Does loving God really matter? honestly? Thoughts on Mark 12.28-34

A man fell in love with the girl of his dreams. They were perfect for each other, except for one minor problem: She was a Southampton fan and he was a Reading fan. He decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and become a Southampton fan. He went to the doctor and asked if there was an easy way to do this. The doctor replied, “Yes, it’s a very simple procedure. What we do is go in and remove half your brain. When you wake up, you will be a Saint’s fan.” The man agrees, and the next week goes into surgery.

After he wakes up the doctor comes up to him concerned. “Sir, I apologize, but there was a mix-up with the scalpel. Instead of removing half your brain we removed 3/4 of it. How do you feel?” The man sat up, looked around, and said “GO Pompey!”

Love is a funny thing isn’t it. Here are some quips about love: I have never understood why women love cats. Cats are independent, they don’t listen, they don’t come in when you call, they like to stay out all night, and when they’re home they like to be left alone and sleep. In other words, every quality that women hate in a man, they love in a cat.

My wife was complaining last night that I never listen to her….. Or something like that…

We all know that Jesus said there are 2 great commandments: to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. We remind ourselves of these almost every service. So you’d think there was little left to say about them. But let’s see if we can get a bit of thinking going. So here’s my question:

Does loving God really matter? Is it enough just to love your neighbour? As Jesus seems to say in his parable of the sheep and the goats. Or as James Leigh Hunt says in his poem: Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

So what is the use of loving God? As soon as we put it like that we see that we are thinking about this from a certain perspective: the empirical, scientific approach. We want to know that when we do something it works, it’s worth our effort. So is loving God worth the effort?

Jesus clearly thinks so. His response to this teacher of the law, this rabbi, who agrees with him that loving God is the first and most important commandment is “You are not far from the Kingdom of God”, which is about as high praise that Jesus gives anybody in this Gospel. To us, it seems like faint praise, but to this rabbi it was like Jesus saying “You know what you are talking about”.

So why is loving God so important? You could just say: because God exists and created everything so we should love him. But the trouble is that lots of people don’t believe in God, and even those that do aren’t quite so sure that a creation that includes cancer, tsunamis and malaria is good. Yes, if God exists, we should acknowledge him, even fear him maybe, but why love him (or her)?

We should also acknowledge that not everybody who loves God is a nice or even good person. Lots of people are turned off God because they know somebody who claims to be religious and is a noxious character. So if loving God is the most important thing, why do people who love god do horrible things? And so we absolutely need to rescue the value of loving God. Here, then, is a rationale, a reason, for loving God:

We love God because God loves us first. Our love of God is really just a response to God loving us. Loving God isn’t something that we do, so much as something that we can’t stop ourselves doing once we understand the love of God for us. I know this sounds a little corny, but actually this is a hard won revelation. The statement that God is love comes in one of the last books of the bible to be written. You could read a lot of the bible and not actually like the God who is revealed there. So let’s not think that “God is love” is obvious.

My parents took us to see the Oceania exhibition in London last month. It is a collection of art and artifacts from that great swathe of islands stretching from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii. Lots of the images are what those people used to worship, their gods. And I have to say that they are horrible and scary gods. Human skulls, wild eyes, huge reproductive organs and pretty much everything else you can imagine feature in them. They are ugly and fearsome and people worshipped them for centuries.

When the people of Israel are first told to love God, you have to wonder how much they understood that God was love, and how much they just thought that God was their chief who helped them in battle. After all, God had just wiped out thousands of Egyptians. I bet they didn’t think God was love. It’s a little like the ideology of Islamic state – let’s wipe out those who don’t agree with us. This is the picture of God that much of the bible gives.

So we have reached this understanding that God is love painfully and slowly.  And the main reason why we dare to believe that God is love is because that is what we see in Jesus. He defies the nationalism of his age. He defies the racism and sexism and violence, and he does it to the point of death. And so we see that God is love, because he alone, Jesus alone, rises from death.

So we love God, because God first loved us. We know this by meditating on the love of Jesus. We don’t see this by looking at the world. Nature is red in tooth and claw. The creation is not full of love. We do not worship creation, we worship a God who is love. This is really, really important.

We all worship something. Worship is devotion. You worship what you give your heart, soul, mind and strength to. Some people worship their family; it comes first in all circumstances. Some worship work, some happiness, some sex, some alcohol, some football, some …

It’s been really interesting reading what some people wrote in response to our vision paper. We’ve had people say “I won’t worship God in another church than the one I like”, that’s like somebody saying I love the building more than God. Others have said, I can’t get up on a Sunday at that time, even though I do it on other days of the week. That’s like saying “I worship, I value my bed or my Saturday night TV, more than God.”

So loving God means that you place God above all the other things in life that you love. And if that sounds like fanaticism, it would be, except that God is love. If God was anything other than love, loving God would be dangerous, as we see in most fundamentalism. But loving a God of love means that we approach everything through a lens of love. When we love God, our basic question becomes “How can I show the love of the God I believe in, in this situation?”

How can I show the love of God in my job at AWE? How can I raise my children to value love above all? How should i shop in the light of the love of God?

What’s the difference between this and humanism? Humanism is the belief that we should love our neighbour, but it is agnostic about God. Humanism is asking the right questions. But by removing God from the picture it is powerless to change us. You see, when we worship God, we are changed.

Humanism is great, if you are a loving, kind, good person. The trouble is that most of us aren’t. I’m petty, jealous, mean, selfish, and lazy – and that’s on a good day. So telling me to love my neighbour gets a yes from me, but I can’t do it. It is just too hard. My neighbours are just so annoying and so needy. I can’t love them with my limited resources of love and kindness. I can play at it. I could maybe impress a few people. But in my heart I would know that it is like when you put one spider out of the window because you don’t want to kill it, but you know that you have knowingly and accidentally killed so many others.

So we love God because it changes us. We know that what you give your time and attention to actually changes your brain. I have this book “How God changes your brain” and what it effectively says is that meditating on the love of God actually makes you more compassionate and empathic. And it’s not written by Christians, it’s written by neuroscientists.

So what does loving God look like in practice? It looks like thinking about God with your mind. It looks like directing your inner life, your heart towards God as you sing and pray and do what we call worship. It looks like having a pattern to your love of God – a daily discipline of prayer and service. In this Diocese we call it a rule of life. This is how you love God with your soul. Your soul is your habits, your pattern of life, your ego. And loving God with your strength is about your actions. It involves getting out of bed on time to get to church. It involves buying the books that will feed your mind. It involves going to a prayer meeting or home group, when you’d like to veg in front of the TV. And especially it involves acts of service, the love of neighbour that you do just because it is the right thing to do, and even when you have no feelings of love.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength. It works. It will make you a better person.

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Judgement – really? Matt 25.14-30

Jesus comes across this small crowd who have surrounded a young woman they believe to be an adulteress. They are preparing to stone her to death. To calm the situation, Jesus says: “Whoever is without sin among you, let them cast the first stone.” Suddenly, an old lady at the back of the crowd picks up this huge rock and lobs it at the young woman, scoring a direct hit on her head. The unfortunate young lady collapses dead on the spot.  Jesus looked over towards the old lady and says: “Do you know, Mother, sometimes you really upset me.”

Ok, so you need to know a little about how the church has historically viewed Mary to get that joke, but the point I want to explore with you is about judgement. You see, the joke is funny because we would never expect a Saint, like Mary, to be the person who executes judgement, would we? The saints are people full of grace and mercy, like Mother Theresa.

But here’s the rub: if we view the Saints in that way, and we view Jesus in that way, then how do we make sense of the belief that God or Jesus is the judge of all the world, and that he sends some to eternal pain and some to eternal bliss? Do you see how difficult an idea that is? The historical Jesus spends his time forgiving sins, eating with sinners and touching untouchables, but then we somehow suppose that all this changes after the Resurrection, and he becomes the stern and just judge of the whole world.

To be fair, it is partly Jesus himself who gives us this problem. A parable like the one we have read today is pretty harsh. The man with the one talent didn’t waste it, he didn’t spend it on drugs, he just buried it and gave it back untouched. And as a result, he is kicked into the outer darkness. It seems extreme, doesn’t it? In fact, the parable is so extreme, that it seems quite unfair.

So here’s a clue that maybe Jesus isn’t talking about some judgement that happens at the end of time, or when we die, after all how can God be unfair? It’s impossible. So perhaps he’s not trying to tell us about what happens when we die. Perhaps he’s talking about something else. Perhaps his point is about what happens every day, when we either use or bury our opportunities: Opportunities to love, to serve, to give and to grow.

So this is not an end of your life story, but an end of each day story. Today, did I take the opportunities to love and give that God gave me, or did I bury them, ignore them, waste them? The point of the parable then is to help you exercise discernment, or as Ignatius of Loyola used to call it, the examination of conscience.

Ignatius who founded the Jesuits, a great missionary order of monks, which gave us the current Pope, Francis, told his monks that the one prayer that they absolutely must never omit was this examination of consciousness or examen. And the examen is simply this: at the end of the day you review the events of the day before God and simply ask: what today brought me closer to God, and what left me in the cold?

You see, this is the point that Jesus is making: when we make the right decision in any situation we know it inwardly, it takes us to that place where we hear God, our Father, say “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful in a few things”. In other words, we feel a lifting of our spirit, a gladdening of our heart. But when we make the wrong decision, then we feel a chill, a disappointment, a sense of loss, we are in the darkness, metaphorically.

Of course, the parable over-dramatises this to make a point, and in reality the feeling we get might be very subtle, just a slight joy or a slight sense of sadness. And this is the reason we do the examen, so we learn to recognise these moments of joy or sadness, and honour them and not miss them. For these are how God guides us, an inner sense, our conscience, the Holy Spirit, they are all ways of describing the same thing.

So what about you make a pact with yourself to do this every night, as you lay in bed, review the day, and ask yourself: when did i feel good today, and when did I feel bad? And what do I learn from this? And in case, you think that sounds too easy, just give it a try.

I’ve tried to make this a part of my Rule of Life. My daily practice. And what i find is that as i review the day, my mind goes to some incidents that I’d like to forget. I don’t know if you do the same: I have this tendency to obsess over some incidents and completely forget others. But the Holy Spirit takes me back to them and helps me bring them before God, so the learning is not lost, not buried, but used, and incorporated into my life.

So back to the point, where I started: what are we to think about God or Jesus judging us when we die? Apart from the difficulty about the loving God we see in Jesus suddenly turning all judgemental, there is another problem: how can God judge Hitler and not judge me?

Now when  I was a young Christian and worried about this rather a lot, it was customary for preachers to say: “Well, because you are a Christian, then you are passed over for judgement. The death of Jesus is your get out of jail free card.” Which is comforting for a while, but it doesn’t take you long to realise that this creates as many problems as it solves. You see, if God pardons people just for believing something, but not because they are a good person, then it makes God an unjust judge. It makes God somebody who has favourites, who treats people differently just because of their religion.

Now there is a lovely truth in the gospel message that we are forgiven by God just because we show faith in Christ. The moment that we repent and are baptised we are freed from judgement. But the question it has always raised is: just how much faith do you have to have? Just how much repentance? It doesn’t really resolve the problem of judgement. It just shifts it somewhere else: not “have you done wrong?” But “have you got faith?” and if you are anything like me, that still leaves quite a lot of fear around. Will God look at me on judgement day and say: “I never knew you” or something like that.

So what are we to think about how judgement works? Listen to these words of Jesus from John’s Gospel (Ch 12):   ‘If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”

Do you see the importance of these words? What Jesus is giving us here is a profound lesson in how judgement works: firstly, he, Jesus, isn’t here to judge us; he never was, never will be. He is the saviour, the helper, the redeemer, the friend and brother. He is always, unequivocally, unrelentingly on our side.

But there is still a judge, says Jesus, and the judge is “his words”. What does that mean? How can his words judge us? What do you think? How does it work?

Here’s how I see it: The preamble to the American declaration of independence says this: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; …etc.

So my point is that certain laws and principles are held to be universal, because they are not decided by one country or nation. They apply to all, regardless. We are judged by these universal principles, especially the words of Jesus, who articulates the one law that trumps all the rest: love one another. In John’s Gospel this is the only commandment that Jesus gives: love one another. These are the words that judge us. The law of love. Did we love? Did I love today?

Now, you may think that all this is quite obvious and hardly worth saying. After all, who would criticise the Declaration of Human Rights or the Law of Love? Well, lots of governments for a start. Why are we so concerned about leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? Because it has the power to call our parliament to answer for when its actions contravene laws that are bigger than our national self interest. The law of love is a deeply challenging law. And it won’t always fit with our national self interest. Nor will it always fit with our personal self interest.

You see, the law of love is quite often at deep odds with what a government or a family considers right or wrong behaviour. We are judged not be our ability or willingness to keep certain rules, but by our allegiance to love. And in particular love means that we treat everybody as we would like them to treat us. You hardly need me to spell out how challenging that is!

As we come towards Christmas, we’ve all got lots of expenses to pay. Our self interest dictates that we spend a lot on presents for friends and family. But the law of love makes us look outwards too. These shoeboxes that we are sending off today are a symbol of this. They cost £5 just to post, let alone to fill. And then there are all the other calls on our love: refugees, Crisis at Christmas, the Children’s Society. Charity may begin at home, but if it stops at home, then it isn’t really charity, is it?

So the words of Jesus keep calling us out of a narrow, fearful self love into a wider and deeper love for the whole world. This love is hugely costly. It demands constant self discipline. There are so many times when I’d like to harden my heart against love. But when I do, I feel something inside go cold, go dark. This is judgement at work. When I freeze out somebody else, I freeze a little of myself. It is unavoidable, uncomfortable and universal.

On the other hand, as I love, my love grows bigger and more sensitive. The person who refuses to love finds that their little world is small, cold and lonely. The person who loves just finds that more love comes their way. A bit like in the story: everyone who has will be given more.

May that be your experience.

Election fever (from 1 Sam 8, John 10)

Jeremy Corbyn is running down the street one day, and he sees a little girl who is giving away puppies that her dog just had. He goes up to the girl and says, “Little girl, I think that it’s wonderful that you’re doing such a good thing.” The little girl says, “Thank you, Mr. Corbyn. Would you like a puppy? They’re Labour supporters.” Jeremy declines and jogs away. The next day Jeremy jogs past the same girl and decides to talk to her again. “You know what, little girl? I think I’ll take one of those puppies after all, seeing as how they’re Labour supporters.” The girl says, “I’m sorry Mr. Corbyn, but they’re not Labour any more. They’re Conservative now.” Jeremy says, “They are? How do you know? As a matter of fact, how did you know that they were Labour to begin with?” She says, “Well, just after they were born they were Labour, but now their eyes are open.”

So it’s election time, and I’m going to try not to upset anybody! So let me start off by saying that I’m not voting Labour or Conservative in this election. And that is the last I’ll say about party politics. But what I do want to talk about is having your eyes open about politics.

Today we start to read 1 Samuel together. Over the last few months we have read the story of how the Israelites escaped from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. It is the story of the beginning of the formation of a nation. 1 Samuel picks up that story about 200 years later. The 12 tribes of Israel are now settled in the land of Palestine. They are not a wealthy people, in fact they are not really a people, a nation at all. The 12 tribes have their own identity, and they rarely work together on anything. They are like independent states within a small country that has no central government.

Every so often that country is threatened by an enemy, and the tribes have to unite around a Judge who will lead them as a nation, before they go back to being separate tribes. That is until Samuel comes along: Samuel is a prophet and judge rolled into one. He is anointed by God, and leads the nation both spiritually and politically. But as we get to chapter 8, he is growing old, and the nation does not wish to be ruled by his sons, who do not share their father’s integrity. So they ask Samuel to appoint a king for them.

Now why would they want a king? Well, it’s obvious: the nation is much stronger when it is united, it can better fight off enemies, it can better resolve disputes between tribes, it leads to less violence and greater security, and security leads to more prosperity.

But that is not the whole story. Samuel is not happy about their request for a king, and it seems that God isn’t happy too. And here’s the reason, it’s an old adage but it is still true: power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. The quote is attributed to Lord Acton a British writer in 1887, and he continued: Great men are almost always bad men.

Now that may seem an unduly pessimistic view, but Samuel and God seem to take a similar view. Samuel tells the people that with a king will come: taxes, forced labour, standing armies, social division, and in the end more wars. You see it goes like this: to begin with a new King has his hands full sorting out disputes and acting as a judge, but then he makes some enemies, because not everybody likes his judgements, so then he needs an army to protect not only the borders, but himself. And his army needs paying all year round, so he has to raise taxes. And then because he is king, he gets to thinking that he is better than other people so he needs a special palace, and more than one wife, and he needs to entertain his friends and his enemies – to exercise soft power. And before long he needs to raise more taxes to keep up the standard of living. But people don’t like paying taxes, so he needs to invade another country to plunder their resources, so he starts a war, and makes more enemies….and so on.

The King who was meant to keep the peace has ended up starting wars to justify his existence. Samuel sees the dangers ahead, and God adds that asking for a king is in fact an act of apostasy – they are rejecting God as king and starting a slippery slope that leads to the destruction of the nation 300 years later. That’s all it took. The king of Assyria destroyed the 10 tribes that had their capital in Samaria, because their king decided to try and punch above his weight. The 10 Northern tribes were forever lost to history, as the prophet predicts. It started with choosing a king, instead of allowing Judges to arise as God enabled and as the occasion demanded. Choosing a king was in fact the whole nation abdicating from its responsibility under God.

So what has this got to do with politics today? Well, of course some things are very different now. We now elect politicians for 5 years at a time, which means that we have learnt the bitter lesson that inherited monarchies are not very good forms of government. Democracy is closer to the system of Judges that existed before Samuel gave in to their request for a king.

But democracy is not that strong a form of government. We are already seeing that lots of people don’t bother to vote. They are abdicating from the political process: “give us a king” they are saying “to make all the decisions for us”. Not voting is a spineless abdication of responsibility. Better to vote badly than not to vote at all. Or stand as a politician yourself if you can’t vote for anybody else

We are also witnessing the breakdown of some of the supra national organisations in favour of more nationalistic sentiments. Britain is leaving the EU. Scotland might leave the Union. The USA has elected a much more isolationist President than before. At one level this is a return to politics that is closer to home. We want to take back sovereignty, which is all well and good. But what happens next? The insight of 1 Samuel is that more kings leads not to peace, but war, as each nation jostles for superiority. The very institutions that we are withdrawing from were those set up in response to 2 world wars.

The language about making Britain or Scotland or the USA strong again is worrying. From a Christian perspective strength lies in sacrifice – the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. From a secular perspective strength is the ability to get your own way. As you come to vote you need to ask yourself what vision of a strong Britain am I being offered here? Strong is not a bad thing, but strength comes in very different guises: there is the brute strength of the bully, and the quiet strength of the counsellor; there is the strength of the protector and the strength of the aggressor. Which strength are you voting for?

So from Samuel we move to John 10 – Jesus tells us that he is the gate to the sheepfold. He goes on to say that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but that comes later. Here he is telling us something else: there are shepherds who are doing it for gain, and there are shepherds who are doing it for love. The word shepherd means leader in the bible; in biblical times shepherds led their sheep to pasture and away from danger; so a shepherd is a leader, both religiously and politically, because the bible recognises no distinction between religious and political leadership. Jesus is talking about leadership. He is a leader who is motivated by love, by the desire for the best for those he leads. But other leaders are just hired hands, who care nothing for the flock. Now this is just as relevant today as it was when Jesus first said these words. There are religious leaders who seem more motivated by money and power than by love. There are politicians who seem the same.

How do we tell the difference? Jesus says that his sheep recognise his voice; there is something inside them that recognises the quality of the person who is trying to lead them. We all have an intuition about politicians and religious leaders, much of it is false. Psychologists will tell you that people vote for politicians based on their appearance. That is a blinding stupid way to vote.

What you need to do is listen and listen well. When you hear a politician or preacher speaking do they resonate with the character of Jesus. Are they driven by love, or by anger, ambition or greed? You can discern these things, and you must do so. There is no excuse for not reading a manifesto and doing your best to hear, actually hear the words of somebody who you might vote for. Words are the best way that we can discern the heart of a speaker. Actions speak loud, yes, but politics is the art of using words to produce actions.

But let’s come back to personal spirituality, as we close, 2 questions:

1.     Have you become cynical about politics? Have you decided not to vote or stopped asking questions? How does that connect with Jesus and the OT prophets who were absolutely involved in the political process? Let’s not allow cynicism about politicians to make us disengage. If we do, we will surely get the wrong kind of politicians leading us.

2.     How do we develop our ability to hear the voice of Jesus? We have this habit of delegating our responsibility to hear God for ourselves: give us a king, we say, give us a preacher, we say, let me read a good book, we think. But how do we learn to hear the voice of God ourselves? What do you think?

The Resurrection is impossible

This woman telephones a vet and asks him to come examine her cat. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” the woman told him. “She looks as if she’s going to have kittens, but that’s impossible. She’s never been out of the house except for when I had her on a lead.” The vet examined the cat and said there was no doubt about her pregnancy. “But she can’t be,” protested the woman. “It’s impossible.” At that point a large tom cat emerged from under the sofa. “How about him?” asked the vet. “Don’t be silly,” answered the woman. “That’s her brother.”

So what is possible and what isn’t? why don’t we have a little quiz and you tell me which of these things is possible?

  1. Is it possible that a human will one day walk on Mars? (NASA reckons 20 yrs)
  2. Is it possible that the tallest man alive is over 8 foot tall? (8ft 4in)
  3. Is it possible that scientists are identifying over 15000 new species of animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms every year? (yes)
  4. Is it possible that there is life on other planets? (Stephen Hawking estimates that it is unlikely that intelligent life exists elsewhere)
  5. Is it possible that 1.5 million children die each year of vaccine preventable illnesses? (yes)
  6. Is it possible that you are twice as likely to be killed by a vending machine than by a shark? (yes)
  7. Is it possible that all the ants in the world weigh about the same as the humans? (yes)
  8. Is it possible that the 6th richest man in the world is the President of the former communist country? (yes, Russia)
  9. Is it possible that a man with no political experience will be elected president of the USA?

So how many of those things would you have thought possible, let alone likely? Of all those things, the one least likely, according to scientists is the existence of intelligent life. There is almost no explanation for the one fact that we absolutely know – there is life on this planet – relatively intelligent life (!). The Oxford Mathematician, John Lennox, has calculated that the probability of life on earth is like this: if you made a stack of 2p coins from the earth to the moon, and somewhere in that stack you placed one odd one. And then you asked somebody blind folded to find that one 2p coin. The odds of them doing that correctly is about the same as the odds of life on earth, something like 1 in 1023. We are here by the most amazing, ridiculous chance – or by design of a God. Those are the only possibilities.

The Resurrection of Jesus is sometimes considered impossible these days. And there are good reasons for this. It was certainly highly unlikely. Nobody expected it, even those people whom Jesus had told it would happen. The disciples are totally mystified by the empty tomb. Their reaction is one of disbelief and fear. Mary can’t even see Jesus when he stands in front of her. Two disciples walking to Emmaus that evening don’t recognise Jesus for nearly 6 miles of walking.

People say that the disciples made up the story about the resurrection, but if they had, do you think they would have made it up in such a way that they look so stupid and so lacking in faith? It’s highly unlikely, not impossible, but highly unlikely.

The usual reason that people declare that the Resurrection is impossible is because it contradicts the rules of physics. Dead people don’t revive, unless they weren’t dead. But the resurrection isn’t a resuscitation. Jesus isn’t dead and then he comes back to life in the same body and continues to live for another 20 years. That’s not resurrection. Resurrection is a new creation.

Jesus resurrection body is quite different from his body that he has inhabited for the previous 33 years. For a start it can appear and disappear at will. It can walk through walls, and it can eat fish. Thomas can put his finger into the wounds in Jesus’ hands, and Jesus can hear what Thomas says even when he is not visibly present. Then after 40 days it disappears forever and is replaced by the Holy Spirit, which is very like a non-physical version of Jesus.

The body that Jesus is described as having in the Easter stories is part ghost and part solid. It is part physical and part non-physical – spirit. So yes, it doesn’t obey the laws of physics. It is impossible in terms of physics. At least, the kind of physics I learned at school. But that is because the Resurrected body of Jesus is something new. It is a new creation, outside of our creation.

The point of all science is that a theory can only be accepted if the phenomena that it describes are repeated on numerous occasions. The resurrection is a singularity, a one-off event. At least for the time being.

This is what the church has always said about the Resurrection: it only happened to Jesus, just once. But one day it will happen to all of us. And that day will be when all the rules of physics cease to exist: the Lion will lie down with the lamb, the sun and moon will dissolve, and God will be all in all.

So the Resurrection cannot be judged by the laws of physics. It stands outside of them. It cannot be studied by scientists, because it cannot be repeated. So how can anybody tell you that it didn’t happen? That is an unscientific statement. Both the statement: the Resurrection happened and the statement: the resurrection didn’t happen are unscientific statements. Both are outside the possibility of proof or disproof by science. But that doesn’t make them both true. One is true and one isn’t. But which one?

That is a matter of judgement, a decision that you make on the balance of probability. You have to weigh up the balance of probability. You have to take a step of faith. This is faith: not blind belief, but a decision that the evidence points clearly in a certain direction, but it stops short of final proof. The final proof of the resurrection will only come when Jesus returns, or we die and find him waiting to meet us.

But if you die and that’s it, well then you can be sure that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If he was resurrected, then you will face him at judgement day. If he wasn’t, then there is no judgement day, just extinction, death, nothing.

Anyhow, why am I exploring the question of what is possible and what is impossible with you? Here’s the thing: in life we make lots of decisions based on what we think is possible and what is not possible. In other words, faith lies behind many, if not most of the decisions we make.

On Thursday I was speaking to a man who spends £12 every week playing the National Lottery. By my estimation he has faith in something that is wasting his money. He plays because he thinks it is possible that he will win.

The same day I conducted the funeral of a man who was diagnosed with advanced cancer 18 years ago. He fought it all these years, with the help of medical science, and finally succumbed to it 3 weeks ago. Nobody expected him to live this long. Most put his survival down to his positive attitude, a kind of faith.

So what is our faith like? Like the man who plays the lottery – a modest gamble that is unlikely to pay off? Or like the man who held off death for 18 years at least partly by his positive attitude?

Well, our faith has elements of both, and something more too. Like John, who plays the lottery, we put a bet on something that may not happen. We believe that Jesus was who he said, and that he holds our world and our fate in his hands. We do that based on certain evidence that i’d be happy to explain to you on another occasion. There are lots of pointers that Jesus was not a liar or a man suffering from delusion, so when he claims to be our judge and our saviour, we have good reasons to believe him. And so we put our money on him, and more than our money: our energy, our will, our love  – our whole life. It’s a bit of a gamble, and some people think we are mad.

But we are also like Len who fought cancer for 18 years. We know we are dying. We know that we are getting older and weaker from about the age of 25. We are fighting off death, and we have taken a positive decision to do that with joy, with hope and with courage. We have decided to let Jesus carry our guilt, our shame, our fear of failure and all the other things that hold us back, as he promised to do. We take the risk of believing him, and he promises to carry most of the weight for us. That’s the deal. We live lives lighter and freer.

We know that one day we will lose our battle with death, but in the meantime we are resolved to live well, to live for God, to live lives of love and truth. So if when it is all over, we find that we were wrong, and there was no God and no resurrection, then what have we lost? Something we could never hold onto anyway.

So faith is a win/win situation: if we are right and Jesus rose, then we will inherit eternal life, and if not, then we lose nothing except what we had to lose anyway.

But in the end, our faith is neither like playing the lottery, nor like taking a positive attitude to cancer. Our faith is more like getting married. Marriage is a huge step of faith. We make life long promises to somebody we hardly know. We do it based on our experience of them: their loyalty, their kindness, their ability to make us laugh.

Christian faith is like that. It’s a relationship with Jesus – who is a living person because of Easter. He’s not a dead teacher or a living ideal. He is a divine, spiritual person. He inhabits his resurrection body so we can know him and trust him.

Today you are invited to have table fellowship with him, to commune with him. This is really possible.

What does Jesus think about climate change?

These are real complaints received by Thomas Cook the travel agents:

“On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”

“They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.”

“The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”

“We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow.”

“No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”

“Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”

“I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”

“The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun.”

“It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”

“I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends’ three-bedroom and ours was significantly smaller.”

“The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the resort.’ We’re trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service.”

“When we were in Spain, there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”

“I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes.”

“My fiancée and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

We are an ungrateful lot! Most of us would once have been happy just to get a foreign holiday, but now we are not satisfied with that. It has to be more.

I want to talk to you today about the biggest threat to world security of our times, and I don’t mean the Trump. I’m talking about a threat that affects every occupant of this planet, from the Arctic to the Sahara, from Carlisle to London. That threat is the unprecedented change of our climate caused by human activity.

Now you may be tempted to think that firstly this is not a subject for church, and secondly it is not that serious for us, or perhaps not even proven. So let’s examine those ideas, in case they are here.

  1. It’s not a subject for church? Why not? The New York Times carried this report in 2014:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.

The oceans are rising at a pace that threatens coastal communities and are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide given off by cars and power plants, which is killing some creatures or stunting their growth, the report found.

It continues: “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.

The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

And in case you think that this report is produced by some fringe lefty group, this same group was awarded the Nobel prize in 2007, for its work on climate change. So that is their conclusion: climate change is going to make it harder to eliminate poverty, make wars more likely, and make more species extinct. Poverty, war and avoidable death – aren’t these the things that we pray about every Sunday in church? Why not talk about the cause?

But you may say, the cause is human greed. Yes, of course, and ignorance. Greed and ignorance drive climate change. It is not a natural phenomenon. It is caused by greedy, ignorant people.

But what does the bible have to say about this? Of course, the bible has much to say about poverty, war and death, but the science of climate change is something more recent. Nonetheless, a reading like today’s from Matt 5.13-20 has ramifications in this respect.

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus, “but if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” I used to think Jesus was talking about table salt, NaCl, which of course cannot stop being salty. But then I read that the word can also mean saltpeter, a form of fertiliser, which can lose its efficacy. The active ingredient can leach away, so that it becomes useless, inert, barren, and unable to act as fertiliser. Like soil that has been overused it has no life in it. It is useless. The link with climate change is clear enough, as deserts expand due to deforestation and lack of rainfall. But that is not the main point of the analogy.

Jesus says that his followers should be like fertiliser, or in the next verse, like a light on a stand or a city on a hill. In other words they should speak out, shine out and stand out. They should stand up for what they believe to be true. They should infect society. They should make it fruitful again. They should turn the wastelands and deserts into fields, both metaphorically and literally. It’s not an optional extra for Christians to get involved in politics and feeding the hungry. It is their raison d’être. Our raison d’être.

But maybe you think I have sold out the spiritual meaning of the Gospel to a social gospel. You may think that what I am spouting is just worldly wisdom, not the wisdom of God. Isn’t this what St Paul talks about in our other reading?

I think not. Worldly wisdom is self serving cleverness, like when somebody finds some reason to question to scientific consensus just because they want to make money from fossil fuels or let themselves off the hook for taking that holiday in Goa. Worldly wisdom is when we use our intellect to avoid our moral responsibility, when we justify short term gains and long term losses. It is worldly, not because the world is bad or science is not to be trusted, but because it is too human, too individualistic, too narrow, too selfish. Whereas the cross of Jesus is the opposite: divine, universal and selfless.

So that brings me onto the other point: perhaps we ignore climate change because we think it won’t affect us here in North Hampshire – after all, who wouldn’t like a few hotter summers? We wouldn’t need to fly to Goa if we had Goa-like temperatures here, would we?

Tell that to the residents of Carlisle, who last year were flooded out of their homes by unprecedented rainfall. Say that to the residents of London and most other big cities, who are more likely to die by air pollution than we are here – but how many of us work in the big smoke? Tell that to the residents of Kent, who are only too aware of the numbers of people trying to reach this country due to violence or economic failure. Imagine if that trickle became a flood, as it would if climate change displaced millions.

We might joke about a warmer July (although wetter is more likely) but in fact climate change is no joke, and is already perhaps responsible for some of the global insecurity that we are witnessing.

So what are we to do? You’ve probably already changed your light-bulbs for low energy ones. And if not, why not?

Here are some ideas from David Suzuki, a climate change activist in Canada:

  1. Get involved

Take a few minutes to contact your political representatives and the media to tell them you want immediate action on climate change. Remind them that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will also build healthier communities, spur economic innovation and create new jobs. And next time you’re at the polls, vote for politicians who support effective climate policies.

  1. Be energy efficient

Unplug computers, TVs and other electronics when not in use. Wash clothes in cold or warm (not hot) water. Dryers are energy hogs, so hang dry when you can. Install a programmable thermostat. Look for the Energy Star® label when buying new appliances. And a home energy audit is cheaper than you think — book one today to find even more ways to save energy.

  1. Choose renewable power

Ask your utility to switch your account to clean, renewable power, such as from wind farms. If it doesn’t offer this option yet, ask it to.

  1. Eat wisely

Buy organic and locally grown foods. Avoid processed items. Grow some of your own food. And eat low on the food chain — at least one meat-free meal a day — since 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy production. Food writer Michael Pollan sums it up best: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

  1. Trim your waste

Garbage buried in landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Keep stuff out of landfills by composting kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, and recycling paper, plastic, metal and glass. Let store managers and manufacturers know you want products with minimal or recyclable packaging.

  1. Let polluters pay

Carbon taxes make polluting activities more expensive and green solutions more affordable, allowing energy-efficient businesses and households to save money. They are one of the most effective ways to reduce the country’s climate impact. If your country doesn’t have a carbon tax, ask your prime minister and MP to implement one.

  1. Fly less

Air travel leaves behind a huge carbon footprint. Before you book your next airline ticket, consider greener options such as buses or trains, or try holidaying closer to home. You can also stay in touch with people by videoconferencing, which saves time as well as travel and accommodation costs.

  1. Get informed

Follow the latest news about climate change. Join our community.

  1. Green your commute

Transportation causes about 25 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, so walk, cycle or take transit whenever you can. You’ll save money and get into better shape! If you can’t go car-free, try carpooling or car sharing, and use the smallest, most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.

 

There is a great biblical word for what he proposes, it’s called repentance – changing our lifestyle.

Christian Unity – more or less.

This joke was voted the best religious joke of all time, so I hope you like it:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

So maybe it’s not that funny, after all suicide is hardly a laughing matter. And, of course, we Brits are not quite as prone to schisms as our American cousins. Did you know that there are 46,000 different Christian denominations at the last count?

Anyhow, what’s that got to do with the Parable of the Lost Son, or maybe you call it the parable of the prodigal son, or perhaps the Parable of the Forgiving Father? I’d like to suggest to you that all of those names are wrong, and it should be called the Parable of the grumpy brother, or if we are going to get theological: the story of the brother who didn’t want grace.

You see, I think the story is really about the older brother. Because when you are a master story-teller like Jesus, you end your story at the climax, not with some trivial extra bit. Stories build. The son who wastes his wealth is part of the build up, he’s not the main point. The main point is that his brother cannot accept what his father has just done.

You don’t need me to point out just how generous the father is. His younger son has humiliated him in an honour based culture. He deserves to be rejected, humiliated and disowned. But he is not. He is welcomed, honoured and given back everything. And it is too much for his older brother.

Now the thing is that the older brother suffered real loss when the father decided to get all magnanimous. When the younger brother left, he lost nothing, except that little whiny voice that he knew too well.

Okay, so the spoilt, little twerp gets given his share of the estate, but he would have got that anyway. And, yes, the dad and older son have a smaller estate to farm, so there are less profits, but they have got by; and sooner or later, the older son is going to inherit it all…..The younger son going was humiliating for the Father, but the older brother hardly felt it.

But when he comes back, that is when it hurts. You see, if he came back as a hired hand, like he asked, that would have been okay. But as soon as the Father puts his ring on the younger son and adopts him back into the family, then all of a sudden the older son stands to lose half his inheritance.

Do you see that? Father and one son means the whole estate goes to him. Father and 2 sons means the maths gets more complex: if he has truly been forgiven then the younger son needs an inheritance, and there is only one place that can come from. So when the Father says to his older son, “All that I have is yours”, he is pouring oil on troubled waters, but it is unclear how he can fulfill his promise to both sons. And that is what bugs the older son.

He stands to lose a lot, up to half his inheritance. So he’s angry and in no mood to celebrate the return of the Prodigal. And this is why Jesus tells the story to his Pharisee audience. They don’t like Jesus welcoming tax collectors and half castes and women and other misfits (sorry Ladies) into his company. They think they stand to lose, and they are right. They stand to lose a lot: their status, their ability to decide who is in and who is out, their purity and their control, above all their control. If anybody can be a friend of God, then all their hard work is pointless. They stand to lose a lot, if Jesus gets his way.

Come with me now back to the year: 1662. The place: St Peter’s Church, Tadley. It is 2 years after the  end of years of the English Civil war (or as historians now call it, the war of 3 kingdoms: England, Ireland and Scotland). The crown has just been given back to the son of the executed King. Charles 2nd has been crowned and the reign of Parliament has come to an end.

Parliament was controlled by the Puritans, who liked their religion pure. Thomas Cromwell famously banned Christmas, because it was too bawdy. Sabbath observance was mandatory. High Church Anglican priests had been kicked out of their pulpits, and Tadley had been taken from the care of the Bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Kentish, a puritan preacher, had been acting as minister since 1650.

But in 1662 that changes and St Peter’s is given back to the old Church of England hierarchy, but not without a fight which ends up in a court of law. Nonetheless, Thomas Kentish and his Puritan followers are ejected, and they begin to meet in private houses until in 1712 they build the church we now know as Old Meeting.

Why am I taking you back there? Because I wonder what view you would have taken back then: would you have taken the view that the church is the church and even if you don’t agree with the minister, you should stay, because Christian unity is more important than theological differences? Or would you have gone with Kentish, because in religion we must follow the truth as we believe God has revealed it, even if that means division?

Or let’s put it another way, if we look at it from the perspective of the parable we read earlier: were the Puritan dissenters the older brother who wouldn’t accept the return of the lax younger brother, the old Anglican priest, and they wouldn’t come into the party? Or were the Puritan leavers the younger brother, shaking the dust off his feet as he wanders off into the sunset as the older brother smiles glibly to himself?

Do you see where I am coming from? If we think about our separate denominations through the lens of the Parable of the son who doesn’t want grace, what does it tell us? ………It tells me this:

Firstly, there will be no coming back together until a famine is experienced. The younger son isn’t coming home until his belly is empty and he can’t even feed himself with pig swill. Nothing else will persuade him to go home. He has to be broken. He has to grow up, to find out that there is something more important than getting his way.

This is the effect of suffering, or it can be. Once we have experienced powerlessness, absolute inability to solve a problem ourselves, then we enter into what Richard Rohr, a Franciscan writer, calls the second half of life. People who are in the first half of life are trying to make a name for themself; they are trying to succeed; they are building an empire; they are building a reputation. They are in competition, and they intend to win.

But after enough suffering something changes, and we become second half of life people: we don’t need to win, because winning isn’t important; we don’t need a reputation; we don’t need success. We value something deeper than our ego – it might be our family, it might be the kingdom of God, it might be our integrity, whatever it is, it is something that doesn’t make us look good. Second half of life people don’t care much about appearances. They don’t post much on facebook.

The younger son is going home, not to get his name or his robe or his family. He’s going home just to survive. He’s going home because humiliation has already happened and he can’t get any more broken. He’s going home to live.

So here’s my first lesson from this parable – there will be no home coming amongst the churches until we have entered the second half of life, until we don’t have to win any longer. We can make Churches Together and respect each other from a position of strength. But we can only make church unity when we know how to lose, when we don’t care about losing. And it is only when we don’t care about winning or losing that we will actually live; as long as we want to win, we will experience lack.

We see this in the older son. He has it all. He’s never left the father’s side, but what is his experience? “All these years I have laboured for you, and you’ve not even given me a kid to celebrate with my friends”. His experience is of labour and lack. Hard work but little pleasure. Does that sound familiar? So that’s my second point: first half of life thinking is toil and disappointment, no joy.

Anyhow, back to the parable: it ends on a cliffhanger – we don’t know how it ends. Does the older brother soften and get to boogie with his younger brother? Or does he stomp off and leave the father heart-broken again?

Little aside here: if we ever do get to boogie together as the Church of Jesus in Tadley, you have to promise not to watch me dance. Dad dancing is something I’d be quite happy with. Kayla says I dance to my own beat.

The theme of our service today is reconciliation, and reconciliation is a two way street. Both parties have to want it, in order for it to happen. Yes, it’s necessary for one party to have achieved second half of life thinking for reconciliation to be even a remote possibility, but if the other side still wants to win, then reconciliation will be one sided, and crushing. There will be peace, but there will be no dancing.

If the older brother doesn’t forgive his broken brother, then the atmosphere in that house is going to be caustic. Nobody will be able to relax. Both sons and the father will be drawing lines around what is their’s. And one day it will bust apart again.

So will the older brother accept his loss? Will he accept his father’s desire to have his family back together? Will he decide to look for the peace that could be his, if he can reconcile with his brother? This is how the story ends, as Jesus puts it out there for his critics to contemplate.

And it’s out there for us too: do you want to dance or win? When we do stuff together, as we do so well in CTAT, whether it is Messy Church, or Holiday club or March of witness, do we secretly want to win? Do we want anybody new to join our church? Would we secretly like to see our church thrive, whilst the others can languish? …..Or is it just me that gets tempted that way?

So here’s where it gets ugly. I love CTAT stuff. I love it that Kay gets gunged, and Greg gets to practice drums on a chutney jar and Ruth sings so well. I love this stuff, but deep down I’m wanting people to join my church – any of my churches. This is me getting vulnerable with you. I’d like to be second half of life thinking, but deep down I want to win. And that means that I am not ready for Christian Unity. Not really. I’m sorry.

This is my confession. I like to think I am right. Not in everything, of course. I fully accept that other churches do worship, evangelism, prayer, and pastoral care better than we Anglicans. But deep down I want to win. I think ‘I’ rather than ‘we’. And that is toxic. God help me.

When I was a priest in Newark, Nottinghamshire, we had a little independent Pentecostal fellowship that met in a Community Centre in the parish. I got to know them and like them, and then one day they said to me, “We’ve decided to close our church. We’re tired. We’re not growing. We’d like to join your church.” And so they did, and we did our best to welcome them and get them as fully integrated as possible. This old Pentecostal preacher got to speak in our services. Our prayer meeting took on a new passion. One of the church members became an elder immediately. It was tough for us to accept them. It must have been 100 times tougher for them to join us.

I left that church about a year after they joined. 10 years on from then I went back. I think only one of the 20 or so who joined my church was still there. Frankly I don’t think we were ready for unity. Unity requires brokenness on both sides.

Friends when I look at Tadley with its 10 churches which are all struggling to run a really good kids ministry, and who can only do really good outreach when we work together, but then we go back to our separate fellowships, and we secretly hope that anybody new will follow us. But in reality we can’t carry off something as good as messy church or the Holiday club every week, because we are worried about the wheels falling off our own wagon. When I look at this, I think we need unity. We need less churches and more Christianity. But I know that I need to be broken some more before that can happen. I need to enter the second half of life. I need to die to myself, my success, my church, my reputation. I need to be willing to fail in the eyes of my Diocese and my denomination so that we can party like people who don’t care any longer. Those are the best parties, aren’t they? When nobody cares how they look any longer and we are together for the first time.

Later this year we are going to ask the people of Tadley and Pamber heath and Silchester “what hurts the most?” as together we engage in Who cares? It’s going to be hard work but we have an opportunity to really hear the pain of the people who live around us. I hope we can do this together, because if we as the church are not interested in what hurts our neighbours, then what are we doing? And how do we know what hurts most, unless we ask?

But My question is this: how will we respond if we are not in unity? How much time will we waste keeping the wheels on our wagon, when we should be working together for God’s Kingdom? If we respond to people’s deepest pain with projects designed to grow our church, and not to meet their need, then we will lack integrity. But how can we truly respond to needs if we are focused too much on self preservation? Like the older son, welcoming the lost back home means that we suffer loss ourselves. Somebody has to pay for grace. The cross doesn’t mean that there is no more price to be paid; the cross is the model and archetype of how people are saved – at great personal cost.

We worship a saviour who paid it all for us, a saviour who was totally prepared for loss, ill repute and failure. Isn’t it perhaps time that we stopped trying to win, and embraced loss for the sake of the lost? I preach to myself as much as any of you.

Jesus’ economic policy (Jn.1-11)

A man and his wife are sitting at a table at their high school reunion, and he keeps staring at a drunken woman swigging her drink, as she sits alone at a nearby table.

His wife asks, “Do you know her?”

“Yes,” he sighs. “She’s my old girlfriend. I understand she started drinking right after we split up those many years ago, and I hear she hasn’t been sober since.

“My God!” says the wife. “Who would think a person could go on celebrating that long?”

So, there really are two ways to look at everything…which brings me onto the story of Jesus turning water into wine (John 2.1-11). Let’s consider some of the different ways of seeing this story:

1. you can see it as a straight forward account of Jesus’ first miracle, a simple story of a family wedding where the couple embarrassingly run out of wine. Jesus steps in to help after pleas from his mother. It’s not exactly what he wanted to do, or maybe even the best use of his powers, but it expresses the love of God for the simple pleasures of life: weddings, families, love.

So at this level it is just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a life affirming, love affirming, hope giving insight into the heart of God – a God who cares about the little things as well as the big picture.

2. you could see it as something much more like a parable, than a real event, after all John is quite creative in the ways that he depicts Jesus. So this event could be more like a commentary on the words that Jesus says elsewhere (in Matthew) that his teaching is like new wine that cannot be held in the old wineskins. Or a development of the theme that John will develop of how Jesus surpasses some of the old ways of Judaism.

In this way of seeing, Jesus replaces the ritual washing of Judaism (and indeed of the baptism of John) with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Old Judaism is then depicted as sober, basic, or as old wine, which runs out, only to be replaced by the abundance of the best wine that Jesus magicks out of simple water.

If you read John’s Gospel through with us last year, you’ll know that John weaves a powerful story and loves to play with themes, so my money is on the 2nd way of reading the story. This doesn’t mean that John fabricated the story. He’s more sophisticated than that. But I’m not sure that the story happened exactly as recorded by John.

This brings me onto a really quite important topic: how important is the historical Jesus? Does it matter if everything didn’t happen quite as it is described in the new Testament?

I’m going to argue that it doesn’t, just as it doesn’t matter that any history happened exactly as recorded. There are always 2 ways of seeing anything, at the very least. If you doubt that, ask whoever shares a house with you to give you a blow by blow account of yesterday.

Everybody who tells a story wants to make a point. The point might be “It wasn’t my fault”, or it might be “You would be better off if I was in charge”. Every story is told to make a point, even the BBC news.

The point of John’s story of Jesus is to open our eyes to a life changing story. So much of life is about limits – our wine is always running out. The story of contemporary society is a story of scarcity: we can’t let immigrants in because they will take our jobs, as if there was a finite number of jobs or money; we can’t educate everybody to tertiary level without making them pay, because they might not pay it back; we must all work harder, longer and for less pay because there won’t be enough to go round otherwise.

The irony here is that we have more of everything than we have ever had in the whole of human history, we even have longer lives than people have lived before, yet we all live in fear. Fear that the money will run out; fear that the NHS will go bankrupt; fear that the lights will go out; fear that we will die too young. We live in a world that is constantly in fear of the wine running out.

And Jesus explodes this right open. He overturns this kind of economics. Once you turn water into wine, then wine becomes as cheap as water, and water becomes all that you need. Water into wine is a powerful metaphor for the change our thinking needs: we no longer live in a world of scarcity and competition.

Now it doesn’t matter whose wedding is better. Now it doesn’t matter who grows the best grapes and produces the best wine. Now It doesn’t matter who is rich and who is poor, because anybody can have enough.

Of course, you want to say: “that’s all very well for Jesus, but it isn’t the way that life works”. But this is the point of the story. We decide how life works. We make up the rules. If life doesn’t work that way, that is because the people who write history have told another story: a story where nothing grows on trees, especially not money, a story where work is done by the sweat of your brow, and you have to slave for every cent that you earn.

But is that true? How much of what you own did you actually produce? And how much came to you because you relied on other people’s work? Isn’t our wealth a co-operative venture, where everybody sinks or swims together? Isn’t that how economies work, they are a group effort that depends on co-operation not competition? And co-operation requires grace.

It’s Epiphany today, when the church celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles, starting with the wise men. Now the point here is that Jesus comes with the whole Jewish heritage, which was a heritage of God’s overturning the idea of scarcity: he gives a childless old man a family tree that is innumerable; he gives a nation of slaves a land flowing with milk and honey; he gives a defeated people the promise of a city paved with gold.

The whole story of the old Testament is of God lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty. It is a story of generosity, of grace, of freedom. Jesus simply makes this story accessible to the rest of us. It was a Jewish story, and now it is the story of every man and woman.

But it’s just a story, unless we choose to believe it and act on it. If you ignore the story, then it is just a fairy tale. If you choose to live like it, then you get to see if it is true or not.

So this is the challenge of 2017: would you like to live a different story? A story where there is enough for everybody? Where those who gather too much find it goes rotten in their pots, and those who gather too little have enough, as with the manna in the wilderness? Does it really matter how much money you have when you die?

So the story of Jesus changing water into wine speaks to us of a different sort of economy – an economy of grace, an economy of sufficiency. What might this look like in practice?

It looks like an economy where we view our charitable giving as at least as important as our holidays, where we give away the same amount as we spend on holidays, and maybe give away the same amount of time as we spend on holiday. After all, when there are people starving in other countries and going without holidays in this country, shouldn’t we even it up a bit?

It looks like an economy where paying taxes is a moral duty, not an inconvenience. And if duty seems a bit cold, then maybe privilege is a better word – it is a privilege to live in safety and peace – worth paying for.

It looks like an economy where we all get to rest from the endless cycle of consumption at least once a week; a day off for everybody. It used to be called a Sabbath.

It looks like an economy where everybody who works gets paid a living wage and there are limits to how much wealth individuals are allowed to accumulate.

It looks like an economy where we learn to practice contentment ourselves and say enough is enough, because then we have much more room in our hearts for generosity. And where we don’t use up all the earth’s resources in our relentless drive to get rich quick.

You may never have thought that Jesus’ gift to the world was an economic policy, but how can he save the world without saving real people in the reality of life that we call our economy?