Well. Just when you were thinking that Lent had some pretty serious texts, and deep things to think about, along comes an action-filled story, with Jesus whipping up some direct action in more ways than one, scattering livestock around the Temple precinct and casting coins left, right and centre before a crowd that watched with open mouths. Who was this person? Why did he do this? Why take to himself the phrase “my Father’s house” when referring to the Temple? The questions just keep coming, even from the outraged Temple authorities – “what sign can you show us for doing this” – that is, what Messianic miracle will prove to us who you claim to be – and Jesus answers in the most runic fashion – “destroy this temple and in three days raise it up.”
Messiahs are not supposed to tear things down. They are not supposed to chase stallholders out of the Temple courts. They are supposed to be loving and kind, gentle and meek. This Jesus is most certainly none of these, at this moment. But in the long run, what he says and what he does make perfect sense, after the resurrection, for no Temple is needed, no special place where God is to be found through arcane structures and dark mysteries. The Temple is walking around in their midst, the Temple, where God’s glory dwells and is to be met, is talking to them, touching them to make them whole, listening to them and teaching them directly.
Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, tabernacles, chapels, cathedrals, gurdwaras and all the other holy places where worship is offered and the deity met, are all temporary, transitory places. They cannot restrict the presence of the God of the universe to such a small space. But we are finite, and need to deal with finite matters as we try to grasp the infinite. We need a place, a centre, through which we can encounter the transcendent. We have a deep-seated need for that place to be impressive, special, slightly mysterious. Better still is if that place has areas which are forbidden, off-limits, as that reinforces our belief that God can only be accessed in a formal way, through the mediation of others – experts, holy people, those who have a special connection with the divine.
Jesus demonstrates that that is not true. God can be met anywhere, through anything or anybody. This is especially true for the baptised. They have Jesus Christ as close to them as their clothing – why do they need some half-explained venue to get closer to God? The baptised cannot get any closer to God than their breath – God is that close to us.
And Jesus takes direct action against those who would make it more difficult to get close to God, rather than easier. The Temple authorities, in a well-intentioned attempt to keep the place holy, had decreed that only Temple money could be used in its courts, so ordinary shekels had to be exchanged for special shekels. The Temple authorities had decreed that only specially approved animals and produce could be brought to the Temple as an offering for sin, for thanksgiving, for intercession – hence the large livestock market and provender stalls that filled the outer courtyard. Jesus reacts violently to this – making a whip, driving people out – because prayer is to be made in the Temple, not profits. Anything that keeps people away from God, that makes it harder for them to get through to the God who loves them and welcomes them is anathema to Jesus. He is fired up with zeal for access to God, because he himself is that access and he wants people to recognise that. The fact that it takes his death and resurrection for his disciples to reach that understanding shows just how difficult that is for us, weak mortals that we are.
So, do we, in some grand Lenten gesture, get rid of our buildings and our finery, our pomp and our traditions, for simple, direct one to one worship of Almighty God? No, for that was not what Jesus was doing. He didn’t want to destroy the physical Temple in Jerusalem, he just wanted people to use it properly, to be able to access it fully and freely. So our Lenten gesture is not to pull our buildings down, but to open them up, to make them more welcoming, more accessible, more understandable, so that access can be easy and understanding of what we do can be complete.
How easy is it to get our minds around what we do this morning? How much of what we do is habit? How much of what we do is simply mouthing words and going along with the flow? Look carefully at the words we say together – they are profound, powerful, God-filled. Even the hymns we sing, the parts of the service we sing, are as God-filled as the spoken parts – they are all drawn from Scripture, no one made them up – they just took them as a unit and put them together as there were no better words to express our love of God, our worship of God, utter dependence on his mercy and grace, our amazing access to a holy God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Look at the objects we surround ourselves with on a Sunday. Candles to show the presence of God, bread on a plate, wine in a cup – because Jesus told us to share them like that – simple, ordinary elements of everyday life transformed into objects that take us beyond ourselves and into the very presence of God. And we do it together, because we are not created for solo living. God made us who we are so that we can live and worship and share together – that is the purpose of the creation, that is our purpose as we worship together.
And sometimes direct action is required to bring people closer to the God who loves them. That is why there is an emergency winter night shelter every night in the borough until Easter, because God does not want people sleeping on the streets, and the structures that were in place in our borough were not enough for the large number of rough sleepers we have. And so we knit, and we donate, to take that direct action. There will be a challenge to direct action on Tuesday night, when two eminent theologians come to the Barn to talk about climate change from a Christian perspective. Our consciences call us to direct action every day, when we are confronted with need, of whatever sort, in our daily life – it is part of our redeemed humanity.
So let us be bold in tearing down that which prevents people from meeting easily with the God who loves them, and may we rejoice together in all that our loving heavenly Father has done for us.
Mark, in his hurry-along Gospel, does not spell out the temptations that Christ overcame in the wilderness, after his baptism. But today, we read of a very specific temptation, that makes Jesus turn on a praised disciple and suddenly identify him as a source of base human thinking rather than a fully worked through divine course of action. What is the problem?
The problem is, if we read the text of Mark exactly as the lays the story out, this morning’s passage comes immediately after Peter has publicly acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. All this is going on in Caeserea Philipi, a long way from Jerusalem, safe from Pharisees and Sadducees, Herod’s spies and Roman troops. Jesus can speak freely with his friends, and they can speak freely with him. In this place of security and openness, Jesus extracts from his disciples just what conclusions they have come to about him, hence Peter’s declaration, and then proceeds to enlighten them on the consequences of that knowledge.
With information comes responsibility, with freedom comes responsibility. The disciples now know for certain that they are living in the presence of God’s Messiah, which explains everything that has happened up to this point, and they do not want to loose any of it. Life with the Messiah is amazing – healings, confounding the Pharisees, great stories, mystical encounters on mountains and lakes – and nothing is going to take that away from them. Suffering and death do not feature on their agenda, and Peter tells Jesus that in no uncertain terms.
That is where Jesus cracks. That is what makes Jesus turn to this fine friend, this man who has publicly acknowledged Christ’s Messiahship, and address him as Satan, the great deceiver, the Father of Lies, he who would have taken the throne of heaven for himself. Peter has not yet had his mind transformed, he is still thinking in human terms, and has not yet grasped the full extent of the divine plan. And what is that divine plan? To suffer, to die and to rise again. To take divine love to the very edge of human understanding, and transform it into redeeming love. To take creative love into new spheres of joining the eternal and the finite, the uncreated and the created, so that death has no power, and only unconditional divine love is revealed and known.
Now I can quite see that Peter hadn’t got his mind round that, but did Jesus really have to be that brutal? Could he not have let him down gently? Would that not have been the path of love?
What we see in that moment when Jesus turns to Peter and calls him Satan is a revelation of the divine and the human operating hand in hand. The human reacts sharply and aggressively, the divine counteracts the temptation with power and insight. Self-centred human patterns of thought have to be replaced with divine, outward-facing love, and that is a hard lesson for Peter and all the disciples to learn.
It is worth wondering how much of the following discourse the crowd understands, let alone the disciples. They know what Jesus means by “take up your cross”, as they had no doubt seen the condemned being lead out to a place of crucifixion, bearing the cross piece on their shoulders. That would be sufficient to make them shudder, but for that to be their daily reality, while following this Messiah – that is even harder.
“Take up your cross” remains one of the hardest sayings of Jesus. Down through the centuries, people have struggled with it, tried to make sense of it, even taking it literally for one bearded American in the 70’s, who walked around with a cross on his back for several years to try to get to the heart of what Jesus was saying. I’m not sure how far he got, though, because the cross he was carrying was never going to be the cause of his death, in the way that it would be for Jesus on that first Good Friday.
We can spiritualise it – “it’s all about spiritual life and death, not an actual cross” – we can rule it out as irrelevant after 20 centuries – “no one is crucified any more, and most countries have outlawed the death penalty” – we can take a psychological approach – “ the death-inducing weight of guilt and shame” – we could even go with Albert Camus, from his Mythe de Sisyphe, and claim that there is joy in carrying the means of our death, as it affirms that we are currently alive and free. (Sisyphus, founder of Corinth and one of the most scandalous rogues of Ancient Greece, was condemned by the Gods to push a heavy stone up a hill, only for that stone to hurtle back down to the bottom as soon as Sisyphus got it to the summit. Camus argues that Sisyphus was happy in the moment that he reached the top of the hill with his boulder, before it cascaded down again.)
But this is Lent, and we should not be playing around with “human things” but diving deeply into the divine. As he speaks these words, Jesus has already taken up his cross. For him, it may be several years before he physically does that, but in his mind, in his attitudes, in his knowledge of God’s love, he is already carrying the means of his death, so that the whole created order may have new life in him. During his life, during his ministry, he carries his cross. When he feeds the multitudes, he carries his cross. When he heals the sick, he carries his cross. When he challenges the Pharisees, he carries his cross, and no one, especially not Peter, is going to tell him to put it down.
That is where we are today – seeing the cross for the first time in Jesus’s ministry – and understandably the immediate human reaction is to say “no, never!” But the divine reaction is “yes, always” and for that we bow at Jesus’s feet and worship.
Having done that, we are called to look at ourselves and admit to all the things that we know we ought to do, but our humanity backs away from. We may not be as defiant as Peter, we may simply tuck things away at the bottom of the “to do” list, but do them we must, or talk to that person we must, or share that burden we must, or take on that responsibility we must. Christ was able to carry his cross because he was confident in his Father’s love and in the good purpose of his Father’s plan. Christ also shared his cross with his Father, praying ceaselessly to align himself completely with the will of his Father. Our prayer needs to be as fervent as Christ’s, our watching needs to be as intense as Christ’s, so that we are fully aligned with our heavenly Father’s intentions for us and for his creation.
Our Lent Appeal for the work of Glass Door with rough sleepers is still open – donate, knit, make a difference.
Our Lent groups are challenging our basic Christian assumptions – get involved.
Our Holy Week journey is planned – get on board, with your cross on your back and your sights set on Jerusalem where we will find the joy, the acclamation, the betrayal, the denial, the suffering, the death and ultimately the joy of resurrection, once again.
Another sermon, another history lesson – that’s why you value Patronal Festivals so highly – visiting preachers never indulge in history.
We have got used to alternative coins and notes being in circulation at the same time, as new ones are introduced and the old ones phased out. Thus, circular pound coins are now only accepted at banks – which is why the Church will still accept them – and the new Janes (£10) are gradually populating our wallets, as the cash machines are stuffed full of them.
Consider, then, the complications of living in Jesus’s time, when there were three currencies, actively and legitimately being used in Israel.
There was the standard shekel, for every day use, but if you needed to buy a pair of doves for a sacrifice at the Temple, those shekel had to be exchanged for Temple money – money that was deemed holy, so never left the Temple precinct. We know this from the Palm Sunday accounts of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers when he entered the Temple after his donkey ride into Jerusalem. The third coinage was a specially minted Roman piece, that had to be used to pay the Emperor’s tax, or tribute.
It is this third coin which is under debate in our Gospel passage, it is this specific imperial tax which is being discussed, and which the Chief Priests, Pharisees and supporters of Herod – who probably hated each other deeply in normal circumstances – get together to try to trap Jesus. They think that they have him on the horns of a dilemma. If he says, “Don’t pay the tax”, they can legitimately turn him over to the Romans as a revolutionary. If he says, “Pay the tax”, then they can turn the people against him, and accuse him of being a Roman quisling. They are so proud of themselves, as they march up to Jesus in one of the Temple courtyards, and lay their trap in front of him.
Jesus’s answer is masterful, from many standpoints. It begins by throwing the spotlight back on his hunters, because Jesus hasn’t got one of these special tax coins in his pocket. The Pharisees have to fish around in their money bags to get hold of one to show him. Now, many have taken this to mean that Jesus didn’t have any money at any time, and that we too should eschew all cash and wander this world, living on other people’s generosity, as he did. This is a false conclusion. Jesus and the disciples did have money – they kept it in a bag which Judas Iscariot looked after – they just didn’t have a Roman tax coin in there. Why not? Because they had already paid the tax? No, because they were good Jews, and they would not have about their person a coin which broke one of the commandments. Not only was it a Gentile coin, but it had a picture on it – that of Tiberius Caesar, and a Latin inscription to that effect. Now, by asking his accusers to show him one of these coins, Jesus gently points out that these heroes of the Law were quietly breaking it by having such an object in their purse. First hypocrisy exposed!
Then comes the killer line – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “Pay the hated tax”, says Jesus, “get it out of your system, out of your money bag, because then you can get on with giving yourself fully over to God.” In paying our taxes, we are merely contributing to the common good, which is only right and proper. But there is much more to be done in this world than to pay our tax. One coin, Jesus suggests, is all that belongs to Caesar. Everything else belongs to God, and we must give him back our tribute, our participation in his generosity.
So, where do we go now? We agree to pay our taxes, and we set out on the road to give back to God everything that he has given to us. Where do we start? God has given us everything – our life, our world, our families, our skills, our money, our time, our church – what can we possibly give back to him who supplies everything to us? What would God do with it? We can see that our taxes go towards the NHS, education, roads, social care etc etc. What about what we give back to God? Where does that go?
Well, how about a trip back in time? To the time of the prophet who calls himself Isaiah, during the Jewish exile in Babylon. It is his words that we read first this morning, and they are astonishing. This Jewish prophet is delivering words from God to the new King of Babylon, one Cyrus, King of Persia. How did this happen? Did the prophet nip round to the palace, and sound off in the inner courtyard? Unlikely. Did he stand up on a street corner, and launch into these extraordinary words? Probably not. This would have been uttered during synagogue worship, late in the evening, after work, and only Jews would have been present.
And what does the prophet say? That Almighty God, the one true God (or, as the Jewish exiles would have called him, the God of Israel) was going to use this new king to bring about his purposes in the world. It has been hard enough to come to terms with exile. Hard enough to learn that they can still pray to their God, in a foreign country, with their Temple and religious system lying in ruins back home. But to discover that their God is going to use a Gentile ruler to perform his will on earth must have been mind-blowing. Their God is getting bigger and bigger by the day. He is now the God of the whole world, of the universe, and he is able to use anyone, Jew or Gentile, to bring about anything that he wants.
We can usefully learn that lesson all over again, today. We are not the only people that God can and will use in this world, in this community, to bring about what he desires. God would love it if the Church were at the forefront of everything, but the world is bigger than us, and our broken, separated state enfeebles us to intervene, sometimes. But we are called to explore what it means that the things of God are to be given back to him. King Cyrus, back in the 6th century BC, was called to restore the people of Israel to their own land, and to allow them to take all the treasures of their Temple with them. And he did! We today are called on to look not just at what we would call our own, but at everything around us, as a source of worship, prayer, generosity and challenge. God can, and will, use anything at our disposal, for his good purposes. Thus, God gave us brains and tongues and hands and eyebrows to communicate, to work through problems, to share what we know with those who do not yet know it. God gave us hearts of love and eyes to see other people and other things, so that love can pour forth from us to them. God gave us time, time to work, time to sleep, time to eat, time to do whatever we want, while also having time to spend with others, to help others, to support others, to encourage others. God gave us skills – different ones to each one of us – so that we can put up shelves or grow plants, or paint walls or organise events. And God combines that love, that time, those skills, that awareness of the world together with his Holy Spirit to send us out to bring about his purposes – that people will live together well, that people who have little will have so much more, that people who are excluded will be brought into the whole, that people who are weak are made strong. It is so much more than money. In fact, Jesus only talks about money for Caesar, not for God. Everything, including money, is to be given back to God.
Jesus passes through this potential trap with grace and a bigger picture of God than the Pharisees and supporters of Herod had ever considered. Their God had just got a whole lot bigger.
May we, as we give back to God this morning our worship and our prayer, our cash and our time, discover just how amazingly huge our God is, and just how much he demands of us. We cannot be half-hearted in response to the God who has put us in this amazing world. We cannot begrudge anything to the God who has redeemed us by the life, death, and resurrection of his own Son. We cannot skimp on our generous response, when God has poured his Spirit into our hearts, to enable us and provoke us to use our brains, our skills, our time, to fulfil his good purposes on this earth. May we know joy, day by day, as our God gets bigger before our eyes, and may we respond with ever greater gratitude in all the multitudinous ways that God has put at our disposal.
What is it about vineyards and the Bible? They are all over the place. People plant them, steal them, neglect them, rescue them – all sorts of different efforts are made to keep them and avoid the ultimate disappointment of losing one. Israel is compared to a carefully planted vineyard, and depending on its behaviour, those vines are successful or given over to briars and wild animals. Jesus uses several vineyard examples for the Kingdom of Heaven, and goes so far as to say that God the Father is the vinedresser and he is the true vine. So why?
If you think about it, it is obvious. They didn’t have tea, and they hadn’t discovered coffee, whisky wouldn’t arrive for many centuries and lemonade was a glint in no one’s eye. Wine was the drink that was safe, that could be kept from month to month, year to year, and supplemented the local water supply all year round. The wine they made was thin, low in alcohol, bitter – Hannibal and his men used it to crack heated rocks as they crossed the Alps with their elephants – one up from vinegar sometimes, but essential. The village vineyard was necessary for the maintenance of life in the area. If the vineyard failed, the coming year would be very difficult indeed.
But the image of the vineyard is stronger than that. Vines are temperamental things. They love nothing better than growing tendrils for miles, twisting up together over a long stretch, putting out big leaves and generally creating chaos. Vines take a lot of work. Through the wonders of Radio 4, I can reliably inform you that a vineyard of 1500 vines takes three months to prune, which they do between December and April, so that the vines can start growing again once the spring warmth returns. And once growing again, tendrils have to be cut back, leaves which could obstruct sunlight from bunches of grapes have to be removed, and new shoots vigorously discouraged. The person who looks after a vineyard is very busy indeed, and necessarily a micro- manager.
All the stories of vineyards in the Bible use this daily care as an image of the loving care of Almighty God for his people, one who is interested in the smallest details of their lives as well as the big picture. Which is why the disappointment of the owner of the vineyard can be so great, when the grapes go wild, or the harvest is not handed over. All that has been invested in the crop is to no avail, all that love and effort gone to waste.
But there is something else going on in the story that Jesus tells about the vineyard. Firstly, the landowner is an absent landlord, a reflection of a much-resented trend in Israel at the time of Jesus. Rich people were buying up land and living off the profits, in Rome, in Athens or in Alexandria. The idea of the village vineyard was threatened by these practices, and the future of some villages was in doubt. Now that does not give the tenants who have worked the vineyard all year the right to abuse the landowners slaves, and certainly no reason to kill the son and then claim the inheritance on the demise of the landowner. But it does talk of distance, of a divergence of priorities between the landowner and his tenants.
So look again at Jesus’s audience: chief priests and the elders of the people. Look again at the chapter number: 21 – this is going on just after the first Palm Sunday, in the Temple courtyard, in the middle of Jerusalem. This is Jesus setting a challenge to the religious and political leaders of his country – “dare to arrest me, dare to put me on trial” he is saying, as he starts his parable with the exact same words as Isaiah 5. The chief priests knew exactly what he was up to – in Isaiah, one crop of wild grapes is sufficient for the destruction of the vineyard, but in Jesus’s parable, there is a string of slaves sent to the vineyard to bring back its harvest – the tenants of the vineyard have had time and opportunity to give their due payment to the owner, but have refused each time, and now murder is on their minds.
Jesus has the chief priests exactly where he wants them – reacting strongly to a parable that is as much about themselves as it is about the rest of Israel – and so, in the Temple precincts, he talks about a new temple, a new building, with him as its head and strength, the one on whom the new building will depend for its stability and endurance. And this is too much for the chief priests, but that Palm Sunday crowd still surrounds the Messiah, and they are not letting any religious leaders get anywhere near their hero.
But what about us? We have not rejected the overtures of the landowner. We have come to worship, we are here, offering the best of ourselves in our praise and adoration, seeking God’s help through prayer, desirous of meeting him once again in bread and wine. How do we fit into this parable? In many ways, we don’t. It is not about us, rather, it is for those who would obstruct the ways of God and keep to themselves the power and the access to the generosity and fullness of God. It is up to us to ensure that that never happens – welcome, openness, generosity, sharing – they all prevent any desire to cling on to what we have in Christ, as what we have is too precious to do that.
The parable does speak to us about the endless love of God, his grace in waiting and waiting for us to produce the fruit of care, support and encouragement that he expects from us. The parable suggests an expectation of harvest from us, his people, an expectation that should not be disappointed.
So what do we take away this morning? We could leave the parable and concentrate on what Paul has to say to the Philippians, which is both wonderful and mind blowing. Or we could look afresh at what Jesus has to say about the new temple that he is building, for we are a part of that, built on the foundation of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. How do we fit in to this structure? Are we pulling our weight? This building, this new temple, is dynamic, ever-changing and growing as God’s love transforms us day by day. There is a lot to do here, and it will happen if we pull together in prayer, in imagination and in a full deployment of our God-given skills.
May God give us grace to bring forth good fruit, and to be active labourers in his vineyard, to his praise and glory.
There are some interesting and important angles on the Christian life in today’s readings.
In the Romans passage this morning St Paul refers to the commandments – you shall not commit adultery, steal, murder, covet. Personally I find these relatively easy to keep. I do not covet that flash BMW parked across the road and I would certainly never steal it even if I did. I have never seriously contemplated murder and adultery isn’t even on my radar! But the next bit “Love your neighbour as yourself” sometimes that is the really hard part I find. Be honest, don’t you, at least sometimes?
But what a wonderful World it would be if everyone really followed the new Commandment Jesus gave to his disciples and to us. If everyone loved their fellow human beings as themselves. If everyone thought about others’ needs and interests, how great it would be, how easy it would be to love one another. If everybody followed Jesus example, there would be no conflict, no war, no terrorism, no family disputes, no misery. Everyone would live in peace and harmony.
Do you remember the old John Lennon song “Imagine”? Bits of it make no sense to me at all, I certainly do not wish to imagine there is no heaven and above us only sky. I would not want to be without my faith. How could either of these ideas make me happy? They couldn’t. But his basic premise “Imagine all the people living life in peace, sharing everything with no need for greed or hunger” is not far from the ideal Jesus wanted us to follow. Imagine – Lennon said – it is easy if you try. Oh, yes, it is easy to imagine, but how difficult to bring to reality.
There are many people out there who are lovable and easy to get on with and to care about, but there are an awful lot who are not, who are nasty, mean, spiteful, rude, cruel, filled with hate and awfully hard to love. It is not easy to love them, but Jesus tells us we must. We must love the human being in there behind all the nastiness. And then we get another message coming through from these readings today. We should try to change them. Through our love we should help them to see the wrong they are doing, help them to see the love of Christ and have hope in him. The Ezekiel passage says we should take no pleasure in the death of a wicked person, but our aim should be to make the wicked turn from the error of their ways and to find new life. The same principal is found in Jesus’s words – try to get them to change.
So one of the major points of today’s message is that we need to care about everyone. As Christians, we need to be involved in the cares and needs of the World. We need to help where we can, do what we are able to help anyone in need and to help them to share the feelings of joy that we have. But there is a subtleness in all this. We are called to love, but not necessarily to like. Every person is a child of God, created by God, we need to love and try to see the image of God in them. But we are not called to necessarily like the person they are – if they are mean or cruel or just plain horrible, we are not called to like their unpleasant personalities. But we are called to try to encourage them to change to become more kind, more charitable, more just, to be better people, prepared for the coming of the Kingdom, prepared to meet God – because then they may become more likeable and, kinder and shine forth more of God’s love in their hearts. And show they are children of God.
Love is much needed in the world. As Christians, we experience the gift from God of love in Christ Jesus—a gift that we should not just keep to ourselves to hoard and treasure like a miser, but a gift that we should freely share with others. And in sharing that we need to be seen to shine as beacons of light in the World.
The world has a great need for light. The light of kindness, of understanding of tolerance and love. Light that which enables us to serve God well, to behave as Christians, as messengers of the light, as worthy recipients of the love we have received through Jesus. We cannot live in darkness – imagine your home without light bulbs or even candles. It would not be long before you stumbled over and hurt yourself, broke something valuable, felt lost and helpless.
As a Christian, please sit there and try to imagine living life without the light which Christ has brought into your life. Imagine nobody ever told you about Jesus, imagine being left in spiritual and moral darkness without His light. Imagine! (Pause) Sadly, there are an awful lot of people out there who are in that state. In this once Christian country there are many young people who know nothing about Jesus, and not because they have chosen not to follow him, but because they do not know about him. Two or three generations ago one could pretty well have guaranteed that almost anyone in this country would have at least known the basic principles of Christianity. But during the Twentieth century and since that has dissipated. I once read that the First World War should be known as the war that killed Christendom as the horrific impact on so many families of that war meant that some people started turning against God; felt that a loving God could not have allowed something like that to happen. And with the changes in society in the last century many people felt less socially obliged to go to church. They started not to teach their children about God, did not send them to Sunday school and this, coupled with such damaging phenomena as Sunday morning sports, meant fewer and fewer people knew about Jesus. I read something somewhere that said that within three generations this country had turned from God and returned to being pagan, Godless, knowing little and caring less about Jesus. And in the media this week was news of a report that claimed that less than half of the population now have any form of religious belief, only 41% count themselves as Christians, only 15% of the population count themselves as Anglicans and only 3% of 18 to 24-year olds think of themselves as being members of the Church of England. Not only depressing and worrying, but this might also account for the lack of courtesy, consideration, love for one’s fellow people that seem to be much more prevalent now than when I was a child.
But can one blame human’s inhumanity to human on a loving God, who has given us free will? As God’s message to us is to love one another then presumably no, we can’t.
So let us look at the Gospel passage in a bit more detail for a minute. This passage was intended to give the early church some guidance on how to deal with conflict and broken relationships. And it makes clear that the first step toward understanding and reconciliation is the ability to listen and heed what is being said to us when we are in the wrong. It requires the person who is at fault to acknowledge his or her wrong and be given the chance several times to make things better. But if they don’t or refuse to do so, Jesus is quite clear, the offender is to be treated as someone outside the community. Now this is not rejection, Jesus loves all sinners. He is not telling us we should reject such people, but that we should try to be reconciled with them and get them to repent of their sins. His entire ministry revolved around bringing outsiders into the kingdom by reconciling them to God. But I think he is telling us as individuals and as a church, that we should not be pushovers; we should have standards and not just ignore it when people will not admit their offences, admit when they are wrong and have hurt others. If it appears that we are being told to exclude people in this passage, perhaps it is only acknowledging publicly that an offender has already placed himself or herself outside our circle by refusing to admit when they are wrong. There must a price for arrogance, self-importance and being offensive to others. While continuing to love someone who has caused offence, there is nothing wrong with walking away from them if they will not change. The hope and prayer is of course that they will be motivated to take steps to change and come back. And we should always regard him or her as a mission field to try to welcome them back.
Reconciliation is vitally important to ending conflicts. Without reconciliation we cannot move forward, hope for spiritual growth, be fully at ease in our acceptance of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross for us. By the Cross Jesus reconciled us to God, it is our responsibility, when we accept that, to also accept that we must work for reconciliation with our fellow humanity.
Jesus isn’t really interested in who is right or who is wrong. He only cares about getting broken relationships sorted out. However, much someone has hurt or offended us, however much we feel we are in the right and they in the wrong, however much we might feel it is for them to make the first move, we are not really following our Lord’s example if we do not ourselves make that first move, to which we hope they will respond. It may not be easy, it may take a lot of prayer and a biting of tongues, but we have to do it. It is not easy to be a Christian in many ways and this can only be one of them. And it cannot be easy to be Jesus.
So, in our lives as Christians, we are called to forgive, to love, to care for everyone, because Jesus does and, in accepting his forgiveness, we need to forgive, to be reconciled with others who accept his forgiveness. Because, if he can forgive so much, we can forgive as well. Hallelujah!
Intercessions 10 September 2017
This morning’s sermon could be about a marriage, or a pilgrimage, or a heartfelt cry to learn to live with difference, but really it is about baptism. Whenever there is water mentioned in John’s Gospel, you just know that he will get on to the subject of baptism – like last week, being born of water and the spirit – like the wedding at Cana – no need for daily acts of ritual cleansing as the baptised are free to celebrate with the best wine of heaven – and so this morning, as soon as Jesus starts to talk about living water – bubbling water, moving water – we know that baptism is on the cards.
But the set up is much more complex than that. For example, we know exactly where this encounter happens, and we could go and visit it tomorrow, if we wanted to. Jacob’s Well is now a fixed point on the tourist trail within the occupied West Bank, a few miles from the town of Nablus, so we could go there, sit on the well, and try to engage one of the local women in conversation, and see if we have the same results as Jesus. Or we might not be able to, because as soon as we mention the West Bank, we know that this is disputed territory, and that sometimes tourists are not allowed in. 2,000 years after this encounter, little has changed in this place – Jesus was as unwelcome in the town of Sychar in his day as we might be if we rolled up in a tourist coach today.
In Jesus’s time, this area was not under occupation, but was the subject of a dispute that dated back nearly 500 years, to the aftermath of the Jewish exile and their subsequent return. Sychar and its surrounding area had been annexed by the Assyrians as far back as 700BC, and they had brought people in to farm the land from other parts of their empire. The remaining Jews had intermarried with these gentiles, but had maintained a version of Jewish religious practice. When the main body of Jewish exiles returned from Babylon, starting in 538BC, there was a major conflict about the status of those who had married gentiles, which resulted in Samaria becoming a separate land, with a separate culture, and a separate temple as the centre of their – ostensibly – Jewish worship.
500 years of suspicion and hatred had not abated when Jesus sat down at Jacob’s Well – deep within Samaritan territory but a landmark dear to all Jewish hearts, as the place where tradition taught that their ancestor Jacob had met his wives. Jacob’s Well also happens to be at the foot of Mt Gerizim, which is where the Samaritans had built their temple – so the woman’s attempt to redirect the conversation, once Jesus gets onto the touchy subject of her private life, is not totally without relevance.
So, you get the picture: Jesus, a foreigner, sits down at a place claimed by two hostile nations as their own, and talks to a woman with a dodgy marital history about knowing God in a new way. Not the most obvious of exchanges, but this is what we have. Why did he do it? Could he not have waited for his disciples to come back with the bucket? It is what any other Jew would have done. But no, the Lord of the universe, the creator of all, was not going to turn down an opportunity to talk about the love of God for humanity, especially if the person he was going to talk to was both a social outcast – why else was she at the well at midday, other than to avoid all the other people in town – and on the wrong side of the religious and cultural divide.
Now we could stop there, and learn all sorts of lessons about the love of God and the way we should live as his people – about the inclusive nature of the love of God, about the radical engagement that Jesus had with everyone and anyone, about not shying away from difficult topics, about confidence in our faith in the face of age-old differences and mounting indifference – but Jesus is not going to any of those places. Jesus is treating this woman as someone who needs the living water of the love of God deep within her, to transform her life and the lives of others around her, so that all that has been put up as a barrier before can be left behind in the joy of the living presence of God. Whichever way the conversation twists, it comes back again and again to how we encounter the living God – and here he is, in flesh and blood, asking her for a drink.
We have gathered today to encounter the living God. Whether we come because we want to, because we always do, because our parents have dragged us here, because we have been invited to attend the baptism or whether we have simply walked in off the street, we are here to meet the living God. [This young man is going to meet the living God in water, in oil, in word and in light.] How well we get through to him, how well he communicates with us, is totally dependent on how much we allow him to talk to us, to fill us with his living water. We can put up all sorts of barriers, use all sorts of excuses, but God is here, with us, in us, present in bread and wine, in music and song, in word and deed, in peace shared and in prayer offered. God is here in the space between our words and thoughts, in the silence and in the noise, in the stillness and the movement – and all he wants of us is to acknowledge him, to love him in return for his amazing love for us, to want to let that living water rip through our lives and refresh us every day.
And in refreshing us, that living water will transform us from people who see barriers to people who see opportunities, from people who look only to the past to those who see God at work in the past, in the present and the future. And in refreshing us, we will be transformed into God’s people who see difference as a reflection of God, and so embrace it. We will be transformed into people who deliberately cross boundaries to take Christ’s love to those whom society says we shouldn’t even talk to.
This is Lent in all its glory – freedom to go beyond ourselves and society’s self-imposed limits to explore areas where fear and tradition have held us back. Come to a Lent Lecture, and discover that all those people who go to other churches here in Kew are exactly the same as us, have the same reactions and same doubts, same hope and same expectations – for they too are filled with the living water of God. Use the time and money freed up by whatever you have given up to make a difference somewhere – to help local refugee families, to explore and document the wonderful world that God has put us in, to spend more time with those neighbours you have always felt you should talk to but somehow have never got past the time of day and the beauty of the weather. Go long – help us organise a cracking Big Get Together in memory of Jo Cox, killed by someone who could not cope with difference during the referendum campaign – just to say to the world that we are a people of welcome and inclusion and love.
And may that living water that God filled us with at our baptism well up in us today as we worship, tomorrow as we work, and forever, as we delight in the God who loves us cares for us day by day.