’t chide his son. Instead he seeks to win him round. In fact, Jesus says that he pleads.
The elder son’s response is to inflate the crimes of his younger brother, who he now accuses of squandering the inheritance on prostitutes, and to complain that he has never been invited to throw a big party. But as the father reminds him, he is now the sole beneficiary of the father’s will. Even though the younger son has been welcomed home, everything that the father still owns will one day belong to him.
The story cries out for a proper ending - a tearful reconciliation between the two brothers and their father. That is what the audience would have been expecting. But instead it is open-ended. How will the older brother respond?
The parable has overtones of three other Biblical stories. First, there’s the obvious connection with the stories of Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers. There a younger brother subverts the role which the eldest brother might have expected to play. But there’s also a connection with the story of Nehemiah.
When Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem his project met with fierce opposition from the people who had not been sent into exile but had tried instead to guard the faith as best they could at home among the ruins. They had established a different shrine to God, at a holy place called Mount Jerzim, or Gerizim, to replace the ruined and discredited shrine on Mount Zion.
There were once 3 million Samaritans. Now there are just 750 left in Palestine, but they were a force to be reckoned with in the time of Jesus and there was bitter hostility between Samaritans and Jews as to who were the true guardians of the faith. Had the Jewish exiles made too many compromises with their overlords? And why had they been banished into exile in the first place? Wasn’t it because the Jewish faith had become hopelessly compromised and corrupt? Didn’t the new shrine at Mount Jerzim represent a fresh start, a new beginning?
The situation was further complicated because many Jewish people at the time of Jesus felt that the Exile was not yet at an end. Nehemiah’s restoration of Israel had been partial and incomplete. The restored temple worship in Jerusalem was still imperfect. The kings imposed by the Romans were not God’s anointed messiah. The real end to the Exile was still eagerly awaited.
In this context the story packs an explosive punch. Tom Wright suggest that the younger son represents the Jewish nation, exiled because of its disobedience to God but now finally welcomed home  at the coming of the new Messiah. The older brother is not just the Samaritan community but the guardians of the restored temple started by King Herod and still under construction. The story is a  challenge to all of these separate factions to reunite under a generous God who is willing to forgive all their various faults and  failings. The story is open-ended because the ending is still being worked out in the mission of Jesus.
If Tom Wright is correct, the welcome home of the younger son is not the high point of the story. If it were, then the last half, about the older brother, would be a rather tedious addition, perhaps bolted on by the Christian community, long after the story was told, to underline how the Jewish community was rejecting God’s love by refusing to accept the new Israel made up of outcasts and sinners who had responded to Jesus’ call. But instead, according to Tom Wright, the emphasis in the story is on God’s unfailingly prodigal love.
The two halves of the story both end, and are linked together, by the idea of resurrection. When the younger son is welcomed home, the father justifies his expensive celebrations by announcing, ‘This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ When the older brother is begged to join in the celebration the father repeats to him, ‘We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

Whose resurrection is this? It’s the resurrection of the true nation of Israel, now opening outwards to include everyone who is willing to start a new life living in obedience to God. But, of course, read by the new Christian community after the first Easter, the story resonates with their own radical understanding that Jesus has taken upon himself all the sins and disobedience of the human race when he died upon the Cross and has made a new beginning possible through his glorious vindication and resurrection on Easter Day.

So the parable becomes about Jesus’ resurrection too, if indeed that wasn’t already part of the meaning when it was first told. After all, Jesus’ new community of Israel gathers together when its members celebrate the feast of his death and resurrection in holy communion, and in the story the resurrection of Israel is celebrated by a big feast that is supposed to unite everyone too.
Clearly, that’s part of the story’s meaning for us. But it’s also about being open to new possibilities. To be true to its founder, the Church has to be constantly renewing and reinventing itself. It has to seek new ways of reaching out and appealing to those who have gone far away from its traditions and find themselves cut off from God in a distant country.

But it also has to be the guardian not of a closed understanding of what God’s love means in practice but of an open-ended understanding. It has to challenge complacency. It has to be willing to adapt in order to make the resurrection story come alive for each new generation.

A woman in Amble in Northumberland decided to boycott her local church because, in 2012, they had taken ten pews to create a space for meetings and a crèche. She had gone there for 65 years but couldn’t abide the thought of the worship area being used for anything except religious services. ‘I think it’s an act of vandalism to remove something that is beautiful’ just to create an ‘ugly space,’ she told a Church of England Consistory Court that was convened to hear her complaint.

It’s tempting to see her as a modern day version of the elder brother, refusing to come home despite pleas to accept changes that were only ever designed to make her church more welcoming and fit for purpose. But the elder brother lurks inside each one of us. There is always a line in the sand which we wouldn’t wish to cross even if that were the necessary price for welcoming back our brother or sister.  And the younger brother - recklessly disobedient and willing to sacrifice everything he should hold dear for the sake of his own fulfilment - lurks within us too.

Thankfully the prodigal father is always waiting, filled with compassion, to throw his arms around us and welcome us back. And Jesus longs to join us in our exile, to share our disgrace by taking it upon himself, to help us then reevaluate our situation and to accompany us back home to God. So this becomes a story not just about a prodigal father, always ready to forgive and forget, but about a prodigal son but about a prodigal son - not the son in the story but God’s Son, Jesus - who constantly offers to seek out and to save the lost. He died with the lost, identified as one of them, so that we might find new life through him on our joyful return.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


1 Samuel 8.1-18, Romans 13.1-7, John 18.33-37
A politician arrived with ten minutes to go before a big public meeting in a local church. Unfortunately the car park was full and there was nowhere obvious to park within walking distance of the venue. (I‘ve been there!) He looked up at the sky in despair and said, ‘Look, God, I know we’re not exactly well acquainted, but if you can find me a parking space I promise to lead a totally blameless life, committed to doing good, for as long as I remain in office.’ He looked down again and there, right in front of his  car, was a parking space. He parked up triumphantly and jumped out. ‘Thanks, God, but the deal’s off,’ he said. ‘I managed to find a space myself.’

I tell the joke because it’s about sovereignty, who controls what happens, and because the question of sovereignty is one of the big issues of our time. The debate before and after the European Referendum has been partly about sovereignty, taking back control from Europe and not giving it away again to multinational corporations. But, as our Bible readings show, sovereignty is a very complicated idea.

The dominant model of sovereignty throughout human history has been an individual person, a king or a queen, a military ruler, a high priest or a popular dictator, who is the sovereign, the person who gets to decide everything. But individual sovereigns can be killed in battle. Or they grow too old, or become too ill, or sometimes are too young, to make decisions. To get around this problem, people often said that God is the real sovereign and rulers only borrow their authority from him.

This is what was happening, of course, in the time of Samuel. In theory God was the sovereign and that was all right when he was telling Samuel what to do. But when Samuel grew old and appointed his sons to be his deputies, they didn’t listen to God’s guidance. ‘They turned aside after gain.’

In this Samuel was strikingly similar to his predecessor, Eli, who also let his scoundrelly sons rule the roost, at least until they were killed in battle by the Philistines. No wonder then that the people had had enough of God’s rule through prophets like Samuel and demanded to be governed by a king instead. God told Samuel to let them have their wish, but to warn them that being ruled by a human sovereign would mean losing their freedom.

The Old Testament says that the nation of Israel rejected God’s sovereignty when they chose a king, but that’s not how St Paul sees it. For him kings and emperors, no less than prophets and Old Testament judges, are instituted by God. And many centuries later, a French lawyer called Jean Bodin also came up with a similarly unbiased interpretation of what had happened in ancient Israel. He said that God lends his sovereignty to all of us We all get a little share of our own. That’s why an English person’s home is his or her castle. We control what happens there and no one can take that sovereignty away from us.

One of our prime ministers, William Pitt the Elder, once explained this idea in a very colourful way. He said, ‘The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it. The rain may enter. The storms may enter. But the king of England may not enter.’ This gave rise to the joke that ‘an Englishman’s house is indeed his castle, but only until the queen arrives!’

However, what Bodin recognised was that, for this kind of sovereignty to work - for everyone to be the king or queen of their own little castle under God - we need to put someone in overall charge. That someone could be an individual person like King Saul, but it could be a parliament where the representatives of the people come together to keep law and order and make the great decisions of state. For St Paul this is the natural way things should be. ‘Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.’

No doubt Paul would have agreed with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said that without a sovereign, whether it be a person or a parliament, most people’s lives would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. So, in other words, unless we happen to have lots of strong muscles or be very good at martial arts, we very much need someone to be in control.

And that someone, whether it’s a king or a parliament, can’t behave in an arbitrary way like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, otherwise there’s no point in putting them in charge. The reason why we surrender some of our sovereignty, the right to do whatever we think God would let us do, is for the sake of peace and continuity, so that when we go to bed at night we can be pretty sure things will be much the same in the morning.

People have often assumed that Paul meant his readers to submit to the Roman Emperor and to see the Emperor as appointed by God. They object that this may have been fine when the emperor was a good person, or someone who at least encouraged good government. But what, they ask, about bad emperors, people like Nero who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned? If we read Paul a little more attentively, we’ll find that he’s careful to talk about the whole government - all the experts, and appointees and civil servants - not about the emperor ruling alone. He calls on the Roman Christians to obey the governing authority, or the authorities, or the rulers.

Perhaps he might have sympathised more than we imagine then, with two other writers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who both argued that it isn’t sensible to lend our share of sovereignty to an individual person, to a king or queen.  Instead, it only makes sense to lend our sovereignty to elected representatives, to a parliament in other words.
Unfortunately, the last two centuries have shown us that the problem with electing representatives to govern us in a parliament is that first we have to hold a contest for power before we can supposedly come together again to be governed by the winners. It’s very difficult then to agree with Paul that we should be ‘subject to the authority because of conscience’ when a few days previously we might have voted, according to our conscience, for a totally different vision of how our country should be run.

That’s the problem which the followers of Bernie Sanders have have in reconciling themselves to Hillary Clinton in the race to become US President. It’s the problem which followers of Jeremy Corbyn have in imagining someone else leading the Labour Party, and - although it wasn’t a Parliamentary vote - it’s the problem which Remainers have after the Referendum. Even Paul says that, while we have to pay our taxes, we need only honour and respect those to whom honour and respect are due.

The Twentieth Century has also shown us once and for all that countries or governments can never be absolutely sovereign. Of course, Bodin never said that they could be. He argued that God was the absolute sovereign and everyone has to answer to him. But he also said that the Law is sovereign - that there are some laws which are so fundamental that no sovereign power can ever be allowed to overturn them.

Hermann Goering’s defence, at his trial in Nuremburg after World War II, was that the government in Germany had been elected and could therefore do as it liked. No one bought the argument. He was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.

This is the ground where Jesus confronts Pilate, who wants to know whether Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews. Jesus’ reply is that he is sovereign, but he’s sovereign of more than just one nation or even of all people, alive and dead. He’s the sovereign of something far more absolute, far more fundamental. He’s the final arbiter of truth, the one who decides whether any of us - be we high and mighty or humble and lowly - have done the right thing. Everyone who belongs to the truth  must listen to him. They owe their ultimate allegiance to him as their sovereign and lord. Amen.