God Has His Reasons

Amos 3: 1-8

Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, mathematician and physicist – to him we owe the modern theory of probability, and the invention of an early calculating machine. Yet this supremely logical thinker wrote in his book of “Thoughts”, “The heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of”.  He recognised that there are areas where logic cannot probe, and love is above reason’s power to describe.  He was also a deep Christian thinker, who believed that the God of love has his reasons for doing what He does, which feeble human minds can never entirely grasp.  This is not to say that God behaves illogically; only that mere logic can seldom discover what God’s purpose is in anything that happens, until God Himself reveals why he allowed it.

The prophet Amos was saying something like this when he wrote, “Does disaster befall a city, unless the Lord has done it? Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”  This isn’t to say that God wants to destroy the places where people live.  Amos has just written about all the cities, enemies of Israel and Judah, which in his time had been notorious for sin and dissolute living.  He lists them one by one, and then describes how they were destroyed, by natural accident or an invading army.  His Jewish readers must have been preening themselves when they heard this, imagining that God would never let disaster befall his own chosen people.  No such luck, says Amos. God has his reasons, and he tells the prophet what they are, even of nobody else can understand.

Now some Christian preachers and alleged followers of Christ have taken this too far – they’ve pronounced that HIV/AIDS is a punishment on the world for homosexuality; that the Haiti earthquake showed God’s wrath against their devotion to voodoo; the wild fires in Australia were God’s punishment for the Government allowing too many immigrants into the country; even as recently as last week, a UKIP councillor claimed that the floods were a result of the UK Government passing the equal marriage law.  All of this paints a very unattractive picture of a petty and spiteful God.  It would be more trusting to say that God, who can do anything, wanted a world where people could learn to love.  So he allowed an apparently random process of earthquake, wind and rain to produce a planet where life could emerge and evolve into humans with the power to reason, and the ability to choose.  Without the earthquakes there would be no mountains, and without mountains there would be no rivers, and without rivers there would be no life on our planet.  Without the changeable climate, the plants wouldn’t grow; without giving humans the freedom to hate and to hurt one another, they’d never learn to love.  So God doesn’t want pain and suffering, but he has his reasons for allowing it, in fulfilment of his plan to bring us to faith in him and to eternal life.  We may not fully understand those reasons, but we must believe they exist.

Try explaining that to someone who is in pain, who has just lost a loved one, or whose house is flooded with no end in sight.  The emotions are almost too raw to bear at that moment, and it becomes easy to blame God for what has happened, or blame those people in society we don’t like for bringing God’s wrath down upon the world.  Later, however, they may become more objective.  It is better still, however, if we think about it before the suffering comes.  So God reveals his secret reasons to his prophets that we may learn from them to trust God to bring good out of evil.  What Amos calls God’s punishment is really an inevitable process of cause and effect – if A happens then B will inevitably follow.  “Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment? Does a lion roar in the forest when it has no prey? Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?”  Or as we’d say today, selfish behaviour is self-destructive.  Those who disobey God’s command to love their enemies will inevitable bring suffering on others, and ultimately on themselves.  Those who do not listen when God tells us to take care of the planet; those who do nothing to halt global warming are adding to the likelihood of further earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, bringing misery to millions.  Unless the sin is dealt with, this may lead to the destruction of cities and even civilizations, as history has shown us.  This perspective may encourage those who are suffering to be patient and trusting; and it encourages us to listen to the words of the prophets, and deal, before it’s too late, with the sin in our oppressive society and in our own selfish hearts. Listen to God’s word, take care of the planet and above all, make peace with your enemies here and now because you may have to share eternity with them hereafter.


We Are All “Foreign” Before God

Isaiah 56

As part of my daily routine, I receive and read an e-mail newsletter called Heartlight.  I was struck this past week by the heartfelt confession of a member of the Anglican Church in Canada called Joe. He was recounting a tale from earlier years in his life, one that he wasn’t all that proud of now, but one he valued for the lessons it taught him and the change of attitude that it worked in his life.
It happened while he was a student at university.  He was involved in lots of different societies so had lots of separate groups of friends.  Amongst his friends from the politics society was an openly gay young man with whom he had a lot in common and they became good friends.  Unfortunately not everyone was as welcoming and inclusive, especially the president of the Christian Union, who was also amongst Joe’s friends albeit in a totally separate group.  But being a small campus, one day the inevitable happened.  Joe was walking along when he spotted his gay friend walking towards him; their eyes met, recognition was made and the young man characteristically raised his hand in greeting. But just as Joe was raising his own, the familiar voice of his friend the Christian Union president called out from across the quad.  It’s in shame that Joe remembers what happened next. He halted his greeting before it reached shoulder height, dropped it quick as a flash, and turned to cross the street to shake the esteemed president’s hand. Basking in the glow of attention from the president, he wrote off the dignity and significance of another whom he had called “friend.” It’s embarrassing for Joe to remember now, but imagine how dehumanizing to the other young man. Imagine how it must have felt.

I don’t think it’s hard for us to imagine because we’ve been there – befriended only to be dumped when our acquaintance’s circumstances changed or when their good fortune returns or when someone they conclude to be more “acceptable” arrives.
That is the fear on the part of foreigners and God’s concern for them that we heard about in our Isaiah reading this evening. Israel’s circumstances were about to change. God was promising release. Their time of bondage would end. He is going to restore them, but He doesn’t want the foreigners who have joined themselves to His people, who have turned away from their false gods and embraced Him as their saviour and king to think that they’ll now be forgotten, written off as after thoughts. Nor were these concerns misplaced.
Again and again God warned his people not to compromise the practice of their faith by associating with foreigners or creating alliances with other nationalities. They were to remain God’s chosen, rather “unique” people.

Nevertheless, they were God’s chosen “unique” people in order to be a “light to the Gentiles.” Just a few chapters before this Isaiah had spelled out His plan. From the 49th chapter verse 6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” From the 14th chapter we also hear: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob.” They were God’s people, separated; but with a purpose – to prepare a way by which God’s saviour would be brought to the whole world.

Unfortunately, they often missed this. They would miss it again in the days to come. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well. The idea that Jesus, a Jew, would be talking to her – why she’s beside herself. She can’t imagine such a thing happening because, Gentiles, especially Samaritans, were despised in those days. That’s what makes the story of the Good Samaritan such a powerful one. The fact that one of the Pharisees Jesus was talking to had to admit that the Samaritan who took pity on the man beaten by the road was more of a neighbour than his fellow Jew was hard to admit, though the circumstances Jesus drew in that story left no other choice.

And I suppose some might point to the meeting of Jesus and the Canaanite woman and say, “Heh, doesn’t Jesus do the same? And at first glance it may appear so, after all he does say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But look again. Jesus acts the way he does not to belittle her, but to encourage her to greater faith; a faith which he commends to her in the end.

The point of all this is that God’s people missed this part of God’s word of promise. They grew to ignore their God-given mission to be lights to the world, missionaries of God’s grace. Instead they grew to think of themselves as the sole object of God’s love and refused to associate with foreigners at all.
I find it disturbing that still today that some groups in society still feel that they are not welcome in the Church (and I don’t mean our church but the Church as a whole), or maybe they just feel that they are not welcome because the Church communicates that they’re “not good enough” to fit in. Let me tell you another story from the diary of the young man Joe that we heard about earlier.   Much later in his life he became a minister of the church and went to live in the United States with his wife Carolyn.  One day he was talking to some members of his new church and describing a wedding that he had been asked to perform while still in Canada. The “wedding chapel” was an old cabin on the side of a mountain in the sagebrush just beyond the timberline. The bride was twenty-seven years old, and the groom was forty-seven. They already had two children, and the bride was seven months pregnant. But they were getting married because, as brand-new Christians, they had come to believe that the Lord wanted them to quit living “common law.” Of the handful of wedding guests, five or six were alcoholics, some were drug addicts, and one woman was a prostitute who had often sold herself for a case of beer. Another man was on parole – attempted murder. At the end of the ceremony, instead of kissing the groom, the bride shouted, “Where’s my rolling pin? I’ve got a license now!” A sordid bunch; Not respected by many. Yet, all except two had recently come to Christ and it was one of Joe’s favourite weddings.
But in Indiana when he and his wife described those mountain nuptials, one man stood rather defiantly and asked, “Don’t you ever bring any good Canadian people to Christ?”

It’s the kind of question that’s been asked in many ways, in many churches around the world. “Why are you marrying that couple in church when they’ve been living together for years?” “Why is that fellow getting a Christian burial? He never crossed the threshold of the church until a week before He died.” “Why should we allow two people of the same gender to get married?” “Why should I forgive someone like that? Look at what they’ve done.” “Why should we baptise that child, their family never come to church?” They’re the kind of questions that say, “No foreigners welcome.” “If you’re not someone like us, then you’re not someone at all.” But the truth is none of us really are, at least not in God’s book.

Look at us by nature. R. Scott Richards has got it right when says in his book, “Myths the World Taught Me” – “every one of us starts life as a little savage, completely selfish and self-centered. We want what we want when we want it. Deny us these once, and we seethe with rage which would be murderous were we not so helpless. We are, in fact, dirty; no morals, no knowledge, no skills; children born delinquent. And if permitted to continue every one of us would grow up a criminal – a thief, a swindler, or worse.” That’s what we all are except that God, quite often with the help of family and friends, intervenes in our life by the power of His word for positive change. When we exclude others, when we cut them off, when we fail to let go of our prejudices, we’re actually in jeopardy of cutting ourselves off. We’re in jeopardy because we are not acknowledging that we too were foreign until our faith in Christ brought us to God.
So we must remember that God alone is righteous and holy, and that we are all “foreign” before Him, and thus we would remain if not for the grace of God which has made us righteous by faith in Christ and His cross and gathers us together in His love. On the cross Jesus bore away our “foreign-ness” before God, He himself taking our place that all might be given the right to become God’s children. He took every one of our sins, even our exclusive attitudes towards others, and made us clean. He made us righteous in His sight, and this not only to save us for eternity, but in the hope that we will live this out ourselves by welcoming everyone into the family of God.
It’s part of the joy of the Gospel. None of us are excluded – not for our past, not for our family history, not because we are physically weak, not because our names aren’t among the socially elite, not for who we love, or where we come from, nor for the colour of our skin. God’s promise is that we’re all welcome, that we all belong, by virtue of our faith in Christ, the one who has welcomed us through baptism and bids us to his table to share in his sacrificing love. Sinners all, made righteous in Christ’s blood; and in this gracious righteousness we look at others in new ways. We see them as we are, another sinner for whom Christ died, another one lost who needs God’s grace, a potential brother or sister in God’s house forever.

God’s plan is to gather still more besides us whom he already has gathered. And the joy of it is that he would use you, once foreign yourselves, now brought near; once lost but now found and fashioned into tools of the Spirit to gather even more – people of every walk in life, peoples of every nation in the world – He would use us to gather them all to the joys of knowing Christ Jesus and the eternal blessings that spill forth from His Church.


Warnings From History

1 Corinthians 10: 1-13

Two pals are sitting in a pub watching the eleven-o’clock news. A report comes on about a man threatening to jump from the 20th floor of a downtown building. One friend turns to the other and says, “I’ll bet you a tenner that the guy doesn’t jump.”

“It’s a bet,” agrees his buddy.

A few minutes later, the man on the ledge jumps, so the loser hands his pal a £10 note.

“I can’t take your money,” his friend admits. “I saw him jump earlier on the six-o’clock news.”

“Me, too,” says the other buddy. “But I didn’t think he’d do it again!”

Joking aside, one of the human race’s biggest failings is that we seldom seem to learn from history.  Hegel, a German philosopher, wrote that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, and anyone looking at the world around us right now would probably say very much the same thing.  The world is in a place where we see a rise in racism, a rise in violence, and a rise in the nationalistic, far-right doctrines that led the world into a catastrophic world war 70 years ago.

However, Oliver Cromwell, when planning his son’s education, said “I would have him learn a little history”, and despite what would seem to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I think that Cromwell was right: by studying honestly the mistakes that our ancestors made in years gone by, we can try and prepare ourselves to avoid similar mistakes if we find ourselves in a similar situation. The key word there though, is “honestly” – not with rose tinted glasses and excuses, we must first be prepared to recognise their mistakes. To admit their errors is not to deny that they also did much that was good.  And guilt cannot be inherited. In the past people of other nations did bad things too, but we cannot blame their descendants, any more that they can blame us.  The study of history is the best cure for any sense of exaggerated pride.

St Paul was a Jew, and he was understandably proud of the history of his people. But he saw also their faults, and said “that these things happened as an example to us” – not examples to imitate and copy, but ghastly warnings of the dangers of arrogant complacency. In particular, he quotes the history of the Exodus, when the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, and crossed howling wilderness into the Promised Land. They were given the blessings of God’s protection, and the privilege of escaping from slavery, he writes in the letter to the Corinthians we heard this evening. But they began to take these things for granted, and gave way to temptation, which should be a warning to us all. We hear of the sins committed by the Israelites:

  • They lost courage when most of the spies came back with negative reports, and began to doubt whether God would keep His promises.
  • When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the Israelites gave into temptation and began to worship a golden calf.
  • They committed fornication – just a quick word here about the meaning of that word, as it is quite often misused. The word fornication is derived from the same root word as pornography, and means prostitution, so when the bible condemns fornication it is referring to paying for sex.
  • They grumbled about the appalling conditions of their journey.

They would have done none of these things, writes St Paul if they hadn’t taken for granted the great blessings god had given them.

Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians as he believed that they were at risk in a similar way.  Just as the Israelites had passed through the Red Sea, so the Christians had passed through the waters of baptism and been united with Christ.  Most of the meat they ate came from animals that had been sacrificed to an idol in a heathen temple. No harm in that but then their Pagan neighbours invited them to a party in the temple and demanded that the Christians accept their idols as equal to God, becoming one with the idol by eating the food dedicated to it.  The Christians of Corinth went along with it so as not to offend their neighbours – this is certainly taking Love Your Neighbour a little bit too far.

We too, like the Corinthians, need to learn from history. We have had many blessings as a nation, including democracy, a justice system, freedom of religion, and a standard of living much higher than many other nations in the world, largely due to wealth formed by trading with those poorer nations and extracting their natural resources.  Yet, like the Israelites, we have become complacent, assuming that we deserve these things, they are somehow our birthright because we are better than other people. So like them:

  • We lose courage, and doubt whether God will keep His promises to those who love Him. Thus many people in our country have stopped going to church, and those of us that do are frightened to point out to them what they are missing.
  • The worship which should be God’s alone we have transferred to the golden idol of seeking to become wealthier and more successful.
  • We have compromised over sex. Sex is a good thing when it is an expression of love between two people in a lifelong committed relationship, but temptations are all around us and people demean themselves by using sex in other ways – to gain power, influence, and for instant gratification.
  • We grumble because our lives are not perfect, even though we have received many blessings.

These are the temptations which come with success, and any successful nation is vulnerable. We must learn from history what happens to nations which yield to these temptations, and get a grip on ourselves before it is too late.

The Joys of Multiculturalism

Acts 2: 1-21

There has been a lot of heated discussion and debate in recent years in this country about “multiculturalism”. As usual, the reason for many of the disagreements is that each side is arguing about a different idea, as it all depends on what you mean by multicultural.   The arguments stem from one set of people thinking that a multicultural society means one thing, and others imagine it means something completely different.  I think the readings for Pentecost Sunday have something to say about that.

The first thing to say on the subject is that Britain has been a multicultural society for at least a couple of millennia.  The Roman Empire was made up of many races, any of whom could aspire to citizenship, and the towns called colonies contained retired soldiers married to local women, whose children joined the army. When they invaded Britain, they found a mix of tribes called Celts.  Once again, the local women and the soldiers produced offspring, known as Romano-British, following much of the Roman culture but speaking Celtic, the most famous of which was King Arthur.  The Anglo-Saxons invaded, and most of the Celts were driven into the north and west of these islands.  Around the northern coasts, the Vikings invaded bringing their own language with them, a lot of which pervades the English language today.  Everywhere there were mixed race children.  When St Augustine brought Christianity to Canterbury, he found that many of the Celts were already Christians, and after St Hilda had metaphorically knocked the heads together of the two churches at Whitby, some sort of compromise between Saxon and Celtic cultures was reached.  After the Norman Conquest, the French enslaved the Saxons, but very quickly the languages and legends of each became mixed together.  Since then we have welcomed to our shores the Huguenot Protestants from France, Jews fleeing Hitler, Caribbean people whom we begged to fill our labour shortage, Ugandan Asians driven out by Idi Amin, members of many nations from across the Commonwealth nations and the EU, refugees from war torn parts of the world, and doctors and nurses from all parts of the globe without whose help many of us would be dead.  Each brought their unique blend of culture, language, insights and skills.  Our language has absorbed words from a hundred different tongues.  The study of genetics has shown that none us can claim to be pure-blooded anything.

When new arrivals come into our country, we either welcome them, learn a smattering of their language and teach them ours, then learn about their customs whilst retaining our own, and finally learn some of the wisdom that their ancestors passed on  to them.   Alternatively, we can shut them into ghettoes, shun them and leave them to sink or swim on their own.  In the worst case scenario, we can demonise all immigrants, making them scapegoats for all that is wrong with our society.  This is particularly prevalent during times of national crisis – when Germany was left without hope following World War I, Hitler and his Nazi party came to power by demonising all minorities and blaming them for the misery that the ordinary people were feeling.  The same can be said across Europe during the recent elections. Far-right parties have been victorious right across Europe, all of which have created their success off the back of blaming immigrants for the austerity being imposed on the people of Europe.  In the end though it all comes down to communication – stereotypes and scapegoats are all propagated without communication between ordinary people.

The Acts of the Apostles says that on the Day of Pentecost the apostles spoke in other languages, and the crowd, coming from all corners of the Roman Empire asked, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” That suggests that the Greeks heard them speaking Greek, the Romans heard Latin etc. etc.  Personally, I doubt whether that was really the case, such a miracle has never been attested either before or since. Much more common, even today, is what we call “speaking in tongues”, which is what happens when your mouth can’t keep up with your brain and you utter a sort of inspired babbling.  What St Luke was trying to say in this passage of Acts is that people speaking many different languages were so caught up in the enthusiasm and so moved by the power of the Spirit, that communication was established from heart to heart despite the disparity of languages and cultures.

That, surely, is Christian multiculturalism: when people with different backgrounds make the effort to get to know each other, seek to imagine what it’s like to be the other, and try to share, learn and love across the boundaries.  The British have never been good at that when we went abroad, so we mustn’t expect it to happen overnight here.  But if we work at it, eventually communication will come, and we shall enjoy the rich mix of cultures.  Sharing our Christian love and compassion, demanding nothing in return, our own faith will be deepened by the faith of others, and they will want to know what Jesus has given us.

With that in mind I’d like to finish with a prayer that comes from a different culture, from the culture of the North American Indians. It is still relevant to our own Christian life and particularly today on Pentecost Sunday:

Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me, as I call for your strength and wisdom.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others.
Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy – Myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame


Good Nostalgia vs Bad Nostalgia

Jeremiah 6: 16

Last weekend I met up with a group of my oldest friends, we were at school together, and as you can imagine, through the course of the evening, we reminisced for the good old days, and lamented how it was so much better when we were younger. Then as we reflected upon our lives now we realised that actually we probably only really remember the good bits and there were some awful things going on too that as children we wouldn’t have been aware, and that our children have just as much fun and freedom as we ever did.  As the American humourist, Peter de Vries wrote, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”.  As you think about that, remember that it is a mistake to live entirely in the past. We pity the Grumpy Old Men and Women (a group to which I seem to be growing increasingly like), always regretting that everything now is worse than it was in the good old days when they were young.  Yet Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. God’s way is to reveal his will gradually, step by step, giving the human race time to get used to one truth before he reveals the next one to us.  So year on year the world is becoming a better place, in some respects at least.  The reason that progress isn’t faster is that people who live in the past won’t accept the new blessings when God reveals them to us. To change our ways means to admit that some of them were wrong, and nobody likes doing that.

It was Georg Wilhelm Hegel, a German philosopher, who wrote, “The only thing one learns from history is that nobody learns anything from history”. As well as the bad nostalgia I have just mentioned, there is also a good nostalgia which tries to learn important lessons from the past, and how to avoid making the same ones again. This is what the prophet Jeremiah was talking about when he wrote:

“Thus say the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

Jeremiah reminded the people of Judah that they had a great history, in which they had learnt the importance of worshipping the one true God and obeying His commands, but they wouldn’t listen.  The result was their 70 year exile in Babylon. We must never lose sight of the important lessons which were learnt in the past.

But how does this fit with a world and society that is always changing. What was appropriate for a tribe of wandering nomads may not be right for a settled agricultural community.  Marriage laws that were right when many children died young may be quite wrong in a world which is rapidly becoming overpopulated.  A Latin proverb says, “Times change, and we change with them”, I think today we would add, “we must change or we shall be left behind”. It is an insult to Holy Scripture to read it on a merely superficial, literal level, and apply its laws unchanged to the different society of today.  And it is a good thing to be proud of the traditions of your nation, but not if it makes you rigid and inflexible. The Christian church has many wonderful traditions, in its architecture, music, the ways in which it is governed, and the way it worships, but if these traditions prevent us from adapting to new ways of thinking, they become “false idols”.  According to St Mark:

“The Pharisees and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; So the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’. He said to them ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of god in order to keep tradition”.

As people get older, me included, it becomes increasingly important to sort through memories of the past and to hold on to traditions that make us who we are. Yet we must not try to control the way the Church and the world develop by resisting change just because it is not “how it used to be” or “how we’ve always done it”.  We must live in the present whilst not forgetting the lessons of the past.

So I will finish with another quotation, attributed to the 19th century American author Alice Morse Earle. It has been quoted and misquoted many times, most recently as the concluding line of the animated film King Fu Panda – “The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is God’s gift. That’s why it is called the present”.


Who Are We To Judge?

Romans 14: 1-12

There was a Bishop sailing for America on one of the great transatlantic ocean liners. When he went on board, he found that another passenger was to share the cabin with him. After going to see the accommodations, he came up to the purser’s desk and inquired if he could leave his gold watch and other valuables in the ship’s safe. He explained that ordinarily he never availed himself of that privilege, but he had been to his cabin and had met the man who was to occupy the other berth. Judging from his appearance, he was afraid that he might not be a very trustworthy person. The purser accepted the responsibility for the valuables and remarked, ‘It’s all right, bishop, I’ll be very glad to take care of them for you. The other man has been up here and left his for the same reason!'”

The letter to the Romans that we heard part of this evening was written in around AD55 but what he writes is very important for the Church of today.  The problems which Paul confronted in the life of the Church in Rome are exactly the problems that face the contemporary Church.  Of course, society is different, but the fundamental facts of human nature never change, and they cause the same problems today as they did in Paul’s time.

One regrettable but universal fact is that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on other people, in our minds and in what we say about them – from minor issues such as a person’s choice in footwear, to the more fundamental and deep-rooted beliefs and behaviours.  Christians are often tempted to say about somebody else, “What he or she is doing and what she or he says is wrong – thank God I am a better person than him or her”.  In Rome, the Church was divided into what we might loosely call liberal and conservative factions, very much like the worldwide church of the 21st Century.  Conservatives said, “God gave us laws in the Old Testament as to what is right and wrong; you can’t change that; whoever does what is forbidden in Scripture is a sinner and can never go to heaven”.  But those who were more liberally minded said, “Jesus has changed all that; he set the law of love above every other law, and we are free to choose what we do, so long as it doesn’t harm anybody.”  The trouble is, both are right and both are wrong, in different circumstances.

St Paul reveals that he is clearly on the side of freedom. Like Jesus, he says that God is not interested in whether we eat some foods and abstain from others. But he recognises that some Christians haven’t yet understood that, and we must be patient with them.  He calls them “weak in faith”, which at first reading sounds a little harsh; however, he is not saying that their belief in God is any less fervent or committed but he is saying that they don’t trust God to give us freedom to choose which are the most loving actions; and they don’t trust God enough to admit people into heaven on the basis of repentance and love in their hearts, even though this was the message that Jesus brought to the world.  They imagine that God is tied to the rules he made centuries ago.

The conservative Christians of Rome were judging others who ate “unclean” foods which are forbidden in the book of Leviticus, not because they were unhealthy, but because they had been traditionally forbidden.  Paul speaks directly to the liberals who have accepted that Jesus came to show us that these laws are no longer valid, and that loving and trusting God, and loving your neighbour is all that is required to be a good Christian. He says to them that they should not flaunt their freedoms in such a way as to irritate the conservative Christians, or ridicule them, or show contempt.  Try to be positive.  G K Chesterton wrote, “We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we stopped looking for questions and started looking for answers”.

If I go into a shop and complain about a member of staff to their face, they would be entitled to ask me to take my complaints to the manager, as they work for their boss and not for me.  So St Paul asks, “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?”  God employs each of us, so we must leave the judging to him, and not assume that we are in all respects better than our fellow Christians.

The modern worldwide Anglican Communion, and in particular the Church of England, has been wrestling with some very thorny and divisive issues during the last 25 years – the ordination of women, women bishops, and, of course, equal marriage.  In a church in which people have different beliefs, we must learn to tolerate other people’s beliefs, even if we disagree with them, even if we believe they go against everything that Jesus taught us and for which he died.  If it is on a really important issue, we are right to speak up and say why we believe that some actions or beliefs are harmful to others, though courteously and respectfully and without naming names.  But then, if we haven’t persuaded those who differ from us, we must leave them free to do what they think is right, at their own risk.  The church of a particular tradition, or the church in a particular country, has no right to impose its views on another section of the church. It is God, after all, that will judge us, not our fellow Christians.

The Gods Of Modern Society

The Gospel of St Luke


There was a Victorian Bishop here in England who left a rather unusual request in his will. He had penned a short verse and he asked for it to be read to his clergy on his death. It ran:

“Tell my priests when I am gone

O´er me to shed no tears.

For I shall be no deader then

Than they have been for years”.

Well, it is true that we ministers of the Church are not always the fireflies in the dark night of the world we are invited to be. There was a priest in the London Diocese whose motto in life was to start each day with a smile and get it over with.

Now, with this in mind I’m going to ask that we focus not so much on my sermon today as that of St Luke, that sermon we know as his Gospel and if you place his Gospel next to the other Gospels and do a bit of detection work, this after all is what biblical study is, then you can quickly tell what Luke was passionate about, what aspects of his faith he really wanted to pass on. He was quite a writer, writing in very beautiful stylized Greek. He wrote over 25 per cent of the NT (including the Acts of the Apostles). We don’t know much about him: He was not Jewish, he was writing between 75-130AD, but we are not sure where. But that’s OK because Luke wasn’t writing so that we know about him but about Christ, and only in his Gospel do we find some of the most loved stories of our faith: Only in Luke do we find The Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the Rich Fool, the Prodigal Son, Dives and Lazarus, the Pharisee and the Publican, the Good Thief, and the Disciples on the road to Emmaus. Imagine a Christian faith without these. There is a tradition of him being an artist and a doctor.

Now whereas human bodies seem to have the capacity to heal themselves quite well, the human soul isn’t so skilled. The soul needs to be loved back into life, touched into life. Each day we hear messages fired at us, some come from our pasts, our hurts and losses – messages that we are not loveable, not worth much, not someone to be touched. And some of the messages come from our culture, loud but often subtle voices shouting at us what is acceptable and desirable and cool. And if you don’t fit, well, sad old you. In the Gospel we find ways of talking about illness that might make us uncomfortable today. One of these is the way in which the ill, particularly those with mental illness, are said to be possessed by demons. And Jesus tells them to be silent and get lost. Tells them to be silent. He asks the person in need of healing to listen to his voice and not to all the other voices that are bringing hurt and confusion. In fact, in full immersion baptism this is what happens, we are pushed under the water so everything is drowned out except for the words from heaven when we come up and take a gulp of fresh air – “you are my child, my loved one”. And from that moment on, we are asked not to live down to the voices that belittle us, but to live up to the words that tell us we are beautiful, created, unique. From that moment our life with God is a confusing but poignant journey of changes as we learn to live as loved, as touched. God loves us just as we are and loves us so much he doesn’t want us to stay like that.

So what are these cultural voices shouting at us at the moment? It might be easier if we did imagine them as demons or maybe as gods, like the Greek gods. I’ve identified just one or two that I think I listen to too much and from whom I need healing.

The first is called Gloss, the goddess of beauty and surfaces – a fickle being, incarnated in paper and adverts, a god so big she makes us all feel small and ugly. We are drawn by her siren voice but her perfection is impossible even for those who anoint themselves with her many sensuous creams and labels. She is cunning too – she makes humans confuse their wants for their needs and this leads to many tears. She teaches that life is survival of the fittest. Fit for what, she never reveals. She makes objects into people and people into objects so in her adverts you can never work out if the man is having an affair with the woman or with the car. And when she uses paper with red at the top on Sundays, she desecrates the human to make a headline so big it belittles us all. Luke would weep at all this. In his Gospel the poor are God’s special ones, he warns us endlessly about money and how we begin to reflect in ourselves whatever we worship. Faith isn’t found where it should be found in his Gospel, not in the clergy, the establishment, but is found where you would never expect it. The Pharisee, tells Luke, prays pompously and the publican can’t even face himself and only the publican goes home in relationship with God.

Obese is the god of gathering, of acquiring, who is never satisfied: happiness for him is having what you want not wanting what you have. And he always wants more even when bloated. Although people say he is seen on earth at the moment in the form of bankers, in fact he is found in the hearts of parents and grandparents just as much over much of the world. He is related to that great god who makes us buy things we don´t need called Ikea (mainly worshipped on a Saturday). Together they magic us into spending money we don´t have on things we don´t want in order to impress people we don´t like. Again, Luke would be angry. Only he tells Jesus’ story about the man in fine clothes who passes by the homeless man at his gate. Only Luke tells the story from Mary’s perspective and has her sing the truth that the mighty are put down and the humble exalted for they have room in themselves for God. The possessive are found wanting. AS Churchill said, “we make a living by what we earn, we make a life by what we give”.

Instantaneous is the goddess of now.  She cannot wait.  She must have fast cars, fast food, fast money, fast death. She is blind, never having the time to stop and see anything. She often gets into a mess too because she never has the patience to listen to anyone either. She beckons people to live full lives but strangely leaves them feeling empty. She is afraid of people meeting face to face in case they discover the joys of wasting time together, and so she invents screens and devices that trick us into thinking we are communicating but which actually add to our loneliness. She seduces with quick clarity and easy answers, and hates ambiguity, poetry, music, faith. Luke preaches, on the other hand, a Jesus who takes the time to be with people, to hear them, to touch the untouchable, and who constantly teaches that compassion overrules codes. This Jesus shows that generosity is not the same thing as justice and that to try and live justly we must first get beyond our first impressions (full of our pride and prejudice) and see afresh.

And finally there is Punch, the god of violence and division. If hate can be escalated he´ll have a go – if they don´t agree with you, lash out. If they´re different, slap them down. If they´re not in the majority, don´t invite them. When in doubt, just punch them. Now obviously Punch is the creator of some computer games, street gangs, film directors and state leaders. Religious leaders are often drawn to his clarifying power too. But also, Punch can be a subtle god and can hide in the consensus of the middle classes, and his punch can be made, not of a fist but of plausible, respectable, articulate words. Punch can be very charming as he drives around in his bandwagon. He can make you feel better. And he loves to play a little trick – he likes to make people yawn whenever the conversation turns to human rights and responsibilities, refugees, the poor, the environment, equality – in fact, anything that Christians believe are close to God´s heart. We need to resist Punch with every bit of energy we have. Luke, takes Punch on, stressing all through his writing the mercy and compassion of God, the Holy Spirit of God. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a Luke story only, the son makes a mess of life, looks at what he has become, and decides to return and seek his dad’s mercy so he can be given permission to start again. Never mind the arguments – his dad is already down the road, arms wide open. The problem is, hints Luke, that Christians instead of rejoicing in this story tend to start living like the brother who stayed at home: grumpy, resentful, tut tutting, lacking grace, working out who’s deserving of God’s reckless generosity. In another story unique to Luke, it was a nasty foreigner who looked after the man beaten up on the road and who reflected God. As you hear these stories, says Luke, so they should hatch something fresh and urgent in you – go and do likewise. Dante called Luke the scribe of the kindness of Christ. The Church has tried too hard to be relevant in the recent past, when what it should be doing is seeking to be resonant, addressing those deeper parts of us that know the poverty of giving your life over to these flimsy but glittering demons whose emptiness is too often only recognised when we are lying on a hospital bed. And the Church’s task must be to call us back to the freshness of the eternal and to the enlarging of the soul that is born when you learn the divine lesson that a human self is most itself when not being selfish. The Church should always have a distrust of first impressions, prejudiced and proud, and instead prompt a pursuit of that intuition that God is somehow in this world as poetry is in the poem. As part of that return to God, seeing who we are, what we have become and where we need to hear the voice of reassurance and love, the ministry of healing is offered. If you are lost, now, God runs to embrace you and shows you what he can see, his child and for always.