Author Archives: pgrimwood

Something for Sunday

This piece about Sunday’s epistle from Romans 7 reflects my thinking and reading from a few years back. But I thought it was worth another outing. Some of the references seem a bit dated. I haven’t heard much from Woody Allen recently and as for Alain de Botton he was something of a celebrity a few years back but seems to have dropped below the radar. When he was in the media spotlight I thought he was good value. Anyway with a few amendments here it is.

This is a passage, which has attracted a great deal of comment. Here is St Paul engaged in what seems to be a kind of internal struggle-I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. Here Paul sounds like Woody Allen. Not so far fetched really. They’re both Jewish, both interested in religion, both of them seem to have problems with sex and both of them seem to be tortured souls in the modern manner.

Most modern theologians who have studied Woody Allen are agreed that his films are spiritual autobiographies-the film journals of a tortured soul. But was Paul a tortured soul? Modern people are inclined to think so because it makes him seem modern. But is it true?

Some have thought so. They have seen his conversion, so called, as the resolution of his tortured condition-like Wesley having his heart strangely warmed. This is to read Paul through modern blinkers, which is to some degree inevitable. If however we stop thinking of Paul in this way and attend to what he actually wrote it opens up to us a new perspective on Paul in which he seems a lot less like Woody Allen than we’ve been used to thinking. It also makes him stranger.

The key to this perspective is to reject the idea that Paul was converted. Rather Christ called him and in becoming a follower of Christ he had taken the faith of Israel into new uncharted territory. Nothing in his past was entirely rejected. So far as his commitment to the law is concerned he describes himself quite cheerfully as utterly blameless. The Jewish law and more specifically the Ten Commandments prohibit various kinds of behaviour-all, with one exception, avoidable. Murder for instance is avoidable-Paul never murdered anyone –you have probably never murdered anyone. So why this gloomy neurotic tone of voice in which he describes sin as a kind of addiction.

Hardly anyone today thinks that in this passage Paul is talking about his own guilty psychology. He did not experience the law as an intolerable burden and find its demands impossible to live up to. We know this because he says so elsewhere.

So what is Paul on about when he says: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. What exactly is he thankful for? He is a good person, indeed a righteous person. He kept the law. Others can keep it as well. It is holy, just and good. It certainly isn’t redundant. By no means says Paul in another point in the epistle.

Paul’s point isn’t psychological or moral, it’s religious. He doesn’t seek to be a good person, he was that already, nor was he seeking to be a well-adjusted person in the modern manner. What he had discovered through faith in Christ was deliverance from sin-life in the spirit-the X factor-the big plus over what his ancestral faith had offered him and he’d achieved. The whole of the following chapter, Romans 8, is a hymn to joy – a celebration of what life in Christ brings.

But as I’ve already hinted there is one commandment which does not deal with outward actions-that is the commandment against covetousness. This is an inclination of the mind and in the world as we know it it’s impossible to avoid. Truly sins does dwell within us and just as Paul knew it so we too feel its power. This must be what Paul has in mind in this passage.

At its root is the desire we have to possess what our role models desire or to be the person our role model is. This is not because we actually want any of the things they have but because we do not want to think meanly of ourselves alongside others. These feelings lead to resentment, fear and anger. Ultimately it can lead to violence as it led Cain to murder Abel because his sacrifice was not accepted whereas Abel’s was.

Another way of saying this is to say we suffer from status anxiety. Some years ago the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote quite an amusing and insightful book entitled Status Anxiety. There was also a TV documentary, which you may remember. In this the Belgian Socrates takes us to various sites of status anxiety-offices where you status is measured by the size and thickness of your carpet and the position of your parking place. People can be profoundly upset by any challenge to these things.

What is the cure for this? Alain de Botton takes us to view a social gathering of a strange counter-cultural tribe. He turns to the camera and whispers. “These people are Christians”. Its as if we’ve just been brought face to face with a tribe recently discovered living a pre-modern existence in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest.

It’s a garden party and the Christians are obviously having a jolly time. Some seem rather posh others look as if they sell the Big Issue or live out of plastic bags. But they all share a deep unity because they are brothers and sister in Christ. All social distinctions have been relativised because they are part of the body of the Lord.

What this illustration says to me and what Paul is preaching to us is this.

The whole satanic system of rivalry, covetousness, envy, jealousy and resentment can be broken. It’s not so much about faulty psychology as about captivity to an alien power. Jesus by his death on the cross, a death he freely accepted, has broken the power of sin once and for all. We are free. That is why the people at the garden party are having a wonderful time. They may be living in the world but they are no longer enslaved by the world’s values. That is why they are happy and joyful and they’re hearts are at peace. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Status anxiety-social insecurity-the various forms of snobbery, which oppress us in the name of sin all, purged away.

Well isn’t that wonderful. So why are we looking so solemn?

Something for Sunday

Genesis 22:1-14

This is a terrifying story. And whoever wrote it meant it to be terrifying. As the climax approaches no detail is missed.

Abraham builds the altar, carefully laying out the kindling wood. He binds Isaac-once more we are reminded that this is his son. He lays his son on the altar over the wood. He stretches forth his hand. He takes the knife and is poised to strike.

We are spared nothing.

We must remember who Isaac is. Isaac is not simply Abraham’s beloved son. He is Abraham’s entire future. He is God’s promise. In this boy’s life is focussed every saving thing that God has promised to do. In radical obedience to God Abraham tore up his past-now he’s being asked to tear up his future as well.

Stories like this can give the Old Testament a bad name.

God has become a monster. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. For Abraham this is a terrible test. What is to be done? He is committed to radical obedience to God’s commands. But this?

Somewhere in the background to this story is the notion of child sacrifice, a not uncommon practice in the ancient world. This story seems to suggest that God does not really desire this-that he wills life not death-that such practices as human sacrifice can be relegated to the lumber room of the collective mind and that the life of humankind can now move forward onto broad sunlit upland-to coin a famous phrase.

That is a comforting thought. Too comforting!

In truth human sacrifice flourishes in our world. Human life is plentiful and cheap today. In our times millions of people have been judged unworthy of life by the ideologies that have sacrificed them in favour of racial purity, historical necessity, economic efficiency, Liberal Democracy and the honour of God. Christians are not innocent of involvement in these affairs. The dismal roll call continues.

Remember a sunny September morning-various passenger aircraft taking all manner of people to early meetings. The passengers sit back in their seats blissfully confident in the technology that is whisking them across the sky. Suddenly there’s a commotion on the flight deck and ferocious figures burst into the passenger cabin. All are to be sacrificed to appease the honour of God, which is said to be affronted by the culture of the west.

Here’s a similar interpretation. This time one of the victims to be sacrificed to the old gods of violence and national pride had time to write down his reflections in the form of a famous poem. You may know it.

So Abram rose and clave the wood and went

And took the fire with him and a knife,

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first born spake and said, My father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son

When lo an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad

Neither do anything to him thy son.

Behold! Caught in the thicket by its horns

A ram. Offer the ram of pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe one by one.

Many people have difficulty reading the Old Testament as Christians-this passage perhaps particularly. But we should always remember that as Christians we receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus himself. So when the risen Jesus meets the travelers on the Emmaus road we are told that he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. What then did Jesus have to say about this passage? We’d love to know just as we’d love to eavesdrop on the conversation between Abraham and Isaac on their trip to the mountaintop.

Where then is Jesus to be found in this passage? Is he the ram, caught in thicket-the sacrificial animal provided by God so that no other human sacrifices need be offered? That’s what I thought at first but the tradition is not encouraging. It sees Isaac as Jesus bearing on his shoulders the wood for his own sacrifice.

Listen to the Epistle to the Hebrews:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac: and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son. Of whom it was said, Through Isaac shall thy seed be called. Accounting that God was able to raise him even from the dead, and from the dead he did, in a sense, receive him back.

Isaac is offered up, as is Jesus. But Isaac is offered up to satisfy the savage destructive impulses of God whereas Jesus offers himself to satisfy and purify the savage and destructive impulses of humanity. Isaac is spared whereas Jesus is not spared but Jesus receives vindication and inaugurates in his own person a new humanity and a new mode of being. Some have said of the passion and resurrection stories that they are in a way a kind of reflection on the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

An important aspect of the story emphasised by some but not all of the commentators and brought out by some but not all of the translations is that there are two gods involved here. There is the savage tribal god who demands human sacrifices and there is the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ and friend of Abraham who demands mercy not sacrifice. They can be distinguished by the names used.

What Abraham is about is sorting out which of these Gods is to claim his allegiance. This is almost as terrifying a matter as the story itself because one God seems to hide behind the other. The journey to the truth lies along the road of radical faith and obedience and through the experience of God as foresakenness. In a sense Abraham’s journey is one that has to be made by all people in all times. Always we are tempted to worship the tribal God who is just a projection of own selfishness, greed and competitive violence. True faith in the true God lies beyond that-beyond greed and violence to an embrace of justice and peace.

Are we doing what is needful to walk with the true God in faith and obedience? Are we making the trip to the mountaintop of the wild and windy mountain in order to encounter the angel of the Lord? I’d like to think we were but the evidence around us is not encouraging.





Worship in Lockdown -Some thoughts

As we begin to plan a return to church buildings it seems right to give some thought to worship in lockdown-what was good-what was not so good-what lessons might we draw for the future.

My own weekly routine before lockdown included Morning Prayer every day at my local parish church. The normal attendance numbered three. With lockdown we switched to Zoom without any interruption utilising screen sharing for the text. The numbers involved doubled to six and have remained at that level ever since. I miss my early morning walk to the church but one advantage of the new arrangement is that we are now joined by those who live some distance away and would find the daily journey difficult. The worship is very engaging with everyone playing a different part each day. Two Bible readings are included daily, one from the Old Testament so over the course of a year we get to know the Old Testament narratives very well. Two Psalms are included most days and as Psalmody is a feature of Christian worship which Methodists often neglect this is much appreciated (not least by me). Freely led intercessions are also part of the daily programme. Will we continue with Zoom worship after lockdown or will we go back to meeting in the building or will it be possible to have both at once?

In the evening there is Compline at 8.30pm in a similar style by Zoom from Monday to Friday. This is shorter than Morning Prayer with only one short reading. In the circumstances of lockdown it provides a quiet and reflective end to the day. Normal attendance is nine. 

Then on Sundays there are live streamed services provided by the District or by Churches within the District. To my way of thinking this seems similar to broadcasting so the sense of engagement and community is rather weak. Being with others matters to me so as a worship occasion this seems to be rather an impaired experienced. Some Catholics I know are using these strange times to virtually travel the world eavesdropping on the Pope one day or visiting Westminster Cathedral on other days. I think Catholics are happier to do this than Protestants because for Catholics the Mass is not only something shared it is also something seen. As for the concept of spiritual communion facilitated by Zoom I acknowledge that this is controversial and a full celebration of the Lord’s Supper requires a real presence in some sense. Without wishing in any way to contradict Connexional guidance I would favour a prayerful conversation about the character of presence around the Lord’s Table with or without Zoom.

Mindful of the Connexional guidance I did preside at an Agape/Love feast for my house group with an order I devised myself.To be honest I was disappointed because the essence of such worship is sharing and fellowship in a kind of buffet style context. It can be a great experience for Christians who are barred from each other’s Communion services but can come together to be refreshed and invigorated by breaking bread and sharing food and drink together in a prayerful but relatively informal context. Agape/Love feast by Zoom seemed to me to be neither one thing nor the other.

One thing that has worked well on Zoom is Bible study provided that the input from the leader is not too long, screen sharing is used and the opportunity is taken to go into break out groups. Break out groups are surprisingly easy on Zoom. Another useful facility on Zoom is the provision for “chat” whereby references or notes can be effortlessly passed to some or all of the group without interrupting the meeting. You can’t easily do that in a normal Bible study. Well worth trying!

I’d be fascinated to hear of other people’s worship experiences. In these matters we are all learners!

Something for Sunday

Romans 6: 4

We were buried therefore with him by Baptism unto death so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the father we too might walk in newness of life.

Modern people have some very funny ideas about religion. They think that going to church is rather like going to a restaurant seeing the word steak on the menu and then eating the menu card on the assumption that that the card is the steak itself. Consequently they find worship rather indigestible and somewhat unsatisfying. And you hear them say “can’t see what people find in it. All those long words-must mean something to the chefs but as for me I’d rather have the real thing. Just put it in front of me and I’ll eat it.

This to confuse the symbol with the reality. When we go to the restaurant we are faced first with a symbol-sometimes it is written in a strange language-the reality comes later in the form of the food. Very often the more obscure the language the better the food turns out to be. So when I go to France or Italy I’m careful to pack my menu reader otherwise I won’t get the best out of the trip.

Worship in Church is rather like reading the menu. And what are printed on the menu are stories pointing us to the ways in which we might live our lives. We read about the great figures in the bible and we think: yes I could do that or yes I’ve been tempted that way, and when Jesus says to His disciples: Follow me we think. Well why not! Why should I go on living the selfish life I’ve always lived? I could do something better. Let’s go for it.

All of us find meaning in our lives through symbols. We hear stories; we see events on TV and sometimes they capture our imagination. Yes we think that’s how life is nowadays. Dreadful isn’t it! These things hold up a mirror to us in which we see ourselves. The Grenfell Tower fire was like that for a lot of people. They are the ways in which we find meaning in the events of our time.

The life of Jesus is the key symbol of the Christian faith. It’s what has captured our imagination as Christians. It’s not as if we are asked to live our lives exactly as he lived his-that’s impossible. Instead we are called to follow him. He lived a selfless life devoted to the kingdom of God-we could follow that-yes we really could! He suffered-we’re going to suffer too-oh yes we are! But we could suffer to some purpose just as he did. And remember God vindicated him-raised him up. So we might be raised up and renewed-we could walk in the light of the glory of God. Yes we really could.

The story of Jesus has been compared to one of the rings you see in a tree trunk when the tree is cut down. We only see the ring at the point where the tree was cut down but the ring actually runs right through the tree. The ring that we see corresponds to the life of Jesus that we read about in the New Testament. It’s the bit of God we saw. The symbol that stands for all the rest. For the life and reality of God is the same for every age and that reality can give meaning and purpose to our own humdrum existence.

I once had a colleague who wrote a book called “Cooking up Worship”. He thought worship was like a meal with a starter, a main course (for him the sermon) and a dessert. I think this is a misunderstanding. Worship is like reading the menu not eating the meal. Worship, like the menu card, always points beyond itself to a new life lived in the power of the spirit.

Now in the passage from Romans Paul discusses the meaning of what is perhaps the key Christian symbol: baptism.

Baptism is about deciding to follow Jesus. Hearing the good news, renouncing evil, dying with Jesus and rising with him. The whole thing is a kind of re-presentation of Easter. We die with Christ, we rise with him. The water used is not a symbol of cleansing or washing-it’s a symbol of dying-death by drowning. Sprinkling a few drops of water over the baby’s head does not really make that clear. The idea of the death of our sinful bodies is also problematic for many when applied to babe in arms.

This brings us up against a Christian idea-that of original sin-the idea that humanity is fallen and that sin is universal. That consequently all of us stand in need of the grace of God-given through baptism. It’s an idea at variance with our sentimental notions about childhood innocence. I say our sentimental notions but personally I have no such notions myself. You see in me a true believer in original sin. I am completely at one with St Augustine who describes the selfishness of infants in some famous passages, which were obviously inspired by direct observation.

Baptism then is a kind of picture of the Christian life. A bit like the pictures of meals you sometimes see on menu cards. The picture always looks good, the reality on the plate in front of us may often be rather disappointing. That’s life.

In the end though the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the restaurant the promise is in the menu and the reality is the food on plate-which may or may not live up to the promise. In the Christian life the symbols are what we share in this building but the reality is what is lived beyond this building in the community. Orthodox Christians –the Christians of Greece and Russia call this the worship beyond the worship. When this service is ended the real communion begins-the feeding of the hungry-the seeking of the lost and the lonely-the work for justice and peace. Here we see only the symbols-there we meet reality face to face.

Holy Communion services in the Easter season take up this point in the way they point us forward at the end.

Alleluia!

Go in joy and peace to love and serve the lord.

No end of a lesson!

The downfall of Colston’s statue in Bristol came as something of a shock. As a former resident of Bristol the statue was well known to me as a landmark and nobody who has lived in Bristol can be unaware of the Colston name-the name of a concert hall, a famous school and alms houses. All of these places have for generations honoured the name of one whose generosity gave so much to the city of his birth. But there’s another side to Colston’s legacy as we have been reminded recently.

Now I live in Worcester and across the road from the Cathedral bus stop and at the entrance to the Cathedral itself there is another memorial. It is to the men of Worcestershire “who gave their lives for their country in South Africa 1899-1902”. This commemorates the Boer War, strictly speaking the second Boer war, fought to extinguish the independence of the Afrikaner speaking republics by the British Empire. The war was fought with a combination of incompetence and great cruelty by the British. The non-combatant Boer population was herded into concentration camps (we invented the term) where many died as a consequence of squalor and neglect.

The war was controversial in Britain. There were protests and demonstrations against it at the time. A famous one occurred in Birmingham in 1901 at which David Lloyd-George gave a powerful speech and was nearly lynched by a patriotic mob for his pains. The feminist campaigner Emily Hobhouse travelled to South Africa and exposed the appalling conditions in the camps. This greatly embarrassed the government but did not prevent them from winning the next general election!

The Boer War was an imperialist war. We might feel critical of Afrikanerdom because of its association with apartheid but the war was not fought because black lives matter or to release black people from oppression. On the contrary this was a war between rival oppressors. In the aftermath of the fall of Colston there have been renewed calls in Oxford for the fall of Cecil Rhodes statue in the city. Rhodes was an imperialist and an evil genius behind the Boer War but he was also a great benefactor to Oxford University.

Should these memorials be taken down? I don’t think so. They stand as testimony to the sinful character of humanity, mute witnesses to mixed motives and self-interested illusions. They should stimulate penitential reflection and an acknowledgement that we are not saved by self-righteousness and by virtue signalling but by the grace of a loving and forgiving God.

They should also inspire a resolve to critically examine the past and do better in the future. Where is there a statue to Emily Hobhouse? What shall we do to honour the memory of Martin Luther-King? I merely ask!

Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem at the end of the Boer war. Its final lines are well known.

We’ve had no end of a lesson

It will do us no end of good.

But as to what that lesson was that must be left to historians and prophets to discern.

Something for Sunday

When one picks up a novel in a shop or the Library and reads the story you often find yourself wondering how this will end. Who did it and so on? The temptation is always to turn to the last page in order to find out.

But the gospels are not like that. The first hearers or readers of the gospel knew how the story would end. Indeed the church existed long before the first gospel ever appeared. There’s a hint of this in our gospel passage for today where a list of the disciples is given including Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.

So why were the gospels written at all? I think the answer to that is also given in today’s passage. The purpose of the gospel is to answer a threefold question being asked by the Church then and by the Church today. That threefold question is this:

Who are we? Are we being sent and if so where? And what do we do when we get there?

Well who are we? Here the answer is clear. We are those whom God has called. That is to say we are a holy people-those who are called to be saints.

The first bunch listed here were not particularly impressive people but then nor are we. One is a tax collector, another will betray Jesus and another will deny him-that’s three out of twelve. But they are witnesses to Jesus and so are we.

We are discipleship movement called to mission. So what would we be doing if we were able to meet as usual. Although it is quite true to say that we gather together to meet our friends, enjoy a bit of social solidarity, sing the hymns and pray for others as well as ourselves there’s a bit more to say.

We come together to fortify ourselves. To check up on those things which really matter and be strengthened in those beliefs that are at the heart of the faith.

The second question: are we being sent? Yes we are. A disciple is one who is a follower but an apostle is one who is sent. These are words from the original Greek.  In the story of the Jesus movement disciples become apostles-they are sent.

A phrase from the creed that may not speak to your hearts is nevertheless relevant here. We believe in a holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Holy because called by God.

Catholic because we are a pretty mixed bunch-or we should be if we take God’s mission seriously.

Apostolic because we are a group of disciples who are sent on mission.

And where are they sent? Well in the passage Jesus says to them: don’t go to the Gentiles. Samaritan towns! Don’t go there. Now that reads oddly to us because let’s face it we are gentiles and so is practically everyone with whom we come into contact. So how do we find a message for ourselves here because believe you me there is one.

Remember Palestine then was a mixed community just as it is today-gentiles and Jews together. Jesus and his disciples are Jews –the house of Israel. So Jesus’ instruction is clear: go to the people you know and the ones who need to hear the message of the Kingdom and are capable of hearing it. –the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

So for us I would interpret the message like this. Start where you are. We must fulfil God’s mission in the place where we are now. We are for God’s kingdom but God’s kingdom in Sutton Park.

And that I am quite sure is where you are and what you are doing.

So we are being sent but what do we say and do when we reach the place to which we are sent.

Jesus instructions are clear: preach, declare that the kingdom of God is at hand, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons. That’s quite a commission but it is given to them all even to Judas who later betrayed him. We are given no clear idea at least in this gospel as to how they get on. Let us simply assume that guided by the spirit they have an impact.

What are we to make of this? And in particular could we cast out demons and raise the dead. There are many demons at work in our society and in the hearts of our neighbours. But as Christians we believe that love is stronger than hate and that kindness is better than cruelty. We can do our bit by a smile here; and a kind word there and random acts of kindness here there and everywhere to cast the demons out and we know there are many. In this way we bring in the kingdom here there and everywhere.

But what about raising the dead? Well there are many ways in which people can lose their hold on the real renewed life that is at the heart of the gospel promise. People can become strangers to one another, dead in their sins. Our mission as Jesus disciples is to summon people out of their tombs to the renewed life that is at the heart of the gospel vision.

As for those who sleep the sleep of the death of the body our faith in the raising of Jesus  declares our confidence  in a world restored  and a place in it for those who wait to pass from death to life.

For myself I would only say this. Over the years I have taken many funerals and I still continue to lead them. When I started out I felt that that my job was to give comfort and mange grief but nowadays my emphasis is a little different. Following Jesus, as I must, I now feel that I must share the good news, give hope and encouragement and in effect raise the dead by emphasising the Christ’s victory over death and the joy we feel in the Easter faith. Sometimes that even means sharing a joke for heaven is the place where we will all be right merry together.

In our worship we meet Jesus who is with us not only in the bread and wine but also in each other. We call to mind the reality of who he is and what he has done to set the world to rights. That work of restoring the kingdom continues and now belongs to us to go forth and tell, to heal and save and to bring forward the better world that is His promise to us. That’s a wonderful promise and a wonderful charge to each and every one of us.

Something for Sunday

Trinity Sunday is not an occasion looked forward to with great joy by preachers. Strange analogies will be shared: water=ice, liquid, steam. Egg= yoke, white, shell. Three leaf clovers and so on. Here is the most recent I have spotted:

The Trinity is like a Telephone

We experience

Shiny, shapely, shatter proof

Together, one phone

We experience

Father, Son, Holy Spirit

Together, one God.

All of this stuff leaves me completely cold so how about a joke instead-a Jewish joke told by Rabbi Lionel Blue and shared with Falcon Lodge last year.

A Jewish man was hit by a bus: A kind priest rushed over to him bent down and said:

Do you believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?

The Jew looked up and said; “I’m dying and he’s asking me riddles!”

The Rabbi then delivers his punch line: A lot of Christianity is a riddle if you are outside it!

 But then Judaism can seem a riddle to those who are outside that. So there Rabbi!!

But so far as Christianity is concerned we are insiders. And from the inside we can only say that in our experience this is the account of God’s being that seems true for us. That God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit may seem a riddle to them but from our vantage point it seems true for us. We have felt the power of God moving in our lives and we have been caught up in love and praise. This isn’t about intellectual speculation it’s about relationships. Ourselves and God. God and us. You and I together.

Firstly God has come amongst us. God has given himself to us in Jesus Christ. If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus. He’s the best image of God we have. As Jesus says in John’s gospel; he who has seen me has seen the Father. This is what Christmas is about-a celebration of our faith in a God who is not only the creator of the universe but also one of us. This is quite an extraordinary idea but it makes all sorts of things possible. God in our understanding is not throned above, remotely high, a distant lawgiver or a judge. He has entered our life! Consequently things could be different: we could be changed; indeed the whole world could be changed. That’s well worth celebrating and it’s particularly worthwhile to celebrate it with others.

Secondly: God is still with us. He’s with us in the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus. Christianity is not a set of stories about a figure from the past that we are invited to admire. Christ is alive-the story of the coming of his Kingdom is an unfinished story and we part of that story. We feel the Spirit’s presence in our hearts prompting our actions in the name of love.

And thirdly Gods love is all around us. The whole created order is an expression of God’s love not only for us but for all the creatures he has made. We look upon the world and it is beautiful and good. And its goodness is an expression of the good God who made it and sustains it moment by moment. Our involvement in environmental causes stems from this

In the famous Russian icon of the Trinity are shown three angelic figures sitting around a table. But the fourth side, the side facing the viewer is open. That’s our side: God’s life of love is incomplete without you and me. God come amongst us, God for us and God inviting us to share the divine life.

This then is our faith. God is one: Father, son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

My first Covid-19 sermon.

On June 21st I am due to give a sermon on the environment at Mickleton in the South Warwickshire Circuit. This probably wont happen but I’ve written the sermon and here it is-the first of my Covid-19 sermons. I am offering it you sisters and brothers for critical comment and reflection.

It’s not what I was expecting. What I was expecting was a series of extreme weather events, floods and rising concern about carbon in the atmosphere. All these things may yet happen but perhaps the most important message for these times is expect the unexpected.

But let’s be honest, it should not have been unexpected. There have been many warnings-the government even ran a simulation exercise in 2016. Looking back further I can remember having my temperature checked while passing through Hong Kong airport few years ago. But my diary with all its crossings out reminds me that this was not part of my expectations for 2020.

So for me to attempt any sort of theological reflection on where we are now might be thought in me to be a presumptuous task. That phrase “a presumptuous task” comes from a very famous old book-one from my lockdown reading list. On this list are books that I’ve always meant to read but somehow I’ve never got round to including translations of the pre-Christian Latin and Greek classics. The poems that Boris Johnson likes to quote.

Take Vergil’s famous poem-the Aeneid-an account of how the hero Aeneas flees from Troy when it falls to the Greeks and gathering a band of refugees sets out to found a new empire in Italy-this is Rome’s foundation myth. They have many adventures and fight many battles. These battles are described in extraordinarily bloodthirsty detail. The gods watch over all this intervening from time to time on side or another, changing the weather on a whim and receiving the sacrifices of the warriors. Bulls, birds and lambs are slain on blood soaked altars on almost every page. Wine is poured out; trophies are laid on altars and as for the gods they look on smiling when they are not at war with each other. This is a religious world dedicated to power and victory in which courage is the highest virtue and in which nature and the power of the gods are easily confused.

How different is Christianity’s take on the world! Central to our ideas about the world is that God is loving and that creation is an expression of that love. To live wisely and well within our world is to live lovingly-to go with the grain of the universe as has been recently said. To live well is to live a life of service to others in humility, freedom and joy. Contrast that with the world of pagan Greece and Rome as described by Vergil and Homer. Christianity as St Maximus the Confessor said is an entirely new way of being human.

The atheist philosopher Nietzsche who began his scholarly career with these classics described Christianity as a religion for slaves. He had a point-a good point. When preachers suggest to you that living in a Christian manner is plain common sense be very wary. Similarly there is a tendency sometimes to suggest that all faiths unite around common values. Again be wary!

No Christianity and its older brother Judaism represents a revolution in human affairs-the oldest and the best. –from a religion which honours power and violence to one that affirms self-giving love. Jesus said: I am among you as one who serves. That was and is a counter-cultural thought. But that’s why Christianity represents a revolution in human affairs. And as Christian consciousness fades in our culture as part of the process of secularisation we do well to affirm our credentials as a counter-cultural revolutionary movement. We should affirm our calling to be part of an entirely new way of being human and not relapse into being pagans-especially not pagans supercharged with sophisticated technology and engineering skills.

But what is all this to us? And in particular what is all this to us when we think about the environment. I see our needful response under three headings:

To acknowledge God’s love and his gift to us of creation.

To make a humble and grateful response to that love

To receive all this in joy and share that joy with others.

Just a few words about each

God’s love. And God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good. Of course to write in this way is to take a religious standpoint rather than a scientific one but without a spiritual or ethical outlook we’d be lost if we tried to make sense of the world. Listen to Thomas Trehearne:

You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world…till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold and Kings in sceptres you never enjoy the world. Or I could have quoted Wordsworth or Gerard Manley Hopkins or any number of Psalms.

Humility-Humility doesn’t get a very good press these days. It’s dismissed as a virtue for monks. Modern people obsessed with consumerism and individualism prefer to imagine anything good as “all about me”.  Christianity is quite different. It’s about love but not self-love instead it’s all about love of the others.

The implications for the environment are important. We should live within nature, of which we ourselves are a part, as if we are its servants rather than its masters.

Most of our environmental problems arise from seeing nature as our tool-a source of items to be extracted and put to use for the sake of our comfort and pleasure. You and I and all our fellow humans have got ourselves into a bad place because we see ourselves as somehow like gods-super humans. Everything that exists doesn’t exist in its own right but for ourselves alone.  This persuasive way of thinking can be seen in the media every day in the form of a narcissistic obsession with my rights, my property, and my pleasures. This is no way to be happy in Jesus.

Joy

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit as Paul reminds us-an occasion for happiness and delight when we conform to the order of God in the world-when we turn away from our self-centred concerns and consider the lilies, the birds of the air and the fullness of God’s work in creation.

Such joy is not limited tour own experiences of happiness and delight but extends to the whole creation as it looks forward to freedom from its bondage to decay. Again this is Paul’s vision. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As I said at the outset it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had fondly imagined that infectious diseases were nothing to do with me-that’s all about history. But I was wrong. This is about me and it is about the environment. The warnings were there-Ebola, Marburg, SARs. We’ve been creating the conditions for this: frenetic urbanisation, destruction of natural habitats, mass air travel.

This has been a warning but it’s also been a source of unexpected joy. Bird song, clear air, the chance to really feel and smell the new springtime all around us. We have accustomed ourselves to eco-alienated habitats but all is not lost when we find ourselves beginning to notice and feel a real kinship with the world of nature.

Let’s be realistic but also hopeful. We’ve had no end of a lesson. It could do us no end of good.

Something for Sunday

This coming Sunday is Pentecost when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first Christians. The key text for today (Acts 2:1-21) begins by declaring that the disciples were all together in one place. Alas we are not all together in one place this year indeed we are all over the place but notwithstanding that I hope we are not all at sea!

The text speaks of the gift of the Spirit in terms of fire-a fire of love-not one blast but tongues of fire-to each disciple a flame-a gift or as we might say a charisma of the Holy Spirit. All God’s people are charismatics. The Church is a charismatic community.

The gift of the Spirit is a gift of diversity-to each disciple his own flame. Not only does the Holy Spirit make us all one he makes us each different. Life together in the Church is a world of joy and blessing as we enrich each other with the gifts entrusted to us and receive from others the gifts entrusted to them.

But the gift of the Holy Spirit is also a gift of unity. The Holy Spirit makes the many to be one body in Christ. Confusion and misunderstanding of the kind described in the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis11) is ended in the dramatic manner described in Acts 2. Henceforth the believers are united in heart and soul and have all things in common.

St Paul writes that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. This could be read as a warning not to restrict our understanding of the Spirit to rigid and simplistic definitions.

I was rather surprised, indeed shocked, when I received a mailing some years ago which advertised this service:

“A ministry to women using beauty therapy and pampering to leave women refreshed, relaxed and with a renewed experience of the Holy Spirit.”

Here the Holy Spirit has become nothing more than that which gives us a personal buzz-this is a long way from the Spirit which Jesus sends. That Spirit as the church understands it is not all about me it is instead about igniting a fire of self-giving love within our hearts and shared in true fellowship not only within the people of God but with all our neighbours.

Of course the Holy Spirit has no clear form-we can’t grasp it or make a picture of it as we can with the person of Jesus. It’s much more like the air we breathe-we enjoy its presence, we even bemoan its absence but it gives life to the Church and points us to Jesus whose gift it is. 

Something for Sunday

This coming Sunday, May 24th, is the anniversary of John Wesley’s conversion and an important date in the Methodist calendar.

There have been a number of famous Christian conversion experiences beginning with that of Paul described in Acts 9 and referred to again in Galatians 1 verse 17. Perhaps the most famous in Christian history is that of Augustine in Milan described in Book 8 of his Confessions. There he was sitting in the garden of his house feeling anguished and distressed when he heard a child next door calling out: “Pick it up, Read it, Pick it up, Read it. His mood changed at once and he took into his hands a copy of Paul’s letters and opening it at random read Romans 13 verses 13/14. And the rest as they say is history.

Augustine’s confessions is one of the great books best read in a modern translation of which there are many. My favourite is that of Sarah Ruden published in 2018. Try it. It could change your life. The account of his conversion experience has provided the template for other such experiences including perhaps that of John Wesley himself.   

Wesley’s account of what happened on the evening of May 24th 1738 begins with his attending evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral-a good start-but then he goes to a Methodist meeting where one was reading from Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Romans. During the reading his heart was strangely warmed as he put it.

On the following day he went to another meeting (You can’t stop these people!) which he addressed on the subject of his conversion stating that until the previous evening he had not been a proper Christian at all. The leader of the meeting who obviously knew Wesley well was sceptical about this and told him that if he hadn’t been a proper Christian before May 24th he had given a very good impression of being one.

Somebody said to me once. Your problem Peter is that you never meet anyone because you are always going to meetings. (This was before I met the lady who subsequently became my wife-at a Methodist meeting!)

Other prominent Christians down the ages have testified to special experiences – St Thomas Aquinas the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages had such an experience at the end of his life and resolved to write no more. –which was something of a disappointment to those who admired his mind. But some Christians, perhaps most, have discounted such moments. Martin Luther when challenged as to how he knew he was a Christian simply replied: I have been baptized. That’s a good answer.

Heart-warming experiences are not peculiar to Christians –atheists and followers of other faiths have them too-some atheists have even been converted from Christianity by such experiences.

But I would not wish to be misunderstood. Special experiences can be blessings:

Many of us have been deeply moved by particular pieces of music –the choruses from Bach’s St Matthew Passion for instance or special hymns. Charles Wesley’s hymn “O thou who camest from above” never fails to move me-even to bring a tear to the eye. Provided it’s set to the right tune of course! This is what some Orthodox writers call the gift of tears. Then there are what I would call St Martin experiences-an encounter with someone in real need-causing within us an overflowing feeling of love-leading to action. Many of us have had experiences like that but we shouldn’t boast of them. Paul who seems to have been no stranger to mystical experiences preferred to speak only of his weaknesses and to insist: Let him who boasts boast only in the Lord.

Special experiences mean a lot to people and such people like to recall these special moments. But everyone is different. God speaks in many languages and through all manner of media. When Paul had his special experience on the Damascus Road those who were with him at the time heard nothing. Those who were with Wesley listening to Martin Luther’s comments on Romans remained unmoved. When I tried to replicate the moment by reading the same passage to a group of modern Methodists in Bristol everyone was thoroughly bored. It’s the same in the Holy Land-some are really excited by the Garden Tomb, others by the Sea of Galilee or the desert. In these things we are all different and in our differences we should rejoice.