Monday, 26 April 2021

Identity Politics and the Early Church

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

2nd May 2021

Acts 15.1-18

It seems that ‘Identity Politics’ is nothing new, even if the phrase itself wasn’t coined until the late 1970s.

Whilst it was a community of black feminists in Boston, just over forty years ago, who first used these specific words to articulate their struggle for power on the basis of their identity; the intertwining of politics with identity has been taking place for millennia, with countless people being asked to sacrifice aspects of who they are, in exchange for inclusion or freedom from oppression.

And our reading this morning from the book of Acts is just such an example from antiquity, of a highly charged political debate, with identity politics right at the heart of it.

This story from Acts 15 is regarded by many scholars as the central narrative of the whole book. It’s often referred to as ‘The Council at Jerusalem’, and at stake is the very basis and nature of the Christian church.

But you have to rewind to the beginning of Acts, to get a sense of the trajectory that Luke is setting for his readers in this account of the early years of Christianity.

In Acts 1.8 the risen, but not yet ascended Jesus, says to the disciples in Jerusalem:

‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

And there are two key aspects of this which we need to pay attention to, if we’re to understand what’s going on fifteen chapters later at the Council of Jerusalem.

Firstly, there is the promise of the Holy Spirit. We’ve not yet got to Pentecost in our own journey through the liturgical year of 2021: we’ll come to it later this month, on the 23rd May as we re-start weekly worship in the church building.

But the thing for us to note today is that here, right at the beginning of Acts, Jesus tells the disciples that the gift of the Holy Spirit will be decisive for their future mission.

The church going forward, will be the church shaped by the Spirit of Christ. As he departs from them in bodily form, his Spirit will remain to guide them.

And the second thing for us to register here is the geographical trajectory of that Spirit-led church - from Jerusalem, through all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The gift of the Spirit is given to the church to drive the church beyond Israel, into the gentile nations of the world.

And this is then precisely what we see happening through the first part of the book of Acts.

We’re not looking at all these stories this year, but if we had read through the book in full up to today’s reading, we would have heard these stories:

  • Philip proclaiming Christ in Samaria (8.4-8),
  • Philip and Ethiopian Eunuch (8.26-40) which we looked at last week,
  • The conversion of Saul and his commissioning to preach to the gentiles,
  • Simon Peter’s vision on the rooftop of Cornelius the Centurion’s house and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto his gentile household (Acts 10),
  • The planting of the church among the gentiles in Antioch, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to them (11.19-30),
  • Paul and Barnabas being led by the Holy Spirit to plant churches in the gentile territories of Syria, Cyprus, and Asia Minor.

And woven through all of this early missionary activity were these two strands: the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the expansion of the church beyond Israel.

And then, right in the middle of it all, there emerged a huge, seismic controversy around identity, that threatened to tear the church apart, or stifle it altogether.

The key identities here were those of Jewish versus Gentile. As with any attempt to understand Jewish identity as it is depicted in the Christian scriptures, we need to tread carefully, and to be aware that these stories have contributed to a long and horrific tradition of anti-Semitism.

We cannot assume that the depiction of first century Judaism that we meet here is either complete or entirely accurate. However, neither can we ignore the identity issue at play, or we will never understand the story properly. So with that caveat articulated, let’s unpick this a bit.

The expression of Judaism we meet in the first century, often called Second Temple Judaism, had taken shape during of the Babylonian exile some six centuries earlier, and it was a form of intertwined religious and ethnic identity focussed around some key symbols and signs, that marked the Jews as distinct from other nations.

So, Torah-keeping or the observance of the Law was one key marker, with its distinctive dietary regulations, along with other behavioural expectations.

Another was the practice of male circumcision, as a visible and indelible sign of belonging to the covenant people of God.

You knew you were Jewish, not because you lived in the land of Israel, or because you went to the Temple for worship, but primarily because you participated in certain actions. Being a first century Jew was about who you were, not where you lived.

Of course, there were Jews who lived in Israel, but not everyone who lived in the land was Jewish; and similarly there were many Jews who lived in Gentile lands, the diaspora as they were known, who were every bit as Jewish as anyone who lived in Jerusalem.

So the identity markers of Jewish ethnicity and religion, including circumcision and dietary laws, ran very deep. If you questioned these, you questioned the very basis of both a person’s relationship with God, and their relationship with their community.

Factor into this that for a very long time, being Jewish had also meant being an oppressed people, and these markers of identity became even more deep-rooted.

Just as significant minority identities in contemporary society, such as black identity, or LGBTQ+ identity, or feminist identity, have all been forged in contexts of oppression or exclusion; so the Second Temple Jewish identity was forged in a context of persecution and subjugation.

This meant that the public inhabitation of that identity - through circumcising your male children, and visibly obeying the Torah laws - was a powerful marker of resistance against domination.

To ask a first century Jew to set aside circumcision or Torah, would have been analogous to asking a contemporary member of the LGBTQ+ community to set aside their sexuality or gender, or asking a black person to deny their culture of ancestry.

Therefore, to suggest, as Peter and Paul and others started to do, that gentiles might become part of God’s covenant people, but without taking on themselves the markers of Jewish identity, was heard and felt as a fundamental betrayal.

So Peter’s baptism of the Roman Centurion Cornelius’s family, or Paul’s invitation to gentiles to join the church in Antioch, were deeply problematic actions.

This is the setup for the crisis that leads to the Council at Jerusalem, and we cannot underestimate how difficult it is for the Jewish Christians to hear what Peter and Paul are saying.

They are claiming that God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on people who are outside of the existing community of God’s people, and they are arguing that if God is blessing the gentiles with the Spirit of Christ, then no further obligation needs to follow, in terms of either circumcision or any other demands of the Torah.

Paul has concluded on the basis of his experience in Antioch and elsewhere, that the hallmark of identity for belonging to the people of God is not whether a person embodies the markers of Israel, but whether they share the faith of Israel as it has been embodied in Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit seal of a person’s salvation (1.13; 4.30); and in Romans he reinterprets circumcision for the follower of Christ as an inward spiritual act, rather than an outward physical ritual.

In other words, he argues that the primary identity of the Christian is found in Christ, and in the gift of the Spirit of Christ, and not in the keeping of Torah or in circumcision.

And so Paul finds himself back in Jerusalem, with Simon and James and the other leaders of the early church, to try and discern a way forwards.

The Baptist in me would like to claim this as the first proper argument at a Church Meeting, but that may be stretching it a bit; it’s more like an early church council.

Anyway, after much discussion, the Jerusalem Council reaches a compromise decision. They will not impose the full demands of Torah or circumcision on gentile converts, but neither will they say that behaviour doesn’t matter.

Rather, they identify three areas where gentiles will be asked to moderate their behaviour, and they name issues which are so culturally rooted in the Jewish identity of that time that to relax them would have made Jewish Christians unable to share physical space with Gentile Christians.

So they specify abstaining from food that has been offered to idols, from eating or drinking blood, and from fornication. And that’s it.

It’s a masterclass in cross cultural mission, and something that Western Colonial missionaries of the last five hundred years have had to learn again and again.

Pretty much wherever you think you draw your line on identity and behaviour, you can find evidence that God is beyond that line; at work, pouring out the Holy Spirit on people who are still regarded as unacceptable to the current embodiment of God’s people.

Compromises will sometimes have to be reached, in the name of sustaining relationships, but such pragmatic responses are just that - they are responses to human frailty, rather than divine mandates for human behaviour.

The theological principle here is often called the missio Dei, the mission of God.

The great missiologist David Bosch describes what this phrase missio Dei means. He says that “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.”

And Jurgen Moltmann says that, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”

In other words - the task of drawing the world to God, is God’s task. Not ours.

The people who are already part of God’s family have their part to play, sure, but our task is to prayerfully discern and observe what God is doing, to pay attention to where God is pouring out the Holy Spirit beyond the boundaries of the church as it currently defines itself, and to then join in with whatever new thing it is that God is doing.

Mission is therefore not something we do at all, it is who God is.

When we make mission about saving individuals, when we focus on personal salvation, we reduce God’s activity from the universal to the parochial. We make it all about us, and of course it isn’t about us at all, it’s about God.

And God’s plan is to love, save, and bless the whole world, indeed the whole of creation.

This is where I need to out myself, once again, as a universalist.

I think that any understanding of God’s activity in the world, that restricts the scope of God’s saving action to a subset of creation, is a diminishment and restriction of who God is revealed to be in Christ Jesus.

And it is a betrayal of the insights of Paul and Peter, who grasped that God is always to be found at work beyond whatever barriers we humans might seek to construct, around ourselves and our communities of faith.

It starts with God, and God’s invitation to you and to me. We are already now the people of faith. But it goes way beyond us.

As the Council of Jerusalem had to discern, God’s plan for the salvation of the world runs from Jerusalem, through all Judea and Samaria, and - yes - to the ends of the earth.

So when we find ourselves holding on to our traditions for dear life; when we feel our identity as God’s people is under threat; when we worry that we are losing control, and that our deeply held beliefs are being erased; we do well to remember that our task is simply to follow God.

The promise that God made to Abraham, back at the very beginning of the Jewish story, was that through Abraham’s descendants all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen. 18.18).

This does not involve the erasing of any person or community’s identity, in fact quite the opposite.

As we discover God at work in those who are ‘not like us’, we also gain a new understanding of how God is at work in ‘us’ as well.

The Council at Jerusalem is not the abolition of Jewish identity, it is a glorious recognition that God is bigger than us, bigger than our tribe, bigger than our community of faith, and that God is at work through the Spirit of Christ, drawing all people into his eternal, loving embrace.

All we are called to do, as God’s people, chosen and loved for who we are, is join in with what God is doing.

Monday, 19 April 2021

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

25th April 2021

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, c. 1626.

Acts 8.26-39

Listen to this sermon here:

I’ve been reflecting the this week, in the light of our passage for this morning, on the question of how discernment works? How do we know what God’s will for our lives actually is? Either at a meta level, or in the day to day minutiae of our minutes and hours.

One way of framing this is to as the question of whether it is it realistic, or appropriate, for us to view God as the micro-manager of our lives?

And certainly, one way of reading our story for this morning from the book of Acts, of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, might tend us towards seeing it this way.

Here we have Philip, one of the original deacons appointed along with Stephen, seeming to be going from place to place entirely at the whim and direction of the divine.

At first an angel tells him which road to take, and then the Holy Spirit tells him who to speak to, and then at the end of the story he is whisked away by divine intervention to go and, presumably, convert and baptise someone else, somewhere else.

It reads like a kind of idealised life of itinerant evangelism, following wherever the wind of the Spirit blows, somewhat irresponsibly converting people at random, and baptising them in roadside puddles.

It’s enough to make those of us who live more settled, structured, and dare I say responsible lives feel rather inadequate!

I’ve known plenty of Christians over the years who have taken the view that each moment of our lives should be directed by God, and that God has a plan for each moment, for each chance encounter, for each conversation, each relationship.

A mundane trip to the shops becomes an exciting opportunity for evangelism, and success is measured by the number of conversions achieved on the way home!

And I guess my question in all this, is whether this reading of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch is actually doing justice to thee story as Luke tells it in the book of Acts, and whether there might be a more helpful, and less high-pressure-sales-technique, way of hearing this story?

So I wonder if a way into hearing this differently is to start, not with Philip (although we’ll come back to him), but with the Ethiopian Eunuch. There are a few things Luke tells us about him that it’s important for us not to miss.

Firstly, he’s an Ethiopian, which means he’s probably got black African skin colouring, as opposed to Philip and the other Jewish early disciples who would have looked Middle-Eastern in appearance.

We can’t read our more contemporary experiences of racism back into this story, as so much of what we encounter as racism against black ethnicities owes its origins to the evils and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade; but neither is his ethnicity irrelevant.

The book of Zephaniah (3.10) tells of Jews scattering to Ethiopia in exile after the Babylonian conquest of Israel, some 600 years before the time we are reading about this morning.

So it is quite likely that this man is both ethnically Ethiopian and also Jewish; and a Jew with African skin in the first century would have been unusual, but not unheard of. It would have marked him as a potential outsider on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, someone who would have drawn attention; as Luke demonstrates by drawing our attention to it.

Secondly, he is a eunuch. Luke certainly doesn’t want us to miss this detail, as he uses the word five times in this relatively short story. By comparison, the only other time the word appears anywhere else in the New Testament is in a saying of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (19.12).

Eunuchs are men who have been castrated before they reach puberty, and as such they have distinctive physical characteristics. Their voice doesn’t break, so they keep their high child’s voice into adulthood. Famously, this aspect of being a eunuch led a continuation of the practice into comparatively recent times, with young boys showing excellence in singing ability being castrated to become Castrato, a male singing voice capable of singing in the female vocal ranges. Castrato were created for both church and opera use, and the practice wasn’t outlawed until, astonishing, the late nineteenth century, meaning recordings exist of them performing.

But there are other physical changes that the practice induces in eunuchs, including long limbs, short stature, and the inability to grow a beard, something that would have been particularly noticeable in the ancient world when bears were the norm, as opposed to today when so many men remain clean shaven.

All this meant that, in addition to his skin colour, he had further physical characteristics that marked him out as unusual, marginalised.

And, of course, there was one further result of being a eunuch that I haven’t yet mentioned, which is that he would have been deemed ‘safe’ from a female perspective. There was no possibility of him fathering a child with someone, which was why he was able to be a high ranking official within the court of the Ethiopian queen.

Families looking to advance themselves financially and socially would sometimes in antiquity volunteer one of their male children to become a eunuch which, combined with an excellent education, could open the doors to some of the highest offices in the land.

Interestingly, it wasn’t unheard of for eunuchs to marry and adopt children, so a family could do very well out of this, and it certainly seems as though this is the case with our Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Jerusalem: he is part of the queen’s court, and in charge of her entire treasury.

But as he made his journey to the Jerusalem Temple for worship, he would have known that there was a further difficulty awaiting him.

The part of the temple where men worshipped would have been off-limits to him, because in common with many ancient cultures, the Deuteronomic purity laws forbade the entry of eunuchs into the worshipping assembly (Deut. 23.1).

He would have had to stay in the open temple court with the gentiles and the women, rather than entering the heart of the temple complex with the other men.

So here we have this complex person: He is both man, and not man; he is both at the centre of society, and on the margins; he is wealthy and powerful, but excluded and othered; he is devout and seeking God, but in a religious culture that deems him unacceptable to God.

And here we come to my first challenge for us, this morning.

There are many people in our world whose bodies tell complicated stories. From minority ethnicity, to non-binary gender, to diverse sexuality, to the plain old patriarchal oppression of women.

And yet God called Philip to go to the Ethiopian Eunuch, to tell him that he is absolutely included in the story of God’s love, made known through the life of Jesus, and to baptise him as a symbol and sign of his acceptance and belonging.

So, this morning, who are you in this story?

Are you Philip, called to go, courageously and at personal cost to your own power and privilege, to reach out to those whom others would exclude, to proclaim the gospel of God’s absolute love in Christ Jesus?

Or are you the Ethiopian Eunuch, tired of being excluded, longing to find embrace in the loving arms of God’s people? Longing for release from the narratives of shame that write themselves onto your body and into your soul?

I’m planning a baptismal service for later in the year, and if you are finding this morning that the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is ringing true in your life, and if you’ve not been baptised yet, then maybe now is the time to do so. Maybe this can be the next step in your journey of discovering your absolute value to God, and your place in God’s people. As the Eunuch said to Philip, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ (8.36)

Anyway, let’s get back to our story.

Philip went over to the Ethiopian, and found him reading from the servant song of Isaiah (53.7-8), where the prophet reflects on the suffering of Israel in exile, using language that surely resonated with aspects of the Ethiopian’s own experience of the world: afflicted, maimed, done-unto, cut-off, stricken, humiliated, and denied justice.

And the Ethiopian sees himself reflected in Isaiah’s lament, and asks Philip whether this ancient text from the time of the Jewish Babylonian exile, might also have an application beyond its original historical context?

Can this speak to him, as well as to Israel of old?

It’s also surely significant that just a few paragraphs later in Isaiah’s song of the suffering servant, he offers a vision of a new world, where those who are excluded in this world find acceptance and welcome from God and in God’s people.

Isaiah 56 specifically names eunuchs, foreigners, and the outcast of Israel as those whom God will gather joyfully to his holy mountain and his house of prayer, which is of course a reference to the very temple that the Ethiopian Eunuch could not currently enter.

Isaiah says, in 56.7, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ This Ethiopian Eunuch is longing to belong, longing to find himself at home with God and God’s people.

And Philip opens the scripture to him: Yes, this ancient passage spoke first to Israel’s suffering in exile in Babylon; and yes, it speaks to the Eunuch’s personal situation; but it also speaks to the story of Jesus, in whom God has drawn near to those who are far off, inviting all peoples, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or social standing, to take their place in the house of God.

Jesus was himself the victim of injustice, and through Jesus God enters the lives of all those who are cut-off, restoring them to fullness of life.

And then, after a quick roadside baptism, Philip is off again.

This isn’t a story of careful long term pastoral care and support, it is a story of a moment of encounter, transformation, and inclusion.

We don’t get to know the next step in the Ethiopian Eunuch’s life, although later traditions claim that he returned to Ethiopia and founded the Ethiopic church.

And we only know a little bit more about Philip, who crops up again later in the book of Acts where he is described as Philip the Evangelist, with four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy (21.8-9).

But as we reflect on Philip, this impulsive itinerant evangelist, the challenge I hear, that I want to off for us as I conclude this morning, is not, ‘how can I be more irresponsible for Jesus?’; nor is it ‘how can I hear Jesus directing each moment of my day?’

But rather is, ‘can I, can we, like Philip, and like Paul (that other early Jewish convert to Christianity), grasp how wide and how long, and how high and how deep, is the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge?’ (Ephesians 3.18-19).

Can we embrace and extend a gospel for all peoples, where all are valued, all are loved, and all are welcomed?


Monday, 12 April 2021

A Vision of Jesus

 A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

18th April 2021

Acts 6.7-15; 7.1-2a, 51-60

Listen to this sermon here:

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads as follows:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; 

this right includes freedom to change … religion or belief, and freedom, 

either alone or in community with others and in public or private, 

to manifest [their] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

And yet persecution remains a very real and present reality

for many Christians, and also many people of other faiths, around the world.

I can still remember my visit to Bucharest in Romania, back in 2000,

when we went to stand at the place on the street

that was directly above the underground cell

where Romanian pastor and long-term prisoner Richard Wurmbrand

was imprisoned and tortured 

during the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s.

On his release, he inspired the founding of Release International

which, alongside organisations such as Forum 18

seeks to highlight the plight of persecuted Christians 

and other minorities around the world.

Their websites offer a depressing and distressing picture 

of international persecution,

from Islamic State in the Middle East, 

to Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria 

to Hindu extremists in India.

Countries where freedom of religion is officially restricted are many, 

and include places I didn’t realise had such restrictions, such as

Azerbaijan, where prisoners of conscience jailed and tortured 

for exercising freedom of religion and belief, and

Tajikistann, where there is a ban on and punishments for 

all exercise of freedom of religion or belief without state permission; 

together with severe limitations on numbers of mosques,

and the jailing of Muslim, Jehovah's Witness 

and Protestant prisoners of conscience 

on alleged "extremism" charges.

And I could go on, and on, citing further examples 

from Georgia, Belarus, Turkey, and many, many more.

Many of us will remember the visit of Rev Samson from the Kachin Baptist Convention

who came to speak at Bloomsbury in 2018.

Just this week I received an update from him, 

which I’ll ask Libby to circulate round the news email for you to read in full.

In it, he gives an update on the situation in Burma, also known as Myanmar,

following the recent military coup.

He says,

The Kachin Baptist Convention in Myanmar has, despite oppressions from the majority and dictatorship's tyranny, grown into a religious institution with over 400,000 members, 427 churches, and 19 associations, and consistently stands on the side of civilians and justice according to the Bible's teaching.

He goes on,

Under the rule of militarized dictatorship, the civilians of Burma/Myanmar are denied all fundamental human rights stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

For instance, the citizens of Myanmar live in fear of the unknown future of being arrested or tortured on a daily basis. The citizens of Myanmar are denied ownership of a property even if they are entitled to own it. The citizens of Myanmar are banned to know the truth via information blackout. 

Moreover, any religious organizations faces discrimination and oppression if an individual religious organization does not speak in favor of ]the armed forces of Myanmar].

He movingly describes the armed forces as a terrorist organisation, and concludes his letter with a request for us:

In this painful and traumatized situation, KBC would like to request humbly and earnestly for worldwide Christian brothers and sisters’ support to the following matters:

a. To support us with most effective and impactful prayer service.

b. To help us by advocating freedom from dictatorship.

c. To assist by voicing up to lift up information blackout in Myanmar.

d. Most importantly, please help us uprooting dictatorship in Myanmar with any possible strategy available.

As you have prayed for us, your Christian brothers and sisters from Myanmar pray for all of you to be for God’s glory. May God’s blessing be upon all.

And those of us who live in a relatively tolerant country like the UK

can struggle sometimes to realize the horrific truth

that persecution on religious grounds is a daily reality

for so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.

And yet, this is the background against which 

much of the New Testament was written.

When we read of Stephen being stoned to death

or Paul facing beatings and floggings

or John in Revelation speaking of hardship and martyrdom,

we need to realize that for many of those in the early church

the threat of imprisonment and death for their faith was very much a reality.

And we therefore need to read the stories that are told in the New Testament

against this background, 

in order to appreciate the context for what we are hearing.

Something which fascinates me in this story from the book of Acts, 

is what happens to Stephen as he is about to be stoned to death.

Did you notice it? – it was something very strange indeed…

something which has never happened to me

and something which I’d be surprised 

if it had happened to anyone else here this morning, 

(although I could be wrong about that).

The strange thing that happened to Stephen 

was that as he faced his moment of death,

he was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw heaven opened, 

with Jesus, referred to as the son of man, 

standing at the right hand of God.

In other words, just before Stephen was called upon 

to make the ultimate sacrifice,

just before he had to remain faithful unto death,

he had a vision of heaven, 

in which he saw God seated on the heavenly throne

with Jesus standing alongside him.

Now, strange though this vision is, it is not unique either:

The author of the book of Revelation reports a very similar experience

which we’ll read together in a moment

The book of Revelation was originally written to Christians 

living in seven cities in Asia Minor

at the heart of the Roman empire

And it was written by a pastor called John 

who was himself imprisoned for his faith.

Only a few years before it was written, the people he was writing to 

had been subjected to some terrible persecutions,

with the Emperor Nero taking Christians and tying them to stakes

and setting fire to them to light his gardens,

or throwing them to wild animals in the amphitheatre.

So it was in that context that John wrote the following:

Revelation 1:9-18  I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  10 I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet  11 saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea."  12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,  13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.  14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire,  15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters.  16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.  17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,  18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.

Do you see the similarities

between the vision Stephen received,

just before he was stoned to death

and the one which John speaks about 

in his context of persecution?

In both visions, heaven is opened, 

and Jesus, described as the ‘son of man’

is seen standing in glory…

Now, why is this, I wonder?...

What is it about a vision of Jesus standing in heaven

that is so appropriate in a context of extreme difficulty?

Well, I think the answer has something to do 

with the events of the Easter weekend.

It’s no coincidence that this passage comes in the lectionary

just a couple of weeks after Easter.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was the victim of torture, 

and was murdered for no crime other 

than an accusation of blasphemy

The similarity between Jesus’ death,

and the struggles being faced today by those around the world

who are facing imprisonment for ‘blasphemy’ is obvious;

as is the similarity between his experience of torture and death

and the experience of Stephen in the book of Acts, 

or those in John of Patmos’s churches who had suffered under Nero.

And the point of these visions seems to be this:

to provide heaven’s perspective on the earthly situation.

From the point of view of those living on the earth

it really can seem, on occasions, that all is lost.

From the point of view of the person facing persecution and martyrdom,

it can seem as if God has lost all power

and that the forces of evil in the world are absolutely in charge.

From the point of view of those living on the earth

it can feel like Jesus has abandoned his followers to a terrible fate

at the hands of those who want to kill them.

But it is at this point, when the earthly perspective can seem so bleak,

that the heavenly perspective comes as a gift from God.

Because, when the earth is seen from the viewpoint of heaven,

things appear very different…

When seen from heaven’s point of view,

all is not lost at all, God has not lost power, 

and evil is not in charge.

This is the significance of the vision of God seated on the heavenly throne

as lord of the whole universe.

Jesus has not abandoned his followers.

Rather, he is seen standing in glory in heaven

as true king over the earth.

You see, appearances can be deceptive,

and just as the crucifixion of Jesus was not defeat but victory,

with the power of death being broken at the resurrection,

so too the persecution and martyrdom of Jesus’ followers is not defeat,

but rather it is the faithful witness which points the world to Christ.

It’s no co-incidence that history has shown 

that the church grows when it is under persecution.

From the early years of the Christian faith 

as we find them in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters,

to Communist China in the post-war period in the twentieth century:

when the church follows its Lord in offering faithful witness unto death,

others respond to that witness and rise up to take their place.

The terrible, frightening, but glorious truth

is that the good news, of the love of God for all people,

is spread not through yet another evangelistic project,

but through the faithful witness of those who take up their crosses

and follow Jesus without compromise.

And it is the realization 

that Jesus is has not gone,

that through his suffering on the cross 

he is united with those who face lives of suffering,

and that through the vision of him ascended and glorified,

the path to life is open 

to those who would follow him through death,

it is this realisation that gives the courage to remain faithful

even in the face of persecution.

In the Hebrew Bible we find the story of Daniel,

thrown into the lion’s den

for refusing to worship the King Nebuchadnezzar;

and Daniel is still under threat of losing his life

when he receives the following vision

which by now is starting to sound a bit familiar to us:

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14  As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.  10 A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. …  13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel, like John, like Stephen, has a vision of heaven opened,

and sees the Son of Man standing in glory.

And like them, this vision is granted at precisely that point in his life,

where he might be tempted to think that God has abandoned him.

After all, the king of Babylon in those days seemed all-powerful,

and from an earthly perspective

it seemed that there was nothing anyone could do to oppose him.

But the vision which Daniel has of the Son of Man,

as king of an everlasting kingdom,

is one which puts into heavenly perspective 

any power the earthly king in Babylon might appear have.

The message for Daniel is the same as we have met already:

From an earthly perspective it can appear that evil is winning,

but when seen from heaven’s perspective,

God is very far from powerless,

and is in truth the almighty one enthroned above all earthly powers.

So what might this say to us,

particularly to those of us who are not given to visions of glory?

As I have said, we who live in this country at this time

don’t face the same levels of persecution

that others around the world face on a daily basis.

Now, I’m not saying we’ve got it all easy – of course we haven’t,

we may not be facing imprisonment, torture and death 

for no greater crime than going to church,

but nonetheless, we face our own share of problems,

which might tempt us to doubt that God is still powerful.

We face situations in our own lives,

where from an earthly perspective it can certainly appear

as if Jesus has lost his power.

I mean, at a local level, we might well ask the question,

of why it is that so many people in the area around this church

are not able to hear the good news of life and love 

that comes through a relationship with God in Christ Jesus.

It can appear to us, sometimes, 

as if we might as well give up trying to bear witness to the love of God,

because people never listen, and nothing ever changes!

Or, more widely, we might ask the question 

of why it is that so much evil still happens in the world,

with bad things happening to good people on a daily basis?

It can appear to us, sometimes, 

as if we might as well give up praying for the world,

because what is the point when things remain the same?

Or, more personally, we might ask the question of why it is 

that we fail to overcome our sinful human nature,

as we carry on doing and saying things that we know we shouldn’t.

It can appear to us, sometimes, 

as if we might as well give up trying to follow Jesus,

because nothing is ever going to change.

And, well… yes… the temptation to give up is very real,

and the motivation to press on with following Christ

in the face of difficulty and discouragement 

can seem very lacking.

And it is to us, as we face our own doubts and difficulties,

that Stephen, and John, and Daniel’s visions come with renewed power.

If we can learn from them to see the earth as heaven sees it,

to see our own lives as heaven sees us,

to realize that the Spirit of the risen Christ is vital and active in the world,

and that God’s power is greater than any earthly power,

Then maybe we, like so many before us, can receive from that vision

the courage, the determination, and the perspective we need to carry on,

to fight the good fight, to endure, to and overcome.

To those of us who sometimes want to give it all up

the risen Jesus comes in both suffering and power,

to be with us in difficulty, to renew our strength, 

and to give us the gift of his Holy Spirit

who sustains us, guides us, and points us to the one who was dead, 

but is alive for evermore.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

The Mystery of the Everyday

 A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

11th April 2021

Luke 24.13-35

Listen to this sermon here:

I love cooking, I love welcoming friends and family to our house, I love visiting other people in their homes, and I love going out for a meal in a pub or a restaurant - nothing too fancy, you understand, just some good food and some good company. 

We’ve tried a few Zoom meals with friends over the last year, eating our respective dinners in front of computer screens balanced on our dining room tables, and whilst the company has always been good, and the food perfectly edible, it really hasn’t been the same.

And if I’m honest, I feel a bit the same about our monthly communion services - as we have shared bread and wine as a scattered community. It’s been OK, and it’s helped keep our community together, but it really isn’t the same.

Interestingly, I’ve often thought that the words of the institution of the Lord’s supper, as we find them recorded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, take us beyond the world of the monthly liturgy of a sip of wine and morsel of bread.

Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 11.26, ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes’, and this little phrase ‘as often as’ has always seemed to me to imply more than a monthly service of a sacrament.

In the context of the situation in Corinth, it seems more likely to me that Paul meant by this, ‘as often as you eat and drink together’. And so we’re back to shared meals, to community, to fellowship, to that mysterious ‘something’ that turns up as we sit around a table, to feed our bodies and our souls in equal measure.

And this, of course, was the experience of Cleopas and the other traveller on the road to Emmaus, who I like to think might have been Cleopas’s other half, as they sat at the meal table with their new friend, to discover that in a moment of shared food, the resurrected Christ was made known in their midst.

Which makes me wonder what my expectations are, what our expectations are, about how and where we might encounter Jesus?

Many of us have been conditioned to expect to meet Jesus in certain buildings, or through the enactment of certain rituals, such as going to church, or saying our prayers, or reading our Bibles, or ‘hands together and eyes closed’.

If you had a similar early Christian journey to me, it might be that you were told that if you didn’t have your daily ‘quiet time’, you wouldn’t encounter Jesus in your day, and then the whole thing takes on an element of failure and guilt if you didn’t do the things that you had been told that you should.

But what if the truth of it, is what the travellers on the road to Emmaus discovered: that Jesus is encountered not just in Jerusalem, or the Temple, or the upper room; but along the way to somewhere else, in the face of a stranger just-met, or around a meal table over shared bread and wine?

What if Jesus is primarily present to us, not in the holy places or the sanctified moments, but in the mystery of the everyday?

What if the fact that we haven’t been to our church building for a year, or that our communion services have been conducted over Zoom, or that our choir has had to sing their separate songs to be stitched together afterwards… what if all these pandemic-related disappointments have actually been whispering to us all along that Christ is with us, present even if often unnoticed, in our lonely homes, in our support bubbles, in our socially-distanced walks, in our times of solitude, and in our confined families?

What if Christ is primarily always with us in the midst of dashed hopes and the ordinariness of life?

There is a form of prayer called the Examen, which originates in the 16th Century with St Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order, and it is something he encouraged people do at the end of each day. It’s an invitation to find the movement or presence of God in all the people and events of our day.

One Jesuit teacher, Fr. Dennis, calls the prayer of Examen “rummaging for God.”[1] He likens it to “going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be there.” And he says that this is a great description of what it’s like to pray the Daily Examen. We look back on the previous day, rummaging through the “stuff,” and finding God in it.

Sometimes at Bloomsbury we use a version of the Examen, asking people to reflect on where, for them, that day, has God been especially present, and where, correspondingly, has it felt like God has been absent. Sometimes, reflecting on these experiences can help us to highlight areas of sin or neglect that we might need to address, but also it can take us into a deeper and more personal experience of God in the mystery of the everyday.

If you haven’t tried this form of praying, I commend it to you. Interestingly, many people beyond the Christian church use a form of daily Examen, with journaling techniques often encouraging people to reflect on their day, and to write down and capture those moments of positivity, of grace, and of hope, as a way of combatting the feelings of negativity that can so often overwhelm us.

Which brings me to the question of why it might be that we, like the couple on the road to Emmaus, can sometimes fail to recognise Jesus, even when he is staring us in the face?

Let’s go back and revisit the story from Luke’s gospel.

It was the afternoon of that first Easter Sunday, and these two disciples had left Jerusalem for Emmaus, about a 12km walk, and were making their way along the road, discussing the horrific and confusing events of the last few days, from the crucifixion to the mystery of the women’s report of the empty tomb.

And Jesus came to them on the road, and Luke tells us what happened next:

‘Jesus said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad.’ (Luke 24.17)

They were so lost in their sadness, that they could not see the source of joy that was before them. They were telling stories of loss, of deficit, of defeat, and were missing the story of life, gain, and hope that was entering their lives.

And just as the prayer of Examen invites us to review our days, to find Jesus in the mystery of the everyday, I wonder if we too need to review our language, to ask ourselves what it is that we are discussing?

What stories are we spinning into existence in our midst? Are they stories of life, gain, and hope; or are they stories of loss, deficit, and defeat?

Are we missing the resurrecting power and presence of Jesus in our midst because we are too busy retelling to ourselves the stories of Good Friday? Do we miss the significance of the reports of the empty tomb, because we have become so focussed on the emptiness itself, rather than what it signifies?

Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields, uses the language of asset and deficit to describe congregational life. He suggests that that ‘Christianity is fundamentally about cultivating the assets of grace and joy, and only secondarily about eradicating the deficits of sin and death.’[2]

The challenge here for us, is that too often we get stuck at the cross, we lose ourselves in stories or theories of how Jesus saves us from sin and rescues us from death.

When instead we should be telling the world about the gifts of faith, hope, and love that are waiting to infuse every area of our lives, bringing meaning to the mundane, and joy to the everyday.

At a practical, congregational, level, there is a direct challenge to us as to how we frame the stories of our community.

Do we tell stories of decline, deficit, and defeat, or do we speak into being the stories of a hopeful, loving, joyful, faithful future, that echo from the empty tomb into the realities of our lives?

Over the next few months we have a task ahead of us, friends, as we will be living through change at all levels of our lives - from the personal, to the congregational, to the societal.

There will be challenge and difficulty, there will be loss and grieving, there will be stress and anxiety.

What will worship and witness look like in the future? We don’t know yet.

What next shape will our community and congregation take? We don’t know yet.

How will we address the financial pressures that are upon us? We don’t know yet.

But we do know that we need to be careful not to fall into the pattern of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who were so stuck in their stories of deficit, that they risked missing the good news of the empty tomb that was standing before them.

So let us tell, above all, the story of the Gospel.

Let us faithfully live into being the good news of resurrection, of new life, of new hope, of joy, of peace, and of love.

Let us face the challenges and uncertainties of the future with faith, looking always to Jesus, and finding him in the face of the other.

And as we do so, day by day, meal by meal, conversation by conversation, we will discover that Christ is truly with us, in the mystery of everyday.

[2] Samuel Wells. A Future That's Bigger Than The Past . Canterbury Press, Norwich. Kindle Edition.