Archives for posts with tag: middle-east

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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imageSermon for Evensong on the 15th Sunday after Trinity, 8th September 2013

John 5:30-47 – ‘The works that the Father has given me to complete, … testify … that the Father has sent me.’

Last week I had a few days’ holiday in Italy, in one of Palladio’s villas, outside Vicenza. You’ll be relieved to know that I will spare you my holiday stories – and you’ll be even more relieved that you won’t have to soldier through the 383 pictures that I took. No lantern slides here at St Mary’s!

What I do want to mention is something strange which happened last week, which actually happened to all of us; it was on the news, not just in Italy. But it struck me perhaps more than it would otherwise have done, because I was getting the news each morning by downloading my English newspaper on to my iPad; it was my only source of news, as I wasn’t listening to the radio or watching the TV – indeed the Villa Saraceno didn’t have a TV.

I’d flown out on Tuesday and I stayed through till Saturday afternoon. When I set out, the situation in Syria was very bleak – as indeed it is today. The new development then was the dreadful use of chemical weapons, most likely by the Assad regime, and the way in which the USA and our own government were shaping up to react. ‘Assad must be punished’ was the line. There was a perception that the United Nations was deadlocked, and that it was unlikely that there would ever be a resolution from the United Nations permitting military action against the Assad regime.

So the government proposed a motion in the House of Commons which would lead on, if it were passed, to a further motion which would authorise British forces to attack Syria.

I should pause at that point, before everybody in church walks out, and say that nearly everything one can say, in this context, is capable of more than one interpretation: so I should say that all that this is describing is my perception, and I’m quite prepared for somebody to tell me that my perception, for example of the precise meaning and intention of the motion which was proposed to the House of Commons, is not exactly accurate. The important thing, from the point of view of this sermon, is what it looked like to me, and on that I can be a reliable guide.

So on Wednesday and Thursday, my friends and I in the Villa spent the days against a background where we felt that it was highly likely that within days there would be military action against Syria by British and American forces. Indeed there was evidence of a major military force in the Mediterranean – American warships, British Typhoon jets and so on – all being assembled.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up on Friday morning, switched on my iPad and downloaded the newspaper. I saw on the front page a headline to the effect that the motion in the House of Commons had been defeated – convincingly defeated. The Prime Minister had said, ‘I get it’ and had assured everybody that there was no longer any question that Britain would become involved in warlike activity in Syria.

I have to tell you that I have not recently read the front page of a newspaper and had such a feeling of excitement and surprise as I did when I read the front page of the paper as it appeared on my iPad last Friday morning. I quickly pulled on my dressing gown and went out into the breakfast room, where my friends were already gathering for breakfast.
The friends I was with are Americans, so there was perhaps an added poignancy about the situation. I told them what had happened. The interesting thing was that they were not upset. We all expressed a great feeling of relief and joy that our parliament had not done the conventional thing and supported the Prime Minister’s motion. As the day unfolded, we did make an effort to look at the BBC website, and we saw that there were already people saying that the special relationship with the United States was over, that Britain had forfeited its position in the world, that Mr Cameron had been inept in the way he had prepared the motion, and so on and so forth.

But we did not feel any worse. Neither side, neither the American friends nor I as a Brit. Rightly or wrongly, we felt that something greater was at work. Indeed, we dared to think that perhaps the Holy Spirit was at work here. Everybody acknowledged that what was going on in Syria – what continues to go on – is truly dreadful, that something must be done to stop the suffering and the killing.

But we also really doubted whether more warlike activity was going to produce the peace and security that Syria so badly needs. Can you really change the mind of a brutal leader by launching a cruise missile at him and killing some of his people – probably together with some other people as well, who are not involved? What would the consequences of a major attack by ourselves and the Americans be likely to be? Somehow this message had got through to enough of the MPs in Parliament for them not to accept the proposal, and to vote for peace instead.

In so doing they were definitely doing something unconventional. They were breaking a lot of the conventional rules of so-called good government. If a government threatens against another government, ‘If you do this, then we will do that’, and they do this, then conventional wisdom says that you have to do that in response. But we didn’t. Somehow the MPs perceived a higher force, a greater principle, than just the narrow question of the conventions of the English constitution.

I think you can look at our story from St John’s gospel in much the same way, and I think from it one can gain some real encouragement that what has happened in relation to Syria so far is a glimmer of hope, and it shows the Holy Spirit at work, it shows God at work.

If you read the whole of chapter 5 in St John’s gospel, before the passage which we had as our second lesson, the background is that Jesus healed a sick man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been ill for 38 years, lying by the pool but unable to get into the healing water: and Jesus did it on the Sabbath day. The Jews went after Jesus, saying that he was wrong to heal people on the Sabbath. Jesus answered them, ‘My father is still working, and I also am working’. He was working – just as I think God is working in relation to the rather unconventional position taken by Parliament in relation to Syria.

God is working. The Jews were even more incensed, because they thought that Jesus was blaspheming in referring to God as his own father. It never occurred to them that He was in fact God. Jesus gives an explanation to them. ‘I can do nothing on my own. I seek to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me,‘ and so on, contrasting the witness of John the Baptist with the witness of Jesus’ heavenly Father at the moment when Jesus was baptised: you will remember, a voice from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’, (Luke 3:22).

This passage was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It begins, ‘Now in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, there is a pool, called in Hebrew, Bethesda’. That would imply that when John was writing this, Jerusalem was still intact. So it means that this account was written no more than 30 years or so after Jesus‘ death. It is authentic – but what it described was extraordinary. It broke the rules. Jesus did the sort of things that no-one had ever seen before.

But nevertheless He did them. As Jesus said, ‘The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me’. This is much greater authority than the law of Moses, than the tradition of the Jews.

Well I don’t know whether it’s completely fanciful, but I am hearing echoes in my mind of the situation last week. Unheard of for Parliament in effect to disobey the government of the day in a context where foreign affairs were concerned and there was the imminent prospect of major warlike activity. If the Prime Minister says ‘War’ then the parliamentary convention is that Parliament supports him. But they didn’t; they didn’t, because they perceived something higher.

Maybe not many of them would acknowledge that it was the Holy Spirit at work, but it might explain my reaction, when I saw that newspaper headline, first thing in the morning in Italy; the strange warmth I felt. My heart lurched. Something very special had begun to happen.

Of course God moves in very mysterious ways. The poor Syrians are still fighting. The G20 summit did not produce any agreement between the various great powers. But nevertheless America and Britain are now looking much more carefully at whether the use of force is a complete solution, or whether there might be a better alternative that does not involve more death and destruction.

On the one hand, the law, the law of Moses. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Punishment, the punishment to fit the crime, perhaps. On the other hand, a recognition that two wrongs don’t make a right, that what is needed is not more violence and force.

I believe that what happened last week showed a glimmer of hope. It may not have followed the rules, just as Jesus didn’t follow the rules in Bethesda – but it showed that God is working.