Archives for posts with tag: Comfortable Words

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

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.

Sermon for Evening Prayer with the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, on Saturday 26th November 2016 in the Founders’ Chapel, Charterhouse

Isaiah 24; Matthew 11:20-30 – see for the text

‘Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down.’ This is First Isaiah – first of the three writers who contributed to the Book of Isaiah – gloomy, doomy; Isaiah at his gloomiest.

And then ‘Woe unto thee, Chorazin!’ Jesus berates all those places where they have ignored his teaching and have failed to mend their ways.

It’s tough stuff. I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m a preacher but, when the lessons are read out in a service, I immediately start to imagine what points the preacher will draw out from the passages in the Bible which have been set for that day.

How does the Bible speak to that congregation, I wonder. What will their minister make of that lesson? And my thinking is coloured also by what has been going on in the world. Has anything happened in the world outside which will test our faith? Are there any situations about which we need God’s guidance and help, where we depend on His grace?

What would I expect today? The lessons are full of doom and gloom. The world has turned upside down. God punishes those who have broken his covenant. Jesus says it will be ‘more tolerable for the land of Sodom, than for [Capernaum]’. Indeed, Capernaum ‘shalt be brought down to hell’.

Is there a message for us today?

Is this something which could apply to the vote for Trump, or for the USA under Trump? Or is it reminiscent of Britain, divided in the face of the Brexit referendum? Is the race hatred that has arisen in both countries, the blaming of minorities and outsiders, the move away from openness and internationalism towards a narrower nationalistic approach, the sort of thing which the prophet, and which Jesus himself, was alluding to, all those years ago?

But just a minute, you might say. There’s a time and place for everything – and this is the Prayer Book Society service immediately before Advent. We are looking forward to the joy of Christmas. Let us just take refuge in the beauty of the holiness that is the Book of Common Prayer. Never mind all that Last Judgement stuff. Look, our New Testament lesson ends with those Comfortable Words, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

And also, we are a rather varied congregation. We come from all sorts of churches, with all sorts of theological emphases. Some of us come from churches where the BCP isn’t much used, and where there is a modern, evangelical approach, emphasising the Bible as the Word of God. And some members might even rely on some of the wording in the BCP to justify not having women priests, and not accepting gay marriage.

Others of us come from churches where the BCP is used regularly, but the theology is decidedly liberal. Less influenced by John Stott or David Bracewell than by David Jenkins or the John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – or lately, of Victor Stock. We love the language of the BCP and treasure its theological riches – but we allow that it is of its time, and it has to be read, and used, in a nuanced, undogmatic way.

Phew! That’s all right then, you might think. Nothing controversial this afternoon. Roll on the splendid ‘match tea’ in the Saunders Room. No need to worry about the awful things going on in the world this afternoon, at least. This is our Prayer Book Society meeting, and we can just enjoy renewing our friendships and celebrating how lovely the Prayer Book is.

We’re on the brink of Advent, too. Let’s not spoil it with politics. After all, the other thing that’s happened this week has been that happy holiday, Thanksgiving, in the USA. I have had the splendid experience of preaching, in Hartford, Conn., on Thanksgiving Day. Then, again, I faced a dilemma whether to link the Bible lessons for that day with some of the things going on in the world for which one would be strongly inclined not to give thanks: poverty in the midst of plenty, homelessness, wars and refugees.

I don’t think that in church we should ever shy away from political and social engagement. I agree with both our current archbishops, that Christians ought to engage with the problems of secular society. ‘Faith in the City’, [] the Church of England report into spiritual and economic decline in various inner city areas in 1985, criticised Thatcherism and was itself heavily criticised at the time – but it bears re-reading now. The nonconformist churches produced a comprehensive report three years ago called ‘The Lies we tell Ourselves: ending comfortable Myths about Poverty'[]: and the House of Bishops sent an open letter entitled ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ to the ‘people and parishes of the Church of England’ before the 2015 General Election [].

But again, being engaged doesn’t necessarily mean following a particular political doctrine. There are Christians in all the major parties, even including UKIP, in this country. Even Revd Dr Giles Fraser supported Brexit. Donald Trump in the USA gained support from the ‘Bible Belt’ of conservative evangelical Christians there.

So as I deliver my sermon to you, I can expect that, when you listened to the scarifying words of Isaiah chapter 24, and Jesus’ condemnation of the places who had ignored his teaching, I can expect that you will have brought a variety of things into mind. Does the rise in hate crimes, xenophobia and racism both here in the U.K. and in the USA have anything to do with the populist politics of the so-called ‘alt-right’, Trump and the Brexiteers? The man who murdered Jo Cox MP was shouting white supremacist slogans as he killed her. Was he encouraged to do so by the nationalist tone of some politicians?

Or would you take a different view? Would you, for instance, link the apocalyptic visions in our lessons today to the sort of things that GAFCON has made a lot of – the many clergymen in our church who are openly gay, whom GAFCON have listed publicly? Is that the sort of sin (if it is a sin) which would break God’s covenant?

Well, this isn’t Question Time, and, until the Match Tea in a few minutes, you can’t answer back, so I don’t know what links you will make in your mind. But it is important that you do try to make those links, and to reflect on what God’s Word is telling us about our lives, and our countries’ lives, today.

At least I am confident that, when I challenge you gently in this way, you won’t react like one of the congregation at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn., did after my Thanksgiving sermon there []. I had preached about food banks and poverty. This gentleman shook my hand warmly as he went out, and said, ‘I enjoyed your sermon very much. But mind you, I entirely disagreed with it. Indeed, if I were a younger man, I would have had to shoot you!’

Now Hartford is the home of the Colt Manufacturing Company, makers of the famous Colt 45. Quite a thought. I do hope you all checked your weapons in at the door!

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent, 22nd February 2015, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7: Romans 5:12-19

Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, in the single which reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1965, sang:

‘The purpose of a man is to love a woman:
The purpose of a woman is to love a man:

So come on, baby, let’s start today
Come on baby, let’s play
The game of love ….

It started long ago in the Garden of Eden,
When Adam said to Eve
‘Baby, you’re for me,’

So come on, baby, let’s start today
Come on baby, let’s play
The game of love, love, la la la la, love.’

I don’t think that you would really listen to it – enjoyable as it is – as a serious description of how the world works, or how human biology or evolution is to be explained.

But you might notice essential similarities with our two lessons this evening. In the Old Testament lesson, we are in the Garden of Eden: admittedly, we’ve got past the bit where Eve was created, either at the same time as Adam, if you follow Genesis 1, or from Adam’s rib, if you follow the version in Genesis 2.

We’ll let that go: they’re in the Garden of Eden, and Eve is being tempted by the serpent, who was more subtle – ‘subtil’ – s-u-b-t-i-l, in the King James Version – than the other beasts. More cunning.

Then in our New Testament lesson from Romans we have the antidote to the Fall, to Eve’s giving in to temptation and becoming sinful, separated from the goodness of God: the antidote to that was the ‘free gift’. ‘For as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.’ (Romans 5:19, NEB)

How gloomy are we supposed to be as we embark on our Lenten observance? I went to an Ash Wednesday service – not here, I have to say – where I was treated to an extremely gloomy sermon, emphasising the fact that ‘we are all ‘fallen’ human beings: sin has dominion over us, the Devil is ever-present, and ‘there is no health in us’. But the sign of the Cross in ash on our foreheads is a foretaste of the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, the ‘propitiation for our sins’, as the ‘Comfortable Words’ in the Prayer Book put it.

But just as I would be rather reluctant to elevate Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders to a position of any authority in relation to human biology and evolution, so I would want to suggest that the doctrines of the Fall in creation, and the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, are not to be taken literally. They reflect the way that people thought, 2- or 3,000 years ago, and to take them literally is to ignore the whole history of the Enlightenment and indeed, the riches of scientific discoveries from Darwin onwards.

That is not to say that I don’t believe that God created the world, or that God is our creator and sustainer. But I think that it is a mistake for us to take these beautiful stories as being the same thing as scientific analysis. Indeed if we start to take things like the Fall literally, we are then confronted with difficulties over whether in fact God made us in His own image; whether God is a good god, who always wants the best for us; or whether in some sense He is a cruel god.

And if we adopt a view of what Christ did at Easter as being some kind of a blood sacrifice, again, the implication is that God is some kind of cruel god, demanding human sacrifices.

These stories – they are just that, stories; remember that creation is a much earlier story than the one in the Bible: it resembles closely the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was even older – these stories are perfectly valid metaphors, helping us to try to understand what is beyond our understanding, which is, the nature of God.

But there are, of course, many things which we can draw from these stories which are very relevant to our Lenten reflections. If there is a purpose in creation, are we as God intended us to be? The idea of the Fall implies that we are not. We are ‘sinful’.

Sin is alienation from God: missing the mark, άμαρτια (the Greek means, ‘missing the mark’), falling short; it may indeed include doing bad things: but it is also a question of being somehow defective or falling short of what God intended us to be, and thereby losing our intimacy with God.

Satan tempted Jesus for 40 days in the desert, we are told. But it is very difficult for us to understand what Satan is, unless he is a mythical being, a personification of what it is to be on the opposite side from goodness and the light: to be separated from God.

If Satan indeed exists, or existed, that would imply that God created pure evil: which is not what we believe.

Something very relevant to our Lent reflections, something which I think was a wholly positive contribution by our church to our public life came out this week. It was the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter to all members of the Church of England, called, ‘Who is our Neighbour?’ It is intended to help us, as members of the Church of England, to approach the General Election in a constructive spirit, informed by our Christian belief. Of course, no sooner had the Letter been released than there was one MP on the TV, apparently, saying that it was inappropriate for the Bishops to say anything to do with the General Election, although she admitted that she hadn’t actually read the letter at the time she was spouting off.

So perhaps we should discount that, together with a number of newspaper columnists, who similarly flew into print, denouncing the letter as a leftist tract, which I have to say – and I have read it – it isn’t. What it is, is a really good tour d’horizon of all the major issues which confront our national life, which any politician who hopes to be elected at the General Election ought to be dealing with. The objective is not support for one ideology or another: the market or the state, taxation or free enterprise, or any of these other supposed dichotomies or dogmas, but rather what is going to reflect Jesus’ command that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.

The bishops are concerned to bring us closer to God, to what God intended us to be, the opposite of sin. What will make for a good society, based on compassion, on charity – the word in 1 Corinthians 13. Although wedding couples always have this piece as a lesson, and the word ‘charity’ is expressed as ‘love’ – you know,

Now abideth faith, hope, love,
These three;
But the greatest of these is love

– which is the ‘giving’ type of love, the Good Samaritan type of love, rather than the sort of love which Wayne Fontana was singing about.

I’m not going to give you a potted guide to the bishops’ letter. It is 50-odd pages long, but it is in quite big print and it has neat signposts which give you a running commentary as it goes along. So it’s an easy read, and it’s very well expressed. I will make sure that it is on the church website – which unfortunately it isn’t, yet – and I’ll see whether we can have at least one copy printed out and put in a binder at the back of the church for people, who don’t have Internet access, to refer to. [Click on to read the letter]

If anyone is in that position, and would like me to give you a printed copy, I will be happy to do so if you mention it to me after the service.

So I would say, please don’t get too gloomy in your reflections during Lent. I don’t think that it’s right that we should give ourselves a hard time, on the basis that we are, in some sense, irredeemably fallen. The whole point is that we are redeemably fallen. We may become estranged from God: we may lose touch with His purposes in creation: but if we follow the commandments of Jesus, and in particular the commandment to love our neighbours, we will be redeemed.


Come on baby, let’s start today
Come on baby, let’s play
The game of love:

But not that type of love.