Archive for April, 2016

Getting our hands dirty

Posted: April 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

24 April 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Acts 11.1-18

Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?

This is a story about reconciliation – the healing of differences through the spirit of love
From our Christian perspective, we say we can’t see the problem in accepting people from any background into the Christian faith
We say, all you need to believe is that Jesus Christ was who he said he was
And that he died and rose for our salvation
But accepting others different from ourselves is not easy – and it never has been

God is one – the Trinity is a perfect community of three persons: all different, yet sharers in one essence
A divine community that created everything that exists
A community of love, capable of reconciling every difference

Jesus brings those living principles of community and reconciliation into our world
He teaches them and lives them out
Then, before he returns to the Father, he promises the gift of the Spirit that will enable the church to teach and live out the same principles of community and reconciliation

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that in Jesus Christ, one has died for all …
In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself

The ministry Christ has left us with is the ministry of reconciliation – the ministry of overcoming alienation and division, and making everything one

That Christian doctrine of reconciliation is, in important ways, completely different to the ethics and spirituality of Judaism
It represents a fundamental change

The beliefs and values of Judaism are built on the principle of keeping things apart
We see that in its concept of nationhood
Israel is a nation chosen by God, called out and separated

We see that in Judaism’s concept of holiness
Things are either sacred or profane, pure or impure, clean or unclean
Much of the law of Judaism is taken up with how things or people that have become unclean can be made clean again

Only God is perfectly holy, and for us to come in contact with his holiness would be fatal
The only ones allowed near to the things of God are priests
Even priests must preform rituals to make themselves clean before they can safely approach God

When they come out again from his presence there are more rituals to follow
They must remove their clothes and anything else that might have absorbed the holiness of God, so that holiness doesn’t imperil people outside
That’s a measure of the distance that separates the sacred and the profane

How much is that thinking a part of Christianity?
We probably share a lot of it, because it’s part of our own religious fabric
We, too, are readers of the Old Testament
We are also readers of a New Testament, which was written by people who were Jewish by birth and education

But the lesson of today’s reading from Acts is that this sense of fundamental opposition between sacred and profane, clean and unclean, has to be overcome
Because the message of the gospel is reconciliation – the end of doctrines of separation, ritual purity, ethnic religious distinctions and an unapproachable God

One of the forms of Jewish ritual purity we are most familiar with are the kosher laws surrounding food
Today’s reading from Acts shows how Peter has a vision that shows how God has set aside these regulations for the followers of Christ
And how this relaxation is really a symbol – a symbol of God’s determination to reconcile all peoples to himself, through Christ

Food shows up cultural differences and prejudices very clearly
When the first ethnic takeaways opened in this country, they were accused of using dog food instead of pork or chicken
When people complain about people from different ethnic backgrounds moving into their street, one of the first things they pick on is the smell of their cooking

In the gospels, the disciples horrify the Pharisees by eating with unwashed hands
Jesus reminds them that David’s followers are the Bread of the Presence, which only the priests were entitled to eat
He horrifies them by saying, it’s not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean – it’s what comes out of it

When God wants to signal to Peter that the time has come to accept converts from among the Gentiles, he sends him a vision
Not a vision of different nations streaming into the temple
But the vision of a banquet, with clean and unclean animals and birds all jumbled together
And the commandment to kill and eat, without making any distinction

So what about our reading from Acts, which tells of the conversion of Cornelius?
It’s clearly very important – it’s the longest episode in Acts
Only the story of Paul’s journey to Rome is anything like as long

It’s not the first conversion of a Gentile
But it’s the first conversion of a Gentile whose name we know

I could make this a very technical discussion
You see how Luke sets up a whole series of parallels and points of comparison between Peter and Cornelius
Peter is a Jewish leader – Cornelius is a Gentile leader
Peter has a vision sent by God – Cornelius has a vision sent by God
This is not just rhetoric – Luke wants to show us how the Holy Spirit reconciles Jewish and Gentile believers with one another

The passage begins with the the circumcised believers, the Jewish Christians, criticising Peter and asking him, Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?
It ends with Peter telling them how these new believers received the gift of the Spirit, and how that Spirit reconciles all believers: If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?

This is the clinching argument – not that the commandments have been set aside, but that the safeguards against contagion enshrined in the purity laws are no longer necessary
The oppositions and distinctions of the old idea of holiness have been transcended in Christ, through the power of the Spirit
God in fact has abolished the distinction between sacred and profane

What does the commandment to love mean in practice? It means false distinctions have been abolished
The centre of the passage is in verse 9, which in effect is a new commandment that transcends the old: What God has made clean, you must not call profane

It means the people of God no longer define themselves by keeping apart
They no longer see the world or other people as a source of impurity or contagion

Our role as the people of God is to show other people how in Christ Jesus God has reconciled the world to himself
We do that by not being fastidious – by showing ourselves willing to get our hands dirty
We do that by reaching out to others in love


17 April 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

John 10.22-30

I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.

If you’re on email I probably sent you a link during the week, to a BBC programme called The Battle for Christianity
It looked at how churches around the country are trying to stay in business
Being more professional in their approach to worship
Making their buildings more attractive
Planting non-traditional churches in places where no churches are operating
Engaging in social mission

The majority of people in the UK still think of themselves as Christian, but probably fewer than one in ten attend church regularly
– Adults often describe themselves as being ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’

What’s the difference between being spiritual, and being religious?
Perhaps people are drawing a distinction between being interested in God, and being involved in the church
But I think that’s a false dichotomy
And the Bible supports that view

Researchers have said for 25 years now, that the characteristic form of religion practised in western societies is “believing without belonging”
– it’s a phrase that appeared in a book published in 1992 by Grace Davie, now a retired Professor in the department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter
– It’s a model of faith that’s described sometimes as ‘cutting out the middle man’: the church being the redundant ‘middle man’

This shift is symptomatic of larger changes in society
– Grace Davies describes the change in religious life, as one from a culture of obligation to a culture of consumption
– From being expected to come to church, to deciding whether or not to come to church
– To regarding church attendance almost as a leisure pursuit
– One possible choice on a given Sunday morning, from a long list of alternative pursuits

In terms of faith, it’s a shift from being told what to believe, and when and how to worship, to deciding those things for yourself
– Because churches need people more than people need churches
– People only have to believe: they don’t need to belong

We probably recognise some of these trends – but I don’t think we have to accept them as good or inevitable
Because trying to believe without belonging is deeply damaging to people’s spiritual health

I don’t say this as a criticism of Grace Davie or her work
She is a sociologist – she just tries to describe something she thinks she sees
It’s not her job to say if it’s a good thing or nor
But if this truly is the model of faith a majority of people have adopted, they are the ones with the problem

Can you truly believe without belonging?
No – any more than you can truly belong without believing
Believing and belonging are not two separate things
– they are two parts of the same whole: that ‘whole’ being what we call ‘religious faith’

People do not generally come to faith, and then find a church
Someone they know invites them to church
They start to feel they belong there
They come to share in the beliefs expressed in the life and worship of the people in the church

In other words, belief and belonging develop together
Neither of them is optional
Neither develops in the absence of the other

Belonging comes with a cost
– It involves the surrender of the freedom to believe just what you want: you have to accept the doctrines of a church
– It involves some limitation of the freedom to behave just as you like: you have to accept the morality of a church community, and the decisions of its meetings
– It involves some reshaping of your identity: being recognised and defined as a member of a particular congregation

But the cost is something we have to accept
Because believing without belonging is just an opinion
Belonging without believing is a sham

I said Scripture backs me up – and it’s true
In the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus attacks the religious leaders for their lack of faith
For their incapacity to recognise who he is
He says (v.26), You do not believe, because you do not belong

The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were exercising their own freedom of choice
They thought Jesus was just one of the options available to them
They thought they were able to pick and choose
Because they tried to stand at a distance, God cut them off altogether

But I’d rather talk about the positives of belonging
It’s belonging that not only makes it possible to believe, but makes it rewarding to believe

Belonging means being part of God’s people, a member of the body of Christ
It means, serving a purpose within the body
It means being ‘grafted in’
It means, being able to grow and flourish in Christ

It’s a paradox, to be part of a church that is shrinking while God’s kingdom is growing
But the way for us to grow is for us all to be proud to believe
And willing to share the joy of belonging

Am I not an apostle?

Posted: April 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

10 April 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

John 21.1-14    Acts 9.1-9

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me

Last time I spoke to you I outlined the differences between the different gospel accounts of the scene at the empty tomb
I asked what implications those differences have for our understanding of the resurrection and the truth of Scripture
It’s better to understand the reasons for these differences, than to try to explain them away

Today, from John’s gospel, we have an account of an appearance of the risen Jesus on the seashore, that seems to mark Peter out and give him authority over the church
The message seems to be, that the one who fell furthest had furthest to rise

From the Book of Acts, we have an account of Paul’s conversion
Again, it centres on an appearance of the resurrected Jesus
Again, the message seems to be, that the one who has fallen furthest has furthest to rise

Saul is a persecutor of the church who takes part in the stoning of Stephen
It is the most unlikely beginning we could imagine for the first and greatest theologian of the church
But everything changes on the road to Damascus

It’s absolutely crucial to Paul’s understanding of himself as an apostle that he encountered the risen Christ outside Damascus
Because only someone who has met with the risen Christ can claim to be an apostle
Paul says as much in 1
Cor 9.1: Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?

Paul represents his meeting with Christ as exactly the same as the meetings the other apostles had:

1 Corinthians 15:5–10 [Christ] appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.

The Book of Acts itself falls neatly into two parts
The first part is mostly about Peter and his headship of the Jerusalem church
Part two is mostly about Paul and his mission to the gentiles

One of Peter’s main tasks, according to Luke’s account, is to negotiate the acceptance of Paul as apostle to the gentiles after his conversion
But the freedom Paul has to minister to the gentiles allows him to create a network of churches outside the control of the Jerusalem church
There is a power dynamic at work – if Paul becomes the focus of Luke’s story, he must be at least as significant as Peter

So, for Luke, it’s very important to establish Paul’s credentials clearly
And the experience on the Damascus road is the central piece of evidence

Luke tells the story of the Damascus road three times: in Acts chapters 9, 22 and 26
We heard the version from chapter 9 this morning
In chapter 9, Luke tells the story himself – and this is the story in its fullest form

When Luke tells the story again, in chapters 22 and 26, he puts it into Paul’s own mouth
Luke definitely doesn’t want us to think of this story as one other people tell about Paul
He wants us to believe that it’s Paul’s own story

The version in chapter 22 takes place in Jerusalem
Paul is attacked in the temple by Jewish worshippers and accused of bringing in gentiles
He testifies to the crowd in Hebrew to convince them he has not committed sacrilege

He tells the story of his birth in Tarsus and education under rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem
He tells how he persecuted Christians and asked to be commissioned to prosecute Christians in Damascus
The Christians are in Damascus is because they have been driven out of Jerusalem by persecution

Then, on the road to Damascus, Paul sees the risen Jesus
Just short of the city, Paul is surrounded by a great light
Others hear the voice but see no one
– Because only Paul is to have this status-changing encounter

The blinded Paul is led to Damascus; he is healed by Ananias, and sent to be baptised
He returns to Jerusalem, where he begins to preach the gospel

But then Paul is warned by Jesus in a vision to leave because no one will listen
Jesus tells him to to instead to the gentiles
This final remark riles the crowd to the point where they demand Paul’s death

The third version is the one in chapter 26: it is much briefer
Because this time the audience is not Jewish
The story is part of Paul’s testimony to Porcius Festus and King Agrippa
Paul suggests to Agrippa that it his preaching to the gentiles that has inspired Jewish feeling against him – not necessarily the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ

So there are three different accounts in Acts
Not all equally detailed, but quite consistent with one another

But the accounts Luke gives us are not consistent with the testimony of Paul’s letters
In his own extant letters, Paul is never this detailed or specific about his conversion experience

Paul says in Galations 1:11–12 the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
– But he tells us nothing about the form this revelation took
– He does not want his authority to rest on his own extraordinary spiritual experiences

Why do Paul and Luke tell such different stories?
The reason is, they have different interests at heart

Luke is primarily interested in Paul’s conversion
How did such an enemy of the church come to believe in Christ and become such an energetic preacher of the gospel?
Paul is much more interested in the meaning of the cross, and how the lives we lead testify to the reality of the cross and the truth of the resurrection

Luke talks a lot about miracles and manifestations of the divine
He wants everyone to recognise the power of the Spirit at work in the early church
Paul is much more interested in the everyday experience of living in a church community

Paul talks about his encounter with the risen Jesus for another important reason
Paul is defending his status as an apostle – as someone who has seen the risen Christ
Other so-called apostles are poaching on Paul’s turf, and he cannot afford to be regarded as inferior to any of them
But he wants to advance that argument without turning one extraordinary episode into his entire message

Luke and Paul have different motives – and that helps explain the apparent differences in their accounts
But what they have in common is much more important – which is, that to encounter the risen Christ, is to become a new person

We aren’t Christians because we have had one extraordinary experience
We are Christians because the cross and the resurrection are real for us
Because we make our whole lives an exploration in practice of what those realities mean


Resurrection transfigured

Posted: April 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

27 March 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Psalm 118.14-24    Luke 24.1-12

These things are recorded so that you may believe

What is there to say about this scene?
The most obvious thing to point out would be, how hard it is to reconcile Luke’s version with the versions in the other gospels

In Mark’s original ending, the women enter the tomb – the stone has been rolled away
They see a young man in a white robe, who tells them Jesus they will see Jesus in Galilee
But they are too terrified to share what they have seen with the disciples

In Matthew’s version, there is an earthquake; the women actually see the stone roll away
The angel who rolled the stone away tells them the good news
They run back to tell the disciples, but Jesus meets them and they worship him

In John’s version, it’s Mary of Magdala who sees the stone rolled way
She doesn’t enter the tomb – instead she runs to tell Peter and “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved’
It’s this other disciple who looks into the tomb and sees the grave clothes
It’s Peter who is first to actually enter the tomb
They both believe Christ has risen, and they go home to share the news
But nobody up to this point sees either an angel or the risen Christ

Non-believers use differences like these to support the argument that the story of the resurrection is a fake
That it’s just a story invented by Jesus’ followers to cover up the embarrassing fact that their revolution had failed

In arguing against this point of view, my starting point is always John 20.31, a verse that comes straight after John’s account of the resurrection appearances:
These [signs] are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.

The gospels are written to teach believers what they have to know about Jesus
Each version of the story gives us the signs that particular author believes give most weight to the central argument of every gospel
– The argument that Jesus Christ truly was the Son of God, both divine and human, who died and rose for our salvation

From the point of view of the gospel writers, the strongest argument for saying that Jesus was who he claimed to be, is that he fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures
But a powerful argument for the truth of the resurrection accounts in particular is that they fulfil the prophecies made by Jesus himself about his death and resurrection

Jesus warns his disciples on the way up to Jerusalem what is going to happen to him there
The most important of these prophecies is given in a scene witnessed only by his closest disciples
That scene, of course, is the Transfiguration
And Luke’s account of the resurrection makes a series of connections with his account the Transfiguration

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus prophecies his own death three times
the Transfiguration takes place between the first and second of those prophecies

Let me remind you once again of the key elements of the Transfiguration
– Jesus takes his closest disciples with him to the top of a mountain
– Jesus’ face and his clothing are changed: they radiate a dazzling light
– Two men speak to him: Moses and Elijah
– They speak of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem
– The voice of God is heard
– The heavenly vision disappears, mundane reality is restored
– Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain together

When you read Luke’s account of the visit to the empty tomb, you’ll see that Luke picks out details that remind us of his own account of the Transfiguration

The scene is witnessed by selected followers

Those followers see two men in dazzling clothes
In the Transfiguration, they were Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the prophets, because Jesus came to fulfil the Law and the prophets
At the tomb the shining men are angels – but they play the same role as Moses and Elijah, in that they speak of the reality and the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection

The visitors to the tomb react with perplexity and terror
Then, the supernatural images vanish; the mundane world is restored

There is one crucial difference between the Transfiguration and the resurrection
In the scene at the tomb, Jesus is missing
Only the angels and the discarded grave clothes tell us what has happened to him

Why draw these careful parallels?
To make clear that the events around Jesus’ death fulfilled his own prophetic words
To reassure Jesus’ followers that these things were real, and they could have faith in them

The disciples kept silent about the Transfiguration – in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus himself orders them to tell no one
But now that Jesus has risen, the time for secrecy is past

The danger, now, is that the disciples will remain trapped in a state of amazement
They will remain on a metaphorical mountain-top
Perhaps they will build shelters, as Peter was tempted to do, and make their homes beside the tomb
But the call is not to be like Jesus in his death– the call is to start living the resurrected life

There are pointers in the text that tell us this is what they do
It’s interesting that Luke chooses to say
the women returned from the tomb, rather than returned to the city
– The tense he uses is unusual: he literally says, they were being returned from the tomb
– As if they themselves have been resurrected

Of course, they have not literally died and been raised to life
But seeing and believing the evidence for the resurrection has brought them into a new state of existence, a new way of living

We all have different stories to tell about the events that brought us to faith
If someone asks us what matters most to us about Jesus, we would not necessarily give the same answer
But the resurrection hope is the central fact of our faith – and our faith in the resurrection should be visible and known to everyone, in the way we live our lives