The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s036g14  Sunday 3  26/1/2014

'the kingdom of heaven has come near’   Matthew 4.17

My thoughts follow on from my sermon two weeks ago on 'the heavens were opened’.   The kingdom of heaven was near as the ‘great crowds’ who came together were welcomed, affirmed and included.   It didn’t especially matter if they found welcome, affirmation and inclusion coming to John the Baptist or coming to Jesus, the important thing is that in coming they found welcome, affirmation and inclusion, so that they would welcome, affirm and include others.   Actually Jesus would have been delighted if the crowds went to synagogue or temple and found welcome, affirmation and inclusion in the name of God.   If it was likely that they would have found these things, no doubt the crowds would have, just as enthusiastically.

Clearly the crowds didn’t need cajoling.   If ‘repent’ was the message of both John the Baptist and Jesus, people, en-masse, responded.   We have heard recently of the success of John the Baptist’s ministry (1) and now, after John had been arrested, Jesus enjoyed similar popularity.   There clearly was a huge hunger for welcome, affirmation and inclusion.   Ordinary people were prepared to go out of their way for this.   They readily confessed their sins.   Ordinary people risked the ire of the civil authorities, going to a politically unpopular prophet.

Ordinary people SAW something - indeed it is not far fetched to suggest that the crowds realised that 'the kingdom of heaven (had) come near’ as they were welcomed, affirmed and included.   They realised that their ‘sins, negligences and ignorances’ (2) were all pretty irrelevant when religious liberty was being freely offered to all.   They wanted to be a part of this movement which offered dignity to them and therefore to all - essentially limitless.   Ordinary people SAW something: how they and other ordinary people were welcomed, affirmed and included - the word ‘repent' was and is defined by their response.   If the church uses the word ‘repent’ because it is in the bible and in the sense of accepting compliance, there is little wonder the modern global community just sighs.   Surely ‘repent’ means turning from compliance to liberty.

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that 'good vicars mean growing churches’ (3)  but as a (deacon and) priest for the last 37 years I have come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t invite someone whose friendship I valued to many of the parishes where I served, where they were expected to conform to the expectations of the church and the existing congregation.   Of course there are many good people in those congregations and I am not especially referring to the half dozen malcontents found everywhere.  They were not places of welcome, affirmation and inclusion, they were places where people were welcomed only to perpetuate what was.   And this is not the fault of the congregations, it is the fault of the way people have been taught - where compliance was rewarded and individuality discouraged.

One has only to browse the ordination liturgies to see clearly the requirement of the ordained to perpetuate what is.   So some words in the service for the ordination of priests are: 'And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.’  (4)   Don’t rock the boat!   One wonders why such strictures are not laid on the church as a whole when dealing with (say) gay and lesbian members of a church?  

One has only to witness clergy being freed to say what they really believe after they retire.   Why is it that one can only really be oneself when on the fringes of the church?   Gay and lesbian persons cannot be themselves, services are about the congregation all singing on the same page whether they believe it or not, doubts are not entertained or expressed, orthodoxy is paramount.   And people are thereby diminished ..

I was interested to hear Mary Johnson, author of the book: 'Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir’ and former Sister of Charity following Mother Teresa who now describes herself as a humanist rather than a Catholic.  (5)

A quick ‘Google' search found these words: 'God is most glorified in us when we are most dependent on Him' and 'Just as a toddler is meant to depend on his father and mother for everything, we’re meant to depend on our heavenly Father for everything.   Again, we’ve been duped.   We thought we were supposed to grow out of this toddler phase.   No.   The whole of the Christian life is meant to look like the toddler phase in terms of dependency — we are to always depend on God for everything.’   I have said before that if ‘god' has an almighty inferiority complex that has to be assuaged by people constrained to remain infantile and therefore continually dependent on him / her and casting those who aren’t or don’t into hell, then that’s not a god worth worshipping.  

In the hospital where I work (and it is of course no different to any other hospital) we have a patient-focus.   It is not about the doctors and surgeons or the hospital as an organisation; we exist for the patient.   Patients are sometimes perturbed to be discharged quickly from hospital (we have a great kitchen :-) but the last thing a hospital wants is for people to stay, to remain dependent.   Success is discharge back to society, to those they love and who love them.   Failure is remaining in hospital.   But for the church success is keeping people, keeping them dependent!   Which, when viewed in these terms, reveals how unhealthy church can be.   So likewise, everything which magnifies Jesus thwarts Jesus’ attempts to magnify others.  

As I have become a grandfather in recent years, it is wonderful to see our children grow into adult human beings able to care for their own children as well as make a contribution to society.    I am so glad that they don’t continue to depend on me!  

So, looked at in this way, we ought not to be perturbed that modern secular society has left the church.   They have realised that whether the Word has taken away the sin of the world or not, living eternally dependent on God is not healthy.

I want to talk a bit more about sin and inclusion - for it seems to me that the obsession that some ‘christians’ seem to have about sin, faithfully reflecting church teaching, results in them being estranged from others, others who don’t feel a sense of unforgiven sin or who have dealt with it in a different way.  The religious experience for many good and faithful ‘christians’ is all about eternally dealing with one’s own personal sin, which is fundamentally narcissistic.   This portrays a God who initiates, commends and encourages narcissism.   This seems entirely at odds with Jesus, the Word made flesh, who takes away the sin of the world.   We have inherited a church which encourages narcissism and condemns those who aren’t or who have come to terms with it differently.   From the perspective of thinking people this is simply insane!   And if we dogmatically teach that God is behind all this, then there is no wonder that people have given up believing in God!

To be fair to the church I confess that I was fascinated to read that in the Church of England a draft baptism service 'An alternative baptism liturgy, which does not mention sin or the devil .. (which) express(es) the primacy of God's welcoming grace .. is currently being piloted in 450 parishes’ (6) - though not without opposition.

Which makes me think that the prime sin we have to deal with is religious narcissism and we deal with it by re-entering society.   So repentance is not returning to confession and attending worship, but turning from religious narcissism.   We find the kingdom of heaven as we, as church, engage in community.

Now if the kingdom of heaven has come near, it is clear that this hasn’t affected the propensity for me to do the wrong thing (sadly :-).   What has been affected is the realisation of the evils of religious entitlement, superiority and estrangement.   If our estimation of Jesus is that he has primarily dealt with the first we can say that he has been spectacularly unsuccessful and there seems little prospect of future success.   Our religion is only to stay the same, the survival of the fittest - and we are going to be the fittest church!

On the other hand, if our estimation of Jesus is that he deals with the second, then we are encouraged to follow Jesus into life and to embrace secular humanism.  It was in January 2008 that I last commented (7) that my edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives as the third meaning of the word ‘Catholic’; in Greek: kath holou, as 'embracing all’.  (8)

(1) Matthew 3.5
(8) Vol I p277