Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Familial Jesus

A sermon given at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
24 June 2018

Hebrews 2.11-13; 3.13-14; 9.15
Matt. 12:46-50

Listen to the sermon here.

This morning, I’d like us to think about what it means

            for us to be part of Jesus’ family,
and also about what it means
            for him to be part of our family.

If you’ve been following our sermon series
            on the book of Hebrews over the last few weeks
you’ll know that we’ve been looking at a number of different ways
            in which the book of Hebrews presents Jesus
            as someone who can be known and encountered
                        by those who are wanting to follow him.

We’ve seen that the basic problem for the recipients of Hebrews
            is that Jesus is experienced as absent from them;
                        either high up in heaven,
                        or lost in an increasingly distant past.

And the preacher of this written-down sermon that we call Hebrews
            is trying to explore with his congregation
            a variety of ways in which Jesus is not in fact distant from them at all,
                        but rather can be encountered as real,
                        and still very much present to and with them.

So in the first sermon we saw how the preacher describes Jesus
            as the sustaining force in the cosmos,
                        in and through all things,
                        intimately intertwined with each person, each animal,
                                    each tree, and each flower.

Then in the second sermon we encountered Jesus the pastor,
            who offers no quick fix to life’s problems,
            but who travels with us through difficulty and hardship,
                        and ultimately through death,
            giving us the gift of renewed hope even in hard times
                        by releasing us from the guilt of sin and the fear of death.

Last week Dawn led us in an exploration of the Speaking Jesus,
            who speaks the words of God in ways that we can hear.

And today we come to the Familial Jesus,
            who invites us to be part of his family,
            and becomes part of our family.

Now, I don’t know what comes to your mind when people talk about family?
            Maybe you think about your own childhood,
                        your parents or whoever it was that brought you up;
            and any brothers or sisters that you may have.

Maybe it’s a happy memory, or maybe it isn’t;
            maybe childhood for you was a time of stability and security;
            or maybe it was a time of loneliness or stress or abuse.

The reality for each of us, of course,
            is that who we are as adults is deeply affected,
                        and to some extent determined, by our childhoods.

Our ability to relate to others as adults
            will be at least in part a function
            of the key relationships of our formative years.

For better or for worse, families matter.

And those who have had children, and raised families of their own,
            will know that we repeat in our own families
            the patterns that we inherited from our parents.

Do you know the poem by the great Irish poet Philip Larkin,
            entitled ‘This Be The Verse’?
I committed it to memory as a teenager when we studied him at school.
            It has some rude words in it,
            so I’m going to give you the clean version today:

They [m]uck you up, your mum and dad.  
    They may not mean to, but they do.  
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were [m]ucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,  
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Well, I don’t fully share Larkin’s cynicism about family systems,
            despite the fact that my own childhood experience
                        was not always straightforward,
            and that I have indeed avoided having any kids myself.

Families can be wonderful,
            and they’re not all about the transmission of misery
                        from generation to generation.

But one of the more helpful insights that the poem can offer us
            is its recognition that problems experienced in the present
            are not simply the fault of those experiencing them.

We are all the inheritors of attitudes and actions
            over which we have had no control;
and any family – whether functional or dysfunctional –
            will always be more than a mere collection of individuals.

Families, you see, are systems which contain individuals,
            but which also have an existence beyond the level of the individual.

If this sounds strange to you,
            it might help to think for a moment not of your own personal family,
            but of the church family to which we belong.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, like all churches, is a family system.
            We are individually members of it, but it is greater than any one of us.

The family of this particular church
            is one which stretches back 170 years,
                        as we shall be celebrating next Sunday,
            and all of those who have been part of this place over the years
                        have left their mark on the community.

In a very real and tangible way,
            those who have gone before have an effect on all of us
            who make up this church family in our own generation.

The culture of our church family,
            the things we stand for and the things we do,
are not merely the product of those of us
            who gather here week by week,
they are the product of all those
            who have gathered here down the years,
            stretching right back to the people who first founded the church.
And this is because we are a family system,
            not a family of individuals.

This insight that families are systems
            has been highly influential in the way therapy is offered
            to people who are struggling to address problems in their lives,
                        people who may be anxious, stressed or depressed,
                        or who feel trapped in repeating patterns of harmful behaviour.

An individualistic therapeutic model would focus on the person,
            their problems, and how they can be addressed.

But a family systems model would recognise
            that each person in the family, both past and present,
            has a role to play in the functioning of each other member of the family;
and so to help an individual
            you first have to help them understand
            the relationships within their family.

And, therapeutically speaking,
            the path to wholeness, healing, and integration for the individual
            will be found in looking unflinchingly
                        at the family system to which they belong,
            for both better and for worse.

To quote the former Rector of my hometown Sevenoaks, John Donne:

No one is an island entire of itself;
every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

So where does this leave us,
            as sisters and brothers in Christ?
What does it mean to say that I am your brother?
            That you are my sister?
            That you are my brother?
What kind of church family system do we inhabit?
            What sort of a family is Bloomsbury?

These questions are going to be really important to us going forwards,
            because if our church is to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, family,
                        we will need to give time and attention
                        to the relationships that bind us to one another.

Whether we’ve been here five weeks, five years, or five decades,
            none of us are immune from each other,
and we will need to continually work together at discovering
            the nature of this church family that we belong to.

Are we a confident family?
            Are we a loving family?
Are we nurturing and empowering of one another?
            Or are we defensive, anxious, stressed, or depressed?
Do we have habits of love,
            or habits that are more destructive?

The answers that we discern
            when we consider questions like this
            will need to be more than just our personal perspective or state of mind.

How ‘I’ feel is not the complete answer
            to the question of how the church family is doing.

It takes conscious effort to tune into the emotions and actions of others,
            to pay attention to one another
            and not just to our own needs.

Discerning the nature of our church family in this way is not an easy task,
            because it brings us face to face with the flaws and the hurts
            that we would rather ignore or paper over.
But it is a necessary task,
            because if we are each other’s sisters and brothers in Christ,
            then we are called to be a family, for better or for worse.

And it is in our family life together that, according to the book of Hebrews,
            we will encounter Jesus.

You will remember that the congregation
            that this sermon of Hebrews was written for
            were struggling to find Jesus?

Well, the preacher tells them, and us,
            that the Familial Jesus is discovered right here - in our midst.
Because we are not just siblings one of another,
            we are siblings of Jesus;
            he is our brother, and we are all children of God.

You see, a Christian community such as a church
            is far more than a collection of individuals
                        who have gathered together around a shared set of values,
                        or some shared goals.
We aren’t just brothers in arms
            in some fight against evil in the world.

We are a family – sisters and brothers with Jesus, and children of God.
            We are partners with Christ
                        in his mission to bring good news to all people,
            and we are the heirs of the promise
                        that the dwelling place of God is with humans.

Jesus dwells in our midst;
            he is our brother, and we are his family.
And therefore who we are as the family of Christ matters,
            because it is through our familial relationships that Christ is made known.

If we are dysfunctional,
            then we present a dysfunctional Christ.
If we are anxious or destructive,
            then we present an anxious and destructive Christ.

One of the fascinating insights of family systems therapy
            is that people in a community such as a church
            live in a system of swirling, emotional processes.

Have you ever heard someone say
            that they ‘could sense the emotion in the room’?
Well, whether we’re directly aware of it or not,
            we are all affected by the emotions of those around us,
            as well as by our own emotional responses.

So if someone is chronically anxious, or depressed, or stressed,
            we will find that we too start
                        to take that anxiety, depression, or stress into our own lives,
            as the emotions of the other person become our emotions.

And of course, if someone is joyful, happy, or calm,
            we will find that we too start to exhibit positive emotions
            the more we spend time in their company.

This is true more for some people than others,
            and some people leak their emotions more than others,
            just as some people absorb the emotional atmosphere more than others.
But to one degree or another,
            we’re all affected by the emotional field that exists
            within a family community like a church.

And if we don’t pay attention to the emotional systems of our church family,
            we will never be able to differentiate ourselves
                        from the emotions of others,
            and we will be blown backwards and forwards like grass in the wind,
                        as we are overwhelmed time and again
                        by the emotions of those around us.

What we need to discover,
                        as we work out what it means
                        for us to live together as the family of God,
            is who we truly are.

Who am I, truly, before God?
            Who are you?

I’m not you, and you’re not me.
            We may belong together in this family,
            but we are not the same.

This discovery that your problems are not the same as my problems,
            and that mine are not the same as yours,
is the key to discovering that when you are weak, I can be strong,
            and that when I need help carrying the burden of life,
            you can be the one to help me and pick me up when I stumble.

The discovery that we belong together,
            but do so as individuals emotionally differentiated from each other,
means that we can escape the cycles of reactivity
            where one person’s anxiety
                        triggers a domino effect of anxious responses
                        that travels through the whole community.

If we can learn that each of us, individually,
            matters uniquely to God,
then we can discover together what it means
            for us to be the family of God,
            where we emotionally affect each other for good.

If we can learn that each of us, individually,
            matters uniquely to God,
then we can discover ways of being together
            across disagreement.

Just because we do not always agree,
            doesn’t mean we don’t belong together.
And while an emotionally undifferentiated family system
            will find this a stressful situation to live with,
those of us who are mature in Christ,
            will discover that our call to belong together
            transcends the negative emotions of disagreement.

So, I’ll ask again, what kind of a church family are we?
            What is this family to which we belong here at Bloomsbury?

Do we hear Christ in our midst,
            calling us his brothers and sisters,
            and valuing us uniquely?
Can we discover what it is to belong together,
            respecting the fact that we are different to one another?
Will we support each other,
            recognising that emotional maturity is the path to wholeness?
Do we have the courage to recognise those times
            when we act out of our own anxiety,
and to be honest about those times
            when we are destructive of the relationships that exist between us?

In a moment I’m going to lead us in a period of silence
            that’ll be slightly longer than normal

And I’d like to invite you to use it
            to quietly reflect on the emotions that you sense around you,
            and those that you sense within you.

Do you feel anxious or at peace?
            Do you feel at ease or ill at ease?

And in response to that discernment,
            I’d like to invite you to offer a silent prayer
                        that God will draw alongside you
                        through your brother Christ Jesus.
            And then I’d like to suggest that you just listen, carefully,
                        to what it is that Jesus wants to say to you, and you alone.

Let’s be silent for a couple of minutes…

Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Beatitudes - A paraphrase

A paraphrase of The Beatitudes by Simon Woodman.

Listen to these here:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
for theirs is the future of humanity.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who have stared long into the abyss,
for theirs is honesty beyond grief.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who resist retaliation,
for the earth will never be won by force.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
for the truth will outlive all lies.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
            Blessed are those who forgive the unforgivable,
            for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
            Blessed are those who know themselves truly,
            for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
            Blessed are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
            for they are following the path of the son of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            Blessed are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
            for the future is born out of such choices.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
            Blessed are you when you stand up for truth
            and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
            You're not the first and you won't be the last.
            I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn see it differently,
            and then choose to live that alternative into being.

Monday, 11 June 2018

The Pastoral Jesus

A sermon given at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11 June 2018

Hebrews 2.14-18; 4.14-15
Hebrews 6.19-20; 13.20-21

You can listen to the audio of this sermon here

In the first of our new sermon series from Hebrews, a couple of weeks ago,
            we began to explore together how the preacher of this ancient sermon
                        was trying to help those in his congregation in Rome
            deal with the fact that, from their perspective,
                        Jesus seemed impossibly distant from them.

There they were, trying to keep faith in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour,
            in difficult and potentially dangerous circumstances;
and yet despite all their faith, all their prayers, and all their careful obedience,
            Jesus still seemed a long way away from the reality of their daily lives.

They kept telling each other the stories of his life,
            how he had dramatically healed people of physical and mental distress,
but all that seemed an increasingly long time ago,
            and with each year that passed it receded further into the past,
            seeming less and less to match their own experience
                        of what it meant to follow Jesus.

And their practice of worshipping Jesus as Lord wasn’t helping, either.
            The conviction that Jesus was divine
                        meant that the one who had once seemed so real,
                                    so immediate, so approachable,
            was now equated with God up in heaven somewhere,
                        to be worshipped and adored, certainly,
            but not really present with them in any way that seemed relevant
                        to their personal day-by-day existences.

And if all this sounds a bit familiar, I’m not surprised.
            Christians ever since have struggled with the problem of the absent Jesus.
As decades gave way to centuries, and then to millennia,
            the historical Jesus became not just history, but ancient history.
And, as historical-critical biblical scholarship tells us,
            even the Jesus of the Gospels
                        was already several steps of oral tradition
                        away from the wandering preacher and miracle-worker of Galilee.

And so, for most Christians throughout history,
            Jesus has been experienced as absent:
                        worshipped on-high, seated at the right hand of the Father;
                        and studied from afar, through the gospel texts
                                    that record the stories of his life.

But, just as was the case with the recipients of Hebrews,
            not all Christians are satisfied with an absent Jesus.
Many of the great renewal or revival movements down the centuries
            have come from a desire to discover a more immediate, a more present, Jesus.
From Julian of Norwich’s 14th century Revelations of Divine Love,
            to the Welsh Revival, to the charismatic movement of more recent times,
            the desire to encounter Jesus in the here-and-now can be very compelling.

Many of the mystical, ecstatic, or miraculous movements in Christianity
            have been born from this desire.
And it is this desire to know Jesus, to encounter Jesus,
            that the preacher of Hebrews is trying to address
            in his language of the Pastoral Jesus.

We saw a couple of weeks ago how he encouraged his congregation
            to discover Jesus in and through all things,
                        as the one who sustains the whole of creation;
            the one who is as close to them as the air they breathe
                        and the ground they walk on.

Well, the aspect of Jesus’ presence that we’re looking at today shifts the focus,
            from the cosmic to the personal.

The Sustaining Jesus is also seen to be the Pastoral Jesus.
            The one who created all things
                        is also the one who cares for each thing that has been made.
            The impersonal pantocrator
                        is also the personal friend and confidante.

And here, for a moment, I’d like to invite you, today,
            to consider how you encounter Jesus?
Is he your Lord and Saviour, or your friend and brother?
            Is Jesus, for you, distant or close?

Can you think of a time when Jesus has been closer to you than he is today?
            And what did that feel like?
What, I wonder, was the context
            that enabled you to sense the immediate presence of Jesus?

For me, I think that over the years it has come down to my openness, or not,
            to emotional engagement with the disciplines of spirituality,
            and particularly in saying prayers for others.
It may sound counterintuitive,
            but the times I’ve most sensed the presence of Christ
            have been when I’ve been praying for others to know his presence.
And this, I think, points us towards the way in which the preacher of Hebrews
            presents his congregation with the Pastoral Jesus:
                        the one who is with people in their suffering,
                        sympathising with them in their weakness.

One of the ways in which they, and we, can know Jesus,
            is by our experience of his steadfast presence
            with us in the difficult times of life.

One of the lessons which I’ve had to learn over the years, as a pastor,
            has been that most of the time, I can’t fix other people’s problems.
Given the fact that, most of the time, I can’t even fix my own problems,
            you might be surprised that this has been such a hard lesson to learn, but it has.

Deep down, you see, I’m a problem solver and a fixer,
            and my default when faced with the difficulty and pain of someone’s life,
                        is to click into ‘logical problem-solving mode’
                        and start offering them solutions.

And what I’ve had to learn, the hard way,
            is that this doesn’t help people as much as I think it’s going to.
Rather, the pastor in me has had to discover the immense value
            of just patiently sitting with someone through their pain,
            journeying with them the long and hard path.
And the reason this is so valuable, the preacher of Hebrews tells us,
            is because this is the Christ-like way;
            this the Pastoral Jesus that Hebrews presents us with.

This is not Jesus the fixer,
            who clicks his fingers to make the pain stop,
but Jesus the pastor
            who goes through the highs and lows of life with us,
            always alongside us, faithfully suffering with us.

And this stands in stark contrast to the many presentations of Jesus around
            who would make him the answer to all of life’s problems.
From the get-rich quick schemes of the prosperity gospel,
            to the false hope of signs and wonders preaching,
there are many churches, and many theologies,
            that offer quick fix spirituality.
And of course these are attractive,
            because who doesn’t want an easy answer to their problems?
But they are not the way of the Pastoral Jesus.

We know this because the preacher of Hebrews
            grounds his presentation of the Pastoral Jesus
            in the Christ of the cross.
It is through suffering and death
            that the path to new life is opened wide.
There is no bypass to the cross that leads straight to resurrection.
            There is no cheap grace here.

Jesus the great high priest
            can only make the offering of atonement for our sins
            because the sacrifice he offers, is the sacrifice of himself.

As the preacher puts in in 2.18,
            ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered,
            he is able to help those who are being tested.’

This is the Pastoral Jesus, who enters wholeheartedly
            into the brokenness of our fractured lives and world
            to bring healing and comfort to those in need.
This is the Pastoral Jesus who takes on the mantle of death
            so that he can destroy the one who has the power of death.

The contrast here is with the Greek heroes,
            who repeatedly took on the forces of evil within the world of Greek mythology.
They typically and dramatically cheated certain death against all the odds,
            escaping its clutches at the last moment, to return victoriously still alive,
            having killed the minotaur, the hydra, the Nemean lion, or whatever;
before going on the next saga
            to defeat some further personification of evil.

Their efforts to rid the world of evil were, at best, only ever temporarily successful,
            as one monster gave way to another,
            and one hero eventually passed their mantle onto the next.

Whereas, the Pastoral Jesus goes through death,
            as of course must all whom he cares for.

What changes, however, through the death of Jesus,
            is that his death is for the sins of the world.
It is, the preacher says,
            the perfect and once-for-all sacrifice of self-giving love,
bringing forgiveness to all,
            and robbing the forces of evil of their hold
            over the lives of those they seek to intimidate.

You see, once sin has been forgiven, evil’s power is broken.

There is a unique perspective here on life and death,
            that the Pastoral Jesus offers to those for whom he cares.

Within the ancient world, as indeed in our own,
            death was regarded as a great enemy,
            to be avoided for a long as possible.
Because death is terrifying.

It is the moment of ultimate reckoning,
            beyond which the possibility for further justification in life becomes impossible.
Whatever a person’s view about the life hereafter,
            the brute fact of death marks the completion of life
            and invites judgment on the eternal value of that life.

So the Greek heroes of old often sought to cheat death,
            journeying over the Styx to Hades
            to steal loved ones back to life for a second chance.

And we still have this language today,
            with the person who narrowly escapes death, or who is cured of their disease,
            often speaking of having been given a second chance at life,
and they might say how their priorities have changed
            and that they now want to live less selfishly and more meaningfully.

Well, this kind of second chance at life is certainly a rare gift,
            and for those who receive it, it is one to be treasured and not wasted.

But this is not the gift of the Pastoral Jesus.

He doesn’t rescue us from the jaws of death
            to buy us more time to live a good life.
Rather, he defeats the very power of death itself
            to dominate, control and enslave our lives.

The perspective on death which the Pastoral Jesus offers to those who are dying,
            and that is, of course, to all of us,
is that death is not to be feared,
            because its hold over our lives is broken,
            because we have already been forgiven.

We don’t need some second chance to put things right,
            because Jesus has already made us right with God.

So as we, like the first century recipients of Hebrews in Rome,
            face daily pressures to compromise our faith;
                        as we are tested and tempted;
                        as we face difficulty and sorrow and suffering;
                        as we are inexorably brought to a realisation of our own mortality.
And in all of this, we have in Jesus a pastor and a friend
            who journeys with us, sits alongside us,
            weeps with us, suffers with us,
            and ultimately faces death itself with us;
We have in Jesus one who, in all of this,
            brings the gift of hope to our otherwise hopeless lives.

The preacher describes hope as the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul;
            it is hope which steadies our lives in the chaos of the world;
            it is hope which sustains us through toil, trial, and testing.
And the hope that the Pastoral Jesus offers us
            is the hope of life renewed in the here and now.

The good news of Jesus’ care for us
            is not so much that we get to go somewhere nice when we die,
            as a kind of reward for being faithful when this life was difficult.
Rather, it is that this life is itself redeemed,
            that our lives, feeble and frail though they may be,
            acquire an eternal value in Christ which transcends even the power of death.
And this gift is ours because the death of Jesus breaks the hold of sin and death.
            Our days are no longer enslaved to guilt,
            and our lives are no longer a quest for justification and redemption.
We are justified, and we are redeemed,
            so we can live differently, free from the fear of our mortality.

This is not to say that death is to be actively sought, though;
            martyrdom in a Christian context never involves seeking death.
But it does mean that we can be faithful unto death,
            and do with certainty that the Pastoral Jesus has already given us the gift of life
                        that transcends the actual lived days and moment of our lives.

And, as a thought to close, it seems to me
            that that this can affect the way Christians approach
            the controversial topic of end of life care – both medically and pastorally.
As those who work in hospices can tell us,
            not all death is defeat, and not all death is bad news.
Sometimes, death is a blessing and a gift to be taken and treasured,
            rather than an enemy to be avoided at all costs.
Sometimes, the cost of not dying is too high.

And I wonder if those of us who have encountered Jesus
            in such a way as to come to a realisation
            that our own deaths are not the final word on our lives;
can offer a constructive and hopeful perspective
            on those who are living with the imminence of their own death.

I know that there are strongly held views amongst Christians,
            on both sides of the argument,
            relating to the topic of assisted dying,
and I’m not going to argue a particular side this morning.

But, did you know that in the state of Oregon, in the USA,
            it has been legal for terminally ill, mentally competent adults
            to have an assisted death since 1997.

And the stories from there that have struck me as especially pastorally significant
            have been those of people who went through the process
                        of requesting the option of assisted death after their terminal diagnosis,
            but who chose never to use it;
                        because knowing that it was an option
                        was enough to help them cope with their final weeks.

The analogy here, it seems to me, is that a changed perspective on death,
            can profoundly affect the way we live our lives.

For those fearing an horrific end to life,
            the option of knowing that they can bring it to an end is a source of great hope.

And according to Hebrews, the gift of the Pastoral Jesus is itself a gift of hope,
            that life need not be dominated by the fear of death,
            because death is not the end of life.

Those of us who have identified with Christ in his death,
            have also been identified in his resurrection.
Just as Tommaso will go down into the waters of the grave at his baptism later,
            so he will be raised to life again
            having been symbolically cleansed of all sin.

For Hebrews, it all comes back to the cross of Christ,
            that moment in history where the power of death and sin over humanity was broken,
            and where the possibility for life eternal broke into the here-and-now.

This is the Pastoral Jesus,
            who goes to his death to redeem our deaths,
and who draws alongside us in our lives,
            to redeem each moment of each day.