Tuesday, January 31, 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 juxtaposed with the first one. This time the holy mountain is shrouded in cloud and Moses ascends for a solitary encounter with God. The rest of the people of Israel can only surmise that God is present because his glory settles over the mountain like a devouring fire.
Moses waits, with his assistant Joshua - who strangely does not figure at all in the previous encounter - somewhere on the mountainside below the cloud cover until he receives  the summons to enter it. Forty days later he comes back down - with the tablets of stone that contain the ten commandments - and rejoins Joshua again. There is no suggestion that during this time Moses sees God facesto face. That only comes later in this version of the story. For the moment he listens to God but cannot see him.
So here we have two different versions of encountering God, one which is distinguished by the clarity of the vision and the other by its mystery and obscurity. Which is closest to our experience, and which is the way that we encounter God more often if we have shared both types of encounter?
It’s tempting to say that the sort of encounter which is shrouded in mystery is the way that we might expect to meet God as creator, and the much clearer vision - especially through a shared meal - is the way that we encounter God in Jesus. But, of course, there is mystery in holy communion, too. We do not see Jesus in the clear way that Moses and the elders saw God, but on the other hand Jesus does reach out and touch us, and enters into our lives and our situation in a way that they could not have imagined. And sometimes people do report very clear visions of God as creator.
What we can say for certain is that God does come down in Jesus. His feet do touch the floor. He is not at a distance any longer and we can come near to him.

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 the Gospels, and only loosely based on the real historical Jesus. But this isn’t a new claim. It is anticipated here by the writer of 2 Peter, who is at pains to say that the Christian story is based on the recollections of people who actually witnessed these events and passed on everything they felt was of abiding significance. So we don’t get the incidental details - what people were wearing, what they looked like, and so on - but they did strive to preserve the essentials.
The writer singles out just one example, probably because only Peter, James and John were there. It’s the semi-mystical experience they shared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration when they heard God speaking to them - the writer reminds us - and telling them that Jesus was his beloved Son.
The writer is at pains to explain that this was a real incident. It isn’t just something devised by later Christians who were inserting Old Testament motifs - like the encounters that Moses and Elijah had with God on mountain tops - into the life story of Jesus.
A certain amount of that did happen. Things which, at the time, puzzled his followers, were later understood to have been ways in which Old Testament prophecy was being fulfilled. But there is a kernel of truth behind these reflections. History really did confirm the prophecies, at least if you understand those prophecies in a certain way, but the prophecies weren’t being used to construct an elaborate myth about someone who had really been being quite ordinary. The writer says that Christianity isn’t just a matter of interpretation - of people making the Old Testament fit their own bizarre or fanciful notions about Jesus - it’s about people being moved by the Holy Spirit to see a new and deeper meaning in those prophecies because of their encounter with Jesus.
So all those memories of Jesus that the first eyewitnesses shared, and their reflections on what they meant, become really important. They are the glimmer of light that we must keep our focus on, even in dark times, until ‘the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts’ and we know for ourselves the truth about Jesus.

Monday, January 30, 2017

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 cake, ‘our evil desires and the corrupt influences of this world’ are hard to escape. The writer says we must ‘do our best to improve our’ spiritual diet by heaping lashings of ‘goodness, understanding, self-control, patience, devotion to God, concern for others, and love,’ on top of the kindness and peacefulness which God has already given us as part of our standard rations.
Our English versions of this passage say that we should just ‘add’ these extra things to our diet, but the same word is translated ‘gloriously welcomed’ or ‘richly provided for’ at the end of the passage, so it’s clearly a bit more extravagant than just adding something. We’ve got to add lots of goodness, understanding, self-control, patience, love and devotion to our lives if we really want to improve our diet.
It’s like this, all the fancy diets in the world, and all the gym memberships, and all the running gear we might acquire, are no help at all unless we actually put them to use. And no amount of thinking about goodness, or wanting to be understanding, or to show self-control, or be patient, or loving and caring, and to devote ourselves to God, is any help to our spiritual diet until we ‘do our best’ and ‘do all we can’ to improve.
So there’s the challenge. We can’t imagine ourselves into slimmer or better people, we’ve got to make the effort to become those people in order ‘to live a life that pleases God’ and makes other people around us truly happy and appreciative of who we are.

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 founded a holy club of fellow students who also tried to improve themselves by prayer, Bible study and visiting the sick and those in prison, and even when they outgrew this approach and went on to see that a more radical change was needed, they still continued along the path of self-improvement. Methodists were called upon to submit to the discipline of attending class meetings for prayer and Bible study, to help the poor and needy and to expect to be sanctified or made more holy.
But there’s another more pessimistic approach to spiritual life, personified by St Augustine, who gave self examination a new twist. When he searched inside himself he found that his personality was so badly broken it just couldn't be fixed. There were things lurking there which he felt powerless to overcome. So he said that he could only throw ourselves on the mercy of God and seek forgiveness.
This type of approach is sometimes called Sick Religion, not because it's a sick way of doing religion, like Daish in Syria and Iraq, but because it assumes we are all  fundamentally sick at heart and need rescuing. St Augustine's teaching was taken up enthusiastically by Martin Luther and John Calvin and it was when John Wesley was listening to Martin Luther's preface to the Book of Romans that he realised being rescued from this inner sickness is a vital and necessary part of our religious journey. Any number of New Year’s Resolutions - no matter how sincerely made - will not help us unless we first sort out our inner brokenness.
But the Wesleys didn't give up on Healthy Religion. Instead they tried to bring these two traditions together by integrating both the Healthy and the Sick approaches to spiritual life side by side into Methodist practice. They acknowledged that we start out as broken people who need rescuing, and that Jesus comes to redeem us - or give us a fresh start - by his death on the cross, which they called justification or being put right with God. But after that - they said - a Spirit-led journey of self-improvement can begin, which they called sanctification. Being justified, or put right with God, wasn’t the end of the journey, it was just the first step in a process of entire sanctification.
This distinction between so-called Healthy and Sick religion isn't unique to Christianity. Most Muslims believe that it’s possible to improve oneself simply by steadfast obedience to God's will as revealed in the Qur'an. But Sufism, one of the alternative spiritual paths in Islam, shares the Wesleys' view of human nature. People are too sick to embark on a path of self-improvement until they have asked God's Spirit to come into their life and change them for the better.
One modern challenge to self-improvement through religion has come from the teachings of Sigmund Freud. He felt that so-called Healthy Religion,  with its stress on being more pure and sanctified, forces us to repress part of our true self and become more - not less - neurotic. According to his view there's no such thing as Healthy Religion. There's only Sick Religion. But one of his disciples, Karl Jung, disagreed. He saw religion as so deeply embedded in the human psyche that the possibility of Healthy Religion must always remain.
As we try to set our New Year’s Resolutions or do our Life Laundry for 2017, psychoanalysis can actually help us by uncovering a number of pitfalls that we need to avoid.
The first is the danger of self-denial, repressing how we really feel deep inside in order become the sort of person we think Jesus would like us to be. So we repress angry feelings, for instance, because we think we've got to be unfailingly nice. But actually we need to deal with these feelings.
And this leads us to the second pitfall, the tendency for Christians to have  very strong ideals which we can’t live up to in practice. The danger is that we become disappointed with ourselves and guilt-ridden when we fail. Ideals help us to set goals and measure our progress, but we mustn’t allow ourselves to become hung up on our failures and setbacks.
And that leads to the final pitfall, our tendency to confuse guilt and shame. Guilt is what we ought to feel for the wrong things we do which need to be put right, a process which begins for Christians when we turn to God. Shame is a feeling of worthlessness, of not deserving to be loved, and it needs to be let go of because it's a road block on the way to healing and sanctification.

John Wesley was instinctively right. A one-off conversion experience can't carry us through life's ups and downs. Life is a series of challenges which need to be negotiated. It’s a pilgrimage - a struggle even - towards entire sanctification.

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 said that the way his fellow countrymen and women were going about renewing God's Kingdom would end in disaster. It wasn't too late to avoid this, but they would have to choose an entirely new way of being Israel based on the peace and goodwill which the angels sang about at his birth.
It’s worth noting that his Kingdom isn't about the afterlife. Sometimes Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, but it's just another way of talking about God's reign on earth here and now. All through the Old Testament God had revealed himself as someone who intervenes in real events.  The message is, 'Move over President Trump, move over Prime Minister May. It's time to make way for a real professional!' 'Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth,' is not a pious platitude. Jesus expects that things really are going to change around here.
For Christians, of course, God's Kingdom began with Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection, even though it isn't yet complete.  His story is a bit like the Normandy landings in World War II. A decisive breakthrough has been achieved but final victory awaits.
In the meantime Jesus has redefined what leadership means. He isn't part of some political elite, like the Clintons or the Bush clan, nor is he a bombastic poseur like Donald Trump. Instead, he has come to dwell alongside us, laid in a manger so that he can help us to change the world from the bottom up.
Another thing to note is that the Church is not the same thing as the Kingdom of God. When we work for the Church we may sometimes be doing Kingdom work, but - because it's made up of ordinary human beings - the Church can easily take a wrong turn and finds itself outside the Kingdom, and even when the Church's work is part of God's Kingdom, the Kingdom is always larger than the Church. Jesus draws a circle which includes people in rather than shutting them out, so to be true to him, the Church has always to look outwards and recognise that God is working among other people of goodwill, like the wisemen or the shepherds.
Something else to note is that God's Kingdom breaking into our world will make a real and radical difference. Jesus didn’t come to bring a ‘stable influence’, as one Church’s Christmas poster mistakenly put it. But do we believe that the birth of a baby long ago and far away can really make this sort of change come about in our world today?
Tom Wright says that the Parable of the Sower speaks to just the situation in which we find ourselves. God keeps on trying to plant his Kingdom on earth, but people aren't always ready to receive it.  The message falls on stony ground, or gets choked out by other cares and concerns. But the Kingdom is still being patiently sown and resown by Jesus and his true disciples, and it is silently and steadily growing despite all the setbacks and disappointments.
The Prophet Isaiah says that, as the rain and the snow water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so God's word... shall not return to him empty. It inevitably brings forth joy, and peace and singing, defying the thorns and the briers and the rocky unreceptive ground.
In other words, God's Kingdom is constantly encountering stubborn resistance and setbacks, but at the same time it's also producing an abundant and spectacular harvest.  The sower is constantly crossing and recrossing his field scattering the good seed on the land. The good which comes from his successes will more than make up for all the disappointments. In fact, in Jesus' story, failures outnumber the successful harvest three-to-one.
So if we look around us in the world today and see lots of disappointments and reversals for God's Kingdom we shouldn't really be surprised or give up hope. What they mustn't do is blind us to the Kingdom growing quietly and almost unnoticed. This is why only those who have ears to hear will understand the story and rejoice with the teller.

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 thing to do in order to follow Jesus.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

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 democracy and the right of ordinary people - not just the bosses and the political elite - to decide what happens was an army officer called John Lilburne. For his outspokenness he was put in prison, where he caught a fever which led to his premature death. His wife was pregnant at the time. Someone said of him that he was like a lighted candle - in giving light to others he had used up himself.
And Christians think Jesus was like that, too. When he came into the world on the first Christmas night he brought a light into the world which no darkness has ever been able to put out. And yet this was only possible because the Christmas story was followed by Easter. He allowed his own life to be used up for others. And yet, unlike a candle - and perhaps more like those electric lights - his light does go on shining, because the power of love is stronger than darkness.
Christians  also believe that we should be a little bit like Jesus, or John Lilburne, or the teachers who really helped us to learn. We too should use our lives to give light to others. Could that be a New Year’s resolution?

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 chain.
She knew the young man would love the present because he had a beautiful gold pocket watch that had belonged to his grandfather, whom he was very fond of. The watch had been given to his grandfather when he retired from working on the railway, and it was the young man’s most precious possession. The chain would be just right for it. She hurried home excitedly, looking forward to giving him her surprise gift on Christmas morning.
The young man had gone to town as well, to meet up with his mates and go to the rugby. On his way back from the match he saw in the corner of his eye something that made him stop and look in a shop window. There was the most beautiful pair of hair clasps, made of gold and set with precious stones. They would look amazing in the  young woman’s beautiful long hair, which he knew was the thing which most of all made her feel good about herself. He wanted so much to buy them for her for Christmas, but the hair clasps were far too expensive. What could he do? Then he noticed a sign in the shop window, ‘We buy your gold.’ So he hurried home, and found his treasured watch and exchanged it for the hair clasps. He couldn't wait to give them to the young woman on Christmas morning.
But that night, when they got in for tea, he saw that the young woman’s hair was now cut short. He showed her the hair clasps, and told her he loved her so much that he had sold his grandfather’s pocket watch in order to buy them for her as a gift to make her long hair look even more special. Then she told him she also loved him so much that she had bought a gold chain for his grandfather’s watch.
They could have been very sad. It could have spoiled Christmas for them, but instead they laughed for they realised that they had each given away something really precious to them in order to show how much they loved one another. And their love was what really mattered. In time the young woman’s hair would grow again, and if they paid a deposit and then worked very hard, in a few months they might save enough money to buy back the watch. But what they had given each other this Christmas gift was the most wonderful gift of all, their love.
In the Christmas story, the most wonderful gift isn’t the treasures brought to the baby Jesus by the wise men. It isn’t the lamb that might have been brought by the shepherds. It’s that God sent his one and only son so that by believing in him everyone can have a meaningful and satisfying life.
God didn’t go to the trouble of sending his son just to point the finger, and tell us what a mess we’re making of the world; he sent Jesus to put things right again by choosing to die for us on the Cross.

His love is a light to live by. That light blazes out even in the deepest darkness, and the darkness has never been able to put it out.