Monday, 28 January 2008

Jesus, what's the point

A talk I gave last week about why I am a Christian!

Men’s Group Jan 2008

Jesus – What’s the point?

Over my time as part of this group I have experienced different types of talks, and in your time coming to this group and attending Church generally I am sure you have heard most of the types.
For example -
There is the sonorous, theological type of talk filled with gravitas and tackled slowly and at great length.
There is the excitable, babbling type of talk with very few pauses for breath - lots of enthusiasm and very little substance.
There is the worthy type which endeavours to change us all for the better, said in great earnest with lots of meaningful looks.
There is the intellectual type of talk where the speaker spouts Greek, Hebrew, Latin, odd sounding German words and generally makes very little sense.
There is the classic ‘fire and brimstone’ talk-come-sermon designed to scare the hearers witless and spoken with great and powerful voice and much feeling.

All these and more you have probably heard from a variety of speakers over the years you have been coming and you might be wondering what type of address you will be listening to for the next few minutes or so…

Well, I was given the title for this evening of ‘Jesus, what’s the point?’ which echoes one of the themes from the Alpha course. I have to say my initial reaction was that the title sounds more like the kind of prayer that a Vicar lets out at the end of another day slaving over a hot Bible. Jesus – what is the point? But I could easily go into a long diatribe about how I was conned with regards to this being a one day a week job! So I’ll stop there.

I could, of course, give you a long – probably rambling – theological talk about who Jesus was, about his human and divine nature, about his radical teaching, about the focus of his message and about the meaning of his death and resurrection. In fact I do want to touch on some of these things – but I don’t want to try and muddy things up with too much theology or get bound up in technical phrases like homoousious or the hypostatic union of divine and human nature which is the core concept of Incarnational theology. I can discuss these things, but to be honest I have come out of some of those kind of talks saying to myself that it was all very interesting but what has it got to do with me? So if you want that kind of discussion see me afterwards and we can start a ‘waffling about theology’ kind of group sometime!

In the end, after careful deliberation, I want to ask that question which I asked after so many theology lectures, but to give it a personal slant – so my topic for tonight will be ‘Jesus – what’s he got to do with me?’
I can only start, to be honest, by telling you a bit about myself. Some of you will know this, so do feel free to nod off and I will only throw something if you start snoring!

I’ll start with the doozy – I am one of seventeen children. Actually, I am one of nineteen spread over two marriages – though both my mum and stepfather lost a son before I was born, so seventeen of us survived.

My biological father I never met, he died before I was born – he was a US airman who was killed in Vietnam. My mother met and married an Irish Navvy called Jack, the man who I call ‘Dad’, whilst I was very young and took on a ready made family. With this accident of romance, my mother is actually younger than some of my step brothers and sisters. But that’s another story altogether.

I was born and brought up in Devon, and for much of my young life lived in a four bedroom council house. Some of my older brothers and sisters had left home by the time we moved in there, so there were never more than 10 children (including teenagers) and mum and dad in this 4 bedroomed house! Before I seem to get all ‘Angela’s Ashes’ on you, though, my father was great believer in supporting his family and we were never hungry or lacking in anything we needed, unlike some of the Irish hard luck stories we read about in the novels!

With this kind of background, you might wonder how I managed to end up in the Church, let alone as an Anglican Priest! Well, in order that my parents could get a bit of peace at the weekend we were all packed off to the local Sunday School for a couple of hours every week. It helped that they sent a minibus around for us! Once my older siblings got the idea that it was just about keeping out of mum and dad’s hair, they skived off and just made themselves scarce. But I stuck with it. And I stayed at that Church from the age of eight until I was about 16 – when I moved to another Church in the town because it had a band who led worship and I was seriously into music!

But this brings me to my first thought about what Jesus has to do with me. I stayed with the Church not because of any great religious experience, or because I had to, or because of my parent’s influence – my father was a very lapsed Roman Catholic and my mother has in the past few years regained the faith of her Anglican childhood. I stayed with the Congregational Church in Honiton because I could see that these people had something which made them different. They called it a relationship with Jesus Christ – and though at first I didn’t understand what that meant I saw that it influenced everything they did. These people were generous with their time – taking on waifs and strays like me and offering friendship, support and care, taking an interest in me and encouraging me to explore faith for myself. Not Bible bashing, just getting on with their lives, but seeming to look at life from a different perspective from what I knew or had experienced. Something had changed their viewpoint – they weren’t stuck up or sanctimonious, but they were thoughtful, they showed respect for each other and even for those who were outside their group. They were different.

And that’s the first thing I want to share with you. Jesus isn’t a storybook figure, or someone distant who looks down on us either benignly or tut tutting over our various misdemeanours, Jesus actually, for those of us who are Christians, has a relationship with us, and that relationship changes us. I’ve got various friends (some of you in this room I consider myself fortunate to call my friends) and every one of you has had some effect on me – my relationship with you has changed me. That’s how our Christian faith should be, that’s why I don’t want to deal in abstractions or philosophy now, it’s not about whether we have our intellectual understanding of who Jesus was and is sorted out, it’s about how we relate to him.

And this relationship I remember starting when I was 11 years old, 27 years ago now. I prayed a prayer whilst I was on a camp in Polzeath in Cornwall, with one of these Christian folks whose genuine goodness had affected me, and – as we say in the trade – gave my heart to Christ. And I can honestly say I’ve never been the same since. I know I am not the person I would have been if I had not been a Christian.

So when we talk about the point of Jesus, or what Jesus has to do with us, it isn’t a static, one time thing – it’s a relationship with someone who is alive and dynamic and who can be, if we wish, a part of our lives here and now.

Now, though I believe that Christian faith changes people – and should make a difference to our lives, I don’t believe it makes us, or should make us, into holier than thou busybodies who like nothing better than putting a damper on things. There are certain things which I will not join in, not because I am a misery or hyper-holy (most of you know this, having spent more than a few evenings with me!) but because I don’t think these things are helpful. I’m not into porn, I think it objectifies women in a way that Jesus made sure he didn’t. I don’t use Jesus’ name as a swear word because I respect him too much for that – though my language may be a bit choice at times (I blame my irish upbringing). I don’t lie. I don’t fiddle my expenses, not even a bit! (the treasurer will tell you I don’t actually tend to claim them very much either, but that’s disorganisation rather than out of principal!). I am absolutely faithful to my wife! I respect people no matter what their size, shape, colour, class, language – because that’s the example I get from Jesus’ life.

For those who knew Jesus when he lived on earth, those who we hear about in the Gospels, Jesus changed their lives – more often than not by the way he addressed people, the respect he showed for those who were outcasts – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the mentally ill, the depressed, the lonely. He took time to be with them, we read in the Gospels how Jesus touched the untouchable, and went to the houses of those who were considered beyond the pale. That’s the kind of Jesus who has affected me. That’s who I read about in my Bible in my childhood, and who I read about now.

And I read in the Bible about a Jesus who was passionate, who got angry, who wept, who knew how to take the Mickey, who wasn’t afraid to speak out against things he knew were wrong, who was faithful but didn’t go along with the religious authorities, who was just like us – but at the same time challenged our attitudes and activities by being one hundred percent committed to God and doing God’s will exactly. That’s how his friends talked about him, that’s what they shared with people they met. Those who spent three years (or so) with Jesus saw him in all circumstances, yet they don’t talk about him ever losing that absolute focus on God’s way of doing things. Their encounter with Jesus so changed them that they went on to die rather than renounce their faith in him – or their belief that he was God made man.

And this God made man business is really what it’s about. If Jesus was just a good teacher, then he was also a looney – because he talked about himself in terms of his relationship with God in a way that suggested not only that he knew who God was, but was God. On the other hand, if Jesus was God on an awayday just looking human but really having that kind of glow in the dark, get out of jail superpower of being God then the fact that he died is meaningless, and we have a God who actually would have no idea what it means to be human. At least on an experiential level– only in abstract terms.

The early Church struggled, and we still struggle, with how to talk about Jesus, God Incarnate. My very simple attempt at a description would be this – if we could get God and squash him into a completely human being – we’d have Jesus. Completely human in that he feels, acts, thinks and suffers just as we do. Completely divine in that all that he experiences God experiences too, and that he lives completely within God’s will.

And all of that is my inspiration, that’s my example. As I grew up (I use that phrase in it’s ‘getting older’ sense!) I found out more about this Jesus person, I worked in schools telling people about faith, I did a couple of Degrees in Religion, I got trained, I learned to ride a motorbike, I played guitar, I got married and had children. And through all of this the only way I can use to describe my faith is that it is a relationship with Jesus Christ.

That’s the reason I do what I do. The reason I believe what I believe. I wasn’t planning to say this when I started thinking about this evening, but I don’t think people hear enough from Vicar’s about why they believe. They here plenty about what we know, even a bit of theology (every now and then) but I’m not sure we often talk about Jesus as someone we get to know, or of the challenge of Jesus’ example to us as individuals. I end with a quote from C S Lewis’ book ‘Mere Christianity’
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Saturday, 5 January 2008


Epiphany (2008)

Come to the king, whoever you are…

I don’t know if you remember the Christmas publicity campaign from a few years ago, one which caused some controversy at the time, but being broad minded myself I rather liked it. It had a cartoon picture of a shocked face with a caption which went something like this:
You’re in a stable, you’ve just given birth and now three kings have turned up with presents for the baby – talk about a bad hair day....

Of course, it’s trying to get us to think about the familiar story of the arrival of the wise men in a different way, which most of us who are responsible for preaching and teaching during our major Christian festivals are always trying to do! I think that, and the fact that ‘bad hair day’ is one of my favourite modern phrases, means that this ad really appealed to me, despite the fact that various green ink users in Tonbridge Wells got very excited about the whole campaign.

But as I have said often over this Christmas period, it is easy to forget the wonder of this story we know so well – familiarity seems to breed if not contempt at least a sort of numbness with regards to this amazing story. And the fact that we have a mish mash approach to the story with various elements from different Gospels mixed up together and the timescale of the arrival of the wise men’s arrival being less than clear means that we probably don’t enquire too deeply about this amazing event

It doesn’t help that we have layered meanings upon meanings on the text itself. First of all, despite the fact that I asked Ian to include ‘we three kings’ as part of our worship today there is no evidence that these were actually kings. Nor, unlike the suggestion in the carol, is there necessarily any deeper meaning to the gifts given... In fact I found this in the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary on the whole Bible of , 1871 this excellent passage:
That the gold was presented to the infant King in token of His royalty; the frankincense in token of His divinity, and the myrrh, of His sufferings; or that they were designed to express His divine and human natures; or that the prophetical, priestly, and kingly offices of Christ are to be seen in these gifts; or that they were the offerings of three individuals respectively, each of them kings, the very names of whom tradition has handed down—all these are, at the best, precarious suppositions. But that the feelings of these devout givers are to be seen in the richness of their gifts, and that the gold, at least, would be highly serviceable to the parents of the blessed Babe in their unexpected journey to Egypt and stay there—that much at least admits of no dispute.
To be honest, its just a good sing!

What is important is what we do know about the wise men, and that should be enough to fill us with a sense of wonder and surprise and indeed a sense of being challenged in our own attitude.

We begin by asking why this story is included here in Matthew’s Gospel – it isn’t found elsewhere in the New Testament, or referred to by any other source. For Matthew, the passionate Evangelist to the Jewish People, the one who believed in the kingship of Jesus, the King of the Jews, what is he saying to the Jewish people?

Well, lets start with what we know - we do know that the wise men, or Magi, were not Jewish – they came from the east, they were outsiders. They may have been astrologers, they certainly believed that the stars were worth studying and that signs of import could be found. In many ways they are beyond the pale, outside of the Jewish faith – it isn’t them who quote from the book of the prophet Micah, it is Herod’s advisers. By the time they arrive in Jerusalem they are lost and not quite sure where to go next….
Matthew, who is very Judeo-centred in his Gospel writing, seems to be both stepping outside of his usual boundaries of trying to get the message of who Jesus was to the Jewish people and yet at the same time is sending a message to his Jewish readers – that those outside of God’s chosen people were able to see that Jesus was king, that Jesus was the one prophesied as Messiah, the chosen one. These foreigners could see it, surely those of the Jewish faith who read the Gospel could see it to. It’s a challenge thrown down to the reader. This should make the faithful Jew think about whether they accept Jesus as king. If even those outside the faith can see, surely it would be obvious to those within.

So we find our first challenge. Have we seen the light of Christ? If so, how have we responded to it? Do we accept Christ as our King? And if so, how does this have an impact on our lives. I was listening to a sermon recently on the internet which I was guided to by Paul and Kath and was struck by one of the question asked at the start – what would the Church look like if we really did act as though Jesus were our king? If we lived by kingdom values in everything we did?

It’s a good thing to ask at the beginning of this new year? In what way can I as an individual live up to the values of the kingdom of God? What changes would I have to make to the way I live my life if I really acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the king of everything? Even more so – what changes should our Church be making if we truly want to make this an outpost of God’s Kingdom?

I saw the kingdom made real in this past few weeks when I saw the unconditional love and support that Bourn Church gave to one of our number struggling with loss, and I was profoundly moved by this example of Church in action. It’s not the first time I have seen it, and I suspect I won’t be the last! The way our Christian communities rally around those in need is a constant inspiration to me and I consider it a huge privilege to be a minister in this place. It’s why even after having fulfilled my seven year license I have no desire to move on – I have seen these congregations grow in love and service and in a desire to live as those who bring the love and light of Christ in this place. But we cannot rest on our laurels, there is still more to be done, and we need to ask again and again, how is Jesus made King in our Church? What can we offer? What should we be doing?

The second challenge from this reading springs from this first Challenge of making Christ our king in everything and from our reading for today. It comes from the wise men – the outsiders. Matthew, for all his Jewish identity and agenda, makes it clear that these outsiders have something to say, and that they respond to Christ in the most appropriate way. If there is one thing our Churches need to continue to do in order to grow in Kingdom values, it is to welcome the outsider and reach out to those beyond these walls.

It’s not a new message and I am moved to preach on it regularly. We exist as the Church to worship God and to proclaim Christ to the world. This means welcoming those who see things differently, allowing them to bring who they are and and what they have to offer, letting them ask questions, encouraging them to come in and to be a part of our Church family, showing the love of Christ to all, no matter how they look, or sound, or what they think. We are called to be a place of openness to outsiders, and to listen to them, and to allow them to challenge us.

As the outsiders came to worship Christ and proclaim him king, may we too be those who put Christ as the focus of our Church and our lives, and may we be open to God speaking in unexpected ways through unexpected people. May we be open to the values of the kingdom and live them in all we do and think and say. May 2008 be our year of kingdom values, or I should say, the start of considering again the values of the Kingdom of God.