Archives for posts with tag: religion

‘To be a Christian is to be attentive to signs of God’s action in the world, and this is especially true in Holy Week and at Easter when – the faithful believe – Jesus by his death and resurrection revealed the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.’ Sometimes one finds profound theological statements in unlikely places. That sentence was from the first editorial in the Guardian on Wednesday 17th April. It is perhaps a slightly different way of putting the profound words ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only son …’

The three hours’ devotion service on Good Friday is concerned with sacrifice, about Jesus’ sacrifice, his terrible suffering and death. The service is unlike any other one in our Christian year. What makes it special is that we try to get really close to Jesus in his last hours, to understand what happened to him and what he did; as we often say in a theological context, to walk alongside him, or maybe rather to have him walk alongside us, in his time of trial.

To say the service is unlike any other one is not quite right, because every time we celebrate Holy Communion we remember Jesus’ sacrifice – ‘in the same night that he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks to thee, he broke it and gave it to his disciples… and likewise after supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks to thee, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood of the new covenant’. The heart of the Eucharist service is a memorial of the Last Supper, before Jesus’s crucifixion and death. I’m not in any way trying to take away the significance of the holy Eucharist, but I am saying that the Good Friday service takes you further and takes you deeper in understanding, or rather, shall we say, in appreciating, what Jesus went through.

What I am going to try to do now is to address that question of understanding. I hope that you will more fully appreciate what Jesus suffered, what he went through; and to some extent you will understand why, at least in the historical sense of who did what to whom.

I’m not going to touch on the mechanics of the crucifixion or the literal historical data; what I want to concentrate on is trying to explain it. Why did Jesus have to die?

Perhaps today it’s more a question ‘Why did He die?’, not necessarily why he had to die. You could say, following the words of the Creed, that Jesus’ death was for us – ‘who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate’. Jesus himself said that ‘greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friend’. (I am quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, and the Authorised Version of the Bible, 1611, so it is necessary to point out that ‘man’ means ‘human being’). Or again, we hear that Jesus is the ‘propitiation for our sins’, making up for what we have done that is sinful.

There is a powerful romantic theme that occasionally people do heroic things where they suffer in somebody else’s place. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans [5:7-8], contrasts what you might call ordinary heroism, risking your life or even losing your life, to save someone else whom you might not know particularly well, but have nothing against, and what Jesus appears to have done, which is to give his life not for just anybody but for people who definitely don’t deserve it, who are sinners.

We don’t really talk about ritual sacrifice much these days. The idea of going to a temple and slaughtering some animal to give it ritually to God is completely alien to us in our modern world. But I think we know how it was supposed to work: that nobody could measure up to God’s perfect standard, and to the extent that you fell short – an example of falling short would be Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – to the extent that you fell short you had to ask God for forgiveness, to make it up to him, to turn away God’s wrath.

This is allied with the idea of the Last Judgement, either at the end of the world, (if we can imagine that), or at the end of a person’s life. And again, although we couldn’t really describe with any certainty what to expect at that End Time, as it is called, there is a very common idea that there will be some kind of last judgement; and indeed in the Bible at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel there is a picture of the last judgement, the division of the sheep from the goats. ‘The Son of Man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him. Then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory and before him shall be gathered all nations. And he shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats’ (Matthew 25:31-32). In that context, Jesus is taking the punishment that sinful man would otherwise deserve.

But there is a little question mark. It is easy to miss this, but particularly in the context of this very solemn, contemplative service, when we are trying to get as close as we can to follow in Jesus’s footsteps on the way to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where he was crucified, the little niggle, if you like, is quite a major issue in fact. It is this. God gave his only son. What does the word ‘gave’ mean, here? God is, after all, the creator and sustainer of everything and

everyone. Did He give his only son over to be hurt, to be whipped, to be insulted, to be humiliated, to be tortured and ultimately killed in the most bestial way? Because if he did that, how can we say that God is a loving God, that God wants the best for all of us, and if there is evil in the world, it has come in against God?

As you know, sin isn’t just, isn’t really at all, a question of doing bad things. It has a very particular meaning. It is about being separated, divided off from God, cut off from God. And the ‘salvation’ that we talk about, that we believe in, the eternal life – ‘so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ – that salvation is coming together with God, being united eternally. So in that context how could God give his nearest and dearest over to be horribly hurt and then killed? Something doesn’t add up.

At the very least it looks as though there is a paradox. How could the good God hurt anyone, least of all his own son? And if you were concerned about that, put yourself in Jesus’ position. You would feel uniquely deserted. We will say, towards the end of this service, the terrible words of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It’s what Jesus said as he suffered. There is no more terrible protest in the whole of literature. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

But at the end of the Stations of the Cross, these days the last station is usually the station of the Resurrection. These days, particularly since the Roman Catholics dusted off the old idea in their second Vatican Council in the sixties, the most important message to the world from Easter is the message of what they call the Paschal Mystery, the ‘unity of the death and resurrection of Jesus’. The Paschal mystery; the mystery is that unity, that putting together, of opposites; that everything to do with Jesus is the opposite of what you would expect.

Think of the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t retaliate. The exact opposite of the normal thing to do. In the Beatitudes, everything is back to front. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ You would have thought in the context of being close to God himself – the most theological situation you could possibly be in – that the last thing you would possibly want, in heaven with God, is to have weedy people round you who have no particular spiritual gifts. But they are blessed. ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. That’s crazy.

It’s more straightforward to understand ‘Blessed are they that mourn’. For ‘They shall be comforted’. That is a contrast, but it is an understandable one. You might hope for comfort. Jesus assures it.

But ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.’ Doesn’t sound happy – but happiness is assured.

Think of the Magnificat, the most revolutionary text this side of Karl Marx. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.’ Why don’t we sing that verse of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ any more? Mrs Alexander wasn’t saying it was right when she wrote that verse. We shouldn’t just shut it away. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be.

There’s a sort of tension on Good Friday, there’s another sort of paradox; in a very sacramental way, for Jesus to be uniquely alive, alive in a new way that no-one had ever seen before, the opposite had to be true. He had to be very, very dead. But except in the very minimal sense that God, the creator and sustainer of all things, must be behind everything, everything that happens, I think we can explain Jesus’ suffering, not in terms of cruelty by his father, but in terms of the waywardness of sinful man.

When you look at the details of the trial before Pontius Pilate, there isn’t an inevitability about what happens. It is the active badness, the active sinfulness of the chief priests and scribes which catches Jesus. Pilate gave them a good way out if they had got carried away by the mob, by offering Jesus as the prisoner to be released in the traditional way at Passover time. But they positively chose – it was deliberate – to release the bad man and to kill off the good one. It was another paradox, and another counterintuitive.

But as you go through the Good Friday service, metaphorically walking behind the cross with Jesus, I do suggest that you can hold your head high and recognise him truly as your king, because that tomb will definitely be empty. This is Jesus working out the way to salvation: salvation, a relationship with God, a close relationship with God. That tomb will definitely be empty.

One implication of that is that there’s no need for a priest to stand between us and God. Jesus is the great high priest, who has opened the sanctuary to us. In the letter to the Hebrews [chapter 10], we will hear that the Lord says ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more,’ and the letter goes on to say, ‘where there is forgiveness there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore my friends since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way, that he opened for us through the curtain, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience’.

It’s not a question of buying off God’s wrath. It’s the other way round. God will raise Jesus from the dead, in the Easter morning miracle that we will joyfully celebrate. There it is. There is forgiveness and there is no longer any offering for sin. There will no longer be any blood sacrifice.

But first we must follow Jesus. To come out into his blessed light, we must follow him into the darkness.

This is an edited version of a reflection originally given by Hugh Bryant at the Three Hours’ Devotion service at St Mary’s Church, Stoke D’Abernon, on 19th April 2019.

Sermon for Evensong on the fourth Sunday before Lent, 5th February 2017, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon
Amos 2: 4 -16, Ephesians 4:17–32

Beloved. That’s how Bishop Richard Chartres, who is just retiring as Bishop of London after 21 years, starts his sermons. I have just been to a marvellous Eucharist for Candlemas this Thursday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, when the cathedral was completely full, with several thousand people inside and a ‘pop-up cathedral’ with many more, outside in Paternoster Square.

At this service of Holy Communion, Bishop Richard celebrated and preached his last sermon as Bishop. Anyone who tells you that the Church of England is declining and falling apart should just have been at that wonderful service, which was full of spirituality, vitality, beautiful music and inspiration. Signs of decline? Not there! Not at St Paul’s this Candlemas!

It was a wonderful antidote to the constant chorus of gloomy news about President Trump and Brexit. Bishop Richard cuts a most imposing figure and when, in his beautiful red robes, with his mitre and crozier, he brought up the rear of the long procession of clergy and dignitaries, other bishops and representatives of all the other churches, I did think that there, there indeed was a real bishop, a bishop-and-a-half, you might say.

Before I went to Bishop Richard’s Candlemas Eucharist, I was a bit afraid that tonight I was going to have to do rather a gloomy sermon about the tough message that the prophet Amos was giving to Israel about 730 BC about all the things that they had done wrong:

‘… they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor,’ – the last bit of which is rather opaque, but which I think means that they grind the faces of the poor into the dust – ‘and turn aside the way of the meek’. It sounds a bit like our consumer society today, where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and some of the newspapers are always very scathing about poor people. Fortunately, however scornful they are, they don’t stop hungry people from coming to our food bank.

But actually I got diverted by what Bishop Richard preached about the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’; it was a very appropriate text, as this was Bishop Richard’s last sermon as Bishop: he is departing in peace. ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Bishop Richard preferred those traditional words to the more modern translation, ‘Now you are letting your servant depart’, which, he said, he thought sounded like a ‘divine sacking’ (http://bishopoflondon.org/sermons/master-now-you-are-dismissing-your-servant/), whereas, he said, he was still looking forward, looking forward to great things in future, ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.

Bishop Richard has been a very successful Bishop of London. Numbers of people belonging to the various churches in the diocese have increased considerably – by nearly 50%, and he has succeeded in keeping together in the diocese a wide variety of different styles and types of churches, all belonging to the Church of England, from Anglo-Catholics to charismatic evangelicals. In effect he has managed to accommodate a diocese-within-a-diocese, in the form of the Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha ministries, with their extensive church planting activities. He told us that one of his last tasks would be to license a Chinese minister to lead a new congregation of Chinese people at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City. He has the knack of being at home in all sorts of contexts, but he never stops being the Bishop.

In the Christian tradition, before the bishops came the apostles, among them the apostle for the Gentiles, the apostle for us, St Paul. St Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, that cosmopolitan city where he had met with opposition from Demetrius the silversmith who made statues of the Greek god Artemis, Diana: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, they had shouted.

Paul didn’t want the Ephesians to descend to the depths of depravity which the prophets had decried in the Israelites of old. He used this famous figure of speech, about how Christians should ‘put on the new man’, as though being a Christian was like putting a best suit on. If you wore that white suit, you should:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. [Eph. 4:31f]

In the Letter to the Ephesians there’s also a sort of version of the Ten Commandments, where Paul takes the place of the prophet. What is the message of all this for us? Does it still work to put on the Christian suit?

I started out, in this sermon, with a sly nod towards all the news and controversy, which the election of Mr Trump in the USA, and the Brexit stuff here, has been creating. What should a Christian think and say about these issues in our life today?

When the President of the USA comes out with ‘executive orders’, seemingly without any checks and balances, one of which arbitrarily bans entry to Moslems from some, but not all, Moslem countries: or when our government seems to have adopted a view of life outside the EU which places more weight on cutting immigration than preserving our access to the single market; as a country, we are terribly divided and confused. What would Jesus have done?

I think that he might well have agreed with St Paul – and Bishop Richard – that we must go forward, putting on the ‘new man’. For St Paul’s idea is that God, in Christ, has created a completely new social order.

In Galatians [3:27-28] he wrote,

‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’
There it is again – the Christian suit. Put it on.
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’

 

You are all one.

 

‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. There have been a lot of departures, recently. Not only Bishop Richard, but also our own Rector, Robert Jenkins, going, and soon Folli Olokose will have to go off to another parish – we hope, as their vicar. And the vacancies for Bishop of Dorking and Vicar of Oxshott have only just been filled.

Soon a team will have to set to in order to draft a ‘Parish Profile’ for St Andrew’s. It should really have a section in it about St Mary’s – and it probably will have one, because we are a ‘united benefice’ – but really the job is at St Andrew’s. What will our fellow church in the benefice be like, with its new vicar? What will we at St Mary’s be like, alongside them?

This is where the people in each church need to have a look at what St Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians: because this letter, more than any other part of the Bible, deals with the building up of a church. Fundamental to that is the abolition of boundaries and divisions. There is room for everyone.

Bishop Richard ended his sermon by adapting the Te Deum, from Mattins. He said, ‘May God bless each and every one of you; the glorious company of my fellow priests; the goodly fellowship of Churchwardens, Readers, Lay Workers, Youth Ministers, Faithful Worshippers, and the noble army of Pioneers in Paternoster Square’.

I think that is a wonderful image. There’s room in the church for a glorious company, for a goodly fellowship, indeed for a noble army; room for all those different people; and they will all do their jobs differently: and so each church is a bit different too, as we all feel that different things are important in bringing the best of ourselves in worship to God. But at bottom, we are all one.

And Trump? So, yes, also in the world outside the church, and by the same token: Trump’s immigration ban is wrong, and Brexit, if it is anti-immigrant, is wrong. ‘For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.’ All one. Beloved.

Sermon for Evensong on the third Sunday of Epiphany 22nd of January 2017
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; 1 Peter 1:3-12

I said when I welcomed everyone at the beginning of the service, this is the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s particularly nice to have Father Jonathan and some of our friends from Sacred Heart here to worship with us. That of course goes for all our friends from all the other churches, but today I have a particular thing to discuss with our Roman friends.

This morning I preached on Christian unity and tried to reconcile our modern tendency, to elevate our tastes and our wish to be able to choose, with the clear biblical imperative that we should all be one in Christ Jesus.

Tonight I want to be more specific in touching on the fact that this week is not only the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but also that we are beginning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or to be more precise, the 500th anniversary, on 31st October, of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses protesting against various practices in the then Roman Catholic Church; in particular, the sale of ‘indulgences’ in order to shorten one’s time in ‘purgatory’.

In those days, the belief was that, after death, your soul went into a halfway house, purgatory, where it was tested and purified so as to eradicate from it any traces of sin. This could be a lengthy and painful process, which you could shorten by buying indulgences. Without going into the theology involved in Martin Luther’s challenge, I would just point out that this dispute about indulgences was the beginning of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches which are subsequently described as Protestant.

What I am interested in tonight is to some extent influenced by our first lesson from Ecclesiastes, the famous lesson about time, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to get, and a time to lose, and so on. Everything in its season and a season for everything

As some of you may know, I was an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford. The College has been in the news recently because it has become the subject of protests by a movement called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, started originally in South Africa, protesting against memorials to Cecil Rhodes, who, as well as founding the famous Rhodes scholarships, and paying for the building of Rhodes House, where the Rhodes Scholars could meet, gave to my old college, Oriel, enough money to fund the building of a new Rhodes Building which was finished before the First World War and which has just been subject to a complete refurbishment including the building of a new additional top floor with very splendid penthouses for students looking over the rooftops towards the dreaming spires of Oxford.

On the side of the building which faces the High Street there is a large statue of Cecil Rhodes, and the protesters have been demanding that the statue be removed, just as a similar statue in Cape Town has been removed as a result of their protest. The protesters have argued that Cecil Rhodes exploited his workers in his diamond mines, that he had been a racist and colonialist of the worst type, and he should not be remembered favourably in any way.

This has prompted a huge amount of soul-searching in the governing body of the College, who have in their turn consulted the old boys like me – and the old girls; this consultation taking the form of a seminar which took place recently with three distinguished academic speakers and open discussion aimed at placing the heritage of Cecil Rhodes in the appropriate ‘context’.

I have to say that I was rather disappointed that, with the exception of one speaker, none of the discussion concerned the moral question whether or not it was acceptable to judge people by contemporary standards when, at the time they were active, moral judgement would have viewed them differently. Or, if even then Cecil Rhodes was a bad man, was it a good thing to accept gifts, albeit generous ones, from such a bad man?

Then having regard to our lesson today, what difference does time make? If at that time the gifts were made, Cecil Rhodes was not a bad man, according to the standards prevalent at the time, what difference does it make that in time that perception may have changed?

Those sort of perceptions seem to me to affect our view of the Reformation as well. There is a statement from our two archbishops, Justin and John Sentamu, about the Reformation, celebrating the good things that have come from it, the proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible for people to read in their own languages, and the recognition that lay people are called to serve God in addition to those who are ordained. This is an echo of Calvin’s idea of the priesthood of all believers.

At the same time the archbishops express regret, and acknowledge that the time of the Reformation was a time of violence and strife between the Christian people on either side of the Reformation process, all claiming to know the same Lord.

We have been using tonight – as we do every Sunday at St Mary’s at 6 – the Book of Common Prayer, which was originally written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549. It was – and still is – the finest expression of reformed theology in the English language. Even so Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake as a heretic seven years later. The turmoil in the English Church did not really subside until nearly 100 years later. The prayer book which we are using is the 1662 edition.

The Reformation in England claimed many lives. England had see-sawed between Henry VIII’s version of Protestantism, which really was Catholicism minus the Pope, (because of his inconvenient objections to Henry’s desire to obtain a divorce), to the Catholicism of Mary, back to Protestantism under Elizabeth and so on. Until after the Civil War and the death of Charles I, under the reign of Cromwell and the Puritans, extreme Protestants; England had lived out the Reformation for over 100 years. It was a live issue, and unfortunately, an extremely violent time. The poor Roman Catholics suffered a lot.

There has always been a paradox in the area of religious belief and tolerance of other people’s beliefs. Jesus preached a message exclusively of love and caring for one’s neighbour. But at the same time he foresaw that divisions would be caused by his gospel. Matthew 10:34f: ‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ But he told them to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.

Unfortunately his followers did not listen, because for them, for someone not to believe what they regarded as being fundamental and true, was sacrilege, blasphemy and had to be completely eradicated, even by killing the person who had expressed the unacceptable view.

Is very difficult for us to understand why people should have been horribly killed like this, for example by being burned at the stake; but of course we do see the same sort of religious violence today, this time between Muslims and other religions including our own, in the Middle East. Converting from the Muslim religion to another religion is regarded in many Islamic countries as a capital offence.

Does Ecclesiastes have anything to say about this? Is it a recipe for moral relativism? It seems to say that at different times, the same thing is both good and bad. We see the same issue in the context of safeguarding and sexual misconduct. Those of us who grew up in the swinging 60s were frankly not terribly shocked by what rock musicians got up to after concerts with adoring groupies.

But now it is recognised that there was a great inequality of bargaining power, if I can put it that way, and great scope for glamorous individuals, usually men, in effect to coerce impressionable young girls. What is it that makes things right and wrong? What is it that makes things right at one time and wrong at another?

I think that among the various Christians here in Cobham there is more that unites us than divides us. We are all looking to follow Jesus’s message of love and care for our neighbours, and that is the standard which we seek to apply to our conduct. Not everything is what it seems at first. Apparently the first student to win a Rhodes Scholarship was a black African.

Sermon for Education Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 27th January 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21 – Supererogatory Goods

For over 100 years the churches in England have recognised the ninth Sunday before Easter, which is what today is, as ‘Education Sunday’. It’s a Sunday in which we celebrate the work of all the various educational establishments, and of course in particular, the teaching that comes from our church, either directly here in church, in Bible study or sermons, and in our church schools. Here in Cobham we have St Andrew’s School, who are coming to lead our service at 10 o’clock.

The lessons, that we have set for today, have been chosen with Education Sunday in mind. In Nehemiah and in our gospel reading from St Luke, we have a picture of someone in the synagogue taking down the scroll on which the Hebrew Bible was written, unfurling it and reading from it. Both in the Old Testament lesson from Nehemiah and in the gospel, after the Bible has been read, then there’s a session of teaching.

Indeed on one level, on Education Sunday, we can just celebrate the fact that there are teachers, and that education is a great good. We can reflect that it is a very good thing that the churches are very deeply involved in the whole process of educating children and young people.

Indeed it would be perfectly sensible to have services once a year on Education Sunday that just simply give thanks to God for the fact that God has given all the various talents, all the various complementary skills which St Paul picturesquely describes in our lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, about the different parts of the body and the fact that each of the bits and each of the body’s faculties – the hand, the foot, the hearing, the sense of smell – have their real purpose in the way in which they relate to each other in the one body. It’s an allegory for the church. The church depends on people with all sorts of different skills and aptitudes and gifts to give. Among those talents there surely is the talent of teaching.

It is, however, worth pausing at this point just to review certain things about the educational landscape as it confronts our children, and ourselves as parents, today. There is some controversy about so-called ‘faith schools’. The argument, the controversy, is whether there should be a stripe running through the whole of a church school, a colour of Christianity. Wouldn’t it be better, some people say, if schools were all completely secular – even so, perhaps children could be taught about religion, or the various religions, as an academic subject, but not as a rule of life. They argue, what about children who come from unbelieving homes, or homes where people actually believe in a different religion?

Obviously there are standard answers to that, given by the church, that in fact there is no undue bias towards churchgoers in allocating places in church schools, that there is always provision made for those who declare themselves to be either unbelievers or believers in a different faith, in the form of separate assemblies or just being able to skip going to Christian worship and attending lessons where Christianity is taught.

Anyway, the churches have a good story to tell about their openness and their inclusiveness in the church schools, and the controversy, if there is really one, is all about the fact that church schools on the whole are very good schools, and obviously more people want their children to attend them than they actually have places for. So although the church has set them up and sustains them in many important ways, non-believers resent this and demand that they should have equal access for their children.

That brings me on to the second dimension in our lessons today, in particular in the gospel. What should a good school teach? I don’t want to get into sterile discussions about the various politicians’ ideas about what the so-called ‘core curriculum’ should contain. I’m more interested today in what Jesus was doing when he was teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth as indeed, according to the gospel, he regularly did, all over the place. Was he doing the sort of job that Ezra and the Levites were doing in the story from Nehemiah?

What Ezra was reading, and then going on to teach about, was ‘the book of the law of Moses’, the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Old Testament. At the heart of the Jewish law are the Ten Commandments. You will remember all the various Ten Commandments, and you could, if you were one of these non-believing parents, point out that, in a school today, you could certainly teach, in a General Studies lesson, say, the benefits to society as a whole if everyone followed the Ten Commandments.

You would say, as an unbeliever, that the benefits of most of the Ten Commandments would inure, quite irrespective of whether they were the commandments of God as opposed to being just good common sense, necessary for peace and harmony in society.

Obviously the first commandment, ‘Thou shalt worship The Lord thy God,’ doesn’t fit with that; and moreover, if you introduce the Ten Commandments with the story of how Moses came by them, it’s quite clear that the particular context of the Ten Commandments is a context of divine revelation, but it is possible to get most of the moral benefits without needing to know anything about God.

But there are little hints of what’s different, when the teaching is actually about the divine. In Nehemiah, there’s this intriguing last thing that Ezra preaches, that people should eat, drink and be merry: but that they should send a share of their food to people who haven’t got any: those ‘for whom nothing is prepared,’ as the passage says. And that that should be something done on the Lord’s day: ‘send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, because this day is holy to our Lord’. So that suggests that the reason for sending the food parcels to the poor people is because it’s something associated with God: you do it on the Sabbath, on the Lord’s day.

Similarly in St Luke’s gospel Jesus takes as his text the passage from Isaiah chapter 61 which actually describes the coming Messiah, the chosen one of God. Again, the point about that is that Christian teaching is not just about what is good to do – although of course there is strong Christian teaching about it – but at its heart is the question where that teaching comes from, and who Jesus was, in order to do that teaching.

You can see the people of Nazareth resisted stoutly the idea that Jesus was anything special – but that is the difference. A secular set of ethics would come up with something very like the Ten Commandments (albeit minus the first one). Essentially such secular ethics would be based on the so-called ‘golden rule’, do as you would be done by; do to your neighbour, and so on; but where the teaching really comes from God, in the mouth of a prophet like Ezra, and in the mouth of Jesus himself, as in St Luke’s gospel, the difference is that the teaching is not only to do as you would be done by, in the various specifics laid down in the Ten Commandments, but it is also to pursue so-called supererogatory goods, things which go beyond what you are obliged to do. So this is sending food parcels to people who are hungry in the Old Testament, and in Jesus’ teaching, the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile: these are all supererogatory goods, doing more than you strictly have to do in order simply to keep the fabric of society together.

They are the mark of a very special kind of teacher. As Jesus himself says, Isaiah’s prophecy, in Isaiah chapter 61, setting out what the Messiah, the chosen one of God, would look like, now is fulfilled. Jesus is the Messiah. He is the son of God. He is divine.

That brings me back to what we should be doing with church schools. If all we’re doing – and that’s not to belittle it – if all that we’re doing is teach children things that they could learn anywhere, church school or not, then it’s almost as though Jesus had never come. But if on the other hand, the important thing about a church school is that it’s run by people who recognise the difference between what Ezra was doing, what the OT prophets were doing, what Moses was doing when he collected the tablets with the Ten Commandments: who recognise what the difference is between them and Jesus himself, teaching in the synagogue and actually saying that the world has changed, that Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled and the Ten Commandments are no longer the whole story. Jesus’ teaching is a whole big command of love, which enjoins people to do supererogatory goods, doing more than they are asked to do, going the extra mile.

And they are doing that, because it is God who is asking them. Isn’t that just the most important thing that you could possibly teach about, in your church school? I think it is, and I’m sure that Andrew Tulloch, the headmaster, and his teachers, at our church school, are very well aware of that, and they never forget it. Long may it continue.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday of Christmas, 30th December 2012
Isaiah 61, Luke 2:15-21.

I’ve never done better than when our two daughters were 5 and 10 respectively, and we decided to have Christmas in Switzerland. We decided that Father Christmas should give the girls a train set, which came in two huge boxes. I bought it on the telephone from the toy shop in the Swiss village. I arranged for the shop to gift-wrap the two big boxes and deliver them to the hotel, where I conspired with the concierge that he would have these large presents delivered to our room at 3 o’clock on Christmas morning, when everybody was safely asleep, and before the girls had started to wriggle their toes to see if they could feel the stockings which they expected Father Christmas to have left at the bottom of their beds.

I issued a stern injunction that anyone who found their stocking and opened it before 6.30 in the morning ran the risk that Father Christmas’ presents would disappear back up the chimney where he had come from. The girls were amazed when they awoke and found that, in addition to fairly modest stockings, they had two huge boxes beautifully gift-wrapped at the bottom of their beds.

Emma, aged 10, had indeed previously had some sceptical thoughts about Father Christmas; but she said, ‘This is amazing, Dad! Those boxes, that the presents came in, were far too big for you to bring on the plane.’ And the magic enveloped us all.

Well, I hope that, even if you were not surrounded by Father Christmas magic, as our daughters were all those years ago, you nevertheless had a happy and blessed time. Perhaps Father Christmas didn’t really come: but what about the baby Jesus? It may be that certain things were not exactly as they were described in the Bible – for instance if you compare the birth story in St Matthew’s gospel with St Luke’s account that we were reading tonight, you will discover that in St Matthew, the wise men were the people who came to see Jesus first, whereas in St Luke it is the shepherds.

And of course no-one could really prove the story of the Virgin Birth. But I am not really so concerned about that. What I am concerned about tonight is understanding some of the significance of Jesus’ birth. We are of course able to draw some inferences from the circumstances; from the fact that Mary and Joseph were clearly not well-off. When they arrived in Bethlehem they hadn’t booked a room in advance and they didn’t have the right frequent traveller cards in order to give them priority on the waiting list for a hotel room.

It has been said that St Luke’s choice of the shepherds to receive the angels’ message first, telling them exactly who Jesus was, about the true importance of the baby, is in itself significant, because again, shepherds were not rich or important people, and in Jewish society of that time they were even worse than that – shepherds were regarded as being devious, dishonourable and unreliable. So just as, later on in the gospels, Jesus is taken to task for consorting with tax-gatherers and sinners, so here the message which the gospel is giving us is not what we would have expected if we were looking for a description of the the coming of someone who would change human history for ever.

He was of course much more in the line of the Servant King in Isaiah’s prophecy, the very antithesis of a mighty conquering hero of the sort that the Israelites were hoping for, to be their Messiah. That is St Luke’s theme, and it is all very well understood. But who was he, really?

As I was coming out of the midnight communion service at St Andrew’s, I picked up a leaflet which had been left on the pews by the team who are about to launch the Alpha course there; a pamphlet called ‘Why Christmas?’, by the Revd Nicky Gumbel, the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, where the Alpha programme comes from.

As I was brushing my teeth before going to bed, I flipped through the Alpha pamphlet, and on page 4 there was a sub-heading, ‘Who is Jesus?’ And it said there, ‘Jesus was and is the son of God.’ So I went to sleep on Christmas morning starting to mull over the thought that the baby Jesus ‘was and is the son of God’.

I had a lovely Christmas Day with my family; a splendid turkey, and then a splendid turkey pie on Boxing Day. Then the next day, I sat down to write this sermon. At which point the Alpha booklet, and the Revd Nicky Gumbel’s simple words, ‘Who is Jesus? Jesus was and is the son of God’, came back into my mind.

Somehow, it didn’t feel right. I must confess that, whereas I usually quite happily listen to the Today programme on the radio in the morning as I get dressed, in the last week or two I really haven’t felt like staying with the programme all the way through. The news is so full of terrible things. The terrible shooting in the school in Connecticut; the poor firemen who were burned by the mad arsonist, who said that his favourite activity was killing people; the crisis in Europe concerning the Euro, where the poor countries like Italy or Greece, Portugal and Spain are forced to become even poorer by the rich countries.

In the wider world, we continue to hear terrible stories from Syria. Now it seems quite clear that, whatever the beginnings of the conflict, it has turned into a proxy war where each side is supported by outside interests. Other countries outside Syria supply each side with terrible weapons – and the wherewithal to buy them.

We are told that climate change is going out of control. Those economies that are still growing, where people aspire to have better living standards, almost necessarily produce rising amounts of pollution. They want to live as comfortably as we do. But as a result the outlook for the future of the world is not good.

It doesn’t seem to sit very easily with this catalogue of woe for us simply to say, ‘Jesus was and is the son of God’. What sort of a god would allow all these terrible things to happen? What sort of a god would send his son into such an awful world, so that not only did his son ultimately get destroyed by it, but also so that his son appears to have had so little effect?

As I reflected on this, I was sad. Perhaps it was a normal reaction, coming down to earth after the happy times of Christmas Day and Boxing Day. But I did feel pretty bleak. But then I had a telephone call. It was from an old friend of mine, and she wanted to talk to me about a situation that we had both been wrestling with, where I had got completely stuck. If I did one thing, then I would offend someone that we both care for. If I did another thing, to please that person, I would end up, I thought, hurting my friend.

I knew that she’d tried to ring me a couple of times before Christmas, but I’d been out. She hadn’t left any messages, but I knew she had rung. But I hadn’t rung her back, because I really didn’t know what to say. And then she rang me, out of the blue, and she said, ‘Don’t worry about me. I know the dilemma that you’re in. It’s all right. I won’t be hurt, and I’ll still be your friend, whatever you decide.’ She meant it. Her generosity – the simple, kind thing that she said to me – lifted my whole mood. In a flash I saw one of the things that it could mean for Jesus to be the son of God.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in Mere Christianity, ‘The son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God’ (Ch 27). Because Jesus came, we can have a chance to be like him. In the collect for today I prayed, ‘Grant that we being …. made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit’. Children of God. Us as well as Jesus. But God doesn’t treat us like puppets. He doesn’t force us to behave in a particular way. Just as we can’t always stop our children doing the wrong thing, so he doesn’t always stop terrible things happening.

But he does come, in us and in other people. He is present. We are children of God. My friend gave me grace, gave me permission and freedom in a difficult situation; I believe that it was God at work in her. In the same way, God is always there to hear and answer our prayers, and God comes to us in the people of God. We carry God. God is in us. God in us can lead us to strive against the evils we see at work in our world.

In his childhood, as a baby and even as a wayward teenager giving his parents the slip, Jesus showed us the way. ‘Grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share in the life of his divinity’.