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. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

3 reasons why the Reformation is still important today

  1.  The Bible
      The Reformation was about the re-discovery of the Bible as a text that individuals could read and interpret themselves.

As Luther wrote in Article 62 of his 95 theses: ‘The true treasure of the church is the most Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God’.

John Tyndale (1494-1536) translated the Old and New Testaments into English for the first time. A job he had to complete in hiding in Germany. Nonetheless he was found, persecuted and sentenced to death, being killed in 1536. He is a founding father of the Reformation and his English text was the main source document for the King James Bible.

The Bible emerges in the Reformation as a radical and contested text; one that is not just the property of an elite religious class. As it was translated into vernacular languages it could be read and understood by ordinary Christians – or at least ones that could read! This development coincided of course with the advent of the printing press.

When we open our Bibles today then and read them we are being presented with an extraordinary gift- the Word of God – containing all things necessary for salvation – one of the 39 Articles of Religion. The reformers were keen to ensure that religion was based on the Word of God and not simply on superstitions. The reformers encouraged the reading of the whole Bible – not just the small chunks of the Bible we receive in liturgy. It’s a practice we need to encourage today. If you were interested in what I was saying last week about St Luke’s Gospel – how about reading it through from the beginning to the end between now and Christmas?

   2. Comprehension
Christianity was a religion that needed to be understood.

Related to the rediscovery of the Bible was the rediscovery of the intellectual content of faith. Medieval Christianity had created a whole feast of ritual, liturgy and iconography: books of hours, rosaries, pilgrimages, holy water, blessings, holy orders, the sacrament of marriage and so on – the whole of life was ritualised and blessed. But, the charge was that superstition and magic had over-taken Christianity and worse still simony was rife. Luther’s 95 theses were an attack against the commodification and commercialisation of salvation. But it didn’t stop there – it became an attack on the whole developed catholic practice of the faith. What the Reformers replaced it with were reason and intellectual understanding. Worship would be centred on the reading of the and the exposition of the word. Liturgy and ritual were replaced by the long sermon which is the centre piece of Protestant, Presbyterian and Reformed worship. Welcome to the 45 minute or one and a half hour long sermons! The iconoclasts raided churches, tearing down rood screens, destroying statues of saints, smashing crucifixes, getting rid of candlesticks and paintings in order that religion was stripped back to the Word of God.

So, when you argue about a Bible passage, read a Biblical commentary and engage in Biblical studies today you are in many ways doing so because of what the Reformers rediscovered, the importance of the mind and understanding when it comes to faith. The Reformation reminds us that the Bible is our text to be read, understood, debated and loved.

   3. Truth is grey
The third reason why the Reformation is important today is because it reminds us that truth is not black and white, but various hues of grey.

There is an online exhibition which presents various Reformation artefacts, and one of them which illustrates this point beautifully is a silk book mark with many strands. The book mark appears to be an object which affirms the Reformer’s worldview – here is an object which permitted a reader to mark numerous places in her Bible; a key principle in devotional reading. Except that written in Latin on the silk strands of the bookmark is the medieval prayer, Anima Christi, which was associated in the seventeenth century with the Society of Jesus: ‘It was used with an embroidered Protestant bible, suggesting an unexpected intimacy between Catholic and Protestant texts—one of either protective concealment of Catholic affiliation behind a Protestant veneer, or of the adaptation of Catholic devotional models to Protestant faith.’

Standing as we do today 500 years since the Reformation began its long course, we are reminded that Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Presbyterian and Pentecostal not to mention countless other denominations continue to exist, calling the faithful to their services and engaging them in the complex and rich traditions of the Christian faith. We can’t it seems, wipe each other out, however hard we have tried.

The Reformation history teaches us that our version of the truth, our preferences, our adopted devotional practices, our form of prayer and worship are never the whole story. We can raid churches, smash statues, condemn believers, burn them at the stake; we can write long sermons and tracts; we can reform the church; we can belittle and mock those we don’t understand or don’t agree with – but through it all – we are called back to the God of Jesus Christ who revealed something radical and new. What he revealed more fully than anyone else was that God is there to be discovered – that in prayer, worship, Bible, sacrament and song – God exists. And that he wants us to be in a relationship of love with one another. For our age today, an age of Godlessness, we need to strike out with renewed hope and proclaim that truth. God exists: You can find him (or her) in a sacred place – a holy building, a mountain walk; you can find him through service, through volunteering and showing compassion to others; you can find him in the Bible, or in the fellowship of Communion (Mass, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper!); you can find him in friendship and sacrifice; you can find him in life and in death – but most of all you have want to look.

Anima Christi
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever. Amen

Saturday, 28 October 2017

St Luke the Evangelist

The 18th October is the Feast Day of St Luke. And what a lot we should be thankful for! It might seem blindingly obvious to say, but, we know about Jesus because people who met him, encountered him and believed in him, wrote about him. Without their testimony and witness, we today, would know nothing about Jesus. It makes me feel a sense of awe and wonder – we stand in a great line of witnesses.

By Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917) Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) -, Public Domain,

It is often said that St Paul created Christianity as we practice it, but St Luke is also without comparison. St Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles, which means he wrote 25% of the New Testament.

Now, consider this, without St Luke we wouldn’t have Mary’s narrative and story. It is St Luke who tells us about Mary’s feelings and her cousin Margaret’s – he writes the story of the Annunciation and the Visitation. What of art without Luke! Above you will see an icon of St Luke painting the First Icon of the Virgin Mary. Tradition tells us that he was a painter and as he wrote the key texts of the Marian tradition the connection between him and the whole Marian tradition is established. 

Imagine Christmas without the Angel Gabriel or the shepherds in the fields. But, without Luke we would have to. It is Luke who pens the Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise) along with the Benedictus (Zechariah’s song of praise) and the Nunc Dimittus (Simeon’s song of praise). These great songs of praise begin his Gospel and the stories of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Just think, no Evensong as we know it, as those texts would not exist! No Candlemas either, as only Luke has the story of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

Think too about some of your favourite parables in the Bible – only Luke has the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, probably the most well known and loved of Jesus’ parables. It is Luke who has the short story of Mary and Martha – the one sitting at Jesus’ feet and the other busy in the kitchen; only Luke who tells us about Zacchaeus the tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus; only Luke who has the rich man and poor Lazarus at the gate; only Luke who tells the story of the Road to Emmaus. The list goes on.

St Luke has been characterised as an author who has a great concern for the outcast – for anyone on the margins, anyone who is rejected. And certainly, through his writings we see a master storyteller at work, weaving in women and the poor, the judged and the forgotten, the weak and the lost. He is concerned to tell the story of the sinner who repents and of the over-powering nature of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Our Gospel passage (Luke 10:1-9) tells us how Jesus called the 70 and sent them out as labourers to work hard and prepare the way for people to receive Jesus. They were sent with little instruction, but with a clear and certain purpose. In the Acts of the Apostles we see a group of Christians travelling to and fro, seeking places where the Gospel of Jesus might be received- risking everything to carry the message. Luke was a companion of Paul – he didn’t know Jesus himself, but one of the early followers. St Luke is an example to all of us to live our vocations – and most of all to be witnesses.

As a society that has been drenched in Christianity, we may feel that this work has been done for us. But, we cannot be in any doubt that the message of Christianity has been rejected and ignored, witnesses are needed again. Those of us gathered here who have received the message from the Apostles, the eye-witnesses, and early believers are called by Jesus to be sent out again and to tell the message.

And we do that in an age that has mastered communication methods of all sorts, but is desperate for a message that can actually transform lives. At Christmas time we have a great opportunity to remind people of the Gospel stories that inspire us to believe. We are entering into that season of opportunity here at St Andrew’s – and God calls all of us to use that time productively to communicate the message of Jesus Christ.

Without St Luke, who listened to God, who worked hard for God, our lives would be so much the poorer. Each of us must consider the work that God has called us to. Can we collaborate with God to enrich human life? What might be our contribution?

St Andrew’s Church – sitting as it does, ‘at the heart of things’ - is called to be the spiritual heart of this town. We are called to tell the story, to witness to the love of God in our lives and to share the wonderful inheritance that we have received.