Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 17, 1-7 & 15-16, Romans 4, 13-end & Mark 8, 31-end
Some years ago an advert was run on television with the aim of inspiring people to consider a career in teaching. In the advert a number of famous people mentioned the names of teachers who had inspired them and who, in some way, were responsible for the person’s choice of career and their ‘success.’ There is no doubt that good teachers are capable of inspiring us and giving us a life-long interest in their area of expertise. I was very fortunate to have some wonderful A level teachers. These teachers helped me to believe in myself and in the ability of my mind. I will be forever grateful. I hope that many of you will have also benefited from some excellent and passionate teachers. Some of you I know are, or have been, excellent teachers; thank you.
Today’s gospel reading starts with the phrase ‘then he began to teach them.’ It struck me, as I was reading the gospel earlier this week, that one of our challenges, or invitations, in Lent is simply this: to allow ourselves to be taught by the best of all teachers: Jesus. But, let me offer you a note of warning: allowing yourself to be taught by Jesus is no guarantee of success, in fact in worldly terms you may begin to look something of a failure!
Being taught, or becoming a disciple, implies giving ourselves the space and time to learn. It also implies relationship. In ordinary everyday life we can’t really learn from someone unless we commit to spending time with them. Its the same with our faith: we can’t really learn from Jesus unless we commit to spending time with Jesus, in prayer and in bible study. To learn well takes time and effort, it really can’t be done on just one hour a week. Are you carving out some time each and every day to spend time with Jesus; learning from Jesus?
Like all teachers Jesus, if we let him, can be demanding. Jesus’ interest, as the supreme teacher, isn’t simply about imparting knowledge, facts, data but rather about shaping our characters. Of course he also wants to point the way to some eternal truths. As a teacher what he wants us to know is that our eternal destiny is tied up with his destiny. The relationship between us, as learners, and Jesus as teacher is to be a covenant relationship. Jesus is a teacher who will never let us down. Yes, we might have to endure real pain and suffering, yes we have to take ‘up our cross,’ and ‘follow,’ but the promise is that it will all, in the end, be worthwhile. Jesus’ message is paradoxical because what he is saying to us is that if we are prepared to ‘lose’ our lives, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, then we will ‘save it.’
So what does losing our lives imply? Well, for me it implies two things: First, making God the centre of our lives and trusting in him just as Jesus did, and just as Abraham did, When we do so, as Abraham and Sarah found out, the unexpected and the miraculous might just happen. Secondly, it implies giving up the fantasy that we can, in any real and significant way, be the authors of our own story. To believe that we can script, navigate and act out our every whim, fantasy and desire is the ultimate fantasy and arrogance. To believe that we are autonomous, self determining and in charge is, ultimately, a strategy for failure. It is a strategy in the words of the gospel that is without ‘profit.’
What God is saying, through Jesus, is that we must learn to trust in him and him alone, and that as Christians we must, through the practice of learning from Jesus, learn to live our lives in an entirely different way. The way we must learn to live is the Christ-like way and, as the Gospel reading tells us, that means letting go of our fantasies, but the paradox is this: that by learning to lose, by relinquishing our fantasies, through taming our egos, what we actually end up doing is winning, or ‘profiting.’
Jesus as all good teachers wants to open up for us a whole new way of knowing, believing and relating. As followers, students, and disciples our Lenten challenge is simply this: to commit some time each and every day to prayer and reading the bible so that we can learn from the one who desires to teach us the deepest and eternal truths; Jesus. Amen.
Pembroke College: 18th February 2018, Genesis 9, 1-17 & Mark 1, 9-15
Thank you for inviting me to share just a few thoughts with you this evening. Since today is the first Sunday of Lent I thought I would start with a confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the Church of England!
The good news I suppose is that many, perhaps all of us, have love-hate relationships with the institutions in which we find ourselves lodged. Maybe, that’s just the nature of things? But for me, the C of E really, on occasion, gets under my skin. Yet, at a very real level I know that I both love it, and need it. The C of E, put simply, has always been there for me; it baptised me, confirmed me, married me, and ordained me. It has held all of our family funerals and it has introduced me to some very interesting people. I love its music, its liturgy and its sacraments. I can put up with its coffee mornings, quiches and quiz nights! But, despite all of this it really, really irritates, frustrates, and sometimes angers me.
It does so because sometimes it seems to me to fail to address the really obvious question, that all churches should be asking. This is the question that then Bishop of Kingston, Peter Selby, asked in his 1991 Book BeLonging:
‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation?’
This question has become for me a bit of a preoccupation, for it indicates two things: first that the Church as an institution should have a definitive sense of what it means to be a real a community, or holy communion of people, and, secondly, that the church should always point beyond itself.
The Church is always called on to model ways of being and relating that point towards a better way to live in the here and now (‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven’) and towards a vision of what that most perfect community of all – heaven – may look like. That, for me, is the basic calling of the church and her mandate. And if the Church can’t, or won’t, do this, then who will?
If you think about all other institutions they are locked into a success- failure, win-lose, way of thinking and, behaving. The church needn’t and shouldn’t be imprisoned by such ways of thinking. Uniquely she is positioned to get on with the job of building communities shaped through a commitment to love, justice, equality and inclusivity. Uniquely, as an institution, the church should be able to affirm and relate to all, irrespective of temporal identity markers.
As a parish priest, community building and shaping healthy community is my absolute preoccupation. In many ways I think that shaping community is integral to the notion of priesthood.
Today’s readings provide an insight into community. The reading from Mark’s gospel starts with an account of Jesus’ own baptism during which, we are told, a voice came from heaven saying ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ So the first job of the church is to let others know, through word and action, that they too are ‘beloved’ and that they are God’s pleasure. It strikes me as a statement of the obvious to say that if all of us knew and behaved as people who are ‘beloved’ then we would, like Jesus, be able to withstand the inevitable temptations that are placed in front of us to big ourselves up, at the expense of others. You see one of the problems in the church is that it does, quite mistakenly at times, pit people against each other: male versus female, white versus black, straight versus gay, able bodied versus disabled, rich versus poor, and so forth. And, of course, when it does this it creates an ideal, or an idol, out of God. Categorising, ranking and privileging are the greatest of temptations and ones the church should always face down; just as Jesus did when he was tempted in the wilderness.
To rank, categorise and privilege are the worst mistakes the church can make, for nothing is so certain as to undermine and negatively configure the ‘shape of the community,’ than the marginalisation of those who are already used to being excluded in other walks of life. A church that doesn’t, or worst still won’t, offer the opportunity for people to have their deepest longings met is a church that is failing to take the lessons from today’s readings seriously.
The reading from the book of Genesis is descriptive of the sort of earthly community that God wishes to see. It is to be a community that seeks to welcome and include ‘all flesh,’ it is to be the sort of community in which no-one feels ‘cut off.’ It is to be a diverse and glorious rainbow community, one in which no-one is destroyed or made to feel ‘less than’, simply on the basis of who they are. It is to be, or should be, a community for ‘all flesh.’
At the door of my parish church we have a sign which reads ‘all, yes all, are welcome in this place.’ We also have three parish aspirations: hospitality, healing, and holiness. These three terms require constant working out; they are sufficiently vague and ambiguous to be of use. The essence of hospitality is, I think, a commitment to welcoming all and making sure that no-one feels cut off or adrift. Healing is perhaps about affirmation, constantly letting people know that they are ‘beloved,’ and holiness is about two things: confronting our temptations to rank, categorise and privilege and secondly, getting some muck under our finger nails for the sake of others. We frequently pray for a world where no-one need feel less than fully human and the job of the Church, it strikes me, is to seek to build such micro communities whenever and wherever she finds herself; at least that’s my understanding and my preoccupation, Amen.
Martyrs for the Church
I have a friend who is Vicar of a very attractive, stockbroker sort of village in Southern England. He was doing very well until one day the news came that the Prison Service wanted to build a rehabilitation centre for young offenders in his parish. My friend the Vicar, who is a socially-minded sort of clergyman, but a bit naïve, was very pleased. He thought this was a great ‘mission opportunity’ for his wealthy parish to help some young people with far fewer chances than theirs. He expressed a warm welcome for the plan.
Most of his Parish Church Council, alas, didn’t see it that way. Half of them joined a local campaign to stop the centre coming. They thought about the dangers, all the possible threats to their children and homes and property values. When the Vicar came out in favour of the rehabilitation centre, some saw him as a traitor. One or two stopped coming to church, and a few more cold-shouldered him. He is still there in the same parish. But he’s pretty bruised, he has lost heart, and he is afraid he is now a marked man, and that the Bishop thinks he is a troublemaker.
Well, as I say, he was always naïve; and I expect he could have handled the situation more diplomatically than he did. Nevertheless his basic instinct was, I think, clearly the Christian one. He felt his parishioners were being rather unchristian, and he said so. And now he’s paying the price.
Jesus in today’s Gospel reading talks about being hated and persecuted for our Christian witness to the world. That’s the sort of witness and persecution we usually talk about in Church, and in a sense it’s straightforward. When you’re witnessing as a Christian on behalf of Christ and the Church against the world, at least you know where you are: it’s what Jesus warned us about, it’s what the apostles and St Alban and St Laurence and nearly all the Christian martyrs down the centuries have done.
But what about when, like my Vicar friend, you feel you have to witness as a Christian against the Church itself? What do you do when your own Christian conscience tells you to do one thing, but most other people in the Church seem to think you should do something else?
Each year we keep in Church the feast day of William Wilberforce, who is a good example of this dilemma. Everybody now thinks of Wilberforce as a great Christian hero, battling to free the slaves in the name of Christ. But we forget that Wilberforce’s fiercest opponents were Christians too; and when he began they were very much in the majority. Worse still, they were able to point out that slavery is accepted as normal throughout the Bible. They could quote St Paul telling slaves to be obedient to their masters. They could point out that Paul actually sent one runaway slave back to his owner, Philemon.
Hardly anybody in eighteen centuries of the Church’s existence had ever suggested slavery was wrong. So it was Wilberforce’s opponents who seemed to have scripture and tradition on their side. They could accuse him not just of being a dangerous liberal, but of being unchristian and ‘unbiblical’, as well. And I’m afraid the people who opposed Wilberforce’s emancipation bill more determinedly than anyone else were the Bishops in the House of Lords.
Isn’t it odd how the Church has forgotten that?
Something else we have forgotten is how useless nearly all the churches in Germany were in standing up to Hitler – Catholic and Protestant. There were a few heroes like Maximilian Kolbe and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But people like them were very few indeed, and they had precious little support from their fellow Christians. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the German Church went along with the Nazis; and, as Himmler once pointed out, that wasn’t surprising, since the Church invented anti-Semitism in the first place. Pro-Nazi Christians pointed out that in the Gospels the Jews are cursed for having killed Jesus. Hitler himself frequently quoted Martin Luther in his speeches – because Luther also preached that Germany should get rid of the Jews, and should burn down their houses, schools, and synagogues and kick them out of the country in the name of Jesus Christ….
Isn’t it odd how the Church has forgotten that?
The truth is that the Church, and Christian tradition and the Bible, as well as being hugely precious gifts by which we come to know Christ, can also, when used in the wrong way, become instruments of oppression which actually drive Christ’s Spirit out. That is painful to admit, but it is true. We need to see say very clearly that to be a true witness to Christ and obey his Spirit can sometimes mean standing up to the Church, and to supposed ‘biblical’ and ‘traditional’ teaching, as well as to the world.
And of course that is an awful position to be in, because you can never really be sure of yourself. If you read the memoirs of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, what comes across all the time is an agony of self-questioning and self-doubt. How can I set myself up against what the majority of Christians have always believed? How can I dare oppose the weight of Bible and tradition, when everyone is so sure they know what they mean? Is this really God speaking to my conscience or is it just wilful pride? Shouldn’t I just obey, and submit to what most other Christians think?
Well, thank God, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and many others didn’t just submit to what other Christians thought. They did follow their conscience, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, the Church calls them saints and Christian heroes. But it’s worth asking whether we would have agreed with them in their own time - because the chances are we wouldn’t.
One of the reasons I wish Anglicans studied both the Bible and Christian history more seriously is that when you do, you realise that, so far from being unchanging, religious ideas have constantly changed and developed. And the main way they have changed and developed is that in every age there have been people in the Church who stuck their necks out and said, ‘What we are doing is wrong. This is unjust. This is cruel. This needs to change’. Usually, like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, they get squashed by the Church at the time and are only acclaimed later on, when they are safely dead. As the Lord said, prophets are always without honour in their own land - and he might have added ‘in their own time’ as well.
There is a Greek Orthodox saint called Saint Symeon the New Theologian. He’s not actually very new, he is from the tenth century, but in Orthodoxy that IS relatively new. The Eastern Orthodox in particular always tend to think of their faith as an unchanging tradition. But as St Symeon pointed out, it isn’t true. On the contrary, he said, the test of real orthodoxy and healthy tradition is that it trains its own critics. There always has to be dialogue and challenge within the Church, so that it can adapt to new circumstances and new knowledge; otherwise it becomes either irrelevant or corrupt or both. (As you’d expect, St Symeon too was criticised as a dangerous liberal in his own lifetime. They only made him a saint long after he was safely dead.)
But he was right. Both the Bible and Tradition themselves are the record of constant change; and they should teach us that Christians always need to be critics as well as disciples. We are not called blindly to obey. Jesus called us friends, not slaves, and in the end we have to follow our own conscience in the light of his Spirit.
Most of the time of course, like the apostles and Alban and Laurence and most of the martyrs, when we are called to stick out our necks and witness, it will be to challenge the world. But sometimes - like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer - sometimes we are called to stick out our necks and challenge the Church too – because that’s the only way the Church itself can ever learn and change and grow.
One sharp observer (Jim Cotter) put it like this:
The Church always goes through four stages of response to any challenge to its tradition. First it pretends the challenge isn’t there. Then it argues vehemently against it and tries to exclude the challengers. Then it starts to admit exceptions and qualifications. Last of all, it insists that’s what it really thought all along….
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