Sunday, 28 November 2010


There was no compromise about John the Baptist. John did black or white. He did not do gray.

For John you were either a Kingdom of Heaven person, or a kingdom of earth person.
You were either a god-person or a not-god person.
You either did God, fully completely and totally, or you did not do God.

He appears, and he preaches. And he says three things

1. The Kingdom of heaven, the rule of God, has come near.

For over 2000 years the people of Israel – or at least those of them who believed the promises of God – had waited for God’s rule to come to earth.

God had told them – through promises given to people like Abraham, through the prophets - that one day the Messiah (God’s special ruler) would be born, he would establish his reign of well-being, abundance, joy, justice and peace. And this reign would never end. Even death would be destroyed.

And now John appears and proclaims: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven has come near’.

John announces a new era, a new government. ‘God is not dead. The promises that we have believed for two thousand years are not empty promises. The rule of God is very close’

2. He calls on people to repent.

John the Baptist was God’s alarm clock. The people – and remember these were the Jewish people - they did God, or at least they said they did God.

But they had fallen asleep. They rather assumed that because they were descendants of Abraham they were OK. And suddenly the alarm goes off. John calls them to wake up.

The repentance that John is speaking of is not just about saying sorry for the things that we do or think that we know are wrong.
The repentance he is talking about is not just about brushing up our act.

That is the way we often think of the second coming. We say Jesus is coming, it might be tomorrow, so brush up, improve yourself

One of our children was told that he had a music exam sometime in November. I have to say that not much practicing got down. However, when he was told, ‘Your exam is in 2 weeks time’. Things changed. The serious practicing began.

Author Doug Mendenhall shares a brief parable (slightly adapted):
“Jesus called the other day to say he was passing through and [wondered if] he could spend a day or two with us.
I said, "Of course. Love to see you. When will you arrive?"
I mean, it's Jesus, you know, and it's not every day you get the chance to visit with him. It's not like it's your in-laws and you have to stop and decide whether the advantages outweigh your having to move to the sleeper sofa.
That's when Jesus told me he had actually just stopped off to fill up at Tesco’s
I must have got that rabbit-in-headlights look, because my wife hissed, "What is it? What's wrong? Who is that?"
So I covered the receiver and told her Jesus was going to arrive in eight minutes, and she ran out of the room and started giving guidance to the children—in that effective way that drill instructors give guidance to recruits. …
My mind was already racing with what needed to be done in the next eight—no seven—minutes so Jesus wouldn't think we were reprobate loser slobs.
I turned off the TV in the lounge, which was blaring some weird scary movie I'd been half watching. Plus, I turned off the computer, because I didn't want to have to explain why we were letting the children play Call of Duty to Jesus, either, six minutes from now.
My wife had already thinned out the magazines that had been accumulating on the coffee table. She put The Church Times on top for a good first impression. Five minutes to go.
I looked out the front window, but the garden actually looked great thanks to my long, hard work, so I let it go. What could I improve in four minutes anyway?
I did notice the post had come, so I ran out to grab it. There was a lovefilm envelope, and a bunch of catalogues tied into recent purchases, so I stuffed it back in the box. Jesus doesn't need to get the wrong idea—three minutes from now—about how much on-line shopping we do.
I ran back in and picked up a bundle of shoes left by the door. Tried to stuff them in the front closet, but it was overflowing with heavy coats and work coats and pretty coats and raincoats and extra coats. Why had we bought so many coats? I squeezed the shoes in with two minutes to go.
I plumped up sofa pillows, my wife tossed dishes into the sink, I scolded the kids, and she shooed the dog. With one minute left I realized something important: Getting ready for a visit from Jesus is not an eight-minute job.
Then the doorbell rang.”

But actually, I am not sure that is what John is getting at.

When he calls people to repent, he is not calling us to a ‘must do better’ attitude.
Instead real repentance is about a complete ‘change of mind’:

John is calling us to be desperately honest with ourselves.

To the religious people, the Pharisees, he is saying: ‘You’ve been playing as God people, but the evidence of your lives is that you are not God-people. Change. Seek God. Seek his strength; seek his guidance; seek his glory’.

And to non-religious people, he is saying: ‘Stop living for all the things that you have been living for: the children, the job, for love, for what other people think of you, for money, for possessions. Stop living for self. Change the direction of your life. From today’, says John, ‘Seek to live for God and for his kingdom’.

We are spiritually paralysed by the idea that if we live a ‘good’ life we should be OK, and all we have to do to be right with God is to live ‘better’ lives.

But God does not want goodness (at least, he does not want our kind of goodness), but God-ness.

I’m sure that 99% of us live relatively ‘good’ lives. But we allow our society to define what ‘goodness’ is and not God. And we live ‘good’ lives for the wrong reasons: we’ve been taught that it is the way to gain security, to get on, to satisfy our desires and to gain approval from the people we think matter.
We may live ‘good’ lives, but we are blind to God.

And the people who do not live ‘good’ lives – the people who we think society should punish, and who God should punish even more, (the benefit frauds, the child abusers, the drug pushers): many of them are driven by the same motives as us. The reason they live ‘bad’ lives is because they think that by living ‘bad’ lives, they can gain security, get on, satisfy their desires, and gain approval from the people who they think matter. And they live ‘bad’ lives blind to God.

God wants us to first live God-lives, because then we will live good lives: but they will be good lives by God’s standards and not ours. And they will be good lives for God’s sake and not ours.

3. John points people to Jesus.

He points them to the one who is coming as God’s ruler of God’s kingdom. And that person is Jesus.

It is Jesus who is the one who offers to baptise us with the Holy Spirit: who will not simply pour water on us on the outside, but will change our hearts on the inside.

God people are not just people who have chosen to live for God, for the Kingdom of heaven.
They are not just people who put their trust in the invisible God, believing the promises that God has given us.

God people are people who have been baptised with the Holy Spirit.

There is something of God in them, around them, about them. It is tangible.
They know God; they can talk with God; they have an intimacy with him.  
They’re not strong, or clever, but they believe the promise of God that his Spirit will help them to begin to change and live as God people.
Things don’t necessarily go well for them. Indeed sometimes in seems that things go worse for them. But they have a sense of peace and of joy and of intimacy with God in the suffering.
They’re not perfect, but they know that because of Jesus they are forgiven. And because of that they can say sorry.
They are not necessarily the most successful people in life, but they bear good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control;
They’re not immortal, but they have an amazing hope because they believe the promise of God that those who put their trust in Jesus will physically die, but will not really die.

And God people long for the Kingdom of God. They long to meet with Jesus.

If a God-person was told that Jesus was at Tesco’s garage, they wouldn’t spend their time trying to sort things out. They would put out the welcome banner. They’d be at the doorstep waiting for him to arrive. They know that they are not perfect; and they know Jesus knows they are not perfect. But they know that he loves them, and they love him. And they long to be with him. 

A story is told about the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume (I do not know if this is true). When he told a friend, the then Abbot of Ampleforth, that he only had a few weeks left to live, the Abbot is reported to have said, ‘Oh Basil. I am delighted for you’.

John told people that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. We know that that was true, is true and will be true.
It was true, because Jesus came. He was born as a baby. He lived, he preached the Kingdom; he lived the Kingdom.
It is true, because Jesus is here, and his reign can begin in our hearts and minds.
It will be true because one day, at the end of history as we know it, Jesus will return and then his reign will be visible.

And so the call of John to repent, to turn to God, to turn to his Son Jesus Christ, and to allow Jesus to baptise us with his Holy Spirit, is as relevant now as it was then.

The Kingdom of Heaven is very close at hand. You’re either on his side; or you are not. 

Friday, 19 November 2010

On God's anger

Last week I spoke about the love of God

This week is much harder. If I am trying to be faithful to Joshua 7, I need to speak about the anger of God.

The background is this:
God has given a decree – very plainly and very clearly – in Joshua 6:18-19.

The war against Jericho, against Ai and against the other cities in Canaan, was not to be a war for stuff, plunder or for land. They don’t need land. They already have land on the other side of the Jordan.

The war against the Canaanite cities is not their war. It is God’s war. That is why they did nothing at Jericho apart from walk round the walls and shout! They are acting as God’s instrument of punishment on the Amorites, a people who have persistently and consistently rebelled against God, and against his word, and who have become increasingly sinful. Nations and peoples can become increasingly rebellious.

God has been very patient with the Amorites. They were already a big problem back in Genesis 15:16. Sodom and Gomorrah were just two of the cities. And God says to Abraham, ‘One day your descendants will be the people who live in Canaan’ (the Amorites lived in Canaan). ‘But’, he says, ‘not yet. I will wait. I know what will happen, and how the sin of the Amorites will increase’. ‘In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure’.

The Bible tells us that the reason that God waits is to give people a chance – a chance to hear and a chance to repent.

And even now, with the Israelite army in the land, it is still not too late for the Amorites. They can still turn to God. Rahab does, and she and her family is saved. Some of the other peoples recognise the way that things are going, and at least publicly acknowledge the God of Israel, and are not destroyed.

And what God is doing in Canaan is effectively what he did in the flood. In the flood the sin of the world had become so great that God decided he would start again with Noah and his descendants. And now, at this particular land at this particular time (you can NEVER use the Old Testament to justify genocide at any other place or any other time), God is using the descendants of Abraham, as he used the waters, to cleanse the land and refill it with a people who would be faithful to Him, to his promise and to his word. This is not ethnic cleansing, but a cleansing of the land from sin.

However, if you are chosen by God to be an instrument of God – to bring about God’s reign of peace and love and obedience and trust in him on earth – even if it meant here, in this case at this time, resorting to war – you need to make pretty certain that you are living in a right relationship with him. You need to make sure that you are obedient to him.

And that is not happening.

And these verses are about the anger of God – not against the sin of the people of the land, of the Amorites, but against the sin of the people who are meant to be living in a relationship of trust and obedience to God, the people of Israel.

That is why this chapter begins with a reference to the anger of God: ‘But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel’. (Joshua 7:1); and it ends with a second specific reference to the anger of God. After Achan and all that belonged to him has been destroyed, ‘the Lord turned from his fierce anger’ (Joshua 7:26).

I wonder what you make of the anger of God.

We get uncomfortable when we talk about the anger of God.

So often when people talk of an angry God, we think of human anger and rage. That is often uncontrolled, irrational and unjustified. It is also unfocussed and completely out of perspective. We’re hungry, we’ve had a bad day at work, it’s the time of the month or we’ve got manflu - and some poor innocent who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time gets it.  And the bible warns us that ‘our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires’ (James 1:20). Of course we will get angry, but we are warned ‘not to let the sun go down on our anger’.

God’s anger is not like that. It is right and just and focussed.

I get angry when people do not show me respect; when they treat me, or I think that they are treating me, just as a cog in the system, an irrelevancy, or as someone who can be walked over. Actually that is a bit of joke. If I’m really honest, who am I that people should respect me?

But God is right to get angry when we do not show respect to him, when we treat him either as irrelevant – because the creator and giver of all things, the one who loves us, really is worthy of respect. If we cannot respect that which is worthy of most respect, who or what will we respect, apart from ourselves?

It is actually a good thing that God gets angry – and that it is a right anger.

It means that when we desire fairness, we desire something that is real. In a world without God, or in a world in which there is God, but no boundaries, there can be no ultimate fairness.
But if God gets angry with sin, then we know that there is ultimate fairness.

It also means that we can hand over our anger to him – when we pray.
We get it wrong. A few weeks ago I received an email. I got all steamed up about it, and fired off a stroppy reply. Then, when I reread the email, I began to realise that it wasn’t saying what I thought it was saying.

So when we get angry, we can pray: ‘God, I’m really really angry about this. I want to do this or that. I want to smash them. But God, I may well be very out of order here. I may be angry with the wrong people for the wrong reasons. So I hand this one to you. You’ll be angry with me if I’m wrong, and I ask for mercy; and you will be angry in the right way if I’m right’

That is why I would not run away from some of the very difficult psalms, where we talk about smashing our enemies babies heads on rocks. Please remember that the people who prayed those prayers, were people who had seen their pregnant women ripped open and their own children slaughtered by the enemy. It was far better to express our real anger in our prayers, to give it to God, rather than to try and take that anger into our hands.

And I prefer talking about God’s anger rather than some notion of absolute justice – to which, I assume, even God is meant to be subject. First of all, that implies that there is something bigger than God. But secondly, justice is impersonal. If the problem for us is that we are answerable to some absolute justice - you do this and then that inevitably follows - then there is no hope for us. But if the problem for us is that we are answerable and subject to God’s anger, then there is really is hope for us: God’s mercy.

And this passage makes absolutely clear that God’s anger is a reality.

God hates sin. In this case, we are talking about direct disobedience. God had said, ‘Do not take’. And now God says, ‘Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen; they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions’. (Joshua 7:10-11)

What happens here – and it is a warning we need to listen to - is that Achan puts love of stuff before love of God. And God hates it.  He hates sin, because sin is a denial of everything that he is; he hates sin because it is a rejection of his love and of his goodness. God hates sin because he sees what sin does. Covetousness leads to theft leads to lies. It destroys other people and it destroys us.  

And here we see God’s anger expressed

1. in the sentence that is passed on Achan and his family

The fact that Achan’s children suffer because of Achan’s sin is an offence to our sense of justice. But we need to be aware that we live in a very different society to that of Achan and ancient Israel. There the head of the family involved the whole of the family. Because Rahab was saved, her family and all that belonged to her was saved. Because Achan was condemned, the whole of his family was condemned. It was the principal of corporate solidarity. The whole community is represented in one member.

We live in a very different society where each individual is personally accountable for their own sin. That is an emerging biblical principal. In Ezekiel 18 we are told that the child will not die for the father, nor the father for the child, because ‘the one who sins is the one who will die’ (Ezekiel 18:4)

We see that worked out in the New Testament. Ananias and Sapphira sell a field and give some of the money to the church. Where they go wrong is that they tell the church that the money is the full amount that they received for the field: in other words they are giving everything to the church. But it wasn’t true. Peter confronts Ananias and accuses him of lying to God. Ananias falls down dead. Later Peter confronts Sapphira, Ananias wife. He does not assume that she shares Ananias’ guilt simply because she is married toAnanias. He asks her, ‘Is this the full amount you received for the field’. She says ‘Yes’, and Peter simply says, ‘How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord’. She too falls down and dies. Luke writes, ‘Great fear seized the church and all who heard about these events’

The important thing to stress is that now, in the church, we are each individually responsible for sin. I am not particularly sure that that puts us in any better situation.

God is angry, very angry, rightly angry, when we sin. He is particularly angry when we sin as members of his church, his people. We need to learn again the fear of God.

2. in his threat to abandon the people of Israel

I would argue that this is an even more scary aspect of God’s anger.

God says to Joshua, ‘The reason that you were defeated at Ai was not because you were complacent; not because there was lack of prayer. It was because I did not go with you. And then he says, ‘I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.’ (Joshua 7:12)

God can either direct his anger at us, or  – in his anger - he can wipe his hands of us.

If God directs his anger at us, it means that we personally matter to him. The writer to the Hebrews states: “My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:5-6)

But if God, in his anger, wipes his hands of us, then it means .. we are nothing, we are not even really alive, we have not been alive, we are existing as a shadow in a world of shadows (we might pretend it is real), but we are heading for eternal destruction.

That is not what he wants. Ultimately, far far deeper than his anger, is his love. He loves us. That is why he sent his Son to die for us. And he longs for us to know him, to be in a relationship of the deepest possible intimacy with him.

That is why, in his anger, he may convict us deeply and very painfully (sometimes, when I have been convicted of sins, the words of the confession at communion in the BCP really do apply, the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable’); he may use our Christian brothers and sisters to discipline us, and sometimes he may use circumstances to bring us to our senses.

I’m hesitant about saying that, because you may hear me say that personal specific suffering is due to particular sin. So and so is ill because .. Apart from the obvious, that is not the case. Suffering is an aspect of God’s anger against the world, it is meant to lead us to repentance, but it is general not specific. When you are on your back, you can either close your eyes, or you can look up. And actually, more often than not, God uses kindness to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4)

God’s hates sin but loves us. He cannot separate us from our sin, because sin is our choice, but he is longing that we would repent, and turn to him, and seek his mercy which he so freely offers. That is why he is so patient.

Maybe the whole procedure of finding out by lot who had taken the stuff from Jericho was actually God’s way of giving Achan a chance to step forward and to confess of his own free will. Maybe, if he had done that, he might have saved himself and his family. But he didn’t.

God forbid it, but there is a danger that if we persist in sin and refuse to repent, then God’s patience will wear thin, and he will walk away from us.

[One final thing: A heap of stones is raised up over Achan as a permanent memorial, and the place is called ‘The valley of Achor’ (Achor means trouble). This is where trouble came to Israel.

However, many years later, through the prophet Hosea, God promises to his people – on another occasion when they have sinned against him and suffered his anger -  ‘I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the valley of Achor a door of hope’. (Hosea 2:15 cf  Isaiah 65:10)

And he goes on to say, despite Israel’s sin, "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? … My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man - the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.”

So finally, how do we reconcile the love of God and the anger of God?

We look to the cross. It shows us a human being bearing the full weight of the eternal anger of God against sin; who also happens to be the eternal sinless Son of God giving himself for us in love.]

Monday, 15 November 2010

on Love

Remembrance Sunday 2010

We speak a great deal in this service on love. I would like to invite you to reflect with me on love.

What is love?

Where there is love there is life

[God is love. At the very heart of the Christian understanding of God is an eternal relationship, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father eternally loves the Son as Son and so is Father. The Son eternally loves the Father as Father and so is Son. The Spirit eternally loves the Son as Son and the Father as Father and so is Spirit. Their love and their being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be separated.]

God is love. God is also Life. He is the giver of life and love. He has given life to each one of us. And he loves each one of us.

Each person is beloved of God; and each person has been made in the image of God with the capacity to respond to that love, to love God and to love others.

So love and life are absolutely bound together.

We will only live, fully live, when we fully respond to the love that God has for us, and when we fully love.

It is built into our spiritual DNA.
The more we love, the more we will live.
The more we become self-obsessed, the more we die

And we meet people, maybe we are those people, who have been battered and smashed by life – and we’ve gone into ourselves. We’re like a hedgehog that has curled up into a tiny ball of prickles. We have become bitter and hard and resentful and critical. And although we are physically alive we are dead.

But there are people who are very different. I often speak of a man called Fr Kyrill who we met in the theological college in St Petersburg, when my wife and I were living there for two years. He was the spiritual father of the seminary. He had been battered and smashed by life. He had been sentenced to 10 years of hard labour (on three different occasions) in Soviet labour camps, simply for responding to the love of God in a society which said that God did not exist. He could have become so hard and bitter. But he wasn’t. Despite the suffering, he had begun to love, to forgive and to give, and his face was literally radiant.

There was a great line in Spooks a couple of weeks ago. One of the characters said, ‘We have to love something that is bigger than us – God, country. That is what makes us human’.

But I would add a caution to that, because it is not just about loving anything which is bigger than us.

We become like the person or the object which we love.
If we love money above all things, we become like money: cold and calculating
If we love power above all things, we become like power: impersonal and brutal
If we love love, sexual desire, eros, then we end up like eros, indulgent and self-obsessed
If we love self above all things, we become more twisted in on ourselves

St Augustine wrote, “When we ask whether someone is a good man, we are not asking what he believes or hopes, but what he loves”.

If we love one who is love, we will become love
If we love one who is eternal, we will become eternal.

Love and life are bound together.

Love takes us out of ourselves

The gift of love, of love of God and love of others takes us out of ourselves.

Jesus Christ has, of course, set us the example of love. He loved us so much that he gave himself for us, totally and completely, to be crucified for us.

He said: ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:12-13)

Love and giving cannot be separated.
If I love something or someone, I will give myself totally for it or them.  
We live for what we love.

And that of course can be many different things.
It could be the terrorist blowing up themselves and other people because they are living for their cause.
It could the person living for excitement and adventure or glory and honour or respect and status.
It could be the parent living for their child: getting up in the middle of the night for the third time to clear up after their daughter has been sick again.
It could be the old man, dressing up two or three times a week, as if he is going on a date, to go and spend an afternoon with his wife in the residential home, even though she has alzheimers and hasn’t recognised him for at least 3 years.
Or it could be the soldier throwing himself on a hand grenade to take into himself the full force of the blast: Why? Because at that moment he is living for his comrades or the people he came to protect.

In the reading from Romans 13, we heard that the love which the bible commends is certainly not love of a ‘cause’ which means you destroy others. ‘Love’, we are told very plainly, ‘does no harm to its neighbour’.

The love that the bible commends is love of God and love of neighbour. It is a love which takes us out of ourselves: so that I focus not on Me, but on Him and on You.

And it is significant that the bible talks of ‘love of neighbour’. ‘Love of friends’ could be a kind of self-love, because we choose our friends.
Love of neighbour can never be a kind of self-love, because we do not choose our neighbours. They are given to us. We may not actually like them, but we are still called to love them.

Today, in our global society, our neighbours include not only the people who live in our street, town or country, but also
the people in the village community in Afghanistan crushed by oppressors, the men and women suffering from a cholera epidemic in Port-au-Prince, and the Somalian refugee in southern Sudan.

The world is very different to 1918, when Cecil Spring-Rice adapted his poem into the hymn we are about to sing, I vow to thee my country. Our neighbour includes so much more now than our fellow countryman or woman.

We cannot, if we claim to love God, turn on the television, or go online, and see – for example - pictures of people starving in East Africa, and walk away untouched. They have become, whether we like it or not, our neighbours.

Of course we cannot do something for everyone; of course ‘charity does begin at home’, but we cannot use that as an excuse for doing nothing.

Real love takes us out of ourselves; it takes us beyond those who are like us or who we like; it takes us across oceans; it takes us into the depths and into the heavens.

Real love begins with right vision

If I am to love another person, then I need to see them.

The Good Samaritan saw the man who had been beaten up. He chose to become a neighbour to that man. He could have chosen to walk by on the other side, and not see him.

Love sees. It sees the kid hanging around the street corner, the mum struggling on her own with three children, the lonely housebound man, the person silently grieving for their lost daughter or husband

Love also sees potential.
Yes, the kid hanging around on the street corner is a threat, but they are also someone who has incredible potential – if only some adult would give them time, show them respect and help them find direction and meaning
Love sees the housebound person not just as someone who needs to be looked after, but as a person in their own right, who has a wealth of experience from which we can learn, if only we would take the time to listen to them

Can I warn us in these days of economic austerity – at public and at private level - to guard against the temptation to choose to become blind. We may not be able to afford to give them money, but we can give them something much much more precious: ourselves.

And real love sees people as God sees them.

We need to pray for that vision to see who they are, and what they need, what they really need.
What many people need is comfort or reassurance or protection or medical care or food or housing.

But we need to look deeper. People also need to grow and become adults (even if they don’t want to be), to be given the resources so that they can make independent decisions, to be equipped and empowered so that they, in turn, are set free to love.

And to see people as God sees us, we need to look even deeper.  Our problem is that by nature we are blinded by our self-obsession. Our greatest need is for love. It is for a full and intimate relationship with God. It is that each of us might turn to God, to receive his love, be filled with the vision of God, and know the love of God, so that we might begin to love like God, and live like Jesus.  

Jesus saw us as God sees us.
That is why he did not raise an army and repel the oppressive Roman occupying force; it is why he did not turn stones into bread; it is why he did not heal everyone.
That is why he did die for us on the cross - so that we might know the love of God, receive forgiveness and begin to be filled with that life giving love.

Love lasts for eternity

Love hopes.

It hopes for people in this world. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’.

Love goes on hoping in this world beyond all reasonable limits

It is the wife who stays with her abusive husband, probably long after she should, hoping against hope that this time he really will change
It is the peace-maker who goes back and back and back, determined to bring a resolution, determined to believe the best of the other.
It is the teacher who refuses to give up on the pupil

Sometimes that love pays off. Sometimes miracles happen.

But we’re not na├»ve: we know that in this world love and hope disappoint. There comes the time when, for our own safety or sanity, we have to give up.  

But that does not mean that love ultimately fails. In fact, and I said this at the funeral of Senior Aircraftsman Luke Southgate, nothing that is done in love is ever lost.

For those who have received the love of God in this world, we can look beyond this world to another world: in the words of Cecil Spring-Rice’s hymn, to ‘another country’.

It is a world that we glimpse very occasionally here and now. It is a world of gentleness and peace, of mercy and justice, of fulfilment and joy. Now we hear rumours of that world; Now we glimpse it as through frosted glass; then – for all who turn to Jesus and receive his love – we will see it and know it.

There we will share in the full divine vision. We will see as God sees. There we will give ourselves totally, without question, without calculation, in love for others and we will discover that in the total giving of ourselves for others, we find ourselves.

This is not pie in the sky.

Please do not tell me on remembrance Sunday that love is not real. And if love is real, God is real and this is real.

And if the one who loves us, and the one who we love, is eternal, this love really will last for eternity.  

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The resurrection from the dead and marriage

This is the report of a dispute that Jesus has with the Sadducees. It is about the resurrection. The Sadducees, who were the spiritual aristocracy of the time, didn’t believe in the resurrection. They only accepted the first 5 books of the Bible as having authority, and they argued that you live on, but in the nation, in your children and grandchildren

And they think that they have got a pretty good argument against resurrection.

They point out that the law says that if a man dies without children, his brother must marry the wife and the first children born to the marriage would take the name of the brother who had died. ‘Now’, they say, ‘A woman marries 7 brothers. They all die. She dies. So in heaven’, and notice the words because they are important, ‘whose wife will she be?’

And Jesus responds to their challenge

  1. He challenges them on the fact of the resurrection
  2. He challenges them about the nature of the resurrection
  3. He speaks about being ‘considered worthy’ of taking part in the resurrection

  1. Jesus challenges them on the fact of the resurrection

The Sadducees begin with human experience. OK, the story of the woman with 7 husbands is exaggerated, to make a point. But there must have been women who had been married to more than one husband. So, in the resurrection, to whom will they be married? To the Sadducees it just showed how silly the idea of a bodily resurrection really was.

Jesus argument is pretty radical. He appeals to scripture. In fact when Matthew reports this story (Matthew 22:23-33), he includes the fact that Jesus also says to the Sadducees: ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God’

Jesus does not start with experience. ‘There was this person I know who had a near death experience. He saw a bright light etc.’

Of course inner experience is extremely important, but the only thing that my inner experience tells me is about my inner experience. That is why we can never deny or rubbish another person’s experience, although we may wish to explain it in a different way to the way that they explain it. But equally, we can never make another person’s inner experience authoritative or definitive for ourselves.

My aunt was, for many years, a missionary in India. Towards the end of her time there I went to visit her, and met Saiffee, a young man who had been a Moslem but was converted. Jesus came to him in a dream. For Saiffee the experience of the dream brought him to Christ. But it was only good for him. He could not go to another person and say, ‘Become a Christian because I have had a dream about Jesus’. It wouldn’t work.

So Jesus here does not appeal to his experience: ‘I know that there is a resurrection’. Instead he appeals to scripture, to the bible. He says: “But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

This is a radical God-centred, word-centred vision of the world. The reason that there is a resurrection is because God is, and if God speaks of a person as living, they live.

There is the saying, ‘Where there is life there is hope’. It usually means that while someone is still breathing there is a chance that they can be healed. But as Christians we can look at it in a different way. Where there is LIFE, God, there is hope. The reason for that hope is that if God knows you and your name, you cannot die

Jesus’ argument here reminds me of Karl Barth’s argument for the existence of a material world. He says he does not believe in a solid world that is outside of me, because I experience it – because my experience could be wrong. It could all be a dream going on in my ‘head’; it could all be a set up, like the film the Truman show. The reason he says that he believes in the existence of the material world is because he has put his faith in God, and in a God who has revealed himself. And God has revealed himself, in scripture, as a creator God. Therefore there must be a creation.

Of course, for us as Christians, living after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have additional evidence for the resurrection – and that, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are pretty convincing proofs that Jesus rose from the dead: the empty tomb, the grave clothes, the appearances, the changed lives of the disciples, the testimony of the disciples.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian, writes, ‘The evidence for Jesus resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: first it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live’ 

But even with all the convincing proofs for the resurrection of  Jesus, in the end we have to each make a decision as to where we will put our trust, who we will believe. And a person who chooses to put their trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, also puts their trust in the Word of God.

  1. Jesus challenges us about the nature of the resurrection

Today there are many different understandings of what happens after death

Nothing: Few really actually live as if that is the case, because if we really believed it, it would transform how we live. If this life is all there is – then we should be getting out there and enjoying life and making sure that we are OK and the people we love are OK. Other people, generally, do not matter. They can be quite useful to us, but if they get in the way of our well being, then we should have no qualms about crushing them. 

Reincarnation: Meaningless for me: if my consciousness dies when I die, then what difference does it make to me if I come back as an insect or a prince.

Sloppy, sentimentalised view of death

Many modern films are based on the idea of someone dying and then coming back to look after or move on the person left behind.

It is expressed in popular literature:

Heaven ‘is somewhere you believe in .. it’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars, which are the brightest of anywhere in the universe .. If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven .. when your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him … [And Grandma is] alive in me .. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself … She’s in a safe place, with the stars, with God and the angels .. she is watching over us from up there …  ‘I want you to know’ [says the heroine to her great-grandma] ‘that even though you are no longer here, your spirit will always be alive in me’. (Maria Shriver)

And to be honest my understanding of the resurrection had drifted into a sort of Christianised version of that. It certainly was that when die, our ultimate destination is some other place called heaven.

My understanding of the resurrection has been transformed by reading Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. He points out, from passages like this, that the Jewish hope of resurrection was incredibly this-worldy. It was about the reign of the Messiah in a transformed creation, in which there would be no more sin or death.

That is why Jesus here talks of ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’. And the ‘age to come’ is identified as being the age of the resurrection from the dead.

Now I am not going to get into pre-millenialism, post-millenialism or a-millenialism: partly because they are quite complicated, but also because they can end up being disputations about words that do not lead to godliness. What is important is that one day Christ will appear, and heaven will come down to earth, and creation will be transformed.
The Christian hope is of the resurrection of the body. It is real and solid.
Joni Eareckson Tada writes: ‘I have hope in the future. The Bible speaks about bodies being glorified. I know the meaning of that now. It's the time after my death here when I, the quadriplegic, will be on my feet dancing.’
Last year we both looked at art: Stanley Spencer’s, Resurrection in Cookham graveyard;
CS Lewis, The Last Battle.

Of course we cannot know what sort of resurrection bodies we will have. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:35-36
“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” There will be continuity, and there will be great difference

But these verses give us a glimpse. Jesus speaks of how

1. There will be no more death in the age to come
In this age, decay and death reign. In the age to come, life will reign

2. We will be defined in terms of our relationship with God, as children of God, and not as objects. Here we are defined by our whatness (she’s married, a professor; he’s a minister), or by our human relationships. A husband is defined by his wife, and a wife by her husband (even to the extent of taking his name). In this story the woman is defined as the wife of the 7 brothers; the men are defined as brothers fulfilling their duty. But in the age to come we will be defined by our relationship with God and our likeness to his Son.

3. There will be no more marriage in heaven
That is not because marriage is not important here in this age. Far from it: Jesus reinforces the Jewish teaching about monogamous, faithful, lifelong marriage between man and woman. It is the only right place for sexual intimacy, and it is the foundation for society and the bringing up of children.

But Jesus is saying that marriage is provisional and in the age to come there is no marriage – because we will be like the angels (v36).

Now here I am going into the realm of speculation, although I would argue that it is justifiable speculation, because this is how many men and women of God have interpreted these and other passages from the Bible, throughout the centuries.

Angels are a-sexual beings. They are never described as male or female. In heaven, and here I am following many of the church fathers and how they have understood what the bible to teach, we will be beyond gender and sexual attraction. There is another hint in Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And before we think that the loss of gender and sexuality will be a profound loss, we need to remember that in the resurrection, there will be absolute joy in the presence of God. Sexual desire, intimacy and love only gives us a glimpse of the desire and intimacy and ecstasy and love that awaits us in the age to come

So what does that mean for marriage

  1. Marriage is good, but it is not God. It is a gift given to some but not to all. And do not make marriage the be-all and end-all. Do not make marriage God.
  2. Do not define yourself simply by your marriage. Of course our relationship with our marriage partner is absolutely critical, but in our most important relationship is with God. We should cherish and nurture our marriage relationships, but we should even more so, cherish and nurture our relationship with God
  1. How do we attain the resurrection?

Jesus says, ‘But for those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come ..’

This is really important. Who are those who are considered worthy?

It is a very strange sentence.
So far in Luke it is the people who know that they are unworthy who are commended
John the Baptist: ‘I am not worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah’ (Luke 3:16)
The centurion who sends friends to ask Jesus to heal his servant, ‘I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you’ (Luke 7:1-10)
The prodigal son, who in preparing his speech, says, ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son’’ (Luke 15:21)
The tax collector who prays in the temple (Luke 18:9-14)

And we would want to affirm that we are saved by faith in Christ alone and certainly not because we are worthy of salvation.

If you think that you are worthy of the resurrection because of the good life that you have lived, because you are a respected person in the church or in society – you need to think again.

No, the reason that we can have confidence in the resurrection is because God has called us to become citizens of the new age. And he has called us because we could never be worthy of it, we could never merit it. It is all of grace.

That is gloriously liberating: God’s calling does not depend on how good or able we are. It is all about God’s absolute grace. People worry if they have been called. If you worry about it, then listen, you have been or are being called. Spiritually dead people do not worry about their spiritual state. I strongly suspect that if you are here tonight (unless you have been dragged screaming and kicking here), then God is at work in you.

The danger is when you couldn’t care less whether you have been called.
So, Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, “I pray that our God may count you worthy of his calling.’

God has called us to be citizens of the new age. We have to respond.

We can respond like the Jews to whom Paul and Barnabas spoke in Antioch. They rejected this message of the mercy and love of God shown in Jesus. So Paul and Barnabas say, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46)

Or we can respond as people who receive the forgiveness and grace of God, and seek to live lives worthy of that calling. That is the emphasis of the New Testament, when we are called to live lives worthy of the Kingdom of God (Romans 16:2; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 1:27; Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 3:4).

Of course, we will fall, but if we live lives worthy of that calling, we will come back to God in repentance and receive again his forgiveness, mercy and power to change.

So my dear brothers and sisters. Be confident. Not in yourself, but in God.

Be confident of the Bible, the word of God: it is the rock which points us to The Rock
Be confident of the resurrection
Be confident of the goodness of the age to come
Often people think, but I want to be with my husband or wife in heaven! Well, I guess you will have a different relationship with the one who you love specially and uniquely here and now. And although you will not be married to them there, you will love them more there, in the presence of God, than you love them here. But it will not be an exclusive love.
And be confident, not of your goodness, but of the goodness and love of God – of his forgiveness and calling – and live lives worthy of that calling.