Sunday, 15 February 2015

Gospel, glory and veils

2 Corinthians 4:3-4 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 

Luke 9:28-31 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

The Westminster Catechism asks this question:
‘What is the chief end of man?’
Answer: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’
The word ‘glory’ in Greek is doxa, from where we get our word ‘doxology’: the ‘Glory to the Father’ said after psalms are chanted or sung.
‘Glory’ in the OT was a big concept and the rabbis had a special word to describe it: Shekinah.
The Shekinah of God was His manifest presence in a located place.
When God dwelt amongst his people for a protracted period of time, it was said that his glory, his Shekinah, was amongst his people.
His Shekinah inhabited the Temple; crucially when His presence left the Temple this coincided with Israel’s apostasy and their Exile.
It was said that when Moses came down the Mountain after receiving the 10 commandments from God, his face shone with glory, the glory of having been in the presence of a holy God.
The glory shining in his face was so bright he had to put a veil over his face when he talked with the people; otherwise they could not bear to look at it.

Paul, in our first reading, is defending his message against the so-called ‘super apostles’, who promised glory without discipleship/suffering.
Disciples are willing to suffer before they see glory – Paul never hid this fact.
Paul speaks then of the so called veiling of his gospel - the 'the god of this world' veils the gospel, but how does this exactly work?
Which are the things which veil the Good News today?
What things could we be putting in the way, things that act like veils?
Busy-ness, apathy, material comfort, distance from God: perhaps all these and more can act like veils today.
Are there things we do in church (or don’t do) which veil the message?
This is an important question: are we hiding Christ somehow?
Lent is a good time to consider, individually and corporately, what is veiling our walk with God...

It’s sometimes said of those who walk very closely with Christ that you can see something of God in their faces…
I wonder if you can think of anyone…
It’ll be someone who has walked daily with God; someone whose expression is peaceful but perhaps who’s suffered and come through; someone whose obedience and joy have been so much a part of their lives that their very face reflects God’s glory.

Our gospel is about Christ revealed in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
He has taken his closest three friends along, and it says he took them up the mountain to pray.
Can you imagine going up a mountain with Jesus to share a time of prayer with him?
While he was praying the appearance of his face changed and suddenly his clothes became dazzling white.
Now strange things can happen at the top of mountains.
There are clouds swishing around up there, the weather might be more violent; the atmosphere might be a bit rarified, you might be worn out from the climb…
All that was part of the strange experience Peter, James and John had.
But the mountain top is also a metaphor for a spiritual experience.
We say ‘I had a mountain top experience.’
We are usually elated during a mountain top experience; everything seems real and exhilarating.
It was as if Jesus was revealed for a few moments in all his divinity.
Yes, he was still the man they knew and talked with but now they saw ‘beyond the veil’ as it were…
The veil of this life was temporarily parted to reveal a deeper reality.
This reality is open to us and sometimes we sense it closely – if we’ve lost someone we love, or if God’s presence seems particularly real in a particular place.
Jesus is suddenly seen beyond the veil and at God’s right hand.
On one side of him stands Moses, law giver: on the other Elijah, representing all the prophets.
The Law and the Prophets…
What are they doing there with Jesus?
They’re speaking of his departure – his death, which, the text says ‘He was about to accomplish…’
Jesus had been speaking about his death and resurrection - he’s trying to get through to his disciples, but, understandably they are not able yet to equate the Messiah with suffering.
They too do not understand that the Messiah had to suffer before entering his glory.

But the glory they see before them on the mountain top is too much for Peter, James and John; Peter gets incoherent.
Here’s Jesus in all his glory…and the disciples are bamboozled by it…
Peter gabbles some nonsense about putting up shelters, but you cannot box spiritual experience in the hope of living off it for ever.
Because soon you get right back to 'normality'.
Suffering (daily life, the daily grind) and glory.
How do we suffer for our faith?
Certainly not like our persecuted brothers and sisters, but to put Christ first in a world which largely ignores him is tough.
To be brave enough to speak of our involvement in church can be tough.
Sharing your faith is not easy, but if we think of it as shining out automatically, it might help.
It is a natural outpouring of the heart.
We are veiled, if you like – it is Christ who shines out.

As we approach Lent and think about Jesus' Transfiguration today, we pray that our message may be unveiled and that we may reflect his glory to the world in which we live and the community we serve.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

How cosmic is your Christ?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  
Colossians 1: 15-16

I had a primary school teacher moment this week and made these jigsaw pairs for Sunday's all age talk on Colossians 1: 15-20, the pre-eminence of Christ or, depending on your age, How big is your Jesus?/How cosmic is your Christ?

There's a reason why I nearly always, out of the 3 set readings for Sunday, go with the gospel for an all age talk. 

Because stories speak loudly, and you can focus on narrative for younger minds, and the meaning behind the story for the older ones (though sometimes, a wonderful bright 6 year old can be relied upon to give the succinct theological meaning in front of everyone else, thus proving the truth, 'from the mouths of babes and infants you have ordained praise').

But this Sunday's gospel is (again) John 1 - the Prologue. We read it at the Carol Service every year: 'In the beginning was the Word'. It's a wonderful pean to the divinity of Christ, but it's not a story. So this Sunday we're going with the Epistle. And that presents some challenges for the children - hence the jigsaws. I enjoy preparing all age talks in the hope that, like the 1970s Heineken advert, they will 'refresh the parts other sermons cannot reach'.

But this still leaves the problem with preaching on doctrine, not narrative: how to avoid the sacred/secular divide? The sacred/secular divide line runs right through every area of life and even believers find it hard not to fall into the chasm - the chasm where you talk about religious stuff in church and then return to your normal every day life completely unaware of how faith relates to your life - to work, leisure, finance, parenting, politics, peace, ecology, healing.

Because the picture of Jesus in the Colossians reading is of a very big Saviour. This is not an image which fits well with the pluralistic range of 'saviours' on offer today. Even thinking about Jesus as a baby or a dead man who mysteriously re-appears is to limit the scope of what St Paul puts before us in this letter. Christ is cosmic. In him all things hold together - that is, atoms as well as the inner healing we all need before we can make peace with our lives and losses.

The pictures of Christ in this short reading are amazingly multi-faceted - hence the wide array of images on one half of the jigsaw pieces. Put briefly, Jesus is:

  • fully part of the Godhead (the image of the invisible God)
  • the agent of and reason for creation (all things have been created through him and for him)
  • the being by which creation holds together
  • the head of the body which is the church
  • the alpha (beginning)
  • the first raised (the first born from the dead)
  • the one through whom we are reconciled to God (by his blood on the cross)
This doesn't just touch on theology but on the way we see the physical world, the metaphysical world, the ecclesiastical world, and the inner world. It speaks to the outburst this week by Stephen Fry, who railed against a God who was 'utterly utterly evil' because he apparently 'created' bone cancer in children. It speaks to the fear of death. It speaks to the human need to find meaning and purpose in life.

Christ is 'all in all' (another favourite Pauline phrase). Here's hoping that young or old tomorrow, we not only have a mind expanding experience of how big Jesus really is, but also take that picture out into the world - a world that is, despite the false sacred/secular divide, still 'charged with the grandeur of God' (Gerard Manley Hopkins). 

Monday, 2 February 2015

Well done, Rory

Has something happened to the media portrayal of the Church? 

I can't stop thinking about the vicar of Broadchurch. I want to call him Rory (his character in Dr Who) but in this case Arthur Darvill plays the part of Revd. Paul Coates, fictional vicar of a seaside town devastated by the murder of an eleven year old boy, in the award winning UK drama, first aired in 2013 and currently running series 2.

I was wary of Broadchurch the first time round. The trailers put me off: everything seemed so utterly desperate. I didn't think I had the emotional energy for it. I was right - unless you have a stone for a heart or are a cynical detective yourself, it would be hard not to be affected by child murder in a quiet Dorset town where everyone, from the dad having an affair, to the loner who lives in a caravan (and the insomniac vicar) is suspect. 

I badly didn't want Revd. Paul to be the killer. I wondered how he managed to carry so much information about so many different people, and still maintain impartiality and fairness, kindness and perceptiveness. Did he get a perverse kick out of being involved in so many lives? I felt keenly my own ministerial temptation to wield spiritual power. 

In thinking about much of the media representation of the Church, I delighted that he wasn't bigoted, clueless, stupid or farcical. Are things are improving for clergy, image-wise? Granted, we've had Geraldine Grainger (funny and smart Vicar of Dibley) and Adam Smallbone (flawed and honest inner city priest in Rev.) but in terms of the writers, I wondered what had happened to the public perception of the Church for them to come up with someone so interesting, and central to the drama (who is not, thank God, the murderer). When Revd. Paul stands up for his faith to David Tenant's pointless cynical questioning I wanted to cheer.

The role of Revd. Paul Coates was the very first role cast, with Arthur Darvill in mind - no audition. Did the writers think small close knit community - everyone will know the vicar; let's put a first class one in...(but I thought were always being told the Church is irrelevant to everyday people and their concerns...?)

When tragedy strikes, it is the vicar who finds himself right in the middle of community attempts to come to terms with death, a profound loss of innocence, and the ensuing fear and suspicion. Darvill shadowed a local vicar for his acting preparation and has spoken about how he imagines the loneliness of ministry and yet the opportunity for bringing a community together:

As the local vicar, Revd. Paul is involved in the school where murdered boy, Danny, was a pupil. He breaks up fights, chats with locals in the hotel and talks to the media. He seems to know Danny's parents, Beth and Mark. From the pulpit he voices what many feel, that it's when tragedy strikes that we wonder if God has abandoned us. 'Nineteen people out of a population of 12,000', is his rueful comment afterwards, looking around a mostly empty church. But it means a lot to Danny's Grandma: 'it was comforting; it was just what we needed to hear'.

After suspicion falls on local shop owner, Jack Marshall (a kind of Jude the Obscure figure, with a spent conviction for underage sex) an angry mob gather, wrongly assuming he's guilty of child molestation. The vicar warns he'll need protection, but this goes unheeded and tragically Jack takes his own life. It's up to Revd. Paul to defend his innocence in the funeral address: 'Jack Marshall was a good man' a man who was lonely, who had also lost a child many years ago. This time the church is full of people feeling guilty. He practices just the right tone as he paces his vestry beforehand. It's as if he's earned the right to speak some hard words.

Danny's parents are not religious, but desperate people need comfort. They want to talk to the vicar about their grief ('you can mention God if you like'). A further emotional complication is that Beth is pregnant. Her husband thinks they should focus on the baby but how can she love this new child when every fibre of her being cries out for the other child? Wisely the vicar suggests they have the scan; this new life growing inside might be a gift.

The murder case is brought to conclusion. Now, not only must Paul Coates do that thing all vicars dread - take the funeral of a child - but as a Christian leader he must dare to introduce the first hint of the extraordinary possibility of forgiveness. His funeral text: 'Put away from you all bitterness, and wrath and anger, and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, just as in Christ, God forgave you' (Ephesians 4:31-32). You can't really imagine any other words being so appropriate.

As the camera pans round the packed church, we remember that as well as a family grieving, there's a community struggling with fear, anger, betrayal and the truth behind complex, misplaced human expressions of love. Finally, it's also a community which comes together under Paul's leadership to light a beacon to Danny on the beach where his body was discovered. It's an incredibly moving and fitting act of solidarity, even hope.

So well done Rory. Serious, single minded and entirely solid. Now that Christianity as a practised religion is pretty rare in your average community, is it the case that our media clerics no longer have the luxury of being lazy, incompetent or ineffectual, but instead need to be wholly convincing, in tune with the community and willing to step up when the occasion demands?