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Wheat and tares, heaven and hell – the Gospel for July 17th

The gospel reading for tomorrow Matthew 13 v 24-30, 36-43 contains what might be for some the difficult parable of the Wheat and Tares.

I will post my sermon on here but hope that if any folk reading it are from a fundamentalist position biblically and take exception to my questioning of hell they  dont leave abrasive comments as Ive had before!

There is a very interesting review in Church Times this week ( July 15th) of four books written by Evangelical scholars who are taking a fresh look at the teachings about heaven and hell…. I allude to the article and if you have access to Church Times its well worth reading. The review is written by the Bishop of Chester.

Forgive any poor grammar and long windedness… Ive found the sermon hard to write and its quite late now so I need to have  a bit of free time now.

Matthew 13 v 24-30, 36-43.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Three years ago this week Jeff died. He was 58 years old and lived in a hostel for people with mental health problems in Oxfordshire. I took his funeral in the chapel at Oxford Cemetery  as I had known his family since school days.

Since teenage years  Jeff had suffered from severe schizophrenia. He had never been able to work, his marriage lasted a few brief months and side by side his mental health problems, his physical health had suffered and led to an early, but unexpected death.

Through changing family circumstances Jeff had got much closer to his sister before he died and they had enjoyed many conversations which had healed some deep rifts. But Jeff had met with some Christians of the more fundamentalist persuasion, and whatever they had said to him, he had developed a preoccupation with hell. He was frightened of going there and constantly asked his sister if that’s where he was destined to go. She had rung me more than once, frightened herself for Jeff and asking me if there was such a place.

Months after Jeff’s funeral his sister would ring asking me about hell – has Jeff gone there? Please would I pray for his soul and ask God to keep him safe.

If we  want to play the game of picking out bible texts  to prove your own agenda, then it is clear that Jesus referred to a place which was the opposite of heaven.  In the Jewish faith of his time there was a popular belief in hell – a place literally below the ground as opposed to heaven which was above the skies. That thinking was based of course on the idea of a flat earth with heaven above and hell below.

There was a type of Jewish scripture called apocalyptic literature like the book of Daniel  echoed in the NT book of  Revelation where the end times were spoken of often and the place of the ungodly at the end of time was an uncompromising hell.

Matthew in his gospel goes out of his way to include verses which have more than a hint of the apocalyptic drama and here Jesus is speaking of end times and the wretched fete of evil doers. Some commentators would say that Matthew put these words into Jesus’ mouth and that Matthew gives an apocalyptic slant to this parable of the wheat and the tares.

But even many years later, Medieval faith was, forgive the unintended pun, hot on promoting hell as a place of endless torture and suffering. The Church Times this week on page 28 has  reviews about recent books on the very theology of hell and I quote from the author who is the Bishop of Chester “  In medieval theology is was commonplace for the blessedness of heaven to be enhanced by the contemplation of the eternal sufferings in hell”

Vibrant evidence for that statement can be seen from medieval wall paintings – such as a huge painting at Lutterworth  church in Leicestershire above the chancel arch. There we see hell depicted in vivid colours at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead – and amongst the inhabitants of the place of wailing and knashing of teeth are a hoard of bishops – all male ones of course!

The threat of hell was a common tool which the leaders of faith used in medieval times to persuade their flock that evil doing would lead to everlasting damnation.

The 1662  Prayer Book contains a “Commination”  against sin:

“ Let us remember the dreadful judgement hanging over our heads and always ready to fall upon us. Let us return to our God with all contrition and meekness of heart and lamenting our sinful life. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. He shall pour down rain upon the sinners, snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest – this shall be their portion to drink”

Since the 1552 Prayer Book appeared ( revised 1662) it was the practice on Ash Wednesday for the priest to deliver from the pulpit texts from scripture, mostly from Deuteronomy on the theme of Gods cursing against sinners.

The fear of hell and eternal damnation weas the driving force behind wealthy people in past times paying money for chantry chapels to be attached to parish churches and a priest paid to daily inter4cede for their souls. The poor people, and most were poor didn’t have a chance to be included in this elite provision.

I wonder what your thoughts are on heaven and hell? I sense that we at St James aren’t of the

“ turn or burn” brigade and I wouldn’t feel comfortable being in a Christian group who emphasised that approach. The article in church times suggests that even evangelical theologians now are challenging the traditional idea of hell and damnation.

Here are my thoughts.

 I think it is an abuse of power for any Christian Group to use the threat of some kind of hell to frighten people into faith. It still happens and if I met the people who had frightened Jeff when he was so vulnerable I would have something very clear to say to them. This is especially the case with people with mental health problems or who are very vulnerable for some reason. Even Jeff’s sister Mary normally a calm and rational person caught something of her brothers fear and I gave a strong message at his funeral that God is a God of forgiveness and love not of punishment and judgement. Yes, Jeff had done some bad things due to his illness but I cannot believe that God would create a human soul for some kind of eternal damnation. If there is continued existence of some kind beyond this life – and I have always believed there is- then Jeff’s spirit must surely be now in a place of healing and light.

But what of people who seem to lead greedy and selfish lives and cause harm to others? What of those who carry out the most awful crimes against others and make their lives hell?   I once read that God would never send a person to hell but we may well choose to go there by the way we lead our lives.

Revd Martin Israel was a much loved priest who I  once heard speak in Birmingham. He suggested that those who caused great pain to others deliberately will experience the pain they caused when they first passed from this life to the next – a  purging and restorative process before healing can take place. This has always made a lot of sense to me. Truly evil people choose a kind of hell for themselves in an after-life. Is that for eternity? I cannot believe that God creates us with limits on our redemptive possibilities.

Secondly

We don’t need to believe in an after-life to know that many people through no fault of their own  already live in the most harrowing conditions – mentally and physically on this earth.

Sometimes when people have been through painful times they say they have been to hell and back. Right now there are people who are living in appalling conditions as their extreme poverty means their lives hang on a thread. There are plenty of places on earth which are already hell if we mean extreme suffering. I believe it should be a number one priorty of all Christian people to do all they can to eradicate the circumstances which can lead to extreme suffering.

On a very topical issue, yesterday the Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell  announced  from the Dadaab refugee camp  in Kenya that the UK Government would be giving 52M towards the crisis  in the Horn of Africa. He said :

People across Britain have responded with great generosity to appeals by British NGOs working in the Horn of Africa “But the situation is getting worse – and is particularly devastating in Somalia, where families already have to cope with living in one of the most insecure countries in the world.”

£16m will be spent in the Dadaab refugee camp, and in a camp in Ethiopia, both of which are struggling to cope with the influx of people from the worst-affected drought areas. Kenya will receive more than £11m to fight malnutrition among women and children. Great that our PCC voted last Tuesday to give £500 from our Christian Giving pot from this year to the Emergency Disasters Appeal.

Some commentators have been saying that with forethought and the political will much of the drastic results of famine could be avoided – lets hope and pray that does happen in the future so these man made hells do not keep occurring.

Lastly, let’s take a look at what Jesus is saying in todays gospel passage.

Jesus told the parable of the wheat and tares. Tares were one of the curses a farmer had to battle against. They were a weed called darnel and in their early stages resembled wheat so that it was impossible to tell one from another. When they had grown the difference was obvious but by that time the roots had become intertwined so that one could not be pulled up without the other. Eventually they would have to be as the tares were poisonous to humans and endangered the good crop of wheat. The owners told his servants not to pull out the weeds but leave them until the harvest when the weeds could be separated and burnt.

Jesus explained the parable thus: The field represented the world; the wheat followers of Jesus and weeds those who rejected him.  My reading of the text is that Jesus was more concerned with the growth of good seed than rooting out the bad. Nurture of good seed – of good fruits- was his principle concern. Whilst he says there will be a time when good and evil people will be separated he also allows for the fact that people can and do change over time.

God has not finished with any of us yet and certainly never gives up whatever we may think. And, laying my cards on the table I would repeat that I believe no soul is ever condemned to eternity and there is always potential for restoration. God in Christ has faith in us and we need to have faith in others. We need to see people  for what they may become not just how they seem to be.

May we be open to that transforming process in Christ whereby we are changed into his likeness. St Paul writes that it is a process which takes time and can start from tiny beginnings like the mustard seed growing. Patience is needed, patience as we change and patience as we look for wholesome change in one another. I remember Jeff’s sister saying that something was changing in Jeff  during the months before he died. I hoped and prayed that the timing of his departure from this life was all part of Gods healing plan for him.

Someone once said it is ‘Better to light a candle than curse the dark’ Rather than bemoaning the bad things we see and hear about these coming days, let us focus on bringing light into the world around us. Amen

 A joke to finish this post with….

A man dies and goes to Heaven’s Gates. Saint Peter tells the man “For your righteousness you will be given transport to go on the streets of gold” Saint Peter led him past many vehicles, stopping at a moped. The man gets on the moped and drives around miserable  for weeks. Finally Saint Peter sees him smiling down the road. He asks “Why are you happy? You have been so miserable for weeks! ” The man replies “I just saw my old vicar  on roller skates!”

July 16, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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