Saturday, 6 October 2018

Christian Today - Opposite-sex civil partnerships are a Bad idea

The news site Christian Today has kindly published an article by me on why Theresa May's plan to introduce opposite-sex civil partnerships is a bad, unnecessary idea.

Read the whole argument here:
Opposite-sex civil partnerships: Divisive, pointless and an all-round bad idea

Basically, the commitment in marriage is a good thing. And we can't encourage more stable relationships by watering down the idea of commitment involved in marriage and by dividing a common institution in half. Also there is no other example of parallel, identical legal institutions that do the same thing. The government should be promoting marriage, and helping people be prepared for stable, long-lasting marriages not undermining it. 


Sermon on Acts 4:1-22 - Peter and John arrested by the High Council

"Then they called them in and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You judge! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”" Acts 4:18-20.

These words are the core of our reading today. In the choice of the Sanhedrin, and the response of Peter and John, we see totally opposite approaches to the same facts, the same events. Two options we have today, two options our whole country, our whole world has today and in the years to come.

Peter and John healed a crippled man in the name of Jesus Christ, and preached the news of his resurrection to the crowds. For this they were thrown into prison by the Sanhedrin, the High Council or High Court, of the Jewish people at that time, the same council that had convicted Jesus, and now faced his disciples confidently preaching the news that he had risen to new life. When this High Council, sent Jesus to die they must have thought their problem was solved. Killing a man tends to stop him causing you any more trouble. And movements built around one charismatic man or woman tend to disappear when that person is dead. But months later, they are faced with Peter and John leading a growing movement, preaching and healing through that same Jesus Christ. And the response of the Council shows they are confused, "What are we going to do with these men?", they ask.

Like many politicians today that have to deal with problems all the time, but still, they have surprisingly few ways to do it.  They can't bribe Peter and John, that clearly won't work, and they don't have an excuse to kill them, so they're fresh out of ideas.  If you're a ruler in an ancient, undemocratic society, paying people off or killing them is usually the solution. So the Council tries their backup plan, they try to order them around, threaten them, intimidate them, and hope they're scared into keeping quiet. But if they hoped Peter and John would be scared into silence, they have no idea what kind of men they are dealing with.

For these are not the same men they were before. In the Gospels Peter was brash, he was enthusiastic, he always ran in first without thinking. But at the most important moment he was brittle too. When they came to arrest Jesus, Peter ran away, and when Jesus was held prisoner facing death, in fear Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Peter talked a good talk, and when the going seemed good he was enthusiastic, but when things turned sour he flunked the real test of commitment and loyalty pretty bad.

Jesus never gave up on Peter though, not after the Resurrection, not on the Cross. "Forgive them Lord, they do not know what they do" - I wonder if that was meant for Peter too, who did not kill Jesus, but had gone back on the commitment he had promised to his friend. Indeed, often our friends abandoning us hurts more than our enemies actively trying to harm us. And after the Resurrection Jesus welcomed Peter back: Jesus practiced exactly what he preached, he forgave Peter and restored him to a position of trust, by challenging him to raise himself up through taking responsibility for Jesus' followers the way he had - Peter "take care of my sheep", he said.

Jesus knew Peter's potential despite the weakness and fraility in his personality, but in total difference to the High Council, Jesus does not seek to lead by ordering or threatening people but as a true leader, one who shows his example of integrity, compassion, and sacrifice, and so inspires and invites people to choose to follow after him. And of course, this doesn't just apply to Peter, the same Love Jesus had for Peter is the love he has for every one of us, every day. He has no wish to hold our sins against us, or our shame, our guilt, or our fear, but holds out a hand every day saying 'follow me', rise to the challenge, be a little more the person your best moments show you can be. Follow me, not on your own, never on your own, but with God's help and grace, filled with power by his trust and love.

And so Peter stood up, a bit taller, and allowed himself to be inspired to rise to the challenge and take responsibility for that community he had around him. But even all that, Good Friday and those Resurrection meetings, that's not all that transformed the old Peter, enthusiastic but uncertain, into the new Peter we see in Acts. Even in the book of Acts we see the disciples still uncertain about what is going on. Just before Jesus ascends into heaven they're asking him, "‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’" and for the last time on this earth he has to lovingly correct them.

But then, on Pentecost, Fire comes. Fire comes down, the Holy Spirit of God comes to live in the disciples and everyone who puts their trust in Jesus. And these people, they are not the same.

So now they are standing before the Council that condemned Jesus, being threatened and commanded, with genuine reason to fear for their lives, What are they like? Certain! Clear! In fact, totally unfazed! I'm sure they felt fear inside, they're still human after all, but their conviction was so great that it overwhelmed their fear. And so they stood utterly solid, their heards held high and their backs straight, and spoke the simple and utter truth. I-mean, what a revolutionary thing to do, no embellishment, no beating around the bush, just the plain truth - "As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard". And the Council couldn't believe it. "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were uneducated, ordinary men, they were astonished." Astonished! But why were they astonished?

It might need fancy degrees, and training in rhetoric and debating, to come up with complex justifications for things that probably shouldn't be justified. But it does not require any training at all to speak the plain truth about what you have seen and heard, and nothing more. Jesus talked about the "wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the water rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; but it did not fall down", because its foundations were deep in that solid rock. Peter and John were those wise men that day, because they had seen and heard the truth, that Jesus is risen, and they set their foundations, their words, in the deep and solid rock.

I'm sure they still felt fear, that's a totally understandable physical response to knowing you're under threat, but they were not afraid. After all, why should they be afraid, knowing what they knew. All the High Council could do was threaten their bodies with physical violence, to beat them or even kill them. But what do those threats mean to men who have seen their Lord pass from death to life again, and know he has gone "to prepare a place" for them? And this is true in their speech - clear, direct, honest. No need to lie, or embellish, or circle round the point. What more needs adding to Jesus' words, or taking away from the truth of what God did in those 50 days from Good Friday to Pentecost, was doing through Peter and John then, and is still doing now?

And there is freedom in that. Many times in our wider Church, our Society, our Politics, we get bogged down in too many words, tieing ourselves up in complex arguments about things that actually are distracting us from what really matters. For the apostle John, who stood beside Peter, what really mattered was summed up like this- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life", and elsewhere he said it even more briefly, "God is Love". Not because that's the only thing that matters, but because everything that does matter connects to that. Now, at times we need more words, this sermon is not 3 words long. But the more words we pile up, inevitably the further away we get from words that really matter, and we run the risk that each additional word means less and less. Our words and thoughts are freed this when we know what really matters and we keep it at the front of our mind.

Of course this freedom doesn't just free us from needing too many words. More importantly it defines how our words can be spoken. I-mean, what emotional place our words come from. Peter and John were now living in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, and with that we can be powerfully changed. They knew that if they fell in this world then God would catch them. Even if they died in the flesh they would rise in the Spirit to their Lord who waited for them. So they were  not afraid, and more, they had no trace of all the terrible feelings that come out of fear, and damage us as individuals, and our wider society.

There was no bitterness in Peter and John, and the other disciples, no hatred, no deceit, no cunning, no worry, not even really any anger. Because like fear, what need do they have for those things? A few chapters later in Acts, St Stephen, my namesake, was stoned to death by an angry crowd, the first Christian to die for speaking about Jesus. But even as the stones fell his last words were "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He had no need for bitterness too, he had seen Jesus sat at God's right hand only moments before. I'm not saying it's easy, or we can all do it instantly, most sadly not, but we can all have that knowledge before us, and over time let it slowly soften our soul.

In the end all our negative emotions are attempts to defend ourselves by forcing the world into the shape we want through sheer force of will. When people watch a football match, they often feel all sorts of fears and doubts, they get angry about a decision or an event while the match is going on, because they want to make the result go how they want it by their own sheer emotional effort. That's why we yell at the TV. But if we already know the final score, because it's a recording or whatever, if we already know the final score then none of that anger, rage and doubt are there.

Peter and John, and all of us, we know the final score of this world, proved through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We know, we should know, that God will catch us if we fall, and with that knowledge we can let go of the fear and tension and doubt in ourselves we hold inside. We still have to act, of course we do. But in everything we do we can let go, and let God. No need to cling to our schemes and strategies, that consciously or unconsciously we use to try to fully control the world around us. Beause it won't work anyway, and we don't need it.

This can lift a heavy weight off our shoulders. Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are tired and burdened, and I will give you rest",  come to me, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” How could he say that? Jesus was murdered, his disciples were almost all murdered, he calls us to be willing to give everything, to devote our hearts to God and to our neighbour before ourselves. How is this a light burden?

Well, we see the answer clearly in Peter and John, because they have lost the weight of bitterness, of hate, of needing to fight to defend ourselves, of being afraid; because beyond the veil of this physical world around us they know their Lord, Our Lord, waits for them with all the power of Heaven. The Council can threaten their bodies, but that is all they can do, and with God's power filling their souls, that is not very much indeed; and with that all stripped away there is no reason left to be afraid, they are left with what is truly real - the presence of God and his Love. And that is an easy burden indeed.

So that is Peter and John, but what about the Sanhedrin, the High Council they're facing?  We see in them a mirror-image, the opposite of what we see in Peter and John, and sadly one that is all too common in our world. They threatened Peter and John, and what a waste of time that was. But what was the reason that they had dragged the Disciples before them to be imprisoned, threatened and intimidated? Peter had healed a man who had been sadly unable to walk for many years and when people demanded to know how he did this, Peter replied that it was not through their own power or holiness, but God who had done it through the name of Jesus Christ. And for this they were arrested.

The High Council knew as well that this was at least partially true. They could see the healed man standing there, an act of great kindness to that man, physically changing his life. That was a fact. They knew something incredible had happened, even if they didn't believe it was Jesus who was the true cause of it. And when we're faced with any new fact, we always have the choice, the option of learning something from it. Even if they didn't accept Jesus right then and there, they knew something very special, of goodness and power, had happened in front of them. So what did they learn from it? Nothing!

Jesus came preaching love, and 'turning the other cheek', and doing miracles of healing, and they had him killed for it, and assumed that was the end of it. Then Peter and John came healing a man crippled for many years, speaking love and truth, and the hope of salvation in Jesus' name, and they threatened them too. Jesus said "by their fruit you shall know them", but these politicians refused to learn anything from the good fruit Peter and John were producing. The High Council knew it was a miracle, but they learnt nothing from it. But why did they learn nothing from it? Because they were already sure they knew everything they needed to know. They thought they knew how God would act and who he would choose to act through, so sure that when some piece of miraculous goodness happened in front of them they could not see it.  They were so sure, they thought anyone who argued or acted differently was obviously a troublemaker up to no good. And that certainty meant they did not care if they had to use low, evil methods to get rid of them, for they believed it was ultimately in a good cause.

Does that sound to you like any problem we have in society today? My friends this is what partisanship, and tribalism, and ideological bubbles do to people throughout history. All of us can fall victim to it if we close our minds to the possibility that we could learn from someone different to ourselves. And that doesn't matter if they're different politically, or religiously, or ethnically, or different in age, or whatever.

Now in our society we don't generally go around threatening people with violence, though it does happen, but too often people go immediately into a defensive position when their side, their group, their team is challenged. We are too willing to assume bad faith in our opponents, to attack the man rather than the issue that has been raised, to automatically defend things if it means defending our side, and to attack any statement, idea or person that we see as on the wrong side, the other side. If we close our eyes and block up our ears, like the High Council did before Peter and John, then inevitably we miss part of the good that appears in front of us, and find ourselves defending or ignoring part of the evil, or responding with low and devious methods, because we believe the ends justify the means.

The answer is simple my friends - Like Peter and John we know the truth that God's infinite, eternal, over-powering Love for each and every one of us cannot be harmed or damaged by anything this world can throw at us. We know the truth that they killed Christ but he rose again and brings Resurrection to every one of us, and that turns all the threats of violence and deceit of this world into a pathetic nothing.

We know God's eye sees all good and all evil, that his word is the last and ultimate word, and that God never seeks to condemn a person because that person has a flaw within them. So we are free from any need to lash out defensively, to cling on and protect what we see as good with evasion, with bitterness, with slander, with abuse. We have no need for any of that, but can admit every fault with ourselves, or with our group, or with the world, without any trace of fear it will be used against us, and be open to see every piece of goodness wherever it may be found, in the knowledge Peter and John had, that God will catch us if we fall.

I believe that's our best hope, and the best hope for our world as well.

Amen.           


Image borrowed with thanks from http://millersportcc.com/sermons/bold-and-courageous/