Luke 9: 52-55 tells a revealing little story about Jesus’ attitude to people who held beliefs that were different from his own. When he was heading to Jerusalem as a pilgrim, villagers in Samaritan territory did not welcome him, since they did not accept Jerusalem as the main holy place of their religion. Refusing hospitality to Jerusalem pilgrims was their way of making their point. James and John, disciples of Jesus, then asked if they should call down fire from heaven on these heretics. Jesus turned and rebuked them. He did not want them imagining that God would back their prejudice.

I read in my newspaper today of a splendid group of Christians in USA called the “Return to Order Campaign” who have denounced a new film based on a book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The film stars David Tennant as the demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale who cooperate to prevent the coming of the Antichrist. The Christian group complain that this “makes Satanism appear normal, destroying the barriers of horror that society still has for the devil.” Even worse, “God is voiced by a woman!!” The group has form for they have previously expressed outrage at an ice-cream company called “Sweet Jesus.”

I can imagine a returning Jesus being charmed by this and buying ice creams for the disciples.

On another occasion he refused to criticise other healers who were using his name, indicating that he saw them as supporters.

Christianity has been weakened by a sectarianism in which groups of believers designate others as heretics and agents of the devil. This is the result of dogmatism that is not wholly absent from the pages of the New Testament. A religion of the word is always in danger of thinking the word of its message is more important than the word made flesh “ who dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” If there is a genuine point of separation in the tradition of Jesus, it is between those who say “Lord, Lord,” and those who “do the will of the father.” The Christian community ought always to value people who act in the spirit of Jesus’ father even if their doctrine is a bit dodgy, rather than those whose doctrine is perfectly orthodox but have neglected to act in the divine spirit.

Over the centuries the mainstream churches have rightly upheld the doctrine that God is revealed in Jesus his son, but have failed to take seriously enough the teaching and character of that man.

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Jesus said that if you looked at a woman lustfully you had already committed adultery in your heart. It sounds like mince. Firstly it makes some strange assumptions:

1. That women didn’t look lustfully at men, or if they did, it didn’t matter.

2. That men didn’t look lustfully at men, nor women at women, or if they did it didn’t matter.

3. That unmarried men and women are maybe excused a bit of lustful looking provided it isn’t directed at a married person.

4. That the intention is as bad as the deed.

5. That it would be ok to look lustfully at your wife.

These assumptions are so foreign to current thinking that maybe I should just admit that Jesus was mistaken in this matter. Well, let’s see if we can understand his words mor fully.

In Jewish society of Jesus’ time, women were not considered equal to men. Their roles were clearly defined from childhood; their marriages were arranged; they were the property of their father, or their husband. Men could have more than one wife but women could not have more that one husband.Women ran the household but were economically dependent on their men. The evangelists note that women “followed” Jesus, and were accepted by him. Luke suggests that Mary chose the dignity of discipleship rather than the caring role of her sister Martha, and was approved by Jesus. Jesus’ friendship with prostitutes is more evidence of his disagreement with societal attitudes to women. Many of the peculiar assumptions noted above can be understood if we read Jesus’ teaching as a response to societal prejudice: He was defending women from the patriarchal lust of men.

The Greek of Matthew 5:28 means literally “looking at a woman to want her or to lust after her” which designates much more than a casual glance of sexual appreciation. It indicates a purpose, even if in a specific instance there may be no way of fulfilling it. It expresses a consumer attitude towards women as sexual commodities. Jesus’ disciples were not to congratulate themselves for avoiding adultery, but rather to interrogate their own attitudes.The outward act proceeds from a  inner determination which is itself formed by societal injustice.

Jesus is not saying,”This woman belongs to another man and you must not think of stealing her; he is saying,”what prevents your seeing this woman as a person and treating her as a sister?”

Given that, even today, our society expects young women to dress as sexual commodities – what else is the meaning of high heels or the little black dress? – Jesus’ teaching is still relevant.And yes, he did think that the consumer attitude to women was as bad as the actions it prompted because he wasn’t daft enough to think that sexual misconduct was simply fuelled by uncontrollable desire, or that promiscuous shagging was, as a former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh judged, “an act without a moral meaning.”

And of course, where there is greater equality between the sexes (however many there are of these) Jesus’ teaching will apply to women and transitioning people, as well as men, challenging the notion that in a consumer society all are equally entitled to whatever sexual commodity they prefer.

 

 

 

This blog is the fourth in a series which sets out behaviours that were displeasing to Jesus.

Jesus’ prohibition of standing in judgement on others comes astonishingly in the midst of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ commandments, in which he passes wise judgements on human behaviour! Obviously the commandment against judging cannot mean any vagueness about morality, since Jesus was so shrewd about the actions and motives of people.

Luke, who used the same material as Matthew, adds the word ‘condemn’ as an explanation of what Jesus was getting at. Both authors, however, present Jesus condemning religious leaders for their hypocrisy. So is Jesus saying that it’s OK for him to judge, but wrong for anyone else? We should be able to see the difference between a strict code of conduct, which can be used to criticise behaviour including one’s own, and the kind of moral arrogance which condemns another person as wicked or beyond the pale. This sort of judging permits the judge to take pleasure in his superiority to the offender. Simone Weil wrote passionately about the arrogance of upper class judges in courts, passing their polished denunciations of the wretch in the dock.

Most people disagree with Jesus on this one, believing that the exposure of wrong -doing and the castigation of the wrongdoer is not only satisfying to the person doing it, but also to the one watching as a spectator. The popular press is full of such judgements on public figures and private citizens alike. The report of a serious crime for example is rarely complete without characterising the offender as an “animal”, “monster” or especially in the case of sexual crime, “beast.”

It is a matter of concern that this sort of standing in judgement has entered our politics, so that your opponent is not simply mistaken but evil; and therefore not only to be defeated but despised morally, and if possible, humiliated. This attitude allows you as judge to see yourself as virtuous and therefore entitled to humiliate the opponent. If the opponent has the audacity to suggest that you are, for example, lying, this automatically makes you a virtuous victim, so justifying your rage and your vengeance.

In family life and amongst colleagues the position of the one entitled to pass judgement is eagerly sought by some, with the kind of results one can view on twitter and facebook. Although dangerous, this vast, vulgar display of condemnation is by no means as serious as the cold arrogance of those who know they judge on God’s behalf and have not hesitated across the continents and centuries to condemn their fellow human beings to death, as indeed the Pharisees did to Jesus.

Jesus issued a particularly harsh warning to those who stand in judgement: the merciful God will abandon his own measure of human behaviour and use the measure employed by the judge! The justice of God may be able to overlook most of our wrongdoing but not our merciless arrogance.

 

 

 

 

 

This is the third in a series of blogs which define behaviours which are unacceptable  amongst followers of Jesus.

At first sight today’s assertion seems to be the opposite of the truth since, for example, St Paul urged people to “pray constantly.” My own guess is that in his very busy life, pPaul didn’t spend a lot of time on his knees. But in any case, the definitive teaching comes from Jesus:

“In your prayers, don’t go babbling on like the heathen who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them, for your heavenly father knows what your needs are before you ask him. This is how you should pray, ‘Our Father etc’”

Jesus was a practicing Jew, attending synagogue and temple, but he was completely opposed to those who made religious duty into a means of asserting their own piety; he called them, “play actors”. For Jesus, God was an active presence in the lives of people, giving them confidence to act boldly, sharing his goodness with each other and with those who needed it most, the sick, the impoverished, the outcasts. Evil in the form of oppressive transcultural powers, which he called “evil spirits” had to be recognised, named and opposed. Acting in the strength of what he called “the finger of God”, Jesus needed to pray, but he did this secretly, as if such a holy thing could not be shared with others. The first communities of Jesus continued to attend Temple and synagogue worship, while holding their own gatherings for the Jesus meal. Predominantly Gentile communities, on the other hand developed their own worship based on the synagogue model, while incorporating the Jesus meal. Simple prayer could be offered by any believer, but Paul warns against “speaking in tongues” and other super- religious manifestations. His emphasis was on his convert communities becoming “bodies of Messiah”, living the life of Jesus.

Theologically one may say that because the early church believed in the gracious presence of God, it needed no elaborate or lengthy language to persuade him to draw near. Such language has nevertheless been used in various times and places, drawing attention to the religious expertise of a person or group, with the aim of gaining status.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr, wrote of the “secret discipline” of prayer and meditation in which a believer could cherish the mystery of God as the Beyond In The Midst, while living boldly and faithfully in the ordinary world. I think he understood Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This series of blogs is a bit like the 10 commandments: they try to define behaviours that are unacceptable in the Jesus community.

Surely wealth is not a crime, many will protest. Jesus would reply that it is a crime and the mother of crimes. He did not ask the rich young man how he used his wealth, but told him how to get rid of it, and to become a disciple. The rich man was honest enough to refuse because he wanted to keep his wealth. The co-existence of wealth and poverty was offensive to Jesus, whose communities made sure that no member went without anything they needed. This required a disciplined sharing of personal possessions.

This  discipline should not be mistaken for socialism which is a political movement committed to a just distribution of wealth and power in societies. Some followers of Jesus may be drawn to socialism, others may not, but all are obliged to eradicate poverty within the local, national and international church, and to minister to non-members in the same spirit. The church has not always made this clear to its members, but it seems to me such a central characteristic of Jesus and the first churches.

I suppose someone could argue that the society of Jesus’ Palestine was so different from say, modern Scotland, that we cannot transfer his teaching and example from his milieu to ours. As with the determinants of power, so indeed the determinants of wealth and poverty in Jesus’ society were different from those of 21st century capitalism, but the lived experience of being poor, or being rich was very similar. It is also the case that Jesus was not simply against wealth because it should be shared with the poor, but also because of its corrupting influence on the human soul: arrogance, irresponsibility, selfishness and greed, Jesus thought, were the results of wealth, leading him to ask his famous question, “what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

The discipline of refusing to be wealthy and sharing one’s resources within the partnership of the church is, on the other hand, the source of other virtues, such as solidarity, generosity, equality, compassion and the humility to receive the gifts of others. The beauty of this kind of community is its own justification.

The power of the economic system in which we live is a permanent temptation to forget or dismiss Jesus’ teaching and example. Many followers of Jesus, like me, will confess that we are only half- converted in this regard; but when we look at the appalling ugliness caused by the love of money, we are all the more encouraged to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

This blog signals a new start on this site: it will provide short, punchy articles dealing with basic issues for people who are followers of Jesus. The first series of blogs will look at what sort of activities are ruled out by  a genuine commitment to the way of Jesus.

There may not be more hatred in the world today than ever before but there has been certainly more hatred expressed in public over the last two decades than before. This is largely due to electronic social networks being available to a majority of the population of the world. Even in places of severe deprivation, for example, many people make use of the internet. On any matter of public interest, hatred will certainly be expressed; and on some matters the volume and violence of expressed hatred is truly horrific.

If we add to the amount of hatred expressed about public issues the amount generated by individual preference, life – style and appearance – the arena of so-called trolls- we can understand that many users of social media report that hate-speech is a permanent presence in their lives. This may explain why the expression of hatred seems more and more accepted in work-places, leisure facilities and public gatherings.

Even if you think you are standing up for Christian values, for example, opposition to current abortion laws, your expression of hatred invalidates your claim to be Christian: hate-speech is utterly foreign to the teaching and practice of Jesus. Any follower of Jesus who expresses hatred must view it as an evil from which he needs to turn.

Of course there is a difference between people whose hatred is towards those who question their privilege and people whose hatred is towards their persecutors. Surely I should make an exception for the latter group, the Tibetans oppressed by the Chinese state, say, or the women bullied by their male partners? The example of Jesus, who was oppressed and bullied, but did not give way to hatred, suggests otherwise. He opposed oppressors and bullies but he did not hate them or seek to arouse hatred towards them from others.

Anger is different from hatred: it protests against injustice and hopes to change it; whereas hatred is directed against people and hopes to diminish or destroy them. Anger may sometimes promote the way of Jesus although it should be expressed carefully, but hatred never does. In a culture such as ours, followers of Jesus must practice respect, understanding, wisdom, humour and forbearance in both personal and public communication, in the hope of creating enclaves of peace where people can listen to each other.

 

 

Here is another song by Sydney Carter, who also wrote Lord of the Dance.

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CANDLELIGHT

I am the candle light

I do not say there is a God

I only say hello.

Out of the nothingness

I have improbably come

and back again I go.

I am no messenger;

the thing I actually am

is all I ever show.

my fire is physical;

I have a body made of wax,

and soon it will be gone.

I am a miracle.

like you I contradict the night

and then I travel on.

 

Carter believed that in everything that comes into existence, God says, “Let there be light”. For him creation was never in the past tense. Dogma does not help people to live but only attention to what is being created in them and around them.

This tiny song celebrates the light of existence as communicating no message, because any message would be inadequate to express the miracle of existence. Being light is more important than any theory of light, being alive than any theory about life.

All creation is de nihilo, from nothingness, and as such improbable. And impermanent. Existence requires matter which does not last forever in the same form.

Every existence is a miracle which stands out from the nothingness, and does not return to nothingness, but moves on.

This morning I presided at the funeral of a stillborn child. I did not read this poem, but it was in my mind as I spoke of the perfection, individuality and brevity of the child’s earthly life, and his travelling on to God, who recreates us beyond death. I urged his family to appreciate him as a miracle, and as a contradiction of the night that seemed to have enveloped him.

I also urged them to see themselves as brief miracles, however long they might live, and to be themselves with joy and courage.

Because it is the 14th of February, I had asked the family to bring Valentine Cards for the child, expressing their love for him. They did so, and I read them out. This did not deny the fragility of life, or the dignity of mourning, but simply affirmed that our brief existence is encompassed by love.

Alleluia.