Monday, 29 April 2013

The trace of God

What does it mean to be human?

If you had to come up with an interesting discussion topic for a church to offer to the community, what would you chose? 

A pretty good one might be: 'What does it mean to be human?' which just happens to be the title of a new series which began today on Radio 2, with the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, as first speaker being interviewed by Jeremy Vine in the lunchtime slot. It's a captivating topic and straight away we were pitched into a dichotomy between theocentric and anthropocentric views of humanity.

Jonathan Sacks, of course, maintained a theocentric view of what it means to be human. For him, reflecting on the Holocaust, when humans attempt to be more than human (mini gods, with the power of life and death), they end up being less than human. It's Genesis 1 all over again. However, the Judeo-Christian ethic held out the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, even to the worst offender. For him, the ultimate test of being human was asking 'can we see the trace of God in the face of the other?' He was asked did he think that when people succumb to their worst side, they just bring out the evil within? He rejected that, saying that humans were intrinsically good; 'evil' being the sum of their bad choices, which sometimes lead to the unimaginable suffering of others. He distanced himself from original sin in this, not that he mentioned Augustine, but I imagine that what what was on his mind.

Whether we think that people are by definition capable of evil, or whether evil is the result of bad choices, the Chief Rabbi's view was firmly that the divine spark was at the centre of our humanity - we are made in the image of God. Jeremy Vine gently suggested that in saying this he immediately alienated a large number of listeners who would have the human race at the centre of their own universe. But God is not an idea, if you're a practising Jew; He is the source and end of all being.

It's not often you hear God brought into the 'secular' debate on existence; not often you hear someone with such deep yet gentle conviction. God was not a soapbox to get up onto, nor a struggling being who needs constant defending, but instead, it seemed, a deep and steady knowledge of being loved and held, even through the valley of the shadow of death, quoting the 23rd Psalm as Lord Sacks did.

Which is why what it means to be human will always bring up the clash of worldviews. Either we find our full humanity in the Godhead or we are the masters of our own destiny, mini Renaissance men and women who have done away with 'the idea of God' and who will sort out our own mess, if we don't consume ourselves first. I wouldn't hold out much hope for the latter position, despite knowing some of the nicest atheists...

Friday, 12 April 2013

Deep Water

Easter 3, Year C. 

John 21:1-19

'Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake'.

In 2010 the artist Si Smith was commissioned to paint a series of stories about the resurrected Jesus, called Stations of the Resurrection, not set in 1st Century Palestine but in 21st Century Leeds, his home town.
The images are haunting and surprising, painted in greys and blacks and situated in streets; outside shops; by the side of roads; by an Undertakers; in a football ground; on a bus: anywhere where ordinary people are going about their business.
The disciples in our story were going about their business again. Jesus had been raised – it was amazing and true – but he could not be pinned down at all.

Let’s hear the story from Simon Peter himself.

Sometimes he just appears, like when we were in the upper room. It scared us witless! Thomas wasn’t present then - he got such a shock when Jesus came back and said ‘Put your hand in my side – stop doubting and believe!’
But other days it was just hum drum again – back to fishing on the Lake – it’s all we ever knew.
We had begun with this. Nothing special. We were always fishermen. He came to the shore that first time and said ‘I will make you fishers of men’.
So back in the boat. Nothing doing though. Fished all night long. I don’t know about fishers of men – we can’t even catch fish!
Just after daybreak a figure appears on the shore. Didn’t know who it was at first.
‘Children, you have no fish have you?’ he calls.
Correct! Then he suggests we put the nets down on the other side. We’ve nothing to lose so we do.
It’s like the apocalypse!! Suddenly so many fish we can hardly haul the nets in.
John, always quick off the mark, shouts ‘It is the Lord!’ He’s right of course. How could we not see that?
I’m out into that deep water, quick as a flash. I just have to get to him. The others drag the boat in, fish and all, nets straining but not breaking.
He’s got a fire going. Grilled fish in the sunshine. Best breakfast I’ve ever had. Breaking bread with the Master. 153 fish!! Best catch ever. And it’s all because of him…
I didn’t expect the conversation though. He is so insistent when he puts his mind to it. Three times he asks me ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’
He knows I love him – why keep asking? In my heart I know the answer but don’t want to admit it.
Anyway, three times: Simon, son of John – feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.
And the bit about the belt and being taken somewhere I wouldn’t want to go. Didn’t like the sound of that.
I didn’t want to follow him to the cross the first time. But I will do next time…

Si Smith’s contemporary paintings of resurrection accounts number 19 separate depictions of post resurrection events.
We’re told that this appearance on the lake of Galilee is the third appearance of Jesus to his disciples.

But Si Smith marks the following:
·        The earthquake
·        Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty
·        The disciples run to the empty tomb
·        The angel appears to the women
·        Jesus meets the women
·        The road to Emmaus
·        Jesus in the upper room
·        Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples
·        Jesus appears to Thomas
·        Jesus promises the Spirit will come
·        Jesus commissions the disciples
·        Jesus appears at the lakeside
·        Jesus confronts Peter
·        Jesus and the beloved disciple
·        Jesus appears to more than 500 at once
·        Jesus commissions the disciples on the mountain
·        The ascension
·        Pentecost
·        Jesus appears to Saul

(I have the Church Times reprinting of them here if you would like to see it afterwards).

His point is to remind us of the reality of the resurrection and it power within lives in the here and now.
Whatever we take from the story of Jesus on the shore of the lake and his conversation with Peter about feeding his sheep, it would seem that there is always deep water between us and Jesus.
For the disciples, the deep water represented their natural environment for daily work – the daily work of fishing.
Nothing glorious or miraculous in it – until a resurrected man appears on the shore asking them to fish from the other side, and the catch is clearly miraculous AND reminds them that they will be catching people from now on…
For Peter the deep water represents a call to deeper discipleship. He’s denied his Lord before; now there will just be obedience – obedience to death on a cross.
What is the deep water between us and Jesus?
To follow Jesus has always been the call of disciples, whether in the 1st or 21st Century.
Deep water is not for the faint hearted. Bu definition we will be out of our depth.
Some of us felt that on our Lent Course. To begin to share our faith with other people is deep water. What if they don’t want to listen? What if they don’t care about Jesus? Yet what if it’s just what they need to hear?!

Here is a challenge for us from this gospel today: what is the deep water that Jesus is asking you to step into as you follow him in this Easter season 2013?
Perhaps it’s the deep water of the challenge of ageing. John Pridmore in his commentary on this story of Peter’s challenge writes this:

When you are old someone else will take you where you do not wish to go’. The primary reference is to Peter’s martyrdom….but Peter died a long time ago. If we allow the text to speak to our own time, it may have other things to say. Many of us, in the wealthy world at least, will grow extremely old. That will be our cross. In our final infirmities others will take us where we do not wish to go. If we’re lucky and can afford a good nursing home, they’ll no doubt look us after us very nicely. But our frail and failing flesh will be in their charge, not ours. Someone else will ‘fasten my belt’. I won’t even be able to do up my own trousers.’ (p. 139, The Word is Very Near You)

Or maybe your deep water is actually someone else’s and you are having to go through it with them – a sibling who’s in trouble; an elderly relative; a son or daughter or grandchild or neighbour. To follow Jesus for you is to accompany this person through some very deep, dark water.

Or maybe to follow him means to branch out into a new area where there is no compass save trusting in his guidance. When my colleague Angela Butler knew she was dying, she said to the rest of the Team that this facing up to death was the last part of her ministry. It was her deep water. She crossed it boldly with Jesus.

Whatever your deep water is at this time, don’t let the depth and the seeming danger of it put you off following Him. He’s still calling you: ‘You haven’t got any fish have you? Cast your nets on the other side. Bring some of the fish that you have caught. Take and eat this bread. Follow me.’