Friday, 6 April 2012

A story about the Eucharist

The drinking began when David's mother died. First it was to silence the grief. In later years it was because his body demanded it.

One night he collapsed in an alleyway between a church and a bank. The last thing he saw before closing his eyes was a rat. It seemed to be the most perfect creature in the world.

When the noise of the morning rush hour woke him, David opened his eyes and saw nothing but an empty white void. He was still in the alleyway. He could hear it, smell it and touch it. He just couldn't see it. His eyes said he was somewhere else.

"This is it," he thought. "I've destroyed my sight. It's finally happened."

He stood up and felt his way along the wall. The bank was on the left, or was it the right? Either way he would go there and ask for help.

At the end of the alleyway David hesitated. He used to be such a well presented young man. Now his clothes were dirty and his skin reeked of alcohol. He didn't want to talk to anybody. He was ashamed.

Then he saw something in the empty white void. There were patches of colour. Some were bright, some were dark, but most were a mixture of the two. From the way they moved David guessed that they were people.

One very bright patch of colour stopped in front of him. It was pure daffodil yellow and shone around the edges like candle flame.

"I know you," said David. "I've always known you." The patch of colour bobbed in acknowledgement and moved slowly onwards. David followed.

He realised from the smell of dust and furniture polish that it had led him into the church. The patch stopped and David did too. He felt a pew behind him so he sat down. Everything was okay. This was all very strange but it was okay.

Quick footsteps and a quicker "good morning" told David that the priest had arrived. The priest did not have a colour. There was a faint mistiness where he stood. David looked down and was surprised to see that he himself was golden brown.

It was a spoken service. The priest read the prayers and David watched as other patches of colour drifted in from outside. Soon the church was as bright and cheerful as his mother's sewing basket.

The beginning of the Eucharistic prayers caused the colours to circle around the priest. Then a pure stream of light, brighter than David could imagine, poured down from above. It filled the room, so that the spaces between the colours seemed like stitches of flame.

David found he was a part of it, but he was not frightened. Everything was right and good and as it should be.

Faster and faster the colours circled around the priest, and then there was a crack like thunder. The light disappeared. The colours hugged into each other, forming a giant ball, then sped from the room in different directions.

David opened his eyes. He was still inside the church and his eyesight had returned.

The priest, a portly man in his sixties, came over.

"I'm glad I found you asleep in here. I couldn't have celebrated a Eucharist alone and it is a feast day," he said.

"It wasn't just the two of us though was it?" David replied.

"No. I don't believe for one moment that it was."

Claire George

Monday, 26 March 2012

Sermon for Passion Sunday

Today is Passion Sunday. It's a time for thinking about Jesus's death on the cross.

In the Gospel reading for today Jesus predicts his death. He says: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John's Gospel tells us: "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die." 

Of all the things we believe, the crucifixion is one of the most difficult to understand. In classical Christianity we believe Jesus died to save us from our sins. The Bible tells us that through his death, humankind has been raised up and saved from sin. It's something that's said in every church yet it is very puzzling.

We call Jesus's death the atonement. The word means being at one. The two words AT and ONE, come together and change in pronunciation to ATONE. Christians believe that through Jesus's death God becomes at one with humanity.

How can the death of Jesus do this? What are the mechanics of it? In our faith we can't know everything. God is beyond human comprehension so some things will always be a mystery. We can't know exactly how the crucifixion worked to save us.

Medieval Christians had some theories. Many thought the Devil held humanity captive and that the death of Jesus was a ransom to get humanity released. St Anselm dismissed that idea. He said humans had dishonoured their Lord in the Garden of Eden, and that they needed to pay God to make up for it. Anselm said the debt was so great that God had to step in to repay it through Jesus's sacrifice of his own life.

The French theologian Peter Abelard thought that through letting himself be killed, Jesus was showing God's great love for humanity. The death on the cross seems to say, I love you so much I will die for you. Abelard believed Jesus was setting an example for us to follow. In other words, we too should be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for love.

In today's reading Jesus says: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Jesus isn't asking you to hate being alive or to take a lot of pain for no reason. Jesus is talking about fruitful sacrifice, giving things up so that others can live. He says: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it does, it bears much fruit."

We are like grains of wheat. We can stay on the stalk, thinking only about ourselves. Or we can let ourselves fall into the earth, so that new wheat, carrying many more grains, springs up from us.

But don't be frightened. Christianity isn't about ending your life. There have been many Christians who have died so that others can live, but this isn't the only sacrifice you can make. In our daily lives we are called to sacrifice ourselves continuously. Daily sacrifice is part of kindness. To be kind we often have to give something up that we value.

Some of those sacrifices are really small, like missing a favourite television programme because a friend needs to talk. Some are really big, like risking your life to rescue Jews in Nazi Germany.

Christian sacrifice must have a purpose. Jesus's death on the cross was necessary. Without it, there would have been no resurrection and no church.

We should not forget we are not God. If we give and give, without taking care of our own spirit, we will one day find we are empty and can't give anything more. That's why it's important to know our limits. We must regulate ourselves so that we always have something to give.

We also need to think about the attitude in which we give. If we decide to sacrifice simply because we want to see ourselves as good Christians, we will be so focused on ourselves that we won't think carefully about what other people really need. Sacrifice should be thoughtful and those thoughts need to be directed outwards. We must never sacrifice to glorify ourselves, we do it to help others.

Now, before I finish, let's return very briefly to the meaning of the crucifixion. I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you because they bring home to me the kindness and gentleness of God.

The early Jewish Christians saw the crucifixion in the terms of two Jewish rituals.

Once a year the Jews had a ceremony in which all the sins of the people were placed on a goat, which was then driven away or killed. They believed that the people were cleansed and that the animal carried the sins away. This was one way of thinking about Jesus. He was the sacrificial scapegoat who took all the sins of the people and carried them away.

At the time of the crucifixion Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate the yearly Jewish festival of Passover. At Passover, the Jews killed a lamb. They did this to connect them to the Jews of the Exodus story. In the Exodus story the Jews in Egypt killed a lamb and daubed its blood on their doors so that the angel of death would not kill the firstborn in their houses.

For that night the killing of a lamb was a victory over death for the Jews. Early Jewish Christians saw a similarity between the Passover lamb and Jesus. The death on the cross was Jesus's victory over death for all humankind. That's why we call Jesus the lamb of God.

I'm guessing the early Jewish Christians believed that in the crucifixion Jesus performed the FUNCTION of a scapegoat or Passover lamb. If you believe this, and millions of people do, you believe that Jesus's death actually changed something in the spiritual fabric of Creation. I'm not arguing against this belief but, for me, it has always seemed strange that Christ's death should function in a way that's really hard to understand if you're not Jewish.

I wonder if the crucifixion was not a function, but was instead a COMMUNICATION of divine love, divine forgiveness and victory over death for all who follow God.

What if Jesus performed a living parable through his death and resurrection? What if God acted in a way that would bring the Passover and the scapegoat to mind, so that a profound message could be communicated?

In his spoken parables, Jesus used things from everyday life to tell stories that communicated a deep message. What if God saw that by making comparisons between the crucifixion, the Passover lamb and the scapegoat ritual, the early Christians would be able to receive a message from God that might otherwise be too deep and complex to understand?

If Jesus died in a really painful way so that the language of Jewish religious rituals could be used to communicate a message of love and forgiveness, that speaks very much of his loving, gentle kindness towards us.

Jesus was God. If he'd wanted to, he could have delivered all his teachings in the most sophisticated philosophical language of the day. Instead he focussed on delivering teachings in ways that everyone could understand. In his stories he described everyday situations that everyone knew about. He was a great communicator.

In our lives today, God is with us in ways that we can understand. His relationship with each one of us is completely unique to us as individuals because he uses what we can understand to talk to us. In your daily life, listen out for him. You are unique. God may be talking to you in a way that he talks to no one else.

Claire George

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

God calls us to flower in tight spaces

To a gardener this picture looks like a waste of good bulbs. To me it is an image of hope. Even trapped inside a bag, these daffodils have managed to flower.

God teaches us that it is our treatment of each other that matters more than anything. Worldly achievement is insignificant when compared to a life lived in love.

Your life may not have turned out as planned. You may be at the bottom of the financial heap, with the lowest status most poorly paid job you can imagine.

Your life may be dull, disappointing, boring and mundane. You may feel you are a failure because you haven't lived up to expectations.

Whatever traps you in worldly terms can't touch your ability to love. God calls us to serve each other and to think about the best interests of the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. Make your life about that and you will flower, even from inside a bag.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A sermon about demons

5th Feb, 2012
In today's Gospel reading we hear that Jesus cured those who were sick and cast out many demons. We hear that he did not let the demons speak because they knew him, and that the next morning he prayed and went on to another place to proclaim the message and cast out even more demons. It's really hard to look at this passage and not notice the repeated mention of demons, so that's what I’m going to talk about this morning.

Demons are as much a part of our popular culture as hamburgers and Marilyn Monroe. In recent times Hollywood has produced a number of movies and TV series about fighting these evil creatures. Through popular entertainment we have become familiar with the idea that they are part of a world of magic and witchcraft. In the classic 1990s television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the demons even wear suits and drink in bars run by other demons. It's important that we realise that these Hollywood demons have nothing to do with the Gospels. Jesus was not casting out creatures with little pointy horns. So much of what we picture when we think of evil and demons and hell was invented in the medieval period or later.

The New Testament never really tells us what demons are. Is the word demon used to describe a sick spiritual state or an independent creature with a will of its own? Is it just a word used to describe something that we now understand in a different way? Some people say that demons can't really be that important because there's no mention of them in the Gospel of John at all, and there aren't a huge number of mentions in the Hebrew Bible either. Other people insist that demons are real creatures and that if you dismiss them as nonsense you are being tricked by Satan himself. What you think is up to you, but I would advise caution when pondering on it. We are in this church because God is good and we want to learn how to love one another. It is not healthy to spend all your time thinking about evil, you can make yourself ill doing that.

When we read that Christ would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him, it does make it sound as if they were independent creatures. But, let's look at it another way. Imagine that there was no independent creature, but instead in the person's heart there was a great darkness because they felt a million miles away from God. If you were that person and you met God in Jesus, it would be like brilliant sunshine breaking in on the night sky. You would know that it was God and you would want to name him. God is your Creator, so you would know him without a doubt. Jesus would have to tell you not to reveal who he was. Might that have been the reason why onlookers saw Jesus preventing demons from speaking? We won't know the answer in our lifetimes. Even if we could go back in a time machine to see what Jesus was doing, I doubt that we would have the spiritual maturity to see what was happening in a possessed man's soul.

There are some people who believe that demons are the fallen angels we hear about in the Book of Revelations. You can believe that if you want. But be aware that between the time when the books of the Old and New Testaments were written, there were a lot of stories circulating about fallen angels. When the Revelations writer said that angels turned against God and fell from heaven, was he drawing on these stories, or was he reporting something that actually happened? Was the fallen angel story symbolic? That's up to you to decide. We won't know the answer on the Earth. If it did happen, you can't help but wonder why angels would choose to turn against God. He is their Creator too. There is a sense of rightness and belonging that comes from being as close to your Creator as possible. One always imagines that angels are so close to God that they know his love perfectly.

If any angels have fallen, perhaps it means that they don't have the close access to God that we imagine they do. Perhaps they are like human beings; they're on their own spiritual journey and God has given them the Free Will to decide whether or not to choose love. If demons are fallen angels, then they would have seen their Creator in Jesus. Jesus would have loved them and wanted to bring them back to the Father. It's worth noting that the Bible doesn't record Jesus needing to hunt down demons or demons taking great efforts to hide from him. The text suggests he came across them without having to look very hard. If they were fallen angels determined to oppose God, why didn't they all hide out in China until Jesus had gone? They must have known that God was in town. Did they stay in his neighbourhood because they wanted to be saved?

Whatever you think about evil or demons or fallen angels or the devil, you must trust that there is nothing stronger and greater and more loving in all Creation than God. If you think the devil is a person, you must know that he is a mere child stamping his foot in indignation against the Lord. If you think that demons are independent beings, you must believe that they are spiritually immature infants who do not understand the awesome love of God. God is a mighty mountain. He is the greatest thing you can imagine and an infinite number of times even greater than that. If you worry about demons, it's also worth remembering that the world was different in Gospel times. After going to heaven Jesus gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit. He left us a changed world. Jesus walks alongside each one of us. The demon possessed people he came across in the Gospel stories didn't have that advantage.

In Christianity there is more than one way of thinking about evil. Some people imagine that evil has an existence and that it is a thing. St Augustine and St Anselm both said that evil is the absence of good, it is not a thing at all. It does not exist in its own right. Imagine that God's love is the sun. The further away we go from the sun, the darker it gets and the easier it is to forget goodness.

When people say they feel evil in a room, perhaps it's like feeling an absence of warmth. Cold is what happens when there is no warmth, it's an absence. We humans are spiritual beings, we are attuned to sensing the presence of God. Perhaps when we feel something evil, what we are feeling is an empty space that needs love pouring into it.

People say, when they look at photographs of serial killers, that they can see an evil presence looking back at them. Perhaps that isn't anything supernatural. Perhaps it is our instincts speaking to us, telling us to keep away and keep ourselves safe. Like all animals we have an instinct for avoiding danger. We are also acutely sensitive to facial expressions and we tend to be wary of people who don't have expressive faces. When people are so damaged by life that they become self-centred and withdrawn, they don't look very friendly, and it can be very hard to look at them because we think they could hurt us. Maybe that's what people mean when they say they see an evil presence in people.

St Anselm believed that God did not create evil acts and evil decisions. He gave people and angels the ability to choose good. Choosing evil is not a God-given ability. Choosing evil is a non-choice, choosing evil is about not choosing good. Evil is seeing an injured stranger in the gutter and not choosing to help them. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan chose good. The people who passed the injured man, did not make the choice.

This makes me wonder, how much evil do we commit each day by not choosing to do good? Many of us will commit our most evil acts when we are shopping. Many of the things we buy are in our shops because somebody or something was harmed. If we have information about a particular product and we do not choose to avoid it, are we committing an evil act? If we have a friend who is suffering and we do not make the time to help them, is doing nothing an evil act? If we see someone being bullied and we don't step in to help them, is doing nothing an evil act? I think so. Dictators come to power because thousands of people individually choose to do nothing.

Our human weakness is that we are conformists, we are sheep. We are very easily influenced by each other's behaviour. We are easily led. We want to please. It keeps us safe. It is our survival skill. 200,000 years ago if you upset the other people in your group, you died. Conforming to the behaviour and values of the people around us is hardwired into us. Watch any of the magician Derren Brown's tv shows and you will see how easily he manipulates people into doing things by taking advantage of their desire to conform and be accepted. There are Christians who believe that evil is something that is a thing, but it doesn't come from the devil. They think evil is generated by human beings. I think it's this human desire to conform that gets us in trouble. I can't imagine how a Rwandan caught in the middle of a genocide could pick up a machete and start copying their neighbours. It's an unspeakable thing, but I believe it happened like that. And there must have been good people in that mess who did not give in, who used their God-given ability to choose good, and did not conform to the atrocities around them.

And I know that in our own lives many of us don't choose the good action because we don't want to be exposed as different. This sort of evil is not very dramatic. You can't cast it out. It doesn't crawl on the ceiling with its head spinning around. But it is an evil that we have to guard against in our everyday lives because it is the one that is closest to hand.

The former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright describes how virtue is something that we must work at to make a habit of until it becomes a natural part of ourselves and isn't an effort anymore. This is what we are called to do as Christians. Over the months and years of our lives it is the choices we make and do not make that form who we are, and decide whether we are good people. Claire George

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Anselm's times and why God became man

Text of a talk given at St Laurence Cowley on 25th January 2012

Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. He wasn't an Englishman or a Norman. He was born in Aosta, in the Kingdom of Burgundy in 1033. The kingdom no longer exists, but the city of Aosta is still there in the Italian alps, not far from the border with France.

Anselm came from a family of means and high birth. When he was a boy he wanted to be a monk but his father, Gundulf, refused and the local abbot would not take him without his father's permission. Anselm later believed that it was because God wanted him to serve in another land. Ironically, Gundulf himself became a monk in later life.

Anselm forgot about the religious life and became a wild youth. After his mother died he got on so badly with his father that he decided to leave. He spent three years in Burgundy and France, and finally went to study with the famous Abbot Lanfranc, a fellow northern Italian, at the Benedictine monastery of Bec in Normandy. Anselm didn't know it then but his career would follow Lanfranc's rather closely. Like his teacher, he became abbot of Bec and then Archbishop of Canterbury.

It could so easily have gone another way. After studying for a while, Anselm felt his sense of religious vocation returning to him. He wasn't sure whether to be a monk at Bec or at Cluny (another famous monastic house), or whether to live a life of holiness on his father's estate. He even wondered whether to be a hermit.

Life as a hermit might have suited Anselm. Despite reaching high office and taking his work seriously, he regarded such positions as a distraction from a life spent focused on God. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the church, Anselm was not a career politician. He seems to have been a very likeable man of strong faith.

He was persuaded to stay at Bec, and at the age of 27 became a monk. He developed into a well known teacher and a respected spiritual master. It was at Bec that he wrote many of his most famous works.

When Anselm came to England it wasn't with the intention of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. He was invited here by several members of the nobility who thought of him as their spiritual physician.

There was no Archbishop of Canterbury at the time because Lanfranc had died several years previously. The king ,William Rufus, wanted a new Archbishop. He was worried that he might go to hell because he had been enjoying Canterbury's revenues for longer than the customary year. Anselm resisted the King's suggestions that he become Archbishop of Canterbury. In the end Anselm was invested with the episcopal staff by force at Gloucester in 1093. The staff had to be held against his closed fist during the ceremony.

Anselm served as Archbishop until his death, despite spending two periods in exile after disagreements with the monarch over his intrusions into church business.

What was significant about Anselm's ideas?

Anselm grew up among the alps with ideas about God that were quite logical considering where he was and the time that he lived in. As a small boy he thought that heaven rested on the tops of the mountains that he could see from his home. One night he had a very vivid dream or vision. He dreamt that he had been invited to visit the royal court of the King of Heaven, in other words God.

On his way he saw the King's servants reaping corn at the foot of the mountain. They were working lazily and he felt indignant about that. He found God alone with his steward and realised that it was autumn harvest time and that the rest of the household was working in the fields. The Lord welcomed him, asking him who he was and where he had come from. He then told the steward to bring Anselm some bread. Anselm ate the bread in God's presence and afterwards found himself at home. The next day when he told others about it, he believed that it had really happened.

This vision or dream helps us to understand how Anselm and his contemporaries thought about God. In our own time we often think of God as someone who is both creator of all things and a close personal friend. Anselm and his contemporaries believed, as we do, that God loves us,  but they pictured him in quite different terms.

They lived in a feudal society where everyone's social rank was clearly marked out. There was a strong sense that whether you were a serf at the bottom or the King at the top, you were born into your rightful place in life. In this system, everyone owed allegiance to someone who was higher up than them. The peasantry in a village owed allegiance to the Lord of the manor. The Lord of the manor owed allegiance to the area's great nobleman. The nobility owed allegiance to the monarch.

In the churches and the monasteries priests, monks, nuns and friars also followed a very clear system of obedience to those who held higher office than them. Anselm always respected his superiors and like everyone else in the church saw the Pope as his ultimate human Lord. As Archbishop of Canterbury he often fell out with the King of England because his first loyalty was to the Pope. He objected when the King tried to take powers that belonged to the church.

It was natural for people in a feudal society to look at God through the lens of how they lived. They saw God as the highest Lord, to whom all people owed allegiance. It's not surprising then that the boy Anselm dreamt that God was a king who lived in a household and had a steward and servants. In the dream, remember, the boy Anselm was indignant because he saw God's servants being lazy in the fields. He clearly believed that it was their duty to do their best for God.

This sense that human beings had a duty towards God had a major influence on his theological writing. The idea that people owed a duty towards their Lord might sound oppressive to our modern ears. We mock authority. But Anselm saw freedom in doing what one was born to do. For Anselm, doing what one OUGHT to do, was a joy and a delight. It created a world of harmony and order. Anselm didn't enjoy falling out with the King of England because it was disharmonious.

Anselm applied his belief in order and duty to some of the most difficult questions on the minds of Christian thinkers of his day. His method was original because it was based in a high level of rationality. Other Christian thinkers were taking scripture and commenting on it. Anselm was constructing elegant and highly logical arguments to prove things such as the existence of God.

Anselm's theological writing can often seem mechanical because he was so rational, but he was a man of deep faith. He assumed that the orthodox teachings of the church were true. He did not aim to find faith through reason, but rather to use reason to enrich his own faith and change the minds of unbelievers. He said:

"I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand.'"

An example of the rationality of Anselm's thought can be seen in his argument for the existence of God. His argument has received a great deal of criticism over the centuries and has a rather big hole in it; but it demonstrates how he liked to flip ideas around.

Anselm argued that God is the greatest thing we can think of, and that because we can think of him, he exists in the mind. Reality is greater than the mind, so if a thing exists solely in the mind, it can exist in reality, which is greater. If the greatest thing that can be thought exists in the mind alone, it is the same as that which a greater thing can be thought, which is impossible. Therefore there is no doubt that the greatest thing we can think of exists in the mind and in reality. Understandably some of Anselm's contemporaries argued against this theory.

During his lifetime Anselm had many friends and copies of his writings were placed in monastic libraries all over Europe. His influence lasted for centuries.

His explanation of why God became man and died on the cross was tremendously important. It emerged out of the clear hierarchy of feudal society, and had a major influence on Christian thought.

If you believe Jesus had to die for the Father to forgive humankind, and that the cross solved a problem that could not be solved in any other way, know that a lot of this came via Anselm. His genius was in his articulation rather than his invention.

Theory of the atonement

Anselm and his contemporaries believed that when Adam and Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden, humankind became tainted with Original Sin. Anselm thought that in each human being there was nature and person. Nature is what makes you human, person is what makes you an individual.

Original Sin is carried in human nature. The sins you commit are carried in your person. When Adam and Eve failed to do their duty to God in the Garden of Eden, their sin was personal. But their personal sin corrupted their natures and all their descendants inherited a corrupt human nature.

Anselm believed that Original Sin is only present in rational people, so a foetus or a very young infant will not carry Original Sin. However, the church taught that baptism was necessary to get into heaven and that nobody can get into heaven who is not perfectly just, so unbaptised infants would go to hell anyway. They had not grown into the rationality that would enable them to be just.

The importance of this is that Jesus the man did not carry Original Sin because he was not born with it, and had divine knowledge as soon as he became rational.

The sin of Adam and Eve was that God had a plan for humankind and they thwarted it. He created people to enjoy his presence as citizens of heaven, living in equality with the angels. Adam and Eve thwarted the plan with their disobedience by eating the apple. God himself is perfect and cannot be dishonoured in himself, but within Creation, humankind had literally dishonoured its feudal lord and failed to do its duty.

In Anselm's thinking, sinning is not rendering unto God what one ought. He did not believe that evil and bad were things in themselves, they were instead an absence of good. So justice exists, but injustice does not exist in itself, it is the absence of justice. Original Sin was injustice.

When angels and people do bad things, Anselm argued, it is not because God has created evil. Angels and people have the will to turn towards good, and this will comes from God. Turning towards evil is the absence of this will and it is not created by God.

In Anselm's time people were asking whether the crucifixion was God saving humankind by paying a ransom to the Devil. Anselm dismissed the belief that the Devil had any rights over humankind. He said the Devil was a usurper and thief who stole sinners from their Lord, therefore he had no right to be paid a ransom.

Instead, Anselm saw the crucifixion as God paying a debt for humankind. Humankind had been disobedient, and it owed God something called satisfaction. You must have heard the term satisfaction in the movies, when one knight says to another "you have insulted me, I demand satisfaction."

Humankind had to do something over and above its duty to apologise to its Lord and restore order in Creation. But, Anselm argued, humankind was incapable of doing anything more than its duty. So the only person who could give God satisfaction was God himself, which he did because he loves us.

If God had simply forgiven humankind and not required satisfaction for the dishonour done to him, it would (thought Anselm) leave the situation in disorder and disharmony and would not be in keeping with the order and harmony of divine nature.

God could have sent an angel or a newly created man to die on the cross, but then humankind would owe service to that angel or newly created man. Humankind could only owe service to God. Also, Anselm argued, satisfaction had to be paid by someone descended from Adam. If God simply created a new man, that man would not come from Adam's stock.

So satisfaction had to be paid by God, because humankind could do no more than its duty. Satisfaction also had to be paid by a descendent of Adam. Anselm argued that this was necessary to maintain order and harmony. For this reason, it had to be Jesus. He was both God and a descendent of Adam through being born to the Virgin Mary.

Anselm liked symmetry and he saw it in the idea that it was a woman who ate the apple and it was a woman who brought Jesus into the world. Similarly Anselm saw a symmetry between the tree that the apple came from and the tree that Jesus died on. In other words it was a woman and a tree that started all the trouble and it was a woman and a tree that ended it.

By dying on the cross, Jesus gave God satisfaction and restored honour. Through Jesus we had baptism which wiped out Original Sin. Humankind had to be purified in order for people to join the angels in heaven. The crucifixion did not lower God. God raised up humankind.

To those who asked how the death of one man could redeem all of humankind's sins, Anselm said that the life of Christ had such weight it was of more value than all the sins put together.

Not everyone agreed with Anselm. His near contemporary, the French theologian Peter Abelard thought that this was not the reason why God became man. Abelard said that Jesus came to live with us in order to show us an example of how life should be lived.

Whatever you think about his ideas, nobody before Anselm had attempted to answer the great questions in this way. Within the feudal mindset, the idea of God as the Lord to whom satisfaction must be paid has an elegance and beauty.

His theological thinking can seem a bit emotionless, but Anselm was also a very popular devotional writer. He wrote letters of spiritual advice to friends and acquaintances across Europe.

We know as much about him as we do because his friend and fellow monk Eadmer, wrote his biography. It reveals him to be a very holy and sweet natured man who had a great enthusiasm for teaching and talking about scripture. It's an indication of his character that when he found out that Eadmer was writing a biography, he at first took a scholarly interest and then decided that he was not worthy to be remembered. He asked Eadmer to destroy everything he had done. Eadmer did destroy everything he had done, but only after making a sneaky copy!

Anselm was made a saint in 1494, although he was revered locally in Canterbury earlier than that. In 1720 he was made a doctor of the Roman Catholic church.

Let's end with an extract from a meditation that Anselm wrote about the crucifixion.

O Cross, chosen and prepared for such ineffable good,
the work that was accomplished on you exalts you more
than all the praises of human or angelic thought and tongue.
In you and through you is my life and my salvation;
in you and through you is the whole and all my good;
'forbid that I should glory save in you.'
For why was I conceived and born, and given life,
if afterwards I am to descend to hell?
If that is to be my fate it were better for me
if I had never been conceived.
And it is certain that it would have been so
if I had not been redeemed by you.

G.R. Evans Anselm  1989
Justo L. Gonzalez A History of Christian Thought Vol II 1971
The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion

Monday, 9 January 2012

Sermon: Epiphany 2012

Today is Epiphany, the beginning of a season of the church year called epiphanytide. Epiphany is all about signs, the word means to "make manifest." During epiphanytide we remember three signs in Jesus's life that tell us that God was in him. These were the visit of the three wise men, his baptism by John the Baptist (when God spoke) and the turning of water into wine at the wedding of Cana.

Epiphany itself is a celebration of the wise men's visit to the baby Jesus. Their journey from the East, following a star, is a sign that Jesus was divine. It seems strange to me that we don't celebrate the shepherds in epiphanytide. The appearance of the angel on the hillside was a very big sign of Christ's divinity. But the shepherds came earlier in the story of Christ’s birth, so they belong to Christmas. That's why they are already in the crib scene beneath our altar. The wise men had a longer journey and arrived later, maybe up to two years after Christ's birth, so they are being added to the scene today.

Before I became a churchgoer, I thought of the wise men and the shepherds as nothing more than colourful decorative characters in the Nativity story. I didn't realise that their role in the tale highlights some of the major messages of Jesus Christ's ministry. They are signs of what Jesus is all about.

Throughout the Bible we see that God has a thing for turning the world upside down. Conventional human wisdom would say, surely the son of God must be born in a palace. His mother must be a Queen and he must spend his life surrounded by the best, richest and most perfect of people. But that is not what happens. Jesus isn't even born in a house, his bed is an animal feed box, his mother is a peasant girl and he spends his life among the poor, keeping company with prostitutes and tax collectors. These things are a sign that what God values in society, is not what we value. It's the heart that matters, not your status or how much money you have.

Conventional human wisdom would say that the first visitors to baby Jesus must be high status worthies and dignitaries. But that isn't what happened. The first visitors to the baby Jesus were at the bottom of and outside of Jewish society. The shepherds were dirty and unclean, low status people. The wise men were foreigners from another religion.

The shepherds are in the Nativity story because God cares about the poor and the downtrodden. The wise men are there because Christ was not sent for the Jews alone, he was sent for the whole world. You could say that Epiphany is a celebration of the day the Christ story went global.

When I was a child I liked the wise men best because of their colourful glittering costumes. The gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh made them more interesting to me than the shepherds, who dressed in rags and had some boring old sheep. As an adult I've tended to prefer the shepherds. The attention that God pays them is a constant reminder that money and high status don't matter in his Kingdom.

But this image of the wise men as three richly dressed kings isn't the Biblical one. It comes from European art, not the Bible. The Bible doesn't even say there were three men, it doesn't give a number. In the West we assume there were three because they gave three gifts. In the eastern tradition they say there were twelve. The Bible doesn't tell us their names either. Many people will tell you they were called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but that's a seventh century invention.

Also, they weren't kings. In the original Greek in which the story was written they were called Magi. Because of this word we're not 100 percent certain who the wise men were, because the word Magi had more than one meaning. One use of the word Magi was to describe people from Persia, now Iran, who were members of a priestly class specialising in astrology and astronomy. The Bible says the wise men came from the East, and so, many people believe the wise men were astrologer priests from Persia.

However, another meaning of the word Magi was that they could be people who told fortunes, interpreted dreams and spoke to the dead. These people were all over the Middle East. They could be magicians or even charlatans who took people's money by pretending to have occult powers. Were the wise men priests of a foreign religion or were they dodgy magicians from somewhere out east? We'll never know.

Gifts made by the 11am congregation
Whoever they were, the Magi were not people the Jewish establishment of the time would have been keen on. This is why they are in the Nativity story.

It matters that Jesus's first visitors were shepherds and foreigners, just as it matters that the first people in the resurrection story were women. It matters that Jesus's mother was a peasant girl. The Bible is a story of God's love for people who are at the bottom or even outside of polite society. He shows this love in the way that these people are the star characters in the stories. These people are signs.

And don't think that rich, successful people are excluded from God's love. The Bible is also a story of God's love for people who are deeply flawed, and that's pretty much everyone. Last summer we heard all about God's journeys with Jacob the cheat and his vain son Joseph. And a large chunk of the New Testament – the Christian part of the Bible – was written by St Paul, a man who persecuted Christians before his conversion. (By the by, we should also remember St Paul on Epiphany because he worked to spread Christ's message outside the Jewish world. From the wise men onwards, Jesus was for everyone, not just for Israel.)

So, what can we do with the wise men, apart from thinking how nice it is that their presence in the Nativity story shows us these things? Because as we know, our faith in Christ is more than belief in a story. Our faith calls us to take energy and ideas from the Bible stories and to put them into action in our everyday lives.

Firstly, most obviously, the story of the wise men is a sign that we should be open hearted to travellers from other cultures and to people that society looks down upon. The courage that the wise men showed in going out to seek new things is also a sign to us. They sought knowledge in the stars, and when they saw a star that they believed in, they were brave enough to travel a long way at a time when travelling could be dangerous. When they saw the star they couldn't really know that Jesus would be underneath it, it was just a sign. Their journey was one of faith and trust.

Messy Church Christmas banner
Compared to the wise men, the shepherds have it easy. The angel seeks them out and tells them the good news. When an angel is talking to you, you don't need faith. In 21st-century Britain we aren't likely to share the experience of the shepherds, but we can all be Magi.

Our society is full of Magi, seekers after truth. Go into any book shop in this country and you will find alongside the books on various mainstream religions, at least a few shelves devoted to astrology, to fortune telling, to speaking with the dead, to making contact with aliens from other planets. Many people in this country are deeply attracted to the idea that there is another world beyond our own, but they don't know what to do with that attraction. You can see that in everything from books about the paranormal through to vampire romances. People are seeking a truth beyond the visible world, seriously and light heartedly, sometimes both at the same time.

Occasionally these 21st-century Magi will look at Christianity, think "hmmm, shall I give it a go?" and get on their camels seeking an epiphany of their own. It's up to us to make sure that when they get here they do find signs of Christ among the Christians. We do not want the 21st-century Magi to find an empty manger.

At baptism and confirmation each one of us made the difficult promise to do our best to follow Christ by really loving other people and really trying to deal with our personal flaws.

If we truly manage to do this, there will be a star above us and the warmth of God's love will be detectable around us. Each one of can be a living candle, a sign, if we really try. We can, if we want to, be lights to each other, and to any 21st-century Magi who come to visit.

Claire George

Monday, 2 January 2012

Sermon 4th December 2011

Welcome to St Laurence's on the second Sunday of the season of Advent. With all the things we see on the television and in the shops, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was Christmas already. But it isn't, it's Advent.

Advent is a time of waiting, when we think about the coming of the Lord and think about how we can make ourselves ready for it. During this month we reflect on those who waited for the first coming of the Lord, in the baby Jesus.

We try to make ourselves ready to hear the wonderful Christmas story again and to appreciate how amazing it is that God - the Creator of all things - loves us so much he came to live among us in a human being. We also think ahead to the second coming of the Lord, when all the world will be at peace.

In Advent we are imaginatively waiting for the first coming. I say imaginatively because it has already happened; during the time of the Roman Empire. It's an event in human history. And at this time we remind ourselves that we are always, whatever the season of the church year, waiting for the second coming.

In the second epistle of Peter, the author says "we wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home … while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish."

It's often said that Jesus talks as if the second coming is about to happen any minute now in 1st century Palestine. It obviously didn't, and some people wonder why, but perhaps that's because humans misunderstand what time means to God. The author of Peter reminds us: "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day."

It's been 2,000 years and we're still waiting for the second coming, but the author of Peter says: "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentence."

In other words, God is taking such a long time about it because he's patiently waiting for us to learn how to be loving human beings. This is what we mean when we say we are working with God to bring his Kingdom to our world. The second coming isn't just going to be plonked down upon us, without us having to do anything. We have to work with God by learning to be better people.

During Advent, when we reflect upon how we are waiting for the second coming and what this means, we need to think about what we can do so that God finds us at peace. We can inspire ourselves to act by casting our minds back thousands of years back to Israel and the people who waited for the Messiah.

The Bible readings for Advent remind us that God communicated a promise through the prophets, and he kept it, the kept promise was Jesus. God kept that promise as surely as he will keep the promise of the second coming, communicated through Jesus.

That promise was communicated through the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus. Here's a shortened version of what Isaiah said in today's reading: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem … she has served her term and her penalty is paid … the glory of the LORD shall be revealed … See, the Lord GOD comes with might … He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep."

Then a long time after Isaiah, came John the Baptist, the prophet who communicated God's promise in Jesus’s own lifetime. Preaching in the wilderness John said:

"The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

The prophets prepared the way for Jesus, but we are the ones who will have to prepare the way for the second coming.

What can we do to prepare? The first thing is to be realistic. Loving behaviour isn't developed instantaneously. None of us will wake up on Monday morning with the sudden ability to do everything we need to do to live peacefully with the world. We change when we slowly build up good habits, piece by piece. At first it might be really hard to remember to behave in certain ways, but with patience and willpower the good habits that we work to acquire become a natural part of us.

The process of changing ourselves will be hard because in our society being a Christian often means swimming against the tide.

Take Christmas and Advent for example. What we believe as Christians and what consumerism has turned this season into are two completely opposite things. I'd love to see the sort of Christmas our ancestors celebrated – with community fun, feasting and a real sense that it's a religious holiday. Christmas is in danger of being drowned out by commercialism.

I'm sure you've all found in the past that trying to have the sort of Christmas that Jesus would probably enjoy, can get you into hot water with friends and relatives who expect things to be as expensive and glitzy as possible. Jesus liked parties and feasting. But I think we can be quite confident that he wouldn't have approved of our ridiculous gift buying habits. Yet social pressure leads us into doing just the same as everyone else.

How many of us have bought presents that were made by underpaid workers or flown in from the other side of the world? How many of us have bought presents that were wrapped in excessive packaging that went straight in the bin? How many of us have bought presents knowing that they were stupid novelty items bound to be forgotten by Boxing Day and binned by New Year's Day?

Who buys guilt presents for people they don't spend enough time with? Who goes in for competitive present buying? Trying to make yourself important by buying the best gift? Who gets themselves into serious debt over Christmas present shopping?

Christmas has become about Christmas presents and spending money. The marketers try to convince us that it's all about showing our love for one another by giving each other objects.

That's how they sell it to us. When we go shopping the retailers try to tell us that giving gifts is the Christian thing to do because that's what the three wisemen did for baby Jesus.

But where in Christmas shopping can we see a celebration of God's promise to the world delivered in Jesus? If any of the gifts we buy are a product of exploiting or harming the poor, or damaging the world, then that's not celebrating Jesus at all. If we give gifts to people instead of spending quality relationship time with them, that's not celebrating Jesus either.

The second coming will be built on quality relationship time. God isn't waiting for us all to get really good at giving each other 3 for 2 toiletry bags from Boots. The only material objects he cares about is that all should have food and shelter.

God is waiting for us all to truly love each other. A real celebration of that is to buy Christmas presents that don't hurt the poor and don't hurt the planet. Instead of buying someone a gift they don't need, take them out for the afternoon and spend some quality time with them. Give them a phonecard so they can call you whenever they need.

The Kingdom of Heaven will be built on the slow cultivation of lots of good habits. This Advent think of one good habit you want to develop, maybe something to do with Christmas shopping, and stick with it. It may be hard the first year, but by next year it'll seem natural to you.

Claire George