Sunday, 17 July 2016

on choosing the better part

Year C | Luke 10.38-end

Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her (v42).

It isn't the hospitality that Martha chooses to show that is wrong, as she bustles around the kitchen getting refreshments ready for her guests. Showing hospitality is one of the most wonderful things we can do for one another, and it is deeply at the heart of the Christian faith. Eating together is what we do, to bind ourselves together in fellowship and to remember that final supper Jesus had with his friends.

The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says, 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares' (Hebrews 13.2). It is a direct reference to today's Old Testament reading, where Abraham extends hospitality to some visitors who bring him news of the most remarkable blessing from God. When we serve others authentically, we are ourselves blessed.

So, no, Martha's hospitality isn't wrong. But the worries and distractions of serving her guests have prevented her from doing the one thing that matters most. Keeping her attention on Jesus. Instead, she has disappeared inside herself, caught up in her own narrative and resentment about what she is doing, and in her judgementalism towards her sister Mary who has chosen not to help, but to sit instead at Jesus' feet listening to what he has to say. Martha has failed to take up Jesus' offer of a relationship with him, one in which she is called to serve God out of her true self.

Goodness knows, there are plenty of things in life worse than having to put the kettle on that can blow us off track and prevent us from keeping our focus on Jesus.

The Dominican friar, Timothy Radcliffe, in his book Why Go To Church? says:
Most sin is pretending to be someone else, admirable or powerful or sexy, who will have value in other people's eyes and one's own. As with the prodigal son, it is a form of self-exile, taking refuge in an imaginary self.

Our culture promotes this kind of fakery. We are encouraged to style our hair to look like a particular celebrity; or furnish our homes to live like people on television or movies; to buy the latest gadgets or cars to demonstrate our status; to wear certain trainers so that everyone knows we are are part of the cool crowd.

It is all so pretend and illusionary: but the pressure to pretend to be someone else is all around us — on billboards and magazines, television and films, the Internet and peer pressure.

It is causing a spiritual crisis because people do not know who they are anymore. And then they discover that life is complicated, worrysome, full of grief and anxiety and disaster, and that no hairstyle, no matter how many pairs of shoes you own, or games you have for the PlayStation, will help to anchor or ground you.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, discovered that his father was not the man who brought him up, which was the result of a newspaper investigation, he said this: 'My identity is founded on who I am in Christ.'

Martha, I think, is a people pleaser. She does what needs to be done for others so that she will have value in their eyes and in her own. She want to appear admirable. But she is brimming with resentment, because she is not acting out of who she truly is. She is playing the part of a false self, not through the vapid choices of consumerism, but through actions and service which may look terrific but are inauthentic.

Mary, on the other hand, sets aside notions of pretending to be someone she isn't, and chooses to try to be like Christ: to follow him, listen to him, to put him at the heart of her attention and aspirations. She chooses the better part, and it will not be taken away from her. In the years ahead, whatever she does to serve others, to be hospitable, or to put herself out for others in acts of loving service, will come from having Christ as the focus of all she does. Her joy will be that the way she lives her life is an expression of who she is in Christ Jesus. A servant of the kingdom of heaven. And that she will have understood and given attention to her true self.

Clothes go out of fashion. Hair turns grey and falls out (I'm told...). Gym toned bodies become flabby and arthritic. Someone else comes along who is more admirable, powerful or sexy than we could ever hope to be. The ways that we pretend to be a good person get exposed in that hot-headed moment when when we brim over with resentment and self-pity.

But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. When we seek to be like him, and to live our lives as an expression of our true self, then we choose the better part. And it will not be taken away from us.







Friday, 24 June 2016

on freedom from things that try to control us

Trinity 5 | Year Compared
Galatians 5.1,13-25

The letters of St Paul the Apostle, which appear towards the end of the Bible, are full of advice on how to be a Christian. These 'epistles' were written for the early Christians who were part of the very first churches, many of which St Paul himself set up. In them he sets out what it means to live a Christian life as well as how to be a church together.

These brand new churches sometimes got it badly wrong in trying to figure out how to put their faith in Jesus Christ into practice. Paul wrote his letters to help steer them back onto the right track, and they are full of helpful teaching and pointers for us today.

One of Paul's very first letters was to the churches in Galatia, small Christian communities scattered across an area that today is part of Turkey. What prompted this letter was that Paul felt they had already drifted from the truth of the gospel, and were spending too much time squabbling over the question of how Jewish you needed to be as a practicing Christian. (Remember that Jesus and his twelve disciples were Jewish but, as the faith spread, many non-Jewish people starting to become believers. So it all got a bit complicated).

This letter is remarkably bad-tempered, and Paul gets into a real strop in places. "You stupid Galatians," he tells them at one point (Galatians 3.1).

Towards the end of the letter, from where today's reading comes, he seems to calm down a bit and writes very practically about how to be a Christian and in particular what it means to enjoy freedom in Christ.

This idea of Christian freedom, like so much of the way of Jesus, has a strange kind of upside down feel to it. We might be used to thinking about freedom as meaning we are uninhibited and can do what we like. Paul explains that the spiritual freedom which Jesus offers doesn't work like this. Doing whatever we feel like, whenever we want, turns out not be very freeing at all. Paul calls it a kind of slavery, because we become trapped by our desires, compulsions and obsessions, and our behaviour can lead to a breakdown in our relationships with others.

The constant craving to find fulfilment is never satisfied when we think only about ourselves. As Christians our fulfilment comes from God, through Jesus Christ, but when we free ourselves from the tyranny of self-centredness to live for God and for the good of those around us. Or as Paul puts it, "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Galatians 5.6).

When we choose to live God's way we discover a new freedom that liberates us from being trapped by our old habits and obsessions, as they give way to a life that bears the fruit of God's Spirit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (v22-23)

Fr John Woolley, in his beautiful devotional book I Am With You, envisions Jesus saying to us:

If you earnestly wish to leave old ways behind I lift you above them! You can take My hand and step out into the realm of freedom … where I am fully in control, and in which there is great blessing for you.


Where in your life could you use more of that? Which of the qualities of a spirit-filled life would you like to be more present in you? As we strengthen our walk with God through prayer and discipleship, these things gradually become more a part of who we are. As our faith and understanding mature, it becomes easier to see where we can show the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives. When we become more prayerful, more open to God's presence in us, more generous in meeting the needs of others, we get to enjoy a taste of all the good things that the kingdom of heaven has to offer. Heaven comes to us here.

love
joy
peace
patience
kindness
generosity
faithfulness
gentleness
self-control

It doesn't seem like a difficult choice, and yet we all know how life gets in the way. In today's gospel reading (Luke 9.51-62) Jesus' generous invitation "follow me", an invitation to experience the kingdom of heaven here and now, falls by the wayside for those who are too caught up in their lives to recognise a good thing when they hear it.

What are the excuses we make to that invitation? When Jesus says to you "follow me" and offers you a way to break free from the slavery of those things that try to control you, what do you say?

Paul says:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (v13-14)

In trying to arbitrate the squabbles that were tearing the church in Galatia apart, Paul tells them that continuing with the old rituals of the Jewish faith is not what matters. It is in the way we behave and whether we choose to live by the Spirit of God that counts.
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let is also be guided by the Spirit. (v25)



The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and are used by permission. All rights reserved.





Sunday, 19 June 2016

when words are not enough (and sometimes too much)

This has been a heartbreaking week.

We're used to hearing the media report terrible incidents, but I don't remember a week where so many different bad events took place in the course of seven days.

And I don't know what to say.

I've been glued to news websites and social media all week. In one sense I feel I have nothing new to add to the endless articles and posts that have analysed and commented on this week's terrible events. And there is also a part of me that doesn't even want to try and construct a narrative, to say something that tritely and tidily wraps up this week's stories.

Which is strange, because the one thing I'm clear about is that they are all related.

Instead of writing a sermon I have collated pieces of writing and prayers that others have written about three events —the shootings in Orlando, Florida, the murder of MP Jo Cox, and the dismal depths of the debate about the EU referendum.

The first tragedy we heard about last Sunday after we got home from church. A gunman had walked into an LGBT nightclub in Orlando and shot dead 49 people and injured many more, because he couldn't stand the sight of two men kissing. It was America's biggest singlehanded gun massacre.

'Archbishop Cranmer' a pseudonymous blogger wrote the following response:

An Orlando shooting in which 50 blissful LGBT people were murdered in cold blood. Politicians have tweeted their horror, and the entire civilised world is appalled. There is no apparent end to the column inches and broadcast hours which are being dedicated to analysis of the tragedy. And there is no end to the judgmental agenda-pushing, cause-appropriating, blame-apportioning, score-settling, guilt-inducing commentary. Some target society’s homophobic attitudes, some Islamist terrorism, and some Islam’s view of gays. Others focus on America’s corrosive gun culture, others on partisan delinquencies, and still others on those heartless Christians who seek to uphold the sanctity of holy matrimony. Thousands are offering up a prayer for Orlando, while some tweet their scorn at the futility of those prayers. Even enlightened atheist-secularists can grind an axe in the blood of suffering.

Jesus just weeps with those who weep. He doesn’t only weep with those who consider themselves a touch righteous or morally upright, or with those whose behaviour meets certain standards of chaste perfection. He doesn’t only weep with Christian heterosexuals who live each day by grace, or with repentant LGBT people who have earned his mercy. He weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn. There are no conditions on his compassion, and no limits to his love.


You can read his full piece here:

My colleague Fr. Simon Rundell wrote the prayer below in response to the shootings:

Jesus, friend to the scapegoat and the victim,
you were always found with those who others hurt and despised.
Stand now with those LGBTI communities who live in fear, suffer violence, and face exclusion.
Come now to challenge human prejudice and restore human dignity.
Strengthen us now, that we would not turn away from anyone who bears the image of God.
Amen


While we were still coming to terms with the consequences of one man's inability to cope with those from whom he believed himself both different and better, Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, saw fit to unveil a new campaign poster which drew directly in sentiment and imagery from the Nazi's anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1930s.

This was a new low in the referendum campaign, which admittedly didn't have that far to fall given how dismal the debate has been so far. Both sides have used fear as their main campaign tactic, issuing threat and counter-threat, assertion and denial —as well as peddling barefaced lies.

What has been largely missing in the debate is anything rooted in vision or hope. One of those who stepped into this vacuum was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has written that our vision for the future of Britain "cannot be only about ourselves."

At the heart of Britain’s Christian heritage are certain glorious principles. They are what make the best of our nation, whether we are Christians, of another faith or of no faith. They come from Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.

Among those principles are a vision of peace and reconciliation, to being builders of bridges, not barriers. We demonstrated it in the years after 1945. The vision of the founders of the European Union was also peace and reconciliation... Peace and reconciliation exist in Western Europe today. It is the greatest cause for thankfulness that we can imagine. It is a blessing to be shared with the whole world.

The principles Jesus taught and which have so shaped us also include love for the poor, the alien and the stranger. The EU came together in a Europe broken beyond description by war, and has shaped a continent which until recently has contributed to more human flourishing, and more social care, than at any time in European history.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbour, and when questioned about what that meant gave the extraordinary story of the Good Samaritan. In that story the one who turns out to be a neighbour is the one who shows respect, mercy and love to the stranger, even to an enemy.

[He goes on to write about the role Britain played in liberating Europe from the tyranny of fascism, before continuing with:]

Sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless, these are some of the deeply Christian principles that have shaped us. They are principles that show us at our best, as an example to other countries, as a home of freedom and democracy, as a beacon of hope that shines around a dark world. They are forward looking virtues. Those who fought in two world wars were not looking back but forward. Those who built the EU after the two wars, in which millions of Europeans had died, looked forward.

The vision for our future cannot be only about ourselves. We are most human when we exist for others.


You can read the full article here.

The Church of England's prayer for the referendum:

God of truth,
give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum
with honesty and openness.
Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion
and discernment to those who vote,
that our nation may prosper
and that with all the peoples of Europe
we may work for peace and the common good;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.


The heartache continued on Thursday. In West Yorkshire Jo Cox, a new MP, former aid worker with Oxfam, with a passion for helping the most disadvantaged including Syrian refugees, was shot and stabbed as she prepared for a surgery with her constituents. She died from her injuries. Her attacker is said to have shouted, "Britain First" or "Put Britain First." Jo was married and the mother of two young children.

Is this the outcome of all the toxic language and arguments that have been used during the EU referendum debate? A man charged with her murder appeared in court yesterday and gave his name as "Death to traitors, freedom to Britain."

The words we use shape other people's minds. As one commentator put it:

If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.


Our words matter. But today's politics and press is geared towards toying with people's fears. We are being emotionally manipulated by those who stand to gain from getting our votes, or our readership for their newspaper.

What do the Orlando shootings, Jo Cox's murder and UKIP's vile campaign poster have in common? Vanity, pride, ego, arrogance, hatred, distrust, scaremongering —all seeking to sow seeds of division.

Yet as Christians in the kingdom of God, we are called to unity and not division. St Paul wrote:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3.29-29 NRSV)


In the kingdom of God, Christ seeks to break down the barriers we create with others, knitting us together into one family. That line in Galatians about the offspring of Abraham alludes to the covenant that God made with Abraham, in which God promised to make Abraham the ancestor of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17.4-7). As it turned out, he also became the ancestor of the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From the start of the Hebrew scriptures in Genesis to the end of the Christian Testament in Revelation, where a multitude of people of all nations and languages are envisioned worshiping God together (Revelation 7.9), it is clear that God longs for us to unite with our brothers and sisters in spite of our differences. Not to sow seeds of division, but to work for the common good and build the unity of the kingdom of God.

But for when there are no words, or too many words, we can stand together in silent unity as we did this morning, lighting a candle as a prayer — for Jo Cox MP, for the Pulse nightclub victims, and for grace in our national politics.








Sunday, 12 June 2016

on how rash judgements backfire

I wonder if Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7.36-8.3) came to regret inviting Jesus for supper? I wonder if he wished he'd bitten his tongue, instead of opening his mouth to pass judgement on the sinful woman who pays such loving homage to the Lord? In speaking to condemn her Simon inadvertently brings judgement on himself.

Which, in fact, is almost always what happens when we are judgemental towards other people. We might think, deludedly, that we are establishing our own 'rightness' over and above another, when actually we are trumpeting to all within earshot how desperate we are to validate ourselves at the expense of others. And who hasn't, at times, wished they could wind back the clock to retract a remark they've made about somebody, knowing how badly it reflected on ourself?

In judging others we broadcast our insecurities to the world: we may be insecure about those who are different from us, with different values or standards; about those who are not part of our narrow set or in-crowd; our judgements may come from a need to scapegoat others in order to avoid confronting our own shortcomings; or a need to keep a tight grip on our pride and not let it crack; or to misdirect attention away from our own sense of shame and throw the spotlight on somebody else instead. When we make rash judgements about others we open the door to our own complicated psychology and allow others to peek at the most disordered aspects of our mind.

There is a good reason Jesus taught his disciples to avoid passing judgement on others, aside from the fact that judgement is God's work alone – which, for us, should be reason enough. But also, when we adopt the mantle of judge for ourselves, our criticisms and put downs invite others to draw conclusions about our own shortcomings; our lack of humanity, or grace, or self-insight. Judge not let ye be judged, indeed.

When the Pharisee passes harsh judgement on the sinful woman, he certainly invites judgement on himself. Jesus shines a light on Simon's failings in comparison to the woman, making it abundantly clear to Simon that he is in no position to judge.

Yet Jesus generally tends to be remarkably non-judgemental in his encounters with people in the gospels. Think about the Samaritan woman at the well; Zaccheus the tax collector; the Roman centurion with the sick slave. All of them are people of whom respectable first century Jewish society would have had plenty of derogatory things to say. Instead Jesus' ire is reserved for one particular group of people — respectable first century Jewish society. Or more specifically, the temple elite. People just like Simon in fact. Pharisees, Sadducees, high priests and scribes often tended to feel rather pleased with themselves because of their magnificent religious credentials and would look down on everyone else.

Jesus' judgement in the gospels did not play the game we play of looking down on others. It was the game itself he judged, and the self-righteous religious hypocrites who played it. That should be enough to cause any Christian pause for thought before speaking to condemn or criticise others.

Which isn't to say that the Church doesn't sometimes have a role to play in speaking out against what is wrong in the world, to be discerning about individuals or to act out of prophetic witness. But discernment about people is slower and more considered than rash judgements (often involving establishing a relationship or offering support) while prophetic witness is aimed at systems and powers which oppress and exploit. Indeed I think Jesus' conversation with Simon is actually an expression of prophetic witness about religious hypocrisy rather than an attack on Simon the man.

Christ is also our judge. Jesus' judgement is not some far off eschatological event, but a gift he offers to us here and now. It is something that becomes present to us when we spend time regularly in prayer and devotion, as these steer us towards self-reflection. When we give attention to Jesus he in turn helps us to build a picture of our true-self. This is a gift because rather than being condemnatory, Jesus judges out of mercy: out of having walked the way of humanity.

When Christ became one of us he entered fully into the human experience, as ‘one who in every respect has been tested as we are’ (Hebrews 4.15). His judgement is tempered by mercy rooted in the incarnational experience of undergoing life as we have. As our judge he is able to ‘sympathize with our weaknesses’. He judges us then, not to condemn us but to illuminate our lives and to lead us on the path of humility, where we let go of all our self-illusions and see ourselves as we truly are. And not just our failings, but our strengths and our good points as well.

This is the life of prayerful self-examination that we are called to as Christians. One where we focus on noticing the plank of wood in our own eye and working to gradually remove it over our lifetime, rather than bickering about the speck of dust we see in our neighbour's eye.

As one of the Desert Fathers put it, 'Abandon the heavy burden of self-justification, and take up the light burden of self-criticism.'

So often the judgements we make on other people are an attempt to proclaim our own self-righteousness. And yet we have no need to expend any energy or effort in justifying ourselves. We've been liberated from that by Jesus who justifies us through our faith in him. We are gloriously freed from any need to be judgemental towards ourselves or others, and simply to live in the confidence that comes from being a new creation in Jesus. As St Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

2 Corinthians 5:16-19 (GNB)
No longer, then, do we judge anyone by human standards. Even if at one time we judged Christ according to human standards, we no longer do so. Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also.


Scriptures marked GNB are taken from the Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins © American Bible Society.



Sunday, 5 June 2016

On luke 7.11-17: the widow of nain

Jesus and his weary band of followers have been walking for over 25 miles. Let's join them and see where they are going.

It is hot and dry, and very dusty. We are all looking forward to arriving and having a long cold drink and something to eat. We can see our destination in the distance, a town called Nain, sitting on top of a rise of land. We'll be glad to get there, our aching legs already have to find the energy for one last push to climb that uphill stretch. Plus we have to walk past the burial caves that line the road here. It's a bit creepy and, given we're followers of the law of Moses, we're mindful of the ritual impurity of coming into contact with the dead. We spur ourselves on quickly, heading for the town gates. A crowd like this, not just the Rabbi Jesus and his disciples, but all these others followers too, are bound to cause a bit of a stir when we turn up in a little town like this.

But as we get closer, we begin to see there is already something of a commotion in the town. A crowd is coming out of the gates and heading our way. Let's hope there isn't going to be any trouble: they don't seem very happy. As they draw closer we begin to see why. This is a funeral procession, making its way to the burial caves with a body on a bier, carried by some of the men of the town.

Hopefully, Jesus will lead us on past this procession quickly and let us get the rest and refreshment we crave. Yet more people continue to pour out of the town gates. This is a particularly large funeral. Half the town's residents must be here. We can soon see why. The chief mourner is a woman, wearing the clothes of a widow. Not only has she lost her husband sometime in the past, but now her only son has died.

You always see a bigger crowd at the death of a young person, and there is nothing more against the natural order of things than a parent having to bury their child. And we understand she won't simply be grieving for her loss. This death is bad news for a widow who, without a husband, would be relying on her son to look after her in old age. She's bound to be wondering what will happen to her now. She may, like many widows, be reduced to begging if there are no other family members to depend on.

Come on Jesus, keep walking. Let's get to the inn where we can rest our tired bodies and slake our thirst. Oh typical. He just can't pass up an opportunity to get involved, can he? He's talking to the widow and comforting her. Honestly, these bleeding heart liberals just don't know when to stop, do they? The crowd is simmering down now, ever alert to the possibility that this wandering Rabbi could do something surprising. He's moved over to the corpse and is putting his hand on it now. Eugh! He'll have to purify himself now before he eats any supper.

Over the hushed murmuring of the people we can just make out what he is saying. "Young man, get up I tell you." He really doesn't know when to stop this Rabbi, does he? Talk about a messiah complex. Sure, he's healed some pretty sick people, but raising the dead to life? Come on.

And then...surely not? It's getting harder to see as the people all crane their necks for a better view, some even sitting on the shoulders of others. But just through a crack in the crowd we can see movement on the funeral bier. The young man is stirring, peeling off his burial shroud and sitting up. Now he's saying something, but we can't hear because the crowd has set up a cry, so astonished are they by what they are seeing.

Clearly this is no ordinary Rabbi, trailing from town to town with his band of grubby disciples. This, surely, is the work of God; this man a great prophet like Elijah. In fact, now we come to think of it, isn't there a story in our scriptures where Elijah brings the only son of a widow back to life? That 's an odd coincidence... This man Jesus must be as great as the greatest prophets of old, maybe even greater.


And now, years later, in our old age we often think back on the events of that remarkable day. Yes, it was an amazing thing to witness, but in the light of later events surrounding Jesus we have come to realise that this miracle is rich in deeper meaning.

Of how it has shaped the way Jesus' followers continue his ministry, by looking out for situations that seem hopeless or despairing and finding ways to bring new life to them. How his church has made it a special mission to seek out people who have nobody to look after them, and offer them care and support. Of the way that this episode perhaps makes us think about our own pain and grief, and the voice of Jesus, full of compassion, saying to us "do not weep", all the while knowing that he weeps with us. As the crowd gasped in awe at the glory of God seen in Jesus, his followers today must never stop being astonished or joyful at how great God is.

Lord of compassion and mercy,
you give back to us
what we fear is lost beyond recall:
may your word resound
to the limits of our grief
and life arise
in place of despair;
though Jesus Christ, to whom all is entrusted.
Amen.
Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Canterbury Press 2008


Sunday, 15 May 2016

on pentecost

with guest blogger Irenaeus who was one of the Church's first theologians, and writes here of the Holy Spirit being to the Church what water is to a baker making bread. He also alludes to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When the Lord told his disciples ‘to go and teach all nations’ and to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, he conferred on them the power of giving people new life in God.

He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in them and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in people who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that people of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the firstfruits of all the nations.

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

‘The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God’ came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an Advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for us who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up our wounds and left for our care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted us to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.


Irenaeus, Against Heresies, from Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year, compiled Robert Atwell, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999





Sunday, 8 May 2016

on freedom from forces that hold us captive

Today's reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles (16.16-34), is an extraordinary tale which has much to tell us about the role of Christians in freeing society from those things that can hold us captive, and of the power of a confident relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It all begins with a young woman, who is already oppressed through slavery and is then being further exploited by her owners for financial gain as a fortune-teller. The words the scripture uses is that she possesses a 'spirit of divination'. In the Bible, being possessed by a spirit or a demon is code for one of any number of conditions that were not well understood in those days, most usually referring to some kind of mental illness.

This slave-girl has been following the apostles for several days loudly proclaiming that they are servants of God who teach the way to spiritual salvation. Which is true. So here's the thing: this girl, in spite of her condition and circumstances, speaks with real insight. She maybe someone who is psychologically unwell, but she is well able to discern what Paul and Silas are all about.

Poor mental health, and the unpredictable behaviour that can arise from it, is very much better understood today — yet not necessarily much better accepted socially than it was in first century Europe, where this episode takes place. Society still has much to learn about how to empathise with and support those who are under psychological pressure of one sort or another. I know this both from my own experience of depression, as well as from my pastoral encounters with others. Sometimes frank and blunt talk is coupled with remarkable insight into other people. Why wouldn't it? Those who have had to, out of necessity, navigate their way around their own mental terrain might sometimes be well placed to recognise what is driving the actions and behaviour of others around them.

I can well see that a spirit of divination in this slave-girl could be precisely the sort of insight arising from her own mental state. As someone once said, in adaptation of a Leonard Cohen lyric, blessed are the cracked for they shall let in the light.

Which isn't to say that people who are a bit disturbed can't also sometimes be quite annoying. I remember coming home after being away from the parish for precisely a day and a half, to find that the same person had left seven telephone messages on my voicemail, written me two emails and had pushed a note through the Vicarage letterbox. It's hard not to feel slightly cramped by such persistence. St Paul clearly feels this, and after several days of being followed around by this girl shouting at them, he has had enough. In some way he is also able to recognise whatever it is that she is captive to and calls it out of her.

This echoes what Jesus did a number of times in the gospels. As Brian McLaren has written:

Thousands come to Jesus with various afflictions and internal oppressions, and Jesus draws into the light whatever oppressive, destructive, disease-causing, imbalancing, paralyzing, or convulsing forces hide within them so they can be freed and restored to balance and health . . . The demonic gives us a language to personify and identify these covert forces that enter groups of us, using us, becoming a guiding part of us, possessing and influencing and even controlling us.


What is is that holds us captive and oppresses us in today's society? The addiction of consumerism? A culture of individualism? Globalisation and power over governments by multi-national corporations? Managerialism and the increasingly excessive burdens and policies of the workplace? The judgementalism of family and friends?

In the slave-girl's case she is controlled by those who own her and exploit her condition for financial gain. Somehow Paul is able to liberate her from this, at least in part, which really annoys her owners.

Today we may be appalled by the idea that a person could be in the possession of another, a commodity to be bought and sold. But slavery is never very far from our presence in 21st century Europe. Not only do many in this congregation have forebears who were enslaved, but it is a practice that continues around the world as we speak. There are domestic slaves living in households in London today, forbidden to leave the house and with their passports confiscated. Women and girls are trafficked to this country to be sex workers. Children abroad are forced into service in the supply chain for products that make their way onto our supermarket shelves and high street stores.

Ten years ago, a good friend of this church, Steve Chalke, set up Stop the Traffik. Today the campaign he founded is an international coalition of activists who remain determined to 'disrupt and prevent human trafficking, its harm and abuse to human beings.' On their website you can read more about the way that people are 'tricked into situations where they are bought, sold, abused and exploited for financial gain.'

Christians believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, that we are all made in the image of God: that there is something of the divine within each of us. And of course you don't have to be Christian to simply believe in the dignity of all humanity.

Just as St Paul does in 1st century Philippi, and as Jesus does before him in Palestine, it remains our calling and our duty to continue to help liberate people from whatever is holding them captive, and from whoever may be exploiting and abusing them.

And that is a risky business. Standing up to vested interests takes courage, as those with power and wealth can bring a great deal of pressure to bear in thwarting those who threaten their activities. The commandment of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves compels us to put our necks on the line for others.

The owners of the slave-girl trump up some false charges against Paul and Silas and have them thrown in jail. But are they down-hearted? No, they are not! The apostles, like many persecuted Christians in the intervening two millennia, understand the difference between physical freedom and spiritual freedom.

In one of his letters St Paul wrote:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8.35,37-39 (NRSV)


Paul and Silas, rather than licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves, take this spiritual truth to heart. There they are in prison singing hymns and praying in front of the rest of the, presumably bemused, prisoners.

The earthquake that shakes the prison, opening the doors and loosening the prisoners' chains, is probably metaphorical rather than literal. The point being made here is that even imprisonment cannot contain the spiritual freedom that Jesus' followers enjoy.

The jailer who observes these events is so disturbed by witnessing this spectacle that he wants in on it. And why wouldn't he? To see these Christians so centred and anchored by a faith that even serious tribulation cannot shake them. This is Jesus' gift to us, the unity with God that we enjoy through him.

But this is not some thing we keep to ourselves, for ourselves. Like all spiritual gifts it is given to us so that we can be a blessing to others — a blessing to those around us who are held captive, imprisoned, oppressed, exploited, abused, abandoned, hungry, diseased, disturbed; all who yearn for the freedom and liberation that God desires for all his children.


Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.