Monday, 8 December 2014

Gospel Beginning

I get a lot of emails every day; I suspect many of you do too. I also get a lot of posts on my Facebook wall. The challenge is to skim past the ones I'm not particularly interested in, whilst picking up on the ones I want to look into further. The subject and the first couple of lines are key to doing that.

'The more it changes ...'. Two thousand years ago, near enough, there was more information flowing around the Roman Empire than ever before. If you were a cosmopolitan sort of person, interested in what was going on - for instance a merchant whose business depended on knowing where there might be trouble and what trade routes might be affected - then you kept an eye on all the information you could. Even then, 90% of that information would be irrelevant - not quite cat videos perhaps, but not worth spending much time on. Nevertheless, you really didn't want to miss the 10% that did matter. So the first few lines of any document were important.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
This seems harmless to modern eyes. I am inclined to think that it is therefore a lousy translation, however literally accurate the words may be. Because to any well-informed cosmopolitan person in the 60s or 70s AD this would be dynamite. The sort of thing you need to know more about, even if you do find yourself looking over your shoulder for imperial spies.

'Good news': a much devalued phrase these days - a kind of prelude to religious brow-beating perhaps, not news and unlikely to be good. If I saw it in an email subject or Facebook post I'd probably feel I ought to read it, but with low expectations. If I weren't involved in churches already, the odds are I'd just hit the spam button, or skip the post. Back then an evangelion ('good news') might be a personal celebration - "It's a boy!" kind of thing - but by this time it was at least as likely to be political - the emperor, or one of his key generals, has just won a great victory somewhere. A royal proclamation: probably heavy on spin but, for a cosmopolitan reader, vital to know. Better read on.

'Messiah', or 'Christ': oh dear! Christos means anointed one or king. Caesar is unlikely to be happy about an evangelion saying someone else is king. Unless it is about a subject king, of course, one who recognises that Caesar is boss ('Lord'). But anyone who knows the Jewish scriptures - or has an informant who does - is likely to be aware of the story of David: anointed king long before that was a political reality, but from then on his predecessor Saul was a doomed man, his reign limited and his line at an end.

'The Son of God': oh dear, indeed! Emperor Nero had claimed that title, as had his predecessors ever since the newly dead Augustus had been proclaimed divine. Somebody else laying claim to that title was not going to go down well. Especially in the late 60s/early 70s AD.

It is a little inconvenient for us now that we don't know exactly when Mark's Gospel - from which the above political hot potato is the opening line - was written. Best estimate is between 66-70 AD. In 66 AD Nero's erratic incompetence was starting to become a serious issue in the Empire. In 68 AD he was forced to commit suicide, leading to instability and a power struggle. 69 AD was known as 'the year of the four emperors'. By 70 AD Vespasian had come out on top and was busy stabilising his position.

At any time during this period a document claiming to be a royal proclamation about an anointed king who carried imperial divinity was inevitably both highly dangerous and highly important. If you were a cosmopolitan person within the Roman Empire you had to read on. This was a subject line which couldn't be ignored.

What bothers me is that nowadays what used to be an attention-catching, if risky, opening means little or nothing to a modern cosmopolitan reader. The other three Gospel openings, similarly designed to attract the attention of their targeted readerships, are likewise pretty meaningless to a non-religious audience today.

How would one open a modern telling of Jesus' story? What would catch a modern reader's attention and encourage them to read on? Any thoughts and ideas?

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Advent Hope

"£25m Pay Deal Criticised" - BG group, headquartered here in Reading, are hiring a new CEO, Helge Lund, who wants £25 million for his first year. He may or may not get all of it, but the reality remains that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The reason is simple: the rich have the power to decide where the money goes and so they take it; the poor don't have power so they struggle to feed their families. It seems to me that there should be a reckoning for this, an accounting, a judgement if you like.

"Kassig Had ‘Calling’ To Help Syrians" - Peter Kassig was kidnapped and killed by the IS/ISIS/ISIL and a video of his death posted. What western media rarely mentions is that around 14 Syrians were also murdered on the video, an omission that seems to me to play into the hands of the IS propagandists. Nevertheless, what we have in Syria and Western Iraq is a situation where men (mostly) of violence are slaughtering people of goodwill and good intent. Surely that demands a reckoning, an accounting, a judgement.

"Rotherham: Tip Of The Iceberg" - At least 1,400 vulnerable children abused by a paedophile ring. Why the 'tip of the iceberg'? One reason is that there are now investigations into other paedophile rings operating in other towns and cities across the UK. The other is that police chiefs are now saying what the NSPCC have been saying for years: that all of these paedophile rings are only the tip of the iceberg of child abuse in this country - the vast majority of abuse takes place in or around the home, carried out by family members or family friends.There has to be a reckoning, an accounting, a judgement, and it must come soon: every day more children and young people are suffering.

What is God doing about all this?

Which brings us to Advent. Advent is not just looking back to the first Christmas, celebrating Emmanuel, God with us, and wondering about all that God was doing. Advent is also about looking forward in hope. In the church calendar, last Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King; for the next few Sundays we look forward to the return of King Jesus to earth to reign in power over a new Kingdom of justice and peace. Sounds easy?

Back in the days of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah he wrote warnings about the consequences of the injustice, greed and violence racking his nation. Many of his passages have a thick dark thread of warning, interwoven with a fine gold thread about God intervening personally to sort things out. The warnings in due course came true, back in 587BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and exiled many of its people. Injustice piled on injustice, with greed, violence, poisonous politics and exploitative religion, had built up a toxic brew which eventually boiled over in death, destruction and horror. You can read about it in the Old Testament book of Lamentations.

It was several centuries before the fine gold thread took effect ... and then it was in a totally unexpected way. A baby in a manger, what is that about? The everyday miracle of a new birth, new life, imbued with the once-in-history miracle of the incarnation: God as humanity; the infinite creator of the universe as a tiny baby in its mother's arms. A wonder.

But still injustice, greed and violence continue. The Gospel writers, like Isaiah before, warn again of the consequences. Again, a thick dark thread of warning mixed with the fine golden thread of hope. There will be violence and destruction but, at an unknown time and in an unknown way, there will be change. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed - again - in AD70, "not one stone left on another", but Jesus, crucified by men of violence, has been raised to be king. Soon, we don't when, he will return.

Injustice, greed and violence remain - see the headlines above. They regularly boil over in a reckoning of death, destruction and horror, but that changes nothing in the long term. A new approach is needed; a new kind of reckoning. Instead of a judgement of death and destruction, the world needs a judgement of redemption and transformation. Not a reckoning of retribution, but a reckoning of renewal: a totting up, a drawing of the line, a fresh start. The point is what comes after, not judgement in itself.

We get a pointer from the apostle Paul's first letter to the young church in Corinth. Talking about Jesus' return, Paul tells them that all we have done which is wrong, which falls short, which is unworthy of Jesus, all that will be burnt up when Jesus comes, destroyed, blown away, no more. Cleansed. On the other hand, he tells us later, all that we do which is good, wholesome, worthy of Jesus' name, that will last forever. Not just a good thing for today, but Jesus will carry it over into his reign, his kingdom. Anything good we do this week will be a part of Jesus' Kingdom throughout eternity.

The point is that we are not to be afraid of making mistakes, we need to reach out and do whatever good we can.

Jesus' parable of the talents makes the same point: God has given the gift of life to us; he wants us to use it. Not to hide away in fear, in case we make a mistake, but to use it to make a difference, to make this world a better place, and so to work toward the world to come.

Because Jesus' reign and Jesus' Kingdom are not just about when Jesus returns in glory. The Advent Hope is so much more than that. Jesus' Kingdom will come fully when Jesus returns, but even now it is breaking through where Jesus' followers are at work. Even now Jesus reigns where his people do the unexpected, take risks: when we help those who would not help us, when we are kind to those who show only enmity, when we go further, look deeper, do more. That is where Jesus' Kingdom is visible, calling people to respond.

This is what the Lord's Prayer means when we say "your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven". It must never just be just words, it is to be said as a commitment: we will do all we can to help God's Kingdom break through where we are. Because the Advent Hope is not just an idea, it is actions and attitudes and a brave heart in difficult situations. It is trusting God to use all that we do for good.

And it is also saying, "Do hurry up, Lord, we're doing our best, but we still need you down here now!" Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Fifty-Six Weeks In The Year

In a church year, that is. Kind of.

The official church year begins at the end of November, with Advent: the season of preparation for the coming of Jesus. That makes reasonable sense: Jesus is the centre of the Christian faith, and we have a big celebration of his birth on December 25th, so a four-week (actually four-Sunday) time of preparation and anticipation takes you to a starting point of (this year) November 30th.

The run up to Christmas is typically terribly busy, often stressfully so, and then Christmas itself can be fraught with family hassles, or lonely with the lack of family hassles. All of this can help us to connect with that very first Christmas. Joseph and Mary trying to cope with a new marriage, with Mary's first baby on the way, and with the knowledge that family and neighbours are all very aware that the baby is expected a lot less than nine months after the marriage, probably also aware that it is not Joseph's. Imagine the small-town attitudes responding to that.

Then the Romans throw a spanner in the works by making everybody travel back to their family town: all the way south to Bethlehem in Mary and Joseph's case. As if they haven't got enough to cope with. Then when they get to Bethlehem - their family town - their family don't want them: nobody has room for a young pregnant girl, about to give birth. Family problems and loneliness in a single hurtful package.

If Advent is the beginning of the church year, when is the end? People will often say it is the week before Advent: the feast of Christ the King (in those churches which have this sort of church year, of course). Except that, after celebrating Christ's Kingship, you then need to prepare for his coming back, as king, to rule here on earth, to put things right and to reign in justice and power. We do that at Advent too.

So Advent is also a time to consider and prepare for Jesus' return. and a time to think about death and resurrection, judgement and restoration. The details of when and how this will happen are deliberately vague in the Bible - which doesn't stop sects, nutters, obsessives and successful American authors from fantasising about it - but we do get told the result. People will be raised to life and renewed, God and Jesus will come to live on earth, and the earth will also be cleansed and renewed.

Somewhere in the detail left vague and ambiguous in the Bible is 'hell': the fundamental question of what happens to those who aren't raised to life and renewed. My take is that we eventually face a fundamental choice: do we want to be a part of this renewal or do we not? Why anyone would choose to face the 'second death' rather than allow God to renew them I don't know, but I guess a part of respecting someone's humanity is to give them that genuine option.

God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, just as we regularly pray. All that we have done which is wrong will be cleansed and forgotten; all that we have done which is good will remain as part of Jesus' renewed kingdom. We will live together in Jesus' presence with peace, justice and purpose.

So you end up with two seasons of Advent overlapping: one at the beginning of the church year and one at the end. Advent is just under four weeks long (depending which day Christmas Eve falls upon) so that makes a tad under fifty-six weeks in one church year. QED.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Stressed Ramblings

In the middle of last month I received a letter threatening legal action over an old blog post. I found it extremely intimidating, making threats and demanding money.

In a way this gives me insight on a more emotional level into the situation some of my customers have found themselves in. They receive a phone call out of the blue, claiming (in effect) to be from Microsoft, telling them they have viruses and could be disconnected from the Internet, and charging for the 'service' of removing said (non-existent) viruses. Computers are not these customers' comfort zone and they get very worried and often end up making payments which, with a cool head and time to reflect, they would never normally have agreed to.

My advice to my computer customers is always to take time to think about the matter, and to consult an expert (such as myself) if they are concerned. So, after an initial headless-chicken moment, that's what I did over the letter. Legal affairs are as dark, unknown and scary to me as computers are to many others.

Kudos then to E.J.Winter & Sons for advice which I found to be clear, constructive and helpful. A thumbs up also to Harrison's Solicitors in Reading who don't deal with this sort of thing, but helpfully put me onto someone who does.

Meanwhile the empty nesting continues. Our son has started work up in the Midlands, and has now moved into his own rented flat. At the same time our daughter is slowly finding her student feet in the foreign land of Wales. I'm immensely proud of both of them.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Barclays: Jekyll & Hyde

I'm really rather conflicted over Barclay's Bank. At the giant multi-national corporate level I remember it as the 'apartheid bank' of the seventies and eighties; now, in the 21st Century, it keeps hitting the headlines for highly dodgy wheeler-dealing and dubious financial ethics.

In the late nineties, after apartheid was over, it was the only bank with a branch in Caversham which met my small business needs, so I opened a business account there. I find the local branch brings a very different set of associations from the central institution. I have, over many years, found the staff there to be helpful and professional. I've had the odd dubious communication from Barclay's over the years, all apparently from either head office or their marketing department, but no problem at all with the branch itself.

St John's had its Christmas Fair today, which is what got me thinking about Barclay's. Two of their branch staff came over to help us out on the two busiest stalls, did a great job, then matched the takings on those stalls from their branch funds. A small amount for Barclay's, no doubt, but immensely helpful to us. More importantly, though, it was done in the context of involvement: giving up their time and commitment to get involved and make a difference within the local community.

So bravo to Barclay's Caversham branch, to the staff who came and helped out today, and to the other branch staff who doubtless help other community endeavours over the year.

Every now and again there are rumours that Barclay's head office might close their Caversham branch. If that happens I will move my account in a shot (not that they'll miss its small turnover). Until then, though, I will appreciate the positives and be grateful for bank staff who want to give something to their local community.