Sunday, May 22, 2011

St Andrew's : Farewell Sermon

Today, I am leaving you and am about to go somewhere else.  And today, I want us to consider Jesus leaving his disciples to go somewhere else; not because I think that I am as important as Jesus, but because I want to speak about Jesus and the Church, and this particular story will be read and reflected on in churches up and down the country today.

The setting is a meal.  Now, in Matthew’s Gospel, and Mark’s and Luke’s, this meal is the celebration of the Passover – the remembering that God came to rescue his people out of slavery, and the longing that he would do so again – that Jesus observed with his disciples not long before he was crucified, not long before he became the lamb slain in our place, the innocent blood that causes the angel of death to pass over us when God passes a judgement on our oppressor that is so severe it causes our oppressor to say, ‘Enough!  Take your people, and go!’

But in John’s account, this meal is not a celebration of the Passover.  In John’s account, it is the crucifixion itself that will be a celebration of the Passover.  In John’s account, Jesus doesn’t take bread and wine and give them a new layer of meaning.  Because in John’s account, this is a different meal: this is the meal celebrating a betrothal; this is an engagement party.

In Jesus’ culture, marriages were arranged.  The parents would meet, in order to determine that their children were a suitable match.  And between the engagement and the wedding, the groom would build an additional room for himself and his bride, and any children they would have in due course, on top of his parents’ home.  Literally, he would build his future on the foundation of his parents’ lives.  If you go to Israel today, you can still see Palestinian homes that are built in this way; one generation lifted up on the shoulders of the previous generation.

We read this passage, and we hear it through the filter of our highly individual western society.  We hear this: ‘My Father’s house has plenty of rooms, and I go to make a room for you, and for you, and for you.’  Indeed, the King James Version speaks of many mansions: and we imagine a wealthy suburb of big houses, a nice neighbourhood where the kids can play out, and the grown-ups can play a game of my-house-is-better-than-your-house.  Because that is how individualism works: it is competitive, and insecure.  We look at one another and we worry that we won’t be given as nice a room as so-and-so, and we console ourselves by believing that at least my room will be better than hers.

That isn’t what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus is saying this: ‘My Father has chosen you, the Church, to be my bride.  My Father believes that you are a worthy match for me.  This meal seals our engagement.  Let me reassure you: my Father is a good man, and a man of means.  His home is a good home.  And I am going now, to build on that home the room where we will live.  When everything is ready, I will come back for you.’

You see, the Father has chosen us: not you and you and me; but us.  Not even us, the congregation at St Andrew’s, but us, the Church, down through the ages, across every people-group, in heaven and on earth.  So there is no need to make comparisons, among ourselves here or against other congregations.  On the contrary, when we look at one another – here at St Andrew’s, and other congregations, and the Church as a whole – we ought to say, ‘Wow: we have been chosen to be the bride of Jesus.  Us: we are one body.  And we are loved.’

Now, in our culture, at a wedding the groom arrives at the church or wherever else the ceremony is going to take place, and waits there for the bride, becoming increasingly nervous the later she is over arriving.  But in Jesus’ culture, as in similar cultures today, the groom goes to the bride’s parents’ house, and leads her from there to his parents’ home, where the wedding ceremony will take place.  The journey from one family home to another is a part of the celebration.

Thomas hasn’t understood what Jesus is saying.  He wants to know where Jesus is going, and how to get there.  To be fair on Thomas, the only time Jesus has talked about ‘my Father’s house’ before, he was talking about the Temple, and Thomas knows how to get to the Temple, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking about the Temple now.

Jesus replies, “I am the way” – ‘I am the way to the Father.  You’ve not been to his house, but I will lead you there.’

I think we tend to imagine a long road, a road across open country, a road we can see disappearing over the horizon; a road on which, from time to time, we might meet the occasional fellow-traveller; a road on which, from time to time, there are difficulties, and at such time we will surely need Jesus’ help.  But for the most part, we can see the road and we can walk the road, with or without Jesus.

But again, that isn’t what Jesus is saying.  He isn’t saying, ‘Life is a journey,’ though that is one way we might describe the life of faith.  He is saying, ‘Get on with life, a life of preparation for the day on which we shall be wed.  Dream about that day, that journey; and in your dreaming, focus on me; find yourself lost in my eyes.’

Imagine this: a journey through a warren of narrow city streets, overhung so as to provide shade, filled with merchants’ wares and jostling people going about their lives.  Through this scene, a wedding party winds its way: the bride and groom, hand-in-hand, with their attendants and their guests.  It is a dazzling and dizzying display.  But if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, if you keep hold of his hand, you will not get separated by the swirling crowds.

You see, Jesus is the way.  Jesus is our bridegroom.  He is captivated by us.  And we ought to be captivated by him.

You see, the bride of Christ doesn’t have to talk herself up before the world.  She wants to talk of her beloved.

Jesus continues: “I am...the truth.”  What does he mean by that?  Well, what is the nature and purpose of truth?  Some chapters earlier, John records a dispute.  The dispute is all about the identity of Jesus, who claims to be the Son of his Father.  In the course of this dispute, Jesus says this: “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin.  Where I go, you cannot come.” (John 8:21)  That sounds like what Jesus is saying here in John 14, but with a different outcome.  Let’s get back to that dispute: to those who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” To which they respond, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?” To which Jesus replies, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36)  What is interesting is that we are told that this group of people, people who had believed Jesus up to this point, people who pretended they had never been slaves despite Egypt and exile in Babylon – as a consequence of their sin – and occupation by Greece and Rome as evidence to the contrary, took offence and turned against him when he held out...freedom.  They didn’t hold on to his teaching; they showed themselves not to be disciples, those who learn from Jesus.

So the nature and purpose of truth is to set us free from slavery to sin; and in saying “I am the truth” Jesus is identifying himself as the Son in a family business: GOD & Son: setting slaves free since the beginning.  Jesus will do that by sharing our prison cell, a cell that it is too small to contain him, so that he bursts out and leads us out with him.

Why does ‘the truth’ go together with ‘the way’?  Because this is a betrothal to be married, and Jesus is setting out his case: ‘My Father is a reputable man; the family business is setting people free from slavery to sin: this is the family you are marrying into; this is what we do.’

Philip hasn’t understood what Jesus is saying.  He wants to see the Father: one meeting will be enough.  But Jesus replies, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father; if you have seen what I have done – the ways in which I have gone about setting people free from slavery to sin and sickness and poverty and death – then you have seen what the Father has been doing.  And more: we are engaged to be married now: we have entered into a covenant joining us together: yes, I must go to prepare the home we shall share, but, while you wait, this is now your family business too: welcome to the business: as the Father does, as I have done, you must learn to set people free.’

In Jesus’ culture, a couple were considered married from the point of their engagement.  That’s why, you’ll remember, when Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, knowing that he wasn’t the father of her child, he considered divorcing her quietly, rather than demanding she be stoned to death, the punishment for adultery.  Now, a couple didn’t live together until the home was prepared and the wedding could take place; but while the groom built onto his father’s house, the bride learnt about the way this new family lived and what her role would be within that calling.

We have been brought into the family business of setting people free.  But we can only take part as we ourselves step out into the freedom that has been given to us by the Son.  And the way we step out is as disciples: as those who hold to Jesus’ teaching, those who choose, day by day, to reflect on Jesus’ words and allow those words to shape our lives; those who seek to follow Jesus not (yet) by going where he has gone, but by doing here what he did when he was with us.

Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth...” and one more thing.  “I am...the life.”  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No-one comes to the Father except through me.”  ‘I am the way’ – so you don’t have to worry about the future.  ‘I am the truth’ – so you can participate in freedom in the present.  ‘I am the life’ – so you can leave your past, whether bad or good, behind.

You see, again, we need to hear these words as words spoken at an engagement party, as words of reassurance to a bride-to-be in a culture where marriages are arranged: ‘You are being asked to prepare yourself to leave behind everything you have known, and become part of another family.  From today, you are leaving your parents behind; even though you will not leave their home until I return for you.  But you have seen me, you know my reputation, you know the life I live: the life I now share with you.  Live this life with me.’

That, of course, requires that we die to one way of life, in order to live to another.  That is the Jesus way, the single seed and the head of wheat, the way of the one who holds out the truth that brings freedom by taking up the cross and dying to self in order to live to God.  What does this dying-to-live look like?  It looks like this:

Daily choosing to die: to insecurity, and competition, and denial about our need to be set free, and reputation, and success, and failure – to a host of things that, however unlovely, did not and do not result in the Father saying, ‘This woman is not fit to marry my Son!’

And daily choosing to live: to security, and service, and forgiveness, and calling, and fruitfulness, and discipline – to a host of things that express the covenant relationship we have entered into.

What, then, is it that I want to say on the day that I leave to go somewhere else?

I want to say, look to Jesus.

I want to say, tell the world about Jesus.

I want to say, love Jesus.

I want to say, love one another – which is to love yourself, the bride – in order that you can love those who wait to be set free.

I want to say, live out our calling to be the bride of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.  Amen.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Until The End Of The World

In case you missed it, the world ended today.  At least, according to the prediction of some church leader in America it was due to end today.  Mistaken though he might have been, I think it is a topic worth looking at closer.

Jesus has quite a lot to say about the end of the world, in Matthew 24.  He says it will involve the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem, and the throwing-down of every stone of the temple, and weeping, and that it will take place within the lifetime of many of his listeners.  All this came to pass in July AD70, when the Romans lost patience with Jewish rebellion, Jerusalem fell to her army, the temple was literally torn down stone by stone, and a great many rebels were executed in front of their families.

In the light of this, Jesus’ words concerning the sign of the Son of Man being glorified in the sky and his own being gathered to him ought to be understood to speak not of his future return but of his crucifixion (compare Matthew 24:30-31 with what he says about that event in John 12:23-33).  Do I believe in the future bodily return of Jesus to the earth?  Yes: he said he would return, and at his ascension an angel appeared, saying he would return in the same way he had departed.  Do I believe it will look like biblical apocalyptic depictions?  No: apocalyptic writing, like poetry, conveys a truth that cannot adequately be conveyed by the literal (think of the woman in Song of Songs poetically described as having a neck like a tower and teeth like a flock of sheep); as such, to interpret it in a literal sense does not affirm its truth but precisely denies the truth it conveys.

The world Jesus and his listeners knew came to an end in AD70.  Jesus had foreseen with prophetic accuracy the inevitability of those events, within a generation, if the people rejected him and his kingdom message and continued to seek political liberation from Rome; but the Father had not revealed to him the precise time his vision would be fulfilled.

In a sense, we have been living post the end of the world ever since.

But in another sense, the world ends on a fairly regular basis.  I am not talking about the personal world I inhabit, which might be shaken by the death of a loved one; but the world I live in.  Nations, Empires, Eras: such things all rise and fall.  My parents’ generation’s world came to an end when John F Kennedy was assassinated; or, for others, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  The world I live in has come to an end on numerous occasions: at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela; the Rwandan genocide, and 9/11.

Jesus says that when your world comes to an end, as it surely will, there are two possible responses: either you will be so shaken that your life will be swept away, like the unrighteous when Noah’s world came to an end; or you will be so secure that your life will continue almost as if nothing had happened.  (This, in total contrast to popular American eschatology which depicts a Rapture in which the righteous will be taken and the unrighteous Left Behind.)

And according to Jesus, the way in which we can know such security is by coming to the Father, and the way in which we come to the Father is through the Son.

So, did the world end today.  Probably, somewhere.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On The Move

After two years in Liverpool we are on the move again, this time to Southport (the far-northern outpost of Liverpool Diocese, some fifteen miles up the coast).  I will be on the team in two parishes, St James’ Birkdale and St Peter’s Birkdale.  We are moving house this coming Friday.  There is a lot to sort out before then, and in the several weeks to come...

This Sunday at 10:45am will be our farewell service at St Andrew’s.  We’d love to see you if you can be there, and we’d appreciate your prayers if you can’t be there in person.  While we are looking forward to the new thing God has for us, we are going to miss the many friends we have got to know here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Further Reflections On 'Love Wins'

There is a well-written response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins in the May 2011 edition of Christianity magazine.  The article explores the accusation of universalism, considering various expressions of universalism and noting that Bell clearly rejects ‘universal universalism’ (the belief that God will sweep up everyone into heaven regardless, as a scandalous act of unmerited grace) and ‘religious pluralism’ (the belief that all religions lead to God); while being open to ‘post mortem evangelism’ (the belief that there is the possibility to encounter and respond to Jesus after death) and ‘anonymous Christianity’ (the belief – influential within Roman Catholicism since Vatican II, and shared by the present Pope, who is generally considered to be extremely conservative – that people within religious paradigms other than Christianity may encounter and respond rightly to Jesus without knowing his name or his story.  Significantly, like Bell, Pope Benedict XVI does not see belief in anonymous Christianity as negating the urgent responsibility of Christians to proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus and call people to respond to him).

The article points out that such a position raises more questions than it answers: in particular, questions regarding evangelism, and salvation, and also our understanding of the end of the world (eschatology), and of the nature of the church.

I think it is a mistake to conclude that openness to post mortem evangelism and anonymous Christianity result in a loss of confidence in, and commitment to, evangelism now.  It does, however, open the possibility of asking important questions of our understanding of the nature of evangelism.  In my view, conversion, as both event and process, is a work of the Holy Spirit; whereas the related-but-distinct charge on the church is to make disciples.  Too often, churches have abdicated their responsibility to make disciples, while trying to do the Holy Spirit’s work instead.  For me, the obvious answer to the question “Why bother with evangelism?” is that we are sent out by Jesus to call and teach people to not only recognise him but to follow him in the world, and in so doing to usher-in and to populate the future kingdom of heaven which is breaking into the present.

Such an answer has an impact on our eschatology: the future is breaking into the present; moreover, our response in the present has a bearing on the responsibilities entrusted to us in shaping the future;

on our ecclesiology: the call on the church is to make disciples, and to model what it looks like to live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven among the kingdoms of the world;

and on our understanding of salvation: we are not only saved from something, but saved for something: set free from slavery to sin and death, as expressed through a wide variety of manifestations, in order to be formed into a chosen people who set others free (regardless of whatever else Jesus might be doing).

There is far more to be explored in relation to these questions than has yet been explored – but the good news is that there are people exploring.  Bell’s latest contribution is best seen within the wider context of a rediscovery of the centrality of Jesus, and a questioning of Christendom, evident in several current conversations (such as Anabaptist writers), engaged by participants who will find themselves in combinations of agreement and disagreement with each other’s thoughts.

Friday, May 06, 2011

(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction

Choose what you ask for wisely, because you might get it.  On the cross, God, satan and humanity all got what they demanded.  But only God was satisfied...

(We Are All) Werewolves And Vampires

To demand a scapegoat is human; to offer oneself as a scapegoat, divine.

The greatest lust in our hearts is not for sex, nor money, nor even quite for power, but for figurative and literal blood.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Way

Yesterday I had the opportunity to watch a preview of ‘The Way,’ a film written, directed and produced by Emilio Estevez, who also takes a cameo role as the son of his real-life father, Martin Sheen.  Sheen plays Tom, whose comfortable and successful life is disrupted when he receives news of his son Daniel’s accidental death while walking the Camino de Santiago – or Way of St James – pilgrim route.  Tom flies to France in order to bring his son home, but on arrival finds himself needing to find out why Daniel had set out on the route at all.  Changing his plans, he sets out to walk the route himself, carrying his son’s ashes.  Along the way, three other pilgrims are drawn alongside him, their stories intertwining.

This is a beautiful film, slow – pilgrim pace – gentle, moving; a film touched with sadness and humour; a love story – not a romance, but the at-times-awkward love between a father and son.  The tale that unfolds explores the challenge Daniel left his father, that “You don’t choose a life, you live one.”  This is not a fatalistic statement, nor one that absolves us from responsibility – as Tom at first mistakes it for – but, rather, a recognition that in the very choices we make in order to have the kind of life we want we may very well end up merely existing, with life passing us by.  Or, to put it another way, if our choices don’t lead us into the bread-and-wine-and-fish experience of life in its fullness, if our choices ensnare us as observers rather than participants, what worth were they?  We can protect a life that is ... lifeless, or we can lose a lifeless existence in search of something deeper.

As the pilgrims walk the Camino, we hear the stories they tell to justify their journey to others; the truer stories they choose to carry alone; and the truest stories they struggle to face.  As they walk, through the process of walking together, each of the pilgrims experience change, in ways they neither expected nor sought to create.  As they arrive at their destinations, each one also comes to terms with things about themselves: things they discover don’t need to change in the way they thought or hoped or expected – removed, resolved, brought to an end – but need to be carried onward in such a way that pain is continually being transformed into beauty.

As ever, it is a joy to watch Martin Sheen at his craft.  But story-of-the-film aside, I was also touched deeply by the story of the making of this film: that here was a thing of beauty created by a father and a son working together, by a father and son who had clearly walked a journey together.  It left me wanting to walk a camino – not necessarily the Camino – yes; but more, it left me thinking about what thing of beauty I might create with my children.  I don’t know what that will be, but my instinct is that it will only be discovered on the way, in saying ‘yes’ to the challenging invitation in every moment, good or ill, to choose to be alive.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Clarity : Paradox : Mystery

The online discussion around Rob Bell’s latest book, and to a far lesser degree around the Bishop of London’s sermon at the royal wedding, has got me thinking about clarity.  Both have been accused of being unclear, of lacking clarity, of failing to present the gospel in a way that is clear ... which causes me to think about the nature of clarity, and whether much of what we call clarity is actually unbiblical.

The Bible is full of paradoxes.  And the western-educated mind abhors a paradox.  A mind so shaped sees paradox as contradiction.  So some argue that the Bible contradicts itself, and this is evidence of its unreliability; while others strive to resolve the paradoxes, to show that there isn’t actually a contradiction here after all.

Of course, paradox is not alien to science: light has properties of both a particle and a wave – and yet this is not grounds on which to reject belief in the existence of light.

As I read it, there is a consistent thread running through the Bible that paints a picture in which almost everyone, all but a remnant, will be ‘lost’ (light is a particle); and there is a consistent thread running through the Bible that paints a picture in which almost everyone, even all, will be ‘saved’ (light is a wave); and the Bible resolutely refuses to resolve this paradox.

Why?  Because paradox serves to reveal to us that there are limits to our knowledge; that even though God reveals himself to us, his ways are higher than ours, his wisdom is foolishness to us, our wisdom is foolishness to him.  The same is true of mystery, of deep things pertaining to humanity as well as to divinity.

That is what I mean by suggesting that a clarity that attempts to resolve biblical paradoxes one way or the other, or to avoid mystery or flatten depth, is unbiblical.  Biblical clarity presents paradox (not necessarily, if at all, both parts at the same time) and invites us to live with the tension of not knowing how God will demonstrate both elements to be true.  It is a stumbling-block, because it cannot be done by the western-educated mind, but requires of us a change-of-mind or repentance.  Biblical clarity presents mystery and invites us both to live with limits and to gaze beyond, neither having too high an opinion of ourselves nor settling for a shallow existence where there is only surface.  It speaks not to the intellect but to the imagination, to hopes we are largely anaesthetised to by fear.

In the light of today’s news: if you believe that today Osama bin Laden has begun an eternity of conscious torment (presumably alongside many who died on 9/11), then today is not a day for rejoicing; if you believe that today bin Laden has begun a process which will lead to the annihilation of his soul, then today is not a day for rejoicing; and if you believe that even today and after today the possibility exists for bin Laden to respond to the love and mercy of God, that he will suffer loss but will enter paradise, and that one day we will meet him not as an enemy but as a reconciled friend, even then today is not a day for rejoicing in his death.  On any reading, today is a day to lament loss and to commend us all into God’s mercy.

If, however, we want ‘clear’ statements, a presentation of the breaking-in of the up-side-down kingdom of heaven which invites/challenges us to repent and believe – to change our worldly assumptions and to behave differently – then today let us start by noting these:

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.” (Proverbs 24:17, 18)


“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus (Matthew 5:43-48)