Archives for posts with tag: Islamic State

Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 23rd October 2016
Ecclesiastes 11,12, 2 Timothy 2:1-7 Falling off the High Wire

Cast your bread on the waters. Take a risk. Buy a ticket in the lottery, perhaps. ‘Have a portion in seven, or in eight’. What on earth does all this mean? 

In Hebrew Qoheleth, the ‘preacher’, or ‘teacher’, or ‘the speaker’ – whatever the Latin word ‘ecclesiastes’ means – has a rather cynical outlook. You don’t know how a baby takes shape in the mother’s womb. You don’t know how God decides that one baby should spring to life and another not. If you are a young person with all the grace and beauty and energy of youth, make the most of it. Because it won’t last. 

But this wonderful asset, of being young, is ultimately useless, is ultimately ‘vanity’. We will all have to meet our maker at some stage and account for what we have done in our lives. There is nothing for it; the only thing you can do is to obey God’s commandments and do your best.

It’s rather an odd set of sentiments to find in the Bible. Usually we read about how God cares for us; that if we follow God’s commandments, or turn away from bad things that we have been doing, we will be ‘saved’. What sort of salvation is it? Perhaps we shall be saved, in the sense that the Good Samaritan saved the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho: saved, taken to hospital, picked up in a lifeboat – saved in an earthly sense. Or alternatively, there is the vision of heaven, the vision of eternal life. Being saved in the sense of having eternal life. 

I gave a birthday present to the lady who is my personal trainer at David Lloyd’s gym the other day. I should say that, as you can see, I am not her model student, apparently because of the things I like eating and drinking rather than because I’m doing the wrong exercises. But even Charles Atlas couldn’t do a better job on me than Liz Ferrari.

Anyway, I decided to give her a book, a book that she would enjoy; and I found a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced travel book. But it was a travel book with a twist. The idea was that, in each of the exciting or beautiful places around the world, there was an activity which you could do. You could run up mountains or cross bottomless gorges on rickety rope bridges. You know, all those rather extreme sports. She likes that sort of thing.

Liz was pleased with the book. But it got us talking about risky activities. I confessed that I don’t really like going to the circus. I know that unfortunately the lion tamer and the elephant man or the beautiful girl choreographing sea lions in evening dress are not what they seem, and circuses don’t have them any more. Unfortunately there was a lot of cruelty involved in training those animals. We know better now.

But what about the Cirque du Soleil, those circuses that have no animals, but just have acrobats, trapeze artists and people on high wires? I can’t bear to look. I can’t bear to look because it seems to me that the risk of falling is terrible. Is there a safety net? If there is a safety net, thank goodness, because if they fall, we can hope that they will not be badly hurt.

But why is it often somehow more exciting, a bigger box-office draw, if the artist on the high wire does it without a safety net? Why do people pay more to see something like that? Something really dangerous. When Philippe Petit walked on the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 107 storeys up, why was that to be celebrated? If he had fallen, like the people who jumped out of the windows of the burning towers on 9/11, he would likely have been dead, we understand, before he hit the ground. 

I can’t bear to watch it. I don’t want these people to risk being maimed or killed just for the sake of giving spectators a thrill. I’m not even sure what that thrill is, really. We don’t have wild beast shows like the ancient Romans – and that’s good. The Romans who went to the arena to watch these shows – gladiators and Christians against each other, and against lions – and, I suppose, people who go to bullfights or boxing matches – all go because they want to see somebody surviving even through there is a terrible risk, and some people get hurt. 

They want to see Cassius Clay; but they’re not so fussed about Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I don’t think people really want to go to see people or animals being hurt, but I really wonder how the thrill works. Because it could happen. The man could fall off the high wire. The girl might not catch the hands of her partner hanging down from the trapeze. It’s a risk. 

And somehow people say that it is a good thing to have an ‘appetite for risk’. It’s supposed to be good for the character of children to do risky things. Of course there has to be a ‘risk assessment’ to make sure that the risk is not too great.

I’m sorry, but I think this is all nonsense. ‘They shall not hurt or kill on my holy mountain,’ says God, through the prophet Isaiah. ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the little child shall play on the hole of the asp’. There will be salvation. But how? Ecclesiastes points out how in individual cases it may not work. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.’ 

I just went to see probably one of the most disturbing and terrifying films that I’ve ever seen. It didn’t involve dinosaurs; mountains didn’t explode like they do in James Bond films; Bruce Willis didn’t slaughter half the world. There was no terrifying car chase, and there was no love interest.

But nevertheless, it’s a film which will live on in my mind’s eye for a very long time. It was about what happens when you fall. Why do you fall? Why could you fall? Was it because you were a bad acrobat, if you somehow deserved to fall? When you are lying, maimed, on the ground, can you reasonably expect that there will be somebody to care for you and put you back together again? 

I won’t spoil the plot for you. All I would say to you is that you should go and see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ before very long. 

Ecclesiastes doesn’t really offer any answers, for all his pretty words. ‘A time to laugh: a time to cry. … For everything there is a season.’ That’s Ecclesiastes. Vanity. Is that what we believe? Where are the seeds of salvation, and what is salvation? On God’s holy mountain, there. And there, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’.

But where is that mountain? It’s not a place for extreme sports. Is it all right that in the trapeze artistry of life, some people don’t make it? They fall. But as Ecclesiastes says, we don’t know which ones they will be. Then we see the refugees in their dangerous boats, or the young ones in Calais, who, whatever the newspapers may say, are young – but look old. They look old because of the risks that they take every night, trying to jump on trains and into lorries to get through the tunnel.

They are risk-takers. But they’re not risk takers for someone else’s enjoyment. They have no alternative. Their houses are destroyed. Their relatives are gone. They are unable to work – although they’d like to. Why them, and why not us?

What is it about the fact that we happen to live here, where they want to be? For them to be in England represents salvation. In Ecclesiastes, there is no salvation. It’s just the luck of the draw. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. What a bleak vision. It must look like that when the bulldozers come, and the gendarmes escort you to a bus, to take you heaven knows where. Where they definitely don’t speak English. 

But Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbour’ – love that young man, who is, you know, just an economic migrant. Think about it. Of course he’s an economic migrant. He is hungry. He has no money. He has no money and he is hungry, because he is a refugee, because he has been driven out of his home. 

How would we feel, if we were driven out from our home? Just imagine if London had been invaded by IS/Daesh. Just imagine if large parts of greater London, including Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, had been flattened in the fight. If our brave boys had had to become guerrillas and fight house to house. In the eyes of the enemy, we had become combatants. And we had to leave. We had to get away from our dangerous place. Everybody who could had to pack up their cars and get away. But where would we go?

Could we get on a ferry, or through the Tunnel? And find a new life in safety, in Europe? Would they welcome us? Would we be able to speak the language? That must be what it feels like to be a refugee. There are hundreds of thousands of them – millions, even – and about 12,000 of them on our doorstep. About 1,000 of them are children. Is it vanity? Is it emptiness, just a spectator sport?

Although some people do like watching people on the high wire, I do hope that, in this area, we won’t: I hope that we realise, as a society, and for those in power as a government, that there are some risks that should not be taken. There should always be a safety net. Not as in Ecclesiastes, for whom, however awful things are, it’s just too bad: everything is vanity. 

Instead, we Christians should feel very confident that we have a better example, the example of the man who said that we should love our neighbour.

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Sermon for the Sunday next before Advent, Christ the King: 22nd November 2015

Daniel 5

Today in the Christian year we celebrate, we talk about, the idea of Christ the King. The expression ‘King’ comes up when he is on trial in front of Pontius Pilate, which seems to have been the most extraordinary scenario. ‘Are you a king?’ Pilate asks.

Pilate seems to me to have been a rather normal bloke, in a difficult position, having to deal with a bunch of fanatics who were zealots who caused a lot of trouble: possibly we might say they were in the line of ancestors of the people who are Zionists today, contributing to dissent and and unrest in the Holy Land. 

Well, perhaps that’s not a legitimate thing to say, but we can say that the Jews presenting Jesus for judgement by the ruler, by Pontius Pilate, were certainly not thinking about how to promote peace and harmony in the long run; they just wanted to rub out Jesus. He was asking awkward questions, which they did not find easy to answer. It was said that he was King of the Jews.

The idea of the kingdom of God in Jewish theology is a mixture of the idea of the Promised Land and the theology of God’s Holy Mountain. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9) – the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and so on. We all know to some extent about Jesus’ rather upside-down concept of kingship. The first shall be last, washing people’s feet, giving up all that you own and giving it to the poor, when dealing with somebody described as a “rich young ruler”, a sort of prince.

But I’m afraid that I will rehearse all these stories, and then add a couple of pious sentences, saying that somehow you should follow them – and then you will forget this sermon and the ideas that it contains, probably before the end of the service, if not a few moments later.

I’d be very doubtful if a sermon, which concentrates on telling you, just in an academic way, what the meaning of kingship was in relation to Jesus Christ, would influence your life in any meaningful way, because you would find the way of life then so different, so alien from what we do now.

We have to build a bridge. What would Jesus do if he were here today? If we go back to the trial before Pontius Pilate, there’s an awful lot of irony in it. Pilate clearly is the representative of the ruling establishment, of the empire of Rome. So the idea that somebody else should come forward and present themselves as a king looks rather counter-intuitive, when it was so obvious that the ruler was a Roman.

Maybe Jesus’ kingship was a bit like all those grandly-named sort-of kings that survived in India after independence – I think largely for the purpose of owning classic vintage Rolls-Royces. The Maharajah of Jaipur, or the Nawab of Pataudi, for instance. Possibly Pontius Pilate had something similar in mind when he was tackling Jesus. ‘Are you a king?’ Meaning, ‘Are you one of those symbolic kings?’

I’m pretty sure that that’s not what the earliest Christians, what the contemporary readers of the Gospel, would have had in mind. The idea of some kind of symbolic king without any power just doesn’t chime with the whole of Jewish history. It’s more likely that they thought of a king as being like King Belshazzar the King of Babylon, the King from Ur of the Chaldees, portrayed in the wonderful fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

That King’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, was so confident in his own legitimacy and strength that he had invaded the kingdom of Judah, overrun the Temple, and nicked all the treasures, the gold goblets, plates and things used in the Temple rituals; he turned them over for use at parties, at his court banquet. It was pretty insulting to the Jews, but he had the power. 

Was their God so weak, so inferior to Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar’s god? The Jews didn’t believe this. What that King did, what Belshazzar did, was sacrilege to the Jews. Even today, in theological debates, now between Moslems and Christians, the heart of the matter is precisely that both sides think they have the correct understanding of the most important question ever, namely, what the nature of God is.

But then, despite all his power, Belshazzar encountered the writing on the wall. What did it mean? And Daniel, the Jew, explained. Despite all his power as a king, Belshazzar was finished.

What would happen today, if the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate was re-run in a contemporary environment? Was Jesus a king? And if so, what sort of king? Well, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus very clearly reserves his position, and points out that the kingdom that he rules as a king is not of this world. So we can’t judge him by how big a country he rules or how big an empire: or whether he has given up his power and become a constitutional monarch like the Queen; or whether he is still an absolute monarch, like the Saudi King, for example.

There’s a faint colour of artificiality about the move which I’m trying to make, between Jesus the king in the Bible and some kind of contemporary interpretation. But never mind; let’s pursue it. I’m confident that it will illustrate what needs to be said here. 

What would the kingdom of God look like? Is it like Belshazzar’s banquet, or is it ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ as Jesus proclaimed in St Luke chapter 4 [4:19], fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah [Is. 61:1,2]? Is it ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’? Or is it, ‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last’, in the Gospel story itself? [Matt. 20:16]
What does it mean to be a king? I think that the idea of kingship can be taken in more than one way. 

You can of course look historically at who has actually been a king, and identify the qualities these historic kings actually had. But equally, another way of looking at it is to see kingship as a kind of metaphor for the whole business of government, of leadership of people. What would a really Christian government look like – a government where Christ was really in charge?
Would he be democratic, for example? Surely yes. We believe that God loves every single one of us: indeed that he has called us all by name [Isaiah 43:1], and that therefore we are all worth knowing. That would imply that we should each have a vote; it would imply a need for democracy. 

But would Jesus approve of our particular version of democracy? So many people didn’t vote in the last general election. So, although the government claims a majority, in fact I believe that only 24% of the electorate as a whole actually voted for them. Many more, 36%, didn’t vote for anyone. It’s at least arguable that our current arrangements are not as democratic as one feels they might be, if we were trying to create heaven on earth. It’s something to think about.

Again, after Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’, we now understand that the Kingdom of God isn’t in a particular place, where Jesus, the Lamb or God Himself is, up there somewhere on their thrones. In a spiritual sense, the Kingdom is with us here and now. We are God’s workers – ‘Take my hands and let them move | At the impulse of thy love’, as the hymn says [Common Praise no 581]. It’s up to us to work to bring about the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus is our King – not in a temporal, earthly sense, as he says when Pilate questions him – but he does rule; he rules in our hearts. 

I worry a bit, when I say that. I worry because I think that it might be the same type of reasoning which IS, Daesh, uses in support of its ‘Caliphate’. They talk about their Islamic State having a king, a ‘caliph’. But the difference is that, whereas their caliph is to be a sheikh, an Arab king, who is defined as the successor to, or deputy for, Mohammed, in Islam, and is king, caliph, by virtue of that divine authority, in Christianity, as Jesus says, the king is not a secular ruler. ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, he said, in John 18:36.

And definitely, on our God’s holy mountain there will be peace: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9). It’s so tragic that people who support Daesh believe that God supports violence. We understand that Moslems as well as Jews all worship the same God as we do – but the IS people don’t recognise that if their Islamic State were a real Caliphate, governed by God, then God ‘will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’: 

that we agree on; but we believe that 

‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ 

That’s in our Bible, in the Book of Revelation, 21:3-4. To be fair, I think that most Moslems do not support the idea of a a militant ‘caliphate’, based on terror. They wouldn’t recognise a Daesh Caliph as a real ruler, whoever he might be.

So, even if there’s no kingly pomp, let us give our allegiance, let us indeed sing hymns and praises, sing the National Anthem of the Kingdom of Heaven, even, to our King, to Jesus.

Sermon for Mattins on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 15th November 2015 – Security or Liberty?
Daniel 12:1-3 ‘There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was ..’
Mark 13:1-8 ‘Such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet’

‘For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows. But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten:…’

That’s the end of our Gospel reading this morning, and the verse after. It might be a description of what it feels like to be a Christian in Iraq, or Syria, or anywhere else where so-called Islamic State is operating. It’s not safe to be a Christian there – and many Christians have become refugees.

And now, in Paris, that violence, that terrorism, has come out of the Middle East and is on our doorstep. Hundreds of people have been killed and maimed by suicide bombers with Kalashnikovs in that lovely city, where we all have treasured memories, of happy days, beautiful sights and wonderful meals in fine company.

We are horrified. We feel for the poor people of Paris. How frightened they must feel. If these terrorists could do it once, can they, will they, do it again? It could be London next time. How can we deal with this terrorism?

I was already thinking about this earlier in this week, before the terrible news from Paris arrived. Mohammed Emwazi, ‘Jihadi John’, the IS terrorist with a British accent, who appeared on several of their awful propaganda videos and appears to have murdered several innocent people, was killed in Syria earlier this week by a missile fired from an unmanned aircraft, a drone. Or rather, the Americans, whose missile it was, say they are ‘99% certain’ they killed Emwazi. And several other people were in the same car and were killed when it was hit by the missile.

You may remember the case of Derek Bentley, condemned to death – and executed – in 1953 – for the murder of a policeman. He was a 19-year-old with learning difficulties. During an attempted burglary, his partner in crime, Christopher Craig, who was under 18, shot a policeman after Bentley had called out ‘Let him have it’, ‘it’ being the gun. The prosecution alleged that ‘Let him have it’ meant ‘Shoot him’, and the judge directed the jury to find that interpretation. Bentley was hanged. He has since been posthumously pardoned, and his conviction quashed.

Bentley’s case was one of those miscarriages of justice which persuaded our parliament to abolish the death penalty. At least, to abolish it when we bring an alleged murderer before the courts.

But what if the alleged murderer is a terrorist? Do you remember ‘Death on the Rock’, the ITV documentary broadcast in 1988, about three IRA man who were shot by the SAS in Gibraltar?

Or Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent man shot nine times by policemen on a Victoria Line tube train?

Or even Osama bin Laden, shot by the US special forces in Pakistan at his home? None of them was tried. But they were all killed, killed by the forces of law and order. Was that right?

There is a difference in legal interpretation between us and the USA in this context. They characterise these operations as being part of a ‘War against Terror’, an actual war, in which the terrorists are combatants, soldiers. We, on the other hand, see terrorists as criminals, to be brought to justice in the courts.

In general, in war, subject to the Geneva Conventions, it is lawful to kill enemy soldiers. Therefore if Mr Emwazi was a soldier and there was a war, in principle it would have been lawful to kill him.

But if there wasn’t a war, at least a war in the sense that Mr Emwazi was a soldier in an army belonging to a country which was at war with the United States, then he was simply a criminal who should have been brought to trial. Incidentally, murder is one of the few crimes which the British courts will try, irrespectively where in the world the offence was committed.

So was it right, or lawful, to kill him with a missile? Nobody is sure even that it was indeed him who was killed – let alone whether his fellow-passengers were in any way sufficiently culpable in order to deserve the death penalty.

Compare Jihadi John’s case with Derek Bentley’s. Bentley was tried. He had the benefit of counsel. There was a jury. The judge was experienced. But they still got it wrong.

Here, we don’t even know for sure whether it was Jihadi John that the missile hit. We don’t know who the other people who were killed were. The missile was fired by the US Army at a car in a town in Syria, Raqqa. The United States is not at war with Syria. Dare one ask, on what legal basis could the strike be justified?

Now I know that you will have listened to me saying that, and you’re probably thinking, ‘That must be wrong’. Wrong, in the sense that ‘of course it was the right thing’ to get rid of Emwazi. He was a ‘dangerous terrorist’. The Prime Minister, I believe, has said that killing him was a question of self-defence.

A former law professor at the LSE, a very old friend of mine, said that the special circumstances, in effect, justified the killing. ‘Imagine you have him in your sights, knife poised over neck of a captive… Do you shoot, or ring 999 and hope for the best?’ It is the same sort of reasoning which is sometimes used to justify torture.

Well, some lawyers at least certainly disagree with those suggestions. The former Master of the Rolls, Lord Bingham, Sir Tom Bingham, in his very fine book ‘The Rule of Law’, quoted Cicero, De Legibus (‘On Laws’),’ Salus populi suprema lex esto’, (‘let the safety of the people be the highest law’), but said that he preferred Benjamin Franklin’s view that ‘he who would put security before liberty deserves neither’.

The early Christians had a hard time. As we read in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus was preparing the apostles for persecution. What he warned them about indeed sounds like what is happening to the Christians in the Middle East today. But remember what St Paul said, in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 8.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

And let us remember what Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount.

‘I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

Jesus had no use for military intervention, let alone a ‘war on terror’. In the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’. Love your enemies. Love your enemies! This is revolutionary stuff. How can we handle it?

Surely we cannot just stand aside and let IS run amok all over the world? Can we? Last week I preached about how ‘Thou shalt not kill’ had evolved into the doctrine of the Just War, and how in modern times the rules sometimes allowing for warlike acts had been agreed in the United Nations Charter. The war must be in self-defence, or to give effect to a mutual protection treaty, or if the United Nations to has sanctioned it.

This is presumably why the Prime Minister has made reference to self defence, in seeking to justify the drone strike which probably killed Jihadi John. But it is at least arguable that there is no war; there was only terrorism, which in this country is a criminal matter, not an act of war.

In that case, whether or not the action was in self-defence is not relevant, in the sense that the Battle of Britain was fought in self-defence by the RAF. Even if it were, it is highly unlikely that Jihadi John was in any meaningful way a threat to the existence of this country.

We need to pray for guidance, and for our leaders to have wisdom and discernment where terrorism is concerned. It is no use our getting involved in ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. We should remember that ‘He who would put security before liberty deserves neither’.

Truth and reconciliation are far more likely to lead to long term peace. Let us pray that they are forthcoming.

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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 Holy Communion on the 15th Sunday after Trinity at All Saints’, Ockham, 28th Sept 2014
Ex. 17:1-7, Phil. 2:1-13, Matt. 21:23-32

‘Have you got a licence for that thing?’ I remember, when I was a graduate trainee, having a conversation with another trainee, visiting our office from Germany for a few months, who pointed out that, whereas In England everything is permitted, everything is authorised, unless it is forbidden, in Germany it is safer to assume that things are not allowed unless they are specifically permitted. Incidentally it used to be that way round in the golden age of the railways here too; coaches were designated ‘smoking’ rather than ‘non-smoking’.

I think that Jewish practice in the Temple around 33AD was closer to the German model which my friend described than to what we’re used to. ‘Have you got authority to preach in the way you’re doing? – to carry out miraculous healing, and so on?’ I suppose you might get a similar sort of reaction if a speaker prophesying the end of the world on Speakers’ Corner suddenly popped up in St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Is he properly authorised?’ people would ask.

Authorised. I’m not sure that the concept of authority hasn’t sometimes brought its own problems. The whole question, to whose authority one defers, can be fraught with difficulty. In the time of the Reformation, Catholics were outlawed because it was feared that they owed allegiance to the Pope rather than to the King or Queen.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are built on the concept of authority, on the apostolic succession, so-called, from Jesus’ Great Commission in Chapter 28 of St Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus said to the disciples,

Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go forth therefore and make all nations my disciples…

So every ordained person is ordained by a bishop, who in turn is in a line of ordination which, the church says, it can trace back to the disciples, or specifically to St Peter.

People who were against women’s ordination tried to say that the apostolic succession was just from male disciples (although there were female disciples like Dorcas or Lydia very early in the church). The idea of ‘authority’ wasn’t at all helpful.

Authority isn’t all bad, however. There was a very happy event in the Church of England at Evensong in Guildford Cathedral on Friday, when our new Bishop of Guildford, who will actually be installed and will start work officially in February, was introduced to us. He is Bishop Andrew Watson, who is currently the Bishop of Aston – you know, as in Villa – in Birmingham – the suffragan bishop, as it’s called, the number 2 bishop in that diocese.

So very soon we will have a Bishop of Guildford again, and the service, when he is inducted, will use the idea of apostolic succession to confer authority on him, that he is in the tradition of ordination starting with Jesus’ first disciples.

In our lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, St Paul gives advice to that very early church in Philippi on how they should conduct themselves as Christians.

They should be modest and look out for each other, selfless in their desire to put others’ interests first. Because, St Paul said, Jesus was ultimately modest in the same way: he ’emptied himself, in the form of a slave’, even though he was ‘in the form of God’, so that, even though demonstrating utter human weakness, Jesus gained the highest status in the Kingdom of God.

Something which, in the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, was supposed to be an attribute of God, that

… at the name of God, every knee should bend (Isaiah 45),

has now been refocused by Paul to be about Jesus: that in heaven at least, Jesus would have authority, would command respect. That is the authority which is said to come down to a new bishop, and indeed in his first words to us, as he anticipated receiving his new authority, Bishop Andrew did seem to show real modesty. We will pray for a continuing welcome for him and his family.

If there was at least one happy authority-event this week, in Bishop Andrew being announced as bishop-designate for Guildford, there was unfortunately also an unhappy one. This is our Parliament’s vote to wage war yet again in Iraq, against the background of the continuing crisis involving Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and perhaps wider in the Arab world.

Yet again we are seeing pictures from aircraft, or from cameras in the noses of UAVs, so-called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, which show a building in black and white, perhaps with a few small stick men outside it, and perhaps with the odd vehicle coming in and out: then the target designator places a cross on the building in the picture, and seconds later, you see cataclysmic explosions, after which the building is obliterated. And, of course, so are the people.

We have heard here, and also in the context of the conflict in Palestine, in Gaza, that what is called ‘collateral damage’ occurs, that when bombing and shelling takes place, you can’t guarantee to hit only combatants, only soldiers. You may risk hitting innocent civilians as well. The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions are clear that you are not supposed to shoot if there is a risk that you will hit non-combatants – even when they are human shields. Sadly, this is a provision of the Geneva Conventions which has been observed in the breach recently.

There is a huge contrast between this military might – ‘shock and awe’ – and the way that Jesus went around, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, not deploying overwhelming force. I’m worried that, by going to war, we are deploying overwhelming force, but we are not persuading anybody, we are not changing hearts and minds.

But I know that there are other arguments along the lines that it is necessary to go to war because there is no other way of preventing genocide, which the IS, the so-called Islamic State, is threatening against anyone who does not subscribe to their version of Islam.

But who has authority in this? The pilot of a Tornado will say that he is acting under orders. His orders come from the military hierarchy, who are in turn ordered by Parliament. Where does Parliament’s authority come from?

‘From the will of the people’, you might say. But as the Scots proved, there is democracy and democracy. They had an 80+ % turnout. I’m not sure what the equivalent at the last General Election was, but it was far less. Instead would anyone seriously say now that he had authority from God to take a particular line? There are no easy answers, but it does seem to me that the same question could be asked today as the Jews asked Jesus all those years ago:

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 31st August 2014, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.

Who was right? Was Jesus the ‘Messiah’, the chosen one of God, the King, enthroned in the kingdom of God, or not? Jews and Moslems both recognise Jesus as a prophet, but neither accepts that Jesus was himself divine. Therefore they have both regarded Christianity as a challenge to the orthodoxy of their true religion. In places, Islam is doing this right now. Before Mohamed came along, the Bible is full of conflicts between the Jews and Jesus, and later between the Jews and the disciples.

On Jesus’ cross, Pilate had a sign fixed up in three languages, ‘This is the king of the Jews’. For the Romans this was ironic. They could not understand why it was so contentious among the Jews for someone like Jesus to be their king. Since it was clear that the Jews did reject Him – demanding His crucifixion and freedom for the acknowledged criminal Barabbas instead – the distinction of kingship was ironic at best.

Jesus himself was clear that He was the Messiah. He did not contradict Peter when Peter worked out for himself that Jesus was the long-awaited King [Matt. 16]. But what was coming was not an insurrection against the Romans, but something much more important.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:21-28).

The ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ way of referring to himself, as Messiah, chosen one of God. Jesus repeated what the prophet Daniel had written in the Old Testament [Daniel 7:13], ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him.’

Was Jesus saying that the end of the world was just about to happen? Because if so, He seems to have been wrong. After all, 2,000 years later, we still pray,

‘Lord of all life,
help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.’

[Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000), London, Church House Publishing, p197 – Holy Communion Order One: Eucharistic Prayer E]

I always pray that prayer very fervently. I feel that we need justice and mercy to be seen in all the earth: because, in so many places, there is no justice and mercy.

We have only to think back over the last week’s news. Are Islamic State, ISIS, full of ‘justice and mercy’? Is there justice and mercy for the poor people in Africa with Ebola? Would the children in Rotherham, who suffered abuse for so long and who were not taken seriously by the forces of law and order, did they receive any ‘justice and mercy’?

It doesn’t look as though Jesus got this right, on the face of things. Surely if the Son of Man had come in power with his angels and set up His kingdom, the Kingdom of God, then surely in the words of the Book of Revelation, ‘… there [would] be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither [will] there be any more pain.’ (Rev.21:4)

But, because it was Jesus who said it – and it seems unlikely that he was mistakenly reported, because three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have Him saying almost identical words – just because Jesus Himself did say this, it must be reasonable to assume that he wasn’t just mistaken, just because the end of the world didn’t in fact happen during the lifetime of any of His disciples – but rather we ought to look at the possibility that it doesn’t mean what it seems to at first sight. It doesn’t literally mean that Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the the end of the world, and that that End Time was about to happen, in the early years of the first century AD.

We have to acknowledge that the early church did think that was what Jesus was saying. St Paul’s teaching about marriage, in 1 Corinthians 7, where he seems to suggest that it’s best to remain celibate, although ‘it is better to marry than to burn’, reflects the idea that the earliest Christians had, that the Apocalypse was really imminent: think of Jesus’ teaching about signs of the end of the world in S. Matthew 24, and parables like the Ten Bridesmaids – ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Of course as well as the early Christians, other prophets of doom have been forecasting the end of the world ever since – and no-one has got it right so far. It must mean something else. One alternative, of course, is that the Jews and the Moslems are right, and Jesus was just a prophet, nothing more.

Even in today’s world, with all its tragedies and strife, is it still possible that the Kingdom of God is with us? I believe that for us too, even 2,000 years after Jesus, heavenly things do still happen.

In among the unheavenly things which I mentioned from the news this week, in the Middle East, in Africa with Ebola, and nearer to home in Yorkshire, I truly had a heavenly experience – yes, ‘heavenly’ really is the right word – when I went to the Proms on Friday. I heard Mahler’s Symphony, No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ he entitled it. In the 5th movement, the mezzo, the soprano and the great chorus of two choirs, over 200 singers, sing:

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
nothing is lost for thee!

Oh believe, thou wert not born in vain,
neither hast thou vainly lived, nor suffered!

Whatsoever is created must also pass away!
Whatsoever has passed away, must rise again! [Must rise again!]
Cease thy trembling!
Prepare thyself to live!

[From ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’: Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), translated by Ron Isted]

Imagine what an uplifting, amazing moment it was. Huge forces – the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with 65 string players, 26 brass players, 17 woodwinds, 7 percussionists, the mighty Willis organ of the Royal Albert Hall, and two choirs with over 200 choral singers as well as the two soloists: and in the audience a full house, a complete sell-out, all 6,000 seats and promenade spaces taken.

And they raised the roof. Resurrection. It felt as though it was really happening there. Wonderful. Suddenly it gave me a clue about Jesus’ really being the Messiah, the King.

Resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection, was the coronation, as it were, of Jesus coming into His kingdom. The disciples did live to see it. Indeed they didn’t ‘taste death’ beforehand. In a real sense, the King had arrived. His resurrection was his coronation.

If it had been the end, the end of everything, then there would be nothing more to say. But it wasn’t the end – and clearly Jesus’ coming into His kingdom wasn’t a cataclysmic revolution. The perfect world pictured in the Book of Revelation didn’t miraculously come about.

We must remember what St Paul said, in Romans chapter 7. ‘The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will.’ [Rom 7:18, NEB]. Even that saint, Saint Paul, fell prey to temptation.

That was because God has not abolished good and evil. God’s kingdom on earth is like any kingdom, in that there are crimes as well as good deeds. God is not a sort of puppet-master who controls all the people, stopping them from doing harm. We believe that God is omnipotent, all-powerful, so He could control everyone, could, theoretically, make us into robots. But He plainly hasn’t done.

Instead He has shown us, by giving us His only Son, that He cares for us. His kingdom is real. Even so, even in God’s kingdom, we still have to choose the right and the good over the bad. We still need to pray; and our prayers are answered.

But we do also have a sense, a belief, as Christians, in a Kingdom of God in the other sense, of a life after death, a spiritual realm at the end of time: strictly beyond our powers to imagine or describe it, but maybe along the lines of the vision in Revelation chapter 21. We can’t say what it is precisely, but we may be able to say what it does – that it takes away pain, sorrow, crying, even death.

God’s kingdom involves an End Time, as well as a Kingdom on earth. In one sense the End Time is ours personally, in our death. In another, there will be, Jesus has taught us, a Day of Reckoning, when, in the words of Matt 16, ‘He will give each man the due reward for what he has done’.

Then at that End Time – and at any time, in fact – we will need to be ready, for Jesus may be there, and He may say to us, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ [Matt. 25:35f] We know what we have to do. It is the King who has commanded us.