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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Taking sides, making enemies, and being Christian

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on words delivered on 24th January 2016

Reading from the Gospel of Mark (8:27-30 NRSV)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Reading from Desmond Tutu

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.


I once heard a story about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (though perhaps it's apocryphal). The story goes that he was having a nice day. But this was unusual. Wesley and the early Methodist preachers often suffered persecution as they preached in different towns across the country. They were often shouted down and had stones thrown at them. But this particular day nothing like that had happened. John Wesley has gone to a town, preached in the open air, people had listened, and he had moved on.

As he was walking down a country road, thinking about this, it worried Wesley a bit. So he decided to stop, kneel down, and pray at the side of the road. He prayed, "O God, did I truly preach the gospel today? Because no one objected to it. There was no persecution. Did I really do what I should have done?"

Just at that moment someone spotted Wesley a the side of the road, and recognised him. They picked up a stone and hurled it across the road. The stone flew through the air and hit Wesley in the side of his head. Wesley, still at his prayers, said, "Thanks for the reassurance, God. Amen."


You can't please all the people, all the time. It's a cliche, but it is true. Jesus said that if everyone likes you, you're probably doing something wrong.

If there is never disagreement or friction in your work place, or the organisation you volunteer with, or your church, then that organisation is probably not growing and developing as it should. If you're never committed to anything that someone else might disagree with, then you're not growing and developing as you should. You can't please all the people, all the time.

Jesus said "love your enemies" and I think sometimes we think that means "you should be nice to everyone and so not have any enemies." No. That's not what it means. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus says "blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. "

Jesus had enemies, Jesus expected persecution; because Jesus took sides. Jesus was not neutral.

Who were Jesus' enemies? What side was Jesus on? When we ask those questions we open up a whole new understanding of who and what Jesus was. And it also leads us to another question - was Jesus the Messiah? And that turns out to be a question that is far from simple.

To understand this question, and to understand Jesus we have to understand the land and the time in which he lived. Jesus was born in an occupied country. His country for many years had been occupied by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire relied on the local client Kings and on the religious authorities that collaborated with Rome while also maintaining the religious cult. Religious life at this time revolved around the Jerusalem Temple. Just as today it's a religious obligation for Muslims to visit Mecca once in their lifetime, so then it was a religious obligation for Jews to visit the Temple much more often. If you wanted forgiveness, you visited the Temple and made your sacrifice; if you wanted to be put right with God you visited the Temple and made your sacrifice, if you wanted to be a good citizen you visited the Temple and made your sacrifice.

The Temple was run by a priestly class who lived off the sacrifices and taxes given to them, and the High Priest, who didn't dirty himself with the day to day running of the Temple, but only really had the religious duty of performing on a few high holy days throughout the year. The rest of the time he could entertain himself getting rich off the taxes taken from the working people and enjoying the protection of the Empire. The people resented both the Empire and the corrupt Temple priesthood. Rebellions occasionally rose up, especially in the northern lands of Galilee, further away from the power base of Jerusalem.

Jesus was born in Nazareth in Galilee. It's a very important fact about Jesus that he was a northerner. He was a Galilean, and Galilee was a rural and rebellious place. Around the time of Jesus' birth there was an uprising lead by Judas the Galilean, who called himself the messiah, the king, and lead a religiously-inspired campaign to rid Israel of the gentile occupation. This uprising was viciously stamped down upon by the Roman Army, suppressing the rebellious northern regions, killing rebels and civilians alike.

Just think for a moment what that meant for Jesus. As he grew up he would have known that members of his family and village were murdered, raped, and tortured by Roman soldiers. This is what it would have meant to grow up in Nazareth, with the memory of these events still raw. As he grew up the atmosphere in Nazareth became less violent, but there was a great deal of change. New Roman cities were being built nearby, and life in rural Nazareth was becoming more and more difficult.

If Jesus was a carpenter, he would not have found enough work in Nazareth and would have had to travel to Sepphoris, a day's walk away. In this Roman town he would have witnessed Roman villas and mansions, and experienced a sophisticated city of an urban elite. Then he would have walked home to Nazareth, where he would have seen his friends and family: rural peasants, struggling to make ends meet.

Those peasants would have had to pay heavy taxes to both the Temple authorities, and the Roman Empire, and between them that may have taken about fifty per cent of their annual yield from small-holder farming. If they were mentally or physically ill they had to rely on miracle workers and healers who would have charged them for their services. If they wanted to pray to God they had to travel to Jerusalem and again pay to the rich religious leaders.

It was these people that Jesus spoke to when he said, "I'm bring you some good news. The kingdom of God is on it's way." That good news was not an abstract theological idea. Jesus was popular because that news really did seem good in a real and concrete way. It was saying: the Romans are being thrown out; the priests will have their comeuppance; God's not imprisoned in the Temple, God is right here, look at the fields, look at the crops, look at the birds, God is right here in rural Galilee, God's on your side and God's bringing about a change. God is bringing in justice.

He gave this message, and he healed and offered exorcisms for free, as a sign that God was working right here and right now, God was breaking out of the Temple. This was good news for the Galileans who followed him. But it was bad news for Jerusalem, and it was bad news for Rome. Jesus' teaching directly undermined the political and spiritual power structures of the land. To say, "the kingdom of God is coming" is the same as saying "the kingdom of Rome is going." This is expressed in the Gospel of Luke by the song of Mary when she sings, "God is bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up those at the bottom."

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. This was Jesus' message and it was a direct challenge to the theology that justified the way his society was structured. The Roman authorities executed people for saying a lot less, both before and after Jesus. This was treason. This was extremism. This was encouraging rebellion.

Some people began to ask Jesus, "if this kingdom is coming, are you the king? Are you the Messiah?" That's a question that's hung in the air for two thousand years. The fact is there was no agreement on exactly what it meant to be the Messiah. It certainly didn't mean anything supernatural as such. The Messiah was a human being, but also a king who would restore Israel to the glories of the time of King David. It literally means someone anointed with oil as the ancient kings were.

Some religious groups saw the Messiah as replacing the Herodian client kings, some saw him replacing the Jerusalem High Priest, some hoped for a Messiah who would replace both. Some religious groups thought a messiah was coming, others gathered around someone who claimed to be a messiah. Messiahs were generally leaders of rebellions, and there were plenty of them in the first century. These "messianic" movements were in some ways similar to so-called "Islamic State" today. Not in the degree of sadism and extreme violence perhaps, but in their theology they were similar. These were zealous, extreme, religiously-inspired movements of rebellion and violence.

But their fate was all the same: sooner or later the messiahs were all captured by Rome and executed. Because to claim to be a messiah was a political crime, it was declaring war on Rome.


Did Jesus think of himself as a messiah? Well, he's frustratingly evasive about it. In the Gospel of Mark Peter says, "you are the Messiah." But Jesus neither says, "Yes I am" or "no I'm not" he simply says, "don't say that to anyone." Of course after Jesus' death this understanding of Messiah begins to mean something more than "king." The Hebrew word "Messiah" is translated into the Greek "Christ" and begins to mean something about Jesus' divine status. Now in our culture we say "Jesus Christ" as if "Christ" was his last name, as if he was called "Mr Christ." He wasn't called that.

Would Jesus have recognised such a title? It's a difficult question and scholars will argue about this but, in my view, I don't think he would have done. Because for Jesus to have become a messiah, a king, he would have become the very thing that he preached against: someone enjoying power and wealth, and status and respect (even within an alternative counter-cultural community) and he consistently said this was not what life was about.

If he thought he was a messiah, he had a completely different view on what that meant to everyone else. Not least in teaching a path of non-violence. But then if he believed in non-violence why use a term so drenched in violence as "messiah"? If he did use such a term, he would have meant it as a term of resistance against the Romans, but still in such a way as to be ironic and even contradictory.

I think we often miss the irony in most of the words Jesus used. Even when he used a metaphor like "kingdom" I think he used it deeply ironically. Because kingdoms were the problem, kings were the problem, emperors were the problem, high priests were the problem. And they still are.

Jesus turned these words, "kingdom," "messiah," upside down. He used them to draw our attention not to kings, but to the poorest, to those he knew, those he belonged to, in rural Galilee. If we want to follow in his spirit, then our attention must be to these too. As Demond Tutu says, justice is about being on the side of the smallest, the poorest, the most oppressed. Justice and love does not mean being neutral and treating everyone the same, it means being on the side of the least. If an elephant has its foot on a mouse, we are on the side of the mouse.

Jesus had enemies. Jesus took sides. He was on the side of the mouse. He was on the side of the peasant Galileans and he was against the authorities of Rome and Jerusalem. Whether he believed he was a messiah or not he believed the messianic kingdom he preached was one when the first will be last and the last will be first. That's what it means to be filled with that messianic spirit, that Christ-spirit. The spirit that flowed in Jesus and his life can flow through us. This will happen when we live in such a way that first are last, and the last are first; when we treat refugees better than we treat kings and queens; when the welfare of the poorest in our society is our first priority. If we are filled with that same Christ-spirit, we won't please everyone, we might make enemies, but we will be Christians.

Minister’s Letter

February's Theme: Prayer

"Prayer does not change things; prayer changes people, and people change things."

Lon Ray Call

Prayer is a difficult topic. Is it something we do when we're in desperate times? Is it just wishing? Does it "work"? Do we believe that "someone" "listens" to our prayers? Is prayer something childish and silly, to be rejected by mature adults?

Our topic this month is prayer, meditation and spiritual practice. It's an appropriate time for this topic as we enter into the Christian season of Lent, a time traditionally for committing more fully to some spiritual practice. There are lots of ways for you to do this during Lent, including attending Celtic Morning and Night Prayers on Thursdays.

Though we may have many questions about "prayer" I believe it should be an essential part of our lives as Unitarians (even if we give it a different name). It is only be slowing down and going deeper, finding the wellsprings within ourselves that we find the strength to live our lives with strength and joy. It is mysterious, even strange, but I believe there is a Light within and it is only when we connect with this Light that we truly learn how to live fully. I don't understand what prayer is, but the more I do it, the more important it seems. Let's walk our spiritual journeys together this month, exploring this thing we call "prayer."

In peace and love,


"If you love me, feed my sheep"

A Christmas Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

Christmas is of course is a time of singing. At Christmas we loudly sing our traditional Christmas carols, often praising the baby Jesus. This is about the only time of the year Unitarians do that. Unlike Trinitarian Christians, Unitarians do not praise and worship Jesus. We see him rather as the great Teacher and Rabbi, but not a god to be worshipped.

But we seem to make a bit of an exception at Christmas when we sing, "O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord" and similar carols. Perhaps we find it easier to adore a baby than an adult. I suppose that's true of all of us. Who doesn't adore a baby? And what's wrong with loving a baby? Nothing at all. 

I always wonder, though, what Jesus would make of all of this. In most of the Gospels he seemed slightly annoyed when people piled up praises on him. I always think of a little story at the end of the Gospel of John when Jesus met up with some disciples on a beach and they cooked a bit of a fish breakfast. Jesus then said to Simon Peter, "Do you love me?" "Yes," Simon Peter replied, "Feed my lambs," said Jesus.

And two more times Jesus does this: "Do you love me?" he asks. "Yes," says Simon Petter, "Then tend my sheep" says Jesus.

"Do you love me?" again he asks, "Yes" again Simon Peter replies, "Then feed my sheep," again Jesus says.

The point seems to be "if you love me, do something about it. Feed the hungry, find the lost, comfort those who mourn, bind up the broken." Whenever I'm in a church at Christmas and I hear all this love of Jesus I can't help hearing in my mind a heavenly refrain coming back from Jesus, maybe with a slight air of frustration,

We sing, "O come let us adore him. O come let us adore him. O come let us adore him."

And Jesus sings back, "If you love me, feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep."

Minister's Letter

January's Theme: Jesus

'Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.”'

Ralph Waldo Emerson

On a tour of the Buddhist monastery in Ulverston a few years ago I remember the tour guide stopping in front of a large picture of the Buddha. Speaking about the picture, and reflecting on his own Buddhist faith the tour guide said, "What inspires me about this picture of the Buddha, in seeing his serenity and peace, is the idea that I can achieve the same thing. Buddhism for me is about knowing that I can reach enlightenment just like the Buddha. It's not just for elites."

I found his statement useful because as a Unitarian Christian, I feel the same way about Jesus. Jesus is not a spiritually elite super-being, but an ordinary human being who reveals the potential in humanity. Like Jesus you and I can find our divine natures and live a life rooted in the Greater Love. This is a path that is available to us, though it is not always easy. It involves rejecting the world's values of violence, wealth, and status and embracing Jesus' Way of love, simplicity and equality.

So it is appropriate that after joyfully celebrating Jesus' birth in December, we will let Jesus grow up in January and spend some time listening to this fiery prophet and reflecting on what his words and life mean to us today.

Happy New Year


Minister’s Letter

December's Theme: Hope

"Thank you for the help at a difficult time of my life and keeping a spark of hope alive. A man can live about 40 days without food, 3 days without water, 5 minutes without air but only one second without hope."

A letter sent to Exeter Foodbank by a grateful recipient

One of the great themes of Advent and Christmas (and indeed Hanukkah and the Solstice) is hope. Within our darkest days we create festivals of light because we believe "it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." The story of Hanukkah remembers the lighting of the lamps in the Jerusalem Temple after it had been vandalised and occupied by non-Jewish forces. In the midst of warfare and violence the Jews lit the sacred lamps in the hope and belief that the Holy could still dwell amongst them. About 140 years later a child was born who also demonstrated to his followers that the Holy was within and all around them. A different foreign army occupied the land by this time, but the story was much the same: occupation, revolt, war, refugees, terrorism. Jesus' life demonstrated a deeper hope rooted in the sense of the overwhelming love of God, even in times of violence and unrest.

We too live in difficult times. Poverty and violence still stalk our world. At the time of writing I'm particularly thinking of the Paris attacks that have brought that violence pretty close to home. And yet we gather at Christmas, and in fact every week, to tell stories of hope. We tell stories of light in the darkness, stories of good news to the downhearted, stories that tell of the weakness of a baby which is greater than the strength of kings and armies, stories that say "God is with us." We may struggle to believe it at times, but as that writer to the food bank expressed so well, hope is as essential to life as food. We must continue to be a hopeful, loving people.

Merry Christmas.


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