Close up and Personal

Sunday 21st August 2011
Year A, The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Henfield
2 Kings 6:8-23
Acts 17:15-34

It is easy to dismiss the story of Elisha and the Arameans as a bit of knock-about, like something out of a speeded-up silent film, so let us slow it down and remind ourselves of the events.

In his war with Israel, the King of Aram determines a camping site but Elisha knows where it is and warns the King of Israel. This happens so often that the King of Aram suspects his own officers who identify Elisha as the person who knows what the King says, even in his own bedroom. The Arameans surround Elisha but God creates an illusion of a heavenly army around him; but, as if that was not enough, Elisha asks The Lord to blind the Arameans and he then leads them into the city of Samaria. But when the King of Israel thinks of taking advantage of his good fortune by killing the captives, Elisha tells him to be a good host and offer hospitality; so it all ends happily ever after. Well, not quite! The story illustrates the power of God but the pay-off is really important, that we should not take personal advantage of a situation we have not created; it was, in this case, the Lord to save and, if inclined, the Lord's to punish.

In his atypically emollient, even diplomatic, dialogue with the Athenians, Paul makes the same point from a different angle: the Lord does not follow human ways and is radically separate from them; but whereas the Old Testament portrays the personal relationship between God and a highly selective group of people, such as Elisha, Paul can bear witness to the personal relationship of God, through Christ, with all of his followers. The Greeks, who, Luke notes acutely, spent all their time discussing the latest ideas, found this difficult to take in but it was not long before they caught on and managed to weave the Jesus phenomenon into their own Neo-Platonist philosophy of Gnosticism.

Now you will no doubt be relieved to know that I am not going to give a mini lecture on Gnosticism - I will come back and do that if there is popular demand - but rather, I want to emphasise the point that cultures are always tempted to make gods that reflect their self image: military communities have gods of war; farmers have gods of fertility; philosophers have gods of wisdom; and we, what do we worship?

Well, as part of the answer I am reminded of the German Au Pair girl who arrived in Norwich and asked: "Which is the best of your opera houses?" to which my answer would be, "it depends on your price bracket. Some people worship at Lidl, some at Harrods; and most somewhere in between." The point is that for much of our society, the predominant culture is one of consumer choice and consumer power; and what we saw last week - although I don't want to give a full scale analysis of the recent looting - was the huge power of that culture. In previous generations there was mass disorder in favour of all kinds of religious beliefs and ideologies or against oppression and privilege; but this disorder was quite specifically in favour of flat screen televisions, designer sports clothes, computers and mobile phones.

Our inclination, to a certain extent, is to feel ourselves to be distant, and even superior, to that kind of behaviour. We say to ourselves that we would never sink so low; but, then, if we are honest, we would have to admit to ourselves that we, living in villages and small towns, are much more bound into our cultures, with much more self and peer restraint. How we would behave if we knew we could get away with something is a much more interesting point.

So we are conveniently safe in our semi rural fastness: we are not wicked bankers or stock market speculators, we are not MPs fiddling our expenses and we are not journalists hacking into phones; but, on the other hand, many of us have profited from cheap credit in the value of our houses and the purchasing power of our credit cards, many of us have pension pots which have benefited from speculation, many of us are more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit when it comes to claiming expenses, and many of us consume the news that was generated by underhand means. It is not that we are wicked people but in our lifestyles and our attitudes we are running a grave risk.

And the grave risk is this; that we keep ourselves within the limits of what is permitted, if only just, by measuring our conduct against a set of ethical rules; and the problem with this is that such rules are dangerously akin to a philosophy of religion. What we are in danger of doing is turning away from being Christians to being people who follow the supposed moral tenets of Christianity. And the difference between the two is that as Christians we worship our God in the power of the Spirit through a personal and ever deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. This will not keep us entirely safe from going astray but, at the very least, we will have a much better chance of knowing when we are in danger of going astray or have gone astray and need to repent and return to our Good Shepherd.

Our temptations are not usually going to be a burning desire for a flat screen television or a new pair of trainers but there is danger in the relative comfort of our lives which requires that our relationship with God is close up and personal. Like the Israelites, we may turn to God in times of trouble; and like the Greeks we may formulate all kinds of clever ideas to explain our world; but we must be like Paul, absolutely set on our commitment to our personal life with a personal God.

And, if I may finish with another reference to events last week, telling people what to do, what is ethical, what is legal and what punishments await them, as set out in the criminal law or the Bible is not going to change anything fundamental; indeed, the problem with the people we call fundamentalists is that they aren't fundamental at all; they get all worked up about abortion, homosexuality, obedience, conformity, judgment and the like but they don't get to the real fundamental of Christian fundamentalism which is Christ himself and our relationship with him. It is often made fun of as a bit of a trite question; but if I was in danger of stealing a computer or even of fiddling my expenses and asked the question: "What would Jesus do?" I know what answer I would arrive at pretty quickly; but if we are really close to Jesus we should not need to ask the question.

But, above all, we need to remember that our Jesus is not a warrior, nor a moralist, nor a judge, nor a philosopher; Jesus is our shepherd who loves us, our brother who values us, our saviour who will never abandon us; however could we resist wanting to get to know him better?