Bible Sunday 2016

Sermon for St John’s Hills Road, Cambridge
Bible Sunday, 2016

Many years ago as I was planning an All Age service for Bible Sunday I lamented to a colleague that there weren’t many hymns about the Bible. The Colleague rightly pointed out that this was because hymns are songs of worship, and we don’t, in fact, worship the Bible as the written word, but rather the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. There still aren’t many decent hymns about the Bible, for that very reason.

When the gospel is read in some churches, the reader kisses the gospel book – this is something I do, in fact, as you probably noticed – I don’t know if you’re used to he here or not. But what does that mean?  Why do it?  Am I really kissing a book – an object – print on paper, with a nice binding?  What if I’d printed out the reading and ended up kissing just the bit of paper from my printer, as I said, ‘This is the gospel of the Lord’? Or what if I’d been reading off an ipad?  Surrounded as we are by beautiful bibles of every kind, and with means to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them’ this is an interesting question. When we say ‘this is the gospel of the Lord’, what is, in fact, ‘this’?  We’ll come back to this question a little later.

Our gospel reading tells of Jesus reading from Isaiah, and telling the gathered faithful that today those words come true – he’s going to show them what the words look like in real life. What an amazing thing to hear. ‘Today this comes true.’ ‘Today you find out what the word of God looks like in action.’ It’s Jesus’ manifesto in which he connects the words of the scroll with his own identity as the living Word of God.

Let’s look more closely at what’s there. What is is that Jesus promises to bring to life?  The Isaiah passage speaks of freedom and wholeness and good news….

And only three chapters later, we hear him again refer to the same passage about his ministry:

This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.  The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

We need not  stick just to Luke 4 – there are plenty of other places where we are given challenging manifestos – blueprints, in word form, of what the heart of the gospel looks like when it’s lived out, and which we can see in the life of Christ, and then in the life of he saints through the ages. We might think of the beatitudes, the ten commandments, the summary of the law, the parables, even the Lord’s Prayer… so much of scripture consists of words that are to be lived. There might be some words that you have found to be formative on your journey of faith, words that you’ve gone back to again and again as you’ve worked out what being a Christian means not just in church but in daily life.

You’re welcome to make your own suggestions…

You might want to pick just one from all these and focus on how you will live it today, this week, this month… how will it form you, change you?

Now look back at Luke 4, at the very beginning of the quotation from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… It’s the Holy Spirit who brings the words on the page to life in our lives.  The breath that gives voice to the word, as at creation. The breath that makes us come alive, and live as people of God.

The ‘this’ that is the gospel of the Lord, isn’t the physical object the page itself – though we do quite rightly treat the bible with reverence and respect – nor is it even the content, the words on the page. It’s more as if the gospel resides in the proclaiming and hearing of it – the way that it’s spoken aloud and heard, in public, so that we become like the crowds who first heard the words of Christ and saw him put them into action, the way that the Spirit inspires the proclamation, moves through and informs the hearing, and empowers the doing of the word. The gospel, ‘this’, is the contemporary living out of the words on the page, as the Spirit gives us power. This is how the word of God is ‘living and active’ – constant, and yet always fresh, always being made incarnate in the lives of God’s people.

So as you look at the bibles on display around the church today, don’t just look on them as objects – think of the fingers that have turned those pages, the eyes that have read them, the voices that have read them aloud… all the people who, through the generations have been been shaped and formed through their encounters with Christ in scripture, who have connected their story with God’s story, and lived the gospel.

This is how we are the body of Christ on earth. As Once the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel ate the scrolls on which the word of God was written, so we, in the words of the collect, ‘inwardly digest’ the Word of God, through our reading, our hearing, our speaking, and indeed through our receiving of the bread and wine, as we ‘become what we eat’ and become the good news that God is sharing with the world.

The Good Samaritan

Maybe I am doing him a disservice, but the lawyer reminds me of one of those people who ask a question to which they already know the answer, so that they can demonstrate their expertise. He knows the right words to say, he correct formula, but he’s clearly struggling with the implications. He’s not quite grasping the all-encompassing nature of love. To attempt a definition of ‘neighbour’ is almost certainly to try to limit the sense of obligation and accountability and generosity that the Summary of the Law implies. Love has no limits, and the lawyer hasn’t really grasped that yet. Hence the story that follows.

But the story is all wrong.

Most people, when they hear a story, will gravitate to the first or main character, and assume, subconsciously that this is ‘someone like us’. Straight away we are wrong footed, because the person with whom we have begun to identify, albeit only briefly, turns out to be the victim and not the hero. His main role is to be beaten and then lie, passively, in the gutter, at the mercy, or lack of mercy, of whoever may see him.

We’d like the victim to be someone else. Secretly, we’d probably prefer it if the victim is ‘not like us’. The foreigner, the low-class outcast, the Samaritan – that’s who ought to be the victim, so that we can be the hero. We can do our charitable bit, reach down from our uprightness and respectability, and help those less fortunate than ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s one of the things that makes societies work.

But if we’re the ones in the gutter, it’s much less comfortable, much less satisfying. Lying there, beaten, who do we want to come to our aid?  I remember once at theological college, I had just recovered from flu, and for some stupid reason I had decided to go for a run before morning prayer. It didn’t go well. Almost at the end of the service, I started feeling woozy, and tried to leave discreetly – I got half way to the back of chapel and then passed out. I remember coming to and hearing a particular person (whom I will not name) saying, loudly, ‘Don’t worry, I know first aid!’ and thinking, to my shame, ‘Oh no, anyone but you!’

Receiving help is not easy. Depending on the charity of others is not easy. It makes us vulnerable, it can chip away at our pride and self-respect, especially when have to look up from the gutter at those who are helping us from their position of benevolent power – a position that really should be ours…. Who would it be hardest to accept from, right now? We might all give a different answer, but each of our answers challenges us, through this best known of gospel stories.

And the end of the story is wrong too. Jesus’ closing question turns the definitions around. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ at the start is a question that assumes that we are strong ones, and the neighbour is someone who, in their weakness, needs our charity. ‘Who was a neighbour to him?’ assumes that the neighbour is not the victim but the saviour, the one who gives the love.

So, when Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’ he is telling us to get up from our gutter, where we had unexpectedly and uncomfortably found ourselves, and go and be the Samaritan, go and be the outcast, the low-life, the one who stopped and helped because he knows what it’s like to be at the bottom of the heap. ‘Go and do likewise’ Jesus says, ‘remembering that you, too, are dust, that you, too, come from the gutter.’

Christological laptop.jpgMy son, who is nine, came up with an interesting theory about this a few months ago. He noticed that he can only see what’s on his laptop screen when he looks straight at it – if it’s tilted at the wrong angle, the image distorts and then disappears. He said to me: ‘It’s like God is the image on a laptop screen, and the screen is tilted downwards.  You can only see God if you’re really low down. Like if you’re ill. Or if you’re not very important. The people who can see God most clearly are the ones who are right at ground level, not the people who can stand upright. So, if we want to see God clearly, we need to get down on the level of the people who are ill, or poor, or not very important. Helping people where they are is how we are most close to God.’

And he’s right, of course. If we really do get down on our hands and knees, as it were, and come alongside others in their hour of need, we are likely to find Christ already there. But if we look down from above, we’ll see no clearer.

The responses to some of the recent terrorist and other attacks around the world express this sense of solidarity rather clearly. It started with “Je suis Charlie” in the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. And it has continued, more recently in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Gay Love, which you may have seen, in response to the murder of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. This, too, expressed the sort of solidarity that St Paul hinted at in 1 Corinthians 12: ‘When one member suffers, the whole body suffers’.  This is the sort of solidarity, when words flow into loving action, that points to the fundamental truth at the heart of the Summary of the law: Love your neighbour. Be that neighbour. Be loved by that neighbour. These are all one command: mutual, reciprocal, humble, generous, joyful. The sort of love that allows help to be given and received without condescension.  The love that rejects the pursuit of power, the preservation of hierarchies, and instead basks in the belovedness that we all have in God, which underpins all our own giving and receiving  and invites us to see one another, to love one another, and indeed, to love ourselves, as God loves us.

In the nation at the moment, the question ‘who is my neighbour’ confronts us constantly. It is being asked in our local communities, in the news media, in the political arena, and implicitly in our awareness of the very many challenges that we face in our current political and social turmoil.  We need the story of the Good Samaritan, together with the Summary of the Law, now more than ever, to teach us afresh what is means to be children of the same heavenly Father, builders of his kingdom on earth – a community of people who need each other. It’s been wonderful to see the grassroots movements that have been springing up in the last few days: #loveyourneighbour and #movementoflove spring to mind, encouraging ordinary people to go the extra mile for one another, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. The challenge is great, and the story is exactly what’s required, though it may be hard to hear it, and harder still to live it out – but there is no greater command than this: that we love God with our whole being, and love our neighbour as ourselves. mollogo

St Luke’s Day 2015

A sermon based on Luke 10.1-9

When I read this gospel reading today, the thing that struck me (and that had never particularly occurred to me any of the other probably hundreds of times I’d read it) was the peculiar way that Luke talks about peace: ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’  It almost makes it sound as if the peace is a tangible object, something you could hold in your hand and offer to someone.  For Luke, peace isn’t an abstract noun, a concept, an ideal, it’s something very real indeed.  With this thought in mind, I wondered how this tangible kind of peace might draw together some of the big themes in Luke’s gospel, and indeed, with St Luke himself.

The first thing people probably think of when asked about St Luke is that he was a physician, a doctor. One who laid down the tools that would heal the body in favour of those that heal the soul.  So the first thing I wondered about was how this tangible peace relates to healing, to wholeness, to restoration, within the human being. I don’t know your names, let alone your stories. I don’t know what hurts you carry with you from the past or the present, the scars that come from your own mistakes and sins, or from the sins of others. I don’t know your doubts and uncertainties or fears about the future. But I do know that in the Eucharist, Jesus comes among us offering us each something tangible – a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that is about forgiveness, about the healing of old wounds.  I do know that when Jesus comes to meet us, he comes bearing that gift and he stays here, holding it out to us, giving us as long as we need to work out how to take that tangible peace in our hands and into our hearts. Luke the physician is intimately concerned with the healing not just of the body but of the whole person, and locates a person’s encounter with Christ at the centre of that process. As we celebrate Luke the physician today, we have another chance to take into our hearts and hands that tangible peace and let it work in us.

The second thing people might think of when they consider Luke’s gospel as a whole is his concern for the gap between the rich and the poor – he writes more about this than any of the other gospels – and his particular focus on the outsider, the outcast, the people who don’t fit in. Jesus’ ministry is seen by Luke as one of integration, that brings the outsiders into the centre of the community, breaks down boundaries and restores communities to wholeness.  This tangible peace, then, is not just about the healing and wholeness of individuals, it is for the healing of communities, it is for the building of communion in places of deep division. And Jesus does this sometimes with the skill of a surgeon – he cuts through the trickery and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day and their obsession with boundaries and pecking orders, so that the people themselves can finally heal – be reconciled with one another, despite their differences, and with the God who made them all and loves them all.  So as we celebrate St Luke’s concern for the poor, the sinner, the outcast, and his desire to show what reconciliation looks like in real life, we have a chance to look at the tangible peace that is offered to this church community, to this village, and beyond. We have a chance to ask ourselves, where are the divisions here? Who finds it hard to fit in? How do we already welcome the stranger and the outcast, and how can we do more, in Jesus’ name?  When we take this gift of tangible peace, we take it not just for our own healing, but for the wholeness of those around us, and for the gradual mending of relationships, for the melting of old grudges, for the possibility of diversity in unity.

The third thing people might know about the gospel of Luke is that, of all the gospel writers, he is most concerned to root the story of Jesus in history – we can see this most easily by the sheer number of difficult to pronounce names (of people and places) in Luke’s gospel – he talks about who’s who, he mentions the names of the places Jesus went, and the names of all the Roman Governors, and the High Priests.  This is partly because one of Luke’s concerns was to establish that Jesus wasn’t a myth, an idea, he was a real person, and everything in the gospels actually happened. But more profoundly, rooting Jesus’ story in political history shows that this tangible peace is not something limited to the individual, nor even just to the local community, but is a gift to the nations, and to the whole world, given to real places and real times. And it’s offered to our own time and our own place, just as it was offered to Jesus’ time and place.  Throughout the last two thousand years, there have been glorious moments when, by the grace of God, our own nation, and even the world has grasped this peace with both hands, often at great cost, and taken the peace of God into the heart of our national and international relations. And we know all too well that there have been even more times when Jesus has patiently held peace out to us and, as a species, we have failed to grasp it.  As we celebrate St Luke, we celebrate someone who understood that the grace of God can work not just within individuals, or local communities, but in the political sphere. And so we think beyond the village, beyond the places where we ourselves live and work, and pray earnestly for that peace which the world cannot give to be given now to the world, and for the leaders of the nations and all who hold the future of this planet in their hands to be given the wisdom, humility and courage to reach out and grasp what God most desires to give us. And we think about our own role in enabling that kind of tangible peace – our democratic right to vote, our spending power, our engagement with current affairs are just some of the ways in which we can contribute to the peace of God taking root and growing here and now.

So today, keep in your minds that image of Jesus’ disciples, sent out by him to take a tangible gift of peace. And then realise that he sends us out today to do the same, he gives us that same peace, for ourselves, for the people we meet and for the wider world. Whether it’s in our own hearts, in our relationships, in our community, at work, in our dealings with people face to face or online, our interaction through commerce and comment with people we’ll never meet, let us bring that tangible peace with us, and may we let it be the very first thing we offer, wherever we are, and whatever we do.