Living with Diabetes

img_4705According to a report today, in 2015 there were 3.8million people living with diabetes in England and the number is rising. As one of them, having been first diagnosed 20 years ago, I have learnt a few things about how to manage the condition.

1 Mortality Moment

Being diagnosed with diabetes is a mortality moment, a moment when you become acutely aware that you are mortal and will die.  We are not indestructible and this is one of those diagnoses that brings this home. For even the most spiritually realistic this can be a shock, because I was in my early 30s when I was first diagnosed and being able to live life to the full was my assumption. I wasn’t expecting the diagnoses – it came on a new patient visit to a new GP having moved to a new parish. (These appointments don’t seem to happen now and without it my condition would not have been picked up so soon.) I remember the nurse doing the urine test and turning to me to say “I think you have diabetes” – that blunt, and no softening of the blow!

I did not match any of the classic triggers, which are usually repeated by news reports: poor diet, overweight, lack of exercise.  But I still had to come to terms with the fact that I really did have it and so there were still adjustments to make – straight away.

2 Balance

The condition has to be managed or it will manage you.  This involves balancing how much food you eat – how much sugar and sugar producing carbohydrate – so that what you take in matches what your body can process, with the help of whatever medication you are on.

If you take sugar in your tea, stop it. If you eat lots of prepared meals – stuffed with sugar – stop it. If you like sweets – stop it. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s what I had to do and I did it instantly. My tastes have changed and I now can’t stand too much sugar.

If you can’t do this get help – by talking to the GP or diabetic specialist nurse, who in my experience are well worth spending time with. The dietician will help work out what is good to eat and what should be avoided and it might be that counselling is needed.

3 Let them (not) eat cake

My congregations all know that I am diabetic and they know that there are times I will refuse cake, because I don’t want the sugar, and they know there are times when I will stuff my face with it, because I  do want the sugar rush. They know that I am weird and cut off the icing from the top, because it is as it says on the tin ‘icing sugar’. They also know that I have a stash of sugary sweets in the vestries in the Parish Church and Cathedral.  These are my emergency supplies and they know that if I start talking gibberish I may need the tin!

I carry supplies with me – glucose tablets, wine gums, a twix… and I know I have to check my blood sugar so that I know if I am likely to go too low.

There are alternatives – foods sweetened with natural sugars: cakes sweetened with vegetables, breakfast spread sweetened with fruit juice.  I avoid the artificial sweeteners – I learnt the hard way what happens if you eat too much and it’s not pleasant. When they say on the label that it might have a laxative effect, believe them and be warned.

4 Work, Rest and Play

The gift of diabetes is that it is a dramatic reminder that we need to live life in balance.  I am not a robot and I know that I need to rest.  I may take a bit longer to recover from a cold and have a flu jab each year. I need exercise and living in a house on 4 floors helps!  Vaccing the stairs will get my blood sugar down if I’ve spiked myself on something!  Taking the stairs instead of the lift and walking when you can is good, natural exercise.

5 Finger pricking

When I was a blood donor I used to the find the finger pricking test the worst part. Now I feel like a pin cushion. It can be misery inducing. I’ve just started using an automatic tester with a patch on my arm read by scanning it with a device the size of a small mobile phone. It means I can check my blood sugar several times a day – to be honest I do it multiple times a day. I can check during meetings and stop worrying that I am going to suffer from a low or being over anxious about when we’ll get to have lunch. I even have it in my pocket in case I get worried during a service.  I am a fan of this new device, not least because it’s a gadget.

6 Live with it

Diabetes is a condition that we have to learn to live with. It does disrupt life – I have to build the management into my routine – but it doesn’t stop me from coping with a very active and busy schedule and shouldn’t. I am inspired by athletes like Steve Redgrave who manages to achieve Olympic gold with diabetes, James Jones the former Bishop of Liverpool who fulfilled his duties with diabetes, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, sustains her impossibly busy commitments managing diabetes too. If they can, I can.

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Bible: inspiration found in connections with life

img_6125Those of us who are Radio 4 fans will know about the long running show Desert Island Discs. In this a well-known person is sent off to an imaginary desert island and asked to select their favourite tracks of music to accompany them while marooned on this island paradise. These provide the sound track to break up an interview about their life. At the end they get to choose a favourite book and are also given as a matter of course the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible. It is a format from a bye-gone age, where it was assumed that everyone would want both great works, indeed that they would also want a book. In a nod to other faiths, those who follow other religions can swap the Bible for another religious text, but there are many who won’t want any religious text and so won’t see it as having any value for them.

Today is Bible Sunday, a day to give thanks for the library of texts which make up the Bible. On its own, it is a pretty difficult book to get into. It does not follow a coherent chronology and needs guidance to have any hope of working out how to make sense of it. It contains many different types of writing from histories written with a particular purpose in mind, poetry, prayers, letters, collections of wise sayings and the pronouncements of prophets, stories galore – all with a point. It was written over roughly 1,000 years, has been edited and translated, and the art of translation is itself the selecting of a word from one culture to convey the meaning of a word or phrase from another, ancient culture. And frequently things are lost or changed in that translating. Some words are very hard to find an equivalent for.

What the Bible is not is the words of God captured by a note-taker and relayed with 100% accuracy. Just dump all that nonsense. For that we would need to learn the language of God and we don’t have that. What we do have is our own languages which are the product of so many different influences over millennia. Different cultures produce different languages. So when we open the Bible we do not find “God says”. This may sound like a blindingly obvious thing to say, but I hear it still and there are groups and churches who profess it. I think they turn many people off Christianity and the Bible, because it sounds completely ridiculous.

The Bible is a collection of writings infused with deep faith and they seek to make sense of the world and events in the light of that faith. So the Bible bears witness to faith in God, it is not God. It tells stories from moments in time and place and we often have to try to unpick what is really going on to understand the meaning. This is where we need the help of skilled scholars who devote their time to understanding it and as won’t surprise you they don’t all agree on everything. What never ceases to amaze me about the Bible texts is that I can come at passages I’ve heard many times and still discover new things in them. Despite its ancient provenance, they carry a wisdom that is inspirational for how we approach life today. It is the job of the preacher to try to make those connections between the ancient text, the faith it carries and the life we live. Sometimes it is only possible to do that with one element of the day’s readings or to draw on strands as a theme is explored. There is always much more than can be said and to be said.

The way we read the Bible in church services is both a help and a hindrance. Chopping up texts so that we are presented with slices out of context can be confusing and strikes against the notion that we need to know where something comes from to understand it. But Anglican worship is among the most Biblical going. On a given Sunday morning we are offered a four-course meal of Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel Readings. Over time, and that is part of the clue here, we get to hear a lot of it. That helps it enter into a deeper level of the brain and we can allow it to work on us and in us. And this needs to happen over time. A Bible faith is not an instant faith. It has to grow, to reflect, to struggle with the passages that sound either odd or at times vile. The Bible can express the darker side of the human psyche and there are times when ‘This is the word of the Lord’ is not at all helpful. It’s a phrase that was introduced into our liturgy 40 years ago and I’m not a great fan of it – I find it over narrow. I prefer either silence or a simple ‘Thanks be to God’ or just ‘here ends the reading’. You could of course combine them: ‘here ends the reading; thanks be to God’ but that might sound like you are just glad the reading is over.

Inspiration from the Bible, for me, comes not in the text itself but in the reading and reflecting on it. It is the connections that are made between its ancient wisdom and our contemporary lives. It is in being reminded of the hope and grace of God which guides us and holds us, which creates and redeems. It is in the process of blessing which comes through these that any notion of God speaking can be found. The words themselves are not the encounter in themselves. We commit a form of idolatry, bibolatry if you like, when we try to turn it into God’s words captured. If we learn anything from the Bible we should know that God refuses to be captured and boxed in by our limited visions and understandings. God always breaks out and springs up somewhere else to surprise and challenge us. Sometimes it is in the reading between the lines that wisdom comes, in the event depicted.

The Gospel reading gave us Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in his home town (Luke 4:16-24). He chooses the passage about the Spirit of the Lord being upon him, announcing good news to the poor, release from what binds, restored sight, liberation for the oppressed, and God’s blessing is found in these. He sets out his stall. That stall is radical, in the sense of taking them back to what lies at the foundation of their faith and identity. He is announcing himself as the one they have been looking for and therefore the one who will fulfill all the hopes and dreams, longing and aspirations of the religious texts we call the Bible. They are amazed because they know his home background and have seen him grow up. It’s hard to be a prophet when there are people around who can remember you as a teenager or worse a toddler. In this announcing he is presenting them with the interplay of words on the page and the Word of Life living among them. Words can call us to proclaim release, good news and healing, but we do have to do them. So we are not people of a book, as we are sometimes called, we are people of a person, Jesus Christ. We are people of the presence, of the incarnate presence of God among us and inspiring us.

So as we celebrate and give thanks for the Bible, we do this by reading it, by learning it, marking it and inwardly digesting it, because it is in that dynamic interplay between text and life that it lives and inspires.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd October 2016

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1066 and all that – defeat, refocus and identity

img_7322950 years ago we’d have been waking up to regime change in the land. King Harold had been killed on the battlefield near Hastings, probably by sustaining an arrow wound in the eye, and William had seized the throne – the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings fell on Friday. Most of the Saxon aristocracy had either died with him or been scattered. In the months and years that followed the grip was consolidated, with a few notable attempts at a fight back, including of course our local boy Hereward. With splendid irony on Friday there was a French market in Cathedral Square with traders from Normandy. Harold came to Peterborough a few weeks ago in a reenactment of his march from Stamford Bridge near York to Battle. He called at Peterborough Abbey as he had done then. He was joined by the Abbot Leofric who didn’t return. I was asked to bless them before they set off on their next stage and one or two friends kindly pointed out afterwards that it was unlikely to change the outcome. It’s not every day though that you get to bless King Harold.

1066 and all that is a defining date in English History. Saxon rule ended and Norman rule came. With the Normans the Vikings, from whom they were descended, stopped invading and a period of relative stability at home began, just with periodic battles with the French and Scots and Welsh, and Stephen and Matilda, and Magna Carta. A part from all of that it was peaceful. The feudal system was part of the medieval worldview and in place before the Normans came but the Normans gave it added force, imposed their presence with stone castles and engaged in a systematic programme of church building and rebuilding. The origins of St John’s date to 1070s. They stamped their mark on the landscape. Archbishops, Bishops and Abbots were replaced, along with all the major lords of the manor. Sheriffs were introduced and forests enclosed for royal hunting only.

For William the victory was the ultimate trial by combat. The question over who should inherit Edward the Confessor’s throne was settled decisively, the victory being seen to show God’s favour. For the Saxons it was complete defeat. Power now vested in the conquerors. A new story emerged, one that brought flourishing. Blessing can still come even if it might not feel like it; even if there is disaster, all is not lost.

The Old Testament carries the theme of defeat as a moment when the community is broken, refocuses and reforms. The exile of the Hebrew people in 597BC and 587BC took them off to Babylon and from this period we get the psalms of lament, such as “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137). How we use defeat can be a defining moment for us. In the Cathedral we have to deal with a serious financial crisis, which has come to light. It feels like defeat. Amidst the crisis it is important to think afresh about what we are for and where our priorities lie. After the vote in June, as we work out what Brexit means – hard or soft, our place in Europe and the role of the European institutions has to be reevaluated. And whatever the outcome a new story emerges. The debates about grammar schools and multi academy trusts make us ask what kind of schools we want and how we want them governed. We seem to be losing local governance, rooted in the community. Those of us who have been involved in schools for a long time know that if you hang about long enough there will be a policy change and today’s vital change will give way to the next, and many of them look familiar to previous ones as the balance is corrected or the pendulum swings.

One of the philosophical casualties of the First and Second World Wars was the notion of progress – that things will inevitably always get better. But it is a persistent concept. Whenever someone uses a phrase like ‘it’s the 21st century that shouldn’t happen’ the myth of progress is being affirmed. But listen to Donald Trump, if you can bear it. He has something like 40% of the support in the USA and yet his attitudes leave many of us shocked and appalled. Look at the attitudes on display with many people walking round the city centre and you see sexism and prejudice are in no danger of dying out just yet. I see many in my own generation making the same mistakes we saw our parents’ generation making. I see despotic managers and leaders and we are supposed to have learnt better ways of working. Checks and balances are no less needed. Some sins and failings come round with depressing frequency. So defeat can be a moment for refocus and reform, for rebuilding.

Into this refocusing comes the second area that emerges for me from the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest and Saxon defeat. Who we are is not just defined by who we were. We frequently find ourselves having to embrace a new reality. It can be a shock and it can take time to adjust to. But take it on board we must. Each new arrival and departure, be it just the march of time and generational succession, let alone in-coming nationals, forces us to ask ‘how is the story changed?’ For the Normans and Saxons the Christian Church provided cultural and religious stability. It gave shared values and a ready means of social cohesion and control. Festivals and celebrations were held in common. When we have a wide variety of cultures, as we do today, this is much more complex to navigate. Christendom, the idea that we can assume Christian outlook and cultural assumptions, is both gone and still present. The Judges Service in the Cathedral the other week provided an example of this, with the assumed dominance of a Christian service but with other elements included. And the judges were from a variety of backgrounds. The temptation in this kind of event is to syncretise, just add in the different traditions without reference to the narrative behind them but that doesn’t honour them. There are common threads and universal truths shared but there are differences in perception too. There are points in common and differences within these.

The question is where do we find the common narrative and how is it held? The assumption that the secular approach can hold the ring is just replacing the domination of one worldview with another. There is no neutral. We don’t have an easy answer here. This is why I am looking forward to this year’s Reith Lectures on Radio 4. They are being given by the philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist Kwame Appiah, who is going to explore 4 areas where he believes there are mistaken identities at work: Creed, Colour, Country and Culture. It will be interesting to see if he offers a mechanism to hold the divergent voices and build a common ground.

Into this mix comes the narrative that shapes our outlook and we celebrate each time we pray and read the Bible. Jesus Christ is not for us an optional extra, but the good news he brings and it shapes who we are. If it doesn’t then we have nothing special offer to this city, to anyone who may be interested to listen. In the gospel reading (Luke 18:1-8) prayer was set out as defining. God is good and so there is nothing that can happen without reference to him. At St Luke’s, where we celebrated St Luke’s day – their patronal, the gospel (Luke 10:1-9) gave us Jesus calling for labourers for the harvest. There are people looking for the narrative to define and so there is a call to speak into this questing and questioning. I heard a blessing from the Iona Community recently which has been echoing round my mind since: ‘The God who creates you calls you, the God who calls you sends you, and the God who sends you equips you’.

There is foundation to our faith and therefore our identity. When the earth is shaken by defeat or epoch changing events, as it was 950 years ago at Hastings and is with cultural change today, God is faithful and blessing can still come. When we struggle to know who we are amidst different stories we refocus and reform in the story of God who creates, calls, sends and equips, not just 950 years ago but today.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th October 2016

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Sustaining Churches and Cathedrals

img_5353Churches need active communities otherwise they die. It’s not rocket science but it does seem to need restating. I have now seen three versions of Simon Jenkins’ current thoughts on church buildings in as many days. The latest is in today’s Guardian. His argument seems to be that many churches are struggling and so should be handed over to community trusts. In his book celebrating 100 best churches he argued that churches are repositories of community history, which they are given their centuries of presence at the heart of those communities. Their preservation, though, is down to the people who have lived and breathed inside them, who have made them valid by their prayers, to quote TS Elliot’s poem Little Gidding.

They can be decommissioned and handed over to another body, but that does not guarantee their thriving or even survival. A building is a shell and it is what goes on inside it which gives it life. Visiting redundant church buildings is a soulless exercise. The architecture is there, but the signs of community from hymnbooks, notice sheets and rotas are missing. These are the signs that a community meets here that adds what Theos calls spiritual capital to their locality. Theos were looking at Cathedrals, but the same applies to any engaged church. They are sacred spaces because an encounter goes on within them and around them. That encounter is with the spiritual, with God, and many more join in with this than can be counted in statistics.

The best preservation for any building is for it to be home to a living, active community or family. Active means that it is sustainable, that it has a purpose for being and continuing to be. Take that away and you have nothing worth preserving. Handing redundant churches over to a local trust will only have any value if that community finds a new use for it. Without that the reality is no one will be found to look after it or sustain it. Many will simply fall into disrepair and crumble.

All of this goes for the Cathedrals that Simon Jenkins mentions as being one of the success stories of recent decades in the Church of England. Many of us involved in them know that this success story brings significant challenges and most of the Church of England’s Cathedrals were recently reported in the Spectator that they are struggling with finance. It is a success story held together in places with string and blu tack.

So, Simon Jenkins is highlighting a problem. Casual interest and on the edges allegiance does not pay the bills. For the Church without committed worshippers, who seek to live the Christian good news of Jesus Christ, the buildings which provide the base for much of their work will be unsustainable. Ironically many buildings are probably in a better state of repair today than they have been, though there is clearly a large number that are at risk. Churches need active communities otherwise they die.

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Educational Ethos – Thomas Deacon updated

img_4459Yesterday I took the funeral of a colleague from an educational trust.  Preparing for it I was reminded of a conversation we had about the purpose of education and the ethos we were there to promote.  We were bringing the values of the founder up-to-date, to relate them to the world of schools today.

Given the debates raging about grammar schools and all students needing a good education, here is a contribution with echoes from the 18th century and a benefactor from Peterborough, Thomas Deacon, whose will established a free school for poor boys (now a co-ed academy).

Education is at its best when it:

  • Focuses on the student as the primary concern;
  • Aims to assist him or her achieve their best;
  • Prepares them for today’s world and citizenship;
  • Helps them become rounded people;
  • Fosters moral and spiritual development.


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The negligent manager and primacy of justice

img_4634One of the privileges of being vicar of the city centre church and parish is that it brings me into fairly regular contact with our civic leaders and politicians. The tie-in with the cathedral strengthens that and brings a number of opportunities together. It makes me aware of some of their struggles and the issues they face. There are public occasions when I am on show, but it is the quieter conversations that are the real privilege. I therefore have a ready connection with Paul’s plea that we ‘make prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings for everyone, not least those in high positions’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Praying for those we elect matters. It shows our concern for the weight of the responsibility they have placed on them and shows our longing for the main themes running through our readings this morning.

The central themes running through the core of those readings were trust, justice and honesty. I have said before that I believe the primary purpose of government is not defence, as some are keen to say, but justice. Poverty and hunger were seen by the writers of the Bible as being primarily a failure of justice, a failure of governance by the political leaders. They had not ensured that the hungry were fed, those who were most vulnerable were cared for. They had not ensured that the society was structured in such a way that it worked for the benefit of all and not just the few. I’m sure I’ve heard someone else say something about that recently. This was expressed powerfully and clearly by Jeremiah (8:18-9:1). The cry of the poor from far and wide was heard and it made the writer ask if this meant there was no king; ‘is God not in Zion?’ Surely if those in charge had done their job properly this would not have been the case.

It is a cry we hear when we look at poverty and the pressure on welfare services today. Many of the solutions and causes are complex, but the cry down the ages is to remind those whom we elect that their job is to serve the needs of those who can least assist themselves. It is not to enjoy the rich and privileged lifestyle for themselves or to make their mates rich, but to ensure that what is needed is there. To do this they clearly need a peaceful society, not at war, not under threat, not corrupt. So there are struggles against aggressors, struggles against organized crime and oppression, and these seem to require constant vigilance and we know this only too well. The reason for this protecting is to ensure justice.

Threats from corruption were present in the gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13). That said there is no suggestion that recompense was required of the agent, so the parable may be more about neglect than misappropriation of funds. Squandering, defined as wasting in a foolish or reckless manner, covers the spectrum from failing to do the job to what would be called culpable negligence, that is knowingly failing to do what we should have done. For those of us who are trustees we are acutely aware of this. Where there are failures to look after the property entrusted to our charge, it becomes necessary to give account of whether we have been duped by another, whether we have misplaced our trust, or been negligent in our duties of oversight and management. The Charity Commission and Church Commissioners for churches can take an interest. Being a trustee means we are deemed trustworthy of the assets committed to our charge.

Jesus used the story of the negligent agent as a parable of an eternal charge. The setting in Luke began with the scribes and Pharisees who grumbled at Jesus because tax collectors and sinners flocked to hear him. He told parables about joy in heaven when sinners repent using lost sheep and misplaced coins as his examples, which we heard last week (Luke 15). This is followed by the parable often referred to as the prodigal son, but better named the loving father, emphasizing its point about compassion and love that delights in repentance. The Pharisees, whom Jesus accused of failing in their responsibility to draw people closer to God, were accused of being the negligent agent. They were distracted by laws which just made it harder for everyone else to draw closer. Jesus in contrast was the one the penitent went to for words of liberation and nourishment.

It is a concern for the church at the moment struggling with crises of cash and keeping inherited structures serviceable and functioning. Behind these structures lies a gospel, a message of good news to set us free from the oppressions of the mind and spirit. There is a purpose, there is hope, and that purpose and hope comes from God and rests in God. Our confidence for this is found in all we see and learn in Jesus Christ. As the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who died a week ago, was keen to say, “God is as he is in Jesus Christ and therefore there is hope”. Self-giving, loving, forgiving, calling and sending, redeeming and transforming, in Jesus Christ we see purpose and goal.

So Jesus’ parable about a negligent steward is a reminder of the hope at the heart of our faith and the church’s calling to proclaim it. Part of this is to make prayer, intercessions and thanksgivings for everyone, not least those in high positions, for justice is their primary concern.


Sermon preaching in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 18th September 2016

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The love above all others

IMG_2378Every now and then the gospels portray Jesus in a way that startles. We are so used to public figures guarding their words that we could wish they spoke a bit more frankly at times. Every nuance of what they say is examined by people ready to pounce at the slightest infringement of what is expected or deemed acceptable. So the head of Ofsted resigned over the summer following lack of care in how he referred to the Isle of Wight. Having been the vicar of an area where the gene pool needed expanding, where the local health visitors and podiatrists told me about the additional toes, and where there were significant learning challenges in the local schools, I had an inkling as to what he might have been referring, but there were more respectful ways of saying it. His words were jumped on and condemned. Careless words can cost jobs.

Jesus used some very surprising language in our gospel reading (Luke 14:25-33). He told his hearers that they should “hate” their parents, children and siblings, even life itself. If they didn’t do this, they could not be his disciples. Still reeling from that, they were told that unless they embraced the way of execution and shame, their cross, they could not be one of his disciples. The point behind this came in what followed, that they needed to know what the cost was so that they followed him with their eyes wide open, that they entered into this fully aware of what was involved. But still, ‘hate’ is a very strong and an emotive way of putting it. In English ‘hatred’ refers to intense dislike and strong aversion.   We have ‘hate crimes’, which are usually violent offences motivated by some form of prejudice, not least racial or sexual prejudice. To put it mildly, it is very strange to us to be encouraged by the gospels to adopt hatred as a sign of being one of Jesus’ followers.

It won’t, perhaps, surprise you then that all is not as it seems. The word translated as ‘hate’ turns out to be more subtle. Its more likely meaning is ‘to love less’ or ‘leave aside and abandon’. That is still a challenge because we expect to love and be loved by those closest to us fully and children need to know that they are loved, that they are their parents’ priority. In fact depriving them of unconditional, full love is very much seen as neglect and not an environment conducive for them to grow and flourish. And we would expect that loving is itself to be seen as an outpouring of the Christian character, which is infused by love, by the love of God.

It is here that we begin to find a way into what Jesus was referring to. All love stems from God’s love. It is because God loves us that we can have any hope of loving. Our love is rooted in God’s love for the creation and which is hardwired into creation. So to love anyone we have to connect with that foundational love which brought the world into being and holds it in God’s purposes. As the writer of the First Letter of John put it, “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16).

But there is more to this love of God standing above all other loves. The foundation of our loving is our love of God and loving another or any other is not a substitute. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not something we do with the spare bits of our lives that are not allocated to something else. Following Jesus Christ is the primary goal and call on who we are. Everything else flows from it. How that is expressed, though, is another matter. We English people don’t tend to go in for particularly passionate religious expression. We tend to be rather reserved and see the emotive outpouring of faith as being excessive and it makes us uncomfortable when we see it. So when a group from one of the newer churches in the city walked into Cathedral Square on Friday afternoon singing the praises of Jesus very loudly and exuberantly, I was very much out of my comfort zone. I am much more reserved than that. But it is not that far from what I do every time I kneel for my morning prayers, as my outlook is reset for the day ahead, just much more quietly and privately. It is what lies behind what we do as we gather here to remember Jesus with bread and wine in the great thanksgiving prayer of the Eucharist. It is what we do when we ‘sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Colossians 3:16), at the moment to the accompaniment of the piano, but in time to the magnificent sound of the soon to be restored mighty organ. The cultural expression is very different but the passion and faith behind them both is far more similar, and rooted in the same whole-life commitment.

With this heart that responds at its deepest point to the love and call of God in Christ comes a further challenge, that is to realize the potential cost of this. It is to risk, to be so committed to it as the reason for life that it is the priority for life, even if that means that life being threatened. There were news reports this week about a suggestion that clergy should not wear clerical attire in case it attracts attacks. This came from a particular group and followed on from recent terrorist activity. Most of the responses I saw from fellow clergy saw this as being alarmist and it struck at the heart of what we stand for. It came to mind yesterday as I walked through the city centre in full robes to lead a prayer outside the Town Hall as the Red Ensign was raised for Merchant Navy Day, far from incognito. Making statements about what matters most to us, be it by flying flags or forms of dress, is important. The alternative is that we hide and give in to the secular delusion that it is possible to have a neutral space where they are all removed. It is not. All of us have an ideology that lies behind our values, our living and our loving. For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, it comes from Christ and so we can do no other than make that explicit.

That may bring a cost, it inevitably will where there is conflict with other ideologies. For Paul, in our first reading from his letter to Philemon, it led to incarceration, and it is clear from his letter that he wrote from prison (Philemon 1-21). This was because what he said was seen as being seditious, against the accepted values of a state that expected that it would hold ‘the allegiance beyond all others’. Totalitarian regimes often put themselves in the place of God and think they stand above the divine. This is one of the disturbing sides of the French burkini ban and the forced uncovering of women on beaches. There is an understandable concern that faces are visible – otherwise people become non-people and you can’t relate to them as people. We expect people to remove crash helmets when entering banks and the burka is the same, covering as it does the whole face. Headscarves and the hijab are different. Are we going to ban nuns from beaches because they also wear headdress? For us how we are, who we are, is rooted in our allegiance to Christ.

As we think about this, Paul’s letter to Philemon adds a further dimension. Having lost their slave Onesimus Paul offers him back to the recipients of his letter, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother. They are to welcome Onesimus as they would welcome Paul. He will flourish and so will they in the grace and freedom that comes from knowing they are the beloved. The cost comes in different guises. It is easy to focus on the darker side of the cross, of knowing the price of the force to be expended in the venture, of the cost of the consequences when what we stand for clashes with another ideology. But it also comes in the pouring out of blessing, of grace being expended as an investment and rewarded in the return.

Talking of ‘hating’ life, parents, children, skews the message to our ears. It is more that the first love, the foundation of our loving is the love of and for God. By definition all other loving will be secondary but nonetheless profound and deep. I don’t think our translators, those who chose the word, have helped us here. Ultimately all of us stand alone before the saving grace of God. That saving grace calls us to love and blesses us with love, but it is not to be replaced by any other loving. It is the root of who we are and all we shall be.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 4th September 2016

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