Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Sermon on John 1: 19-28, St Matthew’s, 19th December 2010

Today’s gospel reading comes from the very beginning of John’s Gospel just after the famous passage which begins with the words. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’. In this prologue John the Evangelist sets out his theology before getting into the story of Jesus’ life and death. As I was saying a couple of weeks back: one aspect of this theology is the rather odd sounding idea that Jesus is the Word of God, When John says, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ he means, amongst other things , ‘In the beginning was Jesus'. and when John says ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’ he is saying, in effect, that ‘Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’. So today I want to say a bit more about Jesus as Word and what this means.

Mixed with the theological poetry in the prologue are some rather prosaic remarks about John the Baptist: ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light’, He might also have said ‘John the Baptist was not The Word but he came to bear witness to the Word’.

John doesn’t tell us much very more about who John the Baptist was or about his life, He seems to be assuming that his readers will know all about the dance of the seven veils etc., which we only know about from the other gospels. But in the space of 20 verses in the first chapter of his gospel he tells of three days in the life of John the Baptist: On the second of these three days he meets Jesus.

In today’s passage – on the first day – John the Baptist is interrogated about his ministry: first by some Priests and Levites and then some Pharisees. He first tells his interrogators lot of things his is not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. By ‘the prophet he probably means the Prophet-like-Moses’ foretold in, for example, Deuteronomy 18: 15. All three – a Messianic King in the line of David, Elijah or an Elijah like figure and a ‘Prophet-like-Moses’ were expected by the Jews at that time. So here John the Baptist is denying that he is any of these. So who was John the Baptist? Well as I said we know a few things about him from the other gospels and other sources. One thing he certainly did was baptise people but John the Evangelist is not interested in this. He doesn’t even mention that John the Baptist baptised Jesus.

According to John the Evangelist John the Baptist says that he is the ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness’, And all the other three Gospel writers associate this quote from the book of Isaiah with John the Baptist. For John the Evangelist the important thing about John the Baptist is that he is a witness who bears testimony to Jesus.

One of John the Evangelist’s big metaphors in his gospel is that of a trial. He regularly uses trial language like testimony, witness, interrogation, confession, judgement. Now courts are places where a lot of words are used to try and sort out the truth. But not just truth for the sake of it but for the sake of bringing things that were hidden into the light in order that a judgement might be made.

Now as I was saying two weeks ago, at this service, words are not just means of conveying truths. I am reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations at the moment, together with some friends, and Wittgenstein is a philosopher who says a lot of unsettling things about words. He makes you realise that the meaning of a word like ‘game’ for example is not nearly as simple as it seems to be. Is a game always played between two people? No because there is solitaire, patience, etc. Do you need equipment for a game? No because there’s eye-spy and other games you can play on a car journey. Are games always competitive with winners and losers? No – certainly not –as you would know if you ever played games like Parachute with the Wood Craft Folk. So what exactly is a game?

Language – Wittgenstein says – is something like a game –in that it is incredibly difficult to pin down exactly what it is. But one thing we all know is that words do things as well as convey truths. When I say to my wife, ‘You look lovely in that dress’ I am not saying simply that her dress is a colour I like or that it fits her rather well I am giving her a compliment. She may not even believe that I like the dress, knowing full well what my favourite colour is, and she may have no regard for my sense of fit. But the words will generate in her feelings. Hopefully she will feel pleased even whilst doubting whether the words convey anything particular meaningful e at all.

Words are powerful if only because they invoke in people feelings that they otherwise would not have. But some words or sentences do even more than convey meaning and evoke feelings. Commands like, ‘Go’ or ‘Listen to this’ do not convey truths at all but are designed to bring about a new state of affairs.

But it’s not just commands that change things there are some statements that do as well. Many of the words spoken in the context of religious ceremonies are such peformative words. When in the marriage ceremony the bride and groom say ‘I do’ they are performing an act – they are making a promise - not just making a sound. When we baptise children we do so with the words ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit’ and the words are not just sounds with a particular meaning they are actually doing something. You might like to ponder what the words that I shall say later about the bread and wine actually do as oppose to mean.

Hopefully you’ll begin to see why words are not just conveyors of facts or even truths. If you think of words as changing things you might begin to see why John’s assertion that Jesus was God’s Word isn’t quite so odd as it sounds.

John Parry in another sermon at St Matthew’s today reminds us that what is particularly distinct about Christianity is its claim that God speaks to us through a person – the person of Jesus – and not just through words. God does of course use words – and the Bible is the result. But if we remember the story of the people of Israel we’ll see that words in the end failed to save them from themselves. The words of the law – delivered though Moses – was not enough to make them behave in the way they should as God’s special people. The words of the prophets like Elijah were not persuasive enough to stop them loosing almost everything including their land and their temple. In the end God had to come in person to try and save them.

But back to back to John the Baptist - to testimony and witness - both with same Greek word at their root. To bear testimony, to witness in a court, involves speaking and speaking with care at that, because in that situation words matter very much indeed. Sometimes they are even a matter of life and death. Witness and testimony demand judgements and verdicts. A testimony is not just a set of words that can be taken or left as vaguely interesting like as Sunday supplement article say.

The trial image in John’s gospel culminates in a real trial in which Jesus is brought before Pilate, testimony is offered and a verdict is pronounced. Jesus is condemned and executed as the so called ‘King of the Jews’.

But the trial image is also threaded throughout John’s Gospel. In this version of the story it is not only Jesus who is on trial it is the world in the shape of the Jewish and Roman leaders. They are trusted with the authority to judge on behalf of, and to secure the well-being of, the world. They fail miserably. In today’s extract of the story some of these authorities are interrogating John the Baptist as a potential witness but for whose trial?

Testimony is not a neutral thing it forces choices that have enormous consequences. It changes the world. It is also a public thing not a private matter. To bear testimony to Jesus as John does is not just to talk about him to his friends but to go and shout about him in the desert – to cry in the wilderness. But John’s testimony – powerful as it is - not the Word it is testimony to the Word

The story John the Evangelist tells is of a God who is bound to speak, a God who is Word himself. Once the Word becomes flesh it cannot any longer be a private matter. The Word is for the world and the world will have to judge. John the Baptist is the first to offer testimony to Jesus in a way that will provoke the world to act. The ‘speaking‘ of the Word, will not leave things as they are. Judgements will have to be made once the testimony is offered, once the Word is made flesh - judgements that will reveal the world for what it is will also change the world for ever.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sermon on Romans 15: 4-13 and Luke 21: 25-33, BCP Communion, St Matthew’s, 5th December 2010

Bishop John [Oxford] often starts his sermons with a prayer which I really like. I haven’t got the precise words but it goes something like this: ‘May my spoken words truthfully reflect the written word so that our time together might lead us to a deeper encounter with the Living Word.’

By ‘Living Word’ Bishop John means Jesus of course and this prayer reminds us of the opening of John’s Gospel where the John the Evangelists – rather than John the Bishop - describes Jesus as the Word. John’s Gospel starts, you’ll remember, with the words ‘In the beginning was the Word’ meaning in the beginning was Jesus. And the opening of John’s Gospel with its account of how the world was created is, in turn, a hark-back to the opening of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where the writer talks of God speaking as an act of creation. Genesis 1 verse 3 says: ‘And God said, “Let there be light’’ and there was light.’

We can so easily take the words ‘the Word of God’ to mean the Bible that we forget that they have a double meaning. Yes they often mean the Bible but they also means Jesus.

So in today’s Collect we prayed (referring to the scriptures) ‘Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of eternal life’. Of course holy Word may equal ‘scripture’ in this prayer but it can also be taken to equal ‘Jesus’.

This – perhaps rather randomly - reminds me of recent debates about the future of Anglicanism culminating in a vote on something called the Anglican Covenant at General Synod the week before last. This vote was not much discussed in the pews but may in fact turn out to be a very important event in the history of the Church – at least the Anglican Church. Anglicanism is often thought of as being built on scripture, reason and tradition and in the recent debates one of the central questions has been the relative importance of scripture compared with tradition and reason in defining Anglicanism.

Some would like literal readings of the scriptures to be definitive. Others would like reason to over-rule scripture where the two apparently contradict and there are many positions in between.

A 16th Century theologian called Richard Hooker is generally accredited with setting out the basis of Anglicanism in terms of scripture, reason and tradition and sometimes the three are talked about as three legs of a stool. I.e. that scripture, reason and tradition have equal importance for Anglicanism: if you take one away the thing will fall over. But this then irritates those who see one leg of the stool as being more important than one of the others e.g. those who see scripture as being more important than tradition and reason.

Actually I think the three-legged stool metaphor is unhelpful because of what I was saying earlier. Scripture itself never sees words as merely written words. The Word of God is not just a means of conveying truth but is also an active word that changes things. It is in short a Living Word. The Word of God – cannot be corralled into supporting a particular position. And moreover the Word of God is to be experienced and encountered not just read.

Today’s Collect thanks God for causing ‘all holy scriptures to be written for our learning’ and this echoes the first line our Epistle reading: ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our leaning that we though patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’ At first sight, however, the Gospel reading hardly connects at all with the Collect. It’s an account of what Jesus predicts will happen at the end of time. It starts ‘And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon and in the stars.’ Here Jesus is saying that when the end comes it will be obvious. You won’t then be trying to work out what is going to happen from reading the scriptures. What is happening around you will be a clear and obvious ‘sign’ than things are about to end.

Scripture alone has never been sufficient for our leaning let alone for our encounter with the Living Word that is Jesus. It is however necessary if not sufficient for that learning and encounter. It seems clear that you cannot make any deductions about God through reason alone. I doubt – despite what some philosophers of religion say – that it is possible even to conclude that God exists – merely from looking at the way the universe is constructed.

But while scripture may be necessary for our encounter with God, it has also always been important – as our Gospel reading reminds us - to look around us, to try and see what is happening, and reason what God is doing both through the lens of scripture but also in the light of how scripture has been traditionally interpreted. It is particularly important to look around us in the end times. And it increasingly looks as if we are getting closer and closer to the end times.

The Gospel reading looks forward to the second coming of Jesus – a traditional theme of Advent – when we wait in hope for the coming of Christ – both the celebration of the first coming as a baby born in a stable and the future/second coming as ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’. And here too is a theme which connects the Collect and the Epistle and Gospel readings: that of hope.

In the Collect we prayed that through reading the scriptures we ‘may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.’ In the Epistle reading Paul prays that what the scriptures might bring hope to the Christians at Rome: that ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our leaning that we though patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’ And the Epistle reading ends with the great prayer,‘Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost’.

So the scriptures are written to give us hope but in looking around us we are also to find hope. To do this we need to look up not down. Jesus in our Gospel reading says ‘And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads for your redemption draweth nigh.’ In other words don’t despair at what you see is happening to the world but have hope that things will eventually turn out for the good.

In the end it is not through poring over the scriptures, studying our traditions and trying to reason things out for ourselves that will bring about the return of the Son of Man. But only by looking up we will see our redemption drawing nigh, only then will we encounter the Living Word who was there at our beginning and will be there at our end.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sermon on ‘Making a difference’ (Luke 10: 1-12, Psalm 137) St Matthew’s, 14th November 2010

In this sermon I want to talk a bit about remembering. Partly because this is Remembrance Sunday but also because it connects with the main theme for today which is ‘Making a difference’.

Remembering and making a difference might seem to be topics which are poles apart but I hope by the end to convince you that remembering is something we need to do if we are going to make a difference. But first, before I come on to remembering, what does it mean to make a difference?

On the one had it seems somewhat brave, even arrogant, to suggest that we personally can make a difference. How can we as individuals do anything about the way things are? Two weeks ago – during one of our sofa sermons - we looked at how we are living through what appears to be the start of very difficult times economically. The economic difficulties are likely to affect many people living in this country. How can we make a difference to that? Last week Steve talked to us about healing. We see around us many people who seem to be in need of healing: not just from physical sickness but also for other things that seem to be going wrong with their lives. How can we make a difference there?

On the other hand if our faith has any meaning it surely should make a difference to the way we lead our lives. We are told by James in his epistle that, ‘Faith without works is dead’. But we don’t really need James to tell us this. We instinctively distrust people who claim beliefs that seem to be belied by the way they lead their lives. And for ourselves we surely want our faith to make a difference.

But how can we make a difference? Before we look specifically at how our Christian faith should make a difference I want to say that the desire to make a difference is not unique to Christians. Most people seem to have this urge if only in a rudimentary form. It seems to be something young people have and something which seems to fade as you get older. Witness the desire of many young people nowadays to spend their gap year – not just lying on a beach in Thailand – but to do something useful while they are out there.

The urge to make a difference is often associated with leaving home, going to somewhere different to make a difference. It seems somehow harder to make a difference where we live and work, easier to make a difference somewhere else. The Christian church, upholding a religion which urges us to preach the good news to everyone, has regularly sent out missionaries to different countries. We might think of Paul here or the famous missionaries of the 19th century like David Livingstone, or even our own missionary partners for example Sally and Ben Amos.

Today’s Gospel reading illustrates the start of that trend. In today’s story Luke is deliberately vague about where Jesus sent the 72 early missionaries as if to imply that it’s everywhere. And note that 72 was - according to tradition based on Genesis Chapter 10 – the number of nations there were thought to be in the world. Luke’s story of the sending of the 72 is thus full of symbolism: fleshing out what it’s going to be like if we believe Jesus’ promise that his disciples will be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria and to the end of the earth’. This promise is recorded at the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of his account of the Acts of the Apostles.

So what’s it going to be like if we go and preach the good news to the end of the earth? Well three things to note from our Gospel reading– which aren’t perhaps noted as often as they should. I’m also going to assume that what Jesus says to the 72 applies to us as well. Of course things today are exactly the same as they were then but still there are lessons from this passage we can apply to ourselves.

Firstly preaching the gospel is not primarily about talking to people. There is some talking involved. Jesus tells the 72 ‘When you enter a town… say to them “The Kingdom of God has come near to you”’. And I think this is still our primary message to people. But preaching the gospel is not primarily about telling people this. It’s about acting as if we are citizens of the Kingdom of God by bringing peace and healing.

Jesus tells the 72 that before they say anything about the kingdom they are to bring peace. Peace here is a real entity able to be given, received, accepted or rejected. I think we need to work out how we might bring peace to people just as much as how we are to explain about the kingdom. Healing is something else we are to bring as well and Steve talked to us about that last week. All I want to say about healing here is that the healing we are charged with bringing is not just healing of physical illness but lots of other things besides. St Francis is reported to have told his followers, ‘Preach the gospel and if necessary use words’ This might be well known but it is still worth remembering.

Secondly our Gospel reading suggests that making a difference is best done in pairs. Jesus sends the 72 ‘ahead of him, two by two’. Bringing peace, healing and news of the kingdom is difficult, if not impossible, on your own, by yourself. And it is only going to be effective if you do it with other people.

There are lots of reasons for this. Protection is one. If there is going to be opposition to the gospel then preaching it will be safer in pairs. Credibility is another. The witness of one person is not generally sufficient to prove a case. You need at least two. Luke gives accounts of several appearances of Jesus after his resurrection but he spends most time on the appearance of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus did, on occasion, appear to people on their own. For example he met Mary in the garden. But Luke expends most words on the Emmaus story. For that appearance there are two witnesses to bring back the good news to the rest of the disciples.

But it’s not just a matter of protection and credibility. I think that Jesus sending out the 72 in pairs warns us against thinking of making a difference as an individual matter. It’s not a lifestyle-choice: something we individually choose to do instead of say having a good time.

We may desire to go bring the good news, make a difference to the lives of orphans in Timbuctu for example. But we need to be clear about the best way of doing so before setting off for Africa. The person who wants to bring peace, healing and good news to people, to make a difference, needs to check out their plans with others and this is, I think the primary reason why Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs.

Thirdly our Gospel reading suggests that preaching the gospel is not all trial and tribulation. OK there may be some problems along the way. Jesus says, ‘Behold I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves’. This doesn’t sound as if preaching the gospel is going to be a doddle. Of course we know that some lambs do get eaten by wolves. Jesus the Lamb of God certainly does. There is a sometimes a cost to preaching the gospel. Jesus laid down his life for his friends – and this being Remembrance Sunday – we remember today those who lost their lives in the wars that have been fought over the last 100years.

But alongside these allusions to a hostile environment into which the 72 are sent there is much that is positive. Jesus seems to be assuming that some – at least of the – communities and families to which he is sending them will be open rather than closed to the news of the kingdom. The instructions he gives the 72 first deals with those who ‘receive you’ before moving on to those who do not. There is then an expectation that there will be acceptance as well as rejection. And indeed later in this chapter we learn that the ‘The seventy two returned with joy’ at their success.

So there is lots to be learnt in this passage about making a difference. But we might say well that when Jesus sent out the 72 things were very different from what they are now. Nowadays people in the towns and villages surrounding Oxford have mostly been exposed to the gospel in at least some form or another. And clearly we are not supposed, nowadays, to do precisely what the 72 were instructed to do. For a start, setting off without any money is just not going to work.

Some of us are still called I think to go and preach the peach the gospel in far away places – in Africa for example – or even Reading - but nowadays most of us are, I think, sent to where we already And staying where we are to make a difference is I contend, not a cop-out. Preaching the gospel where we are turns out to be much harder than going somewhere else to preach it. As Jesus found when he tried preaching the gospel in his home town of Nazareth.

So perhaps rather than thinking of making a difference as something done by special people in faraway place we should think more about what we might do where we find ourselves, and explore how we can make a difference in the communities in which we live and work. This is of course easier said than done.

Now many of you may know that I managed to persuade the Church of England to train and ordain me as a minister on the basis that my ministry would be mostly at my workplace. I am sometimes called a Minister in Secular Employment but I prefer the term ‘Worker Priest’. Most people seem to have some inkling of what a worker priest might do. But I am also regularly asked about what being a worker priest means to me. They often ask me what difference being a priest makes to what I do at work. I must confess that this is still a hard question.

But perhaps one thing I have learnt over the years is that it means being a bit of a prophet. Now when we think of prophets I think we think of rather odd people: people who look and behave rather differently. We might imagine that they shout rather a lot without seemingly much effect. They are rather obviously outsiders rather than insiders. But I would maintain that prophets are really just people called to preach the gospel, make a difference where they live and work. If you like you can think of them as missionaries who are called to stay put rather than go to another place. And as such many of us are called to be prophets.

Now prophets do two things: they remind us of things and they show us a vision of how things might be. Reminding us of things bring us back to remembrance.

I think we live in a world where history has become less and less important: in particular the history of God acting though his special people – the people of Israel – but also the history of our own nation. But let us not forget that we are where we are today because of what has gone before. Remembering history is, of course, not just about remembering the bad times but the good. We need to remember what God has done for us in the past - particularly, in the life and death of Jesus. But we do also we need to remember the bad times, without which the good times don’t make much sense.

Remembering past wars and the people who died in them is not to glorify war. It is not even to suggest that they had to be fought or that the consequences were in any way desirable. It is to suggest that there is some meaning to what happened – that although we may wish to forget we must remember.

Looking back to what has gone before is to lament. The prophets of old were big on lament as were many of the writers of psalms. Our Old Testament reading today - Psalm 137 – was written in Babylon after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians with the help of the Edomites in around 587 BC and the Jewish people had been exiled to Babylon. So the writer is looking back to that war which the Jewish people had, in effect lost everything or almost everything, and he is committing himself to remembering that war, the people that had been killed and the city and the temple that had been destroyed.

I think that in preaching the gospel, making a difference, we need to be honest about the way things have been and are. It is to aim to see the world and speak of it in the way that God sees it. It is to lament the wars, the violence, the injustice, the collective greed.

But after lament comes hope. It may seem impossible – as it seems to our psalmist -to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land but we are enjoined to do so. We are not to wallow in our grief. We know that things could be different to the way things are. And we are to tell people that despite the past we are to announce that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. This new kingdom is a kingdom of peace and of healing.

Finally I would like to finish with the Collect that we said earlier.

Heavenly Lord,
you long for the world’s salvation:
stir us from apathy,
restrain us from excess
and revive in us new hope
that all creation will one day be healed
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Sermon on Matthew 22: 15-22, 7th November 2010, St Matthew’s

Today’s gospel contains the Jesus’ famous saying: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ Jesus says things in many different contexts: for instance he gives sermons, he tells stories – parables - and he answers questions. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ is an answer to a question – and needs to be understood in that context.

It’s a difficult saying for various reasons and seems to have more than one meaning – a bit like a parable. You rather wish Jesus had gone on to explain precisely what he meant: particularly because the saying seems to deal with the issue of the relationship between religious and political beliefs: which of course is still a huge question today.

The question that the Pharisees had asked was: ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Taxes were a big political issue in those days – as of course they still are today – the particular tax that is probably being discussed here is the ‘Census’ tax introduced in AD 6 or 7 when Judea came under direct Roman control. The Census tax was hugely resented by the Jews – and resentment over taxes contributed to the revolt in AD 70 which led to the destruction of the Jerusalem and its temple. Of course if you were a Roman you’d argue that taxes were a good thing – necessary if you were going to build roads, aqua-ducts, etc. – and bring the benefits of ‘empire’ to small, unruly countries like Judea.

The Pharisees’ question is a trick question. If Jesus says yes it is right to pay taxes to Caesar then this puts him on the side of the Romans if he says no it’s not then this puts him on the side of the Jews who were opposed to Roman rule. He puts himself at risk of alienating – even enraging – his Jewish listeners if he says yes. And he perhaps even risks arrest by the Romans if he says no. We know – because we know what is going to happen later - that answering such questions and telling the truth as he sees it will eventually lead to Jesus being arrested and killed.

So does Jesus answer the Pharisees’ question? Well yes I think he does and his answer is really a disguised ‘on the one hand yes and on the other no’. But putting it as baldly as this would have satisfied no-one and would have also looked evasive – even cowardly. Instead Matthew records that those who heard Jesus answer went away marvelling. And I don’t think this is merely because he has for the moment outwitted the Pharisees with a clever response – his answer is not just clever it also gives them an answer – an answer to a question they hadn’t actually asked – or at least an answer to ponder.

The Pharisees frequently try to trick Jesus with questions – mostly religious questions – but note that this time the Pharisees’ question is a political rather than a religious question. It’s really asking: which side are you on in this political debate about taxes. One answer Jesus could have given is ‘I don’t know: I’m not interested in politics: I’m a religious leader not a politician’. But interestingly he doesn’t do that. Jesus responds to the question by talking about God in his answer. He brings God into politics if you like. He is saying that paying taxes only makes sense in a wider context – that of God’s overall control.

Of course the idea that God is concerned with political questions is controversial. And I am not saying that God is necessarily on the side of one party in political debates but I am saying that, following Jesus’ example, what God wants and requires from political structures and policies needs to be taken into account.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question about taxes illustrates this point. What he means by ‘render’ – in the translation of the passage we heard today – actually means ‘give-back’. Jesus though the visual aid of the Denarius borrowed from the Pharisees is in effect saying that since Caesar’s head appears on the coin then give back to him what is his, or even give back to him what he deserves.

He seems to be accepting here that taxes are a good thing in general, without necessarily supporting the controversial Census tax in particular. And this is of course quite a radical perspective on taxes. Even today many politicians seem to suggest that taxes are a bad thing in general seemingly forgetting that they would be out of a job without taxes to pay their salaries.

So Jesus acknowledges that we have political obligations – particularly though paying taxes but also surely through engaging with the political process in other ways. This nowadays means voting but also taking our part in local and national political decision making in other ways: writing to your MP about things, etc. etc. To what extent each of us should get involved in politics must be a matter for individual prayer, just as any other decision about how we lead our lives must be.

However Jesus’ injunction to give to God’s what is God’s in his answer to the Pharisees’ question also relativises the political obligation. It means that our decision about our political obligations cannot be made in isolation from our decision about our religious obligations – what we must do for the state is set in the context of, and is subordinate to, what we must do for God.

In this context note that there is in Jesus’ answer no firm principle of loyal submission to the state. On the contrary some have argued that when Jesus says ‘render under Caesar what is Caesar’s there he is a subversive implication. What does Caesar actually deserve? Death on a cross?

At the very least the implication is that one’s obligation to the state – to pay taxes for example – is much less important than one’s obligation to God. God surely trumps Caesar when it comes to giving back what is due.

Nevertheless Jesus does seem to be saying that obligations to God can co-exist with obligations to political authorities even though obligations to God are much more important than obligations to political authorities.

Now all this could be, and has been, taken to mean that Jesus is suggesting that there are two worlds – God’s world and Caesar’s world – the spiritual world and the secular world and that the two are quite separate In God’s world – the spiritual – God is in control – in Caesar’s world – the secular – Caesar is in control. Of course nowadays various other powerful individuals and bodies have replaced Caesar. But are there really two separate spiritual and secular worlds? This idea has been a continuing idea in western thought. And theologians from Luther onwards have bought into the idea.

But I do not think that Jesus is suggesting this here. In the context of what he says elsewhere I think he is saying that there is another way of looking at power and control. On the face of it Caesar – or his replacement may seem to be in control – he may seem to dictate important aspects of our lives – the amount of tax we pay, to whom and for what for example. But Jesus is also saying – as he has said many times before – that there is another way of looking at things. That he has come to announce a new kingdom – where God is in control of everything and where power relations are essentially and fundamentally transformed.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus announces is not just a spiritual kingdom: it’s a kingdom where the financially poor are blessed, not just the poor in spirit; where the physically blind are cured of their blindness, not just the spiritually blind. The Kingdom of God is both earthly and spiritual, both here present and yet to come. If we accept our membership of this new kingdom then things are completely and utterly different: including even the way we view taxes.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s is not then an invitation to eschew earthly things and to devote ourselves to heavenly things. Earth and heaven are now inextricably mixed. God became a human being in the person of Jesus and things have never been the same since.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What the Bible has to say about food, JRI Conference, 7th March 2010

In this talk I want to try and make you see food in a new light. This is because I think food is important - so important in fact that we can often take it for granted. So firstly I want to suggest that we ought to take food more seriously. Though I guess that since you are here today at this conference you may not need that much convincing of that.

Secondly I want to suggest that the Bible can help us see food in a new way. This you might need more convincing of. In particular I want to suggest that if we understand the Eucharist more clearly then we will see food in a new way

But the whole point of the Bible is not just to help us see things more clearly but to change the way we act. So thirdly I want to suggest that if we start to see food in a new way we will change the way we eat and produce food.

Now for most of us our interaction with food is as a consumer - though buying, cooking and eating it. But some of us may be involved in farming, food manufacture, food retailing etc. I want to suggest that the Bible has a lot to say to food producers as well as consumers.

So why is food important? Well primarily because it’s essential for existence. Food like air, water, shelter and clothes are necessary for life. But food is not only good for us it tastes goods. Eating for most of us – is one of the greatest pleasures of life. But food is not merely a source of physical sustenance and pleasure it is fundamental to many other aspects of our lives.

The sharing and eating of foods establish our relationships - from breast milk which cements the mother-child bond to the cup of coffee or glass of beer or wine which facilitates the making of new friends.

Claude Levi Strauss – the anthropologist – says that what distinguishes us from other animals is not tools, nor language, not even consciousness, but cooking. The invention of cooking – so says this evolutionary anthropologist - involved fires and hearths around which our early ancestors gathered to share meals. Of course animals sometimes share food but they do not share meals. Meals are centred on food but eating is not the only important thing to happen there. Levi Strauss says that that it was around those meals where people for the first time looked into one another’s eyes and said to one another – this is good.

What we eat is also central to our identities. What we eat defines us just as much as what we do in the rest of their lives. Cultures are identified as much by their cuisines as by their art or even their language. One of the first things we learn about another culture is what they eat.

And because of its importance to life food is central to religious practices. All religions have general rules about food: its cooking and eating. Until very recently Christians of many different denominations wouldn’t eat meat on Fridays and would only eat fish. All religions also have special rules around food for special occasions – involving either fasting or feasting. Christians still fast at Lent – if in a rather rudimentary fashion - and still have special feasts – such as Christmas lunch – and special foods for special occasion – if only pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, turkey and Christmas cake at Christmas and of course Cadbury’s cream eggs at Easter.

And in all religions food plays a central role in religious worship. In the Christian tradition the celebration of a meal is our central act of worship - though we easily forget that the Eucharist, communion, mass – whatever you want to call it - is a meal with real food and drink.

And because of its importance people may have distinct attitudes to food. They may have developed strong dislikes and likes to certain food. They may have made up their minds only to eat certain foods – for example to become a vegetarian or vegan. They may have decided only to buy Fairly Traded coffee, to avoid buying genetically modified foods or to eschew eating at McDonald’s.

Some of our attitudes to foods are shaped not only by what we like or have grown accustomed to but other values we put on foods – our ethical values if you like In this talk I want to suggest that the Bible can shape such attitudes to food but not just our attitudes our behaviour as well.

This is not to say that our ethical decisions about food can be derived solely from the Bible. Nor is it to suggest that we cannot make good moral judgments without the aid of the Bible. Indeed in this talk I will draw on modern fiction to make some points. Moreover I think Christians need to be fairly humble when it comes to food ethics – we don’t have a particularly good track record – or rather that track record is rather patchy.

But clearly we do need to change our attitudes to food: what we eat and how we produce it. We are beset by crises that relate to food. I think there is good evidence that the recent food crisis – i.e. the world wide increases in food prices that began in late 2006 triggered what has become known as the financial crisis. Both the food crisis and the financial crisis are related to the running out of oil (the oil crisis) and of course the over-use of fossil fuels such as oil – on which are farming systems are currently dependent - are contributing to the environmental crisis.

Some facts that need changing: over a billion people are hungry, 300 million are obese, the production of food is responsible – on a global basis - for 30% of green house gas emissions.

So what does the Bible say about all this? Actually I think the Bible has rather a lot to say about food which is difficult to summarise in forty minutes or so – or however long I’ve got left. I’d like you to brainstorm with your neighbour for a minute or so.

I guess that you will have just found that there are of hundreds of references to food in the Bible. There are references to food in the first chapter of Genesis. Verse 29 says ‘And God said [to humans] ‘Behold I give you very plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’ And in the last chapter of Revelation – where John is describing his vision of a new heaven and earth – verse 2 says: ‘also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.’

It is easy I think very easy to see many of the references to food in the Bibles as symbolic. And indeed many of the references to food in the Bible are indeed partly at least symbolic – the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve eat at the very start of the Biblical story was surely not just an ordinary fruit, but something more than an apple or peach or whatever fruit it was. But conversely to see it as purely symbolic means we might forget that it is important to the story that it was it was the eating of a particular food that was the problem rather than some other act of disobedience and that it was a particular type of food: a fruit and not a vegetable or even some animal which God had forbidden the first humans to eat.

I am saying this simply because I want to suggest that when the Bible talks about food it matters what food the story is about and even when it uses food as a symbol we need to think more about the particular food it is referring to. So for example when it comes to the Eucharist it matters that it is bread and not meat that is eaten. It matters that it is wine and not water. And I’d go further: it also matters how that bread and wine are produced.

So you might I think realise, from talking to your neighbour that the Bible frequently uses the metaphor of food to refer to the spiritual. We even sometimes talk about the Bible itself as spiritual nourishment. There is that famous verse in Deuteronomy – which Jesus quotes back at the devil when he is tempted to turn some stones into bread: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but … by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’

Even in the secular world we use food as a metaphor. Nowadays we are all consumers. Consumers of consumer goods. But how many of these consumer goods do we actually eat?

But as well as talking about food in a symbolic or metaphorical sense the Bible also has lots of stories about physical food – both its production and consumption. And as well stories it has instruction. There are rules about food particularly in the Old Testament. You might think here of what are called Jewish food laws. But God gives instructions about foods not just to Moses but virtually to everyone else that appears in the OT from Adam and Eve to the later prophets. But there are even some rules in the NT: for example Paul’s instructions about food previously offered to Roman gods in the shape of idols. Finally as well as stories about food and instructions on how to produce, prepare and eat it there are generally principles that can be applied to foods.

The Bible has lots of things to say about eating foods which I will come onto later but it is also has things to say about how we produce our foods and then distribute them to those how need then. It is I think useful to separate out what the Bible has to say about producing and distributing food from what it has to say about eating it.

So first producing and distributing foods.

Here I think there are two basic principles: stewardship and justice.

First a word about stewardship.

Here some of the key texts are to be found in Genesis. Genesis tells us about the way things were meant to be and how human behaviour – from the very beginning – has had a big and detrimental effect on the rest of creation – including the plants and animals that we eat for foods.

Genesis Chapter 2 verse 15 says that when God created human beings he put them in a garden ‘to till it and keep it’. This garden was not just a flower garden. In this garden were - as Genesis 2 verse 9 says: ‘all kinds of trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food’. Now the name Adam is a pun on the Hebrew word Adamah - often translated as ‘earth’. But a better translation of Adamah is ‘compost’. So from the beginning one of the primary tasks for humans was to help produce food (and the operative word here is help).

Note that the first instructions about the production of food come before the first story about the eating of food – the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of food and evil. Note too that it is plant based foods - seeds and fruits - that God gives humans to eat, not animals. And that their primary task in relation to food production is to gather fruit and seeds – to till and keep the garden - not to hunt animals.

There is of course a huge debate about word the Hebrew words for ‘till’ (abad) and ‘keep’ (shamar) in Genesis 2 verse 15. Abad is sometimes translated as serve, shamar as guarding or protecting. Taken together they have given rise to notions of environmental stewardship. I.e. the idea that we are not exploit creation but to conserve it for future generations.

Environmental stewardship can be taken to imply that we human beings were created in order to manage creation and that we ought to do so. Especially taken in conjunction with Genesis 1 verse 26 where God says ‘Lets us make humans in our image…and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over the cattle, and over all the earth…’ But management is not – to my mind – an implication of ‘till and keep’. There is no indication – any where in the bible that human being - are capable of managing creation: they self-evidently are incapable of doing so. That they do have dominion over creation on the other hand seems to me a statement of fact.

Of course farming might be construed as management of creation. But note that farming in the Genesis stories is regarded as a necessity and not a good thing in and of itself. The first humans – Adam and Eve – are initially gatherers of plant-based foods, not even hunter gatherers. When they are expelled from Eden they have to become farmers. Now it is not just a matter of looking after the garden – only by the sweat of his brow can Adam eat bread.

The next story in the Bible after that of Adam and Eve is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. And you’ll remember that this comes about because it is the offering – and by implication the employment - of the shepherd Abel rather than that of the famer Cain who God had greater regard for. Wandering herdsmen like Abel have always been a problem to famers like Cain and of course have generally lost out in disputes. It is Cain the famer that builds the first city and cities too – that can come into existence with the invention of farming - are viewed as necessities rather than good things by the biblical writers.

Much more might be said about environmental stewardship and its implications for farming which I am sure we will be discussing today.

Secondly a word about justice

Perhaps it goes without saying that justice is a major theme of the Bible. To take just one example. At the start of his ministry Jesus –according to Luke – starts by preaching in his local synagogue. His first sermon is on Isaiah Chapter 61 Which begins ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’. Isaiah Chapter 61 goes on ‘I the Lord love justice. I hate robbery and wrong. I will faithfully give them their recompense.’

Many of these Biblical references to justice relate to food, both to the injustice of hunger in the midst of plenty, and to the iniquity of practices that lead to hunger. Here is Amos:

‘Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and do away with the poor of the land saying, “When will the new moon be over that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” Skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales. The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob, “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account …and all of it rise like the Nile and be tossed about and sink again”. “And on that day” says the Lord God “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentations”’ .

This quotation from Amos also makes the point that injustice in the Bible is closely linked with environmental destruction and then environmental catastrophe. Mistreatment of the poor goes hand in hand with disregard for, and exploitation of, natural resources. We know this from our own modern day experience – global warming will hurt the poor more than the rich.

While environmental stewardship and justice are useful Biblical principles for thinking about food production. There are others – the notion of Sabbath – rest, not just for human being, but also the land - is another key principle. But today I want to highlight respect for animals, the shedding of their blood and the eating of meat. The Jewish food laws are sometimes required as a quirky bit of the Bible that can be skipped over. But actually they are I think amazingly interesting and informative.

It should be noted that most of them apply to animal based products (meat and dairy) rather than plant-based products. And throughout the Bible you can find the idea that we should only be eating meat with care. Note that as I said before the first humans were vegetarians, God gives Adam and Eve fruit and seeds to eat not animals. God only actually gives express permission to human beings to eat meat exactly 600 years after the birth of Adam. He gives this permission to Noah – where in an echo of what he said to Adam he says that ‘Every living thing that lives I give food for you …as I gave you the green plants. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood.’ I.e. you can eat meat but only under particularly circumstances. It is not I think co-incidental that one of the things that we now need to do if we are going to save the planet is produce and eat less meat. Not to cut it out entirely but to produce and eat it more reverently – and perhaps only in the context of a feast.

Now I want to turn to the eating of food rather its production though some of you will note that I have already strayed into consumption when discussing meat. It is of course almost impossible to separate out the two

As I said at the beginning food is both necessary for existence and a source of pleasure. On a regular basis we consume meals. But on an occasional basis we have feasts. The Bible has much to say about both meals and feasts. The Eucharist is both a meal and a feast. At a basic level the consuming of bread shows us that it is a meal, the drinking of wine shows us that it is a feast.

There are seven miracles in John’s gospel. Two concern food or drink. Once concerns bread – the feeding of the 5000 where the purpose of the miracle was to provide a meal for hungry people and resulted in there being more than enough for everyone to have: ‘as much as they wanted’ according to John . The other concerns wine – the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana – where the purpose of the miracle was not nutrition but pleasure – so that everyone could continue to have a great time at the wedding.

There is much in the Bible about the necessity of food for existence. The Book of Exodus tells us, for example, that the Israelites, for example, wouldn’t have survived the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land without God supplying them with manna and quails on the way. The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 echoes this OT miracle as well as the prophet Elisha’s miraculous feeding of 100 men from 20 loaves of barley and some corn.

One of the principles behind such stories is that God is that ultimate source that he supplies us with food in the form of calories and nutrients, that food is a gift not a right. And this should lead to certain attitudes: gratitude for one. But these stories also teach us that we have our own responsibilities with regards to this provision. In the wilderness the Israelites have to learn not to be greedy about food: if they seek to gather more manna than they need and store it, the manna goes off - and the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 only happens when one of the crowd - a small boy - steps forward to offer what food he has brought for his own consumption. .

But as well as stories about food as physical sustenance the Bible also has things to say about food as a source of enjoyment - normally in the context of a feast. That food can and should be enjoyable is demonstrated in the Old Testament with lots of references to the future where there are not just lots of food but great tasting food as well. So we have prophecies of feasts – in for example Isaiah prophecies that: 'On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats and the finest of wines.’

The New Testament ontinues this theme of eating and drinking as enjoyable. Jesus does so much of it that he gets accused of being a glutton and a drunkard . And he too prophecies a feast at the end of time: sometimes called the Messianic banquet. So for example according to Luke Jesus says ‘Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will sit at table in the kingdom of God’

But one of the clearest examples of food as more than nourishment comes in the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana where, you may remember, they had run out of wine and Jesus turns six stone jars of water each holding about 20 or thirty gallons into six jars of wine i.e. an enormous amount. But not just any old wine - better wine than they had been drinking previously. The principle here is that God means us to enjoy our food.

Now food as a source of enjoyment seems a problem for some people: it is as if we do not really see food as part of God’s creation. So while we are happy to wonder at the marvel of the sunset on the one hand - or the perfectly formed flower on the other - we do not seem to marvel at great tasting food to the same extent. It is, I concede, not difficult to get the enjoyment out of food out of perspective.

Here is an extract from American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis - not a book I would recommend anyone should actually read. It’s a book about the consumer society and has a lot in it about eating. In this extract the narrator - Patrick Bateson and some of his ‘friends’ in quotation marks are sharing a meal/freast in a restaurant

‘It’s called California classic cuisine’ Anne tells me, leaning in close after we ordered…

‘You mean compared to, say, California cuisine?’ I ask carefully measuring each word and then lamely add, ‘Or post-California cuisine?’

‘I mean I know it sound so trendy but there is a world of difference. It’s subtle she says but it’s there.’

‘I’ve heard of post-California cuisine.’ I say, acutely aware of the design of the restaurant: the exposed pies and the columns and the open pizza kitchen and the deck chairs. ‘In fact I’ve even eaten it. No baby vegetables? Scallops in burritos? Wasabi crackers? Am I on the right track? And by the way did anyone ever tell you that you look exactly like Garfield but run over and skinned and then someone threw an ugly Ferragamo sweater over you before they rushed you to the vet? Fusilie? Olive oil on Brie?

‘Exactly’ Anne says, impressed. ‘Oh Courtney where did you find Patrick? He’s so knowledgeable about things. I mean Luis’s idea of California cuisine is half an orange and some gelati,’ she gushes, then laughs, encouraging me to laugh with her, which I do hesitantly.

This is obviously getting the enjoyment of food at a feast badly out of perspective and the conversation at this feast about food an almost insane articulation of consumerism. Now good conversation is almost as important as good food at a feast. Here the conversation becomes distinctly on the malign – as evidenced by Patrick Bateson’s aside apparently spoken directly to, but ignored or not heard by, Anne about her looking like a skinned cat.

The description of feasts in American Psycho can be contrasted with the description of the feast in Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen. This is a short story – turned into a great film that I would recommend – and which has much to say about food and feasts and their sacred dimensions. At this feast too the participants of the feast – members of a rather dour religious community – talk about the food – extraordinary and delicious food bought and cooked by the eponymous Babette – although initially they vow not to do so because they fear punishment from God if they enjoy the feast. But and here I quote:

‘The convives grew lighter in weight and lighter of heart the more they ate and drank. They no longer needed to remind themselves of their vow. It was they realised, when man has not only altogether forgotten but has firmly renounced all ideas of food and drink that he eats and drinks in the right spirit.’ And ‘Of what happened later in the evening nothing definite can here be stated. None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance of it. They only knew that the room had been filled with a heavenly light’ and that ‘Time itself had merged into eternity’ ‘

So I would suggest that food cannot be truly enjoyed out of its moral context - and this context includes how it is produced, traded, sold, consumed. To illustrate this I thought we might taste some foods.

The first sample I am handing round is Easy cheese made by Kraft foods. It comes in an aerosol can and is designed to be sprayed on biscuits, hot dogs, etc. I purchased these cans on e-bay from a UK company called Jenifer’s Jungle. God knows what relationship the contents of the can have to real cheese. Because of the vagaries of US labelling law we cannot actually tell how much cheese there actually is in the can but we can tell that it is not the main ingredient: that is whey. God also knows the conditions under which the cows that produced the milk from which the whey and cheese were made were kept.

Easy cheese seems to me to epitomise the reduction of food to its chemicals. And this is what most of western agriculture and modern food production methods have been doing for the past 50 or so years. Modern day farming and food production are now heavily dependent on large scale industrial chemistry. So for example most of the world’s agriculture systems now rely on artificial fertilisers that can only be produced because two German chemists - Haber and Bosch - invented a way of turning nitrogen in the air into nitrogen in the soil - in around 1909. This dependency on industrial chemistry is one way in which modern day food has gone wrong. The aerosol can is of course symbolic of global warming because of the CFCs aerosol cans used to contain but you’ll be pleased to hear that these cans do not contain CFCs.

I can find no reference to Easy cheese in the Bible

The opposite of Easy cheese can I think be represented by a fruit cake. I made this myself with a recipe I have used many times. Perhaps most importantly for the baptisms of my daughters. Fruit cakes are traditionally associated with important religious events. Think Christmas cake. The fruit cake is basically bread – the staple food for many cultures – turned into a celebratory food by the addition of raisins (which of course are dried grapes from which wine is derived). But cakes also bring together a host of ingredients – and nowadays these ingredients come from all round the world. So this cake contains almonds and raisins –from the Middle East, ginger from the Far East, pineapples from Central America – or at least this is where the plants that produce these foods originally came from.

There are I think at least five references to fruit or rather raisin cake in the Bible. (One in 1 Samuel, two in Jeremiah, one in Hosea and one in Song of Solomon ). Cake in the bible is somewhat ambiguous. It’s considered a bit dangerous –too luxurious and so associated with both pagan worship (as in the references in Jeremiah and Hosea) but also with sex as in Song of Solomon – where the women in this says to the man in this love poem. ‘Sustain me with raisin cakes…for I am sick with love.

When eating this cake it might be worth pausing for a moment over the different tastes which you ought to be able to find within it. Can you taste the pineapple, the ginger and the almonds? This is how I think we should truly enjoy foods by paying more attention to them - to their taste for starters - but also where and how the ingredients are grown, harvested, transported, processed packaged, sold. We don’t, I think, think enough about how our food reaches us. We laugh at children who think that milk comes from cartons rather than cows but fail to see that we as adults generally regard food as coming from the supermarket rather than the fields or forests, let alone supplied by God.

But as I have been saying food is not merely for sustenance and for its taste: it is also much more than that it is to be shared and enjoyed with others, that meals and feasts are more than just the foods of which they are composed. This brings me to back to the Eucharist. I think we can easily forget that the sharing and consuming of food and drink - and actual physical food and drink - is central to the Eucharist.

Of course the Eucharist is not just a meal or a feast, it’s also an act of remembrance of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and it’s a re-enactment of Christ’s life giving sacrifice. But at its heart is the eating and drinking - the physical eating of food and drink - and this reminds us, amongst other things of God’s incarnation in Christ. In Jesus God became a physical human being. This in turn reminds us that the spiritual is inseparable from the physical and God cares for the physical to the extent that he became physical himself. God cares about our food and where it comes from because he cares about our bodies just as much as he cares about our souls and we should do likewise.

It is also a meal that challenges us to think about our food system - and in particular the way the food that we produce as a nation, as a planet, is shared out. The Eucharist – like the Messianic Banquet is a meal to which all are invited regardless of age, gender, race, wealth, position in society. At the Eucharist all are given both enough food sufficient unto their needs.

If at the Eucharist we taste the bread and wine and think where it comes from and how it is made then we might start to think how to change our food production systems. It seems to me that we should, at the Eucharist, provide real bread made by people from within the Eucharistic fellowship and ideally made from grain grown by people who live close by. It should not be bread made from wheat that is produced by a process that is destroying the planet, nor turned from flour into bread by a mechanised process rather than by human hands (or at least a bread making machine).

The Eucharist is a feast in which we have a foretaste of the Messianic Banquet. And this banquet is a real banquet not a metaphorical one. One of the implications of this is that we have hope. It is easy to despair when it comes to the way we currently produce and consume food. If the population continues to increase: how are we going to feed all those people? Meanwhile people in the developed world and now developing world are getting fatter and fatter largely because they are eating too much junk food. How are we going to stop that? Modern day agriculture and food production systems are helping to destroy our planet: how are we going to change the way we grow and produce our food to stop that happening? The promise of the future banquet suggests that these problems will be solved. There is a coming time when there will be enough great tasting food for all to share.

So if we look to the Eucharist and come to understand its full meaning; if we can regard the food and drink eaten there as not just nourishment but as source of enjoyment - real enjoyment, if we see the food and drink as something to be shared and if we pay attention to where the bread and wine come from then I think we will begin to change our behaviour.

The problems we have with food and the ethical questions they throw up are all inter-related. And this is because we have lost site of the ultimate source of food and hence its true value. We take it for granted: thinking somehow that whatever we do: the earth will supply what we need. We have treated it as means to an end rather than an end itself. We have become - in a word - greedy. And in our greed we have exploited creation: we have ravaged the garden which we were supposed to tend and take care of. Turning our eyes to the Eucharist might help us see food for what it truly is: a marvellous gift from God.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11 and Luke19: 41- 7, St Matthew’s, 8 August 2010

There is a clear mistranslation at the start of the version of the epistle reading I read just now. It should have begun: ‘concerning the spiritual’ – or even ‘concerning spirituality’ - rather than concerning spiritual gifts. The word ‘gifts’ has been supplied by the translator. And this is wrong because the passage is concerned with spiritual service and spiritual activities and not just spiritual gifts. Paul has three words for these three things: carismata – spiritual gifts, diakonia – spiritual services and energhmata – spiritual activities – all of which he talks about in this passage. And incidentally the word for spiritual (as in the first verse of the passage) is pneumatikwn – an adjective not a noun.

To put all the emphasis on gifts – as the translators do by their mistranslation – is to forget that spirituality is not just manifest in gifts – like speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc. – but in service to others (including- in the context of the church - everything from flower-arranging to preaching) and spiritual activities (such as celebrating the Eucharist – as we are doing now, prayer, etc).

Of course the difference between a spiritual gift and a spiritual activity or service is fuzzy. Is prayer an activity, service or gift? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

So here Paul is talking about spirituality. What more can we learn from what he says? Recently I have been trying to sort out my ideas about spirituality and what it is. This has been partly prompted by meeting a man on the internet called Ron. I have met Ron through the blog of my friend Lesley. Ron is from Manchester and that is about all I know about his personal life. But I now know a quite a lot about what he thinks about religion, spirituality, etc. He is an atheist but one who is willing to engage with Christians. Very willing actually. One of our recent discussions has been about the spirituality of atheists[i] Ron seems to be offended when I ‘accuse’ atheists of sometimes getting spiritual but I guess I want to try and convince him that spirituality isn’t something particularly odd – of interest to just to those of us who are religious.

Perhaps this is something similar to what Paul is doing here when he tries to explain spirituality to the, formerly pagan, Corinthians. He starts by, in effect, saying that not everyone who calls themselves spiritual is spiritual: it depends on what the person is being ‘spiritual’ about. In Paul’s words you can be ‘led astray by dumb idols’. But he then goes on to set a pretty low bar for spirituality. He says that ‘No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. So just the confession that Jesus is Lord is a spiritual act.

My view – and I’m not sure that Paul would entirely agree with me – is that it’s even possible to be a spiritual atheist. This is because for me the most helpful definition of spirituality is that it’s connection with all of four things: oneself, other people, the natural world and God (not necessarily in equal measure) I am not now quite sure where I found this definition – and it’s more of a description than a definition – but I find it helpful in a variety of different contexts.

One of its implications is that it means that I do not think one has to believe in God to be spiritual - partly because I think connecting with one of the other three – oneself, another person or the natural world cannot really be done without God’s help – the help of the Holy Spirit. And here I think Paul would agree with me. Just one example of this: I do not think it is really possible to love God without loving oneself and indeed vice-versa.

By connection I mean something like having a relationship with. In other words spirituality is much more than having knowledge of or belief in and is associated with feelings for the other starting with a feeling of deep connection. [Incidentally I assume this is what Paul means – following Jesus in John’s gospel – about being in Christ and Christ being in the Christian]. Having a relationship cannot just be one way, both the object and subject of a relationship give and take – one from the other. [ii]

Ron doesn’t like my definition of spirituality because he thinks that spirituality can only be concerned with God. One of his definitions of spirituality (well more precisely mysticism) is a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding, or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with god through contemplation or ecstasy. I agree with the ‘intimate union’ part of this definition. But not the rest. Spirituality for me has nothing to do with doctrine and not much to do with understanding, and while God is essential He (graciously) is not the end of the matter

Because Ron doesn’t believe in the existence of truths which can transcend ordinary human understanding or in God, then for him all spirituality is based on an illusion and is hence fundamentally an illusion on the part of those who make claims for spirituality.

My argument is that atheists can’t help find more transcendence in life than they generally care to admit. Richard Dawkins for example is famously ’into’ awe and wonder. Here is a quote from his new book The Greatest Show on Earth. 'Evolution is an inescapable fact, and we should celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty. Evolution is within us, around us, between us, and its workings are embedded in the rocks of aeons past.' This to me sounds very much like spirituality – particularly the bit about evolution being within us. The sounds suspiciously like connecting with the natural world to me. And connecting with the natural world is, as I have said, one aspect of spirituality.

Many atheists (both New and old) are into the astonishing nature of creation (to chose my words carefully) but also its mysteries. But they are also into things like freedom. This is, I think, because they find the idea of God terrifying (and indeed it and He is) and that atheism ‘frees’ them from the necessity of connecting with God. Now I think connecting with God gives us ‘perfect freedom’ from amongst other things – and perhaps most importantly - the wrath of God. And perhaps atheists understand this more than some Christians.

I could go on about the spirituality of atheists but back to the passage from 1 Corinthians. How does this help explain spirituality? Is it any use in explaining spirituality in the modern world where it’s still common to find people discussing and being interested in spirituality? (It is in fact well known that many more people claim to be interested in spirituality than they do in religion.)

Well I think it helps in two ways. Firstly I think Paul is arguing that spirituality is one thing and but also many. Paul is saying here that there is an essential unity to spirituality – all who confess that Christ is Lord rather than say Caesar is Lord or – perhaps more likely these days - science is Lord – are by his definition spiritual. My view would be that many – may be even atheists like Ron – confess that Christ is Lord without knowing it (but perhaps that’s for another day and is, of course, as likely to offend atheists as much as ‘accusing’ them of being spiritual). But there is also a necessary diversity to spiritual gifts, service and acts. This diversity should not be a source of conflict (though clearly - from the context the Corinthians thought it was – and we in the Church still tend to do so today) but this diversity should enrich and benefit one another. Furthermore a concentration on gifts rather than acts, or indeed acts over gifts is to neglect the breadth of the Sprit’s working. The contemplative and active lives are complementary (c.f. the story of Mary and Martha).

Secondly Paul is arguing that manifestations of the Spirit, whether they be gifts, service or acts are firstly ‘apportioned to each one individually as the Spirit wills’ but secondly these manifestations are ‘given for the common good’. That is we might expect people to appear more or less spiritual in a superficial sense. Some people will speak in tongues some won’t (i.e. they’ll have different gifts). Some will be good at flower arranging/preaching and some won’t (i.e. they’ll seem more or less useful in their spiritual service to the church). Some will be’ good’ at prayer and some won’t (i.e. they’ll seem more or less spiritually active). But the Spirit will give them all something. And this something is not just for themselves it’s for the common good..

So in summary we take a narrow view of spirituality at our peril. We should be tolerant of different expressions of spirituality but also seek to identify the different manifestations of the Sprit in others and in ourselves. Finally spirituality, like God, is essentially indefinable: any attempt at description is bound to be provisional so forgive me if I have been too provisional and feel free to go back to Paul.

To remind ourselves of the provisionality of description in relation to God here is a poem I have recently come across (also through Lesley’s Blog). It’s by CS Lewis. [iii]

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow

When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,

And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart

Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.

Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme

Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,

And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address

The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless

Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert

Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;

And all men are idolators, crying unheard

To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great

Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

[i] See http://bit.ly/9TYTjX though in this discussion we were actually discussing mysticism not spirituality. For the purpose of this sermon I have taken them to be roughly the same thing.

[ii] And this includes the connection with the natural world (probably the most controversial aspect of my definition)

[iii] Entitled: Footnote to All Prayers

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sermon on ‘The Heavenly Party’, I Corinthians 11: 17-34 and Luke 14: 12-24, St Matthew’s, 4th July 2010

This sermon is entitled ‘The Heavenly Party’ because Bishop John, at Steve’s institution – which some of us attended back in March or there abouts – said that what we as a church needed was ‘more prayer and parties’. And this got me thinking It also seemed appropriate to preach on the subject of parties the day after our Parish Day – and of course Steve is just back from his sabbatical - a cause for celebration – an excuse for a party even.

Now parties are generally held to celebrate significant events in people’s lives such as births, weddings, a change of job, the move to a new house, even death – both the day itself but also the anniversary of the day. Parties are also held to celebrate significant events in the lives of communities and not just individuals. The opening of a new building, the appointment of a new leader, etc. And some of the most astute of you will have noticed that this is the 4th July – the day the Americans have parties to celebrate their independence as a nation.

And of course – even in our secularised world - we also celebrate the events of the life of Jesus by holding parties. Most of us will go to at least one Christmas party – more if we are lucky. Some of us will hold a Christmas party and by doing so of course we are marking the birth of Jesus – in a way that I think he would personally very much like. We don’t seem to have Easter parties as much as we used to. Even when I was a child Easter was much more of a celebration than it is now.

But what is a party? Well parties have – in my views - three essential ingredients. Firstly: an event to celebrate (which I have already touched on). Secondly: a gathering together of people. You clearly can’t have a party by yourself. Thirdly: a sharing of food and drink? Perhaps this reminds you of something?. Yes Holy Communion has all the basic features of a party. And this is what I want us to think about today: Holy Communion as a party.

Now this might sound a bit strange to some because we are used to celebrating Communion in a quiet, contained, solemn sort of way. Parties in contrast are noisy, unconstrained even boisterous. I am not saying that we entirely abandon quiet, solemn Communions but today I wasn’t to suggest that at some Communions we might be more party-like.

So to get us in the mood for a more party-like Communion I thought we should make a bit of a noise. There are lots of psalms which start with, or at least contain, the line ‘Let us sing to the Lord’. But there are also a few which urge us to shout. For example Psalm 100 begins: ‘Shout to the Lord all the earth’, which can also be translated as ‘Make a joyful noise’ or ‘Make a loud noise unto the Lord’. So today I thought we would do just this by letting off some party poppers.

[Give party poppers to everyone as they come in.]

For the rest of this sermon I want to look some good biblical reasons – from the Gospels - why we might think of the Communion as a party. And then I want to look at the Epistle reading to show why the Communion is more than just an ordinary party.

My first reason for thinking of the Communion as a party is that Jesus clearly enjoyed a good party. And perhaps this is one reason why he came up with the idea of a party to commemorate the events of his life: both his death and his resurrection. As I said a party needs something to celebrate.

There are lots of Gospel stories of Jesus attending parties. He went to parties held for special occasions such as weddings. And we thought about the Wedding at Cana a few weeks back: at the first of our Zone services. But he also went to seemingly spontaneous parties such as the one held in Bethany which we thought about last week. Perhaps this was held to celebrate Lazarus return from the dead. But John remembers the party because Mary poured a bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet.

Both of these parties remind us that you shouldn’t stint at a party. When, at the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus learnt that the alcohol was running out he didn’t just produce some ordinary plonk but the best vintage wine. When Mary poured perfume over Jesus feet it wasn’t cheap, it was expensive nard from India or China. And note that the fragrance wasn’t just for Jesus benefit - it filled the whole house. Of course spending money on a party doesn’t guarantee that it will go well but perhaps some extravagance is in order. Accordingly for the Communion today I have bought a special bottle of Cote du Rhone – which the women who sold it to me assures me tastes a little bit like ginger bread. And the bread I have made for Communion is not ordinary bread but slightly sweeter brioche bread with butter and eggs in it: a bit more celebratory than ordinary white bread.

My second reason for thinking of the Communion as a party is that Jesus told lots of stories about parties. Parties to celebrate particular things like weddings. Or as in the story Michael Mitton talked about yesterday – a party to celebrate the homecoming of wayward or prodigal son. Jesus even tells a story of a women holding a party to celebrate the finding of a lost coin.

In the Gospel reading compares the Kingdom of God to a great banquet. Now as I think I have said many times before – a great banquet at the end of all time – a heavenly party if you kike - is a theme that runs throughout the Bible from the prophecies of Isaiah[1] to the prophecies of John in Revelation. The particular thing I think to note in today’s reading is the guest list for this heavenly party. This is an extraordinary party to which – in the end – all are invited including the poor, and maimed, blind and lame.

But as - Michael Mitton noted yesterday - one of the amazing things Jesus claims about the Kingdom of God is that – yes it is in the future – but it also breaks through to the here and now. This is why Jesus – before he starts his story about the great banquet – prefaces it with instructions to a the man – a leader of the Pharisees – who has invited him to dine with him – about who to invite to parties here and now. Jesus says ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours…but when you give a feast invite the poor, the maimed, the lame the blind’ Just the people who are invited to the heavenly party at the end of all time. And the Communion that we will be celebrating today is a feast to which all are invited.

The shortest sermon I have ever heard – and one that I can remember not just because it is short but also, I think very profound was preached by my friend Alan Garrow who used to come to this church. His sermon was just six words and was this. ‘The Eucharist is not a rehearsal’. That is to say the Communion we are about to celebrate is in some mysterious way the very same banquet that we will be sharing with Jesus at the end of time.

The third reason for thinking of the Communion as a party is the sharing of food and drink. As I said at the beginning these are essential ingredients of a party. We are the only species of animal that sits down and shares food at a meal. Claude Levi Strauss – the famous anthropologist - argues that what separates us from animals is not tool-making (many other animals such as chimpanzees make and use tools) nor language (dolphins and whales have complicated languages) but cooking. We alone of all animals use fire to cook food. The cooking and sharing of food is fundamental to being human. In sharing foods at a meal round a hearth we are forced into looking into one another’s’ eyes - into communicating – from which of course we get the word Communion.

And this brings me to the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 11 (page1152). This is Paul’s account of what Jesus said to his disciples about celebrating Communion. It is very similar to the accounts in Mark, Matthew and particularly Luke. It clearly contains words which the church has incorporated into the Communion service liturgy and which Steve will be saying shortly. There is lots that might be said about this passage. But there is one particular verse that deserves looking at today in particular – in connection looking at the Communion as a party - and this is verse 29 which reads ‘For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eat and drinks judgment upon himself.’ What does this mean?

Of course on one level Paul is saying that, at the Communion, it is important to remember that the bread and wine that we receive at communion is in some mysterious way the body and blood of Jesus. But remember Paul often talks about the Church as the body of Christ. So he is also saying that when we eat the bread at communion we need to ‘discern’, remember, be conscious that we too part of the body of Christ. We will remember this when we say – as we will do shortly – ‘Though we are many we are one body because we all share in one bread’.

But perhaps it’s also worth remembering that when the administrant at communion gives you the bread and says ‘the body of Christ’ he/she means both the bread in their hand and you the receiver of the bread.

So to sum up. And bring things together. Reflecting on the Communion meal as a party might, I hope, have shed new light on its meaning. In particular let us remember that it’s not just or even mainly an individual act of worship – but a coming together of the Body of Christ – in this place – where we all share in food and drink to celebrate – with joy and happiness (even a few loud noises) both the cross and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ
[1] Isaiah 25: 5-10