Sunday, 14 February 2016

Temptation: A Sermon for the first Sunday of Lent

Today, the first Sunday of Lent, is a time when we hear about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, in that strange testing time between his baptism in the river Jordan and the wonders of his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee, before his final journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. The temptations are, as we know, part of a story in which Jesus will speak words of truth and life, in which Jesus will comfort the outcast, forgive the sinful, put down the haughty, confront the hypocrites, heal the sick, lay down his life out of love and be raised from death to glorious life after three days. So much is to come in this story of Christ’s life, this story of our faith, but before that, the desert, and the temptations.

In the town where I used to live, there was a gift shop called Temptations, that sold beautiful china and excellent chocolates. It was always busy If you start thinking about popular songs from the 1950s onwards that include the word ‘temptation’ in their lyrics, you could be here all day. You might start with the band The Temptations, and then work from there! In our culture, we have a tendency – a temptation, one could say – to de-value temptation and to look at it as something that you might say no to the first time with every intention of saying yes the next.

‘Oooh, I know I shouldn’t, but….’

‘A little of what you fancy….’

‘Go on, let me tempt you!’

We might say, with Mae West, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.” 

Or with Oscar Wilde “I can resist anything except temptation.”

For Jesus, though, the temptations were very real; the temptation to give in to physical hunger, to the need to prove himself to his opponent, to the desire to receive the adulation, the recognition of which he knew he was worthy.  Needless to say, there were no gift shops selling beautiful china and excellent chocolates in the wilderness, and there were no bands singing pop songs about temptation. For Jesus, these forty days were an intense period of testing both of body and of soul. Would he give in? This is a real question. One of the trip hazards that we can stumble across when we think about Jesus is to suppose that, as God become man, nothing was ever hard for him, that he was a kind of first century Galilean Bear Gyrlls for whom the desert was a welcome opportunity to demonstrate his superior survival skills. With all respect to Beer Grylls, that’s nonsense. Jesus was no Action Man. He was hungry, thirsty, cold, lonely, and severely tempted in the desert. We might think back for a moment to Isaiah’s words foreseeing the suffering servant whom God would send:   
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
   and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
   a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.

There was nothing trivial or laughable about Jesus’ temptations.

And what about us? I have noticed an interesting trend away from giving up things for Lent, towards doing something for Lent. I can understand this if the idea is to avoid using Lent as some kind of diet plan, or, much worse, mimicking our Pharisaic forebears by appearing to do things so as to showcase our great holiness in front of one another while our hearts remain stealthily hidden away from view. It’s interesting, too, that this suspicion of giving up things for Lent seems to go hand in hand with giving things up at other times of year – we have just had Dry January. It seems that we fallible weak human beings still need particular times to let go of our vices, whether or not we do that as part of the church year and the Christian community. 

My personal feeling is that Lent is a good time to give something up, and to take something up, and in both of those actions to find a greater self-discipline than we normally demand of ourselves. In both the giving up and the taking up – the positive doing of something and the negative not doing of something – we might find what our real temptations are We might find it surprisingly easy to give up booze but near impossible to give up sarcasm. Or the other way round. Lent, if we enter into it as God invites us to, gives us a perfect opportunity to find out what is hard for us, and what is easy. It gives us a time to get to know ourselves better, and to look, with the God who love us, at the people we are and to accept his help to overcome those things that are genuine, hard, frustrating temptations for us. Someone who grappled with the reality of temptation somewhat more profoundly than either Mae West or Oscar Wilde was C. S. Lewis. 

In his classic book ‘Mere Christianity’, C. S. Lewis says this: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is... A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.” 

Jesus did not live a sheltered life in the desert, and he invites us out of our sheltered lives too so that we can know ourselves more fully to be held in the love that is stronger than any temptation, and know ourselves to be free in that love. This is why Lent is one of my favourite time in the church year, an assertion that might sound perverse or self-flagellating. Lent is one of my favourite times in the church year because it is a time that invites me to become more like Christ, and to become freer in who I am as I discover more deeply the life-changing reality of his love for me which is stronger than any temptation. Easy words to say, but I believe that these words can only come to life within our lives if we allow ourselves to walk with Jesus along the way of the cross. Yes, that means facing temptation. Yes, that means acknowledging and owning our weaknesses. Yes, that might hurt our pride and damage our sense of self. But it’s only when we trust God’s love enough to do that that we can begin to hear his words to us, telling us that in our weakness, he is our strength, that our pride is nothing but a ragged mask, that our sense of self comes not from our achievements or superiority to others but to his infinite love for us.

And what about Jesus? As I say, the temptations are real. He could have given in. And if he had, he would have been spared the agonies of the cross. He would never have whispered those desolate words ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He would never have known the humiliation and abandonment of Peter’s denial of him. He would never have died, slowly, painfully, alone. He would never have needed to know physical suffering again. His sense of his own worth would have been instantly, and gloriously, vindicated. Yet it would have been a false vindication. The true glory, the glory that only God can give, is the glory of the resurrection. And without the cross, there can be no resurrection. Jesus chose real glory over false glory, the true vindication of the empty tomb over the empty vindication of the devil’s tempting words. And if Jesus had chosen false glory and empty vindication, he would never have fulfilled God’s plan for him, he would never have been the person that God invited him to be.

We live in a world in which we are tempted all the time by false glory and empty vindication, in gossipy words of others, over-or under-confidence in ourselves, and vapid promises that consumerism can fulfil our deep need for significance. It is such a temptation to take these temptations as reality. If we do – if we give in to the things that turn out to be our hardest temptations – we might miss the deep, freeing love that God has for us; we might miss out on the abundant life which is our true inheritance as his beloved children. Lent is a time to peek past the false glories and empty vindications of this world, and to see the reality of who we are, God’s beloved children. It is a great gift. May you be so richly blessed as you walk the way of the cross with Jesus this Lent.           

Monday, 1 February 2016

Walking around the Plot: Reflections on a Church Visit to Luxembourg

Going to someone else's church, especially in a different country, can feel for vicars, I guess, a bit like a gardener being shown around a neighbour's plot. Of the comparatively little that I know about gardening, I owe most of this knowledge to neighbours and friends who have done just that: walked me round, shown me what they have planted where, and when, what the soil is like, where the sun hits at what time of day, what has taken root and become beautiful, and what has taken over and become a nuisance, what can be left to grow quietly in its own way, and what needs regular, watchful nurture, which plants complement and enrich one another and which compete and diminish the other's growth capacity. Gardeners come way from these visits inspired and enriched, warned and advised.

This weekend, I flew to Luxembourg, a place I hadn't visited before, to visit the Anglican Church and in particular to see someone whom I am mentoring, who is training for church ministry. The Anglican Church in Luxembourg is part of the Diocese in Europe, a network of churches spanning an extraordinary geographical area from Iceland to Uzbekistan under the care of a bishop based in Gibraltar, yet part of the Church of England (hence my visit). The service which I attended was in English, using the same words from the same book that I use when I lead services at home in Hertfordshire. The hymns, or at least the hymn tunes, were ones I knew well. The only language used in the service other than English was Latin, a seventeenth-century Mass setting sung beautifully by a trio, the same sort of music sung in the same sort of way that a Church of England church with a choral tradition might enjoy. So much about the Anglican Church in Luxembourg was so familiar to me.

Yet there were differences too, and noticing these differences was a little like walking around your neighbour's garden and wondering what that little flower is called. So here are a few observations. These are, let me stress, not differences of belief but of emphasis and experience, and arise directly out of my own personal experience of the Church of England, limited as each one individual's must be. No doubt others would come away with a very different cluster of reflections!

Firstly, I was struck by the inter-relatedness of the Anglican Church and Christians from other faith backgrounds. The room which functions as the Anglican Church is on long-term loan from the Roman Catholic Church, and, talking to Anglicans, I heard repeatedly of ongoing, live relationships with leaders and others from different churches. This isn't surprising, when you consider that the congregation I visited is the only Anglican church in Luxembourg. For ministers in Luxembourg, collegiality is found ecumenically in a way that is not so distinct in the Church of England, where vicars most often find support from fellow Anglicans rather than other local ministers. There are many clergy and churches in the Church of England who are deeply invested in ongoing, live relationships with other Christians, but maybe in many parts of England the need to work together across ecumenical divides isn't quite as pressing, and ecumenical relationships fade into the background. Maybe part of what we English Anglicans can be reminded of by our brothers and sisters on the continent is that we are part of something much bigger than our own congregations or denominations.

Secondly, I was surprised to discover that church ministers in Luxembourg are considered civil servants, and are funded by the government. This is very different to the Church of England, which receives no government money at all. I had a fascinating conversation about what it means for Christians to be 'in the world but not of the world' when the political and financial affairs of the church are interwoven with those of the state (of course, this is also true politically in England with the C of E as the established church, its own rules intertwined with the law of the land in a way that is not so of other British churches). The upshot is that the Anglican Church in Luxembourg isn't concerned with cash flow in the way that many English Anglican churches do, and this also is reflected in people's financial giving to the church. Christians in Luxembourg are very generous in giving to charity, I was told, but they know that their money is not needed to keep the church afloat. I'd be lying if I didn't say that a large part of me is very envious of the Luxembourgish financial position; but there's something about sacrificial giving to a local church, with its blessings as well as its worries, that maybe the C of E knows more deeply because of its financial independence.

Thirdly, as I entered the Anglican Church, I walked past a large hoarding affirming a Luxembourgish identity which has influences from many national backgrounds but no place for racism. Twentieth-century history here is still keenly felt, with reminders of the Nazi occupation and its terrors never far away. I was reminded of the peaceful demonstration that I attended in Sweden against the rise of far-right nationalistic political parties in 2014, and of the worrying ascendancy of such thinking across Europe.  We in Britain are by no means immune; this last month saw a small, but nonetheless unsettling far-right's public gathering in Luton. That the church had chosen to display this poster was, I felt, very powerful. Maybe in the C of E we need to add our voices more clearly, and more often, to those saying that racism has no place in the church or in our communities.

Visiting the Anglican Church in Luxembourg was a wonderful experience, uplifting and thought-provoking. As I walked away from communion, I mulled over the words of a song that I learnt during my teens, based on the words of Jesus; 'I am yours, you are mine. I am in you, and you are in me.' Yes, this short visit to Luxembourg was a little like walking around a neighbour's garden, but on reflection, as I knelt at the altar and received bread and wine, it felt more like discovering a patch of my own grounds that I hadn't come across before, mine not through ownership but through belonging to a family bigger than those with whom I share my home and my own little plot, this larger family imperfect and sometimes at odds with each other within itself but committed to making a real difference in the world all around it. 'I am yours, you are mine. I am in you, and you are in me.' Maybe there's something about walking around someone else's garden, visiting someone else's church, that refreshes in me the truth that in belonging to Christ, we belong to one another.

The altar, celebrating the presence of the Anglican church in Luxembourg

Stained glass windows, a brand-new drum kit and an oil panting of a saint give you a sense of the breadth of this church! 

The anti-racism poster 

A beautiful statue in the chapel 

One on many sobering reminders of the Nazi occupation, and its devastating effects on Luxembourg.