Thursday, 30 July 2009

Luke and the Day of the Lord

There is always a great deal of emotion in anticipation of “the big day,” whether that’s a wedding day, the first day of a long anticipated holiday (Mark’s just come back from Cyprus), the first day at a new job, my first sermon here, perhaps - or whatever. In such cases, we don’t just enjoy the day for itself; it also promises many more such days.

On the other hand, there are some days that strike fear and dread in our hearts, such as the day we lose our job, the day of the death of a loved one or the day our country goes to war. These days thrust us into sadness and struggle with little or no light at the end of the tunnel.

Today’s readings, which deal with the big day: The Day of The Lord, fall into that second category I think, and these readings leave many Christians ill at ease and puzzled. Partly, I suspect, because the interpretations we hear most loudly are the voices of fundamentalist evangelists shouting their version of the coming of the end of the world.

Malachi thought that the day of the Lord was coming, and it did not come; Jesus said that “this generation will not pass away” until all the predictions about the return of the Son of Man were fulfilled, and Paul expected still to be alive at the return of Jesus. None of these expectations would be fulfilled, and ever since then even the most fanatical predictors of the Last Times have regularly had to revise their timetables.

Now, for the Jews, the Day of the Lord was always a day of anticipation, originally perceived as a day of fulfilment. It was that moment in history when all of the promises of God would come to completion and the people of God would enjoy them forever: promises of peace and prosperity, of contentment and harmony. Many of the prophets looked forward to that time and Jesus claimed that this long-awaited day was dawning as he inaugurated the reign of God.

A lovely picture, but sadly not that simple.

You see the sinfulness of the people required that there be a period of purging before that fulfilment could come to pass. For this reason, some of the prophets warned that the Day of the Lord would first be a day of suffering. They even compared that suffering to the pangs that preceded childbirth: a symbol of new life coming out of suffering - and today’s readings focus on the painful aspects of “that day.”

Our Gospel passage begins with a prediction of destruction: the temple renowned in the ancient world for its beauty would be destroyed. Now for Luke’s hearers Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of the temple had already become a reality; in addition they had already experienced the death of the first Apostles, and even betrayal by loved ones.

So the only possible sense that could be made of that destruction and persecution was that in some way God's will was being accomplished, and most importantly, God's people would have the opportunity to witness to their faith because Luke’s Jesus promises that their perseverance will sustain and save them.

This sort of apocalyptic language is most often seen in the Bible in times of national crisis and often among persecuted people. Its purpose was never to foster speculation about when God would intervene, but to encourage dispirited people by proclaiming that God is in control of history and that punishment of the wicked will come about by God’s doing.

Of all the Evangelists, Luke grappled most with the tradition of an imminent Second Coming. But as this expectation began to wane, he developed instead a growing sense that discipleship would be played out over the long course of history and, of course, that includes us today. In Luke the Spirit will guide the church during the time of Jesus’ absence but it is Jesus remembered and Jesus present by his Spirit, rather than Jesus expected, which began shape their communities as it should ours today.

O.K: enough context.

What does it all mean for us today? Because unless it has some relevance its nothing but a bit of specialist history for University Challenge. It needs to have the power to touch us and make a difference to us. How can we apply this passage?
First of all, I think, we need to consider whether we are suffering in any sense in the language of these passages? And I would venture to suggest that we are not.
So how does one preach apocalyptic literature to people who are not suffering? If this type of passage was written during periods of great persecution and suffering to encourage the believers to remain faithful through the ordeal, can it speak to comfortable people like us today?

That assumes, of course, that we are still able to be totally comfortable after earthquake, tsunami, war, car bombs and our continuing struggle against terrorism? Could such evil be a sign of the end times?

Well, Luke links past sufferings and prospective sufferings together. Together they generate the cry: how long? When will deliverance come? People today who are pushed to the extremes of despair are perhaps best able to connect with our passage. We need to walk in their shoes. Burma - how long Lord? Zimbabwe – how long Lord? Darfur – how long Lord?

So, during this Advent perhaps more than many in recent history, Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of the Temple, war and natural disaster—all bringing persecution in their wake—seem hauntingly contemporary.

Coming so early in this new millennium - following the events of September 11th in New York, July 7th in London, the South East Asian Tsunami, the attempt to blow up Glasgow airport, runs on banks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - the bright skies of our consciousness have been darkened with threatening thunderclouds. A culture of fear pervades, heightened by round-the-clock media saturation and rampant Islamaphobia.

The point Luke is making is that we should not be panicked by such events: the time of our text has always been present. When haven't we heard of wars and insurrections somewhere in the world? When haven't nations and kingdoms fought against other nations and kingdoms? When haven't there been great earthquakes and famines and plagues on earth? The same danger exists today except that the reports come via the media and are sometimes packaged by the media for good viewing and interpreted by following someone’s editorial agenda. The panic whipped up is highly volatile and has the potential to ignite and explode into irrationalities, religious and otherwise. The casualty is usually truth as racist and other generalised claims are made and people drive themselves into doomsday fantasies and conspiracy theories.
Perhaps we need to recognise this more, and that it is most likely that we live between the times, not in anticipation of the end of time. T. S. Eliot may better express our thoughts: The way the world ends (for us is most likely to be) not with a bang but a whimper.

In the same way that Luke gave words of wisdom to his community, the church is summoned at this critical time to find words of hope for the future and a wisdom that will guide our lives. And that wisdom comes from God’s Spirit. It is a way of saying: let your responses to the hype and horror of accumulating disasters not be determined by the one-liners of media editors or by slick religious leaders, but by the same Spirit who is now the centre of our lives.

Trust in God has profoundly personal implications. It also has important political, social and religious ramifications. Luke still wept for Jerusalem and longed for its liberation. He was prepared to tackle the madness of fear and hate and the fanatical theologies it also generated. He keeps our feet on the ground about abuse and oppression. He stands in a tradition which tackles enmity in a way that is not distracted by hate or fear, but informed by the stillness and wisdom of the Spirit. The shift is then away from pointless discussions about the quantity of time left before the End Times to the quality of being in whatever time is left.

Today’s psalm response yearns for a God who will govern the world with justice and equity. Human suffering and even human sin can offer a privileged time for renewal, reflection and new directions that may give birth to the hope that in Malachi’s words “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays”.

Terrorism, war, natural disasters and financial instability should give us the opportunity to reappraise where we are as individual disciples and as a world-wide Christian community.

So, to conclude: as we face the wars, the hurricanes and the revolutions, and as we fear the end times, we can give into those fears, follow leaders who promise us safety when there is none, or we can trust this person who is called Jesus who, as God's gift, came to help us understand that God has never deserted us, will never leave us, even when death comes close. He confronted all of that. He has destroyed death and he has said that we should trust him and him alone.

It is Luke’s reminder to live lives of trust in God because our future is in God’s hands whatever that might mean in reality, but ultimately we do believe it means that we will be taken into the heart of the God of Jesus, the God who loves and, therefore, even in the worst adversity, we can set our faith in Him.


John 3.16 (With overtones of Mothering Sunday)

So today it is Mothering Sunday and I also have probably the most famous Gospel text known to Christians to preach on.

No pressure then.

I have a teaching colleague. I won’t tell you where he’s from except to say that he’s not from round here. I give him a lift home most evenings and it has become something of a nightmare because he keeps talking to me about Jesus and it’s really getting on my nerves. This has caused great hilarity amongst some of our other colleagues:

“Doesn’t he know you’re going to be ordained?”

“Yes, but that seems to make him worse.”

“This must be your lenten discipline.” (That was a Muslim friend)

“Look, I gave up chocolate, cake, alcohol, biscuits and second helpings. They were my choice. I didn’t choose this.”

“Maybe it’s Allah’s will for you at this time.” (She’s very sharp, that one.)

I’ve been trying to analyse why this is becoming such an issue for me and I have drawn the uncomfortable conclusion it is because our Christianities are so different. His is a very black and white, literalist approach with no scope for nuance, areas of grey or holy doubt, whereas I am very much at the radical end of liberal.

“I’ve given up Alcohol for lent.”

“You drink alcohol?”

What followed was a diatribe against the laxness of the west.

“It is to do with low standards: with fornication and homosexuality.”

“Now let me just stop you there …”

Can I stop on the M621 and ask him to get out between junctions? Would that seem too inhospitable? I try to bite my tongue, I really do, but sometimes I just can’t rise above it.

“… I’ve just read a very detailed biblical study of why the so-called traditional teaching on homosexuality is a gross misinterpretation of the various texts.”

Sounds of apoplectic gasping from the passenger seat.

“But it says in Leviticus and Romans …..”

“I know what it says, but that depends on whether you accept everything in the Bible as literally true, rather than seeking to understand the various types of holiness codes and laws to say nothing of the different genre, and whether you believe that we are the implied audience of the various passages rather than the people they were written to. We mustn’t assume that we are. Much of the Bible was written in a very specific religious and cultural climate which is not ours.” (Who’s on his soapbox now?) Note to self: triumphalism is not a nice characteristic in a trainee pastor ….. but it feels so good.

There is ominous silence for a while and I realise that I have been driving progressively faster.

There is a change of tack:

“What do you understand about the crucifixion?”

I explain the theology of the atonement.

“Not all will be saved.” He says. “People who do not confess Jesus will go to Hell. It says in John 3.16…”

And here we have it: one of the most misunderstood and misused texts in scripture. This single verse has provided motivation for some of the most destructive and unchristian impulses in those who call themselves Christian.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”

Now some of you know that I am a blogger. There seems to be a recurring theme in this activity: every two or three months I seem to end up in strident cyber debate with some other Christian, usually from either the Anglican diocese of Sydney or U.S. Southern Baptists or Missouri Synod Lutherans. The “discussion” is usually about the nature of salvation and the fate of those who do not accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

I am clearly a masochist: here I am in my own car having the same discussion.

Taken literally this passage from John suggests that those who do not believe in the son will perish.

It is difficult to overestimate the damage that has been done by a literal interpretation of this text. It is difficult to overestimate the hurt, harm and abuse that have been encouraged by this passage. It shapes the way Christians throughout history have treated people of other faiths and cultures and the outcome of that has been conflict and violence and the crushing of indigenous culture and languages in the name of Christ.

And yet I can (just) remember in those far off heady days of my late-teenage post-conversion years, when I was a lot more evangelical than I am now, that this text was one I learnt by heart and which informed my attitude to other people. It didn’t matter who they were: they were either saved or they weren’t. Simple as.

My movement away from that stance happened gradually as I matured in my faith and God took me in directions and into experiences where I began to question the old certainties. I will always remember one particular joke a wise vicar told me.

A new arrival at the pearly gates was met by St. Peter and shown round Heaven. At one point they came to a very high wall.

“What’s behind there?” she asked.

“Keep your voice down” said St. Peter. “That’s where the Lutherans are. They think they’re the only ones here and we don’t want to upset them.”

Actually, it wasn’t the Lutherans in the original –just trying to be topical -. I’ll leave you to guess: suffice to say that it works with any Christian group.

I have a number of Muslim and Sikh friends. We often talk about religion and I’ve learnt a lot about them and from them. When other Christians berate me about mission and witness and how we must bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus, I always think of them … and I always think that bringing them to Jesus sounds so simple but in reality is very far from it.

Of course it is never me who convicts and converts, it is the Holy Spirit. I know that and, yes, I sometimes wonder what the Holy Spirit makes of my witness by word and deed to anyone, not just Muslims and Sikhs.

But let me ask you two things:

• What does it take for someone – anyone to come to faith?
• What is it that we ask others to believe and accept as part of that act of faith?

You see I don’t think it matters whether you are Muslim or Sikh or Atheist or whatever: in order to come to faith you have to not only hear but to understand the Gospel, although if you come from a culture which is broadly Christian I suspect that it may be easier for you.

“How” I ask these other Christians “does a Muslim born and brought up in rural Saudi Arabia hear, let alone understand the Gospel? And yet you are telling me that God – my God, the God I believe in and follow – condemns to Hell a whole swathe of people for not following an injunction they could not possibly have known about. In terms of God’s justice, how does that work, then?”

“The Bible is clear.” I am told.


Taken literally John 3.16 becomes the foundation for the rejection of the “other” in society: the ones who are not like us. By that I don’t just mean race and religion, but gender, sexuality and even relates to cultural imperialism or the western sense of entitlement.

The irony here is that of the Gospel writers John was the one who was least likely to take a literalist approach to his writing and would most certainly have rejected that sort of literalist reading. The passage immediately before today’s Gospel reading is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. This is the same John who tells us that Jesus was amazed at Nicodemus when he understood Jesus’ comment about being born again in a literal way. If the life and teaching of Jesus gives us cause to be literal in our reading of Jesus’ words it is not John 3.16, but John 3.17 that we should look to: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Neither Jesus nor John was interested in establishing a belief system based on rejection by God. What they were very interested in was the question concerning how one came to have faith and the supplementary question about how one grows in one’s experience of God.

There seem to be a number of positions in the New Testament and the one I favour is “Believe and be baptised.” (Mark 16.16) but that raises other issues such as “Believe what?” or “Believe in what?”

So, I think my challenge to you this morning is to think of those Biblical passages which most closely represent to you what the life of faith is about. There are some around the room to help you on the various coloured cards. These were suggested by blogging friends when I did an on-line exercise in what the fundamentals of our faith are.

Now there may be more, but for me what we have here sums it up. In short: repent, believe, be saved by grace, show the change in your life but recognise that you are still vulnerable to temptation. Be open to the spirit, continue to repent and seek the strength of the Spirit to grow more into the likeness of the Saviour.

Hang on, though. Weren’t you concerned about the Muslim in rural Saudi Arabia who has no chance of hearing, let alone understanding the Gospel?

Yes. But we must leave that to God. My responsibility is not to put limits on the grace of God. My responsibility is not to go with John 3.16 without John 3.17. We may turn out, like the Christians behind the wall in Heaven in the joke, to be surprised by the extent of the grace of God, but it is most certainly not for us to second guess the mind of God on this. Remember, righteousness was ascribed to Abraham through his faith in God and he predated Jesus.

However, I’ll leave you with a tantalising insight into the theology of C.S. Lewis on this topic: a theology which has become known as the theology of the unknowing disciple.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with his writings, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a perceptive theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory.

In “The Last Battle”, which is a story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan the Lion, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash, who is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement. Emeth says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

It is my personal challenge during Lent to concentrate on my own walk with God. I look beyond that to my immediate family. I must also continue to take responsibility for my witness through word and deed but it is also my challenge to let God be God and to work his grace where he will. It is not for me to misuse his word in a theology of exclusion.

The Feast of All Saints

Today is the feast of All Saints when we remember those who have gone before us.
Most of us are reasonably familiar with the calendar of the Church year. Fewer of us (and I include myself here) may be familiar with the saints’ calendar. While most of the saints have a feast day of their own, it is rare that they get a mention in Church for the simple reason that the regular Sunday service nearly always takes precedence and that’s a pity, because there is so much we can learn from the lives of the saints. Some were great scholars; others illiterate. Some were ancient; others modern. But what is particularly striking about this calendar is that it is quite unpredictable: ninth-century saint follows twentieth century saint; European and Near Eastern; young and old come and go in random order.

Just this month, for instance, ancient Willibrord, (don’t ask, I have no idea) whose feast is kept on the seventh of November hobnobs with Reformation-era Richard Hooker who is remembered on November the third, and medieval Margaret of Scotland who is remembered on November the sixteenth.

In I John Ch 3 - my nominal text for this morning - St. John refers to his readers as “Children of God” and my mind has been very much focussed on children over the last day or two: I was browsing through some blogs (in an act of task avoidance) and I came across this comment on the blog of a friend of mine, a Priest in Newcastle. It was a short post headed GO AWAY (in capitals):
“It's Wednesday October 29th. 8.30 p.m. I've already had 3 trick or treaters ringing my door bell. The dogs are up the wall. Bloody Americans!!!”

Short and to the point I thought, and typically acerbic.

But I wonder how many of us share that feeling at this time of year. I have to confess I do, but then I am “Bah Humbug” personified.

Some of the responses subsequently posted on his blog were very interesting though:

• You'll be going in costume, then?

• Hey, stop whining, look up Wikipedia, it was YOUR idea in the first place!! Bloody Brits!

Got any candy, mate?

• People who get to wear silly clothes all the year round as part of their job have no sense of fun!

• Thanks for reminding me to turn off the lights early or to spend the night out on the town.

• Those were American children who rang your doorbell?
Yes, it is quite a treat for them. All the way from the US of A to be told 'get knotted' by an English cleric. What a holiday treat!

• If the US wants to run the show, dominate the world media and film industry, impose their form of politics on everybody at gunpoint, bring everybody else's economy down with their own, decide trading rules and bore the rest of the world silly with its endless elections, then it is going to have to accept that it is going to be blamed for everything - including Halloween!

Someone got out of bed on the wrong side there I thought.
Halloween is October 31, and All Saints' is November 1, though many congregations celebrate All Saints' on the following Sunday as we are today.

So, Halloween: it does seem to need defending against those who regard it as terrible. Certainly there can be excesses, but it is surely only a bit of fun (unless you are the sort of Christian who will not allow your children to read Harry Potter on the basis that it opens them up to witchcraft and worse – demonic possession). So you probably knew the name Halloween means All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve. What you may not have known is what one American commentator was at pains to tell our friendly cleric from Newcastle, that many popular Halloween customs date back to the pre-Christian Druids of Britain.

However, these customs come to us through the filter of many Christian centuries and we mustn’t forget that Christ has conquered the powers of darkness, and the old gods and customs have been abandoned with their belief systems. Your daughter dresses up as a witch and goes scrounging sweets from indulgent neighbours? She is not the handmaiden of Beelzebub. The last time my daughter Claire went on the sweetie trail she dressed as a mouse: I’m not entirely sure where that features in the iconography of evil but let’s be clear: the once fearful aspects of this season have become playful and where once adults shuddered in fear, now even the smallest child can have fun. They walk through their neighbourhoods in the evening dressed in outlandish costumes, they collect sweets or money, and they return home again. The whole business is treated as a delightful joke. Behind the scary masks and costumes are laughing children. Inside neighbours houses, some even decorated to look spooky, are friendly, generous people and the occasional miserable git who won’t enter into the spirit of the occasion (like my friend in Newcastle).

It's our Christian confidence that makes Halloween a light-hearted time. In the same way that many who are not Christians share the joy of Christmas each year because the light of Jesus is abundant, so many who are not Christian share our confidence that the old associations of Halloween have been rendered meaningless. They might not be able to articulate the theology but they know that Halloween is pre-Christian: it has been baptized, if you like. It has become All Saints' Eve in more than name alone: both occasions address the same themes, though they do so in different ways. Both occasions are concerned with the idea of life beyond the grave. All Saints' approaches these themes with triumphant joy and expectation. Halloween deals with them through mischievous humour.

The child who goes forth with a trick-or-treat bag takes a sane, healthy, and adventuresome risk, and at some level finds that the universe can be a safe place. The trick-or-treater discovers that the world is a comedy where terrible things have been defeated and remain only as a laughingstock. It's a great therapy for fear. There's nothing evil about it.

Children are not embarrassed to struggle with the great division between good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell. They are new to this fight, and want to prove themselves heroic. So the Halloween wisdom of children comes down to this: there are monsters under the bed, but we can face our fears, and by grace and struggle be set free from them. The Halloween children have caught a glimpse of the Gospel. Their hearts are filled with faith and fun. It is our role as parents and friends to build on those foundations and help them see the applications to the gospel.

This feast of All Saints' is the sunny side of Halloween. Today is joy while Halloween was comedy. The saints we honour today, a vast, innumerable crowd including our own loved ones, are but graduates of the school of grace and struggle in which our trick-or-treaters have just enrolled. It is our role to ensure that our little trick or treaters go on to complete the course and graduate as saints in their turn.

Some of these saints are a hard act to follow. Too often saints are depicted as people who are so extraordinary that we could never identify with them. Their commitment to God and virtue is unwavering, their trust in divine providence unshakable, and their unselfish service of others puts everything that we do to shame. But let’s also remember the ones we never hear about because their lives were unremarkable: they did not live in dramatic times or do amazing works. Are they any less saints because they got on quietly with a life of unfussy commitment to God and service to their peers without drawing attention to themselves? There are far more of those in Heaven than the big names we might think of who may have had a good post-mortem publicity machine or friends in high places.

I don’t know at this point why I am referring to “they” and “them” as if they were other than us or apart from us, because we, of course, are saints too, from the same mould.

Do you think of yourself in those terms? If not, perhaps you should start now.
What makes us the saints we are? The renowned Episcopal preacher Barbara Taylor offers a list of upsetting characteristics, including “immoderate faith, intemperate hope and inordinate love.” That’s us she’s talking about: “immoderate faith, intemperate hope and inordinate love.” We put on these characteristics like the outlandish costumes of Halloween.

So, in spite of their variety and age and culture, the saints learned to become vulnerable, to be fully human, and to take chances on others, even when it may seem to go against common sense or one’s own self interest. And like it or not, each of us will also be given plenty of opportunity to experience this vulnerability in our own lives – at work, at home, among friends, and sometimes at church as well as we express our own prophetic ministries.

We will not always be good. We will not always get it right the first time. We will fail. We will have plenty of reason to witness to and accept our own vulnerability. But then we are in good company. After all, what words other than “vulnerable” and “committed” can we use to describe a God willing to become one of us with all the messiness of our self doubts, and strings of failures, and hurts, and even death?
Trick-or-treaters venturing forth on Halloween night provide us with a map for the journey, one drawn in the bright colours of childhood trust, courage, and humour.

Lent, Paul and Adam

Only recently in the classroom I was talking about Lent. One girl responded with a totally blank look.

“Well” I said, “Some people choose to give up things like crisps or biscuits, cake or chocolate.”

“Oh” she said, with the dawning of understanding on her face, “It’s a weight-loss programme is it?”

One could be forgiven for thinking that we have trivialised Lent: you know, making small sacrifices which mean nothing. You want to know about fasting, ask your Muslim friends. They understand fasting and who knows, perhaps Lent was once far more like Ramadan. If giving something up is the major symbol of those things which distract people from God, we might well ask what those distractions are today: food? Possibly; time? technology? consumerism? How can we adopt an approach to those things which cloud our relationship with God? Perhaps less giving up and more taking on would help: a greater commitment to recycling, eating locally produced foods, leaving a smaller carbon footprint upon the planet... So many challenges, choosing one could be life-giving in so many unexpected ways.

Anyway, rant over …. and on to today’s theme: As you know, the gospels are essentially four biographies, composed of teachings, miracles, parables, and narratives about Jesus of Nazareth woven together so effectively to make a story.
After John, comes Acts. Luke’s Acts is essentially a history book of the life of the early church. Again, the history of the early church is an accumulation of stories, especially stories about the Apostle Paul.

Now, the book of Romans, which comes next, is not a history book like the Gospels and Acts. In fact, in the book of Romans, there are no historical facts or anecdotes about Jesus or St. Paul. In the book of Romans there are no parables and no miracles. Unlike the gospels and the book of Acts, even unlike Paul’s other letters, the book of Romans is almost all Christian theology and doctrine.

The Apostle Paul is credited with helping Christianity to become a world religion. Even though he was a Jew by birth and a Pharisee by training he was also a Roman citizen. He could not conceive of Christ as a gift for a small sect from a tribal God. To Paul the incarnation was God's gift to humanity, not to Judaism only.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read this chapter from Romans, but there’s a lot about it I don’t know. But one thing I do know - it’s about sin.

This passage from Romans reminds me of an old T.V. sketch when everyone went to church to hear the new curate. A husband and wife are sat together and she has to keep nudging him to keep him from snoring through the sermon. On the way out of the church the husband was enthusiastic about the sermon. “Curate that was the best sermon I’ve heard for a long time!” His wife just rolls her eyes, pulls him aside and says to him, “You didn’t hear a word of that sermon.” He, of course, protests, and she, frustrated, asks, “What was it about then?” He shifts his weight from foot to foot for a while and replies, “It was about sin.” Not at all satisfied she perseveres: “Well what did he say about sin?”

“He was against it.”

So in this text St. Paul argues that just as sin had come into the world through one man, Adam, now through another man, Christ, God was giving us the gift of freedom from sin and from the negative impact of the Law of Moses. Humanity now is invited into a new relationship with God through Christ, one based on God's action for us rather than our achievements through obedience to a set of rules.

The point of the Adam/Christ comparison is to emphasize that the human project begun in Genesis, the key part of the creator’s project for the whole creation, has been put back on track. It is enough to know here that sin involves disobedience, failure of loyalty, a fracturing of the creator’s intention, which, because it is a turning away from the source of life, can only bring death.

Now Jesus did not start where Adam started; he began where Adam ended up. The ‘obedience’ of Jesus is now the firm platform on which we as Christ’s latter day disciples now stand: Justified by our faith in God’s saving plan as accomplished through Jesus death on our behalves.

And this is where today’s Gospel story from Matthew comes in. This isn’t a story where we’re supposed to focus on what the devil might have looked like or what it might have been like for Jesus to find himself on the pinnacle of the temple. That’s not the point of this passage. This is about relationship. It’s about connection. Matthew’s point in describing the temptations was to connect Jesus to the ongoing story of salvation begun in the Old Testament. In the temptations Jesus continues to model how we humans should behave. We learn from examining this time in Jesus’ life because we can connect it to those times in our own lives where we struggle with our relationships with God and with each other. We can be supported in that struggle by this account. It helps us put things in perspective. It helps us remember that, when we might be tempted to put something in our lives before faithfulness to God, Jesus has been there before us and that his faithfulness to God is our model for coping with temptation today.

So this morning, we continue with the theological truths about Jesus. Not the histories of Jesus as in the gospels, nor the history of the early church as in Acts. We focus on one primary theological notion today. Paul says, from one man, Adam, sin spread throughout the whole world. Watch: I take one drop of food colouring and put it into a glass of water and that one drop of food colouring spreads out through it all. You can literally see it spread. So also, from Adam, the first man, sin began and has spread throughout the whole human race. Paul then says, even stronger than Adam is the one man Jesus Christ and his grace has spread throughout the whole world. And importantly, the power of grace is much stronger than the power of sin. The power of Christ is stronger than the power of Adam.

For Paul, Adam represented all unredeemed humanity. Whether or not Paul actually believed that Adam was the first human being or symbolically a template for everyman isn’t important, what is, is the concept of human solidarity and the corporate personality which lies behind his attempt to explain both sin and salvation.
This passage is difficult to read so let’s listen to William Barclay, the twentieth century Scottish theologian: "There is no passage in the New Testament which has had such an influence on theology as this passage; and there is no passage which is more difficult for a modern mind to understand. By the sin of Adam all men became sinners and were alienated from God; by the righteousness of Jesus Christ all men are now considered as righteous and are restored to a right relationship with God.... Whatever else we may say about Paul's argument this we can say - it is completely true that man was ruined by sin and rescued by Christ."

And this same book Of Romans, let us remember, with St. Paul’s thoughts on sin and grace would later be the inspiration for Martin Luther as he reinterpreted Catholic thinking on the matter and changed the religious face of Europe.
I have a difficulty with this theme: I need to visualize death or evil. I need to be able to use analogy to illustrate when death or evil starts at one point and then spreads otherwise it’s just words.

Let’s consider chicken pox. A child comes to school and he has the chicken pox. No other child in the class has chicken pox. The infected child touches everybody, breathes on everybody, sits by everybody, and next week, nearly everybody in the class has chicken pox. You could trace the chicken pox in the classroom back to the one child who infected all his friends. Chicken pox begins with one and spreads to almost everybody. That is juts the way chicken pox is. This also works for nits.

It is with images like this that we begin to understand the thoughts of St. Paul. He thought about sin which started with one man, Adam and spread so that it infected the whole human race. He understood that the nature of sin is copy cat, is imitative, is suggestive and it spreads throughout the whole human race, not because of genes and chromosomes but because of the nature of inter-relatedness of human beings and the nature of sin itself.

But, that is not the point. The point is how much greater is the power of God, how much greater is the power of God’s righteousness, how much greater is the power of God’s grace.

So now I am wondering how we can visualize taking one drop of goodness and seeing it spread like with the food dye and the glass of water? How do you take the Presence of Christ, and drop it into the whole world so that it spreads? How does God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness, God’s goodness spread throughout the whole world? God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness, God’s goodness is not spread genetically or chromosomally, but it is spread through our inter-relatedness, our inter-connectedness, our lives inter-woven together. How do we visualize this?
All you gardeners understand plants that spread e.g. the ivy on our hillsides or banks of flowers. My wife planted the raised bed in our garden a couple of years ago, and in the good weather it is lush and full as the plants have spread. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of life, is like that. In the kingdom of life, goodness and beauty spreads.

So what does this mean for our daily lives? It means that we have the power through the Holy Spirit to spread the message of Christ like the food colouring in the glass. We spread the love of God, the forgiving power of God and the grace of God through the lives that we lead and in relationship with other people. We are the living witness to the saving power of Christ. Call it evangelism, call it witness, either way it is our responsibility to do it in word, in deed, through the lives we lead and in relationship to those the Holy Spirit puts in our paths. Unfashionable as this may sound to modern ears, we are also looking here at the wrath of God. If we truly believe in the saving power of Christ, what are we doing about those who have not accepted that message? Evangelism seems deeply unfashionable today in the touchy-feely post modern Christian world we inhabit where God is all love and compassion. Make no mistake, God is also Judge. Sin is sin and it has consequences.
The message of the gospel is reflected here in Romans: the power of grace is so much stronger than the power of sin. And if the power of grace is so much more powerful than the power of sin, are we sharing that with those around us or do we just assume that it happens? Amen

Epiphany and the Magi

It may, or may not come as a surprise to you that today is the Feast of the Epiphany, but you may be a bit vague about what that represents. Well there are a couple of visual clues around the room and I’ll come back to those later.

In many British churches the feast of the Epiphany itself is hardly celebrated at all. In fact, Epiphany is perhaps the only great festival day of the church year that is observed more in neglect than in celebration. It is an important holiday in many other countries but Epiphany has simply never caught on in mainstream British culture, having been eclipsed by Christmas itself. Today is the day many continental Christians open their gifts. Why? In memory of the gifts offered by the Magi. Personally, I think today is the right time to open our presents for that reason. I have failed to convince my family of that. My mother, for instance, will tear into her presents one second into Christmas day if we haven’t already sedated her with sufficient gin and sent her to bed.

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light which is symbolised by the star of Bethlehem which most of here have put well behind us with the Christmas decorations we have already taken down. Our minds are now firmly on the New Year ahead and we have moved on from stars and cribs and shepherds and indeed wise men because we in Britain tend to lump them all in together as part of Christmas.

In fact the Greek Orthodox Church has called this season “the season of lights.” It is no coincidence that our Old Testament lesson begins: Arise shine for your light has come. In the Eastern Church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. We are entering into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. No matter that wise men and women of today try to explain it away or talk of the importance of religious myth. It doesn’t matter that literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm; the wonder of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling again the thrill that ran through us when the story first entered our consciousness? You can imagine Matthew telling his first listeners: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…" and then going on to tell them about the Eastern kings, dressed in many-coloured robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem and the odd and seemingly inappropriate gifts - these remain in our consciousness.

So lets bring our Magi to that stable now. If you happen to be sitting next to an exotic King, please escort him to the front. And while that’s happening I’ll tell you the feminist commentary on the Epiphany story:

Do you know what would have happened if there had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise MEN? The three wise women would have:
• asked for directions,
• therefore arrived on time,
• helped deliver the baby,
• cleaned the stable,
• made a casserole,
• and given practical gifts (or perhaps bought a goat for Africa).

Anyway, this unlikely trio comes seemingly out of nowhere, looking for the one who is born King of the Jews, appearing only once, in the story of Jesus’ birth. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God the grown Jesus would proclaim - peace on earth, mercy to the poor and good will to all people. (All people, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians.)

Then the Magi disappear from Scripture as suddenly as they first appeared. But the point of their journey remains forever important. They are the first to understand what others could not see: that Jesus “has been born king of the Jews.” For the ancient Church, this “epiphany” or acknowledgement of the Christ was worth celebrating. It still is, but sadly we don’t really celebrate it here. It is, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, the eternal purpose which God, has realised in Christ Jesus, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. But Paul takes it a stage further by reminding us that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but of the Gentiles also – you and I. The Magi are Gentiles - they are described as coming from the East and there is a hint of that in today’s psalm - but the symbolism and significance of this is often overlooked. Just picture in your mind for a moment your own image of the Magi; look at our Magi now. Some combination of Black, White, Asian or Oriental in the way they are represented? Certainly not Jewish, which is the point, and which ties in to our Epistle for today: the Magi reveal what St. Paul is stressing – the universality of Jesus, a baby born to die for Jew and Gentile alike.

Even as the Magi move on leaving Jesus to his mission on earth, we know that there is work to be done. There is a Gospel to be proclaimed. Epiphany experienced becomes Gospel lived. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians of this when he tells them that they, and we, are to make all men see what is the plan of God’s mystery. We are called to seek and serve Christ in those we meet, loving our neighbours as ourselves in order to make the Lord clear and real and known in our world today.

Christ dwells with us today, is still there to be seen and discovered by those who, like the Magi, are willing to journey far from the commonplace in their quest for understanding and knowledge. What does that mean in practice? Every time I preach I say much the same thing at some point during the sermon: to stop this being just a lovely story we have to make it real for us today, 2008 and look for the applications. Like the Wise Ones from the East, we must be willing to leave the comfort of the familiar, of our preconceptions and prejudices. We must be willing to look for the Christ in places others refuse to enter, whether it be the asylum-seekers shelter, the soup-kitchen for the homeless, the drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit, the psychiatric ward …….or the stable.

The Magi brought gifts - gold for Kingship, frankincense for Jesus’ priestly divinity, and myrrh for suffering humanity: gifts in a juxtaposition of the Gift of God to humanity in the Christ-child. As with any gift this is not a gift that we have to accept. I can receive it, but I don’t have to accept it. I am sure many of you here can picture the less than enthusiastic face of someone who didn’t welcome your gift to them this year and we know that there are people out there who are unenthusiastic about this gift from God. The Incarnation remains for many an unopened present or maybe a present put away for a future occasion which never comes. “Yes, I can see it needs further thought, but I’m too busy now.”

What are we to make of this Epiphany for ourselves today? For one thing, it is a sobering reminders that Jesus is more than simply our brother, more than a friend we can turn to when we are seeking a listening ear, more even than a prophet, helpful as those ways of relating are. Christ is God made present in our day and age. His divinity spills over into our earthly realm. As we subsequently read on of Jesus’ journeys throughout Galilee and beyond, as we listen attentively to his stories and parables, we are from time to time reminded emphatically of where all this is coming from and where it leads.

So what is our response to that precious gift? What do we bring in return? What is our gold, frankincense or myrrh? Well, perhaps we must bring the gift of ourselves as we encounter Christ alive and present in the elderly, children, the disabled, the homeless, the alcoholic, the drug abuser and all the vulnerable, defenceless or damaged people of our world – and the smart arse who has received the gift in his head but has not received it in his heart: him too. When I preached here on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, I told you who my problem people are and I challenged you then to think who your problem people are and several of you told me during coffee. It’s the same message again here, isn’t it? As St. Paul tells the Ephesians I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of God’s power. The message of Paul is clear: we are servants of this gospel – we serve those we encounter whoever they are, not just the nice ones.
Christ is also manifest today in the bread and wine of Communion, which we struggle in faith to recognize as his body and blood. Christ is there when we turn to him in confident prayer and in those times when we find ourselves without words and on the point of despair. He is with us in the quiet of our hearts and in the throb and cacophony of our cities. But Christ is not ours to hold or keep.

Paradoxically, he allows us from time to time to experience his absence precisely so that we, his disciples, may learn the importance of bringing his presence to others. That is the Epiphany challenge and the challenge St. Paul gave to the Ephesians as he reminded them of their mission to the Gentiles. We now become in our lives the epiphany of Christ’s presence in our world.

We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale. A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest. He had adventure after adventure along the way: the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; he had to become a refugee; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marvelled at his words; he undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations. Finally, a close friend betrayed him; he was given a mock trial, and executed. But then the greatest marvel of all happened. He outwitted even death itself. He returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and his entire household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.

We don’t see it as a tall tale, but The Bible's story is our story too. Each of us is the Father's beloved daughter or son; he loves us and he has sent us out to have marvellous adventures and accomplish great tasks: to love our enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, hungry, and homeless. And at the end of our quests we will have such stories to tell. A bit like Matthew and Paul: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…"

Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ. The divine has become clear and real in our midst. I’ll leave the last word to Isaiah: Arise, shine for your light has come.

Spiritual Mother's Milk

This morning we concentrate on our Epistle from 1 Peter. I am always engaged by its opening phrase: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”

What wonderful imagery: to think of ourselves being nurtured into faith through our common experience of being in the Body of Christ, our Christian teaching, interpreted by our Lutheran heritage, feeding us and causing us to grow. I don’t want to shatter that image, but having been a member of a couple of congregations in the past where people never moved from the mother’s milk of Christian growth onto solids or beyond, I wanted to sound a warning early on.

This passage was written for those new to the faith and most of us here are long since weaned, but to what extent have we moved beyond the mother’s milk of faith? To what extent is our faith showing marks of maturity? How do we measure that? I think back to those other congregations, perpetually stuck with the mother’s milk of early spirituality and with a menu of half a dozen parables, some key incidents from the life of Jesus and a few selected psalms endlessly recycled.

Growing churches are churches where the spiritual maturity of its members is discernable. I’m not saying those other churches weren’t growing in the numbers sense of growth: whenever I return there are many new faces, but the size of the congregations remain fairly static and there is a strange sense of atrophy if you stay for any length of time. Such churches are good at nurturing faith, but no so good at weaning people on to solids.

I am really conscious of this at the moment as St. Luke’s considers developing our own web-site. Obviously this web-site needs to be true to our identity and needs to exhibit our integrity because it could well be a tool for church growth. What are we to say about ourselves? How are we to express that we are a mature congregation that engages with the world beyond the mother’s milk of spirituality? How do we show the world that we are a congregation that is not frightened to think deeply about the big religious and ethical issues of the day?

I have heard of churches that see the way forward as being about setting clear guidelines for membership including a standard everyone is expected to adhere to.

How about:

1) You attend worship every week unless you are away.
2) If you are away, you attend church locally.
3) You participate in at least one activity a year aimed at helping grow in your faith APART from weekly worship.
4) You give your time to Christian service in some way through or outside the church.
5) You give financially in proportion to your income.

I think we have a problem with most of those here, although I am not suggesting we necessarily adopt that model. There are other factors.

The Epistle talks of Jesus as “The stone that the builders rejected” having been made “the cornerstone.” In other words Jesus is the key stone in the whole edifice. And in that context we are described as a “Royal Priesthood”, a “Chosen Race” and a “Holy Nation”. It’s my contention that how we engage with these discomforting words may reveal the marks of spiritual maturity in our congregation. What are we to make of such passages? And, just so that you know, you aren’t going to get any answers from me on that one because that’s a response which encourages spiritual dependence. What you are going to get instead are more questions and challenges.

My own personal tag-line or Biblical quote, comes from Philippians Chapter 2: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” As we increasingly do that, as we ponder prayerfully over God’s word, as we wrestle with the meanings of the sayings and actions of Jesus and seek to apply them to our own lives we move on into maturity. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

This season of Easter is the time when the church rejoices in its powerful experience of the resurrection of Jesus Christ which transformed the lives of countless people and changed the course of world history. It is also a time when we remember the early church and how through persuasion and testimony the Disciples went out into the world and as a result of their witness called many people to a new life in Christ.

How can our own experience of transformation be as powerful in its witness to others? Well, firstly it has to be as powerful for us. We are called to see ourselves as in Peter’s letter as “living stones”, the material for building and developing to maturity new communities out of diverse people: the material for transforming this community. In today’s Gospel Jesus told his followers that he was “the way the truth and the life” God’s truth results in a life worth living. Jesus is the way into that truth. He is the way into that truth for the people of the first century just as he is the way into that truth for people today, which is why we don’t count the number of times in a year you have occupied a seat in this room as evidence of spiritual maturity.

So we also have to be clearer about what it means to be spiritually mature, moving beyond our own needs and engaging the gospel on a regular basis outside of this Sunday experience as we live it out in the worlds we inhabit Monday to Saturday: the widows and the orphans need caring for, the sick need visiting, the prisoners need to be released, the forgotten remembered, the outcast welcomed in, the workers compensated adequately, the strangers recognised and the foreigner given a home. And so on. This is what makes a mature congregation. Look at how the Epistle describes the characteristics of the mature congregation: “A Spiritual House, a Holy Priesthood, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”

They don’t sound much like a congregation still to be weaned from the mother’s milk of spirituality.
Yet, there’s an important question here: do they sound like us?
I told you earlier I wouldn’t necessarily provide answers, but after a bit of reflection you might want to have a look at the other side of the red cards on the walls, maybe before you move over to coffee.
Knowing who we are – a congregation of mature spirituality - and living out who we are can bring transformation to the world around us. May God give us the grace to claim our identity and courageously respond to our calling to tell the world about the amazing God we serve.

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

As Lutherans we know a lot about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and “not through good works lest any man should boast.” What we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to that grace: a question echoing through time – and even haunting the Scripture itself.

It is very tempting to say that there are no limits, for the word “grace” itself would seem to contradict that. If “grace” is the defining description of how God deals with humanity, then grace would seem to overcome all boundaries. However, if we are not careful we find ourselves down a road which leads to a pluralism which suggests that God saves all, regardless of who they are and regardless of what they have done. That being the case our faith is indeed in vain.

In the Old Testament, with Abraham, the limits of God’s grace begin to become clear. His descendants were identified by the tribal ties of blood and by specific ways of living and worship the boundaries of which Moses drew quite clearly under God’s guidance.

Thus the grace of God became identified with a particular people and a defining way of life and worship. Even so there was always an awareness that God’s grace could reach far beyond such narrow confines. The Psalm of the Day is clear that God can be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” (Psalm 67:4) The Psalmist says, “May God be merciful to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.” And the prophet speaking in the First Lesson for today insists there will be “foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him. . . . These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer…………. for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This becomes particularly relevant in our Gospel reading this morning as a Gentile woman approaches Jesus for help.

Grace is discussed in Isaiah in the Psalms and now in Paul’s letter to the Romans: Paul is frustrated because the Jews have failed to recognize the Messiah. In today’s reading he changes course. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” says Paul. Israel’s rejection of the Gospel, as Paul declares it, has led to the reconciliation of the Gentiles and beyond them to the whole world, as they knew it. Paul sees the acceptance of Jesus through baptism as the reality of finding new life after death. But, of course, Paul was writing with the benefit of hindsight and we are ahead of ourselves.

Though Matthew stresses that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” in today’s Gospel a non-Jewish supplicant draws him to a more universalistic vision. This supplicant, as the pronoun makes clear, is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though, she nags him, she makes a public scene around him. This story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing challenges the church today.

The woman is a Canaanite, a foreigner to the kingdom of God, an intrusion into the tidy boundaries with which the disciples were comfortable and within which Jesus focuses his basic arena of activity. This woman comes alone to Jesus, crying, “Have pity (“mercy”) on me Lord, Son of David.” a term which would hardly have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning suggesting a degree of knowledge and understanding of Jesus that he and the Disciples should have taken more notice of from the outset.

Since illness was thought to arise from demonic attack, she begs release and healing for her daughter. Jesus meets her request with stony silence and this peculiar initial unresponsiveness to her appeal is very strange. This is the same man who responded so willingly to another Gentile, a centurion who pleaded for the welfare of a sick servant, only a few chapters earlier. There was no reluctance or hesitancy then. Why should there be so now? Is it because she is a woman? Is it because she is a Canaanite and the centurion was a Roman? There is no answer to the question “why?” There is only this strange, surprising silence from Jesus. Not so from the disciples who demand, “Get rid of her, for she keeps yelling at us.” Maybe she’d been nagging them before she got to Jesus, and they have had enough. The woman certainly seems to have got under the skin of the disciples. Still Jesus seemingly remains unmoved and again he rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly. He claims to have a clear goal, a fixation – an all-consuming passion, in fact – on where he is to direct his attention and his energies. The woman is not in that vision, for she is a Canaanite.

But the woman seizes on this immediately! Now he is in conversation with her and she will not let the opportunity pass by. His silence had been terrifying, but now his words open a new door! Again it is an oddity that she should be so bold, so brave, so challenging that she presses her case with force. She has been reduced to desperation, to be sure, but she will not give up now. She hangs on for all she is worth.

The narrative changes now: this woman, disadvantaged, an outsider because she is a Gentile and a woman who is alone in public, challenges this rebuff by “worshiping” Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection) She started with the plea, “Have mercy on me,” but now she kneels before him in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me,” she says. “You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down, for you are the only One to whom I can look.”

Then the most extraordinary thing of all occurs. This merciful One, this man filled with grace, this Prince of Peace, speaks in terms that sound harshly rude, and no matter how one wants to put a positive gloss on it, Jesus is speaking as an Israelite spoke of Gentiles. “It is not right to take the food of children (Jews) and give it to dogs” (Gentiles). They were “dogs,” and there is no way to change that offensive sense. Yet the woman grabs hold of this very rejection and turns it into a response against which Jesus can no longer argue! “Yes, Lord,” she says. “I know! I am not of the house and lineage of those from whom you come. Nor am I worthy to approach you as I have. Even so I still make bold to say that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. You are correct that it would not be right or proper to take the bread of the children and give it to dogs like me. Yet I, as a dog, ask only that you let me have the crumbs that fall from your table.”

You can almost imagine the frisson of shock rippling through the crowd. But after a pause that must have seemed like a lifetime to the crowd, in a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Her daughter is healed at that moment. He who has fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who will feed another four thousand only a short time hereafter grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Do not the feeding of the five and four thousand serve as a great parenthesis around this story? He who feeds Israel, to whom he is sent, has given an “appetizer,” as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the master’s table.”

She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her rights or merit: only a plea for mercy, an undeserved help. She has nothing to bring with which to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing. She simply brings the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter. In this way she broke through the barriers that could have hindered her. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, being carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come.

Two interpretations have accompanied this narrative through history. Building on the first reading, which foresees that the Gentiles will come to Israel’s God to form a house of prayer for all nations, the Canaanite woman is a symbol of those nations that will hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is a second major theme. But neither of these captures the shock and surprise of the exchange between the woman and Jesus. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of his mission. In Matthew’s Gospel we have so far seen a Jesus who has limited his mission to the sons and daughters of Israel, yet here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile.

The woman brings to him the full implications of his mission.

Out of this long tradition of boundaries to God’s grace established within Judaism came this man Jesus. He knew that his task was to take up this long history of Israel, making it his own, filtering it through his life and body, filling it full of new meaning that could, at least initially, only be understood from within that story of God’s people, from within Israel. He would eventually broaden those “boundaries” in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him – and unthinkable in general to those out of whose midst he was arising. It took an immense struggle to expand the horizon of thinking about these boundaries on the part of his disciples and those who followed them.

Nor has this struggle been overcome to this day. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. At other times they have been much more subtle. But we keep wanting to establish limits on God’s grace and God keeps pushing on them. We like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn.

Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.

The great faith of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time. The Canaanite women would not accept the idea that Jesus was only sent for certain people. Her faith melted that barrier. It calls all of us to receive what Jesus has to offer and to push the limits and boundaries ourselves as we present that same Jesus and what he offers to others. We need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”

We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter their understanding of Christianity. I am a great fan of the English writer C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory: in “The Last Battle”, which is an eschatological story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash, who is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement. In this allegory of the Christian story Lewis is suggesting that God’s grace is, indeed, extended beyond the limits we might expect. But that is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to set limits on God’s grace.

Emeth says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
I think many of us would do well to ponder on that idea.

Peter Walks on Water.

I am very happy in a car. I love trains. Despite the contribution it makes to my carbon footprint I enjoy flying. I am not at all comfortable on a boat – however big. When I last came to Tallinn in the Easter of 2005, I went to Helsinki by ferry. It was a memorable journey. I wanted to kiss the ground when I disembarked.

As we arrived at the ferry terminal I was immediately reassured by all those wonderful shiny, big, classy ferries. Only we didn’t get one of those. No, we got one of their smaller older, tattier predecessors. In due course the ferry left the safety of the harbour and began its slow ride across the Baltic. The ship struggled with the ice for most of the journey so violently that even usually seasoned seafarers were struggling with sea-sickness and hastened to find places to sit and nurse their misery. Several times the front of the vessel seemed to hit a particularly impacted stretch of ice and it felt as if the ferry had come to a juddering and jarring halt. My travel companions and I couldn’t escape to the outer decks because of the intense cold. I know you folk are used to it, but that Easter I was convinced I had never before been anywhere as cold in my entire life. We finally found a place in the bar – no we didn’t drink, we didn’t think that would be too clever, but we did note upon arrival back in Tallinn that there were many who had decided on that refuge to the extent that they were so drunk the crew couldn’t tell whether they were Estonians or Finns. So we sat there in the most surreal setting imaginable, pale green with sea-sickness while half a dozen couples spent the evening dancing exhibition Latin-American to a live five piece band. So strong is that image at a time when I firmly believed I was going to die that I fully expect my journey into resurrection to be accompanied by a woman wearing red sequins and dancing a rumba!

In Estonia the fate of the ferry “Estonia” is still fresh in people’s minds as in Britain is the fate of the ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”. Fear is the word that comes to mind: fear of circumstances being beyond our control, fear of the ice, of the cold and fear that death could be just a moment away. Such is the fear I felt in that moment. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.

I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when the waves are rolling and the wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, not reassuring the disciples by his arrival but adding to their fear. Their first reaction is that he must be a “Ghost”. In order to calm their fears, Jesus immediately tells them to “take heart,” and he identifies himself. Jesus’ unrecognized presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples, but the real test for that early morning, was whether they could trust his three-fold word to them, “Take heart; have no fear; it is I”?

“Take heart,” of course, recalls Moses’ words to the Israelites on the edge of the Reed Sea with the pursuing Egyptians right behind them. “Take heart; do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” And “do not be afraid” runs through the Gospel narratives spoken by God’s messengers to Joseph and Mary, by Jesus to Peter, John, and James on the mount of the Transfiguration, by God’s messenger to the women at the tomb and by Jesus as he sends the disciples into the mission field. Finally, “it is I,” that takes us back to the burning bush and God’s thundering, “I am who I am,” and all the “I am” statements of Jesus in the fourth Gospel.

Now, something changes in this exchange, at least for Peter. Everyone but Peter appears struck dumb by the situation. And Peter takes a novel approach: rather than respond, he decides to test Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” Peter evidently prefers the role of tester to the role of being tested. He seems to see and hear more in Jesus’ action on the water than the other disciples because he challenges Jesus to call him out of the boat, to join Jesus on the water. I can’t help but wonder, though what possessed Peter to want to leave the boat in the first place? Were things so desperate in that boat so far from shore that he was willing to get out? Was the boat filling with water? Was Peter trying to show off? Was Jesus’ personal presence so calming and so reassuring that Peter needed to be where Jesus was? Why would Peter request such a task?

We can’t know the answers to most of our questions. We just know that Peter suddenly found himself out of the boat and walking on the water towards Jesus. He had no choice: his challenge to Jesus is met with one in return. Not, however, without the necessary rebuke, “You have so little faith…” When Jesus says, “Come,” we have to respond. In this respect we have to see Peter here as a template for Christians down the ages.

We also know that when his attention returned to the wind and the water, he began to sink and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope was Jesus.
As we struggle to understand the meaning of this story for our lives today, my guess is that we really don’t expect to find ourselves in such a situation although most of us know someone who “thinks they walk on water”. But the question remains: is this a morality tale about our faith and the extremes that we should be willing to go for Jesus? Or is there more to discover in this text.

One of the first places that some of the earliest Christians went for understanding this tale was to the boat itself. They understood that the boat was a symbol for the Church, the very body of Christ. They understood the boat as a place of safety in the midst of life’s storms, and with the hostility they experienced from a variety of places we know their storms could be severe. But this understanding only makes Peter’s response to Jesus all the more puzzling. Peter, “the rock,” a key leader of the early Christians surely would not abandon the Church?

Perhaps the early Christians were comforted with the knowledge that their first leader was so human, so vulnerable, that he was not the Lord and could not face the water and the storm without Jesus’ help. Perhaps the early Church knew that if Jesus were not in the boat (in other words was not with the Church) then there was no refuge there. There may be a dozen other “perhaps” and questions most of which make great Sunday School morality tales, but not such great preaching. This will be true so long as we keep our attention on Peter and through Peter on ourselves, rather than on Jesus.

When we turn our attention back to Jesus, then we have a better chance of seeing what God is up to. Where the story starts to get strange is at the point where Jesus identifies himself to the disciples to calm their fears. “It’s me,” he says. But the phrase that Matthew uses here is more than a mere greeting. Jesus uses a phrase that in the Greek Scriptures, both old and new means so much more than “Look, it’s only me!” The Greek phrase here is Ego Eimi, which is the same identifying phrase that God uses in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, when Moses asks for God’s name.
Now, at this point, there are a couple of ways of looking at Peter’s response. One seems to indicate that he understood Jesus to say, “It’s me” and he responds, “if it is you...” Alternatively, if we look at Peter’s actions as well as his words, and his unusual request, perhaps it is that Jesus’ self identification is exactly what sets Peter off on his wild water adventure. Peter is basically asking something like this. “If you really are the ‘I AM’ here with us, then give me a command that I couldn’t possibly obey and I’ll know it is true.”

When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel that we should pay attention now.

I did wonder why Jesus could not have found something to praise in Peter for his noble effort. But then this story is not about cultivating self-esteem; it is about the grace of the Son of God who saved a disciple from death before his faith could qualify him for anything. Jesus’ rebuke told the truth in love and gave Peter yet another lesson in discipleship.

This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. This presence does not show us that God has supernatural powers so much as it give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God present in our world, are commanded to go out into the water, knowing that the storms of this life cannot hurt us, even when we are outside of the safety and relative comfort of the Church.

In a recent movie, several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Lets Go!” This is, I suppose the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go!”

The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. Only fools pretend otherwise.

Then we will see as Peter does that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We discover, at times to our relief and at times to our annoyance, that we are not the heroes of this story. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from our Lord, do not, in fact, take us outside of his care and concern. This is important. For even when we are back inside the boat of the Church, when the waters about us appear to be calm, we find that we are still in the midst of a storm.
Sometimes I feel that the church is very much like a boat being tossed about on a sea of controversy as it negotiates its way through the competing sandbanks of theology, contemporary culture, dogma, modern society and discipleship.

It is my prayer that we will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the problems that we face as individuals and as a church, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms, our anxieties and our personal and institutional controversies. We will see the “I AM” coming to bring healing life to all. Will our fears be calmed long enough to bid him command us out of our boat, our safe places, and into the storm with all of our being? When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too graspJesus steady hand? Or will he huddle in the safe and comfortable boxes in which we have always existed (both Liberal and Conservative voices take note!). The choice is ever before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out in the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?