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Showing posts from January, 2017

Seeing God

Exodus 24.9-18 Here in this short passage we find two contrasting encounters with God, so different in fact that they appear to belong to separate traditions, although they have been brought together here in a single narrative. First, there is a group encounter with God. 71 people are privileged to see God face to face, although at a distance. He doesn’t lay his hand on them - presumably in blessing. The writer cannot describe what God looked like. That would be impossible. The narrative only tells us what the ground beneath God’s feet was like. It was like a bright blue, clear sky - a pavement of sapphire. So this is an image of God sitting above the mountain - slightly out of reach. He does not walk the earth. And yet he is clearly visible and the elders share a sort of holy communion with him - a sacrificial meal in all probability, where the incense of the sacrifice ascends to God while the communicants eat together on the mountain. And then a totally different encounter is immediately…

Holding on to memories

2 Peter 1.12-21 Whether the writer is the real Peter, or a colleague of his or simply someone writing from his perspective, he writes here very much from the viewpoint of the older Peter living in Rome just before his martyrdom. People often say, as they get older, that time seems to fly by faster and become more precious. It’s not an original idea. It is voiced here by the writer, and other people had probably said the same thing to him. Memories become more important with age too. We have so many of them and they become ever more precious the further away in time they recede. There is always the fear of losing our memories, or indeed of losing the capacity to remember. So from the perspective of the first eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry, there was a desperate anxiety to preserve their memories of him, pass them on and make sure they were cherished. It’s fashionable to say that the Christian story is a ‘cleverly devised myth’ dreamt up for the most part by St Paul and the writers of th…

Going on a spiritual fitness drive

2 Peter 1.1-11 Different diet and fitness regimes are all the rage. Almost every night we can watch them being inflicted on people on our television screens. Will they break under the pressure and eat a cream do-nut or a bacon buttie? Will they cut down the calories and go down to the gym or will they stay on the couch munching forbidden snacks? How much weight will they actually have managed to lose when they step onto the scales? Of course, embarking on a diet ourselves is different. Whichever diet we choose to follow - a Stone Age diet, a low carb diet, a diet where we feast some days and fast on others - we will need willpower to succeed. The writer of 2 Peter thinks we need a spiritual diet too. Like dieters with their diet sheet and their calorie counter by their side, ‘We have everything we need to live a life that pleases God.’ And just  like all the other diets, the spiritual diet makes ‘great and marvellous promises.’ But, just like the dieter who can’t resist a naughty cream c…

Sick and Health Religion

January is the time when we traditionally make New Year’s Resolutions, or undertake what people now call a ‘Life Laundry’, clearing out our bad habits and resolving to try harder in future. It’s not always as easy to do as we sometimes glibly suppose. Hermits used to withdraw from the world, to be alone in order to search inside themselves and bring out into the open anything that needed healing. The same approach was taken up enthusiastically by all the famous religious orders, like the followers of St Benedict and St Francis, and John and Charles Wesley also borrowed from it. The hermits were practising what is sometimes called Healthy Religion, by which I mean that they hoped to find a mind cure for what was wrong inside them so that they could draw closer to God. Trusting God's Spirit to help them, they followed a routine of prayer, Bible study, contemplation and fasting, hoping to become a better and more rounded person by using these tools. At university John and Charles Wesley…

God keeps trying to sow the Kingdom among us

Matthew 13.1-9 Jesus wasn't the first or the last person to claim to be God's Messiah. There were quite a few others, but their life expectancy tended to be short! The historian Josephus, writing about forty years after Jesus' death, claimed that the Emperor Vespasian, who had just destroyed Jerusalem and massacred most of its inhabitants, was in fact the true Messiah. A bit like Muslim extremists, who claim to be the only true believers, a contemporary of Josephus, who was writing a commentary on the Book of Habakkuk, also claimed that his little group of followers were the true Kingdom of God. Everyone else was going to miss out. Jesus' retelling of the coming of God's Kingdom was equally subversive, but in an entirely different way. People of all sorts were invited to become part of it. This wasn't an exclusive club like the new caliphate which ISIS tried to set up or the exclusive little clique envisaged by the man who wrote the commentary on Habbakuk. Jesus sa…

Divisive times

Luke 12.49-53 We live in divisive times and people, even families, cannot help falling out over them. At a Bible study a fellow Christian commented cheerfully, in the context of recent political events, 'The last six months have been a terrible time for you, haven't they?' But for him they had been a good time! The Gospel doesn't bring peace, it brings division. This is because we are called to stand up against whatever is happening that we believe is wrong, even if it splits our families in two and certainly if it divides nations and congregations. I started a conversation with a colleague over lunch one day, when I reflected out loud on how it must feel to be citizens either of a pariah state or of a country whose prime minister holds hands with the leader of that pariah! This led to much soul searching and gloom about the way events are turning out. But it also led us to resolve that we have to continue to bring fire to the earth, not peace, when this is the right thin…

A candle which consumes itself to light the way for others

John 1.1-14
I go once a month into a care home to take holy communion to some of the residents. In Advent the chaplain and the staff there light Advent candles, just like we do here, except that - because of health and safety rules - these can’t be real candles. They’re tiny electric lights that can be switched on and off. Well no one wants the residents to go up in flames, do they? But sometimes churches do the same thing, and replace their candles and tea lights with pretend ones. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the same, is it? A proverb, especially popular among teachers, is that “a good teacher is like a candle, which consumes itself to light the way for others.” I suppose the idea is that all the late night marking and lesson preparation takes its toll. Teachers can really help to illuminate the lives of others, but only if they take great pains. But the idea of consuming yourself to help others implies rather more than this, I think. One of the first people in England to champion de…

Young Love (A retelling of an old Epiphany story)

1 John 4.7-12

Once upon a time a young man and a young woman were very much in love, but they were very poor. After they had paid the rent, and the heating bills, and bought their groceries, and paid their bus fares, they had only just enough to live on, and they couldn’t afford proper winter coats, so waiting at the bus stop they were often cold. And the winter was getting colder for soon it would be Christmas. One day, the girl was in the town looking in the shop windows when she saw a gold watch chain, and she just knew that the young man would love it. She so wanted to give it to him for Christmas, but she had no money. How could she buy it for him? She walked sadly away, and then she had an idea. She went to the hairdresser's shop, and had all her long golden hair cut off. The man in the shop put it in a bag for her and she went home and sold it on the Internet to someone who made wigs from real hair. With the money safely in her bank account she went back and bought the watch …