Sermon for Holy Communion on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 7th May 2017
Acts 2:42-47 

You have listened to our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, telling how the early Christians lived in a sort of hippy commune, ‘They met constantly to hear the apostles teach and the share the common life, to break bread and to pray. …. All whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common: they would sell their property and possessions and make a general distribution as the need of each required.’ [Acts 2:42,44-45, NEB]

These lines from the Acts of the Apostles seem to imply that the earliest Christians were effectively Communists. ‘From each according to his ability: to each according to his need’. Those words are not only in the Acts of the Apostles, but also in Karl Marx [Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875 – accessed at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_each_according_to_his_ability,_to_each_according_to_his_needs%5D.

Oh, come on, you’ll say. We didn’t come to church to have even more politics thrown at us. That poor lady on YouTube, saying how fed up she was at yet another election, is probably ringing a bell with quite a lot of us.

There are lots of things in the Bible where, when you read them, you think, ‘How could that fit with what we’re supposed to believe about God?’ or you worry about stuff in the Bible which says to you that God is telling you to live in a certain way – but it’s completely impractical. 

I think that today’s lesson from the Acts is open to that kind of critique. It’s just like the story of Jesus and the ‘rich young ruler’ in St Luke’s Gospel, 18:18-30. It’s all very well saying that, if you come to faith and become a Christian, you should give everything up; but we are full of practical objections. It’s all very well, you might say, you giving everything up, but I wouldn’t want to deprive my family.

Or we could have Margaret Thatcher’s objection that the good Samaritan was only able to help the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho because he, the Good Samaritan, had plenty of money. 

What I’m driving at is that one of the vital things about Jesus – and it comes out in the Sermon on the Mount as well as here – is that Jesus asks us or challenges us to do what look, on the face of it, to be impossible things. He is challenging us to have a new value system. It is not appropriate to look at somebody in terms of what they’ve got – So-and-so must be a successful man because he has – some wonderful thing, whatever it is he has: a Bentley, say.

Just as Jesus himself said to the rich young ruler who asked, ‘What must I do in order to be saved?’ ‘Give up everything that you have; give to the poor’, and the bloke went away very troubled, because he had a Mercedes in the drive, fees at Danes Hill to pay and a £3000 bill from American Express. You know, it’s just not practical to stop the roundabout and get off.

Last week, I went and had a look at one of the new houses that have been built next to the library in Cobham. Originally there were going to be 14 houses, but now there are 13. One reason for this is that, if there had been 14, they would have had to build so-called ‘affordable housing’ for some of it. The 13 houses range in price from £850,000 to just over £1 million each. If there had been an affordable house, it would have cost about £600,000. I leave you to judge whether that would have been affordable to a young couple starting out in life. But actually those houses will all get bought, and the so-called affordable houses that are on other developments will also get bought; and it may well be that some of the young people who get started on the housing ladder are helped by the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’.

But not everybody can write a cheque to one or other of their children for £50,000 to give them the deposit on their new house. It’s pretty well a question of luck; where you were born, who your folks were, what are you were able to do at school and university, (if you went there), and how your career has been since: whether it’s been a moneymaking career or whether it’s been a career with real social worth but limited pay horizons, like teaching or being a hospital doctor. 

A junior doctor, like my two daughters, starts at £23,000 a year. A teacher starts around the same level. If you remember the old rules of thumb that we used to use for mortgages when we bought our first houses, three times the main breadwinner’s income and half the second income: so for a married couple of junior doctors, £69,000 plus half of £23,000, £11,500, making a total mortgage available of £80,500, not a lot in the context of an affordable house costing £600,000. Is this acceptable? Ought not government do something to change it?

And in the Cobham area, since we opened 3 1/2 years ago, our Cobham Area Foodbank has handed out over 44 metric tons of food to people, living here on our doorstep, who not only couldn’t afford an affordable house, but they can’t even afford to buy food.

So where am I going? I am going to make an observation at least in part about our modern society, and that of necessity means that I am making a political point. But, you say, the church shouldn’t do that. The Church should be very neutral and not get involved in day-to-day politics. 

Pete Broadbent, the acting Bishop of London, put out a circular on Friday about the impending general election which referred to the former Archbishop William Temple’s book, Christianity and Social Order, published in 1942, and this is what he quoted: 

‘… we are obliged to ask, concerning every field of human activity, what is the purpose of God for it. If we find this purpose, it will be the true and proper nature of that activity, and the relation of the various activities to one another in the divine purpose will be the ‘Natural Order’ of those activities. To bring them into that Order, if they have in fact departed from it, must be one part of the task of the Church as the Body of Christ. If what has true value as a means to an end beyond itself is in fact being sought as an end in itself, the Church must rebuke this dislocation of the structure of life and if possible point out the way of recovery. It is bound to ‘interfere’ because it is by vocation the agent of God’s purpose, outside the scope of which no human interest or activity can fall.” [Temple, W., 1942, Christianity and Social Order, London, Penguin Books: reprinted by Shepheard-Welwyn, London, 1987: p.38]

The church must always look for God’s purpose in our everyday lives – and that includes our political world. And it must get actively involved: as Archbishop Temple said, even in the stress of the first half of WW2, ‘It is bound to ‘interfere’ because it is by vocation the agent of God’s purpose’.

So we Christians must approach the current elections with that in mind. What would Jesus do? Where is God’s purpose?

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have just issued a ‘pastoral letter’ to all the churches in this country about the impending General Election.

The Archbishops say:
“This election is being contested against the backdrop of deep and profound questions of identity.

“Opportunities to renew and reimagine our shared values as a country and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only come around every few generations.

“We are in such a time.

“Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role.

“If our shared British values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core cohesion, courage and stability.”

The Archbishops highlight major concerns over poverty, housing and the dangers of “crushing” debt among other issues.

They call for a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants but also warn against being “deaf to the legitimate concerns” about the scale of migration into some communities.

They also single out the importance of standing up for those suffering persecution on grounds of faith around the world.

Faith, they argue, has a unique role to play in preventing extremism and religiously motivated violence.

“Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief.

“The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives.

“Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England serve people of all faiths and none.

“Their contribution and that of other denominations and faiths to the well-being of the nation is immense – schools, food banks, social support, childcare among many others – and is freely offered. 

But the role of faith in society is not just measured in terms of service delivery.

“The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must treat as an essential task the improvement of religious literacy.”

They add: “Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must also recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm.” [You can look up the full text at http://tinyurl.com/l4pg7xm%5D

So say our Archbishops, and we ought to consider carefully their advice. What do we think God’s will is in relation to the great issues at stake?

Is it more important to be British – and is it more important to be a United Kingdom – than to be part of the great European Union? Surely ‘they’, the 27 other EU nations, are our friends – or they were. How to preserve and deepen that friendship? Because after all, ‘friendship’ is a species of love, and Jesus taught that we should love one another.

What is the proper role of the state? Is it there to provide the best health treatment for all, paid for out of taxation, or should the NHS be allowed to fail and be privatised? Is it there to pay for our armed forces, and to provide them with every kind of weapon, including nuclear arms which, it has been argued, we could never use? Should state schools generally have to accept reduced budgets, but some schools, grammar and free schools, get more? Is it a good idea in general to shrink the cost of the public sector to 35% of GDP, compared with a European average around 48%? And so on. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to their needs’. That’s the Biblical principle.

Plenty to think about. In closing let me congratulate all those who were elected in the local elections on Thursday – especially our own Mary Lewis, from this congregation – and let us turn our minds soberly and prayerfully to the choices offered to us in the General Election in a month’s time. Can we invoke the spirit of those earliest disciples? As the last real President said, ‘Yes, we can’. Yes, we can.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after Easter

Daniel 6:1-23 – in the Lion Pit; Mark 15:46-16:8

I went to London Zoo last week, for the first time since I was a teenager. With my elder daughter Emma, I was taking my five-month-old grandson James. The Zoo had a special exhibition to celebrate that lovely children’s book ‘Dear Zoo’, by Rod Campbell. 

Emma told me that James, or Jim, as I call him, was specially keen to see the tigers and lions. We managed to arrive at the tiger enclosure just at feeding time, and we saw Mum and Dad tiger, Jae Jae and Melati by name, with their two rather large cubs, Achilles and Karis, enjoying some large steaks. On the way out of Tiger Territory we saw a sign with a picture indeed showing a nice steak, with a caption which said, ‘This is what you look like to a tiger’: that is, lunch.

Then we entered a splendid replica of the Gir Forest, in Gujarat, India, complete with a ruined Hindu temple, a garishly-painted lorry and a tuk-tuk, and a railway halt with a fine upper-quadrant home signal from Indian Railways. A sign said, ‘Detrain here for Gir Forest – Famous for its Lions’. You can tell it was really Indian because they said you should ‘detrain’ rather than ‘alight’. It’s wonderful that Railway English comes in regional dialects!

The lorry was the real thing. I could tell that because Indian lorries always have a large message on their rear ends, inviting you to hoot at them – ‘Horn please!’ or, as this one said, ‘Horn okay please’. I suppose that this conforms with the rules of Railway English too. In the proper old days of steam, certain carriages were designated as ‘Smoking’ – not ‘No smoking’. The default was ‘no smoking’. It was like what someone once said about the rule of law in Switzerland: things are normally prohibited, unless there is a notice which gives you permission to do them.

The Gir Forest in Regent’s Park was home to some rather sleepy lions, who had obviously eaten well. I knew that they too saw us humans as walking steaks.

I can’t imagine – well, perhaps I can imagine it, but I would rather not – what the lion pit which King Darius had must have seemed like, when Daniel was thrown into it. Our lesson, from the Book of Daniel, ends at verse 23, with Daniel having spent the night among the lions, without having come to grief. However, the chapter has a final line, verse 24, which says, 

‘By order of the king, Daniel’s accusers were brought and thrown into the lions’ pit with their wives and children, and before they reached the floor of the pit the lions were upon them and crunched them up, bones and all.’ 

Crunched them up, bones and all. That’s what big cats do. Although we like to anthropomorphise our cats, make little people out of them – you know, on Twitter you can follow all the various cats in Downing Street as well as Larry the No 10 cat – certainly when you get to lions, their usual mode of interaction with the human race doesn’t usually end well: at least not well for the humans.

There was of course the shining exception of the lion who rejoiced in the name of Christian, who was bought as a cub from the pet department of Harrod’s in the late Sixties by two trendy Chelsea types called Ace Bourke and John Rendall, and who was kept in a flat in the King’s Road and taken for walks on a lead – until he got rather big and showed signs of being tempted to bite people. His owners then took him to Africa, to Kenya, and with the help of Joy Adamson’s Born Free Foundation, prepared him for his eventual release back into the wild. 

There was a wonderful sequel. Several years later, Christian’s erstwhile owners decided to visit Kenya and see if they could find out how Christian was getting on. They met up – and there is an extraordinary film of this massive male lion bounding out of the bush and charging towards John Rendall. Was he going to be lunch? But no – mirabile dictu – marvellous to relate – Christian the lion jumped up, put his massive paws on Rendall’s shoulders and embraced him. There is a wonderful film about it, called A Lion called Christian. [See http://www.alioncalledchristian.com.au%5D

Perhaps Daniel had, unknown to his fellow satraps, (provincial governors), made friends with King Darius’ lions, at some time before he was thrown into their den, and so they left him unmolested. Somehow I think it’s not very likely. It was a proper miracle that he wasn’t devoured in the usual lion way.

Talking of being devoured in the ‘usual lion way’, I’m glad that my grandson Jim is only five months old, so when he went to the Zoo he hadn’t read Hilaire Belloc’s poem about his namesake and a lion. But do you remember it?

There was a Boy whose name was Jim; 

His friends were very good to him. 

They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam, 

And slices of delicious Ham,

And Chocolate with pink inside, 

And little Tricycles to ride,

And read him stories through and through, 

And even took him to the zoo-

But there it was the dreadful Fate 

Befell him, which I now relate.

You know – at least you ought to know, 

For I have often told you so-

That Children never are allowed

To leave their Nurses in a Crowd; 

Now this was Jim’s especial Foible, 

He ran away when he was able, 

And on this inauspicious day

He slipped his hand and ran away! 

He hadn’t gone a yard when – Bang! 

With open jaws a Lion sprang, 

And hungrily began to eat

The Boy: beginning at his feet.

Now just imagine how it feels 

When first your toes and then your heels, 

And then by gradual degrees, 

Your shins and ankles, calves and knees, 

Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.

No wonder Jim detested it!

No wonder that he shouted “Hi!”

The honest keeper heard his cry, 

Though very fat he almost ran

To help the little gentleman. 

“Ponto!” he ordered as he came

(For Ponto was the Lion‟s name), 

“Ponto!” he cried, with angry Frown. 

“Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!”

The Lion made a sudden Stop, 

He let the Dainty Morsel drop, 

And slunk reluctant to his cage, 

Snarling with Disappointed Rage. 

But when he bent him over Jim 

The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim. 

The Lion having reached his head, 

The Miserable Boy was dead.

  

When Nurse informed his parents, they 

Were more Concerned than I can say:- 

His Mother, as she dried her eyes, 

Said, “Well – it gives me no surprise, 

He would not do as he was told!” 

His Father, who was self-controlled, 

Bade all the children round attend 

To James’ miserable end,

And always keep a hold of Nurse 

For fear of finding something worse.

[Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales]

Without miracles, that’s what lions do, I’m afraid. Well, this morning I talked about the Easter miracle, that this evening we heard about as it’s told in St Mark’s Gospel, with its ‘shorter ending’, ‘for they were afraid’, which in the Greek looks like it stopped in mid-sentence. The Easter miracle was that God raised Jesus up: here God saved Daniel from the lions. 

What I have in mind tonight stays with the catty, albeit big-catty, theme of my words earlier tonight. It came to me when I thought of Larry, the No 10 Downing St cat. Incidentally, Larry is reputed not to be very fierce – indeed, he’s not supposed to be any good at catching mice. Also, allegedly, Mrs May, the Prime Minister, doesn’t get on with Larry as well as her predecessor did. I nearly said, ‘Mrs May, our unelected Prime Minister’: but of course this week she has set about trying to change that.

Are there any miracles around to help today? Mrs May said that she is trying to get the country to unite in supporting her. She said that she thought that people outside Parliament were all supporting her, but unfortunately those pesky opposition parties and the strangely unbiddable House of Lords hadn’t got the message yet. So she thinks that a quick general election will sweep her to an overwhelming majority so that the doubters and nay-sayers can be swept aside by the ‘will of the people’.

We know that Mrs May and Mr Farron go to church; we think that Mr Corbyn is rather more private in his religious observance. I suspect that he goes to the chapel rather than the parish church on the hill. But May and Corbyn both mentioned, and emphasised, the Christian Easter message in their broadcasts last Sunday. 

Some of you will now be getting a bit worried that I might start to say something political from the pulpit. Surely not! That’s not to say that ministers can’t say what they honestly believe to be right, in any given situation. The guiding principle is, ‘What would Jesus do?’

I do think that it will be a very good idea, in the weeks leading up to the election, for all of us to look at each of the parties’ manifestoes, and try to measure each party’s proposals against Jesus’ teaching. Don’t just follow your tribe: try to follow Jesus. I doubt whether we could necessarily always agree what the conclusions would be, but I think it will help us to judge whether one or other of the parties will govern in a more of less Christian way. 

So some of the questions might be: Brexit, or remain? Austerity, cuts, or more money for the NHS, schools and the welfare state? Lower taxes, or the ‘triple lock’ on old-age pensions? Overseas aid or more defence spending? Portuguese nurses and Egyptian surgeons – remember our most distinguished heart surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub, came from Egypt, and his successor at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals, André Simon, who saved my brother’s life, came from Germany – German surgeons, Polish plumbers and Transylvanian care home workers – or would you rather have immigration limited, limited to tens of thousands only? 

What would Jesus say? Pontius Pilate asked, ‘What is truth?’ Well, we have to try to find out. Our children’s future, and the peace of the world, depend on it. 

 

From the Three Hours’ Service at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon, 14th April 2017

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – The suffering Servant (KJV)

Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider. Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Reflection

Christus factus est pro nobis obediens
This is what the choir have just sung for us. The Latin words mean,
Christ became obedient for us unto death,  even to the death, death on the cross. Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name which is above all names (Philippians 2:8-9)

And then our Old Testament lesson:
‘He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief….  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows… But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…. and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53)

Here is the mystery of Good Friday. Why would the most innocent person who ever lived, the most perfect person, the most faultless person, indeed God in human form himself; why would such a person be put to death, indeed be put to death in the most horrible way, as a criminal? 

For the Jews encountering Jesus, their folk memory, their heritage, included the ten years in the sixth century BC when they were in exile in Babylon: ‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept’, Psalm 137. The Jews were again under foreign domination in Jesus’ day: this time it was the Romans. 

The thing about all these Old Testament stories is not that it is dry history – you know, ‘The army marched for so many miles and encamped at such-and-such a spot; then they encountered somebody else’s army and there was a battle; and all these people – and a great list of them – were killed’; and so on. It’s not that kind of thing, although you do get that sort of detail; but there’s a moral, spiritual dimension to it.

Why did the kingdom come to an end, with the exile in Babylon, the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 597? Answer, because the people forgot God and worshipped other gods; and God was displeased, so he punished them. Nothing happens in the Old Testament unless God wills it to happen. Whatever people do doesn’t just have human consequences, but it resonates also in heaven, and God reacts to it.

In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet that we call Deutero-Isaiah – there are three Isaiahs, who wrote the book called Isaiah; ‘Deutero’ is Second-Isaiah, who was responsible for chapters 40 to 55 – who is identified as an author in Babylon near the end of the Babylonian captivity, so between 597 and 587BC – Deutero-Isaiah prophesied salvation: 
‘The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isaiah 52:10)

And then we get a picture of the suffering servant, the agent of God, the leader who is coming – maybe, the Messiah. And the interesting thing is that he doesn’t look very good.
‘…his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: … he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him….’
It turns out that he is a scapegoat, he is what the Jews relied on as part of their sacrificial worship. Since the earliest times, when they made sacrifices to God in the temple, they also confessed their sins, and then they made a special sacrifice, metaphorically loading all their wrong-doing on to the back of a young goat, a kid or perhaps a lamb and sending it out into the wilderness to die. 

By killing the poor animal in this sacramental way, they were making a sacrifice, but sacrificing, not themselves, but an innocent animal, which had been chosen to take upon it their sins and die for them. 

Christus factus est pro nobis obediens
Christ became obedient for us unto death, even to the death, death on the cross. Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name which is above all names.  (Philippians 2:8-9)

Not what I will, but thy will be done’, Jesus said. He was obedient, submissive, like the lamb, the scapegoat. Behold the Lamb of God. But that humble animal is the King, the king of beasts – not the lion.

Hebrews 10:16-25 – a reading from the letter to the Hebrews. (NEB)

Every priest stands performing his service daily and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never remove sins. But Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat at the right hand of God, where he waits henceforth until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are thus consecrated. Here we have also the testimony of the Holy Spirit: he first says,’This is the covenant which I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will set my laws in their hearts and write them on their understanding’; then he adds, ‘and their sins and wicked deeds I will remember no more at all.’ And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin. 
SO NOW, MY FRIENDS, the blood of Jesus makes us free to enter boldly into the sanctuary by the new, living way which he has opened for us through the curtain of his flesh. We have, moreover, a great priest set over the household of God; so let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and full assurance of faith, our guilty hearts sprinkled clean, our bodies washed with pure water. Let us be firm and unswerving in the confession of our hope, for the Giver of the promise may be trusted. We ought to see how each of us may best arouse others to love and active goodness, not staying away from our meetings, as some do, but rather encouraging one another, all the more because you see the Day drawing near.

Reflection

It’s strange for us to read all the priestly stuff in Leviticus and in the letter to the Hebrews. You have to remember that for the Jews, just to be in the presence of God would kill you: and God’s name, Elohim or Jahweh, we say, couldn’t be said, or written. Jahweh, Jehovah, is written without vowels in Hebrew, so it isn’t really a word, it can’t be said.
You need a priest to mediate, to be in the middle, between you, the ordinary bod, and the Almighty. Only the priests could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple. So one way of seeing Jesus, which the Jewish Christians would understand, is that he is our great High Priest, our ‘mediator and redeemer’ (see 1 Timothy 2:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:18). Because he is both divine and human, he can approach God for us, is the idea. Of course since the Reformation, another way of looking at it is the ‘Priesthood of all believers’, John Calvin’s interpretation. Now that Jesus has reconciled us all, now the fall of Adam has been reversed: ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ (1 Corinthians 15 – and see also Romans 5). But how did it work – how did Jesus’ death bring about that reconciliation with God?
‘He paid the price of our sins’, we say. We are, if we say things like that, following the Jewish idea, from Leviticus 16, of the scapegoat: it’s a very old idea. You load the sins of the people on to an innocent goat, and lead him out into the wilderness to starve and die. So that, if you like, is the cultural heritage behind the idea of a sacrifice for sin. We have to say immediately, as modern Englishmen, that it is an entirely alien concept. 
Why would you single out somebody who is patently innocent and punish them for something that other people have done? The answer some people have given, that it is a religious duty, something that God is calling upon you to do, is very difficult for us to accept.

Why would God want something so unjust and cruel to happen? It’s interesting, against the background of the suffering servant and the scapegoat, in the Old Testament and the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, and their looking for a Messiah figure, that when the chief priests and the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, started to discuss the impact of Jesus’ preaching – you’ll find this in St John’s Gospel chapter 11- after the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, some people went along to the rulers of the synagogue, the Pharisees, and reported on the healing that had taken place, suggesting that they thought there was something wrong with what Jesus was doing. Wrong, not marvellous. Just as today in some countries, just being a Christian is an offence. All that love – it’s subversive, its blasphemy, it’s seriously illegal. Really. That’s the flavour of how the chief priests and the scribes, the Jewish leaders, saw Jesus and his mission.

What should the Jewish authorities do? ‘What action are we taking?’ they said. ‘This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone like this, the whole populace will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and sweep away our Temple and our nation’. It was potentially a threat to the Jewish nation. It would look to the Romans as though they were revolutionaries – like the Zealots, terrorists, upsetting the peaceful balance of power. So they brought Jesus up before the Governor, before Pontius Pilate.

By doing this, the Jewish leaders were affirming their obedience to the Roman overlords. They were acknowledging publicly the limitations of their authority under the Roman occupation. Poor old Jews: Egypt, Babylon, Persia – all those had conquered them: now Rome, the greatest of all the empires. Rome was greater then than the USA is today, and the Emperor was, in the Romans’ eyes, a god. So the Jewish – and Christian – belief in one true God, was itself a challenge to them. Just as today Donald Trump appals us in many ways, but has to be respected for his power, so ‘we have no king but Caesar’ represented the realpolitik of Jesus’ time. 

But even so, both the Jews and the Romans respected the rule of law. Still today, if you study law at Oxford, you will study Justinian, the great author on the Roman Law. And when you get into legal practice, you will find that many of our greatest jurists are, or were, Jewish. 
John 18:15-25 Peter’s Denial of Jesus (in Jerusalem) (NEB)
Jesus was followed by Simon Peter and another disciple. This disciple, who was acquainted with the High Priest, went with Jesus into the High Priest’s courtyard, but Peter halted at the door outside. So the other disciple, the High Priest’s acquaintance, went out again and spoke to the woman at the door, and brought Peter in. The maid on duty at the door said to Peter, ‘Are you another of this man’s disciples?’ ‘I am not’, he said. 
The servants and the police had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and were standing round it warming themselves. And Peter too was standing with them, sharing the warmth. The High Priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about what he taught. Jesus replied, ‘I have spoken openly to all the world; I have always taught in synagogue and in the temple, where all Jews congregate; I have said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask my hearers what I told them; they know what I said.’ 
When he said this, one of the police struck him on the face, exclaiming, ‘Is that the way to answer the High Priest?’ Jesus replied, ‘If I spoke amiss, state it in evidence; if I spoke well, why strike me?’ So Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the High Priest.
Meanwhile Simon Peter stood warming himself. The others asked, ‘Are you another of his disciples?’ But he denied it: ‘I am not’, he said.

John 18:38-19:16 The Trial before Pilate

Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’, and with those words went out again to the Jews. ‘For my part,’ he said, ‘I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release one prisoner for you at Passover. Would you like me to release the king of the Jews?’ Again the clamour rose: ‘Not him; we want Barabbas!’ (Barabbas was a bandit.)

Pilate now took Jesus and had him flogged; and the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns and placed it on his head, and robed him in a purple cloak.  Then time after time they came up to him, crying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’, and struck him on the face.
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, ‘Here he is; I am bringing him out to let you know that I find no case against him’; and Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. ‘Behold the Man!’ said Pilate.
The chief priests and their henchmen saw him and shouted, ‘Crucify! crucify!’ ‘Take him and crucify him yourselves,’ said Pilate; ‘for my part I find no case against him.’

The Jews answered, ‘We have a law; and by that law he ought to die, because he has claimed to be Son of God.’
When Pilate heard that, he was more afraid than ever, and going back into his headquarters he asked Jesus, ‘Where have you come from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. ‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ said Pilate. ‘Surely you know that I have authority to release you, and I have authority to crucify you?’ 

‘You would have no authority at all over me’, Jesus replied, ‘if it had not been granted you from above; and therefore the deeper guilt lies with the man who handed me over to you.’
From that moment Pilate tried hard to release him; but the Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be a king is defying Caesar.’  When Pilate heard what they were saying, he brought Jesus out and took his seat on the tribunal at the place known as ‘The Pavement’ (‘Gabbatha’ in the language of the Jews). It was the eve of Passover, about noon.
Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Here is your king.’  They shouted, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’  ‘Crucify your king?’ said Pilate.  ‘We have no king but Caesar’, the Jews replied.  Then at last, to satisfy them, he handed Jesus over to be crucified.
Mark 14:66-72 – a reading from the Gospel according to Mark.

Meanwhile Peter was still below in the courtyard. One of the High Priest’s serving-maids came by and saw him there warming himself. She looked into his face and said, ‘You were there too, with this man from Nazareth, this Jesus.’
But he denied it: ‘I know nothing,’ he said; ‘I do not understand what you mean.’
Then he went outside into the porch; and the maid saw him there again and began to say to the bystanders, ‘He is one of them’; and again he denied it.

Again, a little later, the bystanders said to Peter, ‘Surely you are one of them. You must be; you are a Galilean.’
At this he broke out into curses, and with an oath he said, ‘I do not know this man you speak of.’
Then the cock crew a second time; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice you will disown me three times.’ And he burst into tears.
Reflection 
When we hear again the story of the ruthless pursuit of a conviction – or rather, of a condemnation to be crucified – by the Jewish leaders, there is that nagging temptation to blame the Jews – to blame them for being God-killers.
What should the Jewish authorities do? ‘What action are we taking?’ they said. ‘This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone like this, the whole populace will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and sweep away our Temple and our nation’. 
And then here is the interesting bit: one of them, Caiaphas, who was High Priest that year, said, ‘You know nothing whatever; you do not use your judgement; it is more in your interest that one man should die for the people, than that the whole nation should be destroyed.’ (John 11:49-50)
And the gospel explains that he was dying for the nation – he would die not for the nation alone, but to gather together the scattered children of God. The logic of it, seen from today’s standpoint, is very strange. In the eyes of the High Priest, if he endorsed Jesus’ mission, then everybody would follow him, and that would be seen as a challenge to their occupation by the Romans, who would then clamp down hard, sacking the Temple and dispersing the Jews: ‘… the Romans will come and sweep away our Temple and our nation’. But the solution, according to the high priest, is for Jesus to be turned into some kind of scapegoat, for him to be punished, albeit he has done nothing to deserve it: and that will divert attention away from the Jews as potential challengers of the authority of the Romans.
Well, if you think about it, that’s quite a bit different from what Isaiah and Leviticus before him (see Leviticus 16:20-22) have been talking about, with a scapegoat. It’s not sacrificing a representative sinner or even an innocent animal to God, but it is some kind of representative sacrifice to the occupying power, to appease Rome, not God. Perhaps Caiaphas had his sights set on earthly politics, rather than any kind of reconciliation with God.
Caiaphas had been the one to talk about one man being sacrificed for the sake of the nation; but it wasn’t some kind of sacrifice like Abraham and Isaac. Caiaphas didn’t think he was advocating the death of God. We should be careful about blaming him.
Jesus went through three trials: a preliminary hearing in front of Annas, Caiaphas the High Priest’s father-in-law; then in front of Caiaphas himself, and then in front of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. There was also a rather more friendly encounter, not really a trial, with King Herod, to whom Pilate sent Jesus as Jesus was from Galilee, over which Herod had devolved authority.
And I think that, properly understood, these three trials should be regarded as a full part of the torture that Jesus suffered. I don’t know how many of us here have been involved in a trial in court in one way or another, but I’m sure that we can all empathise with anyone who has to be a defendant, in the dock, whether or not they are in fact guilty. 
It is an ordeal, an ordeal that they have to get through. There might be some distinction between trial in a purely secular context and an issue in a religious court. We don’t really have religious courts, except to decide recondite questions about what can be put on memorials in churchyards, and whether pews can be taken away and replaced by more or less ghastly blue upholstered chairs. The consistory courts don’t really hear cases of blasphemy or sacrilege any more.
But then in Jerusalem we had a court, or a series of hearings, all in one cause, all about allegations that authority had been usurped – divine and civil authority. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ was the question – when ‘King of the Jews’ also had the connotation of Messiah, of a leader who was going to bring the Jews out from their captivity. And the whole of Jewish history is bound up with their relationship with God, with religious observance. When the Jews turned away from God and worshipped Baal and other gods, whatever they were, then God was angry, punished them and visited on them famines and hardships in captivity, slavery. 

Difficult, if you pause at that point, really to parallel this in today’s world. I suppose there’s a temptation to have a nod towards those countries where blasphemy is a crime – indeed is a very serious crime, which might attract the death penalty. It’s certainly true in Iran and, in certain circumstances, in Pakistan. It’s perhaps interesting to compare the way we look at that today, with the way it would have been looked at in Biblical times.

In Biblical times the Law, the law of Moses, the religious law was at the bottom of the civil law as well. Obviously some things, like ‘Thou shalt not steal’, or ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness; thou shalt not commit adultery’, are quite easily understood under civil law as well as being religious imperatives. But what about ‘Thou shalt have no other gods but me’? The quintessential religious commandment: the Shema Israel, a purely religious law. 

I wonder today whether we ought to look again at the Ten Commandments – or rather, at the Sermon on the Mount. Is it really the case that our moral choices are really only dictated by utilitarian considerations – what will tend to increase the sum of human happiness? Pilate asked, ‘What is truth?’ What is the standard that we can judge things by?

For instance, how ought we to look at the chemical weapons attack in Syria and President Trump’s attack in response? Is it ‘an eye for an eye’? And what is the truth? Russia disputes all the leading claims about the chemical disaster. What if they are right that it was a stray shot which hit a chemical weapon stored by ISIS? Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ But are we – are our leaders – taking any notice?

You might say that Jesus’ teaching, his counter-intuitive commands of love, are really aimed at us as individuals, rather than at affairs of state, where there is no alternative to realpolitik. But look at what happened to Peter. I think that is the right way to put it – what happened to him, not, look at what Peter did. He was overwhelmed by the power of the mob. He could see a sort of trial going on, but it was not in a courtroom with silence in court and a learned judge hearing cross-examination and arguments from powerful advocates for and against the accused. 

He saw a mob of fascists – or rather, a mob of normal people who had been whipped up into a frenzy of inhuman hatred – and he was afraid. If he had said he was with Jesus, he was afraid they would bay for his blood, or kick him to death – or, what they went in for in that world, they might stone him.

Again, the mechanics of what they did in those days is almost too horrible even to think about. And again, it still happens. In Iran when they stone a woman ‘taken in adultery’, as the story in St John’s gospel chapter 8 describes it, they bury the victim up to the neck, so the stones just hit her head. And her hands are buried.

If you think about it, that was what happened when they put people in the stocks in this country. Whatever they threw, hit the person in the face.

And Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek’: even on the cross, he asked his Father to forgive. ‘Father forgive: for they know not what they do.’ Do we know what we do?

Matthew 27:45-56 – The Death of Jesus

Darkness fell over the whole land from midday until three in the afternoon; and about three Jesus cried aloud, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’, which means, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
Some of the bystanders, on hearing this, said, ‘He is calling Elijah.’ One of them ran at once and fetched a sponge, which he soaked in sour wine, and held it to his lips on the end of a cane. But the others said, ‘Let us see if Elijah will come to save him.’
Jesus again gave a loud cry, and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. There was an earthquake, the rocks split and the graves opened, and many of God’s saints arose from sleep; and coming out of their graves after his resurrection they entered the Holy City, where many saw them. 
And when the centurion and his men who were keeping watch over Jesus saw the earthquake and all that was happening, they were filled with awe, and they said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.’

A NUMBER OF WOMEN were also present, watching from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and waited on him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Reflection

On Tuesday in the Spiritual Cinema for Holy Week some of us watched the film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’, directed by Mel Gibson and first shown in 2004. We watched it in St Andrew’s Church. For two hours we are shown in the most graphic detail Jesus’ trials; his being ‘scourged’, or flogged; then dragging, half-carrying his enormous timber baulk of a cross, with the help of Simon of Cyrene, who was portrayed as a fit young man who just happened to be around and was pressed into service, and then the crucifixion itself.

Perhaps sometimes when we hear the Passion Gospel, and Pontius Pilate says he wants to free Jesus, and he offers the Jews that, of course, he’ll punish him a bit, by flogging him, we think that Pilate is offering to let Jesus off lightly. Six of the best, a smacked bottom, that’s all. 

The Saudis, among their catalogue of bestial punishments, still regularly flog people. What is less often reported is that this is often fatal in itself. Medical opinion is that any more than 40 lashes is potentially lethal. Again, in Mel Gibson’s film, we saw what it did to Jesus. Of course he couldn’t carry his 150lb cross: it was pretty remarkable that he could even stand up. 

By more or less casually ordering that Jesus be flogged, Pilate showed that he certainly wasn’t a humane man – the contrast that some people draw between Caiaphas the High Priest, the zealous and cruel religious leader – reminiscent of the Ayatollahs in Iran in recent times, perhaps – and Pilate as the decent chap pitched into a furious conflict which offered a serious threat to public order, that comparison – is contradicted by Pilate’s order that Jesus should suffer flogging. 

For what? Pilate said he was satisfied that Jesus had done nothing wrong. But still he was willing to order him to be horribly beaten, beaten in a way that might well have killed him anyway, even if he hadn’t been crucified. 
John 19:25-27 
But meanwhile near the cross where Jesus hung stood his mother, with her sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Jesus saw his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her. He said to her, ‘Mother, there is your son’; and to the disciple, ‘There is your mother’; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home.

Reflection 

This is unbearably sweet and gentle. This is the God of love. ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’, his mother stood there grieving. And Jesus did what he could to care for her. He gave her ‘the disciple whom he loved’, perhaps St John the author of the Gospel which bears his name, to be her son after he had gone.

I started with the mystery of the sacrifice of Jesus, his being like the Jewish ‘scapegoat’. But the idea of substitutionary atonement, paying someone else’s fine, as it is sometimes called, doesn’t seem to me to be consistent with a loving God.

But I think that the real miracle, in this bleakest time, when it looks as though God is being killed, even God – and so we might doubt whether it is really God, whether all the wonderful things about salvation and eternal life which Jesus promised, are really true: ‘What is truth?’ we might say, along with Pontius Pilate – the real miracle is that in Jesus’ suffering we see that it’s not true that God is just a blind watchmaker, a creator who, having created, leaves his creation to evolve, and get on by itself. 

As the centurion said, ‘Truly this was the son of God’. Jesus was that; but he did everything that we do, he suffered everything we might conceivably do. That’s presumably why he died in such a terrible way. He died ‘to the max’: you couldn’t die more.
It’s certainly an answer to people who suggest that the explanation of the resurrection is that Jesus didn’t die. Roman crucifixions always killed their victims. You have probably read the medical explanations. People crucified always die of asphyxiation eventually. But today, on Good Friday, we can’t think of the happy ending. We have to reflect on how bleak it must have felt, how hopeless. I can’t just say, as an academic, philosophical idea, with Nietzsche et al, that ‘God is dead’. I don’t think those philosophers are talking about Good Friday.

On that first Good Friday, God was dead: but it means that he cared for us. This is what ‘greater love hath no man’ really means. No blind watchmaker. God is involved – to the max, however dreadful a fate that brought for him. He is for us; he is with us; however low we fall, Jesus went lower.

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent, 2nd April 2017
Lamentations 3:19-33, Matthew 20:17-34 

Do you sometimes do things more in hope than expectation? You know, “Well, I might as well carry on with that subscription, but I don’t know whether it will do any good.” Or even worse, sometimes, when you really feel stuck: “I don’t know how I will be able to fix that. Whichever way I turn, something gets in the way.” 

The author of Lamentations, where our Old Testament lesson came from, was lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, after it had been seized by the Babylonians and many of the Jews had been taken off in captivity to Babylon: you will remember Psalm 137, 

“By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept”. 

The book of Lamentations is all about how and why Jerusalem has fallen. As always when something goes wrong in the Old Testament, it has a lot to do with the way that the Jews had strayed away from their faith in the one true God and followed false prophets.

Psalm 137 is the song of the exiled Jews, and Lamentations was written by a Jew who was left behind, in the ruins of Jerusalem. Despite all this defeat and disaster, in the third chapter of Lamentations is this famous passage, this song of hope, ‘Great is thy faithfulness’.

‘Great is thy faithfulness! 

Great is thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see’

as the hymn puts it. Lamentations recommends a humble approach in the face of catastrophe. 

He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope.

He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him.

But then

The Lord will not cast off forever; … though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion … for he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.

God is not the source of the suffering and disaster. But it’s difficult to see how it works. There does seem to be a sense in which the prophet is recommending that religious people should effectively become rather irrational, and just simply pin their hopes on some kind of divine get-out-of-jail-free card. 

It doesn’t really look very sensible: not the sort of thing that we would usually place much reliance on these days, I think. But there is a similar sort of blind faith or hope, which again doesn’t appear to be particularly rational, shown by the disciples, when Jesus sets out on his last journey towards Jerusalem. It was not a good lookout: 

Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death,

And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him:

and Jesus says

and the third day he shall rise again.

What? You have heard that so many times; if you’ve been around at the time listening to Jesus, you would surely at least have raised an eyebrow. ‘… and the third day he shall rise again.’ Because it can’t have looked very likely, can it? 

The funny thing is that there wasn’t any sense of surprise. The mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ‘Boanerges’, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, just ignored what Jesus had said; she bowed down before Jesus and asked for a favour. That in itself is a bit strange. You would have thought that, as sons of thunder, they could speak for themselves. But they needed Mum to do it, it would appear. Perhaps she was one of those pushy mums.

She went straight into what the arrangements in heaven were going to be like and who was going to be on the top table. Would Jesus please sort out a place for her boys next to him? There was no question whether there would be a heaven, or anything like that; but she was taking the resurrection for granted, which is quite remarkable, coming after the terrifying description from Jesus’ own mouth of what he expected to happen shortly.

In this passage in St Matthew’s Gospel there is also a contrast between two requests to Jesus, the first one being from James and John’s Mum and the second one from the two blind men: they said

Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.

Have pity on us; Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy. And Jesus gave them what they wanted; he had compassion on them. ‘Have mercy on us miserable offenders’, we say in the general confession. ‘Miserable’ does not mean sad. It means ‘deserving of pity’, in its Latin origin – ‘miserere’, to pity, transliterated as ‘miserable’ into the older English of our Prayer Book. The moral of the tale, as Jesus points out, is that in the kingdom there isn’t a top table. Everything is turned upside down, and if you want to be a top dog, you have to be willing to serve, and to be at the bottom of the heap. 

It’s a bit like what Lamentations says. Be willing to turn the other cheek. Because after all, the rather unlikely hope in Lamentations did turn out for the best: the exile in Babylon lasted only 10 years, because the Jews were all set free when Babylon was invaded by King Cyrus of Persia.

You will recall in the funeral service that we pray for the eternal soul of the person departed, ‘in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. The ‘sure and certain hope’. We are like those disciples and the pushy mum, because we have a sure and certain hope. If you actually think about it, it’s almost a contradiction in terms. If it was ‘sure and certain’, surely it wouldn’t be a hope; it would be an expectation.

But that’s how the prophets and Jesus have told us that it works. It’s not totally rational. It’s not an expectation: it’s not a deduction, or an inference, it is a hope. It is a ‘pious hope’, perhaps. But no: it is better than that – it is a sure and certain hope.

Another set of words that we often have in funerals comes from 1 Corinthians chapter 15, in which St Paul explains how he understands the resurrection to eternal life. ‘Thou fool’, he says, to anyone who doubts the process, and goes on to give the well-known illustration of the dead person being like a seed that is sown coming up in a different form; drawing a distinction between physical bodies and spiritual bodies, earthly and heavenly.

I went to a very interesting talk at Guildford Cathedral on Thursday, given by Canon Nick Whitehead, the vicar of Shere, who is also a very good art historian who has been a great guide to exhibitions at the Tate and the Courtauld in the past. He was talking about heaven. Our father who art in heaven … and those heavenly bodies that St Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians. What is heaven like? 

If we are hoping for it, with this special kind of hope, how does it work? Canon Nick thought that the ‘before and after’ of the dead person was a sort of refining process; so the person went on into the afterlife, and went on with their body, but with all the bad bits removed. I wondered whether a fat chap like me might therefore end up in heaven as a bronzed Adonis! Well, I wondered.

I’m not trying to denigrate what Canon Nick was saying, but I think he would agree that this is an area where no-one actually knows very much. I’ve always understood St Paul’s image of the dead person as a seed being planted in the ground leading to something growing up which might not be like their original self at all. I wondered whether the reference to spiritual bodies and St Paul’s distinction between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ reflected an idea derived from Plato’s theory of Forms: what it is to be a table, the essence of ‘tableness’; what it is to be me, or you – the essential you. But does this have some physical side too? Canon Nick thought that when we die, if the spirit survives, so must the body, in some way – as otherwise no resurrection could take place. 

But look: just because it’s beyond human understanding, it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just going back to where I started, remember the unlikely thing that Jesus said, that they all seem to have just swallowed without any comment – (or at least we haven’t been told what they said). 

Jesus said,
‘… and the third day he shall rise again.’

And He did. So let’s keep on, hoping, hoping that sure and certain hope.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 26th March 2017
Micah 7, James 5

There is a talk-show host, who sometimes appears on the Andrew Marr show reviewing the newspapers, called Julia Hartley Brewer. After the terrorist atrocity in Westminster on Wednesday she published a Twitter message which said, “Can everyone stop all this ‘pray for London’ nonsense?” Appalling; but that’s what she said. She went on, “It’s these bloody stupid beliefs that have helped create this violence in the first place”. Needless to say, a large number of people immediately commented on Twitter that her message was totally inappropriate and insensitive. 

But Arron Banks, the rich man who has provided a lot of funding for UKIP, also tweeted, equally unpleasantly, to the effect that terrorist incidents such as the one that had just happened will go on happening for as long as there is unrestrained immigration. And I understand that Nigel Farage expressed similar sentiments linking the terrorist incident with his campaign against immigration.

Against this chorus of prejudice, one central London vicar tweeted that his church was open for prayer for anyone who would like to come and spend some quiet time there. [https://twitter.com/giles_fraser/status/844586052601942017]

Always, terrible events bring out the best in many people. There was an MP using his first aid skills to try to save the mortally wounded policeman; doctors and nurses, who ran across the bridge from St Thomas’ Hospital; and most strikingly, the medical teams who gave as much help to the dying terrorist as they did to the wounded policeman. Both died, but in both cases they received the full attention of the emergency services. Love your enemies, indeed.

It was a sad business, which those of us, who work in London and who worked in London during the IRA bombing campaign, and subsequently in the face of the 7/7 attacks, found horribly reminiscent. There is fear. People worry that after one atrocity there will be others. Is it safe to use the Tube? Or catch a bus? Or indeed, just to go into town? 

But people have reached the conclusion that, if you start to give up on your normal life, the terrorists will have won. So with or without a cup of tea, our normal way is to carry on regardless. There is, though, a real temptation to become prejudiced against groups of people that one is tempted to think are responsible. It is, of course, a complete failure of logic to blame all Muslims for terrorist incidents like the one on Wednesday. Indeed there is nothing in Islam, so far as I know, which would justify terrorism of this type. But in their minds, people still do link extremism with Islam, and with Islamic immigration, however unjustified this is.

After morning prayers here on Thursday, Godfrey and I talked a bit about why terrorists do what they do. What makes them terrorists? Look at our lessons today. From the prophet Micah:

Woe is me! for I am as when they have gathered the summer fruits, as the grapegleanings of the vintage: there is no cluster to eat ….

The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net. 

And so on. What a dystopian vision! It is a vision of social breakdown. People are not looking out for each other any more, caring for each other: ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ is observed in the breach. That’s the prophet Micah. Micah was a humble man, not a nobleman like his contemporary Isaiah. He saw things from the bottom of society. It was 3,000 years ago. But what about today’s fractured society? Huge inequalities. ‘There is no cluster [of grapes] to eat.’ Down to the food bank you’ll have to go. 

But it doesn’t get much better, even for the rich people. In James’ letter – although James the brother of Jesus was probably not the author of this particular letter, a lot of the teaching reflects what Jesus himself taught – it says that riches won’t bring you happiness; your sins will find you out. 

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth. It cries out.

If you cheat, and don’t pay your workers, everyone will get to hear about it. But in particular our Almighty Father will know, when you come to say your prayers to him, that you do not have clean hands. Contrast what James has to say with what the unedifying Julia Hartley Brewer said. 

Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord…

This is not ‘bloody stupid beliefs’, as the talk-show woman inelegantly put it, and it isn’t something which helps to ‘create violence’. The church is a place of caring, a place of compassion. James says,

And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
Prayer ‘availeth much’. It helps a lot.

James looks back to Elias, to Elijah, who was
… a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.

And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

His prayer was fruitful. In the same tradition, as Christians, we do ‘pray for London’, and we do think that it is a good thing for churches to be open for people to come in and pray in times of stress and and trouble. 

And it’s quite clear that it isn’t religion that causes terrorism. When we were discussing this after morning prayers on Thursday morning, we were thinking that, for years, many of us have been guilty of casual racism, not necessarily overt or intentional: but just not treating black people as the same as white, subtly devaluing them. It’s still going on.

I read the other day that it is still true that black people looking for jobs, who have names which reflect their ancestry in Africa and India, for example, may not be invited to interview; but if the same people change their names in their application forms to quintessentially English names like John Smith, they get plenty of interviews. It’s racism.

There is still petty racism and there are glass ceilings. People who look different, who may have a different skin colour, find that above a certain level very mysteriously they never get promoted. What must it feel like? Does immigration have anything to do with it? The terrorist in Westminster, who was of mixed race, apparently was originally known by a very English-sounding name, and indeed he was born in Kent. The terrorists of 7/7 were all born in the UK. There were no immigrants involved at all. Immigration has no necessary connection with terrorism.

Of course, where people have suffered indignities and discrimination, it does not excuse terrorism, but it might go some way to explaining it. People remembering Martin McGuinness talked about the situation in Ireland during the ‘troubles’, and said that, for Catholics in Northern Ireland, the situation was a sort of apartheid. Where the word ‘apartheid’ started, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela explained how he had come to the view that, although he was a fine lawyer, the law would not overcome the effects of apartheid, and the only way to fight it was by armed struggle – by terrorism. It is said, and although it seems trite,nevertheless there is a real sense in which it is true, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It depends on which side of the big house’s garden fence you are standing.

The right response, for us as Christians, is what Archbishop Justin highlighted in a statement in the House of Lords last week. This is what he said.

“.. I want … , to refer to something that seems to me to go deeper, to something that is really at the foundation of our own understanding of what our society is about, and to do that in three very simple, very brief pictures.
“The first is of a vehicle being driven across Westminster Bridge by someone who had a perverted, nihilistic, despairing view of objectives, of what life is about, of what society is about, that could only be fulfilled by death and destruction.
“The second is of that same person a few minutes later, on a stretcher or on the ground, being treated by the very people he had sought to kill.
“The third is of these two Houses [of Parliament], where profound disagreement, bitter disagreement, angry disagreement is dealt with not with violence, not with despair, not with cruelty, but with discussion, with reason and with calmness.
“… it seems to me that those three pictures point us to deep values within our own society … which is the sense that comes from … a narrative that is within our society for almost 2000 years.
“That speaks of – at this time of year as we look forward to Holy Week and Easter – … a God who stands with the suffering, and brings justice, and whose resurrection has given to believer and unbeliever the sense that where we do what is right; where we behave properly; where that generosity and extraordinary sense of duty that leads people to treat a terrorist is shown; where that bravery of someone like PC Keith Palmer is demonstrated, that there is a victory for what is right and good, over what is evil, despairing and bad.” [http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5848/london-attack-archbishop-of-canterbury-responds-in-house-of-lords]

I can’t improve on that.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday in Lent, 19th March 2017
Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

What I want to talk about is a very famous passage, which we have had as our first lesson, from the fifth chapter of the letter of St Paul to the Romans.

‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:

By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, …’

These are words which have inspired some of the greatest Christians in history, and have shaped our own understanding of the gospel. If you read article XI in the 39 Articles on page 616 of your Prayer Book, you will see that it is called, ‘Of the Justification of Man’. It says, 

‘We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith and not for our own works or deservings: wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine.’

The quotation, that we are justified by faith ‘alone’ is a direct quotation from Martin Luther’s translation of Romans chapter 3 verse 28, where Luther introduced the word ‘alone’ , through faith alone, which is not in the Greek original and it is not in the King James Bible either. So I think we can infer that Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the 39 Articles, was familiar with the German translation of the Bible by Martin Luther.

So this passage brings us from just after the time of Christ, St Paul’s time, maybe 50 A.D., to Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer in the early 1500s, when this idea of justification by faith was one of the key ideas in the Reformation, and then again it cropped up in the Evangelical revival in the early 1700s, when John Wesley was going to a Bible study meeting in Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, ‘When a person read Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, which teaches what justifying faith is.’ Wesley said, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved to me from the law of sin and death’. Wesley subsequently described the experience as being tantamount to being born again. He referred to his spiritual rebirth: but it could also be described as a conversion experience. 

Indeed, John Wesley said, after he had felt his ‘heart strangely warmed’, that he had ‘not really been a Christian’ before then. That was a little bit surprising, given that he was already an ordained minister in the Church of England. With his brother Charles he even ran the so-called Holy Club in Oxford. So much for ‘not really being a Christian’ – but it does underline what a big experience Wesley felt he had had. And of course he and his brother went on to found the ‘people called Methodists’, the Methodist Church.

So much for history. What do these words really mean? What is ‘justification’? What is ‘faith’? What is the ‘grace’ referred to? What was all the fuss about in the Reformation? I expect that these are words which would not readily come to mind these days. On the other hand, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and certainly St Paul, had a different perspective. They were worried, seriously worried, about heaven and hell. Whether they would go up or go down. They were worried about God as the judge eternal. 

The word which is translated as ‘justification’ or sometimes, ‘righteousness’, has a flavour of the courtroom about it. Choosing the right, judging, deciding on the right course of action. So righteousness, being right, came also to mean being right, in a right relationship, with God. The idea was that, through man’s exercise of free will, after the fall, after Adam, mankind was imperfect, was not how God had created them to be. Would God condemn them to eternal damnation? 

Martin Luther found that the whole thing weighed down on him and caused him to become extremely depressed. He wrote that he hated that word, ‘righteousness of God’. ‘I felt I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience … I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.’

The Catholic church at the time preached that you could justify yourself at the Pearly Gates by having done lots of good works, and also by having obtained ‘indulgences’, which were permissions which the Church granted – on behalf of the Almighty – in return for payment. Indulgences were supposed to reduce the time which your soul would spend in Purgatory being purged of all its sins. Luther couldn’t find any justification in Scripture for those ideas; and then he lit upon the fifth chapter of Romans and the idea that we did not earn our salvation. There was nothing that we could give to God to earn his reconciliation, his pardon; but rather it was a free gift, grace; and all we had to do was to have faith.

Those of you who are church historians will know that Martin Luther is supposed to had this insight when he was on the loo. It is known in German as the tower experience – Das Turmerlebnis. The monastery where he lived had a toilet in a tower. Luther said that the idea, that the righteous shall live by faith alone, struck him, like a thunderbolt, in the monastery toilet. He is clearly the patron saint of all those of us who spend too long reading in the smallest room. 

The point was that having experienced the thunderbolt, Martin Luther was changed. In a sense, just like John Wesley after him, he felt he was reborn. I want to read you what Luther wrote in his Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, the passage that so affected John Wesley. Luther translated the New Testament into German, and added his own notes, introductions, to each book. Let me read you how Luther introduced the Letter to the Romans; and you might get a flavour of what he was getting at.

Faith, … is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and brings with it the Holy Ghost. 

Oh, it is a living, busy, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are any good works to do, but before the question arises it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not do these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. 

Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. 

It goes right away from the ancient heresy of Pelagius in the second century, that you have to do good works in order to earn your salvation. God has granted salvation, that is, the grace, to everyone who believes and trusts in him. It’s the fact of having received the grace, the assurance of your salvation, that evokes in you an irresistible urge to do good works, to express love for your neighbours.

Luther’s new idea was a dividing line between the Roman Catholics and the newly emerging Protestants. Does it make any difference to us today? As members of the Church of England, we straddle the line between Catholicism and Protestantism. Our church is not really one or the other. We broke away from the Roman Catholic Church because Henry VIII could not organise his marital affairs without clashing with the Pope. Henry in effect carried on with Catholicism but without the Pope. As king he became the “defender of the faith”, fidei defensor in Latin, which you will see on our coins as ‘F.D.’ or ‘Fid. Def.’ But we didn’t have the sale of indulgences or the doctrine of Purgatory any more. People didn’t build chanceries and chapels in which masses for the dead would be said, because people no longer believed that they could, in effect, buy themselves into the kingdom of heaven. 

What is this ‘grace’, though, if we are no longer worried about heaven and hell? We now tend to take rather a sceptical attitude towards what comes next when we die. We think that all those stories about St Peter at the Pearly Gates are more likely to be fanciful than not. Where does that leave us in relation to salvation, justification?

I think we are back to the woman of Samaria: ‘Give me this water that I thirst not’, Jesus having said to her, 

‘Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst;’ 

Our prayer must surely be the same as the Woman of Samaria’s: we need that water. And then our lives will be changed. Even staid respectable souls like us! There may not be a fear of hell and damnation – but how do we stand firm against populism, racism, xenophobia, Trump? We need God’s grace.

How does it work? How do we get it? Is it just a matter of luck, as it seems to have been with John Wesley? Just being in the right place at the right time, and in the right frame of mind? That was how Martin Luther thought it worked. He subscribed to a mystical text which came out in German in the fourteenth century, which Luther published with a preface of his own, in 1516, called the ‘Theologia deutsch’, the German theology, according to which a Christian should surrender his will utterly and completely, opening himself to the divine will and becoming possessed by the spirit of God, becoming vergöttlicht, ‘Godded-up’. 

The point about this is not that you can earn it, but you just have humbly to trust, to believe, to open your mind, to hope that eventually your prayers will be answered. What a good thing to do in this season of Lent!
Let us pray for Luther’s thunderbolt; let us pray for our hearts to be strangely warmed, like John Wesley’s. Then we will, truly, be justified by faith. 

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday of Lent, 19th March 2017
Joshua 1:1-9, Ephesians 6:10-20 

In Lent we remember Jesus being tempted by the Devil for 40 days in the wilderness. Today we have a reading from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians recommending that the Ephesians should metaphorically arm themselves to withstand ‘the wiles of the devil’, the devil, defined as ‘principalities, …[and] powers, … the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’

What is the devil, these days? Leave aside those pictures of Jesus with a horned figure on his shoulder in the desert. Principalities, and powers: it could be about Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin, Gert Wilders, Marine Le Pen – and in some instances, even the ‘Brexiteers’. What is the ‘spiritual wickedness’ that we, the descendants of those rather sophisticated Ephesians, have to contend with? If we go through the kit which St Paul recommends that his Christian soldiers should put on, we may be able to identify the types of incoming fire that each bit of armour is designed to contend with.

Have ‘your loins girt about with truth’ is the first one. Truth is the first casualty in war, they say. But what about ‘alternative facts’, or the ‘post-truth environment’? What about powerful men saying things in public that are completely and demonstrably untrue? That President Obama got GCHQ to bug Trump Tower during the recent presidential election, for which no evidence has been offered? Or that a vote to leave the EU would immediately save £350m a week, which would be given to the NHS instead. Was that true?

The next one is the ‘breastplate of righteousness’. The word for ‘righteousness’ in the Bible means literally ‘justice’ in the sense of winning a court case. The Rule of Law: ‘be you ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said. Human rights, fairness, the brotherhood of man. The Germany of Angela Merkel has spent €22bn on taking in, housing and looking after up to 1 million refugees. We, the UK, have baulked at taking more than 350 children from among those now roaming homeless in the Pas de Calais. The poor countries of Europe, Greece and Southern Italy, have mounted huge rescue operations and brought ashore to safety hundreds of thousands. Who is righteous? 

But we find that our Supreme Court judges, the successor to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, are called ‘Enemies of the People’ by some newspapers: and in the United States of America, a Federal Court judge who found that President Trump’s anti-immigration policy conflicted with the constitution and quashed it, found himself being referred to by the President as a ‘so-called judge’. Righteousness, justification, justice. All at peril in our new unenlightened world of Trump and Brexit.

I had tea and spent a happy evening earlier this week with my friends Bill and Hope from Hartford, Conn. They are retired clergy – and indeed I have on a couple of occasions preached in their churches in the USA. ‘What have you given up for Lent?’ we asked each other. Bill has had a wonderful idea. He has given up mentioning Donald Trump – at all – during Lent. Bill is already feeling the benefits. He’s calmer, happier, and can rely on words having their normal, natural meaning.

But I can’t stop thinking about it. Is there a common factor in these evils? Do they, taken together, add up to being the devil incarnate? Ingredients in the mix would include the current, increasing, nationalist, sometimes racist, impetus: hostility to facts and verifiable data: hostility towards supranational concepts of justice. Xenophobia and insularity channelling into inhospitable treatment of refugees and others in need. 

There is a common thread in all this – some commentators call it ‘populism’. This is a bleak philosophy, a mean-spirited outlook. I think it could simply be renamed ‘meanness’. ‘Unto him who hath it shall be added: but from him who hath not it shall be taken away – even what he hath.’ (Matt. 13:12). The meanest line in the Bible!

People are being blamed for being poor, and blamed for relying on benefits or food banks. They must be scroungers or cheats, say some of the newspapers. Someone recently complained to me that it was wrong that our food bank was asking people to donate cat food. I asked them how they would feel if they had fallen on hard times, but they had a pet. Would they let their cat or dog starve? 

‘Oh, I see’, they said: for the first time they realised that ‘poor people’ are not rubbish, but they are human beings just like them. All that the Good Samaritan saw, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was a man who had been hurt. He didn’t stop to think whether the injured man was someone who was entitled to be helped. The fact that he was a fellow human being was enough.

That is how it should be for food banks, and hospitals, and refugees. The Samaritan didn’t check whether he was overdrawn at the bank before paying the injured man’s hotel bill. He didn’t calculate whether it would stretch his resources to help the man. All that mattered was that he was hurt, that he was a fellow human being who needed help. 

We are the fifth richest country in the world. It is seriously evil to say, to people whose homes have been bombed, whose loved ones killed, who have literally nothing, that we ‘can’t afford’ to take them and care for them. That really is the devil at work. 

Just because it is written in elegant prose in a broadsheet newspaper, the Daily Telegraph or the Times – or at least in a middle-class tabloid, like the Daily Mail – it doesn’t make it any less evil. When these siren voices from comfortable warm offices, sounding so reasonable, encourage people to be mean towards those less fortunate than themselves, to put up barriers to keep the have-nots out, are they not the ‘rulers of darkness of this world’, are they not showing ‘spiritual wickedness in high places’?

The Jarrow marchers didn’t blame their hunger on other people, on ‘immigrants’. Something has changed in our world. What is wrong in going to another country to seek your fortune? Is it all right if you’re a Scotsman, or an Irishman, and you go to Dubai – but not if you’re a Romanian or a Pole coming to Lincolnshire? 

This is not right. St Paul asked that your ‘feet should be shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace’. St Paul said you should dare to stand up against this tide of prejudice and illiberality. You might need to take a bit of protection, because now populism has made it OK to be chauvinistic and racist, and the racists and xenophobes will try to bully people who stand out against them. Which is what we must do. Take the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit: you are a proper Christian, and you must not mind taking a hit or two for the truth.

Look at St Paul’s own position. He was writing this brave message, even though he himself was in prison. He was an ‘ambassador in bonds’. The least we can do, from our comfortable homes in Surrey, is to make our voices heard. If, for instance, Brexit means turning away people who need sanctuary and people who are willing to work hard to make a better living than they could at home, it is as false as Trump. Like St Paul, we may speak boldly: like St Paul, we ‘ought to speak’.

Amen. Let it be so.