Archives for posts with tag: Corinthians

Sermon for Holy Communion on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

You might wonder what the connection is between our two lessons today. The first one is from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which you might think was more apt for one of those Sundays when we review our giving to the church and our stewardship, and on the other hand, the passage in St Mark’s Gospel, the two miracles of Jesus, healing the woman with the unstoppable haemorrhage, who just touched the edge of his coat, and Jairus’ daughter, one of Jesus‘s greatest miracles, where he raised a little girl from the dead. We know that story so well, but not in the words that Godfrey read. I don’t remember Jesus saying, ‘Little girl, get up’ – although that is what the Greek literally says. The words I remember are so much more mighty and memorable.

And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth.

And they laughed him to scorn. …

And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.

‘Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.’ Not ‘Little girl, get up’. Now that’s a proper miracle, in proper miracle words. Just imagine what it must have been like

if you were Jairus or the damsel or the damsel’s Mum, indeed everyone around. She wasn’t just some little girl. She was the damsel, the damsel in Mark’s Gospel.

Anyway, I’m not really going to talk about the gospel today. Because I’m sure you’ve heard loads and loads of sermons about that lovely passage in St Mark’s Gospel about the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage; the key point about both stories being the importance of having faith. To the woman who touched his cloak he said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, when people were saying it was too late, that his daughter had died, Jesus said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ They both had trusted in the power of God.

No, what I want to have a go at this morning is to look at what St Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, where he is trying to get some funding for Christians in Jerusalem, who are hard-up, from the relatively well-off people in Corinth. This was like us in wealthy Surrey putting together a collection for a parish in the East End of London or in down-town Sheffield.

I think that it’s very interesting to see what St Paul was writing – or actually dictating to his secretary, because that’s how he worked – at the very earliest times in the history of Christianity. These letters to the Corinthians are usually dated by scholars at around 50AD [CE], so less than 20 years after Jesus was crucified. It is reckoned that only the letters to the Thessalonians are earlier. So we are getting a glimpse into the life and concerns of the earliest church. And St Paul is banging on about people upping their planned giving! Clearly, some things haven’t changed. But I’ll let Stephen Chater speak to you quietly about whatever St Mary’s needs.

The interesting things about what St Paul was saying here are precisely how sensitive he was, and how he recognised how tricky it is to reconcile money matters with faith. There are churches who preach a ‘prosperity gospel’. According to that idea, if you are wealthy, it is because you are blessed – and conversely, if you are faithful to the church and give generously to it, then God will reward you, and make you rich.

I doubt whether any of us here would believe in that sort of thing. And neither does St Paul, here. What he does say is that he wants the Corinthians not only to talk the talk, to ‘excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness’, but also to walk the walk, in giving – the word in Greek is χαρις, from which we get our word ‘charity’. It’s also the word for ‘grace’, and indeed the words of ‘The Grace’, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ come from the end of this very same letter.

And ‘grace’ has another connotation, a ‘free gift’. In St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, and in the letter to the Ephesians chapter 2, salvation, eternal life, is said to be the gift of God, not something people can earn through doing good works. It is a χάρισμα, which means a free gift, given by χαρις, grace, generosity. These are all related ideas. So what St Paul is asking the Corinthians to do is to be generous. Give a free gift – this isn’t a payment for services. Paul says, You’re not obliged to give; I’m not ordering you to do it. He says in v 8, ‘This is not meant as an order; by telling you how keen others are I am putting your love to the test.’ [NEB translation].

St Paul says that although Jesus was rich, he became poor. Actually that seems a bit unlikely. Jesus was, at least on earth, a carpenter’s son. He was a sought-after preacher, a rabbi. But I doubt whether he was like some of the telly-evangelists in the USA today, who are pretty well-heeled, as I understand it.

That’s true in parts of Africa too, incidentally. We had an interesting visit from a clergyman, a bishop’s chaplain, from the diocese of Owerri in Nigeria, with which St Andrew’s Oxshott, or rather Revd Canon Jeremy Cresswell, their previous vicar, had links. This chap fully expected to be kept in some comfort wherever he went. His reasoning was that, as Christ’s representative, people in the church should accord him respect and provide for his needs generously. I see that Godfrey is making notes here … But unfortunately, I think it only works for vicars in Africa …

I don’t know whether St Paul knew Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite, which is recorded in St Mark’s and St Luke’s Gospels (Mark 12: Luke 21). His Letters to the Corinthians were written before those Gospels; but his point in his Letter, which he spells out in the next chapter (2 Corinthians 9:6) where he says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’, is very much along the same lines as Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite. What she gave may have seemed very small, a couple of coppers only; but it was all that she had.

Paul goes on to make it plain that you mustn’t feel pressured into giving more than you have (2 Cor 8:12). He reminds the Corinthians about the story of the Israelites after they had come out of Egypt, when they were with Moses in the desert, and they started to grumble and complain that they didn’t have enough to eat.

The Lord gave them an ‘ample sufficiency’ when he dropped manna from heaven, and numbers of quails for them to eat. I’ve always wondered how that last bit worked. In the sixties you got ‘chicken in a basket’ at Berni Inns. Maybe the effect was similar. The point, though, was about the quantity. Not too much, and not too little. An ample sufficiency. That’s what the Lord gave them. So the Corinthians – and we – should give to the Lord just what we can afford, and not more.

So what is the link between those miracle stories, about the damsel, Jairus’ daughter, and the other lady with the chronic illness, and St Paul banging the tin – albeit very elegantly – but clearly twisting the Corinthians’ arms – to give generously to the church?

I would suggest that the idea might be this. When you read the Gospel stories of what Jesus did, and particularly the miracle stories, the idea is that they are revelations, revelation of Jesus’ divine nature. God, with all that God can do, in a man. That man, Jesus, healed people, even raised the damsel and Lazarus from the dead. It demonstrated that he was much more than just a young man from a humble carpenter’s shop.

On the other hand St Paul interpreted it all, and he explained Jesus’ teaching in a way that everyone, not just the Jewish people, could understand. And when you have believed the miracles, when you ‘excel in faith’, then St Paul teaches that you will want to gracious, to be generous.

St Paul was the great church planter, the original Alpha Course teacher – and he was also, effectively, the first archdeacon. Paul was totally practical about how the new churches should operate, not only in their worship and care for others, but also in the nitty-gritty of church admin. You need enough money to run the church. And then you need more, if you are going to do something for neighbours in need.

It’s teaching which is still valid today. Do please think about what you give to the church. Are you doing in practice what you say you do? Please do give -cheerfully – but don’t bankrupt yourself in the process. Be like the widow and her mite.

Oh – and you know, if your wallet is somehow empty, St Mary’s is geared up to take credit cards, even Apple Pay. God bless you – and thank you!

Advertisements

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 1st May 2016 Zephaniah 3:14-20
‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.’ (Zephaniah 3:14-15)
Zephaniah, in his short book – it has only three chapters – gives a snapshot of the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament. The people of God having turned away from the Lord and worshipped the Baals, God would punish them. The description of the punishment takes two and a half chapters out of the three chapters in the book! Then the ‘remnant of Judah’, the ones who were spared, suddenly find that God looks kindly on them and they are saved.
What a strange idea the people of the Old Testament seem to have had about God! As they saw things, God took sides. They were the chosen people: therefore they expected God to favour them and help them to overcome their enemies. In the weeks after Easter, at Morning Prayer during the week, Common Worship offers as a canticle ‘The Song of Moses and Miriam’, taken from Exodus chapter 15.
Here is some of it.
‘I will sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously,

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song

and has become my salvation.
This is my God whom I will praise,

the God of my forebears whom I will exalt.
The Lord is a warrior,

the Lord is his name.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in power:

your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
At the blast of your nostrils, the sea covered them;

they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
In your unfailing love, O Lord,

you lead the people whom you have redeemed.’
And so on. ‘The Lord is a warrior’: ‘your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy’.
Quite apart from the divine sneeze – ‘At the blast of your nostrils’, this sounds very strange – quite unlike how we think of God. What about God’s love for all mankind? Surely we were, we are told, all made in the image of God. How can He favour one lot over against another?
God, in the Old Testament, does seem to be a kind of superhero, a sort of almighty trump card. If you have God on your side, you will prevail, you will succeed. Clearly this God, the one who comes down in a cloud or in a fiery pillar and speaks to Moses, is a sort of superman, who has a direct relationship with His chosen people, through his prophets. Prophecy is speaking the words of God, is being God’s mouthpiece.
But we really don’t believe in that kind of God any more. The God who blows people away with a ‘blast of his nostrils’ is of a piece with the image of heavenly king, sitting on some kind of magic carpet throne above the clouds. He didn’t really survive the Age of the Enlightenment. A God like that is limited in time and place. He is ‘up there’, or ‘out there’. That’s not consistent with being all-powerful, the creator from nothing, ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only wise’.
The thought is that Jesus has changed our outlook on God. God has come to us, our interface with God isn’t in a burning bush or through a prophet, but by His being a man like us, human as well as divine. Easy to say, but really difficult fully to understand.
Now this week, on Thursday evening we will remember and celebrate Christ’s Ascension. ‘While they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight’ (Acts 1:9). Up – He goes up, He ascends. He went up, He ascended. And then ‘two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’ (Acts 1:10-11)
In one way, it looked as though Jesus had gone up, gone up to a heaven above the clouds. But then these angelic figures contradict it. The ‘heaven’, where Jesus has gone, isn’t up above the clouds. Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’
Indeed, the lifting up on Ascension Day is not the same as lifting up was generally understood to be, something shameful, being lifted up on a cross. In the Jewish tradition, to be lifted up was a sign of shame.
Today is Rogation Sunday, so called because the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘calling’ or ‘asking for something’. In anticipation of Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday, we call on God, we anticipate Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday. It is a time of reflection and contemplation. For the farmers, the call to God is in the context of springtime, a call for God to bless their crops and make their flocks thrive.
Going to heaven is at the heart of our faith. What did happen to Jesus? Indeed, what does happen to anyone who dies? In St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians [1 Thess. 4:14-17], and in the beginning of Acts, we read this rather enigmatic reference to Jesus returning to us from the same direction as he went off to. ‘Lo He comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn puts it.
He’s not ‘up there’ in a conventional sense. God, Jesus, transcends space and time. He is ‘at the ground of our being’, as Paul Tillich put it. It’s something of absolutely central importance. Think of all the things which we confront today. There are elections on Thursday as well as Ascension Day – and a referendum, the outcome of which could radically change our country’s place in the world. There is the most catastrophic war going on in Syria. Our doctors feel so strongly that they are going on strike. What difference does it make, where Jesus ascended to, or whether there is a heaven?
Think of all those Bible lessons that you have at funerals, when people have to confront this ultimate question. Is there life after death? Think of St Paul’s great first letter to the Corinthians, in particular chapter 15. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, and our faith is in vain. But He was raised: Paul lists all the people who saw him, who met him, in that amazing time. They were witnesses, witnesses just as serious, just as certain, as in a court of law.
And Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate incarnation. Because He entered into our human life, and because He was resurrected, so we will be resurrected. There is life after death. But Paul is properly cautious about exactly how it will happen.
He says, ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.’ (1 Cor 15:42-44)
Now frankly that is hugely, hugely important. God is involved in our world: God cares for us. There is life beyond death. And Jesus, as he met again his faithful followers, after He rose from the dead, tells them – tells us – not to skip over it, but to
‘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’ (Matt. 28:18-20). It was the Great Commission, the great challenge. Our faith isn’t a quirky weird little secret society. It can give hope to all people, and that hope is the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life.
So on this May Day, Rogation Sunday, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’ Among all the challenges, there is hope. Just don’t keep it to yourself.

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 26th July 2015 

Job 19:1-27, Hebrews 8 

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. We are all very familiar with these words, in Handel’s ‘Messiah’. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: …. For now is Christ risen, from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.’ The first bit comes from our Old Testament lesson, Job chapter 19, and the second from 1 Corinthians 15. The link between the two was made by Charles Jennens, the librettist of Messiah, who was of course no mean theologian. He made a link between the ‘Redeemer’ in Job and Jesus Christ, whom we often refer to as our Saviour and Redeemer.

But I think that it’s at least arguable that Job was not in fact referring to the Jewish idea of the Messiah, the chosen one of God, coming to save Israel. I think he had a narrower perspective. He simply thought that his troubles had been caused by God; that they were unjust, but that God would eventually be there again, to vindicate him, to defend him, to redeem him from the unjust punishment which he was suffering. 
He had done nothing wrong, and therefore what his Job’s Comforters, his friends, were saying about bad people wasn’t to the point. Just before Chapter 19 that we heard, Bildad the Shuhite had said, 

He is driven from light into darkness

and banished from the land of the living.

He leaves no issue or offspring among his people,

no survivor in his earthly home;

in the west men hear of his doom and are appalled;

in the east they shudder with horror.

Such is the fate of the dwellings of evildoers, … (Job 18:18f, NEB)

In this lively debate between Job and his so-called friends there is an unspoken assumption that Job is suffering because in fact he has done something dreadful: he has brought his suffering on himself: he is being punished for something which he has done. It is a terrible punishment. Everybody is alienated from him:

My brothers hold aloof from me,

my friends are utterly estranged from me;

my kinsmen and intimates fall away, 

my retainers have forgotten me;

… My breath is noisome to my wife,

and I stink in the nostrils of my own family. [Job 19:13f, NEB]

In the to-ing and fro-ing between the Friends and Job, the friends seeking to justify poor old Job’s sufferings, on the basis that they are the sufferings that wicked people deserve, and Job stoutly defending himself, at one point Bildad, his cheerless friend, says, 

How soon will you bridle your tongue?

Do but think and then we will talk.

What do you mean by treating us as cattle?

Are we nothing but brute beasts to you?

There is one standard for animals, and one standard for humans. Humans, by implication, have rights: human rights. But if one treats them like animals, one is not doing justice to them.

On Friday, the ‘Surrey Advertiser’ popped through my letterbox as usual, and I was brought up short by the main headline on the front page: “‘They treat us like animals’ say travellers”. It was a piece about the Gypsies who had arrived and spent a few days by the war memorial on the Tilt. Tom Smurthwaite, the Surrey Advertiser’s reporter who covers Elmbridge, and who impresses me with the quality of his reporting, had been to interview the Gypsies, the Travellers, and there was a very moving extended quote from his interview with one of the group, John Lewis, who spoke of the ‘tough life’ he experienced as a Traveller. He had said, ‘When councils ask us to move, they know a lot of us are not well educated. They give us the paperwork and it hasn’t got a county court stamp on it. They treat us like animals and look at us like we are foreign insects – it’s not right in the eyes of God. Everyone is a human being.’

That rang a bell with me. On Monday I had been to a lecture at the Cathedral by the Master of the Temple Church, Robin Griffith-Jones, on Magna Carta. A very good lecture, explaining how Magna Carta had been the foundation of the rule of law which we enjoy in this country. The Church, in the person of Archbishop Stephen Layton, had been at the heart of the negotiations. 

The principles of the rule of law are enshrined in Magna Carta. The rule of law: for example, that ‘no free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’ – that’s chapter 39 – or chapter 40, ‘To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice.’ This was what Job was hoping for – a fair trial with someone to argue his case for him, his Vindicator, his ‘Redeemer’.

The rule of law involves a powerful set of principles, a heady brew, which I had been reflecting on: it came to a sharp focus in the moving cri de coeur of John Lewis, the spokesman for the Travellers who had stayed for a few days on the Tilt.

He said, ‘Although some people understand our culture, and have been very sympathetic… People see us come into a community and say, Oh my God, here come the Gypsies; my lawnmower is going to go missing. … This is not the case; we don’t bother anyone. Our children go to the local swimming pool and are told they are not welcome, and pubs turn us away.’ 

Another member of the group, Lisa Green, described as the group’s ‘matriarch’, said, ‘Everywhere we go, it’s as if we are aliens. People threaten the travelling community and try to run us out of town. There are lots of green spaces in Surrey,’ Miss Green said, and councils should be able to provide sites that are  of the way. ‘It would be better for residents and the travellers – councils don’t care as long as we go, that’s the truth. If they could tell us where we would be able to settle, we would gladly go. The Romani-Irish groups need to be recognised as a community,’ Miss Green believes. ‘It’s our way of life,and we are not going away. We are not dirty people… Everyone has their own rights and cultures, and you are never going to get rid of travellers.’ Of course the last person who tried to get rid of the Gypsies was – Hitler.

When I was little, I remember that my grandfather read me stories from a book by G. Bramwell Evens, who gave nature talks on BBC radio – the Home Service – using the pen-name ‘Romany’: because he was at the same time a Methodist minister and also, by birth and upbringing, a Gypsy. Romany paved the way for people like David Attenborough. His stories were very beautiful and showed a real sensitivity and understanding of the countryside. Some of his books are still in print, although he died in 1943.

But I realised that, apart from hearing ‘Romany’s’ stories, I had never really encountered, let alone talked to a Traveller, to a Gypsy. I have always been somewhere else, or even walked round the other side and avoided any kind of meeting. I vaguely remember people coming to sell clothes pegs at the door to my mother. She said that they were Gypsies. But I have never really met one.

At the talk on Monday night about Magna Carta, there was a question whether Magna Carta was related in any way to the Human Rights Act. The learned speaker asked a member of the audience, Lord Toulson, one of the Law Lords, who happened to be there, to answer the question. Lord Toulson referred to a book called ‘The Rule of Law’ by Tom Bingham. [Bingham, T., 2010, The Rule of Law; London, Allen Lane] 

Lord Bingham, another eminent Law Lord, the former Master of the Rolls, had written in his book that in his view there was a direct line of history between Magna Carta and the principles of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention upon which it was based. 

Indeed Article 6, the right to a fair trial, and Article 7, no punishment without law, are direct descendants of Chapters 40 and 39 respectively of Magna Carta. Lord Bingham has written in his book, ‘.. the rights and freedoms embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, are in truth “fundamental”, in the sense that they are guarantees which no one living in a free democratic society such as the UK should be required to forgo’ [Bingham p.68]. In other words, they are rights which we enjoy simply by virtue of our being human.

We are not to be treated as animals: but that distinction, which came up in the debates in the Book of Job, is still a live issue today. ‘They treat us like animals’, said the Travellers, here on our doorstep.

Of course, in a sermon in the parish church, as this is, I shouldn’t cross the line into anything political, but one has to note, in passing, that our local MP, Dominic Raab, is now a junior minister, and that one of his jobs is to progress the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’. This has, of course, been widely challenged, not least by many members of the judiciary and legal profession.

In Lord Bingham’s book, which came out five years ago, he says this. ‘Over the past decade or so, the Human Rights Act and the Convention to which it gave effect in the UK have been attacked in some quarters, and of course there are court decisions, here and in the European Court, with which one may reasonably disagree. But most of the supposed weaknesses of the Convention scheme are attributable to misunderstanding of it, and critics must ultimately answer two questions. Which of the rights … would you discard? Would you rather live in a country in which these rights were not protected by law? I repeat the contention [that] …. the rule of law requires that the law afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights. … There are probably rights which could valuably be added to the Convention, but none which could safely be discarded.’

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth. I know that my Vindicator, my Defender, liveth’. Who is to stand up for, to vindicate, people like the Travellers? You might say that there is an atmosphere of lawlessness about Travellers; that they don’t play by the rules. I’ve no idea whether this is true, but it is something that you hear.

I think that there is something in our New Testament lesson, from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is worth considering in this context. I don’t think I would make quite such a simple move as in Handel’s Messiah, from ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ to identifying that Redeemer with Jesus Christ, but I do think that there is a very relevant contrast in Hebrews 8. 

The writer to the Hebrews contrasts the first Covenant which God made with his chosen people, which has become redundant, has died out, if you like: it lost its force ‘…because they did not abide by the terms of that covenant, and I abandoned them,’ says the Lord.

The new covenant would not depend, for its effectiveness, on whether it was observed by the people: ‘I shall be their God, and they shall be my people. … For all of them, high and low, shall know me; I will be merciful to their wicked deeds, and I will remember their sins no more.’ 

This is the essence of New Testament theology to me. On the one hand, the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; albeit a fair system of justice – no more than an eye for an eye – but certainly not much room for generosity or forgiveness. In the New Testament, by contrast, Jesus’ rule of love, the rule of the Sermon on the Mount, rules out retaliation and goes by love. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of ‘They treat us like animals’ there could be a headline, ‘We know that our Redeemer liveth. So we are safe and welcome here in Cobham.’

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday of Easter, 19th April 2015
Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

This week I was influenced by two stage plays. On Thursday I went to see Tom Stoppard’s latest play, ‘The Hard Problem’, as a live relay from the National Theatre to the Everyman cinema in Walton-on-Thames. I won’t spoil the play for you, if you haven’t seen it yet: but you won’t be cheated if I tell you that the ‘hard problem’ is the question, if we know how the brain works, as a kind of super-computer, so we know which bits of the brain control different functions, and we know that they do it by switching little electrical currents, the question, what is it to be conscious of something?

Another philosophical problem touched on in the play is the so-called ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Why do we often do things which aren’t necessarily in our own interests? If Ned Kelly and I rob a bank, and we are arrested, do I give evidence against Ned? If I do, it may go easier for me. But I probably won’t, out of loyalty to Ned. ‘Honour among thieves,’ even.

In pure evolutionary terms – survival of the fittest – there is no reason for altruism. It would serve my interest best to look after myself. But I may well not do. Why are we often altruistic? This is something that Tom Stoppard looks at in his play. But because it’s a play, and not a philosophy lecture, in the ‘Hard Problem’ the altruistic part is played by a pretty girl, who believes in God and says her prayers every night. The Richard Dawkins part is played by a rather suave Irishman, her tutor, who likes to exercise a kind of droit de seigneur with his female students, and who is an atheist, a materialist.

Imagine these actors transposed into the world immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of a rather dry set of arguments about the way that computers, the way that the most able computer, the human brain, works, and Wittgenstein’s conclusion that ‘of which [we] may not speak, [we] must be silent’ [L.Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1.21], groping towards an understanding of God by reasoning and inference – which must feel like really inadequate tools – instead of that, they would bump into people who claim to have seen a man who has risen from the dead, who is divine, God on earth.

What a contrast! In the Hard Problem, the actors are tied up with questions about how life – and its creator – works, and whether one can infer from that any information about said creator. Is it an algorithm, or God? The early Christians, by contrast, had accepted the momentous news about the presence of God in their lives, as a fact. They were concerned much more with how they should react to that fact, than whether it was a fact. Doubting Thomas had settled that.

Today our Bible themes, in our lessons, deal with the after-effects of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. How did it affect Jesus’ followers – and how should it affect us, even though we are so long after it happened? You might be surprised that there is such an Old Testament emphasis, but this is the train of thought used by St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

St Paul, as a leader of the early church, sought to link the new life, which he called ‘being in Christ’, with the Jewish Law, the tradition of the Jews as spiritual ancestors of the Christians. He was ticking off the people in the new young church at Corinth for forgetting the story of the Israelites, and how by obeying and worshipping the one true God the Israelites of the Old Testament had been saved, led out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

He goes through the history of the Israelites, how they ‘ate the same spiritual meat’, manna from heaven, but ‘with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness’. Then comes a moral lesson. ‘Now these things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things’. In St Paul’s letter, if you do the wrong thing, if you break the Commandments, you will come to a sticky end.

Looking at things 2,000 years on, it is perhaps a little bit difficult to bring alive in our minds the excitement of the period after Jesus first appeared to the disciples risen from the dead. Even if their lives hadn’t already been changed by being with Jesus, they certainly were when they became aware of His resurrection.

In the light of that cataclysmic fact, some early Christians thought that, as they were God’s elect, saved, they need not worry about how they behaved. There was no need for them to keep the Jewish Law, to abide by the Ten Commandments, any more. They could do what they liked: they could eat, drink and be merry – because tomorrow they would not die, but have eternal life.

In the Old Testament, Moses was receiving from God His Commandments, rules for a good life in the Promised Land. 700 years later, Jesus came, the Messiah. Surely the old Law had had its day. Jesus had given a new commandment, a commandment simply ‘that ye love one another’. But Jesus said He had not come to abolish the Law and the prophets. Instead, His coming was fulfilment of those prophecies, and the Ten Commandments were still valid.

But there is a thread running through Jesus’ teaching, most evident in the Sermon on the Mount, that simply following the letter of the law is not enough: Jesus’ commandment of love involves going the extra mile, doing something extra.

Which brings me round to my second theatrical encounter this week. This one was even more of a ‘virtual’ experience than seeing the Tom Stoppard play by live relay in the local cinema. The second play was one that I read about, in the editorial of a newspaper this Thursday. This is what it said.

‘”The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think,” says the character Stefano in the opening scene of a new play, Lampedusa (in London now …) The work of the young playwright Anders Lustgarten, the title refers to the island where Stefano works rescuing the bodies of those who’d fled from war and disaster in Africa and the Middle East, and found death at sea instead. “They’re overwhelmingly young, the dead,” he observes. “Twenties. Thirty at most. Kids, a lot of them. You have to be to make the journey, I suppose.” The play wants to make its audience ask what kind of society it wants. Within days of its opening last week, 400 people were missing presumed drowned after a wooden fishing boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Its human cargo had all rushed to one side in the hope of rescue. At the start of what is becoming the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season, the question of what sort of society we want to be is a challenge for all Europeans.’ [The Guardian, 16th April 2015 http://gu.com/p/47hb2%5D.

All the commentary on this topic which I’ve read so far concerns itself with how to stop the migrants coming into Europe. Do we set up systems to head them off at the point of original departure, or put up even fiercer barriers at the points of entry?

What would Jesus say? I wonder whether He might point out that it is a matter of luck where we are born. Some are fortunate, and are born in Northern Europe. The majority are born in greater or lesser poverty somewhere else. Is it wrong to try to go where there is a better life? After all, that’s what is celebrated in the Old Testament: the wanderings of the Jewish people, their search for the Promised Land. Just imagine what might be said today if 144,000 people all decided to migrate from a big country into a smaller, more fruitful one. All the talk would be of how to prevent them. Think about it. The population was much smaller then. Think of the effect on their schools and their local services. Much more of an impact than Poles or Romanians might have today.

I think that Jesus might also point out that we are all children of God, wherever we have been born. Rich people are no more deserving than poor. Indeed, ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’. (Luke 1:51) or, ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (Matt. 16:26). It follows that we should not be concerned about nationality in future – we are all, in a real sense, citizens of the same world. There would be no more immigrants, no more strangers. Our sole concern should be to see that no-one should be hungry and in need.

Remember what the early disciples did – no doubt because they believed that this is what Jesus would have prescribed. ‘..all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’

It’s a challenge. What do we believe Jesus would say? Tom Stoppard’s play made room for God, even in the rational worlds of a business school and a hedge fund: in his play Lampedusa, Anders Lustgarten has posed ‘the question of what sort of society we want to be’, ‘at the start of … the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season’.

What sort of society do we want to be? Will Easter make any difference to us? I pray that it will.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 19th January 2014, at St Mary’s
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

In Father Ted, whenever anyone asked Father Jack a question he couldn’t answer, he would say, ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’. What is an ecumenical matter, really? It means a question of the organisation, the οικουμένη, meaning the world, the set-up, of the church. We use the term ‘ecumenism’ to cover the whole question of Christian unity.

At four o’clock this afternoon I will be going – as I hope some of you will too – to the Methodist Church in Cedar Road, for the annual service, arranged by Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott, to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In our first lesson today St Paul begins his first letter to the church at Corinth, addressing them all as ‘saints’, ‘saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.’

‘Both theirs and ours’ – their and our what? The modern translations, for example the New English Bible, say, ‘their Lord as well as ours.’ But the Greek says literally that Paul is writing to those who are called together in Corinth, called to be saints, with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, of theirs and of ours.

It perhaps doesn’t make a vast difference, but what it means is that there were different bodies of Christians in different places, even in the earliest days. There was a church at Corinth, and it had some distinctive features.

Well, today I shall go, I shall go back, to the Methodist chapel. I was brought up a Methodist. Both my grandpas and one great-grandpa were Methodist ministers; and indeed I worshipped in the Methodist Church, was a member of the Methodist Church, until 1996. So in some senses, going to the service this afternoon will be like coming home.

But it won’t really be, because the service this afternoon is actually going to be run by another of the churches in Cobham, which uses the Methodist chapel as their base for worship too, and that is Cobham Community Church, which describes itself as a ‘congregation of Bookham Baptist Church’. Although they don’t say so very obviously, they are Baptists.

In Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon there are Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformeds, Scottish Presbyterians: six different denominations, just in our little group of villages. This Churches Together area includes about 17,000 people, of whom about 4,000 claim to belong to one or other of the churches here.

I expect that, this afternoon, the worship may be strange – well, strange to me: and, dare I say, not something that I will necessarily find very congenial. But I’m certainly ready to be pleasantly surprised. I should say straightway that going to church is not a matter of entertainment; so to some extent it’s not relevant whether I like the worship or not.

A better question might be whether the worship is worthy; whether it is a proper sacrifice of praise: if it is a sacrament, whether it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us’, [The Book of Common Prayer, A Catechism, p.294].

For some reason the first lesson, from 1 Corinthians, set for today in the Lectionary, stops at verse 9, and is just the opening greeting from St Paul’s letter, where he praises the Corinthians, acknowledges them to be saints, and says that they are ‘enriched by the grace of God, so that they come behind in no gift.’ They are not mere runners-up in the the race for gifts.

But if you read on, you immediately get to the passage which is much more commonly used in the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ He goes on to say, ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptised in the name of Paul?’

In other words, Paul started to criticise the fact that even then, the church had factions in it. I’m not sure when a faction becomes a denomination, or indeed, when a faction becomes a schism, but it does seem that, even in the very earliest church, there were differences of opinion about how best to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, as we have seen, even locally, we have a whole variety of denominations. The denominations stand for different interpretations of the gospel of Christ. Even within the Anglican church, there are a wide variety of shades of opinion about our faith. There are threats of schism, splits in the church, over the question what we should believe about human sexuality, for example.

The African Anglicans, in general, and the North Americans, are diametrically opposed, and we Englishmen try to sit on the fence. And so, each year, we embark on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Dare I say that I don’t think that we are approaching this question of Christian unity in quite the straightforward way that St Paul recommends?

He says, ‘I beseech you that ye all speak the same thing, and that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ But I have to confess that I don’t have the same mind and the same judgement as my friends in the Catholic Church, or my friends in the Cobham Community Church, or in the United Reformed Church. I probably do have the same ‘mind’ as my friends in the Methodist Church, because by and large they believe the same things that we Anglicans do. John and Charles Wesley were Anglican vicars till they died.

Although even saying that, an amber light goes on in my brain, because we Anglicans have such a wide variety of belief: so it might be better to say that the Methodists and some Anglicans share common ground.

Of course, historically, the two biggest splits in the church were those between the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches first of all, between Constantinople and Rome, and then between the Protestants and the Catholics. Article XIX of the 39 Articles says,

‘The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So said Archbishop Cranmer in 1542. It’s still officially the belief of the Church of England.

It doesn’t sound like we have followed St Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth. But I’m bound to say, the question which occurs to me is whether it matters. Never mind, for a minute, the divisions between Christians: think about the divisions between the various religions – or certainly, the so-called religions of the book, that is, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of them make claims to be the exclusive way to the true God. ‘No man cometh unto the Father but by me’ [John 14:6].

The problem is that this whole area is of the highest importance. Nothing could be more important than that we correctly understand, and have the right attitude towards, God, the creator and sustainer of everything. That then leads on to the question, ‘What is true, what is truth?’ Clearly there’s room for a lot of disagreement and different understandings.

In 1834, Thomas Arnold, who became the famous headmaster of Rugby School and was at some time the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College, wrote to the Professor of Moral Philosophy, R.D. Hampden, saying, ‘Your view of the difference between Christian Truth’ – capital C, capital T – ‘and Theological opinion is one which I have long cherished.’ Hampden had said that he made a distinction between religion, or divine revelation on the one hand, and theological opinions on the other, suggesting that Christians were in broad agreement over the first: everyone broadly recognised the basic revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but only human interpretations of divine word caused Christians to differ over the second, over theological opinion of what the gospel meant. [Catto, J., ed., 2013, Oriel College, a History: Oxford, OUP, p.336]

But of course, if you say that every word in the Bible is literally true, then there are all sorts of difficulties. You may have to believe that the world was created in 4004 BC, and that Methuselah was over 900 years old, for example. Blood-curdling consequences arise if you follow literally the prescriptions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A rebellious child can be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18): men can be polygamous. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had several wives: slavery is acceptable (Lev. 25:44-45).

So there is in the Church of England a helpful compromise, according to which our understanding of Christian truth in the Bible can be informed by reason and tradition. But, however reasonable that sounds, not all Christians would agree.

So these days, we tend not to be so exercised about the divisions of the church. The ecumenical movement, things like the World Council of Churches, which had a general assembly recently in South Korea, doesn’t worry so much about trying to merge the various denominations together, but rather there is an understanding that all of us ‘live in more than one place at once’ as Canon John Nurser, of the ecumenical group Christianity and the Future of Europe, put it recently. [John Nurser, book review, ‘Christian unity reconsidered’, in Church Times, 17th January 2014, p. 23].

Ecumenism now works in trying to reconcile the churches, not only one with another, but also with the challenges outside. So the World Council of Churches was united in its resistance to apartheid in South Africa and the oppression of poor people in Latin America. More recently, the World Council has become concerned with reconciling lifestyles in the West with the sustainability of creation. We can all agree that we must respect God’s creation: but we may not agree on the details of how we go around it, because we are ‘differently situated’. [Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women]

It’s easy to talk about drawing a distinction between divine revelation and theological opinion; but ultimately everything comes to us the lens of our human experience. We are all different; we all have different experience. Therefore even our understanding of religious truth is likely to be different.

Actually, St Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth may be capable of a rather more mundane explanation, namely, that he thought that they had forgotten that the Gospel came from Jesus Christ, from God, and not from Paul and Apollos, or the various other preachers. Remember, said St Paul: the preachers were preaching the Gospel of Jesus; they weren’t themselves divine.

Thomas Arnold’s distinction between Christian Truth and theological opinion may not be a final answer, but I think that it is still quite a useful way for us to look at our friends in the other churches. There is a core of belief which Christians all share. But the theological interpretation of that belief, of course, goes in all sorts of different ways. We should, I suggest, not try to change each other, but simply respect each other’s differences. After all, those of us, who have experienced mergers at work, know that mergers and takeovers are very rarely an unmixed blessing.

I do hope that you will join me this afternoon at 4 o’clock. We will join with our fellow Christians from Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott, to worship God together. It will be different from what we are used to. But that’s all right.