Archives for posts with tag: Ephesians

Sermon for Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.

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Sermon for Holy Communion on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 9th August 2015

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Just as I don’t see God in terms of His being a benign old gentleman living at 45,000 feet with a white, flowing beard, so equally I’ve been rather sceptical about His hornèd counterpart, the Devil.

In St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he is going through all the things that a good Christian convert ought to do – and ought not to do – he talks about anger, in a context where he is saying, if you are angry, for whatever reason, you mustn’t let your anger drag on too long. Delightfully he says, ‘Don’t let the sun go down’ on your anger. Never be angry for more than one day at a time.

But also St Paul says, ‘Don’t be angry so that it becomes a sin: that it exposes you to the Devil. Don’t make space for the Devil.’

You will have read that the Church of England is now offering new words for the baptism service, which no longer require the parents and godparents to say that they turn away from sin and the Devil. (Of course, if parents would like to keep the traditional words, then they are still available to be used).

‘If you are angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin. Do not let sunset still find you nursing it. Leave no loophole for the Devil.’ [Eph. 4:26, NEB]

This week, rather mischievously, that wonderful programme on BBC Radio 4, The Moral Maze, celebrated its 666th edition. 666 in the Book of Revelation (13:18) is said to be ‘the number of the beast’, the Devil’s number. The programme was dedicated to finding out more about the nature of evil. Evil personified, I suppose, is what the Devil is.

What does it mean when we talk about the Devil? Are we doing anything more than just using a picturesque metaphor for badness, evil: is there a force for evil – the other side of a force for good?

The problem, which philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for centuries, is this. If God is omnipotent, He can do anything; and if He is goodness personified, pure good, why does He not prevent bad things, evil things, from happening? Why does God not prevent disasters, terrible crimes, illness and injustice from taking place?

Surely, if God were all-powerful, and at the same time perfectly good, then these bad things would not happen. He would prevent them from happening. Put it another way. If there is such a thing as evil – perhaps even personified in the Devil – so there is a force for evil, and God is the creator and sustainer of everything there is, then God must have created and sustained evil as well as good. But if that’s the case, then God can’t be perfectly good.

There are a number of possible ways to look at this problem. The first is, that perhaps it shows that there is in fact no such thing as evil, as a thing: rather, there are only evil deeds. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a force for evil, or a Devil, but it does make sense to talk about somebody having done something evil.

The Catholic Church has always been influenced by a saying of St Augustine (Letter 211, c424AD), cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly as ‘with love for mankind and hatred of sins’. More recently this idea has been re-expressed as ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. So in Catholic moral theology there is always the possibility of redemption for a penitent sinner, however awful the sin itself.
But although that seems to be perfectly aligned with Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness, it doesn’t really solve the problem. Even if the sinner can escape blame, God must still have created the sin.

Another way round relies on the idea of free will. This goes back to the Garden of Eden. We were all made to be good; we were created in the image of God, even. But we, the human race, took it on ourselves to do bad things. That decision didn’t involve God, as it was the humans taking control for themselves. On this view, evil doesn’t in fact originate with God, but just with mankind. The problem with free will as a way round the Problem of Evil is that, although the evil act may come from inside us, where did we get it from? To put it another way, if we attribute moral responsibility to people, are they really completely free to decide what they will do? Or are they in some sense determined, pre-programmed – and if so, by God?

On The Moral Maze, Canon Dr Giles Fraser suggested a third way. This was that, as he understands God, in Jesus Christ, God is not in fact omnipotent. Indeed, God, in the form of Jesus Christ on the cross, is weak, very weak. Giles Fraser said, ‘The God that I believe in, in Jesus, is not omnipotent. He died on the cross in a way that is powerless’. Jesus in his divine nature is mighty, mighty and strong. But as a man, He is weak: He isn’t able to fix all our problems – Jesus, as being fully human, is limited in power, as we all are.

None of those three possible explanations relies on the Devil. There is certainly a sense in which evil can be personified as a kind of ‘gothic presence,’ influencing people, tempting them to do evil things. But it is really difficult to see how this can be more than a colourful idea, a metaphor. If there really were an actual being, The Devil, then God would certainly not be like the God that we now believe in, the God who manifested Himself in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to contemplate our doing bad deeds, evil acts. It is one way of understanding what ‘sin’ is. Sin is what separates us from the love of God. So indeed, if we do things that a loving God would not want us to do – perhaps by breaking one of the Ten Commandments – then we have sinned, we have put a barrier between ourselves and God.

That brings us back to what St Paul was writing to the Ephesians. In Christ God has reconciled us to Himself: we must not drive a wedge between us. We really must follow the Commandments of love, if we are to avoid falling into sin, which is separation from God. But to believe in the Devil is strictly optional.

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Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after The Epiphany, 11th January 2015
Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10

‘Time was when you were dead in your sins and wickedness, when you followed the evil ways of this present age, … We too were of their number: we all lived our lives in sensuality, and obeyed the promptings of our own instincts and notions.’ [Eph. 2:1-4, in the New English Bible]

The people of Ephesus were, before they discovered Christ, debauched and decadent. There’s something in this passage, in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which is rather reminiscent of things that I have read and heard in connection with Moslem fundamentalists, in places like Bradford, parts of Birmingham or even nearer to home, from where young people are going to join Islamic State – or whatever it’s now called – in Iraq.

The Western world, according to their lights, is supposed to be decadent and depraved, godless; whereas they learn, in their madrasahs, that if they follow the prophet Mohamed, this will be the real thing, the true path to salvation, to God. In St Paul’s time, decadent Ephesians became decent Christians through faith. Today, wide boys from Halifax, through their faith, can become martyrs, according to the ISIL propaganda.

This is a terrible week to have to think seriously about the various challenges to Christianity and our Western way of life, from the various Muslim fundamentalist groups, in particular, Islamic State, and from the various groups which claim to subscribe to Al Qaeda.

The events in Paris and Northern France have been truly shocking, and they come on top of extraordinary brutality and cruelty shown by the ISIL terrorists in beheading people that they have kidnapped, and in forcing people to do things for them on pain of death. We must not forget the terrible atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria as well.

St Paul’s great message was that the gospel of Jesus was a gospel for the Gentiles just as much as it was for the Jews. There are these slightly recondite discussions in his letters about whether it’s necessary to be circumcised or not, and what the status of the Jewish Law is: must you, in effect, become a Jew before you can become a Christian?

It was, if you like, a very early example of inter-faith dialogue. True, St Paul was actually trying to proselytise, was trying to convert people, which is something which is not supposed to happen in inter-faith communications today. Rev Richard Cook, the recently retired vicar of Goldsworth Park in Woking, who was very much the Diocese’s expert on Islam, and is a good friend of the imam of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, which I believe is supposed to be the oldest mosque in this country, used to say that, whenever he met his friend the imam, for a cup of tea or something, the first thing that the imam always said, after he had inquired after his health, was whether Richard was ready to convert to Islam or not.

He didn’t get too upset when Richard politely declined. Trying to persuade each other of the relative merits of their particular understanding of God is something that happens all the time. We can still talk to people of a different religion, exchange ideas with them, try to understand their position better, even if they are at the same time trying to convert us.

This civilised dialogue is a world away from the murders at Charlie Hebdo. The terrorists’ assault, which some of our newspapers characterised as ‘an assault on free speech’, an ‘assault on democracy’, was indeed an assault on the way of life of a civilised country.

The hallmark of free speech is said to be that, even though I disagree with what you say, I would defend to the last your right to say it, your freedom of speech. Equally, as a consequence of our all being God’s creatures – or just our all being human – as a matter of human rights – we are democrats: we have the right to choose our own government, by majority voting. To the extent that our voices are silenced, by people like the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo, it is an assault on democracy.

But amid this outpouring of grief and solidarity, solidarity with the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and with all journalists, who not unnaturally feel that this has been an attack on them all collectively, alongside all that, there have, perhaps unfortunately, been some notes of discord.

Earlier in the week, in his LBC radio phone-in programme, Nick Clegg encountered a questioner called Omar, who asked him whether he didn’t agree that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had in fact brought their demise on to themselves, by their blasphemy. Nick Clegg was very angry on air, and insisted that the attack on Charlie Hebdo could not be defended under any circumstances or on any grounds.

But it was plain that the questioner, Omar, either didn’t understand what he was saying or, certainly, didn’t agree with it. And there was a piece on Radio Four involving some vox pop interviews with people in Bradford. They were British; they had Yorkshire accents, and were probably second or even third generation since their ancestors came over from the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless they also commonly came up with the view that the Charlie Hebdo attack was brought on by the journalists themselves, by their blasphemous publications.

There was no concept, in these people on Radio Four or in Omar on LBC, that somehow the principles of human rights, of free speech, of democracy, could trump the seriousness of any alleged blasphemy. We say that the merits of democracy, of free speech, are self-evident: we all live by them. Anyone trying to contradict the principles of free speech or democracy is, in effect, attacking our society.

At which point I ask myself where we get our sense of human rights, of free speech, free will, of democracy, from. Because it seems to me that in fact they are not simply true or desirable in themselves. It’s not necessarily true that, because you’re a human being, you will automatically agree that democracy is a good thing, or that free speech is a good thing. Omar and Co are evidence of that.

There are many nations in the world today where democracy, the rule of the people, is subservient to the idea of theocracy, rule by God or by God’s representatives, by mullahs for example. It’s not the case that everyone, simply by virtue of being human, will assent to the proposition that democracy is pre-eminently a good thing, or that free speech is a good thing.

Even we to some extent accept restrictions on free speech – sometimes for commonsense reasons, so you are not allowed to shout ‘Fire!’ in a cinema – but also, ironically, for the purpose of collective security, in order to prevent the attacks on our way of life which terrorists have made and have threatened in future. We accept limited restrictions on free speech in order to preserve the right to free speech in general.

We justify the idea of free speech, the idea of human rights and so on, I think, not on the basis that they are self-evident truths, but rather ultimately because of our Christian belief. We believe that God made us equal in His sight, and that He gave us the freedom to choose good or evil. Muslims also believe in God, and possibly, in the same God. But they believe that free speech doesn’t come into it. If you blaspheme, according to them, you forfeit your right to life.

So we are in disagreement with Muslims, disagreement over something very important, about how God works. Although I would stress that this is not an argument for anti-Semitism, one could draw a parallel with the disagreements between the Jews and the Christians in the time of Jesus. The Jews and the early Christians were in disagreement. Jesus was a threat. He challenged the orthodoxy of the Pharisees and the scribes, their cherished beliefs. They dealt with the problem by killing Him.

In an evil way, the terrorists in Paris may also have felt that they were somehow solving the disagreement that they felt, between their own vision of the good life and what they perceived to be the contradiction to it in decadent Westernism, by killing what they saw as a major source of the decadence and blasphemy which they so disagreed with. That is not in any way to excuse the evil of what they did, but it might explain it.

What is our way of dealing with people we fundamentally disagree with? In so many cases, unfortunately, as a matter of history, it has involved warfare. If as a country we can’t agree with someone, or we feel that their view needs to be overturned, there is, always not very far from the surface, a resort to warfare.

We disagree with the Syrians. We are at war with them. But I do feel that we are not likely to change their minds by bombing them. I feel that instead, the solution to all this trouble must lie in the development of mutual understanding.

But, as St Paul has pointed out here, there is a limit to what we can do; there is a limit to how we can bring about the Kingdom. Everything depends on our believing and trusting in God, and in God responding with His bountiful grace. Are we prepared to risk that, or are we going to carry on as though we had never heard the Gospel message, of peace and forgiveness? Peace and forgiveness leads to repentance and reconciliation.

I pray that, as we defend our way of life, our gifts of free speech and democracy, we will remember how our prophet, the prophet Isaiah, foretold the coming of God’s kingdom, and how gentle our Messiah is to be.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. [Is. 42:1-4].

Sermon for Evensong for Churches Together on the Third Sunday after Easter, 11th May 2014
Ezra 3:1-13, Ephesians 2:11-22: Be Reconciled

So then you are no longer strangers …, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and … of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. [Eph. 2:19-20]

Building a temple. Building a church. Being reconciled.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near, by the blood of Christ.

I want to welcome everyone to the church here at St Mary’s. We were excited when you, Godfrey, put your hand up in the Churches Together meeting and volunteered that we here would host the service to remember and celebrate the fellowship and spiritual growth which we enjoyed together in our Lent groups.

Our Lent groups, which were devoted to studying St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, with a strap line which Jeremy Cresswell, in his erudite study notes, identified as ‘Be Reconciled’. Obviously St Paul was talking about Jews and non-Jews, at the time of Jesus Christ, whereas in applying this message today – and certainly in the context of our service tonight – we are talking about the different Christian denominations, and how we can be reconciled, brought together in fellowship, so as to become, in unity and diversity at the same time, the body of Christ.

Ezra, the author of our Old Testament lesson, was writing in the sixth century BC following the conquest of the Babylonians, who had destroyed the Temple, by the Persians – King Cyrus followed by King Darius and the three Kings Artaxerxes.

The Persians allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple, and to have some self-government. But they were very much a minority, surrounded by people who did not necessarily sympathise with them, and who were much more powerful than they were.

Ezra tells the story of the rebuilding of the Temple. But before then, in the passage that we heard tonight, came the restoration of worship, of the One True God. It’s a theme throughout the Old Testament – certainly it comes out in Ezra, if you read Ezra and its sister book, Nehemiah – that there was one true God: that also, that one true God had made a covenant with a chosen people, and so the world was divided, divided into God’s chosen people and the rest.

It was difficult for the Israelites to maintain their faith, their belief in the one true God, when they had such terrible bad fortune. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept. .. How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land? (Ps. 137).

The Assyrians conquered the Israelites in 722, and when in 587 BC the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple, which had stood for so long, was razed to the ground. All the precious things in it were taken by the victorious Babylonians. You can read all about these disasters in the Books of Kings and the Books of Chronicles.

It didn’t really look as though God’s covenant with the Israelites, His covenant with Abraham, was really working. Then the Israelites started to understand that it was God, God Himself, who had caused all the misfortune, and it was because they had not followed God’s commandments. But God forgave them, and during the time of the Persians, they were treated much more kindly. Eventually they went about rebuilding the Temple.

Flash forward 600 years to the time of Jesus, and the time of St Paul immediately afterwards, and imagine what a huge step – a huge mental step – St Paul was making when he realised that God was not exclusive in the way that he had been brought up to think He was.

It wasn’t the case that there was one God, and that that one God favoured only the Israelites, the Jews. The lesson of Jesus was that God was – God is – a god for all of us. God created the whole world after all. The message of Jesus’ appearance is that there is still a covenant between God and His people: but his people are all people, not just one small nation.

That is, of course, a momentous step. Once St Paul had recognised that, it made it possible for the good news of Christ to spread throughout the world, and not just to stay as a minority cult among the Israelites.

So look at this timeline: Ezra, about 500 BC: St Paul, no more than a dozen or so years after the death of Christ, so, let’s say, just over 500 years later. And we are just over 2,000 years after that.

But back to the fact that we are tonight in St Mary’s. St Mary’s is the oldest church in Surrey – it was built originally in 680AD. Indeed, it’s a Saxon church: if you look, after the service, at the three little models that are on the shelf over there in the transept, you will see that it was originally a sort of Saxon shed – and then it grew progressively in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to be the shape of church which it is now.

So if we go back to the timeline – Ezra, 500 BC: St Paul, maybe 40 or 50 AD: St Mary’s, just over 500 years later, 680. And our service, written in the 1540s by Archbishop Cranmer – so, about another 5- or 600 years later.

You should know that the Book of Common Prayer, which we’re using tonight (it’s the little blue book in your pew), actually took 100 years to settle into its final form, but the key bits of it were written by Archbishop Cranmer in the middle 1500s – so, the time of Henry VIII – and we are about 700 years after that. We are joined – reconciled, sort of – with all those Christians before us.

Remember that in the 1540s Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was writing the Book of Common Prayer in the crucible of the Reformation. Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg: John Calvin had preached in Geneva; Zwingli in Zürich, and of course, Henry VIII; all contributed to a time of theological ferment and disagreement.

We are using words which haven’t changed for 700 years. We really are walking in the footsteps of the saints. Because Cranmer didn’t just dream up all the words in the services which went into the Book of Common Prayer. He based all the services on his translations, and on his understanding, of even older services which the church had been using before he compiled the Prayer Book in the 1540s.

The BCP was meant to be a prayer book, a service book, for use in common, meaning shared by everyone. Against the background of all the different strands of the Reformation, the BCP was a powerful tool for reconciliation.

So the fact that tonight we are using the BCP, a prayer book written 700 years ago which goes back even earlier in its origins, is, I think, very apt in the context of Churches Together: in the context of our variety, all our different ways of worshipping, in our seven churches.

Just like the time of St Paul. Faithful Christians in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, in Colossae, in Galatia, were all confronting something which was far bigger than they were, and they didn’t know what the right answers were.

St Paul talked about it in 1 Corinthians 1:12.

‘ …. each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’

Which one of these great preachers had it right? Terribly important; once you are confronted by the Revelation, the Good News, that God cares for us, that He sent His only Son: nothing is more important than to respond appropriately.

But, as the Roman poet Terence said, ‘Quot homines, tot sententiae’ – (for as many as there are people, there are just as many opinions). That’s why the message of Ephesians is so very important. Its message of reconciliation, coming together, of agreeing together – even in circumstances where we disagree – is vitally important.

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

I pray that that has been your experience in our Lent course – and that it will continue to be: that you will come and share with us here, and we will come and share with you. In our different ways, we will spread the good news of Christ and will receive the good news of Christ; and we will live like people who have seen the Kingdom.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 30th March 2014
Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

Today is Mothering Sunday. At the 10 o’clock family service later on this morning, the congregation are going to be invited to take a nice little plant home to their mothers. Indeed, I think the plants are already here; so, if you are a Mum, and you think that your offspring may not be in the right place at the right time to collect a little plant for you, please help yourself!

My problem in relation to Mothering Sunday is that I can’t be a Mum – by definition – and because I am of a certain age, unfortunately my Mum is no longer with us. So when I see the children picking up their little plants and taking them off to give to Mum, it makes me feel rather wistful.

But if you slightly refocus, perhaps with the help of the little card from the Bishop’s Lent Call, you’ll see that the Bishop has suggested that this week is a week for women – not just mothers – and there are a series of stories and challenging situations which are described on each day this week. I won’t spoil it by telling you all what they are – have a look after the service.

The idea is that, leading up to Mothering Sunday, it’s suggested that we should think about issues to do with being a woman – including, of course, motherhood. Indeed, the news has had two or three challenging items in it this week, affecting women.

There was a report on the way in which various police forces investigate domestic violence. Unfortunately our own force in Surrey didn’t come out very well – but all the chief constables are going to try and improve. But perhaps the biggest family issue this week has been the beginning of so-called ‘gay marriage’ on Friday.

In very general terms, it is now the law of the land that homosexual couples, male or female, can go through a civil marriage ceremony. They are married in the eyes of the law, in exactly the same way as a heterosexual couple.

But, in general, the church doesn’t go along with it. Indeed the Council of Bishops has issued a rather fierce statement [http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/02/house-of-bishops-pastoral-guidance-on-same-sex-marriage.aspx], saying that anyone who marries someone of the same sex will not be ordained, and any minister who blesses a same-sex union would be contravening church law and would be in trouble – let alone any question of actually marrying the happy couple!

At this point no doubt your eyes are all metaphorically rolling upwards, and you are saying to yourself, ‘Oh no; not again! Not more weird sex issues, drawing the church off the track, when there are so many more important things for us to worry about.’ If 25% of those who are affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ are now in debt as a result, for example, surely that is more important for Christians, who love their neighbours, than whether or not it’s OK for people of the same sex to marry each other.

I would go along with that. But it does seem to me that, as a lay minister of the church, I need to set out from the pulpit at least some reflections on the question of same-sex marriage. But it is of necessity a personal view.

I believe that the bishops’ statement on same-sex marriage was extremely unhelpful, and was unnecessary, given that, following the Pilling Report, there is a process going on within the church called ‘facilitated conversations’, which has not been completed yet.

So unless the facilitated conversation process is a sham, it’s completely wrong for the bishops to lay down the law while discussions about what the law should be are still going on. The discussions and the debate in public fall along predictable lines.

On the one hand, it is argued that it is in the nature of marriage that it is necessarily between a man and a woman. It’s certainly true that the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer begins, ‘We are gathered together here in the sight of God …. to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony’ and that matrimony symbolises ‘the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’, and that the purpose of marriage is: for the procreation of children, to avoid fornication, and for the ‘mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.’ Only one out of three has anything about male and female.

Coupled with this is a literal reliance on Biblical texts, most notably in Leviticus, against homosexuality. Lev.20:13, ‘If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; … their blood is upon them.’ You will be surprised, if you read all this chapter, how many death penalties there are for various sexual misdemeanours. Never mind; people who believe that we should uphold exactly what the Bible says, in every detail, aren’t worried by that.

On the other hand, more liberal Christians point to the fact that the definition of marriage has actually changed over the years. The prohibition against a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister was abolished in the 1800s: it was once thought to be the same as incest. More recently, remarriage after divorce has been allowed in church.

As the Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove, has written recently, ‘These changes were not changes in the nature of marriage itself, but in enlarging the scope of marriage by admitting to it people who were once excluded … But its essence is what it always was: the covenanted union of two people for life. That has not changed.’ [http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/equal-marriage-crossing-threshold.html?spref=tw&m=1
http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/equal-marriage-crossing-threshold.html?spref=tw&m=1%5D

Against this it is argued that marriage is not simply the union of two ‘people’, but it is the union of a male and a female. Even that isn’t completely clear, because there is now quite a lot of argument about what is the true nature of maleness and femaleness. There are people who have both characteristics in them.

The Church of England is entering a period when there will be ‘facilitated conversations’ with a view to trying to tease out the right position for the church to adopt. Is it right, in effect, that the provisions of the Jewish law, as expressed in Leviticus, going back 3,000 years, should decide what we do today, or should some other principles be involved?

Interesting therefore to look at our lessons today. There’s nothing actually about Mothering Sunday, or, indeed, about the position of women, the nature of marriage, or anything else which you might possibly have expected. Instead, we have this short passage from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Incidentally, it’s perfectly timed, because we will be studying this passage tomorrow in the Lent course. ‘Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’

In our gospel, Jesus says, ‘As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ Then he goes on to heal the blind man, so that for the first time in his life, the blind man could see the light. I can’t help feeling that shedding light on these various conundrums – about family relationships, marriage, sexuality – shedding light on them must be a hopeful way to proceed.

We have a name for this process. It’s called ‘enlightenment’. I think it might be quite useful, when looking at the various opposing views, in the context of the facilitated discussions, if the facilitator were to say to each side, ‘Is your position enlightened or not?’

What is ‘enlightened’? As so often with the meaning of difficult words, it helps to look at the opposite – here, to reflect on what is not enlightened. What is not enlightened is bigoted, not open to the light. St Paul says, ‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them … Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.’ So the test is, could what you are saying is right look bigoted at all?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his followers, to his listeners, ‘You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.’ The good works are all about love. ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets,’ Jesus says in Matt.7:12 – the ‘golden rule’.

So think what it must be like if you don’t exactly fit the conventional profile: if you love somebody of the same sex. What does the golden rule say about that? We have to treat people as we ourselves would like to be treated: ‘Live as children of light.’

I pray that, as the facilitated discussions go on, we end up with a church which has room for everyone in it; and that in that church there will not be darkness, but rather there will be light. Then we will really be living ‘as children of light.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, 2nd March 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12; Matt. 17:9-23 – Elijah and Jesus

I’m not quite sure whether you still find some of the stuff in the Bible surprising or not: just in case it did just flow over you, I will just highlight a couple of surprising things which we have heard in this evening’s lessons.

In the second Book of Kings, we heard about the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven – but first of all, parting the waters of the River Jordan, so that he and his successor Elisha could pass through to the other side: ‘They went over on dry ground’ (2 Kings 2:8). And then ‘a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, and took Elijah up in a whirlwind to heaven’ (2:11).

Then if we turn to St Matthew’s gospel, we have picked up the story, as Jesus, Peter, James and John the brother of James were coming down the high mountain on which they had seen Jesus ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah. A bright cloud had suddenly overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (Matt. 17:5).

And then as they came down the mountain, Jesus cured a man’s son who had epilepsy, by ‘casting out a devil’ which had made the boy have fits. Jesus challenged his disciples by saying that they did not have enough faith: ‘If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there: and it will move. Nothing will prove impossible for you.’

What do you think? Is there any way these days that we could understand Elijah suddenly appearing with Moses and Jesus, in some way ‘transfigured’? I’m not sure what ‘transfigured’ really means. There is that wonderful piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night, a night of strange light, a supernatural aspect. What do we feel? Are we in the camp which feels, along with C. S. Lewis, that anything is possible for God, and therefore there is no reason why God could not make miracles like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven?

Elijah being taken up into heaven, of course, is somewhat like the Ascension of our Lord Himself. So are we comfortable saying, ‘Because of the omnipotence of God, there is no reason why, given that Jesus was God, he shouldn’t be able to have transfigurations and ascensions: and no reason that Elijah, as the prophet of God – as the other great prophet with Moses – couldn’t be taken up into heaven in the way described?’

On the other hand, we could be sensitive to the charge of humanists and rationalists, who object that everything that we believe in ought to be subject to the same rules of logic and science, and that you could not make sense of stories such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind or the Transfiguration in the normal way: just contrast the way in which you would describe the arrival of a number 38 bus with the way in which these stories about Elijah and Jesus are told. Quite different.

We can generally agree that if I tell you about seeing a number 38 bus, you will know what I am talking about, even though perhaps what you and I actually see when we look at a number 38 bus might in fact be different. We can’t get into each other’s heads to prove what it is exactly that we are looking at: whether it is the same thing. Nevertheless it’s sufficiently similar for us to be able to communicate about it successfully. What it is for something to be a number 38 bus is sufficiently similar in my understanding to what it is in yours for us to be able to talk about it.

But on the other hand, if we talk about something like Elijah going up to heaven in a whirlwind, or Jesus being transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we can’t necessarily be confident that we will be understood by everyone in the same way.

Jesus adds a twist, by asking whether or not the disciples have enough faith; if they do have enough faith, even the tiniest quantity, it will be sufficient to move mountains.

But – are you going to beat yourself up over the fact that you aren’t able to go out there and transpose K2 for Everest using pure will-power and faith? Nobody else has done it. So what did Jesus mean? Clearly we are in a different area, different from simple mundane questions like whether the 38 bus has arrived or not.

Of course some of the Oxford philosophers of the 50s and 60s, like the late, great, A. J. Ayer, would have said that, unless a statement is verifiable, in the same way that something about the number 38 bus would be verifiable, then it is meaningless. So everything about Moses and Elijah, transfiguration, being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind and so on, is, according to Prof. Ayer and others, meaningless.

So on the one hand you have C.S. Lewis accepting miracles and saying, ‘This is just the sort of thing that an omnipotent god would do’, and on the other, you’ve got a sort of common sense view, either that they’re not true, or that there’s no way in which we could make sense of these stories in any literal way.

Does it matter? We are just about to start Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and in fact our Lent courses are going to start on Monday morning, so that we can get six sessions in before Holy Week. We’re going to be studying St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, ‘Be Reconciled’.

St Paul wrote, ‘He has made known to us His hidden purpose – such was His will and pleasure, determined beforehand in Christ – to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ We will be studying all the various aspects of this ‘unity in Christ’, this reconciliation, over the next six weeks.

But for the purpose of this sermon, I simply want to draw attention to the process, to the way that our faith can work. There must be a very strong suspicion that unless something very remarkable did in fact happen, it’s tempting to feel that no-one would have said that Elijah was a prophet, someone through whom God spoke.

Without the miracles, the revelations, perhaps no-one would have said that Jesus was not only a prophet – as the Moslems and Jews acknowledge – but was in fact God on earth, the Son of God. But it’s not so much a question how God manifested Himself through Elijah, or became incarnate in Jesus Christ, not a question of how, but that He did. The exact mechanism is beyond our powers of understanding.

One can say that these big miracles, like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, are indeed beyond our power fully to describe or explain. But that doesn’t mean to say that they did not happen in some sense. Because if they did happen, we can recognise through them that God cares for us, that God is involved with us.

And in the light of that wonderful fact, we ought to be reconciled, to be reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is being separated from God: salvation is being brought back together, reconciled.

So much for this rather philosophical excursion. You might be rather scornful that I could stay in this rather rarified vein in the face of all the momentous events which have been happening this week. As Christians preparing to rehearse, to act out, the drama of Jesus’ Passion, prepared to accept the reality of God on earth, how do we look at the conflicts in the world, in Syria or in the Ukraine?

Nearer to home, what do we think about the two criminals who murdered the soldier, Lee Rigby? ‘ROT IN JAIL,’ in bold capitals, read the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. What is the Christian perspective? How would we see it if we ourselves had just come down from the mountain with Jesus?

Who are the good people and the bad people in these stories? What happens when the dust has settled? When the Syrians have finally stopped killing each other, and the Ukrainians have decided whether they want to go with the Russians or with the Europeans, where are we going to stand as Christians?

Are the killers of Lee Rigby really condemned to rot? Is there no redemption for them? Clearly now the killers don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. They have a crooked justification for it. But let’s suppose after years in gaol, they appreciate the wrongness of what they have done, and they repent. What shall we say then? Jesus’ message was a message of forgiveness, not ‘rot in jail’. How would it feel to us if we had just come down from that high mountain?

The same with the civil war in Syria and the terrible divisions in the Ukraine. Will people be reconciled? In these situations the church can speak. The church can remind the world of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation: we Christians should be fired up by the thought of that mountain-top experience.

We can be prophets; we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us. Let us pray that, at the end of the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine – and in all other places where there is a breakdown of law and order, where there is civil war or civil unrest – that there will be a resolution, not based on victors’ justice, but rather on true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s words: truth and reconciliation. Come down from the mountain. Be reconciled.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday before Lent, Septuagesima
Ephesians 5:1-17

Today is actually Education Sunday, which is an ecumenical fixture promoted across all the churches in the UK. It is sponsored locally by Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke. This morning I preached a sermon at Mattins about Christian education, and I raised a few queries about what’s going on in our schools today, contrasting the church schools with the newer Free School in Cobham, which appears not to have any religious assemblies.

But this evening I want to come nearer to home and, if you like, to run a bit of a trailer for the study course which I hope as many of you as possible will try out during Lent. This year is one of the years when we will be organising the Lent course ecumenically under Churches Together again, and the groups will be organised on the basis that you will meet people from the other churches in Cobham as well as from St Mary’s.

I know that there is a sign-up sheet at the back of the church, and that Sue Woolley is the point-person whom you need to see if you haven’t signed up yet. There will be sessions during the evening and during the day most days.

What we will be studying is St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, from which our second lesson this evening came. Ephesians is not a long letter. It has just six chapters and in my Bible it runs over three and a half pages. It is nevertheless what the great Bible scholar C.H. Dodd regarded as ‘the crown of Paulinism’, Paul’s finest letter.

In its six short chapters Ephesians covers just about everything you need to know about Christianity. First, of course, about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then about grace, about God’s generosity to us and the effect of it on us Christians.

The title of the course is, ‘Be Reconciled’. Reconciliation is a major topic in Ephesians. In the context of the early church, the people who needed to be reconciled were the Jews and the Gentiles – and St Paul was known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Christianity would never have become the worldwide religion that it is, if it had remained as a Jewish sect.

The letter goes on to look at the wider context of reconciliation, reconciliation with God. Sin is understood as separation from, exclusion from, God’s love.

Other themes include St Paul’s perspective on the church, the body of Christ – not the churches as they are today, in lots of denominations, but as the way, the channel, through which the Holy Spirit works on earth.

I find it really fascinating to read and study anything which tells us about the life of the early church. Sometimes I think one forgets what cataclysmic events Jesus’ life, death and resurrection must have been for the people who were close in history to them. It wasn’t just something that you read about, but you could see the vital consequences, the living controversy.

Religion was very important to the Ephesians. They were people who revered the Greek gods: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’ you will remember they chanted in the story in Acts (Acts 19:28). It was a powerful city with sophisticated people. It’s interesting to see how St Paul and the other early Christians coped with this strong, confident civilisation which believed in different gods.

I think there can be messages for us to learn today. People may not say, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, but there are other things which seem to be worshipped like pagan gods. There was a staggering letter in yesterday’s FT: the latest instalment in a correspondence which started with somebody saying that, for someone on £200,000 a year, a rise in tax back to 50% would cost about £7 a day, and the letter said, ‘What’s the odd £7 a day more or less, between friends?’ Someone who was that well paid wouldn’t miss it.

Then there were some other letters saying that no one had mentioned the point of paying taxes, that is, to support the community at large; but yesterday there was a letter from a lady in Evercreech, Somerset, whose judgement may of course have been slightly skewed because perhaps she had been flooded, but what she wrote was this.

‘The pursuit of success provides a satisfying goal in itself, resulting in financial rewards if it succeeds making the attendant sacrifices worthwhile. It is therefore galling to have this endeavour viewed by the public as a source of envy and by politicians as an asset to be plundered. Only when success is assured and large amounts of wealth have been amassed do the incentives change. Only a few will follow … [the] noble values of gaining satisfaction from a willingness to contribute to community. In the main, it becomes a game, with the driving motivation to outwit the Inland Revenue … The only way to reverse this trend is to shoot their fox by lowering taxes significantly and moving the goalposts again, in order for recognised philanthropy to become the new order of priority as a source of satisfaction and status.’ (Letter from Miss Sierra Hutton-Wilson in the Financial Times, February 15-16 2014)

I wonder what Jesus would have said about that. There is really nothing about anyone other than the self in what this lady writes. The main objective which she supports is ‘the pursuit of success’. First, become successful (meaning, become rich). Lower taxes will help you to achieve your objective. There is no room for philanthropy until and unless you have achieved your objective. Then, and only then, philanthropy can become ‘a source of satisfaction and status’.

Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s motives were not a desire to feel better (satisfaction) or the be more highly regarded (status). Instead, as we read in St Luke’s gospel (10:33), when he saw the man who had fallen among thieves, ‘he had compassion on him’ – the Greek word literally means, ‘his innards were churned up’ by what he saw. It wasn’t, as somebody once said, only possible for the Samaritan to be generous because he himself was well-off; it was because he cared about the other man, the injured man.

After all, Jesus told the parable to illustrate what it was to be someone’s neighbour. There’s nothing in Jesus’ teaching about ‘satisfaction and status’. But yesterday, the Financial Times could print this letter under the heading ‘Philanthropy – the new status symbol’ without batting an eyelid.

As Christians, we have to be on our guard against these seductive ideas which encourage us to be selfish and not to love our neighbours. The idea that you get wealthy first, and then do some philanthropy not because it helps other people, but because it makes you look good, is superficially pretty attractive, and it has been endorsed by famous people. The person who said that the Good Samaritan had to be rich, before he could have done anything to help the injured man, was – who do you think? It was Margaret Thatcher.

So you wouldn’t be blamed for adopting that selfish theory – only be generous if you are rich enough, and if it makes you look good or feel better. The best people agree with you. That was exactly the challenge that St Paul and the early Christians faced. His letters, including his letter to the Ephesians, set out how he countered these seductive arguments. His arguments are still good value today. To follow self is to cut yourself off from God. Separation from God is what ‘sin’ means. So when Paul says, ‘Be reconciled’, he means, be reconciled with God, be saved. (See Ephesians 2:16.)

This is still so relevant today. Come and study Ephesians this Lent. I guarantee it will be very worthwhile.