Archives for posts with tag: St Paul

Sermon for the Parish Eucharist by Extension on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2018

2 Corinthians 5:14-17, John 20:1-2,11-18

Confronting the Miracle

The story of Mary Magdalene might be the most important passage in the Bible.

Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty. What did it mean?

… she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

How to deal with it mentally, in our thought – is it open to reasonable doubt?

Reasoning against other logical possibilities, that, e.g.

– Joseph of Arimathea took his body and reburied it; why? What good would it do to Joseph, or anyone he sympathised with?

– Jesus wasn’t dead when they put him in the tomb;

– The Jews or the Christians took his body; what Mary M initially thought must have happened. Someone would have ‘snitched’ or leaked.

– It was a ‘conjuring trick with bones’. The late David Jenkins, formerly Bishop of Durham, said it was not a …

Rational answers are available to contradict all these theories.

But do we believe? Memo 1 Cor 15:12f. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, our faith is in vain: we are proclaiming a lie.

But what does it mean, to believe in something? To believe that x is true, x is real – but what does that mean? That x is something, or does something? That if I believe that x, x is necessarily true? Not necessarily.

If I believe that something is true, then for me it is true; but someone else might review the exact same proposition that I have said must be an example of God at work, and get the same moral imperatives without a Christian sanction. Do this, because God says it is good, or, if God is not in the picture, because it benefits the most people or makes for the greatest human happiness (if you are a Utilitarian, say).

What if we somehow ‘duck’ the issue and simply carry on? How? I think this is a way of describing what Richard Dawkins thinks. He doesn’t worry about a beginning or an end of creation, but rather sees a process, evolution, which is all we need to know about, from a practical point of view. There is no Creator, no divine force.

Can there be a sort of ‘tribal’ Christianity? Maybe the earliest example of this would be the army of the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 325AD [CE]. Constantine, inspired by a dream, ordered that his soldiers should paint on their shields the symbol of the Cross. They then won a victory. Did they believe? Surely not. But Constantine went on to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It’s arguable that that was as important in making Christianity a worldwide religion as St Paul’s work among the so-called ‘Gentiles’, the ‘nations’, in a Jewish Bible context, the non-Jews.

If either St Paul’s realisation that the Gospel ought to be preached to the Gentiles, or the Emperor Constantine’s decision to adopt Christianity as his empire’s official religion, had not happened, we might well not be here in church.

But what about today? People talk about having ‘Christian values’, without their being churchgoers. That’s interesting. The way that St Paul thought it worked, as he put it in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), and effectively as everyone from John the Baptist onward preached, if you came to believe in the Good News of Christ, you would be changed: you would ‘repent’. And you would start to live a virtuous life.

But what if you skip the believing bit, and just decide to live a virtuous life, because it makes sense to you?

We’ve then got at least two schools of lukewarm moralists. C of E Christians, on the one hand, say, and the ‘spiritual – I mean charitable – but not religious’ on the other.

But are we right to qualify these two groups as ‘lukewarm moralists’? Lukewarm, yes. The early Christians were willing to sacrifice themselves for the Gospel, for the cause. To die for it. Horribly, often. But what about us? Maybe some are willing to risk their lives. Respect to them! But most of us will do good, generous deeds, just so long as rescuing refugees doesn’t involve personal liability or risk.

Is this akin to the current populism, mistrust of ‘experts’ etc? A rejection of reason? Voting for Trump, who is a racist, sexist, xenophobe and liar? Why should these characteristics not weigh more with people?

How do we regard people who definitely don’t believe? Or who are happy to take part in church activities, but ‘I don’t go along with everything in the Creed’? Do we let them ‘belong and then believe?’

What about being ‘inclusive’?

What would Mary Magdalene say? We often ask, ‘What would Jesus say?’ But what would Mary say? If she met one of the lukewarm believers …?

Why is her story the most important in the Bible? Compare the best-known passage, John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

God – the creator – loves us. Only the creator could bring a dead person back to life. Think about that, in the light of the Mary Magdalene story. Really confront it. Confront the miracle. Don’t just duck it, don’t say it’s too hard. Then perhaps being a Christian really will change you. Change you for the better.

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Sermon for Mattins on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 15th July 2018

Deuteronomy 28:1-14; Acts 28:17-31

‘I’m the urban spaceman, baby; I’ve got speed

I’ve got everything I need

I’m the urban spaceman, baby; I can fly

I’m a supersonic guy’ [Neil Innes, 1968]

The great Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band reached number five in the hit parade, in the UK charts, in 1968, with that song, ‘I’m the urban spaceman’. The writer of the song, Neil Innes, that you might remember from children’s TV programmes, is still performing, and occasionally he still sings that song. He was at the Claygate Music Festival last year; and very good he was, too.

What is success, in life? What does it mean to be a ‘supersonic guy’? For the Israelites in the Old Testament, having come out of Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea, and then being stuck in the desert for a long time maybe not literally 40 years, but that’s what the Bible says – everything paled into insignificance when compared with the need for them to get to the Promised Land, the place of safety, the land overflowing with milk and honey. That must be the same sort of feeling that you have if you are stuck in a refugee camp in Jordan, say. Northern Europe must look pretty decent as an ultimate destination: you might well use such expressions as ‘the promised land’ in talking about that.

But interestingly, what Moses says God has told him is slightly more complicated, and if anything, even better. If the Israelites will keep to their bargain with God,

[I]f thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day….

… all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, ….. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. … And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee.[Deut. 28:1- 3,11]

In other words, if you worship God, you will do well. If you go through the list of blessings, it is very much a promise of prosperity.

Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. [Deut. 28:4]

Of course, the converse is true.

[I]f thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, …. all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:

Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field.

Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store.

They are the other side of the coin. Instead of blessings, you will get cursed.

Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.

Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. [Deut.28:15-19]

Compare all that with the blessings that Jesus goes into in chapter 5 of St Matthew’s Gospel.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: ….

Blessed are the merciful: ..…

Blessed are the pure in heart: …

Blessed are the peacemakers: .…

And then follows Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount – which isn’t a ‘prosperity gospel’. It doesn’t say, ‘Do all these good things, and they will make you rich – or powerful, or successful.’

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; ….

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. [Matt. 6:25-26]

So who is it who is talking? In the Book of Deuteronomy, God is talking to Moses; or rather God is giving a message to the Israelites through Moses, who is a prophet.

In the New Testament, even though Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, that He has not come to ‘abolish the Law or the prophets’, (and the Law includes a lot of the principles laid down in Deuteronomy, for example); nevertheless the whole accent has changed: indeed, you could almost think that God had changed.

The kingdom of God, to the Christians, is not really like the Promised Land was to the Israelites. It isn’t really a place, and there aren’t any special foods. No milk and honey – although perhaps quinoa is a sort of manna: who knows? As Christians, we aim instead to seek the kingdom of Heaven and to gain eternal life.

In both cases, whether we’re following the Old Testament God, or whether we are Christians, it’s a good thing to do what we believe God has commanded us to do.

If we are Old Testament Israelites, it’s pretty straightforward. God has made a contract with us, a covenant: if you do such-and-such, then I will do such-and-such in return – a solemn agreement. You mustn’t worship anyone except me; you must follow the other nine commandments and all the second-order rules and regulations which are set out in the first five books of the Old Testament. If you do that, God says, ‘I’ll make you successful and secure in the Promised Land. If you don’t, I will punish you.’

St Paul, in effect, tried to reconcile and make sense of these two visions, it’s very interesting to see how St Paul got on, on his way to Rome to appear before the emperor. He got some of the local Jewish people together – they were keen to hear what he had to say, because they had heard about the Christians, whom they thought of as a sect of the Jewish community – but they hadn’t heard any good things.

They were a bit suspicious. Paul laid out the whole story, from Moses up to and including the life of Jesus. In his teaching, he was telling them about God. And off they went, afterwards, discussing what he had said.

Some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. [Acts 28:24]

Paul remembered that Isaiah had also observed that some people’s ears were completely closed to any kind of enlightenment. He could tell them about the Kingdom, but they wouldn’t listen. That’s pretty similar to what happens today. Not a lot has changed. Some people believe, and some people don’t.

I sometimes think that perhaps that has to do with our not really knowing who or what God is. We blithely read stories in the Bible, where God said this, and God did this, and that – on the face of it, some very human-sounding things. Making a contract, making a covenant, for example.

But at the same time, God is said to be all-powerful, all-knowing: to be feared, even. I’m not sure that He really speaks to people in the way that you read about in the Old Testament; and in particular, speaking to the people through the prophets. I think that we would, to some extent, not recognise some of the aspects of God as He is put in the Old Testament.

He is said to speak through Moses; He is said to make things all right; he endorses the idea of material prosperity, especially in the Promised Land; he favours some people over others; and He is to be feared. In a lot of the Old Testament, just as in our lesson, there isn’t a lot about love. God is a fearsome god rather than a loving god. ‘God so loved the world ..’ is very much a New Testament message.

The other interesting thing is that the objective in the New Testament is not the Promised Land, so much as to be ‘saved’, to gain eternal life. Is that a selfish message? Is one supposed to turn in on oneself in order to draw near to God?

If you believe and trust in God now, as opposed to 3,000 years ago, do you indeed become the ‘Urban Spaceman’?

I wake up every morning with a smile upon my face

My natural exuberance spills out all over the place

I’m the urban spaceman, I’m intelligent and clean

Just as we haven’t seen any burning bushes or received tablets from heaven recently, I’m rather worried that a lot of what we are, blithely, reading in our Bibles and letting flow over us, without perhaps challenging it, engaging with it, is open to an ultimate question.

I never let my friends down

I’ve never made a boob

I’m a glossy magazine, an advert in the tube

I’m the urban spaceman, baby; here comes the twist–

I don’t exist…

Too many people think of God as the urban spaceman; and too many people know what comes at the end. We don’t follow the Urban Spaceman. Frankly, we don’t follow the God of Moses much. Do we follow the gospel of Jesus?

It won’t take us to the promised land. But it will change us. If you believe and trust in Him, you will want to follow Jesus’ two vital commandments, to love God – and to love your neighbour as yourself. Think how they were, even when they had St Paul himself preaching to them. Which side of the line would you be on? Is this something you can believe in – or not? I hope and pray that you can.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 8th July 2018

[Jeremiah 20:1-11], Romans 14:1-17

‘You are what you eat’. I’ve always smiled at this passage, where St Paul seems to put himself in the position of the alpha male, a rugby playing, beef eating hearty, who might be inclined to be a bit sniffy about his younger brother, who is a vegetarian, for some unaccountable reason. Proper chaps don’t eat vegetables. Indeed some proper chaps take this to considerable extremes and avoid greens together. They stick to steak and chips only. Well, of course, this is not a case of St Paul micromanaging what the disciples in Rome should be eating.

In the Jewish tradition, of course, there are things which, for religious reasons, observant Jews are not allowed to eat. Pork, for example. And before we talk about the religious reasons for avoiding certain foods I would point out that some of the old Jewish food rules are sensible on medical and public health grounds as well. Pork goes off quickly in Middle Eastern temperatures.

Paul is referring to people who choose either to eat or to not eat foods because they believe that God has forbidden them to eat them or positively ordered them to eat them. Think of the manna in the desert, divine food which God recommended. Panis angelicus, the bread of angels.

And of course the ultimate spiritual food is the Lord’s Supper, where we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. It’s not a form of cannibalism, as the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, 15.44) may have hinted. There seems to have been an urban myth that the Christians had an initiation ceremony which involved child sacrifice and cannibalism, amazing as it sounds to us.

Holy Communion, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, is not literal but sacramental, an ‘outward and visible sign of an inner spiritual grace’. It’s a really clear example of doing something ‘to the Lord’, for the Lord, or with the Lord in mind. It depends for its power on the faith of the person eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper. The beginning of this passage in Romans is clearly talking about this.

Depending how strong your faith is, you can eat anything, or, if you are a doubtful, more sceptical type, ‘another, who is weak’, can only eat ‘herbs’, or vegetables. I wonder if the word ‘herbs’ is one of those old English usages which have got into American English – they talk about ‘Erbs’ [sic] in a context which suggests to me that they mean more than just rosemary sage and thyme.

St Paul is saying that whatever we do, whatever we take to eat, whatever we choose, we do it ‘to the Lord’. This ‘to’ does not mean the same as when we do something ‘to’ someone. It’s more like ‘for’. We do it for the Lord. Another translation offers the idea that we do something ‘with the Lord in mind’, which I think gives a good idea of what St Paul meant.

For example, ‘He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord’. In other words, if someone thinks that a particular day is special, for religious reasons, it means that he has the Lord in mind in deciding whether to make that day a special day or not. All this chapter in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an eloquent plea that Christians should be tolerant of each other’s views.

‘Regarding’ a day, thinking a particular day is special in some way, could, for example, be relevant to the question of Sunday trading. Do you think that it is Sunday that is the Sabbath, and that if we had been to Waitrose today, (preferably just after the 10 o’clock service, as half of St Andrew’s and this congregation seem to do), we would have been breaking one of the Ten Commandments, to keep the Sabbath holy?

There’s quite a good case for saying that we wouldn’t have been. Because, Sunday isn’t necessarily the Sabbath. If you’re Jewish for example, Saturday is the Sabbath. The point about having a Sabbath day is to give a day of rest rather than to specify which particular day in the week is the day off. If we are Jewish it is Saturday, but if we are Christian it is usually Sunday.

But if you have to work on Sunday, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take another day off instead. Godfrey, for example, like a lot of vicars, takes Fridays off. What St Paul is saying is that none of this actually matters much, except that we should not condemn each other for our own particular preferences. We should not ‘judge thy brother’ – or sister, indeed – because all these little differences are of no real consequence, when you think that we will eventually all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.

At various stages in Christian history theologians have debated what the ‘important’ things to believe in are, and what are αδιάφορα, Greek for ‘things that don’t make a difference’ – which is almost what the word sounds like even to us: all you need to know is that α- as in αδιάφορα is a negative: ‘not’ διαφορά, in this context, things that make a difference.

There have been several times in the history of the church when there has been controversy about what is αδιάφορα and what is important.

At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther had a falling-out with Philipp Melanchthon over the importance of ‘justification by faith’ as opposed to gaining salvation by doing good works – or celebrating elaborate masses.

Then again the Puritans, in the Westminster Confession of faith (1646), asserted the rule that only things which were in the Bible were important – ‘sola scriptura’, only scripture, counted. That’s still basically the URC and Baptist position. Church structures, hierarchy and liturgical formulae weren’t as important. There is a distinction between true worship itself and what were called ‘circumstances of worship’, the Biblical essentials on the one hand and the way the worship was organised, not so important, αδιάφορα even, on the other. The Puritan position was summed up in this:

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (commonly translated as “in necessary things unity; in uncertain things liberty; in all things charity”). The guiding principle was a line from Romans 14, after the passage which we had as our lesson tonight, v.19:

Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.

That’s sometimes used as an introduction to the Peace.

Then came the Anglican ‘latitudinarians’, who were even more relaxed about what mattered. ‘The latitudinarian Anglicans of the 17th century built on Richard Hooker‘s position in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker (1554–1600) argues that what God cares about is the moral state of the individual soul. Aspects such as church leadership are “things indifferent“.’ [Wikipedia, accessed at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latitudinarian]

You will also find an echo of the same issues at the beginning of your little blue Prayer Books, in the section called ‘Of Ceremonies’. Page x at the front of the book. Again, this is about what we need to do in order to offer appropriate worship to God. Should it be elaborate services with great torrents of flowery words, dressed up with beautiful music sung by accomplished, perhaps professional, choirs – or should it be stripped-back, plain words, no music – or maybe simple amateur ‘worship songs’?

This brings us up with a bit of a jolt to what we do today. What is essential to the worship here at St Mary’s? Remember that this morning we had a special event in our church life: we admitted five young ones to be able to receive Holy Communion before they’re confirmed.

What looks important to them? What does it mean to them to worship the Lord? I think that St Paul set the tone pretty well all those years ago, maybe only 30 years after Jesus was crucified, when he counselled the Roman Christians not to look down on each other because some things were important to some of them and other things to others.

So – what’s important to us, here, at St Mary’s? What can we see other Christian friends doing differently? I mean, we make quite a thing about our doing things in a distinctively different, traditional way here. But how much is at the heart of our faith, and how much just our taste, our preference?

I think I can suggest that one way one would argue would be that we don’t water things down. The little ones this morning went through a proper communion service with some grownup words in. We think they will be more likely to think deeply about the service if they’ve had to look up some words. Their parents didn’t think there was anything babyish either. Our approach is not to water things down. God isn’t an easy thing. Immortal, invisible.

And when we have been exposed to God’s grace, when we have come to the Lord in prayer, in the way we do, can you tell? Does it make a difference to our lives? Do we ‘repent’?

Put it another way. We aim to eat the red meat of worship and witness here at St Mary’s. Full fat. But we mustn’t look down on the friends who only take the vegetarian, decaf option. Which are you?

Sermon for Holy Communion on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

You might wonder what the connection is between our two lessons today. The first one is from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which you might think was more apt for one of those Sundays when we review our giving to the church and our stewardship, and on the other hand, the passage in St Mark’s Gospel, the two miracles of Jesus, healing the woman with the unstoppable haemorrhage, who just touched the edge of his coat, and Jairus’ daughter, one of Jesus‘s greatest miracles, where he raised a little girl from the dead. We know that story so well, but not in the words that Godfrey read. I don’t remember Jesus saying, ‘Little girl, get up’ – although that is what the Greek literally says. The words I remember are so much more mighty and memorable.

And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth.

And they laughed him to scorn. …

And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.

‘Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.’ Not ‘Little girl, get up’. Now that’s a proper miracle, in proper miracle words. Just imagine what it must have been like

if you were Jairus or the damsel or the damsel’s Mum, indeed everyone around. She wasn’t just some little girl. She was the damsel, the damsel in Mark’s Gospel.

Anyway, I’m not really going to talk about the gospel today. Because I’m sure you’ve heard loads and loads of sermons about that lovely passage in St Mark’s Gospel about the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage; the key point about both stories being the importance of having faith. To the woman who touched his cloak he said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, when people were saying it was too late, that his daughter had died, Jesus said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ They both had trusted in the power of God.

No, what I want to have a go at this morning is to look at what St Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, where he is trying to get some funding for Christians in Jerusalem, who are hard-up, from the relatively well-off people in Corinth. This was like us in wealthy Surrey putting together a collection for a parish in the East End of London or in down-town Sheffield.

I think that it’s very interesting to see what St Paul was writing – or actually dictating to his secretary, because that’s how he worked – at the very earliest times in the history of Christianity. These letters to the Corinthians are usually dated by scholars at around 50AD [CE], so less than 20 years after Jesus was crucified. It is reckoned that only the letters to the Thessalonians are earlier. So we are getting a glimpse into the life and concerns of the earliest church. And St Paul is banging on about people upping their planned giving! Clearly, some things haven’t changed. But I’ll let Stephen Chater speak to you quietly about whatever St Mary’s needs.

The interesting things about what St Paul was saying here are precisely how sensitive he was, and how he recognised how tricky it is to reconcile money matters with faith. There are churches who preach a ‘prosperity gospel’. According to that idea, if you are wealthy, it is because you are blessed – and conversely, if you are faithful to the church and give generously to it, then God will reward you, and make you rich.

I doubt whether any of us here would believe in that sort of thing. And neither does St Paul, here. What he does say is that he wants the Corinthians not only to talk the talk, to ‘excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness’, but also to walk the walk, in giving – the word in Greek is χαρις, from which we get our word ‘charity’. It’s also the word for ‘grace’, and indeed the words of ‘The Grace’, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ come from the end of this very same letter.

And ‘grace’ has another connotation, a ‘free gift’. In St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, and in the letter to the Ephesians chapter 2, salvation, eternal life, is said to be the gift of God, not something people can earn through doing good works. It is a χάρισμα, which means a free gift, given by χαρις, grace, generosity. These are all related ideas. So what St Paul is asking the Corinthians to do is to be generous. Give a free gift – this isn’t a payment for services. Paul says, You’re not obliged to give; I’m not ordering you to do it. He says in v 8, ‘This is not meant as an order; by telling you how keen others are I am putting your love to the test.’ [NEB translation].

St Paul says that although Jesus was rich, he became poor. Actually that seems a bit unlikely. Jesus was, at least on earth, a carpenter’s son. He was a sought-after preacher, a rabbi. But I doubt whether he was like some of the telly-evangelists in the USA today, who are pretty well-heeled, as I understand it.

That’s true in parts of Africa too, incidentally. We had an interesting visit from a clergyman, a bishop’s chaplain, from the diocese of Owerri in Nigeria, with which St Andrew’s Oxshott, or rather Revd Canon Jeremy Cresswell, their previous vicar, had links. This chap fully expected to be kept in some comfort wherever he went. His reasoning was that, as Christ’s representative, people in the church should accord him respect and provide for his needs generously. I see that Godfrey is making notes here … But unfortunately, I think it only works for vicars in Africa …

I don’t know whether St Paul knew Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite, which is recorded in St Mark’s and St Luke’s Gospels (Mark 12: Luke 21). His Letters to the Corinthians were written before those Gospels; but his point in his Letter, which he spells out in the next chapter (2 Corinthians 9:6) where he says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’, is very much along the same lines as Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite. What she gave may have seemed very small, a couple of coppers only; but it was all that she had.

Paul goes on to make it plain that you mustn’t feel pressured into giving more than you have (2 Cor 8:12). He reminds the Corinthians about the story of the Israelites after they had come out of Egypt, when they were with Moses in the desert, and they started to grumble and complain that they didn’t have enough to eat.

The Lord gave them an ‘ample sufficiency’ when he dropped manna from heaven, and numbers of quails for them to eat. I’ve always wondered how that last bit worked. In the sixties you got ‘chicken in a basket’ at Berni Inns. Maybe the effect was similar. The point, though, was about the quantity. Not too much, and not too little. An ample sufficiency. That’s what the Lord gave them. So the Corinthians – and we – should give to the Lord just what we can afford, and not more.

So what is the link between those miracle stories, about the damsel, Jairus’ daughter, and the other lady with the chronic illness, and St Paul banging the tin – albeit very elegantly – but clearly twisting the Corinthians’ arms – to give generously to the church?

I would suggest that the idea might be this. When you read the Gospel stories of what Jesus did, and particularly the miracle stories, the idea is that they are revelations, revelation of Jesus’ divine nature. God, with all that God can do, in a man. That man, Jesus, healed people, even raised the damsel and Lazarus from the dead. It demonstrated that he was much more than just a young man from a humble carpenter’s shop.

On the other hand St Paul interpreted it all, and he explained Jesus’ teaching in a way that everyone, not just the Jewish people, could understand. And when you have believed the miracles, when you ‘excel in faith’, then St Paul teaches that you will want to gracious, to be generous.

St Paul was the great church planter, the original Alpha Course teacher – and he was also, effectively, the first archdeacon. Paul was totally practical about how the new churches should operate, not only in their worship and care for others, but also in the nitty-gritty of church admin. You need enough money to run the church. And then you need more, if you are going to do something for neighbours in need.

It’s teaching which is still valid today. Do please think about what you give to the church. Are you doing in practice what you say you do? Please do give -cheerfully – but don’t bankrupt yourself in the process. Be like the widow and her mite.

Oh – and you know, if your wallet is somehow empty, St Mary’s is geared up to take credit cards, even Apple Pay. God bless you – and thank you!

Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

Psalm 53, Jeremiah 11:1-14, Romans 13:1-10

‘…the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ (Romans 1:1,2)

Wow! Is St Paul saying that all governments are ‘ordained by God’, and therefore right, therefore to be obeyed, in every case?

What about, obviously what about, President Trump? Are people supposed to regard his government as ‘ordained by God’? Separating little children brutally from their parents. Denouncing climate change treaties. Lying blatantly in public. How could God be behind that sort of thing?

But why pick on President Trump? We can immediately think of awful things that many governments, including our own, have done over the ages. Who invented concentration camps, for example? It wasn’t Adolf Hitler – it was us, in the Boer War. What about Victor Orban in Hungary putting up barriers against poor refugees that the EU, to which Hungary belongs, have agreed to take; or the ‘hostile environment’ for black people which our own government created, with such unjust and cruel consequences for the ‘Windrush Generation’, those West Indians who came at our invitation to drive our buses and be nurses in our hospitals? It doesn’t look at all plausible that all governments, at all times, reflect the will of God.

Think of the terrible controversy over ‘Brexit’. There is no love lost between the factions – and the government seems to be stuck. There’s no clear government policy which we could obey, even if we wanted to. But I’ll come back to that.

And what if you are ‘the powers that be’, if you are a member of the government? Can you claim to be ‘ordained by God’? President Trump might really go for that one, I’m sure.

This all looks pretty unsatisfactory. It looks as though St Paul was as unenlightened about obeying the government of the day as he looks to have been about the status and role of women.

But what about the rule of law? As a Jew, Paul was very conscious of the value of law – in their case, of the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch. Jesus had said that he had not come to abolish the law – Matthew 5:17 – but to fulfil it. The rule of law looks less open to abuse than the power of rulers, almost by definition: ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said.

And come to think of it, Jesus himself said something very similar to what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, when he said, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, holding up a Roman coin and asking whose head was on it (Mark 12:17, cf. Romans 13:7 – or in Luke 20:22). It seems rather odd, in the context that, at the time when Jesus and, later, Paul were telling people to obey the government, that government was the brutal occupying power of the Roman empire.

That is perhaps why the picture of the ruling authorities which Paul paints is so fierce:

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4).

He carries a sword. He’s not Dixon of Dock Green. I have to say, in passing, that even today, I do feel rather uncomfortable when I see what our policemen and WPCs are wearing. No more policemen’s helmets and smart blue uniforms with silver buttons. Now they look like storm troopers from Mad Max 2, with ghastly baseball caps. I need one of our police members of St Mary’s please to explain! I must be missing something.

I think that, if we take into account the historical context of St Paul’s letter, we can understand that, for example, as the leading Pauline scholar James Dunn from Durham has said [Dunn, J.D.G., (1998) 2005, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London, T & T Clark, pp 674f], this apparent ‘quietism’ in the face of what were often bad, oppressive governments was partly explained as being in accordance with the Jewish tradition that there was ‘wisdom’ in government and wisdom shown by rulers – the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, for instance – but also that putting up with rulers was ‘the realism of the little people, of the powerless’. (Dunn p. 679).

The church, at this early stage, (Paul was writing within 20 years of the Crucifixion), was a series of secret ‘house churches’, cell groups. As such, they were more vulnerable than the Jews in their synagogues. The Romans knew what the Jews were, and tolerated them – indeed, they gave them some devolved, delegated authority, so day to day power was passed down to King Herod. But although Christianity started as a Jewish sect, St Paul had succeeded in widening it out so as to appeal also to non-Jews, ‘Gentiles’ as well. As such, the Romans might well have regarded the Christians as seditious, as revolutionaries like the Zealots. Indeed, one of the disciples, the other Simon, not Simon Peter, was indeed a ‘Zealot,’ according to Luke chapter 6.

So the early Christians would not have wanted to draw the authorities’ attention to themselves, in case they were pursued as being terrorists like the Zealots. But arguably the most important thing for St Paul was what he said about how obedience to the law – and he didn’t distinguish between the Jewish law and the law of the land – how obedience to the law, and therefore how obedience to the government – depends on Jesus’ great new commandment, to love one another. He says,

‘Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love. He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law.

For the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet’, and any other commandment there may be, are all summed up in the one rule,

Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour; therefore the whole law is fulfilled by love.’ (Romans 13:8-9, NEB)

I think that gives us another angle. There’s a hierarchy of authority under God here. Some ‘powers’ trump – sorry, bad word – some ‘powers’ have higher authority than that which the ‘powers that be’ have, albeit those powers are ordained by the Almighty. We are, after all, all children of God, some better than others. Think what tonight’s rather dystopian Psalm, Psalm 53, says.

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men

to see if there were any, that would understand, and seek after God.

But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable

there is also none that doeth good, no not one.

So with other things that God has made. He may have made better things. We can still use our critical faculties to assess whether a given regime conforms with Jesus’ rule of love.

This chapter 13 in the Letter to the Romans comes just after a line in the previous chapter, which, I think, confirms the overall rationale. Paul says,

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

His words are a strong echo of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Paul says:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

So what you have to do, Paul suggests, is not let yourself be sidetracked into sterile opposition against whichever politician it is you disapprove of, but overcome what you think they do wrong they do by putting good deeds up against it as far as you can, and ultimately turning the other cheek. Those are the marks of a true Christian.

Perhaps I can leave you with my own personal conundrum here. I would stress that it is only my personal view.

Our government is apparently committed, by what it calls ‘the will of the people’, expressed in a referendum in which 37% voted in favour, to leave the EU. I personally believe that unless this ‘Brexit’ is stopped, our country faces catastrophe. I acknowledge that many other people don’t agree with me.

Does St Paul have anything to say here? I just do not believe that what he says means that Christians have to support our government. I think that it is much more believable that our system of government, in which a loyal opposition plays a vital part, could indeed have been ‘ordained by God’. A Christian must obey the system, the apparatus of government: but they can still choose to support either the government or the opposition.

And I do hope and pray that everyone on each side of the Brexit issue will eventually rise above it and become friends again. But first, I think we have to find a way, indeed perhaps by prayer, to avoid a catastrophe.

Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday after Easter, 15th April 2018

Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

I’ve been wrestling with some contrasts in the last day or two. Obviously the civil war in Syria, the apparent poison gas attack: and then the attack on Syria by the Americans, the French and our RAF. 104 missiles, apparently, of which 8 were ours.

And the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. An actor read it again on the wireless last night – although I didn’t listen to it. Perniciously, some its ghastly racism still comes back. References to black people as ‘smiling picaninnies’ and the cod classical reference to ‘the Tiber red with blood’ are still awful.

And the 70th anniversary of the voyage of the ‘WINDRUSH’ from the Caribbean, bringing people who would become postmen and nurses and drive taxis and do all the jobs which we couldn’t find people to do, whom we had advertised in the Caribbean for. Some of them have been here for most of that time, bringing up children and working hard – but now our frankly nasty Home Office is trying to throw out some of the ones who never applied for a passport, back to the Caribbean, where they haven’t lived for decades. On appeal, the Home Office’s ‘be extra beastly to immigrants’ policy has been overturned in about half the cases. What’s that about? Putting Granny on a plane to Jamaica because, as a British citizen – but a black one – she had no idea that she should keep any old documents to prove her right to be here.

The contrast was with the Easter sunshine yesterday, as lots of people came back from Easter holidays, expecting the usual murky weather back home, and found real, warm sunshine. The contrast was with our Easter happiness in our church, as we celebrated Christ’s resurrection. The story of Doubting Thomas is such a good one for us, because we sometimes feel that the miracle of that first Easter is just too much. But – ‘My Lord and my God!’ said Thomas, he, a person like us, was convinced – and we feel Jesus came back for us too.

But. But just as the Easter story is overlaid with the terrible sadness of the crucifixion, so we can’t help feeling that those simple Galilean fishermen are an awful long way away now. How can what happened so long ago, in such a different world, give us anything useful about the violence in Syria: how can the Easter story make any difference to the message of ‘Rivers of Blood’ which people like Enoch Powell, people like Nigel Farage and perhaps even Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, gave out, any difference to the message that there is something wrong with people coming to live and work in our country, with immigration?

Actually, not just living and working here, but joining their relatives here. And where children are concerned, there are still a couple of thousand – really, not just a few – just across the Channel in France, who can’t get here. Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, arranged a disgusting advert displayed on the back of vans, driving around advising immigrants to ‘Go home’. And she went to church faithfully all that time. Apparently, she saw nothing wrong in her deterrent vans.

What use is Easter against all that stuff? Can we learn from the early church? One thing about learning our Christianity from St Paul’s letters, is that we have to imagine what the other side of the conversation might be. So what was St Paul responding to when he wrote to the people in Corinth?

He was pointing out that, if one ignored God’s commandments, the Ten Commandments, God might not keep on forgiving them. The Old Testament is full of stories of the Chosen People, Israel, disobeying God. And it brought bad consequences on them. Plagues of snakes. And St Paul thought it was all pretty symbolic. For him, the Old Testament story of Moses in the wilderness after God had parted the Red Sea and they had escaped from Egypt, was deeply significant. Not everyone made it, because they fell away, they forgot God.

St Paul, in counselling the Corinthians, reminds them of the story of Moses and the Israelites coming out of Egypt. Even though the Israelites were God’s chosen people, it didn’t give them a complete licence to behave any way they wanted. Each breach of a commandment had a price. ‘Fornication’ brought a death sentence for 23,000 in one day.

At first sight, this doesn’t seem to square with the idea that God is our friend, that He cares for us. For if he really did, surely He wouldn’t be so fierce and judgmental towards human failings – because after all, He made us the way we are.

So why does St Paul offer these cautionary tales? It isn’t a question of ‘Be good and you’ll be welcome in heaven’ – and the converse, if you’re not virtuous. That if you’re bad, you’ll be going down.

It’s much more a question that God does love us, unconditionally; but we mustn’t fail to reciprocate. Perhaps the ‘other half’ of the dialogue between St Paul and the Corinthians was some idea that the Corinthians had, that becoming a Christian sort-of inoculated them against the consequences of bad behaviour. Once you’d been baptised and confirmed, perhaps they thought you could give full rein to your baser instincts. St Paul is pointing out that God may still take a dim view if the people who are receiving His blessing, go out immediately and do things more befitted to their old lives, before they saw the light.

St Paul’s point is, that if you are ‘saved’, you won’t want to fornicate and do all the other things, having riotous dinners and ‘putting God to the test’.

But my thought is that, if you are full of the Easter spirit, if you are a good Christian, it won’t just be a question of your avoiding fornication. There will be other signs of your being a Christian. And this is where I get back to my contrasts. How to be full of the spirit of Easter, and at the same time rushing into following Pres.Trump in attacking Syria before the United Nations weapons inspectors have even started? How to be full of the spirit of Easter, but sympathetic to Powell’s racism – as surveys have shown 70% of the British population were at the time. How does that – did that – work? Can you really be a Christian and support have a racist view of immigration? What about things that Nigel Farage has said really recently?

What about us here at St Mary’s? Why don’t we have any black people in our church? Some of us must have black neighbours; we must be more friendly to them, and see if we can get them to join us. It’s part of our vision, a vision of inclusion, of openness. As we start our befriending programme, let’s be open to inviting people who look a bit different to join us and become our friends. Let’s not just think of Easter as a quaint story 2,000 years ago, without any practical effect on us. Let’s show that Easter has made a difference to our lives.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 7th January 2018

Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=382181977

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, hit the headlines the other day by suggesting that Americans who go to church, but who also support the policies of President Trump, are not really Christians. Or, shall we say, by supporting Trump, they are acting in a way which conflicts with true Christian belief.

He doesn’t see how you can square professing to be a Christian with supporting Donald Trump, in that Donald Trump has shown that he is a womaniser, a xenophobe, a racist and a warmonger. If Christians support Donald Trump, does that in any way compromise their Christianity? The Bishop of Liverpool clearly says, ‘Yes, it does.’

Instead of the President, look for a minute at the leader whom Isaiah was describing in our first Bible reading. This is sometimes called the Song of the Covenant. It is a proclamation, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, putting God’s words into the mouth of the prophet, describing that chosen leader, the Messiah, leading the people bound by their agreement with God, the covenant with Abraham: ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.’ He is gentle. ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’. Strangely, you might feel, there’s no mention of Twitter.

But interestingly – perhaps a bit paradoxically – this is all in a series of chapters describing God reaching an agreement, a covenant, with his chosen people – it’s not just an agreement between God and the chosen people, the Israelites. Even back in the beginning, in the Old Testament, in Isaiah it says, ‘… he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles’ and ‘I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles’. A light of the Gentiles – the Gentiles were the non-Jews. They were what we are.

So right at the beginning, at the championing of the people of Israel in God’s eyes, there was also more than a look over the shoulder at the people who were not Jewish. The Messiah was going to be a light to them too, a ‘light to the Gentiles’. This is universal. Christ is for all the world, for everyone.

The idea of a private understanding, a covenant, between God and his ‘chosen people’ may seem a bit strange to us now. But in the Methodist Church all over the world this Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, is known as Covenant Sunday, and there is a special service in which the congregation renew their commitment to follow God’s commandments, and John Wesley’s special Covenant prayer is said. I will pray that prayer for us when I lead our prayers in a few minutes.

What the Messiah was going to do had a distinctly revolutionary aspect to it. He would bring the prisoners out of prison and give light to the blind, in a society where, if you were disabled, people thought that was because you had done something wrong and were bad in some way. So in other words the people who had the deal with the Almighty, the chosen, the chosen race, the Israelites, were not chosen so that they could carry all before them and rule the world, they were to be a haven of social justice and reconciliation, where the leader was not a mighty warrior but was a gentle person who would not hurt a fly. Rather different from President Trump.

People who are politically savvy will probably glaze over a bit as I go through this because, they will say, ‘What is the relevance of what happened 2000 years ago – or even earlier, if you are talking about Isaiah?’ There are practical things that you just can’t ignore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I mean, in this country these days, even if in an ideal world we would like to, we just don’t have the money to do all the good things that we would like to do.’

But it is notable that in the Bible there is never any reference to what doing the right thing might cost. It’s just a question whether it’s the right thing to do or not. St Paul’s point in our second lesson from Ephesians is that, given that the Messiah has come, that Jesus has appeared, and in so doing God has renewed his covenant; so there is an effect on the faithful believers. Once they realise that God has taken an interest in them, then, the argument goes, they won’t want to do any bad things in future. It won’t matter what the practicalities are: ‘Teach us, good Lord …. to give, and not to count the cost’. That will be their guiding principle.

But whereas perhaps even in the light of this, all we can do about the godlessness of President Trump is to sigh, and say how much we disapprove, what about things nearer to home? For instance, what about the leader of Windsor borough council?

The leader of the Windsor council has written to the police and crime commissioner local to him, to ask that homeless people be cleared off the streets in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now is there any kind of conflict between the Christianity of the wedding and the unsympathetic attitude to homeless people exhibited by the council leader? He has said that he just wanted to do something to help the wedding couple. He has said that he thought that many of the homeless people were not really homeless, because there were places where they could stay. They were begging, making themselves a nuisance.

But what would Jesus say about that? Or indeed Isaiah? The Old Testament has numerous places where the prophets tell people to look after widows and orphans, and ‘the stranger that is in your midst’. That must imply that they are homeless. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ own words, what about the Great Judgement in Matthew 25:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I would suggest that it’s pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be sympathetic to the leader of Windsor borough council. I think Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter why someone is homeless, or a beggar. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man who had been hurt had in some way been responsible for his plight, to blame for it, had somehow brought his misfortune on himself.

And indeed many of the organisations which work to care for the homeless have challenged the council leader’s reasoning. Thames Valley Police, the ones he asked to clear so-called ‘rough sleepers’ off the streets, didn’t think that would help. It would be more effective, the police said, if the causes of homelessness and destitution were addressed instead. Crisis, the charity for the homeless, said similar things. People don’t choose to be homeless, and they only beg when they are desperate. Shelter and Centrepoint, two other leading charities, have agreed.

I don’t know whether the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough Council goes to church at all. But I think that if he does, he ought to reflect very carefully on what the Bishop of Liverpool has said about whether it’s possible to be a Trump supporter and a Christian at the same time. It applies here on this side of the Atlantic too. If you don’t love your neighbour as yourself, never mind what it costs, you’re not a real Christian.

The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley (1703–1791)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Further Bible references: see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110203_1.htm