Author Archives: pgrimwood

“I have longed to see you”.

For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith both yours and mine. Romans v 11/12

This is St Paul opening his letter to the Romans. The letter was written from Corinth where he was staying at the time. It is perhaps the most important letter in the New Testament and addresses many pastoral and theological questions. These questions still engage the best minds in the Church today.

Paul had never visited the Roman Church. Nevertheless he seems well informed about their affairs. They would have been a small community living in tenement blocks on what is still the unfashionable side of the River Tiber. They would have comprised gentile converts and Jewish converts and that matters in view of the contents of the letter. He says that he wishes to bring them some spiritual gift to strengthen them but as he says it he immediately qualifies himself. Mutual encouragement, mutual ministry are what he is looking forward to. He is expecting to receive as much ministry and encouragement from them as he gives. He needs them. After all they are God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that we are members one of another-members of Christ-grafted into his body. The Christian way is a life together-our worship is what we do together-we pray together to “our” father, when bread is broken and wine poured out it is rightly said that we break the bread-we come to the table-we lift up our hearts to the Lord. Togetherness matters. And this is what we have deprived of for months. We long to be together again just as Paul longed to meet the congregation in Rome.

Communicating remotely either in writing or by way of live streaming or whatever can never be a substitute for being together. Even the use of Zoom and other video conferencing apps cannot be a wholly sufficient substitute for face to face meetings. Nevertheless at the moment it’s probably the best we can do. Poor Paul he was criticised however he put his message across. He writes (2 Corinthians 10 verse 10) quoting his critics, “his letters are weighty and strong but his bodily presence his weak and his speech is of no account”. But some critics were unimpressed by the letters as well. (See 2 Peter 3 verse 5)

As for me I have offered my writings to the blog in the hope that they may be useful to you. Now that I have the realistic prospect of meeting some of you in person and as I am also about to go on holiday I am going to lay down my pen for a while.

Paul can supply a suitable benediction to close;

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13 verse 14)

Something for Sunday

Matthew 16 verse 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Very often these days when I think about a sermon for Sunday I look back in the file to see if I have addressed the text before. Matthew 16 verse 24 is a challenging verse and I was slightly surprised to discover that I hadn’t preached on it. But when I came to reflect on the text and its implications I wasn’t surprised anymore. Good news? Is this good news? Jesus is telling his disciples that if they are to be his followers they must go all the way. That is to say they must submit to carry the means of their own execution, to endure the mockery and scorn of the crowds and to be put to death in hideously prolonged and painful manner. That is what is meant by taking up the cross. It doesn’t bear thinking about so we don’t think about it.

How might we avoid the message of these words and similar ones in the gospel record?

One method is to pretend that Jesus never said it or if he did say it it was as a kind of rhetorical flourish. Sometimes we might say to someone; and if you fail your head will roll. Nobody seriously believes that public decapitation will be the result of a poor performance.

Another tactic of avoidance is to refer to a text like Luke 9 verse 23 where Jesus speaks of taking up one’s cross daily. Nobody can take up their cross on a daily basis. Remember what the cross means. It’s not to be compared to a minor physical handicap, a disagreeable boss or an unhappy relationship.

A similar approach is to treat the cross as a kind of metaphor for sacrificial living and loving. Jesus is teaching us to live unselfishly promising that if we do we will live more satisfying lives. No doubt that is true. Indeed I have said it myself in one form or another many times. But that’s not what is being said here.

What is being proclaimed here is a complete revolution in human affairs. The coming of Jesus marks the end of the old order-the former mode of life. Jesus calls upon his disciples then and now to embrace death to the old order in order to receive life in the new order. Through this revolutionary act the old order is judged and found wanting. This is a basic point not just in Matthew but in all the gospels. Discipleship is costly and as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote: “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”. For baptism, an event not usually associated with death in most people’s minds a key text is Romans 6 verse 3 where St Paul writes: “Do you know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” Well most people don’t know but we need to know and we need to keep the idea in the forefront of our minds.

What is the cost of not knowing? Christianity is turned into a benevolent form of do-gooding according to the precepts of the present time. It becomes what I like to call in my more cynical moments: political correctness with hymns. Such a philosophy of moral improvement, kindly sentiments and humanitarian ideals all associated of course with Christian texts and the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher pushes out the historical Christian faith with its radical demands. This has been summed up in a famous quotation, one of my favourites: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (full reference supplied on request)

A religion based on earnest self-improvement and effort is ultimately unsatisfying and depressing. We need to be in Charles Wesley’s words ransomed, healed restored and forgiven and then, Charles Wesley again, “we can show by deeds that our sins are forgiven”. And thus we show that we have passed from death to life and our hearts are filled with joy. Anything else is too gloomy for words.

We proclaim Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.  And one way in which he comes again is through our acts of love for one another. As Mother Theresa said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours”. Nice one Tess!

If we are honest we know that Christianity has now become a counter-cultural movement. That’s nothing to be upset about; indeed we should embrace this moment with joy. What I find exasperating is the sight of Christian leaders refusing to acknowledge this and claiming for themselves all kinds of ancient privileges and establishment status. No brothers and sisters you were not called to be Chaplains to Pontius Pilate and his bodyguard.

When I was growing up all my family were Christians of one kind or another. That generation has passed and now I find myself in a tiny minority of believers. I must be careful what I say if I am not to attract comment such as: you don’t believe that do you! I have also discovered that I am a more traditional and orthodox Christian than my parents. I find myself saying quite frequently: “and that is what Christians have always believed”. Such sentiments are not always acceptable even today among thoroughly modern Methodists.

Most of us when we grow up want to embrace modernity and serve the present age with body and soul. Slowly I became disillusioned with this approach finding the present age to be a spiritual desert however much it promised by way of amusement and entertainment in “vanity fair”. For me the Christian faith came to seem more and more attractive and to offer answers at both the political and the personal level. But I still wanted to have my cake and eat it-to save my life for myself. Then I encountered texts like todays and I saw the light. Love bade me welcome. I put my doubts to one side and I followed what I now know to be the true light. Now I am quite sure, despite the cost, following Jesus is the best way.

Something for Sunday

Central to our gospel message today are two questions. Firstly; who do people think Jesus is? And secondly and much more important who do I think Jesus is? Who is Jesus Christ for me and for all of us today? Everyone whoever they are and wherever they are has to come up with some sort of answer to that one.

In the passage the disciples respond to the first question by citing figures from the past. Who is Jesus? He’s like Jeremiah or John the Baptist or he’s really just another prophet. In a similar way people to-day also try to bracket Jesus, so he’s a Zealot a political revolutionary like Che Guevera.[I have T shirt that identifies Jesus in this way] There is a bestselling book entitled “Zealot” about Jesus in the shops now which makes this argument. Alternatively he’s a great moral teacher like Ghandi perhaps or a healer or even a magician. A book entitled “Jesus the Magician” came out about forty years ago and can still be found in libraries and second hand bookshops.

But consider next Jesus’ challenge to Peter and Peter’s reply to the second question. Who do you say that I am? And Peter replies; you are the Christ the son of the living God and Jesus responds with a blessing for Peter.

The words of Jesus blessing: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church are the title deeds of the Roman Church. Go to Rome stand in the piazza before St Peters and you will see these words carved in stone letters of great size in Latin of course on the pediment of the basilica of St Peters. Why are we here? What authority do we have? It comes from these words.

The Church it is often said is built on Peter’s faith. What does that mean?

The Church is built on Peter’s faith not on Paul’s theological insights. Christianity is not a philosophy or a system of secret knowledge it’s a response to a person – the person of Jesus. In his many and varied responses to the person of Jesus we see Peter growing from misunderstanding to insight from doubt to faith, from cowardly flight to faithful obedience. However I don’t think we should patronise Peter-although he was slower than Paul to grasp a full understanding of what Jesus was about –he grasped quickly- and having grasped it he didn’t let go easily.

Like Peter we too have to address the question as to who Jesus is for us and for our times. It can be a struggle to realise the truth about the real Jesus but it’s a great struggle.

The Church is built on Peter’s faith not on Stephen’s heroic virtues. There is a temptation for all of us in ministry to imagine that suffering or persecution somehow validates all that we do. Paul warned against this. “If I deliver my body to be burned but have not love I gain nothing”. No the Church is not built on that. It’s built on the faith that ordinary Christians like Peter have in a loving God- a faith that empowers them to love others.

Of course it’s a bit of a misstatement to say that the Church is built on Peter’s faith. The right place to put the emphasis is to say that the Churches one foundation is Jesus Christ Her lord which is given expression by the faith of the disciples of whom the first is Peter. Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ the son of the living God. Peter proves to be headstrong, vacillating, cowardly and weak by turns but in the end in human terms faith like his is a sufficient base to be the foundation for the Church.

These then are the title deeds of the Church universal.

And one might ask of any local church. What are your title deeds? What’s your foundational text or foundational story? Most churches have them. The vision, the person the combination of inspiration and perspiration that made it happen in the first place.

The other aspect of Jesus’ charge to Peter is that Jesus gives Peter authority to bind and loose-to make rules and change them-to acquit the accused and condemn the guilty. What we are talking about here is discipline-discipline in the Church a subject of great interest to the author of Matthew’s gospel.

Christianity is a way of life. It’s not just a package of religious opinions. The earliest followers of Jesus defined themselves as followers of the way. Now if Christianity is a way of life then it ought to be possible for the Church to say: this kind of behaviour is not compatible with the way and this kind of behaviour is. And these things have to be named. Sometimes the Church changes its mind. It doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen. What we are talking about here is church discipline.

This is an uncomfortable subject for us. We are subject to a double temptation. The first temptation is to ignore the subject for fear that we might upset someone. This neglect leads to bad relationships-festering hurts, injured feelings, and a sense of injustice and betrayal. The second temptation is abuse –picking on someone in a weak position –misusing power. The great difficulty is our inability to speak the truth in love because of our fear of confrontation. But a failure to speak the truth in love is quite simply a failure to love. 

There is only one simple answer to this. It could be the motto for the entire church. We must love one another of die. Loving one another is not that difficult but God’s grace is needed if loving is to be effective. Certainly we must work at it.

When I was thinking about candidating for the ministry I went on a day’s course to try and put my thinking into focus. A very wise thing was said to the course members. Being a minister is no substitute for being a Christian. I agree with that statement. I found it profoundly helpful then and I still do.

The Church is built on Peter’s faith and the care of the Church is entrusted to Peter. And who is Peter. Well it’s not just me and it certainly isn’t just Pope Francis, the Circuit Meeting or the Methodist Conference. . The truth, palatable or not, is that it is all of us together. The Church is built on the faith of all of us and we all share a duty to care for each other. You are Peter said Jesus and on this rock I will build my church. What an awesome responsibility and at the same time what a wonderful gift!

Something for Sunday

Matthew 15: 10-28

Sometimes in our Bibles we have cross headings: Jesus walks on the sea last week, the five thousand fed a fortnight ago and so on. What heading might be given that would link the two parts of our gospel reading. In the first part there’s a discussion about what defiles someone and in the other Jesus encounters a foreign woman who importunes him for her daughter and earns Jesus’ praise for her great faith or perhaps for her sheer cheek. So what kind of cross-heading might we devise? Remember it’s got to unite both stories under one heading. How about this: The scandal of the gospel.

Scandal in the usage of the New Testament is something that is a difficulty-a stumbling block-an obstacle to belief or godly living. The old baptismal service used to say: Let no stumbling block be put in the way of this child. That doesn’t mean what I took it to mean when I was a child myself namely that a child can do what it likes-on the contrary it expresses the hope that the child will be well brought up and find no obstacle or difficulty in coming to faith in Jesus.  In this gospel Jesus says: “Blessed is he who is not scandalised by me”. In some modern translations this is rendered as “Blessed is he who takes no offence at me”. So in our gospel passage the Pharisees do take offence but the foreign woman does not take offence. And that’s a real surprise because Jesus calls her a dog. Well let’s not be mealy mouthed about it lets attempt a bit of paraphrase. She says; “Lord help me”. He says; “I’m not bothering with a foreign bitch like you”.

And she comes straight back at him with a disarming witty rejoinder. It’s as if she’s been on assertiveness training or attended a NHS course on how to handle difficult people. But the most important thing is that she’s not offended. The person and words of Jesus are no scandal to her.

The Pharisees are offended-scandalised by Jesus. The Pharisees have a point. Quite apart from considerations to do with e-coli covid 19 and mrsa it is good to wash ritually before meals. It reminds us as to who we are and what we are about. Besides it’s hallowed by tradition.

The disciples too are rather uncomfortable about this wholesale dismissal of a traditional religious practice. Almost offended.

But Jesus makes no concessions at all. He makes a joke, rather a dark one about blind guides. He insists that the central point is that we should live faithful and Godly lives and that questions of religious custom are secondary. No doubt the disciples continued to be somewhat sceptical. We’d be sceptical too!

Part of our trouble with all this is that we are aware that the cost of discipleship is a real cost. We’ve heard many sermons about that and no doubt we’ll hear more. Walking the way of the cross is the term that covers it all. The central symbol of the faith is the cross and the way of the cross is the way of suffering love. We all agree.

The difficulty is that the way of the cross is too easily confused with scrupulous religious observance. This is a confusion that religious professionals are always happy to indulge in.

It’s important not to misunderstand the Pharisees in these passages Easy to think of Jesus as confronting a worn out, failed religion which is about to be superseded by the gospel. Easy but dangerous. It’s unfair to the Pharisees historically and it also encourages anti-Semitic sentiments. Better by far to think of ourselves as the Pharisees and the debate as a debate within the first church. We all know from experience how often these debates are replicated in the modern church.

As for the Greek woman she is not offended. She has every reason to be offended but she is not offended. She won’t let Jesus go until he blesses her. Some have said that this is Jesus transcending the racism of his own background and that of the disciples.

In the end all I feel I want to express about this strange episode is surprise. Jesus is surprised and impressed. In Matthew he is surprised and impressed by her faith but in Mark’s version he is surprised and impressed by her wit and argumentation.

Rather than imposing an anachronistic meaning on these words let’s just be surprised, as Jesus was surprised. Perhaps the good news ought to surprise and perplex us more than it does. Be surprised. There’s a blessing in being surprised. And we are surprised. Why is Jesus so gratuitously offensive to this person? We know that the gospel with its radical demands will strike many as offensive but why is this?

Jesus says that those who are not scandalised by him are blessed just as the foreign woman was blessed. What might it mean for us to be blessed in this way? And what might it mean to be scandalised by Jesus and how do we suffer if we are.

You know there’s a great deal of the Pharisee in all of us and by us I don’t mean occasional visitors or outsiders. They are most welcome but they should be warned, they are in great danger-from the rest of us.  For we have a tendency to be offended by the radical freedom offered by Jesus, to reject the new wine and retreat into the old wineskins. To put in the place of the gospel a heavy religious superstructure devoted to the worship of a pitiless god who demands endless sacrifice. This god will really make you suffer. The good news of Jesus is that there is no such god.

We are offended by the notion that God doesn’t fit into the scheme into which we think he ought to fit. We want to make burdens for ourselves and for others because freedom is just too much for us. The real good news comes quietly, kindly and slowly. Blessed are those says Jesus who can receive this and are not offended.

Jesus does not offend the foreign woman. She is prepared to risk being offended. She’s not trapped inside a system of religious and social obligation as the Pharisees are. She’s prepared to cross a boundary, speak out of turn, risk a snub all for a great reward. How many of us would be willing to do that. The prize is a blessing and the fulfillment of faith. The cost is the likelihood of hearing a word that takes us to the limit of what we can receive without offence.

Perhaps the message here is that we should all be a little bit bolder. Respond to those hard sayings. Give God a witty answer-express our faith in questions and arguments-not worry too much about the pieties.

Kierkegaard, the Danish writer, was not afraid of giving offense-indeed he made a career of it. Once he said this. Take away from Christianity the possibility of offense – or take away from the forgiveness of sin the battle of an anguished conscience. Then lock the churches, the sooner the better or turn them into places of amusement which stand open all day long. Yes Christianity can and should give offence sometimes. Blessed are those who are not offended said Jesus.

Kierkegaard also wrote parables. Here’s one he didn’t write. A close encounter with the Kingdom of God is like a visit to the circus. We are fascinated by the clown’s performance and yet we fear that we may be selected as the object of his next trick. So as he approaches our ringside we look away.  What a lot we miss!

Blessed is he, says Jesus, who is not scandalised by me!

Something for Sunday

Allow me to share with you the last time I visited the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was a warm day, we had a good lunch featuring fish from the same sea and thereafter people made their way to the water’s edge and waded in. Selfie sticks were drawn from back packs and then selfies were taken. “This is me in the Sea of galilee” I thought this was all rather odd at the time and somewhat contrary to the spirit of the gospel which discourages emphasis on the self. Still they were mostly Anglicans so what do you expect.

Our gospel reading today features God and the sea. Another anecdote now. In 1735 John Wesley was outward bound by sea from England to the American colonies. He wasn’t used to sea voyages. He wrote subsequently:

“At eleven at night I was waked by a great noise. I soon found that there was no danger. But the bare apprehension of it gave me a lively conviction of what manner of men those ought to be who are every moment on the brink of eternity.”

Ships were wooden in those days so it’s easy to imagine the sounds of groaning timbers and the noise of the wind amidst the sails and the rigging.

Among the other passengers were some German Moravians. Wesley was impressed by their faith and confidence and joined in their worship. Wesley had found himself on the brink of eternity, his faith had been tested and he had given way to fear. He probably remembered these verses from psalm 107:

They that go down to the sea in ships

And do business in great waters

These men see the works of the Lord;

And his wonders in the deep

They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep

For at his word the stormy wind ariseth: which lifteth up the waves thereof

They are carried up to heaven and down again to the deep.

And so on.

Wonderful and often set to music.

So through the ministry of the Moravians and the witness of scripture Wesley’s faith is confirmed and strengthened. Not faith in the shipbuilders, the captain or the crew but in God.

Switching our attention now from Wesley’s ship to the boat on the lake what do we find? The wind is against them; the far shore is a long way ahead. This is a difficult and dangerous moment.

And then they see something extraordinary; Jesus himself walking on the water. This is truly an extraordinary sight and the text says that they were terrified.

Now all of us, you and I together have to answer a key question-who do we think Jesus is? Perhaps a moral teacher to be mentioned in the same breath as Socrates or Gandhi or to that famous professor, whose name I cannot remember who contributed so lucidly to Radio 4s moral maze, or of course a healer and if you remember last week’s gospel an organizer of pot luck suppers but someone who walked on water come now we are respectable godless people people don’t walk on water. It must be a ghost. So I can imagine the disciples in the boat. But we are wiser than they for we remember a few chapters back how Jesus stilled the storm eliciting the question: who is this that even the winds and waves obey him? Who indeed?

Peter, who is beginning to realise just who Jesus is leaves the boat and receiving Jesus invitation walks on the water until his faith gives way and he begins to sink. Then Jesus rescues him and they all worship Jesus. Remember only God is worthy of our worship.

So sisters and brothers what is all this to us. It’s a warning to us all to remember who Jesus is so that we don’t dismiss him from our minds with an easy verdict such as: It’s a ghost! Our calling is to bear witness to him and not to dismiss him because we are too fearful to take him seriously. Remember he commanded the disciples to leave the shore and push out into the deep.

When I was in theological college one of our tutors preached on the theme of walking on water. That’s what presbyters have to do he suggested-walk on water. What did he mean?

Clearly all Christians have to be sustained by faith, have confidence in Jesus and not succumb to doubt as Peter does in the passage. So far so straightforward but is there more to it than that.

To walk on water is clearly impossible within the normal frame of expectations and customary possibilities. But surely that’s the point. To be a Christian is to believe in a better world than this one, with different frames of expectation in which the impossible becomes possible. The shorthand word for this is the “Kingdom of God” an economy not of scarcity but of grace. I’ve been around long enough now to experience how expectations and customary ideas of what is practical and possible have changed. I have been reminded that in the end Christianity is no religion for this world but is instead revolutionary in the sense that it offers you and me a better world than this one.

As a dominant establishment Christianity fades away in our time the call of Jesus to walk on water seems ever more relevant. A this worldly creed seems ever more absurd and inadequate to meet our deepest needs. So the call that I think I heard from my tutor could be summed up like this: stop splashing about in the shallow end taking selfies and prepare to step out into the deep-and above all think differently.

Something for Sunday

Today our passage from Romans comes from the beginning of a long section in which Paul addresses his “sorrow and unceasing anguish” about relationships between Jews and Christians. Has Christianity superseded Judaism and how do we understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament or as I would prefer to say the scriptures and the apostolic testimony? These remain questions of great importance especially when anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise again. In our time Christians have had to examine their consciences, re-read the texts and consider how flawed understandings of God’s purposes with his people led to such horrors as the holocaust.

These re-considerations and re readings have been fruitful for Christians. We have come to new understandings of both Jesus and Paul in their Jewish context. Particular titles that spring to mind are, “Jesus the Jew” by Geza Vermes and “The Misunderstood Jew” by Amy-Jill Levine. Amy-Jill’s book is a very accessible text and can be strongly recommended to all preachers. For those who are looking for a more academic approach I can also recommend; “The God of Israel and Christian Theology” by R K Soulen. Soulen is an American Methodist Minister and academic theologian. His book is discussed over several pages by John Barton in his recent prize winning and bestselling book: “A History of the Bible-the book and its faiths”. Well that’s enough book recommendations for now.

Turning back to Paul we should note that he asks himself; “has God rejected his people?” He replies; “by no means” and then asks again; “have they stumbled so as to fall” again he insists; “by no means”.( Romans 11v 1 and 11 ) Paul then proposes a scheme whereby in the purposes of God all will be brought to salvation. He further insists that the gifts and call of God are irrecoverable that is to say God never goes back on his promises. In Galatians 3 v 29 he insists that if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Or as Pope Pius X1 remarked in 1938: anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually we are all Semites.

It’s also important to remember how deeply the world of the “Old Testament” is embedded in what we call the New Testament. Throughout the gospel record the echoes of Israel’s scripture are continually to be heard so it is important that we use this scripture in our worship and prayerful reflection. Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount; “think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5 v 17). To the travellers on the Emmaus Road Jesus, at this point in the story incognito, “interprets to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself”. Paul when he proclaims the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 v 4 declares that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” He means what we call the Old Testament because the gospels had not then been written. Perhaps Psalm 16 is in his mind. Some of these texts are challenging to thoroughly modern Methodists but for me at least that is why they are of great value.

To conclude on a personal note. I come from North London where Jewish people were and are a much loved and respected part of the community. When the synagogue in Palmers Green was bombed in the war a temporary synagogue was established in our largest Sunday school hall-it was a big Church. We were taught in Sunday school to take pride in this aspect of our Churches history. At about the same time the Council for Christians and Jews was established and I have been a member for some years. The CCJ has a branch in Birmingham and arranges interesting meetings from time to time.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Psalm 118 v 26 and Luke 13 v 35.

Something for Sunday

The Bright Field

What’s the point of it all? Why come Sunday by Sunday. To sing the old hymns-to hear the old words and sit on hard pews. Many other things that one could be doing-cooking the lunch-cleaning the car, watching the Test match and taking the family out and most people are doing these things. Some might say that it was your duty to come and indeed I would say so myself but it would take more time than I have to justify such an unpopular line.

The parables in to-days gospel were not taught in order to raise the flagging morale of elderly Methodists. Nevertheless the first hearers of this gospel were like us in these respects. They too had been raised in an old religion and were now being called to embrace something new. For them and for us the new thing is faith in Jesus. The old thing for them was the synagogue and the old thing for us is the religion of consumerism which is so powerful and all embracing that we don’t notice how it determines all our thoughts and feelings. Sadly for us the old thing is also the old form of Christianity-the old bottle that seems increasingly unable to contain the new wine. Yet inside the old form is the seed of something new, a tiny seed perhaps like the mustard seed, the hidden treasure-the good fish amongst the stinking fish and the priceless pearl amongst the dross.

And these parables teach their hearers to be hopeful. Your hopes will be fulfilled-the Kingdom of Heaven is there. But its hidden-and you’ll need judgement in order to find it-and finding it will cost you something. Now that is the message we all need to hear. There’s a hymn which begins:- Give to me Lord a thankful heart and a discerning mind. And a discerning mind. Yes indeed! Judgement. That’s what we need. We need to be able to discriminate between the false pearls and the priceless ones-the good fish from the stinking fish. We need to be able to find the hidden treasure. We belong to the church in order to learn how to recognise the treasure. Such skills are not easily acquired. I remember once walking around a church in Portugal with a friend of mine. I can’t remember why we had gone in. Perhaps it was hot and the bar was closed. My friend is a complete atheist. As we walked around the church I appreciated the statuary, the furnishings and the peace of the place. This was the place where the treasure was hidden. Not for him though-to him it was a monument to ignorance and superstition. Both of us were committed to our particular ways of seeing and I don’t suppose that either of us had come easily to our commitment.

These parables each stress the cost of commitment. “He went and sold all that he had and bought that field.” He sold all that he had to buy the pearl of great price. The net had to take in all manner of fish. Only by focussing heart, mind and spirit will you find the treasure. You know you won’t find the secret of the treasure without commitment. Following Christ is not like watching breakfast television. Listening to the word of God is not like watching a chat show. It demands something of you. And it’s hidden. Why is it hidden? Why can’t the gospel be as accessible as  the Big Breakfast. Answer because the struggle to find the treasure is part of the treasure. It’s the quest for the Holy Grail that makes it holy.

Judgement-Commitment-Concealment.

Concealment: The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like the one pearl that’s of great price amongst all the others such that one should sell all that one has to possess it. It’s like the yeast, the leaven-hidden in the measures of wheat till one sees its effect when the bread rises. As Isaiah says of God himself: Truly thou art a God who hides himself.

That hidden quality so difficult to discern and to describe yet it gives life and beauty to everything else.

Perhaps at this stage of the history of your chapel you feel discouraged-so many hymns sung, so many sermons preached, so many meetings attended and for what! Hope denied. Apparently yes. Hope is in a way always being denied by experience but hope abandoned I think not. For amidst the fake pearls and the stinking fish there is always the promise of real treasure. Yes that was worthwhile, that person, that visit, that insight-yes that was it-the real thing-amidst all the religious claptrap and the sentimental dross-it was there-perhaps when we least expected to find it. Yes the struggle and the quest is worthwhile. Hope that is grounded on human aspirations and schemes will always disappoint. Hope needs to be grounded on sterner stuff. On the promise of the resurrection-on the assurances of God’s mercy upon fallible-hopeless creatures like us. So in the end the point of being here is to be reminded. There is treasure hidden here-there is the pearl of great price here-plenty of fakes-Oh yes!-but there’s the real thing as well. Do you know where to look for it? I hope so. And don’t tell anyone else about it. Keep it to yourself. It’s your thing-your bit of the truth-perhaps the only real thing you’ll ever have-don’t let anyone knock it because it’s yours-the bit that was just for you. And you bought it with a price. But if it’s just for me what about the rest of them. Well aren’t they a means to find the treasure-some of them are treasures themselves. Would you really wish to deny them the struggle? Strange how the gospel can seem to be a secret vouchsafed just for me and at the same time a message for the whole world.

Well that’s how the Kingdom is-the one special thing and at the same time everything.

A poem by R S Thomas:

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had the treasure in it.

 I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past.

It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Something for Sunday

What is it about parables? Why did Jesus teach in this way? Why chose such an oblique and indirect method- a method which seems to invite questions and discussion. Why not just lay it on the line? Avoid all subtleties. Give it to them straight. After all what is the point of a teaching method which seems to use as many words in the gospel to interpret the parable as to set it out in the first place. Sometimes the scholars suggest to us that the interpretation isn’t fair to the parable, the emphasis has shifted and the real message has been obscured. This is the case with the parable in today’s gospel-the parable of the wheat and the tares.

Now here’s another parable.

Once upon a time a fire broke out back stage in a theatre. A clown rushed front of stage to warn the audience. The audience thought this was a tremendous joke and applauded wildly. He repeated his warning, they laughed all the more. More they cried, more! Eventually the theatre burned to the ground with most of the people still trapped inside. According to Pope Benedict and he should know that is the situation of theology in our time.

It’s a famous parable from the greatest writer of modern parables. Pope Benedict begins his best book “An Introduction to Christianity” by quoting it. It’s a much better way of making the point than by simply saying: nobody listens to religious teachers these days. Powerful, vivid, graphic. You may not be able to grasp the point at first but you’ll remember the story. It’ll stay with you and you’ll reflect on it and eventually you’ll take the message to your heart. That I think is the point of parables. Powerful, vivid but because it’s not absolutely in your face, gracious as well.

What of today’s parable of the wheat and the tares. It seems an odd one. Not only do we have the parable we also have an interpretation of the parable. There’s also a suggestion – a pretty strong one that something very important is being said here.

“I will open my mouth in parables, says Jesus.  I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” From the foundation of the world! Gosh! Are they still hidden? I’m sure that in some ways they still are.

How to interpret it? A clue might be in a comparison between the parable itself and the interpretation of the parable. In the parable the emphasis is on the wisdom of the householder, the farmer shall, we say. Let things alone, forebear. In the explanation the emphasis has shifted to the judgement at the close of the age-to the furnace of fire, to wailing and gnashing of teeth and the righteous shining like the sun. Picturesque details. It’s almost as if Jesus is playing to the gallery. People love a bit of that stuff if they think that hell is someone else’s destination.

The servants of the householder and the householder himself are quick to realise that an enemy has sabotaged his field. What is to be done? Surely aggressive weeding is the answer. Perhaps a counter-strike against the enemy as well is in order too. But no this is not what the householder commands. He says let it all alone. Wait take no action now. Let the good and the bad grow together until the work of discrimination can take care of itself. Some people reading this have suggested that Jesus didn’t know much about arable farming. Others have said that on the contrary the wheat and the weeds within the wheat may look very similar in the early stages of their growth cycles. Best not to do anything now. Harvest everything and then discriminate between wheat and weeds. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

But we all know that this is not a passage about agriculture. This is about human lives and the coming of the Kingdom. It’s also about judgement, God’s judgment and the need for us to forebear from judgment. We have always been tempted to think and have been from the foundation of the world that we can discriminate between good and evil. Having succumbed to that temptation we are then tempted to pick out the evil culprits and eliminate them. These easy solutions lead us towards ever more aggressive and violent solutions to our problems. Often the violent solutions produce results that are worse than the original problem. There is a school of thought that’s sees Jesus himself as a victim of violent attempts to weed out troublemakers and disturbers of our peace- a peace which is no true peace. It was Jesus’ acceptance of the worst we can do that confronted and took away the sin of the world.

So what we have here is a message about forbearance. We should refrain from easy judgments and allow God to be God. We should wait until the harvest. The temptation to rush in and intervene with plans and strategies is easy to succumb to. It’s based on an exaggerated idea of human wisdom and insight and an inadequate faith in the God who makes all things well and all things new.

In response to the request to go into the field and root out the weeds the farmer says no. No, not now. This is not what people want to hear. What people want as the second part of the passage reveals is an easy bit of judgment directed at them-at the bad guys. So that we might feel good about ourselves because we are the good guys.

Now over the years but especially when I used to sit in the pews myself I’ve been irritated and annoyed by preachers who ignored the message of this parable and misused the pulpit to indulge in cheap political points. I could entertain you for some time with the silly judgments I’ve heard expressed. The indulgence of the Soviet Union, the touching faith that the economic policy of the then government was an expression of the Sermon on the Mount and so on. I used to want to interrupt and say. Yes I’ve read the Observer this morning now you tell me about God. Tell us how he loves us and has sent his son to show us how much he loves us.

Political and economic questions are complex and difficult and all the actors including and perhaps especially those with whom we are most inclined to agree are flawed and corrupt. The nature of women and men is fallen. However most people do not feel this way at all. They want God to endorse their own humanistic values and high sense of self worth. When God in Christ calls them to repent they pay no attention and the very idea of faith in a God who takes a lower view of humanity than humanity does of itself seems incredible and absurd.

God did not will a religion of benign flattery of human values. And yet the beauty, wonder and hope that are in the faith are that God loves us in spite of what we are and not because of what we are. That God sent his son not as an agent who would promote our own progressive programmes but rather as a sacrifice in which our values might be transcended in the name of a greater love. So that we might know peace and reconciliation not only with him but also with each other and enjoy a new life that death cannot spoil or foreshorten.

One of the most urgent questions facing our world at this time or indeed any other time is simply this. How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves? Many of us are utterly confident that we can manage this. In this respect we are just like Adam and Eve who listened to the tempter when it said. Your eyes will be opened. You will be like God knowing good and evil. And all this at the very foundation of the world. You don’t have to wait upon God’s judgment, you can be god’s yourselves, you can distinguish between the wheat and the tares. Off you go into the field, declare it a free fire zone, and destroy it in order to save it but at all costs weed out the bad guys. I’m thinking of the Vietnam War here but one also remembers the famous remark of the papal legate at the siege of Beziers during the crusade against the Cathars in the thirteenth century. Asked how the soldiers were to distinguish between the Catholics and the heretics when the city fell he replied “Kill them all, God will know His own”. Clearly he realised that the wheat and the tares couldn’t be easily distinguished. He was right about that! But forbearance, the grace to let God be God, alas no!

Good and evil inhabits the same field –that is to say each and every person. There are no unqualified bad guys or unqualified good guys-the only result of a truly vigourous campaign against evil will be a heap of corpses-good and bad alike.

All this Jesus lived out for us. Those who betrayed Jesus, arrested him, condemned him and crucified him weren’t all bad people. On the contrary they were good people with a sophisticated sense of right and wrong-priests, civil servants and lawyers. As one of them is reported to have said: It is better for one person to die for the nation than for the whole nation to die. This troublesome person is a weed. Pull him out. Well the high priest got it wrong and we continue to get it wrong because we think we can be like God knowing good and evil. No says Jesus, forebear. Don’t cause wailing and gnashing of teeth now. Wait upon God and upon his judgement at the end of time. Above all don’t try to play God but let God be God and as for our self righteous violence we should pray for forgiveness.

On being deprived

As measures of relaxation of lockdown are put in place and we start to resume some although not all of our normal activities it seems right to ask some questions of our Christian experience at this time. At first the experience of lockdown seemed like an enhanced Lent and in addition the lack of any Holy Communion made the time seem like a prolonged Holy Saturday. By tradition there is no sacramental life in the Church between the Thursday evening of Holy week and the joyful celebration of Easter day. And now here we are in July and still this strange time of deprivation continues.

At the heart of these considerations must be an examination of our motives for attending public worship at all. Why do we come together on Sunday? To meet our friends and share in cheerful sociability. Well that’s a good reason for coming.

To have a good sing! Again that’s not a bad reason for coming. Did not St Augustine himself say that she who sings prays twice?

To pray as well for others as for ourselves as the Book of Common Prayer expresses it. Again that’s a good reason for coming although of course even in isolation the voice of prayer need never be silent.

But to my way of thinking the crucial reason for wanting to be together is the question of presence. The presence of the risen Christ with us. Of course even in solitude I can feel that Christ is with me, behind me and before me but when we Christians meet together that sense of presence is greatly enhanced. We realise ourselves to be in a quite tangible way the body of the Lord. Did not Jesus say that when two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them. If we are to be the Church we must come together. As John Wesley said there are no solitary Christians.

Some of us have been worshipping together by means of Zoom and other video conferencing applications. This has been a good experience and it has enabled some of us to share in prayer and worship in a participatory way. I hope it continues after this time has come to an end. But what has been missing is the Lord’s Supper and this raises in quite an acute form the question of the Lord’s presence in our worship and our sense of deprivation at being unable to share with each other in the signs of that presence which Christ gave to His church.

In the Lords supper we come together, we hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church, we confess our sins and our fellowship with each other is restored. We recall the story of the passion of Jesus, bread and wine are taken, prayer is offered over them and the bread is broken and the wine poured out as a sign of what Christ has done and in his risen life is still doing. Finally the bread and wine are shared amongst us to signify that Christ’s sacrifice for us continues and that we are called to be participants in that ongoing sacrifice. As St Augustine says we become what we eat-the body of Christ. Thereafter as the Body of Christ we disperse in order to continue Christ’s saving work in the world.

This is what we are deprived of at present and its restoration is an urgent matter. Of course we should not endanger the health of ourselves or anyone else and we owe it to our neighbours to take all necessary precautions. But for Christian like ourselves it is an urgent necessity for us to be the Church and that means coming together around the table of the Lord.

Be present at our table Lord
Be here and ev’ry where adored
These mercies bless, and grant that we
May feast in paradise with thee.


Something for Sunday

This piece about Paul’s letter to the Romans uses the imagined voice of one of the minor but nevertheless important characters in the story of the letters composition.

It’s an old piece of writing from my files but I thought it deserved another outing. I hope you like it.

You probably haven’t heard of me before. It’s not surprising. I don’t really count. My name’s Tertius and I was right there when Paul composed his letter to the Romans. I took it all down at his dictation. Just imagine there he was pacing up and down the room and there I was pen in hand, papyrus before me on the desk, scratching away as fast as I could. It was hard to keep up believe me but I don’t think I missed anything. I got my bit in right at the end. In your way of counting its chapter 16 verse 22. “I Tertius who took this letter down add my Christian greetings”.

It wasn’t easy taking dictation from a man like Paul. He goes at quite a pace and his ideas are quite difficult. I’m not the only one to think that. You look up 2 Peter C3 v 16 and see what the author of that says about Paul’s thought. But say what you like about Paul he’s a kind man, a true pastor, think of that letter he wrote to Philemon. He didn’t bother with a secretary that time. Wrote it in his own hand he did.

So anyway when we’d finished we had a cup or two of wine and some bread and olives. I plucked up courage and asked him about some of the difficult points. About halfway through he seemed to be getting really excited, sweat pouring off him it was, to say nothing of me as I struggled to keep up. It’s the bit you call Chapter 8 the first few verses. That phrase: it seemed to mean such a lot to him-in Christ-he kept saying it-in Christ. The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. Tell me Paul I said how would you explain it. How can I explain it to the wife and kids?

Well, said Paul, let me put it this way. What’s your ruling principle? Well I said there’s my concern for my livelihood and my family. That’s pretty important. Perhaps that’s my ruling principle.

Are you sure? said Paul. After all you’ve become a Christian and that’s not always an easy thing to be in this city. This is Corinth after all and we Christians are a small minority here. Master’s don’t like their slaves becoming Christians. The Jews are thought to be bad enough but the Christians are worse.

True enough I replied. I do follow the Christian way and it does mean a lot to me. I believe in love and God’s way of righting wrong. The world seems so brutal and cruel. There has to be a better way-Christ’s way.

Yes, he said, I feel the same. Being a Christian is about following his way. We are as it were incorporated in him. We belong to him. We become part of his household-one of his slaves. You Tertius, as a slave, should understand what that means.

But let’s go deeper, said Paul. What actually is God’s way of righting wrong? Some people say that what God has done to make the world right is to give us commandments to follow. If we follow God’s commandments in a spirit of faithful obedience then this world will be a better place and we will be happier and more fulfilled people. Faithfulness to Gods commands that’s what really counts.

Well I replied, what’s wrong with that.

The problem is replied Paul is that I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. You get trapped. You are constantly under pressure watching every move, every thought, and every motive. The pressure comes from inside and that’s the worst pressure of all. You end up not loving your neighbour as yourself but hating yourself and loathing your neighbour who grinds you down because you feel you haven’t loved him enough. You can make a pretty good stab at living that way and to be honest I did but there’s no real life in it. No joy and peace.

Sin is always there. Always accusing you of not being perfect. It’s what I call the law of sin and death. I contrast it with the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

I wasn’t entirely convinced. After all what’s wrong with people doing good. Mind you he’s right about one thing. A lot of do gooders do look pretty miserable.

So I asked once more. If this isn’t God’s new way of righting wrong what is. At this Paul got really excited-almost choked on an olive. I could see we were getting very close to the heart of his gospel.

For me said Paul the real significance of Jesus is not so much what he did or said but what happened to him People think that I neglect the teachings of Jesus and as you’ll have observed there’s scarcely any reference to them in the letter we’ve written together. The real key to Jesus is the cross and the resurrection.

God sent Jesus to share our earthly life In that life we are subject to all kinds of pressure-temptations-demands that we should live in a particular way and kow tow to all the earthly powers. You and I know how powerful these pressures are. I call them sin because they prevent us from knowing about and sharing in God’s way of righting wrong.

Jesus took all that pressure on himself. He offered himself as a sacrifice for sin. All the earthly powers confronted Jesus on the cross but they couldn’t break him. If Jesus had started a revolt, come down from the cross and then crucified the Romans and the Jews sin would’ve won. You remember the story of Spartacus who led the slave revolt. He was a liberator and he won many victories but in the end he was as much a part of the system of sin and earthly domination as the Romans. They got him in the end and nailed his whole army to crosses all the way down the Appian Way. Here their bodies rotted for three months until they took them down. Sin’s victory!

God’s way of righting wrong is love’s victory not sin’s victory. Jesus free offering of himself is love’s victory and God set’s the seal on that victory by raising Jesus from the dead. Those who belong to Christ’s body as you do Tertius can share that victory. In our lives the ruling principle is no longer fear and sin but the life giving spirit of God whose common name is love.

Paul relaxed. Well Tertius he said. That’s two questions. A question about the law of sin and death and a question about the spirit of life in Christ Jesus. Now is that enough do you know what it means now to be in Christ or have you joined the Methodists and everything has to be in threes. OK I said, two’s enough. I’ve got it.

As I hurried home afterwards through the streets of Corinth I looked at the people I passed. Corinth, well you know Corinth, sea port town, full of traders and sailors, prostitutes and pagan priests, slaves and free folk. In truth though none of them are really free any more are you. All of us are slaves to some ruling principle or other. It could be greed or power, fame or lust. People are driven by all sorts of things. One understands that. Some are controlled by their codes of laws and customs some by their desire to appear virtuous in their own eyes and the eyes of others. Some of those are in the Church. At times I’m a bit like that myself.

Paul showed me that for Christians like us our ruling principle needs to be Christ, Christ alone. Christ and his victory which we can share. His spirit has given us new life, new joy and peace. We’re slaves of Christ, we belong to him. Not only humble secretarial slaves like me but Paul as well. We’re all slaves of Christ-part of his household. There wouldn’t be much point in freedom unless it was freedom for a purpose and the gospel gives us that purpose. Love that’s our ruling principle. Not the law of sin and death which grinds us down by constantly accusing us of not being perfect but love.

I felt so glad I’d played my part in bringing the gospel to the sisters and brothers in Rome. Perhaps one day the gospel might reach even further, even, who knows, to the foggy islands of the North West Coast of Europe where the savage barbarians live.