Wednesday, December 27, 2006
And if I don't manage to write before then, have a very happy new year! And may 2007 be a good 'un.
Monday, December 25, 2006
PS It would have been 'me wish you a merry christmas' in the post header, but i thought it sounded a bit pastiche patois - so it will have to be the 'royal we'.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
The Word Made Flesh
I have a love of theology and philosophy. This might come as a surprise to many of you, as i do have this image as a generally genial person who likes a laugh and enjoys being with people! There is an image of philosophers as kind of miserable, slightly depressed, maybe a bit gaunt, and often fond of strange recreational substances, but i obviously buck the trend in this respect – gaunt and depressed aren’t really my way of doing things and the recreational substances I prefer have more sugar or caffeine in them than anything else...
But it’s true, i love philosophy and theology. And we’ve done, or will be doing., some of that tonight. The carols that we sing have some very deep, and quite difficult, bits of theology in them. Take this line ‘veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel’... It’s from, as you can tell, ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing’. Or try this for size ‘God of God, light of light, lo he abhors not the virgins’ womb, very God, begotten not created’ from ‘O come all ye faithful’.
In those few sentences are some of the most complicated theological thoughts that Christianity has to offer. They are called ‘incarnational theology’ – because they talk of a God who made himself human, not just looked like a human being, but actually became one of us – with all the same difficulties, joys, problems, hopes, fears, happinesses and sadnesses that we have in our lives.
In our Gospel reading for this evening we have perhaps the most striking and difficult bit of incarnational theology in the whole of the Bible. The first chapter of the letter of St John, which was the third reading for this evening, is widely recognised by theologians and thinkers as one of the most complicated, most dense, and most profound pieces of Scripture with regards to who Jesus was and why he was so important to us. My first Vicar didn’t like including it in services at Christmas because, he told me, it is such a complicated passage that it is not terribly fair to force it on people in the middle of Christmas.
You might be wondering why I have included it!
We have to have this reading in one of our services over Christmas, it is the ultimate statement of who Jesus is. He was God, but he was also human. And the experience of the first Christians (who put this book together) was that he was such an incredible person he could only be described as God made human. And because it was such an incredible thing to say, their experience was that many people rejected Jesus. That is why we have the section that says:
10He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
Many of the philosophers and religious types of Jesus’ day struggled with who he was and what he taught. They tried very hard to fit Jesus into certain categories – calling him a prophet, or a teacher, or a religious leader. But they struggled with the idea of him being God and man.
But though the message seems complicated, and despite my love of complicated theology and philosophy, the message of this Gospel, and indeed the message of Isaiah (our first reading) and the Letter to the Hebrews (our second reading) is actually quite simple. It might not be an easy idea to understand, but the idea is simple.
God loves us so much that he became one of us.
Not only that, but he didn’t stay a baby, but grew up to teach us how we should live and how we should love God, love our neighbours and love ourselves.
And then he went on to die for us on the cross that first easter, taking away the sin and the darkness which weighs down our world. He was then brought to life again and showed us that God’s love is even stronger than death.
But it all comes down to this one thing. This one wonderful, mystical, overwhelming thing.
God loves us.
God became one of us and understands us, and knows what it is like to be us. That is how much he loves us. That is why we sing these carols year after year and that is why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus two thousand (or more) years later.
God loves us.
We don’t actually need to be any more complicated than that. Even if we love our philosophy and theology!
May the joy of Christmas, the wonder of God made man, and the hope of the prince of peace be yours this Christmastime and always.
Now off for some carols, then back to put together a last minute sermon for this evening... TTFN
Home communions for Christmas have taken up the day so far, then in an hour or so we have our 'crib service' in the local Church which is normally very popular. I need to get to see a few Churchwardens between that and the carol singing at 6pm, then a break in which i need to write a thought for our midnight services (the first of which is at 9.30pm, as i can't be in two places at once!) and when i get back at about 1am i will try to wrap my wife's prezzy (she has organised all the others) and put another thought together for Christmas day services...
So, after lunch on Christmas day, I will settle down for the Queen's speech and gently snore my way through the rest of the afternoon!
The only reason I am writing any of this is to say that no matter what how busy things get, or how many times i sing the carols or hear the story - I love Christmas! But more on that later! If this is the last time you read this blog for a day or two (or ever!) then Happy Christmas & God bless!
Saturday, December 23, 2006
We (the clergy and laity of the area) have been, and are, trying to support the family as best as possible. After talking at length we were definite that we wanted to perform this final goodbye before Christmas itself, but it is a hard thing to do, made even harder by the time of year. In the midst of life we are in death...
Friday, December 22, 2006
Another great songwriter, both melodically and lyrically, Wilcox's music is passionate, though mellow, thoughtful and spiritual, though not overtly Christian (if the guy is even a Christian, it's not a qualification someone has to have before i listen, see list above!!!!). I love his often understated, but always perfect, guitar playing and his melodies offer the ear something to chew over whilst the brain (and heart) engage with the words. I quoted a line about a 'pocket sized God' from the album 'turning point' here.
So, if you want to hear a track then go to the David Wilcox Website or follow these links to amazon if you really want to explore!!! These are all albums i have, so i can recommend them highly.
It's odd, it changes the feel of everything - the familiar roads I spend so many hours on doing my visiting seem completely alien, all the usual markers are obscured. Everything seems so quiet, and even in the daylight it feels dark. I can see where James Herbert got his idea for 'The Fog' from - it's oppressive and eerie. Shapes loom out as you walk or drive around, nothing is quite as you're used to. (I should say at this point, in an extended parenthetical section that reading James Herbert novels was pretty much my only point of rebellion in my evangelical teenage years, not much of a rebellion, but then I am not the rebellious type - except for being a Christian, which is the ultimate rebellion against the world. I might as well add that I really don't like James Herbert novels any more, probably an OD in my youth)
But it's not made me slow down, except my driving, I'm still fitting in plenty of visits and service planning and the like, which has been extremely rewarding this week. I've not actually managed to get that Christmas shopping done which I had hoped, maybe after tomorrow's Home Communions I will get that opportunity.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Anyway, Sarah Dylan Breuer has, as usual, come up with the goods - and i must say that 'the Lysol song' is one of my favourites!
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Unlike in the U.S. there is still lots of scope for 'schools ministry' here in the UK and it is a huge privilege to be invited in to share something of the Christian message in our local schools. Yesterday I was invited also to join the chaos of the annual Christmas lunch in a school in a neighbouring village at which I sat with a little group of kids who were very happy to have a big hairy Vicar with them and to chat constantly to me through the meal! In the evening I went back to the same school to the head-teacher's retirement 'do' and 'thank you' for all she's done for the school. Again, felt very honoured to have been invited.
This morning was the annual nativity play by the youngest class in my local school. It was also my first year as 'doting dad' - my little girl was an Angel in the fun, musical version of the nativity story which the reception/class one put on. I then got to follow it with a few disjointed thoughts about Christmas and the idea of keeping Jesus at the centre of Christmas celebrations (something which easily drops of the radar for most of us!). I am back to the school (or rather they are joining us in the Parish Church) in the neighbouring village this afternoon to lead (with the Curate) the Christmas service. More carols, more kids, more fun - and another reminder of how fortunate we are to be able share our faith openly with these young people.
Our local village school is a Church of England foundation school, though like most state schools now it is actually run by the School itself, with the Governing body (of which I am a member) under our local education authority. There is built into the ethos of the school an expectation of worship and prayers (though these are optional no one has ever asked to be excused) in the regular life of the school and education in matters of faith is considered an important part of educating the 'whole person'. The other school I minister in is not a Church foundation, but they are still very open to the visits myself and the curate do and the assemblies we lead, and to having a weekly 'after school club' run by Church members.
It should be said that we don't go into this ministry with the explicit aim of 'proselytising' but are encouraged by staff and state to share our faith, in an open way. The children listen and ask honest questions (the best kind) and are presented (I hope) with a Gospel that is clear, engaging and offered rather than imposed. Its one of the most encouraging parts of what we get to do.
Just thought I'd tell you all about it! Got to get ready for the Christmas service for Newton School now...
Monday, December 18, 2006
no one was stirring
not even a louse
Actually not true, but after the chaos of having to get three carol services done, daughter to a friend's birthday party, sister in law, spouse and baby sorted, and son cared for yesterday it all seems strangely quiet here today.
Colleagues came round to say morning prayer and have a chin wag this morning, and in half an hour i am off to lunch at one of the local schools, but other than that the dogs are lying in their beds asleep and i am clicking away on my keyboard as i search through my last few years of Christmas sermons in order not to repeat too much of what i have said before...
I have no idea what i am going to say in my Christmas sermons this year - i try and do a different one for midnight mass and Christmas day, but there is only so much one can say to a largely unchurched congregation in a few minutes at Christmas without just saying exactly what was said last year and the year before that and, well you get the picture.
But it is funny how the full on week i had last week, packed with pastoral visits, a gazillion phone calls, emails which no man can number (sorry for sexist reference, but it is an allusion to an old piece of liturgy) and, of course, preparations for big carol services (well, big in our villages means about 50 in one church, 70 in another and 150 in another) has been superseded by what looks like a relatively quiet week this week. The Christmas services don't need quite the planning that carol services do, because they are Eucharistic and the format is pretty well set, and though pastoral visits still need doing there aren't quite as many as there were last week set up (at least not yet, i am sure more will arise).
So i am making the most of the calm before the storm and getting ready for the rush of Christmas itself (seven services in less than 24 hours). I do still have to get a prezzy for my wife, so will need one afternoon in Cambridge (the nearest town) to have a mooch and a think about what to get her.
It might even mean i can do some blogification too.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
'Turn away from the lights'
Many of you will know that i am a biker. I do like motorbikes, and take the opportunity to ride whenever i can – and I’m not one of these fairweather bikers, oh no, I will ride wherever and whenever, whatever the weather. Actually, my bike is out of order at the moment due to the battery conking out, and i’ve not rushed to get a replacement due to the slippery roads, but on the whole I will ride most of the year.
But, and some of you may have heard me say this before, there is something you have to watch out for in the darker times of the year. Lights. You see, in a car it doesn’t matter quite so much where you look, your big metal box will keep going in the direction your steering wheel points it, but on a bike, much of your direction comes from where you are looking, because a bike is steered by the way you sit and lean, not just by the handlebars. So where the eye leads, often unconsciously, the bike follows.
Which means that in the winter months, you have to be careful not to be distracted by the lights of the traffic on the other side of the road. You have to keep your focus on the road ahead and not be constantly looking around. Which is quite difficult for someone like me who tends to be distracted very easily. My mum calls it ‘being butterfly minded’ – which is true, if I’m honest.
If you look around at this time of year you will see lots and lots of lights. We’ve got some here in the Church. You only have to drive up through the broadway at Bourn, or through Papworth Everard to see an amazing selection of lights on people’s houses. When driving down from Bourn airfield you might wonder if UFO’s had landed with all the lights that are there around Christmas time.
But I’m not one of those who says ‘bah humbug’ at this, i love the ways that people make such an effort around Christmas to brighten things up. It is, of course, the darkest time of year and we may well feel in need of a little brightness and warmth to drive away the cold and dark nights. I am all in favour of joy, life and light at Christmas, i think it is a great celebration of hope and happiness.
And God knows we need life and light in the world in which we live. It’s easy to have a negative view of the world, seeing what comes at us through the media and some of the things we experience in out lives. We can be forgiven for thinking of the world as a dark place.
But despite this, often in the middle of it, Christmas sheds light, a time of celebrating the good things in life – and if that means plastering houses in lights, or making that extra effort then I think that’s a good thing.
But as Christians we don’t just concentrate on the obvious things at Christmas, we enjoy the festivities (or we should anyway) and we can join in with the various traditions of Christmas that have sprung up over the past few years.
But this is not the whole story, and just like me on my motorbike we shouldn’t be distracted by the lights and keep our focus there. We look beyond the obvious and we remember the reason behind our celebrations.
Whilst we say a resounding ‘yes’ to the things which are good about Christmas – the emphasis on family, on giving, on generosity, the joy and happiness of this time to year. We also realise that Christmas is about God’s resounding ‘yes’ to each one of us that comes through jesus Christ, his Son, sent to show the love of God to the world.
Again and again I am struck by the wonder of Christmas – summed up in the best known verse in the Bible, John’s Gospel Chapter 3 verse 16 – God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not die but live forever.
It was God’s love for the world that was the reason he was willing to take on human flesh – to go through everything that we go through. It was God’s love for the world that sent Jesus, vulnerable as any human baby is vulnerable, to grow up and show us how to live, and to pay the price of sin.
Jesus is the true light of the world, beyond all the glitz and glitter of Christmas, he is the the light of truth and hope and love. For those of us who know him, then he is the focus of these coming celebrations.
And the joy that comes from knowing him, the truth of his love and grace is greater than any other joy and truth. It’s the reason that we re-enact the story of Christmas every year, it is the reason that no matter how many times i find myself singing these carols and hearing these readings that the wonder is still there. It’s the old old story (to quote a hymn) which never becomes tired or boring. It’s a time of ancient truths which are relevant to each one of us here and now, no matter what we are going through.
Because knowing that Jesus came as one of us – not a pretend human being, but just like us – and felt the joys, sadness, pain, celebration, laughter and tear that all of us feel means that God isn’t out there somewhere distant but right here with us – he knows what it is like to be hungry, lonely, afraid, confused, grieving, sick.
We don’t have a God who doesn’t care about us, but the message of Christmas is that God loves us completely – even though he knows us completely!
Imagine what that is like, to be loved completely, without reservation. Think of the person you love most in the world and how that feels and multiply that by a thousand times and you won’t even touch how much God loves us.
That’s why we celebrate – that’s why the lights and the decorations and the trees and the presents and the carols and the services and the parties and the lunch and everything else all mean so much – because God is in the middle of it all. God is with us – which is what the title Emmanuel means.
O Come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.
Amen and Thanks be to God.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
What i mean is that the quote had 'I want to feel what's real' as the third line, and I always have a negative reaction to 'I want' - we live in such an 'i want' culture that seems built on selfishness - a commodity culture that encourages us to reject stuff that we don't like. As someone who tries to follow Christ, this chafes against my own understanding of discipleship, sometimes we don't get to do what we want because we have to do what is right.
Despite that, I think the quote is a good one! It was the bit about God being 'pocket sized' that stood out. There is a tendency amongst not only Christians but all people to have a reductionist picture of God. God fills a certain need or desire we have. We make God in our own image, we confine God to the limits of our own understandings.
Churches are guilty of this, perhaps even more than people generally. We decide how we want God to be and we proclaim an impoverished Gospel. One without depth, or filled with a certainty that doesn't actually exist in the message of Jesus. In this way our God is 'pocket sized'.
Whereas the Bible is a journey, grappling with a God beyond knowing, but recognising that we have glimpses of a God who chooses to reveal himself to humanity. At the same time, though, this God refuses to be categorised, easily labelled, or reduced to our own way of knowing.
Our God breaks out of our strictures, our narrow vision, no more obviously than when he emptied himself and took on human form in Jesus Christ. This was no easy formula for salvation, but a self giving love that is beyond our understanding and no matter how hard we theologise, or how many doctrinal statements we make, we will never truly understand this act of supreme grace, that 'God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not die but live forever.'
Friday, December 15, 2006
Spent morning looking after my son whilst wife went off to buy Christmas tree and get her shopping done, so no time for thought, but lots of chasing and having to say 'no Jack, don't do that'...
Suspect most of rest of day will be much of same, unless i get a bit of spare thought time tonight then maybe something tomorrow. Although we are off on a steam train trip with the kids in the afternoon...
Thursday, December 14, 2006
In part my reluctance to be drawn into 'issues based Christianity' is because I believe that we can lose the dynamic, challenging aspect of being a Christian community and having a relationship with Jesus Christ if we become too bound up in the issues which threaten to divide us. I also think that the most authentic expression of Christian faith comes not from proclamations about moral or social issued but from Christian communities committed to the Gospel and living out the values of the kingdom (or reign) of God.
I believe that authentic faith is rooted in community, the fellowship of the Church, and we can only realise that when we are committed to one another in faith, love and service. So many of my sermons are calls to again consider our calling to live and act as Christians in fellowship with one another in order that we can make a difference in the world.
But I do believe that we are called to take our vote seriously, to be involved in the political world, to stand up for what we believe in. I believe the values of Christ's kingdom are ones of inclusion, peace, justice, faithfulness, holiness, and speaking out the word of God to the world in which we have been set. So I encourage those who are a part of our fellowships here to pray for our communities and the world, to visit the sick, to minister to the hurting, to be faithful in their business and personal relationships, to tell the story of faith and draw others into that story.
One of the reasons that my sermons may seem slightly detached is not that i want to separate the church and the world, but because i want those who hear to make connections for themselves and work out how they may be called to service, rather than me telling them how they are called. There are times as a minister when i believe i have the role of pointing out someone's gifting and call to a particular ministry, but that is usually a 'one to one' task.
I'm also aware of a huge amount of (for want of a better term) 'theological ignorance' - ie that people don't actually know what the church believes or has taught or reflected on over the past two thousand years, and i see part of my teaching ministry as seeking to redress that balance, albeit in a very small way, in my preaching.
All this reflection comes from reading back through a few older sermons and trying to think how they might come across to a congregation, and hoping that I am not just speaking vague, disconnected ideas which give the sense of faith and theology as being distinct from the 'real world', but bound up and integral to a whole life. I may not do this very well, but it is what i long to do.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
The reason I often speak or write so enthusiastically about the church is not because I think it is perfect, far from it, but because in my experience the Church as an institution exists somewhat separately from the church as local fellowship. And my experience of the church in local settings is, overwhelmingly, positive. Of course there are tensions, disputes, fears, worries (often over petty or seemingly irrelevant issues) but I am constantly reminded as i go about my ministry of teaching, worship leading, pastoral ministry etc of just how incredibly loving and self-giving christians (indeed all people) can be, and how the church fulfills an important social and spiritual function, of making Christ real in our communities.
In my parishes I don't hear much about concerns regarding homosexuality or women in ministry, i hear about the care that someone received from a concerned Christian in the village, or the visit from myself or one of my fellow ministers that came at just the right time. I hear about how pleased people are to have a place of prayer and quiet in their village, a Church building with a sense of place, rootedness and history. I hear about the love that was shown to someone who felt excluded from the life of the village, or the need to embrace the hurting, grieving or sick.
This is not to say that the bigger issues aren't important, but that they don't tend to impact on the daily lives of the ordinary, sometimes struggling, sometimes joyful people of these communities - people who often need to know that they are loved and valued just because they are loved and valued. I am more than happy to do this in the name of Christ, and to reach out to those beyond our congregations just as Jesus himself did. Not that I believe myself to be Jesus, but I am, like most in the fellowships I serve, trying to follow him.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
What I mean about liking Church discipline, is appreciating the discipline of the Church liturgical year. The C of E, of which I am a member and minister, follows the ancient discipline of 'lections' - set readings for every day of the year, Sundays on a three year cycle using the 'Revised Common Lectionary' as its base and weekdays on a two year cycle. We also follow the seasons of the Church year, which is more than obvious in my past few postings as I have majored on 'Advent' - the time of preparation which mirrors Lent in encouraging prayer, fasting and reflection in the lead up to the major festival of Christmas.
As a child, growing up in non-conformist traditions, there was no real observance of any structure to the church year - Christmas was observed as a matter of 'every one else is doing it so we probably should' and there were no carol services, christingles or anything like that, just an extra service on Christmas day. Easter was observed again as an extra service, and was obviously important but wasn't special, or didn't feel special.
On the other hand, the liturgical observance of feast days, holy days, fasts, preparations etc etc that runs through the traditions of the ancient churches (by this I mean 'roman catholic', 'orthodox' and 'Anglican' (though there may be some dispute about that, and people may want to add 'lutheran' and 'methodist' and others)) anchor me in the story of the history of faith, the life of Christ and the early church.
I appreciate all the more the incarnation because of the yearly observance of the birth of Jesus, who came 'emptied' of his divine glory to the life of a human family and to share in our lives. I feel enveloped by the grief of Good Friday by spending three hours in contemplation and prayer on the desolation and pain of the cross, then overwhelmed by the joy of Easter Day when we celebrate the new life that comes in resurrection, and the hope of resurrection not just when we die, but the true 'coming to life' of Christian faith. I am reduced to awe (or is that inspired to awe??) by the glory that shines through the transfiguration, or in Jesus' ascent into heaven, and reassured and challenged when we remember the birth of the church at pentecost and the promise of the power, energy and grace of the Holy Spirit. And there's more, the discipline of lent, the light of the world remembered at Ephiphany, the lives and deaths of the saints remembered throughout the year. All of this has only served to enhance my appreciation and understanding of the depth and richness of our faith, not through 'mindless repetition' (as some accuse liturgical churches of - though i had more experience of that in my charismatic days) but through being immersed in God's story of salvation, and drawn to contemplate the deeper meanings of what we believe by having my attention grabbed again and again through each year, as the cycle repeats and the familiarity of it all, far from breeding contempt, breathes new life into ancient truths.
Thanks be to God!
Monday, December 11, 2006
Miller phrases things beautifully and I am not going to quote large chunks of his prose but commend the book again, despite the shortfalls i mentioned before. One of the things that really struck me was the way he pointed out that the writings of Paul and the early Church don't give the idea that the purpose of the Gospel is to condemn the lifestyles of those outside the church, but to call those of us who are followers of Jesus to live lives which reflect the values of the kingdom of God.
Those of us who are Christians are called to live by higher standards, of faithfulness, honesty, integrity, purity, not in order to make those outside Christian faith feel bad, but because we are being transformed by our faith into the people we are called to be.
My own experience of being a follower of Jesus is that I want to live a life that is, as St Paul says, 'worthy of the calling to which you have been called' not because it makes me feel better than others, or to show a smug 'holier than thou' attitude, but because it is the way I was made to live, and those standards are not confining, but liberating. My concern to be sexually faithfully, generous, just, loving, gracious, forgiving, etc comes from knowing that when these things are integrated into my life then I am living as Christ intended and from that I gain fullness of life.
I also realise just how difficult these standards are, and I thank God that it is only through his grace, his Spirit, his love and his strength that these good things are possible and that he helps me through all of this.
It is only with this attitude that i can hope that my 'light will shine before people that they may see these good works and glorify the Father who is in heaven'.
I would keep a pen and writing pad by my bed for these kind of things, but me turning on the light to write random thoughts would cause great pain, due to me being elbowed by my wife who (rightly) values her sleep without light-based interruptions....
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Year C Advent 2
Preparing The World
Christmas approaches, the shops are packed, decorations are going up, turkeys are being chosen (or nut loaves depending on your preference), carols are being sung, parties are happening, presents are being wrapped, postmen (and women) are complaining, plans are being made, TV guides are being searched for all the best programmes - and into the middle of all this comes a voice:
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
It’s not a very loud voice, compared to most of the noise of Christmas, in fact it’s easily missed. It seems to be the quietest voice of all in today’s Christmas - but that doesn’t mean it’s not there -
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
It’s so quiet, but it’s insistent, it keeps on calling, even when hidden it keeps calling, even covered in wrapping paper, tinsel, presents, cards and decorations it is still there. Even drowned out by carols it calls. It is the message of Christmas that we as Christians have, the original message of Christmas, the reason this whole thing exists…
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
It is easy to loose the central message of Christmas in our modern world. Though there are many positive things said about loving, giving, peace and hope in the general Christmas message that comes out from our TV screens, our movies and our media the essential message is more than that, the Christian message is that Christ has come, that Christ still comes (in those we meet every day) and that Christ will come again.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
John the Baptist, in our passage today, said more than just ‘The Lord will come’ but Christ is coming. There was an imminence, an immediacy about his proclamation that made people listen. John’s message of God being close brought people from near and far to hear what he had to say. John’s message was one that got people’s attention, that made people respond, that made the reality of God come closer for them. It is the same message that we are called upon to proclaim today, the same gospel, of Immanuel, of God with us that John brought to the people all those years ago.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
But how is this message to be proclaimed? Where is John The Baptist for the 21st Century? Who’s task is it to prepare our world for the coming of Christ?
It’s our task. We who are the Church have the job of proclaiming Christ to our generation. There’s no escaping it. Part of the reason the voice is so quiet is that many of us - myself included - enjoy Christmas as it is. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is a good message, there are plenty of positive things about the modern Christmas, plenty of enjoyable things. But it’s not enough to just let everyone get on with celebrating Christmas in the usual way -we have a message that adds to Christmas, that draws more from the celebration, that offers a greater hope to humanity. Our Christmas message is one which stretches throughout the year, which lasts forever, which can change hearts, minds and lives.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
So we prepare the world - by proclamation and by living the good news of the Gospel of Christ. Our message is one of new life, of the peace of God, of God’s love for every individual, of the need to love our neighbour. Our message is a positive one and is one to be spoken and one to be lived. It is important to remember that it is not only our words that spread the gospel, it is our lifestyle, it is the way we are God’s people, as well as those who say we are God’s people.
And so a world which tends to speak a language of self-concern and self-advancement, of oppression and injustice, of having and wanting is given a new language, one which is based on words of love and grace, of giving and caring. In this way God’s word is again living and active - and Christ once again is brought near. By our lives and our words we prepare the way for the entry of Christ into the lives of people who do not know him. In this way we prepare a world which is unprepared for a God who cares for them, who is willing to die for them, who loves them with everything he is.
In some ways, however, the world can never be ready for Christ. The message of the gospel is a surprise and always will be. The message that God comes to us in the weak, the humble, the hurting, the needy, is one that shocks, that is unexpected. Our God is a God of surprises. Our God is a God who chooses to work through us, to rely on His people to prepare the way for the working of His living, active, dynamic spirit. God puts into our hands the responsibility of preparing the way.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
If I were God I’d want to do it differently - something big, something noticeable - something in neon, perhaps, with a loud soundtrack - maybe multimedia, a few thousand angels and a really big sound system. But I am not God, and our God has chosen us to show and tell the message.
There is a story of a statue of Christ found in a ruined Church. The hands and feet of the statue had broken off in the devastation that had destroyed the Church. That statue was never repaired, though, those who found it said that it reminded them that we are the hands and feet of Christ in our world.
We are the ones responsible for bringing the message of Christmas to the people around us. This may not involve saying anything to them about faith, but by the way we act towards them, as we seek to do what Christ claimed he was here to do:
“…to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…to let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”
In our own way, then, we are the ones who make straight the way of the Lord, who create a path through the barriers in the hearts of women and men who do not know, or want to know, Christ. We are the ones who bring Christ into the wilderness of lives that long for the love of God to come in.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”
So let’s prepare ourselves and our world for Christmas. In preparing for it let us open ourselves to what God, by the Holy Spirit, would do in us and through us. Let us celebrate the fact that Christ has come near, and that Christ wants to be a part of our world and our lives today. Let us celebrate Christmas because we have good reason to celebrate and because the Kingdom of Heaven is among us, the same Kingdom that can be likened to a banquet or a wedding feast. The same Kingdom of Heaven that is echoed in our celebration of the Eucharist. The same Kingdom we can celebrate in our parties and our Christmas dinners. Let us proclaim a message of good news, the gospel of Christ as we enjoy Christmas and as we Prepare the way of the Lord.
Now to God alone be all majesty, might, power and dominion, in the Church and throughout the world now and evermore. Amen.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
The Urgency of Waiting
We've had a lot of weddings in this past year. And there is always a moment in a wedding, and yesterday was no exception when people go from ‘hanging about’ before the start of the service to ‘waiting’. It’s normally just a moment or two before the bride enters (depending on how late the bride has decided to be, of course). There is a sense of expectation, of anticipation – and, no matter how sure we are that there is no chance of the bride not arriving – there is still that feeling of ‘is she coming?’. Of course she is, her decision to be married was made, as was the bridegrooms, long before that day. Life is not a soap opera, and I have never been to or heard of a wedding where the bride ‘did a runner’ – just as I have never known or heard of a challenge at the moment when the Priest says ‘if anyone knows a reason why these two may not lawfully marry you are to declare it now….’ Though I did once have someone put an Alien mask on (very surreal) at that point in a service.
But the anticipation, the sense of waiting, is real. And Advent. the season of the Church’s year that begins today, is a season of waiting. The word ‘Advent’ means, as you probably know, ‘appearing’, ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’ – and so we are waiting for an arrival. We here, and the whole Church,, like that wedding congregation, are called to wait.
But wait for what?
Traditionally the Church has used the season of Advent for two purposes – firstly to prepare for the coming celebration of Christmas. It is a time of waiting for this great feast of the Church year – a time when we will celebrate the God who is with us, Emmanuel, the human one. Until that time our hymns and our readings are, in part, focussed around the promise in Scripture that comes true at Christmas-tide – the promise that God will be one of us, and by doing so will save us from the natural consequence of our sins – that is, to save us from death.
And because this promise is so wonderful, even though we know the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus Christ, we re-enact the story of waiting, of hoping for this coming of God.
But this has further resonance for the Christian Church – the fact that the promise has not only been fulfilled, that God is with us – but that we await the fulfillment of a further promise – the coming of Christ in glory. This is Saint Paul’s concern in the background to our reading today from 1 Thessalonians – to give a sense of urgency to that hope of Christ’s return – a return that the early church thought was a matter of hours, days away – not months or years.
Now many pages have been written about what this ‘second coming’ – also known as the ‘parousia’ means – and we as Christians do hold out in hope for the return of Jesus. But we must not concentrate on what may happen, but live in the life and the grace of what has happened.
In the more liberal end of the Church of England, a place which I have claimed to have inhabited at times, the thinking goes that Jesus coming again is realized for Christians in the coming of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost. That the second coming is made real whenever anyone receives the Spirit of God at Baptism.
Now, I would say that this cannot be the whole of the story – but I think it helps us to think about the reality of Christ in the world in which we live. For we are the body of Christ, it is our task to proclaim and work towards the kingdom of God. We are called to be prophets, crying out in the wilderness that God is among us.
I would go further, and I live in hope and faith that at some time, in God’s good time, there will be a consummation of the Kingdom of God – when the fulness of God will be revealed and the earth live to praise the name of God – as it says in one of the new Eucharistic prayers in Common Worship. I believe that at some time, as Julian of Norwich, a great medieval saint once said ‘All Will be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I long for the fullness of God’s presence here in earth.
But when I pray ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ – I am praying for our world today, and I am going to do my best, even in my own little way, to try and make the kingdom, the reign, of God real in my life, and in the life of the world around me.
And so we wait – we re-enact the waiting for the promise of God in Christ and we wait in faith and hope for the coming of Christ again in glory. This has been the traditional view of Advent, and it is one that still holds today, even after hundreds of years of Church tradition. But our world is changing, and our society is waiting.
Not just the Church, not just Christians, but our whole world is engaged in a process of waiting.
What are we waiting for?
Our society is undergoing great shifts in the way it thinks, in how it acts, in the zeitgeist the spirit of the age. More learned types than me have talked about ‘a Paradigm shift’ – meaning that the very fabric of our society is undergoing massive changes.
It’s no longer just being able to say ‘it’s not like it used to be’. That’s been the cry from generation to generation as people grow older and see the way things have indeed changed –as they do. No, our society is moving from a certain way of thinking, of being, to another way.
There have been great cultural shifts before in our history – from Hellenism (Greek culture) to the world of Rome, from the dark ages to the age of enlightenment, in the Church in England we have gone from Celtic to Catholic, from Catholic to Reformed, from division to ecumenism. And now, at the start of a new Millennium we see our society undergoing some major changes.
For as long as any of us can remember our culture has had in a post-Enlightenment, rationally based world-view. Central to this was the idea that progress was inevitable, that the world could only get better as we discovered more and more through science and as we invented better and better things. The industrial revolution was the epitome of this idea – that if we could build bigger and better machines then the quality of life for all would improve.
This ‘myth of progress’ has been proved false. After two world wars and countless battles and conflicts that have carried throughout the last century. After the gap between rich and poor has widened in our country and all over the world. After the failures of science to tackle many of the issues of human need and everyday existence there is a lack of faith in the rational, the scientific, the industrial machine.
Alongside this institutions – Government and the Church foremost amongst them – no longer command the respect of previous eras. People are more likely to challenge authority, to be skeptical about our leaders.
Our communities are changing, people (on the whole) have less time for neighbours – because they are mobile, and in touch through telephone, fax, e-mails, many – especially in urban and sub-urban centres are creating communities of interest groups, rather than with those who they live next to.
As well as this there is a burgeoning interest in a wide variety of spirituality – the New Age philosophies, eastern philosophies, Celtic spirituality, meditation, high Church ritual.
And commentators state that the reason for all of this is that we are moving from the modern age, the post-enlightenment world view – to a new epoch. What we see now, say many writers and philosophers, are the signs of an emerging culture, of something new. We find ourselves in a time of transition, a time which some have called ‘post modernity’
We are waiting for something new.
But why has the Vicar decided to talk on this now?
Well this comes from our Gospel reading on interpreting the signs of the age, looking at the fig tree and seeing what is going to happen. If we are aware of what is happening in our world, we have the chance to shape the world in which we live through our prayers, our activities, our worship and our rôle as lights to the world.
And this Advent it is worth us thinking of how we as the Church are going to respond to this. Waiting does not mean sitting doing nothing, lamenting what has passed, it can be a time of preparation, of great excitement.
This is a time of waiting, when we have our chance to work with the cultural shifts and to even be counter-cultural in places, offering a challenge to the assumptions that have been made and are being made. The Church has lived through many cultural changes and will continue to do so through whatever comes, though its form and structures may change it is through God’s grace that we carry on as Christ’s body here on earth.
So what does this mean for us here today? It might be all very well to consider philosophically, but what about the everyday in the life of this village and of myself as a follower of Christ?
Firstly we can offer a genuine welcoming faith that is open to those who want to come and explore, and to make it real in our community of the Church.
Next we can call on the rich heritage and spirituality of the Church, to build a faith that holds fast to the best and is willing to take risks for the gospel. Alongside this we must apply our hearts and our minds to truly being willing to consider how we can move forward to meet the needs of our communities and welcome new people to our Churches.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we can hold fast to the truth of the Gospel – an eternal truth of God’s love for all people. Lives of faith are the best advertisement for the Church. In our lives of prayer, in our worship we meet with a God who is faithful, who meets the needs of those who turn to him and who is changeless amongst the ‘changes and chances of this mortal life.
During this Advent Season let us rededicate ourselves to service of God and his world, to lives of prayer and faithfulness and, above all else let us wait upon God and listen for God’s voice and his guidance. Amen.
Although it's coming up to 10am here in Blighty, Lydia is writing from Canada, so the post might not appear until later...
It also gives me the excuse to say 'get thee to a nunnery' (see blog name!)
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Faith is better described as a journey rather than a destination.
Mary's journey was arduous, painful, and within it came the pain of childbirth and the anxiety of homelessness. And the birth of Jesus wasn't to be the end of her pain, as Simeon said to her 'a sword will pierce your own soul also'. But she was also one of those who saw the resurrection first hand, and knew the joy of bearing the one who brought life to the whole world.
Our faith is filled with struggle, with the unknown, with the uncertainty of life. We hold on to the promise of what is to come, and that through this difficulty will come joy. What is crucial to us now is to remain faithful on the journey, and to remember that the end of our searching is Christ.
The Alternative (Church of England) Collect for the days of Advent:
as Mary waited for the birth of your Son,
so we wait for his coming in glory;
bring us through the birth pangs of this present age
to see, with her, our great salvation
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Monday, December 04, 2006
On top of that the person who grumbled at me on Friday was also the one who called me on Sunday to let me know just how wonderful she thought the service was. I was pretty chuffed to get that, and i think it was a sort of 'implicit apology' thing going on... We brits are pretty bad at actually saying what we think, and would rather just not mention any unpleasantness, thank you very much, ahem.
Will post the ropey sermon sometime later.
Have felt slightly grumbly today, but only because i have spent the last 24 hours or so trying to get the setup on my new computer sorted (new pc, waheeey, transferring stuff and getting programs sorted, yah boo sucks). It didn't help that my new internet 'home hub' adsl router went kablooey half way through the day and after an hour to my ISP who were absolutely sure it was due to the computer, not to their own hardware, then an hour and a half to my PC supplier (who were absolutely brilliant, by the way) I decided to uninstall my hub and re-install my old router, which works perfectly, so no matter what my ISP say, it is their hardware at fault. Phoned up call centre again, and said 'look, i've gone through this over and over, please just send me a new hub' and 20 minutes later they finally agreed to do so...
Not terribly grumbly, but it was a waste of time.
Love my speedy new computer, though - have accepted my Dimension E520 into my heart...
Friday, December 01, 2006
Had a very heavy day yesterday, with a really important pastoral event which saw me putting lots of time and a huge amount of energy into a situation which has been going on for a couple of weeks now. It was worth the energy, but left me yesterday feeling very drained - tired out physically, emotionally and spiritually too.
I then called someone to talk about one of our Children's services on Sunday, a Christingle, and cheerily said 'i've got everything sorted, collected the collection boxes for charity from the local school, sorted out music & service sheets' and then asked 'do you have any idea who I could ask to do a short reading - i've got the main reader sorted out, but thought a child or two might want to read a short prayer' i was then moaned at for not having done this two weeks ago (co-incidentally when the pastoral event began, as the speaker knew) and despite my protestations that i didn't have the materials or the time to do it two weeks ago i was left with the definite feeling that i was considered to be in the wrong at that this person was seriously displeased. I did say that i didn't expect her to go and ask anyone, and that i would go and do some visiting to trawl for volunteers if she gave me a couple of guidelines, but got no response to that, only complaint.
This is the only service this person does all year, i have spent weeks running around trying to put things together on top of having to deal with various pastoral needs in six villages, and i get complained at...
Sometimes you feel like giving in.
End of moan. Be happy folks!
Everything went pear-shaped at the start of the month and i never really recovered, so i am stuck with 1500 words going nowhere and the month is over, c'est la vie.
Expressions of sympathy and/or berations will be accepted...
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
and really enjoyed it, thought it was nicely written, down to earth style with wit, humour and warmth, accessible, a few things i wouldn't agree with regarding the way he thinks about details of Christian belief, but overall definitely a good to very good book. I thought i would try:
Now i can't decide whether i like this or not, it has the same style, but seems to be trying to be clever in a more self-conscious way and (i think) fails - particularly when it comes to Biblical Critique, the idea that the pentateuch and Job was all written by Moses seems to me to be a rather clueless approach to Biblical authorship (though i may well upset some folk by saying this). Anyway, with regards to the book, i still like much of the style, and there are sublime moments in the chapters, particularly the one headed simply 'Jesus', there are still bits to be enjoyed and savoured and there are moments where Miller's turn of phrase is perfect, and he says something which can make a lightbulb go on in the brain and 'ah, now i understand' moments occur.
I am oscillating between liking this book, with reservations and disliking this book with glimpses of stuff i really like. Still worth reading, i read lots of things i disagree with and can enjoy and appreciate them, but not a gem of a book like 'blue like jazz'.
Anyway the reason for the heading of the post and my comment about Biblical critique is that over the past twenty five years or so i have journeyed through many parts of the Church - having started off in a very conservative Evangelical church which grounded me in a love of and appreciation for Scripture, i moved in my mid teens to a Charismatic church which showed me the joy and release of Spirit filled living whilst offering still a regard and respect for the Bible which i hold on to now. Looking back, though, i can see an overwhelmingly uncritical attitude to both the Bible and those who claimed to interpret it was the mark of my Charismatic fellowship, and i became less and less convinced by the often right-wing, narrow interpretations offered to me as i grew more aware of who Jesus was (from my own reading and studies) and the breadth of the Church beyond my own fellowship...
I went on to join and Evangelical Anglican church as i worked for a School's outreach group called Scripture Union in my late teens, then to carry on that part of my journey by being confirmed when I moved to London to College in South West London, and a degree in Theology (with Drama!). As I read more, prayed more, saw more and learned more i realised that the simple, or rather simplistic, version of what is in the Bible and where it came from didn't actually ring true any more. I found myself more convinced by the four source hypothesis about the foundation of the Pentateuch than the idea that Moses wrote about his own death, and that one of his scrolls went missing for a few hundred years and suddenly popped up in time for the Deuteronomic reforms. I realised that differences in the language used about God and the style of the writing in different chapters, passages and in large chunks of the Old Testament pointed more towards the skilful (inspired, i would say with no hint of irony) redaction (editing) of the scriptures than the idea that it could all have been written by just a very few people... I found the arguments about authorship in the New Testament, and the synoptic thesis, and the 'so-called Pauline Epistles' challenged my understanding and stopped me from holding on to the simplistic 'dropped from the sky, it's inspired, don't ask too many questions' approach...
I went through a liberal phase too, and as i explored my calling to ministry i enjoyed the experience of the high Church (or Anglo-Catholic) wing of the C of E. I went to a broad Church college which had the label 'liberal catholic' - but was taught by faithful Christians of a variety of denominations, theological standpoints and experiences. I went on to be a curate in a very broad suburban church, then Assistant Priest in an Anglo-Catholic parish in South Kensington, central London, then came here where i have been for nearly six and a half years.
From all of this you will see that my experience has taken me through most of the labels which McLaren uses below in my earlier posting and i have taken from these experiences a rich and varied understanding and appreciation of two thousand years of christian experience. But no matter how much i want to i can't go back to thinking of the inspiration of Scripture as i did twenty or so years ago, i can't pretend not to have been convinced and challenged by Biblical critique and to take things at face values. I don't believe that creation happened in six days, and i don't think the Bible says we have to believe that, I do think that woven into scripture are 'myths' which may not be literally true but contain depths of truth which many literalists miss out on by arguing about whether they are literally true or not. All of these things i am willing to discuss and be challenged on, and who knows, if God convinces me i need to change my ideas then i am open to that - but my experience of loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind means that i am willing to use my brain to struggle with my faith, and i continue to remain as faithful as i can to the God whom i love and seek to serve, trusting in God's Holy Spirit, and in the grace brought me through the death and resurrection of my saviour Jesus Christ.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Christ the King (2006) Year B RCL Principal
King of All
Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s year . Officially the Church year begins on Advent Sunday. But on this last Sunday of the year we have a theme to crown the year, indeed something which brings our focus back to the central belief of Christian faith. Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.
So what is this feast? Why do we celebrate it? What difference does – indeed what difference should – it make?
In a way it is a celebration that echoes Ascension Day, which marks the end of Eastertide. This long period that we mark as the Sundays after Trinity in the Prayer book and in our lectionary – we call ordinary time. It contains significant feast days of the Church such as All Saints, All Souls, SS Peter & Paul and others – but it doesn’t historically have the same ongoing significance of times in the year such as Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost.
On Ascension day we remember Christ ascended and glorified. No longer bound by mortal flesh but resurrected and glorified in his resurrection body. We honour Christ as second part of the Trinity and thereby ruling and reigning with God for all eternity. Robed in splendour and majesty we give worship to God as ruler of all.
And the feast of Christ the King offers another reminder of that. Before we approach the great celebration of the Incarnate God in Christ at Christmas we are reminded of the fact the same God who took flesh, who lived a human life, who was humbled in taking human form, is ruler of earth and heaven. We are reminded that Christ is king of all creation, is the Holy One who we worship and adore.
Today is a chance to reflect on the majesty and splendour of God in Christ, the one who died, rose again and is seated on God’s right hand. It’s a great celebration of just who Christ is, of what he is, of what he has done and of who we are in relation to him, our ruler, our leader, our God. It is also a day to ask the question – what does it mean that we believe that Christ is the King, and what difference does it make to my life and my faith today.
In our Gospel we see an encounter with Jesus where Pilate, starting from a position of doubt, asks ‘are you the king of the Jews’. I wonder what was going through this mind as he asked this, whether he was really searching to find the meaning of what the accusations made against Jesus were all about. Perhaps he also was taunting Jesus, the text itself leaves the question open.
Our Gospel reading also reminds us of Jesus, the human one, or Son of Man (mentioned in the reading from Daniel for this morning) as the older translations say, having a very real sense of where the power and authority he possessed came from. He says ‘My kingdom is not of this world…’ It is this that should inspire us to see our own ministry and mission as the Church of God – we are those who are mandated by heaven, if you like, given a divine commission to live as children of light, as subjects of God’s kingdom.
The kingdom of God is an important ideal that runs throughout the teaching and ministry of Jesus. This kingdom is not a place, or set in time – it is a state of being. A better word than kingdom might be ‘reign’ or ‘rule’ – the kingdom of God is that state which is achieved when women and men submit to God’s gracious reign and live lives worthy of the calling which God has given us.
And it is this which is the lesson of the feast of Christ the King – acknowledging Jesus Christ as our ruler and leader. It is a reminder that we who are by our baptism subjects of a divine kingdom. And what are the consequences of this acknowledgement? If we really believe that Jesus is our king this should have a real effect on our everyday lives – after all the life and liberty we have by being part of the country we are, under the constitutional monarchy of her majesty Queen Elizabeth II means that we enjoy the privileges we do.
Likewise, our status as subjects of our Divine Ruler should have an everyday impact, it should inform our conduct and the actions we undertake. In fact, in a way that a human ruler cannot manage, we should be going further and allowing our rôle as subjects of God’s kingdom inform even our very thought-life. St Paul writes, 2 Corinthians Chapter 10 that “ we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” There is no limit, or perhaps I should say, there should me no limit on that over which Christ is ruler in our lives.
There are three things which we must take seriously if we are to truly serve Christ as our king:
One is to know Christ – in most situations there is no opportunity to get to know the ruler of a nation in a personal and intimate way. With Christ we have the great privilege of reading his word, the Bible, spending time in prayer talking to him and being able to listen and learn from him – in our prayers, our Bible reading, in sharing with other Christians.
Secondly we are called to submit, and to serve, to take seriously the demands that our Christian faith must make on our lives. We must all ask ourselves – is there any way in which I am different to the person I would be if I did not follow Christ? What difference does being a Christian make to my life? What could I do to make my faith more of a reality, what could I do to be a servant of God in such a way that it makes a difference in my life.
Thirdly – we should enjoy our lives as part of God’s reign. The promise of God is not just about rules, regulations, laws, constraints, morals etc etc etc In the end the reign of God results in lives transformed, hearts filled with love, lives bearing the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control, goodness. These are not constraints on our lives, they free us to be the people that God longs for us to be.
To be honest, I would not be a minister of a faith that is inward looking, miserable or negative. My calling is to preach the Gospel – Good News – of a kingdom of life, of living life to the full, of enjoying the fullness of God. That’s not to preach hedonism, but responsibility, work and fulfilment. We are to be people whose love of life and love of God shines. We are to be those whose commitment to the kingdom is visible in such a way that it is attractive. and whose enjoyment of life affects all that we do and say.
Preaching today on Christ the King is exciting, it reminds us that God has good in store for us. But the message of Christ the King is not one of a kingdom ‘one day’, but of a reality now, of the reign of God that encroaches on the lives of those who seek to follow here and now, who enjoy following Christ, no matter what the difficulties, and whose lives reflect the glory of God.
May the love of God dwell in us and shine through us as subjects of our heavenly king, and ambassadors of his divine, joy-filled kingdom. Amen.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
That sounds really boring, its not, it is funny, thought provoking and well worth getting, all you need to do is sign up and you will get Ralph Milton's thoughts for the week, a joke or two, a look at the Psalm for the week, some funny stories, and a variety of bits and bobs which are far more interesting than the usual blurb in the electronic mailbox! Here's his instructions for joining and leaving:
* Send an e-mail to: rumors-subscribe[at]joinhands.com
* Don't put anything else in that e-mail
* Send an e-mail to: rumors-unsubscribe[at]joinhands.com
* Don’t put anything else in that e-mail
I've put [at] instead of the usual symbol to keep those ever present spambots from picking up the address easily... Thanks to moog for that tip...
The other thing to remember is make sure your spam filters let rumours in! If you want to see a copy of rumours before signing up then send me a mail fracme [at] yahoo.co.uk and I will happily forward one to you.
Ralph is responsive to thoughts, critique, humour and other email snippets too, plenty of interaction available on this list - so give it a try.
Friday, November 24, 2006
And if I've not had the chance to update things for a few days please do feel free to mooch around, there's plenty in the archives, even some pictures! Mi casa, si casa (or however you spell that!)
Oh, and do leave a comment if you have a mo...
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
I know that 'Mission' is the in-word in British Christian circles at the moment, but there was a great reminder from the Bishop of Exeter who (quoting someone i can't remember, so anyone who can attribute this please let me know) said
'It's not that the Church of God has a mission, but that the God of Mission has a Church'
Apologies if i got that wrong, but the gist of it is clear...
I never ceased to be amazed with children's capacity to learn and to deal with things - of course for many the reality of death hasn't yet really 'come home' to them yet, and even us grizzled old Vicars can't become hardened to the pain of loss, even if we didn't know someone particularly well it can still be moving to have to minister to a bereaved family, and to take the funeral of someone, especially in tragic circumstances. We have a particularly difficult funeral coming up in my village in the next week or two, and i find myself feeling a sense of bereavement because of the circumstances, and because it is affecting not just the family but many in this village community. A reminder of the privilege and responsibility of the ministry we are called to.
I'm also reminded how crucial it is to the mission of the Church to be involved in the community in which we are set - we cannot be divorced or distanced from these places, but need to immerse ourselves in our context, or to be clearer, just to be here, to feel, to care, to pray, to hope, to wait,, to love. I think one of the greatest disservices we do to the Gospel is to separate ourselves from the people and places God has called us to serve.
End of sermon :-)
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Team Evening Worship
Jesus and the Law
Two things struck me in preparing this evening’s talk - firstly that I’m not sure how much the idea of Jesus’ attitude towards the law would be considered a gripping issue for us to be going on with in our look at his teachings and life and secondly that I was hoping to hear a talk about this rather than give one! But like many teaching tasks which ministers are called on to deal with, this was an opportunity to think, read, consider and pray through things I might not necessarily have done otherwise, so I hope you’ll enjoy going on this journey with me this evening.
Most of our understanding of Jewish law comes to us via the interpretation and critique of St Paul - I doubt that many of us are avid readers of those parts of scripture that make up the Jewish religious and social legal system - the laws contained within Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. Of course, after Paul those of us who are Gentiles can breathe a sigh of relief that his understanding and interpretation freed us from having to conform to Jewish practice and be proselytised (converted) to Judaism before becoming Christians. I say it was Paul, but from the account in Acts Chapters 10, 11 and 15 and Peter’s vision in Acts 10 of God declaring clean things previously unclean it was the decision of the council of the Apostles that made this decision, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Because of Paul’s teaching though phrases such as ‘no longer under law but under grace’ (some seem to think that this is the summary of my attitude towards speed limits!) and interpretations such as those found in this morning’s readings from Hebrews where the law of the first covenant is superseded by the new law written on the hearts of humankind have meant that we can easily dismiss the reason for the law’s importance in the life of all Jewish people and even in the life of Jesus, for he is the one that said
‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished’
So the law had some importance to Jesus and should therefore have some importance to us, at least understanding it should enhance our understanding of who Jesus is and should therefore influence our faith.
I don’t think I’m overstating anything here - I do believe that in order to have a fuller understanding of our own faith we do need to get to grips with where we come from, ie our Jewish roots. It may seem obvious to us, but Jesus was Jewish! If we want to know more of him we need to consider the background to that, for the Jewish people are still God’s chosen people, and because to forget Jesus place in life, his history, his context, his race, his experience, is to forget the truth of God made human, to forget that in order to be fully human we need to be in a certain place at a certain time and that (to a certain degree) makes us something of what we are…But enough of a digression into incarnational theology (my pet subject, as you probably know). Lets try and leave our post Pauline glasses behind and look at this subject with new eyes.
The purpose of Jewish law was to mark the relationship between God and his chosen people. It marked them out as special. By following these laws and precepts not just in their so-called ‘spiritual life’ but in every area of life - family life, commerce, social action, structures of government, everything the Jewish people were setting themselves out to be distinctive.
The law was meant to be a positive thing, a goal to strive for. It was to show how important God was to the people of Israel. In a religious sense, observance of the law was meant to make people righteous, so those who lived by the law were considered better than others - people such as the Pharisees were elevated because they took upon themselves to observe every letter of the law. Rabbis, religious lawyers and scribes were revered as they sought to help people understand the meaning of the law and to empower them to live the law that all might be righteous.
So we have this law, called Torah, which is foundational to Jewish faith, it is the bedrock of both religious observance and the whole of life. Alongside this we have the prophets who reminded the people - often forcefully - of the importance of the law, and of the principles behind the law. We have the History books, Psalms and wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible - which we call the Old Testament - and alongside this we have a whole culture of considering the interpretation of law and of debating and discussing just how the Torah should be implemented and lived - a culture known as Midrash.
This is the background to Jesus’ own life and the faith in which he was brought up. Much of what he taught echoes the principles of the law, and he was known as a rabbi or teacher of the law by those he met. He was schooled in the law and in order to be bar mitzvah - a son of the commandments, and to be an adult and involved in Jewish worship he would have had to know and read the law (or at least some of it) in Hebrew.
So you see why this is all important to us - it was so much of who Jesus was. And much of what Jesus said was to do with the law, I can’t begin to go into depth with regards to all of the times that Jesus mentions the law, but we see from the very start of his teaching ministry in Matthew - the collection of writings that Matthew puts together under the title ‘the sermon on the mount’ - that once we have been told of the manifesto of the kingdom of God in the beatitudes and he has summoned his hearers, Jesus comes up with this strident denunciation of anyone who thinks he has come to repudiate that which has come before… The words we’ve already heard, the words which were read to us before I started - do not think I have come to destroy the law or the prophets…I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.
William Temple, Archbishop of York and later of Canterbury in the first half of the last century, says this in his book ’Christ’s revelation of God’ - which is so good that I have to quote it and give him credit rather than pretending it was my idea:
‘The Sermon on the Mount is in one real sense a correction of the old Law. But it is a correction by way of completion, not by way of rejection’
He goes on to say
‘Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is found in our Lord’s treatment of the lex talionis - An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That principle looks to us like a sanction for vengeance. But that is a misunderstanding. The essence of the lex talionis is that it sets a limit to the naturally insatiate lust of revenge, which, if left to itself, will take two eyes for an eye and a set of teeth for a tooth. The lex talionis allows only such retribution as exactly equals the injury done, forbidding all satisfaction to the indignation felt against the injurer for beginning it. Our Lord was truly fulfilling or completing that process when he said that there should be no retaliation at all.’
Temple goes on to say that Jesus goes beyond the letter of the law and substitutes the spirit of the law as the guiding principle. No longer do we get to feel satisfied because we have lived up to certain standards - no more ticks in boxes righteousness - instead the demands of God’s way of doing things are never ending. We are to walk in, through and by faith, not by feeling we have reached a certain standard by doing the right things.
And this is the crux of Jesus’ relationship to the law. For Jesus the law was an agent of grace and freedom, it was grace-filled and soaked with grace. It wasn’t something to bind people, to restrict them, but the way in which people could know God and the way in which lives lived under the law could be filled with life and joy. When tackled to expound the most important part of the law he sums it up not with the commandments per se but with the summary of the law, which we call the greatest commandments, which most have you have heard me quote frequently before:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbour as yourself’. Matthew 22.37-40 (paraphrased)This isn’t a simple (or even like many of the laws, complicated) list which when done imparts righteousness. This is a choice of lifestyle - and we realise, one that can only be achieved with the inspiration, guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit. The law may be very neatly summarised in these few sentences, but the application of such law is almost infinite in practice.
Jesus saw the law as a good thing, or rather he saw the basis of the law as a good thing. The law existed to bring people a degree of closeness to God and to one another, it gave value to even the most vulnerable members of society, it was there to provide a social and religious framework for God’s chosen people in order that all might be seen as equally important, that love for God and love of neighbour and self took primacy. Unfortunately the human propensity to believe that by fulfilling certain criteria one becomes somehow better than others took over. We can see this clearly in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: Luke 18.9-14. (reader) Doubtless the Pharisee kept the law, that’s what Pharisees did, but in keeping of the letter of the law he had become proud and arrogant, and lost the spirit of the law - which as the prophet Micah tells us to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’ And in that sense Jesus follows in the line of the prophets who sought again and again to draw the people of Israel back to the principals of the law rather than a narrow, restrictive application.
For these Hebrew prophets, and indeed for Jesus the law was meant to bring freedom, to free people up from worrying about what was the right and wrong and get on with living the way that God longed for people to live - in relationship to him, walking with God, living in loving relationship with one another and realising how God loved us.
It is this radical stance, we could even say this essential stance which takes the very heart of the law and demands a whole new attitude which threatened the religious establishment and brought Jesus into conflict with religious leaders time and time again, I can’t go into detail again, as it would just be saying the same thing over and over again, but Jesus came into conflict over healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, doing things which were considered against the law. They were against the letter of the law, though, but not the spirit of inclusion, compassion, love and grace. In doing this Jesus sought to draw people beyond an understanding of the law being a list of demands and help people grasp the principles of love and faithfulness (on the part of God and human beings) which was meant to be the true meaning of the law.
Now of course the question that comes back again and again with these talks is that old favourite ‘application’. To use a rather altered version of the estate agent and prime ministerial cry - what is important? Application, application, application. How does this apply to me? What do I do to apply this?
Well, hopefully you’re thinking about that anyway, but in order to draw out a few things more I want to say something briefly to finish.
This freedom from the letter of the law should remind us firstly of the grace that is our promise, but it should challenge us because the demands of a law without limit, the law of love, are much more difficult. Through prayer, discernment, study and action we should be learning just what that means for us. What does it mean for me, for us as the body of Christ, to love him with all we are, to love our neighbour and to love ourselves? No answers there, just a question we should be considering again and again, together and in our own prayer and study.
Next we should again turn back to the one who in the end is the fulfilment of the law, in his living, dying and rising again Jesus himself fulfilled all the demands of righteousness and set us free from the power of sin and of death. I was tempted to say, in a kind of Sylvester Stallone voice, that jesus could have said in the words of Judge Dredd ‘I am the law’. Through his example and life we see the embodiment of this whole hearted, self-giving love that is the law made perfect. For the one who said that no part of the law would be abolished but fulfilled he was the one who fulfilled it. We are called to live as he lived, to be like Christ, but just as Jesus refused to make things easy, simple and clear cut when he talked of the law, nor can I say ‘this is how you need to live to be a Christian’.
Jesus' relationship with the law of love which God had gracefully given to his chosen people was a complex one, as he observed many of the proper religious formalities, but in the end we keep in mind that he went way beyond the letter of the law to the grace filled spirit of the law, breaking down the barriers which an obsession with rules and regulations creates, and bringing all of us in his final sacrifice for sin into the presence of God and to a place where, guided and inspired by the Spirit, we can live in a state of loving service to God and one another as we celebrate our own redemption and forgiveness. In this way the law was fulfilled, and the demands of the law were placed upon us all, to be loving, righteous and holy, and to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before our God.