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.



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.