Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy 450th Birthday, William Shakespeare: "Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and St George!"

From the quill of William Shakespeare comes the only line in Renaissance literature which links England with St George. It could not be more appropriate that the Bard’s birthday falls on this day, for it becomes a cause of celebration of England’s (and the world’s) greatest writer. To borrow from Hamlet: "He was a man, take him for all in all; we shall not look upon his like again." And today we mark the 450th anniversary of his birth.

That a humble son of a glover, with an education no higher than a grammar school, should tower above the university-educated; should have such insight into morals, manners, economy, philosophy, religion, taste, and the conduct of life, is a cause for wonder. That an Englishman was blessed with great knowledge of the greatest mysteries, understood the politics of high office without having held any, and could articulate with profound accuracy the emotions and needs of the common man, is a cause for great celebration – yea, a national holiday.

But we shall not get it - for fear of 'English nationalism'.

Saints Andrew, David and Patrick may be celebrated with a secure national identity and respectful chippiness. But George is vulgar, and represents the bunting-strewn, beer-swilling worst of what it is to be English. It ought to be cancelled on 'Health & Safety' grounds alone.

Like Guy Fawkes' Night - offensive, sectarian, divisive and dangerous.

But it's only English culture and tradition which needs to be subsumed and sidelined: Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism are wholesome manifestations of historical defensiveness and political identity. Even on Shakespeare's birthday, the cry to honour England or laud the English is 'racist'. Even in this second great Elizabethan age, we may not receive from or observe in Shakespeare's nature the peculiar impulse and impression which he, best of all, bequeaths to us. He is not just of England or for the English: he belongs to the whole world and is for all time. And yet he is English and of England, and at his quill patriotism becomes a virtue and a blessing.

The greatest human mind ever to walk the earth writes eloquently of love, friendship, marriage, parenthood, jealousy, ambition, hatred, revenge, loyalty, devotion and mercy. And into these he weaves the national life of England, caressed with extravagant sensibility: "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm", which is"possessed with rumours, full of idle dereams." And our national life is identifiably Christian: "Is this Ascension-day?"

He is not concerned with doctrine, but with the state of the human heart, will, intellect and soul. In this new age of limitation, restriction, deficiency and injunction, William Shakespeare liberates us to think what we may not, feel what is unmentionable, and be what is forbidden.

Happy Birthday, Will.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Don't condemn Cameron's claim to Christianity

Apparently, No10 had no intention of releasing a transcript of the Prime Minister's speech to Christian leaders last week: unlike other faith gatherings, it was an impromptu declamation, spoken spontaneously from the heart, and some there felt that the content didn't merit courtly promulgation, not least because it wasn't honed, crafted or filtered by aides to extinguish any hint of offence.

But His Grace agitated and agitated, and the oration was made public. And it was seen that the Prime Minister spoke intimately of the loss of his son, Ivan; and of his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land; and of his quiet times in church; and of the need for Christians to do more "evangelism". He is a politician; not a theologian: his words were those of a layman, but no less sincere for that.  

And then he released an article in the Church Times - My Faith in the Church of England - in which he demanded the right to speak about his faith "in this ever more secular age". And he dared to refer to the United Kingdom as a "Christian country", and again called for Christians to be "more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives".

And all hell broke loose.

Some 50 self-important secular-humanising bigwigs wrote to the Telegraph, accusing the Prime Minister of "fostering division" by daring to invoke Christianity: "Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a 'Christian country'," they declared.

Fostering division? As Bishop Nick Baines has eloquently observed, that is the very nature of politics:
First, if politicians were to refrain from saying anything ‘divisive’, they would be silent. Any stated viewpoint or priority is by definition ‘divisive’ as there will always be people who strongly disagree. The use of potential ‘divisiveness’ as a charge against anything inconvenient is ridiculous. Presumably, the divisiveness caused by publishing this letter is to be excused?
And Jesus Himself said:
Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
But the liberal enlightened media set aside such reasoned christological inquiry: who is Bishop Nick Baines? And who, indeed, is Jesus?

In candid disinterested neutrality, Sky News wheeled out the ubiquitous anti-Tory atheist Owen Jones to debate with the equally anti-Tory Christian Vicky Beeching to weigh up the Christian claims of a Conservative prime minister, and in unison they both railed against the "cuts" and the "bedroom tax", neither of which (apparently) Jesus would support. Was there no Christian Tory available, or were they simply not telegenic and pretty enough for the TV studio?

And then on Channel 4, Vicky Beeching (..again..) stressed "as a theologian", that she looks at David Cameron's policies and looks at his claims and, for her, they "don't add up". 

Well, "as a theologian", His Grace would exhort his readers and communicants to weigh very carefully indeed the utterances of any theologian who prefaces a partisan pontification with "as a theologian", for their theology is invariably cajoled to pander to their politics. In the Christian mind, the Bible precedes all matters of polity and questions of policy, and any assessment or judgment is offered in humility. The fact that the welfare reforms are designed and being implemented by one of the most devout Christians in Government appears to escape Miss Beeching. But then she speaks "as a theologian": what could Iain Duncan Smith possibly know?

Alastair Campbell famously didn't "do God", or, rather, didn't allow Tony Blair to "do God" while he was in office. Like Owen Jones and Vicky Beeching, he is persuaded that the Prime Minister's "religious ramblings" are "insincere".

And you may very well agree with that: after all, an election looms, and Ukip is biting at Tory heels.

But is it not possible that David Cameron's faith is maturing? Is it not conceivable that he is moving from a faith of watery milk to red meat? Is it not imaginable that the death of his son caused such a crisis in his spiritual life that he is journeying to that place where God leads, and in that presence the melancholy façade of religiosity is giving way to authentic renewal and regeneration?

You may agree with Alastair Campbell and the socialist-atheists and the secular-humanists and the liberal-lefty Christians that David Cameron is a PR-obsessed political fraud. But doesn't St Paul exhort us to welcome even the half-way conversion from neo-platonic spiritualism toward Christianity? Shouldn't we rejoice over the sinner who moves from infidelity to orthodoxy? Isn't it an act of Christian love and humility to (at least) consider that David Cameron has subconsciously incubated the seeds of faith, and that now he finds new strength and boldness to declare the gospel of salvation?

You may quibble that he hasn't used the word 'repent'; you may mutter that he doesn't have a clue what 'evangelical' means. You may deride the motive or question the timing. But David Cameron has received grace and gained assurance. And now he seeks to bring about a moral change, which his opponents condemn as "divisive".

You may side with spin-meister Alastair Campbell, atheist Owen Jones and theologian Vicky Beeching and judge the sincerity of the Prime Minister's faith. But His Grace will look to Scripture: "Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters" (Rom 14:1). His conscience may not be overly sensitive, but it is not to be condemned. We are exhorted and encouraged to accept other Christians wherever they are in their pilgrimage of faith; however imperfect their learning; however flawed their understanding.

And that includes a Tory prime minister.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ma'am

Her Majesty the Queen, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, celebrates her 88th birthday today, in commemoration of which this new portrait has been published.

It is undeniable that our Queen is admired and respected all over the world, and very much loved by her loyal subjects throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Where there is disapproval or antipathy, she is dignified in the presence of contention and gracious to her opponents. And she endures as our greatest national asset: While here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians win and lose, rise and fall, and come and go, Her Majesty provides a reassuring spiritual continuity and political stability in a world of frequent unthinking change and paralysing uncertainty.

And she is acutely involved in leading her people to salvation. As Richard Hooker explained in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, church and society are one: "A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul; for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety." If the state were concerned solely with economics and the material, it would cease to be concerned with people’s welfare in respect of a right relationship with God. Hooker’s articulation of the prerogative of the Crown over its subjects’ religious welfare is the same as that which underlies the role of the Monarch in relation to the Church of England today.

From Article XXXVII
The Queen's Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other her Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the Queen's Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God's Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers.
There are two distinct spheres of authority: i) the political, in which the Queen as Head of State has supreme and God-given authority under the law over every sector of society, including the Church. In the words of Canon A7: "We acknowledge the Queen’s excellent Majesty, acting according to the laws of the realm, is the highest power under God in his kingdom, and has supreme authority over all persons in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as civil." And ii) the spiritual, in which authority belongs to the Church and to its appointed ministers, and not to the Queen. But as she is responsible for the welfare of her subjects, she is tasked with ensuring that the Church as an institution is in a state to perform its spiritual tasks properly so that right relationship with God may be possible for all.

The Royal Supremacy in regard to the Church is in its essence the right supervision over the administration of the Church, vested in the Queen as the champion of the Church, in order that the religious welfare of the people may be duly provided for. We are truly blessed in having a Supreme Governor who submits to the headship of Christ, and proclaims His Lordship daily in her dutiful and dedicated service.

Happy Birthday, Ma'am.

God Save The Queen!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

He is risen! Hallelujah!

He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me (Mt 28:1-10).
God died on Friday, and the world ended. Yesterday, He was lying in His tomb; all hope and promise of the coming kingdom buried with Him. Today, He is risen: God has irrupted into the present, and now we look forward to the eschatological fulfilment in the transformation of the world order, the ultimate redemption of the believer, and the final judgement.

No matter how hostile, antithetical or 'secularised' the world becomes, nothing will change this immutable truth. Jesus is alive. The resurrection of Christ is the "first fruits" of the full harvest - the resurrection of all believers. The risen Lord is the "firstborn from among the dead". The power of sin has been conquered, but the consequence - physical death - remains, awaiting a future consummation. The Spirit is a "guarantee" of our ultimate redemption.

The resurrection of Christ split history in two; it divided BC from AD. It isn't politic to say so in this age of religious equality, but Moses, Mohammed, Buddha and guru Nanak are all dead and in their tombs. Only Jesus is alive. Of course, to the superior intellects and enlightened ones, this is but a fairytale, a fantasy, an hallucination, a delusion.

But if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain. The Christian faith stands or falls with Christ's resurrection. His death on the cross is historical fact brought about by man. His resurrection is an eschatological event brought about by God. Just as God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land, so He delivered mankind from sin and death that we might have eternal life. The blood of the first Passover which spared Israel’s firstborn foreshadows the second Passover and the Lamb who died that we might be born again.

To have mourned at the cross, despaired at the death, wept at the graveside, and then to have met the Risen Christ must have been an inexpressible joy. That joy is now ours. And yet the world is still shrouded in night: we suffer, grieve and feel unbearable pain. As the Archbishop of Canterbury reminds us today in his Easter sermon:
"With Mary there are so many that weep. In Syria mothers cry for their children and husbands. In Ukraine neighbours cry because the future is precarious and dangerous. In Rwanda tears are still shed each day as the horror of genocide is remembered. In this country, even as the economy improves there is weeping in broken families, in people ashamed to seek help from food banks, or frightened by debt. Asylum seekers weep with loneliness and missing far away families. Mary continues to weep across the world.

"But listen, hear the announcement... The one who was dead, is now alive! The one whose body had been a corpse, lying motionless in the grave, inert, lifeless, lying flat on the stone ledge of the borrowed tomb – he now stands before Mary, speaking her name. This day he speaks everybody’s name to engage them with the news that he is alive...

"Someone wrote recently ‘Joy might be a greater scandal than evil, suffering or death’. This is what I have been moved by in Christian communities around the world who face the most devastating of conditions. Their certainty that Jesus is alive enables them to face all horrors with joy. Not happiness, but joy. Joy can exist alongside mental illness, depression, bereavement, fear, because the joy of Christ comes from knowing that nothing and no one less than God has the last word.

"I remember sitting in a room with the Bishop who had come over from Pakistan soon after the attack in September on a church in Peshawar. I asked how Christians were coping with the fear that such attacks brought, and wondered if there had been anyone in church the week following the attack. ‘Oh yes’ the bishop replied, ‘there were three times as many people the next week’. Such action is made possible only by the resurrection. The persecuted church flourishes because of the resurrection. I think of women who I met earlier this year who have survived unspeakable sexual violence, yet who lift their arms in prayer and praise to God. I think of teenagers I met in Luton who have hope and joy, in lives that were dominated by self hatred and harm. This has only been made possible because Jesus is alive.

"The announcement that Jesus is alive changes everything; not simplistically or even instantly do circumstances and situations change. But it changes us. It gives us hope where we were in despair, faith where we were lost, light where we were in darkness, joy where we were entirely in sorrow."
He is risen! Hallelujah!

His Grace wishes all of his readers and communicants a blessed Easter.

Friday, April 18, 2014

..they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit

Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him.
And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe,
And said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.
Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him.
Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him.
The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.
When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid;
And went again into the judgment hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer.
Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?
Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.
And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.
When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha.
And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King!
But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.
Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away.
And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha:
Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.
And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.
This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin.
Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews.
Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout.
They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!
Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.
Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth.
When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.
The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him.
But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs:
But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.
And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe.
For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.
And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced.
And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.
And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand
(Jn 19).
For Mark, Jesus is the Son of God; for Matthew, He is King; for Luke, He is Saviour. But for John, Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God who was led to the slaughter; ritually bled so that no drop of blood remained in him. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, who was with him at the creation of the world, to die the agonising death of a cursed criminal. The cross that killed the Son of God blotted out our every sin: that which was torture for Him was a sweet gift to us – the path to eternal life.

On this Good Friday, take a moment to look at the man hanging upon that cross. Consider that our every selfish thought, our pride, our fits of anger, our lies, jealousy, greed and intolerance drove those nails into His feet and hands. Even in His deepest agony, He was forgiving us.

Jesus died the death of Israel's Messiah at the hands of the Romans, at the request of the Sanhedrin, by the will of the people. Far from God's fellowship, abandoned and forsaken, He tasted death for us all. The darkness, fear and agony are unimaginable. The death of Christ brought His disciples to the very depths of despair: they were abandoned, mocked and disillusioned. And yet they possessed within their hearts the peace which passes all understanding: an assurance, a hope that their time of testing might pass and that the curse of death might be conquered. They did not know; they believed. And the message they believed has been central to the Christian faith for almost 2000 years. It is one that has to be continually reinforced at times of stress, despair and danger; at moments when faith is tested and the will to overcome is undermined.

This is why Good Friday is so central in its symbolism: the descent of darkness, the portents of destruction, the expiry of vision and hope. It is the Good Friday that comes to every person at different times, when failure robs life of all meaning, joy and love. It is the collapse of enterprise, confidence, relationship and dignity. It is the descent into hell. God-forsakenness is something we might all feel, but, unlike Jesus, never actually experience. At His moment of mortality, He was nothing but an outcast and humiliated slave. When our moment comes, we are sanctified in His Shekinah and our fellowship will be consummate.

Christians endure what Josephus referred to as "that most wretched of deaths" on Good Friday because of the sure and certain eschatological hope of the Resurrection, which sustains us through the despair. This life does not promise the joy and ecstasy of the Easter event: that is for another place. All we can expect on earth is to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness: the world will hate us, but watch this video and consider that it hated Him first.

Today is a time to reflect, remember, re-enact how our sin brought Jesus to his death on Calvary and what that death meant for our sinfulness and redemption. The gospels present the death of Jesus in the light of His life and the gospels He preached. God delivered up His Son – surrendered Him – quite deliberately: the first person of the Trinity cast out and annihilated the second in order that we might be redeemed. In the infinite grief of that self-emptying is perfect love. How can we not be grateful? Love so amazing, so divine, demands our souls, our lives, our all.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: love, humility, forgiveness, reconciliation

Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.
And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him;
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God;
He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.
After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?
Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.
Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.
Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.
For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.
For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you
(Jn 13:1-15).
Today we remember that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, by which they were to symbolise their love for one another by mutual subjection and humility. And then He ate bread and drank wine for the last time. Most Christians commemorate the Last Supper all year round, but we witness the foot-washing only once a year, and rarely is it physically re-enacted. Perhaps we should precede every celebration of the Eucharist with foot-washing or a modern equivalent; a little induced humility to dispel superiority, test doctrinal infallibility and confront our pride.

After all, we still all need to wash our feet, though today they tend to be more odorous than begrimed from the desert dust. And we all need to eat, but the bread and the wine are privileges. Only if we are humble, forgiving and reconciled may we dine with Him; only when everything else fades into oblivion can we feed on Him.

But it never does, does it? Life is messy, you see. We intone the liturgy and pray the Lord's Prayer - "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". But we have not forgiven because the grievance still eats into our soul. There is bitterness, resentment, malice, even hatred. And yet we eat the bread and drink the wine. Funny, isn't it, how restless and eager we are to demand the excommunication of our brothers and sisters for their notorious sexual sin, while we take the bread and drink the cup with hearts of hate, hostility and malevolence.     

If we are to feed on Him, we must be humble and love one another. It is the fruit of the Spirit by which we might be made known to the world. If God can empty Himself to become man, then we can empty ourselves of self and fulfil the human vocation to be in the image of God. And that doesn't entail always being kind, nice, liked or acting the amiable doormat: loving one another can be a prickly, argumentative and disapproving process. But it is never proud, conceited, ostentatious, haughty, sadistic or spiteful. And nor can it be unforgiving if we are to live, pray and worship with one another as one body, as He agonisingly entreated in Gethsemane. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Wednesday: hate, conspiracy, betrayal

And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house:
Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.
And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!
But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:
For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Behold, I have told you before
(Mt 24:14-25).
Even as Jesus was enlightening the masses with a little sermon on the Mount of Olives, and healing the odd leper in Bethany, Judas was conspiring with the Sanhedrin to betray him for 30 pieces of silver. That's what we remember on Holy Wednesday. Funny, isn't it, that the one who betrayed the Lord should get his own day of commemoration.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests,
And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.
And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.
And from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him
(Mt 26:14-16).
Perhaps Jesus disappointed; perhaps he failed to meet Judas's messianic expectations; perhaps Judas just couldn't resist the money. Perhaps, even, he had no choice: Jesus had to be betrayed for prophecy to be fulfilled, and Judas was the vessel who was given over to Satan ("Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot [Lk 22:3]). His heart was the first to hate the Son of God, and when that hate corrodes the soul, you wish ill, plot downfall, and rejoice in comeuppance.

It's easy for us to wonder and judge with incredulity. Just how can you spend so much time in a man’s company and not get the measure of his character? How could Judas not know? How could he not believe? Had he not seen with his own eyes? How could he not trust?

The reason is that he did not love, or that he loved himself, his ambition and money far more. Judas is one of those friends who aren’t really friends: you know the sort – the superficial hangers-on; those who like to be seen with you or use you for their own ends; those who boast and name-drop, whose every conversation becomes a tedious discourse about them. The world of politics is full of such people. So is the Church. They profess eternal friendship and mouth their undying loyalty while they plot to stab you in the back. As The Lady observed, it is "treachery with a smile".

As long as Judas lined his pockets, he never really paused to consider the inevitable consequences for Jesus. That would have been an act of love, yet his proud and self-righteous heart was consumed with hate, selfishness and greed.  And that's when Satan enters in.
Friends are God’s gift of love: they are there to nurture and support, and also to correct and rebuke. On this Holy Wednesday, let us thank God for them, and reflect on forgiving those who have persecuted or betrayed us – even if they have caused us to weep a river of heartache and sorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Tuesday: questions, qualifications, hypocrisy

When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.
Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.
He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?
Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.
Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him.
For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor.
He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.
Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you
(Jn 13:21-33).

As Jesus continued to teach in the Temple about the Kingdom of God, he talked about fig trees and throwing mountains into the sea. All you have to do is believe, he said, and what you ask will be done.

He was questioned by the chief priests and scribes about his authority to teach. He didn’t show his theology degree; instead, he responded to their questions with his own. Where did John's baptism come from? They could not answer, so neither did he. There were parables about disgruntled labourers in the vineyard and harlots in heaven. The reaction to these must have been one of irritation and embarrassment: doubtless some of Israel's spiritual leaders stormed off, as hypocrites tend to do when confronted with their own inadequacies and absurdities. The Pharisees then tried entrapment, asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor. Aware of their motives, Jesus’s response was unequivocal - taxes must be paid.

The Lord’s authority came from God, but he never used it to subvert the princely authorities of this world. Our citizenship is in heaven; we are merely passing through this temporal state. And while we journey, we must obey the political authorities and the precepts of our employers. Of course, we may agitate for change, but we must never do so without humility or love, which penetrates the souls of those who are being lost, for it is divine.

Religious shows of ostentation and hypocritical piety are antithetical to what the kingdom of heaven is about: by focusing on the letter of the law, we easily forget that the true substance is justice, mercy and love. By obsessing about outward adornments, we risk ignoring the spirit, the heart, the purpose of our faith. Indeed, the outward manifestation is hollow when it is more pharisaically obsessed with propriety than with loving one’s neighbour.

On this Holy Tuesday, let us reflect upon our blindness and deafness; our shortcomings, hypocrisies and inadequacies. Everything we do is dirty rags before the Lord. We construct our own whited sepulchres full of dead men’s bones, and are plagued by all manner of uncleanness, so let us take the Lord’s warnings about authority and hypocrisy very seriously indeed: we must not be outwardly what we are not inwardly, and our outward must be faithful to the inward. Many are called, but few are chosen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Holy Monday: anointing, indignation, cleansing and joy

And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her. And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her (Mk 14:3-9).
The Jewish commemoration of the Passover begins this evening, recalling the time the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt by marking their doorposts with the blood of a pure lamb so that the spirit of the Lord might pass over their homes in the slaughter of the first-born. The Gospels record that six days before the Passover, Mary lavishly anointed her Lord in anticipation of His burial. Christ commends her for the deed, saying: “Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mk 14:9).

As Jews come together around the Seder, Christians gather to watch Eastenders: Holy Monday is indistinguishable from last Monday, or the Monday before that. But today is day for reflecting on the greatest anointing of all - that of the Holy Spirit. Mary's worship at the feet of Jesus was audacious and extravagant, but it was an act of faith and love: all she wanted to do was worship in her own way, which the disciples met with protestation and indignation. It's a woman, you see. And not just a woman, but a mightily-sinning one.

And yet this woman's actions and expressions teach the men a thing or two. She understands and apprehends on a different spiritual plane. They see the perfume and immediately think about the cost and absurd waste; she gently caresses her Lord's ankles and toes, anoints them with a spiced aroma, and smells the scent of salvation. They want action; their mission is to feed the poor. She wants reflection; her heart's desire is to worship.

And so the Christ, the Messiah, is anointed not by prophets or priests, but by but by a prostitute. And that is fitting in this revolutionary kingdom of God. But we easily forget this woman. Jesus said: "Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her." But she invariably gets lost somewhere between the palm leaves and Eastenders.

Holy Monday is also frequently linked to the Lord’s cleansing of the Temple which had become a den of thieves. The House of God, supposedly a place set aside for meditation and prayer, had become a place of hypocrisy, insincerity, greed and lust. Nothing really changes.

Christians are called to be living sacrifice; to worship God daily in their actions and their words. This is becoming increasingly difficult in a context of increasing secularisation confronted by a compromised church. But the witness of our extravagant devotion to the Lord is wholly dependent upon the purity and honesty of our lives: and that must be marked by humility and love, not by aggressive demands for rights or assertions of pride.

Let Caesar collect his taxes and make his laws: it is for Christians to cleanse our temple and devote ourselves lavishly to the Lord, that we may find peace, joy and happiness.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A prophet on a donkey?

Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini.

There is something majestic, exhilarating and timeless about the Latin rendering of this supreme moment of joy, as the Son of God, Messiah, the Hope of Israel enters Jerusalem on a donkey.

A prophet on a donkey.

As we enter this Holy Week – the most solemn and intense period of worship in the Christian calendar – it is important to remember that it does indeed begin with supreme joy as Jesus entered Jerusalem as the fulfilment of the long-promised salvation of Israel.

To the Romans, palm leaves were a symbol of victory and of military prowess. The Jews who greeted their Messiah were simply echoing this practice, perhaps drawing on 1 Maccabees where it is recorded that the people waved palm branches to celebrate the independence of Jerusalem and Judæa.

But what kind of prophet of God or victorious king parades in triumph on a donkey?

The One who was born of a woman?

The One who was lain in a manger?

The One who emptied Himself in humility?

The one who was soon to die on a cross, where Christ's grace simultaneously fuses the joy of his triumph with the profound sorrow of his death. The Passion Gospel is forever in the background of the Hosannas of the people – a people who could never have foreseen what would befall their Messiah just a week later. They yearned for a king who would proclaim Israel’s independence from Rome; they wanted a Messiah who would be their religio-political hero; they wanted a Jesus who would fulfil their religious expectations and affirm their political agendas.

On this final Sunday of Lent, His Grace wishes to pause from temporal concerns and reflect on the fact that little has changed in two millennia. Even today, those who believe in Christ want a certain kind of Jesus; a certain type of Messiah – one who will anoint a certain certain leader, bless a form of politics or prosper a particular war; one who will be ‘on our side’ against all the opposition, foreign and domestic. We seek a Messiah who will affirm our notions of truth and ratify our interpretations of Scripture; one who will follow us conveniently as we direct our own paths in this brief pilgrimage through life.

What kind of success, wealth, reputation or respect is represented by a donkey?

The person who humbles himself will be exalted. The humility of God in human form is expressive of the humility of God in Himself, and we are made in His image: "Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Phil 1:21); For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (2Tim 1:12). To make righteousness out of holiness, godliness, grace, religion, experience, and even of faith itself, is as legal, and as inconsistent with the way of the new covenant, as to make righteousness of holy works. And we can see but a little way into the nature of the soul, and the depths of man's heart.

Today is a day for humility; for reflecting on the fact that Jesus did not enter Jerusalem riding a fine chariot, or the equivalent of an armoured Cadillac or Rolls Royce. He rode in on a donkey, like a humble peasant on a quiet mission of peace.

And these people who today shout "Hosanna!" are those same people who will soon cry "Crucify him!". And all because they realised that the Jesus who rode in on a donkey was not the Jesus they had invented in their minds, for he had thoughts, plans and purposes which were not remotely in line with their own.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Miliband claims he would be "the first Jewish prime minister"

Ed Miliband has been in Israel, discovering his Jewish roots.

According to the Daily Mail, he said: "I would be the first Jewish prime minister if we win the election." This appears to corroborate an interview he gave to Haaretz: "In a little over a year from now, Ed Miliband could well be the first Jewish prime minister of the United Kingdom," it begins. It is undeniable that he made the claim himself: as well as this journalistic introduction, he has been directly quoted.

This is curious, because the Conservative Party gave the United Kingdom its first Jewish prime minister a while back - in 1868, to be precise; a full century before minority rights and PC quotas became a political obsession. He was called Benjamin Disraeli: an indication of his Semitic ethnicity may be found in the name. But Ed Miliband seems to be unaware of this, which is a little odd, considering his audacious appropriation of Disraeli's 'One Nation' slogan.

So popular was Disraeli with the Conservatives that they kept him as their leader for 13 years, and the people re-elected him to a second term in 1874. You may argue that he was only a practising Jew up to the age of 12, when he converted (or was converted) to the Church of England. But Ed Miliband is not an observant Jew either, and has never been: he was raised in a sceptic-humanist-atheist household, and is himself an avowed atheist. So we are not concerned here with matters of religious orthodoxy or observance, but with ethnicity.

And on that count, Benjamin Disraeli was irrefutably the UK's first Jewish prime minister.

Perhaps Harriet Harman might make a better leader of the Labour Party, at least in terms of a grasp on history. One doubts that even Ed Miliband would hail her as the first woman prime minister.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cameron on his vicar: "I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind"

This is the Rev'd Mark Abrey, vicar of St. Nicholas' Church, Chadlington, Oxfordshire. He seems to be a quiet and unassuming sort of minister, so you won't find much written about him anywhere. Indeed, it took His Grace the best part of an hour to unearth a photograph. The Rev'd Mark happens to be David Cameron's local vicar in his constituency. And this is what the Prime Minister said of him at Wednesday's Downing Street Easter reception:’s lovely to have here tonight the vicar from St Mary Abbots school, Gillean Craig, and also the vicar who looks after me spiritually in the constituency, Mark Abrey in Chadlington, who, when I often – anyone asks me about the pastoral care that many vicars carry out across the country, I remember 5 years ago when we had to mourn the loss and bury my son Ivan, I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind than Mark. And of course, Ivan would have been 12 yesterday, which has had me pause to think about that.
Now, Mr Cameron said an awful lot more in his speech, which spanned politics, religion, the law of Christ, the Big Society and Dyno-Rod. And you may read all of that for yourselves and make up your own minds what you think about it. But His Grace is going to dwell on this single sentence of tribute to a single Church of England vicar, for this speech was extempore - not carefully crafted by some Downing Street hireling. And, clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister's spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England's ministry than anything he has previously disclosed.

You see, however the Rev'd Mark Abrey votes and whatever his personal political beliefs, he has pastoral responsibility for all those who live within his entire parish. The pastoral care, prayer and support he provides constitutes an applied theology, and clearly, in the case of David Cameron, the Rev'd Mark has brought the liberating power of the gospel to bear on the actual circumstances of the Prime Minister's life. There was no imposition and no prior condition: the trappings of state and political power presented no hurdle to the vicar's compassion to weep with those who weep. The love of God - agape - reaches down to create a new love - caritas - in which humans are able, regardless of their wretched state or inconsolable grief, to behold their creator in a joy for which they are destined.

Dramatic changes in social circumstances and upheaval in our personal lives create pastoral needs. If Christian theology is to maintain any credibility at all in this increasingly secular, post-Christian age, it cannot ignore those needs. And it must adapt to human experience and observation, for, as we have seen in the lives of St Paul, St Augustine, Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer and many others, a pastoral crisis can call received theological wisdom into question, and a new integrity has to be sought which is resonant with contemporary insights into human need and suffering, as it is manifested not only in the lives of individuals, but also in the behaviour and needs of whole societies.

The pastoral nature of Christian theology - as embodied by the Rev'd Mark Abrey and thousands of other ministers all over the country and the world - is what makes its existence necessary in the first place. It is something done sacrificially and empathetically by human beings to human beings, which is why it speaks to them most profoundly and creatively when it addresses the actual circumstances of their lives., especially when they are threatened, insecure, desolate or inconsolable with grief. Consider this section of the Prime Minister's speech:
I often get my moment of greatest peace – not every week, I’m ashamed to say, but perhaps every other week I pop in to the Thursday morning sung Eucharist beautiful service in St Mary Abbots, and I find a little bit of peace and hopefully a little bit of guidance.
Who are you to judge this simple insight? Who are you to condemn the search for navigation through stormy political waters? Who are you to be offended that David Cameron calls Christ "our Saviour"? He tells us that he went on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem: "And it’s a very special moment the first time you go to the Church of the Holy Nativity; it’s a remarkable, extraordinary place, and I think something that will stay with me."

You may think he's a political chameleon and spiritual charlatan, spouting about this being a "Christian country" to try to dupe disaffected Christians into voting Tory. But is it not written that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags"? He says he wants to "do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world", and we are still waiting to hear what this might be. But please don't think that one who has mourned the death of his own son cannot taste the grief of the many thousands of bereaved parents and orphaned children whose tears are unending.

Pray for the Prime Minister, as St Paul exhorts, "For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." And pray for the Rev'd Mark Abrey, that his witness to the Cameron family may continue to be "loving, thoughtful (and) kind"; that he might be wise and compassionate, manifesting the love of God to them as each opportunity presents itself to challenge the ever-renewing secular knowledge that purports to hold so much promise for the amelioration of the human lot, but which, without Christ, is little more than self-sufficient, self-deluding hubris.