Sunday, 15 October 2017

False peaks of faith

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
15 October 2017

Philippians 3.4b-14
Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20


Did anyone get to see the World Athletics Championships
            at the Olympic Park over the summer?
With the best athletes from around the world
            doing battle against both themselves and each other,
            all for the glory of taking the Gold medal.

From Ussain Bolt pulling up in agony in the 4 x 100 metre relay,
            to Mo Farrar taking Gold in 10,000 metre run,
the training schedules are rigorous and exhaustive,
            or do I mean exhausting?

Anyway, I have to confess that when I was at school,
            I was never much of a sprinter…
            it just wasn’t me!
The sudden burst of energy that was required
            to propel the successful sprinter down the hundred yard dash
                        in 10 seconds or whatever
            just didn’t seem to be within my capability.

The National Institute for Medical Research describe the short sprint like this:

An athlete accelerates [their body] to reach a speed
            of more than forty kilometres per hour in about fifty strides.
Although the sprinter may not need to breathe
            for most of the ten seconds of the race,
the heart will be pumping two hundred millilitres of blood in every heart beat,
            or about four buckets-full per minute.

Well, not in my body, is all I can say!

Sprinting, throwing, hitting, jumping…
            all of these and more, leave me exhausted and in last place.

However, that isn’t to say that I have no athletic abilities…
            Cycling, jogging, and swimming
            were all sports at which I was OK
                        Not great, you understand, but OK
And I continue to swim a mile at the Oasis over the road
            several times per week.

You see, I’m more of a long-distance stamina kind of person

I might not be very quick over a hundred yards
            but I’ll still be going five miles later
            when the sprinter has long since given up
            and gone for a shower.

And this ability to keep going, and going, and going
            has stood me in good stead on various occasions over the years

Liz did her Gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition when she was at school
            and so when we go away on our holidays
we often find ourselves surveying various unlikely looking mountains,
            with Liz excitedly poring over an ordnance survey map
            plotting our route to the top.

In fact, next week, we head off to Peru,
            and, altitude sickness allowing,
            will be taking the high path from Macchu Picchu
                        to the peak of Huyana Picchu.

And believe me, when you’re climbing a mountain
            you need all the long-distance stamina you can get…

It was Liz who introduced me,
            on one of our early holidays together in the Lake District
to the concept of the ‘false peak’.

I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about here?
            It’s when you can see the top of the mountain in front of you,
            and your hopes rise, and you walk that little bit faster,
                        and you strain that little bit more,
                        because you’re excited that you’re nearly at the top.
           
            but then, when you get to the false-peak,
            you realise that actually it isn’t the top at all,
                        - it was merely an interim horizon.
            and that actually you’re only a tiny part of the way up
                        with the vast bulk of the mountain
                        still rising in front of you, waiting to be climbed

We had just this experience once
            on one of our walking holidays in the Austrian Tyrol.

Having found what look like a mountain-top lake on the map
            we set off in search of it,
only to discover that the footpaths were nowhere near where they were supposed to be,
            and we climbed, and climbed, and climbed,
and that every time we thought we’d reached the top,
            the horizon had moved and we would see yet more climbing in front of us.

Encountering a false peak can be one of the most depressing experiences,
            because it demoralises the climber
            and it saps all the enthusiasm that has got them this far
                        as they are forced to contemplate the much greater climb
                        that still lies in front of them

Now, I don’t know whether Paul was a regular mountain walker…

Certainly he went to all the best schools, as he trained to be a Pharisee
so you can be fairly certain that if there was a first-century-equivalent
            to the Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition,
            then Paul would have taken it
And, knowing Paul,
            he would probably have got top marks in all the categories!

After all, he does rather go on in our passage this morning,
            about how completely brilliant he is
            at pretty much everything he has ever turned his hand to.

With shades of Trump-like boasting,
            he says, ‘If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.’ (3.4)
To which I always find myself wanting to mutter, ‘show off’.
            Whether it’s keeping the law to nth degree,
            or persecuting Christians, Paul was the best, the very best,
            In fact, no-one has ever been betterer at persecuting Christians than he has. Fact.

Well, anyway…

I suspect Paul did know something about the joys and frustration
            of climbing mountains
because it is this image which is in view
            in the second part of the passage we read earlier.

Having made his point about how great he is,
            he then has this rare moment of humility,
where he says, ‘Yet whatever gains I had,
            these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.’ (3.7)

In fact, more than that, he says he regards everything as loss
            because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

Paul says that for the sake of Jesus, he has suffered the loss of all things,
            and regards them as rubbish, in order that he may gain Christ. (3.8)

Now, I know something about the pressure to achieve.
            I went to that kind of school.
I understand that in some schools, it’s the nerdy swots who get bullied.
            In my school, it was the precise opposite of this:
                        The academic excellers were lauded,
                        and those of us who got mediocre marks were derided.

Nothing was ever good enough for my school,
            short of straight ‘A’s in all subjects.
Which as a mere one ‘A’ at GSCE
                        (in RE in case you’re wondering. I figured, stick with what you know),
            and none at A-Level, kind of guy,
                        marked me out as something of an under-achiever.

Well, Paul knows something of the feeling of not hitting the peak,
            not attaining the goal.
In spite of all his excellence,
            he had come to realise that there was so much more that lay before him,
            than the peaks of achievement he had already left behind him.

So he uses the image of pressing onward towards a goal,
            in the face of discouragement and exhaustion,
as a metaphor for the Christian life,
            which has been both his own experience,
            and the experience he expects of those he is writing to.

Paul begins by defining his goal:
            and he says that his goal in life
            is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection
                        so that he may attain himself the resurrection from the dead.

This is the goal towards which Paul is pushing:
            to become like Christ
            and to join Christ in resurrection

Which sounds like a fantastic goal, doesn’t it?

            I mean, who could argue with that as a goal?

Don’t we all want to become like Christ?
            the greatest, the bestest human of all time!
Don’t we all want to live forever?
            to see the hold and fear of death broken!

If there is ever a carrot to dangle in front of people,
            surely this is the one? Isn’t it?

Except, of course, things aren’t so simple – or, indeed, so attractive
            because Paul then also spells out how he is hoping to achieve this goal.
And he says that he hopes to become like Christ
            not in terms of being wise, and good, and holy
            but in terms of sharing in Christ’s sufferings!

Well, now, hold on a minute…
            this is suddenly starting to sound a bit less attractive…
Imagine the baptismal service, imagine the altar call…

“Brothers and sisters, dearly loved of God
            I want to challenge you all tonight to become like Christ
“Brothers and sisters, Have you seen Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ?
            well, that’s the path I’m inviting you to tread tonight
“Will all those who feel the Lord stirring their heart
            to begin a life of suffering and rejection
            please come to the front during the next hymn?...”

…But this is what Paul says…

If we are to know Christ and the power of his resurrection
            we need to know him also in his suffering and death,
Because without suffering and death
            there can be no experience of resurrection.

As my Dad says to me on a regular basis
            when I phone him for a moan about something or other,
“Simon, no-one ever said it was going to be easy”.

And yet so often we do seem to tell people
            that becoming a Christian will be easy.
Or, if we don’t say it explicitly,
            we imply it in so many ways.

So often, we make conversion the goal
            which we encourage people to press on towards.

In so many of the programmes for evangelism,
            so beloved by churches desperate to stave off numerical decline,
            from Alpha courses, through Contagious Christian training,
            and into Purpose Driven mission statements,
we put so much of our own effort
            into helping people become Christians.

And surely this is no bad thing, is it?…
            I mean, with numbers declining in the churches in this country
            isn’t a decade or two of evangelism the obvious solution!?

The Baptist Union even changed its strapline a decade ago (2007),
            to ‘Encouraging Missionary Disciples’.

And so we make conversion the goal,
            and we struggle with our potential converts
            as they press on through their doubts and their questions,
And we invest huge resources in helping them to realise
            that the answer to their sin and sense of loneliness,
            is a relationship with Jesus Christ
                        who will forgive them
                        and never leave them by the power of his Spirit.

And so, as I said, it is conversion that becomes the goal

But what concerns me in this
            is that conversion, as we so often promote it, becomes a false peak,
which ultimately leaves people demoralised and exhausted,
            and utterly unprepared for the mountain that still lies in front of them.

For Paul, the goal was not conversion:
            This wasn’t Paul’s own experience…
Even as dramatic a Damascus Road experience as Paul’s
            was not understood by Paul as being the goal.
It was merely a ‘false peak’.
            The first of many.

Actually, maybe the word ‘false’ is slightly misleading here
            because, of course, ‘false peaks’ do still have to be ascended
            - they still require effort, and exertion, and determination.
But what is ‘false’ about a false peak is that it isn’t the top of the mountain,
            even though, from the perspective of the approaching climber,
            it might appear to be so.

From the perspective of the pre-Christian, if there is such a thing,
            who is journeying towards conversion,
it can be hard to see beyond that particular horizon.

But from the point of view of the life-long Christian
            looking back fifty years or more;
the mountain that was conversion,
            can now be seen to be little more than a small foothill
            to the much greater mountain of the life of faith.

So we need to tell people who are on a journey towards faith
            that the goal is not conversion,
the goal is becoming like Christ in his suffering and death,
            in order to become like Christ in the power of his resurrection.

And what worries me about some Christians I know
            is that they have struggled over the peak of conversion,
but have then sat down to wait and catch their breath
            sometimes for months, sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime.

It’s like they get to that first false peak
            but then turn around and spend the rest of their lives
            looking back at how far they have come
without turning to face forwards again
            and beginning the journey of pressing on towards the much greater goal
            that still lies in front of them.

As Paul says in verse twelve
            “I have not already obtained or reached the goal
            “but I press on to make it my own
            “because Christ Jesus has made me his own”

Paul knows full well that he has not yet reached the goal.

This man with the most dramatic of all conversions,
            who went on to shape the course of Christian history,
            through his brilliant pastoral and theological thinking and writing,
knew that he had not in any way reached the goal.

He knew of the struggle that still lay before him,
            as he pressed on through life to an eternity with Christ.

And he gives us a glimpse of his motivation to continue the journey
            when he says “I press on to make the goal my own
                        “because Christ Jesus has already made me his own”

Every climber needs motivation
            to give them that single-minded obsessive desire
                        to press on through the cold and snow,
            to press on up the steep incline in front of them.

And Paul gives us our motivation here:
            we press on to make the goal our own
            because Jesus has already made us his own.

Grace and faith combine in this verse
            to draw us on through the hardships of life,
            towards the goal
                        of knowing the power of the resurrection of Christ Jesus.

I’m not proposing to get into some great debate here
            about predestination…
What is clearly implied in Paul’s writing
            is action on both sides:
In the cross Christ has made us his own,
            and in life we are to press on to make Christ our own.

And this very act of pressing on
            implies an ongoing struggle.

Just because we are forgiven and our sins are washed away,
            doesn’t mean that we are suddenly free from temptation,
or that we suddenly have a miraculous ability to resist evil
            under all circumstances.

It is not for nothing that when Jesus was asked how to pray,
            he instructed his disciples to ask on a regular basis
                        for deliverance from evil
                        and avoidance of temptation.

We are not there yet…
            we are part-way up the mountain,
                        and from time to time we will stumble and fall,
            sometimes we will fall and roll back,
                        meaning we have to re-climb
                        over ground we have already covered before,
            sometimes we will get thoroughly lost.

But through it all, says Paul, we are to press on towards the goal.

Sometimes we will face hardships that are not of our making,
            as the spiritual equivalent of an avalanche
            descends upon us and threatens to sweep us away.

And these times are perhaps the most difficult times of the Christian journey,
            because it is at these times that we doubt God’s very call on our lives.
When the avalanche never seems to stop,
            and we find ourselves struggling to even stand upright,
            it can feel as if there is nothing else to do,
                        but collapse in a heap
                        and be swept back down the mountain to the very bottom.

Well, it may be small consolation, but Paul knew all about hardships:
            both those of his own making
            and those over which he had no control.

He knew all about guilt and sin:
            never forget this is the man who put Christians to death.

He knew all about unfair treatment:
            He faced beatings and imprisonment for no crime
            other than proclaiming the salvation that comes in Jesus.

And he knew all about loss and sorrow,
            writing on occasions with tears in his eyes
            to those who he loved
                        as he shared with them in their grief.

And in all this his response was to press on
            - to not give up the struggle.

He said: “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind
            and straining forward to what lies ahead
I press on toward the goal
            for the prize of the heavenly call of Christ Jesus”

And the only conclusion I can draw from this
            is that the Christian life is one of struggle and hardship.

Sure, there are fantastic views along the way,
            there are occasional places of refuge from the storms,
            where we can rest a while,
there are stretches of ground which are flat and easy,
            in between the stretches which are steep and treacherous.

But fundamentally, it is an upward climb towards a prize.

And this sense of journey and struggle,
            brings with it, I think, an inherent sense of dissatisfaction.

The person who makes camp on the plateau
            just beyond the peak of conversion,
and settles down to enjoy the view,
            is not living the life of the Christian disciple.

The true follower of Christ
            is forever dissatisfied with the way things are,
            and forever pressing on to see things change.

The call of Christ on our lives,
            is to be a people who want to see the world different.

We are called to be those who are the prophets:
            who speak out our dissatisfaction with the way things are
and who blaze the trail onwards
            towards the prize of knowing Christ
            and the power of his resurrection.

Because it is Christ alone
            who can bring new life where there is death

So when we look around us and see those people
            in whom hope and love have died
It is Christ alone who can bring new life.

When we see death of justice and righteousness
            it is the power of Christ’s resurrection
            which alone can bring new life.

When we see the death of relationships
            it is Christ alone who can bring new life.

And this is the goal for which we press on:
            the goal of the transforming power of Christ’s resurrection.
Nothing else would be worth the struggle
            and nothing else is enough to make it worth giving up the struggle.

And so we press on toward the goal
            for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Amen


Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Sermon for the Marriage of Bec and Lisa

Sermon preached by Revd Dr Simon Woodman
on the occasion of the marriage
of Bec Baran and Lisa Best
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
30th September 2017

Ecclesiastes 9.7-9
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Put on nice clothes and make yourself look good. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil.

The ancient authors of the Jewish wisdom literature knew a thing or two about life; and the shadowy unknown author of the book of Ecclesiastes, from which Emma just read for us, is no exception.

We don’t know their real name, we don’t know their age, we don’t even know for sure their gender. But what we do know, is that they were very wise. And one thing they knew, was that the world keeps turning, with joy following sorrow, and sorrow following joy, just as surely as the seasons follow each other.

Probably their most famous passage is the one which begins,
‘For everything there is a season,
a time for every matter under heaven,
a time to be born and a time to die…
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance…
a time for war and a time for peace…’ (3.1-8)
You know the passage; if you’re of a certain age, you might even be singing it.

But in chapter nine, where our reading this afternoon comes from, the author turns their wisdom to the theme of marriage, and most particularly to the joys of a loving wife.

And here’s the thing, here’s their great insight into marriage: life may be uncertain; with none of us knowing what tomorrow may bring; but if you have a wife who loves you, that, at least, is certain. That is something you can build your life on, even if everything else is subject to change.

Wealth may come and go, health may come and go, but a loving wife has the potential to last a lifetime. As Bec and Lisa have just said,
   for better for worse,
   for richer for poorer,
   in sickness and in health,
   to love and to cherish,
   until we are parted by death.

Marriage is a wonderful mystery, where love, that most fickle of emotions, takes tangible shape in the most permanent of forms, to the extent that it can transcend even life itself.

People have often asked me why it matters so much to me that Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church should be the first Baptist church to register for same sex marriage. And my answer is always the same: it’s because I believe that marriage matters. There have been those who have tried to suggest that in some way we have devalued marriage. But I couldn’t disagree more.

Marriage, it has always seemed to me, is part of the glue that holds society together. It’s not for everyone; but those who make their public commitment to live faithfully in love, offer us all a great gift, that brings joy and community far beyond the happy couple.

And of course marriages look different for different people, some couples have children, and some don’t; some get married very young, others leave it very late; some have husbands, and some don’t, some have wives, and some don’t.

But what all marriages have in common is that they make love central; as two people agree that they will love each other at least as much as they love themselves, and as they promise that they will continue to do this, to the best of their ability, whatever happens next.

And in a world where so much is uncertain, a conscious act of selflessness, where love is made central, offers a powerful antidote to the selfishness and cynicism which can permeate so much of our lives.

As I said, marriage is gift, and it’s a gift given not just to Bec and Lisa, but to all of us. And this, it seems to me, is worth celebrating, and celebrating before God.

After all, Jesus himself was a guest at a marriage celebration, and his first miracle in John’s gospel was turning water into wine, so the party could continue long into the night.

It has been a joy to get to know Lisa and Bec, and to share with them in their journey into love; and as they have made their promises today, we have all responded to the invitation to join them in celebrating the love that has been given to them.

So, as the write of Ecclesiastes wisely puts it:

‘Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart,
for God has already approved what you do.’


Thursday, 28 September 2017

Taking Care of our Bodies

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
24 September 2017
Romans 14.1-12

So, are you going to do ‘Sober October’? Or ‘Dry January’?
            Are you going to give up red meat for Advent,
            or go ‘vegan for Lent’?

How’s that diet going?
            Are you getting your ‘five a day’?
            Are you keeping your carbs under control?

What does YourFitnessPal .com tell you?
            How’s your resting heart rate?
Are you tempted by the new Apple Watch
            with its updated health and fitness monitoring?

Are you getting enough sleep?
            There’s an app for that, you know,
            to tell you when it’s time for a duvet day.

Is your life in balance?
            Are you happy?
            Is there enough hugge in your life?

We have, as a society, become obsessed with our quality of life.
            And not without some very good reasons.

The obesity crisis, as it is called,
            is a ticking time bomb of hospitalisation waiting to go off.
The NHS tell us that 1 in 4 of us is overweight,
            and we have the highest level of obesity in Western Europe,
                        ahead of countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden;
            making us the so-called ‘fat man’ of Europe.
Our sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets
            are increasing our propensity to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,
with all of the personal and economic costs involved in treating these.

The general stagnation of wages
            and the seemingly never-ending rise in housing costs
has played a contributing factor in this,
            with more and more people ‘treating’ themselves
                        in relatively cheap but unhealthy ways,
            to compensate for their overall lack of resources
                        to take more strategically healthy decisions.

It’s a well-established fact that childhood obesity is a key indicator of adult obesity,
            and that children in economically deprived communities
            are far more likely to be overweight.

This is not just a problem of poor personal choices,
            it’s a structural and systemic problem
            that’s directly related to the inequalities that exist in our society.

Professor Susan Jebb, from Oxford University, comments that,
            “Obesity is a consequence of the abundance and convenience of modern life
            as well as the human body's propensity to store fat,”
And she goes on to note that,
            “The situation in which food is readily available for most people
            has arrived in a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.”[1]

We’re just not equipped, either personally or structurally,
            to deal with the seemingly unending availability
            of cheap and yummy sugar and fat.

And then of course there’s the rising stress levels
            that come with the combination of financial insecurity and poor physical health.
            We live with an ever-increasing expectation
                        that those who have jobs will put in longer and longer hours,
            and we battle with a culture of 24/7 availability
                        where we answer emails in the middle of the night,
                        and bury our heads in our phones whilst we are supposed to be on holiday.
            While those at the lower end of the income spectrum
                        either struggle to find work at all,
            or are taking two or even three low-paid jobs
                        to generate enough income to pay rent and bills.

And all this stress leads to family pressure, relationship breakdown, and time off work,
            with 11.7 million working days lost due to stress related illness in 2015/16.[2]
There’s just too much to do, with too little time to do it,
            and not enough resources to do it properly.

And what, you might well ask, has all this to do with God?
            Why has Simon started his sermon with a mini-lecture on public health?

Well, here’s the thing.
            I think that this is a deeply spiritual issue,
and in my observation it’s not one which we normally speak about in church.

I mean, just out of interest,
            when was the last time you heard a sermon on health and fitness?

Sermons on prayer? Yes.
            Loving one another? Yes.
            Forgiving one another? Of course.
            Working for peace? Absolutely.
But caring for our bodies?...

I think we too often confine our Christian faith to our so-called ‘spiritual lives’;
            and in so doing we deny the reality of the fact that we are embodied beings.

There was an ancient Greek philosophy called ‘dualism’,
            which asserted that the physical world;
                        the one we can see, touch, and taste,
            was merely a shadow of a more real, truly spiritual world,
                        where the imperfections of this world cease to exist.

So, the Simon of this physical world, with all his flaws and imperfections,
            would be understood as merely a shadow
                        of the true, perfected, spiritualised Simon,
                        that exists beyond this world.

Dualism was developed by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle,
            and it was the dominant worldview at the time Christianity developed.
So the early Christians, and those who wrote the New Testament,
            would have found themselves in a world where the split
                        between the spiritual and the physical
            was an accepted part of the way the world was understood.

Interestingly, the Jews had a different perspective,
            and they tended to view the spiritual and the physical as more of a unity,
            with both revealing the nature and glory of God.
In the Jewish understanding,
            worship and prayer were not attempts to reach across a void,
but the conscious opening of human life
            to experience of God who is ever present in and through all things.[3]

So when we come to the New Testament,
            we can trace something of this difference of opinion
            as to the relationship between the spiritual and the physical.

Sometimes it can seem as if God is beyond us,
            and we can only reach him through engaging our ‘higher’, more ‘spiritual’ abilities;
and sometimes it can seem as if God is thoroughly with us,
            at home in the frailty and fragility of our humanity.

However, once we move beyond the time of the New Testament,
            into the second and third centuries,
the philosophy of dualism really takes hold within Christianity,
            and largely eclipses the more holistic approach to life
            that came through the Jewish tradition.

So, the view develops within Christianity
            that ‘the physical world is secondary and shabby
            compared with that which can be experienced by the mind or spirit.’[4]

And we end up with a kind of Christianised version of the classical Greek position,
            where humans are seen as a combination of body and soul,
            arranged in a hierarchy, with the soul ranking ahead of the body.

So forms of Christianity emerged where people would deny or neglect their bodies,
            in order to focus on, or develop, or perfect, their spiritual side.

Of course, in a pre-antibiotic world of disease,
            with death and suffering constant companions through life,
you can see why it would be attractive to people
            to believe that they could transcend their mortal life
            by focussing on the eternal, perfected state of their souls.

Interestingly, this dualism also finds its way into post-enlightenment philosophy,
            to the extent that it is very much still with us today.

I’m not going to blame Descartes for this,
            but I do think we can point the finger at him
            as the one primarily responsible.

You may remember his famous dictum,
            ‘I think, therefore I am’?
Well, this takes us to the heart of his perspective,
            which is that the mind, with its consciousness and self-awareness,
can be distinguished from the physicality of the brain
            as the seat of intelligence.

In other words,
            Descartes asserted that the grey squishy stuff in our skulls
            is merely where our mind sits in our bodies.
According to him, our true being, our true identity as humans,
            is more than the sum of our neurons.

A lot of science fiction, and indeed science,
            has taken this as its inspiration,
as people have wrestled with the idea that our minds can transcend our bodies.

From Frankenstein’s Monster, to Data the Android in Star Trek,
            the question of whether our bodies are inherent to our humanity
            is a recurring theme.
And in medicine, the split between psychoanalytical and pharmaceutical treatments
            remains very much with us to this day.

Sometimes the order of the hierarchy gets reversed,
            with the body finding itself ahead of the soul in the order of priority,
but the underlying split between the two remains.

Are we body, or are we soul?
            Are we physical, or are we spiritual?
            Are we human, or are we dancer?
Should we pay attention primarily to our minds, or to our bodies?

In a sense, we have here the whole basis for the split in contemporary culture
            between science and faith.
If you believe that consciousness is an emergent quality of our physical evolution,
            then you may be tempted to disregard as pre-scientific
            any talk of the spiritual, the noumenal, or the transcendent.
On the other hand, if you believe that we are divinely created beings,
                        made in the image of God,
            then you may be tempted to disregard as un-spiritual
                        any talk of evolution or medicalised treatment.

In a nutshell – if you’re unwell,
            would you go first to your pastor for prayer,
            or to your doctor for medicine?

Of course, it’s a false dichotomy.
            The scientist ignores the spiritual to their loss,
            and the theologian ignores the physical to their cost.

But it is a deeply ingrained dichotomy,
            which we have inherited as the result of two thousand years
            of cultural and religious dualism,
so it takes a bit of unpicking.

And here I want to return to a comment I made earlier,
            which is that we are embodied beings.

It is simply not authentic to the broad witness of scripture
            to separate our souls from our bodies;
and we need to recover something of the Jewish understanding
            of the unity between the physical and spiritual.

Both reveal the nature and glory of God,
            and nowhere is this more clear
            than in the life of Jesus, God with us in human form.

Belief in the divinity of Jesus is not some abstract theological point
            which is increasingly less relevant to our scientific understand of the world.

Rather, it is a crucial challenge to those practices
            which would seek to separate the spiritual from the physical
            by perpetuating the ancient philosophy of dualism.

The idea of God-with-us in the person of Christ
            tells us that you cannot touch the human, without also touching the divine.
You can no more treat the body in isolation from the spirit,
            than you can transcend the physical to live entirely in the spiritual world.

The person who fasts for too long will starve to death,
            regardless of the state of heightened consciousness they achieve along the way,
and the person who attends only to the body and its needs
            will lose touch with the mystery of existence that calls us beyond ourselves
            and into works of love and service.

Many of you will know that I use language of spiritual warfare extremely sparingly.
            I’m not the kind of Christian who sees demons round every corner.

But I do think that sometimes it is appropriate to name evil,
            and in the naming of it to seek to disempower it.

And there are many demons in our world
            that slip through unnamed, and which therefore continue to exercise their hold
            over the lives of those they are seeking to destroy.

So I want to name some demons,
            and give us permission to talk about them and see them exorcised from our lives.

You have heard, I’m sure, the phrase ‘the demon drink’,
            and many of us, myself included, know the temptation
                        to drink a little too much, a little too often.
Well, there were 339,000 hospital admissions last year
            related to alcohol consumption,
and the stories of those who come through he doors of this church
            for our Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
give testimony to the capacity alcohol has to destroy lives
            if its consumption is not regulated in some way.

And related to alcohol are the other addictive drugs,
            which range from tobacco to painkillers, to cannabis and other illegal drugs.
And if we think this stuff doesn’t happen here, we’re wrong:
            the cultural acceptability of substance abuse is prevalent,
                        and Christians are not immune.
But if we perpetuate the dualistic myth that what we do to our bodies,
            is largely unrelated to our spiritual wellbeing,
then we not only give ourselves permission
            to continue in our destructive patterns of behaviour,
            but we deny the image of God in each of us.

And what about diet, exercise, and weight?

I’m very aware that here I stand on treacherous ground,
            because I’m a slim man
            and I don’t want in any way to assume the moral high ground here.

In fact, those of you who have known me for a few years
            may remember that I used to be much bigger then than I am now.
I lost several stone after my 40-year-old man health check
            showed that my cholesterol was significantly higher than it should be.

I remember a few years ago walking round the Christian Resources Exhibition
            (yes, there is indeed such a thing!)
and there was a stall there for an organisation,
            who promote healthy living from a Christian perspective.[5]

One of the people passing by remarked, scathingly,
            ‘oh great, so being fat’s a spiritual issue now, is it?!’
And hearing that really challenged me,
            because I realised that I had been guilty of focussing on my spiritual development,
            to the neglect of my body.
I was going to see my spiritual director,
            but wasn’t taking regular exercise,
and my diet had become one of fast, convenient food,
            consisting mainly of beer and burger, or steak night at Wetherspoons, and the like…

Was it any wonder I was overweight with high cholesterol?

And when I go to ministers’ meetings,
            and I look around me at my fellow clergy,
I see many others are taking the exact same decision:
            Ministers are, all too often, overweight.

We sit at our desks and write our sermons,
            we pray our prayers, and visit the sick, and comfort those who are suffering;
and we neglect ourselves,
            because we have prioritised the spiritual over the physical.

And what has challenged me personally is the realisation
            that this is not only bad practice, it is bad theology.

And the same applies to stress.

I remember my College Principal Brian Haymes once saying to us,
            that many ministers will leave the pastorate due to stress.
And that he wanted to challenge us to consider the possibility
            that this is because they are too lazy to take control of their own diaries.

It’s a provocative proposal,
            but there is some truth in it.

All of us struggle to take control of our own lives,
            and it’s so much easier to allow other people to set our agendas for us.

A church like Bloomsbury, where there is so much going on,
            will suck every moment we are prepared to give it.
There is always more to do, and the need is so great.

And then we factor in the demands of our families, our professions,
            and our other commitments,
and suddenly we find that we are no longer in control of our own lives.

It’s hard, disciplined work, saying no to people,
            and it’s doubly difficult to take back control
            of that which we have already handed over to others.
And yet if we don’t, we simply abdicate responsibility,
            and ultimately pay the cost in our own lives.

We cannot separate ourselves off like this,
            because we are embodied beings,
made in the image of God
            and reflecting the likeness of his son.

Now, the thing is, there is no one-size-fits all solution to these challenges.
            These demons of addiction, obesity, and stress
            will not be exorcised with one simple word.

And here we need to hear Paul’s advice to the Christians in Rome:

‘One person believes it is all right to eat anything,
            while the weak person eats only vegetables.
The one who eats should not despise the one who does not,
            and the one who does not should not condemn the one who does
            – because God has welcomed them…
One person reckons one day more important than another.
            Someone else regards all days as equally important.
            Each person must make up their own mind.’

Not everyone will take the same decision.
            For starters, I’m not convinced that being a vegetarian is a sign of weakness,
                        I mean, I don’t think I have the strength to give up bacon!
            And not everyone will become vegan.
            Not everyone will take up swimming, or jogging, or going to the gym.
            Not everyone will strategically reduce their working hours.
            Not everyone will take full control of their diary.

And it’s not our place to judge the decisions of others here.
            It’s far too easy for us to write our own choices onto the lives of others,
                        and then stand in judgment of them
                        when they don’t measure up to the standards we have set for ourselves.

As Paul puts it:
‘Who do you think you are to judge someone else?’
That is not what we are to do.

But it is our responsibility to ask ourselves
            where we stand before God on this.

And it is our responsibility to stand alongside one another
            as together we seek to live into being our commitment to love each other.

My biggest worry in raising this issue this morning
            is that it would generate feelings of guilt or condemnation.
But my hope is that we can together support one another
            as we find places for honesty about the struggles that each of us has
            to care for ourselves in both body and spirit.







[1] http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/statistics-and-causes-of-the-obesity-epidemic-in-the-UK.aspx
[2] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/
[3] http://girardianlectionary.net/res/wright_dualism.htm
[4] http://girardianlectionary.net/res/wright_dualism.htm
[5] http://www.fit-fish.co.uk/