Saturday, 31 May 2014

No more angels in heaven

This week I’ve had a recurring earworm – one of those songs that gets into your head and stays there stubbornly, no matter what else you are doing or thinking about. This week’s song, inexplicably, is from the musical Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat, and is sung by the brothers as they tell their father the fib that Joseph has been killed. The repeated lyric that has returned to me without mercy this week is: ‘there’s one more angel in heaven, there’s one more star in the sky’… Now Tim Rice’s lyrics speak to the beliefs I hear from people all the time, but they have nothing to do with the beliefs that the real brothers would have held, with the beliefs of Jews or of Christians. If only Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tune wasn’t so catchy, I might not have had such poor theology singing out in my ear all week.
When we think about the ascension of Jesus into heaven, as we do this week, we are telling a story that points out exactly why the fate of the departed is not to become angels or stars. For a start, there is the practical stuff. Stars, we know, are giant superheated balls of gas. No-one who really thinks about death really believes that is their fate, surely – or wants it? Whatever Doctor Who might suggest (I’m referring to The Rings of Akhaten for the geeks) there are no sentient stars out there. Gas does not have life, feeling, purpose. And besides, when Jesus rose from the dead, he rose as one who had died, properly, and completely. The resurrection was not like the raising of Lazarus or the widow of Nain’s son. Jesus did not come back to a mortal life only to die again. Jesus died and returned to His Father in Heaven. He was resurrected, given the heavenly body that is greater than the human one, and in his resurrection demonstrated that heavenly life. The resurrected Jesus is not like a human as we understand it. We can’t go through locked doors, disappear and appear somewhere else miles away, and we certainly can’t choose to move between earth and heaven. Jesus made sure that a lot of people saw him – sometimes hundreds at a time – and not one reported that he had turned into a star or an angel! And since angels turned up and were recognised as such on the day Jesus rose and again on the day Jesus ascended into heaven, presumably it’s possible to tell the difference!
One reason that people get into this muddle is because we know that in heaven life is better and more glorious than it is here. So we imagine that a star or an angel is a better or more glorious thing. And because there is an understanding that somehow there can be contact between the inhabitants of heaven and those of earth – we can, after all, speak directly to Jesus and to Father God, who are both in heaven, and we believe they can hear and respond to us – so perhaps somehow we want that connection to be visual. By imagining the departed as stars, people for thousands of years have sought to make visual the connection between earth and heaven.

But the ascension shows us that however the connection to heaven works, it is not one we can see with our eyes. Jesus disappeared out of sight, and the angels made clear that it was no good LOOKING for him. He can’t be seen. He is real, he is present to us, he can hear our prayers, but we can’t see him until we too are in heaven. And once we are there, those we leave behind can’t see us, in any form. We are not angels, we are not stars, we are human still. But, as the resurrection of our Lord showed us, the form that humanity takes in heaven is somehow greater and better than the form it takes here. We can’t know what that will be like until we get there. We just have to trust in what Jesus showed us. There won’t be any more angels in heaven (God has enough), and no more stars in the sky – not sentient ones anyway – but one more human, fully alive and glorified in Jesus for every person who dies trusting in Him. That’s a theology that would bring Jacob far more comfort than the folk theology of this week’s earworm.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

A way of living

At the beginning of the book of Acts St Luke describes the life of the earliest Christian community; indeed such an early gathering of Christ’s followers that the word ‘Christian’ had not been invented – that came a few years later in Antioch. Their way of being as a community seems alien to most of us in 21st century Britain, though would make more sense to those who live in intentional communities, whether monastic or part of the ‘new monastic’ movement of people who choose to share homes, household tasks and incomes with other people of faith.
It seems to me that there are some underlying principles of community that still apply to all Christians, even those of us in dispersed traditions coming together only on Sunday mornings. Those principles may be applied in a different way today, but if they are equally valued and upheld, we can build a Christian community as vibrant today as the ones that emerged in Jerusalem in the first century.
The first principle is sharing. It is a deep sharing that ensures first that every community member has basic needs met. Those who like to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a way of understanding people will see the value of this: before being able to engage in ‘extra’ activities, each person needs to have basic meets met: if we have enough to eat and to drink, and a safe, sheltered place to sleep at night, then we will be able to focus on things beyond that. So our sharing starts there. It may seem most obvious to urban churches, where a ministry to the homeless is a visible need, but it should be part of the ministry of every church, as we ensure that all are provided for. We can not, sadly, always rely on the welfare state to do for us what the church has had to do for most of its existence.
Having ensured those basic needs are met, our sharing goes on to the next most important things in the life of a follower of Christ – and here my hierarchy of need may go in a quite different way from Maslow’s. We are called and indeed created to respond to the Lord God Almighty in worship, and that is something that is best done in community. Yes, we can worship alone, and sometimes solo worship is very valuable (especially for introverted types), but it is a community calling. The early church shared in worship and so should we. That includes encouraging the many people who insist that ‘they are really Christians but don’t need to come to church’ that actually it isn’t just about what they think they need. It isn’t about pleasing themselves, but about pleasing the Lord, and the Lord calls us to come and worship together. Whenever we worship – Sunday mornings, Tuesday mornings, Wednesday afternoons – whenever it is, it is best done in company, so that the jy and awe we share and express can be magnified, and each of us can be strengthened by those around us.
Sharing socially is important too. When the early Christians broke bread together, it wasn’t only about a religious act. It was about building those bonds of friendship, trust and support that are the bricks and mortar of community. In communities that share a common roof, programmed times to relax together are an important part of ensuring that their community life flourishes. It is just as important for church members to make the effort to spend time together socially; these times might be organised by the church or organised by groups of friends. As we do this, we need to be thinking about those who come to church and making sure that all are included somewhere along the line – it is very easy to get into a routine of meeting with particular friends. As the bonds between those friends strengthen, it gets harder to invite new people into them and you end up with ‘cliques’ or unenterable groups. Fellowship matters and open fellowship that looks to ensure that all are welcomes matters even more.

The second principle that applied in the early church was of remembering. The church met intentionally to remember what Jesus said and what He did. The stories were shared and eventually written down to make sure they were not forgotten. They were told and retold so that each new person entering the community was able to hear, learn and understand all that Jesus did for them. Children needed to hear and learn the stories and so did new adults joining the group. Today the principles still applies, which is why the readings from scripture are the one constant in all acts of Christian worship. We must retell the stories and ensure that we all know them and pass them on. As soon as we stop sharing the story and remembering all that Jesus said and did, the Christian community comes to an end. That is why activities that pass on the stories to children and adults alike are so important. It is why groups like Explorers matter, and courses like Pilgrim which introduce the stories of Jesus to a new audience matter.
The act of remembering leads to the third principle, which is living as a disciple. A disciple is a learner, a follower learning from a particular teacher. You can’t be a general disciple. You must be the disciple of a named teacher – in the case of a Christian, Jesus Christ, the son of the Living God. The early Christians listened to what Jesus said, looked at what he did, and strove to live like him, and to live out his teachings in their lives. While the way of life of a first century Middle Eastern Christian may be very different from that of a 21st century English one, the underlying principle is no different. We are called to live as disciples, and to allow the things that we learn from Christ to affect everything about the way we live, from what we buy, and what we wear, to how we spend our time and how we treat other people. Inevitably, living in this way will sometimes make us stand out as different from other people around us, as having a different motivation of our actions from those who follow the prevailing culture, but if we share in being disciples then none of us will have to face the potential criticism of society alone.

Those three principles – sharing, remembering Jesus together, and living as disciples, apply as much today as they did when Peter led the community. Every Christian community finds its own ways at different times of living them out. In my own benefice we’re preparing to launch a new vision statement with five priorities for mission in the coming year. Those priorities rest on the basis of those three first principles: growing in number, especially of children, younger people and families, improving our worship and discipleship and engaging with social media so that we can be properly in touch with each other and the wider world in the age in which we live. Hopefully the effect will be the same today as it was centuries ago: that others will see how we live and want to join in with the best party in town.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus

John 14: 13-14  I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
1 Peter 2: 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Acts 7: 55-end. The death of Stephen.
Following Jesus sometimes feels like a risky business. You are going against the flow. Is this a Christian country or a secular one? Perhaps it depends how close to an election you are and whose votes you are trying to win! Though our nations laws are built on principles laid down in a Christian context, many Christians find that if we are to really live out the principles that we hold dear, if we really try to proclaim the good news of Jesus to others, then we are criticised as going against the culture in which we live. It is not fashionable to be a Christian, it is not cool at school or smart in the office to openly admit that we believe in Jesus and make choices affected by out discipleship.
Of course, the risks for us in England are of words spoken critically, of misunderstandings, sometimes of bullying. Our lives or safety are not threatened and yet still so many people give in to the pressure of society and deny Christ, failing to speak up for his way when away from church. St Stephen, in this Sunday’s first reading, stood up for his beliefs in a context in which he knew he would be considered apostate. He knew that to speak out his faith meant risking his very life, and yet he did not consider denying Christ. He chose to proclaim the mighty acts of God, to tell of where the light in his life came from, even though he knew he would pay for those words with his life.
In Sudan this week a woman has been condemned to death as apostate for saying she is a Christian. She isn’t technically apostate – that word means abandoning one religion for another, and the charge is that she has left Islam for Christianity. She was brought up in the Orthodox church by her Christian mother, but the court considers her to be a Muslim because her father, absent throughout her childhood, is a Muslim. She is eight months pregnant, and is being granted just two years with her child before the sentence of hanging is due to be carried out. Amnesty International are campaigning to have the woman freed, and I hope that all of you will find ways to support the campaign. This woman is standing up for her faith in the same way that Stephen (who technically was apostate, as a man born into Judaism) did.

When we are challenged by the culture that we live in, we don’t face the kind of opposition and danger that this woman, and so many others in other parts of the world, face daily. How dare we deny Christ and suggest that it is too difficult? How dare we allow mere embarrassment (which is all we generally face) to get in the way of living visibly as disciples of Christ? If we find it difficult – and no doubt it sometimes is – we have a promise from Jesus that he will hear and respond to our prayers. So we can ask him for the courage, the wisdom, the guts to live as men and women of faith wherever we are and whatever the cost might be.