Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Church that takes our humanity seriously

I don’t think I had seen it that way before.

Something made me look at it again this week, and I saw it in an entirely different light.

And it made me stop and think!

Have you noticed how important titles are, be it in books, on TV, or in the theatre?

Have you noticed how often TV series go under the name of the person the show is about.

Poirot – Miss Marple – Morse – Lewis – and now, Wallender.

As soon as you hear the title you know what the programme is about and who is the key person in the story.

It’s no modern thing either!

Think how many of Dickens’ novels and Shakespeare’s plays have a single name in the title! And straightaway you know who the central figure in the play is.

Tom Stoppard had fun part at the expense of Shakespeare when he took one of the greatest of the tragedies, Hamlet and made a thought provoking comedy that looked at the events of that play from quite a different angle. He took two of the bit parts in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and built up a play around those two characters called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. A bit of a giveaway in the title as to what happens to them … but you can’t have everything!

I remember seeing it in the days of Repertory theatre in Leicester’s Phoenix theatre. Half the week they put on Hamlet – a powerful production. And the other half of the week, they used the same set, the same cast and put on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Going to both productions you found yourself reflecting on the same set of events from two quite different points of view.

And that’s what I found myself doing with a well-known Bible story this week.

The story comes in the opening 11 verses of John’s Gospel and it’s not actually in some of the oldest manuscripts of John and so it has square brackets around it in modern translations.

Those modern translations, in their wisdom, have given each Bible story a heading. That’s a great help if you want to find your way around the Bible.

The Good News Bible translation is published by the Bible Society, who also publish one the authoritative Greek Text for use by translators around the world. The Good News Bible uses the headings from that Greek text –and so those headings will be found in different language translations all over the world.

The NIV and the NRSV don’t follow those headings so closely, but often they are much the same, and in this instance virtually identical.

So, turn to John 8 verse 1 and the heading is quite a dramatic one

The Woman Caught in Adultery

Read the heading and we know straight away who the story is about.

John 8:1-11

1 Then everyone went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early the next morning he went back to the Temple. All the people gathered round him, and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery, and they made her stand before them all. 4 “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 In our Law Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what do you say?”

6 They said this to trap Jesus, so that they could accuse him. But he bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger.

7 As they stood there asking him questions, he straightened himself up and said to them, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” 8 Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard this, they all left, one by one, the older ones first. Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing there. 10 He straightened himself up and said to her, “Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she answered.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.”

But wait a moment. Chapter divisions were introduced in the 1200’s verses in the 1500’s and headings in this way really only took off in the 1900’s, and these particular headings in the 1960’s.

The original Gospel text simply didn’t have headings at all.

Read the story with that heading in mind and it’s a story about a woman caught in adultery.

And that’s how I have always read it.

I find it one of the most moving of stories.

As all the men tail away, I love the way it says, Jesus is writing in the sand. Then he straightens himself up and said to here, “Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?”

I see Jesus doodling in front of him, then he straightens himself up and that means he looks the woman in the eye. And that always strikes me as special.

I imagine from the woman’s point of view what that look would mean. I see it as a look of compassion.

“No one, sir,” she answered.

“Well then,” Jesus said, “ I not condemn you either. God, but do not sin again.”

There is this flouting of the letter of the letter of the law that is quite clear – she shall be stoned to death.

And in place of that letter – Jesus captures the spirit of a God who is Father, whom later John is to define by saying God is love.

And he does not condemn her.

Remember John 3.16 and 17

That, I guess is how I have always read this story. And my reading is shaped firmly by heading given to the passage.


Something made me look at it again this week, and I saw it in an entirely different light.

And it made me stop and think!

I don’t think I had seen it that way before.

What if you give the story a different heading.

The men who threw stones

Let’s read the story not with the woman as the central character. Let’s read the story with our eyes on the men.

The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery, and they made her stand before them all.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our Law Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now what do you say?”

John tells us that they said this to trap Jesus, so that they could accuse him.

Let’s pause there.

It is very easy to read the Gospel story as a story of goodies and baddies. And we know that the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law are the baddies. So instantly we distance ourselves from them.

But wait a moment, what if we regard them as upright, God-fearing, people who do seek to keep to the Law, the letter of the Law. It says it in the Bible. That’s what we follow.

Notice that what Jesus does in response is precisely what we find him doing later with the woman.

He bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger.

I love that. Jesus bends over, doodling, as if in thought.

What are they feeling now?

The silence.

What effect does that have on those men.

Put yourself into their skins. Not as if they were baddies. But God-fearing, upright people who take the Bible seriously and what to carry it out to the letter.

Come on, Jesus, what response are you going to make? They want an answer. They begin to feel a little uneasy, perhaps.

As they stood there asking him questions Jesus does exactly as in a moment or two he is going to do with the woman.

He straightened himself up.

That’s the moment he looks at them. I can feel him looking round the circle. I want to avoid his eye. But he looks me in the eye.

What look is it? I have always felt it to have been a stern look.

But what if it is a look of compassion, a look of pity.

And he said to them, “Whicever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.”

Then he bent over again, and wrote on the ground.

How are those men feeling by now. What’s going on inside.

They all left, one by one, the older ones first, Jesus was left alone.

I have always felt they left one by one ashamed.

Something prompted me to see this differently.

Maybe something positive is happening here for each one of them individually. Isn’t it interesting the first to see it are the older ones. Maybe it’s their greater life experience. The younger ones are so adamant.

But one by one they see it.

They recognise not one of them is perfect. Not one of them is without sin.

That look Jesus has given them, makes them realise they are each of them human.

And they are set free – had Jesus been one who took the Bible literally, every word, that’s what religion is about. Then they would all have participated in a brutal killing. That was the way.

But Jesus was wiser. So much wiser. He knew that was not the way.

And they saw it too.

Judge not that you be not judged. That was the crux of the matter.

God so loved the world. I did not come to judge the world but to save it, Jesus had said.

God is love.

What made me things differently.

In that thought-provoking book that I thought to reflect on in my preaching off and on at the start of this year, Going to Church – a user’s guide suggests that when it comes to Church and belonging to church there are ten things to go to the stake for.

Like the Bishop of Reading, I take my stand with a church that first of all takes God seriously.

Second, he suggests, what is needed is a church that takes our humanity seriously.

I wonder whether those men were helped to recognise their own frailty, their own weakness, their own sinfulness, their own humanity by Jesus that day.

Jesus takes seriously our humanity. It is not only that woman that Jesus helps as through his compassion he offers her a new start.

He helps those men too.

He helps them, each one, one by one, confront their own righteousness, their own self-righteousness, and he gives them the opportunity for a new start, in a very different kind of faith.

“Human beings are made of dust,” writes John Pritchard, “but we’re ‘dust that dreams’. Add a bit of water to the dust and we become mud, and most of us come to church muddier than we let on.

“A church needs to assure us of the infinite value of those who the psalmist says are made ‘little lower than angels’, while at the same time recognizing the mud and mess that accumulates around our best attempts to live well.

“Such a church is welcoming, expansive, encouraging, and extraordinary in its normality.

“Sunday by Sunday, the walking wounded come in, bearing the scars of the week, and they find there no entry requirements, no exams in righteousness or self-righteousness.

“Instead people grow there.

“They love it.

“It’s home.”

I’ld go to the stake for that kind of church!

The kind of church I’ld go to the stake for is a church that takes God seriously and a church that takes our humanity seriously.

That’s certainly my vision for the church … and I guess it’s why I find myself in this church!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Church that takes God seriously

It’s a new day, a new week, a new month, a new year, a new decade.

And something has prompted all of us to go to church.


It was your minister’s wife who spotted it.

‘That might be a good book to have a look at.’

John Pritchard, Going to Church: A User’s Guide.

It makes a good read, though I trust my wife had not spotted the paragraph about the older minister searching in the wardrobe for his Sunday best clothes one Sunday morning.

‘In the back he found a box, inside which were three eggs and about 100 £1 coins. He called his wife and asked her what this was about. She looked a little embarrassed, but admitted having hidden the box there for all of the 30 years of their marriage. She hadn’t told him because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He asked d her how the box could have hurt his feelings and she explained that every time during those 30 years when he had delivered a poor sermon she had placed an egg in the box. The minister thought that three poor sermons in 30 years was certainly nothing to be upset about, and asked her about the 100 £1 coins. ‘Each time I got a dozen eggs,’ she said, ‘I sold them to the neighbours for £1.’

‘Looking in turn at the church as it is , the church as it’s meant to be, and the church as it might become,’ the Bishop of Oxford’s ‘highly readable volume offers not only humour and insight, but also encouragement to feel that going to church is really worthwhile.’

After a lot of fun and a lot of thought provoking comment John Pritchard finishes with a set of ten things to go to the stake for: when all is said and done, these are the things that he suggests we all need to look for in church.

First, ‘a church that takes God seriously – but not solemnly. God is the burning fire at the heart of the Church. The temperature in the middle needs to be as hot as possible because inevitably it cools off as you move away from the centre. God, then, is the joyous companion whose presence is all-pervasive and yet as light as a lover’s touch. God is, as St Augustine said, the glorious circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’

What does it mean for us to take God seriously?

I take my stand on Psalm 19.

Psalm 19:1-6

1The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament
proclaims his handiwork.
2Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.

3There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;

4yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens
he has set a tent for the sun,
5which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

6Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hidden from its heat.

On New Year’s Eve we spent the afternoon at Slimbridge, home of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

At 4-00 we found ourselves in that wonderful gallery overlooking the south lake with a couple of hundred spectators as the warden talked us through the feeding session as more of the Bewick’s swans arrived at the end of their 2,000 mile flight from Russia to their winter feeding grounds. Part way through the warden suggested that any who had come to watch the starling roost should exit by the back door. I have seen photos and I have seen films on TV but I had never seen starlings swooping and weaving in their tens of thousands as they come in at the end of a winter’s day to roost. For the first time I saw one of nature’s wonders. It was truly magnificent.

The next evening I took up one of my Christmas books, Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth – his wonderful account of evolution. As it happened I arrived at his explanation of the starlings roosting. No, there isn’t a leader. There isn’t an overall plan that all the birds are following. Each bird responds at each moment to the circumstances immediately around them. As all the birds do the same, so they weave and swoop and fill the skies.

I am filled with awe and wonder at what I see in the skies above and I marvel at the explanations scientists such as Richard Dawkins give me for what I see. And in all I see I sense the wonder of God and I want to say, the Heavens are telling the glory of God! For the God I believe in is creator, and is in all things, this God is being itself.

But to take God seriously does not involve denying science. Far from it, taking God seriously rejoices in the insights science gives. The Psalmist describes the world as he sees it with the sun moving across the sky, and he sees the glory of God in that world. I now know the earth is moving around the sun – and on New Year’s Eve I watched as the shadow of the earth passed across the face of the moon in a partial eclipse. I observe with the help of science … and I echo exactly the response the Psalmist made. And I am filled with the same awe and the same wonder the Psalmist had and I too say with the same conviction …

The heavens are telling the glory of God!

A church that takes God seriously takes the Bible seriously.

I want to move on in Psalm 19.

Psalm 19:7-11

7The law of the Lord is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;

8the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the
Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;

9the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the
Lord are true
and righteous altogether.

10More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

11Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul

The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple.

More to be desired are they than gold,

Even much fine gold;

Sweeter also than honey,

And drippings of the honeycomb.

I passionately believe that it is through the words of the Bible that we hear the Word of God for us today. But we need to tune into the Scriptures, we need to work at reading them. We cannot simply read the Scripture as if it were a scientific text book. We cannot read the Scripture as if it were all a straightforward history book, whatever a straightforward history book might look like! We need to dig into the scriptures. We need to see Jesus Christ at the heart of the Scriptures and then we need to read them through the eyes of Christ. And that does take some doing.

Try reading the Bible for yourself. We take orders for Bible reading aids at any time. In Sunday’s preaching we dig into the Bible and relate it to the world around us. This evening I am going to start reading through one of the great books of the New Testament, Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Thursday’s Church Meeting is special at the start of the New Year as well. The first followers of Jesus were called Disciples. To follow Jesus they learned from him, and that learning process was a lifelong process they followed. There was always something new to learn. The Federation is launching something for all our churches to help us grow as Disciples – people who follow Jesus and are constantly wanting to learn from him. On Thursday evening we will take a look at the materials we have been asked to pilot and then on the following Thursday and the second Thursday in February we will do a couple of the sessions. That will be in the Open the Book slot.

In Prayer meeting and House group we come back to the Bible – not just out of interest but to see how the words in this book, present us with the Word God wants us to follow for the living of our lives.


Take God seriously, wonder at the glory of God in creation, seek out the Word of God in the words of the Bible, and you will quickly become conscious of your own failings and inadequacy! I am not really up to it … is a very easy response.

Taking God seriously means that we will take prayer to God seriously and seek from God a sense of his forgiving love, always there to pick us up and set us going again.

Psalm 19:12-13

12But who can detect their errors?

Clear me from hidden faults.
13Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.

If the Psalmist was aware of the forgiveness of God, how much more aware are we of that forgiveness as we look to Christ and see the one who maps out a way of life for us all to seek to live by, and at the same time offers a forgiving love to all who fall short of that ideal.

Jesus embodies the God who is filled with love for the world and with love for each one of us. It is the God who so loved the world as John 3:16 says, it is the God who IS Love as 1 John 4:7.

As John Pritchard concludes,

‘God is the compelling vision that draws and defines the Church, and yet somehow you wouldn’t be surprised to bump into him [in the porch] or in the coffee queue. In this kind of church we know that we have been made from love, and it’s only in love that we discover who we are. In this kind of church, God is the magnificent obsession who sets us free to sing and serve and pray.’

That’s the kind of church I for one want to be part of!

To help achieve that, what better prayer to pray than the prayer Psalm 19 finishes with.

Let the words of my mouth

And the meditation of my heart

Be acceptable to you,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.


So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light