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Anne Tomlinson’s Sermon on Ruth Green’s Ordination to the Priesthood
Sermon from Saturday, 16th June 2012 - Anne Tomlinson

I remember the comment all too well. It was made not so long ago on a ‘first Sunday’ of the month. As usual, breakfast had been served downstairs in the Small Hall after the early service; after the 10.45, tea and coffee had been shared amonst the congregation but on this occasion, to mark someone’s birthday, a splendid cake had also been eaten. And it was as some of us were clearing away after coffee time and preparing to set up the monthly bring-and-share lunch that a member of the congregation stopped me in the kitchen doorway and said: “I don’t know. Life in the church seems to be one long meal these days”.

Now Ruth has been right at the heart of that ministry of non-stop hospitality this past year. She has served tirelessly in a variety of ways: making star shaped sandwiches for the children’s Epiphany party, filling endless mounds of salad rolls for the student’s lunches, warming croissants for the weekly breakfasts, baking her celebrated apricot-and-coconut cake. And above all, she has been busy with the endless setting up and clearing away that accompany such hospitality.

In the Liturgy, she has mirrored these activities, she has prepared the table, served the guests and sent them on their was for Kingdom service in the world. Her stole has been tied back out the way so as not to impede this ministry of service and agency. Tied like a towel to dry the feet of one’s friends. for the ministry she has been living out has been a diaconal one. But very shortly, that stole will be moved. It will be untied and draped over both shoulders, ready for a new way of ministry. A ministry that will focussed upon feeding … but in a new way. In the words of the Ordinal, Ruth is being called to ‘draw together in worship those who come to the Lord’s table’, that they be fed by the Body and Blood of Christ. Called to assemble and concentrate the people of God at prayer. Called to ‘share bread with the hungry’ (Isaiah 58:7). Out of the chrysalis of the deacon’s flighty ministry, constantly moving between ambo alter and door, will emerge the steadier stance of the president, ‘strong loving and wise’, poised in this place, rooted in a particular community, holding the assembly together.

Bishop John will spell out what is expected of Ruth in this new ministry, in words that describe both task and character – for the doing and being will be as one. Three of those ontological charisms are also spelled out in the commissioning of Peter that we heard in our Gospel; Peter, so very dear to this Christian community; Peter, whose keys are emblazoned on our walls.

Firstly these is the charism of gratitude. By which I mean simply the realisation that vocation, service, holiness – call it what you will – is born out of relationship, not dependence on merit. It is pure grace; sheer gift. It is a demonstration yet again of God’s working through the weak things of the world. Peter stands there on the shore in front of Jesus, the smell of the charcoal from the fire on which breakfast has just been cooked causing an involuntary memory of that other charcoal fire in the courtyard; the remembrance of things past; the bitter scent of betrayal. Stands there and hears his three denials lovingly reversed in those three commissionings of service.

This is what Christ does. He turns us into holy people who can bring blessing to the world because we have been reconciled to God, to others – even to ourselves. Priestly ministry signifies and animates this calling of the Church, making it visible so that the members of Christ’s body may become a source of blessing to others. Ruth, ‘as you call sinners to repentance and absolve them in God’s name’, do that out of your own grace-filed relationship with God, the one who meets our every refusal of love with the gift of Godself. ‘And you know not’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’.

Secondly there is the charism of obedience. Jesus tells Peter that in accepting this commitment, he will be girded by another and led to place not of his own choosing. Gone will be the days of autonomy and control where his life was his own and his choices freely made. Instead Jesus tells him, ‘you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’.

The same is true for all who are girded with the stole of priesthood. The priestly life is a life characterised above all with obedience; obedience in the use of time, the pattern of one’s days, the focus of one’s attention. It means ‘taking the common Christian disciplines, prayer, repentance, and active faith, with entire seriousness, not only on one’s own behalf but as someone in the whom the needs and aspirations of others are focussed and represented. It means letting God have God’s way (Mason). Above all, it means listening, obedient listening to God at all times. ‘The one eloquence to master is that of the bowed head, the bent knee, waiting’ (R.S. Thomas).

Ruth, as you ‘pray and care for those committed to your charge, enabling them to respond freely to God’s call’, do so always from the wellspring of your own obedient response to the girding that you will shortly undergo, your answer to that beguiling call. Love took my hand and smiling did reply, ‘who made the eyes but I?’

And thirdly there is the charism of dependence. Even as he calls Peter to commissioned service, Jesus reminds him that they are ‘my lambs’ and ‘my sheep’. That whatever pastoral ministry Peter may have, it is Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, the Chief Pastor of the flock.

Priests are people who are ‘publicly and continually responsible for pointing to the Church’s fundamental dependence on Jesus Christ, reminding the community of the divine initiative’ (BEM). Priests need to live with that reminder emblazoned on their diaries. Otherwise they can haunted by the feeling that God has come to depend of their efforts and so try and fulfil unrealistic expectations in their own strength, engaging in a Pelagian multitudinism. That way leads to exhausted priests and spiritually starving communities.

Ruth, as you ‘sustain the community of the faithful that they may grow into the fullness of Christ’, do that only out of your own utter dependence on God. Take time to enable yourself to be nourished by the sustenance of reading and thinking, rest and godly play. ‘You must sit down’ says Love ‘and taste my meat’. So I did sit and eat.

These three charism of the priestly live are focussed most intensely and symbolised most acutely in the Eucharist; for the Eucharist ‘makes the Church’ (Lubac); is perpetually creative of the Church; ‘is its whole life expressed fulfilled and done in an action’ (Dix). As priests preside at the Eucharist, so do they tell the assembly of believers who we are in God’s eyes and what it is to be involved in and with the priestly act of Jesus Christ.

As Ruth responds to the call to engage in the lifelong sustenance of God’s word, let us pray that she may do so in the gratitude, obedience, and dependence. So that fed by the Body and Blood of Christ, we may ‘go out to serve God in the unity of the Spirit’.

‘Life in this church seems to be one long meal these days?’. Yes indeed – alleluia!

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.


Bishop Bob Halliday’s Easter Series 2012
Sermon from Sunday, 6th May 2012 - Bishop Bob Halliday

 

 

WE LOOK FOR THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD,

AND THE LIFE OF THE WORLD TO COME

 

 

FOUR SERMONS IN EASTERTIDE, 2012

BY

BISHOP BOB HALLIDAY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PREFACE

 

After death, what? – annihilation? or the survival of some invisible part of us? or what? People of all religions and none face this question in a way that is not simply intellectual: we are personally involved.

 

The Bible, the composition of which extended over more than a thousand years, includes diverse and successive answers to this question. When Jesus was growing up, Pharisees were arguing for (and Sadducees against) the reality of a life after death. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus mark the beginning of a new kind of hope. At the 10.45 a.m. service of Holy Communion, over the first four Sundays after Easter, Bishop Bob will be exploring in his sermons the emergence in the Bible of the hope expressed in the Nicene Creed.

 

April 15:     The dead, whom you hold in mind no more (Psalm 88 v.4)

 

April 22:     She’ol as the place of all the dead.

 

April 29:     The first fruits of the harvest of the dead (1 Corinthians15 v.20).

 

May 6 (at Matins): As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be brought to life (1 Cor. 15 v.22).

 

1. ABANDONED AMONG THE DEAD.. .WHO ARE CUT OFF FROM YOUR CARE (PSALM 88.4)

 

The Old Testament took shape over a period of more than a thousand years, in which time the Hebrew people underwent profound changes, passing from the Stone Age through the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. Originally following a nomadic way of life, driving their flocks and herds from place to place in search of feed for their animals, so that everything they had, including their religious shrine, had to be portable, they made the transition to a settled, agricultural way of life, living in villages, several of which were sacred centres of the cult of Yahweh, though later that was centralised at the stone Temple in Jerusalem. Politically, they retained memories of a patriarchal form of leadership through a time when they were debased into slavery in Egypt into a period when they became a powerful kingdom in Palestine, and on into a much longer period of being a subject-people of the successive great empires of the near east. Consequently the OT preserves many successive stages of Hebrew thinking, contains significant changes of view, and records, side by side, conflicting schools of thought. For example, there is sycophantic praise of the monarchy from court poets paid to produce it, and also passages of scathing prose emanating from prophetic circles that took a very dim view of the institution of monarchy and a highly critical attitude to the actions of particular kings. There are, too, polemical tracts for the times, like Ruth and Jonah, both written as protests against the narrow, racialist nationalism of Ezra-Nehemiah that failed to take account of God’s purpose for the Gentiles, created by the same God.

 

So on the subject of life after death (a subject of deep concern to people of all civilisations, ancient and modern) we find in the OT the reflections of a people who went on thinking about this subject for over a thousand years, and continued to do so in later Jewish literature. Their thoughts include a great diversity of philosophical inferences, theological opinions and acts of personal faith, and we must avoid imposing any facile unity on this rich diversity, just as we would avoid formulating “the British understanding of death.” Pursuing the story of Israel’s long enquiry into the subject will prove to be for us much more than an academic exercise: it will involve our own selves in a deeply personal way, a way the learned would call “existential.”

 

On one thing there is a consensus in the OT and not in the modern West. As Vrietzen has put it, “In Israel man is an animated body, or rather a body to which life has been given, and not, as in Greek philosophy, an eternal soul, enclosed in a body.”[1] It may come as a shock to many modern people that the Bible offers no support whatever to the concept that some invisible bit of us survives death.

Notions of survival fail to take death seriously enough. “Life” is a better translation than “soul” of the Hebrew word NEPHESH. When a person’s life is poured out with his blood or exhaled with his last breath, the NEPHESH in departing ceases to be, leaving the body no longer alive. It is the whole human being the Bible deals with; neither the soul nor the body can live in separation from each other. Clearly, we shall have to come back to that later in this course!

 

For most of the OT period, death is regarded as part of the natural order created by God. Sudden death and premature death are calamities, but death in old age was regarded, says von Rad, as

“really a gracious fulfilment.”[2] Ludwig Koehler sums up the dominant view: ‘In the providence of God death follows on life and in the providence of God death is the end. There is nothing more than what we know here on earth.”[3] That is beyond controversy a fair statement of Hebrew belief about death. Few of us, however, could contemplate our own death with such detached equanimity; and Hebrew people, too, recoiled at the prospect of death, and expressed horror at its inevitability. Job, who so skillfully mocked conventional belief in his day, protests that humanity is worse off than the vegetable creation:

If a tree is cut down,

there is hope that it will sprout again

and fresh shoots will not fail.

Though its root becomes old in the earth,

its stump dying in the ground,

yet when it scents water it may break into bud

and make new growth like a young plant.

But when a human being dies all his power vanishes;

he expires, and where is he then? …

If a man dies, can he live again?

He can never be roused from this sleep. (Job 14, vv.7-10, 12).

Thus the totality and finality of death is recognised, though resented. Ecclesiastes, written perhaps in the third century B.C.E., complains that death is such a leveller that it obliterates distinctions that are precious, e.g. between wise and foolish, good and bad, so what’s the point of acquiring wisdom, when all is futility? (2.16f.) worse, “Human beings and beasts share one and the same fate: death comes to both alike (3.19). OT writers sometimes speak with wry humour of death the leveller as an antidote to human self-importance. Isaiah 14 has a superb poem on the death of the all-powerful king of Babylon: all the long-dead kings of earth’s little states are temporarily roused to come and see how even the mighty king of Babylon comes to nothing: All greet you with these words: “so you too are impotent as we are, and have become like one of us!” – a non-entity (Isaiah 14.10). Death makes nonsense of the distinctions human beings make among themselves: the only significant one is that between dead and living. Ecclesiastes puts it with mordant wit: “A live dog is better than a dead lion” (9.4).

 

One final feature of Hebrew thinking calls for attention this morning. Psalm 88 includes these striking words addressed to God:

I am numbered with those who go down to the abyss;

I have become like a man beyond help,

abandoned among the dead,

like the slain lying in the grave,

whom you hold in mind no more,

who are cut off from your care (Psalm 88.4).

The dead, evidently, are beyond the boundary of God’s sovereignty.

The worst horror of death for the Hebrews was that it cut them off from. God, whose loving-kindness was known only in the land of the living.[4]

 

My brothers and sisters, there is such a thing as learning what you believe by reaction against what’s in the Bible. Most of us would have said that we just have vague hopes, and aren’t at all clear about life after death. But we have just discovered that, by contrast with most of the OT, we believe very firmly that there is absolutely nothing, not even death, that can cut a human being off from God, the Father of Jesus and our creator. And you now know that a lot more clearly than you thought you did – Step One in looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come!

 

2. SHE’OL AS THE PLACE OF ALL THE DEAD

 

“In Mesopotamia and Canaan… they envisaged the hereafter as a kind of shadowy existence in a vague underworld. Such a negative vision made of life after death a worthless copy of life on earth. In Egypt, on the other hand, a more positive conception prevailed. There the hereafter was envisaged as a festive continuation of this earthly life…. The Egyptians called the grave the house of eternity. Life on earth simply continued in the hereafter.”[5]

 

So Jan H. Negenman in the New Atlas of the Bible. Indeed the Egyptians were obsessed with death. The rich spent huge sums equipping their tombs with the furniture and equipment that would ensure a luxurious afterlife. The poor, who could not make provision in this life for the next, presumably continued in eternity to be labour-saving devices for the rich. It is tempting to read Psalm 49 as a refreshing Hebrew comment on such a hope:

Do not envy anyone though he grows rich,

when the wealth of his family increases;

at his death he can take nothing,

for his wealth will not go down with him.

Though in his lifetime he counts himself happy

and he is praised in his prosperity,

he will go to join the company of his forefathers

who will never again see the light.

For human beings like oxen are short-lived;

they are like beasts whose lives are cut short. (Psalm 49.16-20)

 

The Greeks thought of a human person as fundamentally a spirit, regrettably imprisoned in a material body, so that the human being achieved fulfilment by dying, so liberating the spirit from the body that hampered it. This notion is fundamentally alien to the Biblical understanding that a human being is by God’s definition a bodily creature, and there’s nothing whatever regrettable about it. As we’ve seen, the Egyptians affirmed, in the teeth of all the evidence, the continuity of the after-life with this life.

 

All these lines of thought the early Hebrews spurned. In their view, human life was terminated and eliminated by death, and they dreaded death particularly because it involved losing touch with God, ceasing to experience in worship and life. Psalm 115 puts it in a nutshell:

It is not the dead who praise the Lord,

not those who go down to the silent grave;

but we, the living, shall bless the Lord

now and for evermore.

Praise the Lord.

 

It is not to be supposed that the Hebrews could live cheek-by-jowl with other religions and remain unaffected, nor that disloyalty to the religion of Yahweh was unknown. The searing condemnations of certain practices were uttered because people were doing them: secret participation in the pagan cult of the dead, dabbling in the occult, even the practice of necromancy, for example by the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28.8-25), an offence punishable by death in Israel. Surely, however, such evidence reveals a measure of popular dissatisfaction in Israel with the mainline view that death is the total extinction of the individual. Strange as it may seem, the first tremulous protests against the official teaching took people away from the real God into pagan byways and blind alleys.

 

At what point, then, did the People of God begin to speak about a life after death? It’s very difficult to date it beyond saying, “late in the Biblical day.” But the point of departure is clear enough: it was the common Near Eastern concept of the underworld. Professor R.H.

Pfeiffer of Harvard explains:

“The prevailing notion among the Israelites corresponds to that of Western Asia after 3000 BC[E]. All the dead, without discrimination of race, nationality, religion, social position, and moral character, go to a dark, gloomy, underground enormous cave, called Kur-Nu-Ge-A (the land of no return) by the Sumerians, Arallu by the Babylonians… and She’ol by the Old Testament. The Hittites had the same notion of the abode of the dead, but its name is not known.”[6]

There the departed eked out a most unattractive semi-existence which the late Bishop John Howe likened to “eating cold tapioca in the coal cellar.”

 

This is where development took place, in the way She’ol was pictured, and in three directions. First, the notion that shocked us last Sunday, that She’ol was beyond the scope of God’s activity, gave way before an increasing sense of the limitless sovereignty of God.

Nothing goes on anywhere that is hidden from the Creator of all that is. “She’ol and Abaddon lie open before the lord,” asserts Proverbs 15.11, and Job 26.5f pictures the underworld cringing from God’s holiness when he comes to inspect it. You cannot get away from God by hiding in She’ol – he can still put his hand on you there (Amos 9.2, cf. Psalm 139.7f).

 

The second direction of development was in the direction of morality and justice. Especially under the brutal tyranny of the Seleucid regime in the 2nd century BCE, horrible tortures were inflicted on men, women and children who refused to give up Jewish devotion to God. It was morally intolerable that their coming to so sticky an end should be the finish of them; surely the last word of eternal justice lay with God! Surely human history was moving towards a divinely designed consummation, at which fulfilment would replace frustration, and the wrongs of all the ages be righted, and the martyrs vindicated and rewarded, and their tormentors condemned and punished! In Jewish apocalyptic writings, with the exception of Daniel coming from the centuries subsequent to the OT, they openly expect either a resurrection of the righteous to a life of bliss with God in the last day, or else a general resurrection to reconstituted earthly life under the Reign of God, in which people enjoy or endure the consequences of the kind of life they had lived. Alas, there is a tendency for this kind of thinking to take one of two wrong turns, either into vindictiveness towards the haves of this world or into a petty, selfish, book-keeping approach to the problems of human conduct; but there is far more to this development than the occasional lapses into the smugness of the saved who think of themselves as a select minority, as if nothing more than that is to come of all God’s creating and redeeming activity.

 

The third direction in which the picture of She’ol was developed is this: that there is a future for those who go down to She’ol was a hope which grew out of the experience of trusting in God here and now. You and I still use, as true to our experience, the prayers in the Psalms of people who experienced God’s forgiveness and pour out their gratitude, of those who prayed in mortal danger and knew God as their saviour, of folk who in worship or prayer were simply swept off their feet into rapturous adoration of God. The loving-kindness of the Lord is daily, is ceaseless, is without limit, God’s patience, God’s grace, God’s mercies, God’s bountiful goodness are abundantly known and evoke paeans of praise. Isaiah of Jerusalem’s vision of God in the Temple is a classic passage because it expresses the experience of so many – deep awe that can hardly bear God’s coming near to us, combined with unspeakable joy in his presence. Is this knowledge of God that he has given us to come to an abrupt and total end at our death? Does not the God who gives himself to us in this life lead us to look expectantly to God for life with him after our death? As Vriezen has said,

“Faith in God as the lord of life, who performs miracles and rules everywhere, even in She’ol, was the root from which afterwards the belief in the resurrection… could spring.”[7]

Any intuitions you and I have of a relationship with God beyond our death grow out of our present experience of trusting in God, do they not? Hope for that future is a function of faith in God now.

 

There is only one place in the OT where we find the vision that God purposes the abolition of death. Isaiah of Jerusalem is speaking of the victory banquet for all peoples when Gods purposes stand fulfilled:

On this mountain the Lord wilt destroy

that veil shrouding all the peoples,

the pall thrown over all the nations.

He will destroy death for ever. (Isaiah 25.7f)

Over our experience of this mortal life stands the shadow of She’ol’s dreadful NO. But the last word does not belong to She’ol. The last word belongs to God who made us, and in Christ he has uttered his Iife-giving YES.

 

3. THE FIRSTFRUITS OF THE HARVEST OF THE DEAD (1 CORINTHIANS 15.20)

 

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence (Daniel 12.2).

And John Bright comments:

“Only in the book of Daniel is there evidence [within the OT] of the belief that both righteous and wicked will be raised up to everlasting life and everlasting shame respectively, and even here resurrection is selective, not universal. Down to the second century BC[E] other writers either knew nothing of such a belief, or explicitly denied it.”[8]

Professor Bright refers to two Jewish apocalyptic works outside the OT – 1 Enoch and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs – as evidence that “in the second century BC[E] and after, belief in a general resurrection and a final judgment gained the upper hand.” Thus the hope of an afterlife just gets into the OT and no more. It became prominent in Jewish belief in the period between the Old Testament and the New. It was controversial. Right into the lifetime of Jesus a vigorous debate was going on between Jews who passionately looked for the resurrection of the dead and Jews who dismissed this hope as wishful thinking, self-deception, an unbiblical flight of fancy. In 56 or 57 CE, St Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and put on trial before the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus. Paul, who was not born yesterday, and certainly had a sense of humour, set the cat among the pigeons by shouting,” My brothers, I am a Pharisee,a Pharisee born and bred, and the issue in this trial is our hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23.6). The account in Acts continues:

“At these words the Pharisees and Sadducees fell out among themselves, and the assembly was divided A great uproar ensued; and some of the scribes belonging to the Pharisaic party openly took sides and declared, ‘We find no fault with this man; perhaps an angel or spirit has spoken to him.’ In the mounting dissension, the commandant was afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces.”

So he sent in a snatch squad to get his prisoner out of the swirling mass of furious Jewish leaders (Acts 23.7-10).

So what had been the teaching of very nearly all of the OT, that death is the end for each individual, becomes from the 2nd century BCE the view of a conservative minority in Judaism. Among the majority, who (with much diversity of detail) looked for the resurrection of the dead, the concept of She’ol, the place of all the dead, underwent extensive modification. The Baptist scholar Dr D.S. Russell (a leading authority on Jewish apocalyptic writings) has pointed out three major changes in the way She’ol was pictured.[9] Unlike the aT, these writers use the word “soul” and “spirit” to denote an entity having a real personal existence in separation from the body. “She’ol,” he says, “is no longer a land of no-life, as in the OT, but a land of conscious being and individual identity.’[10] The second development we’ve already seen in Daniel: the good are differentiated from the wicked and assigned to different quarters: for the good, pleasant, wooded surroundings in Paradise, while the wicked are accommodated in the smog of Gehenna. [11] The third development, Dr Russell tells us, “is that now She’ol is regarded, in most of these books at any rate, as an intermediate state where the souls of humans await the resurrection and the final judgment:”[12] when God will bring freedom to the downtrodden and justice to the oppressed of all the ages.

 

Jesus often employed humour in his teaching. But St Luke has passed on to us the only funny story told at the expense of Jesus. The Sadducees had heard that this amateur rabbi from Galilee shared with these pipe-dreaming Pharisees belief in an afterlife, so they spun him the yarn of the woman who, when her husband died without issue, married his oldest surviving brother (the custom of levirate marriage), and when he died married the next brother, and so on till she had married all seven brothers in succession. Won’t this be awfully awkward in this resurrection life you’re peddling? Which of the seven will be her husband then? – a delightful take-off of the kind of pictures drawn from earthly life which is the only way human beings can think at all about life after death. On this occasion the Sadducees got more than they bargained for: Jesus, spoke, not as one engaging  in speculation, not as one offering an opinion, but as one who is telling them the truth of God. When God revealed himself to Moses, he pointed out, God called himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom had died several centuries before the time of

Moses.” God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for him all are alive” (Lk 20.38) – good OT teaching from which a revolutionary conclusion is drawn: the Patriarchs are alive with God.

 

All this was known to those who, with the Apostles, became witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, about which three things must be said. (1) The resurrection of Jesus proves nothing. God has taken good care that the resurrection of Jesus is not scientifically verifiable. That Jesus is alive and present can be known only by faith. That’s the way God wants it. (2) To those whom the risen Jesus convinced that he was alive again, the resurrection was gloriously good news about Jesus rather than about us. It is seen primarily in the NT as God’s vindication of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Lord of all. But (3) the resurrection of Jesus is the decisive breakthrough to life after death for us. For the followers of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead is no longer a controversial theory, but a God-given reality. The First Letter of Peter exults,

“Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, he gave us new birth into a living hope, the hope of an inheritance preserved in heaven for you, which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither” (1 Peter 1.3f.).

The risen Jesus is the Church’s head and origin, says Colossians, not in the sense of the founder of an institution, but as “the first to return from the dead” (Colossians1.18), the Pioneer of the resurrection life we are all to share. In 1 Corinthians15 St Paul takes to task some Christians who seem to have shared the outlook of the Sadducees, and writes, “If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we [Christians] of all humans are most to be pitied. But the truth is, Christ was raised to life, the first fruits of the harvest of the dead” (1 Corinthians15.19f.) The dead have a future – a future life – though at present only those humans who have faith in Christ are sure of this.

How the early Christians, and St Paul in particular, worked out the effect of this fact on the pictures inherited from Judaism, we shall see in the final instalment at Matins next Sunday!

 

4. AS IN ADAM ALL DIE, SO IN CHRIST WILL ALL BE BROUGHT TO LIFE (1 CORINTHIANS 15.22).

 

The New Testament is dominated from end to end by the hope of the Day of the Lord, the consummation of God’s purposes, the climax of all history, the full coming on earth of the Reign of God. In referring to Kingdom come on earth, the NT writers employ a variety of symbolic pictures taken over from Jewish apocalyptic writings: earthquakes ending the present civilisation; a universal open court of justice where the earth’s little ones will be awarded damages against all who have practised oppression; the biggest battle the world has ever seen, when God wins eternal victory over the forces of evil; the appearing of the Lord’s anointed king in the clouds of God’s glory (a la Ezekiel); a vast banquet for all God’s people, celebrating the inauguration of the Messiah’s reign; the daylight of God’s holiness permanently dispersing this world’s darkness. All these images the cranks on the lunatic fringe of Christianity try to arrange in order like a programme for Highland Games; but they are just different pictorial symbols for one and the same thing, the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Creation, which Jesus called the Reign of God.

 

The early Christians expected this fulfilment to come very soon – so soon that St Paul thought it was a shocking waste of time for engaged couples to get married (1 Corinthians 7.25-38) – so the problem of individual death that harrows us is not central in the NT, but is peripheral to the hope of the Reign of God. When it dawned on the Christians that this hope was not going to be fulfilled immediately, several adjustments had to take place in Christian thinking. One of the problems the delay raised was this: the deaths of Christians, multiplied by persecutions, had to be related somehow or other to the final victory now delayed. In an early letter, 1 Thessalonians, St Paul employs Jewish apocalyptic images (trumpet call, clouds of glory), but he uses them to assure the shaken Thessalonians that Christians who die before the denouement have not lost out, but will participate along with those who are still alive: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again; so too God will bring those who died as Christians to be with Jesus”(1 Thessalonians 4.14, cf. 5.10).

What a difference there is between the OT’s tenet that those who go down to She’ol cease to have any knowledge of God, and St Paul’s expression about sleeping until the time comes to live in the company of Jesus. Exactly how St Paul understood this will never be clear to us, because he never got it clear for himself! We Christians, sharing with each other in the Christian life, have real anticipations of the Reign of God, though it’s a matter of now you see it, now you don’t. All Christians await and yearn for the fulfilment of our prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” We have fleeting experiences now of the glory that is yet to be; and St Paul apparently thought that, if we die before it comes, we are in some kind of suspended animation in the interval – in Christ’s keeping, but less of a life than we have now, let alone then.

 

But this same wonderful man, when he was facing his own imminent death, instinctively thought differently, and put his finger on it in a way that has helped Christians ever since. In what was probably the last letter he wrote, he calmly discusses with his beloved Philippians how likely it is that he will survive the very great danger he is in, on trial in Rome by an anti-Christian court. He is ready to die, if the time has come. Given free choice, he ought to opt for further service to the Church; but he really would rather have the other: “for to me life is Christ, and death is gain… My own desire is to depart and be with Christ- that is better by far” (Philippians1.21, 23). But he’s needed so much that he thinks God means him to come through the present peril and go on working for the Church. He was wrong. He was condemned to death and executed. My point is that when it comes to the crunch he has got beyond the pictures inherited from Judaism. He doesn’t expect to sleep till the great Day, but to be more directly and fully and gloriously aware of he risen Jesus than he has been during his lifetime. And he’d said the same kind of thing to the Christians in Rome shortly before: “I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life… nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord” (Romans 8.38f.).

 

Now, the only way you and I can talk about an afterlife that’s genuinely human is in the language drawn from present experience: “see” implies eyes; “remember” implies memory; “recognise” implies that the other person looks much as he or she did at some point prior to their death. Yet we know that memory and sight and emotions perish with the cessation of the brain’s activity at death. Resurrection is not survival. Nothing of us survives death. Resurrection is the reconstitution by God of recognizably the same person, no doubt transfigured by grace, forgiveness and fulfilment.

 

So we may ask, as some of the Christians at Corinth critically asked St Paul, “How are the dead raised? In what kind of body?” (1 Corinthians 15.35). 2nd-century Christian writers insisted that God revivifies the corpse, re-assembling the scattered molecules of each person’s body. The trouble with that view is that the scattered molecules in the course of time have been parts of many different humans in succession, posing a problem about who the rightful owner is! St Paul gave a quite different and far better answer. Just look at the great variety of modes of being that God has invented – humans, animals, birds, fish, plants – each kind with its own distinctive kind of life-kit. Let’s not get into arguments based on mere speculation. Let’s leave it to God to devise a life-kit corresponding to the body, appropriate for the life of the Age to Come under the Reign of God. Our inability to imagine it is no argument against the reality under God of the resurrection life of humans. St Paul held that we shall be like Christ, yet recognizably ourselves (Philippians 3.21; cf. 2 Corinthians 5.1-5, 1 Jn 3.2).

 

The New Testament, then, teaches us to trust the God whom we gladly worship here and now to fulfil his promise in Christ of life after death. This resurrection life is for all human beings, not just for Christians: “As in Adam all [humans] die, so in Christ will all be brought to life” (1 Corinthians 15.22). The distinctive thing about the Christians is that they are the ones who already believe in the resurrection of the dead, not as a scientific deduction, nor as information imparted in advance to the Church, but arising out of our faith in God, without which people don’t share this hope. In the Nicene Creed, it is after affirming our faith in God, Creator and Father, and in Jesus, the pioneer of resurrection, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, that we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

 

Let us Pray: Almighty and everliving God, in tender love for all our human race you sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take our flesh and suffer death upon a cruel cross. May we follow the example of his great humility and share in the glory of his resurrection, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. AMEN.

(Collect for Palm Sunday: Liturgy of the Passion)

 


[1] Th.C. Vriezen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology, p.201

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1, p.390.

[3] Ludwig Koehler, Old Testament Theology, p.150.

 

[4] Von Rad, op. cit., p.277.

 

[5] Jan H. Negenman, New Atlas of the Bible, pp.42/44.

[6] R.H. Pfeiffer, Religion in the Old Testament, p.104.

[7] T.C. Vriezen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology; p.204.

[8] John Bright, A History of Israel, pp438f.

[9] D.S. Russell, l71e Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, p. 359.

[10] op. cit, pp. 360, 364.

[11] op. cit, pp. 360, 364.

[12] op. cit, p. 361.

 


Deny Yourself 2 – Wilson Poon for 18th March 2012
Sermon from Sunday, 18th March 2012 - Wilson Poon

Saul of Tarsus knew exactly who he was.

 

“[He was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

 

Saul was a Jew, and he was proud of it, because Jews were the chosen people of God. They were chosen to keep the law, and boy o boy, did he keep the law or did he keep the law – ‘as to righteousness under the law, blameless’. His badge of honour as a ‘Hebrew born of Hebrews’ was his circumcision. Saul’s self identity was entirely bound up with his understanding of what makes a Jew special in God’s eyes – his obedience to the letter of the law.

 

Saul felt totally secure in this self identity, until the day he heard about this new sect who taught that God could be approached without keeping the letter of the law, without circumcision, without Temple rituals, perhaps even without being a Jew! That shocked him to the core. It made him angry. After witnessing the execution of one member of this new sect in Jerusalem, Saul joined in the persecution of these followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Persecuting this new sect became a new feather in Saul’s cap of being a Jew: ‘as to zeal, a persecutor of the church’.

 

Persecuting people who threaten you identity is, of course nothing new. Such zealous persecution of the church made Saul feel secure again, at least on the surface. But it didn’t really work. Something inside was nagging. Perhaps there was something more to God than just obeying the letter of the law. Why, for instance, did that Stephen who was stoned to death in Jerusalem pray for his persecutors rather than curse? This Stephen seemed to have something that Saul did not possess, despite having kept every known commandment he could find in the book! Stephen was more secure in his self identity than Saul, without having to pay the price of frantic self policing. That, of course, only made Saul angrier.

 

Then, one day, something snapped inside. Saul of Tarsus took leave of himself, the self that was founded on approaching God through obedience to the letter of the law. Of that Saul of Tarsus, he now says, ‘I don’t know that man!’ –

 

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

 

This step of self denial was so drastic that Saul changed his name to Paul. This Paul looks back at his life as Saul the zealous Jew and says,

 

“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

 

In one of his other letters, Paul described this ‘surpassing value’ like this: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free.’ (Galatians 5:1) It was as if Paul was let out of the confines of a prison, a prison that he built for himself using the commandments of the law, into a wide open space. He felt free for the first time, so much so that he now regards the previous life as ‘rubbish’.  ‘Rubbish’ is the polite translation of the Greek word Paul used in Philippians 3:8. In the less squeamish times of the King James Bible, this verse was translated like this:

 

“I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung …”

 

All the things in the previous life that gave Saul of Tarsus his self identity, Paul now counts as just so much ‘dung’. Interestingly, this new life, which Paul describes as of ‘surpassing value’, is a life of far less certainty than his previous life lived as Saul the Pharisee. Back then, he knew exactly what the score was –

 

“… circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  … as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

 

Frighteningly, the pass mark was 100%. But Saul was quite sure that he had passed! Now, such certainty is gone. Instead,

 

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

 

Certainty of attainment has been replaced by a journey, a journey on which the only certainty is the call to continue to journey on.

 

Paul would have had no difficulty understanding what Jesus meant when he called folk to deny themselves and follow him on a journey to find life. On the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus took leave of himself, and became Paul, and realised that he had found himself for the first time. Freed from the confines of an identity that he had to strain every fibre of his being to guard, he now has an identity that comes as a gift from without: ‘Christ Jesus has made me his own’. He is now free to journey with this Jesus, wherever it may take him.

 

We all have identities that we love to guard; identities that we believe we cannot do without; identities that give us a cosy sense of security. This is so whether we are talking about us as individuals, or collectively as a congregation. For me, my identify is very much bound up with my scientific rationality, which endlessly analyses everything to smithereens. For us as a congregation, our identity may be bound up with our wonderful music, or our half a million pound of reserves in the bank. Nothing wrong in themselves, but when we become too cosy in any of these things, they become prisons.

 

Christian discipleship, again whether as individuals or as a congregation, consists in hearing Christ’s call to take leave of these guarded identities, however authentic they might have been when we first acquired them, to move on to a deeper level of self discovery. In another one of his letter, Paul puts it this way:

 

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)

 

To discover more of this life that is ‘hidden with Christ in God’, we have to take leave of the life, the identity, that we think we have grasped. And not just once, but repeatedly:

 

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own.”

 

Significantly, such ‘taking leave’, such ‘self denial’, is not something that we can just decide to do for ourselves. To do that would be to practise deliberate schizophrenia – a case of psychological self harm. Self denial only becomes a step of discipleship when it is done in response to hearing a call from the one whose own self denial took him to the cross.

 

And He calls us at all sorts of times and places. He sometimes calls us when we are quietly going about our familiar daily business, as when he first called those Galilean fishermen. He sometimes calls us when we are in the middle of seething psychological trauma, as when he called Saul of Tarsus in the middle of another angry mission to persecute the church. He sometimes calls us when we are in dire need, as when he called blind Bartimaeus begging on the road side. He sometimes calls us when we’re living in affluent comfort, as when he called the rich young man who had great possessions. All you can be sure is that the call will come unexpectedly.

 

When such a call comes, you can guarantee that it will make us feel very insecure. Paul the Pharisee was called to take leave of approaching God through keeping every letter of the law, something that he had done since he was weened from his mother’s milk. Paul’s illustrious ancestor Abram the patriarch was called to leave his comfortable life in the metropolis of Haran to go to somewhere over the horizon without precise GPS coordinates. I may be called to stop rationalising like a scientist all the time. St. Peter’s may, shock horrors, be called to have fewer anthems, or less reserves in the bank! No, surely not! We would rather die than do that.

 

Quite so. That is why ‘taking up the cross’ is such an apt metaphor to speak of the kind of ‘self denial’ that we are talking about here. The old securities and certainties have to die before we can discover more of the real self that is hidden in the depths of God in Christ. Such calls are uncomfortable; such calls are easy to ignore.

 

Lent is therefore a season set aside to consider whether we are in a position to hear such calls to take leave of our treasured selves: whether we have missed or ignored such calls in the year past, and how we’ll make sure that we do not miss them in the year to come. Missing such calls, whether as individuals or as a congregation, will be tragic, for

 

“those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

 

Let us pray.

 

Lord Jesus, graciously call us to deny ourselves and follow you, and give us the grace to hear and obey. Amen.

 

 

 


Deny Yourself – 1 – Wilson Poon for 11 March 2012
Sermon from Sunday, 11th March 2012 - Wilson Poon

In many towns and villages in Europe three weeks ago Tuesday, there were carnivals and fêtes. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday in many countries is known as mardi gras – a French term meaning, quite literally, ‘fat Tuesday’. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when we are supposed to deny ourselves, giving up chocolates, wine, and sundry nice things. So, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we give up!

 

We don’t ‘do’ mardi gras in Britain. But the popular understanding of Lent inside and outside the church is just the same: Lent is about denying things to ourselves. This understanding comes from texts such as our Gospel reading last week:

 

[Jesus said to his disciples,] ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves … and follow me.’ (Mark 8:34)

 

And since we self evidently don’t manage that all the time, let’s at least have a go once a year during Lent – we’ll give up chocolates, or wine, or truffles, or whatever your favourite indulgence is, for forty days and forty nights.

 

Lying behind this understanding of Lent is often a lingering sense that perhaps enjoying nice things such as chocolates or wine is in fact an indulgence, something that we really shouldn’t be doing at all. Well, our readings from Genesis 1 and Timothy 4 should put pay to that:

 

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving. (1 Tim 4:4)

 

If we refrain from the good things of creation, it’s not because they are not good. It’s to remind us to receive them with thankfulness. But in any case, to be concerned with chocolate or wine is to miss the point of Jesus’ saying. Notice that Jesus didn’t say, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny things to themselves …’ Instead, he asked his followers to do something all together more mysterious and challenging. We are challenged to deny ourselves.

 

To begin to explore what this ‘denial’ may mean, we have to realise that this and related words (aparneomai and arneomai) are used extensively later in Mark’s gospel to talk about Peter’s denial of Jesus. Jesus predicted this denial in Chapter 14. Later in the chapter, when a servant girl identified Peter as one of Jesus’ followers, Peter denied it and said, ‘I do not know that man!’ (14:71)

 

‘I don’t know that man!’ – that is what denial is about. Apparently, Jesus is challenging me to say of myself, ‘I don’t know that man!’ That is very much more challenging than giving up chocolates for 40 days! In two Sunday’s time, I would like to speak about what Jesus may mean by such self denial. Today, however, we first have to do some rubble clearing. We need to figure out what Jesus does not mean by denying ourselves, because misunderstandings abound.

 

Here is an eloquent example. I looked up the word ‘deny’ in an authoritative dictionary of New Testament Greek (Arndt & Gingrich, 2nd edition, q.v. aparneomai). It informs me that in Mark 8, Jesus means to tell each one of us to ‘give up his [or her] personality’.

 

At first sight it, this explanation is plausible. After all, if Jesus is telling me to say to myself, ‘I don’t know that man!’, it does seem that I have to give up my personality. Understanding Jesus this way fits neatly into the kind of self loathing that many outside the church  identify with the Christian faith. And, if we are honest, this is also how we often feel ourselves – we dislike who we are, and we often look into the mirror, literally or metaphorically, and say, ‘I wish I don’t know that person!’ And every Sunday, parts of the church’s liturgy seem to confirm us in our low self esteem: ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table …’, etc., etc.

 

But that kind of self denial cannot be quite right. Consider Jesus’ exchange with the scribe that we heard earlier:

 

The second [commandment] is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

 

Notice that Jesus didn’t just say, ‘Love your neighbour,’ but ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Apparently, our love of our neighbours can never surpass the extent to which we are able to love ourselves.

 

But ‘loving ourselves’ seems a million miles away from the kind of self denial that Lent is supposed to be about. Well, perhaps not. Listen again to Archbishop Cranmer’s collect for Ash Wednesday, which found its way unchanged into the Scottish Prayer Book. In Elizabethan English, it starts:

 

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made …

 

‘Who hatest nothing that thou hast made.’ it must be significant that Cranmer chose Lent to remind us that God hates nothing that God has made, amazingly, not even the ‘me’ that I so love to deny every time I take a look at myself. And if God doesn’t hate me, then far be it from me to hate myself.

 

The second commandment teaches us that if we don’t learn this self acceptance, then we’ll never learn to love our neighbours. Importantly, such self acceptance is never self generated. The whole burden of the New Testament is that such self acceptance comes by grace.

 

Let me explain what I mean in non-religious language by way of an episode from the autobiography of the writer and comedian, Stephen Fry. From an early age, Fry was troubled by low self esteem and substance addiction. First he was addicted to sugar, which got him into petty theft to buy sweets. He moved on to expensive cigarettes, got expelled from school, stole credit cards to satisfy his craving, and ended up in prison at the age of 17. Somehow, he got out in one piece, and found himself at university reading English a year later. There, with some hesitation, he got involved in student theatre. Here’s how he described his first experience of acting:

 

The moment I walked on stage for the first time I felt so absolutely and entirely at home that it was hard for me to remember that I had had almost no experience at all. … [I felt] perfectly alive and magnificently perfected by the knowledge that [I was] doing what [I was] put on earth to do. [The Fry Chronicles, p. 109]

 

Interestingly, Fry compares this experience to something he saw years later, when he accompanied some rhinos from an Eastern European zoo to their natural habitat in Kenya. He says this:

 

It was immeasurably moving to watch these animals raise their top-heavy heads and take in the huge open skies of the savannah and the smells and sounds of [their natural] habitat … The quick … grunts, the waving of their horns from side to side … told you that somewhere inside they knew they were where they were supposed to be. [op. cit., pp. 109-110]

 

The rhinos ‘knew they were where they were supposed to be.’ Stephen Fry ‘knew [he was] doing what [he was] put on earth to do’. Mysteriously, even though neither the rhinos nor Stephen Fry had been to where they’ve just arrived at, they both felt that they had ‘come home’.

 

Everything was not by any means plain sailing for Fry after that – cocaine addiction was to haunt him later on; other moments of grace followed. But something fundamentally changed when he first walked on stage. At that moment, Fry stopped running from himself and started on the long road to self acceptance. He was not looking for that moment. That moment happened to him – it was a moment of grace. His own words again:

 

[Until now] I had been lost to the dense blackness of an unfriendly forest thick with brambles … and hostile creatures of my own making. Somewhere, somehow I had … been offered a path out and had found myself stumbling into open, sunlit country. [op. cit. p. 200]

 

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for salvation, yasha, has the root meaning of being released from confinement into an open space. At such moments of grace, God offers salvation; and only those who accept will have the kind of self love that will enable them to love their neighbours. When I know that I have ‘come home’, I am free to stop being obsessed with self loathing, and start to love.

 

In a mysterious way that we shall explore in two weeks time, the spiritual discipline of self denial is bound up with such moments of grace, with the possibility of being released into the open. That is why Jesus goes on to talk about salvation in Mark 8:

 

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and … follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life … will save it.

 

How that may work is for two Sunday’s time. Today, we are rubble clearing. We need to know that self-denial certainly does not involve what my Greek dictionary calls ‘giving up my personality’. Quite to the contrary, it is bound up with finding my personality; it is about being taken to a place where I can truly say, ‘I have come home’.

 

Let us pray.

 

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

and Grace will lead me home.

 

Dear God, who hates nothing that you have made, give us grace to deny ourselves that we may find ourselves at home in you. Amen.

 


The Touch of Jesus – The Rev Ruth Green 12 February 2012
Sermon from Sunday, 12th February 2012 - Rev Ruth Green

Touch 12.2.12

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer, Amen.

There’s something that can be really remarkable about the sharing of the Peace, when we shake someone’s hand and exchange a greeting of ‘Peace be with you’.  It can be a good experience, or, not so good.  The first time I was really aware of this was some years ago during Holy Communion at an Abbey in England.  When it came to the ‘sharing of the Peace’, there were several people who totally avoided eye-contact, only touched my hand for a millisecond, and mumbled greeting, which could have been anything.  I didn’t know them, so couldn’t have upset them in some way.  I had a mad urge to say ‘Hello’ –  to get some human response because it felt meaningless, and pointless, just going through the motions.

 

But of course, there are other churches at the opposite extreme, where the peace is a much more extravagant and enthusiastic affair, where everyone literally greets everyone else, and the whole church grinds to a halt, and they hug and laugh.  And here at St Peter’s, we are somewhere safely in the middle of those two extremes of touchiness.

 

Everyone knows that touch is important, especially for babies and small children, essential for a baby to thrive and survive.  For those who were fortunate enough to have been a wanted child, caresses and cuddles are our first experience of touch, grounding our sense of security and self-worth for the rest of our lives.  We all know the touch of affirmation, the touch of care with which we greet those who are struggling, like the bereaved.

 

Originally the Peace was a kiss of peace, or a holy kiss of love, rather than a handshake…there are some people here who might prefer that…but either way, it’s a way of expressing the unity of a group of believers – one of the gifts that God gives to his church, and it helps to create togetherness.

Thinking about reaching out, and touching, let’s look at today’s Gospel reading, the incident of Jesus cleansing the leper, which must be important, because this incident is in all three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, and they are almost identical in the words that Jesus did and said –

“a leper came to him, and knelt before him, and said – Lord, if you will, you can make me clean…and he stretched out his hand…and touched him, saying, I will; be clean. And immediately the leprosy healed him”.

Jesus was moved with compassion and he cures the leper with a word – and a touch.  In other miracles we read that words are sufficient for a cure.  And surely it could have been here as well.  But in this story Jesus does the unthinkable – he touches the leper – he bridges the gap between what is considered to be clean, and what is unclean – making himself, according to their customs, unclean along with the leper.

In ancient times, leprosy evoked dread, stigma, and alienation. The story takes place in the context of the Levitical system of laws, by which the Jews ran their lives.  The purpose of these laws was about protecting the physical health of communities who were terrified of contagious diseases. The leper’s blatant disregard for the biblical rules is shocking: he approaches Jesus, instead of remaining at a distance and calling out, ‘Unclean, unclean’ as he was supposed to.  Jesus shows how God works by refusing to sacrifice human beings to rituals. He touched him and declared him healed. Physical contact with a leper doesn’t spread leprosy, but touching a ritually unclean person – and a leper was that – meant becoming unclean. This was something that was not a huge problem, but it should be avoided where possible, and it was part of everyday life, and there were straightforward ways of dealing with it. Jesus tells the man to follow the biblical procedures, to do what the ancient health department laid down for rehabilitation of lepers: the priests had to see him before he could be let loose in the community. Jesus is simply telling the man to do what the Law requires: his kingdom means freedom for lepers, as well as everyone else.

 

By his touch Jesus is identifying himself with him, he bears his infection and uncleanness as his own.  Jesus’ willingness to become unclean himself totally shifts the boundaries of order.   Yet – as we know – with the word and the touch – instead of Jesus becoming unclean – the leper became clean.

 

According to the Law, the community is kept not just safe but righteous by expelling the unclean, who then becomes socially dead to the rest of the community, no longer able to contaminate the pure. When Jesus enters into relationship with outcasts and shares their social death, he starts a process of resurrection.  The unclean become full, living people born again. They are reincorporated…re-bodied into the community, and the community is healed into wholeness from separation, made new.

 

From the very moment of Jesus’ incarnation, God has been doing exactly this: restoring creation to order by entering a human body, staying with us in the darkest, sickest places, taking on social death, finally physical death, so that we can all become one, and rise from the dead.

Jesus too, was like an outcast from his family and his people.  No doubt he would have fulfilled expectations if he had settled down near his family, taken a wife, and exercised his ministry from his home, it would have been considered much more satisfactory.  But instead, he became an itinerant peasant, wandering the countryside, homeless, and jobless, of no fixed abode.  At the end of his ministry, when he is “examined” by the priests, he was found to be unacceptable, not a true member of the people, not worthy of either God’s love or that of the community.  And like lepers, dressed like corpses in their “treatments”, so Christ died, and was wrapped in linen cloths, and was then reborn to a new life, with a new community which not only accepted and loved him, but was loved by him.

We have to ask: is our society so very different from ancient Israel?  Is this really only a story from “far away and long ago”, or is it a story about today as well, because every culture has unclean people – those who are effectively touchable or untouchable…about who is part of the community of the accepted, and who is not.  Jesus’ love, seen in this miracle, offers us something very different from the usual way we are treated and judged.

We are accepted, not because our skin is perfect or our spirits unblemished, but because God is loving, and he reaches out with grace despite all our needs and our weakness.  We are accepted because we are God’s children, no matter what facade we present, no matter what sin, what fear is within us.  And Christ reaches out to touch us he reaches out to make us whole, to restore us to the relationship we should have with God and with our community and our neighbours.

 

As the oft quoted poem probably written by Teresa of Avila says:

 

Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

But literally, we have hands to reach out, both in supplication to God, to receive the bread of life, but also to touch and hold each other.

That is what Jesus is all about. That is what our Communion Service celebrates.  Here Christ touches us, here he makes clean, and here he restores us to himself and to one another.

Opening your hands is a dangerous activity; you can never be sure what will end up in them.  When we go to the altar, reaching out with our open hands, we are surrendering so much to God, releasing all that stuff we hold on to, the doubts, the anxieties, the complaining, the sins, the depression, the worry – they’re all there too.  When we go to the altar, and receive the bread and wine, that’s the release part.  At the altar, we are invited into the presence of God, and into his kingdom.

As he stretched out his hand to the leper and touched him and made him whole – so he stretched out his hands on the cross to make us whole.  All we need to do is kneel at his feet and ask him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” and he will reach out to us today.  He bids us to come to him.  He chooses to touch us  and to make us part of his family, his community, his church and he calls us to touch others with his love to touch them and to bring them into communion with him and with all who call on upon his name.

 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.