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When we come into the proximity of the cross we are challenged as people, as who we are, as who I am. We might think of this as a double challenge – first to our biography but also as a challenge to our identity.

The challenge to our biography is the challenge to our life story – and the decisions and turning points in it. From time to time we can enjoy celebratory days when we remember with gladness our better decisions, our more loving or courageous actions, our most worthy efforts and even our good fortune or luck. Blessings are there to be counted, and we do a good thing by counting them.

But no one’s life adds up to a relentless list of charitable and worthy actions; none of us love all the time or with a perfect heart; no one knows only blessings in this life. We all have bad days and bad luck and we all mess up. Often it’s because we lack the ability to do a good job, sometimes it’s because we lack the time or other resources.  Other times it’s because we lack the will to do good  or the vision to see what might be done for the best.  Sometimes it’s because our will, our desire, is actually malign and we wish the worst on or for others. For many of us this is not the most common root of our sin and shame, but few indeed have no such poison in their soul. And proximity to the cross is one way of safely letting this come to the surface so that you might be forgiven, healed and restored. Better to come to terms with all this in Good Friday afternoon than to be clogged up with such issues on your deathbed when palliative drugs are fogging your mind.

But there are questions of identity too. If our autobiographical self-inquisition is about our guilt then our identity self-inquisition is about our shame, which is far more deep-seated and pervasive aspect of who we are and what’s ill-at-ease about us. Shame is a hard word to live with, and often seeks to hide itself, but perhaps we can and should sensitize ourselves to the experience of shame. We are in often in shame when we talk of low self-esteem or lack of confidence; shame is at work when people find themselves harming themselves either directly by inflicting open wounds on their own flesh, or indirectly though some kind of substance abuse, or by constantly undermining themselves by listening to a relentlessly self-denigrating internal commentary.

The cross speaks to our shame through the public and total humiliation of Christ. There really is no hiding place on a cross. All is exposed. It’s the worst possible nightmare for the person who lives a life covered with shame, and who enfolds themselves in that terrible garment.

A great deal of western Christian theology has been built on the idea that the cross takes away our guilt and through the atoning work of Jesus who suffers divine punishment that we justly deserve in our stead.  That narrative has a hard time dealing with the realty of shame. A richer and truer one, I suggest, is that it is on the cross that God in Christ is radically and totally exposed in complete and vulnerable humility. And it is as such that God offers grace, healing and salvation to the person in shame, the person without self-confidence, and with a desire to hide in fleshy contingency and verbal obfuscation and even to inflict self-harm physically or mentally.  God on the cross gains identity by foregoing security and self-protection. It is thus Jesus who attains God, not as something in addition to whom he is, but in a way that is ‘new’ in the New Testament sense of being eternally revitalising.

The cross stands at the heart of the New Testament, this we know, but it also stands at the heart of the forever new identity of the baptised, an identity shaped by the constant washing away of the guilty and shameful traces of sin.

From a sermon delivered at Great St Mary’s Cambridge, 14 April 2017

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It would be nice if we could imagine the Last Supper as an occasion of peace and fellowship.  Wonderful if we could create in our mind’s eye a picture of harmony and concord among Jesus’ companions and friends – his disciples – his little school of learners.

And yet the stories we hear about the Last Supper in the Bible tell us something different, and frankly more human. Certainly this occasion in an upper room seems to be well set up and traditional. The Passover is being remembered in a regular and respectable way. And there is no doubt that Jesus made the occasion very much his own with some transformative gestures and a declaration that there was here a new covenant.  The gospels vary in their details, and John doesn’t even have any sharing of bread and wine, but the idea is clear: Jesus is doing something profoundly new that is intended to represent and realise his understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.

There was a religious revolution going on at that meal, a redefinition of the human relationship with God that is on the cusp, as it were, of the kingdom of God. But it is only the cusp. It is near, but the gap between the ‘here’ of the gathering and the ‘there’ of the kingdom is very wide indeed.

If we look at the simply human side of it closely, we are inclined to get a bit of a shock. Rather than take their communion reverently, or have their feet washed obediently, the disciples seem to be very easily distracted. Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed is famous and typical – not least when he quickly changes his mind and asks for a whole bath.  Then there is the Judas aspect.  First the anxiety caused by Jesus saying that there is betrayer at hand but not saying who it is, and then Judas, finding all this to be the last straw and disappearing into the night to hand Jesus over for money.

In Luke’s version that we read tonight we note with some surprise that in this context, of all places, and among these, of all people, a dispute about ‘greatness’ breaks out. It is of course the opportunity for Jesus to give a little speech – the rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects and they call their most powerful people ‘benefactors’.  He goes on to say, by contrast, that leadership and authority among God’s people or, we might say, within God’s politics, is exercised by service.   The mightiest must be as the weakest, the leader as one who serves.  This is the Christ-like example, the briefing memo from the Jesus of Nazareth Institute of Management and Leadership.

Clearly it is an intentional inversion of the accepted norms.  Luke is true to form here, and you can see the echo of the Magnificat’s famous reversals in this passage – setting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek.   The principle of reversal continues in Jesus’ very improbable suggestion that this motley crew of out of fishermen will end up judging the twelve tribes of Israel. It seems an odd promise to make – when these same people have just been disputing about their relative greatness.

Jesus in particular, and Christianity in general, is consistent in teaching that humility is the core virtue, and service the most fundamental action.  The disciples are not given future roles that befit their status, because ‘status’ in the normal meaning of the word, the meaning to the nations where the leaders lord it over them, is irrelevant here.  All power and authority belong to Jesus and that power issues not in status, but in service and sacrifice. And that mode of living –  in which serving and giving are the most important things we could possibly do – are as close to the heart of the gospel as are the transformed bread and wine of the Eucharist, or indeed the cross and resurrection of Jesus himself.

There is no form of Christianity that involves merely assenting to certain propositions – let’s call them doctrines – or having certain spiritual feelings – no matter how much we value them or how piously we label them. Christianity is ultimately the most down to earth religion that there can be because it involves nothing more or less than opening ourselves to the love of God so that we might be transformed by that love into God’s companions and servants.

This means that it is also the most heavenly religion too: it is the religion that gives the fullest, best and most reliable understanding of the kingdom of God, and the means whereby this fallen and broken world might be mended, healed and restored to the fullness of joy for which it was created.

The name of the means of that most transformative journey is grace – and everything that we can possibly do in life, whether as organised religion or informal religion, as a joint venture with others or on our own, is, at best, some kind of means of grace, and, at worst, something  from which the grace of God is absent.

To put it at its most stark, the fellowship of the Last Supper is grace, and the dispute about greatness and the decision to hand Jesus over for a bribe are anti-grace. In this life these things are for ever intermingled. The pursuit of purity is pious escapism from the realty into which Christ was born, by which he was betrayed and crucified and which, by his risen life and the power of the Holy Spirit, will ultimately and finally be transformed.

This service is a holy Eucharist – a celebration and reclaiming of the Last Supper for us, in our time, in our messy and anxious reality with all its mixed motives and complex agendas. It is one of thousands being celebrated across the world this evening.  It invites us to draw near with faith and to receive the most reliable means of grace available to us after our baptism. For our own benefit? Well, yes. But that’s just the start. The meal works, so to speak, when we let the grace that we receive become the driving force in our lives. When we let it drive us not to disputation or anxiety, but to confident and humble service, and to modes of self-giving that have that selfless and graceful quality that can make all the difference to the lives of others because they are, in fact, manifestations of gracious love.

We are called to the Eucharist not only so that we can receive, but also so that we have something to give; we are called to the Eucharist so that our lives too can be means of grace. The next three days will both show us the horror and the glory involved in walking the path of grace. Let us pray that it also renew us so that we may lives of generosity, service, and sacrifice and come more fully to know and share the true hope that is at the heart of this meal called Eucharist and this faith called Christianity.

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When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

 Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.

John 13 31- end

How do we orient ourselves to Holy Week?

Palm Sunday is the natural gateway, and yet that is such a confusing occasion – is it really triumphant or is it a sedate walk to the scaffold or the performance of winning and saving humility? It’s a complicated day and leaves us bewildered before we have started.

This brief passage from John’s gospel gives us a different starting place, one that uses a more directly theological language. It’s after the last supper – which in John is not an occasion for bread and wine but for foot washing, and the small exchange which has just ended with Judas disappearing into the dark of night.

Jesus then speaks a profound contradiction, ‘now the son of man has been glorified’. Not abandoned. Not betrayed. Not lost. Not himself plunged into darkness, but glorified.  To be glorified might be thought of as to be bathed in light but while the idea of light is implied, the son of man is not reflecting light at this time. Rather the son of man shines with the uncreated, transfiguring light that is the revealed presence of God. For just as John has no bread and wine at the last supper, so John has no transfiguration. Why? Because for John it is the cross which is both transfiguration and resurrection; it is the cross which is glory, and that process of glorification begins right here when Judas steps out into night, into darkness, into the absence of God, into the nothingness of self-interest and fear. It is when sinful humanity reveals its hopelessness, that God in Christ is revealed in glory. That is the beginning and the ending of Holy Week.

However, there is another theme running here too. There is a narrative still to unfold as well as a fulfilment to witness. The disciples cannot go with Jesus. They cannot enter into this glory. We don’t know why, but the point is reemphasised when Peter expresses his deep and doubtless heartfelt desire and sincere promise of heroic self-sacrifice.

But Jesus is clear. Peter cannot follow. The way of discipleship, the way to learn from Jesus, is not the way of heroic individual effort, but the way of love. In fact, it is the way of learning to love. And learning to love is, obviously, something that you can’t do on your own, or by the determination of self-will. Learning to love is, at the very least, a matter of learning to get on with people, and to share in the give and take, the ups and downs, of real human relationships. And it is so much more than that too. It is to learn the meaning of sacrifice, and commitment and to look for joy not in things that pass but in those that endure, in particular in service and mutuality.

The word learn is not incidental here. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a disciple.  Those who think that being a disciple is simply a matter of following Jesus get their comeuppance in this passage. ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’ says Jesus.  To be a disciple is not to be follower except in the sense that it is to be close enough to Jesus to learn his priorities and his values. Learn how to love the real people who are around you. Learn to love your neighbours. Learn to love yourself. Learn to love your enemies.

This is the curriculum of discipleship. It is also the agenda for Holy Week, and the method is that we should train our eyes on the passion and the cross and find ways of seeing through them to the resurrection.

Time will take us to Easter, sure enough, but the question we should expect the risen Christ to ask us on Easter morn is not, ‘can you enter into my glory?’, nor ‘did you weep over your sins?’, nor, ‘did you sweat or sleep at Gethsemane?’, nor, ‘did you lament at Golgotha?’ None of this is of much interest in the glorious light of Easter. It is this question that is of supreme importance: ‘Have you learnt how to love?’ ‘Have you learnt to love your neighbour, yourself, your enemy?’ ‘Have you learnt to love the God who is as present in the pain as in the joy, in the abandonment as in the company, and who is revealed in the fullest glory when all around seems to be deep darkness?’

Have you learnt to love? When you have, your discipleship will be complete and you will be able to say with the crucified and glorified Christ, ‘it is finished’.  Before that, it is indeed Holy Week and it is indeed night.  It is time to learn the meaning and the practice of love.

Delivered as a homily at Compline in King’s College Chapel, 10th April 2017.

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Preached in King’s College Chapel, 1st March 2107

Allegri’s great setting of Psalm 51 with which this service began is known by the first word of its Latin translation: Miserere. But what does it mean in English?  The translation of the Psalm that we use here on ordinary days begins with these words, ‘Have mercy upon me O God after thy great goodness’.  On the other hand, a contemporary translation of the Hebrew offers a different opening. ‘Grant me grace, O God, as befits your kindness’.

These two different translations remind us that ‘miserere’ has nothing to do with misery, and that mercy has everything to do with grace. The same is true of Lent.  The word ‘grace’ means gift. In Christian theology ‘grace’ is the word that signals not only that God is giving, but that God is the gift that God gives.

What this means is that whatever else might go on in terms of Christian religion and spirituality we can never, ever, earn the love of God or our own salvation, nor can we ever achieve our own righteousness. Anything of God comes to us as unearned, undeserved, as gift.  And when I say ‘anything of God’ I also mean ‘everything of God’; for God is entirely simple and has complete integrity. God is always and only and fully God.

And just as God is always completely God, so God is always and completely first. God’s love for us is always a step ahead of our own love; God’s forgiveness is real before our repentance has taken shape; God’s guiding light for our lives is there ahead of any attempt of ours to look for it.  God is always first, always prior, always ahead of us. As R.S. Thomas put it, ours is ‘such a fast God’. God is certainly faster than we are.

And it is because God is fast that we can afford to slow down. A few years ago I encouraged people to give up busyness for Lent[1]. The call is still a serious one. We rush about so much that we are in danger of experiencing everything, but missing the meaning. Materialism is a spiritual danger for us all; we are so easily tempted to value the material or financial world as if they are all that matter; but our sins these days are just as often to do with time as with things or wealth.

We underestimate the richness and depth of the present moment as we rush on to the next thing or squeeze in another trivial task or passing pleasure.  We routinely create demands for ourselves or our colleagues that are impossible to achieve without distorting the basic balance of life or making us scrimp on time that should be devoted to things that are intrinsically worthwhile – people, art, and contemplation. ‘What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?’

Lent is not a time to add things to our to-do lists in the vague hope that by trying harder or doing more we will earn God’s favour. It’s a time when we remember that God’s love is always ahead of us, that God is always ready to be merciful to us – often far more merciful than we are to ourselves. Lent is meant to teach us that mercy is more powerful than guilt or shame; that God’s forgiveness can, if we let it in to our hearts, overwhelm our lack of self-forgiveness.

All that is a lesson that takes time. You could even say it’s what time is for. To discover how deeply and eternally God loves you.

[1] See http://www.notbusy.co.uk/

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In this the sixth blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions , let me share with you what some of the first readers of the book have written.

First of all, this is what Publishers Weekly in the US had to say.

Readable and illuminating

In this short meditation on the meaning and importance of the theological quest, psychologist Cherry frames the discussion in a helpful way, viewing study as “fun, fascinating, and important.” Cherry peeks into the many corners of the questioning world (both religious and not), from Socrates to Richard Dawkins, to flesh out his thesis. This approach works well as he paints a picture of an all-encompassing approach to the contemplation of religious ideas. Chapter 8 cleverly presents the study to a modern audience with “A History of Christian Theology in Fewer than Twenty Tweets.” Drawing from the Bible and other texts, Cherry distills the theological quest into bite-sized units, focusing on ideas that relate to a contemporary audience seeking answers to their highest questions. “Theology today has a huge and complex agenda, which can perhaps be boiled down to one very short, eternal question: What really matters?” This nicely sums up Cherry’s thesis in this very readable, illuminating work. (Feb.)

And from Mike Higton, Professor of Theology at Durham University.

Brevity, clarity and cheerful honesty

This book is an invitation to ask deep questions. With brevity, clarity, and cheerful honesty Stephen Cherry explains how he came to be captivated by these questions – questions about God, about the purpose of life, about the nature of love – and beckons his readers to join him. Even if you have never before considered studying theology, this may well be the book that will persuade you to dive in

This is what Mark Oakley of St Paul’s Cathedral, author of The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry,  thinks.

Cherry characteristically makes us think again

In the 21st century, theology might appear to be some historical residue left over from out-of-date worldviews, and studying it as quirky as trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics – but less interesting. Stephen Cherry characteristically makes us think again, pointing to theology as the disciplined, human and holistic way in which we explore the eternal questions that hover over every century. The rumour of God that circles the book, implying that reality might be worthy of trust, is compelling and unignorable. I hope this work will entice a new generation of theologians fit for purpose, imaginative in language, engagement and prayer.

Malcolm Guite, poet, preset and author of Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge  has written this:

An accessible, passionate and entertaining introduction

In a world of glib sound-bites, a world that sneers at ‘experts’, it has never been more important to encourage people to read and think for themselves. Stephen Cherry’s accessible, passionate and entertaining introduction to the key ideas of Christian Theology does just that. Vital ideas are explained lucidly and powerfully, old ideas are brought to life in new contexts, and Stephen Cherry not only makes the case for theology, but stimulates a new enthusiasm for it.

And finally Stephen Prickett, Regius Professor Emeritus of English, University of Glasgow, and Honorary Professor, University of Kent at Canterbury a former Regius Professor of Literature at Glasgow has commented in this way:

An unusual and original book

This is an unusual and original book designed to interest and encourage those thinking of studying theology or religious studies as an academic discipline – more specifically, those thinking of reading it at university. Unlike many academic subjects, Cherry argues, theology is more a matter of the questions you ask, than any traditional certainties: ‘as an enterprise [it] only makes sense if you know that you don’t know all the answers already.’ Supporting his thesis by a sweeping history of Christianity in 20 Tweets, the Dean of Kings College, Cambridge, gives an interesting and thoughtful introduction to a subject that has increasingly come to fascinate him the more he has studied it.

God-Curious is published on 21st February, meanwhile, do have a look at it on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

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The Future of Theology

This is the fifth blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

As I worked on the book last summer it became clear to me that if theology is going to have future it will have to take into account the intuition that there is more to knowing than words alone can  encapsulate. Indeed it will also have to take into account the point that if theology is about the transcendent nothing is ever going to be to encapsulate it at all.

This is how I conclude the ninth chapter, ‘Pictures, Poetry and God’.

It seems inevitable to me that theology is going to be
increasingly contemplative in the future, and that the visual
and the poetic will become ever more important to theologians.
Among the factors that I believe will push this process along
will be our increasingly broad, sophisticated and sympathetic
understanding of the beliefs and claims of other religious systems
and an ever clearer understanding that a merely ‘scientific’
approach to life, while splendid at forging breakthroughs in
understanding that translate into astonishing applications
in terms of technology and medicine, do not actually answer
all our questions or deliver the sort of long-term answers and
perspectives that satisfy our deepest longings. To deal adequately
with those issues we need to engage with something that can
properly be called ‘theology’ and for theology to be itself it must
not only be wise enough to learn from its own great history
of reflection but bold enough to engage with the realities that
press upon people in today’s world. Moreover, it must be a
discipline that uses to the full the intellectual capacities of the
whole human brain, and neither disparages nor fears the power
of imagination and imagery or the poetic uses of language.

And to me this is very exciting and very positive future indeed, because theology is a very big subject indeed.

Tomorrow I will share a few pre-publication comments that others have made about the book.  Meanwhile, do have a look at it on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

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Philosophy and Theology

This is the fourth blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

Philosophy is becoming ever more and more interesting to curious young people. How does it relate to Theology?  This is how I begin my discussion of that fascinating relationship. Skip to the last quote below if you are impatient.

There are some people who would argue that philosophy is
theology’s best friend. But there are several different ways of
thinking about the relationship. One is that philosophy is the
tool-maker and theology is the person that uses the tools. This is
the sort of approach that came to its height in the twelfth century
and in the writing of Thomas Aquinas. His method was very
philosophical and to this day he is studied by both philosophers
and theologians. There are plenty of other theologians who have
used philosophical tools in an explicit way – though they do not
always make it clear why they have used one particular set of
tools rather than another.

On the other hand …

Another way of thinking about the relationship between
philosophy and theology is that theology is a more practical
subject and that philosophy is dry and analytical. Theology
might help you to live better or make political decisions, but
philosophy will only inform you as to how logical you are being
– which isn’t always as much real help as very rationally minded
people might think. In this relationship it is not that philosophy
is supplying tools and standing in judgement over theology,
deciding whether or not its arguments are good and whether
its propositions make sense. This view was very strong in the
period known as the Enlightenment, when some of the biggest
names in philosophy wrote the books that have done so much
to shape the way in which people in the Western world think
and live. I am thinking of Frenchman René Descartes, who
wrote that ‘I think therefore I am’ – finding his existence not in
his body or his soul but in his thinking mind. Then there was a
group of philosophers who espoused the idea that you can only
really know the things that you learn though your senses. These
empiricists set the foundations for science – though it should
be noted that for many of the great scientists of this era, like
Isaac Newton, science and religion were not understood to be in
competition with each other. However, this strand of thinking,
that philosophy can judge theology while theology has to
passively accept whatever the clever clogs philosophers come up
with, is not one that is very congenial to theology at all. I should
be honest here and say that there were strands of philosophy in
the twentieth century, such as logical positivism, an extreme
form of empiricism, that convinced many people that talk about
God was necessarily nonsense. This wasn’t philosophy as judge
but philosophy as ‘god’, so to speak, deciding what people may
or may not talk about.

But …

The way in which I prefer to think about the relationship
between philosophy and theology, however, is as two explorers
who have been travelling together for a very long time. One
of them has a map, the other has a compass. One of them has
a good sense of humour to keep them going when the terrain
gets tough, the other has excellent eyesight to be able to see the
route ahead when the rain stops and the mist lifts. One of them
has a first aid kit, the other has a tent and some matches. One
of them has some food, the other carries the water. You get the
idea – one of complementarity. This is theology and philosophy
as the yin and yang of intellectual and spiritual progress.

More tomorrow.  Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

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