Thursday, 18 January 2018

What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do?

Stock photos courtesy of

I grew up in Essex, so I know all about what it means to come from a place that is ridiculed and joked about. I used to dread the question, ‘where are you from?’ Yes, I come from a place where the women are routinely mocked as being sexually promiscuous with vulgar jokes. Of course, it can be traced back to the tenacity of the English class system in Britain. People dwelling in Essex were, after the 2nd world war, mainly former slum dwellers, who were encouraged to move out to the new suburbs in Basildon and Harlow in Essex. Former East- Enders, who, if they were lucky would go to Southend-on-Sea for a day out in the summer, became increasingly wealthy as they took the advantages of suburban living. As the decades progressed they enjoyed the economic boom time, no longer working in manufacturing or skilled manual labour. Slum dwellers became middle-class, and so we had better bring them down a peg or two! Can’t have social mobility in Britain! How do we characterise the working class who have money in Britain? - as vulgar and with bad taste; herald the birth of the Essex girl and her counterpart the Margaret Thatcher voting Basildon-man.

‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’, Nathanael says to Philip? With this single comment we enter into the dynamics of the characterisation of place in Jesus’ time. Nazareth, we can assume, was not a popular place; indeed, it was a small village, from which nothing very much came at all. It wasn’t so much vulgar as insignificant; a place that you would only go to if you had to. And yet, from this small village God chooses to signify his glory in all the world.

Right from the beginning of Jesus’ birth our Gospel writers are keen to ensure that we understand the dynamics of this. Jesus was a Jew, born in Bethlehem, growing up in Nazareth, son of a carpenter, who never moved far beyond the geographical world of his people. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t from a sought-after part of town, he wasn’t heading for any awards. And yet this insignificant boy challenges our notions of identity: he brings wise men from the East to his birth, gathers poor shepherds around him and flees to Egypt because he threatens the power of Kings. This ‘no-one’ is the Son of Man – the person for everyone – the saviour of the world.

The power of naming, the significance of place and the desire to become something are instructive. From our own birth we are named, we live somewhere in particular, and our future identity is constructed by the sort of aspirations we are encouraged to have. Where we come from, what our names are and what we do are all powerful signifiers in our culture – are you a grammar school boy, did you grow up in Clifton or Brownsover, what papers do your parent’s read, if any at all? What job will you have?

For Jesus, these questions were instructive too – but from them he taught his followers to come and see something different and to come and be a part of something radically different.

What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?
These must be three of the most common questions that we ask each other and they form part of the way in which we categorise people and judge them.  In the kingdom of Heaven we are liberated from such judgments.

What’s your name – nuns and monks take on new names at their profession to reveal that they are made and named by God. At our baptism we are named; placing our naming within the context of our faith in God as the creator is important. The practice of taking a spiritual or Christian name is significant, for it mark's us out as God's child, not just the product of our parent's preferences, rank in society or other.  In can be liberating to take on a new name that marks out our identity in Christ. Perhaps you would like to do the same?

Where are you from – as Christians we are from the Kingdom – which means that we seek to live in a new relationship to one another, characterised by equality and mutuality. We are not defined by our towns, whether sought after or sink, but by God’s invitation to dwell in his kingdom.

What do you do – as Christians our most important identity is crafted from the knowledge that we are made and loved by God; and by the fact that we are made to love God and love one another. As Christians that is ultimately what we ‘do’ – how we earn a living is a different question entirely – but one that should be in line with our Christian vocation to love God and love neighbour.

The Gospel upsets our notions of respectability and status and asks us to re-appraise our stereotyping and judging. The story of Jesus should make us suspicious about worldly status, power and class; as a community of Christians we should be a mixed bag of people from every warp and weft of life. It’s a place where we’re all equal, not judged and condemned because we’re rich or poor, a carpenter or a surgeon, a business person or a teacher; we should value each other as the equals that we are - a new family made in God’s image - not structured by our human need to sort the best from the worst, to put other’s down and categorise, but made from God’s desire to see his people flourish and live in harmony.

Monday, 25 December 2017

God's Photos of You

Most of the time it’s possible to live quite happily with the absence of religion. Our lives are full and content without it, indeed most people would probably say less restrictive and less judgmental. But then Christmas arrives with its magical talk of angels, a miraculous birth and God with us. The nativity at school, the lit candle in the darkened church and the carol service remind us of a time when going to church and believing in God made sense. The tune of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is grasped like an old friend – and it takes us to a place of remembered community, of solidarity, of a secure identity and experience. It gives us a story, which stretches way back, that we can be a part of. Our memories, faded and nostalgic as they are, nonetheless are full of hope, reminding us of an identity that we’ve lost, encouraging us to claim a future that will always be ours. Like the Queen’s Speech, Match of the Day, Strictly Come Dancing – Christmas is the photo frame which collects together the diverse experiences of our disparate lives, making sense of them, giving them some coherence.

It doesn’t matter that what we believe is tangled together - half remembered Old Testament stories from Primary School; a once recited prayer; a body’s memory of kneeling, but rather that we remember. Along with the Christmas tree, the mince pies, the sharing of gifts, the caring for the poor, the stockings and the charades, for one night we place ourselves in the photo frame that our maker has crafted of our lives.

The photos that he’s taken may surprise us. He sees as no-one else does: like the lover on the pillow next to ours who is full of joy, the joy of being close to the beloved; or, like a young child who only has eyes for its mother, is utterly devoted and enthralled; or like the father who gives his every breath to the needs of his baby, suffering and sacrificing so that that the baby can thrive. So, God’s photos of us reveal that he has numbered every hair of our head, been to every nativity play, turned up for every prize giving, every birthday. God has been present in the moments of our private grief and public joy, he has been there when we’ve damned him and when we’ve offered a stumbling prayer. He’s been there when we thought we were all alone, unwatched and disregarded. Like the neglected parent who waits for the yearly card, the annual phone call, the belated present, and holds onto each like they are paradise itself. So, God longs for us, for me and for you and waits to show us the beauty and the splendour that our lives contain.

The traditions of Christmas have the power to gather us together, they form community, they create a shared history and they offer us a shared future. Christmas is the reminder we need that despite our turning away, despite acting collectively like independent 20-year olds (determined to make up our own minds and make our own mistakes), that God is always there to come back to; waiting and hoping and delighting in our return. Christmas is an invitation to live again in the eternal hand of our Maker- who turns the cosmos and holds the key, but who most of all longs for us to receive and return his love.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Sheep and the Goats

Image result for sheep and goats lawrence op
This 5th-century mosaic from Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna depicts the Last Judgement in which Christ separates the sheep from the goats. It is considered among the oldest mosaic depictions of a New Testament scene. 
Photo by Lawrence OP
Last week we looked at Judgment and the End Times in the ‘Parable of the Talents’ and I alluded to the fact that the lengthy passages of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel on this subject ended with the story of the sheep and goats. It is this story that we will look at more closely today. The story itself, in rounding off the passages on the End Times, introduces the main drama of the Gospels – the plot to kill Jesus, his arrest, crucifixion and resurrection (Matthew 26-28).

The ethical reasoning in the sheep and the goats’ narrative demands further exploration. It seems to pose the question: why should humans treat each other with compassion, love and charity? The answer given is simple and clear: because humans are made in the image of God:

‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who
are members of my family, you did it to me’.

As Christians we believe that the image of God has been revealed fully in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, and so in showing love and compassion to each other we are honouring Jesus. Similarly, in rejecting, ignoring and turning away from the needs and suffering of others we are rejecting Jesus himself. Having seen and encountered the glory of humanity in Jesus we are commanded to remember that that image is present in all God’s children. Jesus’ rationale for asking that we behave in a certain way is because divine life runs through all of creation.

This is a transformative and radical ethical teaching especially when placed in the context of the legal presentation of right behaviour that Jesus was consistently challenging in the Pharisees. More interesting still, in a peculiar reversal, the rationale for the teaching undermines the punishment which is foretold at the end of the teaching: if man truly reflects the glory of God then how can man be subjected to eternal damnation and hell fire? Surely then the divine is being subjected to such a punishment? God is killed.

And that is one way in which the crucifixion of Jesus can be understood.

Jesus, as the Son of Man, reveals in human form the glory of God, present in all of creation. At the same time, the Son of Man is destroyed by the sin, hatred and corruption which is to be found in the human heart and in human relationships (this is made to clear to us in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and in Peter’s denial of him, even his closest followers are unable to do the right things). Jesus’ actions acknowledge that despite his teaching, we humans will continue to deny and betray God. Nonetheless, by entering into death, he reveals that God’s life cannot be subjected to death – Jesus’ descent into death, the harrowing of hell and Jesus’ resurrection transforms our understanding of Judgment and the End Times.

For, being in Christ, we are in God, and being in God we cannot be subjected to death.

We cannot save ourselves, we cannot be perfect, yet, as we have been created by God and bare his image we are granted his life and not our own. What we are commanded now has evolved from ‘you must behave like this or be damned’ to a divine commission.  At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples:

‘Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had commanded them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

Jesus here is Lord of all the universe, with all authority in heaven and on earth being handed over to him, and yet he does not offer words of condemnation, nor a threat of punishment, rather he commissions and authorises. And what we are commissioned to do as Jesus’ disciples is significant; we are not asked to deliver a programme of ethical teaching, rather we are commissioned to baptise, teach and obey. Furthermore, Jesus promises his eternal presence with us ‘to the end of the age’. His presence is one of encouragement, empowerment and peace.

And so, we can see how judgment has been turned on its head. From being faced with unachievable goodness or death, we are led into the story of sacrifice and forgiveness; and from that place we are commissioned to talk of love and not condemnation; to teach forgiveness and baptism from a place of humility; to model compassion and charity; to recognise the inevitability of failure and to lament, but in all things to recognise Jesus as Lord.

Italianate Landscape with a Goat and Sheep, Philipp Peter Roos
17th century, wiki free picture

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Judgment and the End Times

The Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14-30

Image result for bosch painting hell
'The Harrowing of Hell' by a follower of Hieronymous Bosch, date unknown
The Parable of the Talents comes near the end of a series of parables and teachings on the end times and judgment in Matthew’s Gospel. It is most helpfully read in this context, as an apocalyptic parable. Apocalyptic teaching generally addresses: ‘signs of the end of the age’, ‘the end times’, ‘the coming of the Son or Man’, ‘the necessity for watchfulness’ and ‘judgment’.

It is in this context that we get the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, for instance. They are waiting with their lamps for the bridegroom: 5 are foolish and 5 are wise. The wise take flasks of oils with their lamps, the foolish don’t. Whilst the foolish ones go to buy oil they miss the bridegroom and are locked out of the banquet. It ends with the words: ‘keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’.

There is also the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave. The wicked slave acts badly in the absence of his master, beating his fellow slaves, eating and drinking with drunkards. The warning is given that the master will come at an unexpected time and catch the wicked slaves in his acts of unkindness and misuse of power: ‘Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives’.

Ethical teaching in these parables is dependent upon the idea of a returning ruler and judge who will reward those who have been faithful and will punish those who have been unfaithful; or upon the need to be ready and watchful. What is the reward? What is the punishment? We’ll return to these important questions.

The Parable of the talents begins, in our translation (NRSV) 'for it is as if’ but the opening of the parable, if read literally, says: ‘For it will be as when’.  The use of the future tense is incredibly important here, for as we’ve established this parable is part of teaching on the end times.

So - ‘it will be as when’ a man going on a journey entrusts his property to his slaves. To the first he gives 5 talents. When this story was written, ‘talanton’ meant a weight of money; the first slave gets the equivalent of 6,000 drachmas, in today’s money 2 million pounds, a huge amount of money, an extraordinary amount. I wonder why the master thinks its okay to give so much responsibility to his first slave? Well, he does, with less to the second and less still to the third. What the slave is given is worked out according to his: ‘dynamis’, literally meaning in the Greek: power, more specifically 'the inherent power residing in a thing'. It’s translated as ability, but it means a bit more than that.

After entrusting his property, the man goes away. The first 2 show themselves to be good and trustworthy slaves; they not only look after the man’s money, but make it grow. The third however, hides the money and is strongly rebuked by the master. The summary of the parable is intriguing:

‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

Today, the word ‘talent’ in English, meaning natural aptitude or skill, comes from the traditional reading of this parable – which is that God wants us to use the gifts that we have been given and not hide them. Don’t hide your light under a bushel, that sort of thing. That certainly seems to be near the right sort of interpretation, except its important to make the link, which I was labouring at the beginning, that this is a parable about the end times and judgment. I posed 2 questions early on: What is the reward? What is the punishment? Heaven and hell are two stock answers; Christian thought has traditionally conceived of salvation and punishment with these 2 concepts. Today, however, certainly in liberal Christian circles, heaven is evoked to provide comfort and assurance, but hell hardly ever is. So, what are we to make of the apocalyptic tradition within our faith which takes very seriously, the end times and judgment?

It seems to me that these parables give us a different way into thinking about the subject more helpfully.  For instance, the reward (from the masters) is usually a reward that is consistent with the behaviour of the slave. For instance, the first slave who takes the 5 talents and works hard so that he doubles the money is rewarded by being given more responsibility and power. What employer would not do the same to an employee? Those slaves who do well are rewarded by gaining a greater share in their master’s work:

‘Well done good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Master’.

Those who prove themselves worthy are able to share in the exercise of power and authority in the master’s realm – we might extrapolate out to say that those who have shown themselves to be worthy will be rewarded with responsibility in the Kingdom of Heaven. Heaven, in my imagination at least, has always seemed a dull place as there is nothing to do.  Whilst here we have a concept of the Kingdom of God or Heaven in which the slave (made co-worker) is an active participant, an active player in the master’s system of rule.

Punishment in contrast is about being denied that sort of inheritance, the inheritance which permits a slave to have his or her own authority and power, to be a co-worker. It’s not about torment in a fiery furnace (although gnashing of teeth always seems to feature!) but being denied the responsibility of co-management. Because of this it seems incredibly important that in the Parable of the Talents, the slave is only given the amount of money/responsibility that he is capable of handling, according to the power residing in him; his inner ability or capacity.  This master is not unfair; he does not create a test which is unjust.

Hell in this reading is not about an inactive everlasting torment but about disinheritance, which also means not being in the presence of, or sharing in the joy of the Master. If you are not able to prove that you can be trusted with the master’s wealth, property or employees, then you can’t possibly be rewarded with more responsibility. That would be madness on the Master’s behalf. Those who are untrustworthy, who, for example: mistreat others in the master’s absence; hide away what has been given them out of fear; or who are lazy and unprepared, it is these people who are unable to receive the reward of sharing in responsibility of the kingdom, because of this they can’t share in the joy of the Master.

This lengthy passage of teaching in Matthew (of which the Parable of the Talents is one part) ends with a description of the Son of Man with his angels in glory, debating the merits of all the people of the world. In this passage final judgment is based on how much love we have shown to our neighbour:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’.

Talking about eternal judgment makes fools of all of us mortals, and yet, these parables encourage us to believe that our actions have consequences; that God is only temporarily absent and that if we pass the test we will be rewarded with joy and co-worker status in the kingdom.