Sunday, 20 January 2019

Only Justice

This year’s Week of Prayer is using material provided by the churches of Indonesia. And their theme has to do with justice. The word we heard from Deuteronomy tells us that justice is central to our life as God’s people. As the people of Israel learned how to live no longer as slaves but as a free people in the Promised Land to which God has brought them, they began to see that taking possession of the land was not the end of their pilgrimage, but a new beginning. Here in the land God had given them they were to live not as their own people but as his - to live as God commanded them to live. And justice lay at the heart of that: not the blind impartial justice of the figure above our law courts - but God’s justice: unashamedly partial and biased, but biased toward the poor, taking the part of the neediest, and those least able to speak or act for themselves.

In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus at the synagogue in his own town. Handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, he reads a passage that’s all about God’s justice, God’s promise of justice, God’s promise that someone would come to deal justly with the people in their need. And then he hands the scroll back and sits down, which is what a Jewish rabbi would do when he intended to teach or preach. That’s why every eye in the synagogue was upon him. And Jesus announces his ministry by telling them that God’s great call to justice was fulfilled in him. Justice is central to the life and ministry of Jesus, and justice is central to the ministry he entrusts to us.

So here we are praying for unity; how does justice relate to our prayer this week? Here’s a sentence from the Letter of James - chapter 2 and verse 17: “Faith, if it does not lead to action, is by itself a lifeless thing.” Both the readings we’ve heard tonight present our faith as it’s supposed to be, not an abstract playing with ideas, but something that has to be lived out in the real world as we find it: a world that’s so often crying out for the justice Deuteronomy and Isaiah and Jesus proclaim.

Injustice leads to fractured societies, broken relationships and vows, situations of abuse and exploitation. Sadly churches aren’t immune from this; divisions in the society around us can intrude into church life too, and churches can be tempted to take sides rather than being open to all who need healing and refuge. And, especially when we’re finding it a struggle just to keep going, stuff that divides us as Christians gets overlooked, gets excused, gets dumped, perhaps, into the “too difficult” box.

But only in unity can we be a force to change and transform the world’s injustice; only when we welcome and value each other will we offer a sure welcome to the stranger who comes to our doors. Here are some words from the great Swiss theologian of the last century, Karl Barth: 'We have no right at all to explain the multiplicity of the churches. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and that of others, we have to recognise it as a fact, and understand it as an impossible thing which has intruded itself, as a guilt which we must take upon ourselves     . . . We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce to its reality.'

Those are big and tough words, but true. Not to be united is sinful. And the divisions between denominations are not unalterable facts of life. I’m glad of the differences between us, how boring to be all the same - but I hate it when they become divisions. I’m glad when we try to outdo one another in doing good (I’m sure Paul said something along those lines), but I hate it when we just become competitive in a self-centred way. When I was in Telford, there were two chapels, both of them Methodist as it happens, that watched each other like hawks. Whatever one had, the other had to have better. You could throw a stone from one to the other, and it wouldn’t altogether surprise me if there were people who did. It was clear to us in the ecumenical team that either they had to unite and learn to love each other, or they would both close. And sadly, they both closed. Ultimately, for all their show of faith, what they had was built on sand.

Here are some telling words from Desmond Tutu: “Instead of separation and division, all distinctions make for a rich diversity to be celebrated for the sake of the unity that underlies them. We are different so that we can know our need of one another.”

We are different so that we can know our need of one another. Desmond Tutu was very aware that a divided church would always be too weak to struggle against the sin of apartheid in his beloved South Africa. Unity isn’t just a nice idea, it’s essential to our mission, our service, our action, our presentation of Christ.

That’s the point of this year’s theme: that praying for unity must be purposeful. We’re not doing it just out of a sense of duty or to feel a bit better; unity among Christians is something we need if the Gospel is to be heard and the world made whole. Only as we end our divisions and learn to value and approve and applaud one another within our company of pilgrims, only then can the Church become the advocate for justice and freedom and peace that our Lord is calling us to be. There’s much to be done, and it’s only in unity and fellowship that we can hope to counter the injustices around us. Ultimately, in our own strength we will fail; only in Christ will we win through.

Let me end with the closing verses of chapter 1 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “No place is left for any human pride in the presence of God. By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation. Therefore, in the words of scripture, “If anyone must boast, let him boast of the Lord.”

The Wedding at Cana

It’s interesting that the first miracle Jesus performed happened at a wedding, even if it also seems that Jesus didn’t exactly plan it that way. A wedding in Jewish culture wasn’t just a great social occasion, it was also an image of the relationship between God and his people. A Jewish wedding, I should say, involved the whole community. The ceremony itself would take place late in the evening after a time of feasting. The father of the bride would take his daughter on his arm, and with the rest of the wedding party following, they’d parade through the village streets, and people would come from every house to bless the bride.

The procession would eventually arrive at the home of the groom, and that’s where the wedding itself took place - in the entrance way or the ante-room of the house, followed by festivities that lasted for days. The bride and groom would walk from the groom’s house accompanied by flaming torches, and attendants would walk with them through the streets holding a canopy above their heads. This would be a long walk, winding through all the village streets, giving everyone the chance to wish them well.

And then the couple would keep open house for a week, and they’d be treated like royalty. And all the refreshments for the week would be provided and paid for by the groom’s family. The wine especially was expected to flow freely.

But on this occasion, at some point within these days of  celebration, the wine had ceased to flow. This was more than an inconvenience. It was a social disaster of the first order!

We see Mary realize how seriously wrong things are. “They have no wine,” she said. Imagine the horror in her voice. Wine in Jewish tradition was a symbol of joy. The writer of Psalm 104 thanks God for “wine to gladden the heart of man”. And there is a rabbinical saying that “without wine there is no joy.” So you could say that at this wedding the joy had run out! And that would be more than embarrassing for the groom and his family.

John describes this first miracle as “a sign”. Like much else in his Gospel, it stands for things beyond itself. The lack of wine and of joy can stand for the emptiness of life without the saving love of the Lord. Whoever and wherever we are, there’ll be times in our lives when the wine runs out, times when there’s no sense of joy. That’s how life is. There are highs, but there are also lows. Bright and colourful turns to grey and dismal.

Anyway, Mary comes to Jesus to tell him of the problem, and she seems to have caught him on the hop - “It’s not my time, yet,” he replies. But she simply goes across to the servants, and tells them to do whatever he says. I love that! John seems to be saying that the Word of God was pushed into performing his first miracle by his mother. But Mary seems to have known from the beginning just what her firstborn son was born to do.

What Jesus does do is to turn to the stone pots filled with water for guests to wash their hands on arrival, something everyone would do as an act of ritual purification; to eat with unwashed hands would be disgraceful, to do that would be to defile the whole feast. These were not small pots, so Jesus turned the water in them into something like 180 gallons of wine.

John specifically mentions those water pots; and perhaps he wants us to contrast the imperfect external cleansing of the old rituals with the perfect sacrifice Jesus will offer to cleanse the heart and soul. Certainly the size of the pots and the huge quantity of wine stand as a sign of the abundance of God’s love. In this miracle Jesus doesn’t just meet the immediate need of the wedding party, he gives in overflowing abundance.

And this wasn’t just vin ordinaire. We see the steward at the feast remarking that the very best wine has been saved till now. Jesus doesn’t just produce something good enough to save the day. He transforms the water in those pots into the best wine the folk there had ever tasted.

So what we have here is a miracle of transformation of not just water into wine, but ordinary into extraordinary. And it stands as a sign because that’s what the whole ministry of Jesus will be. “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men;” that’s what he said to his disciples. Jesus is in the business of transformation, of changing lives, of changing people.

And God never gives just enough, he gives in abundance. Wine that was only water is poured out and shared, and everyone there is amazed at how splendid a wine it is. Usually you’d give people the best wine early on, because later on when people had had a fair bit to drink they’d be less bothered about how it tasted. So it surprised the steward, and others as well I should think. This miracle is a sign of grace. Grace is unexpected, it doesn’t stick to the rules, it doesn’t just dole out what we deserve.

And the Gospel of Jesus will be the story of grace. Grace can’t be measured out: it’s love that’s unearned, unmerited, and so freely given that there’s always more than enough to meet our needs. And nothing we do will ever diminish that love, for love is of the very nature of God. Love is how the world is made and you and I made as part of it. On the first Day of Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus were accused by some people of having got themselves drunk on the new wine, Pentecost being the grape harvest festival. But what had actually left them bubbling over with joy was an intense and personal realisation of God’s love, the Spirit of love coursing through them.

So Jesus is revealed as the bringer of joy, transforming lives, changing hearts. When the wine in our own lives runs out, we can turn to him. “Do what he tells you,” says Mary to the servants. So should we. Mary’s instruction led to a miracle that not only met the immediate need of the people there, but gave abundantly more. So in what ways are our lives lacking the joy only Christ can give? And how can we his Church be new wine to transform barren lives and joyless situations where we are today?

Saturday, 5 January 2019


That word Epiphany: it’s about the penny dropping: it’s about something being discovered, realised or understood that makes a difference to the person it happens to. It’s the eureka moment, if you like. And today is the Feast of the Epiphany. It’s always nice when that happens to coincide with a Sunday; but it’s also the start of a season that’s the whole of this month, in which the penny drops in many different ways, with many lives changed.

Today we focus on the first of these: wise men from the east who’ve been poring over star charts and making observations of the night sky, come to Jerusalem searching for a new king - one born to be King of the Jews. So here’s where the story of Jesus begins: in culture, in history, in geography and in language, the story starts in Palestine, in a Jewish nation ruled by King Herod with the permission of the Emperor in Rome, in the Hebrew language and in the Jewish faith. So how come he didn't stay there, as the Messiah many Jews expected, who would come to save them, and only them?

I’m reading Tom Wright’s fascinating biography of St Paul at present, in which he brilliantly shows just how crucial was the role of Paul in taking the good news of Jesus out beyond Jewish territory into the wider world. But it didn’t just happen because of Paul; right from the very beginning it was implicit that Jesus came not for the salvation of just some people but for the salvation of all. Matthew’s Gospel is arguably the most Jewish of the four in its content and setting, but it’s in Matthew that we read about these men from the east - men who weren't Jews but Gentiles - who came to visit the new king. And as we read about their visit we discover that here in Bethlehem something new had begun that would change the destiny of all and the direction of history. The travellers who come bring gifts for the king and these gifts are themselves hugely symbolic: for they bring gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Gold is obvious enough, I suppose. The child is a king, and gold is a king's coinage. As a king this child will take authority and exercise power, and he will rule over his people; but his kingly rule will be very different from the rule of Herod. But Herod would have seen the point of gold, and he’d have understood the incense as well. Frankincense speaks of priesthood, and kingship and priesthood are closely connected. Monarchs are anointed as they are crowned, as a sign of a kingship held under God. And if the role of a priest is to stand between the people and God, and between God and the people, that is also a high ideal for a king.

But then there’s the myrrh, and myrrh adds something more to the mix. Myrrh makes for a rare and costly gift, but you can’t escape the fact that there’s a link with death. It was used to anoint for burial. For Jesus, to be king and priest won’t be about acquiring status and power, but letting them go. Paul wrote, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Jesus himself said, “I am among you as one who serves.” In the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus is both perfect priest and also perfect sacrifice, offering himself to bear our sins, and dying so that we might live.

Gold and frankincense are gifts of symbolic power, but it's the myrrh that most deeply expresses what this king will do. He is the servant-king who will offer himself, and in that offering he crosses human boundaries and breaks human barriers. Myrrh stands for the self-giving love that changes hearts and lives, the limitless love of the God Jesus teaches us to call “Our Father”, who as a Father loves even the most wayward of his children.

And so we see that Jesus will be more than just a Jewish Messiah. We see it as the wise men bow before him; but it was in his death that what the wise men saw in the stars was fully revealed and proved. The love of the cross embraces the whole world.

“Are you a king, then?” asked Pontius Pilate, in John’s telling of the Passion story. “Not in a way you’d understand,” Jesus might have replied. “My kingship is not of this world.” And it’s not. His kingdom has no geography, no human boundaries. He’s the King of Love, the Servant-King. The child to whom the wise men offered their precious gifts can never be the possession of any one race or culture.  He is a Jew, but his message isn’t limited by what is Jewish; we may imagine him as very much like us - in the altar reredos of the Stanbury Chapel in our Cathedral, the Christ-child looks very sweetly English - but we can’t keep him for ourselves either. This child is a gift to be received with joy and then also passed on and shared, for he is for all, for the freedom of everyone, everywhere, and in every age.

And every Church should treasure his symbols of gold and incense and myrrh. Gold because Jesus shares his kingship with us as he calls us to follow him, to be like him, as he says to us, “Let the one who would be greatest among you be as the servant of all.” And the incense because we’re all priests: we are a kingdom of priests, as Peter tells us. Every Christian share a call to speak of God to the world, and to speak for the world to God, to be people of prayer and witness and service.

And myrrh as well, because Christ’s people are called to die to sin, and every day to take up our cross to follow more nearly. Paul says that our baptism joins us to the death of Christ, for we die to our own selves, to receive his risen life and the new wine of his Holy Spirit. To be a disciple is to lay down the old stuff that is about pleasing ourselves, and to say to Jesus, “You alone will I serve; you are Lord of all my life.” And though we may fall short of that, we must always resolve to offer all we can. As Christina Rossetti wrote, “What I can I give him - give my heart.” A Christ-centred, servant-minded Church will be truly proclaiming the death of Christ, until he comes again.

I wonder how much of this the wise men caught hold of as they knelt before the child and offered their gifts. They’ll have been surprised, that’s for sure: It wasn’t what they’d expected. But they knew that what they’d found there was the truth - otherwise surely they wouldn’t have offered their gifts. They could see that the birth of this child was something very special, something that couldn’t go unmarked, something that would change them as it changed the world. T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, has the wise men returning to their homes, but “no longer at ease . . . in the old dispensation.” In Bethlehem they've discovered something new about both birth and death, something that challenges everything they've thought and believed before. Today we celebrate God's free and loving gift to the world he can never cease to love, and pray for that love to be lived out in every church, and in every life of Christian service.