IN SEARCH OF TOLERANCE
Psalm 118 was a hymn for the Feast of the Tabernacles. As they approach the temple, the King recalls God’s victory for his people. The despised nation of Israel had become a great power. By Jesus’ day Israel in turn had forfeited their privileged position. They were looking for a Messiah, sent by God, who would lead them back to being a great nation again.
Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean Jew, who when responding to a statement made by the Samaritan woman at the well that she knew the Messiah would come, and he would explain everything to them, said “I am the one, I am speaking to you now”. (John 4:25-26) A man who condemned hatred, healed people, defended the weak, and took the message of God to all people including the infidel – disbelievers in the ‘true’ religion, and finally raising a man from the dead. This was unacceptable to The Sanhedrin, the Supreme Council, or Court of the Jewish Nation. If we tolerate this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation. – Jesus’ fate was sealed!
Jesus died on the Cross in front of his Mother. This chapter in Jesus’ life is a story of cruelty and inhumanity, which I personally prefer not to read.
Joseph from Arimathea, one of his disciples took his body down, and placed it in a tomb that had never been used. I summarise subsequent events. Firstly, Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty, and while she stood crying Christ appeared before her. Christ spoke to her, and placed her in his service requesting that she tell the disciples that he had not yet gone to the Father. The disciples were, quite naturally, afraid of the Jewish Leaders. That evening, according to John, they locked themselves in a room. John does not tell us how many people were in the room, or whether they were a representative group. Jesus appeared in the middle of the group. Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.
And so those brave people went out into the world, accompanied by the ‘Holy Spirit’ taking Christ’s teachings with them.
As a small boy I must have seen a Crucifix, and expressed concern for the man on the Cross. I have never forgotten my Mother’s response. The man on the Cross was Jesus and he did not stay there. We believe Jesus came down, and although we cannot see him, he lives with us. That is why, when we go to the Presbyterian Church the Cross is a plain Cross. And he is with us today, and always.
The journey taken by the Holy Spirit, and the teachings that accompanied it, has been over the centuries tortuous.
Let us take a pilgrimage literally skipping over the centuries. In AD64 there was a great fire in Rome, which destroyed 2/3rds of Rome. There must be someone to blame, and held to account – sounds familiar. The populous looked towards the Emperor, Nero, who claimed to be a God. How could he allow this to happen?? Nero blamed the Christian Community, which resulted in Christian deaths, including Peter’s.
During the 16th century three Protestant groups won for themselves the position of established churches in different parts of Europe: the Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans. From the start the Anabaptists were the outsiders. Anabaptism had its origin in Zurich, in 1525, when a group of ordinary people studying the Bible decided to baptize each other. Entry into the church must be a solemn moment of acceptance by a responsible adult. They were the radical wing of the Reformation, persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike. For them, as for other Protestant minority groups – the Huguenots in France, and later Dissenters and Nonconformists in England – the 16th and 17th centuries represented a long and frequently blood-stained search for tolerance.
The Church of Scotland (The Kirk) was not immune from this. Following his Scottish Coronation in 1633 King Charles 1, who seems to have been intolerant of anything he did not approve of, rather deviously began to consider ways of introducing Anglican-style church services in Scotland, and in 1637 an Edinburgh printer produced, “The Booke of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments”. These developments met with widespread opposition. The first use of the prayer book was in St Giles’ on Sunday 23 July 1637. When James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, began to read part of the prescribed service, Jenny Geddes, a market-woman or street seller, threw the stool she had been sitting on straight at the Ministers head, yelling “deur ye say Mass in my lug?” meaning “dare you say Mass in my ears”? This was the start of a tumult involving much of the congregation. More serious rioting in the streets (and other cities) followed. In November of the same year, the bishops and archbishops were formerly expelled from the Church of Scotland, which was then established on a full Presbyterian basis. Charles reacted by launching the Bishops’ Wars, this beginning the Wars of Three Kingdoms, including the English Civil War. In 1886 a plaque was erected in Jenny’s memory in St Giles’ Cathedral, and a sculpture has since been added recently.
In the Winter of 1683 John Locke, an English Doctor and Philosopher, travelled to Holland, and at a meeting of Dutch academics he struck up a conversation with Philip van Limbarch. They discovered they both had an interest in religious toleration. It was a burning issue of the moment. Van Limbarch encouraged Lock to set his thoughts down on paper. Locke took up his Dutch friend’s suggestion and composed “A Letter Concerning Toleration”. Spiritual belief, Locke argued, was no business of the State, which should confine itself to ‘civil interests’. In his own lifetime Locke found it safer to keep a low profile, and found it prudent to keep some of his crucial essays anonymous. BUT on his return to Britain he continued to speak up for toleration, and was delighted when one of the first statutes of William and Mary’s reign was an Act that allowed Dissenters (though not Catholics) to worship in their own licensed meeting houses. Toleration has at last been established by law in our country, Locke wrote triumphantly to van Limbarch. Not perhaps so wide a scope as might be wished for by you………Still, it is something to have progressed so far.
During this period in history European man’s basic concept of God was also under attack. God lived on his throne above the earth and controlled the Celestial Heavens. This is not surprising when the word “Throne” is used a number of times in the Bible to describe where God is to be found. Acts Ch7.48 “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool”. This was also reflected in the Art of the day. In 1564 Galileo Galilei was born. He was to build and use a telescope for scientific observations of celestial bodies. He also researched the concept of gravity, and the reason for the change in the tides of the sea. He was tried by an inquisition, appointed by the Church of Rome, and found “vehemently suspect of heresy” since his writings explicitly contradicted, in many places, the sense of Holy Scripture. He was forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under House Arrest. He died in 1642.
1642 was the same year that England’s Civil War began, and it was also the same year that Isaac Newton was born in the Lincolnshire Village of Woolsthorpe. He was a small and sickly baby discarded by his widowed mother at the age of three when she remarried a rich clergyman who had no time for Isaac. A kindly uncle helped him to attend school and in 1661 he won admission to Trinity College Cambridge. His troubled childhood left him a solitary character, untrusting and morose. Following discussions with colleagues, in a coffee house, it fell to Edmund Halley to approach Newton and ask him if he could describe the movements of planets. Newton replied without hesitation: the planets moved in an ellipse. He had worked it out years earlier. When Halley asked to see his calculations, Newton promised to write them out for him. The result was Principia Mathematica, often described as the most important book in the history of science. Halley extracted the manuscript from Newton, and paid with his own money for its printing, and acted as chief publicist. Newton’s explanation of how the universe operated by logical mechanical laws was to cause a profound alteration in human thought. No longer did God reside in the heavens; he existed in your mind if you could find him there. A very substantial transformation in thinking. As John Locke said in his writings, “religious belief is a matter of private conscience”.
At this point, reminding myself that I am a citizen of the 21st century, it is reasonable to ask how did Jesus’ teachings, and the holy spirit breathed on his disciples survive?
In terms of time we only live in the Present and the Future. We all know we cannot go back to the Past. Christ referred to writings and oral history from the past, but he always looked to the future where his Father was. And that is what our forefathers and foremothers did. They stepped into the future, the majority believing and having faith in God. Just like you and I they would have wished for a good life for their surviving off spring, and/or for future generations. Despite the obstacles from the dark side of human nature that Christ faced, eg: lies, deceit, and in end, treachery, and in the face of, and despite the frustrations caused by intolerant religious institutions, and ordinary people who disagreed with them, they built the world we live in today, as they carried Jesus’ teachings and his Holy Spirit with them.
And for us, what is our future as a Church and as individuals?
The Church – A branch of the true vine (John 15.1) A Church where the Communion Table is open to all, as it should have always been. A Church where women are heard, and accepted into the formal Ministry. A Parish where we are having a direct input into the community. Among our activities we visit the shut in and infirm. In a world facing the question of sustainability books are recycled through our community, also is clothing and other goods. We care directly for the health needs of our community through foot clinics. And in the tradition of the Scottish people, citizens of the poorest nation in Western Europe where education for “ALL” was given a priority, we reach out to children, and we assist both parents and their children at a “State School”.
As individuals, like all Christians, and the people who carried “The Word” before us, we will continue sharing knowing the Holy Spirit, the breath of the living Christ, but over which we have no control, is with us. It was Martin Luther’s exciting idea that we could communicate directly with God, finding new purpose in life through the vigour of spiritual rebirth. This has an impact on social rebirth as well. Sharing our talents and our belongings is a two-way street. Whether we are conscious of it, or not, when we share we in turn grow. We grow in understanding, tolerance, and trust, and a love for one another as God commanded. It has always been like that. A special community where we are treated, and treat each other the same no matter the culture, or what place in the world we have come from. As the new generation would say, “We are Cool”!