AMDG: Sermon at the Ordination to the Diaconate of Pamela Morgan, in Little Rock, Arkansas: 22nd February 2001.

Let me begin by saying how honoured I am to be with you on this wonderful occasion, and how grateful I am to Pamela for inviting me to share with you all as she commits herself to this new stage in her life and ministry.

Since this is an occasion of commitment, I should like, if I may, to reflect with you for a few moments on that very subject: on Christian commitment – both what it is, and what it is not.   Part of my reason for this is that we seem to be hearing a great deal these days from a certain style of preacher about the need for Christian commitment, and church’s lack of it.  Indeed, sometimes I wonder what it all means.  To judge by some of this preaching, it almost seems that I’m to understand there are two sorts of Christians – ordinary Christians and committed Christians, and we need to make sure we’re the right sort.  

But how are we to know we’re the right sort?  Will it be evident from the set of our jaws, or the slightly glazed look in our eyes?  What is the difference between ordinary Christians and committed Christians?

Now there is one level, of course, on which the question can be answered very simply.  If we mean that there’s a difference between committed Christians and people who merely play at religion – who, for example, toy with the possibility of joining the church without ever actually getting baptised or confirmed, or who like on some occasions to enjoy what people used to call “the consolations” of religion yet jeer at religion when with they’re with their sophisticated atheist friends, or else reject the authority of religion when its demands inconvenience them – if, in other words, if we mean that committed Christians can’t be people who try simultaneously to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds – why then, I think we must agree.  What’s more, I think we must say that people who do try to live in such a way are playing a very dangerous game indeed, with themselves if with no one else. And one day, in some way, the dangers will very likely catch up with them. But surely all that is so self-evident as to be hardly worth saying?  Surely the preachers who call for “committed” Christians must be saying something slightly less obvious than that?

Yes, I think they are.  I think what they are actually doing is offering a subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) criticism of the church simply for being what it is: a company of sinners – redeemed sinners, of course, but sinners nonetheless.  I seldom hear such preachers quoting Luther – that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator – “at once justified and a sinner” – and I often hear them quoting (it must be confessed, somewhat out of context) what John the Seer said about the church in Laodicea being “lukewarm, neither cold nor hot,” and then applying it to the rather feeble, run-of-the-mill church as we ourselves know it – and needless to say, that means the Episcopal church in particular.  “This church, too, is lukewarm,” they say. “It is, after all, so full of hypocrites.  So full of people who don’t live up to their profession!  So full of squabbles even about what Christian profession means, or how to live!” You know the sort of thing, and doubtless you’ve heard it a thousand times, as I have.  Sometimes they will even say, “What we need is a spot of persecution.  That would soon sort out the real Christians, the committed Christians, from the others.”  

There is a sense, of course, in which all that they say is completely true, and has been true from the twelve disciples onwards, every one of whom betrayed Jesus and fled, when the chips were down; and who were squabbling among themselves about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus from the very beginning.  Read Mark ten, thirty-five to forty-five, or the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, or the Letters of Paul to the Galatians or the Corinthians, if you don’t believe me.

What is not true, however, is the conclusion that some of these preachers want us to draw from all this, which is, first, that “committed” Christians ought therefore to go off and form some nobler, holier, more truly committed group than such an average, run-of-the-mill church as ours; and second, that what is demanded from us if we are to be “committed” Christians is a commitment to Christ that is perfect, irrevocable, and complete.  

To all that I have a response of my own, which is that both those conclusions involve monstrous self-deception.     

First – what is this group to be like, that will have ideals so much nobler than that of the run of the mill church?  I am reminded of the young man in the gospels who came full of vision to Jesus, asking what he should do to find salvation.  Simply, kindly, Jesus reminded him of the commandments, which, of course, everyone knew.  “Oh, that old stuff!  How boring!  I’ve done all those since I was so high!” said the young man – and Jesus looking on him loved him.  And what else can you do with someone who has the gall to claim that he’s mastered all the commandments except love him?  

So then, what of this ordinary, run-of-the-mill Episcopal Church to which we all belong?  What does it offer, and to what end?   It offers the Word of Jesus to our hearts and it offers the Body and Blood of Jesus to our mouths, to the end that we may go and be Jesus among the people with whom we find ourselves. Quite simple, really – and will anyone who has managed it please see me after the service.  If you have managed all that, then we can talk about finer, nobler, holier groups to which you might choose to belong.

What then of the second claim – that what we need is real commitment, a commitment from which we will never go back, never deviate?  

I reply, quite simply, that for us, all of us, such a commitment is impossible, and to imagine we had made it would therefore simply be a piece of self-deception. 

Why is it impossible?  It is impossible because you cannot cross a bridge before you have reached it and you cannot fight a battle before your enemy has taken the field.  

You promise chastity, and you mean it.  Good.  But you have not by making that promise dealt with the temptation you will face when you and some other real person fall mutually and truly in love, yet for some good reason cannot marry.  

You promise honesty, and you mean it.  Good.  But you have not by making that promise dealt with the temptation that you will have when you have the opportunity to make some extra money that, to tell the truth, you could really do with, but by a means that will involve something just slightly underhand.

You promise fidelity to Christ, and you mean it.  Good.  But that will spare you none of the actual fear and doubt that will come to you if someone holds a gun to your head and says, “Deny Christ or die!”

The fact is, we cannot commit ourselves totally and irrevocably to God merely by intending to do it or wanting to do it or saying that we will do it.  Trusting God is something that has to be learned. And so long as we do not understand that, so long as we imagine that we can of our own will and strength be faithful to God, so long we show that we are not actually trusting God at all, we are simply trusting ourselves. We will not learn what dependence on God is except through having our self-dependence, our trust in ourselves, regularly, slowly, and painfully, broken. That is Christian orthodoxy, Catholic and Protestant, and any who do not understand it understand little about themselves and less about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  True confession of failure, honestly and bravely made, whether silently in the depths of the heart or at formal confession in the presence of a priest – that is the mark of one who truly trusts in God. Our requests for penance, advice, and absolution – those are the real signs that we have given up relying upon ourselves. Those whose hearts are broken by the knowledge of their sins and the wonder of God’s forgiveness – those who are the ones who are committed Christians, and those are the ones whom Christ claims as his own. Think again of the twelve disciples. Every one of them failed Jesus when the chips were down. Yet Jesus used those twelve disciples anyway, as chosen instruments in the founding of his church.

So commitment to Christ is a very strange thing – for the fact is, we, sinners that we are, learn what such commitment means not by succeeding in it but by trying it and failing in it and then turning back to God anyway. Every failure that brings us to ask pardon of God brings us back to our Baptism, wherein we were committed to Christ in the light of Christ’s death, and so our Baptism points us to Calvary. The real truth about commitment to Christ is that we could not even begin to seek it were not that God in Christ is already committed to us and is seeking us, as a lamb slain for our sakes from before the foundation of the world.

So – what are we to say of this ordinary, run-of-the-mill Episcopal Church, so full of redeemed sinners, that is ours? Does it really know nothing of commitment? If you think that,then look a little closer. What, for example, of the present occasion? Tonight there stands before us and before God Pamela, a modest, gentle, wise woman, who is committing herself in a very special and public sense. Just listen to the particular commitments she is about to make, as the Prayer Book describes them.

She promises to be “faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of Holy Scripture,” she promises to “look for Christ in all others, being ready to help and serve those in need,” she promises “in all things” to seek “not her own glory but the glory of Christ.” And I dare say I know her well enough to know that she means those promises and intends to keep them, from the bottom of her heart.

Now if the order and discipline of Catholic Christianity means anything at all to you, if you have ever found yourself helped by the ministry of an ordained person, either in public worship or in private counsel, then you will know how useful it is for the church that God gives some, like Pam, to undertake these promises and this office.  

But of the special commitments she makes tonight the same thing is true as we have already said of all Christians’ more general commitments: she will not be able fully to sustain them. When Saint Paul spoke of the apostolic ministry, he asked rhetorically, “Who is sufficient for these things?”  And the answer he meant us to hear is obvious: “No one!”  Paul was certainly well aware that he was not sufficient. 

So it will be that Pam will never, after today, hear or read those promises in the Ordination Service without feeling a measure of guilt and failure. She will live for the rest of her life with the ever-increasing knowledge of chances to love and to be obedient that have gone forever.  

What does this mean?  

Does it mean that she ought not to make such commitments? Of course it doesn’t mean that! We’ve already said – we learn commitment to Christ by making it and failing in it and picking ourselves up and going back to Christ and trying again anyway – again, and again, and again.

So, what does it mean?  

It means, first, that those of us who call ourselves “the church,” Pam’s fellow Christians, must be gentle with her, as we expect God to be gentle with us. Just because she has bravely undertaken these public commitments, do not demand of her that she always feel confident, faithful, bright, and loving. Do not require that she always be both happy and useful. Remember that she is still like you: struggling to be faithful, yet sometimes forgetting; trying to be obedient, yet not always knowing why, or even in what direction obedience lies. Remember that she like you is sometimes lonely and frightened and sad.  

Secondly, it means thatwe who call ourselves Pam’s fellow Christians must try to minister to her and to nourish her with the same gospel with which she is undertaking to nourish us: for Christian ministry is not to be one way. As Saint Paul said, it is only by bearing each other’s burdens that we fulfil the Law, the Torah, of Christ. And here, suddenly, is the joy: for to minister to Pam from the gospel will be to remind her that in the last analysis the ministry she attempts is not hers at all, but Christ’s. It will be to remind her that it is, by God’s grace, Christ who is the good shepherd, and not she; and that Christ is her shepherd as much as yours. It will be to remind her that while of course we want her to take her commitments seriously, still she is not to take them too seriously or more seriously than the love of God. The fact is, God knows very well that our best commitments are mostly impossible for us for the moment. But God does not ask of us the impossible. Did we think for God’s sake that God expected us to be successful? No.It is the world, the flesh, and the devil – and, I might add, some schismatically minded preachers – who demand success. God only asks that we try to be faithful.  

As for you, Pam, what all this means for you quite simple. You must say your prayers, try to be a useful and loving sort of deacon – and later, please God, a useful and loving sort of priest – and always try to admit (at least to God) when you’ve blown it. If you will just do those three things, you’ll be quite all right, and so will those round you. For Christ is the beautiful shepherd, and Christ will finally take the most bumbling efforts of us most incompetent sheepdogs and turn them to something glorious. And even though life lay upon us a cross, yet God who is our Father and our Mother, our Savior and our most gracious Sovereign, will in the end bring us all to the fellowship of blessed Mary and the company of angels and saints, and to a crown, not because we were all that deeply committed, as Christians or as deacons or as priests, but because God is committed to us, and God is faithful. And not our commitments but the faithfulness of God is the beginning and the end of the gospel. Amen. 

          LSD

Peter has a Bad Moment: a Note for the Parishes in Central Exeter

Proper 17A. For the Gospel: Matthew 16.21-28

This morning’s gospel belongs very closely with the gospel story we heard last week. Last week, you may remember, we heard Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter’s response—what we sometimes call his “confession”: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. To which confession Our Lord said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” 

So far, so good. But what does it mean to be the Messiah? What does it mean to be Son of God?  This, the evangelist tells us in the section appointed for this morning’s gospel, is what Jesus now proceeded to show his disciples. It would not be the triumphal progress for which I dare say they were hoping—I know that’s what I would have been hoping. No, it would be something quite contrary to that.

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter, very understandably, is appalled by this. 

“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

This is a terrible moment. No one else (other than Satan himself) is called “Satan” in the entire gospel narrative: none of those we might think of as its “villains”—not Caiaphas, nor Pilate, nor even the traitor Judas. For Peter alone is reserved the title “Satan”—“Adversary”!— for that is what the Hebrew word satan means. And indeed, Jesus’ “Get behind me, Satan!” must put us in mind of the “Away with you Satan!” with which he earlier dismissed his adversary at the time of his being tested in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry (Matt. 4.10).

Poor Peter! In almost no time at all, it seems, he has gone from hero to zero. “Stumbling block”! The Greek word is skandalon, whence we get our English word “scandal”. In Greek it is a very strong word indeed, and means “trap” or “snare”. So Peter, who had earlier been told that he was the “rock” upon which the church would be built, the church that would be stronger than the gates of Hades—that is, stronger than death—is now told that he is also another kind of rock—a rock that gets in the way and trips you up! Faced with what Paul called “the stumbling block” of the cross (1 Cor. 1.23) Peter has himself become a stumbling block. What on earth has he done to merit this terrible rebuke?

It is not so much that the ways of God are inscrutable, and therefore beyond Peter. Of course they are that, but we must not use that as an excuse to avoid what is actually quite straightforward—as straightforward in its way as the prophet Micah’s, “He has told you what is good— and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6.8). The straightforward essence here is that the way of God’s son, God’s anointed cannot be a way of triumph unaccompanied by pain, because (as Jesus pointed out to Satan in the episode that we call “the Temptation” [Matt. 4.1-11) it is the way of obedience to God, which is to say, the way of love. In this present world that inevitably means a way of suffering, greater or lesser. As C. S. Lewis said, “The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Jesus’ love is perfect, and it will bring him to his cross. And he knows it. 

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”

Those who of us who want to follow Jesus—and I stress, as does the evangelist’s Greek, “want to (θέλει)”: for it is always a matter of our free choice—those of us who want to take that path must do our feeble best to emulate such love in our own lives, doing what we can to take up and bear gracefully whatever “cross” is laid upon us, always remembering that the essence of true humanity is, as the old play has it, to “love thyself last” (Shakespeare and Massinger, Henry VIII III.ii.521). That is what it means to follow Jesus. That is why, when Jesus says, “get behind me” to Peter he is actually assigning him the place where we all need to be—in truth, the only place where we can be with any degree of either realism or safety: behind Jesus. And as close behind him as we can get! Then, when he comes in the glory of his Father to face us as our judge, we may by his grace be enabled to raise our faces to his and look into his eyes. God grant us that! Amen. 

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman: a Note for the Parishes in Central Exeter

Proper 15, Year A. 

For the Gospel: Matthew 15.22-28

You sometimes hear people who think that they are being marvellously orthodox saying things like, “If Jesus was God, he must have known everything.” Actually, when they say things like that they aren’t being orthodox at all. They’re espousing a form of the docetic heresy (the name comes from the Greek verb dokeō, meaning “to appear” or “to seem”). Docetists said that Jesus wasn’t really human at all. He was actually God appearing or seeming or pretending to be human. In other words (and if you will forgive the analogy) he was like a chocolate Easter egg covered in coloured paper. It looks like a coloured egg, but really it’s just chocolate underneath! The New Testament, however, says that “the Word became flesh” (John 1.14)—really became it!—which is to say, Jesus was truly a human being, with all the limitations that go along with that. And among those limitations, of course, is the plain fact that we don’t know everything, and what we do know we have to learn. And, of course, that’s exactly how St Luke describes Our Lord. As he grew to manhood, Luke says, he “advanced in wisdom and stature” (2.52). In other words, he learned things! 

Now one of the reasons why I find today’s gospel interesting is that I believe it gives us a glimpse of Our Lord doing just that: learning something, advancing in wisdom. Some of my old students may remember I used to say to them, “There’s only one time in the gospels when Jesus loses an argument, and it’s to a woman and a foreigner.” This is the story I was talking about.

Jesus, the evangelist tells us, was approached by a woman of Sidon, a Canaanite, in other words, a pagan—the very kind of person whom, according to Moses, the good Israelite should “utterly destroy” (Deut. 20.17). She addresses Jesus with profound respect and asks for healing for her daughter. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” she says, ”my daughter is tormented by a demon!” At first Jesus simply says nothing—he gives her, as we say, “the silent treatment.” Then, when his disciples fuss at him to send her away, he points out that his primary mission must be to his own people. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Her response is to kneel before him and say, “Lord, help me!” His response—“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”—embarrasses us, and it should. It is an insult, although no doubt it is precisely what Jesus had been told by at least some among his teachers. Israel is God’s child, and Israel’s election must be taken seriously. Non-Israelites are abominable because they do not honour the God of Israel. In their uncleanness they are like dogs, and it would be a poor father who gave the children’s dinner to the dogs! 

Insulted and rejected though she has been, the Canaanite woman neither sulks nor turns away. Rather, she stands her ground, turning Jesus’ family metaphor on its head: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”—a response that shows wit and magnanimity, but above all faith. She maintains her courteous address, continuing to call Jesus “Lord”. She denies neither that Jesus’ primary mission is to Israel nor that the Israelites are God’s “children”, the elect, first in God’s love. She insists, however, on a truth prior even to God’s election of Israel—a truth she seems to know instinctively even though she has surely never read the Scriptures, a truth that was apparently (as St Paul would have put it) “written in her heart” (cf. Rom. 2.15): namely, that “the LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145.9). So then, even mere dogs under the table are surely permitted to pick up the crumbs the children don’t need! In insisting on this, she manifests the essential faith of Israel, the faith of Abraham, the faith of Moses. Like Abraham and Moses, she is willing to argue with God, a willingness that can be based on nothing less than her faith that God is just, good, and merciful. In doing so she shows herself to be at heart a daughter of Abraham. 

Her effect on Our Lord is evident.

“O madam, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

So in this scene we see an occasion when, to use St Luke’s phrase, “Jesus advanced in wisdom.”

I recently came across some important observations about this story in David Brown’s beautiful book, Through the Eyes of the Saints. Commenting on the version found in Mark, where the woman is described as “Syro-Pheonician” rather than “Canaanite”, he writes, 

it is not impossible that it was his [Jesus’] exchange with the Syro-Pheonician woman that led him to give a higher status to Gentiles in the divine economy than seems generally to have been true among his contemporaries. Certainly, all agree that it is an odd exchange, and so possibly may have been preserved precisely because the woman’s quick response led Jesus to think anew: his compatriots’ abusive term for Gentiles as like the despised wild dogs of the day just would not do. None of this can be proved, but, the more seriously we take New Testament scholarship’s contextualising of Jesus’ teaching within the thoughts forms of the time, the more likely such scenarios become. 

Exactly! May God grant us all the faith, wit, grace and tenacity of the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman. Amen.

Easter 2020: a note for the parishes of Central Exeter

I’ve been a priest now for nearly sixty years, and during the whole of that time this is the strangest Easter I’ve known. I’m told it’s the church’s job to give hope, and no doubt it is. But hope for what? For a return to that “normalcy” whose apparent security is always an illusion? [1]

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. [2]

T. S. Eliot wrote those words in 1940, a year in which Great Britain was subject to an aerial bombardment that left people with very few certainties—not the certainty that the houses they lived in would be standing tomorrow, nor even the certainty that they themselves would still be alive. As that uncertainty loomed, King George VI in his Christmas broadcast to the nation quoted a poem that had been shown him by his thirteen-year old daughter Princess Elizabeth:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand in the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East. [2`]

The darkness in which we find ourselves, the darkness of Holy Week and the darkness of pandemic, are real. Let us not deceive ourselves about that. But darkness has never overcome the light and darkness and death do not have the last word. All around us there are signs of Spring, shoots of green, birds building nests. And the Easter salutation does not change:

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

The last word is and forever will be Christ’s and it is a word of grace:

Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

1  One might add: shall we continue criminally to underfund the National Health Service, that same NHS whom we now call our heroes, even as they place their lives on the line for us—and in some cases die for us because they do not have enough of the personal protection equipment with which our successive governments of both parties should have seen they were provided?

2 T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets.

3 Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)God Knows” in The Desert (1908).

page1image32733632

The Word became flesh: text of a sermon preached at St Stephen’s, Exeter on Christmas Day, 2019

Detail from Madonna and Child: Bernadino Luini

For the past few years, whenever I’ve preached at Christmas it’s generally been at Midnight Mass. That means, of course, that I’ve preached on St Luke’s story of Our Lord’s birth: Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the stable, the shepherds’ visit, and at the centre of it all the Virgin Mother and her Child. And what a story it is! Even after two thousand years painters still love to paint it, sculptors to carve it, and poets and hymn writers to hymn it. Countless schools and churches around the world love to reenact it. The most cynical and morally beaten-up among us generally still have a moment when our hearts are strangely warmed as we gather round a Christmas crib or watch a Nativity Play, however simply (or even badly) written or performed. 

That, then, is what we get to think about at Midnight Mass.

By contrast, in the light of Christmas morning, while not forgetting that wonderful story—our hymns are still reminding us of it—while not forgetting that, the church now asks us to pay attention to the passage from St John that we just heard, the Prologue to his gospel. In it John tells us his version of the same story. And it’s different. Very different! Moving from Luke’s stable to John’s Prologue is like moving from a cosy thatched cottage to a solemn temple.

John’s version begins back in time, indeed, before time. No doubt the evangelist had read in his Bible that “in the beginning” God created the heavens and the earth. So he now starts by pointing out that in that same “beginning”, even before God created anything, “the Word”—God’s Word—already was! (1.1) Through that Word, he tells us, the universe itself was uttered into being (1.3). In that Word was life, and the life was the light of humankind—the true light, that enlightens us all, the light that continues to shine throughout our history (1.4). And although that history contains much that is dark, still “the darkness did not overcome” it (1.5)—the “overcome” of our NRSVs being something of an under-translation: John’s Greek word is “κατέλαβεν”—”grasped” or “apprehended” — a rather brilliant choice, since it implies not only that darkness has never defeated the light but also that it has never understood it (1.5). As the colloquialism has it, when it comes to light, the darkness has simply never got it.

After a couple of digressions about John the Baptist and other things, John comes to the affirmation that is heart and centre of the Christmas story as he tells it: “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” “Flesh”—σάρξ: a word that to John’s first hearers would have spoken of our humanity in all its frailty and transience. I dare say neither John nor his hearers could think of anything more utterly different from God’s eternal Word than “flesh”, and yet “flesh” is what John says the eternal Word “became”—ἐγένετο: his choice of word indicating what happened here was no mere appearance, like an actor putting on a costume or a mask, but real.[1] St Augustine of Hippo declared that throughout his life before he became a Christian, as he struggled to find wisdom, he’d come across other sources that spoke to him of God’s Word. But only in Christianity did he find it written that “the Word became flesh” (Confessions VII).

Just why does the church want us to hear all this—in effect, a summary history of the universe—on this particular day? I think because it tells us something of what the Bethlehem story means. It’s only too easy for us to sentimentalise that story. We can hear it and at the end of it say, “Yes, it’s beautiful. But it was all a very long time ago. Next week we must go back to work and the world will not have changed. Life will still be the same old same old.”

And that’s precisely where St John says we’re wrong. “No,” he says. “If you think that, you simply haven’t got it. You’re like the dark that surrounds the light but never understands it. What happened at Bethlehem that night involved a union between ourselves and God that changes everything, a union that is staggering if not preposterous, a colossal, breathtaking paradox. Don’t you hear it? The Word became flesh.

For all the lightness of her verse, Christian Rosetti expresses that paradox very firmly in her carol, “In the bleak midwinter” [2]—indeed, she compels us to pay attention to it:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away,

When he comes to reign.

So much any follower of the God of Abraham, any faithful Jew, Moslem or Christian may affirm. But then comes the affirmation that only a Christian can make:

In the bleak midwinter

A stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ

It is precisely our humanity, our back-to-work-and-the-world-hasn’t-changed humanity, our it’s-only-more-of-the-same-old-same-old humanity, which God has consecrated and tied to God’s own self in the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s what John tells us. The Word has become flesh.

And just why would God do such a thing as that? John’s answer to that question comes only a little later in the gospel, in what’s understandably one of the best-loved verses in the Bible. God did it, John says, because “God so loved the world” (3.16). Though God needs nothing and has perfection within the Triune Unity, still God, one of Whose names is “Immanuel, God with us”, wills to be in union with a creature who is other than God’s Self—and for no other reason than love. God wants us to be (as 2 Peter puts it) “partakers of the divine nature” (1.4). And since we in our frailty cannot attain to God, God in God’s loving-kindness comes to us. Love is why God in the child of Bethlehem tied God’s self indissolubly to us, even though, in the sinful world that humankind had made, it would cost him the cross.[3] And love is why at the end of the gospel story, when Christ is exalted to the right hand of God, it will be our humanity that is exalted with him and in him. “Beloved,” says John’s first letter, “even now are we children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we do know this, that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.2).

And that is why the church, amid and in spite of all the darkness and confusion that is in the world, continues to wish us all a Merry Christmas. Amen.

[1] The evangelist’s choice of word excludes “any possibility that the human flesh of Jesus was something similar to clothing which he had put on, something quite external to him, which he could discard at will… This does not mean that the Logos was changed into a human being.… Nor does the use of ἐγένετο imply that the Logos ceased to be God. The sense is that the Logos became a human being without ceasing to be God. Thus the purpose of ἐγένετο is to emphasize that the Logos did not just ‘dwell in’ human flesh, did not just ‘have’ a human body in order to speak his part for one or more performances, like a Greek actor walking on stage with a particular mask. He, the divine Logos, was in reality the principal character in the drama” (John F. McHugh, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on John 1–4 ICC [London: T & T Clark, 2009] 53).

[2] First published as “A Christmas Carol” in Scribner’s Monthly (January 1872) 272; now in The New English Hymnal 28; The Hymnal 1982 112.

[3] There is a school of thought, particularly prominent in the Eastern church, which says asserts that it was always God’s purpose to become incarnate, even if humanity had not sinned. While such “what-would-have-happened-if” questions are surely close to being meaningless, and in any case I am certainly not qualified to have an opinion on the matter that would be worth much, still, for what it is worth, I confess that this is an idea that I find attractive.

Judgement: text of a sermon preached in St. Olave’s Church, Exeter on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Advent 2A: OT Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps. 72.1-7, 18, 19; NT Romans 15.4-13; Gospel Matt. 3.1-12

I still remember the morning of my ordination to the diaconate. Thirty of us had been in silent retreat over the weekend. Now we were released from silence. The bishop had pointed out, kindly but firmly, that the ordination service was very long, and however much some of the more pious among us might wish to fast, as far as he was concerned it was a matter of holy obedience that we eat breakfast. So there we all were, crowded into the refectory, chattering noisily and nervously over eggs and bacon and toast and marmalade and enormous mugs of tea or coffee.  

The archdeacon in charge of us, who appeared to be enjoying his moment of glory, got to his feet and cleared his throat. 

“There are,” he said, “just a few last things.” 

The bishop looked up.  

“Four, if I remember correctly,” he said, and returned to his egg.  

He was, I suspected, beginning to get just a little fed up with the archdeacon.  

The interesting thing was that even in those far-off days, when some of us like to think the church preached the faith and everything was simply divine, not everyone got the joke. Even then it was a long time since the church had been expected to spend the four Sundays of Advent preaching about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. 

Be that as it may, I, as some of you may know, am an Oxford man. And that means virtually by definition that I’m a defender of lost causes. So as this is the Second Sunday in Advent, whatever may be going on elsewhere in the church or the world, I’m going to talk about judgment—God’s judgment.  

I’m encouraged in this by the fact that Post Communion prayer that the church appoints for today explicitly points out that God who sent His Son “to redeem the world” will also “send him again to be our judge”, and also by the fact that the bible readings we’ve just heard were all, directly or indirectly, concerned with judgment.  Isaiah of Jerusalem, centuries before the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, speaks of a coming King upon whom God’s Spirit shall rest, one who 

shall not judge by what his eyes see,

    or decide by what his ears hear; 

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isa 11.3-4)

St Paul, whom we didn’t read in church this morning, but whose appointed passage you can see on the lesson sheets for today, also talks about the coming one, though he doesn’t in this passage actually use the word “judgment”. 

One thing you may notice about them both is how upbeat they are. Paul finishes his little section with an exhortation to plain joy: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit!” (Rom. 15.13). Both prophet and apostle see the coming Day of the Lord as something to look forward to, not something to fear.  In this respect, they are rather like Handel’s Messiah. Or perhaps more precisely I should say that Handel’s Messiah interprets the sort of thing they are saying very well.  You’ll remember that the music of the Messiah does get rather sad and serious sometimes, for example when the texts are about Jesus’ passion and death. But when the texts are about God coming to reign over the world and judge the nations, it is always cheerful and exciting. “Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, arise, shine, for thy light is come!” And so on. I will not embarrass myself by attempting to sing it, but I trust you get the point. 

So why are the prophet and the apostle so cheerful?  

In a word, because for them God’s judgment means that what is wrong with the world is going to be put right!  And indeed, the first thing we must do if we are to understand the biblical idea of God as judge is to forget our pictures of an elderly man wearing an enormous wig sitting above us and pronouncing sentence. We must think instead of a deliverer coming to rescue us—like St George saving the princess from the dragon, or Robin Hood saving the poor people of Nottingham from the wicked sheriff, or the good sheriff in the old Western movies who rides into town and rids the citizens of the wicked cattle baron who’s trying to take over. That, of course, is what those who are called “judges” in the Book of Judges are like: Samson, Jephthah, and all the others.  They are heroes who deliver Israel from her enemies. And that’s what our psalmist this morning was talking about when he prayed that a righteous king would

judge your people righteously,

and your poor with justice. (Ps. 72.2)

To put it another way, biblical “judgment” is basically not about condemning the guilty but about vindicating the helpless. It’s about the sort of thing we mean when we talk of “justice for the poor” or “justice for the unborn”—in other words, justice for those who are not in a position to defend or protect themselves. It’s about delivering the helpless from what oppresses them. That’s what we mean, or at any rate what we ought to mean, when we say – as, God willing, we will say in a few minutes—that we believe in Jesus Christ who will “come in glory to judge the living and the dead”.

And of course that is what we all want to happen. 

Or is it? 

It would be idle to pretend there is absolutely nothing in the prospect of God killing off all the dragons or bad cattle barons or wicked sheriffs that threatens us. On the contrary! There is, alas, a streak in all of us that’s quite attracted by the idea of being a successful dragon or cattle baron or wicked sheriff, at least for so long as we can get away with it—so long, perhaps, as we think God won’t notice. We all have in us streaks of pride, greed and vainglory. 

So where will we be in that wonderful Last Judgment to which we might have so looked forward if we’d been better people? 

A hard question—and part of the answer to it surely involves a passage from today’s Scripture readings that I haven’t so far mentioned: the gospel!  “You brood of vipers!” roars John the Baptist. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?!” (Matt. 3.7).  Let’s face it, no one’s going to give John the Baptist high marks for pastoral sensitivity. Some people for a time thought he might be the Messiah, and the rest of us poor sinners may well thank God that he wasn’t. But leaving all that aside, let’s focus on the one thing that the Baptist surely did get right: which is to say, he paid people the compliment of suggesting that God took their responses to God very seriously.  

Or to put it another way, John the Baptist reminds us that God’s judgment means that we are going to have to face the truth not only about others, but also about ourselves. We’re going to have to admit that we have on the whole been extraordinarily unsatisfactory human beings. And admitting that, openly and publicly before angels and the archangels and the whole company of heaven, is not something we expect to enjoy.  We’d prefer to hang on to our self-deceptions and our self-righteousness. Unfortunately, however, those things are lies, and since heaven can only accommodate truth (Rev. 22.15), they’ll have to go.  It will be a question of having one or the other: Saint George or the dragon, Robin Hood or the wicked sheriff, the penny or the bun.  We cannot forever go on as we do at present—trying to have both. We’re going to have to think again. And that—“thinking again”—is exactly what the words translated “repent” and “repentance” in our gospel reading mean.

On the other hand, if the saints are to be trusted, when the moment actually comes for such final self-abandonment to divine providence, perhaps it will not seem such a very big thing after all – not once we have allowed ourselves to look properly into the eyes of our saviour. For then we shall know that we have found what we were truly looking for all the time, even in our most dragon-ish moments, even in our times of greatest sinfulness and folly. We shall see that the One who judges us is also our truest lover and always has been. And in that moment the times when we wished to turn our back on God will seem like lovers’ quarrels – the quarrels and difficulties between true lovers that only lead in the end to their marrying.  

And that, of course, is the other image that goes in the Bible with the last Judgment: a Wedding.  In the Book of Revelation, the day when the world is judged is also the Church’s wedding day, the day when she becomes Christ’s bride: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21.2).  A wedding is the consummation and goal of all that has gone before.  The entire difficult, costly process of preparation, adjustment, and engagement leads up to it.  And yet, as any married person will tell you, a wedding is not therefore an end.  Indeed, it is essentially a beginning—the beginning of marriage, the beginning of a new life.  

So it will be with us.  We look for our Lord to come as judge and as bridegroom, so that life, our true life, with him and with each other, communio sanctorum,the communion of saints, may begin.  

That is what will happen when our Lord comes to us in the Last Judgment.  

Even so, come Lord Jesus. 

And now let us confess our faith, as the church has taught us:

We believe in One God….                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The Pharisee and the Publican. Notes for a sermon preached at St Olave’s Church, Exeter, on the Last Sunday after Trinity

For the Psalm: 84.1-7; the Gospel: Luke 18.9-14

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican! It’s a simple tale, isn’t it? I’ve heard of a priest one Sunday who had to preach on it. He was in good form and told the story well, with just such touches of humour and occasional rhetorical flourishes as kept his hearers interested—indeed, more than interested! He had them in the palm of his hand. He sensed that it was a moment to be seized, a moment for all to be roused to new levels of spirituality!

“So, dear friends,” he said in conclusion, “let us thank God that we are not like that Pharisee…”

A simple tale!—but perhaps for us deceptively simple. To begin with, we must face the fact that for centuries it’s been used to caricature our Jewish friends in general and the Pharisees in particular. So by way of clearing the ground let’s say at once that that is not what it is about. Our Lord presents in the Pharisee a person whom his hearers would naturally have regarded as “good” (and with good reason) and compares and contrasts him with someone whom they would have regarded as “bad” (also with good reason).[1] If we were telling a modern version we might contrast, say, a faithful church person and a shady businessman who pulls off sleazy deals. And what makes the story interesting is not that Pharisees are actually bad people and tax collectors good but rather that this is a story in which the “good” person gets it wrong and the “bad” person gets it right! Which of course does sometimes happen. So live with it!

So what happens in the story?

We see two men who do, it seems, have something in common. Indeed, they have it in common with our Psalmist this morning:

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!  

My soul has a desire and longing to enter the courts of the Lord.

What they have in common is that they both go the temple to pray.

But there the resemblance between them ends.

We see the good churchman—let’s call him that to make sure we don’t fall into any of the traps we have created for ourselves over the word “Pharisee”—we see the good churchman “standing”, or even, “taking his stand”. Luke’s Greek is very formal and studied. But it is also ambiguous. The sentence as a whole can be taken to mean either that he was “standing by himself” (as our NRSV translation this morning has it)—in other words, he was deliberately keeping himself apart from everyone else—or else that “standing, he prayed with (or to) himself” (a common Greek idiom—as when in English we say that someone “said something to themselves”).[2] In which case we have a delicate—and, I would say, characteristically Lucan—irony: the prayer, ostensibly intended for God, actually travels no further than the man who prays it. Personally, I think we have no need to choose between the two. Luke’s ambiguity is deliberate, and he intends to hint at both.  

The prayer begins with our good churchman giving thanks to God for all that he is. Very proper! Give God the glory! But then it rapidly descends into caricature as the “glory” turns out to be entirely a highlighting of his own virtues. His words have the form of a thanksgiving but they are actually a piece of self-justification: what a friend of mine yesterday taught me to call “humblebrag”—a splendid word that I had not heard before! The virtues that our churchman claims are matters of formal religious piety, like fasting twice a week—which, incidentally, was not required of any Jew. But there are, strikingly, no works of simple charity or mercy among them. So, if we were telling this story in our modern version, we might say that here is someone who goes daily to Eucharist in the Cathedral, is scrupulous in reciting daily Morning and Evening Prayer and makes big donations to the church, but never does anything to help the poorer members of his family or so much as gives a fifty-pence piece to beggars as he walks by them in the street. Indeed, our man is proud of his difference from and indifference to such persons: “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax-collector” he calls them. The Greek οὗτος – “this”—is emphatic and contemptuous. I am nothing like this scurvy fellow!

What then of our sleazy businessman? A very different picture! He stands “far off” and will “not even look up to heaven”. He’s well aware how unworthy he is to be in the presence of God! In antiquity it was generally the custom for women to beat their breasts in mourning rather than men. But he stands “beating his breast” and praying, “God, be reconciled to me, a sinner!” (18.13). I’m reminded of another scene in the gospel. Simon the Pharisee presides at table over our Lord, while a woman of the streets who is a sinner weeps over his feet, washing them with her tears and kissing them and drying them with her hair.

“That woman who’s touching him is a sinner. He ought to know that,” says Simon to himself.

She loves much,” says our Lord, reading his thought, “therefore it is evident that her sins, which are many, are forgiven” (Luke 7:47).

So now, says Our Lord, this man—the Greek οὗτος is as emphatic here as it was when the Pharisee used it, but no longer contemptuous—this man who claims nothing and offers nothing but his repentance “went down to his home justified, rather than the other.” The tax collector goes back to his world, but he is no longer the same man. Clearly, God is at work in him! Again, we may be reminded of another sleazy business man who is mentioned later in the gospel: a tax collector called Zachaeus who also repents and of whom our Lord says, “This day salvation has come to this house, for he also is a Son of Abraham” (Luke 19.9). God shows Himself to be what Ezekiel declared God to be: a God who does not wish anyone to die (Ezek 18.32).

So where are we to see ourselves in this story? Ah, well, that’s where we have to be careful! Luke surely gives us a clue before the parable even starts. Our Lord told it, he tells us, “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (18.9). And who were they? Luke doesn’t say—automatically, perhaps, we think, “it’s the Pharisees!” (cf Luke 15.2). But the fact is, on this occasion Luke doesn’t say that, so perhaps he wants us to think a little more carefully? After all, who is more likely to be listening to Jesus or even studying the gospel than a disciple? And who is more likely than a disciple, who is more likely than us, who is more likely than me, to be “trusting in myself that I am righteous”? Of course we regularly say that we know we are sinners, but in our hearts, how easy it is for us to slip into something quite different! “Actually I’m a pretty good chap. Look at all I do! I must have run up a pretty good credit balance with the Almighty. Not like all those outsiders and rogues!” Well, says Jesus through the parable, guess what! Your credit balance with God doesn’t matter. That’s not what life is about! You can’t earn God’s love by being a superior sort of person!

Now this message may at first seem disappointing. Why then should I bother? Does doing one’s best actually matter? Does it make any difference to anything whether or not we try to be true or honest or kind?

Well, yes, of course it makes a difference. Apart from anything else, it makes a difference to us, to me, to what we are. It’s how we become truly human. It’s about finding out what we are truly meant to be. But if we think about it a little more, it may occur to us that the fact that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on our virtues is also very freeing.

Consider this: let us say that you are loved because you are beautiful. That’s nice. But what then when you grow old and are no longer beautiful? Will you no longer be loved?

You are admired because you are clever. That’s nice. But what then when you make a mistake, as no doubt you will do one day? Nobody is right all the time!

You are loved because you are good. That’s nice. But what when you have an off day and are bad?

You are loved because you are loveable. That’s nice. But what when you are unlovable?

The essence of the gospel was summed up in God’s word to Israel through Moses:

It was not because you were greater than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the least of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you (Deut. 7:7-8a)

Of course God wants us to be good. But the gospel truth is that God’s love is unconditioned by our goodness—or lack of it.

So where does that leave us? What are we to do with our lives? Surely we’re not to spend all our time beating our breasts! But equally, we’re not to our spend time ostensibly thanking God while actually congratulating ourselves!  I can be pretty sure I’m not by any means the man God wants me to be, and at the same time pretty sure that at the end of the day it’s not up to me to judge. By all means let’s give God the glory on those rare occasions when we may actually seem to have got something right. Beyond that, let’s do our best to be as loving and useful as we can, and commend our failures to God’s mercy. When all is said and done, we can never truly tell how anything we do, however well or ill intentioned, is actually going to work out. But we do trust that God can do amazing things even with the worst material, and we dare hope that God may bring God’s glory and peace even out of our screw-ups. That was the faith of the tax collector, and at the end of the day, despite his pomposity and self-congratulation, we may dare hope it was the faith of the Pharisee too. In which faith and hope let us now declare our own faith, as the church has taught us: We believe in One God…


[1] The story has a shape that Greek rhetoricians called σύγκρισις—“comparing” or “comparison”—a form which they held in high regard.

[2] So the RV. Max Xerwick S.J. and Mary Grosvenor suggest that we render πρὸς ἑαυτὸν by “within himself” (Grammatical Analysis of the New Testament [Rome: Editrice Pontificio, 1993] 254; cf. Christopher Evans, Luke [London: SCM, 1990] 642-43). It should be conceded that the text is difficult and, perhaps as a consequence of that, uncertain: cf. François Bovon, Luke (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) 2.546-7, Martin M. Culy, Mikael C. Parsons and Joshua J. Stigall, Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor, 2010) 568; Bruce M. Metger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1975) 168.

The Slandered Steward. A sermon for St Olave’s, Exeter, on the 14th Sunday after Trinity

For the gospel: Luke 16:1-13 (often known as “the Parable of the Unjust Steward”.)

How strange the story that Our Lord tells us in our gospel this morning! Consider what happens!  We have a steward (or “manager” as some of the recent translations have it) who is accused of scattering his master’s goods.  The Greek word that Luke has chosen—διαβάλλωusually means “falsely accused” or “slandered,” so that is how we should take it.[1] The steward has been acting honestly and efficiently enough, but he has been slandered, and his master believes the slanders and fires him.

 “Stewards” in that society were frequently slaves, and maybe that is what we are to understand here. In which case, if the steward is found unsuitable for work, he will likely be sent to the mines—a common punishment for recalcitrant slaves, and one leading to a life that was nasty, brutish, and usually short, especially if you weren’t very good at it (as he obviously wouldn’t be – as he himself observes—“I cannot dig!”); or else, he might choose to run away and “beg”—a miserable fate, not to say risky, for runaway slaves, if caught, were often crucified.  My own suspicion, however, is that in this particular instance we are to picture the steward as his master’s freedman.  In which case, if he is fired and obliged to leave the household, his lot will be only marginally better than if he were a slave: for this is what sociologists call a “patronage” society, and in it he will be vulnerable, because he will have no patron.  He will be poor without a protector.  He will be what the middle ages came to call “a masterless man.”

The steward has, however, one last shot to fire.  Falsely accused, he will revenge himself by doing exactly what he has been accused of doing, and scattering his master’s goods—and, incidentally, maybe make himself a few friends (even, possibly, find a new patron?) in the process (“they may receive me into their houses”).  So, while he still, so to speak, has keys to the office and knows the passwords to the computer, and quite reckless of possible consequences, he contacts his master’s debtors, and allows them to re-write their IOUs, reducing their debts in some cases by a quarter, in some by as much as half.  What happens next? A moment of exquisite irony! The master, who condemned the steward when he was falsely accused, and who has now really been robbed—applauds him for his wit! 

This is a strange world.  It appears, to tell the truth, to be a world without morals, where proper behaviour results in disaster, and daylight robbery results in approval.  What is going on?  To answer that, perhaps we should consider the situation in which Luke has set this parable. It actually the last of a group of four parables that stem from a single beginning: “Now the tax collectors and the publicans were all drawing near to Jesus to hear him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” (15.1–2)   In other words—bad people seemed to be getting the master’s approval!  Does that remind us of anything in the story of the steward?  Perhaps it does—but we must wait, for there is more. The first three parables in this collection, Luke says, are all addressed to those very persons who criticized Jesus for the company he kept. They are parables most Christians have come to know very well, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the parable that we call “the prodigal son”, although we might better call it, “the parable of the gracious father”—they are all stories of underserved grace.

But then we come to the fourth parable, the parable of the steward, with its world verging on moral chaos that we have just been considering. This parable, Luke tells us, is addressed to a group of folk who might well think themselves superior to those who criticized Jesus—a group who would naturally expect to have a corner in God’s blessings.  It is addressed to Jesus’ disciples (16.1).  So we must say that they—or, if we regard ourselves also as Jesus’ disciples, then we must say “we”—we, specifically, are the ones to whom the parable of the unjust steward is addressed.  We are the ones whom our Lord insists on confronting with a world without morals, where proper behaviour results in disaster, and shameless theft results in approval.  And that shocks us. 

Why?  What kind of world do we expect? 

Do we think that because we are Christians we shall find a world where we shall always be approved for our well doing and condemned when we cheat?  Perhaps we do.  Sometimes I think it.  I seemed at one point to be hearing a lot of sermons preached on the book of Job: a dangerous subject, and especially dangerous when we presume to compare ourselves to Job.  The first part of the story of Job is the part we generally remember, and think we understand: Job has done well and Job has been hurt and Job is angry.  And Job is, in a qualified way, approved for his honesty in expressing his anger.  That is the part on which we can be tempted to preach.  But the last word in Job’s dialogue is not with Job’s hurt nor with his anger nor with his demand for a business-like universe that will fit his expectations of justice—nor, certainly, is it with his comforters, who actually agree with him about the business-like universe.  The last word is with Job’s being awestruck in the presence of God:

           I had heard of you with my ears;

           But now my eyes have seen you.

           Therefore I will be quiet,

           Comforted that I am dust.

The truth is, the universe as we experience it does not fit either Job’s or our notions of love and justice, and we had better admit it.  Even if we have managed to avoid major misfortunes in our own lives, what shall we say of the Trail of Tears or the Holocaust or the helpless children in the Syrian civil war or any of the other horrors that mark our history and our world?  How, indeed, shall we even meditate on a crucifix?

           If you have raced with those on foot

              and they have wearied you,

           how will you compete with horses? (Jer. 12:5)

Or has our Christianity become merely a self-centred quest for our own self-fulfilment that can ignore the world’s pain so long as it is not our pain?  Am I content with the notion of a God who finds me a parking place when I need one, but did nothing about Auschwitz? 

The steward did well and was slandered.  Then the steward cheated and his master applauded.  Does that mean it is good to cheat?  Of course not: and to make that clear Luke follows the parable with a set of sensible moral exhortations as pointed and plain as you could wish.  Use wealth justly.  Be faithful in little things.  You cannot serve God and money.  And so on (16.9–13).  But Luke only does that after the parable has reminded us—in case we had forgotten—that we shall be very foolish indeed if we expect the universe to keep to those maxims.

But there is more to be said even than this. The plain fact is, we are all of us unjust stewards in our own ways, and no doubt shall continue to be.  God defend me from a universe where I shall always be approved for my well doing and condemned when I cheat, for in such a universe, I am damned.  If, at the last, we are to stand at all before our master, then far from affecting shock or displeasure, we had better recognize that we are actually going to need something like that awesome and surprising approval of which the parable of the unjust steward speaks; that awesome and surprising approval which cannot be accounted for on the basis of good deeds; that awesome and surprising approval, unbiased by our merit, which we call grace.

My favourite song by the group called Fisherman’s Friends is one that starts,

Come, all you no hopers,
you jokers and rogues
we’re on the road to nowhere,
let’s find out where it goes
It might be a ladder to the stars, who knows…

The story of the steward does not conclude with the steward getting his by that time perhaps deserved come-uppance, but with the master’s mirth. If there is any truth in our Christian faith, then the end of our story is not, thank God, our righteousness, and certainly not our suffering.  It is all that is best and all that is worst in the wit of rogues and the tears of saints, the martyrs’ passion and the lovers’ hope, all transformed and redeemed by the wit and grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.   


[1] See Liddell and Scott, διαβάλλω, BDAG διαβάλλω. So Joseph Fitzmyer correctly says of 16.1, “The verb diaballein often carries the connotation of calumny, ‘to bring charges with hostile intent’ i.e. either falsely or slanderously.” Regarding our parable, however, he then continues that as the story develops, “the latter [i.e. the positive sense of diaballein] is meant”—but gives no reason for this assertion. Other commentators that I have checked do not even discuss the question, simply assuming that the accusations against the steward are valid (e.g. J. M. Creed, The Gospel according to St Luke [London: Macmillan, 1950] 203; C. F. Evans, St Luke [London: SCM, 1990] 595; Martin M. Culy, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Joshua J. Stigal, Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Baylor University, 2010] 517: François Bovon, Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9.51-19.27 [Philadelphia: Fortress, 2013] 446). I cannot understand why the problem thus clearly raised by the lexicons is thus ignored.

A Dreadful Tale: Text of a Sermon preached at St Stephen’s, Exeter on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2019

Gen 22.1-24; John 13.31-37 .

Our first reading this morning—about Abraham and his son Isaac—is surely one of the most dreadful stories ever told. I grant that as a family group Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs do in any case seem to have been dysfunctional with a capital “D”, and a good many of the stories about them are pretty awful. It’s surely something of a tribute to ancient Israel’s modesty and good humour that she went on telling these tales about her founding family at all, unembroidered and un-cleaned-up as they are! No “father-I-cannot-tell-a-lie” nonsense here!

Abraham and Isaac–Armand-Durand from Rembrandt

Even so, the story we heard this morning surely stands out. We’re told how Abraham is on the verge of killing his son with a meat cleaver[1] because God has told him to. No doubt, autres temps, autres mœurs. The fact remains, we live in a society where such an Abraham would be locked up, and the God who demanded his son’s death would be regarded as the product of a diseased mind. And I’m glad we do. All three Abrahamic faith communities—that’s to say we, and our Jewish and Muslim friends—have handed this story on in our different ways, and over the centuries all of us have evidently been troubled by the obvious moral difficulties that it raises. Rabbis, church fathers, and imams have at various times and in various ways sought to deal with or explain it—and none, perhaps, with entirely satisfactory results. That tricky tale is, however, what the church gives us to look at this morning, so let’s do it.

An ancient rabbinic suggestion is that God never really intended that Abraham would kill Isaac at all. God simply tested him to see how serious he was about his faith. No one I know of has stated this view better than Walter Brueggemann.

God tests to identify his people, to discern who is serious about faith and to know in whose lives he will be fully God… Faith is nothing other than trust in the power of the resurrection against every deathly circumstance. Abraham knows beyond understanding that God will find a way to bring life even in this scenario of death. That is the faith of Abraham.[2]

That is powerfully said, and apropos situations in which such faith has throughout history triumphantly manifested itself—the faith that sustained men and women in concentration camps, for example, or indeed the faith of Our Lord himself on the cross—it expresses an important truth.

The problem with it in the present context, however, is that Abraham is not in a concentration camp or on the cross. He is a powerful man, patriarch in a patriarchal society, responsible for the wellbeing of his household. Are we then to understand that he, the man in the position of power, is actually being called to create the very “scenario of death” into which God is then supposed to bring life? And how would he or anyone else distinguish such a call from the Satanic invitation to “trust” God’s promise by leaping from the pinnacle of the Temple, relying on the scripture that says, “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”?—to which the only truly faithful response was evidently Our Lord’s, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:11-12). The problem with this view, in short, is that for all the importance of what it asserts, apropos the story of Abraham and Isaac it leaves too many questions unanswered, nor does it really address their situation.

A suggestion for understanding the story along completely different lines is to suggest that “fear”—“Now I know that you fear God!”—isn’t at all what God really wanted from Abraham at that moment. This view argues that in the entire story of Abraham, his proneness to fear has actually been his weakness. It was fear that led to those embarrassing episodes where he lied to Pharaoh and then to Abimelech about Sarah (Gen. 12 and 20). Although in the matter of Hagar and Ishmael the narrator somewhat lets Abraham off the hook by telling of God’s word to him (“let it not seem evil in your eyes… the slave girl’s son, too, I will make a great nation” [20:12]) it is nonetheless fear of domestic strife rather than care to act justly that prompts Abraham in the first place even to consider casting out the slave girl and her son (who is, of course, his son too)—thereby exposing both to almost certain death. (It certainly isn’t because of anything Abraham does that Hagar and the child don’t die! Parallels in the biblical narrative between the narratives of Hagar and Ishmael on the one hand and Abraham and Isaac on the other have, of course, often been noted—down to the very words of the angel to each.[3] Arguably, God puts Abraham through precisely what Abraham himself put Hagar through: and surely that, too, is something to consider?)

Abraham expels Hagar and Ishamel–Guercino

Following on from all this, the suggestion is then that what God really wanted and even hoped for from Abraham following the command to kill Isaac was what Abraham had already shown himself capable of in other circumstances, namely an argument—an argument such as he’d offered earlier when God was about to wipe out Sodom (Gen 18:16-32): “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked!”—argument such as Moses offered when God was about to wipe out Israel (Exod. 32.9-14) or the Syrophoenician woman offered when Jesus seemed reluctant to heal her daughter (Mark 7.25-30). To put it another way, St John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God.” Perhaps God wanted Abraham to do a little thinking and testing.

Of all the attempts I’ve seen to get God off a moral hook, I confess this is the one I like best. My problem with it is that it doesn’t seem to square all that well with the narrative as we have it in Scripture: more precisely, with what the angel says to Abraham at the end about how his faithfulness will be rewarded, where it really does sound as though God is pleased with the way in which Abraham has acted (22.15-18).[4]

In view of all this uncertainty, it’s perhaps not surprizing that in the years leading up to the beginnings of Christianity some seem to have decided that the most interesting character in the story, the one you could best focus on and regard as its hero, was not actually Abraham at all, but the boy Isaac. It was, after all, Isaac’s life that was on the line, not Abraham’s.

Hence the title of the episode in much rabbinic treatment is “The Binding of Isaac”, reflecting this focus. The Targums—rabbinic translations of the Bible that add little bits of explanation and exegesis as they go along—emphasize how Isaac is willing to surrender his life if that is God’s will, and how the angels in heaven look on in wonder and admiration. Targum Neofiti has the angels say that from now on, whenever Israel sins and God is angry with his people, God will remember the righteousness of Isaac, and for Isaac’s sake will forgive them.[5]

What is perhaps especially interesting for us as Christians is that this way of understanding the story of Abraham and Isaac seems to have influenced the way the New Testament talks about Our Lord.

Think of St Mark’s gospel, and the word that the heavenly voice says to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). In Mark’s Greek (given only the change of person required grammatically) those are exactly the words with which, in the Greek Bible, God charges Abraham to offer his son in sacrifice! The implication is surely that Jesus is God’s “Isaac”, who for the sake of the world will be willing to be bound upon the altar of the cross.

Again, remember in the Genesis account when they are on their way up the mountain Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “God will see to a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And of course the ram with its horns caught in the thicket is the obvious fulfilment of that promise. But then St John’s gospel suggests a deeper and fuller fulfilment. John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Here is God’s lamb, which takes away the sins of the world!”—words, of course, that we continue to echo at the Eucharist when the bread is broken. “Lamb of God,” we say, “you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us… Have mercy on us… Grant us peace.” Jesus, again, is God’s Isaac, willing to be sacrificed for his people.

 And this, of course, brings us to Jesus’ word to us in this morning’s gospel passage. On the eve of his passion and death, immediately after Judas has gone out to betray him, Our Lord says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him”—which seems an odd way to speak of the fact that you’re being betrayed. He goes on to say, “God will also glorify [the Son of Man] in himself and will glorify him at once”—which seems, again, an odd way to describe the fact that you’re about to be crucified. But perhaps it is not so odd if it is Isaac who is here the model. Isaac’s glory was that he was willing to die for God’s people if that was what was necessary, and that is Jesus’ glory too. 

So it was that at the end of the first Christian century Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians, would remind them how, “Isaac in confident knowledge of the future was gladly led as a sacrifice” (1 Clem. XXXI.3).[6]

We may still, of course, have a further question. We may wonder why at all, in the middle of Easter, when we’re celebrating Our Lord’s victory over death, the church has chosen for us our readings that actually turn us back to his death.

I’d say there are two reasons.

First, because by doing this we remind ourselves that Jesus did not, so to speak, “win” only by rising from the dead. Just as Isaac was triumphant in his willingness to give his life if that was what God required, so when Jesus was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8)—indeed, when he was gracious to Judas who was about to betray him, when he was gracious to disciples who would flee as soon as he was arrested, when he continued praying for his enemies as he was being nailed to the cross, when he died commending himself into the hands of his heavenly Father—even in and especially in those moments, Jesus was already victor! That is why he says of his crucifixion, “Now is the Son of man glorified.” That is why his dying word in this gospel will be the triumphant, “Tetelestai! It is accomplished!” That is why in Mark’s gospel the pagan centurion, who has watched him die, cries out, “Truly this man was son of God!” (John 19.30; Mark 15.39).

Secondly, our turning back in the Easter season to Our Lord’s words at the Last Supper reminds us of something about ourselves and our own calling: namely, that our faith in Jesus, Easter faith, is not merely a conviction that certain things happened once upon a time two thousand or so years ago in a tomb in Palestine. It is faith that the living Christ has power to change my life now! For even as Our Lord speaks to us in the gospel of his love wherein he is, like Isaac, faithful even unto death, he at once goes on to say that we ourselves are capable of something that actually echoes that love: “I give you a new commandment,” he says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

“But Lord,” we cry, “to love as you love? We can’t possibly manage that!”

“But why not try?” he says. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

And of course that’s true.

Why does anyone come to Christ or join the church? Is it because of our clever arguments or theology? Let me be clear—I love clever arguments and theology! But are they the reason why people join the church? I don’t think so. People join because they glimpse occasionally in some Christian or Christians a quality that draws them, a quality that we all desire, the quality that for want of a better word, in all its different forms and manifestations, we call “love”—linked to all the things that belong to love like compassion, kindness, good nature, a sense of humour, patience.

And by the same token I’d say people are put off the church by all that they see in us that is the opposite of love—pomposity, self-righteousness, coldness, nastiness towards each other.[7]

So—God help us!—in Jesus’ name let us try for love, even as Jesus has loved us. Amen.


[1] Despite the more decorous “knife” of the NRSV and other translations (not to mention the elegant implement given him by Rembrandt), what we have here in the Hebrew (הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת) is not the usual biblical word for “knife”, and there is a case to be made for the suggestion that it is a term used for the butcher’s knife or cleaver: see e.g. Robert Alter, Genesis (New York and London: Norton, 1996) 105.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 193

[3] E.g. Alter, Genesis, 106

[4] That these particular verses are perhaps a secondary addition to the narrative is beside the point. Our question as interpreters and preachers is how we are to understand the narrative as it stands in Holy Scripture now, not as it may have been at some earlier stage in its transmission. In any case 22.15-22 is certainly not an inappropriate addition, and there is no clear reason for supposing that the reviser, if there was one, understood the story other than as the original narrators intended it to be understood it: cf. Brueggemann, Genesis 185.

[5] E.g. 4 Macc. 13:12, 16::20; Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 32:2-3; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:132: see further James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard, 1998) 304-305.

[6] Kirsopp Lake, transl. in The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann/Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1912) 60-61.

[7] “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” goes a well-known and in my view rather dreary hymn written in the 1960s, presumably following Tertullian’s famous description of pagan reaction to Christians: “‘Vide,’ inquiunt, ‘ut invicem se diligent!’”—“Look,” they say, “how they love one another!” (Apologia 39.7). My own view is that Tertullian and the hymn-writer alike were indulging in wishful thinking. Alas, my own experience has been that non-Christians are as likely to be disgusted by our treatment of each other as they are to be attracted by the love that we claim to live by, and I see not the slightest reason to believe things were any better in Tertullian’s day.

Thoughts on the Unspeakable. Text of a sermon written for St Olave’s Church Exeter, for the 3rd Sunday of Lent

For the Psalm 63:1-9; for the Gospel, Luke 13.1-9

 

On television this week I watched an interview with a man who was at the mosque in Christchurch when the shootings happened. He spoke about it hesitatingly for a few minutes and finally stopped, saying in effect, “I just have no words for what happened. I can’t talk about it.” Who wouldn’t sympathize? There are some things so awful, so appalling and outrageous to our every decent instinct that it is almost impossible to talk of them rationally or reasonably. We naturally call them “unspeakable”.

But does that mean we just let such things pass? That we have no questions? Surely not! Muslims, Christians, Jews—we all believe in the God of Abraham. We believe that God cares for what God has made, that God is Merciful and Compassionate. Why then does God allow these things to happen? Those fifty people in the mosque at Christchurch had come together to pray to the God of Abraham. What was God up to, that God didn’t protect such people? How do we explain such events?

One move is to say that such people were sinful, and therefore God, who is righteous, has punished them. That might seem to most of us a little hard to sustain when one of those killed at Christchurch was only three years old, but I am well aware of some who would offer such an argument. It’s the same argument as is offered in the Old Testament to Job. Job is a good man who suffers terribly. His friends comfort him by telling him he must have committed some serious sin and what he needs to do is repent and then God will make everything right. But Job is adamant. He’s done the best he can to be a decent human being and he doesn’t see why he should be treated like this. “Let God come and face me and let’s have it out,” he says, or words to that effect.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge. (Job 23.6-7)

The odd thing is, God enters the story at the end of the book and God says that Job is right. God doesn’t run the world like an angry boss who clobbers you if you step out of line. Job’s friends are wrong.

All of which brings us to the gospel passage that was set for today—the passage we just heard from St Luke. Jesus and those round him are talking about two local disasters that have disturbed and distressed people. One is evidently a result of human cruelty—the Roman governor has ruthlessly suppressed and killed a group of Galilean worshippers. For some reason they’ve been regarded as a threat to imperial security and so, as we hear the story, the governor has “mingled their blood with their sacrifices”. The other is a more or less accidental disaster—a building in Jerusalem called the tower of Siloam has collapsed and killed eighteen people. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. How are such awful things to be explained? Apparently there are those around Jesus who use the same argument as Job’s friends: “Ah, they must have been terrible sinners for God to punish them like that!”

If so, then Our Lord utterly rejects that idea.

“Do you really think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” he says. “No, I tell you… Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you really think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you!”

“But,” he adds, “I’ll tell you this: if you don’t stop thinking like that, one day you’re going to find yourselves in the same situation they’re in!”[1]

What then? Does our Lord have some better “explanation”? Actually, he doesn’t. Or at least if he does he doesn’t tell us about it. Instead, he tells us a rather strange little story about a fig tree. This tree is barren—which is to say, it’s useless. It cumbers the earth, uses up resources and produces nothing.

“Yank it out and burn it,” the landowner says, reasonably enough.

But—

“Wait!” says the gardener. “Let it alone for one more year!”

Nor is that all, for the gardener himself will put some effort and resources of his own into this—“Let it alone… until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

And there the little story ends. No certainty is offered, no promises, only a modest hope and a plea for patience.

So how are we to explain such tragedies as those we are speaking about? Well, perhaps we need to learn from the man on television who said of the Christchurch shootings, “I can’t talk about it.” Or from what we’re told of Job’s friends, who did fine so long as they didn’t say anything, but really screwed up when they started to talk. But perhaps above all we need to learn from our Lord, who offered no explanation, but only a plea for patience. The truth is, we cannot “explain” the Christchurch shootings—or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the Holocaust, or any of the other hideous atrocities that litter human history—and especially we cannot “explain” them if by “explain” we mean, “show how they were good things really”. They weren’t.

Why do we seek God at all? Is it because God “explains” things? I doubt it. I think we seek God because we want God. We long for ultimate love, for faithfulness at the heart of the universe. We seek God because, as the psalmist put it this morning,[2] we are thirsty for God:

My flesh also faints for you

as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.

(Ps. 63:1-2)

The Song of Songs has it right. We seek God (and incidentally, God seeks us) as lovers. And what is the quality of love? Paul said it simply enough—“love is patient”.[3] Which brings us back to our gospel passage and the odd little story that Jesus told. If God is our lover, and we love God, then we must do what lovers always have to do, and be patient with each other. We all know—God knows, and I certainly know it!—that God has to be patient with us, with me. How about us in return exercising some patience with God?

That doesn’t mean trying to pretend that there are no problems or questions—questions such as the Psalmist asks again and again, “Why?” “Why do the wicked prosper?” questions such as Our Lord himself asks as he hangs on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But it does mean being willing to live with those questions. It means being willing to address them to God, frankly expressing our fear, our disappointment and our anger, just as the psalmist and our Lord do. One of the great mistakes we can make in prayer is to suppose that we always must be polite, however badly we feel. That is a sure way to end any relationship. Whatever we have to offer, however awful, God is presumably big enough to take it.

Being patient also, of course, means what it says: it means being patient, hanging in there! One of the most powerful moments in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters[4] is when Screwtape, writing of course from the devil’s point of view, says “our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Margot Fonteyn–“If one could explain it, one would not have needed to dance it.”

So what of explanations? There’s a story I love about the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn. After she’d completed a particular dance she was asked to explain it. She looked at her questioner with that peculiarly devastating scorn that only a stunningly beautiful woman can inflict without even intending to, and replied, “If one could explain it, one would not have needed to dance it.” That first Good Friday, at the end of Our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem, Jesus died. He was the best person who ever lived, and he was crucified. What then? God did not explain the cross. What God did do was raise him from the dead. And this too, I suppose, was a kind of dance:

They cut me down

And I leapt up high,

I am the life

That’ll never, never die.[5]

There is so much around us that we do not understand, and God does not explain that, either. What God does do is give us a promise through his Son: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:54). In light of that promise we shall in a few moments approach this altar. In light of that promise we dare now to place our trust in God, in words that the church has taught us:

We believe in One God…

 

[1] I take Luke’s μετανοῆτε, normally translated “repent”, in its more basic sense of “to change one’s mind or purpose” (see LS μετανοέω), and I think that NRSV “as they did… just as they did” (ὁμοίως… ὡσαύτως) are the key words here. The point is, the view that “if they’re suffering, they must have sinned very badly” works well for us until we start to suffer ourselves, as sooner or later, in some measure, we all do. Thus categorizing other people’s suffering leaves us feeling safe, for it says that they are different from us (they were great sinners!) and were therefore vulnerable. Our own suffering reminds us, however, that we are like them after all, with the same hopes and the same fears. Apropos the two disasters to which St Luke’s narrative refers, we have no record of them in any extant work from the time other than his, but there is nothing intrinsically unlikely or improbable about either. The slaughter of Galilean worshipers fits well enough with the character of Pilate as presented by Josephus (e.g. Ant. 18.3.2; Jewish War 2.9.4), and I am told that ruins still exist from a collapsed tower on the south eastern wall of ancient Jerusalem, dating from about this period.

[2] In its choice of Psalm the Church of England here follows the Revised Common Lectionary. The Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church appoint Ps. 103 or part of Ps. 103.

[3] For the view of the Song of Songs here reflected, see Ellen Davies, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 231-38, which I find very persuasive; also Robert B. Jenson, Song of Songs, Interpretation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2005).

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942). There have, of course, been many editions since.

[5] Sydney Carter, “Lord of the Dance” (1963).