Monday, 21 July 2014

Witch-hunts and Scape-goats

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20th July 2014, 11.00am

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;  25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.  27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'  28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'  29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field."  37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;  38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,  39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.  40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Revelation 14.2-5, 14-16   And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps,  3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth.  4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb,  5 and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!  15 Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, "Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe."  16 So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Alice Nutter, Pendle Witch

On holiday recently, Liz and I went on the trail of the Pendle witches.
            It was a story I knew I’d heard of, but I didn’t know the details.
On the Witch Trial trail (which is harder to say than you might think),
            we discovered a fascinating tale of murder and dark deeds in deepest Lancashire.

In brief, 400 years ago, in the shadow of Pendle Hill,
            amid the pretty villages and sleepy fields,
suspicion started to grow that something wasn’t right
            with some of the people who lived there.

Some women, probably medicine-women with skills in herbal healing,
            were accused of witchcraft.
It’s possible that these women had actually come to believe
            that they had the power to curse people,
                        and to access strange powers,
            so there may at one level have been some truth in the accusation.
However, others got caught up in the accusations,
            and in the end, twelve people were charged
            with using witchcraft to commit multiple murder.
After a trial at Lancaster Castle, ten people were led outside and hanged.

The Pendle witches weren’t the only people charged with witchcraft in this period,
            and the best estimate is that during the middle ages
            approximately 500 people were executed for witchcraft.
This context of suspicion, which led to the ‘rooting out’ of the witches,
            gives us the phrase ‘witch-hunt’,
which we continue to use to describe any such attempt to rid society
            of those who represent a specific and feared practice or ideology.
From the Spanish Inquisition, which apparently no-one expected;
            to the Salem Witch Trials of Massachusetts;
            to the omniscient thought control of George Orwell’s fictional ‘Big Brother’;
            to the McCarthyite ‘reds under the bed’ fears of the Cold War period
 - the tendency seems to be for us to reinvent the witch-hunt for each new generation.

In Pendle in Lancashire, 400 years ago,
            a largely rural culture took its worst fears, paranoia, and guilt,
            and focused these on targeted individuals who were declared guilty
                        of the crime which most revulsed the population.

I found it particularly interesting that one of the guide books to the Pendle witch trials
            says that "The evidence against them was based on memories,
                        hearsay and superstition."
In other words, whilst it appears to be important that the rule of law is followed,
            actually the most important thing is to make the guilty pay.
The role of the legal process becomes less about
            establishing truth beyond reasonable doubt,
and more about allowing society to believe
            that the witch-hunt has not taken it beyond the bounds of normal process.
One of the characteristics of legal processes in a witch-hunt scenario
            is that once accused, someone is popularly presumed guilty until proven innocent,
            rather than the other way around.

The philosopher Rene Girard suggests that what we encounter
            in situations such as the Pendle Witch Trials
            is an example of a social phenomenon known as scape-goating.

The term scape-goat has its origins in the Old Testament,
            in the book of Leviticus (16.21-22),
            where we find a ritual described which has as its purpose the purification of society.
In this special ritual, the sins of the people
            are symbolically laden on the head of a goat,
            which is then driven away into the wilderness.[1]
This goat has become known as the ‘scape-goat’,
            because it is sacrificed to atone for the sins of the whole population.
In modern language, we still speak of a scape-goat,
            usually as a human victim, who is identified as an easy target
            on which to discharge the accumulated hatreds of a community.[2]

Rene Girard says that the act of scape-goating isn’t simply a religious ritual,
            but that it is rather an example of a universal human tendency.
Girard argues that at the base of human society is a drive, or instinct,
            to imitate, to copy, to want to be like another person,
            or to have what another person has.

This desire to imitate creates rivalries between people
            that then have to be contained,
and Girard suggests that the rules of society
            are attempts to contain the rivalries that would otherwise lead to violence.

Think of the child who has not yet learned to say ‘please’
            – if they want something, they will attempt to just take it.
Eventually, and hopefully before they are strong enough to take it by force,
            they will learn to say ‘please’,
                        and they will learn the rules of sharing,
            and that sometimes you don’t always get what the other person has,
                        no matter how much you want it.
In other words, they learn the rules of society.

However, the rules just contain the desire, they don’t make it go away.
            This is why capitalism is such an addictive ideology – but I digress.
The rules of society don’t banish the capacity for acquisitive violence
                        that lies within each human soul,
            they just contain it,
                        and allow it to be exercised at a societal rather than individual level.

If I kill you because I want your stuff, society judges me guilty.
            But if we all agree, as a nation,
                        that we want the land currently occupied by another group,
            we justify together our military action to take it.
Which is why our headlines are full of horrific news from Gaza this week,
            but again, I digress.

By this way of looking at things, violence between two people
            – me using violence to take what I want from you – is contained.
But violence exercised on behalf of the many against the individual is sanctioned,
            and even necessitated, as the legal system asserts its communal rule of law.

By the same token, violence exercised by the many
            against another societal grouping is also justified.
In other words, if enough of us agree that it’s OK to go to war, then it’s OK.
            And also, interestingly, if we do go to war,
                        there is then huge pressure to conform to that decision,
                        to cheer on and support ‘our boys’. But again, I digress.

Girard goes on, and takes his argument one stage further,
            and this is where he starts to shed light on the language of the scape-goat,
                        on the practice of the witch-hunt.
Sometimes, he says, the conflicts within a society
            cannot be contained by the civilising rules that the community has developed.

An atmosphere develops of fear, suspicion, and distrust
            between members of the society.
Mob rule threatens, and riot is just below the surface.

At this point, Girard notes that the crisis is only resolved
            when two or more individuals converge on the same adversary,
                        and then others mimic them in this,
            so that in the end everybody gets drawn into a united hatred
                        of the targeted adversary.

As Stephen Finamore puts it,
            ‘The undifferentiated and unified mob converges
            on one arbitrarily selected individual.’[3]

The murder of the one, or possibly the few,
            acts as a catharsis for the wider society,
                        expelling hostile and violent emotions from the group,
            and producing a sense of calm, harmony, and peace.
The group agrees that the scape-goat must die,
            the group enacts the sacrifice,
                        and the group feels better as a result.

By this understanding, the scapegoating of the few serves a wider sociological function,
            by assuaging the guilt of the many.
And so there is an inbuilt human tendency to scapegoat,
            to witch-hunt, to name certain people as ‘other’, as ‘evil’,
                        and to destroy them.
            Because if we all unite in hating them,
                        maybe we won’t hate each other as much, at least for today.

And so we love to root out the evil,
            to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to rid society
                        of the ones we have deemed unrighteous.
We embark on a crusade, we condemn them to hell,
            because by doing so we rid ourselves of that which makes us most afraid.

There is a certain type of religious person
            who longs to root out evil in all its forms,
            and to establish the rule and reign of the righteous on the earth.
They have always existed, and they probably always will.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds,
                        or the wheat and the tares as it is more traditionally known,
            has its origin in a society that knew all about such religious extremism.
From the Zealots, eager to rid the land of the polluting and corrupting Romans;
            to the Pharisees, eager to fight against pagans on the one hand,
                        and against compromised Jews on the other,
            there were plenty of people around in Jesus’ day
                        who were desperate to rid society of evil.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds,
            Jesus offers a direct challenge to the mindset of scapegoating,
                        to the practice of the witch-hunt.
There’s no point, says Jesus, in trying to root out all evil from within human society,
            because it can’t be done.
All you will do is damage the good that is growing there alongside the evil,
            and the whole harvest will be lost.

So at one level, this is a parable that urges patience, forbearance, and perseverance.
            However frustrating it may feel
                        to have to continue living alongside the unrighteous,
                        it’s not our job as humans to purify society.

But at another level, the parable offers a deep insight
            into the nature of the human soul:
the reason we cannot root out evil from our midst
            is because the evil is within each one of us.
It’s not just society that’s a mixed field of wheat and weeds;
            it’s me, and you, and each and every complex person on this complex planet.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it,
            ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human.’

The task of the religious extremist
            is shown by Jesus to be an impossible task,
because one cannot ultimately purify the human soul
            through the exercising of violence,
                        however well intentioned,
                        and however legally mandated that violence might be.

People keep trying, of course, because it seems so enticing;
            when we scape-goat the ‘other’, when we embark on a witch-hunt,
                        we feel so righteous;
            we know we are right and innocent,
                        and they, whoever they are, are guilty and deserve their fate.
And yet, of course, none of us are innocent.
            All of us desire that which belongs to the other,
                        all of us want what it not ours to have,
                        all of us long to reach out and take, by force if necessary,
                                    that which will make us complete.
And so the crusade doesn’t work.
            The inquisition doesn’t work.
                        The holy war doesn’t work.
There must be another way.

Well, says Jesus, there is.
            Let the wheat and the weeds grow side by side.
            Don’t spoil the harvest by rooting it all out too early.
                        Let God be the judge of what is of value and what has no value.
The thing about weeds and wheat is that,
            until the harvest is mature,
            it is very hard to tell the one from the other.
You get some wheat the looks like weeds,
            and you get some weeds that look like wheat.
So don’t judge others, lest you yourself be judged,
            as Jesus puts it earlier in the gospel (Matt. 7.1).

Each of us is a mixed bag of wheat and weeds.
            There are things in my life that have no eternal value,
                        and which need to be consigned to the flames for all eternity.
            There are things in my life that are pleasing to God,
                        and which he will hold safe in his eternal storehouse for evermore.
            I am weeds, and I am wheat.
                        As are we all.

The only purification of the human soul that carries eternal value
            is the judgment of God.
The only purification of the societies we construct
            that carries eternal value is the judgment of God.
All human attempts to enact that judgment on his behalf
            become scapegoating and witch-hunting,
                        temporary fixes to assuage our guilt that ultimately damage us all
                        as the weeding out of the few destroys the harvest of the many.
The only scapegoat that has the capacity to take the sins of us all,
            and remove them from us for all eternity,
is the sinless one who was sacrificed on the cross
            for the forgiveness of the many (Heb. 13.11-12).

And yet, still human society attempts to purify itself,
            to scapegoat the hated and feared ‘other’
            in a desire to unite against the common foe for the good of us all.
Some seek to purify humanity by planting bombs on planes and trains.
            Some by naming and shaming.
                        Some by manipulation.
Certain quarters of the press and media take great delight, it seems,
            in dwelling upon the sins of others;
all in the public interest, of course,
            for the good of the many.

Sometimes those who are scapegoated are entirely innocent.
            They have done nothing to deserve their denigration,
                        and they are simply declared guilty in the absence of evidence of innocence.

The language of ‘disabled scroungers’,
             - yes, Google it if you don’t believe me – is now rife.
These people, we are told from certain quarters,
            claim Disability Living Allowance despite being work-ready.
The consequent and distressing rise in disability hate crime
            has all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt.[4]
As does the language of ‘illegal immigrant’ being used
            to describe those who have come to the UK as refugees to seek asylum.
The designation of them as ‘illegal’ offers a justification for incarceration,
            and for inhumane or sub-human treatment
            through forced destitution, detention, and deportation.[5]

However, sometimes there are those who are guilty of a crime,
            those who deserve to be brought to account before the law.
But the culpable guilt of an individual
            doesn’t stop their treatment by society
            taking on the characteristic of a witch-hunt.
Think, for example, of the language used by David Cameron recently,
            where he promised there would be ‘no stone unturned’
                        by the enquiry into allegations of historic abuse.[6]
            It will be rooted out, weeded out, at any cost.

I want to be very clear here: child sexual abuse is an horrific crime,
            and those who perpetrate it need to be brought to account,
            for the sake of their victims and for society as a whole.
But the way in which the media has reported and represented this issue in recent years
            has bordered on the prurient, the salacious, and the voyeuristic.
It has seemed on occasions as if there have been those
            who have taken comfort if not delight in the ‘othering’ of those named.
And I find myself wondering whether,
            in a culture that has normalized sexual objectification,
                        and embraced sexual exploitation,
            we are actually seeking to deal with the incipient guilt that this imparts,
                        by drawing a boundary around certain types of sexual transgression,
                        and then scapegoating those who have so transgressed.

As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans,
            ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23).
Each of us is wheat and weeds.
            Each of us wants that which it is not ours to take.
                        Each of us is in need of mercy, and forgiveness, and grace.
Each of us has the capacity to join the mob,
            to assuage our guilt through the scapegoating of the few.

Yet each of us receives forgiveness
            from the one who went to the cross for the sins of the many.

Each of us receives forgiveness from the only one who is in a position to judge us.

Each of us is touched by the grace of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,
            who has set us free from the law of sin and of death. (Rom. 8.2).

[1] Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p. 114
[2] Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p. 115
[3] Finamore, God, Order and Chaos, p. 72

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

I do believe

What follows is a poem, nothing else.

God help me, I do not believe...

I do not believe in God the Father.

I do not believe in a virgin birth.

I do not believe in three wise men, choirs of angels, or singing shepherds.

I do not believe in a reanimated corpse.

I do not believe that praying changes God, or his mind.

I do not believe in eternal damnation, or in hell as the eternal destiny of the faithless.

I do not believe in Heaven as the eternal destination of the faithful.

I do not believe that Jesus will come again.

I do not believe people are called to do anything.

I do not believe in a God of war, violence, hatred or division.

I do not believe in a God who is angry, vicious, vengeful, or wrathful.

I do not believe eternal life is the spiritual equivalent of a final salary pension scheme; a person's state of grace at the point of death is not the ultimate determination of their eternal soul.

I do not believe that on the cross Jesus died to pay the price for my sins.

I do not believe that speaking in tongues is the indicator of the Spirit's presence.

I do not believe you have to be 'born again' to be saved.

I do not believe in original sin.

I do not believe the Bible is the word of God. If you want God's words in written form, read the Koran.

I do not believe in marriage between one man and one woman.

I do not believe in creation, with or without an 'ism'.

I do not believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

But I do still believe, God help me...

I believe that God is the mother and father of us all, the ground of our being, and the source of all that makes us human.

I believe that God is love, and that in God there is no darkness at all.

I believe in resurrection through Christ Jesus, and that death does not get the final word on life.

I believe that those who are in Christ are daily born again from above.

I believe in hell as a present reality; as, I suspect, do the countless multitudes who find themselves trapped there.

I believe that idolatry is the root cause of all sin, and that wherever God is displaced from the centre of the cosmos, the path to hell opens before us.

I believe that through Christ's body people are redeemed from hell and released from satan's power.

I believe that the eternal value of a person's life does not depend on their appreciation of their own eternal worth.

I believe that God is most fully and uniquely revealed in the person of Christ, and that those who know Christ, know God.

I believe that the Spirit of Christ is with all those who follow him, revealing him in and through those who bear faithful witness to him.

I believe that Christ died to save humanity from the twin powers of sin and death.

I believe that prayer changes everything, starting with me.

I believe that people are called to be, and then to live out that calling.

I believe that the kingdom of heaven is an in-breaking reality of transformation.

I believe that Jesus comes again, and again, and again.

I believe in the possibility of peace, and that peace is a blessing to the world.

I believe that the cross is God's nonviolent embrace of humanity, and that all human violence finds it's end at the cross of Christ.

I believe that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Spirit; freeing our minds from the trammels of rational thought to commune with God's Spirit in ways too deep for words.

I believe the Bible offers a revelation of God's truth, and that it does so through a series of thought experiments concerning the existence of humanity before God. 

I believe in marriage as an expression of loving, faithful, equal, covenant commitment, between two people, for the blessing of all.

I believe that the earth is a gift, and that we have a responsibility before God to tend it care-fully.

I believe that wherever the new humanity in Christ are present, the old humanity under death is challenged, and people are offered transformation to life in all it's fullness.

In heaven's name, and for goodness' sake, so help me God, I do believe.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Pentecost without division

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Pentecost Sunday, 8 June 2014, 11.00am

You can listen to this sermon here:

John 20.19-23  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Acts 2.1-21  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 

5  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 

14  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

Someone said to me the other day,
            that they were wondering whether Bloomsbury
            had arrived at Pentecost a few weeks too early…
And it’s certainly true that our Sunday readings for the past few weeks
            have seen us coming back again and again
            to the topic of the ongoing presence of Christ
                        with the church by his Spirit.
But these reach their climax today, as we gather at Pentecost,
            to remember the coming of the Spirit on the first Christians in Jerusalem.

The way Luke tells us the story,
            through his gospel and then on into the book of Acts,
these first followers of Jesus
            had had something of a roller-coaster ride of things.
They’d gone from the highs of sharing Jesus’ ministry,
            with its healings and exorcisms and teaching,
to the low of seeing him crucified at Passover.

And then just when they’d thought it was all over,
            their experience of the world had been transformed by resurrection
and they had started proclaiming Christ’s victory
            over even the power of death itself.

The story of the ascension of Jesus, however,
            leaves the disciples alone once again,
            without the tangible presence of Jesus to sustain and encourage them.

And so when we meet them in our second reading today,
            the disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem,
                        despondently pondering their future.
But then suddenly we see them swing from disappointment at Jesus’ absence
            to the high, expressed in this Pentecost story,
                        of their receiving the Holy Spirit.

This Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Peace which John’s gospel tells us
            he had promised to his followers,
came upon the disciples in Jerusalem in a powerful way,
            leading them to speak of it as a rushing wind, as a burning fire,
            as they sought to give voice
                        to the intensity of their Pentecostal experience of the Spirit of God.

It seems the descent of the Spirit upon these early disciples
            transformed their experience of the world irrevocably:
Suddenly, barriers which had always divided people, one from another,
            barriers of ethnicity, language, gender, class, economic circumstance, and age
were broken down by and rendered obsolete,
            as the Spirit came on all people, equally, without distinction.

Those gathered there in Jerusalem from many nations, cultures, and languages
            suddenly found themselves able to hear and understand,
                        each in their own language,
            the truth of the mighty deeds of God’s power
                        that he had worked in Jesus Christ.

And so, suddenly, by the gift of the Spirit, a new community was created!

A community where the gift of mutual relationship and understanding
                        is given by the Spirit;
            a community where Babel’s curse of a divided humanity is reversed.

The events of Pentecost have sometimes been called
            the birthday of the church,
and this can be a useful way to think of it,
            because it was with the coming of the Spirit on the followers of Jesus
                        that a new community was born,
            a community quite unlike which had preceded it.
A community which continues down to us, here today.

You see, the gift of the Spirit of Jesus
            broke down far more than just the language barrier
                        that everyone remembers
                        as the spectacular miracle of Pentecost.

When Peter, one of the twelve, came to give his sermon,
            to explain to those watching on
                        the significance of what they’ve just seen,
he went back into the Old Testament
            and turns to a prophecy by Joel:

‘In the last days … I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’ (2.17-18)

It’s not just nationality and language-based divisions
            that are broken down here:
The Spirit has been poured out equally
            on male and female,
            on young and old,
            and on slave and slave-owner.

All the traditional divisions
            of gender, age, class, and ethnicity
were transcended in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.

And this has some profound implications
            for the ongoing life of the church
            which was born that first Pentecost.

And it also has some profound implications for us, here today…
            because to this day, Christians hold that all those who receive Jesus
                        also receive the gift of his Spirit.
All those who are baptised, are baptised with both water and spirit;
            and all those who confess that Jesus is Lord,
                        do so by the Spirit of Jesus, the Lord of creation

And this gift of the Spirit of Christ,
            is given to all Christians without distinction;
it unites us with one another, and with Jesus Christ himself.

Through the Spirit,
            we are each able to participate in the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus
and through the Spirit of peace
            we are each joined to our sisters and brothers in Christ,
                        with no division or distinction,
            so that together we make up the church;
                        the body of Christ in our generation.

You can’t all see each other, but if I look around, I can see such huge diversity,
            just here in this congregation, this morning.
We’ve got different ages, different skin colours,
            different social circumstances, different genders, different languages.
What variety!
            I can’t think of anywhere else a group like this would meet,
            apart from having been called together by the Spirit of Christ.

The gift of the Spirit breaks down barriers that would otherwise separate us,
            joining us to one another in Christ.
And so, by the Spirit, the church of Christ is continually re-created,
                        as believers are born again from above,
            just as the church was brought to birth that first Pentecost,
                        nearly two thousand years ago.

And as the Spirit-filled followers of Christ,
            as the Spirit-filled church of Christ
it is together that we participate in the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus.

Peter quoted from the prophet Joel,
            clearly taking a prophecy and applying it to the church.
And I believe that, as a community called together by the Spirit,
            we have a prophetic role together,
            to offer to the world beyond the glass wall at the back.
A world that is so often seeking to divide people one from another.

I’m very worried by some of the narrative of division
            that has taken root in Europe recently again.
                        ‘Those people are out’, ‘these people are in’,
                        ‘those people deserve to be here’, ‘those people don’t’.
It just seems to me to be wrong,
            and speaking from a Judeo-Christian tradition
                        which says we should welcome the alien in the land;
            and speaking from a Spirit-filled-church perspective,
                        that says the Spirit is present with all people,
                                    whoever they are, without distinction,
            I think we have something profound to offer
                        to the world beyond the four walls of this place,
            about what it means to be human in a way that includes and doesn’t exclude,
                        which brings people in and sees them transformed and renewed
                                    by the power of the Spirit,
                        and not excluded and told they don’t belong here.

So we are called to share in and participate in the ministry of Christ by his Spirit.

Another one of the ways we do this is by sharing with him
            in what is sometimes called Jesus’ priestly ministry

Now, I don’t know what comes to mind
            when you hear the word priest?
Maybe a shadowy figure straight from the Da Vinci Code
            wearing purple and plotting in dark corridors?

But for a Jew at the time of the early church
            ‘priest’ meant only one thing,
and that was those people whose task it was
            to serve God in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The priests of Israel had a very specific function,
            and their job was to mediate between the ordinary people,
            and the presence of the almighty God,
                        who was believed to dwell in the holy of holies
                        at the heart of the Temple.

So, the Jewish priests brought the needs of the people to God,
            in the form of prayers and sacrifices,
and they spoke back to the people
            God’s words of forgiveness and acceptance.

Since the time of Moses,
            leading his people from slavery in Egypt
                        into the land God had promised them,
            and giving them the ten commandments to live by,
the people of Israel had related to their God
            through the priests who served God
            in the courts surrounding the holy of holies.

The Spirit of God was believed to dwell
            in the holy of holies,
            where the ark of the covenant also lay,
                        containing the stone tablets
                        on which God had carved the ten commandments.

And the Jews believed that ordinary, sinful, human beings
            could never have direct access to the Spirit of God.
So the priests acted as intermediaries,
            making sure that they were ritually pure
                        so that they could represent the people to God
                        and God to the people.

However, the message that Peter proclaimed that first Pentecost,
            was that God no longer lived in the holy-of-holies.
Instead of keeping apart from humanity,
            God had embraced humanity in the person of Jesus Christ,
and in so doing,
            had opened in turn a new way for people to relate to God.

Before Jesus, the established way of getting a message to God
            was to give it to a priest and ask him to pass it on.
But those who had met Jesus in the flesh
            had encountered one who seemed to embody God;
                        they spoke of him as God-made-flesh,
            not hidden from them behind curtains and ritual,
                        but available for meals and laughter and conversation.

And so, to express this immediacy they experienced in Christ,
            this new access to the divine that he embodied,
the early church spoke of Jesus
            as the great high priest.

Within the Jewish temple system,
            it was actually only the high priest himself
                        who could enter the holy of holies,
            and even then only once a year.

But in Jesus, the way to the presence of God
            had been thrown wide open,
and anyone was free to meet God in Jesus,
            to speak with him,
            and so to encounter God direct.

As Jesus says in John 10:30
            ‘The Father and I are one.’

Those who know Jesus, know the Father,
            and no longer have need of priests,
because Jesus himself fulfils the function of the high priest
            in opening the way to the Father in heaven.

And so, following the story of Jesus ascension,
            we get the Pentecost story
            of the giving of his Spirit to be with his disciples.

No longer do people need to go
            through a hierarchy of priests and high priests
            before they can encounter the Spirit of God.
Rather, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, as Joel says,
            without distinction.

And Jesus’ priestly function
            of mediating God to humanity
                        and humanity to God
becomes at Pentecost
            part of the ongoing ministry of the Spirit.

Just as the church which is gathered by the Spirit
            shares in Jesus’ kingly and prophetic ministries,
            so too, by the Spirit, it shares in his priestly ministry.

There is no longer any need for the priesthood in the temple,
            instead, the Spirit has created a priesthood of believers,
where the fellowship of followers, the gathered spirit-filled body of Christ
            have access to God
            because of the high-priestly work of Jesus.

There is no longer a need for sacrifices to be offered
                        to atone for the sinfulness of the people,
            because the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
                        represents the once-for-all sacrifice,
                        which doesn’t need to be offered again.

In place of the offering of sacrifices,
            the church participates in the sacrifice of Jesus
            breaking bread and drinking wine,
                        symbols and signs of the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus.

And in place of going to the temple,
            and presenting requests to the priests,
            for them to take them to the high priest,
            for him to take them to the Spirit of God once a year,
the church itself becomes the priesthood,
            a priesthood of believers who have the Spirit dwelling amongst them.
The church of Christ presents its requests to Jesus the great high priest,
            who takes on the role of interceding
                        on behalf of the church that confesses his name,
                        and within which his Spirit is to be found.

This is why, each week, we offer our prayers of intercession here,
            as together we pray to God, with no human intermediary needed,
            with Christ interceding before God on our behalf.

And this gives us a clue
            to a very important point
about the idea known as “the priesthood of all believers”.

And this important point is, that the priesthood of believers
            is the priesthood of all believers together.
It is not a priesthood of each believer separately

It’s not about me having access to God through Christ
            and you having access to God through Christ
            and you, and you, and you…
Rather, it’s about us, together, the church of Christ,
            sharing in Christ’s priestly ministry,
because it is when we gather together
            that the Spirit of Jesus is present in our midst.

The priesthood of all believers
            means that when we gather together as a church,
                        called and bound together by the Spirit,
            we become a priesthood of believers.

There’s no place here for individualism:
            it’s all about the community.

We’re back where we started;
            it’s about all of us together,
            not just the educated, the powerful, or the wealthy.

It’s all about the radical new community
            that was brought into being that first Pentecost,
a community where there is no division,
            because all have received the Spirit equally.

It is surely one of the great tragedies of Christian history,
            that the church has so successfully re-invented
                        the Jewish system of priesthood,
            in its attempt to determine who holds the power.

So much of the Christian church around the world
            operates out of a system of authority and power,
which reflects the hierarchical system
            of the Jerusalem priesthood.

One of the desires of those who developed
            the congregational form of church government,
            that we find in Baptist churches such as this one,
was to try and recover that radical vision of the first Pentecost,
            where the Spirit is poured out on all people,
                        and there is no need for priestly mediation
                        to represent the people to the God they have gathered to worship.

The priesthood of all believers in a Baptist context
            means that it is together, as the gathered people of Christ,
that we have direct access in the Spirit
            to the will of God himself.

We don’t need someone to mediate God’s will to us,
            because we believe that together we all share
            in Christ’s priestly ministry.

Now, you might think that church meetings sound a bit dull!
            and, I’ll grant you, some of the ones I’ve been to over the years have been!

But they don’t have to be…
            in my experience, the church meeting
            can be the place where the church becomes most true to its calling in Christ.

Church meetings, you see, aren’t really about voting.
            they aren’t some hangover
                        from the Victorian trades-union meeting,
            where people addressed the chair
                        and made points of order.

Rather, the church meeting is the meeting together of the church
            so that it can fulfil its priestly ministry
            in the power of the Spirit.

And if you think this doesn’t matter,
            I’ll give you an example of why it really does.
You’ll be aware that one of the things that is threatening
            to tear apart the church in this country is the issue of human sexuality.
There are church structures which are really wrestling with this.

Our good friends in the Church of England, for example,
            because of the way they structure their church in a hierarchical fashion,
                        have to take a decision at the top,
                        which is then implemented in every congregation.
So the fact that you’ve got some Anglican churches
            that are not comfortable with a diversity of expressions of human sexuality,
                        and some that are,
            poses a huge problem for them,
                        because they’ve got to take a centralised decision,
                        because that’s the way they’re structured.

As Baptists, I think we have a very different situation here,
            because the way we ‘do’ church
            means that different congregations are at liberty to discern,
                        in their own context, what the right way forwards is.
So, there will be some Baptist churches
            which are able to live with and embrace a variety of expressions of human sexuality,
                        and there will be some that aren’t,
            and we do not have to divide one from another,
                        because we respect the fact that each gathered community,
                                    before Christ, can discern what is right for them, in their place.
That’s a function of the outworking of the Baptist understanding
            of the priesthood of all believers.

You see, church meetings really matter,
            because it is there that we decide what kind of church we are going to be.
It’s there that we discern what we thing God is saying to us,
            as we hear from one another.
It’s not down to one individual, it’s down to all of us,
            from the most educated to the least educated.
If you are a church member, you are part of that process.
            If you’re not a church member, and you come here regularly,
                        why aren’t you a church member?
We need you!
            We need your voice, because it is together that we do this.

I sometimes worry that the Baptist practice of voting in our church meetings,
            takes us away from what they are really about,
and I think that we would do well to remember
            that the church meeting exists to discern the mind of Christ
                        not the will of the majority.

As Nigel Wright has said,
            voting as a method of decision making
                        should be secondary to sensing the mind of Christ.
Seeking consensus is the essence of the process
            not winning a vote by a narrow margin.

As Baptists, we believe that it is when Christ’s people
            gather together in his name to seek his will,
that we discern the mind of Christ for our time and place.

That’s why it’s important that, at a church meeting,
            anyone who is a member of the church
                        from the oldest to the youngest,
                        male, female, educated, uneducated,
                                    high IQ or living with learning difficulties,
            anyone who is a member of the church can participate,
                        and play their part in helping the people of Christ
                                    to fulfil their priestly ministry,
                        as together we come before God himself,
                                    just as Moses went before God on Mount Sinai,
                        to seek the Lord’s will.

And it is this way because, we believe, with Peter and Joel,
            the Spirit of God is poured out
                        on all believers without distinction.

The ministers and deacons
            don’t tell the church what the Lord’s will is.
Rather, they serve the church by providing a lead
            in helping the people of the church
            discern the Lord’s will for themselves.

This is where Ruth, and Dawn, and I, and the other leaders of this church
            fit into the priesthood of all believers.

In a Baptist church, there is no authority higher than the church meeting
            except Christ himself,
because we believe that when the people gather,
            they gather as a priesthood of believers,
            coming before the Lord himself.

Ultimately, of course, absolute authority belongs not to the church
            but to Christ.
However, the authority that Jesus delegated to Peter
            is the common property of the royal priesthood
            of all the people of God.

In place of a priestly hierarchy
            what we have is the power and authority of Christ,
            diffused throughout the whole body of Christ.

And that is why we need one another…
            each of us, every single one, without exception…

It is together that we are the gathered people of Christ,
            called and empowered by his Spirit
            to be a radical Pentecostal community,
without hierarchy, without division
            where every member is a priest of God
            and where together we are a priesthood of all believers.

It is together that we discern the mind of Christ,
            it is together that Christ’s body is re-membered in our midst.
It is together that we bear faithful witness to the world
            of the radically inclusive nature of the in-breaking kingdom of God,
            where no-one is excluded by virtue of
                        their age, gender, sexuality,
            ethnicity, nationality, social standing,
                        economic circumstances, or indeed any other division
            that might tear apart the body of Christ,
                        which was broken on the cross for our reconciliation.

It is together that we take our place in the Church of Christ’s body,
            as the Spirit of Peace breaks all barriers down (Eph. 2.14),
and calls us to give voice to bear testimony
            to the new humanity that is born again
            wherever people embrace the inclusive peace
                        of the Spirit of Pentecost.

So may the Spirit of the Lord be with us all. Amen.