"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

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Feeding of the multitude: John 6.1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

I don’t know whether it is something to do with the street I live in but this time of year seems to me to be characterised by the smell of barbeques.

I must be deeply anti-social or I have some other personality defect but I don’t find chasing paper plates around someone’s garden in the teeth of a gale, while balancing a cup of indifferent wine and avoiding ketchup stains and salmonella, a recipe for unbridled fun.

Today’s Gospel, though not exactly describing a barbeque on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of his hungry followers. When I was thinking about how best to approach this reading I had a look at a book by the theologian Canon Dr. Jeffrey John called “The Meaning in the Miracles.” He wittily relates how as a schoolboy two of his teachers had approached the miracles in contrasting ways and this really resonated with me because I had a similar experience when I first started teaching. One of my colleagues, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach to scripture where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as it said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.

Mrs. King, my first R.S. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals within the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the five thousand, he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.

She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.

I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.

Life’s too short.

While their approaches seem diametrically opposed, they were in fact quite similar in the sense that they both treated the miracles as straightforward descriptions of events: they concentrated simply on what did or did not happen. Dr. John, on the other hand, concludes that the real nature and purpose of the Gospel miracles is found in the depths and dimensions of meaning found in the account and these passed both the teachers by completely.

The problem with Mr. Forrest’s approach where miracles simply exist to prove the divinity of Jesus is that it can say very little else about the event because it either rejects or simply doesn’t understand any symbolism at the heart of the stories. The problem with Mrs. King’s approach as a call to greater charity is that it hardly sounds like good news and certainly not a tremendous demonstration of God’s free, miraculously overflowing generosity to his people.

What I discovered, before I gave up on them and went and sat with the Maths Department, was there was no middle ground between them. For where two or three are gathered together in my name….there will inevitably be an argument. (To paraphrase Matthew 18).

But I digress.

This was the day Jesus was trying to get away from the crowd. Jesus crossed the sea and climbed a mountain just to get away and get some time for prayer. He often took some time out, insisted on getting some quiet time; some prayer time. Jesus modelled for us that no matter what you're involved in, you¹ve got to make time for God, time for reflection and time to listen to God – a good learning point for us all.

Well, on this particular day, Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee and climbed up a mountain; he’d sat down to catch his breath, looked up, and can you believe it? Here they come. The crowd had somehow found their way to Jesus: here they came scrambling up the mountain to be with Jesus.

So, let’s look again at the story and, two thousand years down the line we don’t instantly recognise the subtext as the original listeners and readers would have, and that diminishes our understanding of the Gospel. There are so many layers to the miracle stories.

Now in this passage notice that John tells us the crowd “saw the signs.” This would have had Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King arguing straight away, so let’s be clear. In John’s gospel, miracles are signs that point beyond themselves – to God. Every time Jesus performs a miracle he is saying something about God and about himself in relation to God. The miracles are not important merely because this or that person is healed or because Jesus changes water to wine or whatever. The miracles are signs that point to the reality of who Jesus is. Yes the crowd gathered for healing, but they kept following him because of the signs, even if they didn’t yet fully understand the implications.

Perhaps the most obvious theological emphasis of this feeding miracle is to tell us that Jesus is the new Moses. Even with a sketchy knowledge of the Old Testament most people are likely to remember that Moses had done something similar with the manna in the desert. Like Moses Jesus crosses the water into the desert, sits the people down and feeds them with miraculous bread in such abundance that there are basketfuls left over. Much less obviously, because this Old Testament story is perhaps less well known, Jesus’ actions also recall Elisha. Some of the details of the feeding stories reflect an incident in 2 Kings when Elisha takes an army into the desert and feeds them miraculously with a few loaves.

Taking Moses and Elisha together, the story seems to be hinting that in repeating what Moses did, Jesus is fulfilling the Law and, in repeating what Elisha did, Jesus is fulfilling the Prophets. Whatever else this feeding miracle is intended to teach us, it also reaches us that Jesus is truly the one whom the Law and the Prophets foretold.

Some commentators go further: the words and actions of Jesus over the bread are exactly the same as at the Last Supper. The association with Moses and the Exodus here, in what we are told was the Passover season, points to the new Christian Passover, the Eucharist.

These are the signposts which point to Jesus’ divinity and to the readers and listeners of the day they must have been akin to flashing neon lights which spelt out the truths, hopes, patterns and meanings and modern relevance of the Old Testament scriptures those elements represented.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy). Only all too often we have lost the key and therefore miss many of the nuances.

What should this mean for us today? When we read the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, how should we react? Well, perhaps the best response is the one provided by scripture itself, the discourse of Jesus on the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel. In John, it's Jesus himself who will become the real food:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from Heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus understood all too well that if he let people claim him as their physical provider, they would miss the reason for his coming. His intent was to point them beyond their physical needs to their spiritual ones. He wanted them to look not merely to bread, the most meagre sustenance of the poor. “The bread you will eat”, John tells us Jesus said, “is my flesh.” In a profound spiritual sense, Jesus wants his followers to understand that their communion with him, their participation in his very life, will lead to new levels of maturity and understanding.  

What would Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King have made of it all, I wonder?




Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sunday Sermon: Mark 6.14-29. The Death of John the Baptist

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

 I’ve a real soft-spot for John the Baptist. Not the personal hygiene, the diet or the dress sense, obviously, but I like the fact that he told it as he saw it.  I admire the fact that he took on the powerful and the vested interests of his day and pointed an accusing finger at the corruption and religious hypocrisy that was rife. And that’s a part of the story that tends to be overshadowed by the more familiar part of his story: we tend to see John, “the voice crying in the wilderness”, primarily in terms of his preparing the way for Jesus. What we might be less familiar with is the whole backstory of his getting up the noses of the religious and political authorities.

If you’ve switched off after hearing today's Gospel text I don’t blame you. This is a terrible story. It's hard to say "Praise to you, O Christ!" after such a story. Perhaps we should skip this story and read the next one instead. It's a much more uplifting story about Jesus feeding the 5000. Mark is a very careful writer. Herod's distasteful banquet segues into the story where Jesus makes sure that everyone is fed. Mark wanted these stories back to back because of the contrast between Herod’s banquet of death and Jesus’ banquet of life. But I won’t steal next week’s preacher’s thunder.

So, hard as it is to listen, let's go back to Herod's story. This feast was a very public state event – the King’s birthday celebration: there may not have been a large crowd, but there was a select guest list of important officials. Herod's wife, Herodias, was there, even though she shouldn't have been because he’d stolen her from his brother: an unlawful liaison that  John had condemned and, as a consequence, had ended up in prison.

Though Herod was a Jew, the power that the Roman Empire had given him - even as puppet king - had replaced his sense of religious commitment.  But why did he give in to this terrible request for John’s head on a plate? Wasn't it enough that John was in prison? I should imagine alcohol may have played a part, combined with a bit of self-indulgent self-promotion playing to the gallery, “Look at me. I’m the King. I can do whatever I please. I have it within my power to grant whatever you may wish.” Except that in reality he didn’t: maybe this Big-I-Am routine was a way of covering the fact that as a Roman-appointed king his power was actually very limited indeed, so where he could exercise power he was going to make a show of it. And perhaps this is why he made this promise to his step-daughter rather than someone who might actually call his bluff and ask for something he couldn’t deliver. The silly slip of a girl was bound to ask for something trivial after all, like a necklace. Well, Herod didn’t bank on Herodias’s bitter desire for vengeance against the man who had held her up to public ridicule. John’s death was Horodias’s idea, not her daughter’s.

Herod had liked to listen to John, which was odd indeed for John preached repentance wherever he went. Was there something inside Herod that remembered God's word, some spark of God that drew him to John's teaching?

Herod was upset by her request because he feared the crowd beyond his palace gates, because they revered John as a prophet. He was also upset because he was still drawn to what John said. But his guests had heard his oath. How could he back down without losing face? Who knows what the guests might tell someone higher up? So Herod gave the command, and soon the head of John the Baptist was brought out on a platter, as thought it was the last course of the meal. This was a very different banquet to the abundance of Jesus' feast. Not twelve baskets of food left over, but a horrifying leftover: John the Baptist's head served on a platter.

So, there’s our context. What are we to make of this?

John is often regarded as the last of the Old Testament Prophets because he stands in that long line of men of faith who spoke the word of God to their own generations. When we talk about “Prophets” let’s be clear what we mean: this isn’t about foretelling the future. The Prophets of the Bible were the outspoken critics of their day, speaking out against all sorts of abuses meted out by the rich and powerful, deliberately or by omission, against the poor and the marginalised. If there was any element of foretelling the future it was only in as much as they predicted the anger of God and the inevitability of the downfall of the wicked as a consequence of their corrupt behaviour and lack of compassion.

We look back on them now as some sort of Robin Hood type folk heroes, but they can’t have been easy people to have been around.

Isaiah typically delivered a message few people wanted to hear: “Come back to the ways of God you apostates.” Although, in fairness, he also talked about the hope of forgiveness. Jeremiah was a relentless doom-and-gloom merchant, challenging Judah’s moral decline – and he was persecuted for his pains. Ezeikel, was another prophet who warned the People of Israel of the consequences of turning their backs on God. How about Malachi? Let the wicked be warned by the certainty of judgement. Amos: God is just and must judge wrongdoing. Obadiah: retribution must overtake merciless pride. Nahum: doom is to descend on the wicked.

So, there’s a theme: get it right with God and get it right with your neighbour. Micah’s question, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” is echoed later by Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself."

It costs to be a prophet: John wasn’t the only one who died an unpleasant death as a consequence of speaking out and yet we are all called to be prophets …. in some sense, and it’s a hard ministry to pull off: I think of those high profile American and South African Christians who spoke out against desegregation of the races. Well, they were on the wrong side of both history and morality. Going further back, both in America and here, there was a powerful Christian lobby against the abolition of slavery. The wrong side of history and morality again.

Scripture has something to say about false prophets. Matthew warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” In Romans we read, “For such persons do not serve our Lord Jesus, but their own agendas, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”

So, how do we discern a position on the moral and religious issues of our day where we should feel compelled as Christians to speak out? Well, the direction of scripture points to justice, inclusion, compassion and equality. I’ve no doubt you’ve all heard the mantra WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) It isn’t a bad mantra for a Christian to live their life by. We know of Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, the powerless and the marginalised. What would Jesus do/say/think about the suffering of civilians in Iraq and Syria? And the West’s response to the humanitarian crisis? What would Jesus do/say/think about welfare cuts to the most vulnerable in society in the name of austerity? – And I mention that last one acutely conscious that the prophets of the Old Testament were often not at all popular when they spoke out. The Church of England published a critique of the Thatcher government called Faith in the City. “Pure Marxism.” said Norman Tebbit. David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham spoke out during the miner’s strike. He was vilified by sections of the press who mounted a smear campaign against him. “Make him look a fool and no one will take any notice.” Our own Archbishop, Justin Welby has spoken out against the banks and against corporate greed. That same press has been on his case ever since. “Lefty clergy.” Pope Frances has spoken on environmental issues. He has done so with full papal authority and his influence will go far beyond the Catholic faithful. America’s Fox News has described him as the most dangerous man in the world and suggested that he should stay out of politics and concentrate on religion. After all, what does he know about science? (Apart from his doctorate in Chemistry from Argentina’s premier university. Let's not let factual accuracy get in the way of a good rant, after all!) Being a prophet doesn’t make you popular with the vested interests of your day.

If all that sounds like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Hard Left, it isn't meant to. We come from all colours of the political spectrum, I'm sure. My argument is about each of us speaking to our own peer groups and holding to account those who promote policies and strategies which clearly do not bring the Kingdom of God closer. It come as something of a personal revelation, but others ARE accountable to us in all of the spheres we inhabit daily. Sometimes people need to be reined in and told, not in my name.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor invoved in the plot to assassinate Hitler and undoubtedly a prophet of his time: executed. Martin Luther-King, a tireless campaigner against racial injustice and undoubtedly a prophet of his time: assassinated. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a tireless campaigner against political corruption and the crushing of opposition parties in his own country and undoubtedly a prophet of his time: assassinated – in his own cathedral, during the Eucharist.

Being a prophet’s a bit of a risky business.

So, where does that leave us?

If we accept that the arc of scripture bends towards justice; if we take seriously the mantra WWJD; if we believe that the Holy Spirit works in our lives to bring the Kingdom of God closer in small and incremental ways perhaps we could consider to what extent we might need to “man-up” a bit. If you are anything like me you’ve probably kept quiet when you should have spoken out: spoken out against the casual racism, sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia we encounter daily; kept quiet when politicians of all colours have said and done things which clearly have not brought the Kingdom of God closer and when we’ve known in our hearts that such-and-such a policy is clearly not Christlike. Did we try to make anyone accountable? Should we have done? One of the things about Christianity – and the thing that frightens the powerful like Herod and Herodious – is that followers of Jesus are called to activism. How else will the Kingdom of God come closer?

Me? Speak out? I’m not called to be a prophet! Well, let’s be clear, none of us here are likely to be a John the Baptist, a Martin Luther King, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or an Oscar Romero, but the English Philosopher, Edmund Burke is quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” WWJD?

Maybe that would be a good thought on which to end.