From the Parish Priest, Fr Nicholas Clews
There is a lot of anger around at the moment. And a lot of it is about Brexit. Brexiteers are angry because we haven’t left yet; Remainers are angry because it still looks as if we will leave. And those who don’t care either way are angry because it seems to be consuming all the energy of both our politicians and the civil service.
St Paul knew how to let rip when he was angry. Especially when he was angry with his friends. For example, when he wrote to his Galatian friends, he addressed them as ‘you stupid people in Galatia!’ (Galatians 3:1). And he wrote a highly critical letter to other friends in Corinth which he himself described as ‘harsh’. (2 Corinthians 13:10)
It is therefore all the more significant that when he went to Athens he did not criticise or condemn all the pagan altars he found there. It certainly wasn’t because he found nothing that he could criticise. In fact Luke, who records this visit in his Acts of the Apostles, notes that Paul was ‘revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry.’ Acts 17:16.
So he could’ve gone in, all guns blazing, just as he did at Galatia and Corinth. But he didn’t. And he held back because the Athenians, unlike the Galatians and the Corinthians, were not yet his friends. You can be angry with your friends quite safely because you are bound in love and you know that when you speak honestly, even fiercely, your words will be received with love. You can’t take the same risk with those whom you do not know. You certainly can’t take that risk with your enemies.
So Paul didn’t take that kind of risk. In fact, rather than starting with his own agenda, he began with theirs. He praised their ‘scrupulosity’ in religion and made no comment about their altars dedicated to pagan gods. The one exception was the altar dedicated to an unknown God. Paul picks up on this and suggests that he can’t tell them who this unknown God is.
It is a classic example of a good mission. He did not tell the Athenians they were wrong, even though he may have thought it. Instead, he affirmed what was good in their religion and went on to show how it might lead them to believe in Jesus Christ. He took the trouble to understand where the Athenians were coming from.
Surely, this is exactly how we should engage in conversations about Brexit. It is so tempting to want to tell other people why our arguments makes so much sense! We all seem to be filled with a kind of missionary zeal to explain our case. And so the country is full of people talking at each other, shouting at each other, and no one listening to anyone. Perhaps the way forward is not for me to try to explain what I believe but for me to listen so what you have to say. And perhaps when each one of us has some understanding of how the other feels about our British or European identity, perhaps then there will be some healing and reconciliation.
Perhaps it is worth noting that the consequence of Paul taking the Athenians seriously was that they were willing to listen to him; and although some laughed at his account of the resurrection there were others who said, ‘we would like to hear you talk about this another time’, and there were some who became believers. The gentle approach worked.
I have, from time to time, stumbled across the Jeremy Kyle show. It seemed to me a rather bizarre kind of thing, a bit like human cockfighting. I couldn’t work out why people chose be so humiliated in public. It would now seem that the damage is much more serious than public humiliation. It can only be a good thing if such reality shows cease to be acceptable.
But there can be no doubt that for many years the Jeremy Kyle show appealed very successfully to a deeply ingrained human desire to enjoy other peoples’ discomfiture. Jeremy Kyle may go away, but that desire will not, and it will surface again as sure as eggs are eggs. And it won’t just surface in ‘them’ whoever ‘they’ may be: it will surface in me. I may not be a regular Jeremy Kyle viewer, I may not even enjoy it much when I do stumble across it, but that’s more because I’m not a great television fan: I prefer my human cockfighting live!
I find some encouragement in the discovery that I am not alone in having some rather unpleasant traits. St Paul also confessed to being rather nasty at times:
I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-20)
But Paul was hard not only on himself but also on his friends! He wrote to the church in Galatia:
If… you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not eaten up by one another. (Galatians 5:15)
But when he criticised, he also offered a solution. He claimed that the presence of Christ, the Holy Spirit, in a believer’s heart, could change that person’s whole attitude to life. He wrote,
the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
What he was claiming was that it was not a matter of keeping rules, trying harder, but rather of allowing one’s life to be filled by God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus said much the same thing using a very different image. He likened himself to a vine and those who believed in him to the branches: only by remaining part of the vine would the branches bear fruit. He was also very clear that branches which failed to bear fruit would be pruned. (John 15)
On June 9th the Christian Church celebrates the feast of Pentecost, the anniversary of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first generation of Christians. A lot of hot air and ink has been spent in debating the nature of the Holy Spirit. In the end it’s very simple: we know the Holy Spirit is working in a person when we see that person being filled with love and sharing that love with others. Or as Jesus put it:
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35)
On the Wednesday before Easter I led a group of children in a series of meditations on Jesus’s last walk. We looked at pictures showing how he was condemned to death by Pilate; how he was helped by Simon of Cyrene; how he tripped and fell; was stripped of his clothes; was crucified and laid in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
Most of the pictures were very literal depictions. They did not need much interpretation. But the fifteenth picture was different. It was entitled ‘Resurrection’. It showed two figures, one kneeling and the other sitting. They were reaching out their arms to each other, their fingers nearly touching but not quite. So I asked the children a very simple question: ‘Who do you think these two people are?’ There were many different answers, all of them interesting and valuable. But it was the first response that most grabbed my attention. The first reply was quite immediate and direct: ‘it is Jesus forgiving Pontius Pilate’.
Forgiving Pontius Pilate? Forgiving the man who condemned him to death because he wanted to keep in the good books of the local Jewish leaders and his boss in Rome? Forgiving the man who did not want to upset the crowd? But I knew that the child was right. At nine or ten years old she had grasped a fundamental truth that eludes so many adults. The truth is that Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation. And if Jesus can forgive Pontius Pilate who executed him, he can also forgive Thomas who doubted him, Peter who denied him and Judas who betrayed him. And he can forgive me. He can forgive you. And he can also forgive that person whom I cannot forgive.
Easter can be difficult. Forgiveness and reconciliation can be difficult. Sometimes I find it hard to accept that I can be forgiven. Surely I am too nasty and unpleasant for God to love me? Sometimes I find it hard to accept that God can forgive the person I can’t. It does not seem fair – but if Jesus can forgive Pontius Pilate perhaps anything is possible. But forgiveness and reconciliation are not nice extras. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not like the fluffy Easter Bunny! Forgiveness and reconciliation are the hard-core of reality. In the end there are two choices in life: we can build heaven. Or we can build hell. If we commit ourselves to forgiving those who have hurt us, to seeking reconciliation, then we will build heaven. But if we go through life promoting bitterness, seeking revenge, then we will build hell. And perhaps the last judgement is quite simply having to live in whatever kind of house we build.
Jesus told those who would listen to him,
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
When that child answered my question I knew exactly what Jesus meant!
‘They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid’.
These are the last words Mark wrote in his Gospel. It is a strange way to end the Good News of Jesus Christ!
The early church clearly felt the same for someone added a few more verses to bring Mark’s gospel to a more acceptable conclusion. But the most important ancient copies end with those words ‘they were afraid’ and most biblical scholars agree that that was where Mark ended.
Why did he stop there? Why did he not go on not tell about how so many people met the Risen Christ, about the spectacular growth of the church?
The obvious explanation is that he did not need to go any further. His readers knew the rest of the story. They were living it. By and large we tend to get down to writing history only when it is so long ago that we are in danger of forgetting it. Or when those who took part are getting old and are close to death. We don’t usually write history as we live it.
And the early disciples were living history. Mark only needed to tell the background to how they got to their present way of life. His was the first gospel to be written and his successors, Matthew, John and especially Luke give us detailed accounts of how the disciples met the Risen Christ. They do this because they are writing later and the appearances of the Risen Christ are no longer fresh in peoples’ memories. But in the end very few people feel the need to write history books about the present.
This strange ending is also a rebuttal of the claim, made from the time of Jesus onwards, that the resurrection was a fabrication by the disciples. No-one who wanted to make up a story about a dead man rising from the dead would report the fear and silence of the disciples let alone end on that note. The most obvious conclusion is that Mark was telling it as it was. The disciples were afraid; but they had also heard the news about the resurrection. Despite the apparently downbeat ending, Mark still manages to include the key piece of Good News:
‘Jesus has been raised:
he is not here’.
And that is still the heart of the resurrection faith. That is to say, he is not in the tomb. So where is he? Christians believe that Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, lives in the hearts of all who will welcome him.
HAVE YOU STOPPED BEATING YOUR WIFE? is a question none of us wants to answer! John McDonnell may feel the same way abut the question “Churchill: Hero or Villain?” His reason for answering ‘Villain’ was that Churchill, as Home Secretary in 1910, had authorised the deployment of the Metropolitan Police and of troops to prevent violence during a miners strike in South Wales.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian seemed to think that McDonnell should have gone further:
‘Why did McDonnell not mention Churchill’s role in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Germans?’
Or one might cite his stubborn opposition to Indian home rule. Or his disastrous attempt to return Britain to the Gold Standard in 1925 making the depression worse; or his role in undermining the General Strike of 1926.
Perhaps the real point is that any attempt to polarise historical figures into villains or heroes is naive and dangerous except as a frivolous party game. Churchill is both hero and villain. And so am I. And so are you.
This is the point of Ash Wednesday, an observance kept by Christians throughout the world. We enter the church thinking we are heroes but leave knowing we are villains. We are literally ‘ashed’ as a black, dusty sign of the cross is imposed on our foreheads. For over 30 years I have spoken the words ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.’ They are always moving but especially so when spoken to a child. The words remind me that there is much that is wrong in the world and it is not ‘their’ fault but ‘our’ fault or even ‘my’ fault.
This is dangerous stuff. It can lead to despair. It can lead to self indulgent breast beating. And if Ash Wednesday were observed in isolation it would be most undesirable. But the truth is that, for Christians, any observation of Ash Wednesday, or even Good Friday for that matter, takes place in the context of Easter. To put it in another way, whenever we acknowledge our failings, we do so in the knowledge that God has already forgiven us.
Perhaps the harder thing to know, is that God has already forgiven my neighbour, has already forgiven my enemy.
Perhaps that knowledge will be particularly useful this month. Nearly three years ago the government asked us a question: ‘Would you like to leave the European Union?’ That quite unemotional wording has now been transformed into something much more angst-laden: ‘European union: Hero or villain?’ That has led to a much more dangerous question: ‘Villain: Remainer or Brexiter?’
The truth is there are no heroes or villains, neither eighty years ago nor in our own time; neither in the world of politics nor in my family. There are humans beings who try their best and sometimes get it wrong – sometimes very wrong.
So if ever we are asked the question ‘Hero or Villain’ perhaps we should reply very firmly: ‘You are asking the wrong question!’