Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Wasting time this Christmas

You have probably seen the Mulberry handbag advert. A young couple who have just moved into their new home sit in front of an open fire, surrounded by their yet to be unpacked belongings. The young man turns from his wife saying, "I know we weren't going to do presents, but here' ... he presents his wife with a box... 'Oh Joe', she pulls a bright red Mulberry handbag from the box which glows and illuminates her face with holy splendour. 'It's the most beautiful thing I ave ever seen'. There is a knock at the door and round the corner comes a farmer: 'evenin'' he says, 'I 'eard you 'ad a new bag.' hand he comes in and gazes at its resplendent beauty cradling it as though a small child. In comes another farmer with sheep in toe as angelic choirs sing in the background. Finally in come three friends, who had been stuck in traffic. Resplendent in paper crowns they bring gifts and kneel before the handbag, 'This is truly marvellous', says, one, 'It smells amazing', the second, while the third simply looks longingly at the bag and says 'it's a thing of wonder'. By this point Joe is looking a bit perplexed says... 'guys, its just a bag' and they all laugh, and settle back into admiring its beauty.

It's a bit of fun, and a very clever advert which reminds us of our tendency perhaps to make a little more of gift giving at Christmas than is entirely healthy! But there is something profound about gift giving. It is an act of love, of kindness, of selflessness. Generosity is in many ways one of the noblest qualities of humanity. A virtue we would all want to foster.

What is the greatest gift you can give this Christmas? Whether or not we have the means, we all have a tendency to measure the value of the gifts we give by their label or their price tag. A new pair of socks... thanks so much?!? A Mulberry Bayswater handbag! WOW!

But there is one commodity which we all chronically lack in twenty-first century Britain. It is something which you can't get more of by working harder, or networking better. An impressive stock portfolio won't give it to you, and it can't be found through getting to know the right people. The thing we all seem to lack these days is time. We tend to be frantically busy. Always trying to fit more into the finite span of our waking hours.

Perhaps the greatest gift we can give this Christmas is the gift of time. But not productive time. Idle time. Lazy time. Wasted time. Time in which nothing of any use is achieved.

A parishioner who I won't name once told me that he thought the definition of a Vicar was someone who didn't know the meaning of the phrase, 'a waste of time'. I am certain that this was a complement! It is a real challenge, something you have to work really hard at, to see no conversation, no encounter, no contact with people as a waste of time. And I think this is something which shouldn't just be the preserve of vicars.  We all need to learn to be idle with other people again.

Wasting time with people, people we love, certainly, but also wasting time with people we don't love yet. Wasting time with no hope of outcome or achievement. Simply being with others. This is the greatest gift we can give this Christmas, because it reflects the gift of gifts, given to the human race by God: that God being born as a human baby, as one of us, was a divine decision to waste time with us. To give himself to us in the knowledge that we could never give anything back that would add to God, or make God more happy, or content. God chose to give himself to us with no expectation of return. 

So this Christmas, may we all find time to waste time, to waste time with each other, to wast time with God.

Monday, September 28, 2015

O Lord and Saviour, true and kind

Here is a slightly reworked hymn by former Bishop of Durham, Handley Moule. Its original 77.77 metre made it sound a little sparse (perhaps better as a gradual hymn), and despite rich themes of service and dedication, a bit childish. With a bit of reworking it fits a L.M. tune quite well, and sounds much grander, particularly when sung to Orlando Gibbons' wonderful tune Song 34 (usually the tune for 'Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go" – I also missed out an odd verse about plying the scholars task (I think it started life as a school hymn).

Let me know what you think.

O Lord and Saviour, true and kind,
Be thou the Master of my mind;
   O bless, and guide, and strengthen still
   my humble pow’rs of thought and will.

Here now I train for life’s swift race;
O let me do it in Thy grace;
   here do I arm me for life’s fight;
   O let me do it in Thy might.

Thou, Lord, hast made me mind and soul;
I for Thee choose to use the whole;
   for thou hast died that I might live;
   and all my pow’rs to Thee I give.

I, striving, thinking, learning, still,
O let me follow thus Thy will,
   until my whole glad nature be
   prepared for duty and for Thee.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Whip

Many people find Jesus’ antics in the temple a little embarrassing; after all, isn’t Christianity supposed to be a religion which eschews violence? That disowns those lower instincts which cause us to take a whip and turn over tables and send things flying? When the person having a tantrum with a whip is the Son of God, well, that can be something we find hard to reconcile ourselves with. Perhaps it is because I have watched far to many movies where a tough guy with a thirst for justice beats up scores of people in his righteous anger, that far from being embarrassed, this is one of my favourite stories in the New Testament. Goodness alone knows what that says about any flaws in my personality!

And the story isn’t just fascinating because of its explosive drama. There are lots of details that make it especially interesting. I won’t go into when exactly the event took place, except to point out that Matthew, Mark and Luke have it taking place just before Jesus’ Crucifixion, but John has it right at the beginning of Jesus ministry, years before his death. Who is right? Nobody knows. But there is one very interesting comparison between the four versions of this event recorded in the four gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all hint that the money changers and animal sellers were up to no good. Maybe they were being exploitative. Perhaps they were fiddling the first century equivalent to the Libor rate. Whatever they were doing, Jesus condemned them as turing God’s house into a den of thieves. But John doesn’t. No mention of theft, or extortion or corruption. Simply that these people had turned God’s house into a marketplace.

Now, if we are very literalistic, we might be quite sympathetic with this. We wouldn’t like our church turned into a marketplace, would we? With animals, along with the many gifts the bring, being bought and money changed while we were trying to pray? Surely the temple was supposed to be a place of quiet contemplation, not this noisy, unpleasant, dare I say it, unholy place. But that is where we need to sharpen our understanding of the Jewish faith, and particularly the temple. Because the temple wasn’t serene and tranquil. It was a place of pilgrimage and sacrifice. It would have been noisy, bloody and hot. And the traders at the temple were carrying out a vital service. If you were going to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover, when you arrived at the temple you would need to provide an unblemished sacrificial animal. If you had walked hundreds of miles to Jerusalem, providing an animal without blemish would have been hard. Much easier to set out from your home without an animal, but with a purse, and purchase an acceptable animal once you arrived at Jerusalem. Hence the need for animal sellers at the temple. 

And what about those money changers. I’ve never trusted Thomas Cook, surely their first century counterparts were up to no good. But their place in the temple was vital too. The Jewish law required a tax to be payed at the temple (Ex. 30.13). But what money would you use? Standard Roman coins had, to Jewish eyes, idolatrous inscriptions and images on them, proclaiming Cesar to be a God. You couldn’t bring money like that into the temple. So it was agreed that the only money acceptable within the temple was Tyrian silver, which didn’t have any idolatrous images or inscriptions. The merchants weren’t wicked, according to John, their presence was essential to the proper observation of Passover in the temple. Without them the temple as the place where people go to seek the presence of God would have ceased to exist.

And that is I think, exactly John’s point. Jesus was not judging the temple in Jerusalem as corrupt, but was declaring it to be obsolete. Jesus is not just pronouncing judgement on corrupt religion, but on organised religion altogether. I think that the difficulty all organised religion faces (and I say this conscious of my position), is that to an extent, it commodifies God. Pay your dues, come to this place, seek the advice of this holy man or holy woman and you will be able to have a relationship with the almighty, inner peace, forgiveness of sins, or whatever it is that we seek to get out of religion. Jesus stands resolutely against this. “My Father’s house”, the entire idea of being in the presence of and, in communion with God, should not be turned into a marketplace, it should not be turned into a product which we buy into. Partly this is because whenever we turn God into a product, we always ultimately turn God into an idol: we pick the bits of God which we find acceptable and therapeutic and comforting and buy into those. But the ultimate reason that turing God into a product is so reprehensible is that it fails to recognise the one place where God is truly present, in the person of Jesus Christ. That is why when the temple officials ask Jesus for a sign of his authority to clear out the temple, he says ‘destroy this temple, and I will raise it in three days’, speaking, as John reminds us, of the temple of his body, the place where God now dwells with his people, in their midst, walking among them. Jesus wasn’t the only person in the first century to speak against the temple. But he was the only person to claim that the temple as the place where God’s presence can be found had been replaced by him, the living presence of almighty God.

On Wednesday, The Archbishop of Canterbury launched a new series of “Lambeth Lectures” and gave inaugural lecture himself. He started his lecture with this statement:

In essence, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple teaches us to be very careful about our religion, even when we have the best motives, because to all of us, me included, the decoration matters a great deal. I love the church. I love the ritual and the hymns and the liturgy. But if any of those things become a religious product which I buy into, which draws my focus from worshiping the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ and following him with every ounce of my energy, then I have to ask myself: If Jesus came into church today, would he be appearing with a whip of cords?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Baptism Hymn

I scribbled this metrical version of Mark 10.14-16 because I couldn't find a short processional hymn for the baptism of an infant within the context of a Sunday Eucharist. It's metre is 77.77 and works reasonably well to the tune "Buckland", to which "Loving shepherd of thy sheep" is usually sung.

It is short enough to not overly extend the liturgy. I struggled with the third line of the first verse when I first wrote it. The first draft had "For God's kingdom doth belong", which I really disliked. I'm not a fan of archaic language in new hymns, but "does" didn't seem right. This morning I had another look at it and thought that, while eschatologically inferior, "For God's kingdom shall belong" was a better choice.

The hymn is offered here for improvement if you have any ideas, or for you to use if you are looking for a short hymn for a baptism service.

Let the little children come,
do not hold them back from me.
For God's kingdom shall belong
only to such ones as these.

Very truly, hear my word:
Childlike must you also be;
trusting in your Father's care,
if you would his kingdom see.

Praise, O God to you be given!
Praise on earth and praise in heaven.
Father, Son and Spirit praise
throughout everlasting days. Amen.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hymn for the feast of Ss Peter and Paul

For the poetic out there. I am struggling to find a decent hymn for the feast of St Peter and St Paul, so I thought I would have a go at translating the Latin Decora lux aeternitatis auream into metre (I really don't like the version in the New English Hymnal, just so that you know).

Below is (a) the translated text from Connelly's 'Hymns of the Roman Liturgy' and (b) my dodgy first draft of a hymn based on it. I have omitted from my translation the bits the go on about Rome for obvious reason. If you have any thoughts which would make it work better, please let me know.

(a) Fairly literal translation from Latin

A beauteous light streams down
from the eternal God
to grace with happiness the golden day
that brought reward to the Princes of the Apostles
and gave sinners a clear road to heaven.

Earth's teacher and heaven's doorkeeper,
Founders of Rome and judges of the world,
they take their place, laurel-crowned,
in heavens assembly —
the one triumphant through being beheaded,
the other through being crucified.

Peter, blessed shepherd, mercifully receive
your suppliants prayers
and with a word undo the chains of sin,
for to you was entrusted the power of opening heaven to men
and of shutting the open gate of heaven.

Paul, teacher without equal,
fashion our lives aright
and carry off our hearts with yours to heaven till faith,
whose vision is now veiled,
beholds the noonday glory,
and love, sun-like, is sole master of our hearts.

How happy, Rome, your fortune
in being dedicated to God in the Princes' noble blood;
for clad in your robe dyed purple with their blood
you far outstrip in beauty all else the world can show.

To God in essence one, in persons three,
the ruler of the universe,
be eternal glory, power and acclamation
through all the ages of ages.

(b) My poetic (???) translation

O glorious light, eternal ray,
Whose love and peace to us abound,
You make to shine the glorious day
The Princes of the church were crowned.

The great apostles by their lives
And teaching show us Christ the Lord,
Whose death and resurrection brings 
Pardon of sin and heaven’s reward.

O Peter, heaven’s keys you bear
O Paul, you teach the grace of God.
By sword and cross you came to share
The laurel crown and heaven’s laud. 

Blessed Peter, pray for us, your flock,
That loosed from chains of sin we may
By following the path you walked
share in the great, eternal day.

Saint Paul, unequalled teacher, pray,
teach us to live by faith, not sight
So may our hearts, transposed on high
Worship the uncreated light.

Unto the Blessed Trinity
Perpetual praise and glory be.
All power to the unity
Which reigns through all eternity.


Saturday, February 22, 2014


Matthew 6.25–34

People in advertising know that fear sells. Have you seen advert for the latest kitchen hygiene product from Detol? The Detol no touch hand-wash system! The idea behind it is that the thousands of germs which may be on the end of your liquid soap pump might hurt you, so now you can buy an automatic soap dispenser, recommended retail price £9.99, which means we never have to touch a germy nozzle again! Great idea… but completely pointless… So I get bacteria on my hands from my soap dispenser, but what do I do next? I wash my hands! Foiled again, pesky bacteria! The thing is, we’re all terribly afraid of bacteria these days, unless of course it’s L. Casei Immunitas or lactobacillus casei shirota, and advertisers know they can use our fear to sell us pointless things. Fear causes us to act irrationally.

In the gospel reading which we heard earlier, Jesus tells us how to live a life which isn’t dominated by fear and anxiety. But to some of us his words might not quite hit home. Jesus lived in a largely rural world. It might have just about made sense back then to tell people to trust God not to worry. But he didn’t have school fees or a mortgage to pay; he didn’t know the strain and stress of modern life, particularly during the economic squeeze. And what about all the people who do look to God and who do seek his kingdom and righteousness, but are still cold, hungry and thirsty, who suffer form preventable illness, who don’t have nice clothes to wear and who live in poor accommodation? Should we really take Jesus advice seriously? His words might seem a little hard to swallow.

Well I think we should. In fact, I think that Jesus teaching liberates us from the fear and anxiety which, far from making life better, makes it considerably worse. There are two things that Jesus says can liberate us from being ground down by anxiety:

The liberating love of the Father
The truth is that, rich or poor, we worry. You worry about getting more (or even enough) if you’re poor, or you worry about hanging onto what you have got if you’re rich, and you worry about a whole raft of things in between. This tells us one thing and one thing only. Getting more doesn’t free us from worry. Having little or nothing is a source of great misery and stress, but you can’t make your life less miserable and stressful simply by having more. So worrying about how much we have is useless, it turns us in on ourselves. It is completely unproductiveexcept, maybe of stomach ulcers. As Jesus said, you can’t add another moment to you life through worrying. Far from it! You may shorten it. 

Worry grinds us down into the ground, but Jesus wants to raise us up to live lives of hope and joy, and so he reminds us that although our troubles make us feel unimportant, our lives is of great value to God. Jesus points us to the natural world, to birds and flowers. If God cares enough for birds that he feeds them, and cares enough for ‘grass of the field’ (which lives and dies in a matter of days) that he clothes them with beautiful flowers, won’t he also supply the needs of his people? Jesus wants us to realise just how important human beings are to God. Much more important than flowers and birds. If God loves us so much, he will give us what we need.

Now Jesus isn’t saying that we don’t need to work, or that we can be lazy. Martin Luther, the German reformer said that some people think that Jesus’ teaching means that we can sit back and wait for God to drop a roasted goose into our mouth. But that really isn’t what Jesus has in mind. Anyone who knows birds knows that they are actually quite industrious – God feeds them by providing in nature the means by which they can feed themselves. Gardeners, likewise, know that plants expend a great deal of energy in producing flowers. They are not ‘Lazy’ (if you can refer to a non-rational organism in that way), they work incredibly hard. Both birds and flowers cooperate with God. In both cases what they lack is not industry but anxiety.

So we too should work hard, we do what we need to do, but we’re not to worry about things which lie completely outside of our control. That really is the folly of worry – we end up making ourselves responsible for things which human beings could never really be responsibility for – and we forget that there is a God.

The liberating desire for God’s Kingdom and righteousness
This phrase ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these will be given to you as well’ really is the key to understanding Jesus’ radical call to live a life without fear for tomorrow. The Kingdom of God isn’t a static territory like the United Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is a dynamic reality. Neither does striving for God’s Kingdom mean striving to get into heaven when we die. That is far to individualistic a view of religion for Jesus. To strive for the kingdom of God is to strive to see God’s reign as King, which is already a present reality, become more and more apparent. 

God’s righteous kingdom is one in which there is no poverty, hunger or thirst, where there is no trouble or war but only peace. It is a kingdom of perfect justice and fairness. So if we are to strive for these things, we make them priorities in our own lives as individual Christians: in the way we are with our families, in the way we behave to each other in church, in the way we spend our time and money. But we are also to strive for these things in the life of our community, to pray for the day when the kingdom of God is made known in all its fulness. The question we always need to ask is this, ‘how are the values of God’s Kingdom reflected in the life of our Church?’ 

This is why, despite there being people throughout the world who have little or nothing, who experience much trouble in life and little comfort, that we can still say, with confidence, that God provides for his beloved children. In fact, he provides abundantly. He provides abundantly by asking those who have received much to be the means by which he provides for those who have little. As we seek to live the life of God’s kingdom, we will necessarily seek to bring people out of poverty. We will try to alleviate suffering, sickness and trouble wherever it is found. And if the Kingdom of God really becomes our primary ambition, if living under God’s righteous reign becomes what we value most highly, then we will have a faith which can face trouble and still remain firm, because whilst churches come and go, whilst money comes and goes, whilst people come and go, the kingdom of God comes and grows and will one day fill the whole earth with justice, mercy and peace.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

love is a place...

                                                             love is a place
                                                             & through this place of
                                                             love move
                                                             (with brightness of peace)
                                                             all places

                                                             yes is a world
                                                             in this world of
                                                             yes live
                                                             (skilfully curled)
                                                             all worlds

                                                                                                           e.e. cummings

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Divine humility...

Mal. 3.1–5
Luke 2.22–40
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
For many of us, these words of Simeon which we have just heard, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, signal a blessed departure from Evensong. I remember once being at a particularly tedious Evensong where we had a very long reading from the book of Genesis. The reader went on and on and eventually concluded, quite properly with ‘Here endeth the lesson’, to which one of the congregation humourously replied, ‘Thanks be to God’.  Here though, the departure in mind is Simeon’s departure from this life, having beheld God’s promised salvation. A fulfilled promise which brings to an end Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and reminds us of the strange way God fulfils his promises. To appreciate this though, we need to step back and look at the rest of the story Luke tells about the coming of the Messiah.

Luke’s story begins and ends in the temple, the symbol of God’s living presence among his people. In the first chapter we find a priest called Zechariah on the duty rota to offer incense to God in the temple. He had probably done it a hundred times before. He’d get his charcoal going and put some incense on it and wave it about, nothing out of the ordinary about this fairly mundane ritual. Except this time was different. This time, as Zechariah was waving his censer and the people were praying outside, an angle appeared. Zechariah, was understandably terrified. But the angel calmed his nerves and gave him a message. He was told that he and his wife, Elizabeth, who were both very old would have a son, a son who would make Israel ready for God’s return to them. In the words of Malachi, the Lord they sought would suddenly come to his temple, and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be the one to prepare his way.

Now, at the end of Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus, we return to the temple. Here, another elderly man receives a message from God. Not this time in the form of an angel coming from heaven, but as the fulfilment of a promise which God had made many years before. Simeon could depart this world in peace knowing that in the baby he held in his arms, he had seen salvation. At this moment, the Lord had returned to his house as Malachi had prophesied. But look at the way in which he comes into his temple. 

Many expected the Lord to come as a warrior to occupy that which was his by right. But he comes as a child. ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’, but none had realised that they would fall, not beneath the might of a conquering war-lord, but would be silenced by a baby that needed to be carried. So often we want to see shock and awe, for our enemies to fall beneath incontrovertible force, whether intellectually or politically. We respect strong leaders who get things done, whatever the cost. And so often the church looks little different to the world. We want to have our way, on general synod, even perhaps in this church. We can be tempted to use coercion to win the day. But though we might win the battle, it will be at the expense of our soul. If we are Christians then we are followers of Jesus, and the manner of Jesus’ coming turns our conceptions of power and influence on their head.

Yes the Lord is like a refining fire, he purifies his people. But how does the Lord purify? Not violently and destructively, but by bringing them light. Yes, the Lord will restore the glory of his people. Not by destroying his enemies though, but by making this child a light for the enlightenment of the gentiles, allowing those who were his enemies to become his friends. The outcasts are to be admitted to his holy nation and this will be the glory of Israel. This wasn’t the revelation the world was expecting, and it certainly wasn’t the sort of glory Israel had wanted and prayed for. But it was what God had intended, and it was, in reality, more truthful and glorious than they could have ever expected. Perhaps sometimes, we need to be open to God leading us into better future than we could have imagined by ourselves?

The Lord comes to Judge. But how does he judge? Notice that we often talk about “the rise and fall” of people, nations, empires. But not here. With Jesus the order is reversed. He will cause the falling and rising of many in Israel. He will cause us to stumble and to be seen for what we truly are, but he will also lift us back up back up to new life in him. No one will be immune from falling under this judgement and restoration, not even Jesus’ mother. His sword of judgement would pierce here own soul too, as she came to realise that her relationship with her son was not to be one of a mother but of a disciple. Yes, Mary had to learn this like the rest of us; we all come to Jesus the same way. And it would be by his hand that she would also be raised back up too.

When the Lord comes to his temple, he surprises us with his lowliness, with his willingness to step down and become weak, and this not only judges our attempts to find our worth in strength and power over others, but frees us from the burden of having to mask our own failings and weakness. 
St Augustine of Hippo wrote,

Human pride pressed us down so low, that divine humility alone could lift us up.” (Sermon 188)

And so when we embrace divine humility, when we embrace the God who shows his power and glory through weakness, we are transformed and raised up. The salvation Simeon saw was a baby, the saving presence of a God who gently changes the world, who refuses to fight fire with fire, who refuses to save by violence or coercion, a God who chooses to identify with humanity, not in its pride and aggression, but in its weakness and vulnerability. Simeon and Anna had waited a lifetime to arrive at this moment of seeing God’s salvation, of holding it in their hands. But for Mary and Joseph, this was going to be the beginning of a much longer story. And it is a story which we are caught up into as well. We must learn to follow Jesus into the deepest darkness, to the places where human life is regarded as dispensable and cheap, to put aside our pride and status and to raise up those who have fallen. And in doing this we will be showing Christ’s light to the world, we will become mirrors which reflect the light of the world into the gloom, we will become people who lead others into liberty.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Into obscurity...

Mat. 4.12–23

When I was a child back in the 1980s, the milk marketing board had an advertisement in which two Liverpudlian boys, fresh from a game of soccer come into the kitchen. One boy asks for some lemonade and duly gets passed the bottle while the other boy pours a glass of milk. ‘Milk’, the lomonade drinker says, ‘yuck’. ‘It’s what Ian Rush drinks,’ says the milk drinker, ‘and he says that If I don’t drink enough milk when I grow up I’ll only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley.’ ‘Accrington Stanley’, says the other boy, ‘who are they?’, ‘Exactly’ the milk drinker replies. Well, in Jesus day, you might very well have heard two boys talking about their future career as Rabbis and one boy saying to the other ‘If you don’t pay enough attention in Torah class when you’re older you’ll only be good enough to be a Rabbi in Capurnaum’, ‘Capurnaum, where’s that?’ ‘Exactly’. Capurnaum was a small Galileean town of about a thousand people on the fringes of Jewish culture and religion. It really wasn’t the place to begin a great public ministry. It was an ordinary sort of place. A boring sort of place. A place of no consequence. And so as we continue to  think about the Epiphany of the Lord, the making clear to all who will see that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, we come to this reading in which Jesus divinity is made manifest, not through traveling stars and heavenly voices, but in the mundane, in the smallness of and obscurity of life in first century Galilee.

The first thing to notice about Jesus’ glory being revealed in the ordinary is that this is the path that he consciously chooses. When John the Baptist, the forerunner was arrested and Jesus knew that he would now take centre stage, he retreats. He takes a step into obscurity. And this isn’t just any old obscurity. Galilee, the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the first parts of Israel to be subjugated to foreign rule when they were conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III in 723BC. This was the region of Israel which first descended into the darkness of foreign occupation. These territories, deep in darkness, would be the first to have the light of the Kingdom of God dawn on them. And so Jesus glory is clearly seen in his going not merely into obscurity, but stepping into to the darkest region to start his ministry. This is, after all, going to be the path that Jesus the Messiah follows. He walks into deeper and deeper darkness until it finally takes him to a Roman Gibbet, and from that Gibbet, he sines the light of the kingdom of God into all human darkness.

The second thing we should notice is how Jesus shines in the darkness in the message he proclaims. He doesn’t come up with a novel, exciting, new message. He says exactly the same thing that John the Baptist has been saying. Jesus first sermon in the gospel of Matthew is borrowed material, a great comfort to every preacher who reads his sermon and thinks, ‘there isn’t an original idea on that page!’ Jesus was there long before. But more significantly, the message that Jesus borrows from John the Baptist is the message which has just earned John a place in jail! Jesus doesn’t choose to soothe with kind words, but to echo the same words which, on John’s lips had caused such offence. Words of the approach of another kingdom; heaven’s kingdom, which will look radically different to the kingdoms people like Herod preside over. So Jesus shows forth his glory by choosing an unpopular, risky message. A message which could make his career every bit as short John’s. But a message of profound importance, which calls us all to prepare for the day when God will get involved with every aspect of human life, from our money to our relationships. ‘Turn’, says Jesus, ‘start living the kind of life that will find approval when God’s kingdom comes.’

The final way manifests his glory in our gospel reading, is by calling. Again, the people he calls are only remarkable for how unremarkable they are. They are fishermen, blue collar workers. Not the super wealthy, the learned or the powerful. These workmen are the people Jesus calls to follow him in bringing light to the world. So just as Jesus’ glory is revealed in his journeying into the far country, it is also made manifest in the humdrum traveling companions he chooses. And the disciples follow. They catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory and they cannot help but follow. And that following involves great sacrifice –the leaving of a stable income, and even scandal –it was religiously disgraceful to leave your father and wander off on an adventure. Responding to Jesus’ call and following him was risky business. But follow they do, and in following they teach us perhaps the greatest truth about how Jesus’ glory is made manifest. Just as Jesus’ makes his glory clear in the ordinary place he chooses to exercise his ministry and the ordinary people he chooses to  follow him, so to the disciples most clearly glimpse the vision of his glory in the ordinary, every day business of accompanying him, of listening to him and learning from him. Jesus is most clearly seen as the incarnate God, not by assembling evidence, or reading books, but by becoming his friend, his companion, his follower. It is in becoming a companion of this extraordinary man, in his vulnerability and his humanity that we most clearly see his divinity. And in beholding his light, we become radiant with it ourselves, attracting others like fishers of people to Jesus Christ, the source of all goodness, beauty and truth. So may we take seriously, the call to turn from all which keeps us from following Jesus, to live the sort of life that finds approval in God’s kingdom, and to devote our lives to the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Jesus calls us...

For those preaching Matthew 4.12–22 this Sunday, here is some Herbert McCabe on the necessity of discipleship in experiencing the manifestation of Jesus' divine nature:
"So long as we are asking historical questions about what Jesus was like, we shall, according to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, come up with answers to the effect that he was a man; not, therefore, an angel or a 'supernatural visitant', but a human being like ourselves except in not deceiving himself or playing at being superhuman when we do when we sin. But, of course, we do not simply examine Jesus historically to see what he was like; we listen to him, he established communication and friendship with us, and it is in this rapport with Jesus that we explore a different dimension of his existence – rather as when we say that the world is created we are considering a different dimension of it from the one we look at as physicists. 
  The insight that Jesus is uncreated, that he his divine, is available only to those in whom this rapport is established, to those 'who have faith in his name'. That is why the Church alone, the community founded on this rapport, is able to pronounce on the divinity of Jesus, as she has done (I would maintain) implicitly in the New Testament (especially in John) and later more explicitly in the conciliar pronouncements. It would, I think, be absurd for a man to say: 'I am not a Christian myself, but I do see that Jesus must have been the Son of God'. 
   It is in the contact with the person who is Jesus, in this personal communication between who he is and who I am, that his divinity is revealed in his humanity, not in any, as it were, clinical, objective examination of him. Any such examination will simply reveal correctly that he is splendidly and vulnerably human."
(Herbert McCabe, God Matters, 71) 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

On sharing bath water...

Matthew 3.13–17
It had to be an i-pad. The parcel was the right size, the right weight, and you’d been dropping hints like mad for the last twelve months. You pick up the package every day, and gently squeeze the box… that’s good packaging. That’s Apple packaging. That’s ‘made in California from sustainable card stock’ packaging. It had to be an i-pad. Then eventually the day comes, the family gather around the tree, hand out the presents and you all begin unwrapping. Just to appear humble, you open the boring presents first, the socks, the jumper, the book. You want to save this one till you have almost exhausted your pile of gifts. And there it is. You slowly unpick the wrapping paper and peer inside… a cheese knife and board… a cheese knife and board! “Well we know how much you like cheese, and with this you can eat it in style”, says your mother. I’m sure you’ve had moments like that, where you have built up a sense of great excitement about something, a gift, a new job, and it doesn’t turn out quite as you had expected or hoped.

Poor old John the Baptist probably felt much the same way as his encounter with Jesus unfolded. John had been proclaiming to anyone that would hear that the people of Israel desperately needed to turn from sin and to turn to God again. And as a powerful symbol of this repentance, John called people to be baptised, to be washed, to be cleansed in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom. So here is John, raising everyone’s sense of expectation, everyone’e excitement at the coming of the Messiah: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mat. 3.11–12). The one John prepared the way for was powerful and righteous and just, he would clean up Israel and clean up the world. John proclaimed loud and clear to all who came to hear him that when the Messiah comes, you better make sure that you are on the right side of the track. Repent, cleanse yourselves, get ready because he is coming, and when he does he will clear out God’s barn so that only the good wheat is left.

And then the moment arrives. Here he is. The long awaited gift is about to be unwrapped. Everyone waits with bated breath. But wait. How strange. This isn’t what we’d been expecting. He doesn’t sweep through the crowd with fire and judgement. He doesn’t come and condemn those sinners who haven’t repented, and pour God’s Spirit on those who have. He gets in line with them to go down into the murky waters of the Jordan. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the unrighteous, and presents himself to John and asks for baptism. You can imagine John’s surprise, his alarm. “You want me to baptise you?” he says. “I want to receive what you have to offer, I wan’t you to baptise me with God’s Spirit.” “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Mat. 3.13).

Here, for the first time, John wonders whether he has got the cheese board rather than the i-pad. And I suppose John has a point. He already knows that Jesus doesn’t look like the Messiah people had expected. He had come from Nazareth for starters, and his birth was far from uncontroversial. How easy it would be for Jesus’ detractors to pour scorn on him: “The Saviour? Really? You did know that he went to the Jordan with all the other spiritual losers to get baptised by John, don’t you? How can he save us? He’s as rotten as the rest of us.” But Jesus baptism wasn’t the outworking of a guilty conscience, it was to fulfil God’s righteous plan for our salvation.

In his baptism, Jesus identifies with sinners, he joins them in the waters of repentance, and in doing that, he transforms those waters. He sanctifies them so that they no longer merely remind us of the pressing need to repent, they are now the waters which declare our adoption as daughters and sons of God. Jesus joined himself to us in his baptism, and now, through our baptism we are joined to him, and we hear those same words, “you are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” We who are unrighteous, who however much we try to hide from it know the wrong we have done, the people we have hurt, the times we have failed, we hear those words, ‘you are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter’, and we learn that God’s approval comes to us not as our just deserts, but as a gift, completely unwarranted, but given freely and entirely without reservation. Given in person by one who made God’s glory and love known by standing with us in the grime of life. As we follow him, who will he call us to stand alongside? Whose bath water will he ask us to share?

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Let's not get too pompous about the (proposed) new baptism texts...

The brouhaha over the Liturgical Commission’s document “Christian Initiation: Additional Texts in Accessible Language” has intrigued me. First and foremost, I have been amazed at how many evangelicals (sorry to my many evangelical friends who haven't got involved with this) are now passionate supporters of the Common Worship project! When it comes to the Eucharist, the only liturgical fight is whether it is necessary to use it at all, it being so wordy and boring and all. But when it comes to baptism, the liturgical gloves are off. Suddenly the Church is full of ardent Cranmerian purists who loath any prospect of “dumbing down”. I find it interesting that some of those who have spoken against the proposed new texts seem not to appreciate that, if these were ever approved, they would be an additional provision, not a replacement. It would, I presume, be possible to keep a fairly traditional Common Worship format with one of the proposed prayers over the water in place of one of the existing ones? In essence, if this was formally accepted by Synod (I assume it is Synod that has to accept it?) it would merely enlarge the ‘Supplementary Texts’ section of the current Christian Initiation volume. So why get so worried?

I actually don’t mind the current baptism service all that much. While there are a few bits which are overly wordy and are uncharacteristically lacking classic Anglican economy of expression, but it does provide a theologically rich backbone to infant baptism. It is regretful that Common Worship has expunged baptismal regeneration from the Church of England’s liturgy —as far as I am aware, there is no modernised equivalent of the BCP’s “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate”— but it is still present enough in the liturgy to preserve this tradition within the Church of England.

Nevertheless, I do see the need for some additional texts. The current Common Worship prayers over the water are a good example of this need for addition. The prayers are, I think, too wordy and too theologically dense, and dare I say it, a touch pompous. I was pleased to see the two sensible additional suggestions, but would have liked to see more, picking up some (though not all) of the themes in the current prayers.

Looking through the sample service further down the document, I found it to be merely a lesson in how the current rubrics could be creatively and pastorally read. With the exception of the decision (I really don’t like the new offering) the prayer over the water, and the presentation (the existing rubrics for this are very confusing. Can it be omitted???) it doesn’t, as far as I can see, do anything that one couldn’t already do. The Commission is a good case in point. The new suggestions just make it clear that the unfortunately prosaic provision which Common Worship currently has needn’t be slavishly followed, but that ‘similar words’ may also be used.

All in all, the flap about ‘dumbing down' has, I feel, brought out an excessive amount of rather uncharitable pernicketiness, particularly when you consider that no one is proposing a wholesale change to the baptismal liturgy, which the introduction to the document makes quite clear. Yes, the suggested additional provision isn’t perfect, but neither is the current liturgy, neither is any liturgy for that matter. We should all just get over it.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

God in man made manifest...

Matt. 2.1–12

"Let no one be found among you… who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 18.10–13)

So says the book of Deuteronomy. Stern stuff! And it is certain that first century Jews and Christians didn't viewed astrologers as jovial Russell Grant types. They were morally dubious people who worshipped the stars as gods, and looked to them for guidance, rather than looking to the creator of the universe and the Law he had given. Isn’t it strange then that three of the most popular, most memorable, most mysterious and enigmatic characters in the Christmas story are these Magi: astrologers, soothsayers, diviners, interpreters of omens, magicians. These are the first non-Jewish people to fall at the feet Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, and it is their extraordinary journey which we remember today as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. And they teach us something about the search that we all make to find God.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this story is the way that God guides the Magi. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Magi had decided to look for the new born King because they had read some prophecy from the Old Testament about the birth of the Messiah, and had dedicated themselves to searching for him. But no. That isn’t how this journey started. God used their idol, a star, to lead the Magi to his Son. And whilst that is unusual it is actually quite beautiful. People are led to Christ many different ways. Some are led through reading scripture, or through the nurture of a Christian home or Christian friends, or maybe through an Alpha course or something like that. But others may come to Christ through less orthodox routes: through New Age Spirituality perhaps, through a twelve step support group, through belonging to the Free Masons. If the journey of the Magi tells us anything, it is that God really isn’t too worried about the method he uses to draw people to his Son. Why? Because every desire and expectation it is possible to have, is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Every desire for companionship or love is fulfilled in him. Every expectation of justice is met in him. Every yearning for goodness truth and beauty finds its source and goal in him. So don’t be surprised when people, following a star, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, are still led by God to worship at the feet of Jesus Christ.

But here is the irony of this story. God leads these morally dubious characters, by means of their idol to his son. But those who have the Law and Prophets don't join them in pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Perhaps they fear that this moment of Epiphany will challenge the status quo, or will undermine their power and authority, perhaps they are just afraid of change. For what ever reason the religious leaders choose not to look for the Messiah with the Magi, “After they had shown the fountain of life to others, they themselves perished of thirst”, in the words of St Augustine. And the king! Herod's heart is filled with even more darkness still. He knows that the coming of the Messiah means one thing and one thing only for tin-pot dictators like him. And in a desperate attempt to cling on to power, he plots murder of the vilest kind. Those who were the guardians of the oracles of God, who stood in the great line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the leaders of the people of God had become so accustomed to hearing God’s word, that it had become almost meaningless to them. They had become deaf to its cadences, fearful of its promises. And a group of unclean, idolatrous, star-gazing outsiders, proclaimed the good news of the birth of Christ to them. The outsider becomes the teacher. The first will be last, and the last will be first. 

So this new year, may we never become so accustomed to the things of God that we fail to seek the one who is born king of all. May we welcome the insights which God brings to the church through unlikely people, led by strange means, but still led to the crib and cross of Jesus. And may we be willing to lay everything at his feet, knowing that our deepest desires are all fulfilled in him.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


I'll admit my bias: I've never been a fan of the use of white poppies on Remembrance Sunday. For staters, the work of the Royal British Legion is something I am happy to support, and I would imagine anyone, even the most ardent pacifist would feel the same. The British Legion don't buy guns or tanks or bombs. They don't promote or campaign for war. They support victims of war, victims who have worn a uniform and fought, but victims none the less. They support the families of service personnel. They offer help and care for vulnerable people. That is why I am proud to buy and wear a red poppy every year.

White poppies on Remembrance Sunday on the other hand have always struck me as a rather self-righteous and somewhat cynical bourgeoisie statement of moral superiority. As far as I can work out from the website of the Peace Pledge Union who organise the distribution of white poppies, the money you spend on your statement poppy does not help the victims of war. The money you spend on your poppy is used politically. It is used to promote the pacifist agenda. "A noble cause",  you may say, and it certainly is, but I would contend that care for the welfare of actual human beings trumps any ideological commitment, however noble. So if you want to support the PPU, then wear their poppy next to a poppy appeal poppy, but don't substitute red for white, unless you care more about politics than people.

However, my dislike of the white poppy statement turned into righteous indignation this evening when I saw this on the PPU's website:

The historical naïveté of this an attack on Bomber Command is incredible. But I don't really want to get into a discussion over the ethics of aerial bombardment. What I find more incredible is that the message of peace clearly doesn't translate in the PPU's rhetoric. Physical war originates in hatred, anger and violent attitudes. Perhaps the PPU could find a more effective way of promoting peace.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ten Lepers...

Luke 17.11–19

Ten lepers, suffering from a terrible disease, outcast, untouchable. Contagious not just in terms of their disease, but religiously contaminated too, and condemned to a slow, painful, lonely death. Ten lepers, knowing their contamination approach Jesus, just close enough for him to hear their plea for help, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ What faith they all had! That in the hopelessness of their condition, new hope was found in the presence of Jesus, the Master. And so Jesus with a heart full of compassion answers them. What will he say? “Your faith has made you well”, perhaps? “Be freed from your disease!”? No… “Go, show yourselves to the priests”. Why on earth would they do that? The last thing that they would want was for someone to look on their disfigurement? To understand why they were sent to the priests you have to read a bit of the Old Testament which prescribes what to do when a person is healed from a defiling skin disease. The book of Leviticus says:

“These are the regulations for any diseased person at the time of their ceremonial cleansing, when they are brought to the priest: The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them. If they have been healed of their defiling skin disease the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the defiling disease, and then pronounce them clean. After that, he is to release the live bird in the open fields.” 
(Lev 14.2–7)
They were to go to the priests to be examined and for the priests to determine whether they had actually been healed, and to give thanks to God for their healing. Jesus sends them on their way to do this without having actually pronounced their healing, without any healing having actually taken place. It is only as they go that they were healed. What faith these people have! Not only do they come to Jesus and plead for mercy, they trust his capacity to heal them and act on his command without any evidence of a healing having taken place. They all went to give thanks to God for his mercy to them. These were all good people. Religious people. People of faith. And their faith healed them!

But one leper, seeing his cleansed skin, turned back. Didn’t he care about being declared clean by the religious authorities? Didn’t he want to thank God by offering sacrifice? Why this ingratitude, not conforming to the demands of the law in giving thanks for his cleansing? But one leper turned back —a Samaritan we discover, someone whose nationality as well as his disease had made him an outcast. This foreigner, this heretic, whose errant beliefs separated him from the people of God, he is the only one who truly comprehends what has just happened to him. The law hasn’t made him clean. Religion hasn’t made him clean. Jesus has made him clean. Only he understands that God is uniquely present, not in the temple, but in Jesus. In Jesus God’s kingdom has broken into the wold with healing and peace for all. And so he gallops back, praising God and falls at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks to God for his gift. It isn’t that the other nine healed lepers were ungrateful, but they didn’t see where their gratitude should be directed. They go away healed but the one who returned experienced an even deeper healing.”Get up and go on your way”, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” That phrase can be read  “your faith has saved you” – the leper hasn’t just been cleansed of his disease, he has found an inner healing and illumination by realising that Jesus is the location of divine power and healing and light.

All faith, even the most limited or misdirected faith, has the capacity to heal. It makes us more trusting, more open to that which defies explanation, more thankful. But what the gospel calls us to is an ongoing conversion, a greater, truer faith. We are called to have a faith which causes us to throw ourselves on the ground before Jesus Christ and to give thanks to him for the healing and salvation he brings. This story is much more than an exhortation to write thank you notes for presents. It is a story which seeks to turn our thanksgiving in the right direction, to Jesus Christ. Not all of us who are helped by Jesus find true faith. And sometimes the truest faith is found in the strangest places.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Filthy Lucre — Luke 16.1–13...

It’s a familiar story in the aftermath of the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. A manager is entrusted with vast sums of money, or packages of debt, and they wheel and deal and things go badly wrong for the people they work for. We look at the way their self interest dominated their decision making,  and we judge them, these evil bankers who loose all our money and get payed a massive bonus as a reward. It’s easy to see that these people are the bad guys. And then we read this very strange parable, and everything we thought we understood about the morality of wheeling and dealing gets shaken. How can this man, this dishonest manager, who not only squanders his master’s wealth, and then fiddles the books for his own advantage when he knows he has been caught, how can he be held out to us as an example which the disciples of Jesus should follow? Is Jesus commanding dishonesty? I don’t think so. In a number of Jesus’ parables he uses a bad person’s behaviour to teach an important lesson. Consider the parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18.1–8) where a widow had to continually badger a judge before he would grant her justice. Jesus isn’t trying to teach that God is a harsh judge who never wants to help us. He uses the example of the mean judge to show us that we shouldn’t give up praying. Might Jesus be using the story about the dishonest manager to teach, not to be dishonest, but to learn from his shrewdness. Having been caught red-handed in his dishonest use of his masters possessions, he shows his cunning by making friends and influencing people with his master’s cash. He isn’t congratulated for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. And so, we are to learn from his good example, to be shrewd with whatever we’ve been given by God.

Elsewhere, Jesus tells his disciples to be ‘as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’ (Mat. 10.16). I think our problem is that we often get that the wrong way around. It is really easy when it comes to church for me to have the wisdom of a dove and the innocence of a snake. How can we learn from the shrewd world of business to help us proclaim the gospel of Jesus afresh in our generation? 
Here are some thoughts:

“Product”: If someone asks us why we go to church, or why we believe in God, or why we follow Jesus, would we be able to give an answer? What is our unique selling point? What difference can Christianity make to people's lives?

Promotion: Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about how the people we want to reach feel when they come to our church. Do they feel as though we really have good news for them? News that could change their lives? Do we welcome people, even when they don’t seem to fit with the way we like to do things? How can we avoid, at all costs, doing any kind of damage to the message we believe can change the world.

Prioritisation: With our limited resources, what are the things that we must absolutely prioritise, without which we would be untrue to our core objectives. How can we shift our attention and resources to the areas of greatest importance.

Personnel: People matter! When you look at all the resources we have as a church, you are our greatest resource. Without you we are merely a bank balance and a leaky building. With you, we are a church. So we need to care for each other and cherish each other and listen to each other. We need to make sure that no one person is overstretched and ensure that we are properly resourced and trained for the mission we have as a church. Churches that grow know that people matter more than just about anything else.

Shrewdness makes sense, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we aim to be a shrewd church, and not a naive one? But Jesus teaching is harder still. He advises that we use ‘dishonest wealth’ to get friends. Now that’s hard. Is Jesus finally nailing his colours to the mast by advocating the use ill gotten gain to win friends? Again, I think there is a deeper meaning. The phrase is literally ‘unrighteous mammon’, and in Jesus’ day it meant roughly the same as the phrase ‘filthy lucre’. It referred to money of any kind. All money is, to some extent polluted, none of it is spotlessly clean. All money has the power to draw us away from God. I suspect Jesus is saying something like this: How can you use money to gain friends? By giving it generously – After all, isn’t that one of the ways that we show ourselves to be children of the light? By giving generously, by supporting the poor and needy. That’s the point Jesus basically makes in the second half of our reading, he links maturity as a disciple to our detachment from material wealth. Strange though it may sound living in affluent, stockbroker belt Surrey, our bank balance is one of the best ways for us to test the depth of our commitment to Jesus.

Who ultimately will be our master? Shall we serve God and our needy brothers and sisters with our money, or shall we turn our money into a god who demands our utter allegiance. So that is the message of the parable of the Shrewd Manager. Always act shrewdly, learn from the world, put your resources to the best possible use, and make sure that you give your money and time and other physical resources generously, because by doing that, you show yourself to be somebody who serves God, not money, someone who is wholeheartedly committed to Jesus.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Moving on...

I can now break the strict code of secrecy which shrouds clergy appointments and announce that I am to be the next Rector of East and West Clandon in the Diocese of Guildford. They are two beautiful parishes about four miles from where we currently live. I think the diocese want us to be in place for Advent, and since developing work with the children and families of the parishes is an important priority, it seems wise to be up and running for Christmas. We'll miss St Nicolas' a great deal. St Nic's has changed so much over the last few years, and really has the opportunity to grow. So whilst it will be a shame to say goodbye, we feel as though we are moving on at the right point.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

No natural necessity...

Thomas Aquinas famously stated that in the work of creation, ‘God does not act natural necessity’ (De Potentia I.5 resp.), by which Aquinas means that God is not forced to create in one particular way, or indeed to create at all. The purpose of this line in the sand for Aquinas is to secure the fact that God is pure actuality, the God who is moved by nothing other than Godself and whose decree to create is utterly free. 

The nature of divine freedom in Thomas Aquinas’ thought is controversial theological territory. One of the principal voices in the debate is that of Eleanor Stump , who in her Excellent book Aquinas, argues that divine freedom must mean God’s ability to choose between alternatives (Stump, Aquinas p.101). 

This all sounds very sensible – what after all does free will mean but the ability to choose one thing and not another. However, Stump’s attempt to express Aquinas’ idea of divine freedom  transgresses another Thomistic maxim, that God’s free will is not exercised discursively. In his Quaestiones Disputate de Veritate 24.3 Aquinas states that, ‘Free choice is to be found in God, but it is found in Him in a different way than in angels and in men’, and that in God, ‘there is a simple view of the truth without discourse or inquiry’. So whatever divine freedom might look like, it does not look the same as my choice between holiday destinations, for instance. To what extent then, if we accept Stump’s definition of ‘free will’, can God’s choice to create the world-that-is be understood as free?

This all serves as a preamble to something I was reading this morning in Autin Farrer’s Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, which seemed to me to express the conundrum clearly.

“If it is even right to speak of creation as the choice of a world, it cannot be supposed that such a choice is anything like the choices with which we are familiar, I can choose a wallpaper for a room. I can flutter through the leaves of that pattern book, gradually narrowing my choice among the colours or designs which are at all suitable to my purpose, until I fix on one of them. I can do this because the shopman supplies a pattern book with some fifty papers in it. But there was, for God, no pattern book of fifty, or of fifty-thousand, possible worlds. The world he would make would be the world he would invent; and his powers of invention are inexhaustible. 
   Men also invent; artists, for example; and the process of artistic invention probably casts as much light as anything human on God’s devising of the world. But there is one aspect of God’s creative activity on which it casts no light at all; and that is, his preferring one possible creation to another. If we ask why the poet, or the composer, applied his talent to the writing of some particular work, rather than any other he might have written, the short answer will be, either that his previous history led up to it, or that the situation he saw before him called for it. For God’s creative act, neither explanation is available. No situation confronted him, before the world was; still less had he undergone a personal history, such as might have directed his invention into one channel, rather than another. 
   The lovers of music and poetry may, indeed, protest that neither the history nor the predicament of the great artist will account for the form of his creations. There is an element of sheer inventiveness which is his supreme glory, and his most godlike power. True, maybe, but of no assistance to us. For while sheer inventiveness may be godlike, it is not an explanation; not a principle pointing to the production of one work, rather than another. It is simply the ability to make both excellent and new whatever is made. 
   Once a work of art is on the stocks, and in process of construction, we can see (though we might not foresee) reasons inclining genius to develop it, and fill it out, in a certain manner. But the reasons, such as they are, lie in the beginning made, the sketch projected, or the skeleton already set up. The intelligibility of the choices which develop a project leaves the choice which first fixed upon it as unintelligible as ever it was. 
   All human analogy fails us. We can cast no light on the choice God makes in creating the world he creates, because we cannot, even in imagination, set up the experiment —cannot put the alternatives for selection on the table, nor construct the selective mechanism. What we feel bound to say about divine decision merely serves to put it beyond the range of human conceiving. God’s mind, we say, does not labour, like ours, through a multitude of suggestions; he goes straight to the goal of his choice. He does not start with shadowy might-have-beens, and fill one of them out with the substance of being. He simply decrees what is; the might-have-beens are accompanying shadows of the actual, the other ways in God knows he could have created and did not. 
   We may say such things; we cannot think them. The creator’s choice is an abyss, where human thought drowns. As in a dream, we spread our hands to swim, and find what seemed water to be a thin vapour. Our customary strokes obtain no purchase; we might say we are sinking, if the medium in which we are were gross enough to be felt, in being fallen through; or if there were any bottom for us to strike.”
(Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, pp. 62–64)

So God's choosing looks nothing like our choosing. What does it look like then? Farrer goes on to sketch some parables of how divine choice might look. I might blog those later. What do you think? Any thoughts in the comment section are gratefully received.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Luke 13.10–17

Why did the Hebrew people have a Sabbath Day? The answer most people give comes from the book of Exodus, where we read,
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 20.8,11)
Woven into the fabric of the universe, there is a pattern of work and rest, and God’s people are mandated to observe that pattern too. Just as God created the universe for six days, so we should have six days of work and then the seventh day, where we cease from all creativity, where we offer our worship to God. And so if we think about the Sabbath as a reminder of the necessity to cease from activity, then the way we keep it will emphasise rest. We will keep it in the way they do on the Isle of Lewis. I had a friend who spent a summer holiday on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and the people he was staying with were members of the Free Church of Scotland. On Sunday morning, they would go to Kirk in the morning, have something to eat when they got home, and then go to bed. My friend walked around Stornoway that afternoon, and told me of the profound lack of activity, and the drawn curtains of the houses of the pious islanders.

The way we talk about Sabbath, emphasizing the cessation of activity, generally reinforces this ‘six days the Lord created, on the seventh day he rested’ paradigm. But we often forget that the Old Testament gives another reason for the Sabbath in the book of Deuteronomy,
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you…  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut. 5.12,15)
You all know the story which provides the background to this command: Israel had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. As time went on, the Israelites were made the slaves of the Egyptians. They were forced into back breaking labour making bricks, day after day, with no future, with no hope of rest, with no time even to worship God. Every day, the Hebrew slaves were told that the only worth they had was found in how many bricks they produced. In desperate exhaustion, they cried to God, and God heard them and freed them and gave them the gift of rest. The message of the Sabbath day was much more than, ‘six days the Lord created, on the seventh day he rested take care of yourself and have a day off’, it was a message from God which said ‘No human being can ever claim to own you, you are no longer a slave, you don’t have to work for a master who always asks for more.’ Sabbath was given because God hates oppression. Sabbath was a gift from God which proclaimed that his people were free.

Now, I think that when the Synagogue leader in the gospel reading thought about the Sabbath, he had the Stornoway Sabbath in mind. Angry at Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, he says ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day’ (v. 14). 

But Jesus thinks differently. Here is a woman with a condition which leaves her unable to raise her head or to look at the people who are speaking to her. Eighteen years she has been bound, physically bowed down. As a woman she was already a second class citizen. Suffering from her disability she would probably have been ostracised from  her community. Doubly untouchable. She was weighed down to the ground with the condition she had suffered for such a long time, practically invisible to those she lived with. And Jesus saw her. I think that offers hope to any number of us who feel small, bowed down, who feel invisible. Jesus is the one who notices those who everyone else ignores. He sees us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Jesus sees this invisible woman and set her free. The Synagogue leader could only see the restriction of ‘you’ve got six days in which to do work’. Jesus realised that what the Sabbath is really about is liberation from slavery. In the case of this woman the slavery to the condition which has bound her many years. Couldn’t the healing of the woman wait for another, more appropriate day? No. There is no more appropriate day than the Sabbath on which to liberate a child of Abraham than the Sabbath day, the day that proclaims God’s hatred of oppression, whether oppression by disease, or oppression by religious leaders and traditions which tie up heavy burdens to weigh people down to the ground.

To reinforce his point, Jesus reminds the synagogue leader of his own Sabbath behaviour: On the Sabbath he unburdens his livestock to lead them to water – if a beasts who have been bound only a short time can be liberated on the Sabbath, how much more a daughter of Abraham who has been bound for eighteen years. 

The Sabbath is about liberty. Later in this service when we give thanks to God for his goodness and for his liberating power revealed to us in Jesus Christ, we will pray these words ‘This day the risen Lord walks with your gathered people, unfolds for us your word, and makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. And though the night will overtake this day you summon us to live in endless light, the never-ceasing sabbath of the Lord.’ We look for the dawning of a Sabbath that will never end, and so as we wait for that day our task is to make every day a Sabbath, an opportunity to proclaim the liberty of God’s kingdom. What traditions and practices and behaviours do we as a church have which bind people and make them an invisible underclass? How can we liberate those who have been oppressed by the communities which are supposed to proclaim the liberty of the children of God? May we be people who live and proclaim with integrity the liberty of God’s kingdom.