Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Explosive Forgiveness

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is not a philosophical comment about human behaviour; it is one of the fundamental principles of the physical universe as described by Isaac Newton in 1687. It is known as Newton’s 3rd Law. The ground on which you are standing, or the chair on which you are sitting, is pushing you upwards with exactly the same force that your weight is pressing down. If it isn’t, then you are either sinking or taking off. It applies to all physical forces everywhere in the universe. They always work both ways.
Jesus was not a physicist. His genius was in the things of God and the things of human relationship. When unfolding his model for everyday prayer -  the ‘Our Father’ or ‘Lord’s Prayer’ - Jesus drew attention to the fact that forgiveness, just like physical force, is fundamentally a two way process.
"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" does not set out a contractural arrangement of conditional forgiveness. Jesus was describing the very nature of forgiveness. To mimic Newton’s 3rd Law: every act of forgiving as an equal and opposite act of being forgiven. Forgiveness does not, and cannot, operate in just one direction.
This was clearly important to Jesus; he stressed the point immediately after the prayer. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” He isn’t telling us that God is picky about who he forgives. God’s not like that. Jesus is stating a universal principle about forgiveness. If you are not forgiving, you cannot be forgiven. And, to look at it from the other end, if you are truly forgiven, you cannot help forgiving.
Jesus observed this same principle when a prostitute interrupted a dinner party in order to cry over his feet. He said to the embarrassed guests, “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Forgiveness cannot be hoarded up. It is explosive. If you choose to forgive someone this week, you will cause a chain reaction which cannot be stopped. Someone else, somewhere else, is going to end up being forgiven too. That’s how forgiveness works.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Humans are Awesome

If you were to give the human race marks out of ten, what score would you give to our species? If you watch or read the news a lot, you may be inclined to give us a fairly low score. God would disagree with you. Indeed, the writers of Genesis were keen to remind us that when God saw what kind of a job he had done in creating the human race, he was very pleased with the outcome. Surely that warrants a high score?
There is a strand of Christian teaching which replies: ‘Yes, but then it all went horribly wrong because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit!’ Don’t be so hasty! God knew what Adam and Eve were like. He had made them, after all. He put that tree, laden with forbidden fruit, right in the middle of their garden, knowing that it looked very appealing to his new creation. It was a test; a choice; a decision which God offered us, that had both positive and negative consequences. We chose to take the knowledge of good and evil, and that has affected the path of human history ever since. But it doesn’t stop the human race from being awesome. And it doesn’t stop God from loving his handiwork.
Jesus told Nicodemus that the very reason why God gave his own son to the tool-making inhabitants of Planet Earth was that he loves us so much. We still get a high score from God.
It has become common practice for us to look down our collective nose at our own species. So let’s pause and take in a different perspective - God’s perspective. Human beings are wonderful creatures, made - in some significant way - in the pattern of God himself. We humans are awesome, and well worth loving. In God’s mind, even those people who you find very irritating are well eminently lovable.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Learning with Jesus

At the age of thirty, Jesus presented himself to the world as a teacher. To be a teacher - then as now - you need two things: some pupils and a subject.
For pupils, Jesus gathered an assortment of inquisitive men and women who lived near his new home in the bustling Galilean town of Capernaum. They were ordinary working folk who showed an active interest in Jesus’ specialist subject - the coming together of heaven with everyday life.
Jesus’ teaching quickly gained popularity. It wasn’t a high-brow, ivory tower education, with noses in books and heads in the clouds. Jesus taught people at their place of work, with examples taken from the everyday realities of farming, fishing and financial affairs.
If you were to attend one of Jesus’ lessons, this is the sort of thing you would learn:

  • Everyone knows there’s a law against murder, but I say to you, don’t even insult people or be rude to them. God cares about that just as much.
  • There’s no need to make oaths, simply be honest in everything you say.
  • If someone does something bad to you, don’t take revenge, let it pass. That’s what God is like.
  • Anyone can be friendly and generous to their friends or to people who will pay them back. Be different. Be friendly to your enemies and generous to people who can never pay you back.
  • Don’t try to impress other people with your religion. They may be impressed, but God won’t be.
  • Don’t worry about the future. Trust the future to God and focus on today. That’s quite enough to be worrying about!
  • All in all - treat other people the way you would want them to treat you.

A great deal of religious teaching is about the things you supposedly need to do in order to get into heaven. Jesus’ teaching was different. He tells us about the things we need to do to bring heaven into our everyday lives.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Teamwork

When James Bond sets off to save the world, he usually does it on his own. There is a romantic appeal in a lone hero overcoming the complex forces of evil singlehanded. In the real world, however, there is only so much that a solitary person can achieve on their own.
In the familiar iconography of Christianity, Jesus is usually presented as a lone figure. Artists put a distance between him and any people around him; they dress him in contrasting clothes which exaggerate his separateness. The Jesus of popular culture is an isolated figure, saving the world singlehandedly - like James Bond does (but without the gun fights or miraculous gadgets supplied by Q Branch).
This solitary image of Jesus is inaccurate. All four Gospels inform us that the first thing he did when he began his ministry was to assemble a team. Three years later, they tell us - in some detail - how the very last thing Jesus did before being handed over to death, was to get that same team together for a big supper. At that supper Jesus emphasised the importance of teamwork, urging his team to continue to work together. “If you love one another, then people will know that you are my disciples.”
Jesus’ clear decision of working with a team was closely copied by those who carried on his work. When Paul split off from team-Barnabas, he quickly assembled team-Paul - first picking Silas, then Timothy and then Luke. Paul, who is also portrayed as something of a loner, was as much a team player as Jesus.
Twenty centuries later our image of Jesus and Paul as solitary operators misdirects our expectations of church life. It is quite common for people to arrive at church, worship, and leave, without particularly engaging with any of the people around them. This is not the way of doing things that Jesus gave us.
If we are to have any chance of saving the world, we are going to need to teamwork.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Brute Force & God's Blessing

In the age of computers, brute force is a commodity who’s general value is in decline. We live in an age in which celebrity comes from a skill with smart and sassy one-liners, not from wielding a basic weapon to devastating effect.
Samson lived in a very different age to our own. With his violent temper, his rudely blunt way of talking, his weakness for prostitutes, and his love of killing, he doesn’t fit comfortably into our idea of a man (or woman) of God.
The story of Samson covers four chapters of our Bible. It follows him from his miraculous conception to his murderous death. His career of destruction spanned at least three disastrous relationships with women he fancied but never managed to love, and brought a violent end to thousands of human lives. Samson was rude. He was arrogant. He was stupid. And yet he was God’s chosen agent in that place and at that time.
Faith communities the world over tend to have very particular ideas about the kind of man or woman who makes a godly leader. There is a certain level of intelligence expected, a certain morality demanded, a certain social skilfulness required. We like our faith leaders to be clean-cut, polite, and pastorally sensitive. Samson was none of these things, and yet he was God’s chosen agent in that place and at that time.
God is the creator of the entire universe. He is the loving heavenly father of the entire human race. God does not travel along the same narrow pathways that we chose to tread, often consciously following where other generations have gone before us - mistakes included.
The brutal story of Samson is a reminder that God does not always pick the good people or the nice people. Samson’s talent was brute force. He excelled at it. And in that place and at that time it was precisely the skill-set that God required.
This is not an encouragement to grab the nearest fresh jawbone of an ass and slaughter as many people as you can. It is an encouragement to look again at the people who you don’t like, or don’t trust. God loves those people dearly, and in a certain place and a certain time, they may be just what he needs in this world.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Faith in Doubt

In the world of religion, doubt is generally seen as a bad thing. Religious groups run much more comfortably when all the members share a common set of beliefs. When someone questions those accepted beliefs, or expresses an alternative understanding, they tend to be seen as a problem that needs to be solved. Through the long and tangled history of religion (and politics), very many people have been exiled, tortured or killed for expressing doubt. It is, unsurprisingly, a common feature of human culture that we keep our doubts to ourselves. It’s safer that way.

Thomas was one of Jesus’ core group of pupils, and the only one of that group who was not present when a surprisingly alive Jesus joined his disciples for supper just two days after his execution. It must have been very difficult for Thomas. While he was working through the first phases of grief following Jesus’ brutal demise, his best friends were bouncing around with unprecedented joy, claiming that they had seen Jesus alive. Thomas’s doubt is entirely understandable. His friends’ story was absurd. People do not calmly turn up to supper two days after their own (very public) death. It was a reasonable doubt.
I suspect that for the whole of the following week, Thomas was repeatedly criticised by his friends for not understanding things the way that they did. Since then, centuries of Christian tradition has looked down its collective nose at 'Doubting Thomas'. Jesus, however, did not criticise or reprimand Thomas for doubting; he simply showed his nail-pierced hands and feet and allowed Thomas time to recalibrate his understanding of reality.
There is nothing wrong with doubt. Doubt is a fundamental part of faith. It is what separates faith from certainty. And that is good, because certainty is brittle, whereas faith is robust.
Thomas wasn’t the only one of Jesus’ disciples to doubt the story of the resurrection. Matthew’s Gospel informs us that others did too. What marks Thomas out is that he was the one who was honest about his doubt. 
Most of us, like Matthew’s unnamed doubters, keep our questions and uncertainties to ourselves. We are secret doubters, afraid of how others will react if we admit the points on which our grasp of things is different from the prevailing trend. That is a weakness - both in us and in the communities to which we belong. It would be so much better if we learned to trust our uncertainties, if we could have faith in our doubts, and in the doubts of the people around us.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

God's Style Statement

Projecting the right image is sometimes important. Some of us spend longer standing in front of our wardrobes than others, but all of us know that at certain times we need to take control of how others see us. Jesus had one of those moments on the day he arrived in Jerusalem, five days before his death.
The city was awash with rumours and theories about the unconventional rabbi from Nazareth. Some were saying that he was sent by God; others believed he was inspired by the devil. The more energetically the first group dreamed of making Jesus their king, the more carefully the latter group planned his execution. Jesus needed to make a statement that would direct people’s minds away from their pre-set fears and fantasies, and focus their attention on the priorities of God.
Jesus had spent a few years trying to tell people, and show them, what God is like, but they had consistently failed to shift from their deeply ingrained assumptions. It was time for a different approach. Rather than talk to people, he decided to show them the kind of Messiah that God had raised up. To achieve this, he chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
I highly recommend doing an internet image search for “man riding donkey” (there is a small sample in the attached picture). Apart from the occasional paying tourist or comedy stunt, there is a certain consistency of style among the donkey riders of the world. Again and again you see low status, hard working people going about the dull routines of their lives. This was Jesus’ style statement. This is the kind of man he was, and that he intended to be. If Jesus was indeed God’s Messiah, God’s anointed one, then this is the kind of God Jesus represented.
A second internet image search for “religious leaders” brings a very different set of images, featuring a remarkable array of long robes and strange hats, with the occasional tailored suit. It would have been much the same in Jesus’ day, and Jesus deliberately chose a strongly contrasting image.
He decided to make a style statement - a message without words. He was the one appointed and anointed by God to reveal to the world what God is really like. He chose to do that by riding a donkey.