Sunday, 25 June 2017

Bringing peace and a sword: following Christ in a divided world

Sermon preached at Creaton URC on 25 June 2017. Text: Matthew 10:24-39. Followed an earlier talk which discussed the banishing of Hagar and Ishmael as refugees into the desert.

To say that this passage from the gospels is a challenging piece would be putting it mildly. Practically every verse has some sort of challenge to our easy life. If we see ourselves as followers of Jesus, we will be called nasty names, we must shout truth from the rooftops, we are to be threatened bodily, we will have our families separated, we are called to take up a cross, and told to lose our lives. To be sure there are plenty of reassurances, phrases that ring down the ages such as all sparrows falling to the ground being seen by God, and all the hairs on our head being counted. I have to say that even these are difficult enough, set in the context of suffering and hardship that they imply. Going back to the earlier story, we are all Hagar and Ishmael – God hears us in our hardship. But in following Jesus, we are called to hardship.

Of course, the gospel of Matthew was written at a time where Jesus’ contemporary followers knew about suffering, doubly so. Scholars believe that Matthew was written after the fall of the temple at Jerusalem, to Jewish followers of Jesus living in exile in Antioch, who in recent years had seen terrible things. But not only were they Jewish, as followers of Jesus they were cut off from the mainstream of Jewish thought and increasingly persecuted by their own people. So talk of not fearing those who could kill the body was a reasonable fear.

And they knew about division, about being families being torn apart. Because to me the toughest thing in this passage isn’t just the challenge of being a disciple – ok, yes that’s a pretty big challenge. But the stuff about division is hard. For me, I’ve spent a lifetime as a pacifist, and dedicated to reconciliation, and to hear from Jesus that he’s come not to bring peace but a sword – that’s a tough message.

And at first sight it feels uncharacteristic. Isn’t this the Jesus who walked through Galilee in his sandals telling people to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy-seven times, and that love of neighbour was equivalent to love of God? And isn’t this the Jesus who willingly wen to his death on a cross rather than fighting against the state, who forbade his disciples to lift a sword in his defence? Well yes, it’s that Jesus. But it’s also the Jesus who stood up against the state, who taught his followers ways of resistance, who parodied and undermined Roman power and temple power – and it’s the Jesus who faced with injustice in the temple, threw down the tables of the moneylenders. Yes he was a man of peace. But gentle Jesus meek and mild he most certainly was not.
Image: James Tissot, Cleansing of the Temple
And amongst all the things he says to his disciples, one thing rings out clearly: if you are going to live out the gospel, if you are going to spread the kingdom of heaven, then you will cause division. If you are going to bring about true peace, then you will be divided from those who profit from war. If you are going to be a champion of justice, then you will be divided from those who promote injustice. If you are going to love, you will be divided from those who hate. If you are going to lift up the poor and the oppressed – the people Jesus lived with and lifted up – then you will be divided from those who cast down the poor and the oppressed.

But a sword is perhaps an unhelpful image. Jesus doesn’t bring something that does violence, he brings something that splits apart those who need to be divided. The Message bible puts these verses like this: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law”. And John Bell of the Iona Community builds on this same idea: “The word and person of Jesus are a sword intended to cut through the lies with which we comfort ourselves and to reveal the truth we avoid at our peril”.

These knife-cuts which reveal the truth are hard. Followers of Jesus throughout history who have stood up to injustice, and sought to bring about the kingdom of God, have experienced the divisions which come to their lives as a result. They have challenged injustice, worked for peace, put themselves on the side of the poor and the oppressed. And they have suffered for it, sometimes at the hands of families who rejected them, sometimes at the hands of the governments and systems which they challenged, sometimes alas at the hands of the church which should have known better.

Two people in the past century who experiences were well-known wrote about their struggle through the lens of this very passage: Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

To start with Dr King. On the night before he was on trial in Kentucky in 1956 as part of the segregated bus boycott, he preached a sermon under the title “When peace becomes obnoxious”, about a case at the University of Alabama who had admitted their first black student. She was attacked and threatened in multiple ways, and eventually the university asked her to leave again for her own safety. The local paper printed a headline that “There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama”. We know the falseness of this kind of peace. It’s the sort of the so-called peace that occurs when people are pushed down and too afraid to respond. It’s the peace of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, that happened because anyone who stood out would be crucified. We see this false peace today in all sorts of places around the world. It’s that sort of peace that Jesus came to bring a sword to cut against. Dr King put it in his wonderful eloquent way:
In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.” Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.
Something of the same spirit ran through the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Nazi dictatorship and genocide during the 1930s and 1940s, from a strongly-grounded theological position of discipleship, and despite the willingness of many others in the German churches to support the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s theology as well as his founding with others of the Confessing Church were very influential during the Nazi period, and in the decades since; and of course he was executed as part of his resistance. He knew well about discipleship – one of his books is entitled The Cost of Discipleship and he wrote much about the subject. He was firmly of the view that a Christian must be engaged with justice in the secular world. Some of his most vivid writing was composed while in prison before his eventual execution for his part in a plot to kill Hitler (though he himself committed no acts of violence). Bonhoeffer also wrote about this part of the gospel of Matthew, as follows:
The peace of Jesus Christ is the cross. The cross is God’s sword on this earth. It creates division. The son against the father, the daughter against the mother, the household against its head, and all that for the sake of God’s kingdom and its peace – that is the work of Christ on earth! No wonder the world accuses him, who brought the love of God to the people, of hatred toward human beings! Who dares to speak about a father’s love and a mother’s love to a son or daughter in such a way, if not either the destroyer of all life or the creator of a new life? God’s love for the people brings the cross and discipleship, but these, in turn mean life and resurrection.
King and Bonhoeffer are just two names of those who have followed Christ’s words to live out the gospel in a way and be his disciple, and if it causes division, that is what will happen. Many other names, some famous and some less known, could be mentioned. But what of the impact for us? How does this affect us?

I believe that whenever Jesus speaks in the gospels to his disciples, he speaks to all of us who continue to follow him, who seek to bring about the kingdom of God. He is very clear – in chapter 25 of Mathew’s gospel – if we see others hungry or thirsty or strangers or unclothed or in prison, and do not help them, then we will be rejected. Sometimes division is inevitable, if we are to speak as Jesus did for the downtrodden and the oppressed.

There are plenty of places in our world where oppression happens. To return to the subject of refugees, the way they have been treated and made unwelcome by country after country, including our own, is simply shameful. Then there are people in this country who are treated shockingly by society - those who are homeless, who are forced towards food banks, who receive benefit sanctions, who are disabled and see their benefits cut, and many more. To speak up for these people might be called political, though it may or may not be in the service of a particular political party. And politics causes its own divisions. But to speak the truth of the gospel of hope, whatever its cost, is the nature of discipleship.

We might also be called to speak this truth in our everyday lives. At work, many of us encounter issues of injustice at a big or small scale – standing up to it can be really difficult and might cause division and get us trouble with colleagues or management. And yet this may be the right thing as a form of discipleship. In personal lives, arguing that your family or friends should do what you see as the right thing can cause division. And in church lives, standing up for your understanding of the gospel causes division. Yet in all these cases Jesus commands us to hear things whispered and to proclaim them from the rooftops; and he promises us that even the hairs of our head are counted, and everything we do is watched over by a loving God.

To close, I want to return to peace, and to read a poem by the hymn writer Brian Wren. He wrote:
Say ‘no’ to peace
If what they mean by peace
Is the quiet misery of hunger
The frozen stillness of fear
The silence of broken spirits
The unborn hopes of the oppressed.

Tell them that peace
Is the shouting of children at play
The babble of tongues set free
The thunder of dancing feet
And a father’s voice singing.

Say ‘no’ to peace
If what they mean by peace
Is a rampart of gleaming missiles
The arming of distant wars
Money at ease in its castle
And grateful poor at the gate.

Tell them that peace
Is the hauling down of flags
The forging of guns into ploughs
The giving of fields to the landless
And hunger a fading dream.
May we all be given strength to follow this kind of peace, whatever its cost, as disciples of Jesus. Amen.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

Knowing me, knowing you: following the way to truth and life

Sermon preached on 14th May 2017 at Stamford URC. Main text: John 14:1-14. [I have previously preached on this passage, and blogged on John 14:6.]


When I was a teenager on the edge of Glasgow, I delivered newspapers from the local paper shop. The shop owner, George, was a Catholic, and in the habit of going to Mass on a Saturday evening so was always there on a Sunday morning. The local Presbyterian churches all had a reputation for good scholarly preaching but rather longer and weightier than the average Catholic homily – so George would tease people popping in on their way to church with “are you off to church then? Make sure you have a good big tube of peppermints to get through the sermon!”

I was reminded of George because to get the full sense of this passage from John’s gospel, we need to look at the context and the Greek and the theology in some detail, so it’s a multiple-peppermint sermon today. But I’m not apologising, because this is stuff that really matters, and it deserves proper attention.

I was reminded of George in another way – this passage, and especially verse 6 about “no one comes to the Father except through me” has been responsible for a huge sense of exclusivism in the church. It leads to divisions between Christians and people of other faiths, and it’s led to divisions within the church. It’s this attitude which led to Catholics like George being regarded as less than Christian by Protestants like those I grew up with in Glasgow. Exclusivism and division led to the decades of violence in Northern Ireland. It led to the wickedness of the Crusades and the Inquisition, and to the so-called clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims which has done so much damage in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Those who think they have the only way to truth, and are willing to discriminate against, or persecute, or even kill others because of it, are a menace. They are a menace whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, communist or fascist. But here within the Christian church, I’m sad to say that the claim to exclusivism, the engine that fuels division and hatred, often rests on this lovely passage. And it doesn’t deserve it.

The irony is that the whole of this passage is intended by Jesus to be deeply reassuring and comforting to his disciples. It sits early in the section of the gospel of John known as the farewell discourses – the last words of advice, comfort and wisdom that Jesus spoke to his disciples before his trial and execution. The setting is around the table at the Last Supper. Judas has left to betray Jesus to the authorities. Jesus starts to talk about being with them only for a little while longer and says that where he’s going they cannot follow now but later will come. All of that rather alarms the disciples – in turn, Simon Peter, Thomas and Philip ask him about his destination and route.

And Jesus’ response is developed in three parts. First he urges his disciples to trust him; then he tells them to follow his way; then he tells them that if they know him, they know the Father.

So this is a passage all about how we know things, or more specifically how we know God and how to find our way to God. Now, it’s a commonplace that there are many different ways of knowing. There are things we know with our heads – the square root of 4, or the capital of France. There are things we know with our hearts – the way we love our family, or how we feel about politics. There are things we know with our bodies – how to ride a bike, or play an instrument. And so on. You can categorise this in lots of ways and there are plenty of academic terms for the categories. But the basic difference perhaps, at least in our culture, is between what we know with our heads and what we know with our hearts or bodies. And far too often we confuse the two. Worse, ideas which relate to heart knowledge have been thought of in terms of head knowledge.

We can see an example in the first verse of the passage. Jesus tells his disciples: “Believe in God and believe also in me”. Now today when we’re asked whether we believe in God, whether by Christians or not, we sometimes take that word believe to refer to head-knowledge. Do we believe in the existence of God, in the same sense that we believe that 2+2=4? Or do we feel it with our hearts, our bones, our guts? Likewise do we believe in Jesus’ existence, in a set of intellectual propositions about him such as a creed, or do we feel his existence, his love, his mission, his sacrifice, in our heart and our guts? It’s a crucial distinction. The word that’s translated believe in verse 1 is pistuein in the Greek, and it really is more to do with trust than with head-knowing. So Jesus begins by telling his disciples to trust God and to trust him. They had done plenty of that in following him – they had left families and jobs, wandered around with him, taken his word for many things, followed him into danger. The disciples didn’t just know things about Jesus. They knew Jesus for who he was. They put their trust in him.

So the first question is whether we can do the same – can we put our trust in Jesus, not in terms of ideas about him, but in terms of the example he gives us, of the person he was and is and will be?

Thomas asks him if he can know the way to the place Jesus is going – this place with many dwellings, which is to say many place to abide, to rest in the love of God. Thomas is asking for head-knowledge of this place. Bear in mind that this scene takes place before the crucifixion, but you’ll perhaps remember the most famous scene in John’s gospel relating to Thomas, when the other disciples had seen the risen Christ and Thomas said that “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, I will not believe”. Well that word see in the later encounter is related to the word know here. Both times Thomas is asking for facts, for concrete head-knowledge.

And Jesus isn’t giving it to him. He makes it very clear: it’s not about head-knowledge. It’s about Jesus’ example, about Jesus’ very person. He’s not there to give them a creed, a set of ideas about God. He’s there to show them a way, which will show them truth and give them life. But that way, that truth, that life, is embodied in Jesus himself. The American theologian Mark Davis talks about the difference between propositional truth, which is the sort that Thomas was looking for; and incarnational truth, which is the sort that Jesus brought.

Jesus does not say “you must believe with your mind that I am the only begotten son of the Father, come to lead you to personal salvation through my atonement, you must sign up to a creed about me”. He says “I AM the way”. He says “I AM the truth”. He says “I AM the life”. He showed us these things in his own life. If we want to know the way to the Father, we need to look to the life and character of Jesus. It is by following the way he shows us that we find the way to God. And what is the way that we are shown? It’s the way that Jesus lived his life. Jesus’s way is a way of openness to all, of inclusiveness of all – Jesus never turned away anyone and spoke and ate with those society found to be lesser beings or outcasts. Jesus’ way is a way of showing others that another world is possible, of giving them new insights and new hopes – this Jesus turned the world upside down with his teachings about turning the other cheek, loving enemies and doing good. Jesus’ way is a way of giving, of feeding the poor and healing the sick whatever the authorities think of it, of caring for those he met regardless of their economic or racial or religious status. And Jesus’ way is a way of sacrifice, of giving from himself so abundantly that it ended in him losing his life. Openness, insight, hope, transformation, giving and sacrifice – this is the way of Jesus. It is the truth of Jesus. And through it, Jesus brings us life and life to the world.

And so this idea of the way became the marking-point for Jesus’ followers. Remember that their own name for themselves, we’re told by the book of Acts, was the people of the Way – the word Christian was an insulting nickname. The idea of the Way wasn’t a new one – it’s in the book of Proverbs, where Wisdom is described as the way, a pattern of behaviours, a path worn by constant treading. And it’s a term used in other faiths – the word Tao in the religion of Taoism likewise means way. But it’s this incarnational idea that is so unique to Jesus – not just that he brought a way to people, but that he himself is the way. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life” [quoted by Carl Gregg].

Of course, Jesus also said that no one goes to the Father except by him, and as I said earlier, that bit of the verse is used in a very exclusive way by some Christians, what is sometimes known as a clobber text. If any other faith is mentioned, any alternative way to God – ah, comes the reply, but Jesus said he alone was the way to the Father. I think this is a huge misreading of the text. It mixes up the different kinds of knowing we’ve discussed, and to me this verse is all about heart-knowing and gut-knowing. We are called to follow in the way of Jesus, to live the same life of service and openness and insight and sacrifice that he lived. He doesn’t say anything about belief, he talks about being. Jesus was God-made-man, the incarnated one, and the church as the body of Christ continues in that incarnation. St Teresa of Avila said that “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours”. It is our calling as Christians, as the church as a body, to follow in the way of Jesus and carry on his mission. And just as his mission was about openness to all, it makes no sense for us to follow his way by excluding others.

To use this verse as a tool for Christian exclusivism is to miss the point about what it’s saying. It’s addressed to the disciples, not to the world at large. This has nothing to do with Muslims or Hindus or other faiths – they have their own way, which maps on to the way of Jesus. But this is about who we are as Christians – we are people of the way, called to follow Christ’s example. An extended quote from the late theologian Marcus Borg puts this really clearly:
There is a way of understanding the claim of John 14:6 that does not involve Christian exclusivism. The key is the realization that John is the incarnational Gospel; in it Jesus incarnates, embodies, enfleshes what can be seen of God in a human life. To say, "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life," is to say, "What we see in Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life." It is not about knowing the word Jesus and believing in what is said about him that is "the way." Rather, the way is what we see in his life; we see a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress this world, a life radically centered in the God to whom he bore witness. [from Speaking Christian, 2011]
And by following this way, Jesus promises us, we will see the Father – because even after this teaching, another disciple, Philip, wants more. He says that he’ll be satisfied if Jesus shows them the Father. In Jewish tradition, nobody could see God and live – even Moses saw God from behind when receiving the Ten Commandments. But Jesus confirms that he and the Father are one, that God is made flesh in Jesus, and through his example, through the way Jesus embodies, that God is made known to us.

The incarnation means that God is not abstract. It means that God’s experience of suffering is not conceptual, that God’s thirst for justice is not removed from the world. It means that God lived in the same kind of body as we do, had the same joys and hopes as we do, the same anger and frustration that we do. It means that God suffered pain, physical and mental, as we do. The Hebrew scriptures are full of God’s hunger for justice, but the incarnation meant that God, in the person of Jesus, felt injustice in his body. God walked with the oppressed in Palestine – lived the people held in subjugation by an alien empire, talked with women whose society treated them as nothing, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes and other outcasts of society, debated with people of other faiths and treated them with respect, touched and made well the lepers and the blind and the lame and the haemorrhaging and the disabled.

And towards the end of this passage, Jesus promises his followers that the works he has done, of all these kinds, will be followed by these and by greater works. We are called to carry on Jesus’ mission, to embody his thirst for justice. Wherever we see oppression, he is the way. Wherever we see injustice, he is the way. Wherever we see systems that put people down, that rob them of their dignity, that remove benefits for petty money-saving reasons, that put banks before people, he is the way. Wherever we see the planet despoiled in the name of profit, he is the way. Wherever we see hatred expressed against people because they are black, or Muslim, or gay, or transgender, or female, or refugees, or disabled, he is the way. And if we follow in this way, we are promised that we will do great things.

So remember this in Christian Aid Week. Remember this in the time of the general election. Remember this whenever you deal with others. Jesus has perfectly shown us the way to the Father, and the truth and the life, and it is Jesus himself. It is the life and example and teaching of Jesus. And if we do not follow his way in our dealings in the world, we are not on the path to the Father.

And so we come to the table of our Lord. Because just as Jesus was God made flesh, at this table we remember Jesus’ experience by taking symbols of his body and his blood into our own being. Communion is saying yes to the incarnation, yes to the physical presence of God in our world through Jesus, yes to Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life. We come to the table, and we experience knowing in our body, and coming together as the body of Christ.

May we all in this communion experience the incarnated Christ, and may we all live out the way and the truth and the life of Christ in our everyday lives. Amen.


Sunday, 26 February 2017

Saved to do good: true godliness & living generously

Image: Joey Bonifacio

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC, Northampton, on 26 February 2017. Texts: Titus 3:1-15, Matthew 17:1-9.

What’s the point of being a Christian? Why do we show up each week to church? What’s the purpose of us being called into God’s kingdom, into membership of God’s people? Is it just about our individual experience with God, our experience of Jesus’ redemption, our personal experience of the Holy Spirit? Or our need for community, for something to do on a Sunday morning?

All these things are important, but to me the message of the gospels is a deeper one: that Jesus came to call us, and the world, into a radical transformation. He came to show us love and mercy, richer and more generous than we could imagine. And he calls us to a path of showing that generous love and mercy to others. We love, because he first loved us. And to complete that love, we must show it to others, in the way we do good in the world.

We reach the end of the letter to Titus that has been the subject of several sermons over the past few weeks. As others have said in this sermon series, the letter probably wasn’t written by St Paul – the vast majority of biblical scholars agree on this, and say it was written by a later author in his style, a common practice in the ancient world – so we can pass over the greetings at the end of the letter. But this chapter has some real gems in it, and it contains some deep truths about the nature of the Christian life. And even if it wasn’t by Paul, it has the lawyer-like complexity and detail of argument that we often find in his letters. So we need to follow through carefully what the author is saying.

The chapter falls into three parts, as well as those final greetings. There’s a rather beautiful and poetic piece about salvation through the mercy of God, sandwiched between two sections on how to live a good Christian life. The presence of this theological piece about salvation illuminates and gives power to the rest: we live a good life in response to God’s goodness; we act in mercy and love because of God’s love for us.

So in the first few verses we see a contrast between the old life & new life. It’s framed rather like one of those personal testimonies that some people may have heard or indeed given in churches – the author gives a list of negative characteristics with a statement that “at one time we too were…” and then lists foolishness, disobedience, malice, hate. By contrast he begins the chapter with a list of the way we’re told to be as Christians – peaceable, considerate, gentle, slandering nobody, being obedient. This chapter doesn’t contain the word ‘godliness’ as such but that’s a constant theme of the letter to Titus, and this could be considered a list of ways to lead a godly or an ungodly life. Now there are those here who came to Christian faith as adults, and might characterise parts of their former life in that way. Others have been Christians all their lives and so experience it differently. I’ve never myself had a conversion experience, but I can readily see ways in which my own life exhibits those ungodly patterns at time, as well I hope as the more godly ones. Others may feel the same way.

And then we move on to this much more poetic passage. It has a different style to the rest, and there’s reason to think that it may well be a quotation of some sort, perhaps from an early hymn or liturgy. The author writes that “when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy”. Now there’s an interesting thing about this passage, which is that it mentions Jesus’ birth, it mentions baptism and the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t mention his death. The letters of Paul, in whose tradition this letter was written, are full of passages about Jesus bringing salvation through his death and resurrection, but that’s not in this chapter. Here we see the important factor being the kindness and love of God of Saviour appearing. It’s for this reason, by the way, that these verses from the letter of Titus are set in the lectionary to be read on Christmas Day. They’re deeply concerned with incarnation, with enfleshment, with God being born among us in human form.

That word ‘appeared’ is important. It’s a translation of the Greek epephane, from which we get the word epiphany. It refers to the breaking-through of God into the human world, the sudden and profound experience by us human beings of the divine presence. Now epiphanies can happen in all sorts of ways, but two of the ways we see them in the Bible and that they’re experienced by Christians today are mentioned in this passage: through the ‘washing of rebirth’, which is to say baptism, and through the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s the relevance of the other passage we heard this morning, the disciples’ experience of the transfiguration of Jesus. Today is the day, the last Sunday before Lent, where many churches celebrate the transfiguration. Lent leads up to Jesus being lifted up on a cross on the mountain of Golgotha, and the world being transformed by his death and God’s transformation of his suffering by bringing him back from death. But here we see a different sort of transformation up a different mountain – Jesus appearing in dazzling white, surrounded by the great figures of Moses and Elijah, with his ministry affirmed by the voice of God saying “this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased”, the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. That baptism was an epiphany, a breaking-through of the divine presence; so is this moment on the mountain.

Can we experience the same sort of transformation? I don’t think it’s an impossibility for any of us. It’s a different thing from the conversion experience – it can happen whether we’ve been a Christian for 80 years or never at all. I’m reminded of the words of the French-American monk Thomas Merton, who wrote of an experience of God in the everyday, walking down a street in Kentucky:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Merton remained as a monk after this experience. But it led him to realise that holiness, that profound experiences of God, push us into the world rather than taking us away from it. He became an activist as well as a mystic, writing and speaking about peace, racial tolerance and social equality.

And that takes me back to the letter to Titus. In the third section, after the description of how Jesus’ coming has transformed us through the mercy of God, we see the way that we respond to this. Again there are specific instructions, but they come down to one phrase: “that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good”. If you’ll permit me a bit more Greek, the word ‘good’ appears three times in most English translations of this chapter, but it actually translates two different Greek words. The first time we’re told to do good, it’s the Greek word ‘agathos’, which refers to moral and practical goodness – doing good things. But when we’re told to do good in the section after the depiction of the transformation Jesus brings, it’s a different word which appears twice – ‘kalos’, which carries the same sense of moral goodness but also a sense of beauty. This kind of goodness shines out in the world like a beacon. It’s the shining radiance of the transfiguration. It’s the image Thomas Merton had of people walking around shining like the sun.

Because this is the thing which most makes us shine in the world – by doing good. Acting to change the world for the better is the true sign of godliness. Jesus said that by their fruits you will know them. The 17th century Quaker William Penn, founder of the American state of Pennsylvania, put it beautifully, and it relates to the theme of godliness found throughout the letter to Titus. Penn wrote: “True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it”.

Now, doing good will vary for each of us. And the gospels are not short of definitions. Those who were here last Sunday heard the version Jesus told us in Matthew 25 – giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcoming in the strangers, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting prisoners. The same sorts of lists are repeated throughout the teachings of Jesus.

For some of us, this means specific work to help those in immediate distress, like support for food banks or to care for the homeless. For others, it is done through acts of generosity like Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings campaign or by following 40 Acts. For still others, it comes more locally, with looking after old people in need, or visiting people in hospital, or welcoming strangers into your home. All these are good works. They are works which will shine in the world like the sun.

Others are called differently. We live in dark times, full of injustice and prejudice. Sometimes we are called to stand up against this injustice. There is an idea that the church should stay out of politics, that politics has no place in the pulpit. This is mostly said by those who are comfortable or in power. Those who are suffering need the church to act on their behalf. They need Christians to confront laws which would bar refugees because they come from supposedly wrong countries and to say: this is not the love of God. They need Christians to confront policies which shut down health care, or put people on benefit sanctions for trivial administrative errors, or close day centres for people with dementia and say: this is not the mercy of God. They need Christians to confront warmongers and environmental destroyers and robber-baron banks and say: this is not the transformation of God. None of this involves telling people how to vote, but it does involve politics.

The letter to Titus tells us that we were saved “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy”. We are not called to do good works in the world, to act as agents of God’s shining transformation, because it will gain us salvation. Only the grace and mercy of God can do that. But we are called to do good works in the world because it continues the love and mercy of God. The theologian and former bishop Tom Wright writes that “what we see, in a life transformed by the gospel, is the direct result of God’s lavish, generous love. And that’s why he wants us to be generous, kind and gentle in turn.”

We love because he first loved us. By loving others, we show the depths of God’s love for us; by showing generosity to others, we demonstrate the generosity of God’s mercy for us. And then we will become part of God’s transform love, we will transform others and we ourselves will be transformed, and we will shine out like the sun.

May it be so for us all, in the name of the life-giving Father and the redeeming Son and the ever-transforming Holy Spirit. Amen.