Monday, 13 August 2018

The Returning Jesus

Hebrews Series 8 – The Returning Jesus
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 12 August 2018

Isaiah 53.11b-12; Habakkuk 2.2-4
Hebrews 10.24-25, 35-38; 9.26b-28

Listen to the sermon here:

Do you ever have those days when the tension between the world as it is,
            and the world as it should be, seems particularly acute?

Whether it’s something in your own life,
            or in the life of someone close to you,
or something in another part of the world entirely,
            affecting people you will never meet;
sometimes the world just isn’t the way the world should be.

The wicked prosper, the righteous suffer,
            and the world just keeps turning,
            grinding all to dust with the inexorability of an unfeeling machine.

And where, in all of this, we might well wonder, is God to be found?
            Where is hope? Where is life, joy, and love?

Now forgive me, I don’t mean to get you depressed on a Sunday morning,
            but these were the questions facing the congregation
                        who first received the sermon to the Hebrews,
            just as they had been the questions that Israel had wrestled with
                        through their long years of exile and oppression six centuries earlier,
            just as they are questions that still haunt our own lives
                        some two thousand years later.

The world is not the way it should be.

And this tension between the world as it is, and the world as it should be,
            is an unresolved tension that runs through all of human history;
and the question of where God fits into it
            is one of the great mysteries of theology.

So today, as we conclude our eight week series on the book of Hebrews,
            we find ourselves asking,
                        along with so many other people of faith down the millennia,
            what we are to make of the fact
                        that good so often seems to lose out to evil.

Certainly for the small and struggling group of Christians in Rome,
            to whom this sermon we call ‘Hebrews’ was first sent,
            things were far from the way they should have been.

Their faith in Jesus, in the stories of his death and resurrection,
            led them to believe that they were worshipping the Lord of all,
                        the King of the Universe,
            the one in whom power and love came together
                        to liberate the oppressed and to bring good news to the poor.

But their daily reality was that the Emperor still reigned supreme
            over not only their own city, but the whole of the known world.
They were required by Roman law
            to make offerings of worship to the emperor,
            and at risk of punishment for treason if they refused.

The world of their faith conviction
            simply didn’t match the world of their experience.
It was as if Jesus had come to the earth,
            inaugurated this wonderful revolution of love and forgiveness,
                        and new life, and eternal hope,
            and then vanished as suddenly as he had appeared,
                        leaving those whose lives his story touched and transformed
                        to work it out for themselves under hostile conditions.

You will remember, if you’ve been following this series over the last couple of months,
            (and if you haven’t you can catch up via our website),
you will remember that the congregation had a basic problem,
            which was that they had lost sight of Jesus.

His historical incarnation was receding into history,
            and his spiritual presence was on high seated at the right hand of the father,
leaving his followers lost, alone, and increasingly dispirited.

And nowhere is this sense of abandonment more acute
            than in the moment of tension between the world as it is,
                        and the world as it should be.

Maybe you too, like me, like so many who have gone before us,
            feel something of the frustration of this disconnect?

We pray, we try, we trust,
            we act, we hope, we persevere,
            but still the world is not changed.
In fact, if we are honest, still we ourselves are not changed,
            or at least not changed enough.
We still sin, we still get it wrong,
            we still hurt others by our ignorance and by our design,
            we still stand in need of forgiveness, in the hope of transformation.

Was this what Christ died for?
            Is this the good news of his resurrection? Is this it?
Is a hope never realised all we have to hope for,
            even after two thousand years of Christian witness?

I mean, forget the 35 years
            that was causing problems for the congregation addressed in Hebrews,
what about us???

And here we need to start hearing the wisdom of the preacher of Hebrews,
            as he points his congregation to one final, further vision of Jesus.

He has already shown them the Sustaining Jesus,
            present in and through all things;
and the Pastoral Jesus,
            entering fully into human weakness and suffering;
and the Speaking Jesus,
            declaring God’s words for all who will listen;
and the Familial Jesus,
            inviting his followers to be part of his family;
and the Accessible Jesus,
            opening the pathway to God;
and the Visible Jesus,
            revealing God to humanity;
and the Vulnerable Jesus,
            dying for the forgiveness of the sins of the world;
and then finally, he points them to the returning Jesus,
            who has not, he asserts, left the earth for good,
            but returns to bring to completion
                        that which he started during his earthly ministry.

And here we find ourselves in the middle
            of the theological doctrine known as eschatology.
That is, the doctrine of the end,
            the theology of the last things.

And as we try to get to grips with the preacher’s description of the Returning Jesus,
            I’d like to sound a note of warning…
There’s a great danger with eschatology,
            and it is that it can simply push the solution to our problem,
                        of a disconnect between the way the world is,
                        and the way the world should be,
            into some imagined or hoped-for future,
                        when wrongs will be righted and tears wiped away.

In some versions of eschatology this is depicted
            as a heavenly judgment scene which everyone experiences after death;
and in other versions it is a re-creation and purification
            of the earth through some process of tribulation
                        by which the evil get their come-uppance
                        before the righteous get their crowns of eternal glory.

Sometimes, you get a combination of these two,
            in ever more creative eschatological schemes
                        relating to debates about pre-, post-, or a-millennialism,
                                    partial or full rapture, and pre- or post-tribulationism.
                        Not to mention the debates around dispensationalism.
If none of this means much to you,
            then I’m going to say ‘fine’,
            and my suggestion is to spend your time more productively elsewhere.

But there will be those here this morning
            whose past includes a certain kind of church
                        where these things REALLY MATTER,
            to the extent that if you disagree on some finer point of eschatology,
                        you run the risk of being declared a heretic.

Some of us will have grown into faith
            haunted by a future image of the Returning Jesus
                        descending from the clouds with wrath and punishment,
            coming back to kick sinners and take names.

Sing it with me if you like:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Jesus Christ is coming again.

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Already knows Who’s naughty and nice
Jesus Christ  is coming again

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Jesus Christ is coming again.

Sound familiar? I think it sounds terrifying!

But maybe you have experienced the other kind of eschatology,
            where the whole earth itself is going to be judged, destroyed, and re-created.
This is particularly prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic,
            and is often linked to a lack of concern about, or denial of,
                        issues like climate change or conservationism,
            whereby we don’t need to care for this planet
                        because it is quite literally going to hell anyway;
            and what matters is moral purity
                        and preaching salvation to those who are lost.

This kind of eschatology has tended in recent years
            to focus around the issues of abortion and human sexuality
            as the defining markers of orthodoxy.

So, in the face of these two eschatologies,
            the personalised and the globalised,
how are we to hear the preacher of Hebrews’ call
            to encounter the Returning Jesus?

I’m going to suggest that the beginnings of an answer
            lie in the Lord’s Prayer, and the Old Testament.

Firstly, the Lord’s Prayer,
            which we have already said together this morning, as we do every week.
Jesus tells his disciples to pray,
            ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
The transformation in view here
            is not something to be experienced post mortem,
            or in a renewed creation.

The Christ-like prayer
            is for the kingdom of God that is beyond us,
            to come into being in the world around us.
The Lord’s Prayer is for ‘the world as it should be’
            to break in upon ‘the world as it is’.

As with all things theological, there’s a technical term for this,
            and it’s called ‘realised eschatology’,
which is basically a way of saying
            that instead of the solution to our problem
                        being somewhere in the future,
                        or somewhere eternally beyond us,
            it is actually breaking in upon us in the present
                        as the world beyond us becomes the world around us.

And so the preacher of Hebrews takes us, through a textual allusion,
            to the time of the Israelite exile in Babylon,
to a time when the world as it should be
            was very far removed from the world as experienced by the exiles,
                        so far from their homes, with no prospect of restoration.

It was to the exiles in Babylon that the prophet known as Second Isaiah
            wrote the songs of the suffering servant,
which depicted the suffering of the people of Israel, God’s servant,
            as the precursor to their restoration to their land.

Israel’s suffering is depicted as absorbing the sins of her tormentors,
            and as opening the possibility of a new world
                        breaking into their present suffering
            to transform their world as it is
                        into something closer to the world as it should be.

Then the preacher whisks his readers through another allusion
            to the writings of the prophet Habakkuk,
who was addressing the situation faced by the post-exilic Jewish community,
            who had been repatriated to their native homeland.
All, it seems, was not well in paradise,
            and the Chaldeans, the New Babylonians, were threatening their safety.

The book of Habakkuk takes the form of a dialogue
            between the prophet and God;
the prophet raises a complaint to God
            about rampant social injustice in Judean society,
and God’s response is to challenge the prophet
            to write on a billboard large enough for even a runner to read,
            the promise that the world will not be like this forever,
                        because the future is continually breaking in upon the present.

In these two Old Testament prophetic readings,
            we have a view of history that is essentially cyclical;
oppression and evil give way to justice and restoration,
            but then evil raises its ugly head again,
            and so on through the centuries…

And is this the answer, ponders the preacher:
            sometimes the world as it should be breaks into the world as it is,
            and sometimes it doesn’t?

Well, kind of, but he goes further…
            because he addresses the role of the faithful people of God in all of this.
What is it that keeps evil at bay?
            How does the world beyond us break in upon us?
The answer he offers
            is that it is as the people of Christ proclaim the gospel of Christ,
                        that Christ returns once again to the earth
                        bringing new hope, new life, new love.

So he encourages his readers to not give up meeting,
            to persevere in worship and prayer,
            and in encouraging one another.

He tells them to never abandon their confidence in Christ,
            because this is what will give them the endurance
            to run the race of life to its faithful conclusion.

And key to all of this is the repeated proclamation
            of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ,
who like the suffering servant Israel in Babylon,
            takes the sins of the many into his own suffering
            to bring healing and freedom and release to all.

And here we come to the crux of the preacher’s point.
            For him, Jesus has broken the spiralling pattern
                        of good giving way to evil, giving way to good, and so on ad infinitum.
            Because in his death,
                        Jesus has overthrown the pattern of death followed by judgment.

Listen again to the verses from our reading from chapter 9:

Hebrews 9.27-28
And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

In Jesus’ death, the power of sin
            to continually re-ensnare and entrap humanity is broken.
Jesus does not return to punish, but to rescue.
            He comes to gather and not to trample.
He comes again, and again, and again,
            wherever and whenever his people proclaim the good news of his resurrection,
            and he comes to bring new life.

And so to us, today.
            We each of us, individually and collectively, need a daily new advent;
                        we need Christ to come to us again,
                        to break us out of our acquiescence.

Our meeting together, our worship, our prayer,
            our naming of Jesus as Lord,
all these keep us from re-enslavement to sin,
            as the one who is beyond us
            keeps breaking in new ways into our present,
                        with love, and forgiveness,
                        and new life, and new hope,
                        and a new vision for the future.

So what does this mean for us, here at Bloomsbury in 2018?
            How are we to encounter the returning Jesus?

Well, firstly, I think we can lay to rest
            the fear of the future that unhealthy and unhelpful eschatologies have given us.
The Returning Jesus is not a cause for fear,
            or for disengagement from the world.
In fact, it is the opposite.
            The Jesus who comes to us again and again,
                        calling us to pray that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,
                        calls us to live and work for that coming kingdom.

But where and in what ways will we meet the one who will not let us alone,
            because he comes to us daily from beyond ourselves,
            calling us to new life and fresh purpose?

Some of you may have noticed
            that the language I’ve been using to describe the doctrine of eschatology
            was borrowed from the Citizens UK community organising methodology.

They talk continually about the fact
            that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be;
and the purpose of their networking and organising strategy
            is to build enough power to be able to make changes in the world
            that will have lasting effect.

It is no coincidence that so many churches, including our own, are part of this,
            along with mosques, synagogues, school, universities,
            and other community organisations.

The preacher to the Hebrews knew the benefit of not giving up meeting together,
            because he knew that together we are stronger than when we are alone.

And so in London, in 2018, we need our allies, our partners,
            if we are see people’s lives lifted up and gifted with new life.
From Dragon Hall to Citizens UK to the Simon Community,
            from the Soho Gathering to ecumenical partnerships to our commercial hirers,
we need to find ways of working together with others,
            in order to bring the world beyond us into the world around us.

But we must never forget that we do this because of Jesus,
            it is the one we worship who has lifted our eyes above the horizon,
and given us a glimpse of an alternative
            that he then calls us to live and work towards.

It was Martin Luther King who once said that,
            ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
What is not often realised about this quote
            is that for King, it only made sense to say this
in the context of his living faith in the power of Christ
            to effect change in the human heart.

The danger which liberal, socially minded Christianity can face
            is that we end up losing sight of Jesus,
                        in the midst of our striving to bring into being the new world
                        for which we have been so earnestly praying.

‘Well’, said the preacher of Hebrews to a congregation that had lost sight of Jesus,
            ‘there he is, coming to you again and again and again,
breaking into your present with a promise of something different,
            and calling you to act, collectively and individually,
            in response to his presence.’

So provoke one another to love and good deeds,
            do not neglect to meet together,
work with others, encouraging one another,
            do not abandon that confidence of yours,
                        because it brings great reward.
And you will need endurance,
            for the change you seek is coming,
            but it comes slowly.
Don’t shrink back, but live righteously by faith,
            and trust that your failings and sin are removed from you by Jesus,
who leads you from death to life,
            as he comes to you again, and again, and again.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

The Vulnerable Jesus

Hebrews Series 7 – The Vulnerable Jesus
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 29 July 2018

Hebrews 6.4-6; 13.11-14
Leviticus 16.3, 5-10; 26-28 

Listen to this sermon here:

If you were here last week,
                you will have heard Luke telling us
                about the personality typing system known as the Enneagram.

Luke reflected on how his particular personality
                as an Enneagram Type 1, or a Perfectionist as they’re sometimes known,
                means that he struggles to take proper rest
                                - because the knowledge that nothing is ever quite good enough
                                drives him to always want to do that little bit more,
                                to make things that little bit better.
                And so he challenged himself, and all of us,
                                to try to make time for periods of rest in our lives,
                                as we seek to live faithfully before God.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the Enneagram before
                - my guess is that some will know it, and some won’t.
It’s sort-of similar to the Myers Briggs personality type indicator,
                but also a bit different.
Whereas Myers Briggs draws on Jungian theory
                and presents itself as a psychological tool,
the Enneagram is a bit more mystical
                and a bit less scientific in its method.

There are all sorts of theories
                about how its idea of nine core personality types originated,
with everyone from the Desert Fathers to Sufi Islam
                getting a credit along the way.

But the interesting thing for me, with both Myers Briggs and the Enneagram,
                is not whether their scientific methods or origin stories stand up to scrutiny,
but whether they help us tell a helpful story about ourselves
                that aids our self-understanding,
                and makes our relationships with others better.
After all, a lot of the stories in the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament,
                don’t stand up to either scientific or historical scrutiny,
but that that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them
                or draw helpful lessons from them.

So, in Enneagram terms, if Luke is a Type 1 Perfectionist,
                I am a Type 3 Performer.

I initially took a little online questionnaire
                which helped me to get an insight into what Enneagram Type I reported as,
but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating,
                 and the best advice is not to just rely on answering some questions,
                but rather to read the more detailed description and see if it fits.

And what I have discovered is that the point where you really know your type
                is when you read about the negative side of your personality
                and it feels as if someone is staring deep into your soul,
                                exposing all your hidden vulnerabilities
                                which you thought were entirely hidden.

Or, to put it another way,
                in terms that begin to take us
                into our sermon theme today of The Vulnerable Jesus,
it is when we are most vulnerable that we are most fully known.

The nice stuff in the Enneagram description of the Type 3 is lovely to hear,
                as it is with all of the different types.

Apparently, I’m ‘success-orient[at]ed, image-conscious, and wired for productivity’,
                and I’m ‘motivated by a need to be (or appear to be) successful, and to avoid failure.’

Well that’s OK, I think.

So here’s what they say in a bit more detail
                about people like me who report as Type 3 performers:

Healthy Threes have transcended the goal of merely trying to look good, and are moving toward being known and loved for who they are, not for what they accomplish. They love to set goals, rise to challenges and solve problems, but their self-worth is not tied to these things.

Yep. I can own that.
                That’s very much how I’d like you all to see me, please.
But what happens if we take the positivity down a notch?

Average Threes push achieving to overachieving, spending too much time at work or the gym. … They see love as something to be earned... They are confident in their abilities but also … constantly worrying that a poor performance will cause them to lose standing in other people’s eyes.

Ouch. But also, to an extent, yes.
Let’s take it down another notch:

Unhealthy Threes find failure unacceptable, which renders them unable to admit mistakes and causes them to behave as though they are superior to others. [They] may [tell] others fabricated stories about themselves and their accomplishments in order to maintain their image. At their worst, unhealthy Threes can be petty, mean and vengeful.

And now I feel vulnerable. Exposed.
                Which is not what a Three Performer wants to feel at all, trust me.
This all seemed like a good idea in my study when I was planning it,
                particularly given that some of the feedback we’ve had about Sunday mornings
                has indicated that it is helpful when the preacher shows their vulnerable side.
But honestly, I’m having my doubts right now;
                and yet… it is when we are most vulnerable that we are most fully known.

And anyway, I don’t believe I’m the only person to have a fear of failure.
                Just as we all needed last week to hear Luke’s challenge to take some rest,
                                I wonder if this week we can all hear a challenge
                                to reflect on our shared fear of failure, and how it makes us react.

So, I wonder, what failure are you afraid of?
                A failed marriage? Failing as a parent?
                                Failing to be a good friend?
                Failing to do all the things you’ve said you’ll do?
                                Failing your exams? Failing to achieve your goals?
                Failing to hold down a job? Failing to be liked?
                                Failing to avoid sin? Failing to stand up for what you believe in?
I could go on and on…

And what about us as a church, as a community who gather in this place?
                What failures are we afraid of?
Do we look around us at our large building,
                with an empty gallery and whole pews with no-one sat in them,
                and feel that we are failing?
Do we fear failing to be able to afford to care for our beautiful building?
                Do we fear failing to care for one another?
Do we fear failing to be the people, the community, that we think we should be?
                Do we fear letting Jesus down?

Finding our points of fear of failure can feel very vulnerable,
                particularly for those of us whose personalities
                                are focussed more around success and achievement.
But it is when we are most vulnerable that we are most fully known.

And so we come to The Vulnerable Jesus,
                in our series on how the book of Hebrews can offer us
                a range of different ways of encountering Jesus.

This week, we are invited to encounter Jesus in vulnerability.

Our readings from Hebrews today take us to the place of crucifixion,
                to the place of abandonment, to the place of Jesus’ greatest weakness;
and they invite us to identify with Jesus in his moment of vulnerability,
                knowing that he identifies with us in our own weakness.

And I could just stop the sermon there, I suppose.

We’ve reflected on our own fears and vulnerabilities,
                and we’ve heard from scripture
                                that our weaknesses are met in the weakness of the cross,
                as Jesus draws near to us in our failure and sin
                                to forgive us and restore us, allowing us to draw near to him.

We could just go on from here to pray for ourselves and for others,
                and particularly for those who find themselves to be weak and vulnerable.
And that would be an OK thing to do.

But if we did stop now,
                we would only be understanding part
                of what Hebrews is wanting us to hear about the vulnerable Jesus.
Because you see, there is another side, a very dark side,
                to the human experience of failure, and weakness, and vulnerability.

It was there in the final sentence
                of the description of an unhealthy Enneagram Type Three that I read earlier.
Did you notice it?
                I said, ‘At their worst, unhealthy Threes can be petty, mean and vengeful.’
Or, to put it another way,
                we love to find someone to blame for our failure.

If we are afraid of failing, then when we do fail, as we all do,
                we can be be highly motivated to shift the responsibility for that failure
                                onto someone else.
We will look for someone to blame.
                And the person who is most likely to get the blame for our failure
                is someone who is even more vulnerable than we are.

I’m talking here, of course, about the universal desire to scapegoat others.
                To take our sins, our failures, our lack of success,
                                and to put the guilt for that onto another,
                so that they can be driven away from us into the wilderness,
                                taking with them the culpability that should rightly still lie with us.

Our passages from this morning about the vulnerable Jesus
                being crucified outside the city walls
are a clear reference to the reading we had from the book of Leviticus
                where the question of how to address the problem of sin is discussed.

In the Levitical law code, there is provision
                for communal and individual guilt to be dealt with in two ways,
                                both involving animals.

Firstly, for individual sin, you might sacrifice an animal such as a bull,
                pouring its blood onto the altar before God,
                and then burning its body outside the city wall.
This destruction of something precious and living
                symbolised the seriousness of the consequences of sin,
                and the costly commitment of the person seeking forgiveness.

The second way of dealing with guilt that Leviticus offered
                was to do with communal guilt,
and it involved a ritual of putting the sin of the community onto a goat,
                and then driving that animal out of the camp into the wilderness.
It’s what we call the Scapegoat.

Did you know that the word ‘scapegoat’ was invented by William Tyndale
                as he translated the Bible into English in the 1520s.
Tyndale was struggling with one of the verses we had from our reading this morning,
                specifically Leviticus 16.8-10

Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

Tyndale was confused by the Hebrew ‘for Azazel’,
                and wasn’t certain if the term referred
                                to the wilderness where the goat was sent,
                or to a supernatural power that resided in the wilderness,
                                such as a desert-demon or the Devil.

In the end, Tyndale decided to interpret Azazel
                as a corruption of the Hebrew ez ozel,
                which means ‘the goat that departs’ or the ‘goat that escapes’. 

This ‘escape goat’ became the vehicle by which the sins of the Israelites
                were sent out of the camp.

Here’s how Tyndale translated this passage:
And Aaron cast lots over the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and another for a scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to scape, he shall set alive before the LORD to reconcile with and to let him go free into the wilderness.

These days, of course, scapegoating has developed a meaning
                well beyond a fifteenth century translation of the book of Leviticus,
and has come to mean the act of holding a person, or a group of people,
                responsible for specific problems in the community at large.

So, for example, the Nazis scapegoated the Jews
                for the economic situation faced by the German nation
                in the aftermath of the first world war.

Or to bring it up to date, in our modern world
                there is a strong tendency to blame migrants for rising crime rates,
                a lack of jobs, and pressure on the welfare state.

Controlling immigration was the number one popular factor in the Brexit vote,
                and Trump’s long-promised wall with Mexico
                was a key part of his election campaign.

We scapegoat the other for problems that we all share
                - and we seek to put them out of the camp, beyond the wall, or outside the city,
to rid ourselves of our guilt
                at our own failure to be the people or nation that we wanted to be.
If we can blame the other,
                we can absolve ourselves, at least for now.

So who do we blame for our failures?
                Who do we use to offload ourselves of our responsibilities?

When you look at the empty pews, who do you hold accountable?

And here I’m going to use a word
                which I’d promised myself I’d never use from the pulpit,
                but which I think the passages for this morning demand.

That word is ‘backslider’.

When I was growing up,
                anyone who used to come to church, but had stopped,
                was referred to as a ‘backslider’.

They had, I was told, ‘fallen away’ from the faith.
                They had let the side down, they had let Jesus down,
                and worst of all they had let down those of us who still attended.

It was kind of the worst thing you could do.
                Other sins could be confessed and forgiven,
                but backsliding was the unforgiveable sin.

And our passage from Hebrews 6 was used to justify this.
                After all, it says that:

it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away.

But then Hebrews goes even further.
                These Backslider are, apparently,
                                on their own ‘crucifying again the Son of God
                                and … holding him up to contempt’.


It sounds like the preacher to the Hebrews was pretty upset
                that some of his congregation had walked out on him,
and it also sounds like he knew exactly where to lay the blame for their absence.
                Blame those who have gone,
                                blame those who are not there.
                Scapegoat them, so you don’t feel guilty about those who have backslidden.
                                Make it their fault.

Or at least, that’s how I was always taught to read this passage.
                But what if there is another way of coming at this?

You see, we talk a lot about the importance of church as a ‘safe space’.

It’s important to a church like Bloomsbury,
                which values its commitment to the marginalised and the excluded,
that we embody a safe place for people to belong,
                particularly those who have been made unwelcome elsewhere.

Whether we talking ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, or social status,
                one of our core values as a church
                                is that we want to be a safe and welcoming place
                                for those deemed unwelcome elsewhere.
                We are a place where the vulnerable can find a home.

There are people here today who have left other communities of faith
                because they were unable to belong there.
And I don’t think the blame
                for an inability to belong in one particular faith community
                lies entirely with the individual who leaves;
I think it lies with the community as a whole.

Blaming the person who has left,
                labelling them a backslider,
                taking their personal failings and magnifying them
                                to the point where they absorb the failings of everyone,
                is just scapegoating.

It’s the avoidance of communal responsibility.

And we must be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap here at Bloomsbury
                that we can more easily identify elsewhere.
There are those who have left Bloomsbury,
                and there will be those who leave in the future,
and some of them will go well, and some will go badly,
                but we mustn’t fall into the trap of making ourselves feel better
                                by offloading our own responsibility,
                                our own failure as a community, onto them.

The thing is, I do feel guilty when my beloved church
                is not the kind of church that someone else feels they can belong to.
I hate being told that we’re not inclusive enough,
                not welcoming enough, not accessible enough,
                despite all our best efforts.

And the temptation to get cross,
                and to offload our anger and guilt onto the other who has left,
                is always before us.

But, and here’s the crucial thing that we all need to hear.
                We are not called to stay within our safe spaces.
We are not called to make our community a safe place
                with high walls that keep out the scary people who are not like us,
                whoever we may be.

Rather, we need to realise that Jesus is not here with us,
                inside our camp.
He is outside the wall, beyond the border,
                being crucified again and again and again,
                for those who have not yet found a home with him.

As Hebrews says,

Jesus … suffered outside the city gate
in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.

Whatever boundary we erect around ourselves to keep ourselves safe,
                Jesus is beyond it.
And we are called to go there too.
                Hebrews continues:

Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

The irony of the scapegoat,
                the one who is made to carry the sins of the many,
is that when they get into the wilderness,
                they meet there the one who became the ultimate scapegoat for all people.
Jesus is not in the camp, he is not in the city,
                he is not in the Christian community of safety.
He is in the wilderness, as vulnerable as he can be,
                arms wide on the cross,
                welcoming those who have been sent there
                                in all their weakness and failure and vulnerability.

So if, as a church, we want to meet the vulnerable Jesus,
                and if as individuals we want to encounter him in our vulnerability,
then we are called to be those who go to him
                beyond our established places of safety.

We are called to let go of our established norms,
                our dearly held beliefs, and our sacred practices.
We are called to set aside our safety, to risk our reputations,
                to question our presuppositions.

If we genuinely desire to be a Christ-focussed community,
                then our focus has to shift, because Christ is not in our midst.
Rather, he is beyond whatever boundary of faith or praxis or belonging
                that we have erected around ourselves for our safety,
and he is in the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability and weakness.

So, and I appreciate that this may be a controversial statement
                to utter at a church like Bloomsbury,
but maybe it isn’t our job as Christians
                to create a safe and welcoming community,
to which the gratefully vulnerable scapegoats from other communities
                can come to find refuge.

Because by that model of church,
                the power will always remain with those of us
                who have the privilege of being the gatekeepers.

What if, instead, we are called to look for Jesus beyond ourselves,
                beyond our boundaries,
to see who he is drawing to himself out there in the wilderness.

And what if the solution to the empty pews, and to our sense of failure,
                is not to blame those who have left;
but rather is to learn to see Jesus out there,
                beyond the glass wall that divides us from them,
                drawing the world to himself in love;
and what if the call us for us to make the journey
                from our own place of communal safety
                into the wilderness of vulnerability,
as we learn to love those for whom Christ is crucified again, and again, and again.

And hear this:
                It is when we are most vulnerable, that we will be most fully known.