Author Archives: pgrimwood

Epiphany: Love casts out fear!

As a season Epiphany doesn’t get much of a “look in” in Methodist Churches because it tends to be pushed aside to make way for Covenant Services. I have many more sermons in my files for Covenant Sunday than I do for Epiphany. This is a pity so I was pleased in one of my churches to be able to move Covenant Sunday to September to mark the beginning of the Methodist year and what used to be called the “winters work.”

Just this week I read an American article by a University theologian who set out to link Epiphany with the Covid -19 pandemic in a most imaginative way. Allow me to share with you some of his reflections.

The magicians or astrologers in Matthew’s story had a vocation. It was to gain control over the human and celestial worlds in order to assure a blessed destiny for human beings through wrestling control from the hostile evil powers. To control the elemental spirits of the universe and the laws of matter which ultimately they thought governed the world was their craft. They were the scientists of their age and they worked alongside the pagan priests of the time to bend reality to the will of humanity.

In the story the magi or the wise men follow the star that puts an end to astrology and magic. They encounter Jesus and they fall down and worship him. They have discovered that life is not simply a product of impersonal laws and the random movements of matter because at the heart of everything there is a personal will, a good Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as love. Love it is, as the great Italian poet Dante wrote, which moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.

In the loving purposes of God magic, astrology and the techno-scientific apparatus we engage with so as to control the universe are unnecessary. Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. In him all things came into being and in him all things hold together and it is in him that we live and move and have our being.  

During the past year we have seen a desperate search for magic bullets: the NHS app: remember that!, the find, test, trace, isolate and support system which never seemed to work, the lockdowns and now the jabs that will set us free!!. Now I will be glad to receive the jab and I have tried to observe the rules as closely as possible. But a route back to the world as it was before may not be open to us and perhaps that is a good thing for we need to build back better.

The Church has a very special vocation here. It is to proclaim that it is love rather than magic or science that is ultimately the key to life and that the universe is the work of a loving God. We should remember that as Isaiah wrote: Truly the Lord has born our infirmities, and he has carried our sorrows.

Covid-19 is a scary thing but we should remember that perfect love casts out fear. God loves us and he is not angry with us nor has he sent the virus to punish us. What he has done is enter our life. He has become as we are that we might become as he is. He is love and he calls us to embrace the love that is at the heart of the universe. That will involve repentance for we have used and abused his love and our actions have wasted much of his creation and now we are facing the price of our prodigality.

And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sisters and brothers that’s our vocation too!

Insights from my Aunt

During our various lockdowns I have been enjoying Family Zoom sessions with relatives in New Zealand. These meetings require some prior negotiation because of the time difference but we manage it. It has become evident to us that New Zealand has managed things well. They locked down hard at first and they imposed strict quarantine measures. Consequently they have had only 25 deaths and only this week I was able to admire my cousin’s holiday photos following her week long trip to the Mount Cook national park.

There has been a tendency in my own thinking, to offer seasons for New Zealand’s success. Namely that it’s a long way away, that there are only a few ports of entry and that the population is quite low whereas the UK is densely populated. But they did rise to the challenge, they locked down hard and early and imposed strict quarantine controls at the borders. The New Zealand Government inspired confidence led by the beautiful and charismatic Jacinda Ardern and so on and so forth. If only etc., etc. Yes New Zealand has done well. I have even bought masks from a New Zealand supplier.

But there’s another consideration which I hadn’t thought about until my Aunt offered a reflection about recent events and compared this pandemic with that of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19. This hit New Zealand hard and according to my Aunt decimated the population. That I think is probably an exaggeration but there’s no doubt that it was a serious crisis for New Zealand. There was a response in the form of a Royal Commission and new public health legislation. What however my Aunt’s comments reveal is that it created a powerful folk memory and a resolve to address such crises more effectively next time. That is to say this time.

In our country there is no similar folk memory of the Spanish flu pandemic. Our folk memories of 1918 are associated with the armistice of November 11th 1918 and victory over Germany. Nevertheless the pandemic cost many more lives than the world war. When we see pictures of rejoicing crowds on November 11th we do not think as perhaps we should that these people are failing to observe a proper social distance.

Among the fatalities of the flu were the following:

Max Weber German sociologist

Frederick Trump (Donald Trump’s grandfather)

Gustav Klimt Austrian painter

Alfred Hindmarsh New Zealand Labour Party leader

Among the sufferers and survivors were the following:

Walt Disney

Mahatma Gandhi

Franklin D Roosevelt

Woodrow Wilson

David Lloyd George

Franz Kafka

Raymond Chandler

I have a book on my personal shelves entitled “1918”. Although this is a military history of the year there is no reference to the flu pandemic in over 500 pages despite the fact that it is believed to have begun in an American Army camp.

These reflections are important for they raise questions about what we chose to remember and what we chose to forget, what occasions are to be remembered with thanksgiving and what other occasions are to be remembered with repentance. There is a great deal in our past as Churches, nations and individuals that we should remember with repentance.

When the pandemic crisis is over we should come together once again with joy and give thanks for our deliverance. At the same time however we need to repent and repair our relationship with God and His creation. This pandemic occurred because of “spillover” by viruses into the human population occasioned by our careless abuse of the environment that God has gifted. We must acknowledge all that has been amiss, resolve to build back better and not simply return to normal.  

Collective guilt is not something we find easy to accept since we regard sin as a personal and individual failure. This is a mistake on our part and is contrary to the witness of scripture. Coming to terms with collective guilt is a valuable therapy for nations and leads to renewed healing and wholeness-just ask the Germans!

Plagues Past and Present

One of the best things about reading history is that it lifts you above what others have called the narcissism of the present. This is the foolish idea that our times are completely unprecedented and that we have nothing to learn from the wisdom and the follies of the past.

Two books in the past year have offered a corrective to this point of view. The first is “Epidemics and Society” by Frank Snowden. Written before the present pandemic which is nevertheless referred to in in a revised introduction it describes the history of humankind’s relationship with infectious disease and gives an account of the pandemics of the past. How lucky we were to escape a pandemic for so long! We had this one coming our way for some time and pandemics can be much more serious than this one. Think smallpox, Ebola virus and bubonic plague.

The other is “The Fate of Rome” by Kyle Harper. Harper is a professor of classics and ancient history in the USA. Most of us are dimly aware that the Roman Empire can be said to have fallen. Some of us know that pandemic disease gave the Empire a series of shocks. There seem to have been three main ones: the Antonine Plague of 165-6, the plague of St Cyprian in 264-6 so called because Cyprian Bishop of Carthage wrote a detailed description of it and the plague of Justinian which raged across the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and of which there are many reports. These diseases had a devastating effect on population numbers. In addition the Empire had to face the effects of climate change-not anthropogenic climate change to be sure- but none the less devastating for the strength and welfare of the Empire and its inhabitants. These findings have been resourced by a new science: bio-archaeology. The Roman Empire was not a blessing for the health of its inhabitants. To the question: What have the Romans ever done for us?-the answer might well have been: got us sick.

From my perspective particular interest attaches to the response of the Church in worship teaching and service. In the case of the plague of the third century Christians were initially blamed and persecution intensified. But the response of Christians in caring for one another and for strangers strengthened the Church and showed up the uselessness of the pagan gods. Preaching both at this time and later became darker with an especial emphasis on judgement and the end times. By the time of the plague of Justinian Christianity was the official faith of the Empire.

Against this plague the Church mobilised all its resources. There was special preaching, new Biblical commentaries were written and prayer walks across the city of Rome were held led by the Bishop-Gregory-known to history as St Gregory the Great. Gregory’s writings on pastoral ministry can still be read with profit today. An important theme of Gregory’s preaching was judgement and a belief in impending judgement is an impetus to action. So Gregory was inspired to initiate a mission to the savage Anglo-Saxons a mission which sadly remains incomplete to this day.  Special days of prayer were decreed for the Christian calendar by the Emperor’s command.

One of the most famous icons which led the processions –an icon of Mary devoted to the health of the Roman people can still be seen in in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It would be interesting to know whether it’s been brought out as an aid to intercessory prayer during the present pandemic.

So far during this pandemic the Churches response has been disappointing. The leadership seems unable to speak prophetically and their prayers are sometimes half hearted. The theme of judgement and repentance is scarcely ever mentioned and yet the scientists know that behind the pandemic and the climate crisis lies environmental degradation driven by greed. The later Romans were taught by their Church to repent of their greed, inequality and waste. Why is our Church so timid and so silent?

Happy Christmas to you all!

There’s a Christmas song I particularly like and have often played to congregations. It goes like this:

Sweet little Jesus boy

Born long ago

Sweet little holy child

And we didn’t know who you were.

And we didn’t know who you were!

Indeed we didn’t and in large measure we still don’t. Think of what the characters in the nativity stories made of these events.

There was Herod. He thought he knew who you were. He was wrong!

Then there were the shepherds. They received a message from an angel saying that a saviour had been born who is Christ the Lord. Not you will notice a baby who will grow up to be a saviour. This is the Christ: the saviour of the world. They make their way to Bethlehem and they pass the message on. That’s a good thing to do! Then they return glorifying and praising God.  They are central players in the scene, not just bystanders or extras as they are made to appear in the typical nativity play. They seemed to know who you were.

Then there are the wise men in Matthew’s gospel. They see the child and they fall down and worship him. They don’t just bring gifts and put them around the Christmas tree. They fall down and worship! How very odd and so very unexpected! That these visitors from the east should give to this baby divine honour. But these are wise men and by worshiping Christ they show themselves to be truly wise. They knew who you were and are. That’s why they’re wise.

But how wise are we? What is this season really about? Of course we all know what Christmas is really about but what is the festival of the nativity-the Christian festival really about. Is it about the birth of a baby as someone once explained to one of my Church Councils? Or is there more to it than that. Someone in the same Church Council tentatively uttered the word incarnation. Now that’s a big word –enough to frighten anyone. Perhaps its time to follow the example of Mary and keep all these things pondering them in our hearts. So let’s do that for the next few minutes.

What then is God doing? Why is this festival an occasion for such joy and gladness? How do we make sense of God’s strange strategy?

During the Eighteenth century King George III showed great interest in agriculture and wrote papers under the pseudonym Ralph Robinson. Similarly earlier in the same century Tsar Peter the Great of Russia came to England to study shipbuilding and worked in the shipyard at Deptford under an assumed name, Peter Mikhailov. He rented a house, trashed it during drunken parties but on Sundays when sober he went to the Quaker Meeting House.

Are we to imagine Jesus as God in disguise as these folk were Kings in disguise or God under an assumed name? The Church has always opposed this notion. In Jesus God has truly become one of us. At the same time Jesus is not to be mistaken simply for a teacher, a healer, a carpenter or even a prophet. The Church has opposed this notion too for Jesus Christ is not only one of us he is also one with God.  This is the Christ the saviour of the world. Who do men say that I am, said Jesus. You are the Messiah said Peter. The wise men recognised this. That’s why they are wise.

God is love and what God is seeking to do is to find a way to rescue us from the hells of our own selfishness and self indulgence. The Christmas season normally give us plenty of opportunities to pursue those! We can be rescued from the pitiless and tragic aspects of human existence. We are fallen creatures but we can be lifted up and restored to the paradise that was lost but can now be regained. God’s love can reach out to us, change us and turn us around. How can this happen? How does God manage it?

Telling the truth about God is not a straightforward matter. Jesus himself recognised this and taught in parables sometimes perplexing his own disciples in the process. It’s best to come at these things obliquely so that those who hear the stories are led to ponder on them and make them mean something for them personally. So each generation needs new parables.

After all explanations appeal to the mind and illustrations delight the eyes but what we seek always is something that will move us body and soul, speak to our hearts and turn us towards the truth. What better way than a story? 

The Danish writer and philosopher Kierkegaard told a story to illustrate what God has done for us. It’s as good a story as any you’ll hear this season- a true modern parable – one of the best.

Once upon a time there was a girl who belonged to the poorest class and lived in the most deprived circumstances.

A powerful and noble-minded King fell in love with her. However he has a problem. How can he win her love? Would she be happy to live at his side? She would lack self-confidence. She would always remember that she was a humble girl and he a great King. How could the love between the King and the girl be a truly happy love without any delusion or deception creeping in? To overcome the girl with a display of glory and power might satisfy the girl for a moment but would not satisfy the King. To deceive the girl with a display of apparent humility would also fail to achieve a true union of love between them.

Kierkegaard applies this parable to God. How is God’s true love to win the hearts of human beings? How is God to reach out to us and win us? How is God to overcome the infinite difference between him and us? Union, Kierkegaard concludes, must be attempted by descent. Love must alter itself.

This is the key point.

God must become our equal and appear in the likeness of the humblest and in the form of a servant. And that likeness is no mere disguise as it would be if the King simply assumed a beggar’s cloak. God in Christ will be born in a stable, will suffer all things, endure all things and make experience of all things. He will be forsaken by his friends, condemned by the powers and put to death on a cross. This is how much God loves us. God has become, as we are that we might become as he is.

In Jesus God has come down to earth. Earth and heaven are one. This is an absolutely amazing thought. God as become as we are that we might become as he is. Heaven has come down to earth so that earth might be lifted up to heaven.

There remains what is perhaps the most important question of all. What would it mean to live as if this were true-that God truly is love-that love is what holds the universe together and that consequently to love is to go with the grain of the universe as God has fashioned it. Well we could love more and in all manner of ways live our lives more courageously and generously. But perhaps at this time of year especially we should emulate the shepherds and share the message of the angels with our neighbours and friends always giving glory to God and praising him for those good things that we have heard and seen.

Something for Sunday

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord let it be to me according to your word.

Once upon a time at a Church Council held at about this time of year I tentatively enquired of the membership as to what the meaning of this season might be. A distinguished member, the wife of a former President of the Methodist Conference no less, announced that it was about the birth of a baby. I had the temerity to cast doubt on this –after all two of the four gospels have no infancy stories and St Paul seems unaware or at least uninterested in the stories that are told at this time of year. Another member of the meeting almost equally distinguished, a retired headmaster the son of the manse and an old boy of Kingswood-it was that sort of place- offered “incarnation” as the meaning of the season. Ah ha- I responded now you’re talking. But there was no time then to talk about how and why God became human. Most years the opportunity to talk in such terms is postponed to the Sunday after Christmas when ministers and priests try to expound to their hungover congregations the real meaning of Christmas as the Church understands it.

Another difficulty at this time of year is the question of Mary and in particular the story of the annunciation which is the gospel reading for Sunday. In my experience this is problematic for thoroughly modern Methodists and so the fourth Sunday in Advent is often chosen as the ideal date for carols services and nativity plays. The opportunity to address the question rarely arises but now in the special circumstances of this year and from a safe distance I am able to do so.

Catholics often criticise Methodists and other Protestants for having a Mary shaped gap in their devotional lives. I have listened to these comments over the years and wondered. I have also admired and been moved by representations of Mary in art-especially representations of the annunciation. There are almost countless examples and they used to be popular on Christmas cards until the season was secularized in recent decades. Now you have to search for them in specialist outlets like Cathedral shops. Sad is it not! Yes I think we are missing something.

And now let us turn to Luke’s story in Luke Chapter 1 focussing in particular upon Mary’s response to the message of the angel. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to your word.

Consider the signs of the times. That is to say in the 1st century. Not so very different now that we are in the 21st century. Things are all over the place. Our relationships with God with one another and with other creatures –plants and animals are disordered. But in Jesus Christ God has acted to redeem the world not simply by preaching to the world but by becoming one with the world in Christ. He came to live our life to bear our pains to take up our struggles and to die our death upon the cross. And then to rise up as the first of the new creation –to reconcile all things in the love of God. God has become as we are so that we might become as he is. That’s a famous sentence but it’s a useful one.

And Mary has a crucial role in this. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit she will give birth to Jesus. This birth is no ordinary birth but rather the moment when God took human flesh so as to redeem our fallen race. As to what Joseph’s part might have been well that’s a discussion for another time.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. We can feel re-assured that he is God’s angel. He says so himself’ He declares (although not in this passage) that he stands in the presence of the Lord and that he is God’s messenger. This is his fourth appearance in the Bible and his second in the New Testament. He will not appear again.

He has a message for Mary. He shows her and us what her calling is to be. Mary wonders how this can be but she accepts her vocation with the words of our text:

 “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

This is Mary’s choice. The choice of the good Christian. Let me explain.

Mary’s choice is a strange choice in terms of the values of the world to-day. She consents to be used-some would say abused. She will know suffering. Her vocation will not be an easy one. It will bring no glory in the world’s eyes. Her way is that of suffering love, the way of a servant. But let us not misunderstand her here this is not a matter of sorrowful resignation rather it’s a matter of joyful acceptance. Very often people like to contrast the submissive Mary who obeys in verse 37 with the exultant Mary who sings Magnificat in verse 46. The contrast is a false one. Mary exults with joy because she has made God’s cause her own.

As I say this is controversial. In the way of the modern world Mary’s choice would make her a suitable object for counselling. Mary think again! Surely you don’t want to be anybody’s handmaid and certainly not God’s. You could make something of yourself, you could make your own choices, realise your own talents, express your own sexuality, be an affirmed and affirming presence. After all you’re worth it! Why bother with something as nebulous as salvation when you could achieve liberation and self-realization.

Mary take my advice read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Attwood. This is an account of how young women are used and abused as baby making machines in a future world which is ruled by religious fundamentalists who call themselves the Republic of Gilead. It’s a contemporary classic sometimes read in schools –alas.

The Christian way is quite different. It affirms suffering love, losing your life in order to save it, the way of grace rather than gain. By making God’s life our life by bearing Christ to our neighbours we can fill our lives with a love that never fails. This is true joy, true peace in short salvation.

Mary’s choice is the choice of the good Christian. We can embark on a journey with God that will take us who knows where. Mary bore Christ. We can bear Christ and take him to our neighbours in deeds of love and kindness.

Sometimes people say, indeed I’ve said it myself-oh the New Testament is a young person’s book. Mary was young. Her choice could never be my choice. But this is a misunderstanding. God can demand a choice from us and for him at any age. Mary was young but Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was old. Mary is led to sing but Zechariah; John’s father is struck dumb. I knew a minister once who was struck dumb. Not a good thing to happen. But he didn’t cease to be a disciple. He followed Mary’s choice. He was a great support to me and to others.

During the forthcoming holidays no doubt we’ll find ourselves in front of the screen. Celebrities will appear before us in all their physical perfection and charm. Images of material prosperity and affluence will dance before us in which the adverts are indistinguishable from the main show. How grubby and undistinguished our lives will seem beside the lives of these shining ones. We will feel guilty and we will rush out and spend lots of money to assuage our guilt. That is the object of the exercise.

What is to be done? Should we adjust our set? No don’t adjust your set. The set’s not at fault. To coin a phrase from my student days; It’s just that there’s a fault in reality.

True reality, what some have called ultimate reality, reveals to us that at the heart of all things there is grace not greed, love rather than lust and sharing rather than shopping. Mary is full of grace. She rejoices because she’s made God’s way her way. She will bear Christ. She knows in her heart a love that will never fail and a joy that nothing can spoil. It could be true for us as well but first we must listen to the message of God’s angel rather than to the jingles of the angels of this age.

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord let it be to me according to your word.

Once upon a time at a Church Council held at about this time of year I tentatively enquired of the membership as to what the meaning of this season might be. A distinguished member, the wife of a former President of the Methodist Conference no less, announced that it was about the birth of a baby. I had the temerity to cast doubt on this –after all two of the four gospels have no infancy stories and St Paul seems unaware or at least uninterested in the stories that are told at this time of year. Another member of the meeting almost equally distinguished, a retired headmaster the son of the manse and an old boy of Kingswood-it was that sort of place- offered “incarnation” as the meaning of the season. Ah ha- I responded now you’re talking. But there was no time then to talk about how and why God became human. Most years the opportunity to talk in such terms is postponed to the Sunday after Christmas when ministers and priests try to expound to their hungover congregations the real meaning of Christmas as the Church understands it.

Another difficulty at this time of year is the question of Mary and in particular the story of the annunciation which is the gospel reading for Sunday. In my experience this is problematic for thoroughly modern Methodists and so the fourth Sunday in Advent is often chosen as the ideal date for carols services and nativity plays. The opportunity to address the question rarely arises but now in the special circumstances of this year and from a safe distance I am able to do so.

Catholics often criticise Methodists and other Protestants for having a Mary shaped gap in their devotional lives. I have listened to these comments over the years and wondered. I have also admired and been moved by representations of Mary in art-especially representations of the annunciation. There are almost countless examples and they used to be popular on Christmas cards until the season was secularized in recent decades. Now you have to search for them in specialist outlets like Cathedral shops. Sad is it not! Yes I think we are missing something.

And now let us turn to Luke’s story in Luke Chapter 1 focussing in particular upon Mary’s response to the message of the angel. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to your word.

Consider the signs of the times. That is to say in the 1st century. Not so very different now that we are in the 21st century. Things are all over the place. Our relationships with God with one another and with other creatures –plants and animals are disordered. But in Jesus Christ God has acted to redeem the world not simply by preaching to the world but by becoming one with the world in Christ. He came to live our life to bear our pains to take up our struggles and to die our death upon the cross. And then to rise up as the first of the new creation –to reconcile all things in the love of God. God has become as we are so that we might become as he is. That’s a famous sentence but it’s a useful one.

And Mary has a crucial role in this. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit she will give birth to Jesus. This birth is no ordinary birth but rather the moment when God took human flesh so as to redeem our fallen race. As to what Joseph’s part might have been well that’s a discussion for another time.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. We can feel re-assured that he is God’s angel. He says so himself’ He declares (although not in this passage) that he stands in the presence of the Lord and that he is God’s messenger. This is his fourth appearance in the Bible and his second in the New Testament. He will not appear again.

He has a message for Mary. He shows her and us what her calling is to be. Mary wonders how this can be but she accepts her vocation with the words of our text:

 “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

This is Mary’s choice. The choice of the good Christian. Let me explain.

Mary’s choice is a strange choice in terms of the values of the world to-day. She consents to be used-some would say abused. She will know suffering. Her vocation will not be an easy one. It will bring no glory in the world’s eyes. Her way is that of suffering love, the way of a servant. But let us not misunderstand her here this is not a matter of sorrowful resignation rather it’s a matter of joyful acceptance. Very often people like to contrast the submissive Mary who obeys in verse 37 with the exultant Mary who sings Magnificat in verse 46. The contrast is a false one. Mary exults with joy because she has made God’s cause her own.

As I say this is controversial. In the way of the modern world Mary’s choice would make her a suitable object for counselling. Mary think again! Surely you don’t want to be anybody’s handmaid and certainly not God’s. You could make something of yourself, you could make your own choices, realise your own talents, express your own sexuality, be an affirmed and affirming presence. After all you’re worth it! Why bother with something as nebulous as salvation when you could achieve liberation and self-realization.

Mary take my advice read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Attwood. This is an account of how young women are used and abused as baby making machines in a future world which is ruled by religious fundamentalists who call themselves the Republic of Gilead. It’s a contemporary classic sometimes read in schools –alas.

The Christian way is quite different. It affirms suffering love, losing your life in order to save it, the way of grace rather than gain. By making God’s life our life by bearing Christ to our neighbours we can fill our lives with a love that never fails. This is true joy, true peace in short salvation.

Mary’s choice is the choice of the good Christian. We can embark on a journey with God that will take us who knows where. Mary bore Christ. We can bear Christ and take him to our neighbours in deeds of love and kindness.

Sometimes people say, indeed I’ve said it myself-oh the New Testament is a young person’s book. Mary was young. Her choice could never be my choice. But this is a misunderstanding. God can demand a choice from us and for him at any age. Mary was young but Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was old. Mary is led to sing but Zechariah; John’s father is struck dumb. I knew a minister once who was struck dumb. Not a good thing to happen. But he didn’t cease to be a disciple. He followed Mary’s choice. He was a great support to me and to others.

During the forthcoming holidays no doubt we’ll find ourselves in front of the screen. Celebrities will appear before us in all their physical perfection and charm. Images of material prosperity and affluence will dance before us in which the adverts are indistinguishable from the main show. How grubby and undistinguished our lives will seem beside the lives of these shining ones. We will feel guilty and we will rush out and spend lots of money to assuage our guilt. That is the object of the exercise.

What is to be done? Should we adjust our set? No don’t adjust your set. The set’s not at fault. To coin a phrase from my student days; It’s just that there’s a fault in reality.

True reality, what some have called ultimate reality, reveals to us that at the heart of all things there is grace not greed, love rather than lust and sharing rather than shopping. Mary is full of grace. She rejoices because she’s made God’s way her way. She will bear Christ. She knows in her heart a love that will never fail and a joy that nothing can spoil. It could be true for us as well but first we must listen to the message of God’s angel rather than to the jingles of the angels of this age.

This is Leonardo Da Vinci’s take on the annunciation. Notice that Mary is shown with a text before her. This is quite usual for paintings of this period. Mary is not to be thought of as an illiterate but rather as someone who can engage with high culture. Feminists can take comfort from this.

Something for Sunday

Last week I was looking at an American web site that offers guidance to preachers – “The Text this Week” it’s called. On a side bar was an advert for a baseball cap –it was after all an American web site. The cap bears a slogan: “Make Advent Great Again”!

Hallelujah! I thought. I’d like one of those. Trouble is by the time it comes it’ll probably be Lent. Still I like the challenge. How can we make Advent great again?

Advent is said to be the waiting time. But waiting for what exactly? There are those who say: that Advent is when we look forward. True but to what. For most people that simply means Christmas and as soon as that word crops up I feel we are losing the plot.

Let me suggest another approach. This is based on a famous quotation from the rule of St Benedict. Always, he said, we begin again. Benedict’s rule prescribes a mode of living together praying together and working together that will enable those who subscribe to it to grow in grace, and acquire the Godly virtues of faith, hope and love. It is, he said, a little rule for beginners—early Methodism was much the same. Now this is not magic. We fall short, we become bored, we are, let’s face it sinners. We must begin again. Advent is when the Church stirs itself up and begins again. Advent is when we recall God’s gracious promises and seek the strength to live in the light of those promises. Just like that computer we need to be re-booted. Always we begin again.

Our Old Testament reading challenges us to receive again in faith the good news about God’s gracious interventions in history: past and present. Isaiah speaks of comfort and restoration. A new time is coming. God is coming again-Zion will be restored. Those who have been exiled in a far country are to return-and the Lord will make the way straight before them. Those who have grown old in their doubts can be renewed in their faith. See the signs, be the signs and walk the way.

We apply these texts to the coming of Christ. The fact that whoever wrote this passage didn’t know about Jesus shouldn’t bother us. There is, I feel, a very real sense in which poets and prophets don’t own their own words. The words are greater than the person who first uttered them. Poets can speak more truly than they know.

The New Testament readings both this week and last week pose challenges to Christ’s disciples and those who might become Christ’s disciples. Last week the challenge was clear-be watchful, take note of the signs including and especially the signs of the times. 

This week is different- a new character bursts on to the scene. This is John the Baptist. Who is he? I see him as a bridge between the before and Christ’s new order going forward.

He comes out of the wilderness, just as in the Old Testament passage a voice cried out in the wilderness. Anyway John is a bridge, not only between then and now but also between places. He comes from the wilderness. This is more than a geographical expression – the wilderness is a place on the margins. Think of all the places that are on the margins of our world-the refugee camps-the belts of slums surrounding third world cities-the sites where the world’s increasing numbers of poor live and suffer the consequences of ecological degradation, inequality, racism and injustice.

John is a voice and he calls for repentance. Repent-what a boo word! –not long before Christmas too. The words a from a favourite Leonard Cohen song come back to me: Repent, repent I wonder what they meant.

To me it’s fairly clearly what they meant.  Pause, take stock, and think differently. Things are sliding in all directions but we can start again. We must begin again. We need to renew our confidence in God’s loving and gracious promises. We all need to begin again.

Now some points about John the Baptist:

Firstly John the Baptist is the forerunner. He is the herald of the Messiah. He says; “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. He calls the people to repent.

John the Baptist is like a bell in a tower. He rings out a message and a warning. He calls people to church but he remains outside the Church himself.

Or to use another metaphor he’s not the star. He’s simply the warm up item. Or again he is a voice whereas the Christ who comes is the living word of God.

This is a reminder to us that we too are not the stars in God’s show. We too are called to be heralds of God, forerunners of something and someone much greater than we are. We don’t ask people to join us for our sakes but rather for their sakes and Jesus’ sake. We don’t say follow me; we say follow Jesus. We are just voices like John but Jesus is the message. As John says: I am not the Christ but rather the one who says make straight the way of the Lord!

Secondly John the Baptist is a prophet. He points to the future but he has some very sharp things to say about the present. He calls upon people to repent. He blows the whistle. He says “no” when everyone wants to hear the word yes. He doesn’t go with the flow.

A prophet’s job is to be right with the will of God even at the cost of being wrong with public opinion. The church is called to exercise a prophetic role at the cost of its own popularity and short term influence-just like John the Baptist. Remember John the Baptist paid with his head for saying things that the powers that be didn’t want to hear.

Thirdly John the Baptist is a reminder to us that everything we do in the church is provisional. We are a waiting people, we wait upon the Lord and as we wait, we proclaim by word and sign the one who is coming.

We are proud of our buildings, our heritage of song and story, our devotional practices, our signs and sacraments. In large measure they are our religion. We treasure them and we are not wrong to do so. Yet they are only provisional-practices suitable for the interim between the time that is now and the time when he comes. We are living in the mean-time between the times. 

In the time to come there will be no temples, no sacraments, no orders of ministry and dare I say it no choirs or other forms of music either.  God will be all in all. This is what the Book of Revelation told us at the readings for Morning Prayer on Friday last.

We would do well to remember the provisional character of our religious life when we work ourselves up into a tizzy about some issue or other. Some issue to do with the use of the building or the practice of worship or the right use of Sunday or some matter to do with Christian behaviour. All these things matter but if any of them comes to matter too much then something has gone wrong.

We can come to believe too much about little things and too little about big things. Immersed as we are in running the Church which in many ways has a bureaucratic life of its own we become obsessed by trivia and detail. It’s important we keep our eyes on the big picture-that God loves us and that he will intervene at the close of the age to draw all things to himself.

To be a forerunner is hard but that is the calling of the church. We point not to ourselves but to Jesus-just like John the Baptist.

This Christmas yes even this Christmas many strangers will be coming into our churches. Perhaps seeking for something. Perhaps asking the same question that John the Baptist asked from his prison cell. Is this Jesus who you talk about the one or have we got to wait for someone else or asking a more general question about life itself. Is this it? Or could there be something better.  It’s important that we give them an answer and a good answer.  No this isn’t it. Things could be better. You could be better-the world could be changed. We`ve seen a vision of how. We’ve seen it in Jesus. Don’t look at us-look at him. Anticipate his coming again. Remember they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength

Something for Sunday

To-day is Advent Sunday. Advent means coming and the season of Advent is about the coming of Christ. The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ mark you – not just the coming of Christmas. Our faith in Christ is faith in the Christ who comes – comes to you and me- comes to our Church and community and comes us saviour and judge. So Advent is a season of expectation as we Christians look forward in hope. We know there’s a lot wrong with the world and with ourselves. But Christ comes to put things to rights. That’s what salvation means.

But at the same time as there is hope there is apprehension. If a judge is coming what will his verdict be. Will we be found wanting? Will we finally be found out? So although we long for the coming of the Lord and pray daily and urgently that his coming may be soon there is also a sense in which we hope that the day of the coming of the Lord might take place after next Wednesday or after the next visit by the grandchildren.

Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel speaks of the signs attending the final days-fear and foreboding at what is coming on the world. The particular circumstances and the numerous fears that may have first inspired these words need not bother us. What I think we can respond to are the feelings that are represented here. We too have fears and foreboding. Our world might be falling apart. Hard times are here for many: loss of a job, family break up, a sickness, a death or a failure. Then we are troubled by what is coming on the world. Wars and rumours of wars, economic disaster and climate chaos. We are worried, distressed and perplexed just like those who heard these words for the first time.  We too are worried about the future and if we are not then we ought to be.

In the midst of all this chaos there are signs of hope. As things seem to get worse the day when the son of man comes with all his angels gets closer. We do have confidence in God’s love and in his plan for the world. Despite all appearances to the contrary we believe that history is going our way and that Christ will lead us to victory over the powers of death and destruction.

In the meantime what is our response to be? The passage from Mark and the passage from 1 Corinthians offers some clear guidelines.

Be watchful, be encouraged and be hopeful.

Being watchful is particularly important. This is the point of the parable of the fig tree. Read the signs of the times. Be alert and aware. Understand what is going on and try to make a response to what is going on. Work for peace and justice, join a Christian environmental group like Arocha or Green Christian. Don’t bury your head in the sand taking comfort from an endless repetition of the old songs.

The watchfulness theme in scripture is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. The watchman guards the city, he warns of approaching danger, he reminds the people of their responsibilities. We then are called to be alert and on the watch for those things that might challenge the Kingly rule of God. This is also a big theme of the Advent season.

The temptation not to be watchful and not to testify to what we see is always strong. I don’t want to get involved. I wouldn’t make any difference. Nobody would listen to me any way. It’s not worth it. We need to resist these voices. Remember all that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good people-people like us-and yes no kidding-we are good people-do nothing.

Christ is coming! He comes every day often in the form of the neighbour who needs our help. There are signs of the kingdom here and there. We must be alert and ready for Him when he comes with his angels. We might even be found amongst the angels.

In the next chapter of Mark as the great crisis draws near Jesus specifically asks his disciples to watch with him in the garden of gethsemane and of course they fail. They fall asleep. Could you not watch one hour? Evidently not! We need to do better. WE must keep watch for the Lord. No more amusing ourselves to death in front of the tele.

Secondly be encouraged. . Encouragement is one of the great themes of Advent. Things may not look too good. The questions you asked in the past may not seem any nearer resolution now than they did then. You may well feel discontented that so many easy cheap, hopes were disappointed. You might feel depressed at the thought that the promise of your youth has not been fulfilled or that the expectations you had then have not come to pass. To speak personally for a moment I certainly do feel that way. Why are the urgent prophetic messages that I heard in 1968 say, still not heeded, still not acted upon? It’s easy to become cynical and depressed. Easy but wrong.

Wrong because that very sense of depression and discontent is God created. God will come for us and redeem our times and us. He’s made us this way because he wants to fill us with himself. God longs for us as much as we long for him and our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in him.

Take particular encouragement from St Paul’s message to the Corinthian Church. He gives thanks for them. He acknowledges the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus. He takes note of their enrichment in all speech and knowledge. He says to them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. He notes that they are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ who will keep them guiltless to the end.

Powerful stuff and he meant every word of it but don’t draw the wrong conclusions. These Corinthian brothers and sisters weren’t exceptional people and they certainly weren’t above criticism. Paul spends most of the next fourteen chapters criticizing them and trying to put them right on a lot of points. But when it came to the really big picture they were in the right place. We need to hear this message ourselves because it isn’t easy being a Christian these days and we need all the encouragement we can get.

Be encouraged.

Thirdly be hopeful

In the end the great theme of today is hope. What we hope for is that our saviour and judge will come set the world to rights and vindicate our lives and our efforts. That he will say to each one of us: Well done thou good and faithful servant. Of course as good Protestants we know that our lives and our efforts are never sufficient to earn heaven’s rewards-only our faith can do that. But is our faith strong enough and is it in the end misplaced? We feel troubled and somewhat out of our depth. Who is Jesus? Who is God? We go on asking these questions.

In the end no final answer can be given to these questions as yet. But God has placed within each one of us a seed of hope-that our lives do make sense-that loving is worthwhile and that Jesus by his coming and by his death and his victory on the cross has conquered death and has begun the new age. In faith and hope we live, always hopeful, never discouraged always scanning the horizon for signs of the coming of the lord. The coming of the one who will answer all our questions himself.

Something for Sunday (delivered at Streetly this morning)

Do you long for the coming of God? You may wonder what the question means or whether such a question could have any meaning at all for you. Perhaps you have searched for a long time or waited for a long time and things don’t seem to make any more sense to you now than they did in the past. On the other hand you may be so busy and so caught up with the struggle of living that you have no time to long for anything except a covid-19 vaccine and a family Christmas. Nevertheless if you feel dissatisfied with this state of affairs, if you have an intuition that your life could be better nobler and more fulfilled then for you I have good news. Christ will come for you. Advent which begins next week is a season just for you. God has created in you a sense of discontent. He’s made you this way because he wants to fill you with himself. God longs for you just as much as you long for him and your heart will be restless till it finds its rest in him.

Well that’s the good news. But what about the downside. What about the nagging suspicion that none of this is for real. That since Christ did not come last year or last week he’s not very likely to come today or tomorrow. All this stuff about Christ coming again which we piously repeat at Communion services is just words-just a manner of speaking-not to be taken seriously.

Well if you do think that way at times and who doesn’t you would not be the first Christians to do so. Among the very first Christians there were many who wondered whether Christ had come once and for all in his earthly ministry. They looked to the future in the light of the Christ who had come and they wondered what more might be expected before the end. Others full of eager anticipation expected the end- if not this year-well then next year without doubt. But then year succeeded year and the final moment of glory seemed to be indefinitely postponed. There were persecutions and some died, there were rows in the church-schisms and splits-disagreements-questions. In these circumstances hope can die –apathy and inertia replaces eager anticipation. Spiritual death can seep in to the souls of the faithful like damp creeping up a wall. Has our hope died?

Our gospel passage from St Matthew has always lifted Christians out of this mood. It reminds them Christ has come, is coming, indeed that he comes every day. What is more it insists that judgment is not something that can be dismissed from our minds because it will take place sometime in the distant future. Judgment is now-it is a present experience because Christ is always present in the one who needs our help. This is good news-although at the same time a fearful thing. Every action is judged-every encounter is an encounter with the divine because God is always present in every encounter. We think our lives so unimportant and our actions and words so trivial, absurd and meaningless. This parable refutes that. No, no it says. If you think that you are dead wrong. Your life can make a difference. Your big moment is now.

Mother Theresa was one Christian who was inspired by this parable. She wrote: “In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread. In our work we have him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sick, I was naked, I was homeless.” It isn’t always easy to see Christ in people we don’t like even when they are in need as Mother Theresa herself confesses. “Dearest Lord, she prays, though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting and the unreasonable may I still recognize you and say: “Jesus my patient. How sweet it is to serve you.”

In 1527 when Breslau in Germany was hard hit by the plague many Christians wondered whether they ought to stay or to flee. Martin Luther wrote an open letter to the local pastor in which he said: “I know very well that if Christ himself or his mother were now ill everybody would be so devoted as to wish to help and to serve. Everybody would come running. Yet they do not want to hear when He himself says; inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me. If then you would minister and wait upon Christ, behold you have a sick neighbour you. Go to him and minister to him and you will assuredly find Christ in him”.

Unto one of the least of these my brethren? Who then are these least for us today? Who are the ones we consider scarcely worthy of life itself? The ones who are not regarded. Where might we find them? The homeless on the streets-the others we don’t value. Who are these people? The long term mentally ill, the redundant, the unemployed, the unproductive and demented elderly, the sufferers from unfashionable diseases, some of the disabled and perhaps above all the unborn. These things should be thought about.

The gospel says that we will assuredly find Christ in these people. How can we be so sure? Why will an act of sacrificial love assuredly bring us into the presence of Christ?

Because sacrificial love is at the heart of Jesus’ life and message.

You and I are looking for God-succeeding to be found by him-hoping for holiness-wanting to be entirely given. We desire this but we dread it as well-fear the pain –the surrender-the loss of self-the letting go. When Jesus calls us to take up the cross and follow him it is this that he seeks for us-a self surrender-a death that will lead to a rebirth in the spirit. To do some act of sacrificial love is to walk the Christian way, it is to know Christ. This is a world away from self righteous do gooding. Such acts affirm the self-they speak to our desire to be somebody to make something of ourselves. The Christian way is not about making something of ourselves it is about transcending ourselves. It is about dying to the old in order that we might be born anew. In that God given sense of loss Christ can come for those who truly seek him. Making himself present if we will make him room’ knocking at our door and seeking entry.

Yes Christ will come again. Indeed he comes every day in the form of the sister or brother who needs our help. Can we respond to him when he comes close to us? Could you not see him in the neighbour who stands in need of you? And surely in these daily encounters with Christ come again do we not see a sign of his final coming-when the kingdom of love, justice and peace will be all in all.

And when we pray. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven we are not beating the air with vain words.

Not at all. We are living the Christian hope.

Something for Sunday

They say confession is good for the soul so I want to own up to an occasion when I got myself into trouble in the pulpit. There have probably been others and perhaps there should have been others. As I get older I’m getting more cautious and perhaps people are kinder than they should be.

It concerned our parable for today-the parable of the three servants or the talents. I read the passage and thought about it. I also thought about the circumstances in which I might have heard it before –the school assembly for instance. The stern faced Headmaster addresses the school:

“We are each given some talents. They might not necessarily be in school classroom subjects; they might be in sports or in the pursuit of a hobby to a very high standard, it might be in the ability to help other people or in something else like picking up litter, but whatever it is we have at least one talent. We must use our talent well. Hiding it is no us because with talents what you don’t use you lose. So even if you’ve only got one talent use it wisely. And if you don’t watch out.”

I expect you’ve been there. You may even have given a morally uplifting talk along these lines. I have tried it but I’m not very good at it-being earnest is not my natural game. I tend to get the giggles half way through. More seriously I simply cannot identify the master in the parable with God or with Christ. The God I believe in is a gracious God, eternally happy and joyful always there to welcome home his wayward children. That’s the God I read about in the New Testament. I just can’t read the parable in a way that portrays God as hard hearted, demanding and always ready to hand out punishment. To be honest I still think I’m right about this.

However I now have a problem. How am I going to explain the harsh judgement handed down and the condemnation visited upon the third servant? My solution was to present the parable as a kind of commentary on the economics of 1st century Palestine- a time of oppression and exploitation. The parables of Jesus very often form a kind of commentary on the world of landlords and labourers, tenants, taxpayers and share croppers. The third servant is a kind of whistle blower- a conscientious non-participant in a rotten system – a hero of the fair trade movement. He suffers in a good cause. Those who follow the way of the way Kingdom should be prepared to suffer.

Nobody bought this. Some were quite offended. It shows the perils of being carried away by one exciting chapter in a book on the parables (reference supplied). What I had done was turn the liberating word of God into a topic of academic interest. That’s a mistake.  More thought needed and some more study too.

I think the key to this parable lies in the relationship of each of the servants to his master. How much faith did each servant actually have in the master? The first two servants were prepared to take a chance, to be risk takers-real venture capitalists. None of them lost any money but the one servant who exercised total and absolute prudence and acted so as to achieve complete security for the property entrusted to him stands condemned. He was fearful and faithless and paralysed by that fear and faithlessness. “I knew you to be a hard man. I was afraid. I hid your money in the ground.” The condemnation he incurred he brought on himself. The first two servants by contrast were emboldened to risk everything for one they trusted and knew to be gracious. So this is a call to be faithful, fearless and to enter into the joy of the master.

Christianity is a call to have faith in a gracious and loving God. It’s not an invitation to exercise prudence within the world as we know it but instead to step outside that world and into the Kingdom of God. It’s an entirely new way of being human-accessed by faith and marked by hope and love.

Another key to the parable could lie in the absence of the master. He’s going away and for a long time. How bold will the servants be when the master is not looking over their shoulders? Do they still have sufficient trust and faith to live boldly when the master is absent and may not return for many years, if ever?

You and I are living in a time when the Christian religion has lost its social power? Once it was different and some of us can remember when it was different. The master seems to have gone away on a long journey and we are not sure when he will return if ever. How bold are we able to be? How uncompromising are we prepared to be or do we think that the body of Christ ought to enter into an accommodation with its enemies. Don’t be misled; we do have enemies!

The author of a book I was reading about this described how he teaches short courses at the Lutheran seminary in Riga-once part of the Soviet Union. He observed the interviews for new students seeking admission. For the interviewing panel the most important question is “When were you baptized?” He wondered why. They told him. If they were baptized during the Soviet period they risked heir lives and compromised their futures by being baptized. But if they were baptized after the period of Soviet rule we have many more questions to ask as to why they want to become pastors. As Christians we must learn to live boldly using the resources he gives us confident that the future will be his future. Confident that the master will return.

And the master will return and in judgement! He will call his servants to account. We received gifts-faith, hope and love. What did we make of those gifts? Did we hide them away or use them as occasions to offer ourselves a spiritual comfort blanket. Some received a little others received a lot-we all know that from experience. But were we prepared to take a risk make a venture in the life of faith. I know from experience that the best things in my life arose from occasions when I took a risk-I became a preacher, I married this woman. I befriended this stranger and allowed myself to befriended in turn. We must learn to embrace risk for that is at the heart of the life of faith. Prudence may well be a virtue in ordinary circumstances but an encounter with the gospel of Jesus represents for us an extraordinary circumstance. You will not be surprised to learn from the above that having such an approach I am not often put on Methodist Committees or any other committee.

The well-known Catholic scholar and critic Terry Eagleton once wrote if you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. That’s a great line and a rebuke to those who think that a soft liberal humanism with a few rousing hymns will keep the church afloat. We must not hide our gifts away we must not be afraid of taking risks in the life of faith. Jesus said follow me. That’s very risky! Look what happened to him but surely much better than allowing ourselves to be cast into the outer darkness.

Something for Sunday

Today is All Saints Sunday and many churches will be looking into the rear view mirror today. Big mistake for as I see it this is a day for celebrating and affirming our call to be saints-the holy ones of God. That’s how Paul begins his letters to the churches of Rome and Corinth and it’s how we ought to think of our own calling and identity. We are or at least seek to be the holy ones of God. We are called to be saints. We are looking forward not backward. There are numerous hymns in the non-conformist tradition that take up this theme.

So this is who we are in the understanding of God but who do we appear to be in the understanding of our neighbours. They sometimes imagine us to be a bunch of boring people obsessed with social conformity holding to a rigid and backward morality expressed in a conservative form of piety. Of course we are not really like that at all. We have high ideals, of course, but we are honest enough to admit that we do not always live up to them. That is why confession is always a key part of our worship and a moment of joyful release. Instead as Franciscans like to say our lives should be characterised by humility, love and joy- and sometimes we just about manage it.

We Christians are those who have embraced a new nature – have entered into a new creation after the image of our creator. We have put on Christ-to use another of Paul’s expressions. Christ-who calls us to love one another and to humility-to live as a servant as Jesus did-forsaking pride and status as he did even unto the cross. Here is Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the prince of glory died

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

This is very challenging stuff!

This is what all Christians share. Now I want to introduce a new theme for your reflections. I have spoken firstly of ourselves as those who are called to be saints now I want to introduce the notion of citizenship.

My passport says I’m a British citizen. Is that important to me. Frankly no! One day I might be an English citizen or a Mercian citizen or an Australian or New Zealand citizen like other members of my family. But I trust I will always be a citizen, albeit a candidate citizen of God’s holy city-that which comes down from above as the Book of Revelation describes it. The heavenly Jerusalem. You know we Christians sit at something of an angle to the world. As the epistle to the Hebrews puts it: – here we have no abiding city but we seek the city which is to come.

A more modern writer describes us as “Resident Aliens” the title of his best known little book. I find that very helpful-in the world but not of it.

Here’s another famous hymn:

Saviour if of Zion’s city

I through grace a member am

Let the world deride or pity

I will glory in thy name.

Or this

Blessed city heavenly Salem

Vision dear of peace and love

You probably know the great patriotic anthem; I vow to thee my country. But it’s the last verse that makes it a Christian hymn. It begins: but there’s another country. Indeed there is!

Christ calls us to make that vision of peace and love the defining quality of our lives. Love especially. That sounds fine but there’s some work to be done with faith hope and love and it bears on the conversation about cities.

St Augustine wrote: Two loves have made two cities. Love of God even to the point of contempt for God made the earthly city and love of God even to the point of contempt for self-made the heavenly city. Rome is in his mind but we might add London Paris, New York and Tokyo. We know how all pervasive self-love can be-the entire economy is based on it and it leads to all sorts of bad things-environmental degradation, racism and selfishness. We must try to escape from the mad individualism that’s so destructive – the idea that nothing matters except me. There’s a shop in Worcester I frequently walk past called: It’s all about me!

Augustine made his comments in the aftermath of a great disaster that seemed to have overtaken the Roman world. Rome had been sacked by the Goths. The city that had given law and civilisation to the world had been trashed. So people said if only we had remained faithful to the old gods-the gods of victory, prosperity and power none of this would have happened. Christianity what has it ever done for us etc. etc.

Augustine wrote his book-a very big book- as a reply to these people. What he does is to take the conversation to a different level-away from the catastrophes of the present moment and away from our self-centred concerns towards a renewed focus on the love of God whose transcends time and chance-away from the politics and economics of the earthly city to the nature of the heavenly city.

We are having a difficult year –the catastrophes of this year were not expected and are becoming increasingly burdensome. Have courage-love will win through in the end-the virus may well fade away or become benign or we will learn how to live with it. In like manner the Goths became increasingly civilised and turned into upholders of Roman ways themselves.