Monday, 31 October 2016

What on earth is the Church for?

That is the question we found ourselves asking at a meeting to prepare for the Mission to our Diocese by bishops from all over the North. It’s called “Talking Jesus.” Read a bit about it on page 14 - and we hope you’ll hear much more about it before it takes place at the beginning of next March.

What could we do to get ready? we asked ourselves. One conclusion we came to is that we tend to be reluctant to talk about our faith because we’re not always very confident as to what we believe. So we’ve decided to try to tackle that - in a very basic way without any great planning. In November and early December we’ll have three meetings open to anyone to look at the basics of what the Church is for: how it’s about our relationship with God and with the wider world; his relationship with us and with this world we call his Creation.

We’ll be meeting on Tuesday evenings in the Ian Severs Room (the lower level of the Hall - approach from the Car Park entrance). All are welcome. You don’t need to be a regular church-goer. All questions are welcome. If you’re worried they might be too basic - don’t! That’s just what we need. So, come & join us.

The first two meetings are this month: 7.30p.m. start…  

Tuesday 8 November and Tuesday 22 November   

Martin Jackson

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Last Sunday after Trinity - Bible Sunday

(Isaiah 45.22-25; Romans 15.1-6; Luke 4.16-24)

The Church of England marks today by giving us two names for the day: the Last Sunday after Trinity and Bible Sunday. They’re both misleading descriptions - if not actually wrong! It’s only the Last Sunday after Trinity by virtue of next Sunday being the Fourth Sunday before Advent - but that gives the game away, because that means there are actually another four Sundays after Trinity before we reach the end of the Church’s year. As for Bible Sunday… I get the point that it’s good to take an opportunity to look at the importance of the Bible in the life of the Church in general and the Christian in particular. But shouldn’t that be the case every week? - every day? There’s a danger that we try to say something about the special place of the Bible in determining how we express our faith and live our lives - but forget that it’s more than simply words on a page.

Nevertheless we’re given good passages from the Bible for use today - and one of them in particular shows how Jesus thought about the Bible and its use. But here’s a note of caution: read the words, but see where they are placed! Context is everything. The words of Scripture are not proof texts to be used as easy answers to all our questions.

You can see why these passages have been chosen for this day we call Bible Sunday. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes

whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

And then in the Gospel reading, St Luke tells us that Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah and then declared,

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

So Paul is telling us that you can trust the Bible - it’s something to learn from (“for our instruction”), it can keep you going in the right direction even when things are tough (it enables “steadfastness”) and it’s a source of encouragement. But remember that he’s talking about the Bible he knew - what we call the Old Testament.

That raises two questions: First, what about all those bits of the Old Testament we’re not too keen on now, like long lists of laws on things you can or can’t eat or even wear? - and more particularly on how you treat other people, whether you want to get on with them or not: whole peoples who get massacred because other people want to occupy their land and live in their towns; people of the “wrong” nationality or religion; people who get discriminated against, oppressed and even killed because of their gender or sexuality. Besides which we might ask how we can give approval to what are often morally doubtful actions on the part of some of the Bible’s main characters - there’s Abraham, who throws his first son and his son’s unmarried mother out of the household… and nearly kills his second son; Joshua, who directs a military campaign that might now be described as genocide; Samson, whose penchant for killing his enemies might charitably be understood at best as psychotic homicide; King David, who establishes his nation and is portrayed as a model for the coming Messiah, but who can’t refrain from multiple marriages, adultery and cover-ups by bloodshed.

I could go on… But then there’s the second issue that if the Scripture in which we are to invest so much of our faith is the Old Testament, what can we make of the New Testament? It would be an audacious claim for the New Testament writer who declares “All Scripture is inspired by God…” to add, “… and by the way that includes this letter that I’m writing now.” Knowing that Scripture has the authority of God - and that it provides a way to understand his nature and purpose - requires something more.

What I love about the Bible is not that it’s a text book full of answers that you can read from the page. It’s that it shows us the lives of frail and failing people, and their mixed-up relationships, and their disagreements and lack of understanding - and that in the midst of it all God is at work. He speaks to them, even if they don’t hear it properly. He blesses them - even if they throw the blessings away. And finally he comes to us - born as any one of us - in Jesus, living a human life, knowing its joys and vulnerabilities, loving and dying and rising again for our sake.

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

That’s to say that the words of the Bible have their place - and their purpose is to point us to what God is doing, to where he might be found.

So listen to St. Paul when he says that the Bible is there to instruct and encourage us. But what else is he saying? He starts the chapter by telling us, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak…” Paul is writing about what it means to be a Christian, how to put faith into practice by the way you treat and respond to other people. St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans contains a brilliant treatment of Christian doctrine - notably the one we call Justification by Faith. But it’s much more than doctrine. There’s a reason for having doctrine and that’s to explore how we relate to God and to each other - how God in his love and mercy relates to us. So the chapter previous to this one looks at what the Bible says about Jewish ritual dietary laws - what you can or can’t eat according to the Bible. But then St. Paul makes us face the question: “Who are you to pass judgement?” That’s the point, he says: “no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another.” Serve Christ, seek righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, don’t let the way you behave “cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”

It’s by wrestling with the demands of Scripture that we see what love demands of us in our relationships with one another. It’s by seeing how we fail in keeping those demands which leads us to recognise the loving mercy and forgiveness of God revealed in Christ.

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” says Jesus to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth after he has read from Book of the Prophet Isaiah. He’s talking about the purpose of God which Isaiah has foreseen:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Look at me - I will make this real, Jesus is saying. But something more. The verses of Isaiah 61 which Jesus says apply to him are followed by others which imply that God favours the people of Israel as a nation over others. Other peoples will be subservient to them and will do the hard work while the Israelites will enjoy the wealth. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Jesus asks how we can discern God’s purpose - and it’s in the words he chooses: Good News for the poor, freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed, recovery of sight for the blind. But will we see? Will we hear what Jesus is saying?

His own people can’t take it in. They can hear the Bible read, but can’t relate it to this man from their own town who they think they know. They’ve much more to learn. Jesus knows it. People in other towns have welcomed him and seen what a difference his message can make and experienced the healing he has brought to so many. But it doesn’t work in his home town of Nazareth. They can only say, “Doctor, cure yourself.” I’ve pondered the place of those words in this story. Does it imply that Jesus himself had some sort of physical infirmity? Perhaps his neighbours remembered childhood illnesses from which he’d suffered? Now they question how someone they think they know can have a message for them.

What do we think the message is that God has for us? Can you find it in Scripture? - or in wrestling with what the Bible says to us? Can you find it through your relationships with other people? - in the love and generosity which they might share with you? - in your failings to relate to others and what you realise is your need of God’s mercy and grace?

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled,” says Jesus. All God’s purposes are worked out in him. The congregation in the synagogue at Nazareth have some way to go before they can take that on board. Perhaps we do too - but it’s never too soon to start.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

“This will take a while”…

That was the signal I got on my computer as I started to put together the October issue of the Parish Magazine. It was already delayed because I didn’t get back from holiday until the final hours of September. Then as I sat down to work out what we needed to include here the laptop decided to update - a major update, as it indicated when it told me, “This will take a while.” And there was nothing I could do about it, except wait until it had finished.

I got off quite lightly.  A friend tells me it held him up for three hours. Our Area Dean found her laptop updating in the midst of her Harvest Service where she needed to use it to project the words of the service and hymns. I just had to wait 90 minutes.

These days we so often expect to be able to do things straight away. We expect immediate responses by phone, text or email. We complain when people don’t get back to us. But here’s a reminder of the virtue of patience, so easily forgotten. Be patient with each other. Be ready to spend time in prayer and take time with God. Remember how patient he needs to be with us…    

Martin Jackson