"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sunday Sermon: Jesus and the bread from Heaven and stumbling blocks to faith. (John 6)

John 6:56-69

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Today we continue with Jesus’ discourse on The Bread of Heaven and this passage is either the preacher’s dream or the preacher’s nightmare because there are so many themes that can be explored. There are two themes that particularly struck me which I’d like to share with you. The thing that hit me most forcefully about this Gospel passage was the theme of a crisis of faith. Given, too, that the crisis of faith comes as a direct result of religious teaching, I also think it’s a passage which is subtly calling on us all to be more willing to argue good theology and to challenge bad or lazy theological thinking.

We can all be theologians.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?

I don't know about you, but sometimes it's easier for me to identify with the crowds who misunderstand and question Jesus than with Jesus himself.

I think this is one of those times.

To understand what I mean we have to recall just what Jesus has been saying here and throughout the sixth chapter of John's Gospel: that Jesus, for instance, is the bread of life; that he provides the only food which truly nourishes; that he gives us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to sustain us on our journey; that we are actually to eat the flesh and drink the blood in order to abide in him. These are, indeed, hard words: hard to hear, hard to understand and for many, hard to believe. For many they are stumbling blocks to faith, as they were for some of Jesus’ followers in this passage.

Are we really all that different? I mean, which of us has not at one time or another wondered whether we have got it wrong about God? People of faith don’t find themselves immune to doubts.

Something of this sort appears to be happening in today’s Gospel. Earlier in this same chapter we read about how Jesus has fed five thousand people with five small loaves and two small fish. This had amazed the crowd so much that “they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” Jesus responds with an extended discourse on bread from God and the assertion that he is himself the Bread of Life, using words that associate himself with the God who had revealed himself at Sinai as “I am who I am.” “I am the bread of life,” Jesus has already declared to them.

That’s some claim: “I am the bread of life.”

And many felt that he had crossed a line with those words. Some around him had already been grumbling because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ Their discontent was clear when they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven?’”

No wonder, then, that many of those following Jesus now desert him. And at this point we need to be careful how we characterise them, because it's always tempting to write off those who gave up on Jesus as people too stupid or lazy or unfaithful to believe. But John calls these people not simply "the crowds," as in earlier passages, but rather "disciples."


The people in today's reading who now desert Jesus are precisely those who had, in fact, believed in him: those who had followed him and had given up much to do so. But now, finally, after all their waiting and watching and wondering and worrying, they have grown tired, and they can no longer see clearly what it was about Jesus that attracted them to him in the first place, and so they leave. We are so attuned to these words we probably find it hard to understand how offensive Jesus had become to his hearers by this point, with the things he was claiming. “Does this offend you?” Jesus had asked.

“Yeah, actually it does.” Was their response and they turned their backs on him.

What just happened?

What a contrast: the crowd witness the feeding of the multitude but within a short space of time have given up on the man responsible because his teaching was too hard. For some, the religious implications of Jesus’ words were a step too far. What we see here is that the teaching of Jesus is itself, not the stepping-stone, but the stumbling-block to faith.

So think for a moment and reflect on your own spiritual journey.

Are you identifying with Jesus or the crowd right now?

The problem was that this wasn’t the Jesus they wanted: they’d backed the wrong horse. Their understanding of Kingship and his were incompatible. They wanted the warrior king, the political leader who would lead them to victory over the Romans and Jesus was offering them quite a different sort of kingdom: The Kingdom of God.

“Pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die!” Some of them no doubt thought. “We want action now.” What good were all these words when contrasted with the expectations of what they really wanted to from Jesus?

Jesus then turns to the Twelve, his inner circle, and asks them whether they, too, wanted to leave him. After all, if significant numbers of others were disillusioned with Jesus, surely those closest to him must be having the same sorts of doubts. They knew him better than any of those who had left. So what did they think?

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So said their chief spokesman, Peter, in words so significant that they have been incorporated into the liturgy of the church.

Now, given that the Gospels make it fairly clear that there were many times when the Disciples failed to understand what Jesus was telling them, it’s probably fair to assume that they weren’t feeling much more enlightened than the others by what Jesus had said. Remember, we come to passages like this with the benefit of hindsight. We’ve heard the stories; we’ve internalised the meanings we’ve heard them that many times ….. but try to imagine hearing and trying to make sense for the first time of some fairly abstract and intractable ideas. You might even have got a handle on what Jesus was saying, but the implications … the implications. “Really? Have I got this right? Did he just say what I think he said?”

These disciples were also plagued by doubt and fear. They suffered at times from pride or a lack of courage, and they, too, eventually deserted Jesus at the very time he needed them the most. So if they aren't any better than the rest of Jesus' followers - then or now - what is it that sets them apart? The Disciples surely didn’t respond as they did because they understood the words that much better than those abandoning Jesus. But they knew one other thing that made all the difference in the world and that made them say that he had “the words of eternal life.” That difference was this: “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Those leaving had neither come to know or believe this. For the Twelve, it was the one thing that made them stay, even though they carried on failing to grasp the meaning of much of what Jesus was saying. Perhaps for some of them it wasn’t until Peter articulated it that they were forced to confront this for themselves.

This man was introduced to the readers of this Gospel as “The Word made flesh.” “The Word was God and he was with God in the beginning.” In him, John asserted in those opening verses, resided life: the “life that was the light of men.” Perhaps the disciples couldn’t have spoken that eloquently when Peter spoke up for them all, but they stuck with Jesus because at some point they recognized the divine in him.

O.K. So we’ve looked at the Gospel story and analysed it.

So what?

It has to have a practical application or we’ve rather wasted our time. We have to turn a piece of religious history into something we can work with in our own lives or we’ve missed the point of being here.

Well, this, according to many Christians down the ages, is what makes what we are doing here this morning so important, so vital. Because each week, through the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, we're offered again the words of eternal life which Peter and the others recognised. We're offered again, the chance to encounter Jesus and his living Word. Through preaching and through the sacraments, Jesus' real presence is revealed in our world, we receive the promise that Jesus is, indeed, the bread of life and we are pointed to the place amidst all the mess and ugliness of this world, that we can look to and know with confidence that we can find God there, in Jesus, offering us again the promise of forgiveness, acceptance, meaning, and life.

The 16th-century reformer Martin Luther argues this point. "God is present everywhere, but does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of God in the right way."

The trouble is that we have to keep reminding ourselves of this. We are so far removed in time from these events that, however much our imaginations might be grabbed and transported back through time during the readings and the sermon; however much our intellect and soul engage with the spiritual meaning of the words - the theology - coming here week by week can very often seem a tired routine. Perhaps we don't renounce or desert Jesus openly like the disciples in today’s passage, we just don't make the extra effort to get to church quite as regularly, or we reduce what we've been giving, are more reluctant to support church events, we give up on prayer, we find different priorities and other calls on our time until, in the end, we’re just like the disciples in today's reading: turning our backs and leaving.

Considering the difficult times, the times of doubt, the times of misunderstanding, the stale times in our pilgrimage of faith, other preachers at this point might remind us of all God’s blessings and encourage us to consider what God has done – and continues to do - for us. Well, true as that most certainly is, it never quite works for me. It seems a trite refuge when things don’t feel right in your spirit. I don’t necessarily want to count blessings. I’d rather struggle with the problem.

Those other disciples deserted Jesus because his teaching was a stumbling block to their faith. We hear this all the time. “I and the Father are one.” Jesus goes on to tell us later in John’s gospel. In my Religious Studies classroom I am repeatedly told “I can’t believe that Jesus is God. How could one man have created the universe?”

“Man? One man. Right… ” And thereby starts a discussion about transcendence.

And so, unlike the first group of disciples in today’s reading, we aren’t satisfied with our initial reaction to what we read and hear. We spend some time looking at the reasons people give, their stumbling blocks, for not believing in God. We examine them, we analyse them and then we look at alternative perspectives.

“Actually, not all Christians take that view because …..”

“But many Christians would disagree with that viewpoint. They would say  …..”

“Actually that isn’t what the Bible says.”

 “You’re taking something literally that wasn’t intended to be understood literally.”

Then there are the misunderstandings of what Jesus says that are the stumbling blocks:

“I can’t believe in God. Look at Jesus teaching on abortion and homosexuality.”

 These are real stumbling blocks for some people. That Jesus doesn’t actually have anything to say about either issue tends to come as a surprise. Does that come as a surprise to you?

People believe some very strange things about God; about Jesus, and what they believe is often a stumbling block to their faith. It is a shame that much of it is ill informed. If you aren’t sure about that, spend some time looking at the statements of American politicians and evangelists in the run up to their election. It has been said, rather unfairly perhaps, that the Church of England is the Conservative Party at prayer. In America, something which passes for Christianity is the Republican Party at prayer and it’s not a Christianity - in some of its expressions - that many of us would recognise. Often what it proclaims is a stumbling block to the faith.

In the same way that ignorance, misunderstanding and false expectations caused some of Jesus’ would-be followers to turn their backs on him in today’s Gospel, so it is today, but very often the stumbling block for Jesus’ would-be disciples now are not the words of Jesus but the words of other Christians.

It’s not the same because some other people have agendas and don’t necessarily speak with the mind or authority of Jesus.

“Does what I say offend you?” Jesus asked his followers. Perhaps some of Jesus’ latter day followers could do well to adopt that mantra for themselves.

So a practical application for dealing with stumbling blocks to faith?

Well, count your blessings of course, but if it’s of any help at all try to think more like Peter. Don’t be satisfied with an inadequate answer. Don’t assume that what you’ve understood is the meaning that was intended and leave it there. Dust off and examine your own position on things.

Are there alternative perspectives you’ve not considered? Perhaps it’s time you considered them.

Are you sure that what you think is the teaching of Jesus or the tradition of the church actually is the teaching of Jesus or the tradition of the church on any given topic?

What type of Christian is espousing that view you’re listening to? Are you generally in sympathy with such people?

Is what they’re saying related to issues of salvation? If not, in all conscience, can there not be more than one viewpoint?

Ask yourself the question: “Who would I rather have put words into the mouth of Jesus? The Gospel writers or, for instance, Paul Ryan, the current Vice Presidential candidate?

Perhaps in our spiritual lives we need a bit more of:

“Actually, not all Christians take that view because …..”

“But many Christians would disagree with that viewpoint. They would say  …..”

“Actually that isn’t what the Bible says.”

“You’re taking something literally that wasn’t intended to be understood literally.”

I know it sound trite, but a stumbling block to faith – even a mature faith – is only a stumbling block if once you’ve tripped on it you stay down.

Let’s not stay down.

Let’s struggle with it. Let’s argue with it. Let’s engage with it. Let’s talk about it.

Let’s do Theology.

We can all be Theologians.

Who has the words of eternal life?



Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review: The Sword of the Templars by Paul Christopher

“Just a book review,” Ms. Raby said at the end of term. "It will encourage literacy if the kids see that we read for pleasure."

Just a book review?

“Didn’t your friend Nikki at work suggest you read some Tolstoy?” My wife ventured. I knew where this was going. “Only you can’t review the usual sort of dross you read.”

Why not?

“Because you only read books where the blurb includes the words: hidden archive, relic, lost artefact, Templars, archaeological dig, international plot, secret brotherhood, quest and hidden wealth.”

How well she knows me.

“Anyway, I thought you were going to read the collected works of James Joyce.”

You don’t tend to find them in Oxfam Books and when I did get a look at the first page of Ulysses, reading the complete works of James Joyce seemed marginally less appealing than reading the complete works of Barbara Cartland.

So, notwithstanding my wife’s cynicism, I bring you The Sword of the Templars by Paul Christopher, published by Penguin.

A dark mystery spanning the past ….

A covert war raging in the present ….

An ancient enemy, hell bent on hiding the truth that would rock the very foundations of the world …

Come on. What’s not to like?

Retired army ranger John “Doc” Holliday is the key protagonist. Recently working as lecturer of military history at West Point (now there’s a job I fancy), Doc is left his uncle’s estate which, as he explores it, turns out to include a hidden Templar sword wrapped in Hitler’s own personal battle standard.

I know, me too.

The action starts in America and moves swiftly to Canada, Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, Israel, and the Azores. An awful lot of people get killed – by my reckoning about 130, although an awful lot of those were a secret brotherhood of Libyan fanatics and as none of them were given names, I don’t think they really count. Amongst the other fatalities are a double crossing Catholic Priest (boo, hiss) shot by a Mossad agent in down-town Jerusalem and a noble ex-monk (ahh!) who reveals the secret to Doc as he chokes his last on his own blood.

Doc and Peggy (did I mention Peggy, Doc’s niece? – she had a combination of good looks and flashing, energetic personality that  drew men to her like a magnet) and Raffi Wanounou, the Israeli archaeologist ( a starkly handsome man in his late forties) … do keep up … are chased from pillar to post trying to unravel the mystery of the knotted gold wire in the hilt of the sword, and, amazingly have enough cash-in-hand to undertake expensive, and sometimes dangerous undercover travel and pay for accommodation bills for hotel rooms they invariably end up fleeing from and leaving knee deep in gore.

Somewhere in all this it becomes clear that Axel Kellerman (tall, blond, athletic, sharp jawed and with an aristocratic nose, full mouthed lips and high cheekbones) son of WWII SS Gruppenfȕhrer General Lutz Kellerman (ask Miss Williams, she teaches History) and also a secret Neo-Nazi and certifiable mad-man, is their chief foe.

I’ve forgotten exactly why, but then a lot more people are killed so I was distracted.

Anyway, by the end of the book I’m not much the wiser but remain intrigued by how easy it is to cross a variety of international borders with little or no money and only American English and Hebrew to help you. I’m still a little unclear why it was necessary to be smuggled into Gadhafi’s Libya but there you go.

No hold on … that’s the sequel. To my horror, on finishing the book I discover I have to read on in The Templar Cross where Peggy is kidnapped by the Brotherhood of the Temple of Isis which leads Doc and Raffi into a quest into deepest Africa, taking in France and some other places along the way. A lot of people try to kill Doc but he seems wise to them as an ex-military man because none of the killers wear their West Point graduation rings on the correct hand.

That old trick? Really?

It is at this point that I discover that Doc only has one eye and wears an eye patch over the other – a piece of grit thrown up on a road in Afghanistan. I am left wondering why it took me until halfway through the second book to pick this up. There is a strong chance I've not been concentrating.

There’s something about WWII gold, extracted from the teeth of Tunisian Jews, having been lost in a desert plane crash and an interesting line in Czech assassins who use plastic hat-pins – because they don’t show up in airport metal detectors, obviously: do think for yourselves – to stab unsuspecting library archivists through the ear.

I shall make a point of watching out for that.

Anyway Tidyman has his throat cut on the Orient Express, which is a shame as he was a baddie-turned-goodie, although I don’t think his enigmatic Canadian/Egyptian past was sufficiently well explored, rendering him as something of a two-dimensional character and the gold remained hidden in the Pharaoh Imhotep’s tomb in Libya for Doc to retrieve later.

Did I mention that the mad neo-Nazi, Axel Kellerman, (tall, blond, athletic, sharp jawed and with an aristocratic nose, full mouthed lips and high cheekbones) son of WWII SS GruppenfÈ•hrer General Lutz Kellerman, had died running into Doc’s Templar sword? No? I don’t suppose it would have helped much at this stage as it happened at the end of the first book.

Anyway Peggy marries Raffi once he recovered from having been badly beaten up by a bald psychopath Priest called Father Domato who is a member of the Vatican’s secret police.

No, me neither, but that’s O.K. because Doc later shoots him in a fishing shed outside Rome.

Strangely by the end of this book I have completely lost the plot - sometime after Paul Christopher I suspect, but all is not lost because it turns out that this is a trilogy.

How I laughed!

And, as luck would have it, The Templar Throne was to hand.

Peggy (now pregnant) and Raffi are largely left out of this book until, inevitably, they are kidnapped in the penultimate chapter (that girl should never go shopping) by an organisation called Rex Deus made up of American  descendants of the brothers and sisters of Jesus who, therefore, share the Royal Bloodline via the Merovingian kings. Their matriarch, Kate Sinclaire (a brittle, hatchet faced woman, prone to chain-smoking but always immaculately and expensively turned out) is the mother of Republican presidential hopeful Richard Pierce Sinclaire who she hopes to manipulate into the presidency by virtue of Rex Deus’s fabulous wealth, which is the Templar wealth reinvested after they were all unfortunately tortured to death or burnt at the stake in 14-something-or-other because of Pope Urban and some French king.

This leaves Doc with no travelling companion until he meets up with American nun – or is she? - Sister Meg (in her late 30s, grey-green eyes, red headed and prone to blushing) at Mont Saint-Michel. The action moves to Prague … not quite sure why … where there is an amusing interlude in the ancient Jewish cemetery as Doc and Meg shake off a tail in the shape of a fat, bald private detective. Did I say amusing? I lied.

They also escape from British Special Forces – or are they? - at Mount St. Michael by avoiding abseiling soldiers and hopping onto the passing boat of a young Irish fisherman – or is he? “Aw and well, it’s just a culchie from Cork City that I am and all.”

A couple of folk get shot on Holy Island and Doc and Meg escape by the skin of their teeth which is good, but a shame for the Vicar who had invited them for a meal of haggis and sausages: it’s just not polite to be a no-show without at least texting.

Somehow they end up in Canada where an awful lot of paramilitary guys get shot-up at the lakeside safe-house.

Forgot to mention that this is to do with a quest for the True Ark (a wooden box containing the Holy Grail, the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Shroud and the Ring of Christ) which Meg believes was smuggled to The New World by a surviving Templar called Saint Clair and the Blessed Juliana, niece to Princess Agnes of Bohemia (died 1282). This is where I really had to suspend my disbelief. After all, Jesus wearing a ring? As if.

Anyway, Meg turns out to be the daughter of Kate Sinclaire and only an ex-nun which I was quite pleased to discover as she tries more than once to seduce Doc. “It doesn’t have to be like this you know.” Very un-nunly!

I don’t suppose you spotted the subtle link between Saint Clair and Sinclaire did you? It took me a while to spot that one.

Anyway, just as Doc is about to be forced to authenticate the True Ark, which they had finally found, but only because Meg had planted it there already – cunning vixen that that she is – on a sandbank off the coast of Nova Scotia, the Israeli secret service arrive and rescue Doc having been tipped off by Vatican security. No, really. I wondered what Homeland Security would have to say about that what with this taking place on American soil but, hey, I’m no expert on international politics and I’m sure Paul Christopher did his research thoroughly.

You can imagine my joy when I discover that Kate Sinclaire has instructed that Operation Ironstone be instituted because, and yes, you’ve guessed it, there is a fourth book, due out July 2012, called The Templar Conspiracy where the Pope is assassinated in order for Rex Deus’s plans to reach fulfilment and save America from liberal socialism.

It’s not out in paperback yet, but it’s my Birthday early in October and I must now how it ends!