This is the post excerpt.
“Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.”
When I went to university, I joined the chapel choir and the Christian Union with my friend Sian and we were keen members of both. The first time I stayed with Sian, her mother told us no one should talk about faith until they’ve known suffering in their own life.
At 18, I felt a bit crushed – after all, I couldn’t help having a happy childhood, and I didn’t remember Jesus saying that. Now I’m much older, and perhaps a little wiser.
I don’t agree we have to wait for suffering before we find faith…but I see what she was getting at – our faith has to acknowledge the suffering around us. This week that’s meant writing my sermon accompanied by Job…sitting in ashes, scraping his diseased skin with a broken pot.
It’s meant imagining Job here, listening.
The book of Job is amazing. In the Old Testament, faith is often a sort of bargain…when God’s people follow Him they’re rewarded, when they go their own way, things go badly. We may find the stories challenging – but we get the logic. Into this neat picture comes Job…’blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil’.
‘Ah’…says a voice…’of course he’s good – he’s got everything he could want…take it away…take away his health…then he’ll curse God, then he’ll lose his faith’
So we get an almost comical list of disasters befalling Job – and find him…family dead, possessions gone, covered in sores and sitting in ashes.
I don’t think it’s a true story – but the writer of Job poses a question that goes to the heart of faith. What does it mean to trust in God when innocent people suffer? What can faith say in the face of evil?
Much of the book concerns Job’s so-called friends who come to ‘help’. Unfortunately, his misfortune challenges their faith…they need to reconcile a good and loving God with the horrors that have befallen Job. And they assume he needs to hear their ideas…
…God is just, so you must’ve done something wrong…in fact looking at what’s happened to you – it must’ve been pretty bad…
…God loves you – this suffering must be a lesson, to help you grow closer to God – you should welcome it…
…we can’t see what God sees…you might think you’re innocent, but he sees into your heart…just say sorry, God will bless you again…
The book of Job doesn’t analyse these theories…it just shows how useless such words are in the face of suffering. For the Jobs in our midst, explanations are probably irrelevant. They need a community offering practical responses to suffering and evil…a community that helps us hold on to faith in difficult times.
At first, it looks as though Job’s friends get this. They come and sit with him on the ground for 7 days and nights…and no one says a word. Sometimes there are no words…but it’s ok just to share silence. We have a model in Christ himself…Jesus suffered on the cross for 6 hours…he’s recorded as uttering 7 sentences…
…sometimes there are no words. But by sharing the silence we say…this community of faith can bear that silence…it’s ok to have nothing left.
Job’s friends start to struggle when he moves from silence to anger…starts shouting at God. Perhaps they’re embarrassed? Perhaps it threatens their faith? So they try to silence him with explanations. But lament, as I’ve said before, is part of our faith. The psalms are filled with it…
…‘How long, oh Lord, how long?’; ‘Why Lord do you stand far off?’; ‘My friends avoid me because of my wounds’; and some of Jesus few words from the cross, ’My God, My God why have you abandoned me? We have this language; we should be ready to use it. When we say, it’s ok to share anger or desperation with God, we give faith a place in the midst of suffering.
Our prayers of intercession do this when they reflect national and world events. It’s important that we name suffering and evil; bring the people of Afghanistan, Haiti, Hong Kong…the names of Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard, before God in the midst of our worship…trusting he hears even if all we have is a cry of ‘How long?’
Silence…lament…and what Christianity offers uniquely to a suffering world, Christ crucified. Job’s friends pictured a just, powerful, remote God – and could only make sense of suffering by blaming the victim. But in the cross we’re shown how God deals with suffering and evil in this world.
God doesn’t strike from above at evildoers…but has pierced the very centre of evil itself. God didn’t stay aloof from violence and suffering, he absorbed and defeated them in his body on the cross.
A community that makes space for silence and lament, the trust that Christ shares our suffering…these we can offer to Job in his distress.
And when he’s ready…though there’ll always be unanswered questions…we can offer faith that in the resurrection, hurt can somehow, mysteriously, be transformed into hope.
Although we often find it hard, it does this by holding out the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.
It’s human nature to seek revenge; look for someone to blame for accidents; demand evildoers suffer as their victims did. But it draws us into evil…when we take satisfaction in bringing about suffering, we’re drawn into the hatred shown by the offender.
We never have the right to say someone else should forgive a terrible wrong. But if we can become a community practicing forgiveness; working for justice not revenge; trusting that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness…then we become a place where healing is possible…where suffering and evil might one day be transformed into hope.
Sharing silence, lamenting together, living the story of God with us, God who forgives us, the God of the cross…it still might not help Job…but it’s surely better than just offering explanations.
On January 6th this year, America reeled at the sight of its own citizens storming the Capitol building – seat and symbol of American democracy – and attacking police officers. By the next day, even some of the attackers seemed shaken at what they’d done. It was a graphic illustration of what the writer of today’s reading was talking about – the destructive power of language, of speech…especially in the mouths of those with authority.
Whatever his intention, President Trump’s words that day turned a rally into a mob. Of course, he didn’t specifically tell anyone to storm the building – but that’s what they heard. And once the movement had started – it was impossible to stop.
The letter of James is unusual in the New Testament, as it’s what’s called ‘Wisdom literature’…like the book of Proverbs. It’s not a letter addressing a particular people or situation – but rather, general advice using metaphors from the natural world.
And one of the metaphors James uses in this passage seems particularly vivid today…the tongue as a setter of fire.
We’re only too familiar, in this era of droughts and extreme heat, of the damage caused by one tiny spark in the wrong place. The disposable BBQ left burning on a parched moor; the sun on a discarded bottle in a bone-dry forest; the fire set deliberately – just to see what happens…
Suddenly, wonderful, life-giving fire becomes a destructive inferno that can’t be stopped. That’s the image James wants us to have in mind – each time we speak.
And he’s so right…we see it in the simplest of communications. I’m always reluctant to share funeral dates until they’re confirmed. However much you stress it’s only provisional…the information escapes…and confusion reigns. Once a word has been spoken, it’s loose…it spreads…and it’s impossible to know where it’s reached.
Jonathan Swift wrote in the 18th century…“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late;…the tale hath had its effect: like a physician, who found an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”
‘Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after’. If that was true when letters were carried on horseback – how much more so in the age of instant communication. And if it’s true of something like a provisional funeral date, how much more so when it’s accusation or gossip, spoken by someone too upset or lazy to check their facts.
In August, wild fires swept Algeria, killing at least 90 people. The authorities suggested it may have been arson – and someone was falsely accused. Before the truth of his innocence could catch up – he was killed by a mob.
We might almost think silence is the best option. But there’s the problem – language isn’t evil – like fire, it’s both wild, dangerous and destructive and beautiful, creative and life-giving.
As we hear each Christmas – ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was from God’; Christ comes to us as person and as word. Language is a gift from God, and often the means by which we come to know Christ’s saving love. It can be used to build up, teach, comfort, create.
Silence is not an option…instead, James challenges us to learn to control our speech.
He gives his starkest warning to ‘teachers’, those in authority…and rightly so. Politicians, celebrities, teachers, even clergy…who spread malicious words about individuals, groups, nations make it easier for their supporters and hearers to do the same.
But even the worst fires burn out if they have no fuel. We all have a responsibility to reduce the spread of malicious words or falsehoods. We can think before we share, retweet, join in the conversation on a WhatsApp group. We can check the truth of a story before we pass it on.
But on this day of all days, when we remember the horrific events of 9/11; we’re reminded also of the particular responsibility of sharing the gospel. Religion concerns our deepest understanding of ourselves and our place in the world; people will give their lives for religion – so religious ideas are especially powerful and potentially dangerous.
The 9/11 attacks were carried out in the name of God; because of a grossly distorted understanding of Islam. A false message outstripped the truth, and couldn’t be quenched. In the same way – the life-giving message of Christ’s love and power to save can become twisted and destructive.
There are those who say we should abandon all religious talk. But we who’ve known, or even glimpsed God’s love, and Christ’s healing power, can’t take the easy way out and keep it to ourselves. Both because it’s the most important message we’ll ever share, and because if we fall silent, those who distort and corrupt the good news will not.
In the gospel we heard Peter realise and announce to Christ, ‘You are the Messiah’, and Jesus’ surprising response…’tell no one’. But Peter’s next words – show his complete misunderstanding. He couldn’t accept that a Messiah would be abandoned and killed. Presumably his vision was for one coming in might – and bringing in his kingdom by force. Hearing this today – I wonder if Jesus said ‘tell no one’, because it would be a false message they were spreading. Wait – he was saying – until you grasp the truth.
My sermons are full of perhaps, and maybe, because God is always beyond our understanding and language. But one thing I know – God is love. In sharing Christ’s message, we may be called to challenge, to make people uncomfortable; we may even lose friends. But the good news can never be a message of hatred, a message that says, ‘those people cannot be loved by God, those people are wrong, the world/our nation would be better without them.’ We need to be ready to share the love of God, and quench the fires of misinformation and hatred.
The truth may spread more steadily than falsehood, but the truth that is Jesus Christ brings with it love, joy and hope.
‘Let the children be fed first, for it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
If we didn’t know this story – and were asked who said that – I don’t think Jesus would be our first thought.
It’s an uncomfortable picture of Jesus. He seems to refuse to heal a child; he refers to non-Jews as ‘dogs’, a common insult of the time but not what we expect of Jesus.
Of course, we only have a written account. It may have been, as some suggest, light-hearted banter, spoken with a twinkle, by Jesus to a confident woman, able to cope with it. Jesus who already knew he’d heal the child in the end. A story put there to show Jesus comes to save all – Jews and Gentiles.
But…in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already healed Gentiles. And this story follows his warnings about hypocrisy…words and actions not matching up.
Could it be that Mark is showing us Jesus wrestling with the very sin he’s just identified? That feels a dangerous thought. Our picture of Jesus is often someone who suffered temptation yet remained ‘without sin’…an example of a perfect human. But maybe we haven’t really thought about what that means.
Perhaps Mark uses this encounter to make us think. We talk about Jesus being fully God and fully human…is it possible to be fully human and without sin?
In the 4th century, the human/divine nature of Jesus was hotly debated…some suggesting Jesus had a human body – with a completely divine nature…kind of God dressed up as human. This was eventually dismissed as heretical – and there’s a great quote from this time, ‘what is not assumed is not redeemed’. In other words – Jesus became human to save humanity – any bits he didn’t become aren’t saved.
We know, from experience, that it’s impossible to be human and not sin…did Jesus save sinful humanity by becoming sinful humanity?
I may well be heretical here – but I don’t think faith’s ever harmed by thinking seriously about it!
So let’s assume this is Jesus in a very human moment of physical and mental exhaustion. He’s travelled around, besieged by the sick and desperate, healing hundreds. We know that when he healed, power went from him…so think how drained he must have been. He’s aware his time is limited, and that his mission is first to God’s people the Jews.
And just as he finds a space to be quiet, to relax, he’s accosted yet again. And because he is truly human, he snaps. He can’t heal everyone; the way forward is challenging…just now this woman and her child are not his main concern.
But the woman too is desperate. And seems to grasp that in the end he comes for all people, saying, ‘even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.’ If we take the story at face value – Jesus listens to her and changes his mind.
As humans we have a built-in tendency to look after our own, be wary of strangers, prefer ‘people like us’…as Christians we know it often leads to sin – but it’s hard to overcome.
Wouldn’t a truly human Jesus have this same in-built reaction? Add in exhaustion, and the knowledge that his message was first to God’s people. Perhaps it all combined…so that asked to use some of his precious remaining energy on what seemed like a distraction, he answered less that graciously.
This, for me, is what a truly human life lived in total obedience to God looks like. Here is someone who has the sinful tendencies I struggle with – but who despite exhaustion overcomes them.
This is a saviour who makes sense to me, he can redeem my life – because in a way, he’s lived my life. We’re made in the image of God, with potential to live as God intended. But however we understand ‘the fall’, we also live with the reality that we’re sinful…however hard we try – we won’t be perfect.
This reading shows us Jesus knows how that feels; and how he overcame it.
I suspect I’m not alone at feeling tired at the moment. There’s the prospect of dealing with yet more weeks of uncertainty, in our lives and work places. There’s the possibility of having to find more alternative ways to worship and share God’s love. We have friends and family who are struggling.
We can feel that just managing our own life is enough – and if someone comes needing support, we just haven’t the energy.
Then there’s the exhaustion and paralysis brought on by watching unfolding events in Afghanistan. We’re horrified at the fate of women; of those whose professions now make them a target. But we worry that money sent might end up in the wrong hands; we struggle with the thought of a mass influx of refugees. Where would we find the resources?
As someone said to me (someone with an important – but very poorly paid job), ‘How will my wage ever go up if we care for all those too?’
In that scene of the exhausted Jesus, fearing his resources couldn’t stretch to the outsider who pleaded with him, there’s a picture that both reassures and challenges me.
Perhaps even Jesus felt like we do now. If so – he knows how we feel. He knows the need to conserve what we have for ourselves – lest we become overwhelmed. Human energy is finite. Sometimes we cannot help others until we have helped, or been helped ourselves.
If Jesus became sinful humanity in order to save sinful humanity…we can offer him our weariness – knowing it can be redeemed.
But if we feel able, we can also offer him our fear that resources, personal or national, can’t stretch any further. Praying that as he found the strength to reach out to the gentile woman – so we might be given the resources we need, or find the way to share them more fairly, so they can overflow to others in need.
‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways…’
‘My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June…’
Love poetry anyone? I wonder if you have a favourite?
Since this is the wedding season – I’ve heard a fair amount lately, but one place you don’t expect to find it is in the Bible. Yet there it is…the Song of Solomon, sometimes known as the Song of Songs…you may not even have heard of it…it’s certainly a bit of a surprise when it pops up in the lectionary as it has this week.
So what, you might ask, is a collection of love poems doing in the Bible? The short answer is that we don’t know…especially since they contain no mention of God.
Only eight chapters long, the book is found just before Isaiah. It consists only of poetry…beautiful and in places quite erotic love poetry. There are 4 voices: a woman, a man, a female chorus and a male chorus. There’s been much debate over the centuries as to what it means and why it’s there.
Debate about its history…was it written by Solomon, or about Solomon? Probably not.
Debate about its meaning – is it an allegory, where the characters represent something else? Jewish scholars interpreted it as a dialogue between God and Israel; Christians as between Christ and his church. Whole books have been written explaining exactly, with great certainty, what each line stands for…always a little suspect, since each book gives a different interpretation.
But recent theologians tend to think it’s exactly what it sounds like – secular love poetry which expresses sublimely and graphically the longing and joy of true love between two people.
Which leads us back to the question – what’s it doing in the bible?
There’s no way of knowing for sure – but I tend to think writings have kept their place in our scriptures over the centuries because whatever they were written for, people have found in them truths about themselves, and about God. Perhaps we can find in this book a celebration of human love, and something that enlarges our understanding of God.
Let’s start with the best-known bit
‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm. For love is strong as death and passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.’
Used at weddings and funerals, this talks of the strength and enduring nature of love. It tells of love’s ability to span oceans, cope with tragedy and survive the challenges of frailty and age. It reminds us that God’s love reaches even beyond the grave.
But what of the outrageous, exuberant longing and delight expressed elsewhere in the poems? Maybe it gives voice to the longing we sometimes feel for God.
‘I sought him who my soul loves; I sought him but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.’ True love doesn’t always run smooth. Sometimes we feel we are in the wilderness. Perhaps these are words we need now as we look at Afghanistan, or some tragedy we are living through…and God seems absent.
If, as this poetry suggests human love at its best includes periods of feeling bereft, then we shouldn’t think we’ve failed when our relationship with God feels the same.
These poems, however, have two characters, lovers if you like; they’re not about one person’s longings, but shared love. We use them at weddings to say…this kind of overwhelming love between two people is a gift from God…something to be celebrated.
But do we dare to imagine these poems might also reveal something of God, and his love for us?
In today’s reading we heard:
‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise my love my fair one and come away; for now the winter is past. Flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”
What if that’s God speaking to us?
I suspect most of us would struggle a little with putting some of the racier passages into God’s mouth. But, as one of my lecturers once said, ‘anything we say about God will be wrong’. Human words are never enough – but scripture is holy because it gives us glimpses of God.
The stories of the lost sheep and the prodigal son teach us about God’s willingness to search and find us, to welcome us home. Does this book teach us that God doesn’t just love us, but that he delights in us? If we take the Song of Solomon seriously as part of scripture then this seems a distinct possibility.
Wedding couples promise, ‘all that I am I give to you’. So we talk about love of the whole person…the good bits and the not so good. True love isn’t blind to faults…it doesn’t say, ‘this person is perfect’. But it does say, ‘this person is perfect for me.’
Dare we imagine that’s how God looks on us? We know we’re far from perfect…and if we forget, the world is only too ready to tell us where we fall short. Perhaps this book allows us to glimpse ourselves not as perfect, but as perfect for someone…wanted, sought after…perfect for God…
Surely, we think, God can’t love us in that way? Surely God knows all our faults. But perhaps it’s only God who can. Because God can see in us the people he created us to be…the people we can become through Christ…
The world is a scary, unsettling place at the moment; we’re weary and uncertain still of what the coming months hold. I think we need this book and its daring possibility that God longs for us and delights in us. I think we need to hear those words ‘Arise my love my fair one and come away’, as spoken by God, to us, in love.
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” ‘When his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” When like me, you’ve grown up taking communion, receiving the body of Christ, it’s perhaps hard to appreciate how difficult they found it.
In October 1972, an aeroplane crashed high in the Andes mountains. Many of the 45 people on board died in the crash or soon afterwards, but incredibly – 2 months later – 16 survivors were rescued. In order to survive, they had resorted to eating the bodies of their dead friends.
Yes, it’s horrific…we can’t imagine doing what they did. That perhaps gives us an inkling of why Jesus’ words were too much for many disciples. At the heart of our faith is something rather strange…and the last 18 months have perhaps made us re-evaluate what sharing Christ’s body is all about.
In March 2020 churches suddenly shut. I could celebrate the Eucharist at home; I could film or record it…but should I? Some clergy decided they should join their congregations and ‘fast’ from the Eucharist. Others felt it was important to celebrate on behalf of the parish.
You were left with the choice of ‘sharing’ communion online – or not. Do we still share the eucharist if I’m in my study and you’re at home…watching…at a different time?
Our bishops reassured us we can participate spiritually in communion by watching it – especially when we have no alternative – just as our youngest members share through the blessing they receive. But perhaps it made us think about what this sharing of bread and wine means to us.
The wobble in my voice during that first celebration back together in September, and the tears in some of your eyes when you finally received communion tell a story. But maybe other people found that wasn’t what they missed?
So why do we share this strange meal every week…and what did Jesus mean by that ‘difficult’ teaching that drove many away? Today’s reading can be seen as John’s version of the founding of the Eucharist…what does it tell us?
I guess Jesus didn’t expect those he addressed to resort to cannibalism, but the word he uses for ‘eat’ here is a very physical one meaning ‘chew’ or ‘gnaw on’…he’s talking about real eating. But then he says, “It’s the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.”
John’s gospel is really all about incarnation…the Word made flesh…God, amazingly, ridiculously, becoming human. So it’s not surprising that John’s description of the Eucharist is about the importance of flesh and spirit…the physical and the spiritual.
What we receive into our lives in that bread and wine is somehow the whole of Jesus…the spiritual and the physical. Not just the faith that he is God’s son, but his whole life…how he lived and how he died…entering our lives.
And in receiving Christ’s body and blood, we’re putting our whole lives into his hands. Not just the spiritual…but the physical. He abides in us, and we abide in him…and that should affect everything about our lives, not just the ‘church’ bit – but how we live from day to day.
For the survivors from that plane crash, the decision they made to eat the dead literally gave them life…it also changed their lives. Even though their friend’s deaths came in a tragic accident, the survivors felt that their lives from that point came at the cost of others. They felt a responsibility to the dead and their relatives to use well the lives they had so miraculously been given. It changed the way they lived.
That’s what we’re offered each time we share the Eucharist. Food that gives us life, at the cost of the one who feeds us.
When he became bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes preached a sermon about God’s table – which developed into this book (‘The Table’). He began…’So there’s this table. It’s a simple table, but it’s well made, because it was made by a carpenter. The guy who made it is a poor man, but he’s generous. He offers a place at the table to anyone who wants to sit and eat.’
The bishop talks a lot about all being welcome, and he also says this: ‘The poor man will serve you, and the poor man’s hands are wounded when he serves you, because the food came at a price, and he paid the price.’
For me this bread and wine we share is not just a symbol. I need those physical things, to remind me it’s a real life I’m taking…a life that was lived, and given up so I can abide in God, and God in me. A life that ended, horribly, to give me the gift of life now and always.
Somehow, wonderfully, mysteriously, this meal we share is a point where heaven and earth meet. Here we truly abide in God and he in us.
That’s difficult teaching because it should make me very careful how I use the life I’ve been given…I shouldn’t take what Christ offers and not change the way I live.
This teaching is indeed difficult – or it should be if we think about what we do here each week. But as usual, I’m heartened by the words of Simon Peter. ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Jesus asked him.
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
Not an understanding, a thought-out theology of what happens at Christ’s table. Just a recognition that somehow, here we are given real life. And once we’ve felt that – we have to keep coming back.
So at the heart of our faith is the table of the poor carpenter, where all are welcome…and where we’re given a life-changing gift of life. As we take that gift into our bodies today – let’s pledge to use the life we’re given to build Christ’s kingdom by our words and actions.
Today we celebrate the feast day of St James. We know a little about him from the gospels – called from his fishing boat, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, present at the transfiguration, found sleeping in the garden of Gethsemane…then there’s the embarrassing occasion where his Mum asks Jesus for preferential treatment for him in heaven.
Apparently the first disciple to be martyred for his faith, there are stories that before his death James spread the gospel in Spain.
What St James has given us though – probably unintentionally – is a pilgrimage, a journey to a holy place. There’s a legend that James’ remains found their way back to Spain…to be buried in Santiago de Compostela. So from the early Middle Ages, Christians walked there from all over Europe, and the tradition was revived in the 20th century.
Recent years have seen a film, ‘The Way’, and a sort of ‘celebrity pilgrimage’ on TV. Pre-pandemic more than 200 000 pilgrims followed the routes each year.
My experience of pilgrimage is much more modest – across the mud to Lindisfarne…along the coast to Whitby Abbey. But, reading the stories of pilgrims, I think it’s a great metaphor for the Christian life itself. So here are a few reflections.
Pilgrims nearly always set out carrying too much…enormous packs filled with things that seem essential. A couple of days carrying it all, especially in hot weather, soon persuades them they can manage with far less, and what they don’t have, they can trust others to provide.
Pilgrims on what is called the ‘Camino’ often find the most important part of the journey is the people they travel with or meet along the way. Some are companions for weeks, some just brief encounters at a particular point. The physical and emotional challenge of the walk brings people to the same level. Whatever their place in normal life, here they are all pilgrims, and that changes the dynamic of conversation.
Strangely, since the exact route is laid down, people setting off on the Camino, tend not to know where they’re going. Obviously, they hope their feet will get them to Santiago, but they have no idea how their lives will be affected. Pilgrims usually set off expecting to be changed in some way – but with little idea how.
Overloaded, in need of one another, not quite sure where they’re going but hoping for change…possibly a description of many of us on the Christian journey.
We often imagine that to become a Christian, loads of things are necessary. We come laden with guilt or feelings of unworthiness – or think we should; we assume certain types of behaviour, faith and good bible knowledge are needed before we can even begin.
Actually though, on the Christian journey it’s better to travel light. Most acts of worship start with a ‘sorry prayer’… because we always fall short of God’s ways; but also because it allows us to put down our guilt, accept God’s forgiveness, and be ready to move on. Hanging on to guilt stops us from growing.
And the Christian journey doesn’t start with holiness, or faith, or knowledge…it starts with a desire to set off, with a feeling that Jesus is a person worth following, or just by finding something intriguing or attractive in a church building, community, individual. All we need is a sense of adventure, a commitment to the journey, to try it out…God will provide the rest, often through our fellow pilgrims…
…fellow pilgrims who will be an important part of our journey. There are, of course, hermits, people who manage their Christian journey alone, just as there are lone pilgrims. But most of us need to worship, learn and grow with others.
Wonderfully – though the last 18 months have been marked by separation, even isolation – as a church community we’ve increased the ways we share our faith. Through recording for online services, joining discussion groups, posting our children’s ideas on Facebook, our Advent and Lent windows and much more, we’ve shared our faith with one another.
As happens on a pilgrimage, conversations have been sparked that help people encounter Jesus and consider afresh what he means in their lives; new and lasting friendships have been made. But there will also have been fleeting encounters in the churchyard or even ‘second hand’ through the things we’ve put out there, that have brought people closer to God.
Like pilgrims, we too can name our final destination – as Christians we’re always journeying towards our home in heaven. But like them, it’s far more about the journey than the destination. We travel together, we help each other…but ultimately the most important companion is Jesus, it is by encountering Jesus that we are changed.
For me, becoming a Christian has been a life-long journey of trying to walk with Jesus. It started when others invited me to set off…my parents got me involved in church life as a child, but it can happen at any age.
As my relationship with Jesus has deepened, the stuff I thought vital for the journey has reduced…but what is left has become more important, more precious.
Along the way there have been many fellow pilgrims; some brief encounters, some lasting friendships, talking with them about faith has helped me along. And when it’s all been a bit much, when all I could do was show up and put one foot in front of another, then my fellow pilgrims have been there to lean on…until I was ready to set off again.
It’s been said of Christians, that ‘we are a pilgrim people’. I hope so. I hope we as the community of St John the Baptist see ourselves as travellers, moving towards our final destination in God, walking with Jesus and being changed.
Even with all today’s uncertainty, it’s an exciting time to be a pilgrim here. People are coming forward with new ideas of how to build our community and share our faith. Let’s pray for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration as we travel on together.
One of my Monday morning jobs is writing my ‘to do’ list for the week. I wonder if you have ‘to do’ lists…and whether you too have the thing that keeps being transferred from one list to the next…
That thing which is a bit less straightforward, less pleasant, scarier than the others. It’s easy to fill my days with important jobs, and never quite get round to it…somehow there’s never a convenient time…
I wonder – if we had a ‘to do’ list for our relationship with God – what might that thing be? Might it be repentance…owning up to and letting go of the things that keep us from fully following Jesus?
Perhaps that was true for Herod. He was certainly interested in John’s message. ‘Herod feared John, knowing he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.’
John preached repentance, turning away from sins, preparing to follow Christ. Presumably this was what Herod ‘liked to listen to’. In some way it stirred his soul, made him feel better. Maybe he even changed his life a little…tackled a few of the easy things on his spiritual ‘to do’ list.
But he could never quite face the big one…the stealing of his brother’s wife. He was too fond…or scared of Herodias, too worried about appearing weak if he gave her up. There was never a convenient time for that repentance…it stayed on the ‘to do’ list. In the meantime Herod’s conscience was salved by protecting John, and listening to him…until that fateful day.
You can almost feel sorry for Herod as his birthday celebration spirals out of control. There he is, enjoying a drink…showing off his wealth, his wife; her daughter comes in and completes his evening. It’s all going so well. Then he makes that lavish, very public promise, and suddenly ‘repent for the kingdom of heaven is near’ hits the top of his ‘to do’ list in a way he never anticipated.
And what was already hard has become impossible – because now choosing the life John offers requires him to deny the lovely daughter, snub his wife, and go back on a public promise in front of the very people he’s trying to impress.
There’s never a convenient time for repentance…and suddenly what looks like his last chance has arrived at the least convenient time possible. And Herod isn’t up to it – much as he’s attracted by John’s preaching, he values power and reputation more, and has John beheaded.
We know he regrets his decision…is probably haunted by it…from the start of today’s gospel passage. When Herod hears about Jesus, his message of repentance and acts of power, his first thought is ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’. It seems he knew John’s message was from God…but couldn’t quite act on it.
There’s never a convenient time for repentance…and it looks like Herod blew his chance when it came. But that’s not the end of the story…
In Luke’s gospel, after Jesus’ arrest, we learn that Pilate – finding Jesus was Galilean – sent him to Herod, ruler of Galilee. Herod ‘had been wanting to see him for some time’. I bet he had – this is the man John preached about, and died for.
Another chance for repentance. But this time it’s even harder…now Herod has the murder of a prophet to repent in addition to his other sins. This proves an even less convenient time for repentance…Herod mocks Jesus and sends him back to Pilate…to his death.
I trust none of us have stealing our brother’s wife or murdering a prophet on our consciences; but we too may have found there’s never quite a convenient time for repentance. We may have some sin, some regret that we never find the time or space to face…to share with properly with God.
Today’s story shows the dangers of power, lust and rash promises. But closer to home, it’s a story of how the message of God’s kingdom is not just for listening to…it requires action.
John and Jesus came with the same message, ‘the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news.’ Repenting is about dealing with the things in our lives that get in the way of our relationship with Christ. They may be trivial; they may be huge. They may be things we’ve done; they may be things we can’t forgive. But there’s a fair chance there’s something we need to deal with.
There’s never a convenient time to repent, we can always find something else important to do. But Herod’s story shows how it can get harder the longer we leave it.
Perhaps it might prompt us to set aside some time this week to consider repentance. Some time when we leave the other things on our ‘to do’ list and make time for a bit of serious thinking about what obstructs our relationship with Christ.
And we might try to do something. Perhaps there’s one action we need to take to deal with that thing we’ve been avoiding. Or maybe one small step at the start of a long journey, working on something we know shouldn’t be part of a Christian life.
This story brought to mind the would-be follower of Jesus saying, ‘first let me bury my Father’, and Jesus’ apparently unfeeling reply, ‘let the dead bury their own dead’.
Perhaps just a reminder that there are always other important things on our ‘to do’ list of life. If we’re not careful we never quite find a convenient time to really ‘repent and believe the good news’.
Wonderfully with God it’s never too late; God is patient, forgiving, always offers another chance. But a deeper relationship with Christ, and the joy of sharing that with others is surely worth facing anything lurking on our spiritual ‘to do’ list.
There’s never a convenient time for repentance – so we might as well get on with it!
It’s been a tough 18 months hasn’t it? So many things we took for granted suddenly no longer possible…much of the control we had over our lives removed. Difficult to plan ahead because of changing regulations…yet impossible to be spontaneous as so many things have to be booked.
Last week at our All-Age service, Jane shared what our new online presence has meant to her. As someone with a hidden disability, she gave us an important reminder that this lack of control, this exclusion from things we’d like to do, is what some people face every day, COVID or no COVID.
Hopefully our recent experiences have made us more understanding of the struggles others face. More than that though, perhaps we’re in a better position to hear God’s word – hidden in the middle of our New Testament reading…’My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
Paul is writing to a church which has been swayed into following apostles whose message is one of power and boasting. Apostles who talk more about themselves than about Jesus as Lord…about how they should be followed because they’ve been given special visions.
Paul of course had a pretty special vision of his own. Most scholars think he’s referring to himself when he talks of ‘a person caught up to the third heaven’, but writes as if it’s someone else to step away from this sort of boasting. Instead, he concentrates on the ‘thorn’ he’s been given.
There’s been great speculation about the nature of this ‘thorn’, but that isn’t important…what matters is what Paul does tell us.
He tells us that this weakness – whatever it is – came from ‘Satan’. In other words – it’s not something God inflicted as part of a grand plan; God doesn’t cause suffering to teach us lessons.
Paul prayed for this weakness to be taken away, but that’s not how God seems to work. The message Paul receives from God, is that this weakness, disease, whatever it is, whatever caused it, can help him start to understand God’s ways. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
It’s something Paul had begun to learn…but something our modern world, which puts so much value on what people do, finds really difficult to accept…that God’s power…true power…is made perfect in weakness.
This isn’t about Jesus caring for the weak, but rather Jesus becoming the weak. It’s at the centre of our faith story – but still hard to grasp.
In all the gospel accounts – at the climax of his ministry – Jesus stops being active, doing miracles and works of power. He gives up all power over his life…lets himself be arrested, condemned and killed.
To the world, Jesus’ end looks like failure. The cheering crowds of Palm Sunday are now jeering; the fervent disciples have fled; he doesn’t even seem to have words to defend himself…weakness indeed.
Yet in all the gospels this is Jesus’ time of triumph. In John, those who come to arrest him fall down in awe. In the other gospels, the centurion who sees him die responds, ’truly this man was the Son of God’. This is before the resurrection. The centurion has recognised ‘power made perfect in weakness’.
The loss of control brought about by this pandemic has exposed how we struggle with this truth…but it’s a truth we need to learn as we hopefully ‘get back to normal’. Because ‘normal’ life tends to value strength and the ability to be in control, and looks down on those without this power. Dependence, ‘weakness’, is seen as a loss of dignity.
But medical advances mean an aging population, and the survival of people with quite profound disabilities. Technological advances mean many jobs are disappearing. In this modern world, more of us are going to depend on ‘benefits’; more of us are going to need ‘looking after’. Power made perfect in weakness is a revelation Christians need to offer to society.
It’s not about pity, or charity, or even valuing everyone as a child of God. It’s about seeing things completely differently. It’s a truth that’s hard to explain – slightly easier to recognise.
Recently I had the privilege of taking a wedding; and hearing two people, very much in love, say to each other, ‘all that I am I give to you’. All that they are, good and not so good, handed over in trust that it will be received with love. Real love brings vulnerability. It can be exploited, but when it’s reciprocated, it’s the strongest thing we can imagine. It gives a glimpse of ‘power made perfect in weakness.’
As a primary school teacher, I once taught a class that included a child with major learning difficulties. By any conventional measure he was ‘weak’. But the gift he was to that class, just by being himself, was amazing. And it went far beyond their developing patience and kindness.
Somehow his weakness and need for help made it easier for others to acknowledge theirs. As a class we started to measure success differently, we began to ‘boast’ about different things. It was seen as a privilege to be partnered with him. By the end of the year, we all looked on life a little differently.
‘Power is made perfect in weakness.’ I don’t believe that means God sends troubles and weakness to help us grow. I don’t believe it means unemployment, the frailty of age, disabilities, the pain of dementia should be welcomed with joy…they can be difficult and horrible. But I do believe that for Christians being weak should never be seen as a condition of diminished dignity…a degrading state.
In Jesus, God chose to become weak…it’s through the weakness of unconditional love he somehow offers us salvation. The weak in our society then, even in their weakness, are still ‘made in the image of God’, and that surely gives them a dignity beyond anything that comes from what they can do.
Today I want to tell you a story. I won’t start with ‘once upon a time’ because as far as I know, it’s a true story.
It could be the story of a remarkable young man and what he did with his life. It could be the story of a narrow escape and a lucky break. But I like to think of it as the story of an ordinary, faithful Sunday school teacher…perhaps struggling a bit to keep a lively group of boys interested on sunny summer mornings…perhaps wondering if they’re taking anything in, but persevering anyway.
Actually, she (and it almost certainly was woman) is the person we know least about in this story – but we know she existed.
Anyway, our story starts in Uganda in the 1970s. The Uganda of Idi Amin, where innocent people regularly disappear. About 40 miles from the capital Kampala, our hero – David – is growing up in a poor village, cared for by his mother. When David is about 9, his mother and all of his siblings die of malaria within a week. Neighbours help him to bury his family – but haven’t the resources to take in an extra child.
So David walks to the capital to try his luck. For a few years he survives with other street children…scavenging for food and sleeping rough. But then he hears street children are being kidnapped to become slaves on the plantations of the dictator. What should David do?
At this point he remembers from years before, his Sunday school teacher saying ‘trust Jesus’; and he recalls passing a business with a sign declaring ‘The Jesus Garage’. So he knocks at the door – and is greeted by a huge, imposing looking man. Trying to look older than his years – David asks for a job. The man – a Christian (hence the name of his garage) takes pity on David, offers him the job of sweeper, and an old car to sleep in. His first home for years.
Actually, what the man gave David was a future…trained him as a mechanic, paid him, and shared his love of Jesus.
With his first proper pay packet, David rented a shack and took in 6 homeless orphans. He met and married Sarah, and together they had 8 children and adopted a further 9. But they did far more than that. When their children needed schooling – they founded a nursery school and opened it to locals…then a primary school, a secondary school.
Some pay fees – and this is used to provide a home and educations for orphans. When the AIDs epidemic struck, many pupils were orphaned each year – they were never turned out when fees dried up.
David is now a priest. I wonder whether that Sunday school teacher ever knew that if she taught nothing else, her message that Jesus can be trusted took root and grew.
2000 years ago, Jesus stood in front of a crowd telling stories. He was trying to make them understand that he, with his motley bunch of Galilean fishermen, tax collectors, hangers on, was actually the beginning of God’s kingdom breaking through on earth.
Well why didn’t he just say that? Why insist on talking in riddles? Perhaps because the crowd couldn’t have taken in what he needed to tell them. Perhaps because it’s a truth too big, too abstract to make sense of in one go. Jesus doesn’t deal in simple facts but deep ideas about our relationships with each other and with God.
In today’s words he was enlarging people’s vision to grasp that here was the tiny beginning of a kingdom that would grow and shelter people of all races. He gave them a narrative world they could enter and explore…which will go on teaching…will help people ponder simple ideas and complex puzzles.
Jesus talked about how things grow. He held up a mustard seed – not that they would see it – it’s far too small. But they knew all about mustard seeds. They knew that tiny though they are, with minimal effort from people they grow into bushes big enough to shelter all sorts of wildlife.
The people in these two parables don’t do an awful lot. They scatter the seed on the ground. There’s no watering, weeding, applying fertiliser…my sort of gardening in fact…but from tiny seeds come full heads of grain and massive shrubs.
Humbling, challenging and encouraging words for Christians working to grow God’s kingdom in their little patch. First a reminder that our role is perhaps both more and less important than we imagine.
We’re called to be the sowers – to plant the seeds – to tell people about the kingdom of God and the person of Jesus. Without the seed, there is no plant, no growth of God’s kingdom. That could be daunting – but remember how the sower just slept and rose and the plants grew? We don’t have to do it all. We don’t need a complete understanding – a thought out explanation – a plan for every step of someone’s Christian journey before we start to invite them into the kingdom. We sow – God’s grace brings about the growth, in a way we won’t understand.
And even the smallest of seeds can grow to a great bush.
So, if you’re a parent, managing a slightly embarrassed prayer at bedtime with your children; if you’re a Junior church or JJs leader wondering how to make sense of Jesus’ words for young people; if your evangelism to a friend consists of suggesting they try evensong, because of the peace it brings you, or ‘Ace’ because it’s fun; if the Rector’s asked you to share your thoughts at an All Age service and you can’t imagine what an ordinary person like you can say about God…
…think of David Serunjogi’s Sunday school teacher and what grew from the simple message to trust in Jesus; think of the mustard seed, and go on planting.
“I danced for the scribes and the Pharisees, but they wouldn’t dance and they wouldn’t follow me”…we all know the song. Even as a child I realised that in the gospels; fisherman, or even tax-collector, was a better bet than being a scribe.
In today’s reading they’re accused of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…for which they can never have forgiveness. Given all the other sins recounted in the bible – that seems a bit harsh.
So who were the scribes and what exactly have they done?
They’ve heard how Jesus is healing people of major physical and mental ills. They’ve also heard how Jesus talks of forgiving sins as well as restoring bodies. So they’ve come to see for themselves.
But they haven’t really come ‘to see’; they’ve already decided. Scribes were educated men who copied, and interpreted the Torah – the laws of Moses. They had everything neatly boxed into right and wrong, good and evil…and Jesus didn’t fit. He did wonderful things you’d think must come from God, but he didn’t go about it in the ‘right’ way, and anyway, only God could forgive sins.
The scribes are so sure about the system they’ve built up, that they can’t see beyond it. The healings; the wonderful joy and freedom in people who had suffered terrible mental illness; they can’t deny these. If these illnesses were caused by demons – Jesus was clearly casting out these demons.
But because Jesus doesn’t fit their idea of ‘good’ they’re convinced he must be evil. They come up with the ridiculous accusation that it’s by the power of Satan, that Jesus casts out Satan. As Jesus points out – if Satan is working against himself then he’s finished – but this doesn’t convince the scribes, because they hear Jesus’ words and assume it’s Satan speaking. They’ve seen good, and labelled it as evil.
And it’s at this point we hear, ‘people will be forgiven for their sins, and blasphemies, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness.’
When we consider the whole passage this begins to make sense. It’s through the Holy Spirit that Jesus forgives, heals and makes whole. But if the scribes could look at the relief and joy Jesus was bringing – and say it came from Satan – they’d be unlikely to accept that healing for themselves. Jesus doesn’t say, God won’t forgive, but they can’t have forgiveness.
This week, it made me think of vaccine deniers. Not people with good reason to be hesitant, but people who’ve decided vaccines are ‘bad’, and come at every argument from that perspective.
Show the vast array of independent scientific data…all of those scientists must be part of a worldwide conspiracy to cause harm.
Point to improved health where vaccines are used…it’s fake news. Since they’ve decided the very thing that could save them from disease is evil – there’s no way they’ll accept the protection a vaccine offers.
Likewise the scribes; they can’t be forgiven because they’re rejecting the one who can bring forgiveness. It’s not that they can’t see the light – but they’ve called the light darkness. As the ‘Message’ bible translation vividly puts it, they’re ‘sawing off the branch on which they’re sitting’.
So should we be worried? Everything I’ve read about this passage suggests that if we’re worried about committing this ‘unforgiveable sin’, then we probably aren’t. If we’re open to God’s forgiveness – God will find us.
But still, Jesus condemned this sin very publicly. I read some interesting advice for public health officials on how to engage publicly with vaccine deniers. It said you’re not really talking to the vaccine deniers as they probably can’t be persuaded, your audience is the general public…who might need protecting from misinformation.
Jesus responds to the scribes, but knows they’re unlikely to accept his words. His audience is the crowd…and us.
Is he warning that once we think we know good from evil, when our religious establishments have neatly categorised it into rules we can teach and apply, our eyes can become closed to the work of the Holy Spirit?
Here he is talking about seeing something good – something from God – but labelling it evil because the religious ‘rules’ say it is.
I think it can be a problem for churches today. For those convinced that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, other faiths are seen as wrong. But this can close our eyes to the obvious goodness and love involved. We see them as dangerous rather than entertaining the possibility that they hold some truths within them, from which we might learn.
We know, from Jesus himself, that divorce isn’t the best path. So in the past the church refused to remarry divorced persons. The ‘rule’ stopped us looking beyond; seeing many new relationships are built on love that surely is of God.
And still today, Christian organisations tell us that gay relationships are sinful, against God’s plans. Beyond some isolated bible verses though, anyone who takes the trouble to look, who sees the genuine love between many gay couples, must surely find it looks very like the love of God as it’s reflected in all wholesome relationships.
The trouble is, rules feel safe. How am I supposed to judge whether changes in society are the breath of the Holy Spirit, or an erosion of true Christian values? How can I know whether the church should follow, or resist?
Well people came to Jesus for healing. Following him is never easy – but it always involves healing and wholeness. Jesus seems to be saying to the scribes that if it’s healing and wholeness they’re seeing – they should trust it comes from God. Perhaps that’s not a bad guide for us too.
And anyway – when I have to account for my life before God – I’d rather justify having loved too much, than having condemned too much.
Lord God – open our eyes to the actions of your Holy Spirit, that we might share in your healing and forgiveness.