Cleansing the Temple

Wherever you go in the Holy Land, you’re aware of the security situation. Roadblocks, checkpoints, settlements are everywhere. With so many armed guards around, the pilgrim feels safe, if a little uneasy, but there is one particular place where you have to be very careful

The Temple Mount, the site where the Jewish temple once stood, is now a mosque. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but the wisdom of doing so depends on the political atmosphere at the time. Recently the state of Israel installed scanners and cameras – but had to take them down following widespread riots.

Some Jewish people would like the temple area back – they are supported by some Christians who, wrongly I think, believe that Jesus will only return once the temple has been rebuilt. Other Jewish people would never walk on the Temple Mount – how, they say, could you be sure you weren’t walking on the site of the Holy of Holies? This sacred ground, significant for three religions, is one of the most contested places on earth

It has been so for centuries. Jesus must have been to the temple many times before, but in our reading something seems to snap. He sees the buying and selling, hears the shouts of the traders and the cries of the animals, feels the pushing and shoving, senses the greed. As verse 15 of Chapter 2 in John’s gospel says, He takes time to make a whip out of cords, and in a premeditated act of violence, drives the traders from the temple. Do we feel uncomfortable about that? Jesus said many pacifist things, he was never violent to protect himself, but he did act for others

‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’ My old college chapel had a wonderful early stained glass window at the entrance, showing a suitably dynamic Jesus casting out the traders. Bill Clinton was being shown round, and someone, I think it was Dennis Skinner, quipped: ‘You see, Mr President, Jesus was no fan of the capitalist system.’

But it’s not that Jesus disapproves of money. Or of buying and selling. After all, his parables recognise trade as a necessary part of the world we live in. Done well, commerce can enable human thriving. God can bless business as part of his general blessing on creation.

Part of the problem with the temple traders was the cheating and greed. You’ll know what it’s like going to a tourist site and being faced with a multitude of ways of having your wallet lightened. The piles of overpriced tat. My particular favourite was the world’s most expensive lettuce. To feed the giraffes you could pay a pound a leaf. I reckon the zoo was making 2000 per cent profit. Then there’re the fees for cameras, and special charges for essential items: the shoes you have to wear to stop your feet scratching the floor, or whatever.

The Temple authorities had hit on a couple of nifty wheezes. First, there was the so-called sanctuary shekel. Roman money wasn’t the same as the money that Moses or Solomon would have used. So the religious leaders decided the temple had to have its own currency. And if you have two currencies, you have to have money changers, and an opportunity to take a cut

And then if you want to offer a sacrifice? Well sir, the law says that God will only accept the best lamb or goat from your flock. It has to be without blemish. But to make it easy, the priests have pre-approved some lambs. And your luck’s in sir, I happen to have one here today. Only 50% premium over the Jerusalem market, sir. What’s that? You’d like to bring your own? Oh no sir, that would never do sir, the priests wouldn’t allow that. It has to be approved. Just hand over your sanctuary shekels

Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus saying ‘The Scriptures say my house will be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.’ Jesus burns with righteous indignation, he longs for justice. It’s made worse because this market was probably in the Gentile area.

In other words, the outer part of the temple which was set aside for non-Jews to seek God had been taken over by traders. The mission of the temple, the chance for it to be a light to all nations, had been pushed out by profit. It was the vulnerable and the outsider who lost the most

Sadly, it is the same today. I renewed my road tax recently. Not everyone has £130 to hand to spend in one go, so there’s the option of paying by monthly direct debit. But it will cost you. Several pounds extra. In many ways, like prepayment energy meters, people are penalised just for being poor. In our business arrangements, we might well try to give people incentives to spend more, or to cover extra costs incurred through different payment methods – but we should ask, when does that stop being fair? Do we end up discriminating against those who have little? How can we ensure a level playing field

Just think how much trouble could have been avoided if there been the willingness to stick to the Ten Commandments. Funny to say that about a centre of religion, isn’t it? The letter of the law, do not covet, should have banned those cynical get rich quick schemes. The spirit of the law underlying do not steal, should have provided for compassion for the poor. And what of the command ‘You shall have no other God but me’. Did they not realise that in charging people for access to God, they revealed their true priorities, unveiling their idol to Mammon?

There’s a problem with cheating, and there’s also a problem with the location. This is God’s temple. The footstool of the almighty. The place where his Name dwells. The means of sacrifice which brings people close to God. The temple is special – in a way that we may struggle to understand. For while we see our church buildings as holy, we mean something very different. Church buildings are places in which we worship God, we may encounter his presence here, sense generations of prayer which have soaked into the walls. But if it came to it, we could worship God just as well in a hall. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, and the early Methodists, often met under trees or by a prominent stone.

The temple was different. For the temple provided the way that people could come close to God. They didn’t imagine that God lived there – but it was certainly the special place where he was present like no other. So the temple was where sacrifice was offered – to give thanks, to pray for blessing, most of all to forgive sins. If you had done wrong, and you sought God’s forgiveness, you had to sacrifice at the temple

I get a bit annoyed when there are kiosks charging a fee to enter a cathedral but I know that I can go anywhere else if I really want to pray. The same choice was not open to the 1st Century Jew. That’s why Jesus got so angry: people were being charged for access to God. They were being swindled when they came for forgiveness. How can you set up barriers between people and God for profit

Access to God is free to everyone. Through Jesus, anyone can pray. Because of Jesus and what he did on the cross, anyone can ask for forgiveness, and it comes without price. Several places in this gospel reading point to Jesus’ unique role

Firstly, verse 17 is a quote from Psalm 69: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’. Perhaps John sees Jesus as the perfect man, the one in whom all human aspirations are most sincerely felt

He is also fully divine. The whole episode reminds us of the Old Testament book Malachi, Chapter 3, verses 1 and 2: ‘The Lord whom you seek will come to his Temple. But who may abide the day of his coming?’ The people had been saying ‘If only God would come. If only he would return to his temple.’ Yes, he will come, says Malachi. But be careful for what you wish. Judgement always begins with the house of God. His people must be purified first. When we long for God to act, when we pray for revival – and I hope that you do – we must also be ready for God to purify us. Greed, self-deception, injustice – it must all be cast out of our hearts. We must allow the Holy Spirit to purify his temple.

When we think of the body as a temple, we might well remember St Paul writing about how the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. In this chapter, Jesus means something slightly different. 

The Jewish leaders ask him: ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ He replies in v 19: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ How can he do that when it took 46 years to build and still wasn’t finished? Well, says John, the temple of which he spoke was his body

Remember, the temple was about forgiveness. Sacrifice. It was there to being people close to God. Now in Jesus, the symbol has been replaced by reality. The Old Testament sign has been fulfilled. We no longer need the temple as a way to get close to God – because in Jesus God has come to us. We do not need to go to a temple for forgiveness, because Jesus told people their sins are forgiven. We do not sacrifice animals because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for sin – he is the Passover lamb sacrificed for us so that we could come close to God

In other words, Jesus replaces the temple. We can go a step further. He is the real temple. He does perfectly everything that the temple building was trying to do

What does this mean? Firstly our church buildings are not like the temple. Yes they are places of worship where we gather together to experience the presence of God – but they are not the way that we come to God. We cannot just read the Bible and wherever it says temple think ‘church building’. That also means we have a different attitude to sacred space – we are able to use it in different ways and for a wider variety of purpose.

Secondly, the Jerusalem temple should not be a crucial thing for Christians. It was a sign pointing to Christ, and is now fulfilled. Judaism learnt to manage without the temple when the Romans destroyed it. Christianity has no need for the temple. We have to recognise the modern location is a political reality, a flashpoint but we must not believe those who want to rebuild the Jerusalem temple.

For, thirdly, it is Jesus who brings us all to God. The temple had different grades of holiness – for priests, men, women and last of all non-Jews. But whoever we are, we can come to God equally through Christ. There’s no hierarchy of Christian believers. Wherever we are, we can have a relationship with God through Christ. Even if someone is alone – housebound, in prison, lost in the middle of nowhere, they are in the presence of God. He sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts – he is with us always, so that each one of us becomes the temple, the place of his Presence. Let us acknowledge his presence with us now. Amen.


Burning Bush

Barely two months ago I was sat in Bristol Cathedral ready for Elveen’s ordination. The cathedral authorities have obviously realised that people are a captive audience while they’re waiting, so on the first few pages of the order of service are potted biographies of those about to be made deacon

One in particular caught my eye. He wrote‘God is never in a hurry! Forty-five years ago, when I was lodging in a Leicestershire farmhouse, the farmer’s wife said to me: ‘You’ll be ordained one day.’ Her vision was greater than mine, but I prayed about it and saw myself as an old man wearing a dog collar. Spurred on by that I’ve tried the ordination door more than once over the years but it was always closed. God had more shaping to do on me…but he gave me a promise to hang on to: ‘My word will accomplish what I desire’. So in God’s timing the old man with the dog collar is here at last. Thank you Lord. He is the God who fulfils his purposes for us all.

Moses’ experience was like that, waiting a long time, being shaped by God before he was finally ready to fulfil his call. Forty long years ago, the young man Moses had left the palace of the Egyptian princess who had adopted him, and gone to discover his roots. Finding his own people, the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, Moses was furious. He attacked and killed a slave driver. But Pharaoh heard about it and Moses fled into the wilderness

He survived by working as a shepherd. Humbled, and probably believing this was now his life, he married the daughter of a local priest. We can only imagine what the journey he travelled: of frustration, wasted talent, regret, humility and finally acceptance. Only then, forty years later, was God able to use him

It was only once he’d learnt to listen, to trust, once he’d learnt to do things God’s way, that God could use him. The Israelites would never listen to a spoilt Egyptian princeling. But a man who had suffered, who like them had endured hardship – they could respect him. Sometimes we too need work done on us, character honed, before we can fulfil the call God has given us. Sometimes, like Moses, we have to be set aside for a while, become insignificant, in order to be used

If so, God may need to reassure us that his plans for us are faithful. As he guides us, we learn more about him. In this passage about the burning bush from Exodus chapter 3v1-15, the story of Moses call is interwoven with the revelation of God

Why did God appear in a burning bush? It’s really odd. To Abraham and Jacob, God appeared as a person, or they heard his voice. To Samson’s mother and to David, God came as the Angel of the Lord, a heavenly messenger. The only other time I can think of that God appears not as a personal form but through an object is when Abraham sees a burning brazier making a covenant. There again fire speaks of the presence of God.


The thorn bush, most useless and lowliest of plants may encourage Moses. There is nowhere God is absent, nothing God cannot use. Moses feels his life has been wasted, he has lost all confidence. He is like the thornbush – but the fire of God can blaze in him. Thorns also may speak of suffering, the slavery of the Israelites and the hard road Moses must travel. God is not absent when we suffer – we may even feel his presence most strongly. After all, it is on the cross when Jesus wears the crown of thorns, that we see the love of God revealed most clearly. Perhaps the burning bush even anticipates the incarnation: God’s presence united with frail human flesh yet not consuming it.

There is a mystery here, and I think that’s deliberate. The burning bush speaks to us of a God who is both with us, and yet greater than we can imagine. Who appears in a blaze of fire, but we cannot get too close. Who speaks rational words so that he can be heard, yet you must take off your shoes because you stand on holy ground. Who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – they are alive with him and in heaven behold his face – yet sinful man covers his face because he is afraid to look on God

This is the God we worship, who makes himself known but cannot be fully comprehended. Who reveals himself as a mystery, and calls us on, deeper and deeper into that mystery. A God who when he is asked says name says ‘I will be what I will be’ – in other words he has the complete freedom to be himself, not to be tied down by our classifications., no-one can have power over him by knowing his name

In our prayers and worship we must hold both of these insights together: that God reveals himself to us and makes himself known, but that he is always greater than we can imagine. In our prayers we might imagine pictures of God, but be ready to lay them aside as inadequate. In our hymns and preaching we use words to describe Him, but we must always remember that words cannot encompass his majesty. Our creeds speak of how God has made himself known, but they cannot exhaust the mystery. When we come to worship, let’s not expect it to be as it always is, but be ready to let God be God

In speaking of a God who is transcendent, we should not imagine that he is distant or uncaring. The God who spoke to Moses did so because he had a task for Moses to do: to set God’s people free.  Just look at the verbs in v.7: ‘I have observed the misery, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.’ God has heard the cry of the Israelites, he has seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them, and he has come to rescue them.

God does see. He observes the misery of human trafficking, he hears the cry of the bonded labourer, he knows the suffering of the refugee, he sees the racial divisions – and he still sends his people to rescue and heal. This is part of our vocation as followers of Christ

Of course, there are people who say that the gospel message must come first, and that therefore the church ought to leave social action to the state or to non-Christians. To say that is to ignore the nature of God. It forgets that wherever Christ went he both preached the message and healed the sick. The proclamation of the Kingdom cannot be separated out from the acts of the Kingdom, for it is about life in all its fullness.

People know this – a church which preaches without acting will be accused of hypocrisy, but those like HtB which have a prison and homeless ministry gain the right to be heard. The mission of the Bible Society is to give people Scriptures in their own language, but they also give tents and food to Syrian refugees – you can’t read the Good News if you’ve got nowhere to sit and a hungry stomach. Christians must follow the heart of God and act in love, as well as explaining what we believe. Neither is complete without the other

Making a difference in the world is a long journey. It’s over a year since Jonathan’s campaign began – to give children with special educational needs a genuine opportunity to be taught to read and write. It’s been a long haul. The Government has been enthusiastic, there have been great photo opportunities, videos blogs and articles which have impacted thousands, but no policy has yet changed. Whenever there is the prospect of change, vested interests oppose you. Some you hoped would be allies just don’t get it, or disagree on the right approach. As Moses found, even the ones you hoped to help turn out to be discouraged, tired, too busy just coping, maybe even unable to dream that things could be different.

Perhaps sensing this, Moses objects in v.11: ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ Who indeed is up to this task

But the point is not who Moses is, but the key thing is who is with Moses. ‘I will be with you’ says God. We may say ‘Who am I? The task is too great. I have no experience, ability.’ But God says ‘I will be with you’. With God all things are possible. When his Holy Spirit moves we just need to get on board

He longs to bless his people. He promises Moses that he will set them free, he will bring them up to a land flowing with milk and honey. One day soon they will worship God on that very mountain, and receive the law which outlines their relationship with God. God wishes to bless his people, to set them free from captivity and bring them into a right relationship with him. This is about the message of the gospel, and the liberation the gospel brings. He calls us all to work and pray in that great task. Amen.





Summer fruit – Amos 8

Last week Jonathan and I made a summer pudding. It’s the first one I’ve ever made, it was wonderful – a bit sloppy but packed full of sweet juicy delicious berries. Summer fruit is such a treat and a blessing.

It was in the time of Amos too. If you had a basket of summer fruit, like the one he describes in verse 1 of our reading, then it meant you were doing alright. If you could afford to spare land for fruit bushes, and the time to tend them, then you were comfortably off, not scrabbling to get by. Those who were poor would use all their patch of land to grow the essentials of life: wheat and barley. They couldn’t aspire to fruit.

So when the 8th century BC prophet Amos describes Israel as being like a basket of summer fruit, it tells us a bit about that society. We know from history that the Northern Kingdom in those days was doing well. The neighbouring superpowers, Egypt and Assyria, were too preoccupied with internal issues to cause problems. Israel’s King Jeroboam had crushed his old enemy, the Syrians. There was a peace dividend: stability gave rise to wealth and an affluent society.

But wealth brings its own dangers. In his book on the English Countryside Oliver Rackham relates how the most difficult times for nature, the times of greatest habitat loss, have not been when everyone is poor and scraping a living. You might think desperately poor peasants would cut down woods and burn heaths in an attempt to use every last bit of land. But actually the times of greatest ecological danger have been the times of national wealth – when trees have been felled for grandiose building projects and industrial charcoal.

When people have wealth, they often want more. Money can easily accumulate in the hands of a few. Across many societies, historic and present-day, we see the same pattern: an increasing division between the haves and the have-nots. Many benefit from rising levels of income but some are left behind. It was like that in Amos’ time and he speaks up with the passion of God for the poor.

God is a God of justice and he sees. In verse 5 God hears the merchants saying ‘When will the Sabbath be over so that we can offer wheat for sale?’ Sounds familiar? In the UK Sunday trading laws were recently under pressure. Large stores said changes would raise another £1.5 billion. But for whom? Who gets to share it? And at what cost? Shop assistants feared they would be forced to work all hours, and not have a special day with the family. In the end Conservative backbenchers, Labour and the SNP decided it was too great a cost for society.

In Amos’ time the traders wanted the religious festival to end so that they could make money, especially by cheating the poor. V.5 describes a market scene – the merchant is measuring out the grain but his jug is a small measure. When the customer comes to pay and weighs out silver on the scales, the weight the merchant uses is overheavy – the customers are paying more for less. In the end the poor resort to selling their children into slavery, which is what verse 6 describes, in order to feed themselves on the poor quality sweepings of the wheat.

Nowadays those who have less can often lose more because of their lack of economic power. For instance, the Citizens Advice Bureau recently found that people who buy their electricity with a coin operated meter are much more likely to be on low incomes, but spend about £200 a year more than people paying by direct debit. Of course, they’re paying for predictability, but it doesn’t help them escape the poverty trap.

Part of the answer will be for those of us who are better off to use our spending power responsibly. The decisions we make can change the situation for people many miles away. Have you ever researched your favourite clothes shops online to find out what their ethics are? Would you change your shop on that basis? What are conditions like for the people who make our electronic goods? Traidcraft are currently running a campaign about some FTSE 100 copper miners and the impact of their operations on local villages. Which company we invest in matters.

God cares about all these things. It may sound like politics, but politics comes down to everyday life, and so does faith. God is a God of justice who longs for people to be treated fairly. The picture of God that the Bible reveals to us is a God of love, and love hates it when people are hurt. Jesus shows us the passion of God when he cleanses the temple of the cheating traders.

Sometimes cleansing is what is needed. Sometimes the situation is so bad that society has to start again with a clean slate. That’s why Amos describes a basket of fruit – it has a double meaning. Yes, fruit represents affluence. But in Hebrew the word for fruit also sounds like the word for ‘end’. And as God says in verse 2, the end has come upon my people Israel. God will not pass by their injustice any longer.

Verse 8 may be referring to an earthquake, as the ground rises and falls like a river. Verse 9 sounds like very much like an eclipse. Amos sees these as signs of upheaval; natural phenomena which act as symbols of disaster to come. Just thirty years later, Assyria invaded Israel and Amos’ words were fulfilled. What seemed so unlikely came to pass.

Their religion did not protect them. Instead, in verse 10, their feasts were turned into mourning and their songs into lamentation. Elsewhere in his book, Amos tells us that outward religion flourished at that time. The people loved their seasonal celebrations. Feast days were well attended. The places of worship were well maintained. But it was only an outward form.

Amos criticises religion which makes no difference to its adherents’ behaviour. Real faith changes lives. The Israelites thought they were in a privileged position before God – instead their special relationship brought special responsibility too. Anyone who claims to follow the God of the Bible must take his passion for justice seriously.

If we do not, we run the same risk that Amos describes in v.11. There will be a famine, not of bread or water, but of the Word of the Lord. Amos says that anyone who persistently hardens their conscience eventually loses it. A society that always ignores God’s voice eventually loses the ability to hear it, and perhaps even loses the people who will proclaim it.

So our Old Testament reading challenges us to take justice seriously. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had seemed wealthy, at peace. But that affluence masked deep divisions in society, and without God’s protection it collapsed. Amos warns us that nations reap what they sow. Wealth will not benefit our society if not everyone has a stake in it. People who feel excluded turn to the extremes and a divided society cannot stand.

But there is hope here. Why would Amos write if he did not hope that things could change? Why bother if disaster could not be averted? Whenever the Bible speaks of judgement it does so so that its hearers may repent. It is too late for Amos’ original audience, but who knows how future generations might respond? Let us then ask God to show us how we can make a better, fairer world.

The moral of the story

Four missing, presumed dead, in power station collapse. Ebola devastates long term health of those who survive it. One in every two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country. Just a handful of recent headlines. How could anyone remain unmoved? Many of us do what we can to help, or give to charity. But we might also wonder ‘why?’ Why do these things happen? Why is there this suffering?

People have always asked this question. Our gospel reading makes that clear – St Luke describes how Jesus responded to two contemporary events. All we know about the two tragedies in the reading is what’s written here. It seems that Pilate, the notoriously cruel Roman governor had ordered the killing of some Galileans despite the fact they were engaged in sacred duties. Siloam, in v. 4 is part of Jerusalem and it appears that a tower suddenly collapsed on a crowd.

Why did these things happen? The people who spoke to Jesus thought they had an answer. But Jesus refutes it: ‘Do you think these Galileans suffered this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No I tell you.’

They thought that bad things happen because you’ve been bad. Plenty of people think that. Faced with suffering it can be tempting to find clarity in easy answers – such as ‘well, they must have done something to deserve it’. Our tabloid press likes that view because it imagines a world where bad things happen to bad or careless people, while those who enjoy good things can carry on doing so, confident in the belief that they must have earned them. The people who came to Jesus thought that the suffering were getting their just deserts. Maybe they wanted Jesus to moralise.

And you can understand why they thought so. After all, it is true to a degree, that if you do bad things you suffer the consequences. If you overeat you feel ill. If you steal from your employer you eventually get caught and dismissed. If you mess up your environment, you find it can no longer support you.

And the people in Jesus’ time saw that pattern in their history too. It had been drilled into them at school. That reading from the second book of Kings describes how Israel went into Exile because they turned away from God. Right at the beginning of the passage: ‘This occurred’ – in other words the King of Assyria invaded and took the people captive – because ‘they had sinned against the Lord their God.’

This passage is important because it’s a kind of conclusion to a lot of the story that has come before. The writer of Kings chooses this important event to teach a crucial moral lesson. The writer draws on the Biblical story thus far to make a point about God’s people. The Lord had brought them up out of the Land of Egypt. He had rescued them and given them a land to live in. God gave them his law to show them the best way to live. They were meant to be a blessing to all the other nations – a kind of example or experiment in living God’s way.

Sadly it went wrong. The books of Kings – and Judges and Samuel – describe a cycle of events. Israel disobeys God’s law, God warns them of the consequences, they ignore God, bad things happen, the people turn back to God, God rescues them. It’s ok for a bit, and then it starts all over again. But a little bit worse, a little bit more territory lost to the enemies, until eventually there’s nothing left and Israel goes into Exile.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Old Testament seems so full of threats and judgement this is why. If you’ve ever read the prophets and felt, this just seems to be warning after warning, that’s why. Every time it goes wrong, God sends a prophet. The cycle goes round several time, so a lot of prophets get sent. It’s God sending his messengers to call his people time and again. He’s giving them another chance to turn back and change. It’s a sign of mercy.

Perhaps you feel it makes for heavy reading? A bit gloomy or threatening? I can understand that. But think about it: the alternative would be that God didn’t care. If he didn’t speak to warn it would be as if a parent saw their toddler wandering onto a train track, yet didn’t rush to pick them up, didn’t even bother to yell ‘get off the line’. Who would do that? The repeated warnings of judgement in the Old Testament are a sign that God does not want to carry them out.

Tragically in this case the child kept going back until the inevitable happened. Israel and then Judah went into Exile. Even then God was merciful – seventy years later the people began to return. So people in Jesus’ time had learnt: actions have consequences. It was deeply ingrained: if you are bad, bad things will happen. Not always – we see that sometimes the worse characters seem to get off scot free.

Some of the Psalms deal with this problem: why do the wicked flourish asks Psalm 73? But then, says the Psalmist, ‘I understood their final destiny’. Evil people will not get away with it forever – they will be accountable to God the judge. Sin will not go unpunished.

But does that mean that if you suffer you must therefore have been bad? NO! It’s a big mistake to make. Just because bad deeds often cause suffering, doesn’t mean that those who suffer must have been bad.

Saying so would be tremendously insensitive and wrong. Look at the children in Syria. They suffer because of human wickedness. But it’s not their fault. The people who spoke to Jesus should have known this – they knew the book of Job, in which Job suffers even though he is a righteous man. Jesus himself taught this – when his disciples pointed out a blind man and asked whether it was the blind man who sinned or his parents so that he was born blind, Jesus said ‘Neither.’ If proof were lacking, surely the ultimate example is Jesus: he suffered greatly but never sinned.

Saying that sin causes suffering is not the same thing as saying suffering is always caused by a particular sin, or bad karma for that matter. It’s a logical error. It’s like saying all elephants are big and grey – therefore all big and grey things are elephants. They’re not – big and grey things can also be tower blocks and battleships!

Yet if we stop there, we would miss what Jesus actually says here. Jesus chooses to make a very different point. Perhaps because his questioners are self-righteous and inviting him to judge, Jesus says something very challenging. Look at verse 3: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ And again: ‘Those eighteen, do you think they were worse offenders? No. But unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’

All people are in the same boat, says Jesus. We all need God forgiveness, we all need to repent, because we have all done wrong. The questioners wanted to divide humanity into the good guys and the bad guys. But Jesus tells them that unless they repent, they too will perish. Certainly some may appear better people than others, but all have failed to do what God requires.

Imagine a machine which consists of a headset and a video screen. And when you put on the headset, it replays every event in your life for all to see. Would anyone volunteer to do such a thing? I wouldn’t. I have things of which I am ashamed. I expect we all do. During Lent we reflect on ourselves and acknowledge our need of God. We repent – which means turn back to him, receive his forgiveness, and try to do the things he wants.

We turn back while we can. That’s the point of the parable of the fig tree in verses 6-9. God is like the gardener. He looks for good fruit. What happens if he finds none? Perhaps he will give us another chance. But Jesus says don’t try his patience. Don’t take his mercy for granted. Jesus says make sure you do respond to God. Repent, be sorry for your sins, trust in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you, change your ways and do good. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. And don’t delay! The message of this parable is: If you don’t act now, it may be too late.

For one never knows when the end may come. I’ve been in a car crash. There’s no time to put your spiritual affairs in order. It’s too quick. In the split second before impact my thoughts were: ‘Car! Brake!’ And, bizarrely, ‘If I survive this, it’s goodbye to the no-claims bonus.’ And then the airbags went off. Not very spiritual thoughts if that had been my last moments. If disaster strikes there’s no time to prepare to meet God. We need to be at peace with him all the time.

Perhaps I’m preaching to the converted here. If so remember: Jesus talks about bearing fruit. It’s not just about making a commitment to follow Christ, but letting that response transform your life, affect your actions. For that is what it means to flourish. A fruitful fig tree is a fig tree that is fulfilled. It is doing what it was designed to do. Similarly, only when we are in relationship with God will we find a deep and lasting satisfaction.

There has been a challenge in today’s reading: we all need to repent. No matter who we are, we need to say sorry and return to God. Jesus speaks the truth, isn’t afraid of the hard word: don’t delay, it may be too late, don’t try God’s patience. But there is also a promise: Come back to God, live his way, bear fruit and you will find new life, forgiveness, purpose and meaning with him. Amen.

On the subject of Hell

Mark 9:38-50

In Heaven: The cooks are French, The policemen are English, The mechanics are German (until the middle of last week!), The lovers are Italian, The bankers are Swiss.

In Hell: The cooks are English, The policemen are German, The mechanics are French, The lovers are Swiss, The bankers are Italian.

I thought I’d start with a little bit of a joke today. As you may have guessed from the reading, it’s a pretty serious topic in the sermon. Hell is a subject that we don’t often discuss, or preach on. Headlines like ‘Church abolishes hell’ give the impression that perhaps we don’t believe it these days. Although apparently 14% of British men believe that if hell exists, they’re going there – but only 6% of British women feel the same. We might wonder, how can there be a hell if God is a God of love?

So as we look at Jesus’ teaching, please pray for me. As v.42 tells us, it’s a serious responsibility – I don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of anyone! If I err on one side, I might end up painting a picture of God which is harsh and lacking in mercy. Which would be untrue. If I err on the other side, we might miss out on hearing one of the most serious warnings Jesus ever gave. Let us pray:

‘Lord, grant that I may proclaim your word faithfully, that your Spirit will sort the wheat from the chaff, and that we may all respond to your justice, love and mercy. Amen.’

Have you ever really put your foot in? Said something so embarrassing that you wish the earth would swallow you up? How do you get out of it – make a joke? Change the subject? John the apostle thought the best thing to do would be try and drop someone else in it.

We join our reading at v.38, just after last week’s story about Jesus rebuking his disciples for their selfish ambition. Clearly uncomfortable, John decides to divert attention elsewhere: ‘Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name and he we tried to stop him because he was not following us.’ In his ministry Jesus set people free from the powers of darkness. A stranger was copying him. Is that a problem?

Jesus looks beyond who’s in and out. He looks to the principle: ‘Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. (How wonderful if churches could put this into practice and not compete with each other, instead co-operating and rejoicing in one another’s success).

Jesus wants to encourage this openness, which follows the openness and love of God. He says: ‘whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward’. He paints a picture of a God who seeks excuses to bless us, who wants everyone to know Christ, who rewards even the tiniest gift offered in Jesus’ name. Our heavenly Father is a God of love who calls us his children. There’s a wideness in his mercy which is wider than the sea.

It’s precisely because of that wideness that God takes so seriously the problem of those who cause others to fall. In v.42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Tough words. But Jesus says them precisely because God wants everyone to be able to come to him. He doesn’t want any to stumble. If anyone stops someone else, by their harshness, by their lack of love, by their false teaching, then that is a big problem.

I’m a school governor. If I go into a class and I see a teacher who is clear, who has firm but fair discipline, then that tells me she cares about the children. She creates an environment where all can learn and excel. Because the children matter to her she won’t let one or two spoil it for the others. However if I visit a class which is chaotic, I reckon either the teacher lacks ability or doesn’t care for the children. For love knows right and wrong, love sets out boundaries of acceptable behaviour, love has a sense of justice.

So if we look at the awful scenes on our news and long for justice to be done, if we see suffering and long for evil warmongers to be reined in, then how much more does God! God’s Love demands that he condemn wickedness. Love requires that something be done and the evildoer not get away with it forever. Love leads God to promise that he will renew the world, purging from it evil and therefore those who cling to evil. The Bible shows us that a God of love has to be a God of justice. If God does not do justice, then he does not love or he is not God.

Which brings us to the difficult subject of hell… Let’s be clear. Jesus teaches that there is a hell. Yes, he uses dramatic imagery but his warning is serious. Jesus says hell is a risk for all of us. Who is Jesus addressing in v.43 onwards? Is he in a prison speaking to murderers and rapists? No. Is he saying ‘This doesn’t apply to you decent people, but when you meet a dictator you might like to warn him’? No. He’s talking to his followers, his disciples when he says ‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.’

He spoke to his disciples. People like us. If it weren’t a real risk, why tell them? Let’s think about that a bit more… Many religions have the idea that you do your best to be good and try and avoid being bad. Many religions have taught that what happens to you after this life depends on whether your good deeds outweigh your bad. The Egyptian god of the dead was even shown carrying little weighing scales.

This idea seems easy to understand, but there are some problems with it. For instance, if when you were a kid you nicked a lollipop from the corner-shop then that weighs down your bad side. But by how much? And how many times do you have to help old ladies cross the road in order to get your good side back up again?

And where do you draw the line? Imagine a great queue of people waiting to get into heaven. An angel comes along with a sign – bit like being at a theme park where you get those white signs at points in the queue which say ‘1/2 an hour to wait’. But the one the angel’s carrying is a barrier that says heaven one side and hell the other.

And he plonks it right next to me. But on the wrong side! And I’m like ‘why here? Why me? What good’s the next bloke done that I haven’t?’ And the angel explains ‘well, there’s an awful lot of people that have ever lived, so the differences between you are really quite small. This just happens to be the cutoff point. He’s going to heaven because in the course of his lifetime he said one more prayer than you.’ ‘Well that’s not fair. Can’t you move it down a bit further?’ Of course, you can imagine what the next guy would say and so on.

It doesn’t work. The idea that if we do enough good we get to heaven, and too much bad we go to hell doesn’t hold together. It’s trite, simplistic. It’s not what the Bible teaches. The Christian faith believes something much more radical, more profound, more challenging and yet more solid hope than simply doing our best could ever be.

The truth taught by the apostles, taught by Jesus himself, is that if God in Christ hadn’t intervened to save us, hell would be the destiny of us all. The Bible teaches that by going our own way we cut ourselves off from God – the source of all life. Bluntly: we all deserve hell. When people in the Old Testament encountered God, they hid their faces, they took off their shoes because they stood on holy ground. They knew they were unworthy to enter the presence of the holy God. It’s not a difference of degree between us and God – as if he is more pure. It’s a difference of kind. God is God, and we are sinners.

I won’t be surprised if someone reacts against this: ‘Yes, I know I’ve done wrong, I don’t dispute that. But this emphasis on sinners is a bit strong – I’m sure I’m not that bad.’ If you’re feeling like that, imagine yourself saying it before God himself. I can’t. God’s spirit convicts me.

It is important not to misunderstand this idea. It’s not saying we’re incapable of doing good – many people, religious and not, do a great deal of good things. It’s not saying we’re utterly depraved. But it is saying we have gone our own way, not God’s. It’s more profound than saying we’ve done the odd wrong thing – it’s saying there’s a spiritual problem at the root of those deeds, a fundamental pride, self-centredness, which means we need God’s forgiveness.

Jesus talks about entering life. In v.45: ‘If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. Entering life happens through Christ – that’s why v.38-41 are all about the name of Christ. He is our Saviour.

He alone is not standing in that queue of the partly good and partly bad. He alone is perfect like God – Christ alone is God as a human being. Yet though he is innocent of any wrongdoing he willingly takes the punishment for our sinfulness. It is as if we were condemned to die, but Jesus offers himself to die on the cross in our place.

This is a great mystery – no-one can fully plumb the depths of it. But what is clear within the New Testament is that God is both the Judge and the one who addresses the need for justice. God’s love demands that there is justice because otherwise love is not love. Yet his love also longs for us to be reconciled with him and enter life. The tension is resolved when God the son becomes man and offers himself on the cross.

So the point of what Jesus is saying about hell is that we shouldn’t need to worry about it! The way to life is open! We just need to accept and travel that path. It’s like a party invitation – only any use if you accept it and go along. Or my expenses cheque, which is useless until I’ve presented it. God invites us to enter life, so let’s take up the invitation!

We do need to do that. Make that choice. God gives us free will, he respects our choices. If someone says no, if they want nothing to do with God and can’t abide the thought of eternity in his company, then God isn’t going to force them – in effect they choose to go to the other place. If you struggle to understand how anyone can choose that, then may I recommend a book called ‘The Great Divorce’ by C.S.Lewis – it’s psychologically believable and a very good read.

In that book, some of the characters choose to walk away from heaven because they won’t let go of things that they know are wrong but still enjoy. Jesus says we need to be ruthless, in v.47 ‘If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.’

The early church father Origen supposedly took this rather literally. He had a problem with lust. He took some drastic action to ensure it would never lead to physical sin. But were the temptations still in his mind?

Jesus of course is speaking in an exaggerated fashion about cutting bits off our bodies. The rest of the New Testament seems pretty clear that life with God involves being healed at the resurrection, having a new perfect body, not one with bits still missing. Jesus’ words are strong images, meaning be totally intolerant of anything that hinders your Christian discipleship.

Don’t let those little habits grow into addictions! Act on the promptings of conscience. Let Jesus be Lord of every part of your life, don’t leave corners of your heart unswept. You can’t keep a foot in both camps.

So to sum up, this reading asks three things from us: Firstly, take the doctrine of hell seriously. We don’t have to buy in to Bosch’s mediaeval imagery of devils with toasting forks and wheelbarrows to hear what Jesus says. He shows us that God’s love and God’s justice go together, that there are consequences and God respects the choices we make. He gives us such awesome freedom.

Secondly, let us be inspired to go out in mission. Jesus gives us a message of good news for the world. Not the uncertainty of trying to be good, but the assurance of forgiveness. The invitation to new life. The promise of security in the life to come. Our world needs to hear this message – let us be courageous in sharing it.

Finally let us understand that the way to life is open. If any of us have not responded to Christ’s invitation and committed our lives to him, I urge you to do so. Let’s not let anything get in the way.

I’ll pray now, and if you want to make that response, please say Amen at the end. ‘Father we thank you that your love and justice meet in Jesus. Thank you that he is our Saviour and frees us from hell. Lord I turn to you, I ask for your forgiveness and pray that you will keep me on the path of life. Amen.


There’s a farmer I often meet at services – he’s a regular member of one of our congregations. From time to time I ask him how things are going – have you ever done that, asked a farmer how the year has been? He has a tongue in cheek proverb: ‘You never meet a happy farmer’. It’s his way of saying that no matter how well the farm has done, there’s something that could have done better. If the weather is sunny and perfect for harvest then a farmer may be grateful for that, but you’ll find him complaining about the one crop that needs rain. It might have been a great year for grass, the livestock are thriving and wheat yields are high – but because there’s so much around the price per ton is low.

I have an inkling of what this like. My garden is full of cabbages. Green cabbages, red cabbages, Savoy cabbages, pointy cabbages, round cabbages the size of footballs. As you can imagine, the girls adore cabbages, they can’t get enough of them. Chantal says there’s a prize of a cabbage for the first person to say they enjoyed today’s sermon!

On the other hand the leeks have fallen victim to moth, maggots, molluscs and mould. I remember that when I come to Harvest: Harvest festival involves being grateful to God for what has been produced, thankful for what we enjoy, being humble in the face of what nature can do and remembering those who depend on the earth for a living, for whom an agricultural accident can be a calamity.

The prophet Isaiah obviously knew what it was like to pour your labour into an agricultural project and get no results. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 5:1-7, he sings a song about a man who plants a vineyard and gives it everything it could possibly need. But it yields only small sour wild grapes.

What is he to do? In verses 3 and 4 Isaiah invite his hearers to judge. And in then in v.5 tells us his response. The landowner gives up on his vineyard. He breaks down its protective wall, allows it to grow wild. It will become rough ground, a place for hunting and for picking blackberries. That’s the only use for this failed vineyard.

But commanding the clouds not to rain, in v.6, goes even further, into angry rhetoric. It’s almost as if the landowner has put his heart and soul into the vineyard. Like one of those people who starts a new life abroad, all his savings and time have been pumped into this dream. And now he feels let down, disillusioned, angry and bitter. He’s beyond making the most of a bad job, he’s beyond cutting his losses. He’s just sick of the whole project and wants to chuck it in.

Imagine how the Israelites felt when they heard the punchline in v.7. ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel’. The very people whom Isaiah had invited to judge his little story now find themselves in the frame. They are the unproductive vineyard. God’s own people were like a vine he took care of, but they failed to produce.

Like the vineyard, that was not for lack of support and essentials. The Bible tells of how God rescued his people from Egypt, transplanted them into a rich and fertile land. He protected them from their enemies – like the watch tower in the parable. They had everything they could ever desire, yet they failed to produce. And God’s patience is running thin. Of course the point of Old Testament prophecy is to explain what God is doing – and also to bring people to repentance. All is not yet lost. They can change. Jonah shows us God is happier when his word is not fulfilled, because the hearers listened and changed their deeds.

It’s an unusual take on Harvest. Usually at Harvest we thank God for the produce of the land; we come to church and bring the fruits of the soil as a sign of thanksgiving to God. Harvest is usually about being grateful for the things the earth produces, for the harvest God gives us.

But the passage set for today reminds us: God has his Harvest too. God seeks a Harvest from us. God, whose character does not change, looks for a harvest from his people. The message of Isaiah was addressed to Israel, but it’s a message for people throughout the world and across the centuries: us too. The message is: From all people, and especially those who claim to follow him, God seeks a harvest. Out of his grace he has showered goodness upon us. We are forgiven, saved by his grace alone. Producing a harvest for him is not an attempt to put ourselves right with God, but a response to his love

But a harvest of what? The second part of v.7 shows us what God was looking for: ‘God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; he expected righteousness but heard a cry of distress’. Like the farmer looking for grapes, God looks for a fair and just society, but all he found in Israel was violence and sorrow. The verses after our reading give a bit more substance to it: v8 speaks of those who buy up more property and land, turfing the poor off their ancestral acres. V11 and 12 talk about conspicuous consumption and leaders who are more interested in satisfying themselves than governing wisely. We may think of equivalents today – the rich getting richer, increasing luxury while half the people in Africa live on less than a dollar a day.

God’s people were meant to demonstrate a perfect society to the world. God’s plan was that Israel would show what justice was like. They were intended to be a light to the world, revealing how good life could be under God’s law. Instead they became indistinguishable from the nations around.

When God looks at our society what does he see? When he looks for justice in Britain, does he find it? And what can we do to establish righteousness? Over the past few weeks, during the political party conferences, we’ve heard several different visions of how to bring about a better society. There are genuine debates about the facts and what works: for instance what is the best way to support people on low incomes – lower taxes or more benefits? What will ensure work pays?

I do not believe there is a Christian political party. On these complicated issues, true Christians can genuinely differ. I remember as a curate going to vote in the general election. The candidates’ names were up on the polling booth – along with the names and addresses of the people who had sponsored them. And in that tightly contested marginal, on both lists of sponsors, were members of our church.

I thought that was a wonderful witness. Not that there was a clear cut Christian answer – there wasn’t. But that Christians were involved, active, thinking and praying through the issues that matter.

Now some might say that this isn’t a Christian’s responsibility. That our work is sharing the message of the gospel; so getting involved in social action, working for justice somehow distracts from the church’s central call. Leave justice to the rest of society and let Christians focus on evangelism. And there was certainly a while several years ago when I felt like that – thinking that the church should focus solely on what it alone can do.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not what Jesus’ taught. It’s not what we see the Early Church doing when they go around healing and providing for those in need. Nor does it make theological sense. For God created us all equal. Jesus died for us all, and because he loves us all, he calls us to love one another and treat each other fairly.

He has made us physical and spiritual beings, so we cannot care for the spiritual side of humanity without also being concerned for the physical, and vice versa. Non-Christians recognise that too –sharing our faith is almost always more successful when people realise that Christians care about them, when they can experience physical help or love which is explained and motivated by the Word.

This belief in a God of justice is why Harvest often includes a concern for the poor. The gifts that we give today are shared out among the needy through the Doorway project. The coffee that we drink after the service is usually Fairtrade – promoting a fair stable price, good working conditions and reinvestment of profits in local communities. We support charities like Tearfund, building wells in Uganda. And we collect for Christian Aid, campaigning for corporate transparency and against tax evasion, so that the world economic system can be rebalanced to be fair to the weak and poor.

These things matter to God. He hates it when his children are treated unfairly. He longs for justice and righteousness. He is a God of love and justice – and he calls us to be like him. Amen.

It’s not fair!

Mummy, Daddy, it’s not fair! Any parent knows that anguished cry. From an early age we have a keen sense of justice, injustice is sorely felt. Just have a look at newspaper headlines and see how many of them are to do with justice: whether it’s punishment of criminals, how many A-levels you need to get into Uni, or even the football score: ‘We was robbed’. We have a great need to see fair play.

We care because we are made in the image of a God who passionately seeks justice. But God’s approach is so much bigger and more challenging. Jesus told a parable about it. His disciples had wanted to know what rewards they would have for their faith, and in answering the question he tells a story – the gospel reading we just heard.

This landowner is a wealthy man who needs a job done. So he gets up early in the morning, and makes his way down to the first century equivalent of the job centre. There, casual labourers are waiting to be hired for a day’s work. In v.2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. That’s the standard rate – enough for a man and his family to buy food and get by for a day.

But in v.3 and 4 ‘He went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle – presumably there was no one else hiring that day – and he said to them ‘you also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right’. It must have been a busy day – perhaps it was the grape harvest, because every couple of hours the landowner is back in the market place again, hiring more and more men. Each set are offered a fair wage. They would assume they would be paid by the hour – say half a denarius for half a day’s work. Not as much as they need, but better than nothing. The alternative would be no work, no pay and no food.

Much later on, as the shadows are lengthening, the landowner passes through the market place one more time. In V. 6 and 7 ‘he found others standing around. ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ ‘because no-one has hired us’ ‘You also go into the vineyard. And off they go, redeeming an hour’s pay from an almost wasted day.

Here comes the crunch, in v.8 and 9. ‘When evening came the owner of the vineyard said to his manager: ‘call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last. When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage!

A whole denarius! A day’s wages! Imagine their surprise and joy. The family will eat tonight after all. No doubt the first ones were rubbing their hands in anticipation. New clothes, a trip to the pub.

But in V.10.’Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received the usual daily wage’

It’s not fair! We’ve slaved for you twelve hours, through the midday sun, we’re exhausted. And you’ve only given us the same as this lot who lent a hand in clearing up! We deserve more! It’s not fair!

What would the trade unions have made of it? Would any employer stay afloat if they operated this way? What is Jesus doing?

The landlord explains in v.13. ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?’ They made an agreement. They would have been perfectly happy with it if they had been the only ones employed. But the real point of the parable is not that you should read the small print. It’s why the landowner did this.

In v.14b ‘I choose to give this last the same as I give to you. Are you envious because I am generous?’ If the landowner wants to give a day’s wage to a man who’s only worked for an hour – well it’s his money and his generosity. He does it because he cares for his people.

For most of history agricultural labourers lived a hand to mouth existence. With no dole, a day waiting to be hired in the market place meant there would be no supper that evening. If a man could be hired for the hour before dusk, that was better than nothing, but the family would still go to bed hungry.

The landowner knows this. Being compassionate, he does not pay the workers an hourly rate – he gives them a flat sum – so that everyone will have enough to live on. He remembers the needs of their families, he is kind and just.

He gives them a living wage. It isn’t so much a reward for work done, as an attempt to meet their needs. He sees beyond the work they do. He cares for them as individuals.

It’s so important that employers see their workers as people, and not as a means to an end. For those who work in management or in human resources, the principle of this parable is really important. Others of us may have cleaner, or run a group with volunteers. It’s quite similar

Treat your staff with humanity and justice, take an interest in them. You and they are children of the same heavenly Father. That makes economic sense too. Way back in the 19th Century Cadbury and others found that a happy workforce is a productive workforce.

What about the rest of us? We’re not all employers, but we are all consumers. Consumers have power. We can choose to buy products which are made fairly. We can do our bit for better working conditions. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Fairtrade. Like tea or coffee. The people who grow it get a fair wage and some of the profits get fed back into the community. That means it costs more, but it’s really good quality. If you don’t buy Fairtrade, give it a try.

You might also want to consider where you do your shopping. Do the farmers who supply the shops get a fair deal? We know there are some supermarket contracts that farmers really want, and other supermarkets that grind them into the ground. Isn’t it worth paying more for justice?

I said at the beginning that we seek justice, because we are like God who is passionate about justice. This parable is not just about economics and employment, it’s also about the justice of God. In verse 1 Jesus says ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like this.’ In other words, the boss man represents God, the workers are you and me, Christian disciples, and the vineyard is the work that God has for us to do. What then does the story tell us about God and how he deals with us?

The first thing is that God is fair. Jesus’ disciples wanted to know what rewards they’d get. After all, they had been with Jesus form the beginning, trusted friends who had worked hard alongside him.

They are like the hired men who came first and worked throughout the day. But in the parable God treats them no differently to people who came much later on and did much less work. Why?

The reason is that we all have the same need for love, forgiveness and eternal life. That comes as a gift. We do not earn God’s love or a place in heaven. It is given as a gift to all who repent and trust in Christ. All have done wrong, all equally deserve God’s judgment. If God were to apply just desserts and fair play to human sin, then hell would be our reward. Instead, Jesus gives up his life, offers the sacrifice, that we might go free. Whenever we celebrate Holy Communion, we commemorate the wonderful strangeness of God’s justice which allows Christ to take our sin upon himself.

So, because it all depends on what God has done, not us, there are no gradations in God’s Kingdom. All are treated the same – all are there because of God’s grace and forgiveness, not what they have done. It’s not as if there’s big mansions with rolling acres in heaven for those who have done well, while you and I have to be content with a little flat. No, we will all be there because of God’s grace alone.

What does this mean for the here and now? It means we should not be proud, or put on airs and graces. We should not think highly of ourselves or look down on others because of our position, or the strength of our faith, or the fact that we hold all the right beliefs and know the truth. No, we are all thankful recipients of God’s love. So we should not permit there to be hierarchies of Christians, some who are considered better than others.

Remember the thief on the cross. The man who had lived a life of crime who turned to Jesus and said ‘Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’ The Lord replied ‘I tell you the truth, this day you will be with me in Paradise.’ The person who turns to Christ, even on their deathbed, is cleansed and born again and shares in eternal life as surely as St. Peter. For salvation depends, not on us, but on Jesus. God’s justice is compassionate, loving, and so much greater than we could ever imagine. What a wonderful freedom it is to be loved for ourselves and not what we do! Amen.