Sunday, 10 April 2016

Meeting the Risen Jesus

I was quite struck by the man who took a photo (wrongly labelled at first a selfie) of himself and the hijacker of a plane, which turned out to be an instance of some love affair gone seriously awry. It got me thinking about personal identity and our modern ability to record and diary everything in the minutest detail. Does such an ability to photograph, record and write the details of our lives mean that there is nothing left to hide, nothing left to learn, everything laid bare? What will historians make of our time and culture; will they understand everything, or does the profusion of information, detail and self-disclosure obscure reality?

Or to put it another way:-

Would the disciples have taken a selfie with Jesus on the beach? If so, would that photo have proved for all time that Jesus was resurrected?

I have a sense that the resurrected Jesus couldn’t be recognised in a photo from the past, even if we did have such a photo.  And I sense this because recognising the risen Jesus is more than seeing and knowing a face; the disciples did not recognise Jesus at first, only when he revealed himself in action. We cannot look at a photo and see the Risen Lord nor can we find anything that will prove for all time that Jesus rose from the dead. Rather, we too are required to develop eyes of faith. Recognising the Risen Jesus, the early accounts tell us, requires faith. Moreover, for those who first encountered the resurrected Jesus, that encounter was also framed by a prior relationship.

Let’s look at the Bible readings we’ve seen today. Firstly, at Peter.
(John 21:1-19 and Acts 9.1-20)

For Peter that prior relationship with Jesus had become overshadowed by his denial of him. It could have been easy for Peter to refuse to see the Risen Lord. However, his encounter with the risen Jesus becomes an opportunity to remake their relationship. In his threefold insistence of his love for Jesus, Peter’s future is redrawn. His future becomes his Christian vocation, no longer a fisherman he will be a ‘fisher of people’. Jesus gives Peter back his former identity as his friend and then extends the relationship, he now too must become part of Jesus’ mission on earth – not only a friend but also a co-worker.

Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ, on the other hand, depends on him not seeing. His three-day’s blindness is a necessary counter to Paul’s determined arrogance that only he knows and is right; he needs to experience the bleakness of his own ignorance. All the same, that encounter was framed by a prior relationship with Jesus, a relationship of opposition and persecution. Note that the voice from heaven asks: ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’. Jesus’ address suggests a personal relationship, surprisingly, because Paul didn’t know Jesus when he was alive. But Paul’s persecution of the early followers of the way, is framed as personal persecution of Jesus himself. For Paul, like Peter, Jesus comes to him to reframe their prior relationship and to offer a new future, one in which the person who has seen becomes a co-worker in Jesus’ mission.

These resurrection encounters with the Risen Christ extend to our time and to our lives and they follow the same pattern. Having faith in the Risen Lord is not simply knowing the resurrection stories. I believe, we too, individually, can meet the Risen Jesus in our own time and lives. What does that encounter look like?

The Bible narratives suggest that our encounters with the Risen Lord, if indeed we have them, will make sense of our past and offer us a new future. Jesus comes to us not as a stranger but one whom we know, perhaps either as enemy, friend or simply as the one we’ve rejected or ignored. How is that? Jesus is not simply a man, but also God. Therefore, whatever way or ways we have known God in the past, our encounter with the Risen Jesus will redraw the parameters of that relationship.

How we meet Jesus, in what form and what manner will be dependent upon who we have become. But if we personally see the Risen Lord, not with our eyes, but with eyes of faith, it seems unlikely that that encounter will leave us cold or unchanged. We will, like Peter and Paul, and countless others after them, be invited by Jesus to share in his work on earth. That is another way of describing our vocation, the outworking of which will be unique and specific to us.  Vocation doesn’t mean priesthood, vocation means our unique identity formed by God and our co-operation in seeing the unfolding of that identity for the purposes of the kingdom.

We also can be sure that the resurrection stories reassure us that Jesus does not come as judge, but as reconciler and healer. He does not condemn us, rather he wills us to see him. What he requires from us is that we turn around, notice his presence and step-out with him as companions, friends and disciples, willing to suffer anything to be part of his kingdom.

If Jesus came to our society, the records of his life, encounters with him and details of his teaching may proliferate on twitter and facebook, or alternatively, he would die somewhere unnoticed by the eyes of society, by people absorbed with themselves. He would be a footnote in a newspaper or television broadcast, another radical campaigning for justice, who was silenced by the authorities. There may be some reports of people making strange claims about his body and seeing him again, causing divisions in a well-established religion, but apart from that, there would be no general agreement, or well-documented proof. For God is a silent worker, appearing to those and being noticed only by those who have eyes to see.








Monday, 7 March 2016

Bargaining with God?

When my mum was in her 20's she nearly died of a brain haemorrhage. She tells me that her parents prayed that if her life was saved they would give her to God. This sort of bargaining with God at times of crisis is common to all of us and the story of Hannah and Samuel is a similar story – Hannah bargains with God: ‘if you open my womb, I’ll return the gift back to you’ – and she fulfills that vow; she brings her weaned child to the temple to give him as a Nazirite to the Lord. (a Narzirite is set apart, they can drink nothing made from grapes, they can't cut their hair and they must avoid corpses). 

I suppose both these stories encourage us to reflect deeply on the nature of God’s relationship with us – can God really be influenced by the prayers and bargaining of God’s people? Can humans given anything to God and if so what? What are the implications of our answers to these questions?

Answering these questions necessarily brings us up sharp against the gap between God’s identity and our own. As humans we plead, bargain, ask, petition, hope, despair, loan, borrow, give and receive. But, how far is God like that? In the Jewish tradition relationship with God was governed by some leading concepts like covenant and sacrifice. God established a covenant with God’s people that asked for certain behaviours. However, when the people fell short God was merciful to them. The people sacrificed for God as a way of confessing and making atonement for their sins – reciprocity was at the heart of the Jewish description of God’s dealings and therefore relationship with his people. It was a two-sided affair –yes God was in charge, but a response was required and many a prophet argued and bargained with God and is shown to change God’s mind.

What changes, if anything, with Jesus? Calvinism interprets Christianity in a particular way and there are strands of Calvinist thought and practice that appear in Anglicanism. Calvinism takes a particular position with regards reciprocity in the dynamic between God and people. The Calvinist position emphasises free grace (the gratuitousness nature of God’s love). Humans cannot earn God’s mercy, forgiveness, etc. and they cannot influence God. There is, in this theology, no way of pleasing God by our own efforts and importantly God could not be put under any obligation by the actions of humanity: ‘For Calvin no return is possible, and any attempt to make it will lead to the endless obligation or righteousness by works that Luther decried’. Such a theology is still present in Anglican practice most clearly in the Book of Common Prayer:- the ‘we do not presume to come to this thy table merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table’ prayer puts into words a theology of grace, gratuity and complete unworthiness. God gives; we receive and give thanks.  We do not receive because we have done well; we receive because God is merciful.

In my Lent Group we have been considering the nature and practice of prayer and to my surprise I take quite a Calvinist position in relation to it. Whilst I may bargain with God and ask God for many things, to keep people safe, for protection, for healing – deep down I have a sense that all we can offer God is our thanksgiving and faithfulness and that no bargaining with God is possible – we cannot put God under any obligation to save us, other than in the way that he has already saved us – through Jesus Christ.

God is what God is and he does give to us, fully, utterly and completely in his Son, through whom we are redeemed, blessed and made whole. A true and proper understanding of this, I think, can lead to a life of greater peace because we truly receive life as gift and return our praise and thankfulness to God. Most of human living and human happiness is dependent upon our receiving the things we want to receive; on gaining the things we want to gain and on keeping the things we love. If we have this and get this, we give thanks and our faith remains. For Hannah it was so: here is my adversity, take it away from me and I will return the thanks.

But in asking God for those things we are not living a new life as a redeemed person – we are simply contracting God into the well-established human system. To live anew with freedom and in God’s grace we thank God everyday for the good and the bad, for the failings and for the successes – that is the Christian attitude: ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord’.

From Calvin’s theology came also three rules or principles which directly impacted not only on Christian community, but on politics:
1)   we act charitably to all human beings, ‘without looking to see if they are worthy or unworthy’
2)   we act charitably with a joyous face and kind words, not making any person to whom you have done a benefit obliged to you in any way
3)   we are not discharged from our duty when we have helped one person – we are in debt to those near to us for all we can provide

These three principles or rules relate to Calvin’s theology that refuses to see the relationship between God and humankind as a reciprocal one: God gives freely and overwhelming to us; Christians should do likewise to one another - giving freely with no judgment and no sense of limit. Such a practical outworking of God’s generosity helps us to live in the world of loss, disappointment and death. Through us God remakes our experience and thereby transforms our common life. In such a way and perhaps paradoxically a different sort of reciprocal relationship between God and creation does appear: we are called to copy God, in so doing we live as the redeemed and joyful ones who include everyone in their inheritance.







Monday, 1 February 2016

Looking at Jesus and being seen


The Presentation of the Christ-child in the Temple

Within the Christian tradition we do a lot of looking – we look at Jesus all the time – we tell the stories about his life, we enact out the dramas of his birth, adult ministry, death and resurrection; and today’s story is about Jesus being looked at again – presented in the temple, taken, blessed and recognised as the light of the world. Looking at Jesus is a vital part of Christian life – we learn everything from him, but the gaze is not one way – Jesus also looks back at us.

Timothy Radcliffe writes that Joy begins by letting ourselves be looked at by Jesus (What’s the point of being a Christian?)

Jesus knows intimately about the ways in which humans look at one another – being a part of our world he was exposed to the range of human emotions – he was looked at with love, with gratitude, with fear, with hope, with mercy, with compassion, with hatred, with judgment and with condemnation. On the Cross he was naked and exposed, the shame would have been overwhelming, the shame and pain of crucifixion and of others looking at him – berating, taunting and mocking. Today we remember that Simeon and Anna took him in their arms and looked at him and saw there great hope, expectation and consolation – his presence granted Simeon peace and the chance to die in peace; from expectation and hope to death and resurrection.

Jesus’ action on the Cross redraws for us the whole way that we experience God’s regard of us. The Garden of Eden story describes the way in which humanity came to fear God’s gaze – the shame of disobedience - and it therefore narrates our alienation from the loving gaze of God.

Our redemption is found in Jesus’ death through which he shows us that our sin does not alienate us from God’s loving gaze. On the cross Jesus looks at the penitent thief and tells him that he will be in paradise. Similarly, when Jesus returns from the dead his look is a look of forgiveness, peace, mercy and hope. He literally takes us by the hand and says – do not be ashamed, look here, look at my face, look at my scars, feel them, they are here, present, real, I suffered, I was hurt, humanity murdered me but I’m back, I’ve survived and I come to you now not in vengeance and anger but in forgiveness and peace! Nothing you do can separate you from the love of God in me!
Shame and fear make us turn away from Jesus (and from one another) – joy begins by letting ourselves be looked at by Jesus. We do not know how that look will transform us. In this moment, can each of us dare to see Jesus’ face, to invite him to look at us, to encourage our eyes to meet his, to turn and be saved?

The thing about people that have beheld the loving gaze of Jesus is that the transformation it makes in them leads them to look at others as Jesus looked at them. That’s how the joy becomes infectious – see how they love one another! – redeemed people shining with the glory of the face of Jesus Christ – beholding one another, looking at one another not with fear, judgment and condemnation, but with eyes of mercy, understanding, forgiveness and love.

Christian worship that would reflect that would inhabit a very different space from Victorian hierarchical churches – where the choir can only see each other and the congregation are all facing one direction looking at the priest – with the children elsewhere in Sunday School– but Jesus is here among us – in each face that blesses through a regard of true love – love that heals, that binds, that reunites, that hopes, that transforms.

Today we are receiving Adrian into the Anglican Communion – but we welcome him not only formally with prayers and liturgy, but more importantly by seeing him and his family – by not just noticing them, but in our welcome, in our attentiveness to them, in our ability to look at them and love them. And in their turn Adrian and his family become one of us here by returning that gaze, by looking back at us in Christ and seeing us as Christ sees us – not a perfect Christian community, but one that not only looks to Jesus but which rejoices in being able to receive his gaze – a community open to that all-redeeming love of God. Which is not without its challenges, remember the young man who asked Jesus what he must to do gain eternal life, Jesus looked at him and loved him and told him to go sell his possessions and give all the money to the poor. We cannot know what Jesus will ask of us who are made free by his attentiveness, but we hope and expect that what Jesus asks is for our further joy and peace and that in learning more about his face we might bless one another, recalling and repeating the Abrahamic blessing:

The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.

Numbers 6.24-26



Tuesday, 19 January 2016

East-End Epiphany

They came bearing gifts,
Gifts of numinous tone,
Less than £30 a week
And there they came
With gold crosses and chains,
Calendars, clothes and keepsakes.

They spread them out around the room
Across the tables and chairs
They hung them on the walls
As they prepared food and drink
Blew balloons and laid out flowers.

A feast prepared
A celebration
To remember

Their frequent steps
Across thresholds
Into life



Thursday, 14 January 2016

Baptism of Christ

This summer, I took part in the week of guided prayer, which we organised here at St Andrew’s. 2 priests from another diocese came to be with us for a week and each participant committed to praying for half an hour a day as well as meeting their guides for half an hour each day. We were encouraged to pray with scripture, to choose our own passages, or to be given one from our guide. I prayed with the story of the woman at the well. Almost immediately at the beginning of that week I was presented with an image, in prayer, of a plant in the desert that had completely dried up. In my imagination the roots of this plant desired to grow towards the oasis to be fed – they were desperate for water. For me this powerful image perfectly summed up how I felt inside, the state of my spiritual life. I felt that my spirit was drained, that it was literally dying of thirst – I urgently needed my spirit to be renewed with the life-giving water which comes from God: God was there and ready to give me that water.

Water is a very powerful element – parts of the UK have felt and are continuing to feel the overwhelming power of water in the ongoing flooding. Water, a daily essential, a giver and sustainer of life, is also - in too great a quantity - a threat to human existence. The Bible charts these extremes – with the story of Noah and the great flood, along with the fundamental role of baptism in our salvation. Floods can be a metaphor for the need for mass spiritual cleansing – water enacts God’s judgment; whilst at the same time water symbolises our being cleansed and washed from sin. In our baptism, water is the healer and restorer, enacting God’s mercy, his redemption and his grace.

Water plays a key role in Jesus’ ministry – he turns it into wine, for instance, as his first sign or miracle; he is baptised in the river Jordan; he meets the woman at the well and tells her that he gives water that never runs out; he washes the disciples’ feet with water; he is denied water and given vinegar on the Cross; water and blood flow from his side at his crucifixion.

Water takes on a different significance in each of these stories, representing washing and cleansing, healing and restoration, thirst and denial, the old covenant and the new, the giving of eternal life, Jesus’ role as a servant and ultimately the sign of Jesus’ humanity. Water is sacramental –  in our baptism – as well in other liturgies of the church, most importantly the Maundy Thursday liturgy of foot-washing, water is a mediator of God’s grace, a sign of the presence and working of the Holy Spirit, given to us by Jesus himself. Jesus takes the normal stuff of life – water, and through his interaction with it, makes it a means of our salvation.

When we remember Jesus’ baptism as we do today, we also remember our own baptism and in so doing we are reminded that Jesus sanctifies and bestows his grace on each of us, not just once but eternally. We need daily spiritual water that wells up to eternal life. Water in this place is not to quench our thirst but to give us eternal life. The water at the entrance is there to remind us of this, touch it, pray by it – it is a reminder that Jesus came to earth and has redeemed us all.

God with us; God among us: God revealed.

God is rejected, forgotten, ignored, blamed and abused; the same can be said, oftentimes, for his followers. Our job as Christians is to call people to worship the living God and therefore to honour and glorify the one to whom all honour and glory is due. At Christmas we have a particular opportunity to divert people’s attention away from what is of fleeting value, to what is of eternal value. Contrary to popular thought, people are hungry to be fed and eager to pray and those of us who have seen the living God must share in the joy of pointing the way to others. We do not control or contain the glory of God; we do not know where he is or isn’t at work; but we do know what we comprehend together as faithful Christians and to that we must be true. Being a Christian has never been simple – there is no golden age of Christianity when everyone believed and everyone went to church. Faith is a narrow road and only a few walk it – but nonetheless, at the same time, there are always those who have an ear for faith who are ready to come and hear what we have to say. Our role then is to be the sort of people, together, who make that listening possible. In this church we open our doors to those who seek to be in the presence of something greater than themselves; in doing that we are honouring the holy and sacred nature of the God we worship. How might we make our doors wider and more inviting? That is the job that the Parish Church Council is endeavouring to undertake on behalf of the whole community of St Andrew’s. I give thanks for the ways in which I have learnt about God’s grace and generosity here during the past year and most of all I give thanks for you, for sharing with me in the work of Christ– blessings, peace and joy for 2016.


Christ Mass

Salvation might be about the simple act of noticing,
It could be that collective amnesia
Has given birth to nostalgia,
Which in turn encourages us to
Miss the point.

The shepherds and the wise men
Made a journey
And crowded in that little
Place, they saw.

Yet, the television speaks of
Disembodied festivity:
Joy emptied, to leave
Tinsel and technology;
What else is there to be thankful for?

Bodied, enfleshed, breathing, moving, crying,
Realness glorified
Actuality, made more real than you or me
God, emptied and re-filled
Made again and made anew
That we might be re-made
Filled up, meaning spilling over
Shiny things shiny
Because we are made anew


Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Reflection 2015

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’.

Corporately and individually humans persistently and consistently reject God. We are pretty good at choosing what is bad for us- being tempted by any number of false desires. We can become addicted to all sorts of bad behaviours, like alcohol, social media, pornography or self-hatred. The simple ways that we choose to spend our time every day determine the sort of people that we become; the minor details of our lives matter to God – he has given us each moment of every day. As a modern poet, Malcolm Guite puts it:

O king of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one

Take the Biblical tale of the rich man at his gate. He ignores the daily pleas of the poor and sickly man, Lazarus, and after a life of selfish indulgence he finds himself languishing in hell – from where he has a conversation with Abraham. He pleads with Abraham to go and tell his brothers to repent and serve the poor, but Abraham tells him that even if someone comes back from the dead to tell them, they would not believe.

We’ve just started reading the Christmas Carol to our children and it is a story about conversion – about someone learning what it is healthy to desire. Endless money and no capacity to be joyful is a dead end nightmare that leads nowhere. Scrooge is visited by a number of ghosts who reveal to him the bad choices that he has made that have closed up his heart. Most of us are not so lucky to have the reality of our falsehood presented to us at night by ghosts come to save us, (the rich man’s request of Abraham) – but conversion of heart comes less quickly than Dicken’s narrative allows us to hope. Conversion of heart is a painful exercise, not something that we necessarily have the courage for: can we face our demons, our inner battles, can we see the innocent face of God looking at us with love, dare we acknowledge the eyes that meet ours, not with judgment but with mercy?

Religion is despised by many, rejected, ill thought of, the reason for wars and the cause of the entire world’s ills – through the sludge of what man has corporately subjected God to, there is a different story. The dark drives and themes in our world try to drown out the discourse of love and hope that true religion and the one God communicate. Simple people, seeking to love God and neighbour are the humble little ones with whom God dwells; like Mary, like the poor shepherds, like the wise travellers who came from afar, like you and me, who come to this church tonight, seeking to worship the true and living God who brings love and peace and hope into our world.

The Advent season is about learning to long for God, which means learning to long for the things that are of true worth and value.

Throughout Advent we anticipate God’s coming.

But, God comes, always with an element of surprise – we didn’t quite expect this!

God’s emptying of himself into our world as a baby, is a story of how emptying, sacrifice, chosen vulnerability and weakness are the only ways to peace and love. God’s incarnation as a baby reveals the fragility and vulnerability of truth- God is not a violent warrior enforcing his power and control over people; he is a helpless baby, choosing the way of non-violence, who grows into the Prince of Peace. Seeking to be invulnerable is a human endeavour and it leads to hell: think of the way in which gun culture in America generates a violent culture, in the name of protection.

In a society which priorities fulfillment of any desire, good or bad, the Gospel of self-emptying love tells a different story of what makes for well-being.

God is everywhere for those who have eyes to see and nowhere for those who are blind. Heaven is a place we can enter through longing for the right things; hell is the place we make ourselves through our false desires.

Tonight we have an opportunity in which we are invited again to depend upon God, to be attuned to the ways in which he speaks to us and to repent of all that leads us away from him. He waits patiently for us, ever ready to welcome us, every ready to show us the face of his mercy and grace. And his promises are sure:

‘But, to all who received him and believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God’.