Thursday, November 30, 2023

St Andrew


I don’t often wear my kilt to preside at Holy Communion, but today is both the Festival of Andrew the apostle (St Andrew’s Day, 30 November) and the tenth anniversary (St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 2013) of my being licensed to serve as a priest in Durham Diocese, having previously served in the Diocese of Liverpool—a Durham decade!


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Why Advent?


Advent is the necessary precursor to Christmas, because Christmas is the joyful announcement of the birth of a Saviour, and Advent must first address the question of why on earth we need a saviour, or, of why a saviour is good news of great joy.

I believe that I am a good person. I believe that you are, too. In fact, I do not believe that there is any such thing as an evil person; for every person is made—created—by God, and in the image of God. God is good, and nothing that God has made is evil. Yet we wrestle with evil, every day of our lives. There is something about evil that is attractive to us—this is why temptation is tempting—and there is something about us that bends away from love towards it—this is sometimes called our ‘fallen nature.’ Good people choose to act in less-than-loving ways, even towards those we desire to love fully and for always, because it is easier, at times, or because we want to—“we have wounded your love and marred your image in us, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault,” as the Confession puts it—and to justify our actions. It is good people whose relationships break down. And it is possible to choose evil so frequently that it becomes habitual, until it becomes all-but-impossible for us to choose love at all: and this is to find ourselves in hell—and drag others there with us. Imagine how bad the state of things would be if there were such a thing as evil people.

So good people find themselves incapable of doing good—of loving their neighbour—at least consistently and permanently. And this is unacceptable to God, for God made us good and for good, and knows that good is good for us. So God sent his Son into the world, to be our Saviour, to be the one who will judge the living and the dead. The nature of that judgement is entirely without condemnation, or punishment. Rather, it is the perfect insight, to know rightly the evil we have done, and to destroy all evil, without destroying us, the good creature, the object of God’s love. For God, possessing by divine nature perfect judgement in all matters, has determined that love is how evil will be destroyed. The warmth of God’s love will, in time, melt the evil that lies heavy upon us, without harming us in any way, as the warmth of the sun eventually melts the ice without damaging the ground beneath. Indeed, as the warmth of the sun transforms the snow, that impairs our movement, into life-giving water, so the warmth of God’s love ultimately transforms even evil, for good.

When we look at the world around us, we might ask, if God is good, and sovereign, then why does evil exist, and so prevalently? And the Church responds, yes, the world is not as it should be; and God has passed judgement, that judgement being transforming love. Were we God, we might choose destruction, to deal with evil by sweeping away evil-doers; but that would include me, you, us all; and, in any case, you cannot deal with the problem of evil using evil as the solution, for that simply perpetuates the problem. Love is slower, painfully slow, for to love is to be present and attentive to pain. Yet, love is what God has chosen, for God is love.

So, Jesus came, long ago, fully human—utterly dependent on love—and fully-God—the source of love. Loving us to the end, even our putting him to death could not banish love: love simply extended its reach to encompass the dead as well as the living. And this Jesus will come again, as love, when love has—finally—won. Then every eye shall see him, and adore him, as he is.

God has acted, is acting, and will complete what has been set in unstoppable motion. This is why Christmas is good news, and not merely a momentary distraction from the darkness. But to welcome the Saviour, we must first recognise our need for salvation—to be transformed, by love, for love.


Saturday, November 25, 2023



On Monday, I went into a shop, picked up what I needed, and approached the till. The sales assistant asked me if I had found everything I had been looking for? which I had. I asked them, How are you today? and they were clearly taken aback. Good, thanks; they replied, and then, after a slightest of pauses, But thank you for asking.

I spent the middle of the week at a residential training event, held at a hotel. One morning, as I walked along the corridor from my room, heading down for breakfast, I passed a member of the housekeeping team. They said, Good morning, and I responded. Again, I asked, How are you today? Again, they were taken aback that a guest would interact with them in such a way.

On the last morning of the residential, I went to the administrator who had put together the training event to thank them. They had had a difficult job, needing to deal with several challenges. I wanted them to know that their work was appreciated, that they were appreciated. They just about fought back the tears, and asked if they could give me a hug.

Most of the time, it costs very little to be kind. Perhaps that is why we value it less than we ought? Of course, there are times when it is costly, even a higher price than we are prepared to pay. But there are few things that have such a disproportionally large impact, and return, that return potentially having a positive impact on whoever happens to come across the person shown kindness in the wake of the act.

If you can, be kind. And when being kind is a stretch too far, may you be on the receiving end of kindness.


Thursday, November 16, 2023



I wonder whether you remember a big event (global politics, sporting, royal) that took place when you were eleven or twelve years old?

Jesus was most likely born in 6 BCE (Before Common Era) (Obviously, Jesus could not be born BC, but those who first calculated that date got it wrong). At some point, this came to the attention of Herod I (the Great) and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fly by night, seeking refuge among the Jewish diaspora community in Alexandria. In 4 BCE, Herod I died. At this point, it is time to return home; but Joseph hears that Herod Archelaus is now ruling in Jerusalem, and is afraid; so, they go to Galilee instead.

Galilee is under another of son of Herod I, Herod Antipas. But Antipas is not as dangerous a prospect as Archelaus. Archelaus has a reputation for bloodshed and provoking bloodshed; moreover, his position on his throne is contested by his own brothers. Though the emperor is persuaded to back him, his position as ethnarch is contested for most of his reign, from 4 BCE to 4 CE. He then reigns, less contested, for a further two years, before the emperor himself deposes him and imposes direct Roman rule over the Province of Judea from 6 CE.

Jesus is around twelve years old when the emperor deposes Archelaus, who goes into exile in Gaul. Twelve is old enough to be aware. Twelve is old enough to be apprenticed, as a house builder, to his adoptive father, Joseph. Twelve is old enough for conversations between Jesus and Joseph, as they walked back and forth between Nazareth and Sephoris, a new town being built, where there was work to be found: Dad, tell me again why you were so afraid of Archelaus?

Later, when Jesus is around forty (33 CE) (the Gospel According to John is full of irony; John records some opponents of Jesus stating that he is not even forty years old: I would bet against them.) his disciples ask him about big geo-political events. When will the Romans be pushed out? When will there be a king in Jerusalem who was not a client of Rome?

Jesus tells a story about a man (the emperor) who distributes his property between three slaves (Archelaus, Antipas, Philip) before occupying himself overseas; who returns, dispossesses one of his slaves, and redistributes his property (this happened when Jesus was twelve; it will happen again, when Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod I, successfully petitions the emperor to remove his uncle Herod Antipas, in favour of Agrippa). This is how Rome works.

Of course, Jesus will triumph over Rome. Not by raising an army, or inspiring a rebellion, but by a revolution of the heart; by men, women, and children, mostly slaves, coming to trust that Jesus (not the emperor) was Lord, and serving their neighbours; and in the submission of the Roman emperor (however murky his own motives) to the risen Christ who had defeated death.

The first disciples will not be around to see it, but it will happen, nonetheless.


Tuesday, November 14, 2023

God's favour


Yesterday, I wrote a long post on the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In it, I contested against the common interpretation of the parable, that is, that God has given to each person talents, abilities, opportunity, as he sees fit, and expects a return on his investment. I offered a way to understand the parable in its historical context, and its context within Matthew’s Gospel, and the contrast between Roman rule and the kingdom of heaven (or, how we experience God’s reign). In this shorter post, I want to go on to offer some observations on how we relate to God.

[1] You cannot earn God’s favour through what you do for God. You cannot earn your place in heaven by being a good person, or your years of service to the church or your neighbours. You cannot earn God’s favour because, in Jesus, God has already and freely given that favour.

[2] Moreover, you cannot lose God’s favour through failure to follow God’s commands or meet God’s expectations. Your place in heaven – that is, being in relationship with God, starting in this life and continuing beyond death – is not jeopardised by doing the wrong thing or by not doing the right thing. You cannot lose God’s favour because, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has triumphed over everything that has tried to separate us from that freely given favour.

[3] You can neither earn nor lose God’s favour. You can only live with, or without, an awareness of that favour. There are many people – those who would claim to believe in Jesus, as much as those who do not believe in God – who live their lives unaware of God’s favour, upon them and upon their neighbour, and this is the very definition of hell.


Monday, November 13, 2023

Talents, and what not to do with them


The Gospel reading set for this coming Sunday is Matthew 25:14-30, in which Jesus tells a parable about a man who entrusts his property to his slaves before departing abroad. To one slave he entrusts five ‘talents,’ a weight of money commonly equivalent to 6,000 denarii (one denarius being the daily wage of a labourer), to another, two talents, and to yet another, one talent. Sometime later, the man returns. The first two slaves have doubled the weight given them, while the third, fearful of a master who reaps where he did not sow, had buried his hoard, and returned it in full. The first two slaves are rewarded with additional responsibility and invited to ‘enter into the joy of’ their master, that is, to experience his favour. For not even depositing his talent with the bankers to accrue interest, the third slave is deemed ‘worthless’ and thrown ‘into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This parable is commonly interpreted in this way: God has given to each person talents, abilities, opportunity, as he sees fit, and expects a return on his investment. But this is to misunderstand the text.

It comes within a larger context, a lengthy conversation (chapters 24 and 25) between Jesus and his disciples, concerning the destruction of the temple. The disciples have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of David – a recurring title for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel – that is, the rightful heir to the throne in Jerusalem. It is obvious that tension is rising, and that, sooner or later, there will be a crisis moment, in which Roman rule will be overthrown, along with their vassals and collaborators. In the aftermath of this, the disciples expect Jesus to ascend to the throne; but when will this take place?

In fact, the crisis they anticipate will come about in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-74 CE) with widespread destruction of Jewish cities, and the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 CE. From the perspective of Jesus, some forty years earlier, this is both inevitable in the broad sense and unknowable in its particulars. And his purpose is to prepare his followers to live through this existential crisis.

The Parable of the Talents comes immediately after the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and immediately before the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or the Judgement of the Nations. What Jesus is seeking to get across is that the Day of the Lord – which would mark the end of the present age or geo-political reality – for which his disciples, in keeping with their peers, were hoping for would result in judgement first for the Jewish people (the bridesmaids, who are divided, and half of them locked out from the new age) and (only) then for the gentile nations (who are also divided, some being included in, and some excluded from, the new age).

In the Parable of the Talents, it makes most sense to see the man, who entrusts his property to his slaves before disappearing abroad, but returns to claim his profit, as the Roman emperor; and the three slaves as the sons of Herod the Great.

Augustus (emperor 27 BCE – 14 CE; succeeded by Tiberius, who ruled 14-37 CE) had appointed Herod I (Herod the Great) as a Jewish Roman client king. On Herod’s death, Augustus initially honoured Herod’s will, which divided his territory between his three sons (and his sister). Herod Archelaus was appointed ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Herod Antipas was appointed tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea. Philip was appointed tetrarch of Iturea, Trachonitis, Batanea, Gaulanitits, Auranitis and Paneas. (Salome I was appointed toparch of Jamnia, Azotus and Phasaelis.) But only nine years later, in 6 CE, Augustus, having judged Herod Archalaus incompetent, removed him, combining his three provinces into one Province of Iudaea, ruled by a Roman prefect. The fifth of these, serving 26-36 CE, was Pontius Pilate.

Parables, of course, are not histories. They do not have one-to-one correlations with historical figures. It could just as well point forward to 39 CE, when emperor Caligula removed Herod Antipas and gave his tetrarchy to another Herod, Agrippa. This parable is not so much a retelling of events that took place in Jesus’ childhood, as a depiction of how things work, under Roman rule. The population of this Province is ruled over, by delegation to client kings or Roman governors, at the emperor’s pleasure. Tiberius gives, and Tiberius takes away. And there will surely come a point when the emperor turns his attention back on this troublesome corner of his empire. Strangely enough, one of the key events that precipitated the Jewish revolt of 66 CE was the emperor – by this time, Nero – ordering the Roman governor – by this time, Gessius Florus – to take seventeen talents from the temple treasury as unpaid tax.

(Emperors didn’t always get their own way. The inevitable Jewish Roman War could have erupted fifteen years earlier than it eventually did. Caligula ordered that a statue of himself be erected in the temple in Jerusalem; fearing war, his governor stalled for a year, before his friend, Herod Agrippa, persuaded him to overturn the order. Jesus anticipates this as a likely event, Matthew 24:15ff.)

This parable serves as the transition between the judgement of the Jewish people and the judgement of the Gentile nations. It is, in itself, a profound warning: there will be no miraculous intervention, in the machinations and rise and fall of earthly empires. There is the in-crowd, who enjoy things, for now, and the in-crowd who will fall from favour and be cast into the outermost darkness, consigned to the scrap heap of history, forgotten. Their tears all the more bitter for having previously enjoyed favour.

In the light of this bleak synopsis of the signs of the times – as convoluted, power-hungry, and precarious as our own day – Jesus instructs his disciples to hold fast. Don’t get caught up in trying to force events, over which you have no influence, nor any right to influence (as John records in his Gospel, Jesus sees the disciples as remaining in this world, but not of it – not playing its games by its rules). Simply trust that I have chosen you and will keep you; that not even death can derail that promise.

But what has any of this to do with us, who live almost 2,000 years later, long after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem? I think it stands as a warning not to take up the ways of this world to shape it to our gain, or exercise rule over the lives of others. Which is not to say that we should not campaign for a more just society; but that even godly ends do not justify ungodly means.

There are many who claim to follow Christ who need to rediscover this parable today.