Archive for October, 2016

Language games with Ludwig

Posted: October 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

23 October 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Luke 18.9-14

He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves

I wonder how many people treat their Christian faith as a game

My wife once bought me a slim little book by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein
It was his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Wittgenstein’s writings are full of wise and pithy sayings, which we can apply to faith issues.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent – Words aren’t enough. Eventually you just have to be silent, and appreciate the mystery
If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done – Let’s all do something silly for Jesus, because we aren’t as clever as we think and we might actually learn something
For truly religious man, nothing is tragic – Which is what our faith is truly about. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and death for us is not the end
I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves – fun as the world understands it is over-rated, and there are joys in store for us the world has not dreamed of

But Wittgenstein is a mathematician as well as a philosopher
Sometimes where you expect a conclusion, there’s a page of equations instead
You find yourself thinking, are you serious, Ludwig? Or are you playing games with us?

We can have lots of fun with words: jokes, riddles, puns, puzzles, all the figures of speech we use to make writing and conversation more vivid and more engaging

Wittgenstein often talked about language games – it’s one of the most important concepts he came up with
What he said was, whenever we use language, whether we speak it or write it or even just think it, we are playing a game with someone
And every game has its own rules

That’s obvious when you think about it, isn’t it?
Imagine your new washing machine breaks down
The way you talk when you phone Customer Services to complain isn’t the same way you talk when you tell one of your friends about it afterwards

The way we talk, the language game we play, depends on how we interpret the situation and what we hope to get out of the conversation
When you talk to Customer Services, you want them to take you seriously
You want action: you want a replacement, or a refund, or a visit from an engineer

The person on the other end of the phone reads the signs you are giving them
They guess the rules you are playing by – they work out the best way to respond

When you talk to your friend about it, it’s different
You don’t expect them to do anything, but you do want them to understand how you feel – or maybe you want to laugh about it
Once again, you set out the rules of the game – you speak in a way that tells them what kind of response you want

Some people are much better at these games than others
They are much better at guessing the rules other people are playing by
People who are like that are usually good at conversation – they put people at their ease

But there’s such a thing as being too skilful
Some people make all the right noises, but they don’t commit themselves to the game
So they don’t convince

We watch the election on the other side of the Atlantic
We see one candidate who is accused of having been in the game too long
Of being too slick – not sincere – even crooked

We see another candidate who claims to tell it like it is – who shoots from hip
But who is also playing a game – in many ways exactly the same game as his opponent
Whose claims to directness and plain speaking are therefore even more of an imposture

What we see in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector are people playing language games
Two people who seem to be playing the same language game
That language game is the one we call ‘prayer’

One seems to play it with more skill than the other
– but the referee of the game tells us, he is actually the loser
The losing player is of course the Pharisee, and the referee is Jesus

The Pharisee plays the wrong game in his public act of prayer
He speaks as if prayer is a spectator sport, where the aim is to win the applause of the crowd
His prayer of thanks is really an act of public self-congratulation

Is this what we sometimes do in church?
There are many opportunities in church to impress other people with our language skills
Do we pride ourselves on our skill in leading worship, in preaching, or in public prayer?
Do we reward ourselves and each other for our performances in meetings – our dextrous use of forms of words and procedural rules?

Do we play language games in church which are just games?
I hope not – because we’re going to find out one day whose game we were really playing


How many lepers?

Posted: October 11, 2016 in Uncategorized

9 October 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Luke 17.11-19

Were not ten made clean?

We might be tempted to read this passage as just a story of healing
Another example of Jesus’ power to heal people who were sick
To bring outcasts back into the community

But we also have to pay attention to the setting
Because the setting of a story about Jesus always help to bring out its meaning
And also how the story relates to our own lives

So let’s for all note from the first verse, that Jesus was On the way to Jerusalem, … going through the region between Samaria and Galilee
That’s not very precise is it? It’s not clear exactly where Jesus was at this point

But perhaps the actual place isn’t important – what matters is, that Jesus is on the way
Which helps us understand the final verse
When Jesus says, to the leper who turns back to thank him,
Get up and go on your way
Which then becomes a commandment directed to us
But where are we going? And who told us to go? That’s what matters

The healing of lepers does not crop up as often in the New Testament as you think
John has none, Acts has none
Mark has only one healing of a leper (Mar 1.40)
– It’s similar to today’s passage from Luke. Jesus heals the man and commands him to show himself to the priest
– The ex-leper does not go to the priest, nor does he keep silent; he proclaims it freely and spreads the word

Matthew has the same healing (Mat 8.2), and again it’s a one-off
What I find interesting and significant in Matthew’s gospel is that when John sends his disciples to ask whether Jesus is the one who is to come; Jesus points to the cleansing of lepers as a sign that he is (Mat 11.5)

Jesus doesn’t have to heal all the lepers – healing one leper is enough, if we’re looking for a sign
So what kind of sign are we talking about?
If we bring together all the times lepers are mentioned in Luke, we get some idea

The first is in chapter 4. Jesus is preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown
The crowd are demanding he performs the signs he performed in Capernaum
Jesus says a prophet is always rejected by his own people

Luke 4:24–28 “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Jesus’ comparison of himself with Elijah and Elisha here is tremendously significant
In his future ministry, he deliberately creates a whole series of parallels between the acts of Elijah and Elisha, and his own
Elijah fed a widow and her son, and raised the son from the dead – Jesus feeds 5,000, and raises a widow’ son from the dead
Elisha heals a foreign leper; Jesus heals a foreign leper

These acts have exactly the effect Jesus intends – people begin to speculate about his identity, and whether or not his coming is a fulfilment of prophecy
Even Herod is perplexed by rumours spreading in the countryside about Jesus:
Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Luke 9:7–8

Why is Herod puzzled, and a bit worried?
Because many Jews at this time expected Elijah to return to proclaim the coming of the Messiah
They read it in the prophet Malachi

And then it was confirmed in their own time: in the angel tells Zechariah, the father of John, that with the spirit and power of Elijah John will go before the Lord as the day of judgement draws near (Luke 1.17 )

Did John the Baptist and Jesus fulfil this prophecy?
The answer is, they did, and they didn’t
John himself denied being either Elijah or the Messiah. John’s gospel we are told, He confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” John 1:20–21

In Luke 9, Jesus and the disciples pass through a Samaritan village and are not welcomed.
According to some manuscripts James and John ask Jesus,
“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elijah did?” (Luke 9.54)
Jesus says, no.

The gospel is made up of signs to be read by those with eyes to see and ears to hear
The Messiah will appear and the kingdom will come – but not in the way we expect

The people who are praised in the gospels recognised in Jesus the One who is to come
Their faith is presented to us as an example – if they believed on the basis of so little evidence, why is our faith so uncertain compared to theirs?

Jesus tells the first leper he heals to show himself to the priest, and keep silent
He does neither – and funnily enough, he isn’t criticised in the gospels
His faith vindicates his actions

Now, Jesus heals ten lepers, and sends them to the priest
Nine of them go, but one turns back

He is a Samaritan – we assume the others are Jews
The Jews are still caught up in the old ways – the old rituals of cleansing
It’s not even clear if they realise at this point they’ve been healed

The Samaritan’s eyes are open – he sees the miracle, and he knows who has done it
He comes to Jesus; he praises God, in spirit and in truth (as Jesus says in his conversation with the woman by the well – another Samaritan)

The example of this foreigner teaches us that Jesus is the outsider who makes us insiders
Jesus is the one who breaks down the barrier between Jew and Gentile
He also breaks down the barrier between us and God, and makes the priest unnecessary

John is not the second Elijah, but he does point to Jesus as the One who was to come
Jesus is the One who was to come, but the manner of his coming is not what his people were expecting

We are challenged in our own faith in the same way as the bystanders in this scene
We are challenged to recognise that the Day of the Lord has arrived – the Kingdom has come near – even if it has come in a way we did not expect

We hear the command Jesus gave to the Samaritan who was healed
It’s time for all of us to get up and go on our way
But where are we going? Will we go with Jesus on the road to the cross?
Or back to the old ways, of habits and rituals that never brought healing?

2 October 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Psalm 37.1-9

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way

Last week at St Cuthbert’s I talked about Lazarus and the rich man
A story which calls us to question what we think of as the ‘good life’
The challenge the existence of poverty and suffering poses to our faith and our values

I talked about the theology this story against the background of the book of Proverbs
On the one hand, Proverbs promises us that God will prosper the righteous, and punish the wicked
Proverbs 10.6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous
Proverbs 10:16
The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin.

Proverbs encourages compassion for the poor, because all of us are part of God’s creation:
Proverbs 17:5
Those who mock the poor insult their Maker

Yet on the other, Proverbs has to reckon with the fact that the wicked often prosper, wealth brings power, and power brings security against threats that ruin the less well-off:
Proverbs 10:15 The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.

Proverbs doesn’t claim that the problem of poverty can be eradicated
All Proverbs can offer us is encouragement to be patient
– Telling us that the prosperity of the wicked is an empty prosperity, with no security
– Telling us to trust God to reward the good and punish the wicked, in the fullness of time
Pro 10:25 When the tempest passes, the wicked are no more, but the righteous are established forever.
Pro 11:18
The wicked earn no real gain, but those who sow righteousness get a true reward.

Here in Psalm 37 we have another expression of that sort of encouragement
What we will see is that the encouragement we are offered goes far beyond the simple admonition to be quiet and wait

The psalmist shows us that the blessings we are promised are already ours to enjoy
Whereas the blessings the rich and successful seem to enjoy are empty
Their wealth and fame do not have the substance and permanence of God’s blessings

The theology and moral framework of this psalm come from what scholars call the wisdom tradition
Being wise in this tradition does not mean being clever – it means letting God be clever for us
Wisdom is a totality concept – it is an entire world view, rooted in the doctrine of divine creation
We learn to be wise, by working out and following our true purpose, the one ordained by God

Psalm 37 is a wisdom psalm – even though the magic word wisdom does not appear in the verses we have just heard
You have to read on a bit further, to verse 30, which says:

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is right.
The teaching of God is in his heart; his feet do not slip.

These lines set out the whole wisdom philosophy in brief: righteousness = wisdom = righteousness
We learn wisdom by living righteously, and we live righteously by acting wisely
This wisdom embraces the words of our mouths, the thoughts of our minds and hearts, our actions in the world – our whole way of living and being

The feet of the wise do not slip, says the psalmist
Even when the state of things in the world seems to call the faith of the righteous into question, they continue to speak and act faithfully

They still say, it is the world that has to fall into step with the word of God, not the other way round
And in that faith they find security and happiness – a happiness much deeper than you can find in any kind of worldly good fortune

How does this psalm speak to us today? I think there are two points to take from it

One is a mental disposition
The GNT says, Don’t be worried on account of the wicked – other translations say, Don’t fret
is a more resonant word – it means to blaze up. Are you guilty of fretting?
It’s such a dangerous temptation, the psalmist warns against it three times in these few verses

We are not to become obsessed with the rich; we are not to be consumed by jealousy or anger
Otherwise we will be swallowed up by our obsession with wealth, in the same way they are

What are we to do? We are to do the opposite – we are to trust in God – we are to be still
We are to discover the presence of the spirit of God already with us, as we wait

We are to rejoice in that discovery – to delight ourselves in God, as it says in verse 4
That word delight is one we keep coming back to – it’s at the core of our view of creation
God delights in us, and we were created to delight in him. Do you delight in God?

Our trust in God, and our delight in God, are the realities that expose the hollowness of a life directed to the pursuit of money and prestige for their own sakes

The other thing to take from this reading is the idea of inheritance
The psalm promises, that the righteous will inherit the land

The Promised Land is the symbol of all God’s plans for his people
His goodwill towards them – his steadfast love
His promise that they will be his people, and he will be their God

The wicked are warned that they will be cut off from the land: v 2 They will wither like grass
It isn’t God who cuts them off – they do it all by themselves, by every selfish act they commit

Of course we live in a very different world to the psalmist
We are looking forward to a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one
So perhaps you think this promise of a land does not have much meaning for us

But I want you to note very carefully the words of this promise:
The promise is that we will inherit the land
The central thing is not the land, but the fact that we have an inheritance
– Not so much what it is we will inherit, but our relationship with the one who has made us his heirs
And how that relationship has been made possible

In moving from the Old Testament to the New, we have moved to a new understanding of the identity of God’s people
Once, God’s people were a distinct ethnic group, the descendants of Abraham
They inherited the land, because they inherited the promise of the land made to Abraham by God

Their identity is still based on a relationship with a unique individual – but that individual is Christ
Jesus Christ is the only Son and therefore the heir of God himself

This is Paul’s great insight – this is how he develops the thought and language of the Psalms
In Christ we inherit what God has promised: not a piece of land, but the riches of the glorious inheritance of Christ (Eph 1.18); All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2.3)
These are treasures beyond earthly riches, beyond any human measure of wealth or poverty

I would never ignore the problems of poverty and injustice
But there’s a danger we might be led away from the gospel if we think too exclusively of poverty in terms of money

Our real inheritance is the treasure we have in Christ – and that gives us a way of thinking beyond economics
The gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to make everyone rich
Sharing the gospel makes us richer, not poorer
Each of us only has so much money to give
But when we share the gospel, we don’t diminish our capacity to give – we increase it

This belief in the riches of Christ makes us different from people who have no faith, just a social conscience
It is a belief with the power to transform every life – the lives of the wealthy, even more than the lives of the poor

Doing a grown-up job for Jesus

Posted: October 3, 2016 in Uncategorized

2 October 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Luke 17.5-10

I also am a man set under authority (Luke 7.8)

You may have heard of Iggy Pop.
He grew up on a trailer park. His parents were public school teachers, so they weren’t well-off
By his own account he was an adorable child, used to being indulged

He used to make pocket money by cutting the grass round their neighbours’ trailers
One day he knocked on a neighbour’s door, smiled, and held out his hand for his money
The neighbour looked at the grass and said, “I’m not going to pay you. You didn’t do a good job.”

Iggy was devastated. No one had ever judged his work before
He learned a lesson that day – one, he said, that made it much easier later in life to fire people who didn’t do their job

There’s a time in your life when it’s no longer enough to be cute and smile sweetly
There’s a time when you stop being a beginner, and people expect you to perform
I think that’s the context for today’s reading

Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, on Jesus’ final journey
Time is short, and his disciples have to grow up

They ask Jesus, “Increase our faith!” – but they don’t get an answer
– First they get a figurative illustration of how inadequate their faith is (Jesus seems to say, “it doesn’t take much faith to work miracles – but it takes more faith than I see in any of you”)
– Then another figurative illustration, that says, what you do for God is not a favour: it’s your duty

It’s seems to be a complete reversal of things the disciples heard before
Remember the parable of the waiting servants in Luke 12.35-38
The master comes home to find them waiting for him, and rewards them by becoming their servant and serving them a meal

Now the mood has changed, and it’s hard to be told, the best you can do will be barely enough
Don’t expect praise – not even thanks
Don’t ask for faith as if it’s some kind of fairy dust, a magic ingredient to make things easy

I think we understand this passage best if we see it in the context of an earlier episode
I’m talking about the healing of the centurion’s slave in Luke 7

The centurion cares for his slave – he worries when the slave falls sick
But the context for this care is a very clear sense of role identities and expectations
The centurion describes himself as a man set under authority
He obeys without question, and he expects others to obey in exactly the same way

This is how the centurion understands the working of miracles – simply as the giving and receiving of commands, by those set under authority
Which is exactly how Jesus represents them. He does the Father’s will, by the Father’s power, in the Father’s name
The centurion exhibits a mature faith – Now, Jesus tells the twelve disciples to do the same

I find it significant that in Luke’s gospel the twelve disciples closest to Jesus are already referred to as apostles – which means ambassadors, bearers of messages for the king
Jesus says – you are set under authority – you have a tile and a job description, so get on with it

Don’t do it because you want me to smile and give you lots of flowery compliments
Do it because you’re apostles. That’s who you are – that’s what you are

This passage says exactly the same to us – it’s time to start doing a grown-up job for Jesus
It won’t be easy – it won’t always be fun
But if we do our master’s will, one day we shall enter into our master’s joy