Weekly Online Sermon
The story of the healing of the afflicted man, sometimes referred to as the Miracle of the Gadarene Swine, is a story about one man, a profoundly personal experience, but also about the wider community of his time, the way that mental ill health and spiritual pain were both viewed, and indeed created, by the socially and politically oppressive systems of their day. We should also note the seeming disregard of the narrative towards the suffering and death of the pigs, and the terrible loss of their owners. Are they both metaphorically and literally ciphers? Is the antipathy in fact directed elsewhere? What does the story teach us about the time of Jesus, and indeed our own?
It was once said by a famous politician that ‘there is no such thing as society’, but one could counter by saying that there is actually no such thing as an individual. For our experiences of one another, temporary as those encounters may sometimes be, can well influence who we are and who we later become. And if even transient encounters can shape us, how much more profoundly might we be affected and re-made by some of the most loving and powerful relationships of our lives? We do not remain the same, we are not untouched – we grow, we are moved, we become a quite different person to the one who might have been. We live our lives, we find our meaning in and through relationship. When we look at the Trinity we see this reality already expressed, already lived, timeless and eternal.
People’s imaginations are ignited; they can be fired up with energy, emotions can become inflamed, someone has a fiery temper, our hearts can be on fire, we can have a burning desire to succeed, or a burning hatred. When we use the imagery, the metaphor, the meaning of fire we are saying something very clear, very dramatic. That whatever is happening goes far, far beyond the everyday, the normal the expected, the controllable. When we say something, a place, an emotion, a person, is on fire, we mean that they are energised, passionate, erupting, growing, expanding – out of control. When something is on fire it rages, it spreads, it is reaching out, running away with itself; it is wild, elemental, untamed, unstoppable. People can often ask the question ‘What actually happened at Pentecost?’ I wonder whether a more fruitful question is ‘What happened after Pentecost?’.
In the annual sweep of gospel readings we have come this week to a profound moment of change. It is still Easter, but though the story of the risen Christ continues, for the disciples at least, Jesus is no longer among them.
Whenever and however the actual events unfolded, and whether the story of the Ascension is largely symbolic and allegorical or not, it powerfully describes both a single time in history and also a universal experience. Our world and our lives are constantly in a state of change and flux, that which we felt to be fixed and permanent can often disappear before our eyes, to be replaced by new realities that we could scarcely imagine. The church too, perhaps at its best, occupies the liminal space between the world and the divine, between the temporary and the eternal. Ascension is such a time – a hinge, a turning point, a watershed, for Jesus and the disciples to be sure, but also for us, both in itself, and as a symbol of all that is both permanent and impermanent in our lives.
How many times have we heard people speak of the Spirit moving them to a certain course of action, only to notice that it is indeed a fortunate coincidence that the Spirit and their own self-interest and prejudices seem to be so neatly in tune? As Galatians exhorts us, are we patient and kind, generous, faithful, gentle of heart and action and speech, do we hold back from advancing our own comfort and instead seek the comfort of others? Or do we create false boundaries around ourselves, and see some people as less than, not as worthy or as loved by God because they come from a different country, speak a different language, worship God in different ways, or perhaps they love people of they own sex, or have identities and lifestyles that we find new and strange? What role do our own personalities play in hearing the authentic call of the Spirit?
Of the three virtues that Paul names as over and above all, faith and hope and love, it is love that he names as the greatest. In many ways faith is not only a gift but also as an act of will. We can now see what the disciples later came to perceive, that mutual love is the hallmark of the Christian community, and without it the community cannot claim to be Christian at all. However, this love must extend beyond the demands of mutual dependence and reciprocal service, one hand washing another. It must extend beyond the group that merely cares for its own members and reach out to those beyond its boundaries and notions of what is fitting, included, or acceptable or worthy. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’. But if we believe this do we truly live out the logic of that statement?
‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’
The feast of Dedication was a very particular festival of the Jewish year, and a very profound statement about allegiance and faithfulness, contrasted with disloyalty and betrayal. You can imagine that now under Roman rule the Feast of Dedication took on new meaning and relevance, with this time Roman pagan invaders, and those who resisted as best they could, set against some in the Jewish elite who sought to curry favour with their conquerers. In certain ways our modern world, with its accelerating inequalities and divisions resembles the Roman world of Jesus, into which he delivered his Gospel of hope and of choice. As a church and as individual Christians, those choices come starkly to us again as once they did before, though perhaps in new and updated ways.
Today’s gospel is a rather curious reading.
You might get the feeling that underneath the words on the surface there is a sub-agenda. And you would be right. On the face of it, the rather convoluted words appear to say one thing, but something else is actually taking place. Because John is drawing together some loose threads in this final narrative, this epilogue of his gospel. The main action concerns the relationship between Jesus and Peter – something needs to be put right, something needs healing; but in the background there is also ‘the beloved disciple’. The relationships are clearly complex, at times anxious, perhaps needy, certainly all too human. What can we learn from the episode itself, and the lives that the disciples then go on to lead?
On one level one could interpret today’s Gospel as being about doubt. After all the expression ‘Doubting Thomas’ has become a well-known saying – this episode in his life is in danger of defining and confining him to a stereotype – an object of scorn or at least disapproval.
But is this really an accurate impression or is it merely a cardboard cut-out, one-dimensional portrayal of the real man. What do we really know about him, and the entirety of his life? And if there is more, much more to the story, then what can we learn, about him, and about ourselves?
We now live through a time when Christianity seems under threat as never before, at least in the West, but through violent attack or suppression but through indifference, scepticism and the sense that the insights of philosophy, of psychology and the natural sciences have made many of its claims and historic taboos no longer relevant and no longer believable. How are Christians today to respond? By doubling-down, by defending the past errors? Or by learning from the insights and instincts of some of the earliest ages of the Christian faith, but re-examined and re-expressed for our modern age.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and is hailed by all, so Luke tells us, with cries of praise, even adoration. And yet a few days later that same crowd, we are told, were baying for his blood, this man of peace, calling for his execution, in place of a man convicted of cruelty and violence. How are we to account for this turnaround, how are to square this circle that starts with adulation and ends with condemnation? Are there merely questions to be asked about a single week, two thousand years in the past, or does that week shine a light on the present, and are there questions we need to ask today?
Jesus is dining with his friends, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, now restored to life. It is a loving and intimate occasion; people who have a deep connection and understanding. The Passover approaches, people are making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There is expectancy in the air, excitement, but also the stress of being in strange places, having to rely on strange people; for some there is even a vague and growing sense of foreboding. Certainly Mary, perhaps more intuitive than the others, seems to sense it, even at an unconscious level. She kneels before Jesus and anoints his feet, note not his head but his feet, with, we are, told the costly ointment of pure nard. In fact so costly that its value equated to a year’s average salary. She also dries him with her hair. Are we meant to take the story literally, or is there a deeper meaning that John is trying to communicate in a theatrical way?
We are half-way through Lent. And this Sunday we leave the strictures aside for a day, to take stock and re-group as it were, for the final three week push to Easter. Keeping ‘Mother’s Day’ is in itself a good thing to do, to say thanks for all that Mums do, but celebrating ‘Mothering Sunday’ is of a quite different order; it has deeper roots and even greater meaning.
And particularly at this time, in this year, in this month, the emotions, the opinions and the actions of mothers may have an enduring influence, not only on our own lives, but on the course of history. We might yet learn what mothers can achieve, when the cruelty of man meets the overlooked, underestimated, but relentless power of mothers.
In the time of Jesus there was a widespread belief that suffering and misfortune were a sign of God’s displeasure and punishment, indeed many religions and cultures have clung to some form of ‘karmic determinism’ where we are deemed to be rewarded or punished according to our worth and our actions. Let us be frank we can even fall prey to the same superstitious beliefs today, despite the fact that our past century has witnessed terrible injustices, on a vast scale, where the victims suffered systematic and impersonal violence, wholly unconnected with their individual character, values or behaviour. This is partially what Luke is trying to communicate, by reporting these words of Jesus, but he is also, of course, looking back at Jesus’ teaching, after the destruction of Jerusalem, an event that happened nearly forty years after Jesus’ arrest and execution. Our hindsight is of a vastly increased length, and seen through cataclysmic events of our own time. How are we to understand suffering, is it punishment, are the victims really to blame?
Violence in and against places of worship around the world has been steadily rising in the last two decades. Tragically the conclusion one must draw is that the holiest places known to man are also some of the most dangerous places on earth. The very sites that are symbols of peace and faith and devotion, self-sacrifice and prayer, are also drenched in blood and violence and hatred.
There is a whole world of difference between a faith firmly, devoutly yet humbly held…… and a faith that brooks no opposition, a faith that sees no other way than its own, that mocks and denigrates and holds up as inferior and evil those who do not exactly share each and every minute article of faith. Fitting then, at Lent, that we should reflect on the sin and weakness that leads to such desecration.
In Jewish mythology the Exodus from Egypt catapulted into freedom a people who had been oppressed and enslaved. According to the legend, it was into the desert that Moses had led a group of slaves. Oppressed and bewildered, terrified and doubting, but by the end of the story of their journey through the wilderness, they were a nation, the people of Israel. The people of God. In the time of Jesus brutality and dictatorship was once again oppressing the people.
The choice before Jesus was to submit or answer violence with violence – he chose neither, and defined a new and ultimately victorious and enduring path. In the suffering of the Ukrainian people, their courage and endurance, we see some of that ancient history being replayed – the oppressor seeking to strip a population of their identity but only achieving the opposite – the rise, the affirming, the founding of a people – a nation.