Murder Mystery in Jerusalem

Given by David Teall
Palm Sunday – 25th March 2018
Mark 11: 1-11

One of the things Pat and I enjoy watching on television is a good Murder Mystery.  One of my current favourites is Death in Paradise, not least because, early in every episode, there is a clear introduction to each of the main characters.  That doesn’t entirely remove the need for me to stop the player every so often to ask Pat who the character is we are now listening to, but it does make it easier for me to follow the plot.

So, on this Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the week in which we re-live the events leading to the death of an innocent man, I thought it might be useful to use the same technique.  Today I would like to introduce you to some of the key individuals and groups in the story, some of whom you may conclude played a part in the death of Jesus.

Today’s Gospel reading introduces us to three of the important individuals and groups that will play a key role as the story unfolds.

First, of course, comes Jesus, the hero of the story.  Jesus is an itinerant preacher from a humble background who has caused a bit of a stir in his home area around Lake Galilee.  He has a gift for healing and he is an outspoken champion of the poor and the oppressed.  He has never been afraid to criticise the religious leaders of the time when he considered they were at fault, which has not made him very popular in some circles.

Next, we hear about the ‘Disciples of Jesus’.  The word ‘disciples’ is used in a variety of different ways in the New Testament, but in this morning’s reading it appears to refer to a specific group of twelve men from a variety of backgrounds who have given up their day jobs to follow Jesus wherever he goes.  Known as ‘The Twelve’, they are all intensely loyal to Jesus – or are they?

Finally, we are introduced to a somewhat nebulous group described first as ‘bystanders’ and later as ‘many people’.  Aficionados of murder-mystery stories will be aware that the person or group that is given the sketchiest introduction often turns out to be a key player, so keep your eyes on this ‘crowd’ as the story progresses.

We shall hear about the remaining characters and groups as the story of Holy Week unfolds at our services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  To help you understand the story, here is a preview of the remaining players.

Some, but by no means all, of the disciples will be named suggesting they might have a more important role than others.  These include Peter, James, John and the keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot.  Make a mental note each time one of the disciples is mentioned by name and ask yourself why.

Next comes a group that is best described as Jewish Leaders.  This includes some named individuals including Annas to whom, in the Gospel of John, Jesus was taken first after his arrest.

Annas was appointed by the Roman Quirinius as the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judea in 6 A.D.  He officially served as High Priest for only ten years but, even though he had officially been removed from office, he remained one of the Jew’s most influential political and social individuals, aided greatly by his five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas who became puppet High Priests.

Caiaphas was no lover of Jesus and is mentioned several times in the Holy Week gospels, so keep an eye open for him.  What is his culpability in the death of Jesus?

Other groups of Jewish Leaders who get a mention include the Chief Priests, a level below the High Priests and the Scribes.  Together with the High Priests, former High Priests, Doctors of the Law and representatives of the most prominent families they formed the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people.  It was the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus and sent him to Pilate for sentencing.  Do they share collective responsibility for his death?

That brings us on to Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect or Governor of the Roman Province of Judaea responsible to the Emperor Tiberius.  He normally lived in Caesarea-by-the-Sea rather than Jerusalem, the stuffy, crowded, provincial capital of the Jews.  However, as the Passover always resulted in huge crowds descending upon the capital, Pilate had come to the city along with a large contingent of Roman soldiers to help keep the peace.  Indeed, in their book The Last Week, theologians Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan paint a vivid picture of Pilate and his soldiers entering Jerusalem by the main Western gate at the same time as Jesus made his Triumphal entry from the East.

The Roman Governor was the only person with the power to impose the death sentence which is why the Sanhedrin took Jesus to him.  It is not in dispute that Pilate eventually passed the death sentence on Jesus, but does that make him responsible for his death?

Next on my list of characters is Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea which he ruled as a so-called ‘client state’ of the Roman Empire.  We only hear about Herod in the Gospel of Luke who tells us that Pilate referred the case to him on the basis that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore subject to his rule.

Herod makes a half-hearted attempt to interrogate Jesus but soon gives up and sends him back to Pilate.  Could he have saved Jesus if he had behaved differently?  If he could, does that make him culpable?

Finally, I would like to return to one of the groups I mentioned at the beginning – the crowd.  They appear again towards the end of the story when Pilate offers to release Jesus.  “Crucify him, crucify him” they chant.  “Crucify him, crucify him” they persisted when Pilate offered for the third time to have Jesus flogged and then released.  Were they just engaging in a peaceful protest, or were they to blame for the death of Jesus?

Now, I said finally, but because I have been looking at the story as a murder mystery, I have so far missed out a very important group who play a very significant role in the final three days.  This group, often known collectively as The Women, are an unspecified number of female disciples, in the more general sense of that word, who supported Jesus throughout his ministry and often welcomed him into their homes.  Many had followed Jesus to Jerusalem and, whereas most of The Twelve abandoned him after his arrest, rather more of The Women remained by his side through his death, burial, and resurrection.

As with the Disciples, some of The Women are mentioned by name including the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany, identified by John as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Later, at the foot of the cross we find, amongst others, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, who was possibly the mother of the disciples James and John and, of course, Mary Magdalene.

As the story progresses to Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene is there again, centre stage this time, as the first person to witness the risen Christ and to declare that Jesus had risen from the dead.

So, that does now complete my list of characters, but was I correct in looking at the story of Holy Week as a murder mystery?  Had not Jesus predicted his death and resurrection?  On the Second Sunday of Lent in Mark 8: 31 we heard:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

In the view of the Gospel portrayed in the rousing modern Resurrection Hymn by Stuart Townend, the events of Holy Week are portrayed as ‘God’s Salvation Plan’.  Doesn’t that change everything?  If God planned it all in advance, then the characters all become puppets in his hands with no will of their own.  Judas, for example, far from being a traitor, becomes one of God’s chief ‘fixers’ helping to make it all happen.  There was no murder and very little mystery; just the carrying out of a pre-determined plan.

Whichever view you take, the events of Holy Week are a very compelling story which we will unfold through our services.  At 8.00pm on Maundy Thursday we shall have a service of Holy Communion at King’s Cliffe and on Good Friday we shall commemorate The Final Hour with a service at Bulwick at 2.00pm.  If you have not attended these services before, and you are able to do so this year, I do encourage you to come.  Without them it is difficult to make sense of the celebrations we shall enjoy at our service on the great Feast of Easter Sunday.

Whether you come to our services or read through the Gospel accounts at home, as you listen to the story unfold, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Which of these individuals or groups do you most readily identify with?
  2. If you take the view that the death of Jesus was brought about by the actions, or inactions, of one or more individuals or groups, who do you feel is the most culpable? Think carefully about this, particularly in relation to your answer to the first question. Your two answers taken together could well prove to be very uncomfortable.
  3. What situations in today’s world do you feel have parallels with what happened in Jerusalem during Holy Week?

The Passion of Christ is not an easy subject to grapple with, so it would be inappropriate for me to end by saying ‘enjoy your week.’  However, I do wish you bon voyage for your journey and I look forward to discussing your conclusions with you on Easter Sunday.

Making Sense of Jesus

Given by John Barratt
4th March 2018
John 2

As we read, watch or listen to current ‘news’ we face a blizzard of broken relationships – international, political, commercial, ethnic and personal – and of wrongs that need putting right – plastics, pollution, injustices etc..  It can be very depressing, despite wonderful examples of personal generosity we also hear about.

What can we do about it?  Traditional Church influence in the West is collapsing – it is now very fashionable for people to say they are ‘unbelievers’.  They deny the existence of any permanent moral authority whilst, perhaps, acknowledging the need for some mutual care – within reason, of course!   Perhaps, in practice, that is your view?

By contrast, today’s Psalm [19] speaks of the physical universe’s order [which, in a scientific age, we assume] and it also emphasises that the ordering of human relationships has to follow the same authority.  Our OT reading was the now largely-forgotten Ten Commandments [Exodus 20: 1-17] , which theoretically dominated Western civilisation for centuries.

But imposed religious practice concentrates on outward observances, and its frequent use to prop up the governing authority does not encourage human flourishing.  This is true not just of Islamic Republics or the Christian Inquisition; Temple-based religious power is one of the three main challenges that Jesus confronted in the wilderness.  By contrast, Jesus put the flourishing of each individual at the centre of his strategy. 

This was not some vague humanism confined to our brief physical life; we can only understand Jesus’ approach in the context of what, eg in his opening of the Lord’s Prayer, he called ‘heaven’.  For Jesus, healthy human relationships have a range which makes death a delusional limit, and so he challenged people to be more realistic about their lives and change their limited mind-sets.  Even in purely physical terms, self-centred thinking is daft – you probably think you are sitting still, but you are on an Earth that is spinning you daily counter-clockwise at about 100mph, whilst taking you on an annual trip round the sun at 67,000mph! 

Can Jesus, with his conviction that rich human life stems from costly acceptance of anyone within our range – our neighbour – shake us into greater enjoyment of our human potential, releasing us from selfish follies of materialism and imprisonment within self-imposed religious and ethnic brands?  

Jesus grew up in a community whose traditions declared they would lead humanity into such richness of God-intended life, yet their circumstances were grim.  The Romans were not the major problem – they were just the latest deluded military conquerors, and the Gospels give them only walk-on parts. 

The Temple,  newly re-built by King Herod, in many ways played a good and central part in the lives of ordinary people like Jesus’ family and friends.  Recently we heard how Joseph and Mary took Jesus there in ritual recognition of his birth, meeting the devout Anna and Simeon [Luke 2:22 38].  Luke also tells us that Jesus and his family went to the Temple every year, Jesus absorbed in challenging religious experts when he was only 12 [Luke 2: 41-52].  During his ministry Jesus frequently used the Temple as the appropriate place to argue and teach.  

Centuries previously, after the most important citizens had been exiled, their descendants returned [as Philip mentioned last week] with a refined version of traditional religion.  This zealous, self-perpetuating group of wealthy families, from which the High Priests and their hangers-on were drawn, insisted on their exclusive status and religious correctness, though some of them were not like that, e.g John the Baptist’s father [Luke 1: 39 et seq.] , or Nicodemus [John 3: 1-21, 7:50 and 19: 50-52] . 

   This asserted monopoly of technically-correct religion inevitably belittled those whose lives did not comply, thus misleading most ordinary people into missing the generously encouraging divine presence Jesus called ‘our Father in heaven’.  Conflict with Jesus, himself from an ordinary background and focussed on the unrealised potential of those around him, was thus inevitable.  The dispute was about life, not abstract theology.

   Throughout the Gospels, on page after page, we have Pharisees, Priests, Levites, Doctors of the Law, condemned by Jesus in the strongest terms:   “They talk, but they don’t perform.  They bind heavy burdens, and place them on people’s shoulders, but they don’t want to shift them themselves by so much as a finger”, records Matthew [23: 4].   Open your Gospels to get the scale of Jesus’ criticism.   The end of chapter 11 of Luke’s Gospel [ 37 et seq.]  is a particularly lengthy example.

Here are a few reminders;

Jesus’ story of the ineffective Temple prayer of a self-righteous Pharisee and the effective penitence of a despised Tax Collector [Luke 18: 9-14];

his story of a ritually unclean Samaritan, whose spontaneous generosity fulfilled his humanity, compared with a Priest and a Levite on their way to officiate at the Temple, ignoring the blatant needs of a ritually unclean, half-dead traveller [Luke 10: 25-37]; 

when a Samaritan woman challenged whether true worship was confined to Jerusalem he insisted that sincerity in worship, not location, was what mattered [John 4]: 1-30] .

 In today’s Gospel story [John 2:13 – 21], Jesus leads a riot in the Temple. 

The Temple was divided into sections for priests, Jewish men, Jewish women, and foreigners, and being Passover it was full of visitors.  In the foreigners’ section, supposedly “a House of Prayer for all Nations” [Psalm 69:9], guides organised parties of sightseeers; birds and animals were sold for sacrifice; and because the Romans prohibited Jewish coins, and Roman coins idolatrously bore the image of Caesar, a commercial currency exchange provided religiously acceptable coins from nearby Tyre.   Jesus told the traders to “stop making my Father’s house a market-place.”  All four Gospels tell us that Jesus drove them out.  [Matt. 21:12-21; Mark 11:15-18; Luke19:45-48].

Jesus could only have led such a physically powerful attack in such a prominent place if he had active public support, and Luke tells us that immediately afterwards “Every day Jesus taught in the Temple. The chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the leaders of the people wanted to kill him, but they could not find a way to do it, because all the people kept listening to him, not wanting to miss a single word.” [19:47]  

The Temple authorities were furious.  “What miracle [they asked him] can you perform to show us that you have the right to do this?  Jesus answered ‘Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will build it again.’ …  But the Temple Jesus was speaking about was his body.”  [John 2, 18-19, 21.].  This cryptic text from our Gospel reading is at the heart of Jesus’ activity from Lent [throwing himself down from the Temple roof] to Easter [his constant forgiveness whilst suffering].  What does it mean? 

At a recent Synod, the Bishop of Carlisle used Jesus’ message that every human being is made in the image of God and is of unique and equal value.  It is easily said, but its application is challengingly difficult and costly.  The Bishop was speaking out of concern for Down’s syndrome foetuses revealed by ante-natal screening.  Work on that for yourselves.  Jesus was no populist; he knew he would have to demonstrate in his coming execution that the cruelty did not affect the permanent, heavenly, significance of his life.  By contrast, the Temple was merely a building, and the Romans destroyed it a few decades later.  

 By accepting with determined humanity the murderous hatred of those whose privilege he disturbed, Jesus exposed a shallow world of power and greed, and replaced it with the real world which releases our human potential.  In a good paraphrase of today’s Epistle, Paul puts Jesus’ challenge starkly: “The message about Jesus on his cross is meaningless to those who are going nowhere.  But to those who are on the path to completeness, it shows how resourceful God is.”  [1 Cor. 1: 25,  Good As New (2004)].  Can we expand our awareness of people as our path to completeness?

When a young couple were having dinner, sitting in an Ipswich restaurant’s window seats, they spotted a homeless man outside and asked the waiter if they could buy something for the man to eat.  The waiter was unresponsive, so Gareth dashed to MacDonalds.   Unable to get the homeless man out of their heads, Gareth and Sarah started a Facebook page for donations of clothes and sleeping bags, but  realised the acute need for homeless people to have dry, secure places to sleep. 

The owners of a double-decker bus for sale on eBay gave it them for free.  Gareth, a skilled tradesman, put in a kitchen, bathroom, lounge and dining area, and 14 secure sleeping pods, using equipment donated by local businesses.  Other costs were covered by crowdfunding.  A homeless individual thus became the measure for life-fulfilling action.

Burnley churches created a food bank, but soon realised that many poor people were socially isolated, so their members began to deliver food to those who did not go out.  As needs of individuals became more apparent, volunteers became Street Pastors, supported victims of domestic violence, and organised youth work.

A retired Leicester GP, working in a makeshift camp for Rohingya refugees, recently wrote: “One little girl stands out.  She was paralysed from the waist down and, before she came to the hospital, had developed dreadful bedsores which became infected.  She was so brave coping with the dressings and made real progress over six weeks.  We arranged for her to have a special mattress [and] now she sits on a chair.   One young boy has deformed feet [and] couldn’t run away from the soldiers …  who shot him in his club foot  … 

You look around sometimes and tears come to your eyes.  It’s absolutely terrible.  You just do what you can. ” 

May Jesus’ example expand what we can do, and so deepen the coming joy of Easter.



Is it ready yet?

Given by David Teall
27th February 2011
Matthew 6

The banner at the top of our Pew Sheet tells us that this is the Second Sunday before Lent, the point in the Lectionary when we get back to the sequence of Sundays that occur every year, no matter how early or late Easter may be.  However, that is not the only description that could be given to this day.  For many of you it might be more meaningful to describe it as the First Sunday post Panto, the day of the long-promised return to normality.  For others, it might be described as the Last Sunday of half term.  As I look around I see bleary-eyed grand-parents with a tired but happy smile on their faces, partly because of happy memories of exciting games with their grand-children and partly because they have got their houses back to themselves at last.

I can relate to both of these descriptions.  I enjoyed the panto very much, more especially as I didn’t have to do anything other than attend, and I have had the joys of grand-children coming to stay over half-term.  Oliver, one of my grandsons, aged 10, is particularly partial to Pat’s home-made Chocolate Cake.  This time it didn’t get made before he arrived so he had to go into the kitchen and ‘help’.  Under Pat’s watchful eye he assembled the ingredients:  Chocolate, Butter, Caster Sugar, Eggs, Milk and Flour.  Then the first exciting bit: creaming the butter and sugar.  Just as he was about to switch on the mixer his brother Josh rushed in (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything slowly) and shouted (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything quietly) “Is it ready yet Grandma?”  Aaah!  The joys of being a grand-parent!

I shall return to the Curious Tale of the Half-Term Chocolate Cake a little later and hopefully explain how it relates to my main topic for this morning: reading the Bible.

Philip has spoken to us over the last few weeks about the dangers of forming an opinion by interpreting a single passage of scripture in isolation.  Today’s Gospel is a very good example of a passage that can very easily be misinterpreted:  at first sight it appears to be a Hippy’s charter:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.   Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.   and a little later:  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”

That’s all pretty clear isn’t it?  Don’t bother with all that sowing and reaping stuff: sit around and enjoy yourself and God will provide.  Don’t worry about what clothes you wear.  You’re beautiful!  Peace and Love!  Peace and Love!

For a baby boomer like me, who spent his teenage years in the 60’s this could all sound very attractive.  “do not worry about tomorrow” the reading goes on, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.   Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  And it’s all here – in the Bible – so it’s the Word of God isn’t it?

If only it were that simple.  The Bible does indeed contain the Word of God, but it is written in the words of men.

To hear God speaking to us through those words requires a much deeper study than that made so far by my inner Hippy looking for an excuse to do nothing all day.

Most scholars today believe that The Gospel of Matthew was written at sometime between 80 and 90 A.D.  The author is unknown but analysis of the text suggests that he was a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, possibly a scribe.  Similar analysis suggests that he used the earlier Gospel of Mark as one of his sources alongside a collection of stories about Jesus that was in circulation at the time often referred to as ‘Q’ and some other unknown sources of his own.  It was some time later that the Gospel was attributed to the disciple Matthew.

The Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s reading is taken, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus, not a word-for-word transcript of a particular sermon given at a particular place on a particular day.  The author has grouped them together in order to form the first of five major discourses in his Gospel, all of which end with the words: “and when Jesus had finished saying these things … …”or similar.  

Some scholars suggest that these five discourses reflect the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, which were traditionally written by Moses.  The author, speaking to a largely Jewish audience, wanted to portray Jesus as the new Moses who fulfilled the prophesies of the old and superseded them.  Thus, by presenting the sayings of Jesus as a single sermon on the law of the New Kingdom delivered from a mountain, the author is reflecting the story of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, a symbolism that would have been instantly recognised by his audience, just as you recognised my references to the Panto and to half-term.  By this means he retained ownership of the fundamental story from his Jewish roots but moved it on to proclaim the New Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Some of you may find this sort of analysis rather harsh and disturbing.  If Jesus didn’t really preach the Sermon on the Mount in the way described in Matthew’s Gospel;   if the author put stories together in order to put his particular ‘spin’ on events, then what are we to believe?  To hopefully help you to understand that, I have a confession to make, or maybe it is not so much a confession – more an explanation.

Oliver and Josh did, indeed, come to stay with us over half-term but it was not in the week just ended as was implied in my story: it was the week before as they go to school in Staffordshire where the holiday pattern is different.  We did many things with them but on this occasion Pat didn’t actually make a chocolate cake though she has done so on many previous occasions.  Joshua, like most seven year-olds, is always asking ‘is it ready yet?’ though whether he did so the last time a cake was baked I can’t be sure as that was a while ago and memories of one visit can easily merge with another.

So was my story true?  In a strictly historical sense it was not.  I linked it to the half-term just ended because, knowing my audience, I knew that many of you would relate to that and it would help me gain your attention.  The story gave you an accurate description of Oliver (he like his food) and Joshua (he is aged seven, impatient and noisy) and it gave an accurate description of family life in the twenty first century that would be of interest to historians in 2000 years’ time.  In one sense it was not ‘the truth’ but it contained a great deal of truth.  The Bible, for very similar reasons, is much the same.

So finally, with these thoughts in mind, let’s go back and have another look at today’s reading.  Is it really the Hippy charter that it appears to be?  To answer that we need to understand that Jesus and his disciples, and the people to whom he spoke and the author of the Gospel of Matthew were all Jews and were all very familiar with the stories in Genesis, one of which we heard as our Old Testament reading today.

In this story of the creation God said:  ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’  He didn’t say: ‘Behold, I shall give you a ready-made freshly-baked Pizza every day.’  We know too from other stories about Jesus that he had a great respect for and affinity with those who worked in the fields and those who looked after the animals: many of his parables were about them.  There is no way in which he would denigrate the hard work put in by such people nor deny its importance.  We need to keep looking.

Now that we know what the passage does not mean we can look at it with fresh eyes.  It is towards the end that we find the final clue:  “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The story is not about whether or not we spend our time working in the fields to turn God’s gifts into food for the table or clothes for our back: Jesus has assumed that we will do that.  It is about the priority we give that work.  If our first priority is to eat good food and wear fine clothes then we are failing to give the necessary priority to building the kingdom of God.  By contrast, if we make building the kingdom our first priority, the material things of life, such as we need, will follow.  Far from suggesting an easy path through life, what Jesus is asking of us is to put the needs of others first, for that is the key to building the kingdom.  Building the Kingdom is a hard task that faithful Christians have been working on for the last 2000 years.  Like Joshua I’m tempted to ask: “is it ready yet?” but I know I would get the same answer as he did:  No – the work has only just begun and, now that you are here, you can do your share.

That Foundation is Jesus Christ

Given by John Barratt
20th February 2011
1 Corinthians 3

1 Corinthians 3: 11: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

When the first Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, religious opinions divided people.  She firmly told the French Ambassador: “There is only one Jesus Christ.  The rest is a dispute over trifles”.  Lord Burghley, her principal adviser, listed the “diversities and varieties” that were “breeding nothing but contention” e.g. “Some say the Service and Prayers in the chancel, others in the body of the Church.  Some say the same … with a surplice, others without a surplice.  The table standeth in the body of the church in some places; in others it standeth in the chancel.  …  In some it standeth upon a carpet; in others it hath none.” 

If we are attracted by what we know about Jesus, how do we make him the foundation for our lives, instead of escaping into contentious “diversities and varieties”?  To take inspiration from the wonderful village pantomime, if Jesus’ cross marks the site of treasure, how do we get there and start digging.

Jesus left no written instructions, only his friends’ memories.  Written accounts of what these disciples remembered circulated amongst the following generations, and the Bible’s four Gospels represent authoritatively ‘what was handed down by the apostles’.  Our east window upholds this tradition – the apostles Matthew and John, with Mark, the apostle Peter’s interpreter in Rome, and Luke, the apostle Paul’s assistant, and Jesus in the centre.

Their Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, but explain why Jesus should be taken seriously.  Matthew, who provides most of our Sunday Gospel readings this year, collected Jesus’ challenging teachings into five groups, and at present we are hearing from the group called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’.  Less than 100 years after Jesus’ death, a philosopher convert called Justin recorded a hostile philosopher who had written: “I am aware that the precepts in your so-called Gospel are so wonderful and so great, that I suspect no-one can keep them.”  Today, our Gospel passage ends with [Matt: 5: 48] “Be perfect, therefore …”.  Jesus’ challenges are so extreme that it takes determination to face them squarely.

However, reflect that the Gospels also show Jesus being strongly opposed to those who imposed religious burdens on people.  Jesus’ challenges are not empty religious duties, but expose us to the reality which underpins what he called ‘the kingdom of heaven’.  Whatever our limited understanding of life might be, it must involve reality, or we really are adrift without a map.  Today we listened to an extract from Psalm 119: “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”  This is the basis of Jesus’ challenge to be “perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect”.   He calls us to our senses [that is the real meaning of ‘repentance’], to choose a counter-cultural reality that he provokes us to understand and to pursue.  And the current version of Middle Eastern conflicts from before the time of Jesus shows just how counter-cultural today’s Gospel passage is.

Three weeks ago we heard the Beatitudes, setting out the happiness of those who humbly persist in recognising painful realities.  Two weeks ago we heard Jesus asserting the value of the Law and the Prophets.  But law is at best objective guidance; it does not necessarily promote the human liveliness which was the prophets’ and Jesus’ concern.  Last week we had some practical examples of Jesus’ deeper examination of the Law.  This week Matthew gives us another example, about Retaliation.  How should we deal with those who seem, or are, hostile to us.

Through the centuries before Jesus there had been stages in Jewish thinking about retaliation; as I describe them, weigh them up and see where your appreciation of ‘reality’ comes alongside them.  Do you agree with a Genesis passage [4:14 and 25], that sevenfold, or another at seventy times sevenfold vengeance is the way to treat opponents.  Or do you prefer Deuteronomy [19:16-21] where it says “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”  This careful returning of injury to the same extent and no more – one eye, not two eyes, for one eye – is a disciplined, civilising change.  But by the time of Jesus the rabbis had commuted retaliation to monetary damages and fines, and declared a rule: ‘Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you’.  They based this on the Book of Proverbs [25: 21 – 22] which St. Paul cited in his Letter to the Romans [12:19-21]: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, …”.  This was intended as a better strategy, shaming the opponent into a change of heart.  How do you feel about that?

We have nearly caught up with Jesus!  In today’s passage, instead of the old “eye for an eye”, Jesus advises us to turn the cheek, to go the second mile, to love our enemies.  As Matthew later records [7:12], Jesus makes the rabbis’ rule more positive: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”.  Despite all the things that go wrong in our world, sometimes we can see this realistic, universally wise teaching being put into practice.  Recently the Pope and German Lutheran leaders have agreed that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation should be celebrated ecumenically.  What a tragedy that this should be news, but better late than never!  In Egypt, to block further violence, Muslims flocked to Coptic Christmas services which had been threatened by extremists.  In Pakistan, the Governor of the Punjab was murdered because, despite knowing the risk, he stood out against the persecution of minorities by fellow Muslims.

You may recall the very personal examples of forgiveness set by the wife of the murdered London headteacher a few years ago, or the campaigning energy of the parents of the murdered teenagers Stephen Lawrence and more recently Jimmy Mirza.  One of my schoolteachers was a Jew who had been forced to leave Dusseldorf in the 1930s.  In 1944 he overheard some German prisoners-of-war working on a farm, and recognised their Dusseldorf accent.  He immediately greeted and befriended them.  I recall meeting a woman whose father, husband and two sons had been killed in a recently-ended civil war, and who was volunteering in an orphanage mainly comprising children whose parents had been killed fighting for the other side.  “I have to do it” she said “or hatred would eat me up.”

Our own William Law, the 250th anniversary of whose death we will be celebrating this year, wrote [in “A Serious Call to a devout and holy Life”]: “If religion forbids all instances of revenge, without any exception, it is because all revenge is of the nature of poison; …  If religion commands an universal charity, to love our neighbour as ourselves, to forgive and pray for all our enemies without any reserve; it is because all degrees of love are degrees of happiness, that strengthen and support the Divine life of the soul.”

Recently Pope Benedict, deploring anti-Christian violence, reflected on the Beatitudes, and said “The Church does not fear poverty, derision or persecution in a society that is often attracted to material wealth and worldly power.  …  Jesus was willing to be persecuted and despised to the point of being condemned to death.”  It is the accurate summary to be expected of such a profound biblical scholar.

Can potential poverty, derision, persecution and death make a desirable, enduring foundation for happiness?  Where have you reached in assessing the realism of Jesus’ teaching?  Are you prepared to give it a go?  We will, of course, need the fresh starts which the Gospel constantly offers, and the encouragement of fellow disciples, as we try to defy prevalent cowardly and selfish attitudes.  It’s a tough call, not for a religious elite interested in “diversities and varieties … breeding nothing but contention”, but for the ordinary people whom Jesus loved.  This is our opportunity to realise that we are made in the image of God, in whom the reality of perfection rests, and “no one can lay any other foundation than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”   Let’s take him seriously.  We will then find the treasure which neither moth nor rust can corrupt, nor thieves break in and steal!

Tootling with Vigour

Given by John Barratt
12th December 2010
Matthew 11

I read in the newspaper recently that there are about three septillion stars in the universe, and that, every second, 65 billion neutrinos pass through each of my eyeballs [and yours!].  Anyone who knows what a ‘septillion’ or a ‘neutrino’ is, please tell me afterwards!  We now know how tiny a place we human beings occupy in the visible universe, and science explains so much of why our bodies are as they are.  The President of the Royal Society recently wrote that the Society’s founding 350 years ago “signalled the emergence of a new breed of people – described … as “merchants of light”.  They sought to understand the world by experiment and observation, rather than by reading ancient texts.”  He also wrote that the application of science has led us to a risk of irreversibly degrading the earth’s environment.

Holy Scripture, unlike Science, deals with un-measurable human experiences, especially our failures to do what is obviously right, by exploring the rich mystery of our lives, which the best intellects cannot penetrate and the most eloquent words cannot precisely describe.  A recent book [1] has shown that, in the West, the best ideas about human nature have always been shaped by the interplay of science and technology with philosophy and theology, and that recent developments in neuroscience, genetics, artificial intelligence, and biomedical engineering call for fresh reflections on what it means to be human and how we might shape our future.  So let’s look carefully at some of the church’s “ancient texts”, to see why their different focus is so important for the inspiration of good human achievements.

Next year we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and remember with gratitude the sacrificial courage and dedicated skill of those who, over centuries, produced a version of these ‘ancient texts’ in English.  Translation of the texts’ permanent truths from a different cultural background adds to the mystery of their subject-matter.  Bill Bryson gives an enjoyable example of correct but strange translation – a warning in English to motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn.  Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigour.”  Much Biblical language can sound rather like that.

The Bible records millennia of human wrestling with life’s mystery, recording and revising the insights gained, so it is not a structured science textbook.  There are some parts we will reject for good reason.  Look in Deuteronomy at commandments for stoning people and animals to death, or Psalm 137, which ends: “Happy is the man who … takes [Babylonian] babies and smashes them against a rock”.  Try following that with a choral evensong’s “Glory be to the Father”!  Think of the medieval church’s official resistance, because of a phrase in a Biblical poem, to Galileo’s insistence that the earth moved round the sun, or consider the view of some Christians today, following their reading of the Book of Revelation, that all-out war with the Muslim world is needed to bring on final Armaggedon and, for them of course, their translation to heaven.

Jesus was inspired by his deep study of the Old Testament and we are introduced to him in the New.  In reading and discussing the Scriptures usefully we must be open to Jesus’ teaching and example, applying the two great commandments he selected from the Old Testament – to love God and our neighbour – so that we can hear in our hearts the living Word of God, the Father of all human beings.

This morning’s “ancient texts” are about our opportunities to make a new start in righteous living, rather than being discouraged by our failures.  The factual times in which the Scriptures were written were as chaotic and full of terrible events as our own.  Order and Justice seemed as unattainable to most people then as they seem to us today.  Today’s psalm and the extract from Isaiah are both poems which express the Old Testament message of God bringing Order out of chaos, and challenge the whole community to exchange selfish mind-sets for the deeper reality of God’s all-encompassing Justice.  A couple of generations after Jesus, and in very testing times, the book of James urged the avoidance of theoretical faith, and exhorted patient, practical responses to the liberating word of God, remembering that “The Judge is standing at the gates.”

Today’s Gospel reading is about two cousins, John the Baptist and Jesus, both deeply committed to their ancestral Jewish faith, despite their nation’s collapse.  John, following the prophets, had encouraged people to change their mindsets, and Jesus at his baptism had been clearly endorsed by John.  Thereafter their ways had separated.  John, in desert penury, had offered people a once-only opportunity to change their mindset; Jesus, sharing everyday life with ordinary people, insisted that the opportunity was always and repeatedly available.  John, now a hapless prisoner expecting the death sentence, wanted re-assurance that Jesus would lead the people aright.  In his reply to John, Jesus explained how he encouraged ordinary people by emphasising God’s constant blessings, rather than his condemnations.  Using Isaiah’s poetic language [2], he says [in the ‘Good as New’ version], “Go back to John and … tell him that blind people are getting their sight back, disabled people are able to get about again, outcasts are being restored to the community, deaf people can hear, many are getting a whole new life, and those who don’t count for much in our society have had Good News for the first time in their lives.”

There can be no doubt that ordinary people have remarkable capacity to respond to challenge, as some recent newspaper reports have shown.  Think of the schoolgirls in the middle of a demonstration who recently linked hands round an empty police van to protect it from yobs, or the remarkable youngsters who care so assiduously for their incapacitated parents.  Or listen to this:  “When PC Dave Hill heard on his radio about an explosion at Edgware Road tube station, he and a colleague changed course and went straight to the scene without stopping to think.  At the mouth of the underground tunnel, it occurred to him that there could be a second [explosive] device, but he carried on into the dark.  Asked why, during the inquest into the deaths of the 52 people that died in the 7/7 bombings, the policeman simply replied: “Because I was there”.  It was a refrain that was heard, in varying forms, throughout the evidence.  Ordinary men and women who had performed extraordinary feats, who had, in some cases, literally taken a leap into the dark to help injured passengers in desperate need of help, repeatedly down-played their heroism. What enabled these people to act so calmly and efficiently?  Or, to put it another way – what turns ordinary people into heroes?” One expert emphasised training.  Another expert said “… you don’t have to be special.  With the right mindset and opportunity, most people are capable of heroic acts.”  [3]

Jesus challenges us to change our mindsets and train to achieve what he called ‘the Kingdom of God’.  If, this Advent, we can overcome our hesitations and past failures, there will be no lack of opportunities to meet people’s deep needs or to stand up for what is right.  Next week, our Advent inspiration will be the committed response of a very young woman called Mary, who found herself unmarried and pregnant in an unwelcoming society, and who remained constant to that commitment through the disturbing years that followed.

Let us use to the full the resources and fellowship of the Church, in training for the life-enhancing way of the generous, self-sacrificial, unpompous Jesus of Nazareth.  So we will become ‘merchants of light’ as we engage tangibly with people’s needs by the committed use of our time and talents, tootling melodiously but, in the face of obstacles, tootling with vigour!

[1] Murphy and Knight, Human Identity at the Intersection of Science, Technology and Religion Ashgate 2010.

[2] ch 35, 5-6; ch 42, 18; ch 61, 1.

[3] Guardian 26 Nov 2010.