Lectionary Sermon for 26 May 2019 John 14: 23-29

The Second Coming? – (R Open minded): Parental guidance not a bad idea.

Like health warnings on food and tobacco, it might be that sometimes even sermons should require a warning to flag potential discomfort on the part of the consumer.

Because this sermon risks upsetting those who hold to inerrancy and infallibility of the scriptures, it may be more comfortable for readers or listeners who share that view simply to switch off and stop following the sermon at this point. On the other hand, if you like to think your way through key issues, might I suggest you first consider and evaluate the argument of this address, then if you think it appropriate, contribute to the debate by giving me an honest reaction.

When I read Jesus’ words encouraging his disciples for what lies ahead, I sometimes wonder if a good proportion of today’s believers have really thought through what we are expected to do with Jesus’ recorded teaching on the second coming.

Having heard a number of street evangelists on the topic, and in particular, some of the more conservative evangelists, I do understand that a reasonable proportion of those who see themselves as Christian, take the imagery of the Book of Revelation together with reported words from Jesus as literal prediction.

As a consequence many appear confident that soon, perhaps even any day now, Jesus will appear from the clouds to gather up the faithful and whisk them up to heaven to enjoy their rightful reward. Because this assertion is totally outside human experience, I acknowledge there is no certainty they are wrong, (or right for that matter!) and bluntly – no obvious way of testing what they claim. However in today’s reading at least, Jesus seems to be talking about a more accessible idea. There is still the underlying idea that “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” , but here, the dwelling places are strictly human.

Perhaps we should start by looking closely at the words from the start of today’s gospel.

23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…..

This seems to be saying that in effect Jesus and or God or the Holy Spirit will be taking up residence in the person – or at least “the heart” of the one who takes Jesus seriously enough to follow his teaching. For me this is not a dramatic one time, and for the whole world event. There are disciples in every generation and given that we sometimes sense in such people the emergence of warmth of nature and signs of essence of compassion, it may not be a second coming miracle in the conventional expected sense of the word, yet in another sense I still see it as consistent with Jesus’ fulfilled prophecy. If people following Jesus have taken on the characteristic central to Jesus teaching, is this not Jesus entering their heart?

Not everyone would see this as being the second coming. In fact although there is plenty of evidence that the gospel writers and then St Paul and some of the other New Testament writers talked and wrote as if Jesus was coming physically at the end time – and specifically within a very short time frame, today’s reading give us a totally different slant.

But there is something we need to face squarely. Even if Jesus and the New Testament writers had intended to say that his disciples were going to experience all that Jesus was interpreted as saying about the second coming in a literal sense and in their lifetime, events proved otherwise. Despite predictions of most dramatic happenings within the lifetime of the readers and hearers of the contemporary audience of the day, there is no indication that these second coming events ever happened for that audience.
For example, if we contrast today’s measured description with the Luke version of the Armageddon which SHOULD have occurred for the generation of first witnesses in Luke 21:25-33, we see predictions which failed to materialize.

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” ……..Amen, (And note the next bit)
I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Luke 21:25-33 NAB)

Well if it literally happened that way, it wasn’t just the disciples who missed it. By all accounts, the stars have remained apparently twinkling in the heavens, the seas did not roar and nor as far as we know, did those of Jesus’ generation, die in fright at those signs.

Even if the New Testament writers themselves got the second coming wrong, should that really surprise us? Like some of our contemporaries, they too were on a faith journey and faith has blind paths, as well as moments of insight. So what if Paul insisted end times were upon his contemporaries? And he did. Well why not? He had never heard Jesus speaking in the flesh and was only repeating what others had told him. So for example:

In Philippians 4:5 Paul thought that the end was near and that Jesus would return soon after he wrote those words.

In Hebrews 1:2 Paul ( and remember this is two thousand years ago) Paul says he believes he is living in the “last days.”

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul stated: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: And the dead Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: And so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Paul was in good company. James (James 5: 8) thought that Jesus would return soon.

Peter too believed that he was living in the “last times” and that “the end of all things is at hand.” 1 Peter 1:20 & 4:7

Yet if they did get it wrong on this score let us also admit they did us a huge service in other places. Thus the sublime writing of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 helps us ground a concept like love in day to day practicalities.

In his account of true religion, James had a practical focus to faith that is just as relevant today as it was then. If the same Peter who led the disciples wrote first Peter, his continued leadership is evident no matter how he may have misinterpreted the end times.

This is not to say that the second coming should therefore be ignored. If for example the picture language was chosen to get our attention and encourage us to deal with some realities, then it starts to make sense.

For example Revelation was written at a time when the Roman Empire had declared itself on collision course with the Christians who were insisting on acknowledging one God – thereby challenging the Roman Emperor’s right to title himself a God. We might note for example that the author of the letter of John thought he was living in end times because he could see so many anti-Christs about (1 John 2:18). John also says the anti-Christ was present at the very time he was writing (1 John 4:3).

If we see the Anti-Christ, as with any major leader who acts against the principles of Christ, this then becomes poetic rather than literal, yet it still teaches an important truth.

As persecution increased the Christians needed encouragement and if this might be codified with signs helping those in the know to see the Beast of Revelation as the Roman Emperor – the leader of the current persecution, so much the better. That the Book of Revelation also talks of the eventual triumph of Christianity would have been extremely encouraging to those facing genuine danger.

We can see, if only from the four gospel accounts, in some cases, the same words of Jesus are given different contexts and in some include differences in detail. This establishes that editing was taking place and it is not unreasonable to suspect that in some cases the words being edited were not actually words of Jesus, but rather words written in the mouth of Jesus to support current truths that the gospel writers felt needed sharing.
I also happen to believe that if we were to find that the second coming literature was intended as poetry to draw our attention to key truth, I for one would still find this of value.

If, as mentioned previously, the second coming is at least partly a coming into ourselves as a human dwelling place, this is particularly helpful as we check where we are in our own walk of faith.

For example, notice that to qualify as a human dwelling place, popular labels like born again or Christian become less relevant. As far as Jesus appears to be concerned it follows that calling yourself Christian, a born-again – or even for that matter an atheist     is not where it is at. He makes his precondition abundantly clear. “Those who love me will ……no he didnt say …believe in me …… it was …….keep my word…..”

Can I suggest taking moment of reflection to consider if we have begun to attempt to follow the principles Jesus enunciates. I believe this would be time well spent. If we follow John’s text for today, it is only when we keep Jesus’ word that our love will be evident. In that sense Jesus may already have come for the lives of others. And perhaps his second coming was always meant to be interpreted that way. Our challenge might then be to consider if, for us, he has already come and is continuing to be found in our own life’s witness. AMEN



(Given the above may not represent consensus thinking, reactions would be most welcome. If you happen to think these predictions are for a yet unrealized prophecy I suspect you also need to make up your mind about the significance of 2000 years of failed prophecies: see my post “End Times – this time it’s serious… again”.)

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Lectionary Sermon for 19 May 2019 (Easter 5 ) on John 13: 31-35

I have a confession to make. When it comes to sport I prefer to be numbered among the spectators. When it comes to the really big games like the Rugby World Cup I am more than happy to have a couple of friends round to join my wife and me as we follow the game on TV, while making helpful criticisms of the referee and disparaging comments about the missed tackles, poorly directed kicks, stupid referees and of course, making noises of admiration when players from our side pull off a particularly skilful move or score a try. In terms of action, my only serious personal contribution is to make the tea at half time and hand round the Chocolate biscuits. Of course that doesn’t stop me thinking of my country as a sporting nation that punches above its weight …sometimes alas in more senses than one.

But when I come across this passage from John’s gospel this morning I find myself wondering if , here too perhaps we as a members of a Christian Church have taken the spectator role a little too far. With our Christian observances in Church, am I right in thinking that we find ourselves reflecting on such scenes with our mind’s eye in passive observer mode with no serious thought to actually respond to the challenges set before us?

In this morning’s reading we find Jesus using some words of commission. “So you are to love one another, as I have loved you.”

Perhaps Hollywood is partly to blame for us missing the hard edge to this most familiar text. Love, Hollywood style, is full of warm fuzzy happy ever after feelings. By contrast, love Jesus style is action born of compassion….and what is more action in the midst of life’s gritty realities. (Although we are now post Easter, don’t forget the setting for this reading just before the betrayal of Jesus and the painful consequences)…. Hardly warm and fuzzy.

Perhaps we need to get real and admit we should be uncomfortable both with the word “as” and with the tag Jesus has added. …. Does he really want us to do as he did when he added that bit about…. “as I have loved you“?

Think what Jesus went through and yet he asked no less of this followers.
Where authority was showing lack of compassion, Jesus challenged that authority…and at every level. Whether or not we would be comfortable joining him in such a challenge is not so clear. Going in to bat on behalf of those who can’t cope is not a certain path to popularity.

Where Scribes and Pharisees were using religion as a means of self advancement to parade their status and advance their social position, Jesus did not shrink from the confrontation. Challenging Church or government leadership may not get us crucified today but even recent history shows it is scarcely a path to public approval. In other places, where culture and tradition were used to exclude, Jesus stepped forward. The lepers were touched. He made time for the Samaritan woman, the tax collector and the prostitute. Today’s equivalent might be something like offering practical help to those with social diseases like AIDS, or speaking up on behalf of those belonging to unpopular racial or religious groups any one of which carries its own stigma.

I can think of some congregations where there seems widespread rejection of this particular challenge by Jesus.  And what would others see in our Church?

When Jesus dealt with those society rejected we may note his lack of condemnation. Remember the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector up the tree, the lepers…. Whether or not we can find the same lack of condemnation in our own words and actions today may not be so clear.

Locally, I hear plenty of Church based condemnation of homosexual marriage and street prostitution. While I have often heard the catch cry, “we love the sinner but we hate the sin”, I can’t honestly say I have seen those identified by the Church as sinners congregating in Church in large numbers in response to that version of love. Now a few weeks after the Christchurch shootings and the massacre in Sri Lanka we can look back on our own expressions of love and public prayer and ask ourselves how we are getting on with making friends with the Muslims.  Do we now know any by name?

When it came to his disciples, Jesus took those he loved well out of their comfort zone. When the disciples entreated him not to return to an area where the crowd had been angry, he disregarded the disciples’ desire for safety. When they counselled against continuing towards Jerusalem, Jesus simply kept walking.

Doing what is best for people, does not always mean leaving them comfortable and unchallenged. Nor is the vision to which we are called the equivalent of a genteel series of neatly predetermined GPS locations.

At best the analogy would be that of an occasionally glimpsed compass needle. We set up our course according to a general direction but the voyage itself is largely into uncharted and sometimes risky territory.

Jesus left those he loved with genuine challenges.

Jesus had modelled attitudes of valuing justice, forgiveness and compassion – and wanted his followers to do the same. When Peter’s nerve failed him –according to the gospel, Jesus simply set him further tasks. “Feed my sheep” he said….At this safe distance in time we can think of it in terms of offering warm support to newcomers in faith, but when John was writing his gospel, Israel was in crisis and the wolves were eying the sheep. The new Christians were going to need support in their acts of witness and those identified as leaders of the new movement would be attracting anger and genuine danger.

Love, for Jesus, was never just a feeling. It was proactive and highly visible. A verb, not a noun. “By this all will know you are my disciples”. And we can understand this point. If someone is hungry and lonely, knowing that a group from a well fed and comfortable congregation have said a passing Amen to a worship leader’s prayer of intercession mentioning the hungry and the lonely would never convince the lonely and hungry anyone cares. But someone prepared to make friends –to offer food and give the hungry and lonely the time of day …. now that might start to mean something.

We are very likely to fall short when the going gets tough, and nor I suspect could it be otherwise. Even the saints of history had their failings. Yet without the inclusion of acts of love the Church becomes an irrelevant social club.

A moment’s thought reminds us that in some situations we are all atheists. By this I mean that with so many versions of God on offer, there will always be some we reject. The evangelists can preach all they like but unless what they are preaching is given integrity by lived lives why would we want to listen? As an Archbishop of Canterbury once put it : “We make our version of God believable to the extent we are the people we are”.

We can hardly relegate this instruction on how to love to an incidental requirement of the disciples because this verse appears 13 times in similar form in the New Testament. In today’s reading it was the also last wish of the farewell discourse to the Disciples at the last supper. It occurs several times in the Gospel of John, and the need to love one another is reiterated several times in John’s first and second Epistle with the theme of doing so in imitation of Christ, while Paul says in Romans 13:8 “He who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law”.

The primacy of love as an ideal is easy to find in the New Testament teachings. “… The greatest of these is love”, said Paul in chapter 13 of first Corinthians, and elsewhere in Colossians 3:14, “above all clothe your-selves with love”. A great ideal, but if believe we appear so clothed, perhaps we might give passing thought to why those known to be prostitutes, drug addicts or habitual drunks are not commonly seeking out traditional Church congregations for acceptance. Do you wonder if there is a suspicion that in some churches they are more likely to encounter judgement than understanding.

I have heard it suggested that sometimes Christians confuse their ability to desire the best for themselves and reject the worst – with their tendency to judge others on the basis of their behaviour.

Even if we are non judgemental ourselves, (which from personal experience I would admit is far easier said than lived), we might do well to remember some of the more vocal Church moralists as they lead their crusades against parole for serious criminals, against those who offend traditional religious mores and against those whose sins are visible to the community is its own advertisement.

No wonder the pariahs of society don’t automatically seek out the church as their first choice for solace or care. In practice the drop-outs and the unloved turn to the gang houses, the pimps and the mates at the pub – where at least there may be a degree of understanding and sympathy. And where they do turn to the Church, is it surprising that they turn first to those who set up the night shelters and those who help by providing showers and a change of clothes? If we fail to first find the unsurpassable worth in those to whom we wish to minister, how can our intended love be expressed with integrity?

Because we are not alone in the Church, it is also interesting to wonder how we might come across collectively. Because we are groups with commonality of purpose claiming the same teaching for inspiration, it is interesting to reflect on what we do as a group. Are we set up for others or ourselves? At the 2012 annual Church Conference, the New Zealand Methodist Church set up a ten year commitment to a new programme entitled Let the Children Live. This programme was intended first to draw attention to the growing percentage of children in the country whose future is blighted by poverty and associated problems, then to commit to action to address the problems. Each of our congregations might reflect on the sort of difference they too are making.

The call to love as Jesus first loved others, does not assume a positive response. When Jesus left the call to love with his disciples, each of them had to work out their own response in the days and years to come. Should we expect it to be different with ourselves. The call has to be a continuing challenge – and what’s more a challenge which promises genuine difficulties if we choose to accept. It is also a challenge of the sort that needs frequent revisiting, for yesterday’s journey is now behind us. Today and the weeks ahead have the potential to bring new possibilities. How we choose to respond, and whether or not we can find room for the actions of compassion, these cannot be done for us. It is, and always has to be, our response, because it is our journey.

Jesus said to his disciples – and I guess also says to us: “love one another …. as I have loved you” Now it is our move.

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TRUMP’S TRADE WARS – the Law of Unintended Consequences

The notion of using tariffs as a means of biasing trade to benefit the tariff controlling nation is not a new concept. The British Empire, and more recently the US have (among others) had the means to take raw materials almost at will from poorer nations. Unfortunately while imposing tariffs has traditionally enabled some nations to grow, the tariff produced growth is always somewhat erratic and destabilizes the targeted trading partners.

Remember it is not just an imbalance of trade that is used to excuse the imposition of tariffs, it is also the wide difference in the partner nations’ overall wealth.

A trade war brings in new dimensions. Sometimes the targeted trading nation has its own significant economic strength, which gives it a genuine choice for seeking other trading partners. As it happens New Zealand has now drifted to China as a preferred trading partner ahead of the United States and it may be of passing interest to some in the US to know that a number of their trading partners are talking of doing the same.

One factor in a tariff dispute with more equal partners is that for the one sided imposed tariffs (or quotas on imports), an unexpected tariff almost guarantees retaliation. Autocracies like China are particularly well placed to control reprisals and one study from the Brookings Institution (by Joseph Parilla and Max Bouchet) has pointed out that 61% of US jobs affected by the Chinese response to round one coincided with electoral counties in the US which just happened to be in areas where Trump had a majority last election.

This was not a surprise to the commentators. The Trump imposition of trade tariffs on China last year brought its expected result in that many economists had predicted China would then hit back at the Mid West farmers in the US because they had the option of other suppliers eg in Brazil. In this case the Soy Bean market was shut off to the US and the Trump administration were left with a costly bail-out for the mid West farmers.  The other elementary error repeated many times by the Trump administration over the last two years is to equate Trade with the transfer of goods instead of including services PLUS goods.   For example Mr Trump imposed tariffs on Canada complaining they were being unfair whereas when the total value of goods and services were compared it was the US which was ahead.    Since services has the greater effect on employment, this actually matters!!

The other issue which seems to largely escape the wealthy leaders and investors of a large rich nation is a inconvenient truth that a large sector of the population live from pay-check to pay-check  and something like half the population have no access to cash reserves to deal with unexpected emergencies.   If is happens that China’s retaliation hits areas that include the vulnerable cash strapped sectors of the population the disruption is likely to spread.

Although there may well be short term advantage in imposing tariffs e.g. producing more local employment, the most common long term outcome appears to be reduced international trade, and problems in traditional supply chains. When trading partners find they cannot plan on the basis of previous long term fixed negotiated prices they often have to cut back on their products or seek safer markets. The most celebrated case of this happening was the now infamous 1930 Smoot Hawley Tariff imposition of tariffs whereby some 900 articles were chosen on the basis of competition with local US products and the imposed tariffs were typically between 40 and 50%..

Although in 1930 it seemed at the time desirable as a means particularly to assist struggling farmers attempting to cope with the after effects of the great dust bowl disaster, despite an initial boost to the local economy, the abrupt change in treatment damaged other struggling nations attempting to trade with the US and the result was a large scale depression. Goods arriving in the US with the added tariffs drove the price of imports up and the resulting pressure on the cost of living led to the collapse of much internal business as well as destruction of export destinations.

In more recent years the geographical isolation of nations has far less meaning than it did a century ago and it is typical to have supply chains crossing several national boundaries.

For example the current case of China and the United States the supply chains are sufficiently complicated to involve multiple partners and often involve crisscrossing the Atlantic several times with raw materials and componentry sourced and part assembled at different locations. Although the assembly of complicated products e.g. cars and planes may well employ more nationals for a nationally based company the hard truth is that at least part of the finished product is often much cheaper to assemble elsewhere which produces a more affordable product with a much more receptive international market.

I have not checked out the costs of setting up local steel production in the US but I know that the price of rolled steel for American factories to use has leapt more than 40% since the 2018 import tariffs for steel were imposed. Mr Trump’s often quoted criticism of dependence on Chinese steel is of course just plain wrong.   China only supplies something like one twentieth of the steel entering the US.     Once the steel tariffs were in place one calculation claimed the price per new American steel worker position (largely covered with borrowed money) was of the order of $900,000 per worker! When such costs are eventually passed on to the consumer it is hard to see a happy ending.

On March 8, 2018, Trump administration had imposed 10% tariff on imported aluminium 25% tariff on imported steel claiming dependence on imported metals threatens America’s lucrative markets for weapon manufacturers. The Aerospace Industry council pointed out that the tariff rise would raise the military’s costs instead. The huge Automotive assembly business was also clearly affected in that costs from tariffs lowered second quarter profits for the three biggest Auto manufacturers. The Auto manufacturers have been saying that costs from tariffs have already surpassed any benefits from having the metal tariffs.

It is of course true that in general terms the US has had a large annual trade deficit of goods which is running somewhere about $620 billion dollars. This however is partly misleading because there is an insatiable hunger for consumer goods in America and US manufactured goods produced for trade in the US are almost invariably higher priced if only because manufactured goods are typically more expensive to produce in America.

The US is not alone in this. Here in my home town I can for example buy a perfectly serviceable automatic opening umbrella from the local $2 shop and can’t find any local (New Zealand) product that approaches this bargain price. I am guessing if a New Zealand exporter was to send, say, locally manufactured reading glasses to China the local New Zealand manufacturer would need at least $10 per pair to even break even. If I prefer buy the equivalent Chinese produced product for $4.00 in a local store is this really a contribution to the bad effects of New Zealand’s trade deficit if it frees me to make other local purchases and support other local industries??

Placing tariffs on the Chinese products would indeed solve some of the competition problems for America and my country but because I too like to buy cheap imported goods, it would leave me with less money in my pocket to buy the American made cars imported here for sale in my country. Go figure!

Thus far the US administration has apparently assumed that the Trade disputes are independent from internal taxation and are focussing on short term gain rather than the overall debt increase exacerbated by the failure of the tariffs to compensate for the reduction of tax for the wealthy.

Since the Mid West agricultural support for the Trump presidency is partly credited with his election it may be of some concern for his party to note the farmers suffering from retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and Europe on their exports. For example in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, bankruptcies have reached a record rate for the last ten years. Over the whole of America, in the first three months of this year, farmers’ income dropped $11.8 billion. Although Mr Trump says he will bail out the farmers, there is the inconvenient thought that since the budget has not balanced for the last two budget cycles, presumably the bailout will come from an extension of the sky-high US debt of $22.33 Trillion Dollars.

There might be fewer tariffs in the world if those who apply tariffs might contemplate how they might react when it is done to them. Keeping countries like North Korea or Iran in a state of grinding poverty by high tariffs and implying that military intervention might be a next step is unlikely to make their populations receptive to the need to surrender their rights to make nasty weapons. If US ever loses its current top spot in its share of the world’s GNP I find it hard to envisage a situation whereby its Administration would accept a sudden and one sided imposition of crippling tariffs from a more powerful trading partner. Why they assume that their own attitude to their own well being would not be expected in other nations is difficult to follow.

I have the passing thought that should the US elbow China’s greatly improving economic position to one side and greatly weaken China in the process (as Mr Trump claims will happen) it is not easy to see how the US will generate the equivalent markets elsewhere since China is currently such a strong contributor to the US economy.

I assume at least some of those living in the US support Mr Trump’s actions against America’s trading partners. I only hope Trump supporters are aware that according to overseas polls many outside the US are losing faith in the changing US trade policies. Having heard (and largely rejected) Mr Trump’s cutting criticism of some of its trading partners, I presume most who follow the international press are not surprised to learn disenchanted governments are negotiating new trade treaties excluding the US. For example the EU has strengthened its trade ties with Mexico and Japan – the latter being one of the largest bilateral trade treaties in the world covering some $152 Billion in goods.

Ultimately whether or not the US is seen as behaving appropriately depends on whether or not its own people and trading partners accept the administration’s reasoning.    Of course tariffs are a legitimate part of a nations economy.    For example a fledgling industry may need protection.   In this instances some industries in the US are being disadvantaged by China’s trade practices – but remember it is not a case of a rich country holding a poor country to ransom.    As long as there is a vast gulf between the rich and the poor in the US, looking outside the nation for prime causes seems disingenuous.  That the rich in the US should be further assisted by reducing their taxes while the US is attempting to change the trade arrangements of a nation like China ( which is currently using trade to help lift the standard of living of a previously disadvantaged work-force), seems to miss the main point.

It is certainly true that China makes every effort to pressurize those who want to take advantage of their cheap work force and huge market by insisting on the sharing of intellectual property as part of the payment for using Chinese resources, but when you remember that US industry regularly does its own stealing of ideas, often by buying successful competitors out, pretending the moral high-ground is harder to justify.  Reflect back to the number of times Microsoft and Apple have been at loggerheads over the stealing of ideas.   The end result of similarity of automobiles produced by different companies and a raft of electronic devices from different electronic companies in the US should not escape our notice.

While I can understand the US wanting the best possible deal for their trade and where possible assisted by tariffs, given that current US President’s propensity to impose crushing tariffs at will (eg on Iran and other rival energy producers not to mention all those central and South American countries who refused to bow to US demands), it is hard to believe the controllers of the richest nation in the world when they tell us that poorer nations are unfair in their adopted trade practices.     Wouldn’t the fairest deal result in a true sharing of the rewards?

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Lectionary sermon for May 12 2019 (Easter 4) on John Ch 10: 22 – 30

The expected answer to today’s gospel question posed by Jesus followers sounds predictably trivial. “Are you the Messiah?” they asked him. As Church goers, do we think of pausing in our answer? Don’t many Christians talk of praising Jesus name, sing great hymns of praise, and use many terms of adulation. From Sunday School on, many of us have agreed that not only is Jesus the Messiah – but also our Saviour – Oh and of course King of Kings. I’m even wondering if many think voicing this is what we call worship?

But did you notice Jesus implied only those who hear and recognise his voice are his. I guess what he meant was NOT those who just say they worship him but those who think about what he offers AND act on what he offered by way of direction and example. Notice too, according to gospel writer John, Jesus’ reply does not just answer in terms of his teaching but rather refers to his works which he presents as providing their own justification. Then he uses the now somewhat arcane example of the shepherd calling his flock and ONLY his sheep recognizing the voice. This implies that amongst all the similar sounding voices there is only one authentic voice, and only those tuned to that voice will identify their shepherd.

At first impression this seems out-dated for our hard-nosed modern technological society, but on closer inspection of today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus is in surprisingly good agreement with modern psychologists and sociologists when he implies he is needed for sheep going astray. The brain researchers now assure us there are always competing voices influencing our life choices. If, as our faith teaches, tuning to the voice of Jesus can make all the difference in the world, then it follows we must recognize and be wary of these other voices. If WE don’t respond to Jesus’ voice he is not OUR Messiah.

In practice, because we know there are many counterfeit forms of Christianity, we may need to consider carefully our reasons for choosing which voice to which we are going to respond.

Because religion is practiced by those who are less than perfect, it is unrealistic to assume the voice of Jesus always comes via leaders and us as members of a perfect Church. Just as Jesus invited those who questioned him to look at his acts to know what he stood for, that probably still remains the most helpful test thinking of our own behaviour, questioning if we too are connected in an authentic way to the shepherd.

Now some of the scientific evidence is in, it seems that aspects of what the religious have called original sin is hardwired into our nature by many centuries of selective breeding. This tendency makes us very susceptible to find ourselves heading in a wrong direction. Among my disorganized files I have an article from the science magazine Focus (“The human brain: Hardwired to sin”). | That article from February 2010 reviewed evidence showing the automatic responses built into the brain as the standard temptations of lust, greed, gluttony, anger, sloth, envy and pride are separately stimulated. Different test subjects have the nerves in the same areas of the brain start to fire in response to the same stimuli, with different areas of the brain associated with each form of “sin”.

In fact from one point of view, when it comes to noting what the practice of religion is up against, those siren voices from biological and cultural evolution produce some serious obstacles. In many instances the appeal of the so called false shepherds may be nothing more than using an aspect of religion as an excuse to give voice to one or more of the evolutionary drives that may once have been needed for survival, yet which are now positively disastrous when trying to build a harmonious modern society and world.

For the human race to have survived so many years in such a variety of bleak and dangerous settings it is hardly surprising that nature might have selected for preference so many of what now look to be unsociable traits. Biological urges are inescapable and need to be carefully managed (as the Catholic Church has found to its cost with its required celibacy of priests).

And if it comes to that, given that procreation was once essential to the threatened human species, the desire to mate at all costs presents a question. Is breeding with any encountered potential mate still the biological characteristic you would want to bring to a stable modern marriage? When a religious sect promotes polygamy or under-age sex with sect leaders although we are disgusted that sect members would be attracted to something that society considers immoral, at least in-built biological temptation makes it at least partly understandable.

There is also plenty of evidence that the human is a naturally belligerent animal with an intelligence honed by evolution to increase the potential for nasty behaviour. At one time this belligerence was a survival mechanism. A small community struggling to survive in a hostile environment needed its warrior hunters and the more deadly the better. But now the world population has grown so communities overlap and we need to find ways of getting on with one another. The urge for belligerence is still there which presumably is why young people can still be persuaded to march into battle for dimly understood causes.

The way I see it is that Jesus arrived at an opportune time to provide humankind with an offered alternative to mutual destruction. Unfortunately history reminds us that as a wider community we have been very slow to take up the offer and perhaps this is hardly surprising given the scientists tell us humankind had been developing its current characteristics for many thousands of years. Those voices are hard to subdue. The inbuilt desire to ensure the safekeeping of one’s own family unit by destroying all who might threaten even in the most indirect manner does not make for natural peace-making or good race relations.

Unfortunately Churches in the past have often been associated with teaching that directly opposes Jesus’ direct teaching on forgiveness of enemies but if we can acknowledge the biological drive we can at least understand why Church members insist on supporting war even when they are familiar with Jesus’ take on the topic. It is almost certainly not Jesus’ voice to encourage crushing rivals or foes – or locking up prisoners and throwing away the key, but it may be subconsciously compatible with what our biology tells us is desirable.

Greed seems yet another non Christian characteristic that once helped our species survive. At a time when resources were limited it made perfect sense to try to gain a disproportionate share. Accumulating food at a faster rate than potential rivals is great for a time when unexpected plenty provided the insurance for the season when food was short. Unfortunately the inbred acquisitive fortress mentality rewarded the selfish and we don’t have to look too far before we encounter a marked reluctance to share.

Although I have the greatest admiration for Pope Francis’ insistence of the need for the Catholic Church to return to becoming poor church. I once visited the Vatican museum and have seen a fraction of accumulated wealth through the centuries. This does create some practical problems in reverting to Jesus’ teaching.

Often there is a fine line between what Jesus advocated and what now happens in practice. Offering hospitality by sharing food is very much in line with gospel teaching. Where we might go wrong is to forget we also have the drive to engage in gluttony. Encouraged once as a survival tactic for those rare occasions where sufficient food presented itself, perhaps we should not be surprised gluttony is still alive in some Churches today. The sight of obese church members gorging themselves at Church feasts suggests that even here we may be distorting Jesus teaching.

Before Jesus turned up some of the prophets had identified ways in which the Jews needed to watch the way their behaviours was taking them. In terms of what Jesus was offering was more a question of a change of emphasis than a change of direction. Many of his teachings are foreshadowed in the Jewish religious literature, yet there is another sense in which the Jewish religion had already been hijacked by false teachings.

Love your neighbour (the positive form of the so called golden rule which appears in so many approximately similar forms in all the great religions) was introduced in rudimentary form in China and Egypt and later in the book of in Leviticus (19:18), yet by the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the oft times embattled Jews had convinced themselves that neighbours could only be fellow Jews. Stronger was the older appeal of the code of reciprocity whereby you returned like with like. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the preferred rule. Samaritans may no longer stand for heretics, but today our society has its own notional enemies. Notice too that Jesus often encouraged his followers to pro-activity. One commentator Dr. Frank Crane put it this way, “The Golden Rule is of no use to you whatsoever unless you realize that it’s your move!”

Perhaps we should reflect on what we have seen in modern times to ask if the biological and cultural drive to favour one’s own has continued to distort the central teaching which was the focus of Jesus.

The record of the separated Catholic and Anglican communions has not always reflected the love of neighbour. Think Henry the eighth ordering the sacking of the Catholic monasteries or the flying bricks and bombs in Belfast, Ireland. Interfaith dialogue is clearly an ideal, yet Communion is not freely offered or freely received when the priest at the front does not recognise the faith of some in the congregation.

Tribalism continues to trump brotherly and sisterly love in many places of the world and by way of example the Hutus and Tutsis, two Christian tribes in Rwanda have both at various times attempted genocide on the other. Nor is it love for neighbour when Christians attack Muslims in the Balkans. It is almost as if we learn nothing from history. Remember at least one of the earlier Popes told those Christians setting out on the bloodthirsty Crusades that taking up the sword in this cause guaranteed them an instant pathway to heaven. Does that remind you of what some of the suicide bombers of this century are taught?

Please don’t think I am implying that it is only the Christians who lapse from their ideals. The recent example of the Christchurch shooting and the bombing in Sri Lanka are only among hundreds of examples whereby extremists betray their claimed religion by physically attacking those who don’t share their religion of the moment.  But seeing such situations are we as Christian reluctant to think Jesus’ call to be peacemakers applies to us.

Not all who recognise the wrong in shooting up a place of worship actually do anything to welcome the strangers in their midst to reduce the chances of such violence.

So there are competing seductive voices still. The true shepherd also continues to call down through the ages. As Jesus put it, only my sheep will recognize my voice. A stock-take of our attitudes and actions may yet reveal if we are authentic followers of the Messiah.

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Lectionary Sermon for May 5 2019 (Easter 3) on John 21: 1-19

A corny story currently doing the rounds goes something like this. Three animals, two dogs and a cat, arrived one day at the Pearly Gates. God himself was sitting on a throne at the entrance. “Well my son”, He said to the labrador, “Have you been a good dog?”

Oh yes. I eat all my tea and clean up all the scraps as well. I sit when told to sit and sleep quietly unless a farming programme is on TV when I help bark at the sheep.” “OK” said God.” That’s acceptable for a labrador. You’re in!”.

Then the retriever … “Have you been a good dog?” “Oh yes” said the retriever.” I run really hard to fetch sticks or balls and I suffer the little children to come unto me especially if they are carrying a biscuit that I can grab when they are not looking. I care about my itches and no flea ever remains unscratched. Oh yes – and I love going for walks and I always remember to stop and sniff every lamp post”. “Fair enough, said God. “You’re in too”.

Now the cat. “Well Cat, have you been a good cat?”
Excuse me” said the cat, in a superior tone. “I believe you’re sitting in my chair”.

The reason why at least some of the pet owners amongst us can relate to this story may well be that such behaviour is pretty well expected and I guess we would expect such animals changing behaviour even if they knew heaven itself would be in their future. And to be brutally frank, despite all the agreement in our churches that Jesus made a difference through his teaching, and whatever happened that first Easter, can I suggest that many of us are not that much different.

So despite Jesus’ example of living his faith and knowing the stories of the resurrection sometimes even post Easter it is not a given that those who meet us will find those claiming to be his followers similarly transformed.

On these Sundays when we reflect back on Easter for example we might look back and wonder why the disciples – even Peter – as the leading disciple, took so long to realize that if Jesus was to live on in his Church which was to follow, those disciples with all their weaknesses were going to have to step up and be Christ to their world. But now that torch is passed on to us how are we in our turn doing in living out the gospel?

We might also do well to remember that with the gospel writers, the history was being set down for the intended audience with the idea that there they too might find their inspiration in the path travelled by those who had gone before –This process was never intended as non participatory observation.

John Dominic Crossan once suggested that we search for parable in gospel narrative, because as he explained it, regardless of the degree of literal truth or alternately symbolic intention in the record, the events have been at least partly chosen and recorded for the principles they illustrate.

If we follow Dom’s suggestion, when we read about Jesus’ post resurrection appearances for their contained parable nature, we may find there some hints and challenges for our own present and future decision making.

There is much of potential symbolism here. Peter says “I am going fishing“. Despite the recent events of great significance – and if we follow the gospel narrative, despite Peter previously encountering the risen Christ, now he is apparently reluctant to allow it to make any difference to his life. (Could you imagine anyone learning about Jesus and then living as if it makes no difference…..hmmm…..) So Peter wants to return to his everyday familiar world and more to the point he can’t recognise Jesus in such a world.

One of the puzzles of modern versions of following Jesus is that so few seem to see Jesus as having anything to do with the world outside the Church building. Yes in Church for one hour on Sunday we seem to follow Jesus. But what guides us for the rest of the week?

Year after year we encounter a range of people who self identify as Christian and even describe themselves as born again Christians yet outside their Church services they want to follow potential leaders who are very unlike Jesus. Can you imagine a leading politician who doesn’t agree with forgiveness of enemies, who trashes peace treaties and does away with environmental protections, and who blocks refugees from entering his country? Well I can, and I know of self claimed born again Christians who vote for him.

Yet this is after Easter – so at least in one sense Jesus must still intrude. Remember for Peter as dawn breaks, the situation changes… Here we find an echo of the prologue of John’s gospel…. “the real light that enlightens men (and John should have said women too) was even then coming into the world”.

Then Jesus is seen on the beach. He is not recognized. This should be unexpected in itself, because he has already appeared twice to the disciples, and yet it seems always he is hard to recognize. He talked with Mary Magdalene and she did not recognize him at first.(20:14) He appeared to his disciples – yet it was not his general appearance that helped them recognize him – it was the nature of his wounds.

Those disciples on the road to Emmaus had an extended conversation with Jesus and yet did not recognize him until they were prepared to share food with this stranger. Are the gospel writers then reminding us that the risen Christ is not readily recognizable but may be discovered in chance encounters with those who seem ordinary?

Certainly this was different in that it was an encounter with the risen Christ. But notice it was not an “other-worldly” encounter. Jesus typically appeared reluctant to communicate via a so-called religious setting and instead found meaning in the ordinary. The farmer sowing seed, the gathering for a wedding feast, the act of baking bread, the shared meal, the fishermen at their tasks, breakfast on the beach, these were Jesus’ vehicles for the divine.

Our religious thinking is traditionally very different. For many, religious thinking is reserved for the artificial setting of a Church service. There we set up our religious formulae. We may for example think that because Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and somehow put everything right this was presumably why he got resurrected? So does this mean all we have to do is believe that this wonder of resurrection happened and humankind is somehow saved?

Surely it does not take a degree in theology to notice that in the intervening years all is not well with the world. Peace has not mysteriously broken out and if anything some of the wars are worse than they were in Jesus’ day. Disease is not a thing of the past particularly with the current fear of pandemics, environmental degradation is already contributing to localized famine and as a consequence we can now witness the relatively new phenomenon of large scale displacement of environmental refugees. If we are honest we should also admit that sin, even amongst Christians, is still a serious concern.

Well as it happens, we do not find the risen Jesus saying to Peter everything is now OK.

Remember the background. Even when Peter first recognized Jesus as the Messiah Jesus had warned him that he was going to fail at the critical time. (John 13: 36 -38) Peter, presumably and quite understandably is reported as trying to avoid being associated with Jesus after he had been taken for trial. Three times he had denied Jesus . And who could blame him. With the authorities out to silence Jesus and his supporters, it takes a particular type of courage to speak up when danger threatens.

So what does Jesus do? He provides a charcoal fire-this time for fish. Last time Peter was at a charcoal fire it was in the courtyard, the evening of Jesus’ trial, when Peter had been asked if he was a friend and supporter of Jesus. Please notice Jesus doesn’t now say everything is now OK. His three times repeated question “Do you love me?” is presumably intended to remind Peter of this three-fold denial – and we might at least understand Peter becoming very uncomfortable at the way the conversation was going. But notice Jesus is not so much forgiving Peter as giving him the challenge of a three-fold commission.

Nearly every time Jesus is recorded as appearing to his followers after the resurrection event there is a commission of some sort involved. So if Peter is genuine about his claim to love Jesus, we can understand Jesus saying by implication….. in that case you need to feed my lambs, tend my sheep and feed my sheep. Clearly Jesus is charging Peter with the commission to show caring leadership in the turbulent times ahead.

We need to acknowledge that call is not the same as to arrive at “mission accomplished”. Peter’s career as leader of the early Church was not all smooth sailing. I suspect the reason why his nature resonates with so many today is that Peter had a very human set of genuine strengths and serious weaknesses. Thus we find that Peter and Paul did not work smoothly together, so we find Paul identifying some of Peter’s areas of failure and weakness. That other significant leader of the early Church, James, eventually found Peter so frustrating that he moved him sideways in leadership.

Tradition finds Peter eventually sorting himself out and a number of the early Church writings have Peter dying for his faith in Rome.

Because we too sometimes find ourselves challenged into new areas, it is helpful to remind ourselves that in practice commissions are not always accepted, and even when they are accepted they are by no means all carried through. The Roman Church has always made a great deal of the Papal succession which they see as traced back to Peter. Yet history shows that, like with Peter himself, there is a mixture of success and failure in this succession. Some of the Popes were terrible, with age old weaknesses for power seeking, greed and even lust. The Borgias with their penchant for murder and corruption were hardly leading in the same sense of sense of Jesus’ commission to Peter. Yet at its best we can also see the potential of wise, humble and compassionate leadership.

I have been intrigued to see how Pope Francis has gone about working towards some very Christian sounding goals. But have you noticed, while some in his Church are clearly inspired to join him in his mission there are others who apparently refuse to be moved from a position of defiant immobility. Just because a leader gets it right it does not followers that his or her followers will do the same.

Peter’s commission was encountered in Peter’s every day world of fishing and I guess our personal challenge is likely to start in our own setting.

May I quote Professor John Schaar from the University of California who once identified one important human principle in the following:

The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created–created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination”.

The one with the commission for our journey into that future may be the one standing there on the beach in dawn’s early light. Perhaps he is yet to be recognized.

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The phenomenon of US politics, which at first encounter is hardest for non Americans to understand, is working out how come a bizarre figure like Mr Trump has such a following?

The Republican Party and indeed the entire US electoral system has a number of features which suggest that it was set up to protect the exclusive interests of the rich and the powerful, but for many years the architects working behind the scenes of the GOP have appreciated that since the rich and powerful are a relatively small group numerically. Consequently each election, the trick has been to choose larger voting blocks to target for support amongst the general population to get the Republicans into power.

As a lower degree of sophistication and education often characterize such groups, finding over-simplified trigger issues to represent the interests of such groups has proved the key to guarantee their support.

Noam Chomsky’s take on this includes the concept that a number of Republican candidates are chosen each election to represent the different factions (not so that all the candidates are seen as viable – indeed they are almost invariably cast aside by the party before the final election for candidate)- but at least the message from the candidates tells the various factions that the Republicans have their interests at heart. This raises the interesting notion that perhaps Mr Trump who appeared to have no genuine chance and no credible experience was not meant to win.

Chomsky reminds us that a few years back Richard Nixon, together with his advisers, set the pattern when he chose several large sub groups as being easy to enlist. For example Nixon sought the support of the Southern whites who were concerned about the rising power of the non-whites in an area where previous discrimination had “kept non whites in their place”. This explains why in this Presidential term support offered to White nationalists (and even by implication, the KKK), by Mr Trump has not been seriously challenged by the GOP particularly since the party is well aware that such groups are still needed to bolster the Republican cause.

Two other large groups, also concerned about what they saw as alarming changes to community and religious values, were the Southern evangelicals and the Northern Catholics – particularly with their worries about the legalization of abortion.

What may appear a strange interest in Middle Eastern politics and in particular the strengthening of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians is of course because over recent years this is conflated with end-times and the interests of the fundamentalist “Bible believers”.

Since many are specifically following Mr Trump because he promised to do away with abortion we might note in passing that he consistently confused full term abortion with what actually happens in practice whereby most states only allow full term abortion if it specifically safeguards the life of the mother.

Unfortunately oversimplification can only be answered by detail which, for those who prefer to get their information from tweets, rallies, social media and channel new outlets, is bluntly not going to happen. Mr Trump is not the only one reluctant to read detail, which presumably is why, despite the release of the Mueller report, many in the GOP still parrot “no collaboration, no obstruction”, when even the Trump appointee, Bill Barr, was forced in his very brief summary to concede that the question of obstruction of justice is still an open question..

This attention to the interests of subgroups also explains the Trump setting aside the many thousand gun deaths each year to focus on the rights of the large gun lobby citing a very distorted version of the Second Amendment whereby the right to carry guns is highlighted – but the other part of the Second amendment (which explains the reason behind the amendment of providing an armed citizen militia for the defence of the country), which is clearly redundant in the light of today’s highly armed US Government and State military, is conveniently forgotten.

The somewhat cynical “dog whistle” approach with such groups includes offering immigration policies to discriminate against those who did not fit the self image of the typical GOP supporters.

Since some of the targeted voting sub groups included those recently unemployed and those at the mercy of criminal groups, Mr Trump chose to make some sweeping and clearly unachievable promises. He was going to reopen the coal mines, reduce the restrictions on mining and pollution and largely forget about clean energy. He was going to close the borders e.g. build the wall to cut down on the immigrant and refugees who might be competitors for work and of course his major Inauguration promise was to get rid of crime on the streets. He was going to bring the factories back home, bring about Peace by disarming North Korea, and make the US more competitive by introducing trade tariffs. The rich were going to get richer by cutting their taxes and would therefore employ more.

Although he promised to get rid of debt Mr Trump forgot to say – or more likely perhaps – may not have been able to work out – that the reduction of taxes for the rich would also mean sufficient money would not be available for the multitude of services which is particularly needed for the poorer sectors of society. The unsurprising result was that instead of the promise for the removal of debt, the actual result has included a vast increase of debt (three trillion dollars) for the nation. The reason why this may have gone unnoticed by the majority is that since there are so many ways of looking at the data Mr Trump tended to make up his dog whistle figures rather than look at the conventional official summaries. It is taking a long time for some of the less educated to Google the US Debt Clock which not only measures the real time debt but also shows that there were now fewer people employed in the workforce than had been in the year 2000.

At the end of his first year of the Presidency Trump was modestly suggesting that more look at his personal success with the economy by checking up on the boost to the US share market as the consequences of giving more tax back to the rich investors. Now in the third year Mr Trump is only drawing attention to the share market in the few occasions when there is a jump in fortune. On the occasions when share market is no longer increasing he usually directs blame to what he sees as the ineptitude of the Federal Reserve despite his replacing the director.

Thus far the Tweets are generally sufficient to hold favour with the chosen support groups. Although some of the chants of “Fake News” , and “Lock her up” are losing their pall, many of his Tweets are echoed by his supports in the social media together with the few Tabloid news channels like Fox.     Since the target groups have been shown not to use some of the other mainstream news sources it is unlikely that their members are even aware of the profound loss of faith in the US presidency reflected in the international polls or for that matter the average loss of confidence across the local US polls.

While Mr Trump is quite correct in claiming that some nations have enjoyed disproportionate trade advantage with the US particularly since much of this comes about because the US enjoys 25% of the world’s GDP to be share among a little over 5% of the world’s population. It seems that trade will never be equal until the peoples of the world enjoy a much fairer allocation of access. However the more serious issue is that since under Mr Trump the US has become distinctly less concerned about disparities in wealth, eg the US has reduced aid to poorer nations, armed the enemies of weak nations like Yemen and arbitrarily torn up or introduced abrupt tariffs in longstanding trade treaties through the WTO.

Unlike past state visits to long term allies like the UK, I am guessing the current plans for Mr Trump to pay a state visit to the UK later this year is bound to provoke a much more dramatic reception that the last relatively mild baby blimp protests. Whether or not Mr Trump will care is another matter, but to say that there has been a loss of confidence in the leadership of the US is an understatement. That loss of confidence has been reflected in the drop in support via the international polls.(eg Pew International). Perhaps more dramatically it can’t have escaped the notice of US officialdom that the US is being increasing side-lined in trade discussions and international conferences.

I would be interested to know whether those who follow US politics are:
first: concerned about the apparent changes in international perception and second: convinced that the current policy of pandering to voting groups with extravagant political claims and dog whistle politics will continue to carry the GOP to victory in the next election.

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Lectionary sermon for 28 April 2019 (Easter 2) on John 20: 19-31

Those who use the expression “a doubting Thomas” to heap scorn on those who question some aspect of faith would do well to check out the story of Thomas a little more carefully. Even in the fragmentary glimpses of Thomas in the gospels, we get a hint that Thomas is a man to be reckoned with.

Before we get to Thomas’ famous doubts, remember that earlier incident when the disciples are trying to talk Jesus out of visiting Lazarus who was understood to have just died. The catch was that the dead Lazarus was reportedly in the very area where villagers had previously attempted to stone Jesus. And what was it that Thomas was reported to have said? Here it is… “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. In that story at least, Thomas was showing clear signs of courage.

Tradition makes the further claim that Thomas subsequently made his way as a missionary, first to Persia and then on to South India where he was eventually martyred…Hardly the marks of someone perpetually paralyzed by doubt.

As John the gospel writer tells the story, perhaps we forget that Thomas was entitled to his doubts in that, according to the few details we read, unlike the other disciples he had not already seen the risen Christ.

Certainly sometimes doubts can be corrosive, but Thomas used his doubts in a constructive manner. Even if John was writing many years after the event, and even if the history of Thomas’ actions in other records might contain inaccuracies, we should at least allow that whatever Thomas encountered in his dealings with Jesus was enough to inspire him to become a missionary. If anything his doubts appeared to lead to a firmer faith.

But why would anyone despise Thomas for his initial doubts. If we put ourselves in Thomas’s place, doubting certainly seems more rational than credulity. The equivalent for us today might be watching a good friend die – then later going to the funeral home to pay our respects, only to be met by a stranger telling us “Sorry, he’s gone. He came back to life and he is out there somewhere.” Be honest. Would you accept that without question? And even more to the point, would Thomas have been wise to accept such an outrageous claim without question.

Remember too, the claims are still outrageous. Since the Bible is a curious amalgam of patchy history, poetry, culture, inspiration, parable, myth and praise, it is always hard to be certain which narrative parts are being recorded as history and which parts are closer to parable to encourage us in faith. Even if we are of a mind to see faith in terms of a catechism in which the thinking is left to Church leaders who instruct us as to the acceptable answers to all the tricky questions, it seems to me that all the best answers have always come from squarely facing one’s own honest doubts.

I concede Thomas’ doubts do not seem to have been remembered with affection by Christians through the centuries, yet I wonder if this had its root in the gospel writers’ respective theological differences. Thomas, whose gospel was claimed to predate the other New Testament gospels, had Gnostic traditions interwoven with teachings of Jesus used by the other gospel writers. This may help explain why his gospel got voted out of the final collection of books chosen for the most commonly accepted version of the New Testament.

We might also note in passing that for the most part the gospel that didn’t make the cut attributed to Thomas was mainly of sayings of Jesus and was clearly less mystical and more down to earth than a good part of the Gospel of John. Some scholars have even suggested John’s version of Thomas as a doubter was added later to undermine Thomas’s credentials as a rival gospel author.

For those who find it hard to countenance a Bible where editorial policy has helped shape the narrative just remember that the four gospels already differ in detail when they report the same events. We now know for example some verses were added some years later by an unknown author to flesh out Mark’s version of the death of Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel. We know from earlier versions these verses were missing and they did not appear till well after the original author had died. Other changes have also been noted in other of the New Testament books, so it is reasonable to at least acknowledge later editing as a possibility.

One set of traditions claim Thomas was not only sometimes known as Didymus = the twin ( ie the Aramaic for Thomas gives us Tau’ma or T’oma also meaning twin) but within the traditions some have gone further and claimed he was no less than the twin of Jesus. If this was actually the case it goes without saying that this would have serious consequences for anyone insisting on the reality of the story of the Virgin Birth. However the notion of Thomas being the Twin of Jesus is also thought to lend a little credence to the implication in one of the Nag Hammadi texts (the Book of Thomas the Contender), in which Jesus himself is quoted as saying: “Now since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion…….” If there was this family connection, this may even have been why another book “The Infancy Gospel of Jesus” purporting to tell the story of Jesus early childhood is also attributed to Thomas.

Since such traditions help shape the early Church they are still important. There is absolutely no doubt that a Thomas who by all accounts appears to be the apostle Thomas was a major figure in starting the Church of South India. The Catholic Church also highly values the Thomas traditions and one of their major teachings, the assumption of Mary to heaven, places Thomas as the only witness to this event.

It is hard to be certain of how much the record of readings attributed to Thomas or for that matter miracles later attributed to Thomas in India, are based on fanciful recollections by his later admirers.

My personal favourite Thomas story is one which has Thomas as architect and builder in South India getting the commission to build King Gundaphorus (sp?) a lavish palace. Thomas allegedly decided to teach the King a lesson by giving the large sum of money for the project away to the poor. According to the story, when the outraged King got wind of this trick, Thomas’s defence was that he was building the king a Palace in heaven with this act of charity. My own cynicism has me wondering if in fact Thomas would have been able to avoid death if he had actually tried that on any autocratic ruler of the age in that part of the world, but I still like the story.

Please don’t hear me saying that my doubts about the literal truth of some of the events and stories attributed to Thomas therefore imply such stories have no value. All significant figures in history have a degree of accompanying mythology and, like Jesus’ parables, the values that emerge from the stories are where their real worth may lie.

I guess I am also implying that some dimensions of faith require a healthy scepticism, but in the same way that Thomas could express his doubts in an open and honest way without abandoning his faith altogether, I suspect ultimately we must be free to ask our questions and do our own thinking before we settle on the main directions for our lives.

There are some forms of doubts which lead to progress. I would like to suggest that the natural scepticism towards current scientific understanding shown by most of the now famous scientists was actually the key to their progress. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science used to say that it is only when you try to disprove an accepted theory that science moves forward. I suspect that has been the same for the prophets and theologians through the centuries.

The assumption that all disease and disaster had religious cause has been modified as science has informed us about the causes of disease. In the same way our growing understanding about the universe and the laws of nature has caused us to question previous superstitions about the night skies.

The first believers in primitive Judaism were satisfied that their limited tribal notions of a localized and partisan God were quite sufficient and it took first the prophets and finally Jesus himself to show why this notion of faith deserved to be doubted. And historically this process did not stop with Jesus. Christian ethics have been continually doubted, questioned and reshaped to deal with the needs of a changing society.

Slavery and blind nationalism, at one time cornerstones of a local insular tribal society, have gradually given way to understanding that neighbours do not have to share one’s own religion to deserve equivalent status level in the community.

Since conditions for the World’s communities have continued to change we now have a whole raft of new problems to face. Now we can produce more food by mass food production techniques a whole series of issues relating to the fair distribution of this food are currently being debated.

We need those who can express their doubts about traditional trade practice and resource management regardless of what may have worked in the past. Love your neighbour needs new expression in changed circumstances.

In an age where physical strength was valued, it made sense to have a male dominated society. In a modern society where education rather than physical strength is the basis of leadership, it makes sense to re-evaluate the respective roles of males and females. To doubt the aspects of faith designed to retain the old values of male domination is not automatically anti-Christian. Since biblical statements about role were designed for a now out-dated culture the ethics that came from that culture also need rewriting.

Advances in medicine mean we now have the problem of euthanasia to consider for those being kept artificially alive long past the expected life span. Advances in weapons research mean we now have to reassess when war is morally acceptable.

There are those who object to all advances of thinking on the grounds that today’s understandings confront us with ideas incompatible with what the forefathers in religion used to believe. And a flat earth society still exists!

Remember it was the orthodox Church who took Galileo to task for questioning that the Earth was the centre of the universe, just as their predecessors had done earlier when “heretics” had first suggested that the Earth was not flat nor supported on pillars as the Psalmist had asserted.

It was the Bible literalists who objected to the science of geology casting doubts on a six thousand year old Earth, and no doubt there will always be those who dare not question lest they find that their comfortable certainties are threatened.

Because we are blessed with those who continue to use their doubts to help sort out their thinking and those who insist that all unreasonable assumptions are tested, we can be certain that transforming knowledge will continue to grow. Whether or not we are brave enough to do our own testing, and allow it to extend the horizons of our own faith is a question for our own individual life story.

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