Gospel thoughts with attitude!
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No  fools in April

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre KingstonOne of the earliest images (from around 225 CE) we have of Christ being worshipped is of a man in front of a crucified figure. The caption reads ‘Alexamenos worships his god’ . This is thought to be an anti Christian piece of work – or certainly an anti-Alexamenos one! But the representation of Christ is the real curiosity for it shows Jesus as having a donkey’s head. Donkeys were thought of as foolish creatures, something we see in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where a village workman is made to have an ass’s head and falls in love with a fairy queen.

In the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about foolishness and how, on the one hand we are called to be fools for Christ, proclaiming a gospel that makes us look stupid and naïve, to have faith in a man that was crucified was considered exceedingly stupid and it was, as Paul says, a stumbling block to faith in Jesus for many people then and now.

 On the other hand, Paul talks about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of man. I Corinthians 1, 23 -25;

…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

But those of you who read carefully will have noticed a sleight of hand here in my writing. I have made it look as if foolishness and stupidity are one and the same – which they are not. ‘Stupid’ is not using the brains you were born with to think something through. We may think of it as dull-witted but stupidity is not so much about mental ability as mental willingness. A fool though, is someone  like a jester, far from dull-witted but agile of thought and sharp as a pin and, in kingly courts of old, expected to speak truth to power where others would simply fawn and flatter. How many of our current day ‘kings’ could do with someone to speak truth in their ears! Again, to quote the Bard, ‘jesters do oft prove prophets’  as Shakespeare says in King Lear,  a play which examines foolishness in all its guises from stupid folk to professional wit via old age folly, and malice which gets its come-uppance.   Jesters use humour to teach deep truths, sugaring the pill. It’s why Jesus used parables and why so much of His words are full of humour – if only we could take off the ‘must-be-serious specs’ and perceive them.

 

How does this affect the Christian? How are we to be fools for Christ and speak truth to our hearts and those around us?

Text Box: I’m not a complete idiot, some parts are missing Not by being daft about life and doing reckless things that threaten our health and that of those around us. Not by behaving as if forgiveness is a gift to be taken for granted as we habitually do those things which, by omission or commission hurt others deeply (‘we have not done those things which we ought to have done and have  done those things which we ought not to have done’ as the old prayer book puts it). Not by pretending that all will be well and just let things go by without taking action against climate change, poverty, waste or other things which engage us and challenge our sense of justice. Not by failing to think about our faith and doing what Jesus tells us when He says ‘You  shall worship the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind …’) Too many Christians want a ‘simple faith’ which is fine if you are ‘simple’ but many of us are far from this. ‘Engage brain before putting mouth in gear’   as the fridge magnet philosopher has it.  I think that those of us capable of tertiary level education owe it to God to do this with our faith and explore the wonderful intellectual integrity it has.

So what to do then to be good fools for Christ? To follow where we believe He is leading which  may indeed make us look foolish in the eyes of those lead by seemingly brighter lights. To give from the depth of our pockets and the depths of our hearts. To go beyond reason and act from love. ‘God so loved the world…’ says John, not  ‘God so thought the world’. It was not as an act of capricious amusement that God called the world into being but as an action of love, God sharing the joy of being alive with us hence we are made in God’s image, capable of great creativity and great compassion.

 At the point of decision reason fails us and we go with our hearts be it the colour of the car (‘resale value’ or ‘the kids/wife/granny….  like it’) the location of the house (Cotswolds or Trondheim?!) or following Christ when there is nothing to commend Him other than that He seems to make just about more sense than the others who attract us, as Peter says in John 6.6. As Easter draws on, the common sense (intelligence) of the common good will keep us separate yet a while but the common sense (feeling) of us as a community of praying, worshipping and joyful Christians will hold to eternity. ‘Speak the truth in love’ as Paul says (Ephesians 4. 15) not out of malice, but do speak the truth that Christ teaches us which is no folly nor ignorance but grace personified (John 1.14).

 

And the Word became flesh

and dwelt among us,

and we have seen his glory,

the glory as of a father’s only son, 

full of grace and truth.

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Matthew 15 A Hand-Washing Tale

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ 3He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
8 “This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’

 

Well, they wouldn’t get away with it today!! Not washing hands is now as unthinkable as not taking off your shoes when you go into a Norwegian’s house. Of course this was long, long, long before the trials of today and global infectious diseases. It’s a bit of fun to hear of the disciples not washing their hands against the context of our present and necessary preoccupation with making our mitts clean and healthy but as an example of how to make a big story out of a little one it has a lot going for it.

The Pharisees come out all the way  from Jerusalem just to pick a fight.  This was no casual encounter but a ‘let’s go and find the troublesome rabbi’ expedition. They went mob-handed.  They went out fighting and prepared. They may even have thought that this argument was more water tight than their last one (Matthew 12, ‘why do your disciples eat on the Sabbath?’ – presumably it took them a week to fathom out the next bit, eating on the Sabbath then  not washing hands before they eat, thinking backwards they were good at, well, better than thinking forwards at least).

Jesus comes out fighting too, ‘OK, if you want to talk about breaking commandments, let’s have a look at some of the ones you Pharisees break…’ And here is a lesson for us today in our c-virus ridden time. Caring for those who have cared for us, our parents, our elders, our weak and frail and vulnerable. These are the commandments of God we should be keeping. Don’t look at the petty stuff, look at the big stuff. C-virus is not about washing hands but about caring for the community at large to stop infection spreading –  look at the bigger picture.

Hierarchical institutions, such as the Pharisees belonged to, are often concerned with upholding their man-made laws to maintain the position of those in charge in the institution. Power is a heady drug and the Pharisees were trying to enforce their power on Jesus. But Jesus is no fool and no mean power either. They were trounced, as so often they are in the Gospels and small wonder they wanted Christ dead. Our own Church history sometimes reads like a power-grab story with the Church making rules where God’s grace would be.

In a complete upending of the dynamics of this story, where the Pharisees had sought to get the crowd on their side (how daft could they be? They’d only manage that at the rabble-rousing crowd scene with Jesus and Barabbas) Jesus turns directly to the crowd and, in the sight and hearing of the self-righteous Pharisees, tells the crowd that what the Pharisees teach is Wrong, capital W. ‘Red faced’ doesn’t begin to describe how the Pharisees must have looked, puce with rage, white with anger, black with loathing, green with envy,  a whole rainbow of colourful language is available here!

It’s what comes out of the mouth  that defiles, makes dirty, impure, unacceptable. When we speak ill of the living, when we fail to help those threatened and weakened by circumstance, that is when  we break the 2 salient commandments of God – Love the Lord your God, and then, love your neighbour as yourself.  

 

The disciples were worried about the reaction of the Pharisees to the way that  Jesus humiliated them. ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ they say to Jesus, as if He didn’t realize He’d only gone and upset The Pharisees, like, the powerful people, the top set, the ruling clerics, the men who knew where they lived and had boys to send round??? Jesus’ reaction is amazing when you hear it for what it is. ‘So what? They are blind people leading blind people. If they all fall into the pit, it will be no loss.’ This isn’t the stereotypical Jesus of compassion and gentleness fame but a Jesus who is sharp to the point of caustic and damning almost with judgment of the Pharisees behaviour. Some scholars would argue that this is evidence of Matthew’s anti-Pharisee attitude. If it makes you feel more comfortable to attribute Jesus’ attitude to Matthew, think  why that should be.  How would our behaviour stand up to such scrutiny? To what are we blind? About what are we sure to the point where we challenge even God who tells us different? Let’s start with ‘love your enemy’ and see how far we get. We have examples enough of this not happening in our midst without need to go outside the Body of Christ.

‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desire known and from whom no secrets are hidden’ has to be one of the scariest opening sentences in the  whole of the liturgy. Thank God for the grace of the Holy Spirit to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.

Get up and smell the coffee!!

Luke 8. 22- 25

 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

 

To get the best out of this story you have to imagine the scene, not just read it.

Who is here? The disciples and Jesus of course. Whose boat, what sort of boat – fishing boat? Rowing boat? One big enough for Jesus to go and have a snooze in, away from the disciples. Maybe one the Sons of Thunder owned for fishing from?

A storm arose. This may have been something Jesus saw coming as He was fond of suggesting that the weather was something that could be read and planned for. Or maybe He just wanted to push  the disciples a little as if they were on a  leadership training course (which of course they were).

The disciples were in danger – so it must have been a big enough storm to frighten experienced fishermen. Can you imagine how you would feel if the person whose idea it was to do something then takes a nap and leaves you to cope with whatever the weather throws at you? Which of the disciples woke Him up? On some occasions we are told the disciples were frightened to disturb Jesus because He was prone to be cross with them (see Mark 9 for an example) so who drew the short straw here? John: ‘You wake Him up Peter, you’re bigger than Him’ Peter; I’m not going, He’ll be grumpy’ James; well He has to be woken up or we’ll all go down with the boat, let’s all go and Peter you go first’ All this done in the teeth of a howling gale where voices can barely be heard as you struggle to move across the boat – and Jesus was sleeping through this?! Bring on the Guns of Navarone! (You’re not supposed to be able to sleep through that film either.)

So off they stagger to where Jesus is having 40 winks. They wake Him, he’s grumpy.

They shout at Him, He shouts back, not to be heard but because He cannot believe they still haven’t cottoned on to who and what He is. Look at what word  the Gospel writer uses, He rebuked the winds. So maybe, in temper, Jesus, woken from sleep, shouts to the wind ‘Wind stop it, back in your place! Waves, pack it in I’m trying to sleep and you’re not helping here!’ Then He turns to the cowering, gob-smacked, awestruck  and soggy disciples and tells them to get a grip and smell the coffee. Then He stomps back to bed muttering about how long does He have to put up with the crew His Father has given Him   (Matthew 17) pulls His cloak over His head and goes back to sleep.

This is a bit more life-like perhaps than the piety that this passage is often interpreted with but if it resonates with Christ’s humanity then it also tells us something about His divinity. The things that beset us, trouble us, rock the boat that we want to sail only on calm seas, are things that God can handle and even if we sink or find we cannot walk on the water or even drown, nothing but nothing can separate us from the  Eternal Life we have been given. Death and storms come and God stays, health and happiness go but God stays, crucifixion is imposed but God rises, irrepressibly alive. And understandably perhaps, Jesus gets a bit fed up when woken from sleep from our fear that we will perish although we are in the same boat as He is.

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