Archive for May, 2017

The spirit of community

Posted: May 22, 2017 in Uncategorized

Love one another deeply, from the heart

There will soon be some new MPs in the House of Commons
I once heard the story of a new MP who came to the House in his smart new suit
He worked out which side his own party was sitting on
He found a vacant seat on one of the benches, and sat down beside a colleague, who turned out to be a very experienced MP

He turned to her (did you assume it would be a man?), and introduced himself
He told her his name, pointed to the benches opposite, and said, “It’s great to come face to face with the enemy at last”
She smiled and said, “They are the Opposition. Your enemies are all around you.”

It’s often said how much respect and even friendship there is between members of different parties in the House of Commons
Most of the denigration and name-calling we hear is intended for public consumption

I remember Dennis Healey saying that being attacked by Chancellor Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep
I don’t remember that Geoffrey said about Dennis to begin with
I would remember if they had been seen fighting in one of the Commons bars after the debate
The exchange was just part of the rough and tumble of politics

But I remember when Geoffrey Howe made his resignation speech in the Commons
His words were very calm and measured – but they were loaded with such harmful intent, they were enough to bring down Margaret Thatcher

The Opposition are the ones sitting opposite – your enemies are all around you
The Opposition see you as an opponent – your enemies regard you as a traitor
What we often see in the New Testament letters is division between outsiders and insiders within the church – and that fear and suspicion of mutterings behind your back

Today’s reading (1Pe 3.13-22) is about feelings of persecution, and how to respond
Peter’s letter is addressed to exiles (1Pe 1.1)
This is a two-edged term – we know he means Christian Jews
But does he mean Jews who have chosen to live outside Judea, or Christians driven out of their Jewish communities?

This sense of exile is a source of suffering. What causes it?

In their suffering, they are identified Christ, who was also an exile – rejected by his own people
They are chosen ultimately to be sprinkled with his blood – to share in his death

So we have the background of persecution – but who are the persecutors?
The imperial rulers of these towns, the rulers of the synagogues, their neighbours in the community?

We know the imperial authorities persecute Christians – but they are a known quantity
We even hear the apostles acknowledge the authority of imperial rulers – they urge their followers to recognise it, and accept it as something ordained by God

The real danger often comes from people much closer at hand
From Jewish neighbours – those who know the Law, but reject Jesus Christ
So Peter may be talking to Christians driven out of the synagogue

But even within the Christian fellowship, is everyone sweetness and light?
In 1Pet 1.22 Peter praises the community for their genuine mutual love; but then he encourages them to love one another deeply from the heart
If you’ll allow me to use a negative argument, I’d suggest that if they already love each other in this deep way, they do not need Peter’s encouragement

But they do need this encouragement – and actually more than just encouragement
They need to be warned, to rid themselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander (1Pet 2.1)
Clearly, they are a very long way from perfection – they are spiritual babes in arms

So persecution from outside is not the biggest issue
The real danger threatening these Christians is not death or imprisonment
It is the loss of love and community within the church

The people of this community have to learn what it means, to be living stones [as we saw last week]
The members of a Christian community are building materials, not fine sculptures
That remains true of us
None of us deserves a pedestal – we are not worthy to stand alone and be admired

Today we are thinking about the Holy Spirit
The Spirit is the difference between living stones, and dead ones
We are ordinary stones (as I said), almost impossible to tell apart
We are valuable only because of what the Spirit can do with us

Through the power of the Spirit, we ordinary stones, dead things, can be raised up
We can be built up – into a living temple, with Christ as its capstone
The worthiness of the whole building comes from that one perfect stone

Sometimes I think we make the gift of the Spirit a very individualistic thing
As if to be spirit-filled was the badge of an elite
That is not a doctrine we can read out of Scripture
One stone is not a building – the stones must be built up together

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love and community
We worship one God, but that God is a community of three persons
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son
It overflows into God’s work of creation, into the words of the prophets, into Christ’s ministry on earth and his work of salvation, into the teachings of his disciples

The persons of the Trinity do not work alone
Even Christ did not raise himself; Christ was
made alive in or through the spirit
Even Christ does not rule alone; he sits
at the right hand of God, appointed by the Father

The doctrine of the Church is a doctrine of community
And so is the doctrine of the Trinity – these doctrines are inseparable
We part of the church community, not because the church met and had a vote, but because through the Spirit we are members of the body of Christ

John’s gospel tells us, our belonging in Christ is a deep and mystical thing
He tells his disciples on the last night in the Upper Room,
I am in the Father and the Father is in me John 14.10
You know [the Spirit ], because he abides with you, and he will be in you John 14.17
One day] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 14:19–20

The Trinity is a community of indissoluble love and perfect obedience to one divine will
The church is a community commanded to imitate that love and obedience

Look again at that list of sins condemned in 1Pet 2.1:
malice, guile, insincerity, envy, slander
They are not crimes of violence or crimes against property, like slapping someone’s face or stealing their handbag
They are secret sins, sins of motive – sins we commit against one another, behind one another’s backs
They are betrayals of community, and therefore among the worst sins of all

I have said before, your faith is someone else’s evidence – evidence that God is real
Our love for one another, the harmony of our church community, our willingness to do good for one another at our own expense, is also someone’s evidence
– evidence of the obedience of the Son to the Father
– of the love of the Son for the Father
– evidence of the love of God for the world, revealed in the figure of the Son on the cross, and in the coming of the Spirit

21 May 2017, St George’s, High Heaton


The stones will cry out

Posted: May 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!

In these weeks after Easter we bear witness to our belief in the resurrection, and the events that followed
In the weeks before Easter, through our readings and reflections, we tried to follow in Jesus’ footsteps towards Jerusalem, with his disciples
In the same way, now we commemorate and re-live the beginnings of the process through which the followers of Jesus laid the foundation of the church

We see how the disciples came to accept that Christ was risen indeed
How they began to proclaim that gospel
And how the people around them in Jerusalem received the proclamation

The Pentecostal scholar James G Dunn wrote a book about this time, called The Partings of Ways
Beginning at this point, he traced the emergence of fundamental differences of belief between Jews and the people eventually referred to as Christians

He analysed Jewish belief at the time in terms of what he called the Four Pillars of Judaism
1 Monotheism: the belief there are no other gods, apart from Israel’s God
2 Election: the belief there is one people chosen by God, who have a unique claim to righteousness, founded on the Law
3 The Covenant: the belief that God by his own word has made promises about his people’s future, and given them instructions about how to live: including distinctive behaviours such as circumcision and food laws
4 The land: a national identity linked to a specific territory, including Jerusalem and the temple

Each of these four pillars has its counterpart in the Christian faith
But our understanding is different, because our faith is founded on Christ

We believe in the God of Israel – but as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit
We believe in election – but as the election of Jesus Christ through his faithful obedience to the Father, and Christian believers through their faith in Christ
We believe in the Covenant – the new covenant sealed in the blood of Christ
We believe we have a place and a name – but where we belong is in the body of Christ, and in the name of Christ

That Christian understanding of the Four Pillars cannot be reconciled with the beliefs we find in Judaism, or any school of belief which is not rooted in faith in the risen Christ Christ
So even though we see the apostles worshipping and teaching in the temple and the synagogues, the parting of the ways was inevitable as soon as a distinctively Christian theology emerged
New Testament passages like our readings this morning (Acts 7.55-60; 1Peter 2.2-10) show how those differences emerged

The story of the death of Stephen is crucial
Not just because he is the first Christian martyr, the first one to die for his faith in Christ
But also because of the way he dies

There have been stories in the news about executions in the state of Arkansas
Executions of men who had been prisoners on Death Row for many years
The authorities were in a hurry to carry out these eight executions before the drugs they intended to employ reached their use-by date

There was something very thrifty and mundane in their calculated way of thinking about this supposedly human way of killing
As if they were trying to decide whether a yoghurt they found at the back of the fridge was still safe to eat
It is ironic, because the law has always treated murders committed in the heat of the moment more leniently than murders which are carefully planned

We see this in its extreme form in the murders committed by so-called Islamic State
We recoil in horrified bafflement from the tortured imaginations that come up with such spectacular and brutal ways of killing enemies
All staged in front of the camera and posted straight to the internet

These stories continue the narrative we can trace back to the Taliban in Afghanistan, who liked to stone their enemies
These stories shock and horrify us, as they are meant to
These acts are so far from anything we as Christians would do in the name of our faith

But of course there are stonings in the Bible too
Not atrocities committed by God’s enemies, but judicial executions carried out in obedience to the laws of God himself
Stoning is the punishment laid down in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers for apostasy, blasphemy, sorcery, or even breaking the Sabbath

In the days of the New Testament, in theory only the Roman authorities could impose the death penalty – as they did to Jesus
But the community could still rise up and stone someone to death – as they do with Stephen
Although with Stephen, we know the stoning is instigated by the authorities

Why is stoning such a horrifying punishment?
Partly because of its brutality – it is the most primitive and savage way of killing
Partly because it is a slow and drawn-out death
Partly because although it appears spontaneous, it is an orchestrated performance carried out according to a ritual known to everyone involved

Why is stoning mandated in the Bible?
First of all, it’s exceeding unlikely the writers of the Bible invented the punishment of stoning
It is a primitive act, perhaps the most ancient mode of judicial killing
All they did was put it in a legal and theological framework, and limit its use to what seemed in the list of Commandments to be the most serious crimes

What does stoning mean within the Law?
Partly, the collective nature of the act represents the community’s anger on behalf of God against the criminal, its determination to root out sin from its midst
Partly, the throwing of stones picked up from the ground symbolises creation itself rising up against the criminal

But what does the stoning of Stephen represent?
Firstly, stoning to the Jew authorities is what crucifixion is to the Romans
It represents their determination to exterminate opposition
But the fact we read is story in the book of Acts, tells us their efforts failed

The stoning of Stephen is meant to be symbolic – a warning to others
We have accounts in the Old Testament of the bodies of traitors and enemies buried under heaps of stones, that remain as a monument to remind people what happened there
Achan in the book of Joshua, who helps himself to valuables from the ruins of Jericho, when Yahweh has said everything in the city is to be destroyed
David’s rebellious son Absalom, in 2Samuel 18

The stoning of Stephen represents the determination of the authorities to bury the gospel of Christ
But in the same moment and by the same act, the Spirit is raising him up and transforming his death into a symbol and a witness of something no human power can destroy

The crowd batter Stephen to the earth with stones – symbolising creation rising up to silence him
But we remember what Jesus said, when the Pharisees ordered him to stop his disciples cheering
Jesus responded, I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out (Luke 19:40)
The stones still cry out today, every time the story of Stephen’s martyrdom is heard or remembered

The crowd batter Stephen to the earth with stones
We remember how Jesus said, if this temple was thrown down, he would raise it up in three days
We see these words fulfilled in the resurrection
But also in the martyrdom of the apostles, that inspired the building of a house of living stones
A monument to the power of the Word, the life of the Spirit, and the love of Jesus Christ

14 May 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

A game of spot the join

Posted: May 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying

In this season of Easter we follow the evolution of the followers of Jesus from a set of individuals who had decided to follow him, into a more or less organised group dedicated to spreading the good news of the cross and the Kingdom

We see not only the people they met and the good works they did
We also see the development of their teaching

In the Book of Acts we have examples of the kind of sermon they preached
Or at least we can say, the kind of sermon Luke believes they preached

In the written gospels, we get some idea of the teachings of Jesus his followers remembered and handed on
And how the people who received those teachings, then brought them together and situated them within the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry

Bearing in mind how we think the written gospels came into being, the question often arises: are the teachings Jesus delivers in a single scene an accurate record of the teachings he gave on a particular occasion?
Or has someone brought together a set of related teachings on a particular theme, which Jesus originally gave on several different occasions?

I think our gospel passage this morning (John 10.1-10) is an example of the second method in operation
Someone has brought together different teachings about sheep and shepherds and sheep folds

Whoever it was who did it, they obviously thought it was more important to hand on these teachings faithfully than to smooth out the differences
Because things in the parable are made to stand for more than one thing in the interpretation that follows
And that is without considering the further development of the theme in verses 11 to 18

In verse 1, Jesus says, Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.
The obvious understanding is, Jesus is talking about how we come to enter the community of faith
There is only one right way into membership, and lots of wrong ways

It’s easy to think this way, because this is a teaching we find in Matthew 7
The right way in, in fact the only way in, is through the narrow gate – faith in Jesus

But then in verse 2 Jesus goes on to say, The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep
So the one coming in through the gate can’t be a new Christian
New Christians don’t get the job of shepherd, of guiding those who are more mature in their faith

The one coming through the gate is a human being, a shepherd
So he isn’t coming to join the sheep – he isn’t even the same species

But he isn’t just A shepherd; he’s THE shepherd
Presumably Jesus himself – but maybe it’s too soon to reach that conclusion

In verse 3 a new character appears: the gatekeeper
The gatekeeper opens the gate for him
Now I’m confused – who is the boss? The gatekeeper, or the shepherd?

There’s only one gatekeeper – so maybe Jesus is the gatekeeper
We don’t know how many shepherds there are, but clearly there are more than one: the shepherd calls his own sheep by name
So who are these other sheep? And who are the other shepherds?

The shepherd calls his sheep by name, and leads them out
I’ve known a few shepherds, and I don’t remember any of them giving their sheep names
But at least we know from this, the sheep fold does not represent membership of the community of faith
Otherwise why would the shepherd be leading the sheep away from it?

At this point perhaps we should think about who we think Jesus is speaking to in this scene
He could be speaking to his disciples – people he has been leading around the countryside
Just as the shepherd leads the sheep – except as far as I know, shepherds do not try to educate their sheep
Sheep are not very teachable – that is why they will always need the shepherd

Some commentators say, sheep in the Near East are a bit smarter than ours
Our sheep have to be driven – Near Eastern sheep can be led
Look at verse 4, where Jesus carries on, When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

So is Jesus talking to his disciples? Is everything he says here meant for them?
I don’t think so
Is Jesus alone with his disciples? Probably not

In the the previous scene Jesus healed the man blind from birth, and had a confrontation with the Pharisees
Chapter 10 carries on with no obvious break – no indication that time has passed or the the scene has changed

So the Pharisees are probably still there, listening
Which tells us exactly what Jesus means when he says the sheep will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers

There are other people on the scene – bystanders, the ones who witnessed the miracle of the blind man receiving his sight, and the subsequent confrontations
Jesus is now speaking to them, offering them a choice
Will they go on listening to the Pharisees, or will they hear the voice of Jesus?

Will they follow Jesus, the one who speaks with the voice of God?
Or the false shepherds?
Who are, in fact, the descendants of the wicked shepherds condemned by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel

We seem to have reached a climax, a moment of choice
And that moment of choice is where many gospel stories end

But this time the story carries on, because Jesus senses the disciples are confused
Unfortunately, what Jesus goes on to say by way of explanation seems to upset the interpretation we have just reached
Because in verse 7 he says, Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep

A minute ago, we were trying to decide whether Jesus was the gatekeeper or the shepherd
But now we discover both of these choices were wrong, because Jesus is actually the gate

Jesus has apparently decided to introduce the teaching of the narrow gate from Matthew 7 I mentioned above
Which is fair enough – except that it takes our understanding in a direction that does not fit easily with the line we were pursuing before

Is there a way out? There is – two ways out, actually
Either two separate teachings have been woven together
Or Jesus challenges his disciples’ understanding by giving himself two roles in the same parable

In verse 8, Jesus switches back to the image of the Good Shepherd: All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

But then in verse 9 he returns to the second image, of himself as the gate: I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

When I think of how these images come together my conclusion is, this is a teaching for leaders

Bad shepherds don’t need a gate, because they like to keep the sheep penned in the fold
The bad shepherds, who Jesus also calls thieves and bandits, have no concern for the sheep – they want to hold them captive, so they can exploit them
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy

If you think about a real sheep fold, there is nothing there for the sheep – no grass, no nourishment
The gate allows the sheep to come and go
The sheep go out, and the good shepherd leads them to pasture outside the fold

The two roles Jesus gives himself in the parable, in other words, are complementary
He gives his sheep freedom, guidance, protection, and nourishment: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly

The job of a church leader is to be a good shepherd – to watch over people, but not to hold them in captivity through fear
The fold is a secure pace to set out from and return to, but a good leader will not trap people inside the fold – within a congregation, within the building, or within the institution
The job of a good leader is to lead the sheep to the pasture that will nourish them in their faith – pasture which can only be found outside the fold

7 May 2017, St George’s, High Heaton