Ash Wednesday Sermon 2019

The journalist Suzanne Moore recently wrote an excoriating article about the state we are in. Among the thoughts that jumped out at me, was that older people should be cautious about blaming the mental health of young people on their addiction to social media and the gadgetry which connects them to it.
Perhaps the world that we have created and will bequeath to them is more to blame. One of austerity, nationalism, anti-semitism and frantic business. A culture where only the best are valued and only the richest can afford to buy a home or pay rent.
In a world rapidly losing its wild life and over -heating. What really can we expect ?
A preoccupation with social media might be a symptom rather than a cause.
As you are aware, I am a bit of a convert to twitter. As well as being a useful way of getting in touch with and conversing with people around the world with common interests, but it also provides a window into the soul of thousands of people. And there is a lot of nastiness and stupidity there, but also inspirational and enlightening content.
One element which manifests both positives and negatives is reflections from rabbis on Scripture. Incredibly educated and wise rabbis explain how they understand what we Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament, and then Christians respond. Many with ‘wow, thank you for that insight and for enriching my understanding,’ but just as many with ‘ you have got it all wrong- we Christians know what it really means.’
The patience and politeness of the Rabbis’ is astounding.
What we know as Fundamentalism is as far as I know non- existent in the Jewish tradition. Scripture is approached not as a source book for rules or dogmatic certainties, but an inspired resource to help humans understand themselves and their relationship with God.
It is ironic that the very same Christians who most often allege that Judaism is about rules impose that very model on Scripture while the Jewish thinkers creatively explore the complex interplay between the written word and religious tradition and the lives we live.
Unsurprisingly we find Jesus doing just this too. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear of him trying to deepen people’s practice of fasting and charitable giving. He is not criticising the conventional practices, just saying don’t show off; just do both.
The prophet Isaiah, in that brilliant passage from chapter 58, is not saying don’t do and cherish the normal religious rituals, but rather remember that they have a social and political dimension to. Religion is not about the pieties he insists, it is about the actions which reveal the understanding of life and God that they really have.
Charity and justice are not add-ons, they are essentials, he insists.
Jesus is saying you must believe in your heart what you do. Isaiah insists that you must do what you believe in your heart.
They are not contradicting each other, but reminding us of the two sides to loving God and neighbour.
That is always good advice. I don’t like the term virtue signalling because it is used as a term of abuse by people with a specific political leaning, but there is no doubt that we human beings always find it easier to look and sound virtuous than actually make the sacrifices and efforts involved in the real thing.
Which brings me back to Jesus’ teaching about fasting. Now that Lent is virtually ignored even by Christians maybe we should deliberately be more transparent in our fasting and self- denial. Not to blow our own trumpets, but because solidarity and visibility are very effective in getting people to notice and join in. Just look at the success of Veganuary. We can’t argue that restraint of consumption isn’t needful. Maybe God is calling us to acts of conspicuous non consumption.
And finally, picking up where I began, about creative uses of Scripture. What about that image of dust ?When we are ashed, we hear those words.
‘Remember you are dust.’
In Genesis 2 we are told that God created all life from the dust. From the earth. With modern physics in mind many thinkers and poets have recently started rejoicing in our origin as stardust. But maybe it would help us to recall that connection with soil. We are made from the same stuff as stars but we have the same source as all other living things. We are fragile like them, we are short lived as they are.
We are precious to God, as they are. We return to the earth as they will.
When we are feeling arrogant, or isolated, this sense of being held in existence by God, by grace, might help to re-orientate us and comfort us.

Sermon on the Wedding Feast in Cana

St Isidore of Seville, who lived from 560 AD until 636, is interestingly the patron saint of the Internet. You might be thinking,’ wow computing is much older than I thought’ but you are more likely to be thinking. What?

Living in Spain at a moment when the legacy of Rome and Greece was under threat from the forces that would lead to the so called dark Ages, he tried to collect as much knowledge as he could and summarise it for posterity, thus creating the first encyclopaedia.

So there you have the reason. I first came across him when studying medieval history, and I have never forgotten one of the bits of data he recorded. It was about age.

He divided up the human life span into 6 parts. Youth, he said, was when a person was at their strongest and most energetic – It began when they were 30 and stopped when they  were 50.

A number of ages came after that- extreme old age being 75 and above.

St Isadore himself lived until he was 76.

I was reminded of this recently when I came across a story about how archaeologists are beginning to reconsider the assumptions that they have long made about longevity in the distant past. Now it appears that on many occasions in the past when societies were settled people lived much longer than has been conventionally thought. As one scholar wrote.

A smaller percentage of the population would have been over 100, than today, but they would have been there.

Which brings me to St John. I am more and more of the mind that the traditions of the early church are correct about his longevity and the dating of his Gospel. When people were in thrall to the idea that in the olden days people hardly lived beyond 50, the thought that St John, who had been a disciple of Jesus and witnessed everything that had gone on in Israel around 30 AD, could sit down in Greece 60 years later and produce his remarkable gospel seemed a bit far- fetched. I don’t think that is true anymore.

It might also help to explain why St John is so different from St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew.

One man who had been there and seen it all but had also been part of the church as it grew and spread out around the Mediterranean, and would have observed and been part of endless arguments about what Christianity was all about.

He would have watched as the church endured whimsical episodes of  persecution by Roman Emperors.

He would have heard of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the actual removal of that city from the face of the earth by the Emperor Titus. The place which was at the centre of the experience , his encounter with Christ, which defined his life had been erased.

There was some laughter in the house of Commons on Monday when the Prime Minister referred to future historians looking back at the events of this week.

From where we stand today, we can’t be sure if those future historians will be laughing, weeping or cheering, although we probably all have a view!.

As a nation, or rather a group of nations- Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay, England and Wales to leave- we are divided on this subject. But contrary to the binaries that much of the media like to deal in, most of us I sense are complex creatures with all sorts of reasons for our position.

I don’t doubt that many people have been motivated in the main by xenophobia whilst others have made primarily financial calculations , and some have just been suffering from inertia, but most of us are a mixed bag.

But I do think we do need to be prepared.

If, as most economists predict, we leave the EU with no deal and we enter a new recession we will have to cope with a further and more vicious period of austerity.

It is likely that people will seek more extreme political solutions, and those who hate Europe will inevitably blame the EU for not making our exit easy.

If we end up remaining because parliament follows its own conscience that will also exacerbate domestic political differences.

The more positive leavers think that after a few years of economic stasis or decline the world will open up to us, and we will all be invigorated by our restored national sovereignty.

I hope they are right, just as I personally suspect they are terribly wrong.

But it helps, I think, that we can draw on a biblical perspective, whatever the future holds.

Such as St John’s memory of Christ changing water into wine at that wedding feast in Cana, reflected through the dark glass of 60 years of experience;

of conflict and persecution, and for me the most poignant factor of all, the complete obliteration of the place it all began.

There are many times St John must have felt that the wine had run out. Again and again, he saw that God replenished the supply.

Theologians like to insist upon the difference between optimism and hope.

Some versions of optimism, in terms of the wedding feast in Cana, could, I think, be described as the belief that the wine will never run out. Hope never makes that mistake.

It is more about how we deal with the moments there is only water left at the bottom of the barrel.

To return momentarily to our national convulsions over our relationship with the EU because of the dominance in our culture of consequentialist and economic thinking, it is almost entirely talked about in terms of calculation. Will we be better of or worse off? Will there be more or less conflict in the future?  How much will it cost?

And the same sort of questions often frame all the other large matters we face- From Global warming to homelessness, and even education.

When we turn to the story of the wedding feast at Cana we encounter a different perspective. What the great American writer , Marilynne Robinson has called the open handedness of God.

A social scandal is about to occur. A wedding feast is about to fail the test of hospitality. Christ transforms that situation, when need is answered by prayer.

A disaster becomes a blessing. I can’t resist the idea that St John looked back at that private event and read into it the whole history of the church so far. Adversity again and again being turned to good by God opening his hand and people unclenching their fist.

Sermon on Christ the King 2018

My musical tastes have always been a bit out of step with fashion and time. When, in the mid 70’s my contemporaries were endlessly celebrating the wonders of Genesis , I was playing Elvis records in my bedroom, and I didn’t appreciate the Smiths until they had long split up. Now like a lot of people of my age I am so disengaged from popular culture that almost every person described as a celebrity arouses no trace of recognition in my brain.

But very occasionally the topic of David Bowie comes up and my eccentric preference for his acting over his singing. An opinion which rests almost entirely on the time he played Pontius Pilate in Michael Scorsese’ s The Last Temptation of Christ. Particularly that scene we heard about in the gospel just now. The encounter between Jesus and Pilate.

In the film Bowie’s coldness and remoteness perfectly captured the gulf between the world Pilate inhabited- of political power, Imperialism, personal ambition, and keeping the peace, not because it is virtuous but because it is convenient – and that of Jesus, from Pilate’s perspective, an uneducated lowly provincial with some odd and dangerous religious ideas.

The idea that Jesus could be a legitimate king or have any right to talk about truth would have seemed to Pilate, utterly absurd.

But here we are, celebrating the feast of Christ the King, as millions of Christians are today all around the world, and that careerist Roman is only remembered because of his role in Jesus’ trial and execution.

I want to home in on one phrase I that Gospel as a starting point.

Verse 36.

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is my kingdom is not from here.

It is worth remembering that when Pope Pius X1 instituted the Festival of Christ the King in 1925, the spur for it was the end of the First World war and its aftermath. In particular the rise of nationalism and the use of violence.

He rightly saw that there was a fundamental contradiction between the church’s understanding of the kingdom of God, and the modern political religions which made nationhood into an idol and dehumanised all others and outsiders to bolster national identity; so their rights and very existence came into question. He had witnessed what has already happened to the Armenians in Turkey and prophetically feared more to come.

But what is the kingdom of God? Because it too is an idea that can be subverted.

It has been used to identify the church as an institution as God’s domain, to bolster conformity and obedience.

The resurgence of white supremacism in the USA has often been accompanied by a belief that the racial inequalities of nation are God sanctioned.

There have been Christians on the left who have at least flirted with the idea that the kingdom of God is a future socialist paradise.

It is both challenging and liberating that Jesus, when he spoke about the Kingdom of God, did so most of the time in parables.

We have to think about it, we have to seek under God to live it out in our lives, but we are saved from ever thinking that it is a political system that can be found or made on the earth.

One example of holding to the kingdom of God was the courageous life of the very recently canonised Archbishop Oscar Romero- it only happened last month.

You might remember that he was gunned down by government backed militiamen whilst celebrating mass in his cathedral in El Salvador in 1980.

He was killed for criticising the government for its brutal suppression and arguing that the historically created inequalities in the country were part of the problem. He took no political line and supported no political party, but he did speak up for those who were most vulnerable and asserted the primacy of love.

He said.

Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.

For Romero, peaceful witness to human solidarity was key. De insisted all are entitled to love and respect, because all are literally in the same boat. Struggling, vulnerable human beings, whether powerful politicians or children sleeping in doorways.

The Feast of Christ the King is a perfect moment to seek to re-orientate our lives to the values and priorities of the kingdom. That vision of God, which we can only partially and humanly realise in this life, because it is transcendent.

There is no easy list of rules that can be ticked off.

In St Mark ‘s gospel we read of Jesus repeatedly saying how precious it is to seek and glimpse the Kingdom of God.

In St Luke’s Gospel we are given the picture of the banquet, where are all are invited, to sit and eat together, in the host’s presence. The host is God himself and whenever we come together to share the Eucharist, we are sitting together, with all our differences, celebrating that human solidarity that Romero was talking about.

Only in St Matthew do we get clear guidance on how to be. Not what to do, but as I say how to be; to have one foot in God’s kingdom.

In the famous beatitudes in the sermon on the Mount, we get something totally at odds with the coldness and self- centredness of Pilate. We get the lived truth which Christ represented.

To be able to grieve and to have a forgiving and a humble heart.

To show mercy and forgiveness.

To be hungry for the right way to live.

To make and build peace.

To be willing to put your head above the parapet for the sake of others and your convictions.

Hatred and totalitarianism; Self, family or nation always first whatever the coat to others. None of these have any room in the Kingdom of God, for which we pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.






On Cyborgs and baptism

Sermon Pentecost 2018

The film Terminator is now a thing of the distant past. Even the future it predicted has been and gone-the date that Skynet went rogue being imagined as 2004.

But still people discuss that possible moment when artificial intelligence will slip into consciousness and become a danger to humanity. But what if something like that has already happened.

The Games designer and philosopher Chris Bateman thinks that it already has, but that it has gone largely unnoticed. But in his theory, there are no killer cyborgs about to go on a rampage. We are the cyborgs.

He argues that we have come a long way since we invented simple tools like hammers.

We are now dependent upon AI- in our cars, in all our new household gadgets, but above all in our phones and ipads and computers.

We talk to them, we play games with them and we feel a little bit lost without them. The so- called smartphone zombie is among us- in Hong Kong they invented the nickname- ‘the head down tribe.’

Bateman doesn’t get all moral panicky about this, but suggests we need to be a bit more aware of what is going on and act more cannily.

For the gadgets influence us and the applications they offer to us influence what we think and what we do- the role of Cambridge Analytica and Russia in shaping opinion being just two well known examples.

Bateman argues that we need to practice cyber virtues to negotiate the new world which AI is opening up.

Restraint for example and liberty to avoid being sucked into compulsive activity or the many forms of tribalism and all the echo chambers which confirm us in all our opinions.

Time is such that we are always poised at the beginning of a Brave New World. And we have to repeatedly find ethical, spiritual and creative ways to respond.

Whether that is the disciples we hear about today, at Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit manifests itself as a powerful force giving them courage and voice.

Or any parent with children, wondering what the future will bring, but determined to help them navigate that world, secure in their love.

Or any of us indeed who listen to the news from Gaza, or about Iran. Or hear the latest reports about species extinction.

Or worry about the cost of housing, the education system ;or how care for the elderly will fare in the future.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is described as if it is some kind of celestial magic potion, which God arbitrarily provides to his own to help them thrive- you might have noticed me drawing on video game language there!

But that is not the way the church has seen it. In John’s Gospel we heard Jesus say this.

‘ When the Spirit comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’

And although we rightly see that the energy, unity and self- belief that the first disciples felt gifted to them, to face an in-comprehending world.

And the courage and steadfastness and God- guidedness of people like Martin Luther King is part of that, it has not generally been thought that is the end of it.

The resources that people have within them to be compassionate and actively so. Not just to care about people but act with generosity towards them.

The conscience and the compulsion which makes us seek the good. That is seen as the work of the spirit.

In the Old Testament, the word, translated as spirit, is close to the idea of a life -giving breath.

And it is used to describe the force that shapes the universe, and brings life into being, and inspires human artistic invention and moral engagement.

And inspires the quest to understand a world which is immensely rich and mysterious, but one that we believe can reveal to us truths we can grasp.

And there, as in the New Testament, it is seen as a gift from God Himself. Who created all that exists, with the potential to realise the same degree of love that he has shown from the beginning.

Whatever age we live in, whatever our religious or philosophical takes on the world, and whatever the new circumstances that we face, we can’t evade issues of truth and how to live well.

For Christians being part of the church and welcoming new members through baptism is how we explore together those very same things, united in the conviction that life has intrinsic meaning and value bestowed by God.

And that Christ through his life and death revealed to us the how and why to living.

And that through the Holy Spirit all people have the capacity for profound love and truth seeking.



Good Friday Sermon by Jonathan Brown. Vicar of St Andrews Earlsfield



Last week I managed to get to see the film Mary Magdalene, during its ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ run in London cinemas.


It’s a thoughtful portayal of Mary and her relationship with the other disciples and with Jesus, much of it necessarily apocryphal, but nonetheless believable.


It concludes with the Passion – dramatic scenes of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem and the crowd going wild with excitement; but soon after, bloody scenes of the crucifixion, in which we are reminded that Mary was one of the few who didn’t run away. Then, finally, Jesus appears to Mary outside the tomb, making her the first witness of the resurrection.


Dramatisations of the Passion have a long tradition – the medieval mystery plays, Oberammergau, and a succession of films. They go a long way towards capturing the emotional intensity of the events. But however vivid they may be, these dramatisations always have something missing. We can re-enact the horror of the crucifixion, the lifeless body being taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb, and then the risen Christ reappearing on the third day. But what we cannot possibly capture is the cosmic transformation of those 36 hours.


There is a gap between Good Friday and Easter which is beyond our comprehension. It crosses the boundary between life and death, so that we can never penetrate it. But it is in this gap, in the apparent emptiness, where the universe is changed.


In this gap, not only are Pilate’s corruption, Judas’s betrayal, and Mary’s grief overcome, but all corruption, all betrayal and all grief. As one of our Anglican eucharistic prayers puts it: ‘He opened wide his arms for us on the cross, he put an end to death by dying for us, and revealed the resurrection by rising to new life.’


This cosmic transformation embraces all the horror of the world –

the latest atrocities in Syria, and all who are victims of forces beyond their control. Nailed to the cross, Jesus gathers together all this agony, and takes it with him to die.


The gap between Good Friday and Easter is important. Jesus does not simply get down from the cross, as the bystanders encouraged him to. That would have been too easy, and an insult to all who suffer. The hours of silence between Jesus’ death and resurrection take seriously the pain and the suffering of the world. This is the time when Jesus ‘descended into hell’. But in this time in hell, in a way that we cannot comprehend, hell has its power taken from it.


Suffering and death do not have the final word, however devastating they may be. In the gap between the crucifixion and the resurrection, human mortality and corruptibility are overcome, and God’s kingdom of justice, peace and integrity is opened to us as the way that leads to eternal life.


The events we commemorate today took place 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. They have been re-enacted countless times since. But their effect is for all times and in all places, for us and for all creation.


This can never be re-enacted, as it can never be fully comprehended – but it is our assurance that today is indeed Good Friday, the beginning of the salvation of the world. Amen.

Some thoughts for the Civic Service on 18th March

There is post going around on twitter this weekend, inspired by it being St Patrick’s day tomorrow. On one side it has a couple of pictures of St Patrick pointing at snakes, which according to myth he banished from Ireland, but on the other some photographs of people indicating the position of potholes.

A great way to bring ancient traditions and today’s civic challenges together.

Although like all medieval saints St Patrick had all sorts of legends attached to him, the banishment of snakes and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity using a shamrock leaf, being just two of them, we do actually have contemporary evidence about his life and even some of his own writings.

One thing that is certain is that he was a victim of human trafficking and another is that he was not Irish. He was a teenager when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates, from his home near modern day Bristol. And we know his faith and his self- respect sustained him during his period of captivity.

Later escaping and returning to Britain, he did return as a missionary to Ireland , where he was moderately successful at spreading Christianity but  undoubtedly contributed to the remoter parts of Ireland becoming places of Christian spirituality and learning- redoubts of faith , education and learning during the so called Dark Ages in Western Europe.

Quite an impact for a victim of child exploitation.

I invited the children of Riversdale school to do a short presentation on how they understand being a Rights Respecting school because I was so impressed at a meeting with assessors to judge the progress being made. How creative and practical the staff and children were at integrating the values at the heart of children’s rights into the fabric of school life- not only about how they behave, but how they learn, and how they think about each other; other local schools, such as, Burntwood follow the same programme.

Of course, the United Nations declaration of children’s rights echoes the declaration of human rights from which it derives, which is revealed by the principles the declaration on children outlines at the very beginning .

Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of the all members of the human family in the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

There is a long and complex argument about how the idea of human rights came to be. Some have sought precedents in Hammurabi’s famous Babylonian Law code or in the Vedas, or the analects of Confucius, or in the Jewish Scriptures, such as in that passage from Isaiah that Ravi read earlier.

Others have seen it as a unique project from within Western Liberalism  and ,depending on which side of the religious/secular divide they sit, an achievement of Christianity or a triumph despite Christianity.

The discussion of origins will, no doubt, continue.

But I think there is a case for the role of disgust and horror at making people declare enough is enough- It was the horrors of war, genocide and the plight of refugees that compelled people to set up the convention for human rights in the 1940’s.

The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that our guts and emotions play, and rightly play ,a vital role in all our ethical and political convictions.

There is no doubt that empathy played a huge role in the abolition of slavery.

For Christians the state sanctioned murder of Jesus for crimes of which he was innocent is seen as a pathway to greater compassion.

So, I would urge us all to, literally, take heart. There are unfortunately horrific things all around us- my own church has been shockingly culpable for not protecting those who are most vulnerable- in which people’s sanctity/ dignity/ inalienable rights, call them what you will, are not being cherished.

And there are lesser evils, such irritants as potholes for example. In the face of them all it is right to be frustrated, horrified and angry, but that should only be the starting point. We can all make a difference.

As Eleanor Roosevelt, the driving force behind the movement which led to the Convention of Human Rights in 1948 famously put it

Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.


Ash Wednesday Sermon

On Monday I accidentally marked Shrove Tuesday a day early. I decided to us up all the egg in the kitchen so made myself something that approximated to a Spanish omelette. I had completely forgotten that in Spain they prepare for lent not by eating pancakes but by eating tortillas.

In Iceland yesterday has a splendid name- Sprengidagur- bursting day, as all the salted meat has to be finished off before Lent begins.

It is a bit of challenge that Lent and all our traditional ways of preparing our souls for Easter now get lost between the day we gorge ourselves on pancakes and the day we tuck into chocolate eggs!

Our modern obsessions with food do offer a challenge to what were once thought to be the core principles of Lent. Food was once simply the stuff which we ate to keep us alive. Now when we shop and eat we think of pleasure, of danger and of ethics. Is it tasty? Is it bad for us? Is it bad for the environment, or does it deprive the workers of their just wages?

No wonder there are increasing numbers of people suffering from eating disorders!

At one level this might make Lent more complicated, but it might make things more simple.

I have always been quite a fan of the Epicureans. They are my favourite school of ancient Greek philosophers and although people who are knowledgeable about the history of Christianity are well aware of the influence of the Stoics, Plato and Aristotle on the Church; many are oblivious to the Epicureans’ contribution.

Here are some of their key ideas.

Lots of possessions and stuff are not guarantors of happiness.

Friendship is the most fulfilling type of relationship- much more important in the long run than romance.

People are much more content when they live with others, rather than in isolation.

That being aware of your mortality gives you a sense of what counts. They practised meditation and awareness of their fragile condition.

That simple food is in the end most sustaining and satisfying.

Sound at all familiar? Although theologically the Epicureans were atheist, they seem to have paved the way for monasticism.

They lived in community, fostered friendship and practised a simple lifestyle.

I think it is instructive that their way of life seems to have been adopted by Christianity.

It might help us think again about why we give things up.

Why voluntary austerity came to be seen as essential part of the Spiritual life.

Not because God demanded it, not because God wants us to feel rotten about ourselves and not because it is a church tradition we must slavishly follow.

Courtesy of the Dean of Southwark I came across a brilliant quotation from the composer Mahler this week- one that might be worth putting above every door into church.

Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.

A question I have for myself and all of us.

Is do we think that Jesus was miserable?

This man who knew himself to be beloved of God his Father, who brought healing and joy. Who was serenely unafraid of bullying religious leaders and political figures. Who spoke with such wisdom and acted with such compassion.

And yet trod lightly and was more likely to be surrounded by friends than encumbered by possessions. Who drew crowds to himself not by demagoguery but by having something to say. And fed them with bread and fish, and spiritual nourishment.

All too often Christians are accused of looting the pagan past for their own ends, but I think they saw in the Epicurean way of life echoed the example of our Lord.

That is the fire we wish to re-kindle and preserve.

And we don’t have to make that leap against our wills and in the face of our inclinations. Lent is about finding ourselves again. What matters, what is essential.

The penitential prayer that we are about to say together is about

Shedding the collateral emotional and moral damage done to us and by ourselves, laying to one side the fruitless objectives we burden ourselves with,

That in the words of our confession tonight.

Have wounded God’s love and marred his image in us.

And getting things right, becoming whole, and pursuing  what give us a chance of real happiness.






Was Jesus Spiritual?

We don’t hear of him going on a retreat to find himself?

We certainly don’t hear much about his inner life? What we do glimpse of it is nothing like the harmonious psychological balance that is the goal of experiences or practices that we immediately think of under the modern umbrella term spirituality.

A new translation of the New Testament has just been produced by David Bentley Hart, who is one of the most learned, but also most interesting Christian writers on the planet at the moment. One of his avowed intents with his new translation is to bring out the strangeness of the original Greek- we are so used to the beauty of the King James translation and its modern derivatives- that we are often unaware of the jagged, fragmented and earthy nature of the original.

It has all been smoothed over by committees of learned men who have turned the simple prose of fishermen and tent makers into sophisticated and orderly literature.

Even St John, who is often thought of as the best writer of the bunch, is not as smooth as the translators trick us into thinking.

The wedding feast at Cana story, literally goes something like this.

And Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and the disciples were invited to the wedding. And there being a shortage of wine, Jesus’ mother said to him,’ they have haven’t any wine, and Jesus said to her- what’s that got to do with me and you woman.

When we read the other gospels this is even more apparent. Even when the story is like this of a miracle, or a parable or teaching, we read something spare and gritty, not other-worldy.  Jesus is in the midst of the fray, not floating above it. He is eating with friends, literally debating in the public square, confronting politicians and religious leaders, and what he says is packed with emotion. Urgency is more prominent than serenity.

This year we are developing a new Mission Action Plan, and at the core of it the Church Council has decided that there should be an exploration of Christian Spirituality; so throughout this year there will be guest preachers, special events, and opportunities to talk together, to help us to think about what ‘ Christian Spirituality is,’ and why it is important for all of us.

This morning I am just trying to provide some first thoughts about it.

And I have 4 to make this morning.

Firstly that we need to start with Jesus himself as I just have, and keep coming back to him again and again as a reference point.

One really helpful and simple definition of spirituality, that I like is answering the question ‘to what do I commit my life?’

When we contemplate Jesus life and teaching we see someone who centres his life on his relationship with God, his Father- one of the things we think about in the period after Christmas, in the Epiphany, is how Jesus manifested God throughout his life, in the world, as he grew up and became known.

Jesus commits his life and eventually surrenders it to revealing God to the world.

Compassion, deep challenging, healing, life bringing, truth telling are all aspects of how he did that.

His was a life of deep contemplation and action.

One of the first incidents from his adult life that St Mark reports is when he slips away from his disciples in the middle of the night, to go out into the desert to pray. They take an age to find him. I believe this is scene setting rather than a description of a one of event- this is what he did.

But to counter-balance that we read much more about his acts of healing, his parables , and his disputes.

My 2nd reflection is that when we see how Christians have orientated their lives since, one or other of these 2 poles of Jesus Spiritual life- the inner and the outer- have often become pronounced.

An example comes from 2 of the saints that the church has remembered in the last few days.

On Friday we had Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester, who was a Saxon bishop who staid in post when the Normans invaded. He moved in high circles and is remembered for sticking up for his people in the face of the conquest and for one of the earliest attempts to abolish the slave trade.

Yesterday it was Richard Rolle’s turn. He lived in the 14th century

2 quotations will give a flavour of his thoughts.

As far as my study of Scripture goes, I have found that to love Christ above all else will involve three things: warmth and song and sweetness. And these three, as I know from personal experience, cannot exist for long without there being great quiet..

Drawing on Rolle, my third point, which I also alluded to when I mentioned Jesus is that emotion is a vital component of Christian Spirituality.

Action to change the world, deep contemplation of the world and ourselves, and feelings- care, righteous anger, love- are all involved.

My fourth and final reflection.

Christian Spirituality is about both I and us. As individuals we are unique, not just in our character and personality , but  also our experiences,- so one person’s spirituality might be another person’s poison. But we are not alone- we are part of a community too- family, culture and church.

So that simple definition of spirituality I mentioned earlier is not quite adequate. In the context of the Church we ask ourselves, not only ‘ to what do I commit my life,?’ but to what we, as a Christian community, ‘ commit our lives?,’





Sermon on Sin and Glory, featuring Oedipus Rex

Probably the best known play from Ancient Athens is the C5th BC tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles.

Like all great dramas it is about many things, but one of its most prominent ideas is that human intelligence is deeply limited. Oedipus is the great legendary King of Thebes, renowned for his problem-solving ability.

He was made King because he solved the riddle of the Sphinx-Gollum in the Hobbit was probably partly inspired by this creature.

The Sphinx was a fearsome monster which ate any traveller it met on the road to Thebes who couldn’t solve its riddle.

The actual riddle is not described in the play but from other versions that survive it went something like this.

A thing there is whose voice is one;

Whose feet are four and then become two and then become three.

It is the most changeable thing that moves in earth, sea or sky

And when it moves on most feet it is slowest.

Oedipus said the answer was man- who crawls when a baby, then walks up-right, but in old age needs the help of a stick.

When a plague hits Thebes Oedipus decides, in true detective fashion, to get to the bottom of it all and eventually discovers, shockingly, that he is at the bottom of it all, because he unknowingly killed his own father and married his own mother.

Oedipus assiduously searched for an objective and external cause for the plague but he found a subjective and internal answer- himself.

It seems that he never really solved the riddle at all.

He provided a notional and logical answer to it that satisfied the monster by saying man, but never really picked up on the continuity between the baby, the adult and the old man and the frailty and fickleness which links them all.

The play ends with him blinding himself, and going into exile. Signs that he realised at last who he has been all along, someone stumbling in the dark, and not as in control of the world and as secure in his place as he had long thought.

In the book of Genesis is a story, probably composed a few centuries earlier, which is even better known. The one about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

God creates the perfect environment for human life, and lays down one rule only. ‘ Don’t eat from that tree; it will destroy you.’

A serpent comes along and lies to Eve ‘ No it won’t do you any harm. God just doesn’t want you to be his equal, and as wise as he is, and know the difference between good and evil’

On eating the fruit Adam and Eve, rather than suddenly becoming God like geniuses, instead, for the first time, realise, like the Emperor in the famous Fairy tale, that they have no clothes on. Soon they too are in exile.

It is a much simpler and less developed story than Oedipus, because it has its origins in folk lore rather than in a sophisticated literary culture, but the message is very similar.

We humans are not as bright and omnicompetent as we sometimes think we are. We are always as naked and vulnerable as the crawling infant.

It sometimes strikes me as very strange that in our society, where the Christian talk of sin- which is what this awareness of fundamental human frailty is all about-is looked upon with disdain because it is perceived as running down humanity,  if you follow any on line discussion about, say, politics or the environment, it isn’t long before  you come across assertions that all politicians, businessmen, socialists,( take your pick) are knaves, fools and liars, and the human race is a virus which should stop reproducing itself immediately and the world could well do with an asteroid collision to get rid us all sooner rather than later.

In which we also witness of course, Oedipus’ mistake, that the problems are all the fault of other people.

Today is the feast of the Transfiguration, which not only celebrates the glory of God shining forth upon and through Jesus Christ, but reminds us that Christians believe that the glory of God shines within all people. Human beings are frail and changeable, but they all have the image of God deep within them.

We are all capable of thought, analysis and reason, but also of wisdom, creativity, self- sacrifice, compassion and the search for truth.

GK Chesterton was a fount of interesting and paradoxical ideas and he once said that his faith was ‘ less of a theory and more of a love affair.’ If so, it is not an un-requited love affair, although for many of us the beloved can be quite elusive.

In his poem, ‘ In love for long’, Edwin Muir, conjured up a kind of mystical attitude to the world which I have always found deeply evocative.

‘I’ve been in love for long

With what I cannot tell

And will contrive a song

For the intangible

That has no mould or shape,

From which there is no escape.

It is not even a name,

Yet it is all constancy…

It is not any thing

And yet all being is.’

One way of understanding the Christian journey of faith, from the cradle to the grave, is this wrestling with the world we live in.

Full of flawed and fragile people, just like us. But we watch out for the glory of God; for those brief transfigurations when people reveal to us the best, or we re-find it in ourselves, when we seem to be lost. Those moments sustain us on the journey.