Monthly Archives: February 2021

Something for Sunday – The Turning Point

This passage is the pivotal moment in St Mark’s gospel. After this Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and the teaching is all about humility, the necessity for suffering and the way of the cross. In the Alpha Course members are offered an opportunity to explore the meaning of life. St Mark is not interested in discussing the meaning of life because he knows the secret of life. That’s why he calls his book gospel. The secret is that the meaning of life is to be found by following Jesus. Following Jesus means embracing death on the cross in his cause. This is extraordinary.

It’s particularly extraordinary when we consider how Jesus has been portrayed up to this point. Jesus has come across to us as a superhuman hero. He casts out demons. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. He subdues the storm. He walks on water. Twice, not once but twice he multiplies bread to feed large crowds. These are the actions of a wonder worker or a King.

And now it is this man who says to his disciples. If any man would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. We would do well to dwell on the sheer awfulness of what is being proposed. The cross was a method of public execution in which the victim is humiliated and subjected to extreme physical torment in full view of friends and neighbours. Naked of course. For the pious there’s the additional difficulty that to die in this way is to be accursed of God. It says so in the Bible.

So for Mark the meaning of life is death freely embraced as the ultimate act of self-denial. In this way the powers of death and evil are defeated. Some New Testament writers interpret Jesus’ death on the cross as an act of love. Paul does, John does, most preachers do but Mark doesn’t. Mark simply wants to say that the way of the cross is simply the way of obedience to the will of God. Discipleship requires following that way regardless of cost or consequences.

This is a very stark message indeed. Too much for Peter at the time, too much for the other disciples, too much for us? Yes certainly. And Mark wants to push it into our faces. He wants to challenge and embarrass us. He wants to turn the world upside down. But if we go along with him we’ll see that actually there’s good news here after all.

The New Testament proposes that you and I should live after the pattern of the cross. Mark emphasises it most strongly but each of the New Testament writers put the cross at the centre of the faith. The cross of Jesus defines the way in which we should live. We live no longer for ourselves but for others and for God. Christianity is not a way of making something of yourself in the eyes of the world-to profess Christ is not to be compared with joining the Rotary Club –it’s a way of self denial-self giving love.

What would it mean to live after the pattern of the cross? Jesus’ death is consistently interpreted in the New Testament as an act of self-giving love. To be Jesus’ disciples is to obey his call to bear the cross and thus to be like him.

Yes it is true that the death of Jesus carries with it the promise of resurrection but the power of resurrection lies in God’s hands not ours. Our calling is thus to follow Jesus without worrying about the results-cash value if you like. Follow Jesus and leave the results to God.

And how are we to do this? How do we take up our cross and follow Jesus. Our lives are so different from those of Mark’s first hearers-caught in the crossfire of a vicious war between Roman oppressors and Zealot terrorists. For them to resist the oppressor’s power of death even at the cost of ones own life made some sort of sense. But what sort of sense could it make for us. How do we live after the way of the cross?

The passages that follow in Mark’s gospel give us a clue. Here we find teaching against ambition, against the danger of riches, against worldly status, for wives against husbands, for children against adults, for the weak and powerless against the strong and the powerful.

How might this be applied to one area that troubles us a great deal-the question of divorce and remarriage. To follow the pattern of the cross suggests to us that marriage is a costly vocation patterned upon the costly love of Christ upon the cross. It is hard and the commitment to costly love should outlast the sentiment that drew the partners together in the first place. It involves the renunciation of power, which is why the New Testaments’ teaching against divorce is a teaching against the misuse of power by husbands against wives. Indeed in Matthew’s gospel the disciples, all men of course, respond by saying:

“Well if that’s the case it would be better not to marry at all!”

Today that’s one precept from the New Testament that’s been taken very seriously indeed.

All this does sound very stern-quite unappealing and unattractive. But that would be a false inference. The secret of the universe is self-giving love-self denial-self offering. We thrive on this both as givers and receivers. We find the meaning of our lives not in what we got but in what we gave.

Finally here are two verses from a wedding hymn. Remember the New Testament proposes the cross as the pattern for the love that there ought to be between husband and wife.

Now Jesus lived and gave his love

To make our life and loving new

So celebrate with him today,

And drink the joy he offers you

That makes the simple moment shine

And changes water into wine.

And Jesus died to live again

So praise the love that come what may

Can bring the dawn and clear the skies

And waits to wipe all tears away

And let us hope for what shall be

Believing where we cannot see.

Often we cannot see, our view is darkened. But the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who saw Jesus die saw clearly:

“Truly, he said, this man was the Son of God”

Ashes, Dust and Truth

Image result for ash wednesday

One Sunday I was preaching in a small country Chapel in rural Cheshire as the steward gave the notices for the coming week before the service started I reached for the glass of water in the pulpit only to quickly put it down when I noticed the film of dust on the waters surface. I was rather distracted for the rest of the service, for everywhere I looked on every surface there was dust! Not that I have any problem with dust it is very friendly and always comes back. Despite dust being part of all our lives we become embarrassed when people arrive unannounced and there is a layer of dust on our furniture. How much greater our embarrassment if the looked under the bed!

With the imposition of ashes, on Ash Wednesday the secrets of our ‘dust’ are brought into the light. Ash Wednesday is not about the cheerful stories we tell ourselves . It’s an uncomfortable thing for those who are normally neatly groomed, to walk out of the church and into the sunlight with dirt smudged on our brows. For many churchgoers, Ash Wednesday is one of the only things about our faith that makes public demands on us. We can leave our singing, our prayers, our fellowship and our financial giving behind in the house of God, but the ashes that begin the Lenten season are brought outside. Those ashes are given odd looks and, perhaps, hesitating explanations.

The ashes on our foreheads tells the truth about human existence. It’s an allusion to the creation of human beings recounted in Genesis 2 and to the realities of sinful life first described in Genesis 3.

The ashes testify to the fact that we are God’s creation. We are not our own, but are totally dependent on our creator God. The ashes remind of the lies we often tell ourselves: the lie that we aren’t full of need, the lie that we are OK, the lie that we don’t really need God. Ash is a physical reminder that we are clay in God’s hands.

This ash testifies to the fact that human creatures are broken creatures. Our lives, in truth, are not whole. They are scarred and twisted by sin. Our ashed brows forbid more popular lies: the lie that we are righteous, the lie that we’ve got life under control, the lie that repentance is something for other people. Ash is a visceral reminder of our brokenness and need.

The ashes are a telling of the gospel but in dirt. Not only are they mark of the truth about sin and God’s call for repentance, but they are a public witness to the healing and forgiving love that God pours over our repentant lives. 1 Peter quotes from Isaiah that “All flesh, is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25) The epistle links Isaiah’s truth about dust to the good news of Christ; “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23). Both death and life uses the dust of the earth.

The word of the Lord, that same word that remains forever, was made flesh. The eternal word dwelt with us ‘dusty’ people and never hid the truth about our dependence and brokenness. That living word testifies to the truth we try to hide beneath polished surfaces. As we begin Lent, we move towards the cross where the polish, of self denial is stripped away to reveal the dust beneath. Pain and sin are real and terrible, but God is the creator of and the Lord over the ‘dust’ of our lives and responds to the truth of our brokenness with the greater truth of Christ’s mercy.

The ‘ashing’ is a public testimony to who we really are. It strips away our masks. When we leave the church and run into friends and neighbours, they find it hard to look away from the ash on our faces. The problem, though, is that most friends and neighbours don’t know the biblical references that the ashes and the dust contain and so can’t see the witness to our true human condition that is written on our faces.

So we are called upon to translate the message.

We have to speak about the truth of that dust, not only in the marks on our foreheads, but with our words and our bodies. Perhaps our dirty faces can be a little means of grace. Perhaps they can be a nudge from God, the push we need to live out the truth of repentance in our everyday lives. Perhaps they can prompt in us the courage to go public with the truth that we are dust and to dust we shall all return.

God bless

Alan.

Grief, Loss and Bereavement – a free workshop

Workshop Date: Wednesday 31st March 2021 @ 7:30pm

For some Christians, the death of a loved one is inexcusable. Why didn’t God heal him/her? Did God ignore my prayers?

In this workshop we raise some of the big questions around death and dying, and around prayer and faith, as we explore bereavement from a Christian perspective.

We recognise that this is an emotive topic so we have Chaplaincy colleagues (Deacon Marilyn and Deacon Rachel) available for 1-1 discussions and prayer in ‘breakout rooms’ if required.

The workshop is set deliberately in Holy Week so that we can anticipate the joy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection, and thus bring some answers to our questions.
The event is designed for people from churches in the Sutton Park Circuit, and will be led by Revd Stephen Froggatt. Questions raised by this group will inform Stephen’s sabbatical study on the need for lament in public worship.

Revd Emily Young will also be on hand to ‘make the virtual tea’ and assist with the technology. We all hope you can join us online on 31st March.

Book via Eventbrite

Theology – Which way now?

Image result for biblical sign post

A few days ago someone commented that they liked my contribution to the circuit website and appreciated my ‘amateur theology’. I was pleased that someone thinks of my musings as theology but was unsure what they meant about them being amateur! But as compliments in ministry are few and far between I will take it as a compliment.

However that phrase highlighted a fundamental flaw that we have with theology in the western church, we see theology as a profession usually done by academics in a university setting and for much of my training that was what it was. Our systematic theology course focused on the two towering giants of 20th century theology, Karl Rahner and Rudolf Bultmann and into whose camp you fell.

This is not new of course, in the early days of the Methodist movement there was a fierce argument as to whether we should follow the teachings of John Calvin (Calvinism) or Jacob Arminius (Arminianism) and as good Methodists we know whose theology we follow today!(?)

This discussion about theology reminded me of an interview I read with Prof. Alan Torrance. Alan Torrance is Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Andrews University, he is the son of Professor James Torrance Erstwhile Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Andrews University, grandson of Rev Thomas Torrance a missionary in China and nephew of the great if formidable Rev Prof. Thomas F Torrance  professor of Christian dogmatics at New College, in the University of Edinburgh. He joked in the interview that there must be a rogue gene in the family that makes them all theologians.

During the interview the interviewer commented with so many theologians in the family there must be ‘Torrance Theology’. Alan Torrance pushed back at this idea and stated that the agent of theology and the context of theology is the body of Christ. For Torrance the body of Christ is the people who have been metamorphosed, through God’s self-disclosure as Jesus Christ — not in Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ — where the divine life is open to us to share.

Theology comes not from academia but from the church, the body of Christ, held together in a covenant with the triune God, the theologian is not the professional academic but are the people acting as Jesus Christin the world today.

The Church should not be defined by whose theology we accept or whose theology is imposed on us but by the theology we create in our, some times, feeble attempts to be the body of Christ. The direction of theological interpretation must always be from God’s self-disclosure to our categories of thought, and not from our prior categories of thought to God’s self-disclosure. 

That sounds very abstract, but to be practical, when we see the word “law” come up in Paul, we interpret it as what we mean by law, civil law, moral law and so on.

When Paul speaks of law He meant Torah, the articulation of our response to God’s covenant faith in us: “I am the Lord thy God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. As I am unconditionally faithful to you, so be faithful to me and to each other.” The whole history of Western theology has been to reverse that, to try to interpret God’s self-disclosure as Torah in the light of foreign concepts of law, natural law, civil law, moral law and so on.

Or we talk about the covenant. The covenant has become, in the West, “contract.” We think in terms of not an unconditional promise on the part of God to humanity, proposing an unconditional love like in a marriage covenant, where we promise to love the other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.

That’s what God’s covenant means. But we interpret it as a contract between God and humanity.

True theology comes not from our attempts to impose our world view on God’s self-disclosure but allow God’s self-disclosure, which is the body of Christ in all it’s forms, to form our theology.

God bless,

Alan.

Something for Sunday

Mark 1 v 29-39

Before I went to India a few years ago I read this in a newspaper travel column: ”In India wherever you go there are people”. I didn’t really understand this until I arrived and then I saw and understood. Indian streets teem with people-crowds swirl about everywhere even in apparently minor villages. For us to walk to down a street in England and not pass anyone is an everyday experience but for an Indian visitor to England it is strange and unnerving. Where are the natives? In India wherever you go there are people but in England wherever you go there are cars.

Galilee as Mark describes it seems much more like India than England. Crowds are everywhere, the whole city gathers at Jesus door, the sick are visible and present and not hidden away in a hospital. Jesus is a sensation and everyone talks about him and gathers around him. You can gain an impression of what it was like by looking at old photos and newsreels of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance campaigns. India again you see. The crowds, the holy figure in the midst and the powerful symbolic actions performed by the leader which show the coming of the new order to the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed.

Gandhi makes salt by the seashore in the midst of the crowds and the cameras to defy the British Government’s salt monopoly. By doing this he signifies the end of one source of authority and the coming of a new democratic postcolonial order. Jesus heals the sick and exorcises the oppressed to show the coming of the Kingdom of God and the overthrow of the Kingdoms of this world.

Gandhi was a spiritual thinker and a politician of genius. Jesus? Well Jesus was something else again. Gandhi was touched by the life of Jesus. It could be said of him that he was almost persuaded to be a Christian. We who are Christians and try to follow Jesus can try comparing him with other historical figures. I don’t think it diminishes Jesus it exalts him!

In this passage Mark offers us a typical day in the ministry of Jesus-actually not a whole day just part of a twenty-four hour period.

I see three elements to this:

Firstly there’s the public ministry as seen by the crowds. There are the acts of healing and exorcism. There is the confrontation with the powers by the use of symbolic actions which show up their world as finished and overthrown. There’s the preaching. We are not told anything about the content of the preaching but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Jesus is himself the content of the preaching. He’s a sensation. Everyone talks about him and goes after him.

To enter into this join the crowd, feel their excitement; crane your neck to see over their heads, smell their sweat. Look out – shield your eyes from the glare of the sun. Jesus is coming. Can you see him yet?

Secondly Jesus is not just a public performer. He shows real love and compassion towards the private and personal suffering of a member of the family of faith. He raises Peter’s mother in law from her sick bed. The fever leaves her. This takes place behind closed doors in the house.

The tension between the public and the private work of Jesus ought to give us pause for thought. The Kingdom that Jesus expresses in his own person is a Kingdom of love. Jesus though is not one of those people who loves humanity in general but finds real human beings difficult to live with. There are many people in history who have sacrificed their nearest and dearest to the cause of humanity in general. We’ve probably met people like that and some of them work in the Church. No, Jesus is not like that. Jesus is not only a liberator he’s also a personal friend. Some of the most beautiful passages in the gospels describe Jesus at home with his friends.

Of course there are questions about this healing which we are bound to think about. What sort of fever was this? Was it psychosomatic in some sense? Notice that when she is healed Peter’s mother in law immediately serves the company. As with most of Jesus healings the sick person is restored to their social role. They come in from the cold-they find their place. Perhaps in this moment there is something of the political alongside the personal, something of the public work alongside the private act of compassion.

Thirdly and perhaps most important of all in this portrait of Jesus’ day we see someone who is in full control. He is master of his agenda, master of the crowds. He is in great demand yet he makes space for quiet times in lonely places so that he can pray to God. Everyone searches for him but he decides whether he will be found or not, whether he will stay or move on to the next place. He is not trapped either by opposition or by a fan club.

This finding of space for prayer is crucial. We pay lip service to it in the Church but we don’t really believe in it judging by what we do and how we behave. I remember a wise old monk telling me that he’d asked a minister how he found time and space for daily prayer.  Oh, came the reply I’m so busy that all I can find time for is listening to Christian music downloads in the car. Busyness is what the world values so that we have to be seen to be busy too.

Jesus is in control. I don’t feel as if I’m in control. I wish I was but I’m not. A pair of lines from an old hymn comes back to me.

Help us oppressed by things undone

O thou whose dreams and deeds were one.

As I read this passage describing a typical day in Jesus’ ministry my overwhelming impression is one of energy and movement. The crowds are in motions Jesus is in motion and the disciples; well they too are in motion although they struggle to keep up. They have to pursue Jesus. You can imagine them running behind him

How did we manage to lose this? OK we got old, we got tired and we got cynical. So what could we do about it? This passage gives us a clue. Following Jesus means moving on: – making space for God in prayer, not letting them whoever they are running your life for you. To be honest that’s the bit I find hardest because I tend to worry more about what they want and what you want than about what God wants. And I guess we’re all mostly the same.

The End of Miracles?

There is one topic written about extensively during the pandemic and that is technology, particularly information technology. How as a church we keep in touch, evangelise, worship and mission has become very dependent on the technology we use.

However there is another branch of technology which has come to the fore and that is the technology which allows us to identify the genome of the virus, and produce vaccines in record time and on a vast scale, but the church has often had on uneasy relationship with medical science and technology.

The achievements of technology for the enhancement of human life are rich in promise, pointing to a glorious future of health and happiness.

New gene-editing tools, nanotechnology advances in health care and continuing progress in neuroscience raise hopes of healing hitherto incurable defects or diseases.

To borrow an enthusiastic line from The New Scientist on technological progress in restoring eyesight: “Scientists have accomplished what previously was saved for miracle workers.”

I don’t think that the church would want to demonise the gift of alleviating suffering should science make the blind see and the lame walk through genetic engineering, brain implants or robotic prostheses.

We should not overlook, however, that our increasing focus on technology for alleviating human suffering is sustained by a worldview that alters our self-perception. We should not allow our immersion in technology to go hand in hand with the disappearance of the person.

Of course, to note the disappearance of something is to imply that we know what is missing. What exactly a person is, however, remains difficult to say. The Dictionary of Sociology defines a person as follows:

“A person is a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who — as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions — exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”

Three features of the person in this definition are especially important. First, a person has a body. The spirit or essence of a human person exists only in bodily form.

Second, a person is a moral agent. Unlike other animals, human beings as persons can step outside their immediate environment and evaluate the world, themselves and others according to abstract ideals. This ability is the basis of the particular human quality of reasoning that makes possible art, literature, science and religion.

The third notable feature of the definition is the most crucial, because it takes us beyond the notion that human beings are merely rational animals. The human person is an “incommunicable self.”

That is to say, a person is not something exhausted by its definition — not merely the sum of certain characteristics. Or, said another way, a person is not like an onion, made up simply of layers of qualities, so that when we peel back the last layer, we hold nothing in our hands. A human being is more than just the sum of their characteristics and achievements.

The only word that comes close to describing the presence of the person is “love,” defined as the will to promote another. Perhaps the best image to describe this love is the parent-child relationship. Ideally, from the first moment, a parent wills their child to flourish and ultimately become independent of her as another free, happy individual. Each of us has been deeply shaped in our way of engaging the world by others.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy recounts a story of a man and his wife, Holocaust survivors, who were reunited after their release from separate concentration camps. Six months later, the wife died from an illness contracted while in camp, throwing the husband into the deepest despair, seemingly incapable of continuing with life.

In therapy, the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, himself a Holocaust survivor, asked the man, If God granted me the power to create an exact replica of your wife — including her memories and demeanor, so you could not distinguish her from the wife you lost — would you want me to do it?

After a long silence, the man stood up and said, “No thank you, doctor,” and left to start a new life.

What happened? The man realized that even the most perfect simulation still cannot capture the incommunicable self, the essence of unique love for another that makes us persons.

Yet this understanding of the person has disappeared in our present cultural obsession with technological solutions. Ray Kurzweil, who developed Optical Character Recognition (OCR) allowing computers to ‘read’, has predicted that by 2045 we will be able to upload our minds to computing platforms like the cloud.

Will the day come when we upload our minds? I want to convince you that it will not, because mind uploading is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the human person.

It is important to note that by “mind” Kurzweil means our personality profile, a replica of our actual selves. His dilemma is touchingly similar to that of the Holocaust survivor, Kurzweil misses his late father and wants to bring him back by creating a computer replica of his personality by feeding into a computer all the data he has collected about his father: voice recordings, pictures, letters, musical compositions — hundreds of boxes of stuff.

Of course, even if this process worked, you would end up, not with a real person, but with a replica. Kurzweil’s answer is that this doesn’t matter, because even in living human beings, personal identity is really nothing but input and output patterns of information. And the brain is essentially a pattern recording and recognition machine, much like a computer.

Once you have reduced cognition to the brain and the brain to a biological machine, it is easy to imagine that you can reverse-engineer the brain and digitally remaster all its functions, that we can upload our unique self-identity to digital memory devices and then either enjoy a disembodied future or download ourselves into any kind of cool synthetic body that technology can provide.

Now, I don’t think we should lose any sleep over the possibility that the futuristic visions of transhumanism will become reality. No, the real issue is a battle for our imagination. The more people like Kurzweil tell us our human identity is like the profile stored on our smartphones, the more we might actually believe this to be true. The problem with Kurzweil’s concept of the person is that the human self, our personal identity, cannot be reduced to patterns of information exchange. We do not view the human person based on a computational, disembodied and individualistic view of consciousness but by our loving relationships with others and most importantly by our relation ship with our Heavenly Father.

Human beings made in God’s image and in a ever growing sacred relationship with Him.

God bless,

Alan