Archives for posts with tag: Bible

Commentary on ‘Identities are reduced to politics’ by Angela Tilby, Church Times, 6th November 2020: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/198908

Hugh Bryant

Angela Tilby has written about being made to feel uncomfortable. She says, ‘We are all gradually being persuaded that to make anyone feel “uncomfortable” is tantamount to a hate crime’.

What she is talking about is not comfort in the sense of warmth or a nice armchair. The contrary – what it is to be uncomfortable, in the sense she intends – is the opposite of being ‘comfortable in one’s own skin’; and that ‘skin’ is not the characteristic of an individual but of a group, of ‘class, colour, ethnicity, or religion’.

In other words, it’s not a good thing to make people feel uncomfortable on the basis of those generic characteristics, of what they are, as opposed to anything which they may have done or said. Tilby says, ‘This is why I regularly feel uncomfortable at hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

What brought me up short in her article was this reference to a feeling of discomfort at ‘hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

This is something I have often wondered about. For instance, I have often wondered about people who profess to be Christians in positions of power, who, in the exercise their power, do things which would seem to contradict Jesus’ commandments, (usually the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself).

A case in point, I have thought, was Prime Minister May, who is said to be a regular churchgoer, but who created and promoted a policy of a ‘hostile environment’ for intending immigrants, leading to various inhumane consequences including the EMPIRE WINDRUSH scandal. What did Mrs May do in church? Was she asleep there? I wondered. The policy which she promoted was something which hurt people, which ruined innocent people’s lives. How could a practising Christian justify doing such a thing?

What is a preacher to say? I think that Canon Tilby is really aiming not at certain hymns and prayers, but rather at what is said from the pulpit. I’m not sure what hymns she has in mind – ‘Fight the good fight’, or maybe the suppressed verse in All Things Bright and Beautiful: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate …’ It might well be uncomfortable to sing that, and it might well be uncomfortable – certainly for the rich man – to hear it. Is there anything wrong in this? Specifically, does the hymn ‘glare unforgivingly at social injustices’? If it did, I feel, contrary to Canon Tilby, that it is a good thing. The injustices deserve to be glared at.

To pray for wrongs to be righted isn’t ‘preachy’, I would suggest. If the prayer is of the ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’ type, it’s clearly inappropriate, not because it makes anyone uncomfortable, but because you can’t tell the Almighty what to do. Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done. Thy will. Or see Psalm 115: ‘Our God is in heaven; He does as He pleases’.

Some would say that this is political, and therefore to be avoided. I have to reply that Christianity – and, for that matter, Judaism – is political. The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), for instance, is a revolutionary manifesto in twelve sentences, and there are many other examples. Jesus would have us sell our possessions and give money to the poor: would have us welcome strangers: become servants, rather than the masters that many of us are.

It is said, however, that a Church of England congregation often represents the Conservative Party at prayer. Bishops and clergy, by contrast, tend to vote Liberal Democrat or Labour. Perhaps this is because the ministers actually read, study and inwardly digest the liturgy and Bible lessons which they lead, whereas their flock follow, if not blindly, seemingly without much appreciation that acceptable worship does not involve a prosperity gospel!

But what if light dawns, say during a well-expressed sermon, and the hearer realises that the evil which the preacher is criticising – the social injustice, even – is something in which they, the listener, are complicit? This may indeed be uncomfortable. But surely it is all right, for ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29). Unless our devotion is tested in that fire, it may not be worth that much.

But is it a ‘hate crime’ to make someone uncomfortable in that sort of way? The essence of a hate crime, I would suggest, is to do harm to someone because he or she represents a racial or national type and for no other reason. Because someone is black, or LGBTi, say. What Canon Tilby is suggesting is that some hymns or prayers, in praying for relief from certain types of oppression or inequality, themselves oppress some people (or make them uncomfortable).

That would require the person discomfited to be in some way oppressive or otherwise reprehensible, as opposed to their doing something oppressive.

Canon Tilby mentions being a woman; but I cannot think that ipso facto she is worthy of chastisement as such – if at all. If she is being made to feel uncomfortable, it is not because of what she is, but because of something she may feel she ought not to have done – and that she resents being reminded of.

Put another way, as the Roman Catholics say, hate the sin but pardon the sinner. So a prayer or a hymn directed against social injustice is not a ‘hate crime’. It invokes the aid of the Almighty against the evil but does not condemn the person who does that evil. It is not directed against what that person is; but rather it may well call down condemnation on what they do.

14th November 2020

Sermon for 1030 Holy Communion at St Mary, Oatlands on 14th October 2020

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=469611667

Galatians 5.18-end; Luke 11.42-46

In our Gospel reading today, it leapt out at me, when I was reading it in preparation for our service today, that Jesus was saying rude things about lawyers. Although, in the Bible translation which we are using today, Jesus doesn’t actually talk about lawyers but about people who are ‘experts in the law’, in Jesus’s time there wasn’t such a thing as a ‘lawyer’ in the same sense that we understand it. Then, what you had were ‘advocates’.

You will recall that the Holy Spirit is referred to sometimes as the advocate, or even a ‘comforter’; in John 14:16, Jesus says he will send us his Holy Spirit to be an advocate and guide. If you went to the right Bible classes you may even have heard the word Paraclete, which is one of those words you only hear in church, but it means an advocate, it means somebody to be with you, to speak for you, in court.

What we have here isn’t a Paraclete, but a νομικός, that Jesus is being rude about. Νόμος, substantive, the thing, means the law; νομικός, adjective its characteristic, means ‘to do with law’; as a substantive, it means somebody who is familiar with the law, so the word is usually translated as ‘lawyer’.

As some of you will know, I used to be a lawyer, a solicitor. It’s now a dim and distant memory – I retired 15 years ago – but still I feel that I should stand up for my old profession. That is, if Jesus is really slagging off lawyers.

Actually, of course, when you see the other lesson, from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians, you will see that we are into the distinction that St Paul draws, picking up on what he learned of Jesus’ teaching, that on the one hand you have the Law, meaning the Jewish law, the first five books of the old Testament, the Pentateuch, and on the other hand you have the state of grace for those who have been saved and have come to faith in Christ Jesus. So maybe it is indeed right to talk about people who are ‘expert in the law’, meaning the Jewish Law, rather than simply about ‘lawyers’.

But as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it [Matt. 5:17]. He said that all his teaching can be summed up in two supreme commandments, commandments taken from the Jewish Law, to love God and to love your neighbour [Matt. 22:36-40].

Galatians 5 tells you what to expect from someone who has been saved, who has had that revolution in their life and doesn’t need to have a policeman standing over them, but just does the right thing. The right thing is to love your neighbour. All those things that St Paul lists as the Fruits of the Spirit lead to various ways of loving your neighbour. So fortunately it turns out that nothing in our Gospel today is really against lawyers.

Well, I know that Folli [Revd Folokose] and Hugh [Montgomerie, Reader] have an excellent style of preaching here, which always ends with a challenge. So I thought I would try to enter into the spirit of that too; but first of all, I need to tell you a little story.

When I was starting my ministry training nearly 14 years ago, it coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting her university studies in medicine at Bristol University. Very soon in the first term I visited her to see how she was settling into her hall of residence.

When I came back, I was at church for the 10 o’clock service, and after the service I was having coffee with some of the other faithful people. Somebody asked me how I had found my trip to Bristol. Had it been an easy journey? I said that it had been a very easy journey, but that I just suddenly thought – a little cloud had crossed my brain – that it might turn out to have been rather more expensive than I had bargained for.

Why so? Because, just before I turned off on the M32 to go into the city of Bristol, I had passed under a bridge, which, too late, I’d noticed was bristling, bristling with things that looked mighty like cameras. ‘So’, my faithful friend asked, ‘surely that’s not a problem? You were doing 70 miles an hour’.

‘Hmm’, I said, ‘if only; but I did manage to get it below100!’

She took my arm and marched me off into a corner. ‘Now Hugh’, she said. ‘Now that you are in ministry training, you have to do two things. You must stop breaking the law – and the other thing is, you must stop crowing about it!’

Oh dear. She was, of course, right. The Fruits of the Spirit hadn’t quite taken root in me at that point, as you will realise. But what about you? Have you had those sort of moments? Has the Spirit taken root in you and borne fruit yet? What do you think?

And that’s my challenge to you this morning. Not just to get it below 100 – but you know what I mean.

Sermon for 1030 Eucharist at St Mary, Oatlands on 21st October 2020

Acts 16:6-12; 2 Timothy 4:5-17; Luke 10:1-9 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=470148758)

On Sunday we were remembering Saint Luke, the ‘beloved physician’, as Saint Paul describes him in his second letter to Timothy, the one who wrote not only the Gospel according to Saint Luke but also the Acts of the Apostles, I want to carry on remembering St Luke this morning, looking at the same Bible passages as we used on Sunday.

Folli [Revd Folo Olokose] treated us to a theological masterclass in his sermon on Sunday. I don’t want to go over exactly the same ground again, but he did make some points which I will just briefly mention, particularly for anyone who was not there on Sunday.

Folli took, as the heart of his sermon, the name of the person to whom Saint Luke dedicates his two books, Theophilus. Who was Theophilus? Folli argued that it is a name for a type of person, not someone in particular – not who, but what. It literally means, ‘a friend of God’. It could mean any of us.

All the other things which might seem to make us different from each other, such as our education, our physical characteristics, or the ability to run a four-minute mile, are all things which can come and go, and might depend on where you have been born, who your parents were. However, being God’s friend is something which lasts forever, and which any of us can be.

So Folli argued that, in dedicating his books to Theophilus, Luke was in fact dedicating them to all of us, to all who love God. And we see from today’s lessons that Luke was a companion of Saint Paul on his travels. ‘We did this..’, rather than ‘they did it’, in the passage from Acts 16 which was one of the lessons prescribed for Sunday.

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.’

Luke says, ‘We’. He was there, travelling with St Paul. In a wider sense, who are ‘we’ in this context? From Paul’s letter to the Romans, ‘… there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all…’ (Romans 10:12).

So in our lesson today, Luke reports on Jesus sending his disciples out ahead of him, to prepare people for him coming and preaching among them. Roughly the same report comes in St Matthew’s Gospel too.

You might note that Jesus instructs the apostles, ‘Do not move around from house to house’. I had a bit of an unholy thought – do you think our Lord might have had tier 2 or tier 3 in mind?

Of course they didn’t have a plague then. Sending them out they were a bit like Billy Graham’s people, arranging one of his crusades, securing the venues and booking the hotels – although Jesus stipulated that it should all be done on a shoestring – but what was the message that Jesus was going to preach?

The message wasn’t going to be about life after death. Jesus hadn’t died at this stage. Let’s look at the Gospels where Jesus sends out his disciples to do the Billy Graham thing, that is, our Gospel passage today from St Luke, chapter 10, where Jesus sends out 70 or 72 apostles, and St Matthew chapter 10, where he only sends out 12 apostles.

By the way, the word ‘apostle’ comes from the Greek verb αποστέλλω, which means ‘I send out’, so an αποστολος, the noun from it, means someone sent out, in the same sense that an ambassador is sent out.

The other difference is that in St Matthew’s account, Jesus wanted the apostles just to go to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, and not to go to the non-Jews, the Gentiles and Samaritans, whereas in St Luke’s gospel the only thing that mattered was whether they were welcomed or not.

Given that Luke and Paul were together for some time, and that actually Paul wrote his letters, like the letter to the Romans, before any of the Gospels were written, I’m inclined to say that Luke’s account is more likely. Paul’s idea that there was no difference between Jew and Greek, between Jews and non-Jews, Gentiles, seems to me to be more in line with what Jesus was teaching.

In St Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the 70 are sent out, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. The point is, it doesn’t matter what nationality he was. He cared for his neighbour, for the person he found hurt on the road. Surely Jesus wouldn’t have warned the apostles off having to do with Samaritans, if he was going to praise the Good Samaritan in his next breath, as He did.

Bear in mind that St Matthew’s Gospel is generally reckoned to have been aimed at a Jewish readership, whereas St Luke probably wasn’t a Jew and was writing for everyone – for ‘Theophilus’. And St Paul definitely had the same idea. No such thing as Jew and Greek.

One thing that these two accounts, in Matthew and Luke, do have in common is that the apostles were sent out just after Jesus preached his great Sermon on the Mount. You know, all those great challenges: love your enemies, turn the other cheek. Think of the lilies of the field: they neither spin nor weave: yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Don’t worry about material comforts. The Lord will provide.

Surely, you might say, the sermon on the Mount is great in theory, but not really doable. Impractical instructions. How literally can we take what Jesus said? Why would we have armies, if we really always turned the other cheek?

And according to St Luke, it was all for Theophilus. For anyone who loves God. No one has any special qualification to receive God’s blessing.

So if we are thinking about Jesus’ teaching as he sent out the apostles, and the idea that in God’s sight we are al equal, neither Jew not Greek, can I pose a question for you to think about?

My question is about refugees, about ‘migrants’. If we believe that it is true that all people, from any nationality, are equal in the sight of God, why should we be entitled to live in bounteous Surrey in England whereas a person from another country – Syria or Afghanistan or South Sudan, say – has to pass rigorous checks before they are let in? Why are they not equally entitled?

Is it because will overwhelm our public facilities, schools, hospitals and so on? Is that true? They will be a drain on our economy, some people say. The statistics say that immigrants contribute 15% more in tax than people who were born here. Or, should we sift out the applications so that we only let in people with a certain minimum level of qualifications?

But just a minute. I wasn’t born in the UK only because I’d won an Oxford scholarship. What does ‘Theophilus’ mean? Are British people more entitled to salvation than, say, Ethiopians? In St Luke’s terms, both could be ‘Theophilus’.

What do you think? It might be a good idea to imagine that we could be like the people on the road to Emmaus, that we might suddenly meet Jesus. What would we say to Him? Would we justify to Jesus what we do, keeping poor immigrants out of ‘our’ country? Even if our country is supposed to be ‘full’, how would we, who have so much, justify drawing up the drawbridge against people who have so little?

I’m not telling you what to think. We have quite a few refugees who’ve come to this area, and we have a local charity to help refugees, Elmbridge CAN. Through them I’ve had refugees and, yes, ‘economic migrants’ staying for a few months in my own spare room. I felt that I was being called to help them. They are all now settled – productively. Should we be doing more of that sort of thing for refugees?

Well, I hope that is food for thought. Please do keep on thinking about St Luke and Theophilus. Theophilus. Everyone.

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 2nd August 2020

Matthew 14:13-21 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=463368596

When I saw that the Gospel reading for today was the story of the feeding of the 5000, my first reaction was to be very pleased. Everybody knows that story, and there are lots of things that you can say, that it illustrates, about Jesus and his teaching. It’s in all the gospels, but in St Matthew’s version, which Gail has just read for us, we have the least detailed version. For example it does not talk, as some of the other gospels do, about Jesus getting the people to sit down in groups of 50. 100 groups of 50 people – that really brings home the scale of the feeding problem.

There are lots of things that you can talk about. Bishop Jo, in her sermon for today, which you can see on YouTube, (see https://youtu.be/EqGmtC-Rlio) concentrates on Jesus’ order to the people to sit down. She spends quite a lot of time on the theology of sitting down, and also how to tell people how to sit down. Apparently when she and her husband Sam Wells were working in the United States, at Duke University in North Carolina, he got taken to task for saying to people, ‘Please sit down’, which apparently is not sufficiently polite. In the southern States the correct thing to say is, ‘You may sit down’. Sitting down and taking it easy for a moment has its benefits.

And then again, you can make a lot out of Jesus looking up to heaven, blessing and breaking the loaves of bread, (and, presumably, doing something similar with the fish), and then distributing them; it certainly could remind you of Holy Communion, and perhaps is supposed to be a sign that Jesus was pointing forward, towards that sacrament.

We use the expression ‘to break bread together’ as a shorthand for having a meal, and I have heard preachers deliver long and abstruse analyses of the menu on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that day; that Jesus was handing out fish and chips, or rather, not literally fish and chips, but the Palestinian equivalent.

It’s interesting that there has been some fuss on social media recently because Mr Rees-Mogg, the MP, has a sister, who rejoices in the name of Annunziata, who has been giving advice to poor people about the virtues of making their own chips as opposed to buying them ready-made. It doesn’t touch on the question whether poor people, or indeed any people, should be eating chips, especially these days, in the light of the Prime Minister‘s campaign for the people to lose weight.

As some of you know, two weeks ago I ceased to be the general manager of Cobham Area Foodbank, after seven years, right back to the foundation of the Foodbank. I still have a tendency to see things relevant to food banks in all sorts of different contexts.

So obviously, Jesus feeding the 5000, in fact feeding them with something that Burger King used to refer to as a Fish King, a piece of fish in a burger bun, (or anyway wrapped in bread) – which was much loved by my children when they were little – that reminds me of all those times when I had to answer questions about what food people should donate to the food bank.

A Fish King from Burger King

What do poor people eat? Well, I would explain that the Foodbank gives out a nutritionally balanced parcel intended to sustain a family until the next time that the Foodbank opens. In our case this was one week. It is not the case that we just provide pasta and beans and other cheap things, because, as I tried to explain, the Foodbank clients, poor people who can’t afford to buy food, are human beings.

They are not a special breed of people who only live on pasta and beans. They are human beings just like you and me. So the real answer to the question, ‘What shall I give to the Foodbank?’ is not what’s cheap, but rather, “What would you like to eat?” And what would you think would be good to eat and nutritious? You don’t live on baked beans all the time – or at least I really hope that you don’t – and it’s the same with food bank clients. They need a variety of things. They need protein, even if it comes in tins.

Well I could have gone into great detail about that, and compared Annunziata Rees-Mogg’s recommended diet for poor people with what a food bank actually provides, noting on the way that Jesus followed the same principles as our Foodbank. ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ – because, He provided some fish as well.

But the thing is that I bet that none of you actually think of this story as being just about all those rather abstruse points. Indeed I get a bit fed up when I hear sermons which don’t deal with the obvious things which I think leap out of stories in the Bible.

The obvious thing, that you would notice when you read it for the first time, is that Jesus somehow managed to feed 5000 people – or actually more than 5000 people, because it says that it was 5000 men, plus women and children – with five loaves of bread and two fish. How on earth could He do that?

I can’t honestly remember what my Mum or my Dad said in answer to that question when I first asked it when I was little, but I bet you that it had something to do with miracles. Miraculum, a Latin word – something to admire, something the be astonished at. Are we allowed to talk about miracles, or are we too grown-up? Do you believe in miracles?

When I went to Rome in October for the canonisation of John Henry Newman, I was reminded that Newman was only allowed to become a saint in the Roman Catholic Church when they had discovered and verified two miracles that he had performed, miracles of healing. Many people today do still believe in miracles. They believe in what Saint Athanasius or Saint Thomas Aquinas argued, that miracles are there to demonstrate that Jesus was not just a man like you or me, but he was also God and he had divine powers.

It’s not all straightforward. Think of Jesus being tempted in the desert, to jump down from the pinnacle of the temple for example. Satan wanted him to do all sorts of miraculous things which only someone with divine powers would be able to do. But he didn’t do it. But Jesus does go around healing people. Indeed, in this story it begins by Jesus ‘having compassion’ on the crowd and healing some people who were sick. No details. It’s just very simply said, in one word, ‘he healed’.

People say that scientific knowledge has pushed out the need for us to explain things by talking about God. CS Lewis however wrote a whole book, ‘Miracles’, against what he called the ‘naturalistic’ as opposed to the ‘supernatural’, the more-than-natural. Laws of nature, by themselves, don’t explain everything: that if nature governs everything, there is a contradiction at the heart of it. That is, who created nature? Was that creator subject to the laws of nature?

So over against that is the argument that there is more to it than what we can discover by scientific enquiry. More to it – let’s say, that ‘more’ is God. We can fairly uncontroversially define God as the ultimate creator and sustainer of life, all powerful and all knowing. Present everywhere: omnipresent.

But he could be what Richard Dawkins calls the blind watchmaker, the ultimate creator, who set the mechanism of the world in being, and then let it get on by itself. We as Christians bring up against that things such as the feeding of the 5000. We bring up the fact of Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus Christ lived and died, in the early years of the first century of the Common Era, is very well attested in conventional history.

We can argue that the story of Jesus would not still be so well-known today and it would not be the case that the Christian religion would be growing so strongly as it is (you have to remember that growth in South America and the Far East is far greater than in the north of Europe) – Christianity would not indeed be the fastest growing religion in the world, if Jesus Christ had been just an ordinary human like you or me.

So the point of this sermon, in case you had not realised, is that the feeding of the 5000 is a miracle, and as a miracle it is a sign of God at work in Jesus.

So in a way I hope that you don’t have a Fish King from Burger King for lunch; but if you do, please do remember that a forerunner of the Fish King was Jesus’ favoured menu.

A reflection

John 10:1-10 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=455280521

One of my friends has started putting pictures of sheep on her Instagram page. Every day she puts up a picture of a different sheep. At first I wondered whether I wasn’t really getting the hang of the Instagram, and that there was a message about the sheep that I wasn’t seeing. Perhaps there were some words somewhere which I was not seeing on my screen. So, after about five different sheep pictures, I asked her, “What’s with all the splendid sheep on your Instagram?” She answered, “I have always loved sheep. I’m fed up with the negative news, so I just set myself a challenge to post at least one sheep each day to remind myself of the Good Shepherd.’ That really says it all. Maybe I should just stop there. Sheep are good animals. They are a Good Thing. But perhaps I should elaborate a little bit.

I have to say that I’m not a country person, so the only times that I have met sheep face-to-face have been at Bockett’s Farm with my children and my grandson, little Jim. Actually, now you come to mention it, when I was little, on holiday in North Wales, I do remember another time: stopping for a picnic on the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, when a couple of sheep climbed into Dad’s car and tried to have the picnic that we were having. But they were very nice about it and they didn’t bite anybody; just our sandwiches.

I don’t really know what the ‘sheepfold’ is that our Gospel reading talks about. I thought sheep just roamed about in a field, and every now and again got rounded up by the shepherd and his sheep dog, to be taken off to have their coats shorn and and be put through a sheep dip.

In Jesus’s story, there isn’t a sheepdog. But there is somebody, who is called the ‘door-keeper’ or the ‘gatekeeper’. Where these sheep live, this sheepfold, it sounds a bit like an hotel. Indeed the King James version of the Bible identifies the chap who lets the sheep in and out, this gatekeeper, as the ‘porter’. I’ve got visions of one of those little Paris hotels with a porter at the reception who gives you your key, or of an Oxford college, where again, the man at the door is called the porter. But that’s maybe a bit grand – for a sheep. Maybe they did things differently, in first century Palestine.

Jesus does use sheep quite often in his parables and teaching. Think of the parable of the lost sheep, or the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or the crowds, that Jesus pities, because they are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. Immediately after the story which we have as our lesson today, he goes on to talk about being the Good Shepherd.

These references to sheep do give you confidence that God cares for us. Jesus is God, and he is also the good Shepherd; so we can be confident that he will look after us.

Here Jesus says that he is “the gate for the sheep”. Not just the gatekeeper, but the gate itself. Before he came to be the gatekeeper, or the gate, all sorts of people got into the sheepfold, who were not proper shepherds. They may have been just rustlers and thieves.

But when Jesus became the gatekeeper, then he was properly careful about the ones he allowed in. We are reminded about the Great Judgement at the end of time in St Matthew ch 25, the sorting out of the sheep from the goats: remember, you see, the sheep are the good ones. And by the way: just as there aren’t any sheep dogs in these stories, there aren’t any black sheep either; so I don’t have to talk about exceptions that prove the rule.

The straightforward idea is that we are in his Great Congregation – because ‘congregation’ is another sheep-y word. Grex, gregis, in Latin, which is the ‘greg’ bit in the word ‘congregation’, means a herd or a flock. A flock of sheep. We are the great congregation, the great flock. We are the sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd.

And Jesus says, ‘Whoever enters the sheepfold through me will be saved; going out and coming in through me, the sheep will find somewhere good to graze’. …. ‘I am there in order ‘… that you, (the sheep), may have life, and may have it abundantly.’

You can see why lambs are something we often think about at Easter, in the springtime, when they are playing in the fields, when the flowers are coming out; because it is usually a wonderful time of regeneration, a time for having life abundantly.

But it is rather poignant today, when there is so much sadness and worry about the terrible coronavirus epidemic; against that background I think it is especially welcome that we should be able, for a few minutes this morning, to fix our minds on a nice, warm, woolly, sheep. I think Jesus would have approved. That sheep stands for all sorts of good things to come.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 14th July 2019

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23 (see https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=430034390)

I could tell you a good story about Jacob and Esau and the beginnings of the nation of Israel: how Jacob cheated his brother Esau, as we heard last week; how he in turn was cheated by Laban, his relative, father of Leah and Rachel, so that eventually Jacob managed to marry both of them: how Jacob in his wandering prospered, again through some sharp practice, this time getting his own back on old Laban. He said Laban could have goats and sheep, provided they had certain markings on them, and Jacob would have the others, although quietly he was making sure that he was breeding only the sheep and the goats that had his markings on.

So Jacob became rich and prospered. Still, his brother Esau was out to get him, for taking away their father’s blessing, his birthright. So Jacob went out with a huge gathering of cattle and various other presents for his brother to appease him, and to make him forgive him.

On the night before he was due to meet his brother, (and both of them were accompanied by private armies), he met a mysterious man, with whom he wrestled all night, and who dislocated his hip for him. He wouldn’t tell Jacob his name, although the mysterious man said that Jacob’s name would not be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means ‘God strove’, or ‘God struggled’, so Jacob deduced that he had had God as his opponent. Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, ‘the face of God’.

I could tell you all that story; Oh, and I could also mention Jacob’s dream, of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to and from heaven.

In the story there’s a real intimacy between Jacob and God. It doesn’t seem to be particularly the case that God is upholding Jacob because he is a good and moral man – which he clearly isn’t; and even after Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, nevertheless his father Isaac, too, seems to treat it as just one of those things. He blesses Jacob and he sends him out to start a family. I could tell you that story.

Or, I could go into the other story today in our Bible readings, about washing one’s hands before you eat, and various other Jewish rules which were not part of the law of Moses, which Jesus condemned as forms of hypocrisy.

The part about washing hands doesn’t translate very well into a modern context, but the other half of the story, where Jesus goes on to tick the Pharisees off for relying on the small print, relying on get-out clauses allowing them to avoid having to do good, to avoid having to care for their parents as it is laid down in the Law of Moses, is something we can easily understand.

Apparently a practice had grown up according to which people could get out of looking after their old Mums and Dads and devoting resources to it, if they had first set aside the bulk of their savings for a sacrifice, or sacrificial offering, to God. This is what was called ‘Corban’.

Whatever was set aside as Corban was no longer available to be used to benefit one’s family, one’s aged parents, and so you were excused from having to look after them.

I could spend a long time teasing out all the various bits of meaning in our two Bible lessons. On one level you might possibly find it edifying, even enlightening; just as you would do, if you were watching a documentary film or going to one of the Art Fund lectures at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

But then I think, an hour or so after you come out of church, you might have a moment of dismay, because those stories just don’t bear on all the important things that are going on in our lives.

What on earth has wrestling with a mystery man in the night, or seeing angels climbing up and down to heaven, got to do with our worries about naval threats in the Gulf of Hormuz, or the unpredictability of Pres.Trump and his refusal to follow the norms of statesmanlike behaviour?

What do Jacob’s wanderings and Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy really have to say to us in today’s world? Some of it is, on its face, out of date or inappropriate. Our children really ought not to think that Jesus says it’s OK not to wash your hands. (I know it’s about ritual washing, but that’s even further away from real life).

We are worried about knife crime. The terrible murder on the train at East Horsley. It was a shock. It seemed to be something that could have happened to any of us who commute on that line, on our local line to London. What has God got to do with that?

What will happen about ‘Brexit’? Our country has already been greatly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world and the preparations for Brexit have cost billions. Where will it end?

Austerity, over the last ten years, has not made our economy any stronger. But is has meant that the poorer people in our society are now desperately poor, and food banks are everywhere. Our own food bank will supply over 3,000 food parcels, locally, here in this area, in the next twelve months. What would Jesus say?

During the ITV debate between the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, when one was asked about his Christian faith, he said: “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” [https://twitter.com/churchtimes/status/1149735677430390784?s=21]

Why doesn’t his faith in God define his politics? Is there anything more important? How worrying is that? I’m not concerned about who the politician was or that it was one party or another: this could have been said by almost anyone. But he was an MP, an important person, a minister. Why shouldn’t such an MP’s faith influence his politics?

In the Bible, Jacob could talk to God and lament that he had not followed God’s commandments; but nevertheless God kept faith with him. They had this regular contact. In his dream he saw the angels climbing up and down a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, into heaven. And God met him at night to wrestle with him. Was that a dream as well? Whatever it was, Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God; he had been close to God.

But we, we don’t seem to experience anything like that. Perhaps like the Pharisees, we’ve become too regimented in our approach to God. Perhaps our prayers are too formulaic. Perhaps we are not open enough to see the face of God any more. Perhaps we’re like that politician. Like the one who said, “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.”

When Jesus told the Pharisees not just to go through the motions, not just to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules, I think he could have been talking precisely about the ‘regular Church of England folk’ that this politician said he belonged to. The Pharisees went through the motions, but they didn’t actually do anything. It didn’t ‘define their politics’.

I think what Jesus is teaching us in relation to washing one’s hands and setting aside resources that might have gone to look after your parents, is that this is sham love, and it is no good. Jesus wants us to show risky love, real love, the sort of thing he preached about in his Sermon on the Mount.

The love that Jesus was recommending, going the extra mile, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, being like the Good Samaritan, is generous love and it’s a love which is not calculating in any way. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 13. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant’. It isn’t necessarily love which you can easily afford. It could be like the widow’s mite. Not much, but it could be more than you can easily afford.

But when you do see that kind of giving, giving which does not count the cost, at work, when, (and this seems especially apt today, which is Sea Sunday), when you see the risks that Captain Carola Rackete, the young German sea captain, took in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean and take them to a safe port, even though it might result in her going to jail; or more mundanely and closer to home, when you see someone give their entire trolley of purchases from the supermarket to our Foodbank, all for their poor neighbours: it may not be a sensible gift: it may be really extravagant: but it is loving. It is a blessing. A real blessing, and I think we may begin to see the face of God in it.

Just as Jacob was really concerned to be blessed, to have his father’s blessing and then for God to bless him – he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ – we need to look out for our blessings. If we count our blessings, I am confident that we are going to find, not that we are alone, but that God really is still at work among us.

So may God bless us and keep us, and make His face to shine upon us.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 26th May 2019

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=425693885) – But what about the Bigots?

‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’

You can tell, even without reading the whole book, that this passage at the end of the book of the prophet Zephaniah turns things around. The first two chapters of the book are not joyful; they are more like lamentations. The kingdom of Israel, the people who made the exodus from Egypt, who had David and Solomon as kings, had split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom called Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, in which was Jerusalem.

In 721 BC the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. Zephaniah was prophesying some time after that, probably about 100 years later, in Jerusalem. The sub-heading in one of my Bibles on this passage is, ‘Doom on Judah and her neighbours’; so the first part of the book is all about how the kingdom of Israel, which has become the province of Judah, has gone to pot.

The great day of the Lord is near, …

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, …. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord: (Zephaniah 1)

Why is the Lord cross with his people? Zephaniah says,

“Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!

She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God.’ (Zephaniah 3:1-2)

This was all nearly 3000 years ago, but there are definite resonances with things that are happening here today. I wrote this sermon originally on Friday, and I didn’t think we would know the outcome of the EU election until after 8 o’clock tonight, as we have to wait until all polling stations in all EU member states are closed – and most of the countries are having their vote today.

I suspect that it will turn out to have been a strange business, and whatever the outcome, we will all continue to have a more or less uneasy feeling that something is wrong with our society, and with our country, at the moment.

Whether it goes as far as the sort of thing that Zephaniah was prophesying about is obviously a moot point, but it seems to me that it’s not controversial to say that, wherever you are in relation to modern politics, whatever you believe in, this is a time to be concerned and worried.

The idea that comes from Zephaniah in the part which was our first lesson today, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion’, … ‘be glad and rejoice’, is something which I think we would all respond very well to. We would love to feel that everything was right with the world, and that we could relax and be joyful.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. I don’t think that it’s going to help very much for me to try to spell out to what extent any of the competing parties and interest groups – ‘interest groups’, because the Brexit Party isn’t a political party, it’s actually a limited company – it isn’t going to be easy or productive at this stage to try to relate aspects of each of these people to the eternal verities which we are trying to understand and to carry out in our Christian witness.

It’s no good trying to say whether one or other party or interest group is better or worse at trying to bring the various parts of society back together, so as to finish the various arguments which have so divided people. It isn’t even worth it at this stage to try to express a view on what is going to help people materially, or perhaps more realistically, to hurt them least, in the various proposals advanced by the various parties. People are not listening to rational arguments.

What would Jesus say? I really don’t know. But I think it’s worth reminding everyone that it’s a good question. If we sit down quietly and try to work through the various propositions which have been put to us, from the time of the referendum three years ago until now, it might be a very good exercise to look at each one in the light of that question.

What would Jesus have done? What would Jesus have thought about these various things?

I went on Thursday night to our friends at St Martin’s in East Horsley for a talk which they had organised, by the long-serving former MP, Chris Mullin, who is well known for his many books, including ‘A very British Coup’, which was made into a TV series. After he had given his talk, from the audience a lady stood up and, I think, rather shocked everybody. I should tell you that the audience was about 30 people, and they could easily have been from here. Normal bods, tending towards the middle-aged if not slightly elderly; middle-class, middle-aged, respectable people. When this lady stood up, asked her question and made her point, she looked exactly the same as everyone else. But she wasn’t.

She told us that although she had grown up in this country, had lived here for many years and had worked as a solicitor for a City firm, she was not English. She was German, and her father had been head of the UK division of the great German engineering company Siemens, which has a number of factories here, and has had for many years. She is married to an Englishman. After the referendum result, her husband had said that he thought that it was not going to very nice for their family to carry on living in England – meaning, not very nice for his wife, for his German wife. So they now live in Spain. There they have recently bought a new car. One of their neighbours, she said, wondered whether it was going to be a Range Rover, and said he hoped that it wasn’t – because they didn’t want to see anyone buying anything British for the time being.

And I, as I think some of you will already have heard, had a similar experience shortly after the Brexit referendum when I went to Hamburg, and some of my German friends, several of whom have been friends for 30 or more years, all said more or less the same thing to me, the same simple sentence: they said, ‘But we thought that you were our friends’. Imagine how I felt.

No more comments on that. We all have strong views. But what would Jesus say about it? I wonder.

Let’s move on to our second Bible lesson, from St Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the resurrection story, the empty tomb, which we have read about in St John’s and St Mark’s Gospels already, during this Easter time.

For some reason the compilers of the Lectionary have missed a bit out. You’ll notice that, in St Matthew chapter 28, tonight we have heard verses 1 to 10 and then 16 to 20. The missing bit is a story, which appears only in St Matthew’s Gospel, about the chief priests bribing the Roman soldiers who had been set to guard the tomb – and again, we read about these guards only in this Gospel – bribing these soldiers to spread a story that Jesus’ disciples had come in the dead of night and taken Jesus’ body away. The passage ends, ‘This story is still told among the Jews to this day’. Perhaps that’s why it’s left out now in our lessons, as it could be taken as a a point against Judaism.

That’s one bit which is unique to St Matthew, not too crucial. But the other unique bit is far better known. It is the Great Commission, as it is called.

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

It is the great call to Evangelism, to spreading the Good News, the ‘Evangelia’,(Ευαγγελία) the Greek word for good news. Jesus assured us that He is still with us: he said, ‘... lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’

I began this sermon with a rather gloomy recital of the prophet Zephaniah’s words of lamentation about the godless state of the people of Israel in Jerusalem, and I invited comparisons with the state of our nation today. I invited you to think what Jesus might have to say about it. That is a really tough question.

But what about the Great Commission? How are we doing on that one? Our British reserve tends to make us rather coy about announcing our Christianity to people in public. But increasingly, people are growing up without having read the Bible or been to Sunday School. It’s important, therefore, that we have our family services at St Mary’s and that our PCC is beginning to think about having a youth worker. We invited Esther Holley, the children and young people’s minister from St Andrew’s in Cobham, to come and talk to us about her work, and we all found her account inspiring. As a result of Esther’s work, St Andrew’s has a solid group of children and some teenagers. But nothing stands still. Esther has been accepted for ordination training, so they will be looking for her successor soon. Maybe we should start making moves in this direction too.

And finally, on the question how we are carrying out Jesus’ commission to ‘teach all nations’, I think that it is vitally important that we maintain the warmest welcome, here at St Mary’s, to our services, to our church family, and to our other activities based around St Mary’s Hall, the best church hall for miles around.

I personally would like us to look at joining an organization called ‘Inclusive Church’, which encourages churches not just to be welcoming to all, but to advertise that they are. It’s the old story of the two milkmen competing for business (you can tell it’s an old story, because competition on the same milk round disappeared years ago), and one milkman put a big banner on his milk float saying, ‘We deliver milk every day’. Of course his competitor did the same thing, but they didn’t advertise it. The milkman with the banner doubled his sales!

The same reasoning, I think, would work for us. If I have moved into this area and I’m looking for a church to go to: if I’m going through a tough time in my life and I’d like to find somewhere to say prayers: if I want my kids to learn what’s in the Bible: what will St Mary’s be like inside? Now if there’s a big sign outside saying that everyone is welcome – and I’ve put a picture of an Inclusive Church sign from another church with my sermon on the website [see above] – then people can feel confident, and they will dare to open our door and come in.

I know that not everyone agrees with this idea. Some people say we are already a really welcoming church. No need to join organisations or advertise – although I would gently say that it’s noticeable that we have no black people in our congregation. Somebody once even said to me, in this context, ‘But what about the bigots? We mustn’t upset the bigots!’

Well that perhaps takes me full circle, to the outcome of the European election. What about the bigots? What would Jesus say? I think he would say, ‘Look who I have lunch with already. People get shirty that I sit down with tax gatherers and sinners. But they are welcome!’

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 12th May 2019

Psalm 114, In exitu Israel, Isaiah 63:7-14, Luke 24:36-49 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=424470667

The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

Today is a very sheepy day in the church. Lots of sheep. The Roman Catholics call it Good Shepherd Sunday – and we have followed their nice idea this morning here at St Mary’s.This morning in the Gospel of John, Jesus ticked off the Jews who were clamouring to know if he was the Messiah they were expecting; he ticked them off by saying that, even if he was, they wouldn’t realise: because they weren’t from his flock. He said, ‘But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, ..…

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish’. [John 10]

The other readings prescribed in the Lectionary this morning included the story of Noah’s Ark; ‘The animals went in two by two; the elephant and the kangaroo’. And the sheep, of course. And there is a piece from Revelation which is a vision of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and ‘before the Lamb’. Behold the Lamb of God.

And in other parts of the Bible there is the parable of the lost sheep, and Jesus’ rather enigmatic saying to Peter, when, in response to Peter’s three denials of Jesus earlier, he had asked Peter three times how much he loved him, and, after Peter had assured him he did, Jesus answered each time, ‘Feed my lambs’, or, ‘Tend my sheep’ [John 21:15-18]. And there is the vision of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, with Jesus separating people into two groups, ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’.

Sheep are good and goats are bad, according to this. It reflects the Jewish idea of the scapegoat, sacramentally loading the sins of some people on to the back of some poor goat, which is then cut loose to roam in the desert till it dies of hunger and thirst.

I’m sure you can think of other sheep references. The idea of a sacrificial animal, a scapegoat, is a very old one in Judaism. Actually, of course, they seem to have mixed up sheep and goats quite a lot. The ‘lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, is effectively a scapegoat, a goat: the idea is that Jesus is that scapegoat, that, as we say, in the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion service (page 255 in your Prayer Books), he ‘made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’.

The vision of the New Jerusalem which our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah shows, is in line with this.

‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.8-9).

Then the prophet recalls the story of the Exodus from Egypt. God must have been infinitely powerful, in order to part the waters of the Red Sea and let the Israelites pass through on dry land. It is the same thing that our Psalm, Psalm 114, celebrates. ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’. All these miraculous things happened. The sea ‘saw that, and fled’; ‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

All this is meant to prepare us for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So when he appears to the disciples in Luke’s account, he stresses that what has happened to him is just as it was foretold by the Jewish prophets. The author of the Gospel, Luke, is usually taken to be a doctor – St Paul described him as (Col. 4:14), ‘the beloved physician’. He is a scientist; his Gospel tends to look for objective facts as well as metaphysical theology. So here, in this resurrection appearance, Jesus does a re-run of the Doubting Thomas story. See me, touch me, feel me. I am not a ‘spirit’, not a ghost.

And there’s this rather curious eating ‘broiled’ fish and, if you can believe it, ‘honeycomb’. You remember, the Gospel says, ‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’ Now the ‘broil’ isn’t some American style of cooking, but just another word for being cooked. American English sometimes preserves much older English words than are now current in English English. The ‘honeycomb’, by the way, isn’t evidence of Jesus liking combinations of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal might find challenging – fish and honey sounds a disgusting combination – but rather it’s a rare example where the Authorised Version of the Bible has been led astray by what was presumably a corrupted manuscript. They translated as if it was μελου – ‘of honey’, as if it had had an ‘L’, instead of the better reading, μερου,’R’, ‘of a piece’, ‘of a piece of fish’. There’s just fish, no honey.

But still, he ate it. So let’s assume we can say that, astonishing as it was to see, it happened. But is it too contrary to ask, ‘So what?’ If we had been there, what would we have made of seeing Jesus brought back to life? Would we have picked up on the idea that he had offered himself as some kind of human sacrifice? And if he had, what was the purpose of the sacrifice?

If we follow the theology of Isaiah, the mechanism, how it works, is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Greater love hath no man – and here Jesus is showing his love for us by accepting, or even bringing on himself, punishment which we, not he, deserved. He was offering himself to make up for our sins, to atone for them, to propitiate – those two last words you will recognise from services and hymns. Atoning for our sins; for ‘he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1; in the ‘Comfortable Words’, p.252 in your Prayer Books). The idea is one of ransom. God’s wrath has been bought off.

Does that square with how you think of God? Do you – do we – seriously think, these days, that God is so threatening? It seems to me that one would have to impute some characteristics to God that I doubt whether we could justify. Granted there are people who claim to have conversations with God, perhaps in the way the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah said they did. God ‘spoke through’ the prophets. But in Jesus, the prophecies were fulfilled: there were no more prophets.

What about the ‘sin’ that we are said to need to ‘propitiate’? What is it? Obviously, some sins are bad actions, breaches of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. But we say now that sin is wider than just doing bad things – which could be dealt with as crimes, without bringing God into it, after all.

Sin, we say, is whatever separates us from God. So if God is love, the ultimate positive, hatred is sin. If God commands us to love our neighbour, and we wage war upon him instead, that is sin. But what is God’s reaction? Is there an actual judgement? Do the sheep go up and goats down? And if so, what was Jesus doing?

In the great last judgment at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, when the sheep and the goats are being separated out, Jesus the Judge Eternal was bringing another angle on God. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto to me’. You didn’t just turn your back on a starving man; you turned your back on Jesus, on God. Perhaps that’s how he takes our place, in some sense.

The great French philosopher and founder of the network of communities where people with learning difficulties and ‘normal’ people live together, called L’Arche, (in English, the Ark), Jean Vanier,  has just died at the age of 90. On the radio this morning someone quoted him as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God: just believe in love’. I think that Jean Vanier meant that God is love. God showed that love for mankind by sending Jesus to live as a man here with us. In that he brought us closer to God, in showing us true love, Jesus conquered the power of sin. Perhaps this, rather than the idea of ransom, of human sacrifice, is what it means that Jesus offers ‘propitiation’ for sin.

Which is it? I don’t think that I can give you a neat resolution, a pat explanation, of this. Theologians from the early fathers through Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation scholars to the moderns like Richard Swinburne [Richard Swinburne 1989, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford, OUP] have all wrestled with the meaning of what Jesus did – or what happened to Jesus, and why. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of power, infinite power. No wonder that the ‘mountains skipped like rams’. But can we still feel it? We need to keep our eyes open.

‘To be a Christian is to be attentive to signs of God’s action in the world, and this is especially true in Holy Week and at Easter when – the faithful believe – Jesus by his death and resurrection revealed the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.’ Sometimes one finds profound theological statements in unlikely places. That sentence was from the first editorial in the Guardian on Wednesday 17th April. It is perhaps a slightly different way of putting the profound words ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only son …’

The three hours’ devotion service on Good Friday is concerned with sacrifice, about Jesus’ sacrifice, his terrible suffering and death. The service is unlike any other one in our Christian year. What makes it special is that we try to get really close to Jesus in his last hours, to understand what happened to him and what he did; as we often say in a theological context, to walk alongside him, or maybe rather to have him walk alongside us, in his time of trial.

To say the service is unlike any other one is not quite right, because every time we celebrate Holy Communion we remember Jesus’ sacrifice – ‘in the same night that he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks to thee, he broke it and gave it to his disciples… and likewise after supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks to thee, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood of the new covenant’. The heart of the Eucharist service is a memorial of the Last Supper, before Jesus’s crucifixion and death. I’m not in any way trying to take away the significance of the holy Eucharist, but I am saying that the Good Friday service takes you further and takes you deeper in understanding, or rather, shall we say, in appreciating, what Jesus went through.

What I am going to try to do now is to address that question of understanding. I hope that you will more fully appreciate what Jesus suffered, what he went through; and to some extent you will understand why, at least in the historical sense of who did what to whom.

I’m not going to touch on the mechanics of the crucifixion or the literal historical data; what I want to concentrate on is trying to explain it. Why did Jesus have to die?

Perhaps today it’s more a question ‘Why did He die?’, not necessarily why he had to die. You could say, following the words of the Creed, that Jesus’ death was for us – ‘who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate’. Jesus himself said that ‘greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friend’. (I am quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, and the Authorised Version of the Bible, 1611, so it is necessary to point out that ‘man’ means ‘human being’). Or again, we hear that Jesus is the ‘propitiation for our sins’, making up for what we have done that is sinful.

There is a powerful romantic theme that occasionally people do heroic things where they suffer in somebody else’s place. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans [5:7-8], contrasts what you might call ordinary heroism, risking your life or even losing your life, to save someone else whom you might not know particularly well, but have nothing against, and what Jesus appears to have done, which is to give his life not for just anybody but for people who definitely don’t deserve it, who are sinners.

We don’t really talk about ritual sacrifice much these days. The idea of going to a temple and slaughtering some animal to give it ritually to God is completely alien to us in our modern world. But I think we know how it was supposed to work: that nobody could measure up to God’s perfect standard, and to the extent that you fell short – an example of falling short would be Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – to the extent that you fell short you had to ask God for forgiveness, to make it up to him, to turn away God’s wrath.

This is allied with the idea of the Last Judgement, either at the end of the world, (if we can imagine that), or at the end of a person’s life. And again, although we couldn’t really describe with any certainty what to expect at that End Time, as it is called, there is a very common idea that there will be some kind of last judgement; and indeed in the Bible at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel there is a picture of the last judgement, the division of the sheep from the goats. ‘The Son of Man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him. Then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory and before him shall be gathered all nations. And he shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats’ (Matthew 25:31-32). In that context, Jesus is taking the punishment that sinful man would otherwise deserve.

But there is a little question mark. It is easy to miss this, but particularly in the context of this very solemn, contemplative service, when we are trying to get as close as we can to follow in Jesus’s footsteps on the way to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where he was crucified, the little niggle, if you like, is quite a major issue in fact. It is this. God gave his only son. What does the word ‘gave’ mean, here? God is, after all, the creator and sustainer of everything and

everyone. Did He give his only son over to be hurt, to be whipped, to be insulted, to be humiliated, to be tortured and ultimately killed in the most bestial way? Because if he did that, how can we say that God is a loving God, that God wants the best for all of us, and if there is evil in the world, it has come in against God?

As you know, sin isn’t just, isn’t really at all, a question of doing bad things. It has a very particular meaning. It is about being separated, divided off from God, cut off from God. And the ‘salvation’ that we talk about, that we believe in, the eternal life – ‘so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ – that salvation is coming together with God, being united eternally. So in that context how could God give his nearest and dearest over to be horribly hurt and then killed? Something doesn’t add up.

At the very least it looks as though there is a paradox. How could the good God hurt anyone, least of all his own son? And if you were concerned about that, put yourself in Jesus’ position. You would feel uniquely deserted. We will say, towards the end of this service, the terrible words of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It’s what Jesus said as he suffered. There is no more terrible protest in the whole of literature. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

But at the end of the Stations of the Cross, these days the last station is usually the station of the Resurrection. These days, particularly since the Roman Catholics dusted off the old idea in their second Vatican Council in the sixties, the most important message to the world from Easter is the message of what they call the Paschal Mystery, the ‘unity of the death and resurrection of Jesus’. The Paschal mystery; the mystery is that unity, that putting together, of opposites; that everything to do with Jesus is the opposite of what you would expect.

Think of the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t retaliate. The exact opposite of the normal thing to do. In the Beatitudes, everything is back to front. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ You would have thought in the context of being close to God himself – the most theological situation you could possibly be in – that the last thing you would possibly want, in heaven with God, is to have weedy people round you who have no particular spiritual gifts. But they are blessed. ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. That’s crazy.

It’s more straightforward to understand ‘Blessed are they that mourn’. For ‘They shall be comforted’. That is a contrast, but it is an understandable one. You might hope for comfort. Jesus assures it.

But ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.’ Doesn’t sound happy – but happiness is assured.

Think of the Magnificat, the most revolutionary text this side of Karl Marx. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.’ Why don’t we sing that verse of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ any more? Mrs Alexander wasn’t saying it was right when she wrote that verse. We shouldn’t just shut it away. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be.

There’s a sort of tension on Good Friday, there’s another sort of paradox; in a very sacramental way, for Jesus to be uniquely alive, alive in a new way that no-one had ever seen before, the opposite had to be true. He had to be very, very dead. But except in the very minimal sense that God, the creator and sustainer of all things, must be behind everything, everything that happens, I think we can explain Jesus’ suffering, not in terms of cruelty by his father, but in terms of the waywardness of sinful man.

When you look at the details of the trial before Pontius Pilate, there isn’t an inevitability about what happens. It is the active badness, the active sinfulness of the chief priests and scribes which catches Jesus. Pilate gave them a good way out if they had got carried away by the mob, by offering Jesus as the prisoner to be released in the traditional way at Passover time. But they positively chose – it was deliberate – to release the bad man and to kill off the good one. It was another paradox, and another counterintuitive.

But as you go through the Good Friday service, metaphorically walking behind the cross with Jesus, I do suggest that you can hold your head high and recognise him truly as your king, because that tomb will definitely be empty. This is Jesus working out the way to salvation: salvation, a relationship with God, a close relationship with God. That tomb will definitely be empty.

One implication of that is that there’s no need for a priest to stand between us and God. Jesus is the great high priest, who has opened the sanctuary to us. In the letter to the Hebrews [chapter 10], we will hear that the Lord says ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more,’ and the letter goes on to say, ‘where there is forgiveness there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore my friends since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way, that he opened for us through the curtain, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience’.

It’s not a question of buying off God’s wrath. It’s the other way round. God will raise Jesus from the dead, in the Easter morning miracle that we will joyfully celebrate. There it is. There is forgiveness and there is no longer any offering for sin. There will no longer be any blood sacrifice.

But first we must follow Jesus. To come out into his blessed light, we must follow him into the darkness.

This is an edited version of a reflection originally given by Hugh Bryant at the Three Hours’ Devotion service at St Mary’s Church, Stoke D’Abernon, on 19th April 2019.

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent, 17th February 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=417352294

I have to tell you that, when I read the Bible lessons for today, my sermon pretty much wrote itself. That’s because today we are given a sort of potted guide to several key points in our Christian religion. It’s a different angle on some of the most important things we say in the Creed. See if you agree.

Yesterday we had our Marriage Enrichment day, for everyone who is going to get married at St Mary’s this year – I don’t know whether it was Godfrey’s cunning plan, to schedule it nearly on St Valentine’s Day, or whether it just came out that way. Be that as it may, I had a sneak preview when I was helping to set up the lantern slides for it.

I was impressed by one slide which listed ‘Six Topics’ – actually with an exclamation mark, ‘Six Topics!’ in a marriage. They were Money, Time, Sex, Children, Communication and Difficult times/Conflict (which is really two topics, but never mind). But the interesting bit was that on the side of the picture, alongside the list of the six (or seven) topics, was, in big handwritten style, ‘+Faith’, you know, the word ‘Faith’ in big swirly letters, with a plus sign in front of it. Add faith.

That’s the point of lesson number one today, our Old Testament lesson. Add faith. ‘Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals … whose hearts turn away from the Lord.’ But ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. … They shall be like a tree planted by water … in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.’ If people didn’t get so bogged down in everyday life, if they didn’t forget to think of God, perhaps to say their prayers a bit, and to read their Bible, things would go better. God will be with them in the difficult times.

But what is the faith which you need to add, for a successful marriage – or, following the prophet Jeremiah, for a fruitful life?

You could just say to our wedding couples – and have we got anyone here this morning who went to the course yesterday? Or was it enough to be going on with? Anyway, you could just say to them, ‘Pay attention to the words of the Creed. I believe …’ – I believe: in what? What do Christians believe in?

Incidentally, I think it’s important not to get too stuck on saying ‘I’. ‘I believe’. It may be more honest to say, ‘We believe. We.’ There may be some less important things that we struggle with, but we can say the Creed all together, if we say ‘we’, and if we mean, ‘This is what Christians as a body subscribe to – and I’m in that group.’ It need not mean that, in order to belong to the church, you have to believe in every detail. You can just be happy to belong.

So back to the question, what do we believe, as Christians? What is our faith? Our other two lessons, from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and from St Luke chapter 6, will give us some more important pointers.

You’ll note that, although we’ve just done our marriage enrichment course, the lesson from 1 Corinthians isn’t the normal wedding one, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’. Oh, all right, ‘… if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love’. It’s ‘love’ in a wedding, not charity. But we’re not doing that bit. We’re looking at the fifteenth chapter, about the resurrection of the dead. That, that’s a key point in Christian faith. Faith in the resurrection, in life after death. Starting with Jesus himself, and then growing into what in the funeral service we call the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life. We often have 1 Corinthians 15 at funerals. We have it because St Paul really goes into this key bit of faith, faith in eternal life, in a resurrection of the dead.

St Paul’s letter reads a bit like the transcript of one side of a telephone conversation. We can’t hear exactly what the Corinthians were saying: but it’s pretty clear that some of them were poo-pooing the possibility of life after death. St Paul points out the logical implications of that. If there is no chance of resurrection, then the whole basis of our faith, our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, would be contradicted. So one of the key points in Christian faith is a belief in life after death – and in particular a belief that Jesus was the first one to be resurrected.

It’s such an extraordinary thing, so contrary to all the laws of nature, that it is difficult to believe. So St Paul goes on, after the passage which we have read today, to tackle the question not just that the dead are raised, but how they are raised. It can be your homework today. Read the rest of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. Even if you are a Darwinist, there’s nothing in it to upset your scientific understanding. I won’t spoil it.

So in our first two lessons we see two pillars of our Christian faith, that you need faith, if your life is going to be fruitful – that you shouldn’t try to ignore the Divine – and that our Christian faith is centred on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It is a sign, a vital sign. We believe that the empty tomb was real. And then, we believe in what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant, in who Jesus really was, and in what he did. That Jesus is God, God with us. But note that as St Paul says, if that really is too much to stomach, then you need to know what it is you are dismissing. You can’t have Jesus without His resurrection. Without it, he’s not God.

And then in St Luke’s Gospel we go on to hear what the effect of Jesus, the effect of His coming, is, and what it still can be. Our lesson is St Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ great statement of what you must do, if you really follow His teaching. First of all he states how contrarian, how back-to-front, Christianity is. Basically in those days, just as it is today, people tended to equate material success and prosperity with virtue. You couldn’t live in such a lovely house; you couldn’t really have such a nice car, unless you were basically doing the right thing, unless you were a good person. Scruffy people must really be pretty useless, you’re tempted to think. No wonder they’re living in damp rented flats if they only bothered to get one GCSE – in some non-subject or other. Feckless.

But Jesus says that if you’re poor, or hungry, or sad, it’s not a question of blame. There’s no such thing as the deserving – or undeserving – poor. They are ‘Μακαριος’ in the Greek, blessed. That’s what the poor are, what the hungry are. Jesus turns things upside-down. This passage of ‘beatitudes’, blessings, ‘Blessed are the .. [whoever it is]’, runs into the really revolutionary bit, ‘Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, lend without expecting to be repaid.’ Don’t rush to judge someone – it could be you next. All those great, generous ideas – but the problem is that no-one really follows them. Because people say that just as resurrection can’t be real, in real life turning the other cheek is a lovely idea in theory, but it can’t be practical.

But what Jesus is advocating is a bit like what St Paul was saying about resurrection, about life after death. If you’ve got no faith in it, you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If you make faithful-sounding noises, if you tell everyone you’ve been saved, but you still think that rich people must somehow be better people, and poor people must really be a bit useless, a bit feckless – if being saved doesn’t make any difference to what you do, to how you treat people, then Jesus is there to tell you you’re just not getting it yet.

This is a neat way for me to round off what I’m saying. Godfrey and I are going to be running a Lent Bible study course, and the theme is going to be exactly what our Gospel today was about – the Beatitudes. I do hope you will come. We’ll have a session in the daytime and a session in the evening. I hope you will feel blessed at the end of it – and that you will see that being blessed isn’t the same as being comfortably off. You will need to add faith.