Giving a Voice (Acts 6:1-6)

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The early church is often idealised. It’s a golden age – everyone was a great saint and martyr, everyone shared their lives and their resources, everything was awesome and we need to get back there ASAP.

Passages like Acts 6 show that the reality was far more prosaic – those early Christians were figuring things out as they went and sometimes things went wrong.

For instance, here we have a pastoral breakdown. The church was supporting the widows within its community, but somehow, be it an oversight, a breakdown in communication or unspoken prejudice, the Aramaic speaking widows were being looked after while the Greek speakers were being forgotten.

The apostles need to sort this out, and so they appoint seven deacons to manage the situation – this is where Stephen and Philip arrive in the narrative. And while we can see this as simply being a solution to an administrative need, there’s a deeper wisdom on display here.

See, we’re given the names of the seven deacons in Acts 6:5, and the key thing to notice is that all seven names are Greek. There’s an issue where Greek-speaking widows are being neglected? Okay, the Greek-speaking community needs to lead the church’s response as thet’re the ones on the front line.

It’s a simple, obvious solution, but all too often we neglect its wisdom. Racism is discussed on panels consisting entirely of white commentators. Events are held to talk about gender equality and every speaker is a man. The apostles were wise enough to hand things over and let the deacons have their voice.

Too often the voice of privilege is dominant, so much so that it’s taken for granted as the default setting by everyone except, say, the Aramaic Christians – the people on the receiving end of society’s mistakes, oversights and prejudice. And so the questions of how to deal with racism or sexism in the church are asked, but the wrong voices are trying to answer them and so those answers are unsatisfying.

In short, sometimes the best thing to do is pass the mic to a little-heard voice and then shut up and get out of the way. We need to do a lot more listening than shouting nowadays; that’s the only way unspoken stories will be heard and healing between our communities can begin. And if you have a platform – a blog or a podcast or a pulpit – offer that to someone who needs space to speak. Maybe, in the diversity of our stories and our voices, communities can be transformed and the scars of the centuries slowly begin to heal.

(If anyone out there wants to use this space to tell their story, please let me know.)

Jesus at the Gates: Some Thoughts on *That* Cartoon

20140620-152543-55543223.jpgI’ve got no idea what it’s like to lose everything.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be on the run from oppression, or to see my friends and neighbours beheaded or incinerated, to hand over hard-won money to me who sell hope in the faeces-stained corner of a cargo container.

I can’t imagine any of this, as I’m a white man in the western world. I have a job and a house and no-one’s trying to butcher my wife and kids. If I head to Calais I’ll be described as a tourist or a holiday maker, and my Vauxhall Astra won’t be part of a ‘horde’ or an ‘invasion’, my humanity won’t be subsumed into a ‘swarm’, one locust among thousands devouring all in the resources in our path.

The Daily Mail has published a cartoon, an image of endless queues outside the Pearly Gates, among them National Treasure Cilla Black, who passe away over the weekend. An angel is policing the line, riot helmet on head, truncheon in hand. “Sorry about the long queue, Cilla,” he apologises, “There are thousands of illegals trying to get in…”

You can see the illegals in the distance, climbing the gates. They don’t appear to have wings and halos, not like Cilla and the angel, not like everyone waiting to get into Paradise. The illegals aren’t patiently queuing, like good English people would. The illegals aren’t supposed to be there.

I know, I know. The cartoon is clickbait, and anyway, looking for theological depth in a cartoon designed to provoke outrage and demonise immigrants and fire up the darker impulses of the Great British Public is never a good idea.  And yet ignoring it seems complicity somehow, makes me a party to its bigotry and cynicism and blasphemy.

I was going to talk about Matthew 21:31, in which Jesus parables the Chief Priests into submission, declaring that “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” But while that seems relevant somehow, it still feels like an inappropriate value judgement in this case – do I really want to cast people fleeing Syria or Iraq as ‘sinners’?

So then my thoughts turn to Matthew 25, to the Sheep and the Goats, to “Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.” And that’s it, isn’t it? In some spiritual, cosmic way, that person fleeing with nothing but the clothes they stand up in is Jesus. That refugee lying in his own filth is Jesus. That woman drowning as she tries to make it across the Channel on a punctured lilo? Jesus.

I’m not saying we should treat ‘illegals’ with dignity because in some incarnational way they can be associated with Jesus; rather, we need to ask why, in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus chooses to align himself with the poor and broken and oppressed. The answer is so simple it’s cliche – it’s love and compassion and grace. It’s because those people storming the gates at Calais are made in the image of God. That’s why the cartoon in the Mail is so vicious – it dehumanises individual children of God and uses the imagery of heaven to justify it: “Look, even God shares our prejudices!”

And that’s a blasphemy and it’s dangerous and it’s about as far from Christ-like as it’s possible to get.

And now Songs of Praise is going to broadcast from Calais, sparking predictable outrage…

Yet Another Scandal

So.

Why does the Church have a child abuse problem?

We see it in the new Methodist report covering 2,000 cases of abuse, a third of which were carried out by church members

We see it in the scandal engulfing Josh Dugger.

We see it when the Pope – the Pope – lays into bishops who cover up abuse in the Catholic Church.

We can’t write off these stories as isolated incidents. New stories keep getting uncovered, different people keep getting failed by structures that should be founded on love and grace. Each one of these stories is another crack in the foundations, another cancer in the body, and every time we ignore one of these malignant cells the disease just gets worse.

Of course, not only are awful sexual crimes being committed, they’re being covered up. Maybe that’s because people are more inclined to take the word of a mega church pastor over that of a teenage girl. Maybe it’s fear reporting and investigating abuse with drag the church into disrepute (as if hiding crimes and intimidating survivors wasn’t disreputable enough). Maybe it’s simply because power corrupts and the church still clings on to the vestiges of its earthly power.

Every time something like this happens, it teaches the world that the church can’t be trusted, that it’s willing to sacrifice its moral authority, that it’s capable of throwing child abuse victims under the bus. How does that show compassion and love to those around us? How does that glorify God?

Easy answer – it doesn’t. All it does is make that millstone in Matthew 18:6 all the more heavy.

We have to start being honest with ourselves. We can’t call down judgement on random passers-by when children are being abused behind closed ecclesiastical doors. We need to genuinely start believing that people are important and carry the divine image rather than valuing institutions over children of God. We need to seek forgiveness from survivors, support rehabilitation efforts for offenders and  do everything we can to safeguard our congregations. And this may take years to achieve, because we’ve forfeited our right to be seen as safe spaces.

In the end, our call is to follow Christ, to build his Kingdom. That’s what the church should always be about, not covering up the truth, not sacrificing the innocent. The light of the world should illuminate the darkest corners, even when those corners are in our
churches, and as the light shines, let us be a force for hope and grace; let us repent and begin the hard, messy work of being renewed.

The Stranger on the Road (Luke 24:13-35)

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They were walking to Emmaus, about 7 miles from Jerusalem. About 130 years earlier, this had been the site of a great battle, Jewish rebels triumphing over Greek forces. After Herod the Great died thirty years earlier, the village was burned to the ground after the inhabitants attacked a Roman garrison. Now it had been rebuilt and become home to a disciple called Cleopas, who was now trudging his way back from Jerusalem, the aftermath of the crucifixion bearing down on him.

We celebrate Easter Sunday as a glorious explosion of new life, but as he walks the road to Emmaus, Cleopas is still living in Saturday. He’s leaving Jerusalem, where within the space of a week Jesus has gone from being popular hero to an abandoned victim of conspiracy and crucifixion, all the hopes and expectations of the last three years nailed to a blood-soaked plank of wood. On the horizon is the site of a Jewish victory, yes, but that had been a long time ago and Herod had showed what happens to anyone hoping to change the world.

So when Cleopas encounters a stranger on the road, he explains the situation with a sense of loss: “We’d hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” With the benefit of hindsight we can smile at how Cleopas is missing the point – we know the big reveal, after all, that the stranger on the road is the resurrected Jesus. But maybe Cleopas needs this moment of unrecognition for his preconceptions and prejudices to be reconfigured.

And so, despite a long theological conversation, it’s only when the stranger breaks bread and gives thanks – a eucharistic moment that echoes the last supper – that the stranger’s identity is revealed. The Last Supper forms the basis of our communion services, speaking of Christ’s death, but this second meal is its bookend, the revelation of his resurrection.

Maybe we need to hold the revelation of Emmaus in our hearts every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, remembering not just the crucifixion but the fresh vision of Jesus granted us by his emergence from the tomb, the miracle we encounter when the Stranger on the Road turns out to be the risen Saviour.

That’s not a once-a-year moment of sacredness in the Spring. It’s every Lord’s Supper – no, it’s every day. Heaven knows I need to make resurrection a daily remembrance. As we walk with Cleopas into another week, may we meet Jesus once again, and find the Saviour in the Stranger on the Road.

Ashes on the Church Door: Ash Wednesday 2015 (Psalm 51)

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Ash Wednesday’s one of those Christian traditions that’s always been a bit alien to me. It’s not a ritual I’ve ever been involved in; maybe actively so as I’d much rather focus on the grace of God than the sin of Matt.

Don’t get me wrong: I know I’m far from perfect. But I like my penitence to be private,  thank you very much; I’m not keen on sackcloth and ashes, and I have no idea how King David had the guts to write something as raw and confessional as Psalm 51.

Hypocrisy? Probably.

There’s the question of corporate repentance. A lot of people have been hurt by the church – through unChristlike attitudes, through the abuse of power, through shaming and shunning. And while it’s tempting to shake our heads and mutter “Not all Christians!”, the fact is we’re one body and we need to acknowledge where that body’s gone wrong.

So maybe that’s a role for Ash Wednesday. Individual repentance, ashes smeared on the forehead, is fine, but maybe we need to smear some ashes on the door posts of our churches too. It could also be an act of humility too – the church has wielded so much temporal power that it’s always good to pause and remember that we’re not perfect, we have fallen short of the glory, that our true power comes from the Holy Spirit, and that our organisations are just as much in need of God’s grace as our individual lives. Today’s ashes are last year’s palm branches of praise, which is a good reminder that our failings and our worship aren’t that far apart.

Because the fact is this: I can’t throw the Church under the bus. Denominations need to change, some organisations need to fall, but the church as the body of believers remains. I can’t walk away from that body as a whole.

But then we’re back to individual repentance. Preachers are fond of saying that the church isn’t buildings but people, so there we have it: Don’t spread hate instead of love. Don’t fiddle the accounts. Don’t abuse children, or cover up that abuse. Don’t get drunk on power. These things need to be confronted, dragged into the light, brought to justice.

And yet the ultimate message of Easter is resurrection, healing, grace. Don’t dwell in guilt – confront it, be penitent, turn onto another path, but we’re heading towards the Cross, towards the empty tomb. Forgiveness and mercy are central to the story – hope and healing are there for the taking; those ashes get washed away.