Epiphany – Jnauary 2016

Ever since the weather people decided to give our storms a name we have been rattling through the alphabet. If the weather goes on as it is just now, we’ll be back to “A” before we know it!

As an avid weather watcher, I should be better at wearing the right clothes when I go out, but my family are constantly amazed at how frequently I see a patch of blue sky, head out without a jacket and get drenched within a few minutes.

What I like to do is look at the pressure charts, (which sadly we don’t get so often on the TV these days). When a storm is looming you often notice that in the eye, all is perfectly calm. Sometimes the more intense the isobars, the quieter, more windless the centre can be.

I have placed a crib scene on the communion table for us to look at and reflect upon during this sermon. For me it is akin to the eye of a great storm. All is quiet, peaceful and calm.  We sing about it in numerous carols, “Still the Night”, “Away in a manger, no crying he makes”. As someone once put it, “even the silence keeps silence”. Rude, rustic shepherds, disarmed by the stillness and wonder of the scene stand in awkward reverence. Wise men, drawn from afar, stand in solidarity alongside these rural peasants in equal awe, knowing that they have met in this child a king who exceeds whatever their own exalted status might have been. And, quietly, Mary takes it all in, pondering these things in her heart.

I have to confess that there are times in the past when I have found the crib scene a bit anodyne – a bit too sugary, twee and sentimental for my taste. Not anymore.

The more I reflect on this scene, the more I think it is fitting to have this moment of calm at the epicentre of a great tempest. For that is what this birth unleashes – a raging hurricane of controversy, opposition, the turning of tables, the upsetting of expectations, the re-ordering of priorities and the re-imagining of the world. This birth is the centre of a great cataclysmic reversal and inversion and from this moment of the incarnation, the world is taken differently.

Beyond this scene of calm a storm is looming on the horizon that will rage down the centuries, its effects still blowing through the life of the world, unsettling, disturbing, up-rooting. This is the birth that changes and challenges everything.

From the very beginning, as the scene of the birth in a stable passes, there is unsettlement, signs of a storm raging very close by. The crafty Herod enquires of the wise men where the Christ child should be born, so that he too might go and worship – as if! We all know that Herod’s first act on hearing this news is the slaughter of the innocents.

Then, Simeon in the Temple holds the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaims that this child will be a sign that will be opposed, a cause of great turbulence in the world and that a sword would pierce his mother’s heart. As we go further into the storm, the great figure of John the Baptist recognises that Jesus is the greater prophet and he, the forerunner. He baptises Jesus in the waters of the river Jordan, thus inaugurating Jesus’s ministry, and a voice is heard like thunder in the sky.

Then there is the ministry, the preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth that is so shocking and turbulent that it almost ends in a stoning. There is the radical alternative vision of the Sermon on the Mount, an ethical code based, not on an eye for an eye, but a turning of the other cheek; the challenge not just to be a peace-keeper, but a peace-maker, with all the sacrifice and risk that entails.

Then the healings, the miracles that continue to baffle with their meaning. There are the denunciations, the misunderstandings and all the while the storm builds in intensity, the isobars get closer together and a great frontal system of opposition looms, like another gathering storm Annabel to Barnie. There is the expectation on the part of some of an armed insurrection (an intifada) against Roman occupation, but that is soon snuffed out by the one who says, “Put away your sword”. Then there is the arrest, the false accusation, the scourging, the crucifixion and the agonising death. The storm seems to have passed and all is calm once more, people return to their old ways, the fishermen to their boats and Mary continues to ponder these things in her heart as she sits in vigil at the foot of the cross. All is calm once more – but don’t be fooled.

What we discover is that we are at the epicentre of another storm, for now there are rumours that this death was like no other, that the message did not die with its champion but returns in the power of the spirit. And fairly soon another storm is raging as the disciples and followers of Jesus become the community of the resurrection, the people of the way, who trust that love cannot be overcome even by the grave.

And the storm is raging amongst us now! How will we spend our days? Will the Christ and his ways take hold of us and blow through us, transforming us from the patterns of this passing world until we discern the pattern that Christ is weaving in the life of the world. Or do we hope it will all pass us by if we avoid taking the risk of heading out until we are sure the storm has passed?

But there is no avoiding this storm. The storm is raging about us. We have to make decisions and choices. And I am constantly drawn back to this nativity scene. For it asks us a question that is very important. The question is this: Can a King rule from a crib? What I mean by that is that this scene of peace and calm, some might say harmless innocence and vulnerability is a scene that foreshadows the Kingdom Jesus announces. It is a scene of love, reconciliation, nurture, concern and unity. Rustic shepherds share the same space as wise men from the east. All stand in reverence to a mother and earthly father doing their level best to nurture and protect a child. Is this how it is meant to be? Is this scene of stillness at the eye of the storm a glimpse into what the Kingdom looks like and what we should all be working towards? Not a power struggle, not a battle for pre-eminence, not a war of ideologies or a clash of cultures vying for supremacy – just a gentle scene of peace- making, reconciliation, nurture and love.

And then look at the still centre of your own being, the deep place where, as the prophet says, God has written the law and inscribed the precepts by which we should live on our inward parts. Written into the very DNA of our being is this impulse towards community, towards caring and providing for the needs of others-we are programmed for love –programmed to strive towards the crib scene where all is peace and calm.

War, greed, ideological struggle, the exercise of rude power for gain go against the grain of our true selves. The willing warrior, the plunderer and looter of others’ riches, the arrogant inciter of hatred of the “other” are all sure signs of the person ill at ease with themselves, uncomfortable in their own skin.

One of the patriarchs of the church was John the Elder who is supposed to have written the following prayer:

You who are hidden and concealed in me, reveal within me your hidden mystery. Manifest to me your beauty that is within me.

O, you who has built me as a temple for you to dwell in, cause the cloud of you glory to overshadow inside your temple, so that the ministers of your sanctuary may cry out in love for you, “Holy!” as an utterance that burns in fire and spirit – a sharp stirring that is comingled with wonder and astonishment, activated as a living movement by the power of your being”.

Somewhere in ourselves is the eye of a storm, a deep still centre waiting to be stirred into a great outpouring of love and wonder and grace and all those qualities that might transform the world and foreshadow the kingdom, if only they were let loose and allowed to blow free in the world.

So, as we look in on the quiet calm of this crib scene and anticipate the storm to come in the life of the infant Jesus, may we look in on the still centre of our own being where the Divine nature dwells and go from here and blow with the wind of the spirit, at loose in the world transforming, challenging, refreshing and making all things new.,

The scripture warns about those who are luke-warm, those who do not rise to the challenge of peace making and the ministry of reconciliation. We are called as Christians to blow through the world and to burn with sacred fire, to create the ripples of a storm that is the Spirit of the risen Christ “filling the universe as the waters cover the sea”. This poem I found many years ago by someone called M. Farrow sums up very well the idea that in choosing the life of the spirit there must be consequences that are turbulent and transformative and I end with these words:

Give us faces of stone

To set against the drift,

To set against the swift, strong headlong

Current swollen to a torrent

That is sweeping our world away….

Give us hearts of flame

To burn against the cold,

To burn against the old, the mortal chill,

The quenching thrill

Of the fast-flooding tide.

Thou art Fire and Light

(Give us hearts of flame!)

Make us to burn like beacons

In defiance of ancient Night.

Make us braziers in the cold streets of the cities

Make us lamps in Thy sanctuaries,

Make us candles to the Sacred Heart.

The world is lost and looking for the way.

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All Saints’ Day 2015 Greyfriars Kirk John 11:32-44

 

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“Jesus was greatly disturbed in Spirit and deeply moved” John 11:33; 38. That’s John’s account of Jesus’s reaction to the news of the death of his friend Lazarus. This is not just a sense of loss for a dead friend. Neither is it empathy and compassion for Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary – who are also close friends of Jesus. The statement has about it a sense of anger, disturbance and being troubled. I cannot help but think that if this were only the story of a sad and untimely death, the words about being disturbed in spirit and deeply moved would not have been used. The raising of Lazarus, so that he could die later anyway, has more about it than simply the unfortunate death of a friend. It is as though something else is going on. The dark forces of death and negation are lurking close by and they seem to have overwhelmed Lazarus. It is the darkness of some evil force that is perhaps so disturbing to Jesus.

On All Saints Day we think of the forces of light – the people of goodness and grace, powers that are life affirming pushing back against the powers of darkness and death and the disfigurement of humanity that so characterises Hallowe’en. It’s intriguing how much the imagery of darkness still pervades our so-called secular culture. Hallowe’en apparently is bigger business than Christmas in the US. The world remains fascinated by darkness and evil.

The stories of Jesus’ relationship with Lazarus, Martha and Mary are amongst the warmest and most human accounts we have of Jesus. He comes across as deeply feeling – humane – even humorous in his relationship with them. Remember how Martha explodes out of the kitchen indignant with her sister as she sits dreamily at Jesus’s feet, taking in his every word. ‘Why’s she not helping with the supper?’ insists Martha. “Just be patient, come and sit and chat – I’m not going to be around forever you know. And if you just come and do what your sister has chosen to do and sit here beside me, I’ll help with the washing up later.”

The great insight of the Christian faith – that is gloriously reinforced in stories like this and at “All Saints Tide” – is the idea of Christian faith as relational – it’s about love and friendship – companionship and the bonds of mutual interdependence. The fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom, but Jesus has come to call us friends, and there is no room for fear in friendship. I remember Professor Duncan Forrester telling us at New College that the God Jesus reveals is a God not characterised by fear, so much as characterised by love and that rather than speaking of an “Almighty” God we should speak of “All-embracing God.

Sometimes – as I reflect on that moment when Jesus is so moved by his friend’s death, I wonder if Jesus needs Lazarus as much as Lazarus needs Jesus. There’s a wonderful and famous icon that expresses this idea that God might need us very beautifully. It is one of the most popular of iconic themes,  Virgin of Loving Kindness.

In this icon, the baby Jesus is helpless and dependent and is cuddling up close to his mother – so close he’s clinging to her cloak and his face is right up against hers. There is what Rowan Williams describes as an “extraordinary hunger for physical closeness” The Christ child is defenceless and without the capacity to help himself – this is God’s movement towards us. Is God in search of us? Making himself utterly vulnerable and defenceless – Kenosis – so that God’s own wellbeing depends on us being able to love and care.

Is this what Jesus is feeling that day as he is greatly “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” – has love failed?

Of course, the other character – Mary in the icon – reveals a profound truth too – there’s a deep love in her eye – but also a deep sadness. You can see love, compassion, protectiveness – but you can see how a sword is also piercing her heart; “To love is to be vulnerable” as C.S Lewis wrote. And, of course, to love this child, who is destined for the rising and falling of nations, is to carry a weight that is almost unbearable. She is perhaps the first person to know what it means to bear Christ – to be the Christ to others and know that the cost of that – the weight of it – the almost unbearable agony of love.

On the feast of All Saints, we are reminded of the relational nature of our faith – relations of love, mutual dependence, companionship, and the burden that is placed upon us to bear the weight of love which will scar us and cause us the pain of loss as much will bring us the ecstasy of joy. We’re reminded of a God who is not remote, waiting for us at a distance, but one who comes to us dependent on our love and vulnerable. And should love fail in us, in the world, in our relations, Lazarus will die. He will die a death that is not the quiet calm death of old age that comes to all, but the death that causes anguish and deep disturbance, as though the world has forgotten how to live in friendship and opposition to the forces of darkness that threaten to sweep our world away.

As we remember the Saints – we are remembering those who’ve been the Christ to us. Those who have borne us, carried us, sacrificed for us and carried the weight of us when we couldn’t manage life on our own.

In the face of death, negation, injustice and oppression; and in the face of eruptions of barbarism that turn parts our world into hell on earth – we too are no doubt greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved by a world that seems to unravel before our eyes, and Lazarus an emblem of lost and wasted and blighted lives, is bundled into his untimely tomb.

But – in the words of the Revelation of St John – ‘the tabernacle of God is with humanity and God will dwell with humanity and they shall be God’s people’. He is in us and through us – his law written on our hearts – his word in our inward parts. In him we live and more and have our being and love can have a home in us – and Lazarus be raised – the darkness of death need not be the last word. We have it within us to work against the powers of darkness, to burn against the powers of hopelessness and to bring people back from the brink of darkness, the tomb of negation and lost hope in which Lazarus was laid so prematurely. We underestimate what it might mean to be made a little lower than angels, to have that divine spark within us and close to hand. Whatever it means to be people of the way, followers of Jesus, it’s not just about signing up to a respectable club. The wonderful American nature writer Annie Dillard often expresses her exasperation at respectable religion, people in church in their Sunday hats when they should be wearing crash helmets and devoted to “raising tomatoes when we should be raising Lazarus”.

I conclude with these words from the hymn, Love’s endeavour, love’s expense by W. H. Vanstone who describes a God, not so much omnipotent, but all embracing, devoted only to love and relationship, as the only power that makes any sense.

Therefore he who shows us God

helpless lays upon the tree

and the nails and crown of thorns

tell of what God’s love must be.

Here is God – no monarch be

throned in easy state to reign

here is God, whose arms of love

aching, spent, the world sustain. v

 

BBC Radio 4 Prayer for the Day 12 October 2015

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Reflection 1

Social Inclusion.

Social inclusion is a common phrase.

Depending on who you trust, the socially excluded in our own country can run into thousands, if not millions. According to statistics produced by anti – poverty charities as many as 1 in 5 children in the UK live in poverty. According to another charity, the 80 wealthiest people on the planet, who could all fit into a London bus, have more net worth between them than 3.5 billion people on the planet.

Of course, it’s not just a lack of money that leads to exclusion. Race, religion, being a refugee, mental illness and just being old and alone – can all lead people into isolation. More often than not it can help just to ask people their name – instead of thinking of them as a category.

Jesus met many socially excluded people in his ministry – he seemed to gravitate to them. One day he met a mentally unstable man who slept in a graveyard, whom the local people had tried unsuccessfully to chain and who cut himself with stones – he was self – harming, in today’s jargon.

Jesus asked his name. But instead of giving his true name, he said, “My name is Legion”. Basically, he defined himself by his ailments and there were so many things wrong with him, it felt like a whole army was assaulting him.

It is so easy to exclude those who struggle with life and to define people by what’s wrong with them, rather than giving them their real name.

Jesus undoes all that, by asking the man his name and restoring his identity, both as a child of God and as a member of a community. That gift of “true worth” as opposed to “net worth” is ours to give too, when we learn to treat everyone with the dignity they deserve. Refugees, mentally ill people whatever – they are all people, with a story to tell and we will not hear that story as long as we just put them into a category.

Lord Jesus Christ, who met people as people and honoured them by asking their true name, help us in all our encounters today, to grant those we meet the gift of true respect, if only by asking their name as you did, rather than seeing them as a category. In your name we pray. Amen.

 

Refugee Crisis

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The biggest story around just now is the refugee crisis. I am sure there is a lot of fear and uncertainty around just now as a result of this massive movement of people. I am convinced there is more fear on the part of the refugees than there needs to be on our part.

Tucked away in a cupboard in my garage at the manse are a few plates with a little insignia on them: the symbol of the Church of Scotland. And, underneath, are the words, “Church of Scotland Huts and Canteens”. I found these plates in an old store I was asked to clear out whilst I was an assistant minister and I saved them from the skip!

I don’t know much about this, but I understand that in a very short space of time at the beginning of World War II when a huge number of British and Commonwealth service men were stranded at Dunkirk and then subsequently rescued and brought back to the UK, the Church of Scotland quickly mobilized and set up canteens and huts to offer emergency aid for those caught up in this mass migration.

Couldn’t we do something similar today? Find a way of offering practical help to people in need? If every congregation of the Church of Scotland took one refugee family under its wing, it would make a huge impact and probably we’d find a great deal of unexpected good would come to us a result of being open and hospitable.

Below is a part of a sermon I preached on August 23rd. I’d be keen to get some feedback from people about what you think we could practically do to help.

“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” John 4:9

That’s the mood that is in the air when the woman of Samaria meets Jesus who asks her for a drink of water.

That’s the tradition in which Jesus was raised; Samaritans women were “other”, not like us, different, unclean, to be avoided and probably feared. That’s the tradition in which the Samaritan woman has probably lived all her life too, an expectation of rejection, a feeling of being “other” around the Jews, alien and not accepted.

And probably there was fear at the beginning of this encounter too. In her mind the Samaritan woman might have been saying, “What is this man saying, give me a drink? Why is he asking this of me? Surely he knows he’s over stepping the mark. He’s going to get us both into trouble!”

Fear is a remarkably powerful force. Fear of those who are different, fear of having our equilibrium unsettled, fear of being somehow polluted by the other. The Samaritan woman is shocked by Jesus’ question. Her expectation is that he’ll think he has been contaminated by sharing a drinking vessel with a foreigner and she will get the blame. It’s one of the things that religion as ideology can do; it can “other” people, incite prejudice and inculcate fear. When people are not seen as people and are demonized, categorized and stigmatized, it is a ready breeding ground for fear and so often that is dissipated by one to one contact. I am sure that in terms of the current refugee crisis the use of terms like “swarms” and the threat of “being swamped” by refugees doesn’t help, but instead plays into our fears. We probably haven’t seen anything yet.

When it comes to the refugee crisis I think we have to overcome our fears for this is only going to multiply and it’s not going to ease any time soon. And the sooner we can get beyond the rhetoric and fear and begin to discern the root causes of this tragedy and begin to hear the personal stories that every human life caught up in this contains the better.

In the meantime let’s look at what Jesus does as he faces down fear, prejudice and destructive habits that have alienated Jew from Samaritan as he engages with this woman.

It’s important to notice what Jesus does, he asks her to help him. This foreigner, this unclean woman, this outsider, it would be so easy to think of Jesus helping her, but instead he asks her for a drink. Sometimes people in vulnerable positions don’t need as much help as we might imagine, rather they need to be asked ‘how can you help us?’ It’s hugely empowering to be given some useful task to undertake, that’s what changed everything for this woman. That’s what we have found in developing our work in the Grassmarket Project. It was Iris Murdoch who said of the victims of people’s over-zealous kindness that you could tell their victims by their haunted look.

Secondly, Jesus seems to know a good deal about this woman. You could think of that as nosy and meddlesome, but it’s really about seeing the person rather than the problem. The best way of overcoming fear is to meet people face to face. Imagine if every congregation of the Church of Scotland were to offer a home for a migrant family and we all really got to know these people not as a category, but as people with stories to tell and emotions to share!

In the Epistle to the Hebrews the writer says ‘be careful to entertain strangers for thereby many have entertained angels by unawares.’ I believe that to be the case but sadly we live in fear of the stranger much of the time. But in offering hospitality to the “other” it just might be that we meet Christ and receive a blessing. There is an old Celtic rune “often, often, often, Christ comes in the stranger’s guise.”

One of the great pillars of the ancient world was understood to be hospitality to the stranger, (it goes all the way back to Abraham and his wife Sarah at the Oaks Mamre, where through offering hospitality to a group of strangers, they are blessed with a child, Isaac, the father of many nations (Genesis 18). Think of the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and you see that open, friendly hospitality to unlikely people turns out to bring about blessing. Without hospitality the world begins to crumble and blessing is withdrawn and fear prevails. Jesus shares hospitality with this woman, he breaks down barriers, he undoes limits, he overcomes fear and he welcomes the stranger. And in the midst of it all, the refreshment of his presence becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4: 14).

Ridding ourselves of fear is probably one of the most urgent works we can perform for ourselves and for our world. Open hospitality to the stranger might fill us with dread and fear, we might be tempted to use the rhetoric of swarms and deluges, but it opens up the promise of blessing too, the promise of living water, and unanticipated gifts. Those who overcome their fears and drink of this water of life will never be thirsty.

Easter Sermon 5 April 2015

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On Thursday the world witnessed another act of profound barbarism and inhumane brutality. At least 148 students were gunned down in the campus of Garissa University in Kenya. Al Shabab, a terrorist organisation with links to Al Qaeda claimed responsibility. Their version of Islam imagines a strict, top-down imposition of their version of an Islamic code. I am sure most Moslems across the world would disassociate themselves from the savage brutality of this group.

However, their reason and their religion, they believe, lays obligations on them that go way beyond the dictates of conscience. They can excuse brutality because they are so meticulous about imposing their ideology. We’ve seen this sort of thing before in things likes Nazism – it is certainly not a trait confined to Islam, it is an all too human trait.

On Good Friday, we reflected on the brutal and barbaric slaying of Jesus. A whole city went mad, baying for blood and shouting, “crucify him”. The view of Caiaphas and the Chief Priests, which became a view shared by the crowd, was that reason and religion laid upon them certain obligations. In order to keep the peace and maintain the order and discipline of the Temple it was deemed acceptable to set aside conscience and engage in judicial murder in order to preserve the religious order that they perceived was under threat from the activities of Jesus of Nazareth.

Maintaining the status quo – a sincere and resolute desire to retain a religious system –  does not immunise you from cruelty, brutality or the abuse of power. Indeed, I have witnessed more than one situation in which, even in our own Church of Scotland, the wellbeing of an individual has been sacrificed for the sake of the “peace of the church”. I have known people profoundly damaged by the strict imposition of a supposed religious purity. It would make you weep in some situations where a person approaches the church expecting warmth, hospitality and understanding – qualities of love and compassion like we see time and again in the person of Jesus during his ministry – and they are met only with harsh judgement and hostility.

A woman, thought to be a nun in a strict holy order wrote a poem some years ago about what it might have felt like to be the mother of Jesus. Apparently she had to keep her identity secret in case the sentiment expressed in the poem led her to be persecuted by the church’s hierarchy. Let me read the poem to you now:

 

 Did the woman say, When she held him for the first time in the dark dank of a stable, After the pain and the bleeding and the crying, “This is my body, this is my blood?” Did the woman say, When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop, After the pain and the bleeding and the dying, “This is my body, this is my blood? Well that she said it to him then, For dry old men, Brocaded robes belying barrenness, Ordain that she not say it for him now.

This is a poem by someone who feels deeply the weight of the exclusion of women from the priesthood that persisted in the church for centuries and still persists to this day in some branches of the church. Many people here at Greyfriars, especially those with a connection to Kirk o’ Field Parish will feel justifiably proud of the legacy of Archibald Charteris, who, in the 19th century as a Biblical scholar, recognised that there was a role for women in the early church that went far beyond making the tea. “From Dusters you came and to dusters you shall return”, was a quip I heard quoted by a patriarchal minister mocking, back in the 1960s, the idea that women might be ordained to the office of ministry. Charteris met resistance when he founded the order of Deaconesses in the Church of Scotland in the 1890s and it was almost a hundred years before the church saw fit to “ordain” people (mainly women) to this office.

So many gay men, lesbian women and trans-gender people still feel the same sense of exclusion from a church that is so divided over issues of human sexuality and obsessed with certain so called “sins”.

So, we come to Easter Day – to the resurrection – and the reality that the Jesus who was one man in one place and one time, is the risen Christ who is everywhere and for all time. He is the one who transcends, subverts, spans, dodges and overwhelms the high towers, the silos and the meticulously ordered and policed boundaries of our religious institutions. It may be that people imagine they can impose their idea of religious purity through brutality and murder – or by ideological struggle – but the risen Christ meets us where we are, comes to us in the strangers’ guise – often as someone completely outside our familiar institutional framework. He comes to us in our humanity and gives us our true name, which is not a humanly imposed category given to us by institutions, but the name we were given by our maker before we were even knit together in the womb. He comes to us completely liberated from religious ideology – he comes as the “Desire of Nations” – the Universal Heart, and he does not need propping up by the “brocaded arms of barren old men”.

In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. It is a meal to which all are invited and none are excluded. It is a gift ripe with the massive potential of what happens when we are truly open with hospitable hearts. For the Christ who is risen and on the loose in the world comes to us in bread and wine, enters each one of us, nourishing us and inspiring us and taking us out into the world.

And we take Christ with us from this place out into the community where we have the potential to be the Christ to others. Thus, as a remarkable man called Kester Brewin says, “Christ risen becomes uncontrollable, decentralized and spread ….The gifts of his body and blood have disappeared into mystery, become inseparable from our own flesh and are spread out in a manner that no power can reverse”.

The risen Christ comes to us most powerfully in the Eucharist, where we understand him as no longer confined by space and time but haunting the world, inhabiting our hearts, nourishing our spirits, feeding our conscience.

We can call that place where the risen Christ is present lots of different things. One of the best terms is that he is our conscience, that inner voice. As the prophet Jeremiah writes of God’s action in creating a new covenant with the people, “I have placed my law on their inward parts and written it on their hearts”. That is why there are such terrible consequences when people set aside their conscience and seek to uphold some kind of religious purity at the expense of it.

Another term is the idea of the spirit of Pentecost, where Jesus breathes his spirit on the people and they have the gift of his presence with them, “even to the end of time”.

When people get caught up in maintaining what they perceive to be religious ideology or the maintenance of some kind of religious purity, they can become brutal inhuman and barbaric. We have to ask those members of Al Shabab, “Is it your plan to kill everyone who doesn’t adhere to your ideology?” But when people are so obsessed with retaining ideological purity that they resort to brutality, cruelty and violence they are murdering their own conscience. In so doing, they are murdering God all over again. For isn’t that precisely what happened on that Good Friday in Jerusalem? God was assassinated for the sake of the maintenance of religion!

There was an Islamic writer called Kamel Hussein from Egypt who wrote this as he reflected from an Islamic perspective on the execution of Jesus. “Human conscience is a torch of the light of God and without it every virtue collapses, every good turns to evil and all intelligence is crazed”. He wrote that many years ago, but that is precisely what we saw in Kenya the other day and what we bear witness to on Good Friday in Jerusalem – the collapse of virtue – good intentions – meticulous religious observance turning to evil and brutality.

The resurrection of Jesus give us and the world an extraordinary holy freedom. The freedom to say that Christ is set free from ideology and is the Universal Heart – the Desire of Nations – no longer confined by space and time and institution or ideology. He enables us, if we have the courage and imagination, to avoid the power abuses and dictatorships that we often install in the place of this risen Christ, and sets Christ free to be the one who is “everywhere and nowhere”, transcending our boundaries, ideologies and little empires. He is truly the “Desire of Nations” and it may take some time for us to grown beyond our petty claims of right and righteousness to see that the risen Christ of whom we speak is not confined or imprisoned by any human institution.

In his remarkable trilogy, “His Dark Materials”, the writer Philip Pullman wrestles with just this dilemma. Lyra, the heroine of the novels, battles with lots of “experimental theologians” (rather like the men in “brocaded robes belying barrenness”) who display feeble minds and are obsessed with a crazy, almost brutal devotion to institutions that reflect them more than the thing they point to. Lyra, having battled with such forces now wants to work for what Pullman very aptly describes as the “Republic of Heaven”, for royalty is a human attribute. It intrigues me how popular these books have been in recent years and with the generation of my own children. Isn’t it because he speaks to a generation that is both tired of and has broken free from the desperate clutches of religious institutions that have lorded it for so long over people’s lives with their barren religious ideology and abuse of power?

I cannot help but think that there are parallels here with the free spirited Gallilean up against the powers that be in Jerusalem on Good Friday and the Easter Christ who is everywhere and nowhere, unconfined, let loose and in our hearts, unconfined by religious boundaries.

Not long before his arrest, there is a remarkable exchange between Jesus and the religious elite of his day. They get into a debate about the Temple and Jesus says that he’ll be able to rebuild it in three days. The Pharisees pour scorn on such an idea, as the Temple in Jerusalem took generations of workers to build. But, of course, Jesus is speaking of the temple of his body, rebuilt in three days through this thing we call the resurrection. And we all have access to him here and now, through bread and wine. Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

It is all about Relationships

One of the great strengths of the church is the story of our commitment to be a presence in every parish in Scotland. In spite of the words we hear about decline, the church has a good reputation and a very proud legacy of community service. Sometimes, the experts who provide services in our communities, whilst doing a magnificent job, struggle to make connections and enable people to get the best possible benefit from their expertise. In the Grassmarket Centre we have discovered that it is as important to have good relationships with people as it is to have high quality expertise to support people. As one of our members said to a group of health service professionals and social workers who met in our centre not long ago. “You can have all the good ideas and all the money in the world to offer me help, but if you cannot gain my respect, you are wasting your time”.

Prayer: Living God, your Gospel is all about relationships. It is what your church should be good at. Help us to be better at relationships, within our own families and community networks and to recognise that our message of love and salvation is meaningless if people do not feel a sense of acceptance and belonging amongst us. Amen.

15a music and space

All have needs

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In the Grassmarket Centre we have about 300 members. We do not use the terms “service users” and “volunteers”, everyone is a member. So, people who come to us because they have been homeless or struggling with addiction or a mental health problem are treated in exactly the same way as a business executive who wants to “give something back” by volunteering. The reason is that we believe we all have needs, we all have learning difficulties and there is no such thing as a person who is entirely “fixed” and another who is full of problems with nothing to offer. In the exchange that happens between our members the traffic is always two way. We are always learning from one another and receiving gifts as well as bringing them.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, just as you expanded the imagination of your disciples to see that God’s love was for more than just the people of Israel, help us daily to grow in our understanding of the scope and depth of your love. Help us to avoid policing the boundaries of our churches and imagine that there are insiders and outsiders, when all are your children and worthy of your love. There is no them and us, only us, your children. Amen.