Recognizing and talking about sin

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.  

The West is abandoning Afghanistan shamelessly, as though we are innocent and Afghans must take responsibility for the disaster. We say we can be proud of enabling the education of girls and are still unfazed by our overall failure.  We have spent many billions on fighting a war to keep al-Qaeda from our streets, but as this piece in the Guardian points out we have put too little money into Afghanistan’s governance and development.  

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. 

Haddon Willmer    

Q and A. Another thought provoking contribution to our new series of blogs

Question:  Since you grew up in a religious family was there ever a moment that you doubted your beliefs?

Answer:  growing up in a religious family does not naturally produce faith.  One learns to talk about matters relating to faith, as though it is as ordinary a part of life as eating or the weather. I picked up considerable knowledge of the Bible and of Christian teachings by the time I was a teenager.  

But that did not necessarily imply ‘faith’ in any meaningful sense.  It was accepted and made clear that faith was,  on one side, the gift of God,  and on the other side, my side, an acceptance of the gift, implying, more importantly, a personal commitment to God.  Nobody was born a Christian, being a Christian is a responsible informed choice. 

The family was happy and parents were convincingly supportive always, even though in  some periods there was serious poverty, insecurity and ill-health.  So as children we were not put off the faith of our parents by feeling they had let us down.   The fact that they understood faith was a deep meaningful personal commitment meant that they respected our autonomy in such an important matter from very early on. 

So I became a Christian knowing what I was doing.  I was taking a stand, which was not shared by everyone.  Sometimes it needed explaining, sometimes defending.  That was not always easy, but it was implied in what I was taking on in being a Christian. 

Some people become religious without understanding  it as  choice and commitment, and so when faith becomes unpopular or seems to be contradicted by the pains of life, they are disappointed and upset.  

Christian faith, as it was presented to me, involved a life choice to follow Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  This concept of Christian faith is drawn pretty directly and simply from the Gospels, which tell how Jesus chose disciples to be with him, and to follow him, and to share in his work.  As they followed him, it became clear that their life with him could not be plain-sailing, and certainly would not be a ‘spiritual’  existence somehow insulated from the realities of the present world.  Jesus from the beginning was involved in difficulties, which intensified as he went towards the final showdown in Jerusalem.   Some gave up on Jesus, but the disciples stayed with him – just. 

That was the model of being a Christian offered to me.  It is a tough model.   It either turns people off or builds backbone. 

The story of Jesus takes into account the profoundest reasons for doubting God, the goodness of God, the worth of earthly life,  and so it speaks to us when we feel such pressures.  And if we are alive, responsible and caring in the world as it is, those pressures are inescapable.  

But the story of Jesus is a story of faith and more than faith – it is the story of a man who lived closely, intimately, daringly and self-givingly, in oneness with the heavenly Father.  On the cross, the man was reduced to himself alone, broken and insufficient,  reduced to what he could see in his narrow deadly situation.  But God was faithful:  God had been living and making the story of Jesus with Jesus, and now God picks up the ruins and carries on the story by raising Jesus to newness of life and opening up his story as an invitation to all people to join in.  So the story of Jesus, taken as a whole, is a joyful, hopeful story, not because it cultivated unrealistic fantasy, but precisely because it lives on earth, through all that earthly and human life brings.   It lived on earth: it goes on living on earth. 

So we can see through this story how God is God of and for the whole world, as we experience it.  God not merely sources the world, but inhabits it in intimate universal availability, and more, claims and owns it as God’s own.  God is not ashamed of Jesus the human being who was broken on the Cross, God is not afraid to be committed to this world which breaks Jesus and many others with him.  God does not solve the ‘problem’ of this rotten world – don’t pretend it is  otherwise – by sweeping it out of the way and making a new model;  God loves the world, owns it, works at it and with it, along with suffering fellow-workers.    

So I can’t say ‘I never doubted my beliefs’ because that terminology does not fit the situation.     I could understand that phrasing when arguing with teenage friends, who were atheists, who thought my beliefs empty and without reason.  And sometimes in those days, I might have tried to answer them in their own terms – I cannot remember.  I suspect that from very early on, I would be talking in the way I have outlined here.  Simply put, I don’t so much ‘have beliefs’  (which means ‘religious opinions’?) but I commit myself to Jesus, which is a life, rather than a set of opinions.  Jesus does not protect me from things that produce doubt, but takes me through them by sharing the life of God.

The life of God is full of positives, and God invites us to concentrate on them: Seek the Lord and his righteousness. It is easy to use up energy trying to answer doubt, and to have none left to build from and with the positive. The positive of God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son that we might have life through him. 

Haddon Willmer 

Haddon Willmer points us to an article in The Guardian in which the writer argues that “unconscious bias” thought by some to be a modern day fad is in fact a tenet of the Christian Church

Why does Peter Ormerod ask ‘Think unconscious bias training is a fad?’ Because he has been listening to Jesus, so he knows it’s been going on for at least 2000 years. And it’s still needed every day.  Not just in politics…

You can see why it might seem a bit faddish or “woke”. MPs are being offered training in unconscious bias: the idea that some of our beliefs may be held so deeply that we are unaware of them. And some politicians don’t want it.

“Leftist infiltration,” the Mansfield MP, Ben Bradley, calls it. It’s Orwellian, too, apparently, as well as an example of “metropolitan groupthink”. But in fact there’s nothing new about it, because one institution has been offering its own kind of training in unconscious bias for roughly 2,000 years: the Christian church.

The conventional Christian understanding of sin seems to me entirely consistent with ideas about racism that appear to some as modern. Christianity asserts that sin is embedded deep in the human condition. Racism is one of its vilest manifestations; there is every reason to expect it to work in us as sin does generally.

Christianity understands that sin isn’t all about the bad things we consciously do. As various liturgies put it, we sin not just “through our own deliberate fault”, but also “through negligence, through weakness”. We “have left undone those things that we ought to have done”. One can sin by omission.

Which takes us to the idea that people can be unaware or ignorant of their own failings. It’s about as orthodox as it gets. According to the gospels, Jesus spent much of his ministry decrying self-righteousness, attacking those who believed themselves to be untouched by sin. He deployed an array of striking images in his condemnation: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” he asks. Elsewhere, he calls some of the moral arbiters of the day “whitewashed tombs”.

Further, we are often driven by forces and desires we fail to grasp or fully apprehend. Saint Paul was honest about this. “I do not understand my own actions,” he wrote. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He went on: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” More of us could do with that self-awareness. We can say we hate racism, we can campaign against it, we can damn others as racist. But that doesn’t make us immune to it.

And because institutions are made by people, it follows that these too can harbour and nurture and propagate sin. They may not know are doing it, or want to be doing it. They may say they’re not doing it; they may even say they oppose it. Yet they may still do it.

Given all this, it is a scandal that the church has so often given succour to racism. It has, from time to time and place to place, been an agent of this sin or a complicit bystander; for example, we see today in parts of Eastern Europe how churches can give their blessing to xenophobia and ethno-nationalism.

Yet there is another story. When orthodox Christian concepts of sin, justice and hope come together, we see change. It is surely no surprise that arguably the two most significant anti-racism movements of the 20th century had as key figures men of the church: Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

There are those who say the church should talk about sin less. I say it should talk about it more. The bleak stuff is a part of it, because it is a part of us. But allied to it are remarkable, life-giving ideas the world needs more of: repentance, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, salvation. And most radical of all is the conviction that, in spite of all our failings, each of us has equal, infinite and inherent worth, and each of us is loved.

I dare say that other religions and philosophies teach something similar. The complexity of human nature has been explored in art through the ages, from Hamlet to I May Destroy You. The theme endures, I believe, because it is fundamentally compassionate and true. Just as each of us is capable of virtue, so too is each of us prone to vice. We need not be self-pitying or hand-wringing about it, but we are all a bit messed up and we would do well to acknowledge this.

The notion of unconscious bias, therefore, need not make us feel attacked or condemned. It invites us instead to accept our humanity in a spirit of humility. MPs may not necessarily be known for the latter quality, but surely anyone would benefit from understanding themselves better. Some of the criticisms levelled at this particular programme, such as its tone and cost, may be justified, yet its core message is as important now as it has ever been. The words may be modern, but the wisdom is ancient.

  • Peter Ormerod is a journalist with a particular interest in religion, culture and gender

Haddon Willmer shares some study notes as his housegroup prepares to read the book of Jonah

Notes for a housegroup preparing to read Jonah together in August 2020


Jonah is the central human being in this book.  But hidden is one equally important and fascinating – whoever wrote it.  What kind of mind and vision did s/he have?   The book carries a covert invitation to think along with him/her. 

Act 1

1.1-2  command to ‘cry out against’

3  J runs away from that command – why? He wanted to avoid the trouble of crying out against?

4  The Lord does not run away from trouble, but rouses and uses it.   Is such a God acceptable to us?

5ff  the sailors take action, Jonah runs away into sleep… (cf Jesus sleeping in the boat?)

               The sailors appeal to the gods they know, though they do not expect much

7ff   they try to find the cause of the trouble – and Jonah has to explain himself – He knows the true God as they do not, and he is fleeing from God –  

11ff Jonah can no longer run: he has to accept responsibility, even though it will be the end of him.  He shows a grain of truth and care for others in this crisis.   At bottom, can we say he was not a rotten man, but had been running from himself as well as God? 

13ff the sailors try to avoid the religious-Godly solution, they row harder, for they fear to commit murder, even under religious cover.  So they pray to be forgiven, even while they do what seems to be necessary  (cf Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing?)

15f  there is a great calm, cf Mark 4.39-41  and the sailors feared the Lord:  cf Psalm 130.3,4

So we see already in this first act,  heathen men are taken seriously; they are seen as moral, conscientious, praying, practical.   They can bring Jonah to truthful confession and to becoming an honest decent man, though he does not understand what is being done for him, and so is not able to change himself in himself. 

Act 2

1.17  Jonah does not die – the Lord takes him down into the depths  Psalm 130.1

  1. 1 In his lockdown, which is not an oubliette, in the strict meaning of the word, (a secret dungeon with access only through a trapdoor in its ceiling – from the French, oublier, to forget) 

2.2ff  Was Jonah quite forgotten?  There was a trapdoor in the ceiling: he could pray out of the belly of Sheol

2.2ff  What is odd about this prayer, given what we know of Jonah through the rest of the story before us?

What would my prayer be if I were in a plight parallel to his?  How would an honest person pray here? 

There is no confession or repentance in this prayer.

There is self-pity and there is more than the request for rescue – Jonah celebrates deliverance as though it has already happened. He presents himself as on who remembers the Lord, quite unlike the man we saw in chapter 1. 

He reiterates his loyalty to God – what I have vowed I will pay – in contrast to those who worship vain idols  (cf 1.9)    But as noted above worshippers of idols sometimes behave very honourably, more than Jonah who did not pay God with obedience to his command

Are we to take this as a model of praying?

2.10  What do you think of the suggestion made by some scholars that God was so nauseated by the prayer that he caused the fish to vomit him on to the land? 

Act 3

 3.1   Jonah did not confess disobedience, or promise to do God’s bidding.  He had not changed.  But God did not give up: the word of the Lord came again.

2  Go to Nineveh and proclaim what I tell you –  is the message to be the same as in 1.2?  Or does Jonah need to be open to a variation? 

3ff  Jonah gives Nineveh forty days, and Nineveh repents, radically, body and soul, changing fundamental behaviours (violence).  How unexpected if we take a dismal view of the heathen – they seem to have what Jonah lacks right to the end of the story – a readiness to repent drastically

9  Not that this repentance guarantees escape from destruction – ‘who knows?’  ‘God may…’  Is this hesitation about God’s forgiving and about our escape from calamity  intrinsic to genuine sorrow and penitence for real falling short of the glory of God?   

Does traditional evangelical ‘assurance’ drive out the sensitivity, truthfulness and humility of the ‘who knows?’  ‘God may…’ ?  Or are they driven out by our natural quest to feel good about ourselves?  

10    How God deals with impending deserved calamity:    God saw,  God changed his mind, God said,  God did what he said….  A vignette of God, a clue to God in a nutshell? 

Act 4

The book is less about the miraculous turn of the Ninevites, than about Jonah, who is he and what will become of him.   This meaningful and instructive, but not historical,  story allows us to leave the Ninevites to live happily,  but there is only dangerous irresolution with Jonah.  

4.1 Jonah was angry with God, displeased because he had not acted out his displeasure at the wickedness of Nineveh (1.2) –   Nineveh, that massive frightening city of harsh oppressors and vain idols still stood. 

2  Jonah now sees clearly why he is angry with God and why he ran away at the beginning.   He knew something about God – it is summarized in a few unambiguous words here.   Being the man he was, and living in the world as it was for him, and is for us,  this God was attractive but not easy to take seriously or to live with. 

This God was and is at odds with the world as it is.  Certainly as it is represented  by the harsh imperialism of Nineveh and the aggressive self-righteousness of Jonah.   When God told Jonah to cry against Nineveh,  Jonah was ready to proclaim the destruction of Nineveh, so that greater evil fell upon their evil-doing.  It did not enter his imagination that God was against Nineveh because his mercy was incompatible with the city.   Mercy is the criterion of God’s judgment not his way of letting-off.    So he could not see that God would not rest until Nineveh had tasted his mercy and been turned round by it and to it.  (Romans 11.23-36).

At the beginning,  Jonah did not see or want to go along with God’s way.  And now at the end, he is still not seeing, even more determinedly blind.

4  God is merciful, steadfast in love and slow to anger.  So God asks,  Is it right for you to be angry?  Why does the mercy and love of God make people angry to death?

5  Jonah makes no answer.  He builds a booth, a house for his anger, to look down from a height upon the city he wants destroyed.

6 God looks after Jonah, giving him a bush to shield him from the sun and Jonah is happy about that.   He cares about his own comfort while wishing ill for others.   Poor Jonah is in a very bad way, but is nowhere near admitting it. 

7,8  Is God forgetting his mercy now with Jonah, or is God talking to Jonah firmly, as his situation requires?   The bush is killed by a worm, the sun beats down on Jonah.  He wants to die. 

He ran away at the start, and went into the depths, but God did not let him go.   Now he wants to die, to get away from God’s grip (cf Francis Thompson, ‘the Hound of Heaven’;  Job 7.11-21).

9 God makes his question more precise – a useful gentle thing to do. Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?    Yes the bush has let me down, it’s just another bit of this rotten life that is not worth living.

10  God says,  You see, you care about the bush, you value a passing triviality.   Now step out of your self, and instead,  think of me.  Should I not care for the great city of Nineveh, all its poor, limited,  even benighted people – but they are people!  (Matt 10.29,30)?  And besides, many animals,  my creatures, the beauty of the earth, the passengers in the saving Ark.  I care, come and care with me? 

The End – but not the End

 Act 5

The Ending is left for Jonah to make.  God in his mercy has given Jonah light, helping Jonah to see himself more clearly.  The deep roots of his spirit have been opened to his own self-scrutiny,  and he now must decide what to do.  What did not happen to Nineveh shows God is merciful.  God’s argument with him suggests God is not giving up on his mercy for the wicked world, nor for the stubborn blind prophet.  The life-question is now plain to Jonah,  as it was not at the beginning. 

What will Jonah do now?   No answer is given by the clever narrator.  He does not leave us being glad that Jonah got it right in the end, nor does he leave us feeling sad or superior to a man who brought his life to irreparable failure.  He does not feed any curiosity about Jonah – Jonah has done enough to enlighten us about ourselves at a deep level, and he should be allowed to go his own way.

It is for us to answer for ourselves, in our own living, in the light of what we have learnt from his story. 

Who is God for us?   Do we believe God is about having practical mercy even on those who are like Ninevites to us?  Do we profess to be God’s people, God-worshippers, even prophets and missionaries, but we don’t really love with the love of God?  (I Cor 13.1-3)

This story is paralleled in the Gospel by the story of the Two Sons   (Luke 15.11-32).  The younger son’s story is rounded off nicely with a great feast, but we are left wondering what the older brother will do next and what he will make of himself.   The story’s  open inconclusive stop is not an invitation to us to write another chapter in his history.  It is rather a silence in which I can ask myself, What then would I do in any situation?   What spirit is in me, that would guide me to go one way rather than the other?  What invitation comes to me from the story, and what refusal is plausible, even attractive to my angry Jonah self? 

We can play by imagining what the older brother, or what Jonah, did next and where they got to.  But making such stories is pure fiction – it could be, it might not be, who knows?   But the play is useful if it helps us to answer the questions about ourselves, and what we will make of ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in, and what we see of God and are called to follow.   What we are and what we make of the life lent to us is not fiction, but reality – it is what God sees and what we shall give account whenever, now or later,  we appear before the judgment seat of Christ  (I Cor 5.10).  May we respond to the constraining love of Christ (I Cor 5. 14,15), or to God’s argument from withering bush, and the poor Ninevites ‘and also much cattle’.  















Statues: Haddon Willmer shares some reflections on a BBC Radio 4 discussion on Race and our public space

The statue of the slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston statue has been torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour. He joins a list of toppled US statues including Christopher Columbus and Robert E Lee – and they may soon be joined by Oriel College Oxford’s controversial monument to the Victorian colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

A new wave of anger about who we choose to memorialise has been fuelled by the killing of George Floyd, and this programme asks – if we are to better reflect our country – how should our public spaces change?

Samira Ahmed is joined to discuss solutions and the future by the the artist Hew Locke, who was born in Edinburgh and raised in Guyana before returning to the UK. He has made works directly featuring controversial statues. We hear from historian and former director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor, and philosopher Susan Neiman, author of “Learning From The Germans” a book about memorials and remembering difficult history, especially around race. And Danna Walker, an architect, and founder of the social enterprise “Built by Us” which aims to diversify construction and architecture to create a more inclusive built environment.

A statue represents what our values, our gratitude, our emulation.  To make and care for a statue spells out who we think we are and want to be.  A statue can shape our aspiration, actions and relationships. 

A statue involves us in itself, if we let it.  Most statues are ignored by most people most of the time.  Let them moulder.  When they are noticed, they raise awkward questions which are not to be ducked, questions not so much about the statue but about ‘us’.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

Is a statue a standing denial of this truth?  

Is it a truth? 

I cannot put up or defend a statue thinking that I celebrate a person who is an exception to this truth.

A statue should not publicise a claim to glory that attains and shares the glory of God. 

‘All have sinned…’ means I have sinned, we have sinned, not just, you and they have sinned.  

Do not accuse, while exempting myself.  Do not point the finger at the statue and away from  ourselves.  Do not protest our relative innocence by covering statues with reminders of their crimes as though we are impeccable judges.  

Truth and fair judgment means being open to the whole history of the people we choose to celebrate and be represented by.  We live in cocoons of histories which comfort us by affirming our rightness and glorious achievements.  

If you Lord should mark iniquity, then Lord, who should stand?  (Psalm 130.3)

Take down the statues of all  who are found to have sinned: will there be any statues left? 

Let anyone who is without sin amongst you, cast the first stone (John 8.7)

What to do?  

Add in clear print on every statue, put it in indelible stone:  ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

Must we leave it there?  Will not human beings waste away in depression and hopelessness, if this stands as the final verdict?  

Add further:   ‘But there is forgiveness with God, that God may be revered’  (Psalm 130.4).  

And:  ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing’,  (Luke23.34)  –  even though they should and could have known. 

Pray with them for that forgiveness.  And set about forgiving in practice.  Come into the light of the shining of God who forgives sin, the same light that exposes sin, the light we tend to shun because our deeds fall short (John 3.19-21).    

‘Our Father in heaven….Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’  (Matthew 6.12).

What will happen to statues and statue-making and statue-celebrating if we come into the light of God?  

They will, in their feeble, pretentious, not knowing way, preach the gospel of the judgment and the redemption of God.  They will remind us of our sins, particularly the sins we rely on and benefit from, and the sin that confuses us because it mixes itself with goodness of one kind or another.  Now we will not be deceived by them, but will be open to hear the truth, in the light.  So we will know, and knowing we will be called and guided to do more than denounce sin we see in others, we will renounce it in and for ourselves.  

And we will work to live in truthfulness about ourselves – all have sinned, and at best, we are but earthen vessels (II Corinthians 4.7ff) – with hope in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, who bore the  sins of all and who now lives in glory for all.

broadcast on BBC Radio  4, 8 July. 

The difficult things Jesus said about riches. Haddon Willmer shares a housegroup discussion

From a very good discussion in our housegroup last night, despite awkward zooming, looking at difficult things Jesus said about riches

The Rich Young Man, Luke 18 v 18 – 30; the Rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16 v 19 – 31 and the one I am reporting on here the Rich fool, Luke 12 v 13 – 21. 

Question 1: Did this man come a cropper because he was rich or because he was a fool? 

The answer, I think, is because he was a fool, in the biblical sense: The fool says in his heart there is no God (Psalm 14,1;53.1), with the corollary that the fool acts in pride, assuming God does not see, so he is free to treat others without respect (Psalm 94.1-11; 10.4-11).

The man in the parable felt free to make wealth for himself, store it for himself, talk about it with himself  (it is a private money, God and others must not interfere with my right to my own).

If he ever prayed it was like the Pharisee in the Temple, who framed words that sounded like a prayer, but in reality was nothing but talking with himself, Luke 18.11.  He aimed at justifying himself, rather than letting God who knows the hearts judge and justify by forgiving the humble (Luke 15.13-15).   He behaved, in short, as though there was no God, nothing beyond himself, and his wealth and power, to be counted and treasured. 

He came to disaster because he stored up treasure for himself, and was not rich toward God.

Question 2: What is it to be rich toward God? We tend to manage this story by seizing on the bits we find easiest to identify and talk about.  We know about riches, whether we have them or lack them, and we care about them, because it is hard to live with little, too little.  And I am  naturally, inevitably centred on my-self – from my birth, my-self has been the nearest, most obvious  thing in all the world pressing on me, so I worry and I work to make what I want of myself and to look after myself as long as I can.  Denying this truth about ourselves is the first step to ending up like the pharisee at ‘prayer’. 

So we care about riches of some sort or another, for the sake of the self we are enclosed by.  We may not like it when Jesus comes along saying that this self-centredness, whether it is expressed materialistically or spiritually, will in the end leave us with nothing.  But we may get an uncomfortable sense that he is speaking truth and wisdom.  We get a little troubled, and ask, What then shall we do?  What is the alternative to this way of being which we are stuck in? 

Jesus says, Be rich towards God.  And then we are flummoxed. We cry out against the cruelty of the advice. Why is it cruel?  Because, while it is easy to know what we are talking about when wealth or self is the topic, it is very hard to say what being rich towards God is.  When we try to explain it to anyone else, do we not flounder in waffle and collapse into cliché and stumble into silence?  It is much easier to spend time and passion in a sermon exposing materialism, than to begin to communicate in a non-trivial practicable way what it is to be rich toward God.

If you don’t agree with me, on this crucial point, just try to say in your own words what it is to be rich toward God, and then look at the words and ask, Am I really on track of knowing and saying what being rich toward God is?  And go further, and try it out on an honest friend.   I don’t say you won’t succeed.  I do know that I struggle with this task, which is the key issue the parable puts to us. 

Question 3: what alternative retirement plan could you offer this rich man?  What different retirement plan do you have for yourself – it is never too early to be thinking about it, and never , while we live,  too late to be troubled by it, and so  to think of revising the plan we are living by.   

This man, it seems was lucky, so rich he could retire at 40.  And then he can show what is really in him, being free of what the necessities of earning a living impose on him.  And then he thinks all is well, but is deceived.   In truth, he needs a retirement plan that will do more than let him comfortably collapse into spiritual death.   His life (soul) will be ‘required of him’:   he cannot escape being called to account for his failure to live well. 

So what retirement plan will make him rich toward God?  No that is the wrong question?  I must ask, What retirement plan will bring me to being rich toward God? 

Where is God in the coronavirus emergency? An article by Haddon Willmer

Where God always is – in Jesus Christ.

And where is Jesus Christ? 

Aslan, according to C.S.Lewis, comes and goes as he thinks fit.  He is wild, you know.  And he comes when really needed, and otherwise he leaves us to do what we can.   Jesus likes people of that sort, (Mark 14.8)  and he says, You too have opportunities to do what you can for people who need help; so do it   (Mark 14. 7).

Jesus is Risen!  He is around today.  But how and where?  What has he risen to?  Not to a heaven of irrelevance, for he was raised in the body and  was seen on earth by people who had followed and failed him in his lifetime.  He says to them, ‘Let’s start again with the mission that crashed in catastrophe:  pick up what we were doing in Galilee, (Luke 4.18,19, Matthew 11.2-6) and take it into all the world: and I am with you always’. 

Jesus is with those who share his mission, and who go wherever God’s love takes God.  The real question is not, ‘Is God with us?’  but,  ‘Are we following Jesus, are we getting anywhere near where he is? 

Jesus went to the cross, the worst of many difficult places he worked his way through in obedient oneness with his Father.  A few disciples managed to follow him from sunny Galilee to dark Golgotha, and ‘stood at a distance, watching these things’  (Luke 23.49) – ‘afar off’  is better  than forsaking him.  The risen present Christ is still the crucified, identifying in bodily, social and spiritual suffering with all who suffer.   This is where he is to be found, today. 

So where is God in Christ in the present situation?   God is not to be found in words, however sound and religious.   Jesus is present in those who are ill and dying, those who are isolated, poor, needy, depressed.   Mostly, when the question, ‘Where is God now?’ is asked, we look beyond the coronavirus victims, for we want something better more hopeful than that.  We don’t want God where his love takes him, into suffering and death.  We don’t see God in them. 

If we can’t see God in human suffering and loss, how do we think we will ever  manage to see God in Jesus?  Many looked at Jesus, and said, ‘We know him, we can pigeon-hole him, he is just the carpenter’.  And then, since  he did not conform to their prescription for the Messiah:  ‘if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’, they despised and rejected him (Isaiah 53.1-4).   The mindset that despises the crucified Jesus is immunized against seeing him in the needy and the dying.  But that is the place he has made his own indelibly, by being  ‘numbered with transgressors’. 

God in Christ is with and in all the sufferers.   And so he is with those who come across him there  because he comes there, whether they are able to say they  know him.   That is the point of Matthew 25.31-46.  The Son of Man brings the peoples to judgment, dividing sheep and goats.  The criterion of the division is simply stated:  The Son of Man was there, really but incognito,  in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, the naked, so he could be helped appropriately or could be passed over and devalued.   Being a sheep rather than a goat does not depend on seeing and knowing  Jesus is in any of these needy people.  It depends on what is done in response to the real person who is before us. 

If we do not help people  in their need, we miss God when he comes into our neighbourhood.  He is with them in reality, whether or not it is labeled or explained theologically.    Because we do not stay with God, by being practically helpful to people in need, we will be surprised to discover that the ideas of God we  have been living by so seriously, are simply empty.  It won’t do to think of God detached from his  bodily identification  with the poor, needy and broken.  This identification is rooted in the reality of Jesus before and after the resurrection.   Our living and expectation is easily shaped by misapprehension on this point.  In God’s time we will discover we have been badly mistaken.  And thanks to this parable, and the Gospel of which it is an indispensable part,  God’s time for us is Today.  We have been warned, so we can turn now and follow God on the path his love takes him in Jesus. 

If we wake up to this message, we will not be asking, ‘Where is God now?  What is God doing about the coronavirus?’  We will rather see God in those suffering, who are sometimes taken into the dark place of abandonment and dying, as Jesus was.  And we see those who are responding to their need, sometimes at risk to themselves, for they are on the Jesus way, whether they know it or not.   Some are exposed on the front-line, others are serving in the second or third line, where the refuse collectors and the neighbours shopping for the isolated may be placed.   All are needed, all are doing the Jesus thing, and God is in them, and with them.   We are all called to go with God where his love takes him, into human living, dying and being raised with Jesus, the elder brother of a host of siblings (Romans 8.29; Hebrews 2.10-13). 

Haddon Willmer tells how one particular hymn brings back one particular memory

We sang this hymn this morning at our early service and it brought back certain memories. It did not so much bring back memories, nostalgically, but rather gave me another chance to be thankful that I was early rooted in the good news of God and remain so, despite all the powers of darkness. 

When morning gilds the skies,
My heart awaking cries:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Alike at work and prayer
To Jesus I repair:   May Jesus Christ be praised!

To Thee, my God above,
I cry with glowing love,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The fairest graces spring
In hearts that ever sing,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

When evil thoughts molest,
With this I shield my breast,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The powers of darkness fear,
When this sweet chant they hear,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

When sleep her balm denies,
My silent spirit sighs,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The night becomes as day,
When from the heart we say,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

Be this, while life is mine,
My canticle divine,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Be this th’ eternal song
Through all the ages long,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

This hymn I heard first at primary school, East Howe in Bournemouth, when I was 10 and in Miss Dibden’s class. We had no religious education that I remember, although this was in 1947-8, after the 1944 Education Act had mandated non-denominational religious instruction in state schools. Miss Dibden was a spinster in her fifties probably, maybe left single because so many men had been killed in WWI, a good Anglican, not at all religiously soppy, and a very effective teacher of a class of about 50. She had us singing – British folk songs, John Peel and Trelawny and Over the seas to Skye, with no historical explanations offered, and we also sang this hymn quite often, so I got to know it by heart.   I was exhilarated by its repeated outburst, ‘May Jesus Christ be praised!’ And I was instructed and formed by its prodding me to awareness of the phalanx of human evils and sufferings, the powers of darkness coming close, and its confident determined opposition to them, by praising Jesus Christ. And the last verse invites the singer to life-long commitment, ‘my canticle divine’ joining with the song of ‘all the ages long’.

I am grateful to her for giving me this hymn, and also the prayer, which she had us stand for at the end of each day, as she said, without comment:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord

And by thy great mercy, deliver us from all the perils and dangers of this night,

For the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

I don’t think it meant much to me then, though it was a dignified and orderly way to ending.   But, when later, I went to Anglican services more often, especially in Emmanuel College Chapel, it did not come to me as something unknown, and over the years, it has come to mean more and more to me. How much it means depends on how one interprets it, of course. I do not think cornily about bogeys and things that go bump in the night, but about all the serious troubles which beset human beings in our lives.

Both the hymn and the prayer have an unfussy, succinct but profound realism about the world and God in Christ.


A Suggestion for Christmas from Haddon Willmer

Here is a book to give for Christmas. Buy it from Hive, (, get it post-free, and support your local independent bookseller at the same time.

It is written for little children, so its words are few and simple, and the pictures pointed.   But don’t give it to a child. It is really for adults. We need it.

It is not a book for Christmas joy over beautiful things, though it is a thing of beauty. It is a book for deep reflection on the contemporary world, where there is no room at the inn, and Herod in modern guise slaughters babies in his ill-informed panic and desperate sense of entitlement.

Don’t read it, and don’t give it, without accepting the help of Aditya Chakrabortty – I am grateful he put me on to this book, and showed me its importance to adults, voters, and people accountable to God.

Many of us support food banks, and other charities like PAFRAS. Food banks were initially intended to give emergency help for exceptional needs. They are now a sign of what is ‘ the new normal’ for our society.

Give it for Christmas. Read it before Christmas and ask, so what shall I do differently? Or maybe, What shall I persist in doing ‘gainst all discouragements?  

For those with ears to hear, this untheological book announces the nearness of the kingdom of God, not as glib glad tidings of great joy and peace on earth, but God’s closeness hidden in the one word, Repent, the frightening call for a radical turn around. There is no way for us to get round that word, or leap over it, to get into the kingdom of God cheaply. God is not deceived.

Don’t read this book to little children. At the ending of Christmas Day, read it as adults together, while the tired children sleep happily cuddling their new toys.

‘Team God’ – a word on Trinity Sunday by Haddon Willmer

The doctrine of the Trinity states that God is ‘One in three persons’, but that should not lead us to think there are three gods, or even three parts of God, operating independently from one another, for God is one in a most perfect unity. 

Nowhere in the New Testament, the earliest Christian witnesses we have, is there a statement of this doctrine, or the simple formula, ‘three persons One God’.  

But there are  passages in the New Testament  where three ‘persons’, the Father God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, are entwined together in a living way. Then we can see all three are united in the ‘Team God’  playing the real serious game of doing something good with human beings. This team is not like a football team that is trying to beat another team (united against  others). It is more like the team in a hospital  operating theatre,  working together, to bring the patient back to healthy life.  

One place where we see this team at work  is in Romans 5.1-5.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice] in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

We have peace with God: that is in Paul’s view a great and surprising gift, for he has spent the earlier chapters showing that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ and earning the wages of sin which is death. God created human beings in his image, so that they would  display the glory of God as they live in the earth – God called human beings to walk in his ways, and to be a blessing to the world, as they are blessed. But it has not turned out like that. Look at the world, our nation, our selves, we cannot say, complacently, that we image God and reflect his glory. Peace with God is not to be assumed.

Yet God makes peace with enemies,  through our Lord Jesus Christ… who died for us.  

Why do this great work of peacemaking  through Jesus Christ? Why not do it by a simple direct act of divine power and authority? After all, God is free and able to do anything he likes, isn’t he? And God is loving, isn’t he? Why shouldn’t God simply declare ‘I love you: you are accepted’.   

One reason why God does not take this quick and easy way is that it would be unrealistic and one-sided.  

God will not save human beings from their sin without taking their sin seriously. Sin is a great tangle of human failure that  has to be untangled, worked through in detail, not cut at a stroke. God wants the string straightened out so that it can be used again for good. The mess of human being has to be repaired from within human being.To do otherwise would be a mere cosmetic job, a superficial con. It would be as shoddy as putting a new coat of smart glossy paint on a rotten piece of wood, to spare ourselves the pain of chisel and saw. 

So God becomes human and dwells  among us. God in Jesus lives humanly, with all the toil that involved; he suffers under the mess, struggles  against it as he finds it in the people he encounters. Jesus lives in faithfulness to God despite all the difficulties, and only so is humanity being remade by God from inside the mess, working  through the realities of human living and dying. In Jesus Christ, we see and are drawn into God’s  great costly work of renewing humanity in truth and love. It takes time and trouble, which God is involved in. 

So through Jesus Christ, we have access to the grace, the good favour of God, in which we stand, and then we can boast, not in our own strength or achievement, but in the hope of sharing the glory, not of ourselves, but of God.   

And because it is through Jesus Christ, we can’t avoid sufferings, but we can also ‘boast of our sufferings’. Jesus suffered, we know. When God does good to us, through Jesus Christ, God calls  us to live our human lives as he lived his, not shrinking from the suffering involved in being faithful to the call of God. And as we walk with Jesus, we cannot exempt ourselves from  sharing his suffering in some measure.  And yet, says Paul, we can boast of sufferings  –  how is that?  The short answer Paul gives is that through this life-development of endurance and character-formation, hope arises. Long before we come to the final escape from all suffering, to the place where there is no more crying, no more tears, suffering in the way of Jesus produces endurance, and then character, and out of that hope.  

Hope is  fragile in this world of hostility, insecurity, futility. We hope and are often disappointed. So we learn to be realistic and not expect too much of life, and that is at least prudent. But if that is all there is, it falls short of what God wills. Along the way of life with Jesus Christ,  sharing his suffering, a kind of hope is given that does  ‘not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given us’.   

Our human hopes are often fragile. We often hope and end up with disappointment. Disappointment is an aspect of the suffering in our messed up world. But when we have peace with God, when we live by faith in God and not in ourselves, when we share a common life with Jesus Christ,  then the love of God is poured in our hearts. And this is not a matter of our moods, but of the Holy Spirit who is given to us – God the Spirit coming close to our spirits, God finding us in the depths. In the last resort, it is not success that saves us from being disappointed, but it is love. And our weak love needs to be called forth and resourced by God who is love, whose Spirit inspires it generously. 

This is how  Paul gives us God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, working as a team in an effective operation to rescue human being.  God, Father, Son and Spirit, involves  human beings in the operation of salvation: it is done with us, not merely to us. It’s the kind of operation that is done without anaesthetic, because it recovers and rebuilds human beings in a genuinely human way – which always has to be with human beings, involving them in the doing as well as the receiving. We don’t have a formulaic Trinity here, but the living God in God’s fullness.  

Another way into Trinity:  John  16.12-17

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you. “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.

17 Then some of His disciples said among themselves, What is this that He says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’; and, ‘because I go to the Father’? 

All the Gospels show that Jesus lived an ordinary human life, and was known socially as an ordinary member of society, son of the carpenter of Nazareth.  

And then Jesus surprised them: he healed the sick, calmed the storm, fed the crowds, so that they asked, what sort of man is this? We are faced with someone unusual. Who is he really? Jesus  taught with authority, so they asked:  Where did he get all this insight, this practical wisdom, this soaring vision? Jesus  responded unconventionally to poor, to marginal and despised people, he proclaimed good news to the poor, and told and showed  broken sinners that they were forgiven. And then some asked, Who is this who forgives sins?  Only God can forgive sins. Who is this Son of Man who exercises authority on earth to forgive sins? He blasphemes and blasphemers deserve to die. 

But others, the poor and blind and penitent who benefited from him, accepted all this as the gift of God, the sign of God’s living presence, for them. God is with him, they said.  He is from God.  He does God’s work. He is clearly in God’s team.  Meeting him, we meet God. When he talks with us, our hearts burn within us. Shall we go to anyone else?  He  has the word of eternal life and we have come to believe and know that he is the Holy One of God.  

In his Gospel, John, more clearly than the other Evangelists,  gives us a picture where  the difference between God the Father and Jesus  becomes  paper thin: I and the Father are one, says Jesus. And yet the difference is plain: God the Father is in heaven, Jesus the Son is on earth. No one has ever seen God, human eyes haven’t got the wavelength, but Jesus is visible.  God is eternal, immortal;  Jesus the Son has his beginning and his end. Jesus talks about his ‘going away’, as his allotted time comes to an end, and he will leave the disciples. Jesus accepted that limit: he had his day, when the light was shining, and so he could do the work given him to do,  but he knew  the night was coming when work had to stop. When Jesus died on the cross, he cried It is finished. He had done his work, in his  time; he was finished. But it does not mean God was finished.  

Jesus said to his disciples, I am going to leave you and you are sad – but don’t be inconsolable: I will send you another Comforter, the Spirit of truth: he will take what is mine and declare it to you. You will lose my human presence on earth, you won’t see me any more, but I will come to you in the Spirit.

So we have another picture of the Trinity team in operation. All that the Father has, has been given to the Son, and  the Spirit will take all that belongs to Jesus the Son, all that comes from the Father, and will share it with you. 

It won’t be shared with disciples for their exclusive benefit, to make them individually a more happy, or balanced, or successful  persons. God does nothing to help us in the competitions of life, the quest to be great or the greatest, in this or that way. Jesus said, If my life went on for ever as my own personal  life, so that  my beautiful being  was preserved in its health and prosperity and its gladness about itself, it would be godless, alone and useless. It would be futile, like a seed that was never put in the soil. But Jesus said, a seed should be put in the soil, hidden away in the dark dampness, so that it will die: for if it dies it bears much fruit. That takes us to the heart of the unbearable reality of God as we see God in Jesus Christ:  the God who loves and gives Godself for the life of the world. And when the Holy Spirit shares all that God has, all that God is in Godself, we are not offered blessings and powers which enhance our individuality. We are called insistently, every day, into the way of Jesus, the seed full of the life of God, that falls into the ground and dies. 

That was the way Jesus went. The Son who was one with the Father lived his humanity right into the separation of death, and out of that has come much fruit. The Spirit which is free as the wind, that is free to go anywhere,  comes to places and to times that Jesus could not reach. All through the world, long after the day of Jesus on earth ended,  the Spirit shares the life of Father and Son with human beings. Jesus brought us God in a living human person, intensely local, in a limited moment. The power of life was packed into that littleness, like a seed. The Spirit is God bursting out like the blossom and fruit that comes from a seed that dies. So much from one little seed: the Spirit in the world from the Son and the Father.  

This is the story of God in action, a team of three, each playing its part, together making a more perfect unity than we can get our minds around.  It is the story still being made by God, involving human beings all the way. 

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