‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’

Fans of Only Fools and Horses know the scene well:

Trigger has won an award for saving the council money. He has kept the same broom for 20 years.

Del Boy asks if he has had it 20 yrs has Trigger actually swept any roads with it.

‘Of course’ replies Trigger ‘we have an old saying that is passed down through generations of road sweepers ‘look after your broom’’.

Trigger proudly announces that the old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time

The café owner asks ‘How can it be the same broom then?’

Trigger pulls out an old photo of him with the original broom ‘Well here’s a picture of it – what more proof do you need?’

The dilemma as to whether an object remains fundamentally the same even if all its components have been changed over the years has been debated by philosophers since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Socrates and Plato and more recently Locke and Hobbes argued the various points.

It was Plutarch in the late 1st century who brought the issue into sharp focus in his work The Life of Theseus. In this he asks if a ship that had been restored by replacing every single part of it remains the same ship.

So the paradox is now known as The Ship of Theseus.

Authenticity is a critical aspect of conveying a message.

Anything that smacks of fantasy or an untruth mars the whole message.

If one element of what I am saying proves to be false why should anyone believe anything I say thereafter?

This is the dilemma faced by children when their parents have told them that Father Christmas is not responsible for ensuring their empty sack on Christmas Eve has miraculously filled overnight.

For the child whose fantasy is first shattered by the reality that Mom and Dad have been waiting up till goodness knows what time before they can sneak into the room, it is a crucial moment in the maturing process – to recognise that even though some things are not as we expected, there are some truths that are not only fundamental but eternal. They stand every test of time and circumstance. So, the love a parent has for a child will reassure the child that even when disappointment comes their way, that love will sustain them.

The moment when Jesus declares that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing incites those in the synagogue at Nazareth to a course of action that begins with shock and moves on through denial, anger and eventually violence.

They were amazed at the grace in which he mouthed these words.

But then the initial shock gave way to denial ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’

As Jesus responds with some home truths anger spreads amongst the congregation.

He is led by the crowd to a hill where they intend to throw him off but Jesus walks away as if they have suddenly realised what they are about to do.

The traditional way of interpreting this is to claim that the congregation didn’t believe the claims Jesus was making could be true.

This is certainly what many have preached and taught for centuries. After all the drip, drip, drip of anti-Judaism fostered through the Gospels and Church cannot be easily overcome.

But there is another way of understanding this episode.

Perhaps they did believe.

Perhaps they did realise that what Jesus was saying was indeed true.

Maybe Jesus was still the one and same who had been born to Joseph and Mary.

Maybe he was the little boy that had played with their own children or even themselves but who now stood before them all grown up and wise.

Maybe he was different and yet the same.

Which is a more plausible possibility if we are to understand their reaction.

After all sometimes, especially when it brings into question all that we previously held to be true, the truth is much harder to accept than fantasy.  Our own boys found it hard to accept that that we had made the sacrifices necessary for them to have the presents that they had received on Christmas morning.

If the folk in Nazareth didn’t believe Jesus, and the fact that he was bringing such transformation into being, why didn’t they do what you and I would probably do with someone experiencing such a delusional episode, ignore them or even laugh?

I recall one of Kevin Keegan’s supposed gaffes when he was commentating in the Italia 90 World Cup Finals. I think England were playing in Turin. During the warm up as the camera panned round the stadium Keegan excitedly said ‘I was here ten years ago, it’s exactly the same but tonight it’s totally different.’

Great stuff.

The Ship of Theseus.

Same stadium with different stands.

Same crowd with different people.

Same game with different teams.

I have been invited to head up a project that will refurbish Jews’ Court in Lincoln.

It is an ancient dwelling that is often claimed to have housed the medieval synagogue until the Jews were expelled in 1290.

Our intention is to recreate the medieval synagogue within the surviving structure and build a heritage centre that will recall the persecution of Jews in Lincoln following the death of Little High in 1255 for which the community, without evidence, got the blame. It will also provide lessons for the present and be an educational resource for schools across the county and beyond.

When the late Cecil Roth surveyed the site in the mid-20th century he identified a niche in a wall that he claimed house the Torah scroll until the expulsion of 1290. The only trouble is that wall is likely to be much later. But the legend lives.

It is vital to acknowledge authenticity.

But it is equally vital to respect the claims that have sustained so many.

The truth is – Jews’ Court is on the site of the medieval synagogue. Parts of the current structure are likely to date from that time, the stones will have echoed with the prayers of the faithful and the lamentations of the oppressed.

It is often claimed that the human body replaces itself every 7 years

This is difficult to confirm but it is true that over a period of between 7 and 10 years almost every cell in the human body will have been replaced.

So there is virtually no cell left in body that existed 10 years ago.

Red blood cells last 4 months, white cells a year, skin cells 2 to 3 weeks

However brain cells last a lifetime – when a brain cell dies it is never replaced so the brain cells that I now have been with me since they were first formed.

So the body is different but the brain is the same.

It has developed, it has grown in understanding and awareness, hopefully, and it will eventually die.

But we are then facing a dilemma for we know that we are not only physical beings but spiritual beings too – is this the soul that lasts beyond the grave?

Even though it is over a decade ago I will never forget the day I looked into the mirror and saw looking back at me not the 44 year-old minister that I was; not the 34 year-old with two young sons keeping us awake at night; not the 24 year-old about to leave for theological college; not even the 14 year-old whose only real interests in life were football and the Second World War.

No, instead I saw a four year-old Bruce wrapped up for the cold.

My Grandma who had looked after me, so carefully and lovingly until then, was about to die.

As I stared into the mirror with the four year-old Bruce reflecting back at me I was completely reassured. I had long wondered if my Grandma who had left me so long ago would recognize me in heaven, and now I knew she would.

The features had changed, the very bones upon which my flesh had hung were not the same as the ones my Grandma had hugged but I was till essentially the same.

The message of Jesus is one and the same.

Whether it was fulfilled in Nazareth on the day he first declared it to be so

or whether it is today in our time and place.

The poor are to have good news.

Jesus will release the captives and recover the sight of the blind.

The oppressed will go free.

They are not the same poor, not the same blind and the things that bind the people and oppress them are different, for times have changed. But the truth is this, quoting the Psalmist:

‘Today, this very day, if only you would hear his voice.’

Following the United Methodist Church’s decision to boycott Israeli Banks I have issued the following statement on behalf of Methodist Friends of Judaism:

I think we have to ask what the long term goal is for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement. While they argue it is for the liberation of Palestine, some of its critics suggest that it is seeking the destruction of the two state solution which could spell the end of the only Jewish state in the world. Yet Israel, a fully democratic country, has Muslims, Christians and other faiths and none at every level of society, including the judiciary. It is the safest country in the Middle East for Christians, women and members of the LGBT community. Nowhere else provides such protection and human rights legislation. Admittedly it is not perfect, but which country is? It is surrounded by dysfunctional nations with far greater human rights violations so why, I wonder, is Israel targeted more so than any other? 300,000 are dead in Syria and around 4.4 million have fled their homes. It seems disproportionate and unjust to punish a nation that has been facing the kind of violence many of us have only recently begun to realise actually poses an existential threat to the way in which we live our lives too.

In the indulgence of food that is the feast of Christmas in the rich world, the turkey and all the trimmings, stuffing, pigs in blankets, sprouts, cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes followed by Christmas pudding and brandy sauce all come before a few days of lighter meals, perhaps a bit of cold leftover turkey with a few pickles and then a nice refreshing fruit salad.

In the sequence of readings for the Christian calendar over Christmas the heavy stuff comes not at the beginning but after the lightness of angels and myths that make for good Christmas cards, fluffy sheep and majestically clothed magi.

The theology of John 1 weighs more heavily on the mind than the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke; it may not conjure up the extraordinary story-telling but its imagery makes demands on our limits of understanding.

For John, the Jesus-event is much more than an itinerant preacher and miracle worker wandering the villages and towns of Galilee before coming a cropper in the capital when taking on the might of the occupying power.

Earlier writers wrestled with how to communicate the uniqueness of the incarnation and drew upon prophecies that had been for some time overlooked by the scholars and people alike; they grouped the teachings of Jesus and his activities in such a way as to make their readers and hearers wonder at the message. They also emphasised seemingly inconsequential details in order that greater meaning would be given to the events.

On occasion they would write some of the most extraordinary poetry and prose in their age. Paul for example would use every bit of his rabbinic understanding to convey that which had captivated him on the road to Damascus and would stay with him through storm, ship wreck, hostility and imprisonment for the years that followed.

He would draw on a great hymn of the Early Church as he wrote to the community in Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness.

Later, the writer of Colossians was able to record

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him…..For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.

Coming almost a full century later, John’s account captured an even higher evolution of thought, broadening our minds more than any other piece of Gospel writing with such mystical imagery, symbolism and hidden messages.

His opening chapter sets the scene of what is to come with the Gospel encapsulated in the term ‘the Word made flesh’.

Words, of course, are highly significant as a contributory factor in effective communication.

Our first ancestors would not have had a vocabulary.  They would not have been able to pass on to others what they had learnt.  They would have been restricted to body language for the conveyance of meaning and feeling.

Our cousins in the ape family are an example of how to communicate without words.

But homo-sapiens, if not homo-erectus and Neanderthal before them, were able to create greater understanding through selected sounds.

The first persons to formulate language into a mark on stone or parchment would ensure that messages could be passed on to others, not least to future generations, thus allowing civilisation to expand and flourish.

Words are used to convey a message.

Words can console and comfort the reader or hearer.

Words may clarify or deliberately confuse.

Words might be used to calm and reassure or excite and agitate.

Carefully constructed sentences spoken in a certain way can even inspire an entire nation.

To be sure, the Second World War was as much a war of words as any other; Hitler’s hate-filled rhetoric met its nemesis in the captivating speeches of Churchill.

The propaganda departments of Nazis and the allies alike worked over time to win the hearts and minds of their respective peoples.

In the end good won through. As it is bound to do, in the end.

If we were to examine the words we ourselves use each day I wonder which side of the line they sit.

Would they fall on the side of bad or good?

Do we choose our words to destroy the target of our prejudice and judgment or to create an environment in which evil is overcome?

Which words make for a better world?

Compassion? Co-existence? Understanding? Empathy?

I also wonder, which words make the Church an extension of Christ’s mission to the world in not only a viable but vibrant way.

Welcome? Forgiveness? Grace? Prophetic?

Words are the tools for building the Body of Christ:

  • when God is calling his family of believers to venture out of the doors and into the streets and homes of our wider community,
  • when the towns and villages of our area seek some guidance in what may be dark and dangerous times as extremism grows across our islands and continent.

And when it comes down to it one phrase from long ago will be the guiding rule The Word became flesh.

When Jesus, the Living Word, spoke, the woman found her bleeding had stopped.

When Jesus spoke, the lame leapt with joy,

  • those that had been blind to divine truth saw as if for the first time
  • and even the daughter of Jairus, the brother of Martha and Mary and the centurion’s servant were brought back to life and healing.

These are no mean feats, these are not the actions of an ordinary human being, but convey the truth that evil cannot have a hold upon us for ever, that good will win out in the end.

So when we, the followers of Jesus, speak today we know that great things can happen, for we speak his words, the words of the Word made flesh.

The words we use have a way of becoming flesh as their impact is upon the stuff of life.

And when we remember that the Word, the divine one, has become one of us and indeed one with us in flesh and blood, we know that the words we use can also bring light into the corners of a darkened room, life into the dying and healing to the broken.

Those in despair may yet be given hope because of what we say and do.

Those in the long night of the soul may awaken to a bright new dawn.

Those who are sick and tired of their world may find renewed strength and vigour to face the challenges of the day.

God ain’t finished with us yet.

The world is crying out for guidance and comfort, reassurance and hope.

We, like the one we seek to follow, have the words to eternal life.

That is a bold claim, now we must live up to it.