Archives for posts with tag: Nelson Mandela

Sermon for Holy Communion at 1030 on Wednesday 4th November 2020 at St Mary Oatlands

Matthew 5:1-12

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471270293

If you had to say what was the real essence of Jesus’ teaching, the true essence of what it means to be a Christian, I think that a good place to start would be Saint Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

In his great sermon, Jesus built on the foundations of the Old Testament. He put himself in the tradition of the prophets, like Moses. For instance, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet God, and Jesus, who was God, also went up a mountain to give his most important teaching.

Jesus highlighted the old teaching, according to which, if somebody did you harm, you should pay back ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Jesus took that much further by saying you should turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; again under the old Jewish law, the rule was to love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but Jesus taught that you should love your enemy and pray for your persecutors.

Jesus said that he had ‘not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it’. He was not rejecting the old Jewish law, but rather developing it. It would be a mistake for us to ignore what is in the Old Testament, but Jesus went much further.

The ‘blessed are they’ sayings, these Beatitudes, are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always thought the first one was rather difficult to understand. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Or, as the New English Bible translates it, ‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor.’ Poor in spirit – what does that mean? Is it really that they ‘know that they are poor’?

I’m not really sure what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’. It might have connotations of lack of character, being weak-willed or spineless, not, on the face of things, what Jesus might want to give a prize for, in the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word which many Bibles translate as ‘spirit’, as in ‘poor in spirit’, is the same word, πνεύμα, that is used for the Holy Ghost, sometimes as a translation for the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, meaning a sort of rushing wind, reminiscent of the events on Whit Sunday, when a sort of rushing wind came upon the assembled disciples, lighting tongues of fire on their heads (which didn’t burn them, just as the burning bush which Moses came across was not burned up: again, another parallel between Old and New Testaments in the Bible: it’s a sign of God’s presence.)

That word in Greek, πνεύμα, is related to the word that you have in French for a tyre, pneu, or for something inflated like a tyre, pneumatic; they all involve wind or breath. So, what are the poor blessed in? – they are blessed for being short of wind. Blessed are the people who don’t know which way they’re blowing, don’t know whether they’re blowing hot or cold, say.

Or is it in fact better translated the way the New English Bible has it,‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor’? There, the translation has taken the ‘in spirit’ bit and turned it into a sense of consciousness, knowledge. They know that they are lacking, deficient – but deficient in what? On this interpretation, it doesn’t say. They are just ‘poor’.

But the word which means ‘poor’ in this passage goes grammatically with the word for ‘spirit’ the other way. You are not spiriting out the poverty, the being poor, but being poor, deficient, in spirit. In Greek it says, ‘Blessed are the deficient in wind’. To say they are simply ‘poor’ isn’t really right. They’re not short of money, but short of puff.

On Sunday, the preacher said it meant, ‘Blessed are the humble’. Humble. Not people who think they are big-shots. People who know their limitations. Again, that’s not what the Greek says literally, but you could argue that it’s closer to what the words really imply. In need – lacking; in spirit – in self-esteem, say: so, humble, lacking in self-esteem.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Think about it a bit, and think what it means for you. Are you humble? Are you running out of puff? Never mind. You are blessed.

But when are you blessed? The other thing you can say about the Beatitudes, and obviously specifically about this first one, is that they are a vision of the future, a vision of the kingdom of God, which Jesus is promising to his followers, but which hasn’t happened yet.

Things may be awful now, but in the world to come it’ll all come right. There might be a snag in this; because you might think, on the basis of this passage, that it was all right to tolerate slavery and oppression in this life, keeping people oppressed, but pacifying them by giving them an assurance that they are on target to inherit heavenly blessings later. That would conflict with what I think is the the heart of the revolutionary message that Jesus gives us.

Those bits of the Sermon on the Mount don’t mean, put up with bad things now because you will be all right later in heaven; but rather, you must do this extra thing, go the extra mile, and not just pay back evil for evil: you must even love your enemy. And the reason for doing that is because it’s the right thing to do, not because it leads to a payoff in heaven.

People often say that the Sermon on the Mount is all very well, but it is just not practical. It demands more than mortal man is capable of. But then you read about people like Nelson Mandela. People can do those impossibly generous things that Jesus recommended. They really can. Really? People like that must need to be saints, you might say.

It’s a good point to make, especially at this time in the Christian year, when we do think about saints. Sunday was All Saints’ Day and the list of the various Beatitudes is, if you like, a list of the things which mark out a saint. Saints – in Latin the word is ‘sancti’ – are people who are marked out, distinguished, holy – holy, which is another word which means the same thing, separate, kept apart from the general run of people. But not necessarily marked out because they’re exceptionally virtuous.

The things that Jesus blesses are all characteristics of saints; but they aren’t superhuman; they are ordinary characteristics, ordinary virtues. Anyone can be a saint. Anyone in any of our churches could be a saint.

St Paul addressed his letters to the ‘saints’ in the various churches he was writing to, and it’s clear that he was just writing to the people in the pews. For example in his First Letter to the Corinthians he wrote: [This is from] ‘Paul, …. unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Sanctified – there’s the ‘sancti’ word – but I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he was only writing to part of the congregation, just to the good guys. He was writing to all of them.

When you work through the list of the Beatitudes you will realise that it is far from being a catalogue of success or perfection; it’s a catalogue full of weakness and need, the sort of thing that ordinary people suffer from. Jesus is affirming that. He is saying that in the kingdom, people like that, ordinary people, will be saints. Just as they are, they will go marching in.

So be a saint: be a peacemaker; be gentle in spirit, care about justice; you are allowed to be sad; people may make fun of you or even actively persecute you for trying to do all these things as a Christian. But don’t worry; you are a saint; you are blessed, and you do have a place in heaven.

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 at St Mary’s on the Second Sunday of Advent, 8th December 2013
1 Kings 18:17-39, Matthew 3:1-12

I’m not a very good guide to celebrity baking contests, although apparently I use the same bread-making machine as the Prime Minister. Elijah’s roasting contest with the prophets of Baal is a spectacular story, from which we can certainly draw a message that God backed up the prophecy of Elijah by performing a substantial miracle.

On the second Sunday in Advent, which today is, we are focusing on the prophets, and starting to look at John the Baptist. There are a lot of parallels between Elijah and John. Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, were of course said to be ‘transfigured’ with Jesus later on in the Gospel (Matt. 17), and John the Baptist’s message was ‘Repent’ – μετανοιειτε in Greek, which means literally, ‘change your minds’.

So much of the New Testament involves changing one’s mind: the word I think of in this context is ‘counterintuitive’. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is counterintuitive. Turn the other cheek: go the other mile – or in St Ignatius’ prayer, ‘Render to no man evil for evil.’ This week, the person who springs to mind, when we talk of those kind of counterintuitive standards, is of course Nelson Mandela.

Counterintuitives abound when you talk about Nelson Mandela. He was perhaps the greatest world leader in the 20th century – but for 27 years, he was imprisoned as a terrorist. Quite a lot of the politicians now joining in the the chorus of praise for him have in the past condemned him as a terrorist. I suppose that the answer is that it depends on your point of view. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like when he walked out of jail free, after 27 years? Not only was he free, but he was walking more or less directly into government and into the presidency of his country. The ideology which had locked him up, which he had fought, apartheid, had been utterly defeated.

So often, when there has been a mighty struggle – even a struggle to the death – the victors exact terrible vengeance. Indeed, in the passage immediately after our Old Testament lesson, when the fire of The Lord consumed the burnt offering which Elijah had prepared, the people fell on their faces and sang, ‘The Lord indeed is God’. Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ And they seized them, and killed all of them, all 450 of them. It was terrible vengeance. I’m tempted to say that 27 years in jail must have felt far worse to Nelson Mandela than it felt for Elijah having a celebrity bake-off with the prophets of Baal. If anyone might have been expected to inflict victors’ justice on the defeated parties, it would have been Nelson Mandela.

It was a very bizarre coincidence that on the very day that Nelson Mandela died, a new film, a biopic about him, simply called ‘Mandela’, opened in London. In our Spiritual Cinema, we had a very good film called ‘Goodbye Bafana’, which was about the way in which a hard-bitten Afrikaner prison guard, James Gregory, who was appointed to be the warden of the prison on Robben Island, because he could speak the Xhosa language, which Mandela and his fellow-prisoners spoke. He was supposed to eavesdrop on them for the government.

Gradually he became more and more influenced by what he saw and heard. He and Mandela became very good friends. He evolved from a narrow-minded bigot to be a sensitive, humane critic of social injustice. Nelson Mandela seemed to inspire everyone he met.

One of his greatest friends, of course, was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela was certainly a Christian. He was educated in a Methodist school, and some people think that he was a Methodist. Other people believe that he was a Jehovah’s Witness. He definitely was a Christian.

Nobody is very sure. But one thing that was very well-known is that he was very good friends with ‘the Arch’, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. With Archbishop Tutu he conceived the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a way of dealing with the excesses of the apartheid era, and the inhumanities which had been shown by both sides in the struggle. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought together people who had hurt other people and people who had been hurt.

The offenders had to confess the truth and accept responsibility for what they had done. In some cases they received an amnesty, but in many others they didn’t. The real work of the Commission was not as an alternative to the justice system, but to bring the communities together in reconciliation.

Again, how extraordinary to think that the people who had suffered under the apartheid rule, where they were clearly not treated as being fully human, were invited to meet and forgive their oppressors. ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’.

The whole story of Nelson Mandela, the greatness and generosity of his heart, is so reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus, and of the preparation for that teaching, which John the Baptist gave: μετανοείτε, repent, be reconciled.

So often people dismiss the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as being Utopian, impractical: no real human being could keep up that level of business, they say. People say, when it comes down to the hard choices in life, the Sermon on the Mount just isn’t practical. And yet, it looks as though Nelson Mandela really did do it; for him, the Sermon on the Mount was a reality, and he carried out what Jesus recommended.

For Nelson Mandela it really wasn’t an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. He really did turn the other cheek, and he really did go the second mile. He put up with his unjust incarceration. He didn’t complain. He even made friends with his jailer.

For John the Baptist, the coming Messiah was going to sort the wheat from the chaff, and he was going to chuck the chaff into the ‘unquenchable fire’; but when Jesus came, he wasn’t a fire-breathing horseman of the Apocalypse – he was a baby: a helpless baby. Counterintuitive again.

So our second Advent signpost points to the Prophets and to John the Baptist, and invites us to adopt his message: μετανοιειτε, change your minds, repent.

Just think: if Nelson Mandela had not pursued the path of forgiveness and reconciliation, would he be so revered today? Certainly he would have been recognised as a great leader – but would he have been called the greatest leader? He didn’t stand up for himself. No Nuremberg trials for South Africa.

And so we pray, with Nelson Mandela, that wherever there is conflict, there will be reconciliation. That will, truly, prepare the way of the Lord.