Here it is:

“When they rise from the dead, men and women do not marry but are like the angels in heaven.”

This reply was to a question designed to make nonsense of resurrection: if seven brothers had all been married to the same woman, and then died, who would be her husband in the after-life? Obviously Jesus recognised this as a fun story, “1 bride and 7 brothers” but his serious answer was that the resurrection life with God is not a replay of earthly life, but rather a transformation. We do not know how Jesus imagined the angels in heaven. Many have speculated that they are not distinguished by sex, but Jesus did not speculate, simply stating that the exclusive relationship of marriage was not an option in the new life.

That’s actually a bit of a bombshell. As a minister, I have offered bereavement comfort to many grieving families after the death of a beloved person. Often they have comforted themselves with the assumption that they will meet again in heaven, assuming that the earthly relationship – husband/ wife, parent/child, friend/ friend, will be resumed in that otherwise unimaginable life. Many of the common accompaniments of bereavement, from cards to brave stone inscriptions, make the same assumption. It is thought to be Christian.

When they rise…they do not marry

The New Testament is a bit less starry- eyed about family than people think. Jesus is depicted as rejecting his family, and teaching that his true family were all those who did God’s will. But this verse from Mark’s gospel goes further in explicitly limiting family life to this earth. Many believers, I imagine, will think that resurrection life is not very desirable if it separates us from loved ones just as effectively as death. And yet, this truth is not a deduction made by theologians from inadequate evidence, but a word of Jesus.

Yes, I can argue that all he rules out is “marriage” and speculate that we may be able to relate to dear ones in a new way, beyond age and sex and exclusive belonging. But that might seem as foreign as not relating at all. I think I would prefer that Jesus had not said this, as I would like to think that earthly relationships have an eternal dimension, that the effort and joy of mutual understanding in any long-term relationship was not swallowed up in death. After all, I wonder, if Jesus was really human, did he know anything more about the resurrection than me?

Like his opponents, the Pharisees, Jesus believed in resurrection, and was wise enough to see it as a gift beyond death which is therefore beyond understanding. Death is a real horizon beyond which we cannot see. But he had faith in the God of the living, the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the forefathers who were alive in him. No, we cannot understand, we must not sentimentalise, but we can trust in it as a mystery in which our individuality and our belonging are alike transformed into their fulfilment.

Here it is:

“But when the unclean spirit has gone out of the man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and does not find it. Then he says, I will return to my house whence I came out; and having come, he finds it unoccupied, swept, and adorned. Then he goes and takes with himself seven other spirits worse than himself, and entering in, they dwell there; and the last condition of that man becomes worse than the first. Thus shall it be to this wicked generation also.”

Just a couple of crosses won’t keep evil out

In my last blog I focused on words of Jesus which could be seen as demanding a swift exorcism of any evil spirit in a person. This saying assumes that the “exorcism” has taken place, through the agency of the possessed or of a healer. Now the person is free of evil, clean, and unoccupied. Now Jesus says, the evil spirit returns and finding its old home neat and tidy and vacant invites its evil pals to take up residence.

In the psychology of Jesus, no human house is vacant for long: it is either a house of God or of the Evil One.

This is a realistic challenge to all simplistic moralism. We like to think that if we only manage to rid ourselves of the compulsive desire that leads us to damage others or ourselves, we’ve done it. Our soul- house is no longer filthy and shameful, but deep-cleaned and pristine. But if we go only that far, leaving our souls void of tenants, all the old compulsions, and worse, will soon be back. What can be done?

“Behold,” says Jesus, “I stand at the door and knock. If any hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.”

There’s the terror. Let him in? Oh, I don’t mean he would be always criticising or demanding. No, he’d just be asking, asking if I really want to say that or do this; asking if I could resist the impulse to gossip maliciously: asking what I’m doing to support Greta Thunberg, and so on. So, no, I don’t want him in my house, with his questions. Can I not just have it clean and tidy?

This is also true of Christian assemblies. It’s possible, though not easy, for churches to clean up their act, to get rid of self-righteousness, abusive clergy, power-hungry leaders, fundamentalist attitudes, and present a bright and friendly face to the world. But if the spirit of Jesus is not present in its heart, it will always be open to corruption. The worship of a Christian assembly is not simply a nice custom; it is means by which evil spirits are shown the door, and the divine spirit invited to come in.

Because self- deception is so easy, I never assume that Jesus is the sole tenant of my soul, but remind myself again and again who he was, and therefore is, by reading and re-reading the gospels. The idea that we can invite Jesus to be in our souls by just saying his name, is bunkum. I need to know my guest so that I can recognise his voice. Nor should we ever take it for granted that because we did this once, he’s still there. Perhaps I’ve forgotten about him and my soul is empty, empty and vulnerable.

Jesus’ difficult teaching reminds me that a nice, clean, empty soul-house is the devil’s joy.

Here it is:

And whoever shall be a snare to one of the little ones who believe, it were better for him if a millstone were hung about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.

And if your hand serve as a snare to you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life maimed, than having your two hands to go away into hell, into the unquenchable fire.

And if your foot serve as a snare to you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life lame, than having your two feet to be cast into hell, into the unquenchable fire

And if your eye serve as a snare to you, pluck it out: it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.

Jean Vanier

The little ones here are not primarily children, but all those of any age who have placed their trust in the fatherly God.

This is a passage which goes against many people’s image of Jesus as gentle and mild. These words are as stern and forceful as those of any Old Testament lawgiver of prophet. They are also disturbing for those like me who refuse to think of God as someone who punishes. Jesus does not attribute the punishment directly to God, but we are surely meant to imagine a God of justice whose universal law will give pain to those who have chosen pain for others.

But that’s not the main thrust of the passage, which says bluntly that if there are aspects of our character that lead us into evil, we should get rid of them as quickly and violently as possible. This runs counter to most modern psychology which tends to see such aspects as the result of deprivation or trauma, that may therefore be understood and reclaimed. No, says Jesus, if there are bits of us that cause is to harm the little ones, they have to go. Now. He does not explain how exactly this is to be done, but insists that it will be painful. Recognising that impulses to evil are not accidental, but as much part of us as hands or eyes is the necessary and painful start, and we must then be prepared to cripple ourselves in order to prevent harm to others. This doesn’t sound much like ‘our precious saviour’.

I am writing this blog only a couple days after hearing the news about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, the community of able and disabled people, whose theology of “the weakness of God” and whose life of service to disabled people and of spiritual illumination for all, was an inspiration for many, including me.

An enquiry has found that he was also a serial abuser of women for sexual purposes.

Those, like me, who thought of Vanier as a saint, making sure that we had read all his writings, find ourselves bewildered and depressed by this news: Jean Vanier, the prophet of gentleness and humility, how could he be a predator?

I suppose it is possible that he was completely corrupt, and that all his apparent goodness was but a cover for abuse. I think this is unlikely, but we should not diminish the terrible evil done to these women. I think it more likely, however, that he was ensnared by his own reputation for saintliness, into imagining that anything he did would be all right, because it was done by him. That is a particularly dangerous form of arrogance, which deprives a person of ordinary self-knowledge. I can bear witness that my own worst actions have proceeded from arrogance, when my reputation as an agent of goodness, led me to forget my identity as a sinner. In my case this scenario was infrequent because I have only infrequently (like once or twice!) been seen as an agent of goodness, but if it can happen to me, how much more likely is it for people who have brought great goodness into the world!

It may be that allowing ourselves to respond to the glamour of a great saint does the saint no favours, but may contribute to the sort of arrogance which made it possible for Vanier to tell his victims that he was Jesus. That blasphemy from a holy man indicates the extent to which arrogance can make us blind.

In any case, the sad truth about Jean Vanier leads me to value the spirituality of Jesus expressed above, even if it makes me realise, or perhaps because it makes me realise, uncomfortable truths about myself. It is exactly the kind of robust, down-to-earth, almost brutal common sense, that keeps me ( sometimes) straight.

Here it is:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So, like many older people I’ve got some savings in the bank, which I won’t spend because they are to be kept to pay for any care which my wife and I may need before we get the last bus. There is no doubt that is this respect the state is finding it increasingly difficult to provide, even in this blessed land of Scotland where free personal care is promised to those who need it. It seems obvious to me therefore that those who are able to do so, should put as much of their own money as possible into making provision for themselves. I realise also that I wouldn’t have as much saved as I do, were it not for a legacy from my late uncle.

There it is, in the bank, earning hardly any interest, kept safe for a rainy day. I am in no way obsessed with it, but as a naturally anxious person, with a strong desire to look after my wife, it comforts me. Yes, I know this is a comfort that many people cannot enjoy, and I am committed politically to a more equal society, but I feel justified in holding on to this loot.

Now here comes Jesus talking about how God will give me his kingdom, whatever that is, and I’ll have treasure in heaven! I do wish he’d been more careful about promises which seem to have no factual basis! What about the genuinely poor Christian pensioners who have to choose between heating and food? Does treasure in heaven do them much good, as they starve and shiver?

A care home may cost £50,000 a year

But when I start protesting that my heart bleeds for these victims of our system, Jesus tells me that actually my heart is where my treasure is: heart and treasure, go together. He suggests that my “heartfelt” concern for the poor is hogwash, and that my commitment to God’s kingdom of justice, is vitiated by my commitment to comfort in old age. Of course I want to say that it all depends on my attitude to our savings. I am not a mean spirited person, but rather generous to people in need from the Big Issue seller outside the supermarket, to a slew of local and international charities. The things I love are not material, but social, like The Green Party, cultural, like poetry, natural, like mountains and spiritual, like the church. Jesus doesn’t argue with all that, but simply repeats that where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.

I protest that politics, art, and mountains, not to mention my church community, are my treasures. Jesus just asks, “And your savings, they’re not treasure and your heart is not with them?” Then I say he’s being unreasonable for I can truly say that I would much prefer to pay more tax so that the state could provide properly for all elderly people including us. “Ah yes, “ he says, ‘but we cannot wait until the state becomes just. We can build communities of heaven within the world as it is. That’s what I asked my disciples to do, and they did it. I don’t like telling you to read the Bible, but try Acts chapter 2, for a description of a church where nobody went without, because everybody shared. Whose fault is it that you cannot trust your church to do the same?”

I realise that Jesus was always more concerned with the possession of wealth, than with the attitudes people said they had towards it. This is so different from any other view of wealth, that I can be confident few of my fellow believers will condemn me for my old-age savings. Still, it niggles, as perhaps Jesus meant it to do:

Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.

Of course, when I’m being pious, I’ll say that I’m grateful for every precious word of Jesus recorded in the Bible; but when I’m my ordinary sinful self, there are a number of his sayings which really get up my nose.

For example, from Matthew Chapter 5, verse 5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Now I guess friends and family might not find the word ‘meek’ jumping to their lips when they think of me. Words like arrogant, rough, hasty, blunt, disputatious, scatological, noisy, not to mention the Scots ‘raj’ might more readily suggest themselves.

And never mind me, what of the poor sods who are meek in this world? What about the meek in Syria or Brazil? What about the meek of the world in the face of global warming? How can Jesus’ promise come true for any of them? “Inherit the earth”?? Inherit the poisoned lands after the big battalions have departed, more like.

But I shouldn’t disparage this blessing before checking what the word may have meant to Jesus.

In the original Greek of Matthews gospel, the word is praüs, translated as, meek, mild, or gentle. It is not common, occurring only 4 times in the New Testament:

Matthew 11:29 Jesus said, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek/gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

That is a beautiful utterance in which disciples are invited to pull the plough with Jesus, who does not chafe against the task, but does it peacefully. Except, in the face of its obvious meaning, we can for example remember Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and pharisees, and his forcefulness in proclaiming God’s kingdom. So was he so meek? Only, I think, if we interpret it as a readiness to demand little for oneself, and to obey God’s commands. Indeed the one who said, “Behind me Satan,” was not even meek with his friends.

Matthew 21:5 (Quote of Zechariah 9:9) Behold your king is coming to you, gentle and mounted on a donkey….

This is Zechariah’s great surprise announcement: the messiah will not come as a conquering hero on a war horse but gently, mounted on a donkey. Jesus is depicted as deliberately fulfilling this prophecy in his entry into Jerusalem. Here again, the normal connotations of meekness are laid aside. Jesus is shown as peaceful, but hardly humble; he was after all claiming to be the prophesied King.

I Peter 3: In a similar way you wives, be obedient to your own husbands, so that if some of them are not persuaded by the Word, they may be won over without a word by the behaviour of their wives, when they note your modest and reverential behaviour. Your cosmetic should not be the external one of braiding hair or wearing gold jewellery or trying on cloaks, but rather of the hidden person of the heart, with the undying reality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious to God. In that way the holy women who placed their hope in God, used to beautify themselves in their obedience to their husbands – as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him her lord. You become her children if you do good and are not made fearful by any violent threat. (My translation)

I’ve given more of the passage here because the context is important. Wives are to be gentle, even with unbelieving and violent husbands as an expression of the “hidden person of the heart”, that is, of their strong and peaceful natures. Of course this advice is given in the context of a very patriarchal society, and is, I think, unacceptable now. The image, however, of a character capable of gentleness under bad treatment, should have an attraction to both men and women.

Then there’s the promise that the meek shall “inherit the earth.” The translation should almost certainly be, “inherit the land” a reference to the ancient promise of the land to the children of Israel. The contrary promise of the Jewish Jihadis of Jesus’ time was that the strong and heroic rebels against Rome would inherit the land. Jesus proclamation of the peaceable kingdom of God was opposed to violent nationalism. Given the disastrous history of successive Jewish rebellions and the Roman response, Jesus’ view might be seen as simply realistic. In modern terms perhaps only peaceful people who know what is good for the land will inherit it after the agents of violence have obliterated each other. Indeed gentleness may be a crucial virtue for those who want there to be an earth for them and their descendants to inherit.

So, if I can interpret Jesus’ blessing as permitting reasonably robust language and action – after his own example- while encouraging a strong gentleness in the the cause of peace, do I still wish he hadn’t said it?

Oh yes, for who can welcome the statement of a truth that is so contrary to our instincts and offers our egos so little scope.

Oscar Wilde was a great, if flawed man, and a very great writer. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on his own experience of imprisonment, is strangely neglected even by those who love Wilde; I consider it a masterpiece which should be popular, as it is written in a popular form, and in words which are familiar to everyone. It can easily be found online.

It tells of the last weeks in the life of a man found guilty of a “crime of passion”, while also describing the bleakness, cruelty and fear of life in the prison. In the jaunty rhythm of the ballad stanza, he focuses especially on the day of the hanging, sparing few details, and its effect on the other prisoners.

And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
  In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
  Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
  With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat.
  And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
  The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
  The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
  Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
  His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
  The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
  The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
  And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
  Became Christ’s snow-white seal.

I have been a part-time Prison chaplain in my time, and have wrestled with the task of communicating the challenging and consoling truth of Jesus to the men caught in that system. Of course there were men, and women, who saw the chaplain as a bad joke, but others looked for a saving truth so earnestly that I was almost scared to speak. The word had to be simple and come from the guts. Jesus, the criminal and friend of criminals made sense to them, when the bloodless theologies of liberalism did not.

A young woman in my present congregation who had heard my sermon, in which I denounced the theology that says Christ took on himself the divine punishment that we deserved, asked me in some bewilderment, if I didn’t believe in the blood of Christ?

Her earnestness got to me: how could I have given that impression? I, who know so well how my arrogance, greed, lust, anger, laziness, fear and selfishness have made others bleed? Who know how much forgiveness means and costs? Who hope that any service I’ve given to Jesus may have let me wash even a corner of my robe to make it white in the blood of the Lamb?

My biblical studies have made it clear to me that the picture of God punishing Jesus for our sins is unbiblical, and turns the loving God into a vengeful tyrant. I hope that I can persuade this good sister that the doctrine of “penal substitution” is mistaken.

The bible does however give us powerful images of the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. For example it is called, “a ransom for many” – in this phrase many means all. The ransom, which is Jesus’ life poured out in pain, is paid, not to God but to the powers of evil who enslave human beings. It is like the payment made to the owner for the liberation of a slave. Yes, that makes profound sense to me. It is my heart, hardened by the powers of evil that enslave me, that keeps me from God’s love. Jesus bloody death breaks my heart, when I see what these powers are doing to him, and opens it to God.

Then there’s the picture of Jesus as a high priest who offers to God for the sins of the people, not animal blood, but his own blood. The idea of sacrifice is to offer something perfect to God as a way of renewing one’s relationship with him. In ourselves we are incapable of this true offering, because we are afraid of suffering. Jesus does it for us. The gift he gives to God is his lifeblood. If I trust in Jesus, and identify with him, I am accepted with him in God’s everlasting relationship of love.

These are, I must emphasise, pictures or metaphors, invented to help people understand the death of Jesus. There are many more of these in the Bible, each giving a different interpretation of the blood of Jesus. Their common basis is that the death of Jesus, like the life of Jesus, reveals a loving God.

In chapter 8 of his Gospel Mark records how Jesus’ lieutenant Simon Peter gains credit with his boss for blurting out his recognition of Jesus as Messiah; then almost immediately falls from grace by “rebuking” Jesus for his prophecy of his rejection and death. In turn he receives a pretty stern rebuke from Jesus, “Get behind me Satan.”

In fact Mark’s narrative shows again and again how the disciples misunderstand and disagree with Jesus, who nevertheless does not dismiss them as unworthy of his trust. From the start of his mission, Jesus knew that he needed help, and welcomed the growth, not just of the twelve, but of a larger community of men and women who gathered round him. The gospels tell us what they learned from him, but not what he learned from them, as he must have done. Perhaps their love of him was their greatest gift to him, but doubtless even their misunderstandings helped him to define his mission. The survival of his mission, indeed its transformation into a multinational community after his death is proof that his trust in his disciples was not misplaced.

Yesterday Boris Johnson sacked from his cabinet all who were not singing from the same hymnsheet as himself and his henchman Dominic Cummings. Most politicians who commented on this process accepted the conventional wisdom that it is the right way to build political strength. Nobody seemed to think that ridding your enterprise of possibly critical voices might be a catastrophic weakness. Dispensing with all possible criticism was increasingly the preferred management tactic of Adolf Hitler until he finally established his Reich in his bunker.

Jesus on the other hand found that his disciples were capable of communicating his story, while changing completely the outward forms of his community to meet the demands of new times and places. In my own ministry I started out with the conviction that my way, albeit often poorly researched and dubiously planned, was the best way for the church. Repeated evidence that my way had often been mistaken, led only to an increased insistence on its perfection. It took a long time before I was forced to admit the truth. Had I been more democratic and listened to critical colleagues, I could have spared myself and the church lots of grief.

The followers of Jesus ought to be able to offer to their societies, models of collaborative community and critical fellowship which they have learned from him, but in practice they have not always been able to do so, because of defects in the nature of their own organisation. The reformed churches have often made such a gap between the status of pastor/minister and members of the church that he/she has asserted authoritarian rule; while in the Roman and Orthodox churches powerful hierarchies have stolen authority from the people. Pope Francis, for example has tried to root out sexual abuse from his priesthood but has found his bishops to be the greatest barrier to his plans.

The hysterical teenager who is Johnson’s chief advisor and the Fat Controller himself, may put the UK through a lot of unnecessary suffering before they realise the benefits of greater modesty and collaboration. There is a tendency, obvious to those who read the news carefully, for entire societies to prefer what they call, “strong-man government”; bullies prefer to be governed by a bully, as is sadly evident in the USA, India, China, Russia, Hungary, Brazil, and perhaps the UK. Against this trend, wise citizens should argue strongly for the greater efficiency as well as the greater justice, of democratic practices at all levels of decision-making.

In Jesus’ group of disciples authority was exercised by service and persuasion, and even critical voices were cherished. I offer this model of leadership free of charge to the Prime Minister.