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Sermon for Mattins on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Isaiah 50:4-10; Luke 13:22-30 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375138685 for the readings

‘O Lord, shew thy mercy upon us
And grant us thy salvation’ (or in the Cathedral style, as we are learning, ‘salvat-i-on’).

What is salvat-i-on? A couple of years ago I was invited to a pub lunch by a man whom I’d got to know locally, who was – and who is – active in local charities, and a churchgoer, although not usually in our congregation. The idea was to try to get to know one another better, and see if there were any projects which we could work on together.

We met up and enjoyed a nice lunch, with lots of ideas going back and forth. And then, all of a sudden, my friend turned to me and looked very seriously into my eyes. ‘Now tell me, Hugh,’ he said, ‘have you been saved?’

‘Have you been saved?’ Golly. What to say? Surely he knew I was pretty regular, straight down the line, C of E? But no. I realised he wanted to know whether, like John Wesley, my ‘heart had been strangely warmed’, whether I had had a conversion experience. Well, never mind John Wesley – think of what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus. I had to confess that, if that was what salvation, being saved, was, well, I hadn’t been.

I could tell that he was a bit disappointed, but not really surprised. I wasn’t really animated enough for him. I hadn’t really ‘got’ it; (whatever ‘it’ was). It is something that I do think about, periodically. The lesson from St Luke about entering in ‘at the strait gate’, and the first one from Isaiah, turning his back to the ‘smiters’, not hiding his face from ‘shame and spitting’, both describe ways of making the grade, winning God’s approval, being saved.

The picture in St Luke is very much a picture of getting into heaven. Only a few will be ‘saved’. Others will be left on the outside – in hell, presumably – where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. And the criteria for admission to heaven, to the kingdom of God, will be counterintuitive: ‘there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last’.

So there is a sense in which salvation is something which belongs to eschatology, to considerations about the end of the world; or, it could be, to what happens to each of us at our own end, at our own death. According to what Jesus appears to be saying, not everyone – in fact, only a minority – will be chosen, will be saved. The rest will be damned eternally.
And that is perhaps why some of us have come to church. We might see coming to church as an insurance policy, a way of avoiding going to hell at the end.

But there are various things which make this not a particularly attractive – or even, really, believable – way to understand ‘salvation’. First of all, it doesn’t seem to square with everything else we believe about God as a result of our knowledge of Jesus: that God is a god of love, that indeed God has demonstrated his love for us by sending Jesus and giving us a priceless gift, by taking upon himself our guilt, our sin, on the cross.

But if that supreme witness, supreme sacrifice, was only for a small minority, for the ‘elect’, for the chosen few, surely it can’t mean what we have taken it to mean. If Jesus didn’t come upon earth and become a man, if he didn’t suffer and die, for all mankind, for the whole human race, but only for some of us, I don’t think that we would be justified in our faith.

Again, rather similarly, I don’t think that the God of love in which we believe would inflict such suffering, as it implies He would do, if he condemned the majority of people to eternal damnation.

So I would argue – even though there are indeed passages in the Bible where indeed Jesus does describe a last judgment – for example the famous passage in St Matthew 25 (vv 31-46) where the Son of Man in all his glory separates the sheep from the goats, and the ones he lets into the kingdom, on his right hand, are the ones who have ‘done it unto one of the least of these my brethren’.

‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.’ They got life eternal, whereas the goats, the ones who hadn’t shown love, ‘shall go away into eternal punishment’ [25:46]. Not but what I would hope that that passage is more an encouragement to us to love our neighbours, more than to fear eternal damnation.

Then again this brings up the whole question when the kingdom of God will come in. I think that the picture in Isaiah of the prophet relying on God to protect and vindicate him, right there, in the midst of the smiting and the spitting, is something we ought to consider. There’s a strong argument that, following Jesus’ time with us, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the kingdom of God is here, now. There may also be an end time, an Apocalypse. But God’s Holy Spirit is here already. Indeed, that may be why some people do experience personal revelations, conversion experiences, such as my friend was looking for me to have had.

Bishop Jo’s husband, Revd Dr Sam Wells, who is the vicar of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, has written a fascinating article in the Church Times about salvation, entitled ‘It’s about abundant life, not hell-avoidance’. [See https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/6-october/comment/opinion/it-s-about-abundant-life-not-hell-avoidance%5D

He quotes Jesus’ saying in St John’s Gospel (10:10), ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ In that passage, Jesus is again the shepherd of the sheep, but not sorting out the sheep from the goats. Sam Wells writes, ‘Jesus is our model of abundant life; his life, death and resurrection chart the transformation from the scarcity of sin and death to the abundance of healing and resurrection; he longs to bring all humankind into reconciled and flourishing relationship with God, one another, themselves and all creation.’

This view of what we could believe God is doing in our world, Sam Wells argues, would produce a different kind of church. No longer would church be a place where we cut ourselves off from the sinful world outside and become ‘a mechanism for delivering people from the perils of damnation to the joys of the Elysian Fields’, but rather ‘The central purpose of the Church … is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose.’

This approach would lead to greater, rather than lesser, involvement in society. ‘It should be about capturing … imagination with a form of social practice so authentic and so inspiring that, instead of being embarrassed that their Church is so off the pace, [teenagers] are, instead, attracted by a community whose form of relating is striding boldly ahead of their culture rather than dragging grudgingly behind it.’

It would change the way we use our churches. Instead of the church being empty for most of the week, we would aim to make our church a place ‘that advances abundant life locally, within which liturgical worship should take an honoured but not unduly privileged place.’

This is very much what our our St Mary’s vision of community engagement will bring. Dr Wells has offered an exciting theological basis for it. He says, ‘I’m describing what happens when we cease to use God as a device for acquiring the ultimate goods that we can’t secure for ourselves, and start to adore and imitate the God who in Jesus models, offers, and advances abundant life, now and for evermore.’

It sounds good to me. As we explore our vision, it’s a very positive way to look at how salvation might work for us. Abundant life. Maybe I have been saved, after all. And you, too.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Proverbs 3:1-18; 1 John 3:1-15 – for the readings please see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096631
Psalm 139 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096854

What do you feel about being on camera all the time? You know, anywhere on the M25; and actually, when you get out of your car, more or less all the places that you walk these days, in built-up areas, seem to be under surveillance by cameras of one kind or another as well.

Do you have an iPhone? Because, if you do, you can almost stalk your favourite people, with the ‘Find Friends’ app. I have both my daughters in my phone’s Find Friends application, so I can see at a glance where they are and not disturb them if they are working in the hospital. I also have my lodger, a young man who works at rather odd hours, so quite often he’s out when I am in, and he’s awake when I’m asleep: using the app I can keep tabs on whether he’s in or out and about. He is very welcome in my house, especially as he’s very good at feeding my cats, so I don’t want to lock him out by mistake.

But although all this stuff is very common, I expect that most of us would say that we were not too thrilled about the fact that all our comings and goings are under surveillance somewhere. Big Brother is, indeed, watching us, and we don’t much like it. We like to think that we have privacy; that it’s not the case that everybody knows what we’re doing. ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, we say.

Now part of the attraction of being a private person must surely be that it saves you from being caught out in some misdemeanour and getting into trouble. So long as people don’t know what you’re doing, within reason you are free to do more or less anything, and there’ll be no consequences.

You can do that, when you’re a grown-up: obviously when you were a child, you didn’t have that freedom. Your parents and your teachers kept an eye on you and made very sure that you didn’t stray from the path of righteousness. When you grow up, you find that things change. You have to take responsibility for your life and it’s your choice whether you do good things or bad things, or whether in fact you just keep quiet, keep very private and try not to bother anybody. You pursue a style of life which may not be particularly good or particularly bad.

And then along comes Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me:’ ‘Thou … spiest out all my ways.’ ‘Spiest’. God is the ultimate surveillance camera. There is no hiding-place from God.

I first came across Psalm 139 properly when I went to the Cathedral to make a confession to the last Dean, Victor Stock. He used to hear confessions and I had never done it before. Indeed I had been brought up to have a vague suspicion of confession as being a dastardly Roman Catholic device.

Then I realised that the Catholics were not dastardly, and that indeed you can say confessions in the Church of England as well. So I went along and Dean Victor got me to kneel down next to him and say the words on a card to introduce my confession. He said, ‘Take your time, and think about what you want to confess to the Lord’; and I did, and the Dean blessed me, pronounced absolution and gave me a task to do, a sort of penance. You know, in the Catholic Church, and in all the literature and on the TV in things like Father Ted, the penance is often to say so many Hail Mary’s.

Dean Victor gave me a different sort of penance. He said that I should go away and read Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me.’ Of course I went and read the psalm and thought about it carefully. Over the years since, I have gone back and thought about Psalm 139, asking myself, why did Dean Victor recommend that I should read that particular psalm after I had made my confession to him?

Now tonight we have only sung the first nine verses of Psalm 139, but there are in fact 24 verses – it’s not a very long psalm – and it is well worth getting your Prayer Book out at home (or borrowing one from here if you haven’t got one at home) and reading it again, this time the whole way through. Why do you think that the Dean prescribed Psalm 139 for me to read? It got me thinking about the whole philosophy of crime and punishment. The criminal justice system only works if criminals get caught. There is no deterrent preventing them from committing crimes unless they believe that there is a chance that they will be found out.

‘Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit: or whither shall I go then from thy presence?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the morning: and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there also shall thy hand lead me …’

This psalm is all about God knowing all about everything we do, good and bad. So maybe that knowledge, that awareness on my part, if I am going to do something naughty – that awareness that God knows about it, will serve as a great deterrent. Our lessons today go in the same direction. In Proverbs the passage might look at first almost like a ‘prosperity gospel’:

‘Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the first fruits of all thine increase’:


That could mean, make sure that you keep up with your planned giving:

‘So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.’

Speculate, charitably, in order to accumulate.

There’s also this sense of keeping us in order, by chastisement if necessary.

‘For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth’.

The Lord is like a good parent, not letting the children get away with anything.

‘[E]ven as a father the son in whom he

This leads not just to riches, but to the riches of wisdom and understanding, which is worth more than silver and gold and precious stones.

When this idea is translated into the world of the New Testament, as in John’s first letter, (which we had as our second lesson today), God has shown his love to us, and called us the sons of God, in that we are like his son Jesus. It’s quite tricky to understand. St John says, ‘Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’

We have no image of God that is particularly plausible, except our knowledge of Jesus Christ, and he was a man just like us. And again the lesson from this is that, if we are to be like Jesus and therefore to be sons of God, we must behave ourselves.

‘And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.’

There was no sin in Jesus, and if we hope to be like him we must try to avoid sin ourselves. If we are to be children of God, we must uphold God’s law as best we can. Of course, most importantly, that means that we must love one another.

‘For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.’

But it can go further than that.

To show you what I mean, I’ll finish by telling you a little story about when I was training to become a Reader. My training coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting to read Medicine at Bristol University. One day I went to visit her to see that she was safely installed in her hall of residence and that she was getting to grips with university life. Indeed she was doing fine.

The following Sunday I was having coffee after the morning service at St Andrew’s in Cobham, with some other members of the congregation, and the conversation turned to my recent visit to Bristol.

‘How was it?’

‘Very nice thank you. Mind you,’ I said, ‘I think that I may have had a very expensive journey.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, just as I was turning off the M4 on to the M32, to go into the centre of Bristol, I passed under a bridge – and I realised too late that the bridge was bristling with things that must have been speed cameras.’

‘But surely, you were only doing 70 mph? So no problem.’

‘Agh! Well, I managed to get it below 100 …’

Whereupon some of the party giggled; but one of them took me by the hand and earnestly counselled me. What she said was, ‘Now that you are going to be a minister in the church, you have to change your ways. No more breaking the law by speeding – and definitely no more crowing about it!’

Oh dear; but she was right. I did learn a lesson. Fortunately there was no nasty speeding ticket in the post, so the camera must have not had any film in it on that occasion. I have tried to slow down since. I suppose that’s one way that one can ‘purify oneself’. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me.’ I hope that I’m all the better for it, for that friendly scrutiny.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1st October 2017

[Ezekiel 37:15-end], 1 John 2:22-29

Please click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=373669534 for the readings

You remember the ‘comfortable words’, in the Communion service. ‘Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’ – and, ‘Hear also what St John saith: If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins’. I’m going to talk about the things that ‘St John saith,’ in his first Letter.

There could be a sermon just about that phrase in the Comfortable Words, what it means for Jesus to be the ‘propitiation’ for sins. Some theologians say that it means a ‘ransom’, ‘paying the price to get us out of jail’: others would argue that, for that understanding to be right, you would have to think of God as a kind of terrorist taking hostages – which doesn’t seem to fit with the idea of a loving God. Another translation of this word, which is ίλασμος in Greek, has been that it is a ‘remedy for the defilement’ of our sins. It almost has the connotation of a ‘solution’, a solution to the word translated as ‘sin’, but which literally means ‘missing the mark’, making mistakes. A ίλασμος is a fix, a solution. But I’m not going to talk about that, tonight.

This little letter, the first Letter of John, is supposed to have been written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, the author of the fourth gospel. The same John, in his old age living in Ephesus, wrote this letter, which is where our second lesson came from, and it is pretty full of well-known passages. Indeed it’s a pretty good revision guide to some of the most important questions and teachings in Christianity.

Even in the short passage which was our second lesson, St John deals with who Jesus is: how He relates to God – and what is true in this area; he goes on to explain how a believer should react to this theological truth – and what it means for a theological proposition to be true, how to tell it’s authentic.

You will recall at the beginning of the service that I have read to you one or two passages from the Bible which are known in the Prayer Book as the ‘sentences’. It says, in the stage directions, in the ‘rubric’, in the Prayer Book – you can find it on page 16 – ‘At the beginning of evening prayer the minister shall read with a loud voice some one or more of these sentences of the Scriptures that follow’: and there’s another quote from this important letter.

The last one which comes up, which I read out before the service tonight, is, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us: but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. That is also from the first letter of St John.

In the communion service, after the sermon, in the bit called the ‘offertory’, when the collection is taken up, there are more sentences.

It starts “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven”, from Saint Matthew’s Gospel; and, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the Earth where the rust and moth doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven;…”

There are a number of sentences, all of which go to point out the difference between spiritual and worldly wealth; but a couple of the sentences bring to mind Jesus’ teaching about love. And then the most important one comes, from St John’s first letter.

“Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother hath need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” [1 St John 3, BCP]

Put another way, “If a man has enough to live on and yet when he sees his brother in need, shuts up his heart against him, how can it be said that the divine love dwells in him?” [1 John 3, NEB]

Chapter 3 goes on, ‘Love must not be just a matter of words and talk, it must be genuine and show itself in action’. [verse 18]

So this little letter, the first letter of Saint John, contains some very important theology. It gives you a big clue about the nature of God, what God is and how God works. Like a lot of the letters in the Bible, it’s a bit like overhearing somebody on the telephone. You don’t know what the other person is saying.

It’s clear from the context that St John may have written this letter because he disagrees with somebody. Indeed he disagrees with them so much that he calls them the ‘antichrist’. The opposite to Christ, opposite, because, according to St John, his opponent is denying that Jesus is Χριστός, anointed: denying that Jesus is the Messiah, the chosen one of God.

John’s argument is that the liar, the antichrist, the person who is saying something that is not true, is saying that Jesus is not the chosen one of God – not indeed God himself, in human form, God incarnate. So John reasons like this.

God has anointed Jesus as his son, as the Christ.
God and Jesus are two aspects of the godhead, as it is sometimes called; two aspects of being God, inseparable.
Antichrist denies that Jesus is part of the godhead.
Therefore, if he is right, there is no godhead;
you can’t have Jesus without there being also God.

In the passage in 1 John 2, in verse 23, “To deny the son is to be without the father: to acknowledge the son is to have the father too”.

There was a huge fuss in the early church about what precisely the relationship between God the father and God the son is. The relationship described as father and son in, for example, this letter of St John. Does that mean that Jesus is really God, or whether instead Jesus was created by God and therefore somehow Jesus is lower than God and not actually part of God himself? That was the argument a scholar called Arius put forward In the fourth century, and it’s one reason why the Orthodox Church differs from the Western Church, Protestant and Catholic.

We in the Western Church understand God as the Trinity, father, son and holy spirit, in the way in which we say, in the creed, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.’ In the Eastern Church, they just say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’.

After the Council of Nicaea and Council of Constantinople in the fourth century, the western churches added the words ‘and the son’ – in Latin, ‘filioque’, to make it plain that it wasn’t a chain of creation, from the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit: but that the Father and the Son were consubstantial, part of the same Godhead.

Actually we might be tempted now not be hugely bothered about this argument. For instance, I can’t help thinking that the nature of God must be far more complicated than you could describe simply as involving being a father, or being a son. We might well find it quite compelling instead to think of all this language as being a myth, a picturesque way of describing something that is beyond description. You could say that you only get into trouble, philosophically, if you take it literally that God had a son. If on the other hand, God and Jesus are two expressions of the same, ineffable, thing, then the question doesn’t arise whether one created the other.

But again, as St John points out, if you don’t believe in Jesus, you can’t really get to God. Think about how you would describe your belief in God, your faith, if you didn’t know about Jesus. Think about what the Jews and the Moslems, who both say they worship the same god that we do, but who deny the divinity of Jesus, think how they justify their belief.

They look to prophets to be conduits of communication between the deity and mankind. There’s no real direct contact. There’s always an issue, whether the prophet in question is genuinely passing on the words of God or not. Running through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, before Christ settled the argument, very commonly there is the question, ‘Is it true?’

Christians have a great advantage. The question need not be, ‘Is it true?’ Instead, it’s just, ‘What did Jesus say?’ or ‘What would Jesus do?’ To know Jesus is to know God.

And in an important way, once Jesus ‘abides’ in you – ‘abides’ is a sort of church ‘railway word’; you know, like ‘alight’; ‘Alight here for Stoke D’Abernon’: you never see the word except on the railways – well, apart from rugby matches, singing ‘Abide with me’, you only come across ‘abide’ in church – if Jesus abides, stays, in you, once you’ve come to faith in Christ, there’s no risk that your faith will need to be revised or corrected or changed in some way. ‘.. the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you’ – verse 27 of chapter 2. You need not chase after the latest fashionable fad. (I nearly ended that sentence, ‘.. like mindfulness’, but perhaps that’s a bit hard).

This theological wisdom is all in this little letter. If you read all through St John’s first letter, you’ll come across many of the points which the church has spent so much time on in the past. ‘What difference does it make?’ you might say.

The difference, a big fundamental truth of Christianity, is in the last line of tonight’s lesson.

‘If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.’

Christianity has a practical effect. You believe, and this leads you to action, to doing. By doing good, you show that you are a child of God.

The Prayer Book again, in the ‘sentences’ in the Communion service [page 243], quotes a slightly longer version of this practical gospel, which appears in 1 John chapter 3: “Whoso hath this world’s good and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up … his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

A real Christian understands that Christ was, is, God incarnate. He was, is, both God and human.

A real Christian can’t claim to have fellowship with God, while still ‘walking in darkness’, as the 1st chapter of the letter puts it. Faith, if it’s genuine, if it’s true, leads to action. Go and read all five chapters – they’re short. It won’t take long. Then you’ll know what is the Christian thing to do – and why.

 

Sermon for Evensong on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 10th September 2017
Ezekiel 12:21-13:16; Acts 19:1-19

Click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=372404914  for the readings

 

Every now and again there is a news item or an article in one of the papers pointing out that fewer people claim to belong to the Church of England. Some go on to calculate how long it will be till there won’t be any churches left.

 

There was quite a friendly article in the Weekend FT colour section by Jeremy Paxman along those lines yesterday. He lit on the efforts of Holy Trinity Brompton, the evangelical church which created the Alpha Course, and who specialise in ‘planting’ congregations in churches which are fading away – and indeed HTB, as they call it, was the church where Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, started as well. Young ministers, without dog collars and robes, singing worship songs rather than hymns, and they pack them in! Perhaps Alpha and the HTB formula will be the salvation of the C of E, says Jeremy Paxman.

 

But of course there are lots of more traditional places where an ageing vicar ministers to an ageing flock of parishioners, declining in numbers. In some country places the vicar has to race round several churches at once. And there are traditional places like this, that are growing, if not spectacularly.

 

I have to say that I think that this question, whether the sea of faith is running out, as in Matthew Arnold’s poem on ‘Dover Beach’ – which, after all, wrote the Christian faith off as doomed as long ago as 1867 – is a bit like one of those sandwich-board men whom you used to see tramping about with ‘The End is nigh’ or something similarly apocalyptic on their sandwich boards. The End has been nigh for rather a long time, and it still hasn’t arrived. There’s a plaque commemorating Matthew Arnold in St Andrew’s in Cobham, by the way. I don’t know what his precise connexion was – he was buried in Staines.

 

The prophet Ezekiel gets involved in the sandwich-board stuff too, in our Old Testament lesson.

 

Ezekiel 12:26The word of the LORD came to me: 27Man, he said, the Israelites say that the vision you now see is not to be fulfilled for many years: you are prophesying of a time far off. 28Say to them, These are the words of the Lord GOD: No word of mine shall be delayed; even as I speak it shall be done. This is the very word of the Lord GOD. (Translation: the New English Bible).

 

I’m not desperately bothered about these expressions of gloom and doom about our church. The key thing isn’t to get bums on seats. It’s that church should be a place for encounters with God, with all the blessings that come with that.

 

 

So why should we start thinking about ‘Dover Beach’ and having all these gloomy thoughts? I wonder whether some of it has to do with how we go about meeting God, encountering Him. In the Old Testament, in the books of the prophets, it’s almost unremarkable, how the prophets do meet God. Look at Ezekiel. The context is that the ancient Israelites are either about to be or have been captured by the Babylonians. Just a few years afterwards, the Babylonians did invade, and the Israelites were rounded up and captured. Psalm 137,

 

‘By the waters of Babylon
We sat down and wept
When we remembered Zion’

 

In that atmosphere of conquest and invasions, all armies and navies tried to get in touch with God, to find out if they were favoured. And God was close at hand. ‘The Lord said to me, Man, prophesy to the prophets of Israel …’ is quite different from our experience. If we said that we’d been told by God to do something, we’d be gently humoured, but regarded as eccentric or even mad.

 

 

Does it mean that nowadays, by contrast, God has gone away? Does it mean that because we can’t quite so easily get in touch with Him, we should give up even trying to encounter Him? Are we shy about it? I think there is a lot of British reserve to be factored in. What would you say, face to face, to Jesus, or God himself?

 

 

It begs the question, if you hear some rousing preacher, whether he is right in what he says. Just like the sons of Sceva in our lesson in Acts: were they the real thing? Were they in touch with God? Are we in touch with God and how can we tell if it’s the genuine article?

 

We have grown to be more humanistic, more sceptical. Whereas in Ezekiel’s time – say about 587BC – if the prophets told people that God wanted them to do something, they would simply obey, or disobey: they would not go behind it, they wouldn’t try to reason it out.

 

Then again, just after the time of Jesus, Paul is tackled by people, the sons of Sceva, who are claiming supernatural powers. It’s always been a live issue for philosophers what is really true. I have on my desk a book called ‘Truth Etc’, by the great Aristotelian philosopher Jonathan Barnes – and it’s 500-odd pages of ancient philosophy about what it true and what is false.

 

But what the disciples were worried about with the sons of Sceva, and what Ezekiel was criticising in false prophets, was not that some statements were illogical, but that they weren’t authentic at all – they were, to use President Trump’s favourite expression, fakes.

 

How can we tell? There aren’t any prophets any more. Even though Jesus said he hadn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, in effect he did finish off the prophets. He was the voice of God in a way that no prophet has ever been.

 

But just as when Ezekiel prophesied, not everyone took notice – and we don’t have any percentages to go on – so today not everyone bothers to take any notice of God. People don’t believe that God takes an interest in human affairs as they may have believed he did in Old Testament times.

 

We do the stuff, we wreck the environment – or not, depending who you believe – and if Houston is flooded and the British Virgin Islands devastated by hurricanes, no-one, or almost no-one, would think of blasphemy or disobedience to the law of Moses as being possible causes.

 

Perhaps these days we make a distinction between religious beliefs and practices on one hand, and practical behaviour on the other: what you do as against what you believe in. God is in the spiritual bit, but not the practical, we might think.

 

But I wonder whether that will really do. I would suggest that, if you take that distinction, between acts and beliefs, to its logical conclusion, then religion can never – or never ought to – affect our behaviour, for better or worse.

 

Jesus clearly didn’t see it that way. The Sermon on the Mount, loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, not even looking at someone in a lustful or a covetous way, for instance, are all about doing things, about action.

 

Because you believe, because you believe in a God of love, as a Christian, you are supposed to act in certain ways, not just to keep it as a mental or spiritual exercise.

 

But we don’t. We don’t always follow what Jesus taught, in a practical way. Indeed, sometimes people criticise what Jesus taught, the Sermon on the Mount, for example, as being impractical, impossible to achieve in real life.

 

If someone is pointing a gun at you, you don’t turn towards him to offer him a bigger target – which might be how you would ‘turn the other cheek’; and our society works economically on the principles of ambition and greed, not ‘blessed are the meek’.

 

Or what about our recent encounters with Gypsies, with Travellers, in Cobham? Apparently they were washing horses, using washing-up liquid, in the River Mole at the picnic spot just up from the mill. They were holding trotting races on Portsmouth Road. There was drunkenness, fighting and betting. Wherever they went, people felt intimidated and there was a lot of litter.

 

It’s sort-of assumed that the only thing to do with gypsies is to get them to move on: in other words, to drive them out of our community. Not in any sense to treat them as our neighbours, not in any sense to love them, let alone to love them as ourselves.

 

Well, let’s think about it. I would suggest that Jesus didn’t want us just to love, to be kind to, only nice people. Who is my neighbour? was the question. And the story of the Good Samaritan isn’t just a story about two blokes, any two blokes. The hero is someone whom the Jews thought of a beyond the pale, a Samaritan. And Jesus had supper with, hung out with, friends who weren’t all ‘nice people’. Some were ‘publicans and thieves’.

 

I think it’s a serious challenge for us. What should our attitude towards the Gypsies, who come into our villages, be? Even if, indeed, they behave in an awful way? What should we think about ‘immigrants’? What happens, or what should happen, when we meet someone who isn’t very nice?

 

What about we feel about people in jail, or people who’ve committed the crimes and are sentenced to do community service? The community service bods did a great job tidying up round the church hall. Should we say ‘thank you’ to them?

 

‘Justice is mine’, says the Lord. So why do we lock up so many people? I’m just asking. There isn’t an easy answer, an easy answer to any of these challenges. But I do think that Jesus wanted us not to go for easy answers. It isn’t a simple distinction between religious stuff, spiritual matters, and actions, deeds. It isn’t the case that nice deeds only happen to nice people.

 

What would you do? What if you had a knock at your door, and a couple of bedraggled-looking black men asked you for a drink of water? Somebody who goes to one of the local church house groups, when that topic came up, immediately thought that they would be refugees who’d smuggled themselves into this country by hiding in the back of a lorry – so the right thing would be to call the police and get them arrested.

 

Again, what do you think Jesus would have to say? And if, as I suspect, Jesus wouldn’t be quite so quick to dial 999, then how should we be influenced? What should we do? Or is our belief, our Christianity, just as the Roman proconsul Gallio said about the Jews when St Paul was on trial before him, just a ‘question of words and names’?

 

I think we should really reflect – and pray – about that. It’s more important than bums on seats.

 

 

 

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 27th August 2017

Acts 17:15-34 – The Unknown God – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=370781966

[Parts of this have already appeared in ‘My God is your God’, delivered at St Andrew’s, Cobham on 25th August. This sermon was delivered at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon, the other church in the United Benefice of Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, last Sunday]

I’ve always loved this passage, this story of St Paul tackling the Athenian philosophers. As you may know, I was a classicist by education. I loved the thought that, 2,500 years ago, there was real civilisation and very sophisticated thought. The Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, of course, raised issues which are still debated today.

I had a sneaking suspicion then that the encounters in the New Testament between the Romans, whose civilisation was very much based on Greek concepts, and the Israelites and early Christians, showed the Jewish side as being rather lacking in intellectual firepower when compared with the greats of classical antiquity.

Now I’m more open to the idea that actually Jewish culture was similarly sophisticated. Granted the ancients were lacking in the means of transport – no planes, trains or automobiles – and they hadn’t harnessed electricity, with all it now does for us. But they were all, Jews and Greeks (to use St Paul’s terms) just as capable as we are of articulating arguments about what it is for something or someone to be good, or to do right.

The mediaeval theologian Thomas Aquinas brought a lot of ideas from Aristotle into his great comprehensive theology guide, his Summa Theologiae. It’s at least arguable that the Jewish and the Graeco-Roman classical traditions are not mutually exclusive.

St Paul was speaking to the Athenians in the first century AD, or CE as it’s now termed, ‘Common Era’, not about philosophy – although he had been having a discussion with the Epicureans and Stoics, but about what God is like. Incidentally, for your own research later, if you look up Epicurus or Zeno and Chrysippus, the founders of Stoic philosophy, you’ll find that our words ‘epicurean’ and ‘stoical’ don’t really reflect what these Greek philosophers were teaching.

Well, so much for the history of ideas. What would St Paul say about us – or to us, today? Do we worship many idols, as the Greeks did? It shows such generosity of spirit for them to admit their ignorance by worshipping a god whom they’d missed, whom they’d overlooked, in effect. They didn’t know what characteristics this Unknown God had: but whatever his attributes were, he was worthy of worship.

St Paul filled in the blanks. It’s really interesting to equate the various characteristics of the Unknown God, as described by St Paul, with our own understanding of God, through our knowledge of Jesus Christ.

He didn’t live in a ‘temple made by hands’. He didn’t need anything, any sacrifices, from men, because he created everything anyway. He made all people ‘of one blood’. Not different nationalities. If you went looking for him, he wasn’t far away. In fact he’s omnipresent: ‘in him we live and move and have our being’. He can’t be made out of gold or silver. And there will be a last judgment. We can recognise the judge, the judge eternal, by the fact that he has been raised from the dead.

That’s all pretty well square with what we have said in the Creed. But then how come Christianity is actually a patchwork quilt of different denominations? It’s sometimes a good way of looking at ourselves, first to compare ourselves with someone else. In this case, it might be instructive to look down the road at our brothers and sisters in Christ in our United Benefice, at St Andrew’s in Cobham. What’s their church – our sister church – like?

As you may know, I started my Anglican journey at St Andrew’s, and I’m still licensed to that church as a Reader, as well as to St Mary’s. Now in the context of the search for a new Rector (who will really in effect be the vicar of Cobham), it might be interesting to look at St Andrew’s worship and witness, in the light of St Paul’s sermon which is at the heart of today’s lesson in the Acts of the Apostles, and against the description in the Parish Profile of the church’s offer as ‘middle of the road’. [http://cdn.cofeguildford.org.uk/docs/default-source/about/Work-with-us/clergy-vacancies/cobham-parish-profile.pdf?sfvrsn=0]

When I first started going to St Andrew’s just over 20 years ago, a big factor – apart from the friendly welcome, which my young family and I surely did receive – was my feeling that the church was rich, rich in ways of worshipping God and witnessing to the Gospel. It was anything but one-dimensional. The God that was worshipped there was a God approached in various ways, all under one roof.

There were people – and some of them are still around – who had followed a preacher called Gerald Coates and joined his Cobham Fellowship, which became the Pioneer People. St Andrew’s had a vicar, Sidney Barrington, who brought St Andrew’s and the Fellowship very close together, and then, very tragically, took his own life because, I believe, he had decided it was a wrong turning for the church.

But the theology behind the Fellowship is still alive. It is what is known as ‘conservative evangelical’ theology. According to it, you get to know God just through the Bible, and through prayer. The Bible is literally true. Often, people who follow those ideas are socially conservative: they believe, for instance, that homosexuality is sinful. Sometimes, people with this faith believe that illness and other misfortune come about as punishment from God for sin. But there are great positives too. There were missions to take Bibles to places where the Word of God had not reached, and where it was banned, such as China; and there was a great willingness to reach out to everyone in the village and involve them in prayer and knowledge of the Gospel, in services in a tent on the Leg O’Mutton field.

Then more recently, the vicar was Barry Preece. Barry was – Barry is – a ‘liberal’ theologian. He is very spiritual – he was for several years the Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality – but he did not believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. He was influenced by the great liberal (small ‘L’) theological movement in the 1960s following the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson’s, great little book ‘Honest to God’, which I bet some of you have on your shelves, as I do.

Liberal theologians are cautious about being very definite about what God is, or what He says. God is immortal, invisible, and infinitely wise. But He is beyond our understanding. We can know something about God because of Jesus. But we can use our reason to analyse the Bible, to acknowledge its contradictions and try to understand its mysteries. We can understand certain things as symbolic rather than literally true. And we can be, we must be, tolerant of people who are different from us.

Just as the former Cobham Fellowship people are still represented at St Andrew’s, there are a number of people at St Andrew’s who are – perhaps influenced by Barry Preece’s teaching – liberal theologians. I am one.

And there’s yet another strand in the rich mixture of beliefs and witnessing to faith which you will find at St Andrew’s. That is the ‘liberal catholic’ tradition, which Robert Jenkins taught, and which Godfrey espouses here at St Mary’s . ‘Catholic’ in this sense means ‘for everyone’. Robert Jenkins very much wanted the church to be involved with the community, not just a place where people go on Sunday. So Cobham Heritage had its big re-launch meeting at St Andrew’s: and the church’s outreach to Uganda, former Yugoslavia and now Nepal and South Africa, is all part of it. St Andrew’s, alongside St Mary’s, had a big part in starting Cobham Area Foodbank, too.

But ‘catholic’ also means ‘Eucharistic’ – worship is based on Holy Communion, rather than on what are called ‘services of the word’. There’s no Mattins or Evensong at St Andrew’s. Barry Preece used to encourage a Sunday evening service led by lay people, not following a set liturgy. In Robert Jenkins’s time they tried ‘Alive @ 6’, a more evangelical, modern service, in an attempt to involve people in the village who were not attracted by the more formal liturgy of Holy Communion, but it didn’t really catch on.

Now on Sunday evenings the two churches practise what they preach about having a ‘united benefice’, St Andrew’s with St Mary’s, and all are invited to join in Evensong here.

The other thing to mention about the worship and witness at St Andrew’s is their music. For 40 years at St Andrew’s David Fuge created and selected settings and hymns which successfully brought together all the various strains of belief and styles of churchmanship and theology in the church.

Three distinct types of theology and a unifying musical tradition, all trying to bring the best of the faithful at St Andrew’s to God in witness and service. The Parish Profile says they are ‘middle of the road’, but I think that doesn’t tell you half of it! As you’ll appreciate from the history, it’s much better, more positive, than that.

Now we – they – are going to find a new shepherd, a new pastor. It may take time – and whoever it is, they will have to get to know the variety and depth of love for God in these two churches.

A PS – I’m indebted to Revd Mother Kathryn Twining, Rector of the Guildford Chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests, for this additional note concerning liberal catholicism:

‘Belief in The Real Presence of Christ in the Sacraments and the sacramental life are key to catholic spirituality, in addition to a focus on social justice, beauty in worship, faith as a journey or pilgrimage.

Check out SCP website http://www.scp.org.uk/, as well as the Gospel Imprint http://gospelimprint.com/ website!’

Sermon for 10.30 Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, 25th August 2017

Ruth 1; Matthew 22:34-40 – click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=370733798 for the readings

 

What a lovely story the Book of Ruth is! ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ Such a loving, trusting thing for Ruth to say to her mother-in-law. It didn’t matter where Ruth had come from, that she was a foreigner: she had become ‘family’ to Naomi, and their bond was based on the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbour. Nothing to do with nationality, or citizenship. They might even have been referred to as ‘economic migrants’, as they’d gone to Moab in search of a better life, and food to eat, in the face of a famine at home. It’s something to think about today.

 

When Ruth talked about ‘your God’ being ‘my God’, she was saying something very interesting. I know that people say ‘my God’ these days very carelessly, as a sort of low-grade swearing. I’m not talking about that.

 

In Old Testament times, in the ancient world, the Jewish idea of the One True God was by no means accepted wisdom generally. The Persians, Egyptians and Greeks all worshipped several gods; and worshippers would cultivate one or more of a variety of gods. One would be devoted to Artemis – like the Ephesians (‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’); others, if they were Greeks, would worship Jupiter, or Mars, or Dionysus, or Mercury. Egyptians or Babylonians had their gods too: Marduk and Baal, for instance.

 

But the Jews – our theological ancestors – worshipped just one God. When Jesus came along, the Jewish idea of God as one developed among Christians as Three in One, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

But in both cases it seems as though the idea of ‘My God’ might have come through the worshippers looking outside themselves. For them, there was something ‘out there’, something which created the world and sustains it now.

 

Or perhaps their God is inside them; if there is no benign figure with a white beard reclining in comfort in the heavens, if there is no God ‘out there’, then He has to be inside us, if He is anywhere in particular.

 

But there’s another sense in which I think people use the expression. ‘My’ God connotes, brings with it, a type of ownership. My God is better than your God, as soldiers have hopefully said. But I think we can only say that sort of thing because God is not physically present with us. If Jesus were walking about among us, bumping into us, we couldn’t think of Him as some kind of pocket deity, a god who looks and behaves like we want him to.

 

In a way, because God is not there, because we’re not confronted by Him face to face, we can sort-of appropriate Him, take him over. ‘My God’ is somehow in my pocket, He’s whatever I want Him to be.

 

If you stop a minute, and ponder this: if Jesus came into St Andrew’s now, what would he be like? What would he like or not like? After all, when he went into the synagogue, he had definite views about what good worship was. He didn’t like to see people lording it over their neighbours, or parading their piety, being hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’, for example. His approach to liturgy was really simple – one prayer, one prayer only: the Lord’s Prayer.

 

So if you’re a follower of Jesus now, what sort of God do you follow, and how do you go around the business of offering Him worship?

 

When I first started coming to St Andrew’s just over 20 years ago, a big factor – apart from the friendly welcome, which my young family and I surely did receive – was my feeling that our church here was rich, rich in ways of worshipping God and witnessing to the Gospel. It was anything but one-dimensional. The God that was worshipped here was a God approached in various ways, all under one roof.

 

There were people – and some of them are still around – who had followed a preacher called Gerald Coates and joined his Cobham Fellowship, which became the Pioneer People. We had a vicar, Sidney Barrington, who brought St Andrew’s and the Fellowship very close together, and then, very tragically, took his own life because, I believe, he had decided it was a wrong turning for our church.

 

But the theology behind the Fellowship is still alive. It is what is known as ‘conservative evangelical’ theology. According to it, you get to know God just through the Bible, and through prayer. The Bible is literally true. Often, people who follow those ideas are socially conservative: they believe, for instance, that homosexuality is sinful. Sometimes, people with this faith believe that illness and other misfortune come about as punishment from God for sin. But there are great positives too. There were missions to take Bibles to places where the Word of God had not reached, and where it was banned, such as China; and there was a great willingness to reach out to everyone in the village and involve them in prayer and knowledge of the Gospel, in services in a tent on the Leg O’Mutton field.

 

Then more recently, our vicar was Barry Preece. Barry was – Barry is – a ‘liberal’ theologian. He is very spiritual – he was for several years the Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality – but he did not believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. He was influenced by the great liberal (small ‘L’) theological movement in the 1960s following the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson’s, great little book ‘Honest to God’, which I bet some of you have on your shelves, as I do.

 

Liberal theologians are cautious about being very definite about what God is, or what He says. God is immortal, invisible, and infinitely wise. But He is beyond our understanding. We can know something about God because of Jesus. But we can use our reason to analyse the Bible, to acknowledge its contradictions and mysteries. We can understand certain things as symbolic rather than literally true. And we can be, we must be, tolerant of people who are different from us.

 

Just as the former Cobham Fellowship people are still represented at St Andrew’s, we have a number of people at St Andrew’s who are – perhaps influenced by Barry Preece’s teaching – liberal theologians. I am one.

 

And there’s yet another strand in the rich mixture of beliefs and witnessing to our faith at St Andrew’s. That is the ‘liberal catholic’ tradition, which Robert Jenkins taught. ‘Catholic’ in this sense means ‘for everyone’. Robert very much wanted our church to be involved with the community, not just a place where people go on Sunday. So Cobham Heritage had its big re-launch meeting at St Andrew’s: and the church’s outreach to Uganda, former Yugoslavia and now Nepal and South Africa, is all part of it. St Andrew’s had a big part in starting Cobham Area Foodbank, too.

 

But ‘catholic’ also means ‘Eucharistic’ – our worship is based on Holy Communion, rather than on what are called ‘services of the word’. There’s no Mattins or Evensong here. Barry Preece used to encourage a Sunday evening service led by lay people, not following a set liturgy. In Robert’s time we tried ‘Alive @ 6’, a more evangelical, modern service, in an attempt to involve people in the village who were not attracted by the more formal liturgy of Holy Communion, but it didn’t really catch on.

 

Now on Sunday evenings we practise what we preach about having a ‘united benefice’ with St Mary’s, and all join in Evensong at our sister church. That is a growing congregation, made up from both churches, and there are also quite a few newcomers, who are perhaps attracted by the music and the beautiful words.

 

The other thing to mention about our worship and witness here at St Andrew’s is our music. For 40 years David Fuge created and selected settings and hymns to bring together beautifully all the various strains of belief and styles of churchmanship and theology in this church. Kevin and Cathy are carrying on that work, which is so much a trademark of St Andrew’s.

 

Three distinct types of theology and a unifying musical tradition, all trying to bring the best of us to God in witness and service. The Parish Profile says we are ‘middle of the road’, [http://cdn.cofeguildford.org.uk/docs/default-source/about/Work-with-us/clergy-vacancies/cobham-parish-profile.pdf?sfvrsn=0] but I think that doesn’t tell you half of it! It’s much better, more positive, than that.

 

Now we are going to find a new shepherd, a new pastor for the flock. It may take time – and whoever it is, they will have to get to know the variety and depth of our love for God in this church. We will want them to be able to say, like Ruth, ‘Your God shall be my God’.

Sermon for Mattins on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Great Fish

 

There are a surprising amount of really contemporary references in the story of Jonah and the whale: although having said that, the first thing to say is that we now know that a whale, if that is what swallowed Jonah, isn’t a ‘great fish’, of course – a whale is a mammal.

 

The Lord told Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, ‘that great city’, to make it clear to the people that the Lord was not pleased with them, ‘for their wickedness is come up before me.’ Nineveh is still in the news. It is now called Mosul, and it’s in modern Iraq.

 

Jonah ran away; he disobeyed God. As usual in the Old Testament, the Jews are up against the Gentiles. Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, Gentiles. Being told that he should go and criticise their way of life as ‘wicked’ wasn’t likely to end well for Jonah. So he disobeyed, and ran away to sea.

 

The first clue, that this is not just a nice story, is the name of the place where Jonah was heading, Tarshish. No-one really knows where it was. Traditionally it has been identified with Tunis or Carthage; but there are no archaeological remains in either place to bear this out. It seems to be a kind of symbolic place, symbolic as being a great centre of commerce and trade. The little Book of Jonah – only four chapters long – is really a piece of religious teaching, allegorical rather than a factual historical account. So one has to weigh up all the bits of the story in that way. What does each thing really mean, or what does it illustrate?

 

An exception, however, is when the ship gets caught in a storm and is being overwhelmed, and the ship’s crew, the ‘mariners’, jettison cargo in order to lighten the ship. In maritime law there is a concept called ‘general average’, defined as an unforeseen, extraordinary sacrifice made in order to preserve the safety of the ‘maritime adventure’ as a whole, that is, the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo, and the cost of the sacrifice is shared among all of them. It’s a very old concept, first mentioned as part of the Lex Rhodia, the law of the island of Rhodes, in about 800BC. The Book of Jonah was written about 400 years later – although it makes out that its context is the rise of Assyria and the defeat of Babylon, also about 800BC. The law of general average is still practised today in London.

 

But even here the straightforward ‘story’ aspect is modified by some philosophical, ethical, material. The ship’s captain and crew had picked up the fact that Jonah has disobeyed ‘his’ God, and the mariners rather oddly drew lots as a way of seeing whom among them to blame for the storm.

 

The logic seems to have been that they – and it seems from the context that they were a mixture of faiths and nationalities – thought that one person on board must somehow have caused the danger that they were in: so if they got rid of that person, they would be saved. Casting lots to find the person was a way of leaving the blame to God to assign, not just luck. Jonah drew the short straw, and the others felt confident that he must be the one who caused it, because not only had the lot fallen on him, but he was known to have done something wrong – he had disobeyed God.

 

And yet the crewmen were very reluctant to throw Jonah overboard, which was what the purpose of drawing lots was – it was like one of those ‘balloon debates’, where at the end of each round, someone has to jump out of the balloon, to keep the balloon in the air. Jonah however accepted his fate, and said the storm would subside if he were tossed over the side. They had asked Jonah what his religious affiliations were – they weren’t Jewish like him.

 

So when Jonah finally got chucked over the side, at his own request, it was another symbolic act. He, the Jew, the member of God’s chosen people, was being sacrificed rather than any of the less-favoured Gentiles, the motley assortment of other races and beliefs among the crew.

 

This week we finally managed to show the new film ‘The Shack’ in our Spiritual Cinema at Church Gate House. There will be another showing on 5th September if you’d like to see it. As we can’t show it on our big screen, we’re doing it in the lounge, to no more than 20 people at a time. It is a very spiritual and moving film.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you much about the plot. I just wanted to mention that, early in the film, one of the characters tells the story of an ‘Indian princess’, (meaning a Native American), who, when when her tribe had fallen ill with some plague, threw herself to her death down a waterfall, on the understanding that her sacrificing her life would give life to others. It sounds very like ‘God so loved the world ..’ [John 3:16f]. And here, Jonah is being sacrificed in order to – in order to do what? Placate an angry God?

 

The idea is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Taking someone else’s punishment for them, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, an animal – poor thing – on whose back all the community’s sins and iniquities was metaphorically loaded, before it was driven out, most likely to starve, in the desert.

 

But where is God in such a process? Granted that He wouldn’t set out to inflict unjust and undeserved punishment on anyone, does He nevertheless accept those sort of sacrifices, and respond to them? I won’t try to give you a ready-made answer: I want you to think about it yourselves. What sort of God would demand, or at least accept, a human sacrifice?

 

Think about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whom he loved, as a burnt offering on an altar. Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, tied him up and put him on top of a pile of wood, and then he reached out to pick up a knife, which he had placed where it was easily to hand, to kill Isaac.

 

And all of a sudden God called out from heaven to Abraham, telling him not to harm the boy. The idea was that God was testing Abraham, seeing how obedient to him he was. And the most important thing is that God didn’t want the sacrifice. God isn’t a cruel or hurtful god.

 

So when we say that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, I would suggest that it’s rather more complicated than a substitutionary atonement. I don’t think that God demands human sacrifices.

 

So, spoiler alert! I’m just going to fill in what happens next in the Book of Jonah. He is swallowed up by the great fish, or whale: he is spat out unharmed after three days; he praises God for saving him: this time he obeys his instructions, and willingly goes to Mosul, to Nineveh, and denounces the city. In 40 days it would be sacked, overthrown, he told them. And the inhabitants of Nineveh, far from turning on him as he’d feared, suddenly show signs of remorse, regret and repentance. Jonah had made a prophecy enjoining on them a strict diet and turning away from their wicked ways. (They don’t say what the wicked ways were.) And God spared them the destruction He had threatened.

 

What happened next is surprising. Far from being pleased about the way that Nineveh had been spared, Jonah was angry. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

 

What was behind Jonah’s anger? Perhaps it reflected a current debate in Judaism about punishment: should it be aimed at rehabilitation or retribution? Jonah thought punishment should be final and merciless. God had condemned the city. Why was He now hanging back from punishing it? But God isn’t vengeful: He is merciful.

 

God had laid on the whale to swallow Jonah – not to eat him, but as a kind of submarine rescue. After three days it puked him up again, unharmed. Clearly it was not actually a whale, or Leviathan, or a great fish, or there would have been bits of him missing. Similarly importantly, God had recognised that the inhabitants of Nineveh had repented, and changed their ways, in response to Jonah’s prophecy.

 

The conclusion seems to be that, whatever things may look like, God does love us – and if we do something wrong, he is willing to forgive us. Hallelujah! But even so, in Jonah’s story there’s quite a lot to think about over lunch. What should our attitude to crime and punishment be? What sort of sacrifices does God ask us to make?

 

Bon appetit!