Thursday, 20 February 2014


‘It would be a grave mistake for us [Twelve] to neglect the word of God in order to wait at table. Therefore, friends, look out … men full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and we will appoint them to deal with these matters.’ Acts ch 6 vv2,3 I think it’s fair to say that the general public see clergy as performing four main roles: promoting supposedly comforting but actually unbelievable doctrines, maintaining old buildings, re-enacting picturesque ceremonies and being informal community workers. Church folk might reframe those same activities as maintaining the doctrinal and physical foundations that have shaped our culture, and serving the unseen God and working to create his Kingdom on earth. Clergy certainly perform the activities thus variously described, and in doing so they may make at least as useful a contribution as many other professionals in society. But as with most professions there is a purpose, a logic, to ministry that may not always be obvious to on-lookers. Ministers have to know what they are trying to do and understand the assumptions on which they operate, not just carry out the visible activities associated with ministry. First, ministry helps people find the strength and will to face challenging situations in their lives – failure for example, or bereavement, betrayal, serious disappointment, or impending death. The minister assumes that the resources we need to deal with these situations are available to us, but because we sometimes find it hard to access them we need support and help in doing that. Second, the minister helps people learn to love, to appreciate and respond with love to the real people behind the facades that it takes no effort to see. The minister begins with the assumption that every human being is capable of love, and that this capacity can be activated by feeling loved. Third, and perhaps even less obviously, ministry serves truth, even if truth is something that we can perceive only in a shadowy and ever-changing way. The assumption here is that people can be better and happier to the extent that they grasp truth – truth about themselves, about society, about everything. The faith that mysterious resources, love and truth have this central role in human life is at the heart of ministry; it is probably the most important thing we can mean by saying that someone ‘believes in God’. Insofar as someone is exercising ministry, their actions and words must relate to one or more of these three activities. I have no quarrel with anyone being interested in ancient buildings or music or ritual or doctrines, or getting involved in politics or business or art or sport, though it might take a bit of effort to convince me that such activities are part of ministry. But I am persuadable, because I recognise that helping people to access spiritual resources, to feel loved and to value truth are not things that can be done straightforwardly. There is rarely a one-to-one connection between action and result in any complex field of human activity, certainly not in ministry; that may be one of the lessons of the Parable of the Sower. But at least the sower knew what he was trying to do, as ministers need to know what they are trying to achieve through their ministerial activities. And no doubt the sower tried to evaluate his sowing technique in the light of his success in raising a crop. In real life, ministers – ordained or not – don’t always find it congenial or easy to evaluate their success in terms of the three ministerial objectives. This is especially true if those who support them financially are measuring their performance in terms of their success in the visible activities – bringing in the numbers, maintaining old traditions, and so on. If ministry – real ministry – is better served by abandoning the lovely old buildings, the gorgeous finery, and the other accoutrements of religion, abandoned they must be, or at the very least be relegated to hobby status. Notice the ‘if’ there, but don’t let it fool you. Pleasing the folk who go to church is not the way to judge ministry. It’s how ministry impacts on individuals in the wider community that matters to any religious outfit that wants to be more than a sect, a hobby-church. It’s therefore what the wider community makes of the religious accoutrements that really matters, not whether church-goers like them or not. After all, it is entirely possible that church folk are exactly the group that has become most attached to the accoutrements of religion, because they are the ones who attend services week by week. None of that is to downplay the importance of some traditional tools in the minister’s tool-bag; indeed the ability to use those tools effectively in achieving the objectives of ministry is what defines the minister. Rituals and sacraments, prayers and preaching are the main tools, but in every situation they have to be used appropriately and honestly, and sometimes creatively too. It’s no good performing traditional ceremonies just because we always have, or peddling traditional ideas that have had their day. That is why, strictly speaking, there is a distinction between the minister and the priest. The minister may use traditional forms to help people lead richer, fuller, happier lives; the minister’s personal experience and understanding must inform whatever is done to help others access spiritual resources, learn to love, and follow truth. By contrast the priest performs traditional rites and recites traditional formulae, and might claim to be doing so because this is what God wants, or simply because they are traditional; there is no requirement for the priest to bring personal experience and understanding, or even faith, to bear, because the rites have a stand-alone validity that does not depend on their effectiveness in improving human lives. The minister will abandon traditional forms if they don’t work in particular circumstances; the priest by contrast insists on performing the traditional forms, come what may – and if they don’t make people’s lives happier, it’s the people not the forms that have to change. That states the contrast too starkly of course: many ‘priests’ are in fact good ministers. But that’s because they have come to understand that all religious institutions, not only the Sabbath, are there to serve humanity, not the other way round. Maybe ‘waiting at table’ is the real heart of ministry.


[Jesus] opened the scroll and found the passage which says, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. Luke ch 4, vv 17-19 Whether or not Jesus announced his programme of preaching in the way our text describes, it is clear from the gospel accounts that he had in mind, or at least developed in the course of his preaching, a fairly clear programme. He did indeed proclaim release for those imprisoned, by organised religion; he tried to let people see clearly what their lives could and should be about; he offered some welcome and useful good news about how happiness might be attained. This programme is not merely a matter of antiquarian or sectarian interest; as we shall see, it raises at least one matter that continues to matter to society today: how we try to ensure that the lessons we have learned about how our lives may most happily be lived are not lost but are passed on to successive generations. Jesus was deeply aware of the dangers of organised religion. It’s not clear whether he had himself been given a particularly devout or orthodox upbringing, but he would certainly have been aware of the various pious movements that were influential in early first century Judaism. Some demanded strict observance of every detail of the ancient Jewish religious law; others went further and called on Jews to cut themselves off completely from ordinary life in Roman Judaea. Then there were those religious Jews whose convictions seemed limited to maintaining their social position through the exercise of their inherited religious functions. There was in short a lot of religion about in Jewish society, but it seemed to Jesus that it wasn’t doing much to help ordinary people to live full and happy – makarios – lives. Indeed it only too often seemed to give religious people, whether pious or cynical, a cover or even a justification for attitudes and behaviours that were at best unhelpful and at worst anti-social. We now know that these difficulties are not untypical of organised religion generally, not just a feature of contemporary Judaism, but as far as Jesus was concerned, the problem was a distinctively Jewish problem, and his preaching about it was naturally addressed only to his fellow Jews. That was his negative programme. His positive programme had to do with how people could develop within themselves dispositions that would enable them to live full and happy lives. They needed to notice how the world worked, both in nature and in society. They needed the conviction that they were blessed, though not uniquely blessed. They needed to understand that good relationships with other people were indispensable to happiness. They needed to feel that the happiness that comes from having a grounded understanding of how things are, a sense of being blessed, and good relationships was within their grasp; they had only to want it enough and it could be theirs. He did not demand obedience to rules as a means to happiness; he asked only that people should prioritise their own deepest happiness and understand how that might be achieved in the real world, the everyday world of personal relationships, society and work. I’ll leave it to you to recall the various parables and sayings through which Jesus promoted both his negative and his positive programmes. Then there was something that was emphatically not part of his programme. Suspicious as he was of Jewish organised religion in all its forms, he made no effort to found a new Jewish sect like the Essenes or the Pharisees. And although his positive programme was as applicable to Gentiles as to Jews, he had no plans to set up a new non-Jewish religion to promote it; he wasn’t much interested in Gentiles, and even if he had been, he would have doubted whether a new religion could be an effective way of promoting his teaching among them. So sacraments and liturgies, conversions and persecutions, doctrines and controversies, judgments and condemnations, orthodoxies and heresies, clergy and churches – things with which we are so familiar, and which claim connection with Jesus, derive from St Paul’s Christianity, not from what we know of Jesus’s teaching purged of Pauline influences. We can only – and perhaps we should – imagine what Jesus of Nazareth would make of the edifice that calls him its ‘Lord’. The problem for Jesus’s programme, and indeed for us too, is that while his positive programme sets out an effective basis for leading full and happy lives, it’s not-at-all clear that its precepts are so obvious or ingrained that they don’t need to be spelled out repeatedly, generation by generation. There’s a case for hoping that we could now safely leave this to parents, teachers and others who set the tone for each new generation, a kind of free market for ideological teaching. But you might not feel confident to do that, not least because the resulting institutional vacuum might be filled, perhaps by organisations with a very different agenda. But if an institution is to maintain, promote and develop precepts like the ones Jesus taught, how do we prevent it from falling foul of the critique of Judaism contained in Jesus’s negative programme? The church has succeeded in maintaining and promoting Jesus’s positive programme for nearly two millennia, but in the process it has certainly not avoided the worst features of organised religion, including quite a few that Jesus’s negative programme could not have imagined. It is not acceptable, either to excuse the church’s excesses and irrelevancies on account of its good works, or to condemn the church, and organised religion generally, without thinking hard about how its most useful functions might be carried out were it to collapse under the weight of those excesses and irrelevancies.


Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Matthew ch7 v7 Jesus of Nazareth was much less a religious teacher than a life coach. He often draws attention to things people need to understand if they are to live fulfilled lives, as he does here. One of the important things we need to understand is that wanting and having belong together; the one leads towards (if not always quite to) the other. You want something; you acknowledge that you want it; you reach out for it; you obtain it – or perhaps you don’t; there’s no guarantee of success, despite this saying. The only guarantee is that wanting and having can do damage to us when they are consistently split apart. Without wanting, having loses its savour. Without having, wanting tends to make us disappointed and bitter. Yet wanting and having can be split apart, and religious teaching often plays a part in this. John Wesley for example encouraged parents to ‘break the wills’ of their children, and a very effective way of doing this is to systematically disappoint a child’s desires. But there is worse yet. Merely to systematically disappoint wantings by preventing them fulfilling themselves as havings is not nearly as effective in stifling wants as the thought that to want things and to reach out for them is not merely unlikely to be successful or even is shameful. Much more effective is to inculcate the idea that there is something terrifying about fulfilling one’s wants. The point of ‘terror’ is that it is unspecific; if we knew what we were terrified of, it would be, not a terror, but something we could consider facing and maybe overcoming, and in doing so come a little closer to being makarios. Now obviously children must learn that they can’t have everything; but they need to grow up understanding that their wanting is connected in a reliable way with their having, via asking, trying hard, saving up, working patiently and so on. They must be taught, and shown, how to knock on life’s doors in the confident expectation that they will, eventually, be opened. Of course it’s important to remember that what we may want, or think we want, is not always in our longer term truly best interests, or may damage valuable relationships, or may seriously hurt other people’s legitimate interests, or may be illegal or even simply impossible. But that means that we have to learn to be discriminating about our wants – and you don’t get to learn that by being systematically discouraged from turning your wantings into havings. Indeed, if the wanting-having link is broken for you, you have no reason to learn to be discriminating in your wanting; you can fantasise about all kinds of outlandish wants safe – you hope – in the knowledge that they won’t ever be realised. But to the extent that you know the wants are outlandish, you’ll frighten yourself by your outlandishness, and that in turn gives an added reason to make sure that your wants are never realised. If you are brought up to accept as a rule that what you want you can’t or mustn’t have, several unfortunate things may follow. You may deal with your unfulfillable wantings by denying to yourself, never mind to other people, that you wanted those things in the first place; you learn not to know yourself in this important regard. One reason why this is serious is that sometimes it is in the deepest longings of our hearts that what we mean by ‘God’ calls us to our vocations; if we cannot dare to hear that call, we are likely to find ourselves leading aimless lives. Another is that if we can’t allow wanting to lead towards having, we will often find ourselves having things we never wanted, and needing, perhaps rather disconsolately, to make the best of what we happen to have been given. And even when what we have been given does turn out to be something we wanted, we won’t have them because we wanted them; in that sense they can give us only limited satisfaction. As far as ordinary life is concerned, religion generally seems to want to contradict Jesus, to say ‘Knock all you like, but it shall NOT be opened to you’. Christianity as a consequence has had to spiritualise this saying of Jesus to imply that the only things we can seek and reliably find are things like divine forgiveness and spiritual strength. There are several possible reasons for religion taking this approach: • From the agricultural revolution until very recently, many wants were for most people entirely unfulfillable; to encourage unfulfillable wanting might be thought of as cruel. But times have changed at least in our society, and they might have changed a good deal earlier if ordinary people had not been taught not to want, or at least to accept that they weren’t going to have, good things. • The notion of sacrifice – giving up what you most dearly want to keep – is ingrained in ancient religion because it felt a need to propitiate a powerful, jealous and capricious god. But we know that the God of Jesus of Nazareth is not like that, but is rather to be thought of as a loving father. • Discipline is undoubtedly a good thing, and we know that people who can delay the gratification of their desires tend to be happier and more successful in life. But religion has tended to interpret the ‘not just now, not just yet’ of discipline and delayed gratification into the ‘never’ of ‘Thou shalt not’. And of course not wanting, making endless sacrifices, and ‘thou-shalt-not’ discipline do not demand anything more of the believer than obedience; in particular, they do not demand or allow, and certainly do not help, believers to make thoughtful judgements about their wants and needs. They do not help us to grow up, and it’s his children’s growing up that a truly loving father hopes for and works for.


On the mountain, Jesus gathered his disciples round him and taught them … Matthew ch 5 vv 21-37 Here in Matthew’s Gospel, we find an account of Jesus discussing two of the Ten Commandments: Do not murder, and Do not commit adultery. In each case he says that the old rule is in some sense inadequate: anger leads to murder, and lust leads to adultery, so it is anger and lust that must be confronted if we are to deal with murder and adultery at root. Let’s for the moment assume that this represents the thrust of Jesus’s teaching, even if the details of the account are not to be relied on, partly because they look like a hodgepodge of ideas and sayings, and partly because no-one was jotting down the details of what Jesus said. Clearly getting behind actions to the psychology that underlies them is an advance in human thinking. It doesn’t make law superfluous; whatever one might say about adultery, killing people because you’re angry with them is unequivocally wrong, and the law is surely right to forbid it and punish it. But while it’s an advance, it’s not necessarily the last word on the subject. Jesus stands somewhere along the line of people who have helped move human thinking forward; he does not stand at the end if it, and neither do we. There surely ought to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that human thinking is not, and cannot be, stuck in the first century. Generations of Christians have understood this part of Jesus’s teaching as forbidding them to be angry, or lustful outside marriage. But I don’t think that people can help being angry and lustful; these are feelings that arise in our minds, yours and mine, whether we want them to or not. If we think that we ought not to have them at all, certainly not if we have been ‘saved’, we will not be able to confront such feelings. Instead we will be prompted to deny that we have them – and to make that denial not only to other people but also to ourselves. I may be wrong, but if you think that violent anger and extra-marital lust are things you have never even felt, that might possibly be because you are trying to convince yourself that you are obeying this piece of Jesus’s teaching. I dare you to claim you haven’t felt them, and to cast the first stone at those who admit to having done so. So if we can’t obliterate our anger and lust, how are we to manage them? Clearly they must be managed: we can’t go around killing whoever we are angry with, and bedding everyone we happen to fancy. Step one is to admit to having these and similar powerful and potentially disruptive feelings. I rather suspect that part of Jesus’s subtlety here is precisely to point out that avoiding actually killing and actually committing adultery does not make you existentially different from the rest of humanity; we are all cut from the same cloth, woven through with anger and lust. Step two is to ask what they may be telling us about our lives and our relationships. What is it that’s causing us to be angry or to look lustfully elsewhere? Can something be done about that, maybe using the energy of the anger or lust to some positive purpose? Perhaps some such thought process caused Jesus’s anger about profiteering in the Temple to express itself constructively but still angrily in the minor riot he caused in the Temple courtyard. Step three is to think about our emotions in the context of our commitments and our relationships, taking the commitments seriously and taking account of how our relationships may be affected by our giving a freer reign to the emotions we have confronted. You can’t read this passage without noticing that it speaks about divorce, a subject that is of deep concern to the churches. The text is not wholly certain, by the way: some ancient manuscripts have Jesus forbidding divorce even in the case of the wife’s adultery. Nor does all of it make sense: a man cannot by divorcing his wife make her into an adulteress in any strict sense. I’m not convinced that Jesus of Nazareth really wanted to lay down the law about sexual relationships; it doesn’t seem to be central to his programme, and what Jewish Matthew has him say here is pretty much what you’d expect of a Jewish writer of the period. But I don’t doubt that Jesus thought that people ought to take their sexual relationships seriously, for at least two reasons. First, his harsh words about those who let down children suggest that he would have thought that the interests of any children needed to have priority over the parents’ inclinations. Second, since in his view our human relationships are of such critical importance, he would surely have wanted to discourage us from trifling with the feelings of other people, including those with whom we have intimate relations. He also knew that people make and not only recover from but also grow through mis-steps on life’s path, as did the Prodigal Son. How all this applies to any particular relationship is up to us to work out, because every human situation is unique. It’s only a particular type of legal mind that pretends that rules can be written that cover every eventuality, and Jesus for one was not of that mind. That’s because he was not in the business of laying down any kind of law, even if he would no doubt have understood the inevitability of law in complex societies like his own. Rather he wanted to help people lead makarios lives, developing dispositions that would enrich their relationships and bring them inward joy and peace. Institutions that share that motive and try to act on it out on a large scale find it hard to avoid what seems to be the easy route of reviving the legalistic approach Jesus had gone beyond, replete with rules and prohibitions governing actions. When they find themselves becoming part of the apparatus of government, it becomes impossible to avoid it. Perhaps that was one reason why Jesus’s programme did not include the establishment of a new institution. A lesson there perhaps?