Sunday, 20 May 2012

Merton's Church

There’s a lovely passage in the diary of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic, where he describes an experience he once had of suddenly seeing the divine in people. He writes:

I was in Louisville, Kentucky, in the shopping precinct, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people around me, even though they were complete strangers. It felt like waking from a dream. It was as if I could see the secret beauty in their hearts, the deep self where sin and ego can't reach, the core of their reality, the person that each is in God's eyes. Of course I couldn't say it. You can’t go up to people and tell them they’re walking around shining like the sun. But if only they could see themselves as they truly are … If only we could all see each other that way all the time. I suppose the problem would be that we'd fall down and worship each other.

Jesus’ Ascension, that we remembered on Thursday, assures us that our destiny too is to become divine.  The difficulty is that most of the time we see ourselves as the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche did as ‘human all too human‘, broken, weak and failing.  Yet, as Christ disappears from sight, returning to be with God, he returns as Jesus fully human.  For Jesus’ Ascension is about seeing humanity from God’s perspective of history - humanity that is human, gloriously human!

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition this is one of the normal ways of talking about faith -  as St Athanasius put it ‘God became man so man can become God.’  Divinity is what humanity is for. It’s our destiny, and we needn’t be shy of saying so.  It is the point of this living relationship with God that we’re called into.

The trouble is not that we are too human, it’s that we are not human enough. If we were fully human, as God made us to be, then by definition we’d be divine as well, just as Jesus was - Son of Man and Son of God. Because God made us in his image, it's when we are most human, most truly ourselves, that we are most truly like him. It's a sign of the church's failure that to many people outside, Christianity doesn't seem to make you more human but less. Jesus talked about faith ‘giving you life more abundantly’, but it often doesn’t look that way. If anything, people suspect that Christianity narrows life down, takes the fun out of it, and de-humanizes you with a lot of unnecessary hang-ups and hypocrisies.

In the Gospels it's clear that the humanity of Jesus was rich and full. He was open to every kind and class of person, and he allowed others to be themselves. He didn’t call people to asceticism - a way of life so heavenly minded that it’s of no earthly use - He didn't narrow life down; he enriched it and enhanced it. His kind of holiness didn't raise barriers.

This morning as we hear our Lord pray that disciples would be sanctified, he did not pray for us to be rarified or sanctimonious. Otherworldly. Set appart. Doors closed to keep the wrong sort at arms length. Hatches battened to weather the storm.  As He prays for us to be sanctified, to be made holy. The sort of holiness He calls us to is the sort that breaks the barriers down that we build between each other just as He did, to the extent that he was accused of being a womaniser and a drunkard. He managed to make people feel at home who would feel completely out of place in our churches today: all the people on the margins, all the disreputable people gathered around him, because he saw past the labels and simply took them for what they were: human beings, brothers and sisters made in the image of God but then He called those bearing God’s image into relationship with Him.

And that is our call still. As this morning’s Acts reading reminds us. Being a disciple, following Jesus, coming to church is not about being good or true, it’s not about respectability, it’s not about being Church of England - about being a witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ - letting others see and hear of the transforming life of Christ at work in me, in you, taking that which is broken and failing in us, and it being restored, renewed, healed, loved and forgiven...  To be sanctified is to be a work in progress.  That’s the sort of church I want to be part of.

A real Christian church is one that shares that vision and does what Jesus did: accepts us as we are, but sees the potential in each of us, and helps us grow into that divine self that we already are in God’s sight. Karl Marx, of all people, once remarked that the Church ought to be the ‘heart of a heartless world’, a place where we can discover and accept one another as real human beings, with all our wounds and complications, and can then begin to grow together into something more.

The real Church of Christ is not an exclusive club for the religiously and morally respectable that you must qualify to enter. On the contrary, the one qualification for entry is knowing you can’t qualify.

The real Church is a free hospital for damaged souls, looking to be healed by love, and growing by love to become more human, not less - being sanctified by Christ - in the process becoming more and more divine. Amen.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Where Are You God?


Having reached the pinnacle of his career, in the mid 90‘s, Bono the Irish rock star and singer with U2, decided to take some time out with his wife to go and live and work in an AIDS orphanage in Ethiopia for 6 weeks. He had been deeply affected by the plight of millions in Africa, during the Band Aid appeal in the mid 80‘s, and coming here to work, was sure to be the best way to bring his rock-star self back down to earth.  But in this orphanage something else and more profound happened.

Later he spoke about how day after day there, he found his sense of life and his faith questioned and he would yell at God - why Lord are you not doing anything about these children! Why is no-one noticing and acting for the good for these! It’s like a a third of the children in our local primary schools were AIDS orphans, 13 million children wake each day with no parents to care for them. Where are you God? God do you care?

It was over this time that Bono sensed God say to him - yes I do care - through you.  From that six week stay Bono began to work, raising awareness and money for AIDS orphans and treatment and care for sufferers, mostly by sitting and waiting.

He began by going to see the arch-conservative US senator Jese Helms. He was the least likely person to support the work that Bono was feeling increasingly called to, but if he could be convinced, so could others. Bono sat outside his office for weeks. No appointment. Not hassling him. What was this rock star doing here?  Bono just sat and waited till the Senator was ready to hear him.  When Helmes did agree to hear Bono, he sympathized with his description of  "the pain [that AIDS] is bringing to infants and children and their families.”  Helmes insisted that Bono brought others from the international community on board - so Bono did the same waiting game with Bill Gates, Tony Blair and others, eventually Barak Obama.  It seemed like God had withdrawn from the plight of these orphans, yet through this quiet work of waiting, Bono ultimately has raised awareness of the AIDS plight and has raised in excess of $15 billion to fighting the AIDS pandemic.

The Ascension of Jesus is part of the unfolding drama of the God who loves and made the world, withdrawing from it. The God of the Old Testament, frightening and other, withdrew to to welcome Jesus Christ.  Jesus withdraws in anticipation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.  Why does God withdraw?  Firstly, God has nothing to prove - He is Almighty God after all. He can be here or not be here. He can intervene or not. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it gives God immense pleasure if people freely seek Him out for themselves and to follow Him. God is, as Mother Theresa once said, thirsty for our love. He doesn’t need it, but He delights in it.

The Ascension is to a degree about Jesus.  The it does clearly mark the end of his earthly ministry, but Jesus as he rises spectacularly into the heavens, is not the focus of the story.  The focus of the story is the disciples.

 

Jesus is clearly up to something as he leads his disciples out from this city as far as Betheny.  He has constantly had to teach them clearly about what following Him means.  What becomes clear is that they are to have a new role - they have been followers and listeners, and learners, but after Jesus is taken from them they are to be witnesses, speakers, and teachers of all that they have seen and heard, to tell others, to testify to the truth of these events.  He must withdraw for that to happen.

As Jesus withdraws, he is clear where the disciples’ new work is to begin - Jerusalem - the focal point of religious activity - the central place of worship for the Jews and the place to where all nations would come to meet with and be with God at the end of time.  True to form right up till the end, Jesus turns this on it’s head - Jerusalem is the place from which mission must happen - it is not a finishing point where people will come to but a starting point, the centre from which they are sent out.


The Ascension of Jesus is mostly to do with the disciples. As Jesus withdraws, their new ministry begins and so does ours.  The disciples were eventually sent out from Jerusalem, filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to carry out the task that Jesus gave them, to witness.  These disciples eventually reached Chipperfield, Sarrat, Croxley Green, Chorleywood, Rickmansworth...  Faithful men and women came teaching that Jesus is the Messiah and that he had to suffer and die, that he rose from the dead, and that as a result forgiveness of sins, a new relationship with God and each other is possible.

There is a saying, Christ called the disciples and the church came - implying that the church’s arrival is almost in some way second best, yet in our Gospel reading tonight we are reminded that the Church springs to life as Jesus withdraws.  It marks not and ending but a beginning, as the Ascension is really about the disciples as the ministry of Jesus feeds directly into their ministry, the ministry of  the Church in witnessing in a way that only an empowering of the Holy Spirit  can make possible.

St Augustine wrote of Jesus: “You ascended from before our eyes. We turned back grieving, only to find you in our hearts.” In other words, if we’re continuing to look for Jesus in the sky, wondering why He is no longer acting in the world, then maybe we have missed the point of His Ascension.  God the Son who loves the world so much that He is willing to come and be part of it, transform it and withdraw from it never really leaves. For in this Eucharist we rediscover the Ascended Christ reigning from our hearts.  Bono discovered, we discover, that God withdrawing from the world does not leave the world hopeless and helpless, but full of His presence, His life, His love through the people He loves beyond measure.

The first disciples took the words and blessing of Jesus to heart and so must we.  There is no sadness at his absence only worship and joy.  There is no traumatic farewell.  No tissues needed.  No dazed looking into the sky.  Jesus has left them with too much to do.  No tear-filled farewell here only great joy - of the contagious variety - a joy that called disciples and has led His church till today and beyond into tomorrow, in a work of love and service that He entrusts to us. Amen.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Jesus: I am the WiFI Router...

 


I was at a conference come retreat a couple of weeks ago. It was a moving, refreshing, and rewarding time.  I was particularly looking forward to because I was going to spending 3 days with some people I had become very fond of indeed - people who enrich my life, people I spend time with every single day, people who know me pretty well in some ways, people who care for and support me, and yet aside from 1 person, they were people I had never ever met except through the phenomena of social networking using Twitter.

For growing numbers of people, any place has value or meaning, not just because of it’s beauty, or what one can learn or discover there, but whether it has Wifi or you can get a 3G signal on your smartphone. We have become a generation restless if we can’t only connect with the people we are actually with.

As of December 2011, there are an estimated 51,442,100 internet users in the UK. A staggering 82% of the population. Through the internet information is at our fingertips - we can shop, appreciate art, watch films or tv, study, and even befriend people. The social networking phenomenon sweeping the globe via the likes of Facebook should not be down played - one guestimate says that a billion people will be using Facebook by August this year - a sixth of the global population. Despite our connectedness, ow well do we really know one another? How connected are we really?

Jesus says I am the text message? I am the phone call? I am the email? I am  the facebook status update? I am the wifi router? I am the electricity cable? I am the conference call? I am the skype chat? I am the letter written by hand?  They all hint the sort of connected relationship that Jesus is driving at this morning and yet they simultaneously don’t quite grasp the depth, the fundamental life-giving nature of the relationship that we are called into.

For the vine to grow, it must receive the right amount sunlight and warmth. It’s not a difficult concept. If those conditions are not right, the plant will not flourish, it won’t grow, it won’t flower, it won’t fruit. It may not grow up in a healthy way.  

We may share in all sorts of other relationships and our lives may be all the more rich for them but we will not physically fail without them. Through technology we may be more connected wherever we are, whenever, instantly, constantly with a growing number worldwide, but our own well being does not depend on these relationships.

For the vine to grow, it must be rooted in soil with a plentiful supply of nutrients and water. If those conditions are not right the plant will will not flourish, it won’t grow, it won’t flower, it won’t fruit. It may not grow up in a healthy way.

The relationships that we are part of will, I am sure, enrich our lives.  The love that we receive, the love we give, the memories we make, the experiences we share will make us varied and diverse people. We may be more interconnected with one another than ever before, but do those relationships fundamentally transform us as people in ways that are visible to others?

Jesus invites us to enter into a deep, enriching and life-giving relationship with God in Him.  We are invited to abide in Jesus - a word with strength. It is an imperative like ‘Stop!’ In marriage husband and wife abide in each other. There is something long-term and certain about the nature of that relationship. Something deep, lasting and fulfilling.

That abiding though has an obvious outworking - we are called to bear much fruit. Notice - much fruit. The image here implies a vine full of full, plump grapes, so many grapes that the vine strains under their weight.  The reality of us abiding in Christ and Christ in us needs to be visible says Jesus.  Sometimes we can miss entirely the fruit that is growing up among us. If we are expecting large bunches of dark red grapes but instead see only small collections of fine white grapes we may miss the fruit entirely. - sometimes that fruit might be ‘internal’, in the spiritual life - growth in faith, sometimes it will be ‘external’ in loving service to others. Jesus says ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’  It is only in bearing much visible fruit though that we are truly disciples of Christ.

It is of course also possible for vines to grow wild and unruly but for them to reach their full potential they need to be tended by the gardener - and pruning is part of that tending.  Many Christians struggle with this image of pruning away the dead unfruitful branches of our lives, habits and lifestyles. It is not a sign of failure but it is about God ensuring that our lives, our churches our communities have the chance to grow more visible fruit of His presence in the world.

Vines, as with other plant can only grow to their full potential if they have enough nutrients in them from the water and the soil.  The same is true of us.  If we are abiding in Him, Jesus’ resurrection life courses through us, fills us, inside us and gives us new life but living this life is not something we do alone.

Jesus says I am the vine, you plural, are the branches. We are part of the same plant, living and growing together. In a moment we will share in the fruit of the vine and drink wine as part of this communion. As we do, we remind ourselves of His call for us to grow and bear fruit, to rediscover Resurrection life coursing through us as we share life together in Him - the one true Vine. Amen.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Easter Joy!

One of our favourite family films is ‘Madagascar.’  Some of you might have seen it.  Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo get shipped out of the zoo and whilst being transported they are swept off deck into the sea.  They wash up on the island of Madagascar.  Once there they eventually meet the island’s population of Leemars and their King who has an announcer called  Maurice who clearly doesn’t like his job or have much respect for the King either!  (Cue fed up look and dead-pan voice) ‘...Presenting your royal highness, our illustrious King Julian the XIII, self-proclaimed lord of the lemurs, et cetera, et cetera, hooray, everybody...’  I think that Christians think Easter is a bit like that...  ‘Jesus has risen from the dead, so what, it happened a long time ago, et cetera, et cetera, alleluia, everybody...’  But, if it really happened all those years ago, then that’s worth shouting about and telling other people.

I think that we can get swept up in the activity and joy of the Easter story - the grief-stricken, awe-struck women, dazzling bright angelic messengers, doubting disciples, curious Peter who goes home amazed... can distract from us focussing on really what’s going on here - the presence and activity of God.

Today, Christians celebrate that God has raised Jesus from the dead.  As contemporary Christians distanced by some 2000 years from this pivotal event in history, you might be hard pressed to distinguish us from those who do not share our faith.  I guess my point is ‘... et cetera, et cetera, whatever, alleluia, everybody...’ is not an option.  For, if what we celebrate during the Easter season and always is true, we cannot be ambivalent about it.

If the events of that first Easter are true and God has raised Jesus from the dead then he has shown all that Jesus did and said throughout his life and ministry, must be true.  Namely, that Jesus really is God’s son, that he was crucified because of our sin (the things we all do and say that let ourselves, others and God down)  and rose again, that he is alive now and we can know him for ourselves.  It also shows that, death is no longer something to be afraid of. It shows us that Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place for us and that (through faith in him) we shall all be raised to life.  It shows that Eternal life begins now, not when we die, that Jesus gave his life for us and that we must give our lives back to him in love and service, and that like the first disciples, the resurrection calls us to be witnesses to the power of the resurrection.  All of this is good news - literally what the bible calls Gospel.

Do we really believe it though?  I think all too often Christians treat what we remember at Easter a bit like Peter did.  We hear the story again, sing the hymns again and at best we stare amazed at all that we hear, and then we go home.  

My friends, I believe the miracle God performed that we recall at Easter was not raising Jesus from the dead, but that we have heard the events of that day at all for ourselves!  Friends, in hearing the story again for yourselves as we stand at the empty tomb, I invite you with Peter, to make up your own minds if it is true...

There is evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  Firstly and most obviously The empty tomb - Jesus’ tomb was empty on Easter Day, despite the guard on the grave.  If Jesus did not rise from the dead, where did his body go?  If the authorities had taken it, they would have produced it when claims about the resurrection were made later.  The disciples were as surprised as anyone by the resurrection. But later, most of them were killed because of their faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, I think it is impossible to believe that they took the body and told lies.

Secondly, then there are the witnesses.  In the New Testament we have accounts of more than 500 people claiming to have seen Jesus alive.  Their encounter with the risen Jesus changed their lives and they were prepared to die for their belief.   The witnesses not only saw him, they talked with him, walked with him, learned from him, ate with him and touched him.

Thirdly, the Church began.  After Jesus was crucified, the disciples were demoralized and defeated.  They were afraid and denied that they had ever known Jesus.  Only a few days later they were risking their lives to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.  Their witness was to turn the world upside down.  What event (other than the resurrection) could have so transformed the disciples?

That’s good news!  Friends, whether you like it or not, whether you believe it or not, life is different because of what we remember today.  The angels did not try to convince the women of what they saw and experienced.  They reminded them that Jesus had said it would happen, and told them to go and tell others.  Since that moment, for over 2000 years it has done that.  In every culture, men and women talk not only of having heard the story but of knowing the risen Christ for themselves, today, and in knowing Jesus their lives are made sense of, changed for the better offering peace, joy, love, and freedom from worry and fear.

The miracle we recall today in some senses is not the empty tomb, it’s not even that we have heard the story for ourselves today, but that God offers us changed lives full of peace, love freedom and joy and a relationship with the power behind the Big Bang.  In the face of war, poverty, suffering, injustice, stress, unemployment, the school run - and so on this is still still the church’s message today, it is our churches’ message today - yes even in Mill End and Heronsgate, West Hyde and Maple Cross - interested?