Haddon Willmer has been a member of Moortown Baptist Church since 1966. He is Professor Emeritus of Theology at the University of Leeds. He is married to Hilary: they have three children and eight grandchildren. He is a trustee of CROP and of the Child Theology Movement (see their websites). He is specially interested in politics and forgiveness; Barth and Bonhoeffer; the child, mission and the kingdom of God
Talking about sin is difficult, so we avoid it. It threatens our mental health and self-esteem. But sin meets us massively in the world: we cannot deal wisely if we do not recognize it. Political discourse becomes deceitful, evasive, and merely euphemistic when there is no political will or words to confess sin.
Some take refuge in the belief that climate change was caused by the sun, so the earth and its inhabitants are innocent victims. Now we know the rise towards 1.5 degrees and beyond is significantly down to human activity. Individuals may deny responsibility, claiming they are swept along helplessly in the tide of impersonal forces, like population growth generating consumption beyond earth’s capability. But sin is more than guilt that can be pinned without remainder on offenders; it is sin when the ‘innocent’ individual refuses to accept that they are members of the community, who have their being only in sharing with others. Goodness, as opposed to sin, makes itself responsible for the plight of the world, even when it has done nothing to cause that plight. So God in Christ bears the sin of the world, being ‘made sin’ (II Corinthians 5.16-6.10) and only from that truthful point bringing new life to birth.
We cannot now save ourselves from climate disaster unless we think and act communally and give ourselves to the common whole-world enterprise without claiming exemptions.
We have the expertise to fight for our own interest, till we are weary, but not so much wisdom or humility to help other people to live better. Yet still we are not ashamed: those whose prime concern is their own safety will not be ashamed when they fail those they count as less valuable. So our sin is unveiled in this history, but we refuse to know what we are doing – and that refusal is deep sin.
[Jonah Awaits the Destruction of Nineveh – copyright Trenét Worlds]
What do we get from Jonah?
If I preach to the Ninevites so they turn from their sin
If I pray from the depths in the most spiritual language
If I give my body to be thrown into the depths to save drowning sailors
And have not love – I am nothing
I am nothing because I am far from God
I do not know him in his works or his spirit
I do not share his mission
I preach his word powerfully to others but I do not hear it for myself
I resist God’s arguments with me to the end
It is not clear what will become of me, but so far as the story goes,
I am nothing
I am angry where God is patient
I want destruction while God wants reconstruction
I see they need to be converted but I do not want them to be converted
I see they need to be converted but I cannot see that I need to be converted
I see and make enemies while God values and is faithful to all his creatures
I think I am special and am not content to be like other of God’s creatures
I am privileged because God keeps on talking to me
But I am nothing because I do not get what keeps God going
I care about my comfort under the gourd;
The value it has for me is measured by my loss when it withers in the sun
But still it is a puzzle to me why God should value the children
And all the cows in Nineveh:
I have no sympathy for God when he contemplates losing his creatures.
I think out of my anger and disdain and go away from God
I pray but what do my prayers mean?
I am godly, unlike the Ninevites, and all the others I look down upon,
But in my godliness, I am godless and I don’t know it
Indeed I think in my pride my way is better than God’s
I am without God because I am without love
If I have not love, I am nothing
The film, Lilies of the Field (1963) is fascinating, beautiful, simple. It could be argued it is like the Sermon on the Mount, too good and too hopeful to be true. Or maybe it has the truth of whatever is good, for the really good always verges on the too good to be true. The people in the story are not goody-goody cut-outs. Some are proud, some selfishly calculating, some naïve, some sceptical, some awkward, but their faults are subsumed into an abounding grace which comes upon them all. The grace is what makes the whole story, in a strange, unexpected way; grace comes to light in the making of the story. People make their various limited contributions to the happening, with varying degrees of willingness; some work and suffer considerably to make it happen; but at the end of the story, when the work is done and stands there as an abiding and worthy achievement, none of them can claim credit for it.
I have told you the story without telling you anything, so I have not spoilt your entertainment. It really is a good film to watch – for all ages.
I had never heard Jester Hairston’s song, Amen, which we hear twice in the film. You can see Hairston singing it here on YouTube.
Why do the innocent suffer? That is one question running through the book of Job. Job was a good and prosperous man, who lost his family, property and health in sudden disasters. Some tried to argue that the good do not suffer, so there must have been something wrong with Job to cause his troubles. Job does not accept that and complains about a world that is unjust, where the wicked prosper, get bonus after bonus, and are never called to account. His advisers argue there is justice in the long run – for example, if the wicked man gets away with it, his sons will cop it. Job is not satisfied with that answer.
Job 21.19 ‘You say, God stores up their iniquity for their sons. Let him recompense it to themselves that they may know it.’ Job wants the wicked to suffer appropriately, and to have to pay up, so that they have to acknowledge and feel the wrong they have done.
Job has a strong sense of the individual before God. So he looks for God’s wrath to be directed in justice to the precise places where it is deserved.
But that is not the heart and source of his view. His prime concern is not that the wicked should be punished. He is wrestling with his own situation.
He knows he is innocent or better, righteous. He will maintain that.
But he knows that in his trouble, it is God he is facing. He cannot stand outside his trouble, so that he is free to ask, ‘Why should God allow this, or do this to me?’ He does not say, ‘I have troubles, God is responsible, how can God justify himself?’
He rather says, ‘My bodily troubles are bad and depressing in the extreme, but they are not my real problem. It is rather that troubled as I am, I am before God. God comes to me in my troubles, so he is the troubler. In my troubles, I get no peace, no comfort. They are the form of God to me: he does not let me alone. Troubled as I am, I cannot say, ‘This is merely an accidental, earthly, animal occurrence, it has no personal or spiritual meaning, so my spirit can serenely rise above the suffering to be with God.’
‘No, God is after me’, says Job, ‘he will not leave me alone’. ‘In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind’ 12.10. This general truth is emphasised and illustrated extensively in the book of Job. Job’s trouble is a particular occurrence of this general truth, the way it works out for him. There is no escape from God. You think that is comforting news? For Joh, it seemed to mean trouble with little hope of light and peace. Job sometimes says he wants to speak with the Almighty and argue his case with him (13.3) but at other times, Job thinks the only hope is for God to leave him alone, so that he can find a few days of brightening up, before he goes ‘whence he will not return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness’ 10 20-22. (This is one reason why even many religious people give up on God: they sense that God might come for us, as he came for Job. We would like to make our case to God, to speak frankly with God and call God to account, but we do not have the freedom to do that. Before we can speak with God, God must take the pressure off. So Job sets out the conditions under which he will talk with God: ‘Withdraw your hand from me and let not dread of thee terrify me. Then call and I will answer…’ 13.20-22. But sometimes, God does not leave some people alone, to get on with their life without his hand on them in a troubling way. 7.11-21: why does God make so much of human being, visiting him every morning? ‘Will you never take your eyes off me long enough for me to swallow my spittle?’)
It is on this basis that Job appeals to his friends, who torment him with their words 19.1 They should not do this. They should understand that even if he has done wrong, his error remains with himself – 19.4. They should leave him alone with his responsibility and not interfere, as though they can make themselves great by humiliating him 19.5.
This is a form of the argument of Romans 12.19-20, Lev.19.17-18: Leave vengeance to God and do not interfere or try to do God’s work for him Romans 14.4. A major issue here is knowing how to practise this wisely: for there has to be some sort of judging enacted in society by human beings. We tend now in our secular society to ignore God altogether, and so to make social, ie state judgment final and complete. But it is still the same as it always has been: the human enactment of justice is often incomplete and cannot be counted as final; it leaves the victim unsatisfied, so that they have to find some other help in moving on with their lives; it is often clumsy and mistaken, and does not do redemptive justice to the wrongdoer; and when it escalates its own cruelty in order to match the heinousness of the crime it strays from the service to humanity which is the basis of its authority.
So we need human judging, but it needs to act with humility within limits. That is what Job asks his friends to exercise: not to magnify themselves by being haughty assured critics who humiliate him. Job does not pursue this argument by pointing out the limits of human justice (as I have done in the last paragraph) and asking his friends to limit themselves. Human beings, especially once they are on their high horse, are not very good at limiting themselves. Rather Job calls God into the argument.
He does not call God into the argument to defend him against his critics (God at the end of the book 42.7 appears like that) but rather Job asks them to limit their own critical humiliating endeavours by taking note of God in the situation. ‘Know then that God has put me in the wrong and closed his net about me’ 19.6. They can see Job is in trouble, and so they speak down to him, diagnosing his trouble and advising him – and all the time, they have not noticed or taken the measure of the most significant thing about Job’s trouble: God is there, not indeed as his helper or comfort but as the one who has ‘put him in the wrong’.
We should not think ourselves superior to Job’s friends for most of the time, we are not very good at noticing when God is there putting people in trouble. Indeed good kind Christians today are as bad as other good people at not being able to imagine or feel that when people are in trouble, they have been targeted by God and that the trouble is not to be understood except as the manner and the place of God’s coming close. It is a terrible thing to think; it is a dangerous way to think about people’s troubles. Indeed part of the lesson of Job is that we should hesitate to interpret anyone else’s troubles in these terms. But the other part of the lesson of Job is that as a human being I, for myself, may, in the course of life, be led into troubles, and that as I live through the trouble, I discover that at its heart or alongside it, God is putting me in the wrong. Then God becomes my real trouble.
Because Job’s friends could not interpret Job’s troubles in this way without putting themselves in the wrong, it is right that pastoral practice and spiritual direction in church does not work in these terms. Our pastoral practice assures people that God is with them and for them; it does not talk of God putting you in the wrong. But it is one of the limits of the best pastoral practice that there are things it cannot and dare not say. Job’s friends simply have to keep quiet. Yet Job in trouble cannot be comforted with the one-sided cheerful pastoring. Job has been picked out by God and there are dark places he must walk through, because God has ‘walled up his way’ 19.8. The church that may not pastor in these terms can, at least, read Job, which most churches never do these days. Without pointing the finger or interfering with other people’s relation with God, reading Job would cause us to be sensitive to strange but pressing dimensions of human living with God. It would mean that as a community we did not build and promote a culture which blocks out the discoveries the righteous man Job made when God put him in the wrong. Reading Job might help us to know better what we are given in Jesus Christ, who in his dying, cried out, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus took those words from Psalm 22, a very Job-like Psalm. What it is to be abandoned, Job describes in 19.13-20. His family and friends have turned against him – even young children despise him. All that is the form and measure of his trouble. Job asks his advisers who magnify themselves and humiliate him to notice his abandonment. He asks them not to analyse his problem and tell him how to behave, but simply to ‘have pity on me, o you my friends’ 19.21. Why should they have pity on him? Because they want to be better than all his other friends, who have left him? Because they remember they too are sensitive human beings and they would not like this to happen to them – Do as you would be done by? These good reasons for decent behaviour are not what Job points them to. They should have pity on him, ‘because the hand of God has touched me.’
He brings them back to the key point: Job’s trouble is with God. It does not follow that his friends must help him to put right his relation with God. Job’s relation with God has gone into territory where they have evidently never been. And in any case, if God is touching Job it is not for them to interfere. So Job asks. ‘Why do you, like God, pursue me?’ 19.22. Do you think God needs some assistance? Do you want to get on winning side?’ No: if you see the hand of God touching someone, know that it is not your business to pursue them. You will add to their troubles, but you will not be doing the work of God. Have pity. Stay with them in silence. Maybe you will get close to Job in his trouble and find yourself in trouble with God.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, writes in The Guardian today:
The big question Reading the Riots leaves us with is whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what’s needed in family and neighbourhood and school to rescue those who think they have nothing to lose. We have to persuade them, simply, that we as government and civil society alike will put some intelligence and skill into giving them the stake they do not have. Without this, we shall face more outbreaks of futile anarchy, in which we shall all, young and old, be the losers.
In the aftermath of the August riots, the prime minister, David Cameron, was quick to dismiss the idea that poverty was a factor in the disorder. “These riots were not about poverty,” he said. “That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.”
This is a mistaken interpretation. It is true that many people who are poor did not riot; many of them would not riot and loot even if the opportunity came near to them. But that does not mean that poverty did not have a major effect on some people, leading them to riot or steal, at least opportunistically.
Different people react to any particular situation in different ways.
We need to understand why some people respond to difficult circumstances in unhelpful or bad ways, and then out of that understanding, we can see how to help them and how to change the circumstances for the future. That is the argument and the spirit of the Archbishop’s article.
The big question….for us, the church
‘The big question Reading the Riots leaves us with is whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what’s needed in family and neighbourhood and school to rescue those who think they have nothing to lose.’
Church is not mentioned by name, but it belongs here. The church is a local centre of some visible social energy: people come together to make a sort of community. And the church claims that the heart of its own heart is the energy of God in Christ by the Spirit.
So the big question comes home to us, the church: have we ‘the energy to invest what’s needed…to rescue those who think they have nothing to lose’?
Who have nothing to lose?
When we talk about ‘those who think they have nothing to lose’ we are talking about many more than those who rioted or might riot. There are
‘people who have vague but strong longings for something like secure employment, and no idea where to look for it; who on the whole want to belong, and live in a climate where they are taken seriously as workers, as citizens – and as needy individuals; and who have got used to being pushed to the margins and told that they are dispensable’.
How many have ‘lives in which anger and depression are almost the default setting, thanks to a range of frustrations and humiliations’?
There are many, ‘in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead’.
Do you know what it is like to be a NEET, not by choice, but out of disadvantage, finding no door to life open, applying for jobs and never getting one, having the dreams of childhood stripped of all chance of realisation? Have you ever got close enough to a NEET to begin to see.
What happens to a NEET who is older than 24? They have got used to a life where they count for very little, and now they cease to be counted in this statistic. They join many other young people, who may have a job of some sort, but see no chance of ever getting their own home, what with the shortage of housing and the cost of mortgages. They are not all disadvantaged from early years – many have degrees – but, in their early adulthood, they are together as those who look towards the future and see more than austerity ahead. It is more like sterility, existing but not living.
Here is a big question that comes home to us as church. Do we hear it? Do we have the love and respect to hear it? Do we have the energy to invest? It is a searching question which may find us out uncomfortably.
When they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the disciples drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.
Then Jesus said to him:
“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.
“Do you not think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?
“But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Matthew 27. 52-54
Jesus the way-finder
All through the Gospel story, we can see Jesus finding his distinctive way, discerning and doing his Father’s will.
It is not an obvious path. Jesus calls us to go a narrow way, which is hard to find (Matt 7.14). He could call us to find it, even though it was not easy, because he was already living in that way, always looking for it, always learning, always daring it. So it was in the desert when he was tempted (Matt.4.1-11). He considered the options which might fit the task he had been given in life: to live as the beloved Son of the Father, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, fulfilling all righteousness from one situation to another in a fast-moving history (Matt.3.13-17). He turned down Satan’s obvious common-sense ways to achieve his goals for God. He found other ways, unlikely ways, hard ways.
All through his life he was choosing narrow ways, and inviting others to go with him.
At the end, in the Garden of Gethsemane, it is still the same.
Option One: the Sword
One obvious commonsense response to the gang who came to arrest him was the Sword.
So one of his disciples thought: Kill your enemy – if you miss his head, you may still get his ear. At least, you will have done something.
This is the way we all follow most of the time. In some countries many people have their own guns, for self-protection. In this country, we shun personal firearms, but we live within a public order guarded on occasion by armed officers. We find it hard to imagine how we could cope without the sanction of force as the final resort.
Jesus said: All who take the sword shall perish by the sword. Does this mean all use the sword will, sooner or later, be killed by the sword? Using the sword does not have to lead to unlimited killing, though there is always a danger that it will. The truth in this word of Jesus, and the wisdom of it, does not depend on whether the sword gets turned back on every user or that every bomber is hoist with his own petard. As Jesus saw it, walking on the narrow way, to use the sword implies relying on it to solve problems. Those who trust in the sword find that it defines the possibilities open to them, shaping their values and vision. Those who take the sword find themselves limited by it.
We know what this limitation is in practice as we reflect on our engagement in Afghanistan. We engaged there because some good needed to be done, so we thought. We had military power so we put it to work. And then, somewhere along the road, it dawns on us that there is no military solution to the tangle we have got ourselves into – we must be working for a political way forward. We have to use soft power. It is a matter of hearts and minds, and they cannot be shaped by the sword.
And now we seem to have the same problem in Libya. Everyone, and certainly the British government, is in danger of being limited by its vision of the problem, expecting the civil war to be won militarily by the right side (the rebels, not Gaddafi, who, we say, must go, because there is no place for him in the future). But it may be a long time before the disorganised rebels get near to winning, and along the way, wounds will be opened that may bleed for a long time. We need more than the sword in our imaginary and practical armoury.
Gethsemane is a great clarifying moment in the mission of Jesus, and very instructive for all of us who want to be his disciples. So Jesus in this mortal crisis enlightens us with his wisdom, which comes from his own living. Lethal force tempts us to think we have the decisive solution to problems in our hands – but it does not work as we would like it to. It is wise then to consider other options.
Option Two: Angels
If the sword is put back in its place, what other way is there – in tight corners like Gethsemane?
Ask the Father: pray for twelve legions of angels. That will see off the high priest’s minions – it would dispose of the Roman army too. This is divine power in miracle, in answer to prayer. And Jesus says No to this option too.
Good believer, does that not seem strange and upsetting to you? Are we not called to pray with faith, and so to move mountains?
We accept Jesus’ saying No to the sword, but can we go with him when he says No to heavenly miracle? This is a blow to lively, adventurous Christianity. It is a discouragement to faith. But if we are determined to solve life’s problems by having the twelve legions of angels riding to take us out of Gethsemane, we will not be going forward with Jesus. If we must not take the sword, lest our whole being gets imprisoned in reliance on deadly force, we should be careful about praying in ways that value God because his deadly force is much more than ours could ever be. Both ways, the victory is handed to deadly force, not the life of love, and the love of life.
Option three: being fully human in God’s way
But what third way can there be?
The sword is practical, even if destructive. Trusting God for miracle is conceivable. But a third way – can we see it? The gate to it is not only narrow but disguised.
It is indeed disguised in God’s becoming human.
Jesus in the desert refused any power Satan could give him to achieve his mission. So now, he declines to ask the Father for the miracle of twelve legions. He holds on to what he has been given in life, what he has discovered in learning: it is necessary for the Scripture to be fulfilled and his life takes its shape in serving that fulfilling. Jesus was dedicated to doing God’s will in God’s way.
Does this mean that God had a detailed plan, which had to be followed to the letter?
And did Jesus know this plan, because he could read the cryptic clues which were scattered through the Scriptures? Did Jesus live by the book in this way? Is that the view of Jesus you get from reading the Gospels? If the Bible has cryptic clues laid down long before the event, and then Jesus lives a life which fits into them, that looks like a miracle. Quite a few people think of it like that. They read the Bible to decipher the clues and they believe in Jesus because what happened to him fits what was apparently foretold.
If this is how it is, we do not have a third option here – we have a variant on the miracle of the legions of angels. (Note that Jesus does not deny miracle – he just says it is not the way for him or for us in the present world, in Gethsemane. By declining to go this way, he must look for a third option, and commits us to doing the same.)
The third option is not to get a miracle, to take one out of the tight corner or to give fatalistic assurance of being right. The third option is so narrow and hard it makes Gethsemane unbearable. Jesus prayed with blood and tears to see it and to get going on it. This option is to go on and go through with the human life given to him, in the place and time where it is given.
Living human life, loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves, is what we are called to in the Scriptures. All the commands of God, given us in Scripture, are summed up in this commandment to love. It commits us to living from the beginning to the end of life in a particular spirit. The Scripture tells us that God gives us life in human form and it is in living human lives that we glorify and thank God, offering to God as a living sacrifice the whole being that we have in and with our bodies (Romans 12.1,2). Often, in this life in the body, this life on earth, great, joyful and surprising gifts are given us, and we find the language of miracle is just what we need to describe what we have met on the way. Often too, life is narrow and threatens to close down altogether: then, Jesus says, we will go on with God and not be tempted by either sword or miracle. And Jesus does all he can to guard us from doing anything else: Put up your sword, he says – and heals the poor servant’s ear. And lets himself be taken.
Jesus is God’s way of being fully human, from beginning to end. The good news is that Jesus shares and opens up God’s way of being human, so that we too may become fully human. Jesus opens, and keeps open, that way of being human even when we are in Gethsemane, when we are invited to be watching with him, but can only ‘sleep for sorrow’ (Luke 22.45).
Jesus keeps open the way by being himself, to the end. He is the Way – our way is with him and in him. He is here for us still, the One who kept to God’s way of being human, even in Gethsemane and Golgotha, is the Same who is eternally our Brother, Guide and Path.
Jesus keeps open the way for us, in the crisis of pain, fear and loss, by refusing the sword and by declining miracles, for both tend to exempt us from being faithful to our calling and his, to live in God’s humanity.
Fifty years ago, as a student in Cambridge, I met David Wilcox in the Robert Hall Society, where Baptist students gathered. After Cambridge, David was a Baptist minister for many years, before becoming an Anglican. Last September we met again in Cambridge at a reunion for people who had been in Robert Hall Society around 1960. I found out he was now Priest Vicar at Wells Cathedral, a long way from Leeds. So I did not expect to have more contact with him.
A bit later, I got a phone call from my brother-in-law, Spencer. He goes to Wells Cathedral quite often as he used to go with his wife, Joy, until she died last year. He met David and they got talking and found they both know me. Spencer then sent me a copy of this sermon preached by David earlier this year.
Three ways in which this sermon is good
It is good in at least three ways.
First, it is beautifully crafted, so that it is clear, short, full of stuff, and to the point. The craft makes it memorable, which is important if a sermon is to go deep and stay with us and be fruitful. The craft which makes it memorable is in the simplicity of its structure, the motifs of light and salt running all the way through.
Secondly, we hear Jesus in this sermon, calling us to be salt and light.
Thirdly, what it is to be salt and light in the world is illustrated from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s friend, wrote a huge richly informative biography, nearly a thousand pages long. But here we have the life in two pages, not long enough for anyone to get weary, even if they are sitting uncomfortably on cathedral seats. As a brief account of Bonhoeffer’s life and witness I think this is quite outstanding – it does not merely outline the history but makes it a challenge and encouragement for us today.
Why hear this now?
On 9 April 1945, at Flossenburg concentration camp, Bonhoeffer was hanged for his share in the resistance to Hitler. So this week it is fitting to publish it, to remember him, and to hear again for ourselves on our 9 April 2011 the call to be salt and light in the world.
Sermon preached by David Wilcox at the 9.45 Eucharist in Wells Cathedral on Sunday 6th February, 2011
Today is an ordinary Sunday. Last Wednesday was Candlemas, and at Evensong we said “Goodbye” to the festival season of Christmas and Epiphany. For the next five or so weeks we journey through Ordinary Time until we reach Ash Wednesday.
But, on this ordinary Sunday, we hear extraordinary words addressed to extraordinary people. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world”. The “you” is emphatic. A finger is being pointed. “You, who are listening to me, you are salt, you are light.”
So who are these people? The introduction to today’s Gospel reading tells us that they are disciples of Jesus of Nazareth who have joined him on a mountain. We are hearing part of the Sermon on the Mount. What we aren’t told is that Jesus has just declared these followers of his blessed by God.,- blessed , not because they are rich, happy or or successful, but blessed because they are poor in spirit and meek; blessed because they mourn over the injustice and wrong in the world and hunger and thirst to see righteousness prevail; blessed because they are merciful, peacemakers; blessed because they are totally committed and ready to stand up for what is right, even if it means suffering and persecution. In one sense they are the ordinary people of Galilee. But in another sense they are extra-ordinary, because they have been seized by Jesus’ vision of God’s realm of justice and peace, healing and reconciliation, and with him they want to make it real. They are beatitude people.
Behind this group of Jesus’ followers on the mountain stands another, the church community for whom the person we call Matthew wrote this gospel. Jesus’ words address them. To them he says, “You”. And behind them are more and yet more, generation upon generation of people, young and old, right down to today. All over the world you will find them, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in the ruins of Port-au- Prince, in the crowded streets of Seoul.
And amongst that vast crowd we too are numbered, here in this cathedral church. We ordinary people, yet extra-ordinary in our passion for justice in our country and around the world, for peace and reconciliation between fractured communities and nations, for the welfare of the whole web of life on this fragile planet, we are the people whom Jesus addresses this morning. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
Notice, “You are”, not “You ought to be”. This is the essence of your being as beatitude people. And notice, “Salt of the earth, light of the world.” This is not about religious escapism, but about getting stuck into the nitty-gritty of the world in which we live.
So what does it mean to be salt, to be light?
Salt,- tiny crystals. Dissolve them in water and the flavour is transformed. Soak fish or meat in brine and it keeps for months. Salt makes a difference, hidden but real. And that is what you are; people who transform the world from within, by your presence where help is needed, by the way you handle relationships, by your readiness to take constructive action without anyone else knowing about it. Of course sodium chloride can’t lose its taste. But two thousand years ago it was easily confused with gypsum and came mixed with impurities,. That points to the danger, that we melt so imperceptibly into the world around us that we stop making a difference. We are called to add the savour of the beatitudes to human relationships, and to help preserve what is good and right and fair. Salt.
And light,– a flickering candle flame. But place it prominently in a darkened room and it will shed its light to the furthest corners. If the picture of salt is about working imperceptibly from within, then the picture of light is about being visible, not hiding our light under a bushel basket but speaking and acting clearly for truth and righteousness and peace. A letter to government official about a prisoner of conscience, an event to promote the welfare of impoverished people, a peaceful demonstration against injustice or oppression, for reconciliation or the well-being of the earth; these are ways in which you add your candle flame to those of others and make a difference. Light.
Eighty years ago, in 1931, a 25 year old student discovered the Sermon on the Mount. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and when I read today’s Gospel I immediately thought of him. He had just qualified as a university lecturer, and now he was on a year’s scholarship at Union Theological Seminary, New York. He became friends with a fellow student, Jean Lassere. Remember, this was just a dozen years after the end of the first world war. Lassere was a convinced .pacifist, and he encouraged Bonhoeffer to explore the Sermon on the Mount and reflect on what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. Another friend he made in New York was Frank Fisher, who introduced him to a black Baptist church. It became his spiritual home, and he took a Sunday School class. Salt. The urban black scene of deprivation and struggle stirred him deeply. He would walk out of a cafe if it refused to serve his black friend. Light.
Bonhoeffer returned home with a stack of records of spirituals in his trunk, and a determination to continue living out the Sermon on the Mount. As well as lecturing at the university he became chaplain of a technical college. He also took over a confirmation class in a slum area of the city, moving into a flat there for a while and taking the youngsters to a hut he owned in the country. Salt. Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933 he gave a radio talk warning of the dangers of a Fuhrer who becomes an idol of the people. Light. The next month, when an official boycott of Jewish shops began, he presented a paper to the church authorities on possible responses to the Jewish question including, if necessary, “putting a spoke in the wheel” of state activity. Light. In the summer he campaigned vigorously against the demand of those called German Christians that people of Jewish origin be excluded from the church. Light.
Exhausted, he came to London in the autumn to look after two German congregations, but continued to advocate the cause of what became known as the Confessing Church, and he worked tirelessly for refugees from Germany. Salt. He returned to Germany in the spring of 1935 to take charge of an illegal seminary for ordinands. When the Gestapo closed it in 1937 it continued in a clandestine way. The lectures he gave there were published as “Discipleship” and “Life Together”. One section of “Discipleship” unpacks the Sermon on the Mount. “The disciples must not only think of heaven,” Bonhoeffer says of today’s gospel. “They have an earthly task as well …..A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.” Salt and Light.
In 1939 Bonhoeffer travelled to New York to become a lecturer there, in order to avoid conscription and to be an overseas link for the Confessing Church. But almost as soon as he arrived he decided he had made a mistake. In his letter of resignation he wrote, “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilisation. I know which of those alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make it in safety.” Light.
So he returned home. Members of his family and friends had formed a resistance cell. He supported and encouraged them, and through them he was recruited as an agent of the Abwehr, the counter-intelligence agency. He used his visits abroad ostensibly to gather intelligence, but in reality to keep lines of communication open with church and political leaders in allied countries. Salt. He also helped with Operation 7 which enabled a number of Jews, recruited as agents, to travel to Switzerland and escape. Salt.
In April 1943 he was arrested because of suspicion that he was using his Abwehr service to avoid conscription, and because of Operation 7. He was held in Tegel military prison in Berlin, and his calmness and practical care during the air raids at the end of that year made him something of a hero amongst both warders and fellow prisoners. Salt. After the failure of a plot to assassinate Hitler on 20th July 1944 and the discovery of papers implicating him and his circle, he was transferred to the Gestapo cells in the centre of Berlin, then to Buchenwald, and finally to Flossenburg. On the night of April 8th, 1945 he and six fellow conspirators faced a court martial. The next morning, April 9th, he along with rest was hanged with prolonged barbarity. Light.
Bonhoeffer has been a source of inspiration to me for nearly fifty years. If you want to find out more, I commend the 100 page “SPCK Introduction to Bonhoeffer” by Keith Clements. As you follow Bonhoeffer’s story you realise that his way of living the Sermon on the Mount changed through the years. What it meant to be salt and light in 1941 was rather different to what it had been in 1931, and doubtless what it would have been in 1951 if he had survived the war. That is true for everyone. Being beatitude people in Wells today has a different complexion to what it was in pre-war or wartime Germany, or what it is in Cairo or Port-au-Prince or Seoul. What matters is that you and I work out what it means for us, here and now. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Today on this ordinary Sunday, through the days of this coming ordinary week, through the weeks and years that are left to you, be the extraordinary people that you are.
What are we to make of David Cameron’s recent announcement to introduce a “National Well-Being Measure” in the UK? Perhaps we welcome an index which may not be based on material wealth, something more spiritual… Or could it be just another way to waste 2 million pounds of taxpayers money at a time when the country has so little to spare?
Is it the government’s business anyway?
I think it is right that the focus should not be only on GDP, exchange rates, profit margins, FTSE, consumer spending, imports and exports, etc.., so there is a point to be made even though so much of society seems to derive so much of its happiness from consumerism. However, we already have many other measures which could be expected to influence subjective perceptions of well-being: crime rates, insolvencies, divorce rates, abortion statistics, NHS waiting lists, unemployment, number of days lost through industrial action and ill-health, hours spent watching TV, number of people taking anti-depressant drugs,… Of course, most of these measures would be negatively related to well-being, and perhaps it would be wrong to assume that anyone not affected adversely is otherwise “happy”.
What makes a person happy? Perhaps a survey would reveal this, but it seems a very difficult thing to measure in any objective way. When I am asked “How are you?”, my response will often depend on who is asking (as well as how tired I am; how well I slept last night). It will rarely be a considered view taking into account all that has happened in the last year (or the last ten years, if the question is asked only in the national census). I have recently completed a “well-being” survey at work, and several colleagues have commented that the questionnaire does not ask them the questions that they want to answer. In such a subjective arena, there is always the danger that the choice and wording of questions will not reveal that which was intended.
Apart from highly subjective measures such as “how happy are you?” or “do you feel valued as a person?”, one could ask a whole list of other questions. This could reveal to the government WHAT MATTERS? (!) to society, but any attempt to summarize all responses into a single measure would be very difficult. Moreover, how would we interpret a score except in relative terms?
I note that 2 years ago the UN (unicef) issued a report on the well-being of children, collating previous measures of material wealth, family and peer relationships, health and safety, behaviour and risks, an objective educational sense of well-being, and a subjective measure of well-being. In this report the UK came last (of 21 developed nations), and this should give us – as well as the government – some cause for concern.
Well-being is not a phrase I have come across in my Bible, so how might we interpret this from a Christian perspective? In the NIV, the word “happiness” occurs 6 times. Interesting examples include “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (Eccles 2:26), and his master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt 25:23). So it would seem that happiness (the pursuit of which is one of the unalienable rights of people enumerated in the US Declaration of Independence) is something that we should value. Another way to view well-being is “Contentment” which appears 3 times, most notably “godliness with contentment is great gain” (I Tim 6:6). Of course, “joy” is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and so by implication, measuring joy – or any other fruit for that matter – in my life (assuming I could do that) would indeed be a useful spiritual health-check.
Our good friend, David Newton of Gildersome Baptist Church, emailed my wife, Hilary, wishing her ‘your best Christmas ever’. You too can read his message on their web site She forwarded it to me, simply saying, Brilliant!
I could not disagree. I sent it to my friend, Bill, and he replied:
“Absolutely wonderful, when the Gospel comes to the Mall. I am sending it to many friends and posting it on our site. (Posting it there will take a few days.)”
I sent it to Keith and got this:
“Thanks very much. I was moved to tears.”
He is not, in my experience, a regular lachrymose. So what is going on here?
I wonder why this little email is having such an effect. I have some answers and my first thought was to explain them on this blog. Then I thought again: it would be better to let all my readers find out for themselves what this is about. Leave them free to enjoy it for themselves. And then let them share their reactions on this site.
So give a couple of minutes to it and then login and comment – positive or negative, celebratory or analytical. You can comment at the foot of this post, there is a link to the MBC forum below or if you can’t remember your login simply send a message via our contact form.
God the Trinity
Who is the God who comes to us and with us, who brings heaven with God?
The full Bible answer is that God is not just a Being who sits above the heavens – or the sole creator of all things. God is the Father of the Son with the Holy Spirit. God lives, in and as community, and makes a story through God’s kind of time. God is not remote, not the mere origin, as the creator Father, but the one who as Father shares in the history on earth lived by the Son in fellowship with the Father. God, the whole one God, comes here and now, in the Son, who is God’s eternal Word become a real particular human being. In Jesus we see God, because God here translates God into the basic human language, (which, surprise! surprise! is not English) but is flesh and blood, one person with others, talking and doing, loving and suffering, living, dying and rising again, living in the world of human beings, with God the Father, without God. Jesus is God coming to us still, bringing God’s heaven to us, in God’s way. That may not fit our conventional pictures of heaven, but in the storms of life, Jesus comes, as Thompson saw: And lo! Christ walking on the waters, not of Gennesareth but Thames. Or the Aire.
With and from Father and Son comes Holy Spirit, the living outgoingness of God himself, who gets through to us, even in our blindness and deafness, who sets up the ladder from where we are to heaven, and sets the angels, the messengers going up and down. The question about God is not just who is God, but how God is with people and how can people be with God. That is why it is good that in the unity of God is the Holy Spirit, the unending, unwearying outgoing of God into all the world. This is God who does not leave us to figure out, as best we can, something in this murky world about heaven and how we get there. This is God goes on working with us on how we can live with God.
This God is not a God we can get to possess: we cannot go into any shop and buy it and say it is ours. Any religion which offers you God like this, is selling idols. This God takes time, time to live and work in our time, so we have to give God the time of our lives. God walks with us, so we walk with him. We have a lot to learn, to experiment and discover about how to walk with God, if we are to do something more significant than produce a bit more religion in the world. We are seeking above all the kingdom of heaven, in our way on earth now.
On the way, in one way and another, God gives signs of his heaven, the light and the fire break out. God is here so heaven breaks out. Sometimes this is alarming, sometimes transforming, sometimes cheering, but never boring. And it is mostly practical.
God is love
It is practical when we remember and keep in mind a key clue about what ‘God’ means. God is love, said John (I John 4.8). This is not to say, God is an emotion, or God is a timeless quality, or God is a simple rule of conduct. In this is love, says John, that God loved us and gave his Son for us (I John 4.9-10). Love is action, useful action relevant to those who need to be loved not just to those who are loving.
God’s love is not like a little good deed, now and again, though every good deed is a little note in God’s great music. God’s love is the massive eternal action, the foundation of all creation, its culmination and the repairing and joyful presence at the heart of it. God’s love is foundational and commanding action for us all and through all time. So John says, simply, If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
So heaven comes down to earth, and from the future into the present. Heaven is what God brings wherever God comes, and heaven is what we share wherever we love as God loves.
Heaven in the present is not all there is to heaven. We have not tasted half of it yet. And we are clearly far from perfect in appreciating and valuing, treasuring and sharing heaven when God brings it close to us in this world, blesses us with its light and joy and thus gives us a chance to share it with others. We are chary in sharing, and even when we pass on God’s love to others, we often mess it up with so much of ourselves it does not come across as the genuine article. This is true of all Christian mission, whether on big or small scale: the good news of the love of God, Father, Son and Spirit, does get shared and passed on in this world, but often other things get passed on as well.
So the wait for heaven, there is still more to come, to be given. But this is not waiting in a vacuum, a great absence; it is like waiting for the main course, by enjoying the starter which makes us think, This is a good restaurant and a good chef, so the evening is going to get even better.
Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heaven, to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling;
all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation;
enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into every troubled breast!
Let us all in thee inherit;
let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty to deliver,
let us all thy life receive;
suddenly return and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.
Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.
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