Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Christmas bullies

Anna came home from work quite worked up and upset. Anna works at Oxfam in Headingley and has done for two years. She absolutely loves it.

This happens from time to time and it is usually related to shoplifting. Anna is a very moral person and the idea of shoplifting from a charity shop is one she simply can not get her head around.

"What sort of person does that?"

Today it was something different. They have been threatened. A letter was delivered (now with the police for forensics) which said: "This is a very polite but very serious reminder not to display Christmas cards until November 1st. We will put superglue into your locks if you do. Peace and goodwill." The organisation calls itself The Movement for the Containment of Christmas.

This is not an idle threat. They have already glued the locks of the Mind (mental Health) charity shop in the same parade of shops.

Peace and goodwill?

This has made the newspapers. In the Yorkshire Post the headline was Christmas Crackers: vigilantes target shops for selling festive cards and in the Guardian it was dealt with under the headline Yule be sorry: threat to August sellers of Christmas cards. Witty huh?

I have mixed feelings about this. Under other circumstances I might consider joining The Movement for the Containment of Christmas. I can't count the number of times I have railed at canned carols in September. What does it do to the mental health of the shop workers to have Rudolph the red-nosed raindeer on a constant loop for three months? Similarly I can't buy into the forced and false atmosphere of Victorian-style frosted windows in October or signs in restauarants exhorting us to book our Christmas meals in July. So no arguments from me on Christmas creep.

However, I think this campaign has chosen the wrong target in charity shops. Many charity shop workers are volunteers and some are vulnerable people. It is quite wrong to upset and frighten people like these who work in charity shops because they believe they can make a difference.

Shops like Oxfam do an incredible job and it would be wicked to disrupt the service they provide. This is not one of the big department store chains where you might argue that Christmas creep is a cynical marketing ploy.

Oxfam provides a service to those who often need to budget and spread the cost of Christmas. Buying cards at this time of year is part of that budgeting process for the elderly and the less well off and what are such shops to do when the big high street stores start selling Christmas stock?

The Mind Shop manager who did not wish her name to be known said "We have removed our current Christmas cards sales display for the moment. This is great pity as we have been selling off last year's stock and making £70 a week for the charity." So a £70 per week loss together with the £100 to replace the lock. This is a charity shop. They can't afford that sort of money. Oxfam and the PDSA are continuing to sell cards.

There are plenty of big stores in town for this organisation to consider but it seems to me that they have security and small charity shops don't. That probably says something about the underlying ethic of this campaign: nobody likes a bully.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The problem with hell for a teenage evangelical

I needed answers to questions that weren’t being asked and I was beginning to sense that, for me at least, some of the answers to those questions that were being asked were seeming just a little too shallow and sometimes dismissive of ones natural intellectual abilities.

I have to confess, I had a little problem with Hell. If we didn’t accept Christ there was only one outcome. Not that the youth leaders or clergy made a big thing about Hell that I can remember. No, it seemed more to be an idea left hanging in the air, the Voldermort of Christianity. We were all aware of it but it was rarely spoken of as sentences trailed off while leaving an inescapable implication echoing in the silence. Of course none of this was helped by the terrifying visions of medieval artists as they struggled to express on canvass an apocryphal idea from print. Yes, the conversations trailed off with a conspiratorial finger to the side of the nose and visions of lakes of fire and eternal agony.

Much better to sing a chorus.

My problem was simple. My dad was a policeman and I knew the theories of punishment: protection of society, rehabilitation, deterrence and of course retribution. I think I understood instinctively that Christian teaching on Hell was in some way linked to the idea of retribution; well it wasn’t going to be linked to rehabilitation was it, what with it being eternal and therefore with no parole to give you the chance to prove that you had been reformed? But I had grown up with another understanding – that of the principle of the punishment fitting the crime. What could anyone do in our insignificant lifespan that could possibly justify eternal torment? So what with it seeming all a bit overblown and out of proportion I felt the doctrine shot itself in the foot rather.

“Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot.” They would say.

Yeah, well maybe.

“Anyway, all sin is sin against God. There is no victimless sin.”

I found it hard to see God as a victim – a generic victim that is not the victim in Jesus on the cross: that was only too real and I understood that bit. God as victim didn’t seem to fit in with Omnipotence and Transcendence and I found it hard to reconcile the idea of an equal punishment for, say, genocide and mild sexual fantasy following reading the inner pages of Playboy Magazine.

Or was it that we were all punished eternally but with different levels of torment? Perhaps if you weren’t that wicked it wouldn’t be the burning flesh falling from your skin and then reappearing only to burn off again in perpetuity. Maybe it would be more like, I don’t know, perpetual repeats of The Antiques Roadshow. Ah, but how would even an Omniscient God be able to distinguish between the various levels of sin? Was muttering darkly at my maths teacher for being obnoxious with me over quadratic equations better or worse than getting away without paying the bus fare to school that morning? And in the cosmic scheme of things did either of them merit that lake of fire and the demonic toasting fork?

“No, what it is, right, is that once you are there you continue to curse God because of the torment and so perpetuate the sin which requires additional punishment. It becomes a cycle.”

“I see.” I didn’t but I was learning not to rock the boat. (I gave that up as I got older.) I just didn’t equate God with being quite so petty and mean-spirited. That’s not to say that I felt we should get away scot-free: after all punishment seems a perfectly reasonable principle and I was eternally grateful to Jesus for taking my sins.

Being a teenager and a Christian, I was beginning to discover, was occasionally the cause of a headache.

Much better to sing a chorus.

“Just trust God. It says in Psalm 11.1 In the Lord put your trust.” I was being told a little too frequently. “Don’t be misled by the wisdom of this age. That is how Satan works to undermine our faith. Remember The Parable of the Sower in Luke 8.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Level Results

At the leaver's Prom

Target grades: One B, Two Cs and one E.

Actual Grades: One A. Two Bs and one D.

A result!

There will be no more A Level RE at the Knowledge College. The subject isn't economically viable.

Giles Fraser: Luther in the light of the ELCA vote

I have used some of this before but in the context of the ELCA vote I thought it would be worth looking at again.

"I did not love God and was indignant towards him, if not in wicked revolt, at least in silent blasphemy." Martin Luther's admission that he had come to hate God sparked a theological revolution that transformed the political geography of Europe.

For Luther, service to a God who demanded human beings earn his love had become service to a heartless despot, impossible to please. The confessional had become a private hell of never being good enough, of never earning enough merit to satisfy the unattainable demands required for salvation.

Luther's deep sense of human inadequacy meant that a God who dealt with human beings strictly on the basis of merit was always going to be a God of punishment. He thus came to see his former understanding of Christianity as inherently abusive, as a destructive cycle in which the abused child constantly returns to the abusive heavenly father for comfort.

Parallels with arguments that are now transforming the political geography of Anglicanism and now the Lutheran Church* are remarkable. For the debate about homosexuality is about a great deal more than sex. It is about the nature of God's love for human beings, and has much in common with debates that drove the Reformation.

The message the church has given to gay Christians is the message Luther came to see as inherently abusive: God does not love you as you are - you need to be completely different before he will love you.

Take the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster's advice that gay Christians should seek to "reorientate themselves". "I would not set myself up as a medical specialist on the subject, that's in the area of psychiatric health," he said. But gay Christians who have tried to become acceptable to God by subjecting themselves to electric shock therapy, or by being bombarded with pornography, have been forced into precisely the sort of private hell Luther experienced in the confessional.

Luther's theological breakthrough was to describe a wholly non-abusive God, who loves his children gratuitously - not on the basis of merit. God's love is experienced as grace, freely given, not as a demand that, in order to be loved, human beings must become something impossibly different to what they already are. It was a conception that released Christians from bondage to a theological construction that made their lives seem as desperate as a hamster on a wheel.

Against those who would conscript this desperation into financial gain through the system of indulgences, Luther spoke of Christian freedom and the Babylonian captivity of the church; against those who would make sexuality part of a package of guilt and self-disgust, he would renounce his monasticism by marrying a nun. Ecclesiastical authorities can no more insist on celibacy than "forbid eating, drinking, the natural movement of the bowels or growing fat," he declared.

Following Luther, generations of evangelicals described the joy of being released from the burden of impossible expectations. Remember Charles Wesley's hymn: "I woke, the dungeon flamed with light/My chains fell off, my heart was free/I rose, went forth, and followed thee." The next verse begins: "No condemnation now I dread."

Being saved is evangelical language for describing the new life beyond the censure of an abusive God - the sense of facing the truth, of admitting it to others, of being accepted as one is, of being released from the burden of impossible condemnation. Being saved is an experience emotionally identical to coming out of the closet.

This is not political correctness. It is about the nature of God. For the one thing all Christians believe about God is that he seeks to call us out of darkness into light, out of pain into joy, out of deceit into truth, out of oppression into freedom. Amazingly, Gloria Gaynor's gay anthem - "I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses" - turns out to be the contemporary voice of Luther's own protest: "Here I am, I can do no other."

* My Italics

The Rev Dr Giles Fraser is vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Whole Armour of God, hermeneutics, Sola Scriptira and homosexuality

In the Epistle last Sunday we read about the whole armour of God from Ephesians Chapter 6. This discussion reminded me of aspects of that reading: the belt of truth seems to be the issue here: why would someone not want to use any method available that casts light on the Bible’s meaning and then to share what they have learned? In doing so surely they are putting on shoes that will make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. We are in the pursuit of truth are we not? And yet how often in the past the various institutions within the church have sought to suppress emerging understandings, emerging truths as inconvenient to its doctrines?

If we are genuinely in pursuit of the truth, however difficult and uncomfortable it may be for us, and using our understanding to proclaim the gospel of peace (as I believe TEC and ELCA have been) then surely we are also wearing the breastplate of righteousness? We are not hiding behind much loved doctrines or ways of understanding at the expense of coming to a new awareness of the incredible ways of God. Luther did not hide behind much loved doctrines or ways of understanding and he was truly prophetic in his thinking: a new awareness which stirred up the church to much needed reformation. And this he did holding the shield of faith as he trusted, against the mood of the established order, the rulers and authorities who shot their flaming arrows in plenty, in the grace and guidance of God.

I watched the vote at the ELCA churchwide assembly in Minneapolis on Youtube and I heard the Holy Spirit invoked by the delegates in prayer immediately before they voted. Were those delegates not then holding the shield of faith?

Luther recognised the spiritual forces of evil abroad in the church. He understood that even in the church the forces of darkness could be at work to subvert the gospel. We are right to assume that this is still the case and to me the gay debate is a primary example. The helmet of salvation is the word of God. I would ask those who criticise and insult me the question they ask me: whose gospel do you preach, God’s or man’s? Do you preach a gospel of God’s love to all people or do you preach a gospel of hatred and exclusion?

The answer to that question may very well be determined by the degree of willingness to learn and understand what the bible is actually saying and what the Holy Spirit is trying to teach to this generation as she continues to work in our hearts to convict us of our sins.

Is the Holy Spirit picking off the denominations? First TEC then ELCA. Who, one wonders, is next?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sola Scriptura, Hermeneutics and Homosexuality

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has voted in its Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, to accept gay and lesbian candidates for ordination and to allow individual parishes to accept same gender partnered pastors. In order to do this it needed a two thirds majority in its voting procedures. This issue had been discussed at previous assemblies and it seems clear that the mood and attitude of members of the ELCA has been moving in a more inclusivist direction for some time.

Predictably, this has not been universally welcomed in some other branches of the church and, indeed, not universally within the ELCA, but two thirds is two thirds and does seem to reflect a movement within American Protestantism following recent decisions within the Episcopal Church.

Part of the predictability of the response has been the trotting out of the same tired “theological” arguments against homosexuality.

What frustrates me about this is the ease with which some Christians, while claiming to be in obedience to scripture, continue to be very selective about which parts of scripture they choose to remain in obedience to without, it seems, any sense of awareness of such an irony.

We have ditched slavery and we have ditched the subjugation of women and we have integrated the races all of which could be argued to have pretty strong scriptural support and yet it has been decided – pretty universally – that these are no longer to be applied in modern life. At the same time many of those who are against any relaxation of the alleged prohibitions against homosexuality (while presumably accepting black and female pastors) are quick to accuse the desire to fall in with current cultural norms as the motivating factor.

Only yesterday my friend Steve wrote to me that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Holy Scripture. Well, that is clearly not the case just in the examples I have already mentioned. I fear that the assumption that the Holy Spirit is a footsoldier to be deployed to support any argument is one that is gaining rather too wide currency. The Holy Spirit is the transcendent agent of God at work in the world today and we are in danger of diminishing her (ruach-Hebrew, feminine) and making her too small if we claim that she is to be confined within the Bible, unless we believe that God’s revelation was completed the moment the canon of scripture was set. Personally I don’t.

One of the other arguments that is being deployed is that of sola scriptura – the notion that Christian doctrine can not be formulated from non-biblical ideas. The ELCA and TEC have ditched the notion of sola scriptura allegedly. However, Sola Scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it simply demands that all other authorities are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written word of God: that a belief or doctrine is not in scripture does not mean that it can not be accepted. There is no doctrine of the Fall in Genesis: this doctrine was subsequently developed by the church as was the doctrine of the Trinity – also not a worked doctrine in the New Testament.

Clearly there are times when Christians have to struggle with the Bible and develop theology and doctrine and that, at least in part, is the role of the Holy Spirit. To be working theologically and to be developing doctrine is not necessarily to be working against the principle of Sola Scriptura. Luther did it himself perpetually and we could take his argument on infant baptism as an example. Jesus isn’t recorded as practicing infant baptism and yet Luther argued so strongly that infant baptism could be justified that it became part of the practice of the church. The Sola Scriptura argument shifts from an attitude that says if it isn’t in scripture you can’t have it to an attitude that says if it isn’t specifically condemned in scripture you can make a case for it.

This leads us to where we are now: the impasse on whether or not homosexual practices are actively condemned in scripture. The conservative wing of the church maintains that it is and the liberal wing maintains that it isn’t. My frustration here is that I believe that many of the churches have ducked this one in the way that they traditionally teach about the Bible week by week from the pulpit. By which I mean that ordinary Christians - Mr. and Mrs. Average in any pew in any church in any country have not been introduced to the idea of hermeneutics: aspects of Biblical criticism and ways of understanding the Bible are not simply academic disciplines to be confined to the rarefied atmospheres of theological colleges and university theology departments. All priests/vicars/pastors learn these disciplines but relatively few seriously introduce their congregations to these aspects of Christian understanding. Luther himself was an awesome theologian, a university professor of theology no less: he wasn’t satisfied with a simplistic or literalist approach to understanding the Bible. On the contrary he struggled with scripture and hermeneutics and the Lutheran church exists today because he did. What a shame that we and other churches don’t model our approach to the Bible on that foundation. The church has been lazy and patronising to the laity over this matter and it has done a huge disservice to the work of the Gospel in refusing to engage adequately with hermeneutics.

What we all too often have is the medieval approach to scripture: Father knows best. Those who are charged with the responsibility of passing on their knowledge often don't pass it on because what they have learnt is too challenging to the religious worldview they had before they entered theological study and they have not let that study impact one iota on that religious worldview. "Religious myth as a valid genre of Biblical writing? But I am a creationist. I shan't be sharing that notion with my congregation even though I can write the essay." And too often too the laity have been passive in colluding with this and have accepted like sponges without question what they have heard. "After all he went to college."

What we often have instead is the dumbed-down lowest common denominator in Biblical exegesis: it means what it says and it means it for you today. Don’t tamper, don’t interpret, just accept and obey. What a travesty of Luther’s position. When someone starts to move beyond those paramaters they are knocked back with “the wisdom of this age” argument, the anti-intellectual, anti-theological catch-all default position against going deeper, (the position as taught at Hicksville Baptist Bible College where no formal theological qualification or understanding is required to teach).

The situation we face is one where people believe they know their Bibles: after all they can quote verses at the drop of a hat as if that were somehow evidence. That is not the same as understanding their Bibles and without understanding there is not knowledge. Without understanding and knowledge there can not be evaluation.

If one seeks to understand rather than just to know it would help to have been told about the religious practices of the time, not just of the Jews but of their neighbours, the neighbours who could overwhelm them militarily and culturally at any time unless they were alert to both dangers. That the writers of Leviticus were warning the ancient Hebrews about the dangers of the religious expressions and practices of their pagan neighbours not their own personal relationships; that St. Paul and the Romans were having a similar conversation based on notions of pagan cultic prostitution; that these dialogues were about the danger of apostasy arising from adopting pagan practices seem to pass us by.

That many people don't recognise this today because they do not have an understanding of the background to these ancient conversations and therefore have got quite the wrong end of the stick about what Leviticus and Romans were saying does not seem to be a motivating force for the religious education of congregations. Rather these ideas should not be introduced to "ordinary" Christians because that would just muddy notions of the authority of scripture and then where would we be? Rather we carry on teaching a dangerously flawed understanding based on the theology that the literal reading of scripture, regardless of its context, different writing genre and nuances of translation is one hundred percent the revealed word of God.

Of course some Christians are in denial. They don't like what hermeneutics comes up with because it is too challenging and so, like the medieval clergy Luther railed against, they subvert it and censor it and in doing so they mislead the faithful.

Let's be absolutely clear here: everyone interprets scripture. Every stance we take on scripture is an interpretation. There is no value-free understanding of scripture.

We don’t need to go over the contentious Biblical passages. They are well known and well rehearsed. What is less well known is that to understand what these passages were trying to say to the original audiences and to understand the religious background of those times is to discover that they do not offer a blanket condemnation of monogamous loving homosexual relationships. To continue to use those Biblical passages against the supporting evidence of what they were trying to say is to misuse scripture.

We are not the target readers nor the implied readers of those scriptural passages. To act as if we are is to deeply misunderstand the message of the writers. This is the meat of Sola Scriptura and it demands intellectual and theological engagement by the Holy Spirit.

Luther would be spinning in his grave.

Monday, August 24, 2009

You don't wanna

do it like that.
The manager takes a short holiday, his first in about 18 months. His assistant steps up to run the club she knows almost as well as her boss does. Just to keep the ship afloat another manager from in the area is drafted in for the weekend to add extra bodies to the management on the busier nights.
He's young, doesn't know the club, its punters or its staff.
He spots one of the doorlads, standing by one of the bars "flirting" with the pretty barmaid. He's heading that way and decides to interject that "both of them could do with doing some work."
Not ideal, but this he retells to me at the front door almost as if I should fly in there, slap some sense into my colleague and bring him into line.
He clearly wants to establish the pecking order, he may be tiny, inexperienced and out of his depth but he's management and that places him well above doorstaff.
He doesn't know my colleague and more to get out of his path than head in 'bollocks-on-forehead' to speak to my colleague I head up the stairs and track down my 'lazy' doorman.
He explains he's mildly miffed at the new shiny pillock but isn't going to get out of line. I ask what he was nattering about. All but one of us there know she's not the sort to take an interest in balding oversized doormen.
He explains that he thought this gent had been kicked out last week and as she was the nearest staff that night wondered if it was him or not. Fair conversation to have, not worth a bollocking or even a tut-tut. I looked over and I thought it looked like the same gent too.
I wandered over, asked him if it was, he said no, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Turned out it wasn't as his double turned up later on, pickled and not very polite.
As my colleague said, the temporary new manager may be a shiny pillock but it isn't worth getting out of line. Sanity and maturity will return.
I took the easy route by wandering in, I took the smart route by getting both sides. I don't mind being seen as something I'm not by those for whom I do not care. I'm man enough to know at least that much.

A bit late, but here we go. This is why I stay a Lutheran in Britain.

Be patient. The important stuff comes towards the end.


After an emotional debate over the authority of Scripture and the limits of biblical inclusiveness, leaders of the America’s largest Lutheran denomination voted on Friday to allow gay men and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as members of the clergy.

Thanks Be To God.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Belated thoughts from before and the theology of Kylie Minogue

Back to the idea of faith as a story. People have stopped passing the Christian Faith on. One generation thought they knew it but the next generation don’t know it. (“Why was the baby called Wayne? - As in A Wayne in a manger”). Well you don’t need to convince me, an R.E teacher, that people have lost the plot - literally. I am perpetually gob-smacked by what people don’t know: “How is it you don’t know this? Surely everyone knows this?”

“Why would I know where Jesus was born?”

“Sing me a Christmas Carol. Any line of any carol.”

“O little town of Bethlehem…”

“There you go.”


It must be true that the major obstacle to evangelism is Christians Steve tells us: those for whom being a Christian is mainly about me in a safe male/white/middle-class/straight/middle-aged (delete as appropriate – you get the idea) comfortable environment. There is a lack of a desire to leave our comfort zones and go where people are and to enable them in their turn to join and share that comfortable environment. How can people come to faith if we are not there with them doing the things they do so that they can see the Christianity acted out?

Well, yes, that is undoubtedly true but if I follow the idea that Christians are the major obstacle to evangelism I would also have to consider that man who stands with a microphone outside Marks and Spencer’s every Saturday morning declaiming to passers by that God is a wrathful and vengeful God and he will condemn the wicked to Hell for their sins.

I remember – I must have had some time to kill on that occasion – watching him for a while and the impact he had on the public. It seemed to me that as they approached him and came within ear-shot, they sort of hunched down and scurried by, only to slow down and straighten up once a safe distance had been achieved. He is to evangelism what Sarah Palin is to political acumen.

No one stopped and no one engaged with him, so I did. What the hell? I’m a theology graduate. I should be able to debate with this man surely? “Excuse me. I wonder if I could talk to you for a moment, only I’m not sure concentrating on God’s wrath and berating people with it is quite the best approach.”

He blanked me completely and, turning away, continued to shout, only more loudly this time, into his microphone.

I’ve not bothered since.

Evangelism isn’t “I tell you about Jesus; you convert; I dump you in church; I depart. Job done.”

One further thought that struck me was from a passing conversation with Dr. Bob and Stuart over coffee. Religious texts are very unclear in their message when they are distanced from their author. To what extent can we talk about the meaning of scripture today when the authors are no longer with us to be asked for clarification? Surely the best we can say is what the texts mean to us today even though we are not the original audience, nor in many cases the implied audience. A faith based on “This is what the text says.” becomes increasingly hard to sustain in a post-modern world. That, of course, needs to be juxtaposed with the idea that if the church’s views are the views of contemporary society then it can not be a missionary church because it has no message to proclaim. Someone said – and I wish I could remember who – “We have an eternal gospel, not an unchanging gospel.”

“Do not call people back to where they were: they were never there. Do not call people to where you are: you may not remain there. Call people to travel with you and the Holy Spirit wherever that may turn out to be.” I’d like to say that was my thought but it wasn’t. I had a margin note to google it. I tried. Google couldn’t find it.

“Could you speak up? I’ve not got my hearing aid in.”

“Now about that: could I make an alternative suggestion….?”

Dr. Bob had sciatica and was feeling in need of therapy. We walked into Whitby - well I did, he limped slightly - where he found a massage parlour and where, with some misgivings, I left him to it.

“I had the full Lutheran massage.” He confided. “She was Swedish.”

“You smell overpoweringly of coconut.”

“Yes. She used Malibu. Still I’ve no doubt it makes a better essential oil than it does an alcoholic drink.”

“How’s your back?”

“Who cares?”

I have been enjoying the residential very much. Being surrounded by supportive people is exactly what I have needed at this time because I know that I have been preoccupied this week. When Pastor Mark arrived for a pastoral visit I could have kissed him. He came straight from work and stayed for dinner, chatting to my friends and to the staff, some of who he knew from his time on the course some years ago. We sat quietly in the bar and talked, skipping a service so that we could have some time to ourselves.

I went to bed feeling affirmed.

We had a wonderful Good Friday service with the nuns in the Priory Chapel and a string quartet playing Haydn’s “Last Words from the Cross.” We came from there to lunch and the juxtaposition of Haydn with Kylie Minogue which some hapless domestic had left on in the kitchen. “I should be so lucky; lucky, lucky, lucky in love.” Is this a piece of post-modern Good Friday music? Is there an essay to be had on the theology of Kylie Minogue? Could I abandon my “Late onset lesbianism in the inter-testamental period” (subheading “Apocryphal Dykes”) research project, in favour of Kylie?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Are we living in a post-secular age?

There was much talk of living in a post-Christian society. It’s a concept I’ve heard often before and I wish more people would take it seriously. What I found challenging, though, was the additional idea that we are living in a post-secular society too.

What does that look like then?

Grace Davie (Religion in Britain since 1945) argues that while we may well be a post-Christian society, we are not a post-religious society by any means and questions to what extent we were ever a secular society. It is clear that spirituality is alive and flourishing, just not in the conventional expressions we always recognise. In today’s society, it seems, people don’t often want to be fitted into someone else’s story. The individualism of the current age has allowed all sorts of people to “buy off-the-peg” and to mix and match. They want their own story. Crystals, Wicca, meditation, Kabala, Druidism, horoscopes – all of which are on the rise – and many others attest to a spiritual hunger. Just consider the rise of the roadside shrine as an example. Most people who leave flowers at the site of road accidents would be unlikely to consider going to church but there is a sense of the spiritual which seems to be untapped.

Add to this the growing trend of seeing the religious professional such as the priest as an expert, in a society where experts are increasingly mistrusted, and we can perhaps see why the official line is treated with scepticism.

The worshipper increasingly sees himself as consumer: “This is what I want at my wedding/my child’s baptism/my mother’s funeral. What do you mean you think it’s inappropriate?”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Prayer for inlusion

This is the prayer Inclusive Church uses. While Inclusive Church has an LGBT emphasis, it is a prayer for the inclusion of ALL. I think the challenge is to recognise for ourselves who the excluded are. It may be a very individual thing.

All-loving God, we thank you for the Good News
of your love for us. Help us to resist building walls around the Gospel - walls to make us safe, 
walls to exclude others. Give us the vision 
to break down every barrier that divides us from one another
and from you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Friends and Mirrors

There seem to be two things missing in the lives of ladies in this town.
It's not opportunity to better themselves, two universities and a number or colleges of higher and further education.
It's not the retail experiences, we've streets of high street brands, shopping centres in and out of town.
It's not work opportunities, a string of national and multinational firms call this city home and some smaller government offices too giving the options of filling purses in many legitimate means.
We've got hostelries of every kind to entertain all kinds. There are opportunities for company of varied sorts, men, women and things uncertain.
What two goods the ladies of this town lack are friends and mirrors.
Mirrors would help avoid the dirty foundation line around the chin, the hair style that stops at the fringe. They would stop the clashing of colours and patterns, the short and lumpy tops, short and skirts that show bits best left hidden.
Friends would or should comment on all of the potential disasters above in such a way as to prevent a recurrence without diminishing the confidence of their perpetrator.
All it would take is friends and mirrors, a lot better than fake tan, fake hair and no concept of just how stupid they look.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Legging it

When a alarm calls goes out over the radio, we all come running, you leave one at the front door, maybe one on the cash desk but the rest of you get there as fast as you can. Sometimes you end up legging it in from one situation that might be kicking off to one that is only to be running back the first one one it has.
Shit happens, you live with it. All through the shift, from open to close you could get an alarm call. You get there as fast as you can, you do as much as you can and then you get back to doing whatever you were doing before that.
Some nights you find you're running up two flights of stairs, dodging past the slowly ascending and descending groups to get there at full tilt. You'll have to grapple sweaty, chemically altered, smelly chavs escort them in various states of agreement to the street only to turn back for a gently tour of the premises to be half a step into the building when the next call goes out. Nowt you can do but leg it.
End of the shift and I'm wondering if I really need to wear these comfy, heavy boots, the tie and long sleeve shirt and the kilo of radio every night.
Some shifts I'd prefer track shoes and a quick dry vest, not professional but far better suited to running around than the cheap black suit and boots.

In the US, my credit card saved my life

The relationship between doctors and their patients is different in Britain thanks to the NHS – and no one is afraid of getting ill.

Mitch Glickstein, The Guardian: 15th August 2009.

There are difficulties with the British health service, but perhaps the most important fact is that no one I know here is afraid to be sick.

For the past 20 years or so my family and I have been patients of Dr Azhar Malik at the Caversham Group Practice in Kentish town, London. A sympathetic man, he has looked after us carefully. When my wife was dying of cancer, he would stop by with medicines or prescriptions on his way home. British doctors will still make house calls when appropriate.

Visits to the GP are short, but most know when a problem should be investigated further. There is, throughout the country, a system of referrals to hospitals. Most consultants and junior doctors are well trained and carefully selected. In my own case, Dr Malik sent me first to a cardiac consultant when I became breathless. Because of anaemia, they in turn referred me to gastrointestinal surgeons, who located, operated and cured a colon cancer some nine years ago.

The relationship between doctors and their patients at every level is different from that in the States; here money does not change hands. An American friend of mine with five children was terrified when he became unemployed, fearful that one of them might become ill. I became ill when I was briefly back in the US some years ago, attending a meeting. With an acute urinary obstruction, the first person I saw, and the only one who could admit me for treatment, was the woman in charge of payment. My credit card probably saved my life.

There may be delays, frustrations and bureaucracy with the NHS, but the system delivers outstanding healthcare at no cost to the patient and far less of the GDP that the US system consumes. Being over 60, all prescription drugs are free. Perhaps it is that absence of fear of becoming ill that is the most important aspect of the system.

It is frustrating to sit in London and listen to some of the outrageous lies that are being promulgated about the British health service in the US. It seems, for example, somewhat unlikely that a government bureau or a committee at our health centre will decide who shall live and who shall die.

My son was three when we moved to Britain. He is currently a junior doctor, working in a London Hospital. Both of us would be happy to spend time in the States speaking against the lies and distortions. I would hope that some of the best of the British system could be incorporated in the US.

See This story too

The photo at the top of this post is of volunteer medical staff in Los Angeles providing medical care in a warehouse to America's unisnsured.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Big Healthcare debate US v UK

I have to say that I do not work for the NHS and I am not paid to be its apologist. I must also say that it is a matter of complete indifference to me which healthcare system the US govt adopts for its people. That is a purely internal domestic issue and I would not presume to offer unsolicited advice. That there is now a debate raging in the US over the future shape and nature of healthcare must be viewed (if it must be viewed from here at all) as a healthy mark of a mature democracy.

What isn't a healthy mark of a mature democracy is deliberate and cynical misrepresentation as a scare tactic to influence the outcome of the debate.

As outlined in the previous post, the National Health Service has come in for something of a drubbing in some areas of the US media because President Obama had used it as an example of an alternative system of provision and one which could be emulated in American healthcare.

The British media has been a little slow to catch up on this but the backlash has begun if today's headlines are anything to go by. It isn't that we believe the NHS to be perfect: not at all, because it isn't. The issue is how it has been so misrepresented and maligned which has caused anger and offence.

My appeal to any American readers would be:
a) Please stop doing this if you are one of those who trying to mislead others and
b) Please use your common sense and critical faculties if you are being subjected to these "facts".

There was a much quoted case from the Daily Mail (Britain's nearest equivalent to Fox News) HERE. Here it was largely viewed as a story about a wing nut (do you not have those?) whose behaviour was deemed to be bizarre. In some US circles this plays out as evidence that the NHS is "cruel, evil and Orwellian". It is a great headline and yes, there is some criticism of NHS dental provision (but please note that as a patient registered with an NHS dentist not all aspects of my dental care are free and £100 for a crown seems a very good deal to me). What would have been a more revealing headline would have been one that trumpetted "Sixty one million Britons fix their own teeth with superglue." That would justify searing criticism of the NHS!

The NHS is not perfect. No system is. I have seen many stories of US citizens who are dissatisfied with their own healthcare over the last couple of days and I am sure there are horror stories on the web. Does this mean that the US system is "evil, cruel and Orwellian"? No, of course it doesn't. It means that like the NHS it isn't perfect.

Then we have the case of Professor Stephen Hawking. The Daily Telegraph reports:

The British physisist spoke out after Republican politicians lambasted the NHS as "evil" in their effort to stop President Barack Obama's reforms of US health care which will widen availability of treatment but at a cost to higher earners who will pay higher insurance premiums.

"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," he said. "I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived."

Prof Hawking, who has had Lou Gehrig's disease for 40 years, was in Washington to be awarded the America's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He received emergency treatment in April at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge. An American newspaper subsequently used Prof Hawking as an example of the deficiencies of the NHS. "People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless," it claimed.

Now if that wasn't cynical manipulation I don't know what was.

There is also webtalk of an e-mail of "unknown provenance" being circulated to mainly elderly Americans, which stated that British patients do not receive heart surgery after the age of sixty. For the record my Father had major heart surgery at the age of seventy seven and has had further non-related surgery since.

Then there is the talk of rationing of drugs. Do you not believe that all societies do this, including your own? Yes, these stories make compelling headlines and are personal tragedies for the families concerned. If, however, one looks into these case studies in more detail one inevitably discovers that the drug concerned has not yet been licenced after its clinical trials or has not been proved sufficiently effective for that medical condition for it to be considered. The real story here, and one which the government needs to sort out, is that different Health Authorities in the county have slightly differnt policies for prescribing certain drugs, rather like different American HMOs and insurance companies have different financial thresholds.

Now, while we are talking of "Death Panels" could I raise the case of 17 yr old Nataline Sarkisyan in California. Is this typical of US healthcare? I don't know, but as a Brit it would be impertinent of me to attempt to draw wider conclusions about someone else's healthcare system.

Then up pops British Conservative M.E.P. (Member of the European Parliament) Daniel Hannan on Fox News where he said he would not wish Britain's NHS "on anybody". Surely that is an authoritative statement?

Does this man have a background in healthcare? Is he his party's spokesman on health? Is he his party's spokesman on anything? Was he invited on Fox for his objectivity? (Is anybody?)

He may appear credible, but what American audiences won't know is that Hannan is regarded as a loose canon and self publicist on the lunatic fringe here and that as a result of his foray into the American healthcare debate he has been publicly rebuked by his party leader for being "off message":

Senior people at Conservative HQ have moved rapidly into damage limitation mode after the tabloid press turned on people bashing the NHS.

After a strong condemnation by shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley was not deemed enough, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, was forced to issue his own response:

Millions of people are grateful for the care they have received from the NHS – including my own family. One of the wonderful things about living in this country is that the moment you’re injured or fall ill – no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you’ve got – you know that the NHS will look after you.

That’s why we as a Party are so committed not just to the principles behind the NHS, but to doing all we can to improve the way it works in practice. So yes, we will spend more on the NHS, but we will also improve it so that it is more efficient and responsive to patients. He also wrote: "Just look at all the support which the NHS has received on Twitter over the last couple of days. It is a reminder - if one were needed - of how proud we in Britain are of the NHS."

(Liberal Conspiracy is the UK's most popular left-of-centre politics blog)

Not so credible now Mr Hannan, eh?

Is Mr. Hannan a political non-entity then? Lets just say that A List politicians go to Westminster not to Brussels.

You see the NHS is not a party political issue here. Yes the parties bicker over funding and so on but not over the principle.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah also weighed in: both have used their voices on the twitter campaign in support of the NHS.

The Browns have personal cause to to praise the NHS. The P.M's sight in one eye was saved when he lost the other in a teenage rugby accident. The brown's son Fraser has cystic fibrosis, while they publicly thanked NHS staff for the support they received when their first child Jennifer died in 2001.

(The Guardian)

We also have the unedifying story of the deliberate manipulation of T.V.interviews:

A free market campaign group opposed to US President Barack Obama's health care reforms misrepresented the views of NHS patients in a bid to discredit the UK system, it has been claimed.

In an interview with The Times, two women - featured by the Conservatives for Patients' Rights group (CPR) in a US TV commercial - said that contrary to the advert, they strongly supported state-funded healthcare.

It comes amid a growing backlash in the UK over the portrayal of the NHS by conservatives in America, with Gordon and Sarah Brown joining an online campaign to defend the British system from attack.

As part of an increasingly bitter debate over the merits of health care reform, the CPR aired a series of commercials featuring interviews with patients in both the UK and Canada.

In the advert focusing on the NHS, it was claimed that people were left on lengthy waiting lists and deprived of life-saving treatments. But two of those featured in the campaign have since distanced themselves from the CPR. Kate Spall and Katie Brickell both agreed to appear in a documentary on health care reform. But neither knew that the footage would be used as part of a TV advertising campaign carried on US networks.

Ms Spall, whose mother died of kidney cancer while waiting for treatment in the UK, told The Times: "It has been a bit of a nightmare. It was a real test of my naivety. I am a very trusting person and for me it has been a big lesson. I feel like I was duped."

Ms Brickell, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer after being refused a smear test because she was too young, also said her words had been "skewed out of proportion" by the CPR.

She told The Times: "My point was not that the NHS shouldn't exist or that it was a bad thing. I think that our health service is not perfect but to get better it needs more public money, not less. I didn't realise it was having such a political impact."

Point made I think.

Look guys, carry on your own internal debate but please stop misusing my country's system.

I'll say again what I said yesterday: the UK is 18th in the World Health Organisation's ranking of healthcare provision and the US is 37th. Now if you are one of those people who want to attempt to rubbish the findings of an organisation such as the WHO then you have already lost the argument.

Life expectancy (according to 2009 statistics) for women in the UK is 81 and for men 77. In the US it is 80 and 74 repectively. Deaths in the first five years of life per 1000 of the population are 6 in the UK. In the US it is 9.

Enough of the rudeness of rubishing what you don't know.

You want to have a debate about big govt. v small govt. go ahead. Just leave us out of it.

I'll leave the last word to The Daily Mirror When papers like this move away from the usual diet of soccer, tits and celebrity gossip you can tell that there are stirrings afoot amongst the British Public.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Healthcare British style or American?

I have read more about the National Health Service in the last two weeks than in the rest of my life. What is going on?

Mr Obama is, that's what.


The American President wishes to introduce a new healthcare system into the USA.

I should care?

Probably not, unless you also care about deliberate misinformation about the NHS being used in a campaign to oppose the President.


The British Embassy in Washington is, apparently, walking a fine line between correcting distortions about the NHS and being seen to intervene in an internal domestic issue. The NHS is, it seems, evil, Orwellian and socialist and therefore has no place in American healthcare.

Ah, socialism again - the true Satan. And there was me thinking I lived in a free democracy with healthcare provided free at the point of need.

What do you know about the two systems?

Well, I know that we are 18th in the World Health Organisation's international ranking of healthcare and the US is 37th. I know That the US expects people to have healthcare insurance and I know that I have never paid anything towards my healthcare other than for prescribed medicine and dental care both at ridiculously subsidised prices. I know I have the option to pay for private healthcare but why would I when it is free? I know that my 80 yr old father has had four major surgical procedures in the last two years, all for life-threatening conditions. One was an emergency admission without wait and the others were planned and monitored with a short wait. I know he does not have health insurance but I know you get turned away from some US hospitals if you don't have insurance. Why has the NHS come in for such a drubbing in America?

Take a look HERE

Ah, so it has nothing to do with fact but everything to do with presentation, misinformation and innuendo. That's the way to do politics.

If one is Republican.

Sorry. Of Course. My mistake. Em...I don't want to sound naive, but aren't there laws about this sort of thing? Can you just lie through your teath and tell big porkies to frighten people and get away with it?

If one is a Republican. One can also turn out in huge numbers and heckle the alternative viewpoint so that it doesn't get heard. One could also (but I am sure no one with integrity would) spend huge sums in advertising false information.

I know the NHS isn't perfect but if I were starting from scratch designing a new system, which I assume is what Mr. Obama wants, then I would make sure to learn from the shortcomings of other systems. That being the case isn't all this comparison stuff nonsense anyway? But if I was 37th in the WHO rankings I'd want to learn from those who were further up than me. Who is at the top?


What, and they aren't socialists? How are they funded?

By a mixture of private insurance and public spending.

Why won't that do for the US?

Presumably because the way that private insurance is managed and the small premiums the French pay in comparison to US citizens would have those with their noses in the troughs well out of pocket.

Like I said. I should care.

Comments invited from those in the know.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thought For The Day

BBC Radio 4: Tuesday 11th August

Torture is cruelty to the helpless.

The question of torture is once again a subject of political debate. It's important because it goes to the heart of all the moral dilemmas the liberal society has to face when confronting terrorism.

So, has our government ever directly authorised it, or indirectly condoned it - by suggesting questions that can be put to detainees in foreign jurisdictions, perhaps? Places where we know the line between legitimate questioning and torture is sometimes crossed. Ministers and the head of MI6 have said firmly that the British government does not use and is not complicit in the use of torture. Though we can never be absolutely certain about how every piece of information that comes our way is gathered.

But it's not immediately obvious why torturing an enemy is so wrong. After all, suppose someone we have captured in Afghanistan knows where roadside bombs have been planted, why should we not use physical or psychological pain to extract the information that would save many British and Afghan lives?

How do you explain our stance to an eighteen-year-old who is about to go out on foot patrol in Helmand province?

There are pragmatic arguments against torture - if we use torture the enemy might do the same - though in the case of terrorists, they have no compunction anyway. But why is it so morally wrong to use torture to get critical information from an enemy, when taking their life in battle is, if not morally good, at least morally permissible. If killing can be the lesser of evils, why not torture?

But posing the matter like this is misleading. In war, authorised and supervised by proper authority, lives are taken. In torture, lives are abused. In war, combatants inflict pain and even death on other combatants. In the prison cell, pain is inflicted on the defenceless. And that, crucially, is why torture is so wrong: it is cruelty towards the helpless.

Of course, Christianity has been both a source of our moral revulsion against torture, and also an example of how easily we can resort to it. For although Christian faith has as its focus the image of the bruised and bleeding body of a tortured man, in the past, Christians have often justified the use of torture, not least the torture of one another. If we are to profit from Christian history, we need to hold before ourselves not just the image of the crucified, but also the images of those who were abused in his name.

The life of that young soldier in Helmand may be put at greater risk because we do not employ or condone torture, directly or indirectly. But if the liberal society is worth defending, we need to understand that torture would undermine the very values that distinguish us from the terrorist. Whatever the gains, it would degrade our moral character and identity.

Rev Dr Alan Billings

Or you could listen


Monday, August 10, 2009

Nalayini and Fraser's wedding

(With Anna, Rachel and Claire)

I meant to put this on before we went on holiday but I got sidetracked.

Nalayini and Fraser are friends of longstanding. (Nalayini sings with me in the Leeds Philharmonic chorus). Their wedding in Harrogate was a wonderful affair and a good time was had by all.

(With big bro Philip)

(The girls kidnap the Bride and Groom.)

(Bonny Bridesmaids and Groomsmen in kilts)


(Straight out of the church)

(Anna and Rachel)

(With Claire. How many of those have you had?)

Blogwatch - as in my blog.

I've had a visitor from the Solomon Islands. How FAB is that?

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Well we seem to be the only church in Leeds still administering the elements in both kinds.

My friend Joan's husband Martin has been in hospital. (Prayers for him please as he has just had a kidney removed after an early cancer diagnosis.) He related this event to Joan who told Bishop Walter and I before the service this morning.

Martin woke up to discover a new occupant in the bed opposite him. The man was chained to a prison officer on either side. A little groggy from his own procedure it took Martin a while to conclude that this patient must, therefore, be a prison inmate. He mused idly about how the practicalities of this arrangement would be worked through.

Some time later the prisoner complained to a passing nurse that he had swine-flu.

"Don't be ridiculous." she scolded.

"No, seriously. I have all the symptoms. Armley jail is rife with it."

A hasty bedside case conference was invoked and then the curtains were pulled round. When they were opened three men chained together were revealed - wearing hospital gowns. The last Martin saw was three sets of buttocks as they were marched off to isolation.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Falling Fast

Trade is down. There are an awful lot less bodies through the doors. There are an awful lot less punter hours in a venue. There are a lot less pounds going over the bar. There is a lot less trouble going off inside. There are a lot less doorstaff being given hours. There are a lot less barstaff running around a lot less serving a lot less drinks to a much emptier bar.
From my end it's getting tedious. From a wider perspective are the pubs and clubs about to lose a key generation?
I worry that if the current set of young ones aged 17 to 19 go out drinking in quiet bars and clubs, with only the dirty fixed income benefits recipients for company only a certain style of person will carry this on into their earning years. I worry that the drink at home and share a taxi in gaggles of girls or boys get locked into that pattern and don't make the transition to spending when the time changes.
I know spending money in clubs and bars is unnecessary, its luxury spend and when jobs are short, money is tight it can be cut back. If they've already gotten into the habit of blowing fun money on big nights out then if the venues are still there when the fun money comes back so will they.
If they haven't then teasing them in after they've established a pattern will be tough. Thankfully
I only deal with the punters trying to come in, or going out. Getting them to come and play isn't my problem.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sermon. John Chapter 6: I am the Bread of Life

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78.23-29
Ephesians 4. 1-16
John 6 24-35:

Now be honest: who did the homework I set you last week and read the whole of John chapter 6? I thought not. Can you remember all the way back to last week? (Take a deep breath and hold it for 20 seconds. You will either remember or pass out.)

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus’ promise to his followers then and now is a challenge: what truly brings meaning and wholeness in our lives? Do we shape our lives around what perishes or what endures? Do we will build our house on the sand or on the rock? Do we build it on Jesus and if so, what is our understanding of who Jesus is?

Building on last week’s reading and its account of how the generosity of a boy with five loaves and two fish enabled Jesus to feed a multitude, today’s passage is a call to understand Jesus. Not Jesus as prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker, although he is undoubtedly all those things, but Jesus as God.

So let’s have a look at this “I Am” saying of John’s Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” I tried to get across last week the idea that John uses his phrases and theological ideas very carefully and deliberately and without a little understanding of that background modern readers like ourselves are likely to miss really important meanings.

Yes, of course we can understand this statement at it’s literal face value – Jesus provides everything we need and provides it generously and in abundance and to take that meaning away from this morning and act on it would be a good outcome in itself.

But to do that without a deeper awareness of what John is doing here would be to miss a very important point indeed, and what with me being a teacher – of Religious Studies, no less – this is too great an opportunity to miss!

Firstly let’s have a look at a single word – not one that is in this passage: Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem means "House of Bread." (In Hebrew, beth = house, lehem = bread.) Hold that thought.

Let me take you back further, to the Exodus. The God of the Old Testament, the God of the universe calls Himself I AM. "And God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM .... “Ego eimi ho on”. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you."

Do we really think John’s use of the same phrase on Jesus’ lips is a coincidence?

Just to underline the point, John’s Jesus uses this phrase not just here in “I am the Bread of Life” but seven times in total.

Does anyone know what the other “I Am” phrases are?
• "I am the bread of life" (6.35)
• "I am the light of the world" (8.12)
• "I am the door for the sheep" (10.7; cf. v. 9)
• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)
• "I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25)
• "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14.6)
• "I am the true vine" (15.1; cf. v. 5)

So the original Jewish reader of John’s Gospel would have had to have worked very hard to miss the point here. “I Am” the very words the God of the Hebrews used to name himself. The “I Am” statements must be seen as an integral part of John’s Christology – simply put, the way he sees and understands Jesus.

The Jesus who legitimates himself by way of egĂ´ eimi – I Am - speaks not only authoritative language, but specifically prophetic language and he is seen as the representative and mouthpiece of God himself.

Let’s just think about that for a moment.

When Jesus speaks he is speaking as God’s representative.

That should make us stop and consider very carefully all the statements of Jesus recorded in the pages of the Gospels and act upon them accordingly.

If we simply did that what agents of change we could be in God’s world.

So, in prophetic fashion he acts as spokesman of the One who sent him, and as dispenser of the divine Spirit. Those who hear his words are invited to believe not only the speaker, but the One who sent him. As Jesus has already told us in chapter 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life”.

We need to recognise that this is as true today as it was then.

The first of the "I AM" sayings, in John’s Gospel, then, is "I AM the bread of life" (6:35). This statement is found in the passage which follows the feeding of the multitude. Jesus says to the crowd, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (6:27). Here Jesus is building up to the key statement and is leading the crowd to the point where they may recognise his divinity and come to faith.

The two go together: recognising Jesus’ divinity is the precursor to faith.

The sceptics in the crowd, not unreasonably, ask for a sign: “What work are you performing so that we may see it and believe you?” (v30) adding "Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from Heaven to eat'" (v31). This story is reflected in today’s supplementary readings.

Jesus responds by pointing out that God provided the manna: "My father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (v33). And the point here is that this is not something which just happened once in the past. It is something which is continuing to happen in the present: Jesus himself is that bread from Heaven. How far at this stage the crowd have fully understood isn’t clear but there seems to be some spiritual awareness as they ask “Sir, give us this bread always.”

It is in response to this request that Jesus makes the claim, "I AM the bread of life, he who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (v35). This is, in effect, the summary of Jesus ministry and it is deeply personal, referring as it does to human yearning which Jesus will fill – and it will be universal because it “gives life to the world” (v33).

Again for those of you interested in how the very words and grammar of the Bible work, the definite article before the word bread indicates the fact that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who is the bread of life. The bread of life also points to the satisfying nature of Jesus as we can see in the supplementary phrase, "never be hungry … and never be thirsty." Jesus alone supplies the spiritual needs of his hearers: this is not about mere physical hunger, where bread leaves people dissatisfied and wanting more. In fact this idea can be applied in a wider spiritual sense where other approaches to God leave the supplicant ultimately empty: a direct challenge to those who are already seeking. Jesus is making a plain statement about his Heavenly origins here: in the following verses Jesus refers to a descent from Heaven and explicitly states that “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.

This is not about food: let’s be absolutely clear.

This is literally about life and death. “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.

I talked last week about the challenge to each of us about what we do with Jesus’ words. Well they don’t come much more challenging than this. Here is a man who is telling us that he IS God and he has already used one of those special signs of his to show us that: he has fed the multitude out of next to nothing.

That’s the sort of challenge that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands a response, and that response can’t be “whatever”.

What are we going to do with this Jesus? Or perhaps we should personalise it more: what are you going to do with this Jesus, as I have to ask myself what I am going to do with him? This is the very question that John was asking his readers: those Jews who had not yet come to understand who Jesus was. That is the function of this Gospel and its challenge remains the same, to convince its readers of the divinity of Jesus.

But being convinced is not the full response: mere assent to the divinity of Jesus is not enough. I have to do something with that assent. I have to make it personal. I have to make it mine. I have to enter into it.

And so do you.

Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, I am coming to know and understand you more deeply. Help me to see that you are more than mere prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker. Help me to recognise that you are God and in recognising you as God, help me to follow you as a true disciple. Give me this bread always.