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As a teenager in youth fellowship I had a constant reminder of incarnation. In the room where we met there was a stained glass window commemorating John Wesley. Any one of a host of quotes could have inspired the viewer. Instead what I was told were his dying words graced the image and acted as a mantra for my teenage angst resulting from spots, general appearance, girls, uncertain future, cold war etc etc; ‘The best of all is God is with us.’

It wasn’t a biblical text that ‘saved me’ albeit the quote was of course formed from a lifetime’s study, devotion and experience; it was a statement that spoke volumes.

No matter what life throws at you; no matter how tough it gets; no matter what people think of you, how crazy and stressful you become as a consequence ‘the best of all is God is with us.’

For many years I believed this to be a God who was alongside. I would find a mystical presence on a walk through a familiar wood; I would find a confident voice that led me into ministry; I would sense a reassuring nearness that is beyond words; I would indeed find God to be alongside.

And I still to this day believe that God is indeed our companion along life’s journey with all its twists and turns, climbs and descents. But over time I have come to see God’s presence as being something much more than alongside. I have come to find God within.

When the darkness was very dark and the light too shameful for me to embrace, or when the night very long and the day too challenging to contemplate, I sensed an inner Hope that grew from within.

And this God within, rather than alongside, opens my eyes and heart to those about me in new and exciting ways.

Looking back it was shortly after I turned twenty-one that God within took on real meaning and I found a passage that expressed what I was feeling in terms much better than I could ever muster either then or now.

‘I was in an underground train, a crowded train in which all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging – workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in the – but because He was in them, and because they were her, the whole world was here too, here in this underground train; not only the world as it was at that moment, not only all the people in all the countries of the world, but all those people who had lived in the past, and all those to come.

‘I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere – Christ…

‘I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, which is in reality his utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in him. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them: they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. For the same reason, no one of us who has fallen into mortal sin himself must ever lose hope…

‘After a few days the ‘vision’ faded. People looked the same again, there was no longer the same shock of insight for me each time I was face to face with another human being. Christ was hidden again; indeed through the years to come I would have to seek for Him, and usually I would find him in others – and still more in myself – only through a deliberate and blind act of faith. But if the ‘vision’ had faded, the knowledge had not; on the contrary, that knowledge, touched by a ray of the Holy Spirit, is like a tree touched by the sun – it puts out leaf and flowers, bearing fruit and blossom from splendour to splendour.’
Caryll Houselander ‘A Rocking Horse Catholic’.

If Christ was within all those Houselander was encountering then Christ must have been born within them. They are after all made in the image of God.

This of course is fundamental to our faith as Christians, but often our fears and failings cause many of us to prefer otherwise. We would claim that we don’t but in reality we cast some outside the realm of God’s love by judging their actions, condemning their sincerely-held beliefs and scoff at their religious practices.

If God is within me, and I not only hope but believe it to be so, then God can only be in every single human being that has ever lived or will live.

It is challenging in the extreme for us to contemplate this to be so in not only the victim but perpetrator, in not only the abused but the abuser, not only those like us, who agree with us, who do things as we do and who are of little or no threat to our comfort and contentment but the moment we claim this God as our own and no one else’s is the moment that we have denied God’s presence within others and therefore within us too.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, 19th century poet and Jesuit priest, wrote
‘In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what was Christ is, since he was what I am.’

If the coming of the Christ Child means anything at all it means that God can no longer be seen as partisan, in other words one who supports only a section of people who claim to hold the eternal truths of God to the exclusion of those who beg to differ.

I fear that something of this incarnational theology has been lost over the years. But in the early days of Methodism our founders were quite clear. This is beautifully expressed in Charles Wesley’s majestic hymn:

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

All of this helps me when I grow weak in faith, when doubts assail me, when I am tempted to believe that others are wholly wrong and beyond the pale. It is a constant battle that is for sure. The problem arises when we believe or sense that there is no battle to be waged, as if we have already arrived and there is no need for further growth of awareness.

Isaiah scoffs at our feeble attempts to cast God into an image of our own making:
40.18To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?19An idol? —A workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains.20As a gift one chooses mulberry wood—wood that will not rot— then seeks out a skilled artisan to set up an image that will not topple.

Isaiah goes on to give us a real appreciation of what it is to know God within:

‘The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;31but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’

No wonder those who claim God as their own are so often fearful and angry. No wonder those who see God within all emit grace.

Recent statistics from the 2011 census make interesting reading. Some will interpret the drop in numbers registering as Christian worrying. I look at the drop in a different way.

It could be that the great British public have grown a little more honest and fearless. I have no idea how many times I was told on funeral visits ‘she never went to church but she was a Christian’. Maybe folk no longer have to make such an excuse. I have often though that you don’t have to be a Christian to go to church – and sometimes it shows! Thankfully that phrase, in my experience, appears to be less in use than it once was.

In a more diverse society with a greater number of faith options available people are less likely to tell a ‘porky’ in a census return; they no longer have to ‘pretend’. We can’t fool God and many have now realised that there is no point in trying to fool the minister when they call. I would prefer to know the truth than be conned by statistics that aren’t a true reflection of where we are at.

We would do well to analyse the returns and consider how our mission may be more effective as a consequence. One thing is clear and that is we live in a society of many faiths. We certainly need to develop our awareness of faiths other than our own; John Wesley would approve, it is an often overlooked fact that his writings were frequently in remarkable contradiction to the overriding aggressive attitudes many Christians of his day had toward Jews, Muslims and Hindus. This helps make me proud to be a Methodist.

Those that are confident in their faith and confident in the Church to which they belong will neither be daunted by the presence and contribution of those who are different, nor will they cower to the recent census statistics but welcome them as an indication of the reality on the ground. All of this provides a wonderful opportunity for a closer walk with Jesus.

Marriage is neither a solely political nor social issue, it is also a theological issue for which most politicians are not qualified.

Marriage is a life-long union of a husband and wife, of heart, body and mind and according to the very beautiful words in the Methodist marriage service it is a relationship built on

‘comfort and companionship
Enrichment and encouragement
Tenderness and trust’

The question is whether two people of the same sex can experience that same depth of relationship; experience tells us that they can. Whether such a relationship is sufficient to constitute an understanding of Christian marriage is of course a matter for debate as many would argue that it is not.

The traditional view of Christian marriage involves the giving of a man and a woman wholeheartedly to each other. Again the question is whether two people of the same sex can do so and once more experience tells us that they can and indeed do. But whether that technically fulfils the Christian ideal of marriage is a topic for the churches not the politicians.

We cannot overlook the fact that the Church once justified slavery from scripture so we should now realise that basing an opinion solely on scriptural interpretation is insufficient in itself to form a measured and informed argument. What we can say is that according to the gospel accounts Jesus is recorded saying far more about poverty and inequality than about sex. Maybe that’s where our efforts should be concentrated: on an increasingly divided society fuelled by politicians and their policies that seem to ignore the plight of the poor and disadvantaged.

We have recognised for many years, and rightly so, common law husbands and wives, even though they have not entered into a religious ceremony of Christian marriage. In more recent times we have recognised and formalised civil partnerships. The state may wish to further that status to civil marriage but religious communities ought not to be forced by the state to conduct same-sex marriages because that’s a matter for the Church, synagogue, mosque or temple.

We should remember that not all churches conduct marriage services for divorcees for example; now we could argue about that for quite some time, but we have grown to accept that some churches do and some churches don’t. There will probably come a time when some churches will have worked through their theological understanding to accept same-sex marriage and some that will reject it.

We live in an age where we think that there are instant solutions to every problem and that there can only be one right answer; but those who are honest know this to not be wholly true. Dilemmas and doubts are part of life’s rich mystery; some argue that this makes the faith journey more adventurous, challenging and humbling.
But people of faith must not allow others with their agendas, particularly politicians, with little or no theological expertise, to dictate what the Church should be debating and deciding and divide us yet further; those who have axes to grind against faith communities will seize upon this as another opportunity to bash people of faith. The Church is already divided enough over this issue and healthy debate isn’t helped by those who have their own agendas.

We need time and space to reflect in open, honest, sensitive conversations. This may not be quick enough for some and too quick for others but it will be worth the effort. We can live in unity despite our differences, we have done so for a long time over many other issues and we can do so over same-sex marriage.

I think it would be helpful to ask why it is that the PM has waded into the debate at this particular point. It was
• not in the Conservative party’s election manifesto
• not included in the Queen’s speech.

So why mention it and in particular why now?

In fairness to the PM there is a report on gay marriage coming before Parliament later this week; but why did he raise it in advance of the report? He did so of course at the end of a very difficult week for the Coalition Government. The Chancellor’s autumn statement has done little to ease fears of a triple dip recession. The Government had been warned that their austerity package would lead to a double dip recession; the predictions turned to reality and we now face yet another recession on Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne’s watch. With the poor getting even poorer and yes an easing of the tax burden for the wealthy it’s inevitable that the Government wants to turn the spotlight elsewhere.

So what does an embattled leader do in such circumstances? Look to those who express grave concerns about the growing inequalities within society, namely the Church, and seek to divide them over a separate issue that is bound to stir passions. This is something the Church must not fall for.

We must not lose sight of the way in which society is being divided between rich and poor, the private and public sectors and in this particular case the traditionalists and progressives.

It is understandable that we should have very different views on gay marriage and healthy debate isn’t helped by those who have their own agendas. We need time and space to reflect in open, honest and sensitive conversations. This may not be quick enough for some and too quick for others but it will be worth the effort.

The Church of course once justified slavery from scripture; we now know that this was not good interpretation but what we have failed to do is look at how we interpret scripture. For example Jesus said far more about poverty and inequality than he did about sex.

Therefore we must not allow others with their particular agendas, especially politicians, with little or no theological expertise, to dictate what the Church should be debating and deciding. Those who have axes to grind against faith communities will seize upon this issue as yet another opportunity to bash people of faith and silence prophetic voices that question divisive policies indifferent to the plight of the poor and vulnerable.

Has the Messiah Come?

6 December 2012

 

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“What is the difference between Jews and Christians?”  The young Amos Oz was to later become a giant of Israeli literature. “Well Amos,” began the wise woman looking down at her grandson, “We both believe in the Messiah….but Christians believe he has already come and will come again while we Jews believe he is yet to come.  Either way he is to put in an appearance. When he does if he says ‘let me introduce myself’ we were right and they were wrong but if he says ‘nice to see you again’ hey!”  In other words ‘so what, not to worry, c’est la vie.’  Two thousand years has made it all a little more complicated than that of course but it has made me smile ever since I first read it.

When Christians and Jews enter dialogue one of the difficulties we face in considering whether the Messiah has come or not is what we actually mean by the term Messiah.  The Jewish understanding is not exactly what many Christians think Jews believe, or would prefer them to believe.  Language and understanding evolve.  Even when there is a common starting point for two communities their language and understanding diverge, especially when they spend so long in fear of the other, the one of oppression and the other of facing up to their own shortcomings.  The consequences of failing to communicate with respect and openness include deeper misunderstanding not only of the other but also of our own heritage.

Both Christianity and Judaism have had occasions over the past two millennia to consider whether the Messiah has come (or come again!).

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE gave fresh input to the fledgling Church as it awaited the Parousia.  The revolt of 132-135 CE led Rabbi Akiva to claim the leader Simon bar Kochba to be the Messiah.  By the fourth and fifth centuries the Christian Church had to come to terms with the fact that Jesus had not returned.  In order to explain, the Church sought to allegorize the earlier claims.  Millennialism took hold during the Crusades and in particular for some time after the Reformation.  This was coupled by the 17th century Jewish messianic claimant Shabbetai Zvi.

It wasn’t long before a view formed that returning Jews to their ancient homeland was a precursor to the return of the Messiah.  The Zionist movement, the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel gave reasons for some in each faith community to believe that the scriptures and subsequent prophecies were about to be realized.

A click of the mouse will highlight how many have claimed messiahship or some variant of over the centuries.  It’s not just Christianity and Judaism that look for a divine figure to rescue the human race and establish a whole new order.  Even in secular movements a messiah-like status has been bestowed upon charismatic leaders, often with catastrophic consequences.

Christians would do well to appreciate that at the time of Jesus Jews did not solely understand the messiah to be a warrior king; some thought the messiah would be a priest, others an archangel or a divine being while another group believed that there would not be a single being but a whole new world order.  Indeed some Jews didn’t believe that a Messiah was coming at all, not then, not since.

Over the centuries, like Christianity, Judaism has continued to evolve and it is wholly wrong to rigidly consider Jews to be stuck in some first century time warp.  When attending a debate on the Messiah the rabbi had claimed that he had not yet come; Jan, a highly respected lay orthodox Jew, stood up and interrupted, “Rabbi,” he said “does not the psalmist say ‘Today – if you would only hear His voice’?”   Few Christians would equate Psalm 95 with the coming of the Messiah but this serves to highlight the divergence of the traditions over the centuries.  Jan was recalling a story from the Sanhedrin in which Rabbi Joshua asked Elijah when the Messiah was coming.  Elijah told him to go and ask him himself.  “Where shall I find him?” “By the gates of Rome.” “By what sign shall I know him?”  Elijah then informs Rabbi Joshua that he is sitting among the poor people covered in wounds and gives details as to how he might recognise him.  Rabbi Joshua travels to Rome, locates the one whom Elijah spoke of.  On asking when he might come Rabbi Joshua was told “Today!”  But when he returned to Elijah he claimed that he had been deceived. “He said he was coming today but still he has not come.”  To which Elijah replied “This is what he told you, ‘Today – if you would only hear His voice.’ “

Hearing the voice of the Messiah in the poor and oppressed, the misunderstood and marginalised, the battered and bruised tells me, and tells a number of my friends who happen to be Jewish, that the Messiah is already speaking to us, it is up to us to hear the Voice.