( James 1, 17- end. Mark 7, 1-8,14-15, 21-23)

How do you imagine God?

When you worship, when you pray, what picture do you have in your mind of the Being you are addressing?

I have recently been reading a book by Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”. It is all about how he moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.

The concept of God with which Borg ( and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this  being are King or Judge, or an authoritarian patriarchal father, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he ( this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.

Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when he worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye- in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.

But as he grew older, and studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, he came to a different understanding of God, panentheisim. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing,constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world. In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of  God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He says: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.( p.71)

Our image of God matters. It affects not only what we believe about God, but also what we think the Christian life is all about, how we think about sin  and how we think we achieve salvation. Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view.

In our readings today, from the Epistle of James and from the Gospel of Mark, we get two different pictures of the requirements of the religious life, of what constitutes sin, and how we achieve salvation.

For the Pharisees who challenge Jesus in the Mark passage, the religious life is about keeping the rules. Over time, the basic rules of the Decalogue and the Torah had grow into a multiplicity of rules about every aspect of life and worship. Salvation is only possible for those who manage to keep all of these rules, or who make proper sacrifice to appease the ‘finger-shaking God’. This view of the religious life became one which was adopted by Christianity, with the added refinement that salvation was possible for many who couldn’t manage to keep all the rules, because the sacrifice of Jesus had been provided to make up for their disobedience – but this was only possible if they acknowledged their sinfulness, and believed all the precepts of the Christian faith without doubt or question.

For the writer of the Epistle of James, the Christian life is less about keeping the rules, and more about living in the right relationship with God and with each other. It is not beliefs that are important but actions. People can study religion and think themselves holy, but unless that results in a life lived for others, their religion is worthless. James ends with a passage that echoes the prophets Micah and Isaiah, saying that what God requires of us is to care for the weak and vulnerable, and not to adopt worldly values. James indicates that the way to salvation is to live a life of compassion, in obedience to the God who gives us birth and who nurtures us with gifts.

There is a danger in taking this view of the Christian life, which is that we can end up believing that we earn our place in heaven ourselves through our good works. It is what Luther seemed to be arguing against when he condemned the idea of justification by works. The counter balance to this is the teaching that our salvation  comes as a gracious gift from God, regardless of how good we are. All we have to do is to accept that, and to demonstrate that we are ‘doers of the word, not just hearers’, by living in the light of that belief. This puts us in a right relationship with ourselves and with our neighbours and with God, such that we begin to experience salvation in this world.

With  the monarchical model of God, religion is all about sin. Sin is disobedience to God and breaking his rules. In this model, Jesus came and died so that we could escape punishment for our sin. Our part is to believe that, to acknowledge ourselves  as miserable sinners, to feel guilty and to repent.

The problem is that the dynamic of that way of religion is hard to live with. It just becomes impossible to keep all the rules, or even to decide which rules we ought to be keeping in different circumstances. We end up not loving ourselves, and so cannot love others, The only way to escape the overwhelming sense of our own unworthiness is to project the nasty bits of ourselves onto others, usually those who are somehow different from ourselves, people of another race, religion, culture, class, gender or sexuality. This results in a fracturing of society and church, and to the blame culture, which seeks to apportion responsibility for our own unhappiness to others. It can also lead to a conviction that everyone needs follows our particular way to God if they are to be saved.

With the Spirit model of God, sin is about unfaithfulness, or idolatry in Old Testament -speak, putting other things like the desire for money, power, prestige, possessions, food or physical gratification before our desire for God. Sin is also failure in compassion and inflicting harm on God’s creatures ( human and other species) and on God’s world. Sin is not breaking laws, it is betraying relationships, and what it results in is not punishment but estrangement – from our fellow beings and from God. As such, we feel the consequences not in the life to come after death, but in this world.

The central dynamic is not guilt and blame with the Spirit model, but nurturing relationships. If we do not say sorry, and do something to mend the hurt and show our change of heart, the relationship will be harmed.

One element in every service of Christian worship is the Confession and Absolution, when we say sorry as individuals and as a congregation. Some confessions are difficult to say. I always disliked leading the confession in the Prayer Book Evensong service, in which we called ourselves ‘miserable sinners’ and asserted that ‘there is no health in us’ – largely because I just didn’t believe that was true. God made us, God’s Spirit lives in us, so of course there is health in us! I know that Norman Moore, the previous Vicar of St Andrew’s, disapproved strongly of what he called ‘grovelling before God’ and sometimes omitted the Confession from services in the belief it was unhealthy.

I agree, confession can be unhealthy if you are working with the model of the ‘finger-wagging God’, if you are trying to earn God’s approval and avert punishment by wallowing in a sense of unworthiness and guilt.

But if you are working with the Spirit model  of God, then reflecting regularly on where we have fallen short of reflecting the image of God within us, as individuals and society, saying sorry and resolving to do better, can only be good for us and for our relationships. And hearing what the standard Methodist Absolution calls ‘the Word of Grace’: “Your sins are forgiven” does, I believe, make a real difference to our ability to live the Christian life. This assures us that, no matter what we do, we are loved the way we are, by a God who is with us, around us and within us, and that makes a real difference to the way we see the world and other people. This model of confession and absolution is not a power relationship, but a dynamic of mutual  support, expressed most  obviously in the confession of the Iona Community, where both minister and congregation confess and are absolved by each other.

Knowing we are forgiven and accepted enables us to forgive and accept others. Knowing that our failures do not condemn us enables us to be less quick to condemn others. Experiencing the compassion of God prompts us to be compassionate to others. There has been a great deal in the media over the past weeks that demands that we don’t just hear this word but live it. The disagreements over the release on compassionate grounds of Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train robber; and Ali al Megrahi, the alleged Lockerbie bomber; and the obituaries to Senator Edward Kennedy, which refer back to his involvement in the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne all challenge us: do we believe and trust, and live our lives in the Spirit  of the God who is all compassion; or do we continue to be representatives of the finger-shaking God?

Which image of God drives your life?

(The God We Never Knew. Marcus J Borg. Harper One. 1998.)

True bread

August 2, 2009

( John 6, 24-35. )

There has been a lot of discussion recently on the Forum of the Church of England readers web site about the recently introduced advice for the administration of communion to cope with the risk of swine flu. One correspondent was very much against communion in one kind only, and said “If I went to a church where they offered the bread only, I wouldn’t take communion. I’d  go up for a blessing only.” The response implied that unless we all shared bread and wine, just as Jesus did with his disciples, it wouldn’t be a ‘true’ communion at all.

A line from today’s gospel: “It is my Father who gives you the true Bread from heaven”.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for ‘true’ is also the word for ‘real’ and the ‘real’ is something that our age values highly.

People are prepared to pay vast sums for works of art, whose value drops dramatically if they are discovered to be copies of an original, deliberate forgeries, or the work of less famous artists. They are then judged not to be ‘real’ or ‘true’.

With food also, we are engaged in a search for the real. We have campaigns for real ale, and manufacturers advertise their food as ‘free from artificial additives and colourings’ – illustrating their belief that what we want is what is natural – what is real.

This morning we have come together to celebrate the Holy Communion. We will receive part of a wafer of unleavened bread and a sip of wine, in the belief that we are experiencing the real Presence of Christ – but how ‘real’, how ‘true’ will that experience be?

To most people outside the church community, the answer to that is obvious. The things we do in church have nothing to do with reality. Religion is at best an irrelevance, at worst a deliberate escape from reality – ‘the opiate of the people’  Karl Marx called it.

But for those of us who do believe, who find that religion enables us to make contact with that reality which is at the depth of our being, how can we judge if what we do, including a celebration of the Eucharist, is ‘real’ or not?

Traditionally, debates about whether a celebration of Holy Communion is valid or not have concentrated on the externals. Was the person who presided validly ordained and authorised to celebrate? Were the right elements used? Were the right words said at the right time? Were the right actions performed by the president and the communicants?

Which is really strange – because Jesus, who gave us the sacrament of Holy Communion was a person who, in his earthly life, sat very light to externals. He was much more concerned with what was within – with people’s attitudes, motivation, beliefs and faith. It is true that he recognised the importance to the religious faith of human beings of things they could physically experience, like water, bread and wine; but he was constantly urging his followers to see beyond the externals, and penetrate the deeper meaning within.

So I want to suggest to you today that what makes a Eucharist real or unreal is not how close the externals are to what Jesus said or did, but how close these internal elements are to his practice.

The overriding characteristic of Jesus that comes across in all four gospels was how open he was to everyone. It was this that was such a stumbling block to belief in him for pious Jews.  He was free with his time and his teaching – he taught people like Mary of Bethany, and the Samaritan woman at the well, and he welcomed little children when the disciples wanted to send them away.  He shared meals and accepted hospitality even with notorious sinners like Matthew and Zaccheus. He was free with his body, allowing himself to be touched by those whom others considered polluting, like the sinful woman who anointed him at Simon’s house, and the woman with the haemorrhage – and even Judas, who betrayed him, did so with a kiss.

So I would suggest that our Eucharists are ‘real’ and ‘true’ in as much as we experience in them the openness to others that Jesus showed, and are ‘unreal’ and untrue’ insofar as we use them to erect barriers -barriers between ourselves and others, between God and others, between God and ourselves.

In Acts and the Epistles, we see the first disciples having to learn this openness again and again: the truth that Jesus’ Body and Blood are available to all. Think of Peter’s meeting with Cornelius and his family, of Paul and others taking the gospel to the Gentiles, of James warning against discriminating against poorly dressed worshippers, of the Corinthians failing to treat the poorer members of the community with generosity in the agape meal.

Yet how many barriers do we present day disciples  erect to prevent others sharing ‘the bread of life’ with us? Denominations bar one another from receiving; people have been, and still are barred from the communion rail because of their race, or age, or intellectual ability or marital status. People are excluded from taking certain roles within the Communion service because of gender or sexuality. Like the Corinthians, and those whom James criticised, we still often try to ensure that those who share the communion elements with us are dressed properly, behave nicely, come from the same class as us, and hold the right theological beliefs.

We try to exclude those whose words or actions make us feel uncomfortable and disturb our peace. This is partly because the sort of openness that Jesus practised is very frightening, very disturbing. Such openness may bring us to face the death of what we have always believed was ‘real’ and true’. It feels – and it is- dangerous. If we adopt such openness, we face the prospect that we might be, as Jesus was, broken, deserted, reviled, rejected. But Jesus’ example says that only when the ‘real bread’ on our supper table is open to all people – as his was – will our Communion be real.

And that openness includes being open to ourselves; not just to our good bits, but also to the unworthy bits that we would rather forget, and that other people didn’t know about.  So often, when we come to church, we leave that part of ourselves behind, or cover it up with special clothing in the vestry.

But Jesus accepted, and accepts  people just as they are. He did not demand that people repent before he helped them or shared a meal with them. He received them as sinners; he accepted their ministry as sinners, and he died for them and for us, while we were yet sinners.

So if we set different standards from his when we come to receive him, for ourselves or for others – we will not receive the ‘true bread’.

George Herbert, the 17th century priest, pastor and poet, expressed this in his poem, called ‘Love’:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin;

But quick-eyed Love, discerning me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.

‘A guest’, I answered, worthy to be here’

Love said, ’You shall be he’.

‘I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on thee’

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

‘Who made the eyes, but I?’

‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them Let my shame

Go where it doth deserve’

“And know you not,’ said Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’

‘My dear, then I will serve.’

‘You must sit down,’ said Love, and taste my meat.’

So I did sit, and eat.

If our Communion is to be true, and real, and if we are to feed on the true bread that comes from Heaven, then we must come accepting ourselves, and others, good bits and bad bits, without conditions, and accepting the character of the God who invites us to sit at his table and eat with no conditions, no standards, no masks.

We come with only our trust in Christ’s promise, that his flesh is real food, his blood is real drink, that he is the true bread of life that has been sent from Heaven – and that whoever eats and drinks it possesses eternal life.

The table is set. The host awaits us. Come let us celebrate the feast.