Here is a vital part of the Christian story, unknown now outside the Church and often neglected within it. The world preserves a memory of Jesus birth. The world preserves a memory of Jesus as a healer and teacher. The world remembers, when it tries, that Christ was crucified and on the third day rose again. The Church remembers that for forty days Jesus appeared to the disciples, teaching them many things and ascended to the Father.
But the world has forgotten this part of the story. It is fifty days after Easter, the Feast of Pentecost. People from all over the world are gathered in Jerusalem, a bit like Windsor yesterday. Around 120 disciples are gathered together in an upper room. It is early in the morning.
There is a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind filling the entire house where they are gathered. Fire falls from heaven. A tongue of flame rests on each of them. The four ancient elements are all combined. These men and women made of earth have been baptised in water and their hearts made new. Now they are filled with wind and fire, symbols of creations power.
Straight away they begin to speak in other languages. The miracles which Jesus did are deepened and multiplied as Jesus said they would be. The Spirit gives wisdom and boldness. The Spirit pushes a timid church out into the streets to tell the gospel of salvation to all the earth. The Spirit breathes life into dry bones and the Church of Jesus Christ, his body, is born.
This is not the first appearance of the Spirit in the great drama of salvation. Not by any means. The Spirit of God is active on the first page of creation, breathing over the chaos which is before creation, brooding over the face of the waters. The Spirit of God has inspired Moses and the prophets. The Spirit of God has been given to artists and scholars, judges and kings. But there is a difference to the Spirit’s action now.
Before Jesus, through the long wait for the Messiah, the Spirit is given only to a handful of people at most in every generation. Sometimes whole generations go by and the Spirit is not given. The Spirit is given only to the Jewish people; only to those anointed by God; only in extraordinary moments.
One of those anointed by the Spirit, Joel, tells of a time when the Spirit of God will be poured out on everyone.
“In the last days it will be that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams”.
The Spirit of God is given to Jesus at his baptism and descends upon the Son of God in bodily form like a dove, that most gentle of birds, the sign of peace. God says through the gift of the Spirit: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.11). Remember those words. We will come back to them.
And now the Spirit descends on the Day of Pentecost, in the Upper Room and fills the Church.
Women and men.
Children and old people.
Members and leaders.
Peter preaches the sermon of his life.
Read on in the story. The Spirit descends and fills not just these 120 but all those who come forward and are baptised that day – all 3,000 of them. Every one of them is filled with God’s creative life and energy. Read further and you will find there is a chain reaction. Wherever the good news of Jesus is preached, the Holy Spirit comes and fills the life of the disciples. Whenever the Church gathers to pray, the Holy Spirit comes to renew and refresh and fill the Church with boldness.
The Church learns and relearns that the Spirit is not an impersonal power. The Spirit is God and God is Spirit, personal, creating, loving, warming, empowering: the fire that does not consume us, the wind which comforts and disturbs us, the life force of the universe, the third person of the Trinity, making God’s home within us.
Why does God give his Spirit to his people? There is no single answer. There are many good, rich, deep answers and we could spend all week exploring them. I hope you will.
Acts tells us that the Spirit is given to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things: to perform signs and wonders; to preach the good news clearly and with boldness; to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel and form churches. There are many examples of the Holy Spirit still enabling ordinary people to do extra-ordinary things today. We need the Spirit’s grace in this for we have a whole world to change. We cannot serve God’s mission without God’s Spirit and God’s strength.
John tells us that the Spirit is given to lead the Church into truth: to guide God’s people as we wrestle with the problems of the age and finding God’s way through them. Acts gives us the same message as the early church faces problem after problem and prays and finds a way through.
Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is given to transform us from within: to take the desert of our inner lives and water it and grow good things within us, flowing out into the world. Paul names the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Holy Spirit of Jesus makes us more like Jesus Christ. John and Acts say the same thing in different words.
But it is Mark in the very first chapter of the first of the gospels to be written down who gives us the most important reason. It is Mark who tells us the clearest and most important reason why God gives the Holy Spirit to the Church to every disciple and in every generation if we will welcome him.
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.
God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts to speak that same word to us, because in Christ we have become God’s children. God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in us to help us to understand at the deepest level of our being that we are loved by God, that we are his children, that God is well pleased with us.
When God speaks his creative word in the story of creation, it is a word of great power. Seas part. Dry land appears. The glory of creation comes into being. This word of love has the same power within our dry and dusty hearts.
We do not always hear and receive words of love when they are spoken to us. Parts of us become twisted and damaged by what life does to us and by what we do to ourselves. God comes in to the very core of us, to the very depths of our being. God comes not for a moment but to live there for ever. God comes to speak this word of love not once but every day, continually, this word “Beloved”. “You are my child”. “In you I am well pleased”.
The whole world is asking the question “Who am I?”. The Spirit knows what it means to be human. The Spirit knows that we find out who we are only by understanding we are loved. We find our purpose only in knowing we are loved and that our calling is to love.
So come this Day of Pentecost in prayer and find life and renewal. Welcome the Spirit’s presence afresh into your life and the life of this part of God’s Church. Invite God to do a deep work of renewal in you.
Come seeking grace and strength and power for the great ministry and work of love to which God has called you.
Come seeking guidance into all truth from God’s Spirit where you are perplexed and struggling.
Come seeking God’s renewing grace as you walk in holiness and bear the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace.
But come most of all to hear again the life giving word which is the Spirit’s presence in your life and know that you are loved beyond measure, without limit, for ever, by your creator:
“You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”.
20 May 2018
(The following Bible study was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. View it here on YouTube)
In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis offers an enduring picture of the change wrought by grace in baptism. The subject is Eustace, the spoiled child, who has been turned into a greedy dragon. The dragon meets Aslan by a clear pool of water. Eustace tells the story of what happens next.
“The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. but the lion told me I must undress first…..I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe”.
The same thing happens twice more.
“The lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was do deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – (with his paws?) – Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes – the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. and then suddenly I was back here”
Paul continues his focus on baptism in Colossians. First he continues the death and resurrection motif: for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Our baptism is an ending and a beginning. Our baptism is to be lived out in our everyday growth in holiness.
The death of Christ is a powerful, cosmic event. In the death of Christ, God has erased the record that stood against us and set it aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers.
In baptism we are joined to the powerful, life giving death of Christ. We are buried with him. But this putting to death is a lifelong process as we seek to live out our baptism: to be more Christ-like and a more Christ-like Church. We are called go grow in virtue and holiness.
Colossians shows us, helpfully I think, that this growth in holiness and Christ-likeness is a two fold process. We do not simply live the risen life. We first put to death the things which are not of God. We do not simply put on new clothes. We first take off the old, soiled garments. This is a daily death and a daily rising to new life. It is vital to understanding ourselves and understanding the human condition.
You will know that I have developed an interest and some knowledge of the field of artificial intelligence. I began to be involved because I was given a book by Paul, my eldest son, who works in the computer games industry. The book is by Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine. Kelly argues, rightly I think, that every new development in AI is going to ask new questions about what it means to be human. He writes: “We will spend the next three decades, perhaps the next century, in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for”.
Think about that for a moment. The world around us is exploring the mystery of what it means to be human. We are ministers of a faith which dares to believe that Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, became human. We have something to contribute to that conversation.
But here is something else. The brilliant scientists and technology which is reshaping our culture has a particular and hugely optimistic view of what it means to be human. There is at present no vocabulary in the culture to describe the reality of sin and brokenness and imperfection. There are very few ways in this over optimistic emerging culture, to cope with the difficult things in life and to live with imperfection and the call to be better. The rise in mental health issues among young people and adults I suspect has a lot to do with being unable to articulate pain and grief and questions and evil within a meaningful world view.
The world around us needs a new language of sin and forgiveness but also a new language of grace and sanctification. We have a great work of translation to do, a hermeneutic, in the life we live together and in our individual lives.
This is what Paul offers to us. The Church in Colossae is facing the same universal questions. Baptism is a way of life not a once and for all and forgotten experience. Daily we are to put off certain behaviours. There are two lists of five qualities. Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed in the first. Then in the second, anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. There are echoes of the Sermon on the Mount and of other New Testament lists.
Paul adds the direct command, as it were underlined: “Do not lie to one another”. This is above all an appeal for authenticity and integrity. It is an echo of Blessed are the pure in heart perhaps and of all the references in the Sermon on the Mount about being on the inside as we are on the outside.
Paul then moves very naturally into his second central image drawn from baptism where he will stay until the end of our passage: stripping off the old self, to go back to Eustace, and putting on the new.
As I said yesterday, we know from the accounts of the early church how much drama is involved in the once and for all act of baptism. The candidates are baptised on the night before the dawn of Easter day. They bring all of their old self to the cross.
Before they come to the waters of baptism, the candidates are stripped naked, men and women in separate places, of course. Each is anointed with the oil of chrism for exorcism from head to foot, to drive away the devil and to celebrate this radical new beginning.
Each then goes down into the waters of baptism not once but three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Each then comes out of the water into the light of Easter and puts on new clothes for this new walk with God. These would not be spare clothes kept in a drawer. This would be your normal garment for the next season.
This is the powerful experience and background to our text. Eating washed and dressed is a daily experience not a once and for all event. This baptism was to shape the life of the early church:
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self”.
This baptism is a radical, ever present new beginning. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It is a work of God and a work of restoration:
“…you have clothed yourself with the new self which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator”.
Note the reference again to the knowledge of God which is present in the great prayer in Colossians 1 and again at the beginning of Colossians 2: what is meant here once again is the knowledge of God in Christ. Note also that this change is not only about individuals but about the formation of a new community – the body of Christ, the Church, called to be Christ-like:
“There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, Scythian, slave and free but Christ is all and in all!”
Through baptism we have been joined with Christ and in baptism we become part of the body of Christ, the Church. In Christ our ethnic divisions are healed and made new: a message our world desperately needs to hear.
The following verses are for me one of the most attractive and beautiful descriptions of the Christian life in the New Testament. They continue the language of putting off and putting on only now the emphasis is on the new clothes we are given as we come out of the water. In Ephesians 6, Paul has a similar image but there we are being clothed, as it were, for battle and putting on our spiritual armour. These are our everyday clothes. The first of them is compassion. We are to be different: a compassionate church.
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” we begin. Each of these titles for the Church is a title of grace. We are who we are because God has loved us, sanctified us through Christ’s death on the cross and called us to be part of his Church. This is not about what we have done.
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”.
The English word compassion translates two words in the Greek: heartfelt compassion; mercy; the love we feel in our inmost being. The other virtues balance the two lists in 3.5 and 8. There are echoes again of the beatitudes and of the Sermon on the Mount.
The five abstract qualities are followed by two participles: forgiving one another and being gracious to one another if anyone has a complaint against anyone. Here again there is an echo of the Lord’s Prayer: “just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Then Paul returns to the beginning of the letter for the crowning virtue. “We have heard of the love you have for all the saints”, he says in 1.4. Now he says “Above all” – an echo of all those references to all in Colossians 1 – “clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together”. This is the way to completeness or perfection. Perfect knowledge is not enough. Love is the self giving love of Christ, the love described so powerfully in 1 Corinthians 13 (which again shares so much of the same vocabulary).
We need a paragraph break after verse 14. None of the English versions provides one because we go straight from love to peace and they are both virtues and closely linked in Paul’s thought. But the grammar and structure of the words changes. We have come to the end of this long baptismal metaphor now.
We have died with Christ to rise again. We have put to death the old self and risen to the new life. We have taken off our old clothes and put on the new – and Paul has encouraged us above everything else to put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. This is the high point of the image.
We then have a threefold form in what is almost a final blessing. The first two verbs use a different form: a subjunctive. In the third arm of the blessing the same verb form is assumed. Each of the virtues is joined to Christ.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ….
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly….
And whatever you do, do (let) everything (be done) in the name of the Lord Jesus….
Paul’s benediction to the Colossian Church. Every one of these words can be unpacked. Peace is shalom, health, well being. This is what God calls us into as we said yesterday in the session on clergy well being. God sets his peace within us, to be our governor and guide. The risen Christ says to his disciples in John 20: Peace be with you, my own peace I give you.
The word translated rule is interesting. It means to referee or umpire or guide or judge. Where we are in conflict within, have the courage to go where the peace of Christ directs us and guides us. Discerning that will take time. Chrysostom says “Don’t let passion direct nor rivalry nor mere human peace but the peace of Christ”. The words are addressed to the community not simply to individuals.
“And be thankful”. Again our lives are to begin and overflow with appreciation.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”. Let Christ’s word and the word who is Christ come and live in you and make a home in you and abide in you not just a little but richly and deeply. I have come to love the practise of dwelling in the word as practiced in this Diocese. Allowing a particular passage to sink in, exploring it from every angle, living with it for a season. Colossians invites us to use many different ways in which this living word dwells within us: “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God”. This is exactly what Paul has done in Colossians 1 in exploring the Christ hymn and embedding its thought in the life of the Colossian Church.
And finally the third clause of the blessing:
“And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”. Nothing in our lives is outside of the influence of God in Christ. Our faith is not a hobby, for part of our lives. We believe in whole life discipleship: the whole length of our lives, every part of our lives, the call to wholeness of live.
Sisters and brothers, we are called to receive and hold and treasure in our hearts the inestimable riches of Christ. We dare to believe and place our faith in the truth that Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, has revealed himself fully and completely through his Son Jesus Christ.
We believe that in the words of Colossians, he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. In him all things in heaven and earth were created. He is the head of the body, the church. Through him God was pleased to reconcile all things by making peace through the blood of his cross.
In Christ creation is reconciled. As we are drawn to Christ in contemplation so we are renewed in our understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s love. We are drawn back to the beginning. To our baptism.
Sisters and brothers we are called to be renewed in our appreciation of our baptism. To remember that we are called, as we have received Christ, so to continue to live our lives in him. We have not graduated to some different way of living out our Christian faith whether through length of years or ordination to a particular ministry.
We are called to recentre our discipleship again around that first call to repentance, faith and baptism and to recentre our ministry around word and sacrament, to present each person mature in Christ. We are called to courage and to seek a deep renewal of catechesis and through that renewal a renewal and rekindling of the whole Church.
Sisters and brothers we are called to live out our baptism in dying each day to the old and rising to new life. By stripping off the old self and putting on the new garments of heartfelt compassion and mercy and kindness and love.
We are called to be a Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 3 May 2018
“I, Paul, became a servant, a minister, a deacon of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”.
(The following Bible study was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. View it here on YouTube)
A few weeks ago my youngest grandson, Joshua, had his dedication service in Bristol where his dad is the minister of a community church. My part was to make the cake. As you can see, my work with icing could be neater.
I tried to show the moment in the story of Joshua where the tribes cross the Jordan. Here is the river. The yellow icing represents the wilderness: the dry and thirsty land. The green icing is the promised land, flowing with milk and honey.
This is the figure of Joshua: Joshua and Jesus are the same words in Hebrew of course. Here is the ark of the old covenant being carried across the river. The waters of the Jordan are piled up in a heap. To the right you can see twelve coloured Smarties representing the twelve stones placed in the Jordan as the tribes cross.
How much more theology can you fit into a cake?
The crossing of the Jordan is one of the many stories in the Old Testament which become a type of baptism in the New. Ezekiel 47 is another as we saw on Monday. The Joshua stories are linked particularly with the virtue of courage which we consider today. In the story of the spies in Numbers 13 and 14, a loss of courage causes a whole generation of God’s people to be lost, wandering in the wilderness, except Joshua and Caleb.
In Joshua 1, as Joshua is ordained to his task by God and the people he is given the same command over and over again: “Only be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”. It is in this context, the need for courage in the Church and in God’s ministers, that we read the central section of Colossians today.
Paul began his letter with contemplation, with an exposition of the wonder of the mystery of Christ. In this second section he talks of courage: of the struggle and joy of Christian ministry and discipleship, the passing from the wilderness to the promised land, from death to life in baptism.
We are focussing in our conference mainly on the call to be disciples and on the renewal of our own discipleship. But it is well worth pausing to listen to what Colossians has to say to us about the ministry to which we are called. Paul describes himself here as a deacon: a term which is used from the earliest New Testament texts to describe those entrusted with a particular ministry. Deacons are more than servants. Deacons are authoritative ambassadors for God, agents of God’s love in the world, to quote the ordinal. Paul’s understanding of his ministry begins as it does elsewhere with the cost of that ministry to him:
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (1.24).
Paul is not arguing that his own suffering has a redemptive quality. He has already explored the completeness of Christ’s redemptive work in salvation. But he is describing the truth experienced by every generation of ministers and amply witnessed to in this room that the vocation to serve the gospel is a ministry both of great joy and of significant cost over the course of a lifetime.
Perseverance in ministry with courage, pursuing our vocation, means continually bearing that cost which is worked out in different ways in different lives and at different life stages. The New Testament writers and the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church bear witness that this is among the most difficult of vocations. Paul speaks here of his sufferings and trials. He speaks of his labour, his toil and his struggle, literally his agony, his wrestling in prayer. Yet, with courage, he perseveres.
We need to be honest about these costs and difficulties of ministry with ourselves and one another. It’s hard. Where suffering and pain is not acknowledged it can twist and damage the heart of our ministry. Where it is acknowledged we can see that suffering reframed in a still deeper joy.
We need to be a company of priests which expects things to be difficult, which supports and encourages one another, which does not allow suffering and difficulty to sap our strength or to produce cynicism and despair (so corrosive to the church) or empty our faith of joy and hope. Paul will demonstrate the key to that in this passage.
What is at the centre of Paul’s understanding of this ministry to which he is called? It is the bifocal ministry of prayer and service of the word of God: of word and sacrament – the ministry which the Church comes to see as vital for the health and wellbeing of the body of Christ in each generation.
It has been wisely said that some of the stress of contemporary ministry comes from the degree of choice which we are able to exercise about what we do in chaplaincy or parish ministry or episcopal ministry. There are very few things we have to do. There are an infinite number of things we can do. How do we determine where best to invest our time and skills?
In an age in which the Church is experiencing a transition from one kind of society and world to another, from Christendom to post Christendom to use one form of shorthand, we experience then a crisis of ministerial identity which works its way out in our everyday choices.
As a generation of ministers in a world in transition, we search for metaphors which will help us understand our role better. Together we are trying on different identities. We come to see ourselves at different times as therapists; as healers; as social workers; as community builders or changers; as managers or leaders; as sports coaches. The Church has experimented with each of those identities over the time I have been ordained.
All of these probably have some value but none is sufficient. We will rediscover the centre of our vocation as deacons and priests and bishops not in the culture around us but in the scriptures and in our own tradition powerfully summarised here by Paul in this deep well which is Colossians. That in itself requires courage.
Paul’s ministry if we read the text carefully is centred in prayer and in teaching.
“For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicaea, and for all who have not seen me face to face”(2.1). The struggle is primarily in prayer. “I want their hearts to be encouraged (note the word- he is writing to put the courage back into the life of the Church) “and united in love so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is Christ himself” (2.2).
The goal of this ministry is powerfully stated in the preceding verses: it is mature Christian discipleship:
“It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me”(1.28).
This is to be according to Paul the centre and goal of our ministry: to present every person mature in Christ. How are we to do that? By prayer and the ministry of the word. Through word and sacrament.
I find there are many echoes between this part of Colossians and the early part of Acts 6, the setting aside of the seven. It is no coincidence I think that Luke the beloved physician is mentioned in the closing greeting to this letter.
Acts 6 describes a quarrelling church and the apostles struggling to discern what should be at the very heart of their ministry as they are pulled in different directions. It describes the costs of ministry as Stephen, one of the seven chosen here, will be the first Christian martyr. It describes the necessary task of releasing and discovering new ministries as times change. But it describes most of all the need to guard the priorities of pastoral, priestly ministry. For what are we set aside? For prayer and for the service of the word so that we might present every person mature in Christ.
You may hear me talk now and in the coming months about the need for the renewal of catechesis in the Church. Catechesis is the ministry of welcoming enquirers to baptism, confirmation and discipleship in the life of every parish and chaplaincy. Catechesis is essentially the ministry Paul is describing here: through prayer and teaching presenting every person mature in Christ, able to live our lives courageously.
Take time over the gift of these four days to recalibrate your ministry and I would invite you, as the apostles do in Acts 6, set prayer and the ministry of the word at the centre again. This in itself is an act of courage and faith, or that is my experience.
Paul introduces the goal of his ministry and the means of his ministry. He then unpacks the very heart of his teaching about what it means to be a disciple and to live the Christian life in the central verses of the whole epistle, 2.6-7:
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”.
All that Paul has said so far flows into this paragraph. All that he will say flows from it. The NRSV sets it apart by the spacing of the text and rightly so but there are also internal signposts. There are many references in Colossians to Christ from the opening verse to the final chapter but this is the only place were Paul uses the full phrase: Christ Jesus the Lord. It is his way of underlining that this is the key verse to remember. There are similar headline and summary verses in Romans 1.16-17 and in Galatians 1.11-12.
Paul is here communicating something vital to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Our beginning is the pattern for our living. As we received Christ so we are to live in him. We do not graduate from the very beginnings of our faith. We never move on from setting Christ at the centre. We are always returning to first principles.
Paul may be here contrasting the true Christian faith with some of the mystery religions of the ancient world and some forms of Gnosticism. In these faiths, converts would begin with very simple truths and would as it were graduate or move on to more and more in depth and esoteric practices as they were initiated further into the cult.
There have been numerous attempts to make Christianity into this kind of faith down the ages: to try and convince people that you begin in one place but then move on to something else. Colossians 2.6-7 stands against all of that. The centre of our faith is what CS Lewis calls Mere Christianity (but there is nothing mere about it) : As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
One of the contemporary examples of this idea that we begin with elementary Christianity and graduate to some kind of different, more advanced Christianity is clericalism. Clericalism is the idea that there are two kinds of Christians: lay disciples and a clerical caste. One kind lives an elementary Christianity. The other has moved on. Clericalism is subtle and destructive in the life of the Church. It’s chief manifestation is a professional clerical mindset. The chief antidote is Colossians 2.6-7: realising that the only way to live the Christian life is just as we began it.
Our beginning is our centre and our goal. Repentance and faith are not just the way we receive Christ, they are the way in which we are to walk and live all our days. The test of every movement of renewal is that it takes us back to the sufficiency of Christ and the centrality of the cross. There are many things which are helpful to our Christian lives. But nothing is necessary beyond the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God. There are no rules or disciplines which bring greater holiness or righteousness or knowledge than living out of the very centre of the gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ.
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him.
And this is why Paul reaches at this point in Colossians for the language and imagery of baptism, and why we need this language and imagery also. Baptism is the outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace by which we receive the gospel and in receiving the gospel receive Christ Jesus the Lord.
Baptism is to be the very way in which we walk as Christian disciples. It is more than the beginning but the very centre of our walk with God. As we set baptism at the heart of our walk with God, so the Church is transformed from a hierarchy, from a clericalised community, from a community of ordained and lay, to the community of the baptised, living out our faith in the whole of our lives.
Colossians unpacks the word walk, peripateo, in four participles (as in the prayer in 1.10-12). There are close parallels between the two passages.
In 1.10 Paul prays that the Colossians might walk worthily of the Lord as here. The first image there is bearing fruit in every good work. Here it is rooted in him – a similar agricultural metaphor. Second the Colossians are to be growing in the knowledge of God and in 2.7, built up in him. Third in 1.10, the Colossians are to be enabled or empowered. In 2.7 the word is strengthened. Finally in 1.10 the Colossians are to be giving thanks and here overflowing with thanksgiving.
Baptism is a very big deal for the New Testament Church and for the Church in the early centuries. It is the rite by which disciples enter pass from death to life and are washed and set free from their sins, cleansed and delivered. Before baptism there is and has to be a long and deep process of formation, catechesis. In the forty days before baptism at Easter there are fastings and exorcisms, the signing with the cross. Baptism at Easter is part of a ritual of passing from darkness to light, stripped of the old life and given new clothes, going down into the waters of death and being born again to new life, being welcomed with the kiss of peace. In the days after Easter, the new Christians are initiated into the creed and the sacraments and entrusted with the food which will sustain them in the rest of the earthly pilgrimage.
Paul deploys two rich and deep metaphors for baptism, helping that baptism to be a lived reality in the life of the believer. Both underline his main theme that as we received Christ, so we are to walk in him. Tomorrow we will explore the metaphor of putting off and putting on: of new baptismal garments. Today it is the theme of dying and rising again with Christ.
In verse 11: “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead”.
“And when you were dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and make a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”
There is a rich seam here of Christ’s complete victory in the cross. But the main point Paul is making is the pattern of our receiving Christ is also the pattern of our life in him. We are called to live out our baptism, continually dying to rise again.
One of the many reasons the renewal of catechesis is vital for the Church of England at the present time is that something happens as we walk the way of faith with enquirers and new Christians. As we make that journey with our sisters and brothers to and through baptism, we ourselves return to the centre of our own faith. We come to see again the core of what it is to be a Christian: to be buried with him through baptism and to rise again through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead. We learn again that we are to walk and to live just as we received Christ: deeply rooted in him in word and sacrament; being built up, enabled and established in faith; overflowing with thanksgiving.
Where will we find courage in the life of the Church?
Today’s bible reading encourages us to do two things.
The first is to recentre and recalibrate our ministry: to return to the centre, to the ministry of prayer and the service of the word, of word and sacrament, with the simple and life changing aim of presenting everyone mature in Christ.
The second is to recentre and recalibrate our discipleship: to repent of any clericalism which might be lurking in the shadows; to remember that we are to live as we have received Christ, that there is no graduation to a more complex or detailed form of Christian faith, that mere Christianity is enough and that there are depths to our baptism which have yet fully to understand.
We recentre our ministry. We recentre our discipleship. You will see I hope that the two are closely related.
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”.
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 2 May 2018
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
Welcome to this series of Bible readings on Colossians, structured around our three themes of a call to be more contemplative, more courageous and more compassionate.
Bishop Steven’s Opening Address to the Living Waters Clergy Conference
“Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east…”
(The following address was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. Listen to it and other talks from the conference on SoundCloud)
A warm welcome to our clergy conference. It’s good to see you. Every single person. I hope these four days will be a gift from God, a means of renewal in grace, a deepening of community and trust and friendship, a way of discovering what God is doing among us.
Thanks to all who have prepared this conference for us and have served us. Thanks to those who have prepared worship and workshops and every part of the programme and welcomed us. Thanks to those who will come and speak to us. We have done our best to make sure that everything is as good as it can be. Even so the most important parts of the conference will be in the spaces and the interaction between us: the friendships that will form and deepen and the business we will do with God.
We gather together as a large community and thank God for one another. Please lets look out for one another as we gather. It’s easy to be lost in such a big crowd. We need to treat one another as adults and make our own decisions about how best to engage but also be concerned for each other particularly in the small groups which make up an important part of the conference. No leaders have been designated for those groups. We take responsibility for them together.
We will do our best to welcome and care for one another but our particular thanks and welcome to our chaplains, Sister Sue, Brother Joseph Emmanuel and Brother Philip Bartholemew. They are available to us throughout the conference and the Chapel is also available as quiet prayer space.
And a particular welcome to those who have come to join us from the dioceses of Kimberley and Kuruman, Vaxjo and Nandyal. I have been to K and K and Vaxjo in the last six months and as Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad.
The Bible passage before us as we have planned this conference is Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life flowing from the temple.
I would not want you to think that this is just any old moment in the story of the Old Testament. It isn’t. I don’t think you have understood the Old Testament until you understand this. Ezekiel 47 represents the lowest point in the entire narrative and also the turning point.
Let me remind you of the story. God delivered his people from slavery and established them as a nation. There were judges and then there were kings as the power of Israel grew. Jerusalem was established as a city with a temple in the city where God was present.
Then immediately that earthly power waned. The nation was divided. Worship was corrupted. The northern kingdom fell to Assyria. The southern kingdom rallied then was overcome by Babylon. Jerusalem was taken. The temple was destroyed. The best of the nation were taken into exile.
For two generation the prophets and theologians wrestled with all that happened. Why has the nation been so destroyed. Their answer: we deserved it. We were under a curse.
For 25 years at the time of this prophecy the nation has been in exile and Jerusalem a wilderness. Ezekiel has wrestled all of his life with how hope can be restored. The only way back is grace. All renewal is in God’s hands. All renewal flows from a fresh and powerful vision of God.
Finally at the end of his great prophecy, Ezekiel sets out his vision, his plan for the new temple. The House of God is describe to the smallest detail in seven of the dullest chapters in the entire Bible. All is made ready. There is seemingly no life here.
But then, at the end of it all, at the point of deepest despair:
“Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there water was flowing from below the threshold of the east and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate and led me round on the outside of the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side”.
Here is where the entire story turns: here in Ezekiel 47. From this point on we will be looking forward in hope to the coming of the Christ. This is the moment of desolation and the moment of renewal. A tiny trickle of water, so small, a teardrop of grace flowing from the place of prayer and sacrifice out into the desert.
This is living water. Everything in the story points to the power of the life it holds. It comes from God, from grace alone. First there is the way the water grows and deepens as it flows. The only measurement taken is the depth of the water of life: after one thousand cubits, ankle deep; after another thousand knee deep; another thousand, waist deep; Another thousand and it is deep enough to swim in, a river no one could cross. Mortal have you seen this?
Next there is the effect of the water of life on the desert where nothing grows. In the length of time it takes to walk out four thousand cubits and then back, there are trees on each side of the river. These are all kinds of trees for food. This is the new Garden of Eden. This is a new creation. There is no forbidden fruit. There is a harvest not once a year but every month. Their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.
Next and greatest of all there is the effect of this river on the landlocked sea south of Jerusalem known all over the world as the Dead Sea. The clue is in the name. The Dead Sea is 1,400 feet below sea level, earth’s lowest elevation on land. It is almost 1,000 feet deep, 30 miles long and nine miles wide. The Jordan flows into it. Nothing flows out of it.
The Dead Sea has its name for a reason. It is completely dead. Nothing lives in that vast expanse of water. There are no fish. There are no aquatic plants. There are miniscule quantities of bacteria and fungi. But the world over, the Dead Sea is the only place where David Attenborough cannot make a documentary. It is the one place on the entire surface of the planet where there are no plants or animals and no life.
What happens when this tiny trickle of water, this teardrop from the place of prayer and sacrifice, has grown into a stream and then a river and enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters. The waters will come fresh. Such is the power of this living water.
“It will become fresh and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from Engedi to Eneglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea”.
Everything will live where the river goes.
This is the turning point. This is where the great movement from death to life begins in the great sweep of the story of salvation. It begins with a prophet who has lived 25 years with the failure of his nation in which he shares. Yet his vision of God and the grace of God overcomes even the desert and the Dead Sea and the destruction of his nation. He is able to imagine a river of life which will overcome even death itself and change everything.
Three times John’s Gospel points us back to Ezekiel 47. With the woman at the well we read of this living water: “The water I will give will become in them a spring of water – or literally a well of water – gushing up to eternal life” (John 4.14). In John 7, Jesus stands up on the last and greatest day of the feast and calls out:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”.
Now he said this about the Spirit (John 7.38).
And in the story of the passion, as they pierce his side, blood and water flow out (20.34). The stream of living water flows from the place of prayer and sacrifice. Everything will live where the river goes.
This may not be the lowest point ever in the life of the Church of England or the Church of Jesus Christ. Each generation has its own challenges in the world and in the life of the Church. But it is a moment where significant renewal is needed.
There is no doubt in my mind though that as humanity and as the Church we do face significant challenges.
As we seek to develop fresh vision, we need God’s renewing grace and power.
It will not do simply to prescribe easy remedies and solutions and tell each other what to do as if we knew. It will not do simply to dwell in our decline and somehow expect new life to come. It will not do to place still more burdens on the shoulders of clergy or congregations and expect more with less.
The only place to begin is by coming again to the living waters. We need to dig the wells, to unblock the springs of new life. To come again to the place of prayer and sacrifice and stay long enough to notice what God is doing, the beginning of the river’s source, new life. We need to come again to the living waters of our baptism, of repentance and faith, to die and rise again, to put on Christ.
As we seek fresh vision as diocese we are exploring what it means to be a more Christ-like Church: more contemplative, more courageous and more compassionate. Those themes will run through our four days together.
We have been exploring this call so far through two biblical passages: the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and the Raising of Lazarus in John 11 and 12. Thousands of people have engaged in many different ways with these themes. We will continue to explore them this week through a third text, the Letter to the Colossians and through all that our speakers and workshop leaders bring.
We are pondering carefully locally and as a diocese what this will mean for our strategy going forward. There are many good ideas emerging and being tested. We will not be able even to name them or to do them all at once.
In this next year, it seems to me important to find ways to encourage local churches to find ways of translating this fresh vision of Christ into local mission action plans.
It seems important to help local churches and chaplaincies and schools to go further in our care for the environment. It seems important to find ways for local churches to plant new churches and congregations and to develop resources to enable that, especially in new housing areas. It seems important to pray and work towards the renewal of catechesis; to build better links between parishes and schools and to take new steps in enabling the discipleship of all.
But most of all, we are called to go deeper into Christ, to find the springs of new life. To come to the waters, especially the waters of our baptism, and find there these points of renewal for a Christ like Church. So come.
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 30 April 2018
This sermon was delivered by Bishop Steven at the Choral Eucharist on Easter Day (1st April) at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Happy Easter. The Lord is risen.
Today is the 1st April and it seems a very good day to announce my plans for a new font and baptistery for the Cathedral and the Diocese of Oxford as a major project for the coming year.
There is a very large and convenient pond in the centre of Tom Quad which you passed on the way in. My hope is that this pond can be cleaned and excavated and deepened, perhaps expanded a little. The fish will have to go of course, and the statue in the centre will need to find another home.
It will be a reminder for all who come into this place that baptism into Christ, into his death and resurrection, is at the very centre of our faith and identity. I look forward to discussing it with you at the door.
The people of the Old Testament by and large do not believe in resurrection. Human beings have one life. After that we sort of fade away and disappear into a shadowy land called Sheol. Death is something to be deeply lamented, never welcomed: a great black shroud which casts its shadow on the earth.
But the urge to live beyond death is strong. A few exceptional individuals, Enoch and Elijah are taken up to heaven and into friendship with God instead of dying rather than through death. Sometimes life can be extended. But for the most part death is a deep mystery. In the powerful words of Ecclesiastes:
“You have put eternity into the minds of men and women yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end”.
We feel as though we ought to live for ever, we reach for immortality, but we cannot believe that this is really possible.
In many ways, this Old Testament view of death is not so different from ideas about death in our contemporary world. We certainly fear death.
Our ancestors put their burial places in the centre of towns and villages, in our churchyards as a reminder that we will all die. We now build our new crematoria on the very edge of town and make them look like libraries. There is evidence year by year that people have fewer resources to think about death, one of the fundamental facts of life, and cope with grieving.
Science is reaching for ways to help us live longer, through medicine, or to help part of us endure. Human enhancement through technology or biology will be a feature of the next generation. Yet we still struggle deeply with our mortality. One of the best selling books worldwide last year was When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi, a beautifully written reflection on living life yet facing death.
Themes of heaven and hell and afterlife have been front page news this week, centred on Pope Francis. There is more and more speculation in film and television and popular culture about what happens when we die. The Netflix series The Good Place, set in heaven, is one to avoid. The Black Mirror episode San Junipero is a powerful exploration of this longing to live on after we die: we leave a digital footprint of ourselves locked in a virtual world for all eternity.
The prophets of the Old Testament will not leave death alone. The Book of Isaiah contains a powerful promise in our Old Testament reading that when God’s kingdom comes, death will be destroyed for ever:
“And the Lord of Hosts will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples; the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever” (25.7).
The prophet Ezekiel lived in the bleakest and most difficult times. He saw his nation and his city and his temple destroyed for ever and, he thought, they deserved it. But Ezekiel’s hope transcends his despair at the profound sin of the nation. One of his most famous visions is a valley of dry bones as far as the eye can see, bleached white by the sun. It is a vision of death. He is told to prophecy to the bones. They come together. Flesh and muscle and skin grow back. Death is thrown into reverse.
He is told to prophecy then to the wind, the breath and Spirit of God. The Spirit comes and breathes in the valley of death: “and the breath came into them and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude”.
The first Easter is the beginning. The beginning of the resolution of the deepest tension between the longing and the experience of humankind. We long to live for ever. We experience the bitter ending of death.
The first Easter is the fulfilling. The fulfilling of the deep yearning and prophecies of the Old Testament that one day the shroud of death will be destroyed and the process of death and dying will be reversed: there will be resurrection.
The first Easter is the great turning of human history. Death itself is conquered in the victory of the Son of God. In Peter’s words from Acts:
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead”.
All of this is present in John’s story of the resurrection. The great and universal longing for life is the backdrop to our story together with the present reality of death. It is a single resurrection in one time and one place, witnessed first by Mary Magdalene and then by Peter and the other apostles, witnessed to in signs and wonders, evidenced in lives transformed generation after generation down the ages, in the Spirit’s work in human living, in the signs of the kingdom of God, in the life and worship of an imperfect church. At its heart is the most human of encounters, in a garden, a new dawn, a case of mistaken identity, a name softly spoken, an embrace, a promise, a love renewed, a call to life eternal.
A single resurrection. A first fruit of the harvest of the dead. A sign of new life for all people everywhere. Death has been overcome and is no more. This is the faith we take hold of afresh today. This is good news we share.
This is the faith we proclaim as we invite the world again to come to Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, to be baptised into his death and to rise again to life in all its fullness.
This is what we mean as we declare together: On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.
Alleluia Christ is Risen. Amen.
Easter Day 2018.
A very happy Christmas.
One of the best carol services I took part in last week was in prison. There were about 100 prisoners and staff and volunteers gathered for the service. The very ordinary dining room was turned into a chapel. The music came from an old keyboard. There were no candles or crib scene or decorations.
But there was a Pentecostal gospel choir from Luton. And when they sang, somehow, joy filled that prison dining room. The joy was in the harmonies and the way they moved. But the joy came from their hearts and on their faces. The joy was infectious, it moved from person to person.
Nobody there forgot their sorrow or their pain or their questions. But through the choir, we were touched, somehow, by an even deeper joy. The gospel message became real in the music: glad tidings of great joy.
Joy is the accent of our worship this Christmas morning. We come conscious of the pain and grief of the world and our own sorrow. We haven’t come to escape. We come conscious of our weakness and frailty and the many imperfections of the church. We come mindful of all that stands in jeopardy in the world at the present time: war and greed; corruption and poverty. We are conscious of humanity coming to a great turning point.
Yet still the joy penetrates our darkness and lifts our hearts and reshapes our lives and burns brightly even in the midst of tears. “Joyful all ye nations rise” we sing. “O be joyful in the Lord”. “Joy to the world”. How can that be?
It’s not the outer wrappings of Christmas which make us joyful: tinsel and turkey, paper hats and sending cards. It’s not the time off work, or time with family or travelling long distances or particular traditions. It is not sentiment or wishful thinking.
It is the remarkable truth at the heart of the Christmas story. Glad tidings of great joy. Almighty God is born a person. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.
“He will save his people from their sins”.
When you or I drop a stone in a pond the ripples are largest near where the stone falls and then gradually fade. When the Son of God is born, at the time hardly anyone notices. But then the ripples grow larger all down the years, spreading through time and space and human culture.
We celebrate and proclaim this truth in this place today and the ripples go out and affect even the most dry and cynical and secular parts of the season with rich echoes of joy.
God the maker has entered creation and has made a special study simply of being human. God stoops and bends and distils divinity into one particular child. By taking human flesh, moving to be near us, at one time and in one place God dignifies in every time and place each human life and every person. There is no-one now beyond the immensity of this love.
Left to ourselves we cannot see or imagine God who made the heaven and the earth. Even if we could imagine, we would not dare draw near. Left to ourselves humanity would have continued to manufacture gods in our own image: cruel and careless idols, tools of oppression, projections of our own tired fantasies, demigods with feet and hands and hearts of clay, or vast impersonal forces generating only fear.
Jesus, the sweet word of God, is the light entering the darkness, the force which shaped the universe taking flesh, the reason and logic and grammar of creation in flesh and blood and tears and laughter. The greatness of God’s power and majesty is not diminished by his presence in a tiny child. The child is able to bear and contain the vastness of God’s love. God comes down to earth to lift us all to heaven.
God’s limitless power is voluntarily confined, God’s love beyond measure is concentrated, the wisdom of the ages is focussed, poured into a single life, the pivot of history. This is the moment the mending of the world began.
The entire story of the gospels is simply the unfolding of the truth of the incarnation. An acorn holds within its DNA the plans and life force to grow a mighty oak which will endure a thousand years. Today we remember that the fragile simplicity of this new born baby carries God’s entire plan of healing and salvation for the whole of creation, for as long as earth endures, for this world and the next.
In this our season of the world’s long story, the souls of men and women are parched and thirsty for meaning and for mystery and truth and joy and love. The message in the carols and the readings and the story of Christ’s birth are like water on dry ground.
For those of us who know the story, come deeper. See more clearly. Love more dearly. Follow more nearly in this coming year.
For those who do not yet understand, who catch a glimpse of something far away, whose hearts are strangely warmed, who catch an echoing of a knocking at a long forgotten door, come closer, look deeper, begin the journey, hear the call. Let the mending and the healing which has come to all creation come to you.
For this is Jesus and he will save his people from their sins.
A sermon in Christ Church, Oxford
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13)
Jesus words from John 15 have a special resonance this evening: Remembrance Sunday. They are inscribed on many a war memorial or chapel built in memory of those who fell. Bonds of friendship forged in war endure. One of my last acts as Bishop of Sheffield was to travel to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme where the Pals Regiments from northern towns and cities saw their first and tragically their final action of the Great War.
We remember for the sake of those who gave their lives and carry still their mental and their physical scars. But we remember for our own sake as well, if we are wise. We remember as a nation in order to piece back together our identity, our fragmented sense of who we are. We remember together the conflicts which defined the 20th century in the hope that we might somehow find our bearings in the 21st.
As humanity and as a nation we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis of identity. We no longer know who we are. We are lost and cannot find our way home.
Each Tuesday this term, you will find me in a Select Committee in the House of Lords making an enquiry, with others, into Artificial Intelligence. We call witnesses: on the future of work, on data, on business applications, on research, on the media.
Each Tuesday evening my mind has been stretched to capacity. I’m learning many things. That my young grandsons will probably never drive or own a car. That the familiar life script of education then work and then retirement will soon no longer apply. That the impact of AI will fall unequally and adversely on the poor. That social media is rapidly changing political debate and public truth. That the fastest way to be a billionaire is to read for a doctorate in machine learning.
But most of all I am learning more about our crisis of identity. Our science fiction tells us what we already know from our politics: we are deeply unsure of who we are. Each step forward in AI forces us to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about being human. According to one writer, humanity will spend the next three decades, perhaps the next century, in a permanent identity crisis.
Sometimes people ask me – or want to ask me – what a Bishop is doing as part of an inquiry into Artificial Intelligence. AI is too important to be left to the scientists. There are huge ethical questions: not least, on this Remembrance Sunday, around weaponisation.
But I am there most of all because as a Christian, I understand the most important truth about what it means to be human. At the heart of the Christian faith is the faith that Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, became a person and lived the most authentic human life and gave his life that we might live. The deepest answer to our crisis of identity does not lie in machine learning or robotics, or history. The deepest answer lies in love.
For “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”
In 1637, in a different age, Descartes coined his axiom, I think therefore I am: cogito ergo sum. He was searching for rational proof of his own existence and found it in his freedom to doubt, to rebel. But Descartes only takes us so far.
Some think Descartes has been recast in the age of consumerism where we define ourselves more and more by what we spend and where we spend it: I shop, therefore I am. Some translate this as Tesco ergo sum.
The Gospel of John offers something much more profound to the anxious philosopher, to the driven consumer, to the fragmented soul seeking an identity which satisfies.
For John says this. We know who we are when we know we are loved by our maker.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, says Jesus. Abide in my love.
That love, received by faith, gives us the strength to know who we really are and the strength to love as we are loved.
“Love one another as I have loved you”.
So what does it mean to be human, to be alive, to redeem and to shape the life entrusted to us?
It means to know that we are loved and in that knowing to find strength to love. No longer cogito ergo sum but amor ergo sum.
I am loved therefore I am.
And more than amor ergo sum but amor ergo amo. I am loved and therefore I love.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13)
Magdalen College Oxford
12th November 2017
John 15: 9-17
I visited Greyfriars church in Reading yesterday for the 9.30 and 11.30 am services. Greyfriars are part way through a sermon series on Micah and the sermon was on passages in Micah 2 and 3.
This morning, the fourth beatitude is my way into the prophet Micah and to this passage. Jesus begins by blessing those who are poor in spirit, who know they need God; those who are tender hearted, who mourn the suffering in the world; those who are willing to be servants to others as Christ was meek. His fourth blessing is for the world changers, the godly discontents: the people who long for everything to be different, those whose passion is to change the world. His words are a glorious promise of hope:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5).
Micah is one of these. Perhaps you are too. Micah is someone who is able to see and hear what is wrong in the world and who has to speak out. Together with Amos and Hosea and Isaiah and others, he forges in the tiny kingdom of Judah the concepts of justice which underpin the entire civilised world today. Whenever the world talk about human rights or equality or oppression or the needs of the poor or the corruptions of power, we are using some of the language first minted by Micah. His eyes see what is wrong and his words name it. He is a godly discontent, a prophet.
Today’s passage highlights the injustice Micah sees in what is a basically a city state but a microcosm of the human condition. He sees and names the evil of the landlords and money lenders who foreclose on the poor for their own gain and steal their land away. He pictures them lying awake at night longing for this desirable vineyard or that beautiful house and planning how to acquire it. Then he tells us that they wake up the next day and set out to do the very evil they have planned. There are loan sharks aplenty preying on the poor of Reading. We have been painfully reminded recently of the dangers of landlords who do not pay attention to health and safety.
He describes gang warfare and violence against those who are doing no harm. Knife and gun crime is on the rise again, particularly in London: “You strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of violence”.
He sees and he describes the oppression of women and evil done to children: crimes in themselves but crimes which are a particular abuse of power. It’s not hard to make the connection, sadly, with our contemporary world and with some of the news this week. These evils have not gone away:
“The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant homes; from their young children you take away my glory for ever”.
“Arise and go; for this is no place to rest because of uncleanness that destroys”.
The original language is immensely strong here. The community is defiled because of these things. There is an immense and corrosive corruption and sickness in society.
In Micah 3, the prophet turns his fire on the entire governing class who turn away, who see no need for change, who choose not to see what Micah sees.
“Hear this you rulers of the house of Jacob, and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong”.
Justice is perverted because of money. The entire ruling class has been corrupted.
“Its rulers give judgement for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets give oracles for money”.
Together they still claim a veneer of religious respectability: “Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us”.
But it is Micah’s role to see what he sees and then to pronounce sentence:
“Therefore because of you, Zion shall be ploughed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins and the mountain of the house, where the temple is, a wooded height”.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”
How are we to read and explore the prophet Micah today. What are we to learn?
First I think we are called as a church to cherish and listen the people in our community who see what is wrong and become angry about it and long for it to be set right: the prophets in our midst.
We are the body of Christ. We know we do not all have the same gifts. No single Christian exhibits all the qualities commended in the beatitudes. The only person who has ever done so is the person who gives the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus Christ.
But God gives to every church those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness: those who will see the suffering of the poor; or the abused; or the homeless; those who see what climate change is doing to our planet; those who share the pain of victims of domestic violence or sexual exploitation; those who stand with asylum seekers and refugees.
Prophets in our midst are uncomfortable. Micah found that people did not want to listen to him. “One should not preach of such things” the people say to him. Tell us something more comfortable, something that will make us smile or feel good.
We have a harder calling. Our calling as a Church is to welcome the prophets in our midst and give them space. And then to respond where we can through service and advocacy and campaigning for change. Our calling as a church is to harness the vision of the prophet to the practical skills of the administrator and the generosity of the person who has wealth and the gifts of the communicator.
People with these gifts do not get everything right. They have at the core of their being a hunger and thirst for the world to be better. But those of us who have other gifts need to think very carefully when they begin to make us uncomfortable. It is all too easy to close our eyes and ears. We need the witness of Micah to remind us of that.
Together we are called to make a difference in our local community and in the world and the only way to do that is as we work together as a team. Cherish your prophets and listen to them.
But here is the second lesson. Micah does not yet have the complete picture. He sees the purposes of God, in Paul’s words, through a glass darkly.
He is given a kind of x-ray vision to see into the hearts of those around him and name the evil. He sees the judgement that is coming. He sees even beyond the judgement to restoration. He sees a way of life which is satisfying and good: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God (6.8).
But he cannot yet see the cross. He sees the weakness of temple worship: animal sacrifice and even human sacrifice cannot make a difference to the human condition, to setting things right, to transformation.
But he cannot yet see that God’s own Son will take human flesh and live a perfect and complete life and offer his life on the cross. He cannot yet see that in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the gift which enables forgiveness and transformation and new beginnings. He cannot yet see the possibility of human hearts being changed and made new.
He cannot yet see baptism: the outward washing and cleansing and making new so that the most corrupt life can be restored and made new. He cannot yet see that that the goodness and healing in the cross will flow outwards through the people of God for the remaking of all humanity and of all creation: the reconciliation of all things.
The more clearly we see the corruption and deceit of the world, the more fully we know the deceitfulness of our own hearts, the more bleak our vision of the true state of the world, the more we need to see and hold onto the message of the cross.
Micah cannot yet see the gospel and the message of hope and transformation which Christ brings and makes possible. Whatever we have done, however corrupt and far from God we have been, however we have suffered, it is possible to begin again, to make a new beginning with God, to find a way to inner healing and peace and to be restored.
As the Church we are custodians of the gospel. We must never make it less than Micah intends. We must never reduce it to a gospel simply of personal, individual salvation. The gospel is good news for the whole earth and at its heart is a vision of God’s justice and God’s peace for the whole of creation.
But we must understand that the heart of our faith, the whole gospel, is even more than Micah’s vision: the restoration and healing of creation, the salvation and making new of individuals and families and communities, the restoration of the earth.
We are called together to be a more Christ like Church, embodying and living out this gospel in a way which is contemplative, compassionate and courageous.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”
A sermon at Greyfriars, Reading
5th November, 2017
Micah 2.1-2; 6-11; 3:9-12 (part of a series on Micah)