Monday, 19 September 2022

The Spectator - The Moral Inspiration of Tolkien’s Universe

Very grateful to The Spectator for publishing an essay of mine on the moral ideas that define Tolkien's
Middle Earth, and why accusations of racism massively miss the point.  

I talk about the way he approaches death, war, suffering, self-sacrifice, nobility and beauty, all with a remarkable nuance and subtlety, shaped by his personal war experiences and his profound Christian faith, that is sometimes not recognised.

The Moral Inspiration of Tolkien's Universe
https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-moral-inspiration-of-tolkien-s-universe 




Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Sermon on John 11:17-27 - I am the Resurrection and the Life

Getty Images
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”


Today we continue our series of sermons on the 'I AM' sayings of Jesus from John's Gospel. As most of you will now know, these are a series of powerful statements in which Jesus reveals different aspects of who he really is, and what it means for him to be the Son of God.

More than that, in each of these statements he identifies himself with God in a profound way. He echoes the great declaration God made from the Burning Bush to Moses before God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. Moses asked, what was the name of God that he should give to the people of Israel, and from the Burning Bush God answers “I AM WHO I AM". This is what you must say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me.’” In the Burning Bush, God revealed himself to Moses in a new way, as the One who would stand in a Covenant with the people of Israel; and now in these 'I AM' statements Jesus is revealing himself in a series of new ways. He's giving pieces of detail about who God is and what he means to us.

Today we are looking at the statement - "I am the Resurrection and the Life" - and the context of this statement involves the death of Lazarus: Jesus' friend, and the brother of Mary and Martha, who appear a number of times in the Gospels. Lazarus has fallen sick and then died, and Jesus travels to visit Mary and Martha in their grief. When Martha hears Jesus is coming she runs out to meet him, she has probably been waiting for him, wondering when he would turn up. When she sees him she is clear about her faith in him, she addresses him as Lord, but her statement of faith carries a sharp edge. "If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask". You can hear the criticism in her words, it's implicit, but that doesn't take away the sting. 

"But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask", there's a request there as well, and like the rebuke it's implicit, but pretty obvious. Jesus does not take offence at either her rebuke, or her request. He knows the grief and pain she is speaking from. God wants us to speak to him honestly and openly in our grief. God is big enough to handle it; he only asks that we trust in him to answer. 

Martha had faith that Jesus could yet save her brother, though she did not understand why Jesus had waited. We have all lost loved-ones at some point in our life, we have all been in Martha's place, and like her we must have faith in God's purpose. Sometimes the answer to our prayers comes in this life, and in other times we must wait and have faith that beyond the veil of physical death God will bring healing and justice to all our loss.

Jesus answers the question that she has not asked and assures her, saying "your brother will rise again", but she doesn't entirely understand. She replies saying, "“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Now, as Christians when we talk about the Resurrection we usually mean, first and foremost, Christ's Resurrection after the Crucifixion, which we particularly celebrate every year at Easter. But Martha here is speaking within the Jewish tradition she is familiar with. 

In this tradition the Resurrection was a great and terrible event that would happen at the end of the World, at the Apocalypse. At the end of time, the Jews believed that all people would be judged by God according to their actions. The righteous dead would rise from their graves to live with God forever, and evil people would be destroyed. This, by the way, is still basically the understanding of what the Resurrection means in Islam, it is repeated again and again in the Quran.

In Martha's Jewish understanding at the time, this is strictly a future event. She has faith that Lazarus will be raised at the end of time, when God brings an end to the whole universe and judges the wicked and the righteous, but until then she can only wait; hence her grief that Jesus was not there in time to preserve Lazarus alive here and now. Jesus' reply transforms this traditional understanding of Resurrection. "I am the Resurrection and the Life", he says. Instead of being a hoped-for act of God in some distant future, Jesus is telling her that the Resurrection is here and now, standing in front of her. 

"I am the Resurrection and the Life". He is personalising this great final act of God, he is saying it is in himself and through himself that Resurrection comes, right now. He demonstrates this by raising Lazarus from the dead, immediately after this reading, though he'd been dead for four days, though he was starting to rot. Almost nothing could make a more dramatic example of what it means for the Resurrection to be here and now. Jesus goes on to explain what Resurrection and Life in him and through him will mean. "The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” There are two different deaths Jesus is speaking of here. At first we will die, yet live; and then we shall never die. 

At first he is talking about our physical death in this age, we know that we still suffer physical death: St Peter died, and St Paul died, and every one of the Saints down to our own family and loved ones have still died. But in Christ death has lost its sting, for this death is not the end, it is merely another step along the climb to greater Life, more enduring, eternal Life; "Life in all its fullness".  We cannot now fully appreciate and understand what this will mean, but we can approach it. In our music and worship, when we feel the love and fellowship of friends and family, or out in Nature; anywhere we feel the presence of God, we gain a glimpse of what that life will be like, when we will live in God's clear and direct presence forevermore. In moments of surpassing beauty and peace, when briefly it seems our cares have fallen away, we get a glimpse of what that life is like. 

Have you ever been looking forward to going somewhere on holiday, and then you go and it's even better than you expected, more joyful, more carefree, more beautiful? Have you ever been waiting at a train station or a bus station for a loved one to return after a long absence? Have you ever sat there surrounded by concrete and dinge, waiting for someone you love more than life itself, and then finally they appear, and you run to hug them and hold them, and its like the sun comes out and the air is clear, and for a moment there is nothing but joy and safety and relief.  These things reveal to us in part the Life that God is giving us. Saints and Mystics have experienced it too in another way, as sheer bliss, indescribable bliss, that comes from seeing God with the mist between us totally fallen away. Even for mystics, in this life, that perfectly clear vision last only for moments; but Jesus makes clear that through him that true life is destined to endure, saying "whoever lives by believing in me shall never die".

We must realise though that this Life, with a capital L, this Resurrection, is not just something that happens after we die, or at the end of the Universe. No, Jesus says, "I am the Resurrection and the Life". The Resurrection was there standing and speaking with Martha, in a village outside Jerusalem. From the moment of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and then more so once his ministry began in Galilee, the Resurrection and the Life was happening and is happening still. Jesus does not point us to the Resurrection, and the Life, he does not point us towards God; he is God, he is the Resurrection and the Life, and through him we can be part of that Resurrection today and everyday.

We grow as children and teenagers, and our bodies and minds develop, and we think that we are done growing and developing. But with God we are still children, however old we get, and if we have faith in Jesus, if we follow where he leads, then every day we can grow, we can experience resurrection and enter into new and deeper life. The Resurrection is happening all around us, if we follow Jesus, if we put our trust in him, then we can grow and grow.

Martha and the Jews were expecting the Resurrection and the coming of the Messiah, as some future event where God would flip the world upside down, overthrow their enemies, condemn the wicked, and make everything right. They thought they just needed to stay as righteous as possible by the Law, and keep out of trouble until that day.  But Jesus was telling them, No, the Resurrection is in me! It is standing in front of you. It is among you, here and now, with God's own terrifying power, and that power will spread from Jesus to every willing heart that trusts enough to follow where he led. Our Resurrection means that we are called, one individual soul at a time, to walk his journey of service and sacrifice, and so spread new life from soul to soul. 

And we know how this was done: Christ shared in our death, even so we could share in his Resurrection. Remember what he says in this reading, "The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die." Martha may not have understood this at the time, but she, like the other disciples, understood after Christ's own Resurrection. Christ lives, even though he died, and now he shall never die.  But this was not a piece of divine showing-off, God was not doing this to prove he could, but as the first step in spreading resurrection to us all. In the words of St Paul, Jesus is "the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep", the evidence of the greater harvest to come, so through him we may enter into true life, that does not start after we've died, but from when we first accept Christ, and grows whenever we turn to him.

The Bible makes clear that one day Christ will return in the same way he left us, and there will be a final Judgement, and it will be great and terrible. So why does God delay? Only God knows for certain when and why. But we do know that "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so through him the world might be saved". God does not want to destroy the world, he wants to save it. So I suspect God delays so the Good News may grow and spread, that more people may have a chance to know Jesus of their own free choice and be saved; that people on continents and in countries that Martha could not have imagined may first experience the Good News of Resurrection in their own lives. God's Kingdom is like a seed that falls to the ground and is buried, but then it sprouts. That means it grows inch by inch, first a fragile seedling, then a slender sapling, and finally a mighty tree, whose branches and leaves grow and spread. Sometimes frost or drought or disease may delay the growth, but through the power of God the final result is certain. 

At the end of his astonishing statement, Jesus challenges Martha, "Do you believe this?", and she responds in glorious style, "“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Amen to that. Martha's statement is an amazing declaration of faith, but faith only begins with the mouth; if it means anything it needs to carry on throughout the body, into the brain and the thoughts we have, into the heart and the love we have for others, into our hands and feet, and the work we will do to serve and support the people around us. 

In any community, one of the greatest dangers is complacency and inertia. Do we become static, sedentary and sluggish, or are we being filled each day with new energy through the Holy Spirit? Resurrection means new and transformed life, if we are brave enough to embrace it, if we are willing to rely on God's strength, that is so much greater than our own. 

So what risks are we prepared to take? Which new people are we prepared to trust? What new ideas are we prepared to embrace? Do not be afraid. Though we face uncertainty and danger in this world, the victory of God is certain, so there is no need to be afraid. But also, we must not be complacent. God gives us time, so beauty and love may grow and spread, but not so we can waste it. Let us never hesitate from doing good, but embrace the chance; let us not delay in reaching out to people with the Good News that God offers, but speak out today. In every thing we do let us bring our best efforts to God, knowing he deserves nothing less; and knowing that God will bless the gift, however humble it may be.

Amen.  


Sunday, 12 June 2022

Why do we believe God is a Trinity? - Acts 2:14-36

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of
you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
 I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
 And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Joel 2)

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
    Because he is at my right hand,
    I will not be shaken.
 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest in hope,
 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    you will not let your holy one see decay.
 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence.’ (Psalm 16)

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”’ (Psalm 110)

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”


Today is Trinity Sunday and our reading follows on directly from the reading for Pentecost we had last week. Last week we heard about the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Jesus' disciples and they were blessed, praising God in many languages. In response to this a crowd gathers around them wondering what is happening, and Peter addresses them as we have heard. This is perhaps the first Christian sermon, and it is rather humbling to be following in its steps today.

It is also a great reading for Trinity Sunday, because here he talks about all three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit being present and active in the events of Easter and Pentecost, and through the three persons of God we are carried up and included in God's great work, with the Spirit within us, the Son beside us, and the Father above us. Humanity is the 4th part of this, called to be part of Christ's body, and so surrounded by God.

In the Gospels, the disciples often struggle to grasp what Jesus is telling them will happen, but here after time with the resurrected Jesus following Easter, and with the Holy Spirit newly come upon them they finally understand God's plan to build his Kingdom. Here we see the very earliest Christian theology, the attempt to wrestle with the astonishing things that the Disciples had seen. And the understanding of God as a Trinity of persons is at the very centre of that from the beginning.

People sometimes struggle to understand the idea of the Trinity, and they use all kinds of odd analogies to compare God to things in our world. But while we should try to understand this idea, we must remember that we will never fully grasp the nature of God with our mortal, limited minds. But thanks to God revealing himself to us we can get a partial view of his eternal nature "as in a cloudy mirror" .

This is profound and fundamental stuff, and we should not expect it to be entirely simple, just as the world we live in, the universe we live in, can be complex and paradoxical. The more Science delves into the fundamental nature of physical reality, the more astonishing it seems to be. When I was at university, we studied Einstein's theory of Relativity: did you know that if you travel fast enough, time actually slows down, from your perspective, but not that of the people around you? Did you know that gravity also actually slows down time by distorting the fabric of space around massive objects? Did you know that at very small sizes, quantum sizes, physical matter acts like a wave and can diffract and refract the way lights does when it shines through water? Did you know that mathematicians study different sizes of infinity, and that if you add one infinity to another, it's the same size, but if you take an exponential - say two to the power of an infinity, you get a larger infinity?

Now, you may wonder why I'm getting off the topic, but I promise you all this is relevant, because, as C.S.Lewis once said, we should not expect spiritual reality to be any less complex and bizarre than physical reality; we should not expect Theology to be less wonderful than Physics. Indeed, it is from that spiritual reality, it is from God, that the complexity and beauty of the physical world originates. "The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the skies display his handiwork", as the Psalms say.

And when we are talking about the Trinity, we are talking about the Special Relativity, or the Quantum Mechanics of Theology. There's lots of things about God, lots of true things, that even a small child can understand; just like there's lots of things about the natural world, about the Sun and Moon and stars, that anyone can grasp. But with the Trinity you're getting into the heart of things, the fundamental reality that everything else comes from: and that is going to start stretching us.

So why do we describe God as a Trinity? Well, because it is the only explanation that fits the evidence. In Physics, Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics were nobody's first guess. Nobody invented them because they seemed sensible or common sense, or because they're what you come up with if you just sit down and try to be reasonable about it. No. They are complex, counter-intuitive ideas that are demanded by the facts we have gathered through experiments.

In the same way, the Trinity is nobody's first idea of what God is like, it's not common-sense, it's not the sort of theory you come up with if you just sat down and made something up. But it is beautiful, and it is the truth. It is the understanding the Apostles, and the generations of Christians who came after them, put together because it seemed the only one that fit the facts they had experienced. So, what sort of facts are those?  When we seek to understand physical reality, we get laboratories and telescopes and a lot of equipment, but we can't do that with Spiritual reality. God is not an object to be measured and weighed, but he is a person, three persons in fact, and because we are persons too, made in God's image, we can experience him because he has revealed himself to us. This is the type of evidence that we have, it is the kind of evidence you have that someone loves you, it is the kind of evidence you have that music is beautiful; or that life is worth living: it's the experience of the heart, the spirit and the soul, of one person revealing themselves to another. It is the type of evidence that, in the end, really matters.

So what facts led to the understanding of the Trinity: that the one God, the creator of all things, exists in three persons, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Firstly, was the experience the Apostles had of Jesus himself, that here was a man who spoke of God as Father, as separate from him; but who also did miracles, forgave sins on his own authority, commanded the wind and waves to obey him, who fulfilled the prophecies about God coming to his people, and revealed God's Kingdom as though he knew its every detail. Here was a man who described himself as the Son of the Father, who alone reveals the Father - The Way, The Truth and the Life. And they had witnessed the Father honouring Jesus as his Son, most gloriously through his Resurrection. This was a man, but this was not just a man, this was Emmanuel - God-With-Us.

So there was God, who Jesus had revealed to the apostles as the Father, and then there was Jesus his Son, two persons of God: but there was also a third. There was the Holy Spirit that had been poured out onto them, whose power they felt moving within them, speaking to them. This was not the Father, for the Father exists infinite and eternal, beyond time and space and our physical universe; and it was not the Son, it was not Jesus, who they had seen ascend into heaven; it was a third person of God that they were all experiencing resting in them, filling them with courage and understanding. This is the reality that generation after generation of Christians have lived with, through struggles and triumphs and losses; and the reality we can only explain through the idea of the Trinity: the Father who created all things; the Son who walked on our earth and lived our life and bore our hurt; and the Spirit who dwells every day within us.

It is important to realise that this is not just a New Testament idea, either. God did not become Trinity when Jesus was born, or baptised, or resurrected. God has always been Trinity, from eternity to eternity, and that is written throughout the Bible, from beginning to end. It is easy for us to look for the Trinity in the New Testament, but as well as their own experiences, the Apostles and early Christians looked into the only Scriptures they had: the Hebrew Scriptures, that we call the Old Testament. And we can see that in the reading today: Peter makes clear what the Father has done through Jesus at that time, but to explain this to the people of Jerusalem, Peter looks back to the Old Testament scriptures they knew so well.

Firstly, he claims the promise of the Prophet Joel that God, "will pour out [his] Spirit on all people", that "sons and daughters will prophesy" and "even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit". Then he quotes from the Psalms: notice here that Peter is saying it is Christ himself speaking in that first psalm. When it says "I saw the Lord always before me, because he is at my right hand", that is Christ, the Son, talking about his Father, though David wrote the psalm. We know this because he refers to himself as the "holy one" who will not be abandoned "to the realm of the dead", but as all Jews knew, David sinned, and he died, and his tomb was known. It is Christ who was resurrected. Then in the second psalm it is not Christ speaking, but David being given a glimpse of the Father addressing the Son: "The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand". David was the King of Israel, he had no Lord except God, so who are these two figures: The Lord addressing David's Lord? They are the Father and the Son.

The New Testament is not some dramatic left-turn away from the path taken by the Old Testament, rather it is a reflection on a thousand years of God's promises to his people; and whether it's the Gospel, or here in Acts, or Paul's Letters, it declares with one voice that the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, spoke of Christ. This is one of those things that sounds strange at first, but when you know where to look, you start seeing it everywhere. Now, when I say the Old Testament speaks of Christ, that could mean two things: firstly, it could mean the Old Testament prophesied and promised that Christ would come. It certainly does that, if you've ever listened to a 'Nine Lesson and Carols' service at Christmas-time you have heard a highlight of points in the Old Testament when Christ's coming was promised; or you can read Isaiah chapter 53, the Suffering Servant, and I really challenge you to tell me that passage isn't describing Jesus, though it was written 500 years before he was born.

So the Old Testament promised that Christ would come: as Emmanuel, God-With-Us, and Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. But, just as important for understanding why we have our doctrine of the Trinity, is the fact that God the Son, who has existed from eternity, and was born in Bethlehem as Jesus, Mary's Son; also appears in the Old Testament, again and again. He appears, as a separate person from God the Father; and he is recognised as God, by people in the Old Testament. In the same Old Testament that famous declares that "the LORD is our God, the LORD is one", the same Old Testament that is the source of Monotheism, our belief in One God, that we share with Jews and Muslims, and Sikhs and others.

In the Old Testament, the Son appears most often as a mysterious figure identified as the 'Angel of the Lord'. Do not be fooled by the word 'angel' though, for this is no mere angel, but rather one who is sent by God to save and teach his people, who speaks as God, and is recognised as God. If I were to go through all the times this happened, I would be here all day, so I just want to briefly talk about two of the first examples in the Old Testament from the book of Genesis.

Hagar was the maidservant of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, but because Abraham and Sarah had no children, Abraham took Hagar as his wife as well, and Hagar became pregnant with a son. But Sarah then was jealous of Hagar and so mistreated her, leading to Hagar running away into the wilderness. There the Angel of the Lord found her in the wilderness and told her to go back, and promised her that God will bless her son and make him the father of a great nation. This is how she responds (in Genesis 16:13) - "She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”" Hagar has spoken to the Angel of the Lord, but she knows she has seen God. Who is this God, who comes as the messenger from God?

Then two generations later we have Jacob, Abraham's grandson, and he had run away from his family because he was afraid of his brother Esau. Now years later he is returning to his family with his wives and children, afraid that Esau will attack him. The night beforehand though, he has a strange meeting: a man appears from nowhere and wrestles, physically grapples with Jacob through the night, until morning is about to come, then the man touches Jacob's hip and dislocates it. The man then says to Jacob "“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome.”", he blesses Jacob and then disappears. Jacob is in no doubt about who he met, like Hagar he says (in Genesis 32:30) "So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

I could quite literally go on and on like this for some time, there are so many examples, and when you realise what you're looking at, they're so clear. John's Gospel tells us that "nobody has seen the Father", except the Son. So who is this God, who comes from God the Father, who meets us face to face, who brings God's blessing to Hagar, and to Jacob, and so many others throughout the Old Testament? He is the Son, who in the fulness of time was born in Bethlehem at the first Christmas, and ever since we know as our Lord Jesus Christ, who unites our humanity with God forevermore. But God has always been Trinity from the beginning. That is what Peter is talking about in our reading today, that was what Jesus meant when he claimed that the Law and the Prophets all pointed to him, and that has been the Christian faith from the beginning.

Why does this matter though? Until we see God face-to-face in heaven none of us can fully comprehend how the three persons of the Trinity relate to each other, or how they share a Will and Purpose as One God. But this is not just a matter of abstract theology, it matters because it is at the core of what God has done for us. God became one of us and died for us; God's Holy Spirit dwells within us. That is amazing, and if we did not believe God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we could not say it was true. It was not some prophet or spirit somewhere between us and God who became man and died for us, it was God himself. It is not some mere blessing from a distant God that lies upon us, it is the Holy Spirit, God himself, who lives within us. It is this that makes the Christian faith unique.

Islam, the Muslim faith, is in many ways like Christianity, it is based on belief in One God, that is believed to be the same God described in the Old Testament. But it differs from Christianity in this one crucial point: Muslims believe that it is not possible that God could have been born as a man and died for us. Islam believes that to stoop so low, as to be born in a stable, and to die on a cross, would shame God, would make God less.

We believe that it makes God more. We believe that God is so glorious that by being born as a Man he makes humanity and our whole world holy. We believe that it proves God is even greater than we imagined, that he could face death on the cross and make it no shame. We believe God showed greater love than we could imagine, because he did not scorn our weakness. We believe that the martyr who sacrifices his own life triumphs nonetheless, because the Holy Spirit within him is more powerful than any physical force or violence. It is this faith that allows Peter, in our reading today, to speak with such astonishing confidence, as he does again and again in Acts, knowing that the power of mobs and armies and kings is nothing before the power of Jesus Christ.

Christ changes everything, he changes lives, and whole societies; he is the sure and certain rock around which everything else in this world must turn, because he is God. Through the Holy Spirit there is nothing we need fear, for the power within us is greater and more enduring than any in the world, because he is God. And all this comes from the Father, who is the eternal source and creator of all things. 

And for that, Amen!

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Sermon on Acts 6:1-7 - The First Deacons are Chosen

From the Becoming Beloved Episcopal community 
https://dsobeloved.org/acts-61-7-the-first-order-of-ministry/

Acts 6:1-7.

"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So, the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."


Today's reading has always been special to me, because it introduces St Stephen, my namesake, into the Bible. Every Boxing Day, after Christmas, I take pleasure in wishing people a Blessed St Stephen's Day, and take pride in my name coming from the first Christian martyr: the man who died as Jesus died, only later in this chapter, praying, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them", and so setting an example for all of us who come after. And still today, sadly, Christians around the world face martyrdom, not here in Britain, thankfully, but in Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, China, North Korea, India, Burma, and elsewhere. And we should never forget it. When I hear how Christians in North Korea, or Pakistan, or Somalia, carry on today in the face of the danger they live with, I remember the courage Stephen showed at the end, and I know the same Holy Spirit that was with him, is still with Christians today. 

I have sometimes thought, how would I react, if I was threatened with death for my faith, the faith I have lived with these last 30 years. I don't know, I really don't know, I don't think anyone can, truly, definitely, unless they ever find themselves in that situation, and I pray we never do. But we certainly will be faced with many smaller, more mundane situations in our day-to-day lives, where it still takes courage to stand up and do what is right. I pray that when faced with these at least, I will pass the test, and so, in my small, insufficient way, be worthy of those ordinary Saints who face far greater challenges for the name of Jesus Christ, and remain faithful.

Which brings us back to our reading today: it may seem small, mundane, administrative, but it reflects the same courage that the Apostles show throughout the Book of Acts and the life of the early Church. These are people who have seen the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and because of that, they are not afraid. I strongly believe that courage, the courage to have good principles, and stand by them, is something we must cultivate, and apply, in situations large and small. It's very hard to develop courage, to develop integrity, when you're really challenged, if you don't make it something you have already developed in situations large and small, day after day.

So, what courage did the Apostles show here? First, we must understand the situation, which isn't as easy as it could be, because the account is so short of detail. When you have a very small group, one already united around a shared cause, consensus is easier, but once that group starts growing, you start to get subgroups form, you start to have problems with communication: and that is when you start to need more structures and organisation. The believers in Christ are just reaching this point. They are still in Jerusalem, they are still almost all Jews at this point, but the community is large and diverse enough that two distinct groups are becoming visible. 

The Hebrew Jews here, would refer to those Jews who lived in the Holy Land itself, like Jesus, maybe from Galilee itself, or elsewhere. They would have come from Jewish majority areas, and lived a life immersed in Jewish religion, culture and assumptions. They would have spoken Aramaic, not Hebrew itself actually, which had become a language purely of scholarship and religious tradition at this time, like Latin in medieval Europe. They would also have taken pride in the fact they lived in the Land that God gave their ancestors, a Holy Land indeed, their homeland, the old-country.

The Hellenistic Jews were those Jews whose families had lived out in the Diaspora, the world outside the Holy Land: in Syria, in Egypt, in what is now Turkey, in Greece, and beyond, all areas, at that time, where Greek formed the shared language, and were heavily affected by Greek culture and civilisation, as well as native influences. These Jews would have grown up as a minority surrounded by Gentile culture, and so while still very much Jews and devoted to their religion, inevitably they were more influenced by Greek philosophy and ideas. You see this influence in the New Testament itself, which is written in Greek, and which, particularly in the Gospel of John, displays a fusion of ideas from Greek Philosophy and the Hebrew Old Testament. For these Jews the Holy Land was a distant idea, something they revered, but not somewhere they lived. There are many obvious comparisons to minority communities like British-Indians or Irish-Americans, or many others, who still, of course, retain an attachment to the culture, religion, food, language, etc, of their native or ancestral homeland. And there are British communities scattered abroad, as well, who remember Old Blighty, particularly in places like France or Spain or Australia.

At this time in Acts, before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Hellenistic Jews would still have tried to travel to Jerusalem to the Temple for the major festivals when they could, in a similar way that Muslims today go on pilgrimage to Mecca. And indeed, some having grown up in the Diaspora would move back to the Holy Land permanently, hoping to die and be buried there, which, if you still follow me, is how we find a community of Hellenistic Jews, by culture and background and language, but living back in Jerusalem, and becoming part of the community of the very first Christians.

The problem then is that there was clearly still a cultural divide between Jews of the two different backgrounds, which even the fact they had both come to faith in Christ, had not resolved. This first Christian community is inspirational, but it still faced problems, squabbles, divisions, like we do, because it was made of human beings, like us. And though we must always struggle to do better, to learn, to change, we will not be made perfect until we come before Christ in his Kingdom. That this first Christian community had problems like this is not surprising then, but what is inspirational, what is a lesson for us today, is the courage with which they faced up to it.

When there are problems and divisions in a community, and there will be, it is easy to try to ignore them, to sweep it under the carpet. It is easy to pretend it isn't there, and to hope it goes away; after all, who needs another problem. And it might go away on its own, sometimes it does. But if we take that route there is a risk that the problem will fester, and worsen, and because of that, people become discouraged and disheartened. They may even drift away. After all, who wants to be part of a community that does not listen to their problems, that does not take their concerns seriously? That's not good in a family, it's not good in a marriage, and it's not good in a community.

It takes courage, just to speak up about a problem. It takes courage to challenge those in positions of authority and leadership, rather than just sitting on an unhappiness, or maybe drifting away without ever speaking out. And it takes courage for leaders to listen, to try to understand rather than just becoming defensive, to give the situation the consideration it deserves, and to respond. It can always be tempting to barrel on with what we already think is important, and so miss the concerns and warnings around us, but if we do that we build our house on sand.

The Apostles are faced by complaints of an unhappiness, an injustice, and they act decisively to solve it. And they don't just say, "well, stop doing that then, stop overlooking those widows", they act imaginatively, creatively, to change and adapt the structures of their community to solve the problem permanently, and ensure all the people are being served. They prioritise, they don't give up their position of leadership, they don't allow themselves to get distracted from the most important work they have: sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with anyone who will listen, but neither do they hoard power or responsibility. 

They immediately widen the circle of leadership (on a secondary level); they don't even keep the right to select the men who will be placed in charge of this important ministry. No, they trust their community: they empower the people who are unhappy, and the rest of the community as well, to select people to put the situation right. That takes courage, real courage, giving control always does, but it can be rewarding, if it empowers new ideas and new individuals in a community; it can release a lot of energy. It is how communities grow and develop, and raise up new leaders who then have the chance to excel themselves.

I think this is also the point to remember the cultural divide that I described earlier, between the Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews. This isn't my thought, I read it online, but I thought it was very insightful. You've got to remember the Twelve Apostles were all, or almost all, Galileans like Jesus. That made them Hebrew Jews, the community who dominated leadership up until now, and who were being complained about, basically. The men picked by the community as Deacons, the first Deacons, all have Greek names, they were probably all Hellenistic Jews, the community who were complaining they were being treated unfairly. 

It would have been easy for the Twelve Apostles to have taken umbrage on behalf of their sub-community. They could have said that Jesus was a Hebrew Jew, that he appointed Hebrew Jews as Apostles, that the Hellenistic Jews were lucky to even be accepted into their community. But they didn't. They didn't just hand away power and responsibility by accepting other leaders, they didn't just give the choice of those leaders away to the community; they put people of the unhappy, discriminated-against sub-community, in charge of putting it right. That takes even more courage, and indeed leadership.

When you put trust in more people you give those people the chance to repay that trust, with interest, and Stephen certainly did: his dignity in the face of death, his grace towards his persecutors, was an eloquent testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit that had set him free, and still sets people free today. Trust people in small things and they may go on to great things. Of course, these lessons do not only apply to people in formal leadership in churches, but everywhere: at work, at home, at school, in our charities and our community groups. Leadership is not just something for a few people at the top, but something for everyone to show in small ways. If you propose a new idea, if you speak out on behalf of other people who are unhappy, if you take initiative to support even one person who is struggling or being treated unfairly, that is leadership. The people complaining in this passage are anonymous, but being the first person to point out something isn't right, to put your head above the parapet, that takes real leadership, and courage too.    

It takes courage to give away responsibility to others, and it also takes courage to take on responsibility, to put yourself forward, to lead and serve your community. Courage is best rewarded by more courage in response. When people raise a complaint, listen to them fairly, really listen, and consider what they have to say. It doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but you owe them a decent explanation. When existing leaders ask for help, step forward, take responsibility, like Stephen and the other Deacons in our passage today; give whatever you have to give. God gave us all something: some strength, some skill, some energy, and you only know what you're capable of, if you have the courage to stretch yourself, and risk failing.

The Apostles were faced with a problem in their community, a complaint, an unhappiness. They could have denied it was a problem, they could have been defensive about their identity, they could have prioritised hoarding power, decision-making or responsibility. But they didn't: they dealt with it rapidly, openly, structurally and generously. And in doing so, they unleased the energy of their community to go from strength to strength, to reach more people, and "so the word of God spread". This is a great passage here; I wish I could take it to work, and hold a Bible study with all my layers of managers and bosses, then we might really see some progress. 

I pray we will have the same courage to adapt and change to the new challenges we face as the world, and our community, change ever more rapidly around us. I pray we will continue to prioritise reaching people with the word of God, in all the different ways we can imagine; but that we will also ensure we are serving the physical, mundane needs of our community, making sure nobody feels left behind. I pray that we will have the courage to step forward to take responsibility for our community, to offer our gifts of time, money and dedication, and lessen the burden by sharing it around. I pray for all these things through the same Holy Spirit who dwelt in the Apostles, and in Stephen; who dwells in our Brothers and Sisters facing danger around the world today, who will dwell in us if we will just let him; and through our Lord Jesus Christ, who was Lord then and is Lord now, and will share his courage, if you ask him.

Amen.