My student friend, John Scott and I came out of the College bicycle shed with our bikes, (no students with cars in those days) ready to go off to nothing more exciting than a Bell-ringers’ meeting.
As we did so, we were accosted by our College Principal, and motioning us to stop, he said “You two men are together far too much to be healthy; I don’t expect to see you going out together again”.
With that, off he went.
We looked at each other, wondering what might be erotic about joining with ringers of both sexes, with nothing more exciting than a bout of Grandsire Triples, a tea, followed by a service for Ringers.
However, we obeyed, simply by going off separately and meeting further down the A10 to continue our afternoon. So, he never saw us going out together again.
If he had known that John and I shared accommodation, (with separate bunks) at Youth Hostels, whilst on a cycling holiday of East Anglia, we would probably have been instantly expelled!
Now, why am I considering this subject? Simply because on “Panorama” last Monday evening, there was worrying evidence regarding the way that the Anglican hierarchy had tried to suppress any accusations of clerical (and other churchmen’s) abuse.
Certainly, our College did its best to make us aware of the temptations that might befall the clergy and in our community of 35 students there was never a hint of inappropriate behaviour.
Yet, at the same time, there was much pressure on clergy regarding their marital status.
I had to take Hazel to meet the Principal, before he would give permission for us to become engaged; fortunately, he did approve of her and the engagement, but with the proviso that we weren’t to marry until I had completed my College Course, plus at least 3 years as an Assistant Curate, making up to 5 years before we could tie the knot.
Looking back over 65 years of Ministry, clerical life has changed dramatically, and for those of us who were ordained in the dark ages, as you can see, we were made very aware of the terrible responsibility that accompanied the priesthood.
Listen to this; “Have always printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they (the people) are the sheep of Christ, which He bought with His death, and for whom He shed His blood. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault and also the horrible punishment that will ensue”.
(from the 1662 Ordination Service for priests)
Looking back over the years, considering the many and varied people I have encountered, I have tried to live up to those standards.
When dealing with people I have met (including many boy choristers and servers), I have tried to remind myself, that who or what ever people may be, they are beloved by God and for whom, His Son died. Not always easy.
What the Panorama programme showed, is that standards have slipped over the years in many directions and at times, the Church’s concern over its image has taken precedence over the needs of those who have suffered abuse.
Our clergy need our prayers, that their Ministry (with its own peculiar temptations), be one of Love and Service, so please hold them in your prayers daily.
Recovering from our Easter celebrations, we turn back to the “Pattern Prayer” for the final thought:
As a child, I wondered why, when God wants us to be good, we pray that He won’t tempt us to do something naughty, but on its face value that is what we have been praying for the last two millennia.
The modern version prays that He will not “put us to the test”, as if God wishes us to do difficult things, or resist irresistable temptations, just to prove we are good “soldiers and servants”.
Sounds a bit like school when we were goaded to do silly things, just to prove we were one of the gang.
Poor “Bunger” Young who doing a dare during the school lunch hour at Sandown Secondary School, fell into the large water-filled pits at the brickworks that used to be behind the Broadway, trying to cross it over a 6” plank.
When asked by the Headmaster why he had done such a thing, his ”dare” was dismissed and accompanied by “six of the best” because all of us involved had broken school rules.
Is it likely that God would impose tasks upon us, just to test us out?
Yet, it is a common idea that we suffer in all manner of ways because we have done something wrong and this is our punishment.
We cry, “Why do I deserve this” when calamity upon calamity enfolds us.
Some pilgrims try to make their journey more “holy” making it more difficult (and painful) by putting peas in their shoes or travelling the last stage on their knees.
It should be made plain that God doesn’t wish us to suffer more in this life than we need. After all, Jesus spent so much of His Ministry, alleviating their pain or problems.
Where there was no bread, He fed the 5,000; when people had been in pain or difficulties He eased them and taught others to do the same.
It may well be, that some calamities fall on us, because we have lived or done things which have caused our difficulties, often despite warnings or good advice.
The good God by His divine alchemy often turns what appears at first sight to be disasters into blessings. The Psalmist says “It is good for me that I have been in trouble, that I may understand the loving kindness of the Lord”, and Paul tells us that God will not test us beyond our resources (1 Cor. 10, v13). In other words, He doesn’t ask the impossible of us.
J. B. Phillips translates it “Keep us clear of temptation and save us from evil” which is an entirely different thought.
It is commonly assumed that God sends suffering and misfortune either as a punishment for past failings or a way of testing our obedience that as a result we shall become better Christians.
If you think about it, God doesn’t need to act like this, deliberately putting obstacles in our way.
Daily life sends enough of these, for the Devil is constantly attacking and misleading us. (Yes, I’m convinced there is one, Jesus thought so too so I am in good company).
Temptations are much different in this generation than in my youth and I am sorry to say even more effective; the influence of the Internet, the media and the general breakdown of accepted moral standards challenge today in ways we older folk never experienced.
Our “Pattern Prayer” gives us a template setting out our priorities, which is essentially “God first, ourselves last”. The Lord’s Prayer is brief, reminding us that the length of our prayers is no indication of their worthiness. Jesus said so.
“Good prayer is like a bikini; it may be brief as long as it covers the two essentials!
A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says at the door, “Look it up”.
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation,
“Panda. Large black and white bear-like mammal. Native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”.
So writes Lynn Truss in her amusing book on punctuation.
What’s that got to do with Easter Day?
Well, let’s take a simple sentence which is apposite for today.
“Jesus Christ is risen.” Written like that, with only a full-point at the end, it’s a bald statement arousing no emotion; an unbelieving hearer might say “So what?” and go about his or her business unmoved. Let’s take that sentence and play around with punctuation.
Suppose we add a “query” ?
Jesus Christ is risen?” The hearer raises his or her eyebrows and says, “Pull the other one. Convince me by pointing me to the Gospel accounts. I would like proof”. So let’s try again.
“Jesus Christ is risen!” with an exclamation mark. Happy Orthodox Christians run through the streets with candles, singing and shouting the glorious news. Note that if I hadn’t put a comma there, it would have implied that the bystander saw and heard candles singing and shouting. An Easter surprise indeed.
Then again, we come to the punctuation that few of us have any idea what it does, which is the “Semi-colon ;”
We all can understand the full-point, the query, the exclamation symbols and the semi-colon helps to you to take a breath, before going on in the sentence, expanding the previous thoughts.
In other words, when you come to a semi-colon, it tells you that it’s not trying to bring the sentence to an end, but opening the door for an expansion of the thinking. In other words, our cry of “Jesus is risen;” is leading us on to related thinking.
Now if we follow on, we are not asking a doubting question, nor shrieking with unalloyed joy, or making a bald statement of fact, but more or less wanting to put a word of explanation to what has gone before.
While someone may say “So what”, in this case, it implies that as a result of the Resurrection, other ideas may follow, as they should.
Instead of a semi-colon, we could use a word, “therefore”.
“Jesus Christ is risen”, therefore great ideas follow on, giving us clues if we believe, as to what lies ahead in our future.
I’m not speaking only of life beyond the grave (the “promise of Easter”), but it should affect our whole outlook on life, and how we need to tailor it to express and demonstrate that resurrection faith.
Over Easter-tide, it might be well to think about our own ideas of what Jesus’ resurrection means to us and how as a result, we need to adjust our thinking and behaviour.
We needn’t run through the street shouting with joy, carrying our lighted candles, but each one of us needs to contemplate what that empty tomb signifies.
However, we do need to show by our life-style that the Easter message gives us reason to hope and rejoice, and make our lives such that the Risen Jesus is within us. As Paul writes, “If you are risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, not on the earth, for your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Read and meditate on Colossians 3, vv1-17)
We have all been brought up to think carefully when we are offered something at a ridiculous price, or even for free, on the grounds that eventually, someone has to pay a price somehow.
That is why I drew your attention last week to the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that can imply that God’s forgiveness is conditional on being ourselves willing to forgive others.
That sounds fair enough until you begin studying what Jesus had to say about it, particularly in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The starving younger son, having wasted his father’s money in a short life of debauchery, returns home and on the way rehearses a plea for forgiveness for when they meet.
It is clear his father has been constantly on the lookout, watching to see if his wayward son will return.
Before the boy has had chance even to meet his father, the latter is running towards him with outstretched welcoming arms. No word of condemnation for his son’s behaviour, no waiting for the rehearsed confession and penitence, but the fatted calf is prepared for a banquet (much to the elder son’s disgust) of thanksgiving for the beloved son’s return.
Here, surely Jesus is saying that God’s love is un-conditional for that is why we have the Gospel (Good News), with its good news of the Cross as the means by which are able to approach the Father.
Many Christians, especially among fundamentalist believers, teach that God is so angry at humanity’s sins, that He must be pacified by the sacrifice of His only Son.
That might well be, but the whole tenor of the Old Testament prophets’ teaching regarding sacrifice is that God doesn’t want blood of creatures shed in order to pacify Him, but rather that penitence should show itself in good social works, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and welcoming “strangers” (immigrants).
I could not have been alone in asking my wife (or she of me), “Do you love me?” with an affirmative response, but suppose we press the matter further and ask “How much do you love me?”
The answer might be “very, very much”; we may be foolish enough to press further and enquire whether that love is “unconditional”.
That’s a difficult one and the truth is that no one loves “unconditionally” but God Who is love.
Peter, having failed Jesus by denying Him must have felt awkward when he met the Risen Lord (John 21, vv15-end), but Jesus’ question is a simple one “Do you love me?”
Peter splutters a bit and replies in the affirmative, “You know that I love you” and Jesus says “Feed my lambs and feed my sheep”. Rather than pronouncing absolution to the failed disciple, Jesus, asks the same question three times, and goes on to give him a job to do, to this failure trusting him with an even greater challenge.
God’s love is unconditional, for the Gospel is simply, “God loves you”, whoever or whatever you are and accepts us without conditions and this is where the Cross comes into the equation.
The Cross is not only a reminder of how cruel mankind (and womenkind) can be, but how loving God is, for this is no mere man hanging, spit-covered, thorn-crowned, but God Himself and it is to this Cross that we turn. Our relationship with God enables us to plead because of that one tremendous act of His self-offering.
It is difficult for us to grasp, but we are dealing with Divine mystery. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” and we turn to that definition in the Athanasian Creed that Jesus was (and is) “Perfect God and perfect man; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by taking of the manhood into God”.
“There was none other good enough to pay the price of sin” wrote Mrs. Alexander and she never wrote a truer word, for we are thinking of the sin (not sins) of the whole of humanity from the beginning of time, for which, paradoxically, God pays.
Read Matthew 6 to find the background to all the teaching:
My earliest acquaintance with “trespasses” was in relation to notices which told me not to “trespass” which I understood to mean going through gates or on land to which we were forbidden entry.
At 8 years old, I couldn’t understand where God came into the picture, because as a small obedient youngster I didn’t dare do so; I feared “prosecution” (whatever that meant.) but I understood it meant being reported to the frightening policeman.
Actually, “debts” is more accurate for when we do, say or think that which would be alien to the spirit of Love, we have incurred a “debt”, for which there must be some recompense.
When we offend in this way, unless we say “Sorry” (and mean it), putting right anything that has injured the other party (including God) then the darkness of such behaviour hangs around us.
There are certain problems regarding our response, for if we feel a sense of guilt, then this can darken our lives and is the instigator of much unhappiness with anyone with a conscience.
I have spoken previously regarding this factor in our personal lives which can lead in extreme cases to self-destruction and this has to be dealt with in some way.
The whole of the Christian Gospel is concerned with relationships, between God and ourselves and that with other people.
“Forgive us our debts”, then, but let’s consider this more.
The parable of the “unjust servant” (Matthew 18,vv23-35) is probably a compilation by Matthew in his Gospel of Jesus’ teaching on the subject and is interesting. Clearly there are two meanings in the Lord’s Prayer; 1. That we ask for forgiveness of God because we have already forgiven others “as we (have?) forgiven those who have offended us in some way”, but it can also mean 2. “Inasmuch as we have forgiven others”. In other words, Jesus says, that our forgiveness is conditional, in that we cannot expect God to forgive us if we have not a forgiving heart towards those who have offended us.
Yet, Jesus in other teaching implies that God’s forgiveness is readily there because of the Cross; yet we cannot expect to receive treatment from God that we are unwilling to offer others.
The heart of the Gospel teaching is reconciliation, the relationship we have with others; “at-one-ment”, which means making “At one” those who are opposed to each other. (We’ll talk about this next Sunday).
I look back over my own ministry, where the refusal to forgive someone who has offended, has divided families and friends bringing much unnecessary unhappiness. Beneath this refusal to forgive lurks that old and dangerous sin of “pride” which is serious and spiritually dangerous.
An appraisal of our own behaviour should be an essential part of our daily devotions and certainly prior to our confession in our worship. That is why a regular, honest self-examination of our actions and motives is basic to our Christian way of life, painful though it may be at times.