Sunday, April 12, 2015

Habeas Corpus

I was asked to preach this morning on John: 20:19-31, which recounts the tale of St. Thomas and his moment of doubt (I refuse to call him "Doubting Thomas" because I don't believe that one incident defines him as a character).

I titled this talk Habeas Corpus which means "you may have the body", for reasons that I hope by the end... should become clear. But let me begin with a little joke:

A defendant was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence indicating guilt, but there was no corpse. In the defence's closing statement the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, resorted to a trick: "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all," the lawyer said as he looked at his watch. "Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom."
He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened.

Finally the lawyer said, "Actually, I made up the previous statement. But you all looked on with anticipation. I therefore put it to you that there is reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty."

The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. A few minutes later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty. "But how?" inquired the lawyer. "You must have had some doubt, I saw all of you stare at the door." The jury foreman replied: "Oh, we looked... but your client didn't!"

A couple of years ago I preached about Thomas and defended him as a passionate man who despite his moment of doubt, was a person who clearly deeply cared about Jesus and a man who we could all relate to.

However when I read the passage in preparation for this morning, I was struck by how Thomas's experience and the manner in which he expresses his doubt is especially relevant to our world today. Throughout history, people have had doubts about the resurrection of Jesus... But today we live in an age where for many outside the church, cynicism has been superseded by passionate and zealous unbelief. Some share the thinking of certain prominent critics of the Church that something cannot be believed without empirical evidence.

I felt that these demands very much echo the words and attitude of Thomas when he meets the disciples following their encounter with the risen Jesus.

Thomas didn't merely say "I can't believe" or "I struggle to believe"; Thomas declared "UNLESS I SEE... I *WILL NOT* BELIEVE". He was adamant!

Doesn't that sound familiar?

Usually when we see this part of the gospel performed in a play or a film, no sooner has Thomas uttered the words, then a great shaft of light breaks into the room and Jesus stands before Thomas. However if we read the text, we see that an entire week passes before Jesus is seen again. It makes you think, doesn't it? God doesn't always answer our doubts immediately... sometimes he gives us time to reflect on what we say and feel.

What is important here, is that although Thomas and the other apostles were in different spiritual places... they didn't disassociate themselves from one another. Thomas didn't dismiss his friends as crazy and disappear never to be seen again; for their part, the apostles bore with Thomas as he struggled to deal with what he must have considered to be outlandish claims.

I think there's a lesson for us all there, wherever we are. If we are struggling... don't give up. If we see our friend struggling... don't walk away from them just because they are on a different page. Isn't there a subconscious temptation to move towards a subtle parting of the waves when we gradually learn that a friend is moving in a somewhat different direction that disappoints us? If so... we should learn to wise up to it and resist its pull.

After the feast of Passover was finished and Thomas and the other apostles have had pause to reflect, Jesus returns to their presence to give Thomas his definitive answer. Thomas is confronted by the significance of his own words quoted back to him in the response of the all-knowing very real and living Jesus:

 "*Put* your finger here; *see* my hands. *Reach out* your hand and put it *in* my side".

The wonderful thing about Jesus' response to Thomas is how accommodating he is. Last week we read how in the garden, Jesus asked Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him as he had not yet ascended to the Father. Yet here Jesus not only invites Thomas to observe his wounds, but to actually reach out and touch them in an intimate way.

It shows us that when Jesus meets us at our point of need, he is selfless and personal. It does not matter to him how much it might cost, hurt or inconvenience him... he us wiling to offer his life and his wounds that we might believe and have life.

But the thing I feel most burdened to write about this morning, is how we are to witness to those who have that passionate disbelief about the nature of Jesus, as represented by Thomas.

Earlier I joked about a lawyer who tried to use the absence of his client's victim as a way of proving reasonable doubt of his crime. If you recall, the punchline was that the jury didn't believe the client because even though *they* looked to see if the victim would enter the court, the client in the dock,
The Holy Spirit is like the defence lawyer in that joke. Now I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit is lying about the resurrected Jesus, far from it. What I am saying is that the Spirit prompts the people of the world to look to the idea, the reality of Jesus being alive. Yet so often, it's when people look back at us as his followers in the dock that their decision as to whether or not they are willing to believe is influenced.

If we aren't looking to the return of the resurrected Jesus, if we aren't living a life that acknowledges the resurrection in some way... do we not falsely make out to other that the Spirit lies?

Habeas Corpus. Can we present the body of the risen, living Jesus to the passionately disbelieving?
One day, whether it's tomorrow or in a million years, the Bible tells us that Jesus will walk through that courtroom door... every eye shall see. The people asking the question will have their empirical evidence. But what use is it to them then? In order to have life, they need to know it *now*.

Yet, while we wait for that day we have the opportunity to bring forth the body of the living Jesus, every day. As Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians, While he sits at the right hand of the Father, We the Church *are* the body of Christ:

"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."
1 Corinthians 12:27

While we don't necessarily bring empirical evidence to people's lives, by our words and our actions we *can* demonstrate Christ alive and at work in us.
Here are three steps taken from this morning's readings, that I believe we can take that will do this:

  1. Be at Peace and receive the Holy Spirit. Verse 21-23 tell us:
    "Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
    John 20:21-23
    We need time to pause and reflect in God's presence... to breathe in the Holy Spirit and let God permeate our beings.  We also, when talking with people about God, if they get angry with us, need to do our best not to lose the peace God bestows on us and turn our conversations into verbal fire-fights. This is especially important in the Internet Age, where what starts out as well-meaning debate so often descend into a vitriolic slanging match.
  2. Secondly, we need to let that peace, that sense of God's presence, develop our discipleship. The Acts 4:32-35 reading today encourages us to be one in heart and mind. Serving and loving God and one another in such a way that his grace works in us powerfully and testifies to the resurrection.

    The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer... who 70 years ago this week, was martyred by the Nazis once wrote:
    "Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ."
    If we breathe in the Holy Spirit in moments of peace and breathe out the Holy Spirit through our discipleship, the living Christ becomes evident to those around us.
  3. Finally, we should allow God to use the marks of our own wounds to witness to others. Jesus said that as the Father sent him, He sends us. The Father sent Jesus in frailty to be one of us. When Thomas required physical proof of the resurrection, Jesus allowed him to touch his wounds.

    Similarly when we see people struggling in faith with something we've been through, we should seek to show our empathy and demonstrate that although God may sometimes allow us to experience hardship, he does walk beside us and lead us through it.

So to recap...
  • Let us willingly receive the Holy Spirit
  • Let the Spirit direct our discipleship
  • Let those who suffer see the marks of our own spiritual testimony.
Peace be with you

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Heroes Come in All Shades and Sizes

I've recently been observing an interesting debate/war of words going on over at Twitter. It seems ever since Marvel & Sony did the deal to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel cinematic universe, there has been a small but vocal reaction to the possibility of Peter Parker being recast as a black character (even though this hasn't even been decided... as far as I am aware). Dan Slott (one of the writers), is currently engaging these voices head-on.

Now those of you nerdy enough to be in the know, will be aware that in Marvel's Ultimate universe, there is already a black/hispanic Spider-Man called Miles Morales... and that the Nick Fury of that universe is also black (as indeed he is, in the Marvel cinematic universe), despite the fact that in the mainstream comic universe... he is white.

The future ethnic heritage of Spider-Man has recently been a matter of debate on Twitter

This is where I stand on the topic:
  1. If the Spider-Man of the Marvel cinematic universe is a rebooted character then he can be of any ethnicity, it really doesn't matter... it's a fresh start and if we are honest, there is nothing, not one thing that says that Peter Parker is defined by ethnicity.
  2. If there were any new universe versions of Spidey... they could be any ethnicity whatsoever... new universe, new rules.
  3. If something happened in the main universe whereby the writers "did a Psylocke" or another plot along the lines of Superior Spider-Man, whereby Peter and his powers ended up in the body of somebody from another ethnic group... again, no problem... as long as the narrative gives a reasonable explanation for how the transfer happened.
I think the real reason that people are getting their webshooters in a twist is because they relate to Peter Parker as a fictional character.  They know what its like to be the nerdy kid in class who was picked on or looked over... and they fantasize about having the powers and responsibilities of Peter's heroic alter ego. All of this is fine... but we need to remember that our own relationship with a fictional character doesn't give us exclusive ownership of that character.

An important step in human maturity is developing the ability to decentralise our existence and understand that we are not the heart of the universe... and that other people have the right to appreciate the same things as us and relate to them in exactly the same way we do. This isn't something that is just restricted to the realms of fiction either. People might be quick to point out that  in the West, artistic and cinematic representation of Jesus Christ has largely been restricted to that of a white Caucasian... usually with flowing locks and blue eyes; this is despite the fact he was racially Semitic in origin. However the truth is far more kaleidoscopic and wonderfully complex than that.  If you take the time to explore other cultures where Christianity is present, you will see that Jesus is actually manifested in the dominant ethnicity of the country/region in question... and not just our own.

Rather than see different representation as a threat, isn't it better to use it to develop the commonality and empathy we share with these people and see past the superficial differences?

And ultimately in the final analysis... isn't what draws us to fictional characters like Spider-Man or real people like Jesus, the values, ethics and personality they exhibit... rather than the colour of their skin or shape of their body?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A Disquiet Follows My Soul

First off... this is not a Battlestar Galactica related post at all.  I simply used the title of one of the episodes because the phrase has been running through my head a lot of late.

Secondly I have been silent for far too long. This place has gathered dust while I have been distracted... and this seems to be a habitual tendency, one that I should really get out of.

It's a funny thing but I have made a point of waiting upon God for direction as to whether I should embark upon a certain course of action, on the understanding that should I not get a definitive response before a set point in time, I would resolve to move on it myself in an act of blind faith and blind faith alone.  Yet as that time nears I find myself both disturbed and moved on the subject. I see the world moving to spur others on and yet find silly things get it my own way. You want to take the opportunity to talk to the vicar and elderly ladies gravitate in and do the "lovely service vicar" small talk routine and totally block access... that sort of thing.

At the same time it feels like various images and songs that have spoken to me... come to the fore... and my Bible notes are talking about being more focused.

There's a great sense of pressure building within me... but I am coming to understand that it is not negative, it is like the tension in the bowstring before the arrow is launched, or the stirring of champagne working against the resistance of the cork that holds it captive within the bottle.

I have always struggled with human impedance - the sense that people deliberately or unwittingly sometimes work against you because their own interests clash with your own. Yet as I type that sentence I am reminded of Christ's words to St. Peter at the end of John's gospel. Jesus has just given Peter an indication of the kind of life his ministry will end in, and yet Peter finds himself distracted and asking what the fate of John will be.

At the heart of Jesus' response is a question and a statement: "What is that to you? You must follow me.”

So back to this idea of disquiet... what does the Bible have to say about this word? Well in a few translations, the term comes up in a couple of Psalms:
"Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance."
Psalm 42:5
It is easy to look at our frustration as a negative, to assume we aren't going anywhere because resistance is present or because we are held in some kind of suspended animation. However that's making the same mistake as Peter.  Instead we should look towards what God is doing: what God is doing in us; what God is doing to us; what God is doing for us. When the bowstring is drawn, it is no longer in an inert state... potential energy is being built up and will soon result in it being released as kinetic energy, propelling an arrow towards its target.

Likewise when we feel frustration, we don't need to get wound up (an ironic choice of words there), instead we should be prepared to accept that we are being built up with the necessary energy to take us forward to the next phase of our walk with God.

All that potential energy has to go somewhere... and the more it builds up, the more you should take courage that it will one day, strike or move its intended target... perhaps sooner than you think.

Disquieted - is it really such a bad thing?  The NIV translates the word as "disturbed" - the same word that lies at the heart of a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake. So wherever life finds you I'd like to leave you with the words of his prayer and ask you to contemplate anew what being disturbed means:

Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.


Saturday, April 05, 2014


Happy First Contact Day everybody.

In the Star Trek universe, April 5th (in the year 2063), the Vulcan race makes contact with Earth as a result of the flight of the Phoenix spacecraft flown by Zefram Cochrane:

Also if you are a fan of Babylon 5 (to your credit), you may know that the 7th April marks another first contact day for humanity - that of humans and Centauri.

Babylon 5 also celebrates a First Contact Day Around this time.
First Contact in science fiction normally represents a sea-change in the fortunes of the human race, an even that leads to a renaissance of technological and socio-political advancement... or in some cases to cataclysm.  Often it leads to humanity reaching for the stars and spreading its influence across the galaxy.  In Star Trek, it leads to the end of many of humanity's self imposed troubles and basic survival struggles.

As time goes on, fans of Star Trek commemorate the event and even here in Britain, the National Space Centre plays host to a gathering of fans who meet to celebrate (this year they are attempting to break the world record for redshirts in one place).

I can't help thinking that there's a better way to celebrate though, one that is all inclusive.  Here, today on Earth... we have yet to encounter sentient alien life and are not therefore as yet challenged or encouraged in a manner in which such a discovery would present us.  As a Christian I do believe we have had a very unique and special first contact - with God himself (something I wrote about two years ago), so I think there are other ways of looking at it.

Let's look at those famous words of dialogue from the franchise (taken from the Next Generation format):

Space, the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
It's continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds,
to seek out new life and new civilisations,
to boldly go where no one has gone before.

While none of us have an interstellar spacecraft at our disposal, each of us is on a similar journey in life.  Our hearts, minds and souls contain the culture we carry to the outside world... and our bodies are the vessels with which we carry them to the universe outside.

So here are my suggestions/challenges for how you can celebrate First Contact Day throughout the course of this weekend in the everyday world... and stay true to the maxim of Star Trek:
  1. Go to an unfamiliar place - a new pub,  a new cafe, coffee shop, place of worship, library etc or visit a new town and study the environment around you.
  2. Follow some new people on Twitter or other social media... preferably someone random and not suggested by your feed.
  3. In each of those places try and strike up a conversation with an unfamiliar face - make first contact.  You get bonus points if you connect with someone of a different worldview or background.
From my own Christian perspective, this is what the early church was best at - not just proselytising... but listening and observing the culture and needs of the people around it before sharing the wisdom of the Gospel message. True evangelism requires ears and heart... not just mouth. St Paul listened to the people of Athens and learnt about their shrine to an "unknown god", before proclaiming his belief in who that God was. I also believe that in a couple of verses, the Bible has its own version of the Star Trek intro:
"He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’"
Acts 1:7-8

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Matthew 28:19-20
However you choose to spend the next couple of days, may you live long... and prosper.
  • What things do you think we can do to celebrate First Contact Day?
  • Are you doing anything to commemorate it?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Approaching Flame

Due to commitments at the wedding of friends and a holiday in Spain, I've been off radar at Church for a while and not really done anything by way of preaching or leading a service.  This mini sabbatical came to an end this morning as I climbed back into the preaching saddle for what will be the last time before the interregnum at Alcester Minster ends. I very much felt a call to address the topic of transition from interregnum to leadership under the forthcoming new ministry of Adrian Guthrie.

When I saw what passages I had been given from the Lectionary, I jokingly suggested that I was being punished for my absence because all the passages seemed to be related to judgement and carried apocalyptic overtones.  In the end I decided to preach on the old testament passage in Malachi but expanded it to include the whole of the (brief) chapter:
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them.  But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.  Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. ‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction."
Malachi 4:1-6
After reading that text, you may be forgiven for thinking that my talk this morning was going to be all doom and gloom and the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares.

But I promise my intention was in no way to get all fire and brimstone. There were a couple of reasons why I felt led to preach on the Malachi verse and in order to convey them, we need to take a look at the context in which the book was written.

Malachi was written after the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon & Persia and had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. God had brought them back at exactly the time had told them he would through the prophets.

Yet the rebuilt temple that they found themselves worshipping in was a shadow of its predecessor.  Solomon had taken great care to build the first temple with great splendour in accordance with the plans of his father, King David; the second temple was a much more modest affair that also lacked the Ark of the Covenant and the Shekinah - the glory cloud of God's presence.  In fact when older Israelites returned from exile and saw the foundations being laid, they wept openly because they could remember these things in the old temple.  On top of this, the land was still a vassal state and not a free power under their own rule.

Many of the freedoms and blessings they were anticipating following the end of exile and the predictions of Haggai and Zechariah had yet to come to pass and the people began to complain that God was unloving and unjust... allowing the wicked to prosper (and if we are honest, these are complaints that prick our hearts with dark thoughts in the modern world from time to time).

In this spiritual climate of deep doubt, the people had begun to waver in their commitments. The priests were being halfhearted in their duties (using sick or lame animals in sacrifice).  The people too were beginning to drift again as well. They were holding back from there own covenant commitments to God (especially with regards to tithing and marriage).

It's actually quite heartbreaking. They'd just spent 70 years in the captivity of foreign powers asking themselves "how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" and just when it seems they've begun to understand the gravity of the errors they made that led to their exile... they start to turn back to those errors and begin to forget their unique relationship with God again.

It's into this scenario that God motivates Malachi to write to the priests and to the people to answer their complaints and reveal to them his perspective about their situation.
Now it is s true that thee is a lot of heavy language with relation to judgement in chapter 4 and there are eschatological references in the passage... but let's remember where we are in the Bible and what God did next.

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament and it points us towards the New Testament. Verse 5 talks about God sending the prophet Elijah to turn people's hearts to repentance... This would happen in the form of John the Baptist's ministry.

Verse 2 talks about the sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings for those who turn to God and remember his ways.  We are familiar with this terminology, especially as we draw near to the festive season; Charles Wesley uses this same poetic language to describe Jesus in his Christmas carol "Hark the Herald Angels Sing":
Hail the Heaven Born Prince of Peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
So given that the next things God does in the Bible are acts of love and not judgement, what are we to make of Malachi's words on judgement?

Well Malachi twice strongly uses the metaphor of heat in his book.  The first time he uses the image, he describes a refiners fire, one that burns away all our spiritual frailties and impurities and makes us holy.  It is only towards the end of the book that the temperature increases and the refining fire becomes a furnace that consumes all.

As I was writing my talk, I was praying for a way to express what I thought God was saying about the nature of these fires... and in response to this, I was given a picture of a bonfire.

Now it is not that long ago that we celebrated Bonfire Night and many of us at one time or another will have stood around a large burning fire and felt the warmth radiating out from it. Now obviously, the nearer you stand to a fire, the warmer it gets. I don't know if you've ever tried the silly macho teenage thing (I say teenage but yes I admit I had a go two years ago and was temporarily left with half a red face and half a white face) and tried to stand as close as you can to a bonfire for as long as you can, but it is an incredibly hard thing to do... isn't it?

I want you to hold that that image... thought in you head for a minute.

You see I believe it a picture of God's movement and longing as he works hard to get close to us.
God is constantly drawing near to us and we need to respond to that.  As sinners we can feel the heat of God's presence - his holiness as he draws closer and closer and it makes us uncomfortable.  There are two ways we can respond to this growing warmth.  The first is to try and run into the cold and dark (but in the final analysis that will not avail us). The second response is to turn and face the warmth of God - to seek the Lord while he may be found... and to trust that the refiners fire is there as a prelude to his glory, to make us ready for his presence.

The holiness and awesomeness of the Father are why He sent His Son and His Holy Spirit ahead... to save us and to transform us - that we may be ready for his presence in our lives.

God draws nearer every day and he is holy. That holiness challenges us and it convicts us, and in the final analysis when We stand in God's presence, that holiness will test everything we have done and whether or not it is built on his values and person.

So firstly there is a personal reason as to why we need to respond to God's coming holiness... his approaching fire.

But I also wanted to look briefly at the situation of  the people in Malachi's day and draw some parallels with where Alcester Minster is at.

As the minster is now very near to the end of interregnum, it too has reached the end of a kind of exile. In the days that are to come we might see things change that we don't expect. Or we may not see things change at all and find our hopes frustrated.   Depending on who we are and where we are, this may leave us feeling similar to the Israelites who were complaining and falling short in the time of Malachi.
If we find ourselves in that place then we need trust our faith and not our feelings.

I believe Alcester Minster finds itself on the borders of a potentially exciting time where God may be seen vibrantly at work in new and exciting ways. But like the people of Israel, I think we need to heed God's words through Malachi if we are serious, committed and truly desire to take hold of it. We need to examine our hearts and get ourselves right with God id=f we are not to be disappointed.

These words are taken from Malachi 3:
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.  I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty."
Malachi 3:10-12

So for each of us as individuals and for Alcester Minster as it prepares to leave interregnum, let none of us fear the consequences of the furnace fire and turn away from God. Rather, let us embrace the refiners fire. Let us bring to God all that he requires of us... Whether that is time, tithes, relationships or talents. Let us bring it all into His storehouse and let his Holy Spirit anoint us to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to bring his release to the prisoners... That they and we may know a year, a season of God's favour.

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