Sunday, 24 July 2016

Superessential Bread

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? 
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. 
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, 
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? 



Jesus taught us to pray, “give us our daily bread.” Ask for bread, and you will not be given stones. Knock, he said, and the door will be opened to you. All you have to do is ask: and if at first you don’t succeed, keep on knocking. 

So where’s my Mercedes Benz? Why am I still knocking around in an eight year-old Golf? Maybe I’m not praying hard enough, not knocking long enough, not persisting. 

But let’s face it, most people do not get what they ask for when they pray, even when they are asking for much more important things than a nice new motor: even when they’re asking for world peace, for a cure for their loved one’s cancer, for a roof over their head, for the security of knowing when they will get their next meal, just for their daily bread; and yet we keep on praying, so unless we are completely misguided, fooling ourselves, there must be something more to Jesus’ words. 

Our Lord tells us in Lk 11 that prayer is indeed about asking. It is about knocking at that door, waiting outside, acknowledging your absolute dependence on God, entrusting yourself to his provision, yes. But what we are asking for when we pray for our daily bread is not as obvious as it seems. 

Many people have abandoned God because he does not give the daily bread people think he should. And more people have abandoned the Church because they think her main duty should be to run a bread queue. I’ve been asked, quite seriously, why the Church doesn’t sell off all our buildings, sack all the staff, and give the money out to the poor. The assumption is that we are here mainly to provide for people’s material, physical needs, and that the fact we do not means we are failing. It is easy for us in the Church to acquiesce in that sense of failure, whenever we see all too clearly that we cannot house the homeless, feed the hungry or heal the sick even just in Camden Town, so heavy is the expectation from a public that just does not see the point in anything other than material, physical goods and care. 

Actually, though, the prayer which Our Lord taught us as the basis of all true prayer does not ask for material sustenance at all. That is in fact not what the phrase “daily bread” means. Nor should it, since God has already given the world enough food and resources for everybody, if only we shared them out justly - surely it is impertinent to ask God for what he has already given us. No, the “daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer means something quite different, you may be surprised to hear. It is a matter of translation. The New Testament is written in Greek, and the word for “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer are quite strange. There is a perfectly good word for “daily” in Greek, but it is not the word the Gospel writers use. Instead, they report Jesus as using the very strange, philosophical-sounding word, “epiousios.” It is not found anywhere in any other ancient Greek writings, which makes it very difficult to translate. The second century Latin-speaking Christian, Tertullian, took it to mean “daily,” and this translation has stuck throughout most of the Western Church; but when St Jerome, great 4th-century translator of the Bible came to render this word into the Latin which most of northern Africa and western Europe spoke in his time, he was far more literal. ‘Epi’ means on or over, and ‘ousios’ means existent; so Jerome translated ‘artos epiousios’ as ‘supersubstantial bread,’ bread which, like the manna of the Old Testament, has a supernatural and spiritual quality to it. The bread we are asking for in the Lord’s Prayer is not, after all, our daily sliced white from Tesco; it is none other than the spiritual Bread of Life which Jesus had, after all, spent so much of his ministry talking about, and which he so dramatically gave to the Apostles the very night before he died. 

The Church needs to remember that Our Lord is not telling us to pray for our physical sustenance, but for the Bread which sustains us for eternal life. Echoing the story of Martha and Mary which we heard last week, it is true that we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, of course. But this is only an offshoot of the Church’s truer and deeper calling. If we ask only for physical nourishment and offer only physical nourishment, ask only for physical healing and offer only physical healing, we sorely miss our calling, which is to nourish and heal the human soul. That is what we, the Church, offer that secular support agencies, the local council, the NHS, do not and would not want to. It is not their job: it is ours. So while as Christians we must make political and economic decisions informed by our faith, and speak out for just redistribution of the world’s resources, and while we must offer practical succour for the needy, that is not our first job. It is no good at all for us to feed up and nurture people with the daily bread that meets their physical needs in this world, if we are withholding from them the greatest treasure we have: the true and living Bread, medicine of immortality, without which, truly, we have no life in us. 

So, as you come to the altar today to receive the bread of the Sacrament, I urge you to pray about how you might share that gift, and give others heart to pray not just for their daily bread, but for the Bread of Life which is Christ himself, the living Word of God and so help the world to know the joy of resting in utter dependence on Him. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

St Michael's Church, seeking the light of the world in Camden Town


Light: an image employed in so many religious traditions to denote purity, clarity, unity. And yet, we know that light for all its purity and unity can be divided: white light into the three primary colours, and the infinite spectrum thereafter. In fact, it is the very differentiation of light that allow us to see anything at all, the different wavelengths striking our eyes ready for the brain to translate into images.

“The Lord is my light,” sang the Psalmist of the ancient Jewish Temple. And so Christians believe, with Jews and many others besides, that there is indeed just one primal light for the illumination of the world, one spiritual spiritual light that gives all things meaning, source of all insight, wisdom and vision: and that one light we call God.

Yet many centuries later came a man with challenging words. “I am the light of the world,” he said. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” And so it is that those who came to call themselves Christian saw in Jesus a differentiation in that one true light, as the light walked among them in the darkness of their violent and corrupt world: the Father’s Son.

The challenge of Christ’s words did not end with his death; for before he went to the Cross, he had another surprising thing to say to his friends about the Divine Light. “The Lord is my light,” they already knew; “I am the light,” they came to believe; but had he not also said, “you are the light of the world”? And so it came to pass, after Jesus had left this world, his body ascended to heaven, when his chosen Apostles met and were enkindled as though by ghostly flames rising from their heads, as symbolised to this day in the Bishop’s mitre - on the day we know as Pentecost or Whitsunday. A third refraction of the one holy light: the Holy Spirit descends and gives new birth to the Church.

Three persons, one God: the classic Christian definition of the Trinity. One light, pure and invisible even to the eye of the soul, refracted into our perception. But the refraction does not end with Pentecost. Through the ages, millions of people like tiny facets on some vast prism have refracted some glint of that divine light, each in their own particular way. The great saints of our religion and others, too, are the obvious examples; but the Christian faith teaches that absolutely every person, every single one, is made in the image of God and has something of that divine light to refract and reflect.

Nobody here can doubt that there are plenty of dark corners to life in Camden Town; but the narrative of the Church shedding light into darkness has been too often overplayed and abused. St Michael’s is thinking and praying through what exactly our mission here in Camden Town is: what precise ray and shade of God’s light the lens of this church is shaped and moulded to shine here. Yet we must not get trapped in that metaphor. We need to look out for where that light is already shining in the many people and organisations of goodwill already working here, to see how we can reflect off each other and help each others’ share of the light grow brighter. We need to look out for where that light is already shining, too, deep in the hearts of those whose lives are most obviously blighted by darkness and to help enkindle the light within them. And we need to look out for the darkness in our own hearts, in our own Church, and be open to light that others may bring.

At St Michael’s, we offer a range of community services and want to offer more, to help with more; but if that was at the heart of what we do, we might as well raze this expensive old building and build a community centre. But the beauty of this Victorian masterpiece, which has been called a “sculpture in light,” makes manifest the the primary role of the Church: namely, the worship of God, by which we believe that the divine light is kindled in human hearts. That is why we have invested so much Heritage Lottery Funding on relighting the building, improving the sound system, and making our history better known: not just heritage for heritage’s sake, not just to become a viable venue for gigs, but because beauty in itself is a reflection of God’s light and love. We hope that this church can offer Camden Town a venue, artistic and cultural, yes; a sense of local history and shared identity, too; a Christian community dedicated to loving service and cooperation with our neighbours, of course; but fundamentally, a place of sanctuary and peace, a resource for learning the truth, goodness, beauty and wisdom of God, and so worshipping him here: a light that gives glory to the the heavenly Father whom I believe every one of us shares.

Trinity 8: A tangible stake in the future?


“A tangible stake in the future” is how the Prime Ministerial candidate Andrea Leadsom defined having children last week, claiming an advantage over the childless Mrs May.

Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 would have agreed with her. It was a standard ancient Jewish belief, in fact maintained by the Sadducees right up until Christ’s days, that the only ‘afterlife’ was the one you lived through your offspring and successive generations. This is why the fact that they had no children mattered so much to Abraham and Sarah: the end of their ancestral line meant that their family would not live to reach the promised land. It was a very physical, earthy faith, as you might expect of an ancient farming tribe. So, Jehovah himself - the name of God translated “Lord” in the Old Testament - appears to them as three men, and Abraham duly prostrates before them, the honour due to God alone. The Lord reiterates his promise, that Sarah will indeed have a son to carry the family line to the promised land. This Old Testament, Old Covenant or promise, is one of prosperity for the chosen people’s future generations: a one point lead so far for Mrs Leadsom.

But Mrs May can take heart, because the New Testament of Jesus Christ gives us a radical reinterpretation of the Old, as we hear St Luke proclaim quite markedly in the tenth chapter of his Gospel (Lk 10.38-42) and the story of Martha and Mary: matronly Martha busy, active in the kitchen, while maidenly Mary sits contemplating at our Lord’s feet. St Paul may well have had this pair in mind when he wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 7.34) about married women being anxious about the things of this world, while virgins could devote themselves to spiritual concerns. Part of the message of this episode surely conforms to the reading of later Christian monks and nuns, namely the priority of the contemplative life of prayer over the active life of service. But for people of New Testament times, it also makes the controversial point that God’s promise for you is not bound to the hope of future generations, not dependent on bloodline or nation, the direct opposite of the teaching of the Sadduccees: now God is present with you, God visits you, regardless of your married state and capacity or desire to procreate. God’s New Covenant is not just for your children and your children’s children: it is for you.

Many unbelievers, and not a few believers, too, think that the Christian faith is all about the hope of the afterlife: the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell. Yet as Our Lord’s visit to Mary and Martha shows, God’s promise is just not for a “stake in the future.” It has a certain urgency to it. He tells Martha to stop fretting. There’s no time for that. In fact, says the Lord, there is only one thing you need, and whatever it is, he has not come to promise it for a later date. Mary already has it, he says: it is not to be taken from her. It is not a brood of offspring. It is not a patch of promised land. It is Christ himself, whom Mary has simply received. As St Paul writes to the Colossians (1.28), the mystery is Christ in you. Christ himself is the hope of glory.

This Gospel comes at quite a fitting time for us at St Michael’s as we “reopen” today to Camden Town and continue to think about our mission, our vocation here. I hope you have now seen the paper I left in church last week following up on your comments and ideas at the Vision Day, so full of energy and enthusiasm. Our Lord’s visit to Mary and Martha does not dismiss that energy, our action and busyness - our Legal Drop-in, work with the homeless shelter, political engagement, practical provision for people in need. After all, Jesus accepts Martha’s active welcome, and calls us to love our neighbour in action, not in thought alone. He does not dismiss these works of ours; but he does make clear our priority.

The very purpose of humanity is the love and worship of God. We are made precisely for the Sabbath of which Christ is Lord, made like Mary to rest in him. So, the Church’s primary role is to make possible the worship of God. For this to happen, as individuals in the Church, our priority must be to come to know and love God more deeply and fully. If we don’t do that - if we expend so much energy on performing good works that we have none left to listen, learn and pray - then I fear we will be building on a house of sand, still putting our hope in our abilities to “build a better future” rather than in the presence of Christ among us and the transformative power of his grace in our hearts. We need to make sure that whatever we offer here springs not just from our own will, but from the fountain of God’s love opened in prayer.

I am open to continuing our conversation about the mission of this church. Sundays at 12 takes a break in August, so on the 7th and the 14th at noon, I’d like to offer the opportunity for open discussion based on the Vision Day and my response to it that was handed out last week. In case you want to talk to somebody more neutral and one-to-one, my friend Martin Moore of Sprint HR is going to make some hours for individuals to book in with him to talk about your particular place in the life of our church, focussing on what you already do, what you want to do, and what you would like to change - dates to be confirmed. The reorganisation work will keep going on in the background. Then, in September, I hope to be able to come back to you with a detailed mission plan incorporating as much as possible from our extended deliberations together.

I would urge you to think and pray not just about what we might do, but following Mary’s example, also how we might be: how we might open ourselves and others to the transforming presence of Christ in our midst here and now, for conversion of the heart is the only lasting foundation for the peace that Camden Town and indeed our neighbours in Nice so sorely need. We open ourselves to him now as he offers himself for us in bread and wine.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Heavenly Kingdom and European Union


The 1st of July, 1681. Oliver Plunkett, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, is executed at the Tyburn on the false accusation of a ‘Popish Plot,’ having spent thirteen years, many undercover to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan scourges, ministering faithfully to his people. Amid all that political turmoil, when a Christian bishop feared for his life in these very islands simply for teaching the Catholic and Apostolic faith, I find a letter he wrote to his superiors quite illuminating: “God knows that I think of nothing else, day and night, than the service of souls … Political or temporal matters have no part in my life: neither in my mind nor on my lips nor with my pen are they given any place.” He wrote this after he was sentenced to death. His duty as a priest, he maintained right to the end, was not to make bold political statements, even when his life was forfeit, but to tend to the spiritual needs of his countrymen.

What a contrast with some of the senior clergy of the Church of England today, who seem compelled, indeed who think they have the right, to use their public office, their pulpits and their social media feeds to express their political opinions - not because their lives are even remotely at threat, but because they are unhappy with the popular will expressed in the recent EU Referendum. According to the blogger Cranmer, the Dean of Manchester has publicly accused the Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser of racism on Facebook; the Dean of Exeter has denounced on Twitter everyone who voted “Leave” - that is, the majority of the people in our nation under our Church’s spiritual care - as “stupid.” The retired Dean of Durham, meanwhile, has claimed that Leave voters are in league with the French Front National. Far from concerning themselves with the spiritual welfare of those committed to their charge, these priests have taken it on themselves to denigrate the very people they have been appointed to serve.

And what a contrast then with the ministry to which Jesus appointed those seventy-two disciples, sending them out in pairs ahead of him to prepare his way. The harvest is rich, says the Lord, but the labourers few: and yet these labourers seem more intent on burning the crop, condemning it, than on nurturing and harvesting it. They are effectively excommunicating the majority of their compatriots who do not acquiesce to their enlightened views. You ware like lambs among wolves, says the Lord: do not expect your ministry to be easy, so not expect everyone to agree with you straight away; but be patient with people, let your first words to them be “Peace be to this house!” and bring them the Good News that the Kingdom of God is near. What peace is the Church offering this nation in its time of turmoil by sneering at the majority of its people? What Kingdom is it that the comments of these condescending clerics proclaim?

A priest has the right only to preach the teaching of the Church, and to use the pulpit to score political points is an abuse of our station. I have no intention here of setting out my views on the rights or wrongs of Britain leaving the EU. But what I can and, I think, probably should do is take the reality of our present political situation and see where we might further or, for that matter, hinder the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven where we are now.

The idea of the Kingdom is a powerful one: God the Father enthroned in splendour, the Lamb sitting at his right hand, thronged with angels singing and offering incense, the white-robed faithful united in praise all round. An image of harmony, of order, of unity: not a unity of crushing absorption into the godhead, but the Trinitarian unity of a God who is at once one and three; a unity allowing for distinction, individuality, even as the disparate members find a common identity in Christ.

No political structure, for that matter, no political leader, has ever achieved the harmony promised in the vision of the heavenly Kingdom, despite the efforts of various Empires, Republics, Soviets and Reichs. Inevitably we veer either too much towards a unity of absorption, crushing individuals into a straitjacket of a system, or we lurch off into the chaos of everyone looking out for himself, every person, every nation an island with only their own interests at heart. No one political system or ideology can make an exclusive claim to divine favour and none deserves the exclusive blessing of the Church, whether capitalism, socialism or whatever: the Church must not be the Tory party at prayer, but nor must it be the spiritual wing of the Labour movement. The Kingdom of heaven is beyond party politics, and no one movement has the right to the allegiance of every Christian.

The Kingdom is also beyond political models and regimes. I think we can safely say that the Kingdom does not look much like an isolated island nation setting its face stubbornly against the world. But then, the Kingdom does not look much like a bloated bureaucracy governing a members-only club of first world nations, yet deaf to individual countries’ entreaties. Caricatures, I know: but neither completely empty of truth. And anyway, we are living in a country that has descended into caricature as its entire frame of debate: the caricature of the metropolitan liberal elite versus the unthinking, racist masses. Again, there is truth in both of these stereotypes. There have indeed been racist incidents fuelled by the promise of Britain leaving the EU. There has also been appalling snobbery and superiority among those who lost last week’s vote.

It is perhaps verging into speculation to say that had our British political leaders listened to their people these last decades, and had our European political leaders listened to the requests of our Prime Minister, had they gone to their citizens and subjects with respect and heralding peace, rather than than with arrogance, ridicule and condescension, the result might have been rather different. But what I can say without speculation at all, with utter certainty, regardless of where you stand on the Britain’s place in the EU, is that the Kingdom of Heaven looks nothing at all like this country as it stands now, bitterly divided, a state of two nations.

It is up to us as Christians now what to do about it. Do we join in, like the deans, with the demonization of those who hold different views from ourselves, pat ourselves on the backs at how enlightened we and our friends are? Do we shut ourselves off, like the proverbial “Little Englanders,” and take this as an opportunity to put our heads in the sand, run away from the world? Or, like the martyr Bishop Plunkett, do we do what Jesus commands: go out into the great harvest, expect to be attacked by wolves, yet wish our brothers and sisters peace, listen and show love, reason with opposing opinions rather than merely scorn them, and so show something of that Kingdom which is higher and more beautiful and more stable than any worldly Union or any sovereign land.