Sunday 28 October - Pentecost 23 - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

Trinity 22: EP: 1 Maccabees 2.42-66, Jude 1-4, 17-25

A few weeks ago, my old friend Hugh was passing through Edinburgh and we met for a coffee. Hugh is a retired Church of England vicar: he lives in Dorset and visits us occasionally. Hugh and I go back a long way. While we were each training for the ministry of our respective churches, for a year we were members of a small ecumenical group in Sheffield: we spent the autumn and winter working in heavy industry, and the spring and summer together in community, praying, studying and learning about the practicalities of pastoral care. Our teacher in all this was Father Roland Walls, later of the Rosslyn Community, and we all learnt a great deal from him, especially about the place of prayer, and laughter, in our everyday lives.  But, I asked Hugh when we met a few weeks ago, was it really Roland who told us a strange story about Jesus that I had kept remembering recently?  “Yes”, Hugh said, it was Roland who had told us the story, and to prove it we both recalled it in virtually the same words. It went like this: Jesus’ disciples are looking for him and find him in a forest, hitting his head against a tree. “Lord, Lord”, the disciples cry out, “what on earth are you doing?” And Jesus replies: “I’m thinking about what you are going to say about me after I’ve gone.”

The story of course is apocryphal: the word apocryphal comes from two Greek words meaning ‘not in the writings’, in the case of this story we might say, ‘not in the Bible’, which it certainly is not. I don’t know where Roland got it: it sounds as if it might just have come from one of the eccentric early Christian saints who lived in the Egyptian desert, or maybe Roland just made it up. But where- ever it came from, it sounds pretty strange and not a little irreverent. “I’m thinking about what you are going to say about me after I’ve gone.” Would Jesus really have said that? After all, hadn’t Jesus promised the disciples that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you”? [John 14.26] And hadn’t the Church, through its centuries of existence, relied on that promise in defining and developing its doctrines, just as it had early on, in deciding which of the many and various sayings attributed to Jesus and stories about him, to include in the Bible?

Well yes: “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you”. But would those who were taught and reminded, learn and remember everything? The Church, or those who had the upper hand in its Councils, did decide what to exclude from the Bible: but many of the many and various things written about Jesus that the Church excluded, continued to be part of popular Christian traditions right up to the time of the 16th century Reformation; and during the centuries until then, the excluded as well as the included stories were elaborated, often by the Church itself, and interwoven with countless other tales and legends from many different times and places. During the Middle Ages moreover, the Church developed elaborate ways of interpreting the Bible allegorically, in other words, ways of finding for their own day, hidden spiritual meanings in its stories and teachings. In some respects, of course, this was also what the first Christians had done when they interpreted the hidden meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures as foretelling Christ: but at the Reformation, the Protestants, wanting to recover the true faith, swept away all these mediaeval elaborations, the tales and legends and allegorical interpretation, in order to get back to what they saw as the plain meaning of Scripture.

But the meaning of Scripture perhaps was not as plain as the Protestants imagined. Even the early Christians, as the New Testament letters of Paul and others make clear, often disagreed on how to interpret what Jesus taught about many important questions of Christian doctrine; and while in due course the Church would officially decide about these questions, that was achieved only by the exclusion of dissident Christians, or even of minority Churches, some of which survive today. At the Reformation, disagreement and division only accelerated, and continues still, between Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, between old mainstream and new independent Churches, and even within the same Churches. Today, perhaps, many Christians are prepared to agree to disagree about their beliefs, but it was not always so, and beginning with the early split between the Christian Church and the Jewish Synagogue, the history of Christianity is punctuated with violence: persecution of Jews, crusades against Muslims, the Inquisition and the burning of heretics, slavery and dehumanising prejudice against minorities – much of this justified by selective biblical quotations. In the light – or darkness - of all this, the apocryphal words of Jesus begin to have a ring of truth: “I’m thinking about what you are going to say about me after I’ve gone.”

What can we say about this? In my conversation with Hugh a few weeks ago, he quoted another saying: “I define a doctrine, I make an enemy. I live a doctrine, I make a friend.” Doctrines are how Christians try to define what they believe, but as the saying implies, the more closely they define their doctrines, the more likely it is that other Christians will find reasons to disagree with them, and at worst to be their enemies. And the reason for this, I think, is quite simple. What doctrines try to define is profoundly important: it concerns the undoubted reality we encounter in prayer and worship, in forgiving and being forgiven, in being challenged and encouraged on life’s way. But the reality we encounter, like God’s peace, really does pass, go beyond, human understanding. However intimately we may know God ‘by acquaintance’, as the philosophers put it, we cannot know about God ‘by description’. We can evoke the experience of God poetically or musically: but if we try to describe God in everyday language that we can understand, we soon find ourselves talking more about ourselves than about God; and when we do that, other Christians, who encounter the same reality, but whose experience of everyday life and language is different from ours, often will disagree with us. Then surely, especially if disagreements divide us, the apocryphal words of Jesus again begin to take on a ring of truth: “I’m thinking about what you are going to say about me after I’ve gone.”

We see an unlovely side of all this perhaps in tonight’s second reading, where in his letter, Jude, possibly the brother of Jesus, rails bitterly against false and licentious teachers who are in danger of corrupting an early Christian church and causing divisions. No-one now knows who these people were or which church was involved, and for that matter we do not know Jude’s enemies’ side of the story: they may well have been more innocent than he describes them. Perhaps Jude’s tone of voice – a bit like someone else railing against ‘fake news’ – was one reason why the Church took some time to include his letter in the Bible, and why much later, some Protestants were doubtful about keeping it there. Protestants, incidentally, also excluded from the Bible the book from which our first reading tonight came. The first book of the Maccabees is about a successful revolt, a century before Jesus, by a Jerusalem priestly family against Greek overlords who were imposing idolatrous worship in the temple. But it was not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, only included in the mediaeval Bible via a Greek translation, and finally relegated by the Protestants into what is called the Apocrypha, sometimes but not always included in modern English translations of the Bible.

In the light of Jesus’ apocryphal ‘what you are going to say about me after I’ve gone’, can we see anything positive in our readings tonight from the apocryphal first book of Maccabees and the nearly apocryphal letter of Jude? I believe we can. Despite not being included in the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of the Maccabean revolt is full of the violence and bloodshed so characteristic of what has been called ‘the gory side’ of the Old Testament. This is difficult to reconcile with the teachings of Jesus: but in what the dying old Maccabean leader Mattathias calls his ‘zeal for the law’, we hear his defiance against overlords who tried to put idols in the place belonging to the living God of Israel, whose being, like his peace, passes human understanding, let alone description. But idols are not just things of wood and stone: our ideas about God can be idols of the imagination if we think they allow us to describe God who passes human understanding in everyday language that we can understand. Much of current atheism I think is the result of people rejecting not God, but idols of the Christian imagination about God, as if God could be understood and described in the same everyday language as everything else in the world. But the remedy for this is not to try harder to describe and define God. It is, rather, to quietly go on contemplating the life, teaching, suffering and enigmatic resurrection of Jesus, until we see shining through it, like light through a stained  glass window, the mystery of God, whom we do not understand, but who understands us.  In that respect, the letter of Jude does in the end have positive words to say to us – words from tonight’s reading about the one who is able to keep us from falling, and about praying in the Holy Spirit and keeping ourselves in the love of God. It is not in defining, but in living the doctrine that we are allowed intimate knowing of, but not about, God, and in that knowing, knowing the peace that passes understanding, of being understood, forgiven and unconditionally loved.