The Power to Forgive

I have always had difficulty with the words attributed to Jesus in the resurrection story in John 20:22-23:

‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

The traditional Catholic understanding of this is quite straightforward. Jesus said these words to the Apostles. Ordained priests are the authorised successors of the Apostles. People come to the priest to confess their sins, and the priest has the power to grant them absolution, or to withhold it by giving them a penance to perform as a condition. Presumably also the priest can refuse absolution altogether – for instance, if the person is blatantly unrepentant, or is not a baptised member of the Church.

My Protestant faith rebels against that idea. But what do I make of these words? I have always avoided commenting on them, because quite frankly I didn’t know what to make of them. Perhaps the Apostles made them up, but if Jesus actually said them, what did he mean?

However, hearing them read today, I suddenly felt I was understanding them for the first time – not bad for someone who has been preaching for over 60 years!

Jesus had just said ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. In other words. he was sending his disciples into the world to be what he himself was in the world – to carry on his mission. His mission was to bring God’s forgiveness to the world, and he brought it to all kinds of people – outcasts of society, people burdened by guilt, ‘unclean’ foreigners, the Roman oppressors, crooked tax-collectors, the hated Samaritans – there were no limits.

He didn’t demand penitence from them, and he certainly didn’t dole out penances. He preached the unconditional forgiving love of God. But people who are living with a burden of guilt, or whose whole life has been an experience of being despised and condemned, or struggling to be accepted, can only know that love if they are shown it in practical ways. Jesus brought God’s forgiving love to people by being their friend – touching the leper, eating and drinking with notorious ‘sinners’, praising the faith of a Roman soldier, choosing to stay in the home of the hated Zacchaeus instead of with one of the pious people. And he sent his disciples out into the world to do the same.

The presence of Jesus in the world today is us – that is, not just a chosen elite of apostles, or even the wider circle of Christians, but everybody who is willing to live in the world as he did, accepting and loving people without condition. If we forgive those who wrong us, that is the way God’s forgiveness gets to them. And if we withhold that forgiveness, how are they going to know it?

The Physical is Spiritual

‘Love God’ … ‘love your neighbour’ … ‘We’re in love’ … ‘let’s make love’ … ‘I love my children …’ ‘I Iove my job …’ ‘I love being out in the fresh air…’ ‘I love chocolate’ …

There seem to be so many meanings to the word ‘love’. Sometimes it is even used in a negative sense. To say someone has a ‘love child’ tends to imply a dark history of adultery or illicit sex. In some parts of the world there are establishments called ‘love hotels’ where you can book a room by the hour for a ‘quickie’. It has even been known for posts containing the word ‘love’ to be removed from social media because some censoring algorithm has assumed they are indecent.

Clever theologians claim that there are different kinds of love. The love of God, or the kind of love Christians should have (agapē in Greek), is quite different, they say, from ordinary human friendship (philia), and even more different from romantic or sexual love (eros). This distinction owes a lot to the Greek philosophical idea that the more ordinary or physical a thing is the less ‘worthy’ it is, the further it is from the spiritual, or from God. The Hebrew way of thinking we find in the Bible doesn’t bear this out. To that way of thinking, a human being is not a pure soul trapped in an earthly body, but a thinking, feeling, breathing body with passions that can be good or bad.

When the prophet Jeremiah says (in the words of the King James Bible, Jer 4:19) ‘My bowels! my bowels!’, he is not complaining of the result of a rather too spicy meal. He is expressing his ‘anguish’ (as modern versions more politely put it) as he foresees terrible times coming for the nation. He goes on to say ‘my heart maketh a noise in me’. Strong emotions, whether of fear, love or human sympathy, are felt in the body. Rational biologists can say what they like about emotions being a function of the brain and the heart being just a muscle to pump the blood around, but we know from experience that fear sets the heart racing, that a shock can bring on a heart attack, and that the unexpected sight of a loved one can make your heart miss a beat. Further on in the same book (31:20) Jeremiah talks even of God’s bowels. He hears God expressing his deep love for the wayward Ephraim (another name for the nation of Israel): ‘my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the LORD’.

The apostle Paul expresses his love for his friends at Philippi by saying, ‘I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ’, and goes on to appeal to them to be of one mind ‘if there be … any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies’ (Phil 1:8; 2:1). In his mind there is clearly no separation between spiritual life and the feelings of the body.

We find the expression ‘heart and reins’ in a number of places in the Bible, as in the saying in the Psalms (Ps 7:9 etc.) ‘the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins’. We usually miss the significance of this by not realising that ‘reins’ is an old English word for ‘kidneys’. People in biblical times thought of the heart as the seat of the intellect and the kidneys as the seat of the emotions. We often feel an emotion ‘in the pit of the stomach’, and sometimes nervousness or strong emotion can give us a need to pass water.

So love, whether we think of the love of God or of human love, is bodily. Sex is spiritual. Being attracted to another person in a way that makes us want to get close, to be united with them, is as spiritual as prayer. Like prayer, it can be superficial or short-lived, and it can be hypocritical and mixed up with all sorts of selfish motives. Loving sex that honours the partner and their needs as much as one’s own is part of the love of God, but even the most superficial sexual attraction that lasts only a moment is a brief taste of that love.

Spirituality Begins With Love

‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) – the simplest and most profound statement in the Bible.

It is often pointed out that everything we say about God is a metaphor. A metaphor says that one thing is like another, but not exactly the same. It is like it in some ways but not in others. When the Psalm says ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ it means that the Lord cares for me, guides me and feeds me like a shepherd, but it doesn’t mean he is fattening me up to sell me for slaughter. When we call God a Rock, we mean he is strong and reliable, but we don’t mean he is hard, cold and dead. Calling God ‘Father’ is a great statement of trust, but it doesn’t mean he fathered us in the usual human way.

But what about ‘God is love’? Is God like love in some ways but not in others? And how can God be ‘like’ love anyway? The biblical writer could have said ‘God is a loving person’, but I suspect that in saying ‘God is love’ he was trying to express something more than that. Even ‘person’ is a kind of metaphor when we are talking about God. A person is an individual, distinct from others, who can only be in one place at a time. So how can the God who pervades the universe, ‘walks’ alongside us and lives within us be simply a person? Perhaps ‘God is love’ means just what it says. Where we find love, God is there.

This is good news for everybody – not just for religious people, mystics or a spiritual elite. Every one of us knows what love is. Some experience more of it than others, some give more of it than others, but even the most deprived (or depraved) have some perception of what it is. There is something in every one of us, even if we deny it, that longs to love and be loved. If a relationship with God has to start with love, we are all ready to start.

At the same time, to believe that God is love is the most audacious act of faith. Where is the evidence? The universe doesn’t seem to care about our safety or happiness. Living things live by destroying and feeding on other living things. We share the planet with viruses and parasites that can cause us terrible pain and sickness, and animals that can kill us if they get the slightest chance. Human beings can do atrocious things to one another. Most of the universe is space in which nothing can live, and even this planet – which, as far as we know so far, is the only place where intelligent life exists – is subject to earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and collision with comets and meteors. In this universe, where is the evidence of a God who is love?

And yet love exists. We are loved and we love, and somehow we know this is the greatest thing there is. Something tells us to believe in spite of the evidence, and somehow by believing we make the evidence. In a world where absolute certainty does not exist, this is the best we have.

Do We Dream God, or Does God Dream Us?

The Prologue to my book Chasing an Elusive God:

AT THE beginning of history, human beings began to dream… Their dreams were their fears and their hopes. They dreamed up demons and spirits and hostile gods who caused disease, destruction and death. They dreamed up benevolent spirits who protected them, creative spirits who made the crops grow, happy spirits who made the flowers blossom and inspired people to dance and sing, mysterious spirits who gave them feelings they could not explain.
Then some people became richer and more powerful than others, and they dreamed up gods who protected their wealth and power and kept the poor in their place. They dreamed up national gods who helped them in their battles and defeated other nations. They dreamed up rebel gods who helped them overthrow those more powerful than themselves. They dreamed up power struggles in Heaven reflecting the power struggles on earth, myths to explain why the world is as it is.

Then someone said: ‘This can’t be right! Let’s be logical about it – someone has to be in charge of the whole lot. If there is ‘god’, there can only be one God’. And people agreed there could only be one God. But what kind of God?

So people dreamed up a God who controls everything, creating good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, a God against whom we are all helpless.

But those who were oppressed and abused said: ‘This can’t go on for ever!’ And they dreamed up a God of justice who favours the good and doesn’t allow the wicked to get away with it. And in the name of this God of justice the poor and the weak felt free, and sang songs of hope.

But then the powerful took this God over, and changed the dream to a God of laws and rules, who punishes the little weaknesses of the poor and threatens them with Hell, but overlooks the violence of the powerful because it is ‘necessary’ to keep society in order.

And then someone who was in love said: ‘Love is the greatest thing in the world. If God is the greatest, God must be loving’. So people dreamed up a God who loves and cares and wants to be our friend. A God like that would not want war and violence, nor punishment, nor barriers of race and class. Such a God would want us all to love one another.

This was not a very popular idea. People who preached about such a God were sometimes scorned as impractical dreamers. Even worse, they were set up on a pedestal and worshipped, and their teaching was twisted so that once again it served the purposes of the powerful.

Time passed, and circumstances changed. Hindus dreamed of one God in many manifestations. Buddhists dreamed of an eternal Spirit, forming and re-forming itself in every living creature. Jews in all their suffering dreamed of a God whose justice is slow and hard to see, yet perfect. Christians dreamed of a God who came down to earth and became one with suffering humanity. Muslims dreamed of a God who is merciful and compassionate, whom to obey is peace. Sikhs dreamed of a God in whose eyes all faiths are equal.

And then women began to say: ‘Why do the men assume God is male?’ And they dreamed up a God who is our Mother, warm and loving, but strong and fierce to protect us.

And black people, setting themselves free from centuries of oppression, said: ‘Black is beautiful. God is beautiful. God is black’.

And then gay people said: ‘Why do all the God-dreamers condemn us? God made us too. He made us different, because he loves variety’.

And so we go on, generation after generation, whoever we are, arguing and praying, in our hopes and in our fears dreaming up the God we need.

And that is how men and women said: ‘Let us create God in our image’.

BUT perhaps there is another story…

From eternity God has had dreams. God’s dreams are energy, forming matter. God dreamed up a universe, with billions of galaxies full of stars. And because God dreamed it, it was real. And God’s dreaming made planets, and life, evolving in thousands of shapes and colours, and intelligence, and human beings.

And God, surprised and delighted at God’s own creativity, said: ‘They are so beautiful! I can see myself in them!’

And then God said: ‘I won’t tell them I made them. I’ll let them dream me up. I’ll let them argue about me. They may learn more about me that way. And who knows? I may even learn something more about myself.’

Faith as Poetry

In my book ‘Sing Out For Justice’ I say: ‘The prophets were poets. It is not enough to say that they teach us to practise justice. They do not “teach” in that kind of way. They long for justice, they lament the lack of justice, they keep alive the hope for justice, and they celebrate justice.’

So much religion is bound up in people’s minds with the idea of ‘teaching’, which leads into ‘doctrine’ – the idea that religion is a matter of ‘believing that’ rather than ‘believing in’. I have come to believe that faith in its best sense is not assent to a set of doctrines presented as ‘facts’ about God. It is an experience, a passion, a dream. Its best expression is not in logical proposition but in poetry, music and art.

Theologians discuss theories and beliefs: they try to understand things. Poets and artists just feel things. Religion can be a way of avoiding feelings. Beliefs about the afterlife are more comfortable than really experiencing the unbearable reality of death. Systems of morality are so much simpler than the painful uncertainty of relationships and the dilemmas life throws up for us every day. Doctrines and systems give us a feeling of understanding the world, of being in control. But if God is really God, we are not in control and never can be.

That is why the appropriate response to the sense of God in our lives is not seeking certainty but expressing our dreams and our passions. It is passionately seeking our highest desires and believing in them. Whether people call this believing in God or call it by some other name is not of ultimate importance. To me, God is the reality in which ‘we live and move and have our being’. Perhaps the best answer to the question ‘do you believe in God?’ is ‘does a raindrop believe in water?’ 

Is Your Sexuality Your Vocation?

Those of us who are gay, or in any sexuality or gender minority, all have different ways of feeling about it. For most us, the feeling changes in the course of our lifetime.

For some, it is something they hide even from themselves, a taboo part of themselves they don’t dare to look at.

For many, it is a guilty secret, an overpowering temptation they keep falling into and then beating themselves up about it. This is true of many people who are brought up in a strict religious tradition and have been taught that any kind of sex outside heterosexual marriage is sinful, and homosexuality is an abomination. For them, their sexuality is a road to self-hate.

As I was growing up, I never really believed God disapproved of me for my sexuality, but I knew the church disapproved, and as one with a firm feeling that I was meant to be a minister in the church I experienced my sexuality not as a guilty secret but as an embarrassing one, something no-one should be ever be allowed to find out. I also believed I dared not act upon it, but must resign myself to a celibate and lonely life. My Christian angle on it was that it was a cross I must bear.

More and more people today are quite happy about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or in various ways ‘queer’, and I’m glad to say I have joined them. The popular word is ‘proud’, which I suppose is the natural opposite of ‘ashamed’. I’m not sure I would think of myself as proud. After all, it’s not an achievement I can take credit for – it’s just the way I am. I suppose I could feel proud of coming out – that has been a kind of achievement and has taken a bit of courage. But then, I haven’t got much to be proud of in that either. I didn’t come out back in the days when it really needed a lot of courage. I came out when the social climate had made it easier and I knew I would get a lot of support. For me ‘happy’ or ‘glad’ is a better word than ‘proud’. Being gay is something to feel easy about, something that brings me pleasure and a lot of loving friends.

In the past few years I have come to see sexuality in another new light – as a calling or, perhaps a more religious word, a vocation. A calling is not necessarily easy. It can involve hard work, difficult situations and sometimes opposition. But it can also bring moments of pure joy, and whether the work is easy or hard it always brings satisfaction. You have the feeling that you are in the right place, doing what you are in the world to do. Someone has defined vocation as the place where your deepest delight meets other people’s deepest need. It is what you give to the world just by being your unique self.

This can certainly be said of LGBT people. We are not just here to stand up for our own rights. We are here to bring encouragement and support to those whose life is much harder than ours – people in countries where homosexuality is still criminalised, and people here in Britain who can still be driven to suicide by persecution and condemnation. We are here to stand up for their rights and help them to feel good about themselves.

But there is more to it than that. LGBT people have something distinctive to give to ‘straight’ society and to faith communities. We have had to struggle to come to terms with who we are, take the risk of sharing it with others, and discover the liberation and fuller life that results – surely something everyone needs to do in one way or another. We have learned how to be courageous in the face of prejudice and mockery. LGBT people often form close, mutually committed communities not based on the biological family, which, according to the New Testament, is surely what the church is meant to be. These communities at their best can set an example of understanding and solidarity with people who are very different from themselves.  

I am sure there are other ways too in which LGBT people have experience and insights to offer to the world. Like all people with a vocation, none of us is a perfect role model. We can be lazy and selfish, we can be self-righteous, and sometimes we can fail badly, but if we just achieve a little bit of change in a few people’s lives the vocation is a privilege.

Traditions and Visions

Free to Love and Believe

Some more thoughts following the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:

The different branches of Christianity used to be called ‘persuasions’ – people stuck passionately to what they believed, what they had become ‘persuaded’ of, and tried to persuade others they were right. Then, with increasing tolerance, the term ‘denominations’ became more popular. We saw the churches as differing from each other in their names, with one not necessarily being any better than another. As the movement for Christian unity caught on, the term changed to ‘traditions’. Churches now tend to think about how they can share with each other the precious heritage, the treasure, that has been entrusted to each of them.

But are we laying too much stress on tradition? We all recognise the need to change in response to a changing world, but even as we do this we seem to want to look to the past…

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Traditions and Visions

Some more thoughts following the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:

The different branches of Christianity used to be called ‘persuasions’ – people stuck passionately to what they believed, what they had become ‘persuaded’ of, and tried to persuade others they were right. Then, with increasing tolerance, the term ‘denominations’ became more popular. We saw the churches as differing from each other in their names, with one not necessarily being any better than another. As the movement for Christian unity caught on, the term changed to ‘traditions’. Churches now tend to think about how they can share with each other the precious heritage, the treasure, that has been entrusted to each of them.

But are we laying too much stress on tradition? We all recognise the need to change in response to a changing world, but even as we do this we seem to want to look to the past for permission. For instance, when people question the reason why Roman Catholic priests have to be celibate, it is sometimes pointed out that this has only been the rule since the 11th century. That is certainly a very long time – half the history of Christianity! – but it does give people some kind of authority for saying that the rule could possibly be changed. Behind this there seems to be an assumption that if it had always been there it could not be changed.

When we discuss the status of women in the ministry of the Church we note the fact that although Paul seems to have forbidden women to preach (1 Cor 14:34-35) there were women in the very early Church who were active preachers. Paul himself (Romans 16:7) refers to someone who was ‘prominent among the apostles’. The name appears in the different manuscripts as ‘Junias’ (a masculine name) and ‘Junia’ (a feminine name), and sometimes even ‘Julia’ – this suggests an early attempt by some of the copyists to cover up the fact that she was a woman. If little bits of evidence like this were not there, it might be even harder for people to accept women priests and bishops than it already is.

This tendency to dig for evidence in the past is natural. The Christian faith, after all, is the product of centuries of tradition, and we have ancient Scriptures that we revere. However, this does not mean that we should be bound unconditionally to what is in Scripture or ancient tradition. Apparently Jesus himself told his disciples that there were truths they were not yet ready to hear, but the Holy Spirit would continue to teach them when he was no longer with them (John 16:12-13). 

What makes me uneasy about this whole ‘tradition’ business is that Christianity is an essentially forward-looking faith. We believe in the kingdom of God, we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth. Surely this means that our chief concern should be not how things were in the beginning but how they are meant to be in the end.  

We could have a more exciting and creative dialogue if, instead of just sharing our traditions, we started sharing our hopes and our visions. What kind of Church do we dream of as an expression of the promise of God’s kingdom today?

We could even be a bit more adventurous, and apply this approach to inter-faith dialogue. Here most of us start from a position of ignorance and need to find out more about each other’s beliefs and traditions. But why not take another step forward, and start talking about how all of us, as human beings living in the twenty-first century, can explore together the meaning of life and the mystery of God?  

‘Christian Unity’ – a Bore?

A conference of the British Council of Churches held in Nottingham in 1964 proposed that the different denominations in Britain should work and pray to be united as one Church by Easter Day 1980.

I thought at the time that this was quite a reasonable expectation. Churches were already coming much closer together, the bad old days of hostility and rivalry between different denominations seemed to be over, and when you are young (as I was then), sixteen years seems a long time – certainly enough time to sort out any problems that remained. Some people were a bit sceptical, but some were saying ‘Why so long?’

Well, here we are, forty years on from the target date, and we are as divided as ever. Why?

One reason, probably, is red tape and bureaucratic inertia. It is fine to talk idealistically about how we all belong together in the same faith, but church leaders have a vested interest in the status quo. We all feel comfortable in the familiar structure, especially if our jobs depend on it.

Members of congregations, too, are comfortable in their own church or chapel, and don’t like the order of service changing too much. On special occasions, like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are happy to organise united services and be all pally together, but these are almost always an addition to the normal programme. It it still very rare to find a congregation willing to give up its Sunday service to join in with others.

We have also underestimated the depth and seriousness of the divisions among us. There is still a great gulf between a Catholic faith that clings to the continuity of tradition and the Apostolic Succession and the more free and informal ways of Protestant churches. In addition, we have become more aware of the deep differences not just between our denominations but within them. A lot of ecumenical discussion has been conducted among people who have generally the same kind of attitude – liberal, tolerant and a bit laid-back about theological differences. But, usually outside these discussions, there are those who have a strictly evangelical faith, insisting on the infallibility of the Bible, a particular doctrine of the Atonement, and the unchanging authority of the moral code.

The local church I belong to is an open and inclusive church which tries (not always successfully, we must admit) to make people feel at home whatever their race, culture, gender, sexual orientation and everything else. Some of our neighbours are shocked and disgusted that we are willing to bless same sex partnerships. I would feel very uncomfortable in a church that was not like this. In this respect I have much more in common with some people of other denominations, and even of other religions, than with most of my fellow Baptists. In view of differences like this, the union of all churches seems as far away as ever.

Meanwhile, events are overtaking us. Many congregations and clergy are just ignoring the rules. I have received Communion from a Roman Catholic priest in an informal Mass held on Baptist premises! A Roman Catholic nun once asked me, a Baptist minister, to be her spiritual adviser. Among the most active members of a congregation where I was the minister were a Unitarian, several Salvation Army members, one or two Roman Catholics, I don’t know how many Anglicans, and at least one agnostic.

Talks about formal church unity are becoming more and more irrelevant. To quote Harry Williams (Some Day I’ll Find You, Fount Paperbacks 1984, p 318), a rather unorthodox Anglican priest: ‘ecumenism is the last refuge of the religious bore’.

As the organised Christian churches in Europe are in sharp decline, a new spirituality is emerging. Jesus is as important and attractive a figure as ever, but many who are drawn to him have no interest in the churches that claim to represent him. His call is to a far greater and wider unity. The word ‘ecumenical’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘the whole world’. Surely that is where the focus of our prayers should be.

Room for all

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an event that has happened in one form or another for over 100 years.

The dates (January 18-25) were chosen because the 18th celebrates the Confession of Peter and the 25th the Conversion of Paul.

The Confession of Peter is the occasion when Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ and Peter said ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. According to Matthew’s Gospel, this was a world-changing moment. It was the moment when for the first time, with no prompting from Jesus himself, a human being recognised who he was. Jesus went on to say that Peter was aptly named ‘the Rock’, because the Church would be founded on him and his declaration of faith. In Catholic teaching, Peter was the first Pope, the foundation of the authority of the Church.

The Conversion of Paul is a well-known story. Saul (as he was then known) was the arch-enemy of the early Christian movement. While he was on the way to Damascus to seek out the Christians who had fled there, he was struck down on the road and the risen Christ appeared to him. He then became not only a follower of Jesus, but the most prominent missionary and the one whose interpretation of the meaning of Jesus became orthodox Christian teaching.

So Peter and Paul were in a sense the two founders of the Christian Church. Two very different characters! Peter was a rough, brash and very down-to-earth Galilean fisherman. Paul was a cultured Jew brought up in the cosmopolitan Roman city of Tarsus and educated in the Jewish Scriptures by one of the leading rabbis of the time. Peter was a family man, Paul was single. Peter was a close companion of Jesus throughout his ministry, one of the inner circle of the disciples. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but had only heard about him. Peter stuck to his traditional Jewish ways and was slow to change. Paul had the zeal of a convert and a new, universal vision. When they met, they sometimes argued and fell out with each other. According to tradition, they both died a martyr’s death and are buried close to each other in Rome.

So there is something fitting about prayer for Christian unity gathering around the memory of these two very different people. It reminds us that there is room for all of us in the family into which Jesus invites us – the rough-handed worker and the smooth-handed student, the married and the single, the traditionalist and the innovator, the blunt speaker and the clever writer, the doer and the dreamer. We need each other and we belong together.

If this vision of the Church is to become reality, the joining together of different denominations is a trivial matter by comparison with the radical vision we need. Or am I being more of a Paul than a Peter?