Author Archives: pgrimwood

Reading in Lockdown

Here are three recent reads which my be of interest to you and can be recommended as lockdown continues.

An Introduction to the Bible by Christine Hayes

This is an introduction, not so much to the bible as to the Old Testament. Professor Hayes has a confident command of all the commentary and scholarship on this extraordinary Library both Christian and Jewish from the earliest times to the present day. She has sections or chapters on every book in our Old Testament but the apocrypha is not discussed. Skilfully and fluently she weaves her way through the questions of authorship, theology, dating and historical background for every book. This is not simply a commentary but it could be used alongside commentaries on particular books to supplement them. It is an attractively written and accessible text and held my attention from the first page to the last (402).

I wish I had read this book forty years ago at the time of my local preacher training but it was only published in 2012. It’s one of a series promoted and published by Yale University as part of a programme to bring the best academic study to the attention of the general reader and first year students.

Another book in the same series is Epidemics and Society from the Black Death to the Present by Frank Snowden. Professor Snowden is a social historian rather than an epidemiologist and his story actually begins well before the Black Death of 1348. The account offered as to how medicine, politics and the church have addressed the challenges posed by infectious diseases is absolutely fascinating albeit grim reading. It is a big book (502 pages) and Covid -19 only receives attention in the introduction but it does help to put our present problems into their proper context. The truth is that our present problems have been heading our way for some time and we’ve had some lucky escapes in recent years. The final chapter on Ebola makes that very clear.

There have been a number of publications about the pandemic published this year but this one is undoubtedly the best. To read it is a real education. My book of the year!

My third recommendation is “Defining Jesus-the earthly the biblical the historical and the real Jesus and how not to confuse them” by Richard Soulen. Richard Soulen is a Methodist Minister in the United States, a theologian and the father of another Methodist Scholar and theologian; R Kendall Soulen.

This is quite a short book described by the author as an essay which was written to address the questions that arise in people’s minds when they are addressed by popular authors and TV documentaries that purport to confidently explain what Jesus was “really like” and who he might be for us today. As Soulen’s title shows this is quite a complicated matter and it’s easy to be misled and to mislead others. The literature is vast and many of you will be aware of the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. But even that distinction is a bit simplistic as Soulen explains in this short but quite dense little book.

If you read this you will find your faith in the ever present and living Lord Jesus strengthened and you will be further empowered to bring others to faith in him. Do not imagine that scholarly books about the quest for the historical Jesus whether from Albert Schweitzer or Marcus Borg are necessarily unsettling or the final word on the matter. They can be challenging but what Richard Soulen’s book does is to sort out all the difficulties and the different scholarly approaches so that the reader can respect the scholars and at the same time find their faith renewed and confirmed.

This book published in 2015 can be recommended to all local preachers and indeed Presbyters and Deacons

Something for Sunday

This is a strange story. We are told that unlike most parables this one is an allegory. I wonder do you find the imagery as unattractive as I do. Would you tell a story to illustrate the nature of God in which God is portrayed as an absentee landlord-who demands his rents-and sends agents to get them at grave risk to their own safety?

We read that we should understand these agents to be the prophets sent by God to restore his people to their rightful obedience. They bring his message but the messengers are spurned. No wonder it’s spurned when the messengers bring rent demands with them.

And finally God sends his son –this is Jesus. He is not respected either. He is taken, killed and cast out of the vineyard. Why do the tenants do this? According to the text they kill the son in order to have the vineyard for themselves. There is said to be an echo here of some aspects of Palestinian land law.

It is said by those who know about such things that the story gives us a glimpse of the social world of the Galilean peasant. Harassed by high rents and absentee landlords and perpetually on the verge of revolt the Galilean had the reputation of being a tricky fellow. And does that not make the imagery even more unattractive. Just consider what it would have been like preaching the gospel by this parable to Irish tenants in the last century.

However consider the allegory in another way. What does a tenant wish for above all else. Surely to be free. Free of rent. Free of duty and service to a Lord, a master or even a parent. To be able to say to the boss stuff your pension. I want to be my own man. I want to come of age.

How can we do this? Well we could kill the boss and seize his property. Start a red revolution. Or in Freudian mythology one can kill ones own parent. In religion you bring in a reformation by overturning all the old images-sending the priests packing or perhaps we could proclaim the death of God himself.

Such tenants are familiar characters-rebellious children-revolutionaries-the discontented worker or peasant. In short we see in the tenants the human condition.

But in Christian understanding this boss, this master is different. It’s not as if he’s a benevolent despot not at all. This is a master who wills the freedom of his slaves-who seeks only to serve not to oppress-who seeks the fruit from the tenants not for his benefits but for theirs. A Master who offers his people the lives of his servants and at last that of his own son.

Of course the tenants don’t see it that way. They see only the burdens, the oppressive rules and restrictions, the dead hand of law. And they want to kick over the traces and break away from all that. What’s the point of the  church: dreary ceremonies, a fuddy duddy substitute parent-the crimping restrictions of custom and heritage? Let’s do our own thing. Let’s spend Sunday in bed reading the papers.

Christianity is a message about suffering love. God is love. The world itself is an expression of God’s creative love. This is how we should understand the vineyard-although another image one that we might feel happier with is that of a garden. Gardens are a nuisance but for most people they are symbols of creativity and love. Our creativity and that of God-our love and care but God’s as well.

And when God looks to his people for the fruit of the love he has expended what is he looking for.

Surely for signs that love has born fruit in yet more love. What St Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Love creates love in return. Spend something of yourself and you will be enriched. You will be more of the person you were always meant to be. Love grows if give it away. Costly love bears fruit in renewed lives. This is the message of Easter.

In the Easter and Passion stories all this is laid before us in dramatic form.

The king who comes to his people-humble and riding upon an ass.

The master who kneels at the foot of his disciples to wash their feet.

The prophet, the man of God who is abused and reviled and yet does not open his mouth to reply.

The death of the messiah on the cross.

And everything in Christianity is based on this. The death of Jesus isn’t a tragic postscript to a successful teaching career. It’s central to the entire story that’s why it occupies such a large part of each gospel. What Jesus preached is important of course but what is really central is the life revealed in the death of this man.

The Christian story is one of mysterious love- a love so strong that it leads to complete self offering on the part of God himself. He was rich yet for our sakes he became poor. Here was perfection yet he became sin for us. Here is a story of status abandoned of kingship reduced to nothing, flogged, crucified, cast out.

This is the costly love that is offered to us. The love that we can embrace or reject. We can do as the tenants do-live for ourselves-claim our inheritance-demand our rights. Live as women and men come of age.

That’s always a possibility and in a worldly sense it’s quite an attractive possibility.

But the other possibility is always there to grasp the foot of Christ’s’ cross and take the love God offers us in him.

To live no longer for ourselves but for others and to bring forth fruit. Those gracious fruits that the tenants failed to bring forth.

Something for Sunday

Tis is a revised version of what I offered to Streetly today for their Eco Church Sunday service.

2020 has proved to be the year we were not expecting. It was not supposed to be like this. A glance at my diary for 2020 is a salutary reminder; there they all are: the meetings cancelled, the services I did not take, the holiday that was cancelled and the concerts and theatre visit that simply did not happen. No it was not what I was expecting nor you, I guess. But using lockdown time to read something about virology and the history of epidemics I have come to realise that we should have expected it and that we have come very close to experiencing a pandemic before. When I passed through Hong Kong airport in 2006 and my temperature was taken at a passenger gate I should have reflected on why this was necessary. No we were not expecting this nor were we adequately prepared.

Yet pandemics have always been with us and it may well be that we are becoming increasingly vulnerable to them as our economies become more and more complex and inter-connected. And in addition as humans encroach more and more upon forests and other habitats so the risk of virus transfer from such creatures as bats to us increases. This is what happened with Ebola, another near miss for us, and probably with the covid 19 virus now.

So what should be our first response now in the face of this pandemic and more generally in the face of environmental degradation? There is one word we Christians can use: repentance. Repentance the most unpopular word in the Churches lectionary. “Repent, repent” sang Leonard Cohen, “I wonder what they meant”.

In traditional evangelical preaching a call to repentance always had a place. This call is followed by an invitation to embrace the grace of a loving God. This model has a great deal to commend it.

Consider these words from a classic source:

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.

Good gracious me but I thought following the devices and desires of my own heart was the road to happiness. After all this is what the advertisers tell me. And I need a new device for my twitter feed and my Facebook posts.

We have offended against thy holy laws.

Holy laws!  What’s holy about law? Surely we should love God and do what we like!

We have left undone those things that we ought to have done.

“Ought”! These are the oughteries. Down with the oughteries!

And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

Ditto the above.

So you see turning to God-repenting and asking for mercy may not find too many takers.

The other week I was walking through the Westgate shopping centre in Oxford-such places are the real sacred places of our time and we are being told quite seriously that it is our civic duty to visit them and spend as much money as possible. Later that day we had lunch in part subsidised by the government as part of a scheme entitled “Eat out to Help Out”. This scheme is financed by debt but how will these debts be repaid or will they simply be renounced. I only ask.

All of this is an aspect of consumerism-the pursuit of stuff-the good life as represented by materialistic pursuits. Repent, repent I wonder what they meant.

The Christian invitation is to reject the pursuit of stuff and embrace grace instead. Before dismissing this as a backward looking religious fantasy consider this quotation from a blog written by Natasha Parker from the Centre for Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey.

“Research confirms that people who prioritise materialistic values and goals for wealth, image and status are likely to consume more and have a substantially higher ecological footprints than those who don’t. Studies have found that people’s values and goals have become increasingly materialistic since the 1970s and it is not hard to see why in our advertising saturated culture that portrays a route to happiness paved by what you earn, what you own and how you look. And yet giving priority to materialistic pursuits is consistently shown to lead to lower wellbeing and higher ecological footprints with the consequences that we can see all around us.”

So you can see that we Green Christians have work to do. And yet I cannot deny that I am hopeful. To embrace the grace of God is to be hopeful. Share the hope; embrace the grace.

In charting a way forward we need to be clear about what had happened to us. That we have lost our roots and descended into a self-love fuelled by consumerism. We have preferred money as a substitute for grace and debt as a substitute for money. As the prophet Jeremiah says; “We have forsaken the fountains of living water and dug out cisterns that can hold no water”.

We need to turn back to the sources of living water: to Jesus we might say.

What might the elements of a grace filled society look like? Of course the key word is gift-that our existence and our planet are not resources to be exploited nor rights to be sued for but gifts.

That’s the key but specifically:

Humility: not a popular idea but central to the Jesus way. Listen to St Augustine on this: “unless humility precedes, accompanies and follows all our good actions, unless humility be set before us for our beholding, besides us or our adherence, over us for our restraint then all the good of our joy in any right action is wrested from us by pride.”

Community: We belong to each other and to the earth. That from which we came and to which we shall return. We are in communion with God and with each other through the earth.

Love: It all comes down to this. Love of the neighbour and of the others all our sisters and brothers within the created order. By love we can fill up the hollow spaces in our souls and know true peace and fulfilment. It’s been said before and it will be said again. Our calling and that of every faithful believer is to live as if this is true. The pandemic will pass but this calling will remain.

What then must we do? Christians are not called to storm the citadels of power and bring in the rule of the Saints. When at the last supper the disciples say to Jesus-we’ve got two swords! Jesus responds by declaring: that’s enough of that!

Very often the truest words about our situation are uttered by pop songs. “I can’t get no satisfaction/cause I try/and try. Best not to try but rather to embrace grace instead. Not only would we be much happier but we can also save the planet as well. The promise is a joy without limit but at the same time joy in enough.

“I have longed to see you”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul can supply a suitable benediction to close;

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

Something for Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something for Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These then are the title deeds of the Church universal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something for Sunday

Matthew 15: 10-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something for Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

They that go down to the sea in ships

And do business in great waters

These men see the works of the Lord;

And his wonders in the deep

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

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

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

And so on.

Wonderful and often set to music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something for Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 118 v 26 and Luke 13 v 35.

Something for Sunday

The Bright Field

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

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

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

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

Judgement-Commitment-Concealment.

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

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

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

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

A poem by R S Thomas:

The Bright Field

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

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

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

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