Saturday, 26 September 2015

From castles to tents: a critique of closed, complacent and comfortable Christianity

In verses 33-50, Jesus’ teaches the disciples in Capernaum. The verses begin with the disciples arguing about who is the greatest. They end with Jesus urging them, ‘be at peace with each other’.

And in the verses we are looking at today, Jesus challenges three things.

1. He challenges a closed Christianity (vv38-41)

The disciples see a man who is casting out in demons in the name of Jesus, but he was not one the 12 or one of the people who was part of Jesus’ ‘in group’. So they tell him to stop. Jesus however rebukes his followers. He says to them, ‘Don’t stop him. If he drives out demons in my name today, he won’t say bad stuff about me tomorrow. If he is not against us, he is for us’.

In fact, says Jesus, it does not even need to be as dramatic as driving out demons. If someone simply gives you a glass of water because you bear the name of Jesus (v41), they won’t lose their reward.

It is very easy – whether it is in the face of hostility, insecurity or suffering – for us as Christians to retreat into our castles and close the doors.

But Jesus challenges us when we are tempted to be like that.
He has just called us, in the previous verse (37) to be people who welcome ‘little children’ in his name, who welcome those who have no status or significance in society, who welcome those on the edge, in his name.

He invites us to come out of our castles, with all their sense of security and exchange them for tents, with all their sense of vulnerability.

Travellers, refugees and people on the edge live in tents. 

It is actually where people who follow Jesus ought to be.
Jesus was born in a cowshed, was a refugee in Egypt, became a homeless itinerant preacher and ended up dying the death of a slave.
The first Christian communities were made up of people who were ‘nobodies’ in the eyes of society: Gentiles, women and slaves.

Rosemary will tell you that the Church in India is growing at an astonishing rate among Dahlit people, people who are considered ‘untouchable’ by the majority of the population.

And I wonder if the Church today is being marginalised in our own society, pushed to the edge, so that we are forced to come out of our castles, live in tents and learn again to work with those on the edge and to love the marginalised.

One of the real joys about being part of the wider family of God here in Bury St Edmunds is to see how Christians work together across the denominations and churches with the marginalised: I think particularly of CAP, Town Pastors and now Bury Drop in. I think of our own Sometimes on Sunday working with those with learning disabilities. It is an astonishing rainbow of people who call on the name of Jesus and who welcome those on the edge, and each other, in the name of Jesus.

And when we live in tents, and when we work with those on the margins, we will rub shoulders with people like this man in v38 – people who are doing good stuff, in the name of Jesus, but who are on the outside.

Please don’t get me wrong. Truth matters. And the church needs to guard that truth against error. But it does seem here that Jesus is calling us to a deep generosity, to welcome those who do what is good in the name of Jesus, even if they have so much wrong.

Some of the churches that we saw in the diocese of Kiteto, Tanzania, consisted of very simple buildings with a roof and no walls. The problem with a church like that is that anybody can walk in and out. You don’t really know who is in or out. But maybe that is not really our job. Maybe our job is simply to stand on the edge and to invite in everyone who would come to be a follower of Jesus.

So Jesus challenges a closed Christianity.

2. Jesus challenges a complacent Christianity (vv42-48)

If you cause one of these little ones to sin, Jesus says, it is better for you to be drowned. It is better to be dead than go to hell.

I think that there is a connection with what he has just said.
The reference is ‘to causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin’ (v42).
It might be to the little children of v37.
But it is more likely that Jesus is speaking about people like the man driving out demons in v38 – people who are new in faith or uncertain in faith or clueless in faith, who are on the edge of faith.

We cause these little ones to sin when we shut the door on anybody who is not like us.
We cause them to sin when we reject them because they do not do things in the way that we do them.
We cause them to sin when we put so many requirements on them that they are crushed by the regulations and rules, by what they feel they ought to believe and how they ought to behave.
We cause them to sin when we do not feed them, and do not teach them about the grace and purpose and power of God.

Jesus in v39 is aware that it is not just about what this man does today. It is about what he might become tomorrow.  And we need to think about the future, and give people space to fail and space to grow. A person is not going to become perfect overnight because they pray a prayer of commitment.
And in v42-48 he uses astonishingly stark language about sin – this is no game.

God hates it when we cause a new believer to stumble.
God hates arrogance and hatred and the way we judge others in order to justify ourselves or our particular lifestyle.
He hates it when we crush, belittle or humiliate another.
He hates our rebellion and pride. We think that we can live without him, but that means that we replace him with ourselves or sex or our career or money or our family. We make ourselves little gods and treat everybody else as if they are our servant.

And so he says we are to hate that which causes sin.
If it is our hand which causes us to sin, the hand which threatens, hits, steals, writes falsehood, points, then we need to cut it off.
If it is our foot which causes us to sin, the foot which stamps on another, walks over another, takes us to places which shame God, us or shame others, we cut it off.
If it is our eye which causes us to sin, the eye which envies, lusts after, or rejects another simply because of what they look like on the outside; or the eye which is so blinded by self that it does not see the other, we gouge it out.

I hasten to add that Jesus is exaggerating to make his point. He is not commending that we literally cut our body parts off. The Old Testament, and the Christian church has always rejected self mutilation. One chap, Origen, did read this verse and castrated himself, and as a result the church did not permit him to receive communion until he had repented of his action. And certainly the early church never said, as in sharia law or as in our own legal system in the past, that those who steal should have their hands cut off. To be honest, if we did take Jesus’ advice literally, we would all be in a pretty sorry state.

But this idea of cutting things off is not just a dramatic figure of speech. He is also saying something very practical. If looking at a particular website leads us into sin, cut it out. If playing a game on the play station means that we are not spending time in prayer, delete the game from the memory. If we know that when we get angry we hit out, note the warning signs and take steps to stop ourselves. If going somewhere causes us to sin, stop going there.  

Jesus is saying that sin is a desperate matter. The consequence of sin is the eternal judgement of God. This is no joke. There is no place for complacency.

     3.  Jesus challenges comfortable Christianity (vv 49-50)

Comfortable Christians live in their castles, with the drawbridge pulled up, feeling safe, with a fire burning and servants running round, surrounded by people like themselves. Comfortable Christians do what we can to avoid inconvenience, let alone suffering. 

But having spoken about how desperate sin is, Jesus continues, ‘Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves ..’ (v49-50)

And I think what Jesus is saying (and the commentators disagree on how we should interpret this – but do agree that these are the hardest two verses to understand in Mark’s gospel) is that, if we are faithful, we will go through times of fire and that those times are not to be avoided, but to be welcomed. They are to be welcomed as something that will transform us and shape us so that we become salt, agents of God’s mercy and love, in today’s world. Paul writes in Romans, ‘We rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

So although we dread the fire, when it comes, we can welcome it as something that can transform us and help us come closer to the Lord Jesus Christ.

So welcome the hostility of society. The community that Mark was writing to was suffering dreadful persecution. It is a fire that God can use to purify us – and move us out of castles into tents.
Welcome suffering. Suffering can often drive us to our knees; it can help us recognise our human frailty and our need for God. There is the story told about the monk who lived in the desert who always used to get a cold in the autumn. One autumn he didn’t get a cold. He prayed, ‘God, why have you abandoned me this year?’
Welcome the discipline which comes with the Christian faith – the discipline of daily prayer and bible reading - of coming to worship on Sunday even when you don’t feel like it – the discipline of giving – the discipline of occasional fasting – the discipline of praise, when praise is the last thing we want to do.
Welcome the discipline of obedience: maybe the time when we know that we need to move out of our comfort zone, when we need to say sorry to someone, or when we need to welcome someone who we really struggle with.
Welcome the fire of reproof. It can sting when people rebuke us, especially if it is not done in the spirit of love or generosity, but it can purify us.

And welcome the discipline of confession. It is not something we speak about that much. I’ve spoken much this morning about the dreadful eternal consequences of sin. Confession is one of the ways of dealing with it. There is a real purifying of our inner being when we confess our sin to someone else. It is something that we need. It means we have to recognise the sin that is in us, and that we need to confront that sin. We cannot blame anybody else. We need to own just how desperate our sin is. It hurts; but if we confess our sin before someone who knows their own sin, and who knows the love and the mercy of God, and who can declare to us what Jesus has done for us, it will bring us healing.

And as we repent of our sin, and discover how much God forgives us, so we become salt. Jesus talks elsewhere about Christians being salt in the world, in the sense that Christians help transform society. We come out of our castles, and we welcome others. We are not blind. We do see their sins (we’re very human). But we also see that their sins are foothills in comparison with the Himalayas of our own sin.

When we listen to Jesus’ challenge against a closed Christianity, when we refuse to be complacent about our own sin, and when we allow God to transform us through the fire – of persecution, suffering and Christian discipline – then we will be people who will move from castles to tents, who are not obsessed about our own status, who will welcome one another, and who will live at peace with one another.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

On the centenary of the WI, and the 95th anniversary of the SWFWIs

You are 95 years old. Congratulations. You are looking pretty good for it.

As I have read through the history of the WIs, it is quite a story. You have done and you are doing a great deal. You've made a difference. You've given dignity to people.

You've campaigned on an astonishing range of subjects including fairtrade, women's suffrage, equal pay (proposed by a delegate from the West Suffolk Federation), more women in the police force, the environment, make poverty history, health issues, and the SOS honey bees campaign. They are things that matter. And you were often there at the very beginning. You were considering the issue of female genital mutilation in the 1980's, long before many others saw it as an issue. There is, as Esther Addley wrote in the Guardian, 'a pleasing bolshiness to the WI that has never faded'.

You have not allowed yourself to be put into a box. You've allowed those letters, the WI to stand for something old and for something new. Inspiring Women. Yes you are, and yes you do. And you also offer the simplest and most important thing that this life can offer apart from God. You offer friendship. And countless women have nervously gone along to their local WI and they've walked away, as another person put it, with 10 friends.

I know that there was a time when you wished to completely get away from the 'Jam and Jerusalem' image. It was one of those boxes that you needed to get out of. But when I read that in 1942, the Suffolk West Federation of WI's alone produced a staggering 100 tons of jam, and when we understand what that actually meant to so many families throughout this land, it is not a joke. My father still speaks of how the family's additional jam ration was one of the most precious luxuries that they had during the war. You made a difference.

And as for Jerusalem?
Well, the answer to the first verse, 'And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's pastures green?', is very simple. No! The Jesus did not come, as the legend claimed, to England in bodily form after his resurrection.
But then we come to the second verse: 'I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land'. And to that, we answer 'yes'. We long for that biblical vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, of men and women as equals at harmony with one another, honouring one another, each person being able to live to their full potential, where the stranger and those who are different are welcome, where the young and the old live at peace with each other, where the wolf lies with the lamb, the sword has been beaten into a ploughshare, and there is no more sickness or dying or pain.

And while I, as a Christian, put my hope in the conviction that the vision of the new Jerusalem will be finally fulfilled on the day when, as the bible puts it, the trumpet sounds and the risen Jesus returns, the end of history as we know it, it does not stop me working today towards that vision. I set my face to the new Jerusalem; I allow that future city to shape my life direction, my values, my dreams.
And I pray that you - however you might express it - will continue to long for and to work towards that better, gentler, kinder, more sustainable, more thoughtful, gracious, just and peaceful society.

Last year we went to Ravenna in Italy. It is an amazing town, and it has some of the earliest known Christian images. One of those images shows a woman placing money in an offering box. It is the story of the widow's mite. The poor widow who put only a small coin in the box but who, Jesus said, gave everything she had to live on.

But the image surprised me. I have always thought of that woman as someone stooped and crushed. But the woman in this image is not. She stands tall, with a gracious dignity.

And I think the artist has seen something. When we give, especially when we give sacrificially, we live as we were made to live and we are at our most noble.

And when you give of yourselves, when you open your lives to new members, when you offer friendship and you dedicate yourself in campaigns, when you choose to make a difference - then like that woman in the image, you stand tall, noble and you are adorned with dignity.

Happy Birthday, and God bless you.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The healing of the man at the pool: a reflection on the mosaic from S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

We are beginning a series looking at incidents from the life of Jesus. The incidents which we are choosing are incidents which are portrayed in the earliest known set of images from the life of Jesus. They are in the church of St Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna. 

Ravenna, in NE Italy, is an amazing city. It is completely off the tourist map, and yet it contains 8 world heritage sites. Those include the church of St Vitale, and the church of St Apollinare, not to mention two baptisteries. 

Ravenna is significant because between 400 and about 550 it was the most important city in the Western Empire after the fall of Rome. The Christian architecture and the art was influenced by both East and West, by Rome and Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the residence of the senior Patriarch of the Eastern churches. And while virtually all of the early Christian art in Constantinople, Jerusalem and the East was destroyed in the iconoclasm of the 700s and 800s, Ravenna – because it was more to the west – survived. And so the mosaics in the churches can date back to the early 400s. 

The most striking set of mosaics on entering the church of St Apollinare Nuovo are the rows of martyrs and saints. On the left are the women, with crowns in hand, processing towards Christ seated on Mary. They are led by three wise men with their gifts, who are given names. 
The men are on the right. They process, with crowns in hand, towards Christ seated on the throne with a sceptre of authority.

But the row we will be looking at is the row at the very top. It is hard to see. When we visited I had forgotten my glasses and so I had to get my boys to describe the images. And today we are beginning with the image at the back of the equivalent of our North side – the beginning of the series. 

The first mosaic is an image of Jesus blessing a man who is carrying his bed. And it is an illustration of the story that we read in John 5. [It could be an illustration of the man who was healed after he was lowered through the roof by his friends, where Jesus also tells him to take up his bed and walk, but since that incident is illustrated a little later, I suspect this is the John 5 incident]. 

What is fascinating about this particular image is that we know of one that is much older. The earliest known illustration of a bible story that we have is from a house church in the ancient town of Dura Europos in Syria, which dates from no later than 256. It cannot be later because the city was besieged and destroyed in 256, and the chapel was covered over with dirt until its discovery. Fortunately the walls and murals were taken away to Yale University art gallery. I say fortunately, because today Dura Europos is in territory controlled by IS, and it certainly would have been destroyed. But clearly our artist has made use of this very early tradition.

So let’s look at this image in the light of the passage that we read (John 5.1-18). Because John’s gospel is the original source for the artist. 

1. A youthful Jesus, who is shown with a halo, blesses the man carrying his bed. 

The story is part of a series of stories in John’s gospel in which Jesus reveals his glory and his grace. He turns water into wine, he heals the official’s son at a distance with a word, and now he heals someone who has been paralysed for 38 years. 

It is all about Jesus taking the initiative. Jesus comes to him, asks him if he wants to be healed and then heals him with a word. 

It is a glimpse of heaven, a taster, preview, foretaste of that time when there will be no more pain or suffering or death, when creation is shaped to become what it is meant to be. We are all disabled in different ways. In that day the land will be healed and we will be healed. There will be no more disability. The blind will see and the deaf will hear, ‘and the lame will leap like a deer’. We heard that in the prophecy from Isaiah 35.6

And later on when Jesus is challenged because he has told the man to carry his bed on a Sabbath (the Jews had laws forbidding people to work on the sabbath, and carrying your bed was considered work), Jesus makes the astounding claim: ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working’. (5.17). In other words Jesus is claiming that when he heals the paralysed man with a word, he is doing exactly the same thing that God did on the days of creation. He is claiming to be the eternal Son of God. That is why the authorities are determined to kill Jesus. You cannot have someone going around claiming to be God, especially if he is doing the sort of things that Jesus did and if people are believing him. 

So we have Jesus, who has come from God to bring blessing to helpless men and women. We see the glory of Jesus and the grace of Jesus.  

2. The man who is carrying his bed. 

The man who John tells us about does not come over as having a particularly attractive character. 

There is a serious danger when we try to uncover motives in another. You can read what you want into another person, and come out with anything. But I am going to take the risk here. 

He seems to be someone who sees himself as the victim and who blames everybody else. So when Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed (it is a good question. Sometimes we become so comfortable  with what we know is not best that we are reluctant to change our lives), but when Jesus asks him, he doesn’t say yes, but says, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool’. There was a belief that when these waters in the pool became rough (people thought they did not exist and John had made up this story to stress a theological point – but then they were discovered in an archaeological dig in the C19th), whoever got into the water first would be healed. In other words, when Jesus asks him whether he wants to be healed, he doesn't say yes, but he says, ‘It’s not my fault. If others helped me, maybe I would have been healed.’

And later when the Jews ask him why he is carrying his bed on a Sabbath, he seems to be saying, ‘It’s not my fault. The man who healed me told me to do it’. 

That I think is why Jesus tells him to ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’. He is saying, ‘You have met with the grace of God. Now take responsibility for your life. It is not about others. It is now up to you’. When we stand before God there will be no victims and there will be no excuses. I do appreciate that there are times when people do things to us that really do mess up our lives. They will have to answer for that. But we will have to answer for what we do with what we do have. We cannot blame our parents or circumstances or the authorities. I am convinced that God’s love is not about mollycoddling us. The divine desire is for us to grow so that we become the men and the women who he created us to be.

And later, when Jesus tells him to sin no more or something worse might happen to you – Jesus is not saying that in every case sickness is a consequence of sin (in John 9 we are clearly told that is not the case), but he does seem to be saying that there was something about this particular paralysis that was connected with sin. And he is warning the man, ‘stop sinning or there is something much worse – you will one day face the judgement of God’

3. The disciple.

In each of the illustrations on the left hand wall there is a disciple. They are gesturing in one of three ways. Some are praying to Jesus; some are pointing to Jesus and some are pointing us.

There may be some ambiguity about the man who Jesus heals. Is he, for instance,  informing on Jesus or bearing witness to Jesus? 

But there is no ambiguity about what this particular disciple is asking of us. He is pointing us to the next image. He is inviting us to come on a journey. Jesus has come to us, met us and blessed us. He has healed us in the sense that he has enabled us to carry our own bed – to, in words that he uses elsewhere ‘to to take up our cross and follow him’. He is a disciple, one who follows and learns from Jesus, and he is inviting you and me on the same journey, to become a disciple of Jesus. 

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Monsters in the dark

John 6.16-21

The disciples are in the boat. Jesus is up a mountain.
It is dark, the wind is strong and they are struggling.
They see a figure walking on the water, coming towards them, and they are terrified.


Jesus did not need to come to them. He could have stayed up the mountain and prayed that the storm would pass. They would have reached their destination; they would not have been afraid; life would have been easy and comfortable.

But Jesus doesn't do that. Instead he comes down off the mountain and walks on the water and comes to them.
And they are afraid: what do you think they might have thought that it was? Maybe they thought it was a monster, a ghost - a zombie walking on the water - coming to get them. It wasn't. It was Jesus coming to them. 


We are afraid of change: maybe it is an unknown journey, or when we begin a new school or job, or do something very different. We may like a bit of excitement, but too much change is scary. It takes us out of our comfort zone. We are not in control. We can't rely on the familiar.  
There is a question that ministers are asked when we do our annual Ministerial Development Review: 'What parts of your life are open to change'. There are times when I think that my answer to that question is 'not much'.

Or many of us as Christians are now afraid of mockery and shame. We think I can't possibly say that I believe in God, in the authority of the bible, or admit that I pray. Remember how much ridicule Tim Farron received on the Today Programme because he said that he prayed. 
(I would prefer to be led by a politician who prayed to God rather than a politician who thought that he or she was God.)
Of course, in some parts of the world Christians face much worse: forced to flee their homes, and threatened by violence or death.

Or we are afraid of the storm: the literal storm and the metaphorical storm. When we were in Ireland we went on a boat trip to the Aran islands. It was not a good day to go. There was a force 7-8 wind blowing. The waves were 20 foot high and the boat we were in, which did not seem particularly big, was rolling from side to side. It was terrifying. Alison hung on to me, and I hung on to the side of a door. We thought we were going to die. 
Or it might be the metaphorical storm: sickness, stress, debt, redundancy, a relationship that is chewing us up, a combination of circumstances that overwhelms us. 

Or we are afraid of death.  The death of those we love, or our death.

My brothers and sisters, sometimes what we fear, is in actual fact, Jesus coming to meet us. 
And he comes to us and he says, 'It is I. Do not be afraid'.

We've grown too comfortable, too self reliant - and we are not willing to change. So instead of us being willing to change, change comes to us. And Jesus is there. In his mercy, he strips us of the false things we put our trust in, so that we put our trust in him. And he will never let us down. 

Or perhaps we have forgotten that when we suffer for Jesus we suffer with Jesus. When we suffer for him, we are closer to him even than when we receive communion - and invite him to come deep into us. 
So Paul, one of the first followers of Jesus wrote, 'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.' (Phil 3.10-11)

And when we go through storms, it can be Jesus taking us out of our depth. We realise we need him. We cry out to him.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was crossing from England to Georgia in the Colonies.  He had never been on a ship before.  They’re 7 days from land and it’s the third and most violent storm.  They’re worried that the ship is going to be lost.  “The sea spilled over the ship, split the mainsail, and poured between the decks as if the great deep had already swallowed us up.”  The English passengers screamed in fright; the German Moravians calmly continued singing the psalm without interruption.  Wesley was impressed with their faith in the face of death.  He saw the difference in the hour of trial, between those who truly knew Jesus Christ and those who didn’t.  Even though he’d been a preacher for some time, he didn’t have that faith. It was almost as if the Moravians had Christ with them, in their boat, in themselves.  

And what about death? It seems to be the ultimate darkness, the final enemy. And yet it can also be the door into life. And Jesus is standing there. Frances Havergal wrote a hymn which finishes with this verse: 

I could not do without Thee,
For years are fleeting fast,
And soon in solemn oneness
The river must be passed;
But Thou wilt never leave me,
And though the waves roll high,
I know Thou wilt be near me,
And whisper, It is I.

Jesus did not need to come to his disciples. 
He could have stayed on the mountain top and prayed that they had an easy journey. They would not have been terrified. They would have thought that God was in the business of making life easy and comfortable and pain free and fear free for them. 

But they would have missed out on so much. 
Jesus wanted so much more for them. He wanted them to know him. He wanted them to know that God had left his heaven, his mountain, and come down and lived among them. He wanted them to know his love, his power, his hope, but above all, his presence with them. 


So we are told that when he comes near, and when they hear his word, 'Don't be afraid. It is I', they are ready to receive that gift. They want him to come into the boat. They want to be with him. 

Interestingly, John does not tell us that he did get into the boat. The original language is very ambiguous. We are simply told that when they wanted him in their boat, they reached their destination. Why? Because their destination is not somewhere but someone. When you meet with Jesus, then you reach your destination. 

I don't know what you are facing today. It could be something very frightening. A new class and you don't know anyone. Someone is picking on you and making life a misery. There is something that you have to go through or do that is very scary. You face circumstances that are overwhelming. 

All you can see is the monster. All you can feel is the fear. But maybe, just maybe, it might be Jesus coming to you - coming to you because he loves you. He is walking towards you. He is saying, 'Don't be afraid. It is I'. And he wants you to invite him into the boat.