63-81 Pelham Street, South Kensington, London, is world famous for being the home of London Transport’s Lost Property Office. Established in 1933, it is where all the lost items found on, or in any of London’s transportation systems – underground trains, buses, taxis, etc, are placed to be reclaimed. Every year between 150,000 and 200,000 items are found and turned in to the LPO, where officials attempt to locate owners and return their lost items. Every year people lose wheelchairs, false teeth, watches, backpacks, umbrellas, smartphones, and an estimated 38,000 books, 29,000 bags and 28,000 pieces of clothing.
I don’t know if you have ever lost something and then found it again, but I do know how many stories have shaped my life on the subject of ‘Lost and Found’. As a child I used to love watching ‘Bagpuss’ and his toy friends, who lived in a shop, owned by a little girl called Emily. Each week Emily would bring to the shop something that had been lost and needed mending. Bagpuss and his friends would lovingly do so, and then the item would go on display in the shop window, for the owner to claim. When a little older, I enjoyed stories about ‘Paddington Bear’. Found by the Brown family in Paddington Station, he came from Peru, wearing a hat and duffle coat, with a label tied on him, saying, ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’ And as a teenager I loved watching all the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies, where adventuring archaeologist, Indiana Jones, would seek some lost treasure – often to learn by the end of the film that the most precious things are the people who will stand beside you.
During the past year, this idea of ‘lost and found’, has come into my thinking time and again. Many people have often spoken to me about a year that has been ‘lost’, due to the Covid 19 pandemic – and I can understand why. I do not underestimate the precious treasures people have lost – be that family members, friends, jobs, or a sense of security and purpose. But some people have also spoken to me about what they have found. Beyond a discovery of online communication technologies, many have identified a new sense of what, or who, is of real value. A new understanding of priorities in life. A better appreciation of what can easily be taken for granted – powerfully expressed as much as anything, through pictures of rainbows, or clapping in our streets. In twelve months, these things and more, have been found.
And then I come to this time called ‘Easter’. The most important time of the year for Christians everywhere. And suddenly all of this makes sense to me. Like the dawn on Easter morning, it dawns on me why Easter resonates so much in my heart, and the hearts of millions around the world, and across the millennia.
Easter is the greatest Lost and Found story ever told!
On that first Easter morning we are told that the women go to the tomb, desperately sad – for they had lost their teacher and friend – Jesus. Jesus, who on Good Friday, lost everything – his freedom, his followers, his clothes, even his life – when he died on the Cross. But that is not the end of the story. Instead it ends with what was found. A miracle. Discovery of a love that is stronger than death. That Jesus is Risen! – ‘Alleluia!’, they cried, and so do we. Things were not the same – they could not be – because of the experience they had all gone through, during what we now call, ‘Holy Week’. Even the Risen Jesus carried the scars of the Cross on his body. They had all changed, and so, perhaps, have we. But we are here now – and it is Easter. Alleluia!
The reason that Christians are often invited to renew their Baptismal promises on Easter Day, is to act as a reminder that today really can be the first day of the rest of our lives. On that first Easter Day, things were never the same again. Yes, things had been lost, and we will always remember that. But what we celebrate is what had been found, which is still expressed in just three little words: ‘Christ is Risen!’ And in those three words I understand who I am. I am lost and found. That is how God sees me. That is how God sees all of us. And that is why ‘Loss’ in all it’s forms, is never the last word. The past year of the pandemic has made that clear to me. Indeed, if I could express all the words I have shared with you in just one word – it would look and sound like this…
Like Paddington Bear, I imagine myself with a label tied to me. But on that label is written, just one word: ‘Found.’ What more can I say? What more can you?
As a little boy I loved the ‘Space Race’. That time when the USA and the Soviet Union (as it was known then), launched all manner of probes and people into the stars. Now we are on the cusp of a new ‘Space Race’, driven more often by commercial than political reasons. In this past week the world witnessed NASA’s Perseverance Rover, land safely on Mars. Some viewers claim to have decoded a hidden message displayed on the red and white parachute that helped its safe landing. They claim that the phrase “Dare Mighty Things” – used as a motto by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – was encoded on the parachute using a pattern representing letters as binary computer code. What does it mean?
Dare Mighty Things.
The phrase, ‘Dare mighty things’, comes from a speech given in 1899 by a former President of the USA, Theodore Roosevelt, who said: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” In short, it is better to have tried and failed, than not to try at all. I wonder what that may mean for each of us in the context of the past year? I wonder what it may yet mean for us this year?
It’s a saying that seems appropriate at pivotal points, whether public or private, that often help us to define who we are. What we stand for. What we aspire to be. We may not go looking for them, indeed if this past year is anything to go by, pivotal points often seem to find us. And it is at a pivotal point in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 8, that we hear Jesus addressing the disciples. To put the words into context we need to remember that chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel is at a pivotal point in itself – it is literally half way through the 16 chapters that make up the book. Is this a coincidence, or is there more to it you might wonder, if you were a literary critic?
And chapter 8 itself contains some pivotal points. It begins with Jesus feeding the 4000 – Jesus is revealed as the true Bread of Life, if you will. And yet, the religious teachers of the day, the Pharisees, still demand a sign from Jesus – acknowledging him only with their indifference and scepticism. Then Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida. So powerful was this incident that, as he travels on with his disciples, that we come to another pivotal moment of the chapter – when Jesus asks them; ‘Who do you say that I am?’ One of the disciples, Peter, proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah. That’s when we might expect the chapter to end – because how do you top that? It’s a show-stopper when Peter proclaims it. A model answer for anyone wishing to be a Christian, in answering Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But there’s more in Mark chapter 8, which ends: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In other words, it’s not enough to answer Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ with the words, ‘You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ Even Peter is rebuked in Mark chapter 8, because he does not want to hear what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And Jesus underlines this himself in Matthew 7:21 where he says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
For anyone who wishes to follow Jesus, the pivotal question is not, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Instead, it’s implied by Jesus’ words that ends Mark chapter 8. That pivotal question is, ‘Who will you be now?’ In other words, what will we do that is different once we recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God? If we do nothing that is different, have we even answered the question: ‘Who will we be now?’
I think that’s why Jesus gives Peter such a strong rebuke, ‘Get behind me Satan!’, which in turn was responding to Peter’s own rebuke of Jesus. Peter’s answer was not enough. Nothing had changed about his expectations, or his actions, although he had given the right answer. It’s a timely question one year on from when the pandemic changed the world we have grown accustomed too. Perhaps, if we’re honest, even taken for granted: ‘Who will we be now?’
Will we be more mindful of anything, or anyone. Will any of our attitudes or habits have changed for the better, or will we revert back to everything we always once were? And collectively, will we be any different in ways that enrich our world both now, and for generations to come? And in our churches – ‘Who will we be now?’ For as Jesus says, just saying ‘Lord, Lord’, is not enough. For too many centuries we have treated being a Christian as though it were a noun. But for Jesus’ early followers it was as much a verb – a doing word. That’s why in the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christians are described time and again as people of ‘The Way’.
In our Lent group this year we are exploring environmental issues in the wake of Covid 19. But one thing we may have all learned from our time in isolation is to count our blessings, and for many of us this has been an opportunity to connect with nature in a way that we have not done before. Many of us, for the first time perhaps, have opened our eyes and ears to God’s wonderful creation, and to the rich variety of animals, plants, and people in it. And we know that whoever we are, we can make a huge difference to help enrich the world.
As I write, we are reminded of this with the funeral of Captain Tom Moore today. A man who, in his hundredth year of life, raised more than £40 million pounds for the National Health Service. His example shows us that there is no reason for us to feel helpless, or fatalistic about the future.
‘Who will we be now?’ That is the question. And perhaps part of the answer, comes from those other words I have quoted: ‘Dare Mighty Things’. Not just words for astronauts and scientists, but for ordinary people like you and me, as they were first intended. People who can answer them, even after a century of living on planet Earth. They are doing words that shine like the sun, rather than exist in the grey twilight of indifference and scepticism. They are spelt by actions that speak louder than any words. And they will cost something, in order to mean something.
Jesus still asks us today, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And he is answered not just in a minute, by a single sentence. Nor in a lifetime, by repeating a thousand creeds. But in a life prepared to live the answer, moment by moment. There is no other Way.
He and I have known each other for over half a century. Edward was made by my Granny when I was born. And when I was young, Edward and I would go on many adventures together. Edward still carries the scars of some of those adventures. Like the hole in his bottom, when he and I sat too close to Granny’s open hearth fire, and a hot coal spat out and burnt him! But Edward’s okay and that was a long time ago.
Edward didn’t always look as he does now. My Granny didn’t make Edward any clothes for him. Nor did she give him the big smile he has now. But I loved him, and he and I were inseparable. Then I grew up, and had a family of my own – and that was when Edward went missing! Now, moving house can be tricky – especially when you move more than once – and where I thought Edward was, he was not. Can you imagine how sad I felt?
Years passed and then came 2020. And a strange, rollercoaster year it has been, hasn’t it? Many of us have learned to become more digitally connected, but in some ways, perhaps we have experienced feelings of being disconnected too.
During last summer I got around to some of those getting ‘A Round Tuit’ jobs – that at other normal times maybe we never quite get around to – do you know what I mean? Well for me it consisted in clearing out the loft and the garage. And what a clear out it was! No wonder I hadn’t quite got around to it before. And it was then that I found Edward in an old suitcase. A bit dirty, and a bit squashed, but it was him. Immediately I picked him up, brushed him off, and brought him out of that cold, dark place, where he had stayed for so many years. I brough Edward back into the daylight – on one of those glorious sunny days, many of us enjoyed in the summer of 2020. My mother in law soon got to work on Edward. She washed him, restored him, made him some new clothes; and gave him a brand new, beaming smile.
So what does all this have to do with anything, you might be wondering?
Well, you see – Edward is you and me. Each of us has been lovingly and wonderfully made – by God. Each of us has our own adventure story to tell – just like Edward. Each of us may know what it means to be lost, or just feeling a bit squashed! For adventures are seldom risk free. And because of that, each of us may even know cold, dark, places – just like Edward.
But just like Edward, our story doesn’t end there. For God sent his only Son into the world to find us, and to restore us into a wonderful relationship with Him. Jesus didn’t start his quest in fine palaces, but in an overcrowded town – and his very first bed was, of all things – a manger. Jesus ventures into the cold, dark, places to find us, with a light that cannot be overwhelmed by the darkness. And when Jesus finds us, he wants to restore us – just like the people we hear of in the Bible stories of when Jesus was a man. It’s a restoration that may well leave us with a beaming smile, just like Edward’s. And it’s a restoration that can begin today – wherever we are, however we may feel, and however long we have felt like that.
I am sure 2020 has been a very different year for many of us. But the message of Jesus remains the same. That God is seeking to restore us, in a wonderful and loving way – to be the people God knows we can be. We can trust in God’s longing to restore us, but more than that, we can help God in restoring others too. It doesn’t have to take much, just an act of random kindness.
Edward is just a toy of course. But his is more than just a toy story. When I look at him now, I see that it’s our story. And that perhaps the one thing God longs for all of us to have one day, is a smile, just like Edward’s. A smile that comes in this instance, from a restoration plan that began long ago, in a manger and ended on a cross.
I want to talk about brief encounters. Not ‘Brief Encounter’ the 1945 classic British film scripted by Noel Coward and starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. But the brief encounters we experience and that Jesus experienced in the gospels. Brief and potentially life changing. They may not be romantic, like the classic film, but they certainly can touch deep feelings. Brief, rollercoaster encounters, just like the roller coaster music by Rachmaninov, the theme music for ‘Brief Encounter’ at Noel Coward’s request.
We begin with an extraordinary encounter that Jesus had with a woman who was very distressed, weighed down with a burden that many of us may relate to. Her little child was sick. In the gospel (Mark 7:24-36) the little girl is described as being possessed of a demon, and no further explanation is given. Whether it was a spiritual distress that she was manifesting with some kind of physical and psychological side effects, we do not know. The point is not the affliction itself but the burden of the mother, and where she should turn? She had numerous obstacles to face apart from the affliction of her daughter. What are the obstacles we are told in the story?
Tyre and Sidon were Roman seaports, places full of ‘foreigners’. And this woman is of mixed ethnic origin from that area. You only have to look at the British press about Brexit to see that issues of border and race are still hot topics for human beings today.
To this day the Herodian mountain fortress of Masada represents the Jewish struggle for autonomy culminating in its siege by the Romans in 73CE. But even at the time of Jesus and predating him there were zealous movements for independence such as the Maccabean Revolt. Then the Jews fought against the Seleucids. Tyre and Sidon were on the wrong side of that revolt, fighting not with the Jews, but against them. People can have long memories, and the Jews had long memories about Tyre and Sidon.
Not only that, but this Syro-Phoenecian woman was a Gentile, not even a Jew. At this time Jews referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs’. And there is also a fourth obstacle, she’s a…
Not only Judiasm can be found wanting when it comes to world religions modelling questionable attitudes. In this instance every Jewish male in the first century prayed a prayer on a daily basis that gave thanks to God that they were not created as a woman. Now perhaps we can just begin to imagine how difficult it was for this woman to come to Jesus? We can imagine some of the feelings, understand some of the obstacles, that are behind this brief encounter, when Jesus says, “It is not right to cast the children’s bread and give it to dogs.”
I cringe when I read this.
I know I am not the only one who gets uncomfortable because there is a great amount of debate amongst biblical scholars about what exactly Jesus meant. Some will say he was trying to test her. Others will say we aren’t translating this quite right, Jesus really called her a little dog, more like a puppy. But everywhere else in the culture of the time being referred to as a dog was a great insult. So what are we to make of this? What we may have here is a story that anyone who knows the Old Testament would understand. This is the story of God who changes his mind through the heartfelt petitions of one person.
There are several stories like this in the Old Testament: Abraham pleads to God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Moses pleads to God for the Israelites in Exodus 32. And following in that vein in the gospels we have this Syro-Phoenecian woman pleading to Jesus, the Son of God, for her daughter. Heartfelt petitions that eventually move Jesus and result in the girl’s healing. Maybe many feel God doesn’t really listen, let alone change his mind. But the Bible very much has that understanding. God’s relationship with people changes and progresses – just as Jesus’ attitude to this woman changes and progresses as a result of this brief encounter.
We have no problem at Christmas in Jesus being born and obviously learning to walk and talk as any child would. We learn through our lives and maybe it’s at this point that Jesus learns no longer to call Gentiles dogs as he had clearly been brought up to by his kinsfolk? We must consider why Jesus would lead this mother through a humbling and difficult process before granting her request. While his response does seem harsh, the lesson of persistent faith displayed through a time of testing is a common theme in the Bible. We also know that Jesus’ mission does go to the Gentiles. For Jesus, could that mission have become clear in his mind from the moment of this brief encounter?
We will never know.
We are told instead of another healing in the seaport of Sidon where Jesus heals a deaf and mute man. The healing echoes Isaiah 35:5, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” Mark probably includes this encounter to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets. The first brief encounter Jesus had in Tyre with the Syro-Phoenecian woman, shows that he is not the Messiah that Israel may have expected. His mission is wider, and maybe Jesus sees this for himself in her response and the obstacles that she was prepared to overcome. Jesus appears to change his attitude, just as God in the Old Testament appears sometimes, to change His.
And healing begins.
With the deaf, mute man, it begins with the Aramaic word Jesus said and preserved for all time by his followers – ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘Be Opened’. Which represents not just the healing of the man but a command – Be Opened. But opened from what? I wonder if you have ever experienced a time when an attitude either changed or did not change – and healing either happened or did not happen? Perhaps Mark includes these stories for this purpose, to challenge us? We may never have called a person a ‘dog’ but what have we done? What attitudes have we, either formed or inherited, or passed on? What do we need to be opened to?
These questions are all the more pertinent in our present age of brief encounters through social media. The brief encounters we have with people, real and virtual, can be either destructive or creative. The choice is ours as to what they may bring, just as it was for Jesus. From the gospels we know what Jesus chose, and at great cost to himself. Whether we consider ourselves to be religious or not, his choices not only defined himself but the history of the world. But what will we choose in our brief encounters?
That is the question only we can answer, and our answers will not only define us but the world that is yet to be.
‘The moment you wake up, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in listening to that other voice, that point of view, letting that other stronger, quieter life come flowing in.’
In other words, our path toward being fully human involves a recognition each day that we are not the centre of the universe. The trouble is we live in a culture that tells us that we are and that we should always get what we want. We are all consumers now relating to everything in terms of consumption – not just shopping, but education, health care, and religion. But being a consumer is not the height of what it means to be human.
I am reminded of this on Saint George’s Day – 23rd April – the day dedicated to the patron saint of England. We probably know the story about the knightly George and the dragon. But what do we know about the real George?
All we know is that George, or Georgios, was born around 270 BCE, probably in Cappadocia (now Eastern Turkey), not England. At the age of 17 he entered the service of the Emperor Diocletian as a Roman soldier.
Diocletian was for most of his reign tolerant of religious minorities, but around the turn of the century public opinion blamed the refusal of Christians to participate in pagan sacrifices for a series of unfavourable events and omens, and the Emperor ordered all Christians to conform to the Roman sacrificial system or else lose their positions. Those opposed to Christianity pressed for punishment, and an Oracle from Apollo at Didyma was widely interpreted as calling for the suppression of Christians. So on 24th February 303 BCE Diocletian’s ‘Edict against the Christians’ was published. A spate of persecutions followed, and many Christians died including George the Roman soldier and Christian martyr.
The Roman historian Eusebius, writing twenty years later, spoke of a soldier who was executed on 23rd April 303 BCE for this act. George was identified with Eusebius’s soldier, which is why Saint George is remembered on 23rd April to this day.
There are numerous theories of why Saint George is depicted with a dragon in Christian iconography. One theory suggests that the Roman soldier, George, refused to kneel before an image of a dragon or a serpent – possibly on a Roman Standard – and that this is where the story of ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ originates.
But even stories possess truth and allow us to explore the truth within ourselves. C.S. Lewis knew this, exploring the truth of his Christian faith through ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as much as he did through any of his theological writings or radio broadcasts. Lewis’s friend J.R.R.Tolkien held to a similar principle in his writings that revolved around his famous trilogy ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Role playing games such as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and digital versions such as ‘Dragon Age’ have built upon these stories and developed them for our own age. All of them in some ways look back to earlier stories such as ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. And in that story George had to face a question. Was he the centre of his own universe or was their something more worth defending? A dragon that needed defeating? The real George faced the dragon by refusing to renounce his Christian faith.
George would probably have remained a saint principally revered in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia had it not been for the Crusades. The crusaders journeys introduced them to the icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and they were impressed by the depictions of the courageous soldier-saint slaying a dragon and rescuing a damsel in distress.
They simply did not understand how the symbolism of iconography works, and that George’s dragon stood for evil, or perhaps Diocletian, and the beautiful princess for Christianity, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or for the Church itself. Not knowing how to interpret what they saw, they produced their own interpretations.
Sadly, this expressed itself in the crusades with acts of violence under the guise of ‘knightly valour’ and today Saint George is hijacked by extreme English nationalistic tendencies in some quarters. If only they knew who the real George, or Giorgios, was.
But if we can strip away the layers of legend we are still left with a little pinch of truth. George, the Christian who stood up to something terrifying and was able to do so not because he thought he was at the centre of the universe but because he knew he was not. Realising we are not the centre of the universe is a good thing as the history of map making can illustrate to us.
500 years ago people believed the Earth was flat. We know this from the history of making maps. Anyone who has been a scout knows not only that Saint George is their patron saint but something about map reading and map making.
If you go to an archive and look at any maps from 500 years ago you will see that maps of Europe were fine, but the further away from Europe they got, the less accurate they became. In uncharted places a Latin phrase can often be found:
‘Hic Sunt Dracones’ or ‘Here be dragons.’
So in the history of map making, dragons represented the fear of the unknown. As we know it took explorers to go into the unknown and to face these fears. That is why we have accurate maps today. To me, Saint George’s Day is about facing fear – facing the dragon. For the real Saint George it mean’t facing the fear of being persecuted for what he believed in as a Christian.
What might facing the dragon look like in our own age?
‘Hic Sunt Dracones.’
We will all encounter these words, and not just on historical maps. Remembering the real Saint George may help us face those words wherever we may encounter them. I remember a hymn I used to sing at school, ‘When a Knight won his Spurs’, which in one of the verses says the following:
“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,
from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.”
Living these words where ‘there be dragons’ lies the path to true chivalry.
In the wake of the success of ‘Star Wars’ in the late 1970’s another science fiction franchise that made an impression on me as a young boy was ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
Drawing upon theories of lost civilisations and humans on Earth being descendants of space travellers, the original story of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ was essentially a reinterpretation of ‘Frankenstein’. The mechanised creations of humanity known as Cylons, turn upon their makers whose surviving remnants then seek a new home known only in myth – Earth.
In the late 1970’s life was quite simple for me as a child and this was reflected in ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – the humans were the goodies and the Cylons were the baddies.
But we all grow up.
Life becomes more complex and so did ‘Battlestar Galactica’ when it was relaunched in 2004. The Cylons now looked like humans, they believed in God, they varied in their opinion as to whether humanity should be wiped out or not – they had soul!
The Cylons became much more of a reflection of humanity with differing shades of virtue, belief, and morality. It became harder to tell who were the goodies or the baddies and civil war in space never felt so real.
I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls.
What I should explain is I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls that originate from the English Civil War (1642-1651), the time of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. It is well known to local historians and Civil War re-enactors alike as being of strategic importance during that period of British history. All I can say is that it was something of a surreal experience as a child to sing hymns of peace and love while surrounded by these historic reminders of divided humanity!
Would you be a Cavalier or a Roundhead, I wonder?
Although we can toy with that idea in our imaginations now, it was a real, stark question for the generations before us in England. Families divided over loyalties, brother against brother, daughter against mother – each having to make a choice in their religious and political allegiances. Some of these divisions have reverberated well into the 21st century, for example in Ireland where Oliver Cromwell’s suppressive policies enacted by his New Model Army inflicted lasting social divisions.
I think of that when I come to the gospel passage Luke 12:49-53, when Jesus says:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
I think it is one of the most disturbing passages for any Christian to deal with. One reason being that it may not fit well with our ideas of Church or God at all.
But there it is.
So apart from ignoring it – how can we respond to Jesus’ words today? Perhaps we need to begin by reminding ourselves of some important things in the language that Jesus was using.
The ‘fire’ that Jesus came to cast is best understood as a purifying and refining fire. The prophet Malachi spoke of the Lord being “like a refiner’s fire and like a fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2) that separates the good from the bad. This fire is cast upon the earth to refine and purify everyone and everything – it is God’s act and not the act of a group of human beings to be the ‘refiner’s fire’. What I mean by this is that caution should always intervene when the words ‘God is on our side’ are used as history can teach us.
The baptism spoken of here must not to be confused with the water baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16). The baptism Jesus speaks of in Luke 12 is a baptism that had not yet occurred. This baptism is his death, burial, and resurrection. The result of this baptism is the kindling of the refiner’s fire that is cast upon the whole earth.
These two factors pose us with a choice.
In verses 52-53, Jesus shows that this division will affect family loyalties. This is perhaps the hardest verse to listen to, but we know it is true and that it happens. For the listeners of Luke’s Gospel the choice was stark because Christians were a persecuted minority. Choosing to be a Christian was a costly decision. Sadly, that is still true in some parts of the world to this day.
But having said that and apart from the English Civil War, families in this country until relatively recently, have suffered as a result of divisions over religious affiliation. Granted most of the people I talk to on this subject are in their 80’s or 90’s but occasionally I still hear a story like:
“Uncle Bert married Aunt Bertha and because she was a Catholic nobody in the family had anything to do with them ever again.”
I do not think those are the divisions Jesus was referring to. Instead some of us probably know that we have to be prepared as Christians to make choices when it comes to our love of God and love of family – because sadly in some cases – the two may not go together.
We may never have to make the dramatic choices made by those Christians who first listened to Luke’s Gospel and lived under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. We may never have to make the choices of allegiance made by our predecessors in the English Civil War or by Christians persecuted around the world to this day. But even now we will have to make choices and some of those choices may be uncomfortably close to home.
My simple rule in such situations is always to be open to another point of view, even within my own family, but that does not necessarily mean it is my track. And sometimes that can be hard – that cannot be denied and Jesus even tells us that to follow him is not always the easy path.
The second half of this gospel reading portrays Jesus chastising the crowds for not recognising the signs he bares. Like dark clouds or a stormy wind, the teaching and acts of mercy he performs indicate what will come. Jesus is born for one thing: to herald the coming kingdom of God, and to establish this kingdom he will raise neither banner nor sword but instead hang on the cross, the vulnerable insignia of God’s new reign.
Those who recognise the signs and choose to follow him will not only need to forsake the trappings of power that adorn the lords of the present kingdom, but can also expect resistance, even opposition. But if Jesus’ call to a new way of relating to each other — via forgiveness, courage, and humility — stirred up division during his time and that of the early church, what does it bring today?
Christians in the western world are asked to give up very little for the sake of faith in the 21st century. How, then, do we hear Jesus? To answer this question, we must engage in our own weather forecasting by discerning the signs of the times:
What elements of our lives hinder our service to God?
The God of the lowly and powerless?
The marginalised and the forgotten?
The God who challenges the status quo?
But if we fear undergoing Jesus’ baptism by fire, we might take comfort in the simple yet stark fact that Christ who comes to baptise us with fire and the Holy Spirit first embraced his own baptism — experiencing harm that we might know healing, undergoing judgment that we might know pardon, suffering death that we might know life.
Thus, looking backward to Jesus we may find the courage to look forward to discern the signs and challenges of our own times. To run the right way – but also understanding this may not be the same way all the time as others. In the letter to the Hebrews 12:1-2 we are encouraged to choose to live by faith because:
“…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
And when I still question myself I am reminded of one simple fact from the church where I grew up – the bullet holes in the walls are man made.
God’s fire is a refining fire that comes in love – not anger, or hatred, or fear, or greed – or any of the other factors that make up the division and war of human history, religious or otherwise.
How do we choose to run toward that love rather than away from it?
How do we express that love to those that might oppose it?
Therein lies not only our history but our story – yet to be finished. Like athletes I am sure the answer to our story lies in our daily training. Hopefully NOT lead bullet holes but gold medals will be the inheritance we pass on.
But time will tell if Cylons with soul will be our final legacy…
This article is dedicated to my daughter and son-in-law, Hannah and James, as they approach their first wedding anniversary. Below are the words of the address I gave on their wedding day…
Today is a significant step in our collective family trees. So what I would like to reflect on for a moment is just that – trees. I know that sounds strange but please hear me out.
We probably all know that trees are alchemists. Through photosynthesis, they create oxygen and glucose— both building blocks of life. Trees are essential to the environment and good for our health. But did you know there’s a hidden life of trees?
That is the title of a recent book by Peter Wohlleben, ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’. For most of his professional life as a forrester, Wohlleben sized up trees and their worth by what profits they could yield. And then he became an arborist, a specialist tree surgeon, in a forest in Germany. This experience fundamentally changed his understanding of trees.
One day Wohlleben stumbled across a patch of what he thought was strange-looking mossy stones. Lifting the moss, what he found wasn’t stone at all but ancient tree bark firmly rooted to the ground. He scraped a portion and below the bark was a sheath of green, the colour of chlorophyll—something that can be stored in reserve in the trunks of living trees.
Wohlleben knew the tree had been felled over 400 years ago.
Can you see what was strange about this?
How to account for the green chlorophyll?!?
Wohlleben wrote in his book:
“It was clear that something else was happening, this stump must be getting assistance from the roots of neighbouring trees, the surrounding trees were pumping glucose to the ancient stump of this tree to keep it alive.”
With this discovery a door opened in Wohlleben’s mind. Wohlleben now sees trees not as so much wood for profit, nor as stand-alone entities in competition for survival, but as members of an interdependent social network. Just like a family, or a community – trees help each other to live and grow.
Wohlleben observed that seedlings in the shade and trees starved of food are helped by receiving nutrients from larger photosynthesizing trees – even of different species. But we don’t see it because this help is hidden below the ground in the intermingling root systems. This is the hidden life of trees.
The book has become an international best-seller and not just among foresters. Many read it as a commentary on human beings. We too are individuals but we are also connected and rely to some degree upon those connections for our well-being.
I believe that principle is celebrated as we come together with Hannah and James on their wedding day.
It is not primarily their individuality we are celebrating today. But their relationship and their interconnection with one another and with each of us as family and friends, and how these things may contribute to the health and well-being of all – both today and for the future.
Like trees, our interconnections can bring well-being to all. Hannah and James are planting their lives firmly in that vision today as they make their marriage vows to each other.
In many religions there is mention of a ‘Tree of Life’ and in the Christian Bible this is also true. In Revelation 22:2 it says,
“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
I look at this verse now in a different way as I think of the hidden life of trees.
Where will Hannah and James grow from here? I don’t know.
But may God bless them and help them grow together, and us with them. This is my prayer and Wohlleben’s book is my wedding gift to them – which some might see as just another gardener’s book.
But some may perceive as a manual on the loving and caring connections we can make for the well-being of all – especially those of us who now know about the hidden life of trees…
‘Westworld’ is one of my favourite science fiction films from the 1970’s. Drawing its influence from the ‘imagineering’ theme parks and animatronics of Walt Disney, this was Michael Crichton’s first cautionary tale of a theme park going into meltdown that would later evolve into the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise.
But it is also more than that. In an article by Emily Asher-Perrin the author has written:
‘Westworld’ is not meant to be a cautionary tale about the terror of technology. It’s a cautionary tale about humanity’s failure to recognize its own fallible nature, our tendency to believe that all innovation is good innovation, and our inability to see past the monetary value of progress. All of these themes are commonly present in Michael Crichton’s work, and ‘Westworld’ offers another fascinating backdrop to consider these foibles.
The moral implications of creating humanoid robots complete with Artificial Intelligence have since been explored in such cult classics as ‘Bladerunner’ and with the continuing progress of technology accompanied by a lack of progress in human nature it seems as though the questions raised in ‘Westworld’ are more pertinent than ever. Indeed it is no coincidence that HBO have recently released a new television series from this franchise.
‘Westworld’ challenges us to think about the value of human life and whether sentient beings should be treated as objects of pleasure?
We have to acknowledge that some human beings have treated other human beings as nothing more than ‘objects’ for pleasure or profit. This is true historically and even now, for example, slave trafficking continues to the present day. Dr Molefi Kete Asante stated in a Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture in 2007:
One might claim that the leading opinion-makers, philosophers, and theologians of the European enslavers organised the category of blackness as property value. We Africans were, in effect, without soul, spirit, emotions, desires, and rights.
Historic arguments of whether African slaves possessed souls amid European academics of the eighteenth century resonates to a degree with the speculation of science fiction writers today concerning artificial intelligence becoming self aware and thus possessing rights and dare it even be said, a ‘soul’?
The question remains – Should sentient beings be treated as objects of pleasure?
Although we may be a long way from creating an adult theme park in which we might imagine that humanoid robots have rights, the world of video gaming is coming ever closer to meeting the darkest fantasies of our human nature.
I am not a prude about video games but they have come a long way since the days I used to queue at fairgrounds to play ‘Space Invaders’ as a young boy. Although it is in its infancy, ‘virtual reality’ gaming is now a marketable commodity in the living room and is sure to develop just as mobile phones have developed exponentially in the past two decades.
Although the inspiration for ‘Westworld’ may have come from Disneyland it seems that virtual reality will bring the moral issues of this cult classic closer to home sooner than we may imagine. ‘Westworld’ is virtually here and it beckons the question of how this may affect our moral compass as human beings as virtual gaming develops and becomes more accessible. Paul Tassi puts it like this in a recent article:
‘Westworld’ is essentially the endgame for video games. As a physical space on the show, it’s obviously not a virtual experience, but it might as well be, as it deals with all the same issues. I’m not worried about video game characters becoming self-aware and trying to murder me, but I am a little concerned about the ability for nearly anyone to act out wildly violent fantasies in increasingly realistic scenarios that may someday contain characters that feels as close to real as you can get.
In a Storymen podcast on ‘The Theology of Westworld’, a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Minister discuss the dehumanising effect of a theme park with no moral rules and the implications of this on the human spirit. Technology is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool. But technology often raises moral questions as to what it can empower us to do.
When mobile phones first became accessible nobody envisioned the moral debates we would have about social media over mobile phones today. To that degree most people would agree that mobile phones have not only changed in themselves in the past twenty years but have radically changed the way we communicate and function as human beings. Studies have shown for example, how these technologies stimulate dopamine within the human brain and the addictive behaviour that can incite.
As we are witnessing the birth of virtual reality gaming on a viable commercial basis in the domestic market, some questions emerge in my mind on the future of this technology:
What may virtual reality empower us to do, for good or ill?
What behaviour will virtual reality incite as it develops?
Are we on the cusp of creating a digital ‘Westworld’?
‘Magic Moments’ sung by Perry Como in 1957 is a song we might associate with Christmas as it was once used to sell ‘Quality Street’ chocolates in Christmas advertisements on British television.
Christmas is a magic moment that we may long to capture. Trees, lights, cards, presents, food, decorations – all geared towards capturing the magic moment of Christmas.
The trouble is maybe we carry a lot of other stuff as well – overloaded – and not with presents. Tired? Troubled? Preoccupied with worries, so that the magic moment of Christmas feels, perhaps – just out of reach…
Part of the problem might well be our upbringing. From an early age we are presented with the idea that Christmas is a time for children. Now don’t get me wrong, I think the wonder and excitement that children bring to Christmas is brilliant, but it is not the whole picture of Christmas, and it reinforces the idea that Christmas is something you grow out of.
I can understand why and that children’s nativity plays cannot contain the complex threads of the original Christmas story. What do I mean? Well, you only have to read the Bible for yourself to get the salient points:
Mary is an unmarried, teenage, pregnant mother, engaged to Joseph, who for fear of shame initially considers renouncing her – if he had done so, Mary would surely have been scorned even killed.
When Jesus is born there is literally no human place on Earth for him to stay, he sleeps in an animal feeding trough – a manger.
At the news of the Magi, King Herod murders young children, not that different from brutal dictatorships to this day. Joseph and Mary, with the infant Jesus, are forced to become refugees.
Christmas is hardly a children’s story!
For all the right reasons we protect children from the harshness of these details but for all the wrong reasons we forget what Christmas has to say to our adult world as we sentimentalise it. Sadly, that is only too clear when the bad things in life happen: bereavement, illness, redundancy, homelessness, fighting…
I think this is made worse during the Christmas season by the common misunderstanding that we may feel we have to be jolly for a whole month of the year. Do you know how hard it is to be jolly all the time?
I can’t do it!
Have you ever had that experience of groaning when somebody says something like, “Cheer up, it’s Christmas!” Which is perhaps one of the worse things in the world to say to someone when they are down, for whatever reason.
All the anxieties of real life that have no room in our jolly commercial Christmasses but are exactly the reason why God came to us when we think about it:
Christmas is God’s love making itself open and vulnerable to us in our troubled world.
God makes room for us even when we have no room for Him – just as there was no room at the Inn.
Christmas is God’s enormous risk of love, and that is no surprise because at the heart of the story is childbirth – with all the risk, anxiety, and hope that comes with it.
For the writers of the Gospels, Christmas is more than a capturing of childhood wonder, or a season to be artificially jolly – Christmas is about a future yet to be born.
That is what provides the wonder and the joy. And for those in the nativity who can see that, they discover a magic moment – even though it looks to the rest of the world like just another poor baby whose parents can’t even provide him with a bed for the night.
This year I went on a mindfulness course for clergy in Dorset. Mindfulness is a form of ancient meditation increasingly gaining credibility in medical circles. Basically it teaches the art of being in the present moment and seeing everything and everyone potentially as a gift.
In other words, a ‘magic moment’.
Although this might be easy to scoff at, the more I hear on the news of…
depression and suicide rates going up
domestic arguments and violence increasing over the Christmas season
homelessness and mental health issues increasing
…let alone all the other things happening in our world – the more I firmly believe that we need to cultivate the art of discovering ‘magic moments’. We certainly need to do something. Because what we are doing is literally making us ill and killing us, and our world.
For me as a Christian it all begins at Christmas in a manger with a homeless baby and shepherds and magi and angels saying, ‘There…”
“There is a magic moment – see it for all it’s worth – it could just change your life, and help change the world.”
However much we dress up the nativity with tinsel and fairy lights, we cannot hide the real light that shines from the manger. Magic moments are not just to be discovered in church at Christmas, but in your life in the world – each day.
For God loved the world so much that He dwelt among us in human form.
His Spirit dwells among us now, and I am sure God provides magic moments for us to discover in the gift of each ordinary day.
Just as God did over 2000 years ago in the birth of a child and all that followed from the cradle to the cross, and beyond.
Magic moments – like gifts, inviting us to receive them…