Who do you say that I am?

August 21, 2011

Isaiah 51, 1-6; Matthew 16, 13 – 20.

It’s a normal question to ask when you meet a person for the first time. “Who are you?” Sometimes you probe further, “What do you do for a living?” “Where do you come from?”  Whatever the answer, it will have to be couched in terms the questioner will understand. It would be no use telling a native of an Amazonian rain forest tribe that you’re a computer programmer; it would mean nothing to them. That occupation only has meaning in the context of a modern technological society.

It’s most unusual, on the other hand,  for someone to ask you, as Jesus is shown doing in this morning’s Gospel reading, “Who do people say I am?” and almost unheard of for someone to ask “Who do you say I am?”. Which is a sure indication that what we are dealing with here is very unlikely to be a record of an actual historical conversation, but is actually a statement of the belief of the early Church.

The Jesus we know from the Synoptic Gospels did not seem to be at all interested in what people thought about him. He didn’t talk much about himself. What he talked about was God, and God’s Kingdom, and how people should act in order to serve God’s Kingdom on earth. He didn’t ever claim to be the Messiah, he didn’t ever claim to be the Son of God. When his followers, or those he healed, or the demons he was exorcising gave him those titles, he commanded them to be silent.

Yet, within a generation of his crucifixion, when the Synoptic Gospels and Acts were written, he was being proclaimed as Messiah – in Greek ‘the Christ’, in English ‘The Anointed One’. It had become so much associated with him that it had changed from being a title – ‘Jesus, the Christ’ to being something like a surname, ‘Jesus Christ’ or even to being a name on its own, ‘Christ’. Then, by the third quarter of the first century it was being used as a way of describing his followers, who became known, as we are, as ‘Christians’.

But what did these titles mean to those who first used them?

In the Judaism of the time of Jesus, there was a hope for a Messiah, a person appointed by God to save Israel, defeat her enemies, and restore the Jews to freedom and pre-eminence. It was not a major element in their faith, but it was an expectation among ordinary people, and a subject of speculation among some of the sects, such as those who lived at Qumran, and whose writings we have in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The main expectation was of a Messiah who would be a king in the line of David. This King Messiah would defeat the Gentiles in battle, would restore the fortunes of Israel, would instil the fear of the Lord in the people, lead them in holiness of life, and administer justice with righteousness. Other ways of referring to this person were ‘Son of David’, ‘Branch of David’ and ‘Star of Jacob’.

There were claims that this person had come, especially during the time of the last uprising of the Jews against the Romans in 135-137 AD, when the leader of the rebels, Simon bar Kosiba, was renamed bar Kochba, ‘Son of the Star’ by those who thought he was the promised Messiah.

There were other expectations. Because the royal line of David had died out, the High Priests exercised political as well as religious power. So some groups expected a Priest Messiah rather than a King Messiah. Simon Maccabeus, who lived about 150 years before Jesus,  was praised in Messianic terms which spoke of his star rising, and the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of the Messiahs of Aaron (a Priest-Messiah) and of Israel (a King-Messiah).

There was an expectation that one of the great prophets would return to herald the coming of the Messiah, as we read in the New Testament;  but there was also some expectation of a Prophet Messiah, either alongside the King and Priest Messiahs, or as one facet of a person sent from God who would combine all these roles. The historical Jesus came closest to the role of Prophet-Messiah.

Some texts especially after the 1st century AD spoke of a pre-existent Messiah, whose name and essence were known to God before he came into the world, but this person remained only an idea until he was actually born. Other texts said he would not know he was the Messiah until God anointed or appointed him. However, the one characteristic of all these Messiahs was that they would be human, and like all other humans, they would die.

It is perhaps because Jesus’s view of his mission was so very different from all these expectations, and the reality of his life and death did not in any way fulfil popular ideas of the coming of the Messiah that the New Testament shows him as commanding his disciples and the demons to keep their ideas secret, and moving immediately to speak about his coming passion and death.

Similarly, the title ‘Son of God’ would not have had the overtones of divine status that it does for us, influenced by nearly two thousand years of church dogma. Several sorts of people in the Jewish society of Jesus’s time might have been known as ‘son of God’. The Jewish Bible called three groups of beings ‘sons of God’: angels, the people of Israel as a whole, and particularly the Kings of Israel. Psalm 2 calls the Davidic King ‘God’s son’ and the Dead Sea Scrolls also say the Messiah will be God’s son. Therefore, it was natural to combine this title with that of the King Messiah. But in the inter-testamental period, it was also a designation of a just or good man, or one who worked wonders, or one who healed. The Book of Ecclesiasticus says “be a father to the fatherless and God shall call you his son and deliver you from the pit”. Jewish charismatics at the time of Jesus believed that saints and teachers who were especially close to God were acclaimed in public by a Divine voice which called them ‘my son’. This voice was heard only by spiritual beings, evil as well as good, which was why demons are shown in the Gospels as recognising Jesus as God’s son.

Another feature of the holy men, or Hasids, of Judaism at this time is that they called God ‘Father’, using the Aramaic term ‘Abba’ which Jesus also used.

All these traditions would have fed into the disciples’ belief that Jesus was, as Peter proclaimed, ‘The Messiah, the son of the Living God’. Some strands of early Christianity saw his Messiahship as beginning with his resurrection and Ascension, others from his baptism, and others from his birth or before. There was a need make major adjustments in their thinking to cope with a Messiah who did not fulfil any of the expectations of the King/ Priest/ Prophet Messiah, but who was condemned as a criminal and died on a cross.

Eventually, the Jewish understanding of the terms was lost in the Christian Church, as its Jewish element grew smaller and smaller and eventually died out all together. The move into the Gentile culture of Greece and Rome, and nearly three centuries of  Hellenistic philosophical and religious debate ultimately transformed the meaning of these titles of Jesus, until eventually the Church acclaimed him as the second person of the Trinity, the ‘only-begotten Son of God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God’ that the Nicene Creed proclaims.

The understanding of Jesus as a divine being, sent down from heaven to live and die among us, and returning to heaven to reign with God until he comes again to judge the world, is one that was full of meaning for people in the centuries since Nicea. But it doesn’t seem to have much meaning for many people in our time. It has often been pointed out, by Bishop John Robinson among others, that whereas at one time the heavenly realm was more real to people than a foreign country, nowadays the exact opposite is true. Nowadays, to speak of heaven and divine beings is seen by many as talking about something that is unreal, on the same level as fairy stories. If we are to convince people outside the Christian community  that the spiritual world is a real and relevant as the material one, then we need to present Jesus in a way which means something  to them.

It is obvious from the New Testament that when people came into contact with Jesus, they knew they were in the presence of someone special, someone whose words and actions opened their eyes to the reality of the Living God. People today are just as much in need of that encounter as they were then. Our mission and ministry, the mission and ministry for which we were commissioned at our baptism, is to enable that encounter to take place. Through our words, and even more so, through are actions, proclaim the Kingdom. It is not just Peter who was given the keys to the Kingdom; we hold them to, and we need to open the gates to the people of our time. But to do so, we will have to find new answers to that age old question of Jesus, “But who do you say that I am?” answers that are true to the life and teaching of Jesus, but which will resonate with the hearts and minds of people today.

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Going to the Dogs.

August 14, 2011

Isaiah 56, 1 & 6-8; Matt.15, 10-28

A few days ago I was talking to someone from another Christian congregation about how to manage changes in a church. He said he thought there would be deep differences in his congregation about proposed courses of action, and that “Things would get political, and people would split into parties which is never a good thing in a Christian community”.

We tend to have a rather idealised view of the beginnings of the Christian church, seeing it as a community united in belief and practice.  In reality, it was far from united. One group of Christians, led by the remaining eleven disciples and the family of Jesus, evangelised only Jews, and saw their mission as largely confined to Palestine. For them, the Gospel was essentially a call to reform for Judaism, and Jesus came (as our Gospel reading says) for “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. It was only after the events of Holy Week had shown that most of the Jews rejected Jesus that the message could be taken to Gentiles; and if they wanted to be part of the Christian movement, they had to convert to Judaism, with all that involved in the way of keeping food laws, purity rituals, and circumcision for men. Paul, on the other hand, believed that the message Jesus brought was for all people, and saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. At the core of his message was the belief that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave of free, male or female”. (Gal. 3.28).

Our Gospel reading this morning reflects those tensions in the early Church community. In the first part you have Jesus stating that the food and purity laws don’t matter – supporting the Pauline view of his mission. But in the second part, you have him rebuffing the approach of a foreign woman, and stating the Jerusalem church’s line that his mission was primarily to the Jews.

We don’t actually know how much of this story goes back to Jesus. It appears only in Mark and Matthew, and Mark does not have the statement about Jesus’s mission to the lost sheep of Israel only. In Mark the foreign woman is a Greek Syro-Phoenecian; Matthew makes her a Canaanite woman, a member of a race with which the Jews fought for the possession of Palestine. Biblical scholars are divided over whether Jesus did speak and minister to the many foreigners living in Palestine at that time, or whether he preached and ministered only his fellow Jews. Some commentators believe Jesus would not have had any problem speaking and ministering to Gentiles, since he sat very light to the purity rules which demanded separation from non-Jews. Others think his mission was to recall his fellow Jews to their covenant with God, and he would not have involved himself with Gentiles.

Whichever of these was the case, the emerging Christian community struggled with the problems of how to cope with the many Gentiles who were attracted by the Gospel message, as the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts bear witness. Eventually, the problem was solved, as the Jewish Christian Church disappeared following the Jewish revolt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the deaths of the original Jewish apostles. Pauline Christianity became the orthodox view, and the idea that to be a Christian you had to convert to Judaism became so strange that the later editors of John’s Gospel could refer to Jesus’s opponents as ‘the Jews’ without any sense that Jesus himself, and all his early followers were, in fact, Jewish.

Perhaps it’s because we read this story from that perspective that this story is so profoundly shocking. Do we really follow a Saviour who was prepared to reject a woman who came to him asking for help just because she was a foreigner? Can we love a Saviour who called another human being a bitch?

Canaan dog

(Any minister of religion nowadays who used that sort of language to a female parishioner would find himself on the front page of the newspapers the next day!). And what do we make of a Son of God, whose mind about God’s purpose for his life is apparently changed by the witty repartee of an insignificant stranger who he has insulted? The story shows us a more human Jesus, one who is having to learn on the job about the mission his Heavenly Father has for him to do. It is very problematic.

Nowadays it would simply not be acceptable for an educated, civilised person to speak to anyone as Jesus is shown as speaking to this foreigner. Yet the gospel writers seem to have no problems about including this. How can we explain it? The Palestine of Jesus’s day was deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines, as it is still. There was virtually no interaction between different racial and religious groups, and especially not between men and women from different communities. For many Jews, the survival of their faith and their way of life depended on maintaining this separation from the foreigners who had invaded their land and oppressed them. So they felt justified in using this sort of language about them.

But the effect of using this sort of language about  other people is always to diminish our sense of their humanity. If they are ‘dogs’ they cannot be our brothers and sisters, they are not children of God, and we can leave them outside our concern.

This has been brought home to me forcibly this week as I read and watched the coverage of the riots in London and elsewhere. A woman in Ealing, who had watched her shop being trashed and the stock looted, called the perpetrators “feral rats”. A commentator on the Watford Observer website called them “feral scum” and “dog excrement” who should be shot on sight if they are found looting. Max Hastings called them “wild beasts”. While their anger at what happened is understandable to all of us who witnessed what went on, the effect of such name calling is to separate society into ‘them’ and ‘us’, and to deny to ‘them’ the human rights and consideration that underpin both our society and our faith.

But from those who perpetrated the rioting and the looting, there is a parallel dehumanisation of ‘the other side’. Two young women talked about the ‘fun’ they got from ‘getting stuff for free’ and how the riots showed ‘them’ – the rich, the police, the government, the Conservatives – that ‘we can do what we like’. A teacher from Tottenham writes about how a whole generation of youngsters has been inculcated with a distrust and hatred of the police, calling them names like ‘pigs’ ‘bacon’ ‘feds’ and ‘po-po’ that come from American city gang culture. Yet the same teacher said many of them are totally ignorant about the history behind such community attitudes, and have not actually had negative interaction with the police. But generations of mistrust have meant that “large groups of young adults in some cities have created a parallel antisocial community within the community, which operates by different rules.” In this subculture “acquisition of goods through violence is justified, the notion of dog eats dog pervades, and the top dog survives the best”. (Camila Batmanghelidjh http://tinyurl.com/3pjgj3w)

The causes of last week’s riots and looting are complex, and this is not the place to try to analyse them. But those who see the riots as a product of the unique conditions of 21st century British cities ignore a lot of history, and some of the evidence that is already emerging from the courts as the cases of those arrested are heard.

On the historical side, wise commentators have reminded us of the situation in the London of the 1820’s, when a feral underclass terrorised parts of London with street robberies. Or of the fact that looting was rife during the Blitz, the time when the conventional view is that Britain pulled together against a common enemy. An article in The Times yesterday gives an account of mob attacks on shops and businesses in South Wales in 1911, which only ended when the military were sent in. The shops were owned by Jews, and those who were convicted of the attack were respectable working miners and their wives. Others have reminded us that this sort of riots most often happens in the school summer holidays, when it’s hot, and that the end of the rioting might have had something to do with the heavy rain in some cities on Wednesday and Thursday as well as the increased police presence on our streets.

Analysis has shown that the riots took place in some of the most deprived areas of our country, with the highest rates of unemployment and child poverty. But similar areas did not have riots and looting. The court appearances so far have shown that the majority of the rioters were aged under 25, and male; but although many had no occupation, the proportion who were unemployed was no more than the average for these areas. Another interesting statistic is that 70% of those appearing in court came from outside the area which they were destroying or looting.

All ethnic groups appear to have been involved among the rioters and looters – and those who robbed or received looted goods come from across the social spectrum – like the young woman who came from a million pound home accused of driving a getaway car for a gang of looters, or the graduate who wanted to work with children who took a TV from a burnt out store – then handed herself in to the police because her conscience kept her awake. Some of the court cases have shown how easy it is to get caught up in lawlessness when everyone else is doing it.

Family breakdown has been blamed; but while some in court came from broken homes, others were there because their parents marched them down to the police station when they saw them on film of the riots, or found stolen goods in their possession. And while it has been widely asserted that the riots were a symptom of community breakdown, the clean up campaigns that immediately followed, and the moves to collect clothes, money and furniture for those who lost homes or businesses or were robbed, and the way people came together to defend their communities shows that community spirit is still strong in these same areas, even crossing racial and religious boundaries.

There are no easy answers; but there are things to do.

The Archbishop of Canterbury when he spoke in The House of Lords debate on the riots talked about the importance of rebuilding communities through education  based on the values of civic virtue, values which are as much needed among the rich and privileged as among the poor and deprived. This echoes what the Bishop of St Albans said in his address to Diocesan Synod in June about the rebuilding of the sense of community, known in the jargon as ‘social capital’. Bishop Alan emphasised particularly the need to increase not just  ‘bonding social capital’, the sort of community spirit that is so strong in our churches, which prompts people to look after other members of the community in difficulty; but also ‘bridging social capital’ the community spirit that prompts people to reach out to the wider community, to those who are different from themselves, and in particular to the newcomers, the aliens and those who are most vulnerable, and to build a community which includes them all. If we do this it will involve committing ourselves to caring for those who seem unworthy of our care. Caring costs as Jesus showed us, and caring also costs money – but so does rebuilding after riots and looting.

This sort of social capital, this reaching out across the social divides, to create a society which is one integrated community is what we call in religious jargon ‘building the Kingdom of Heaven’. That perfect community has never existed on earth, and perhaps it never will this side of Judgement Day, but it is our calling as Christians to work to build it, no matter how difficult it seems, and how any setbacks we encounter as we do so.

The story of Christ’s meeting with the foreign woman shows how the early Church came to realise that it was God’s will that they should (in Jewish terms) ‘go to the dogs’ and bring them – the Gentiles – fully into their community, the community that Isaiah foresaw, when the Gentiles would worship in the Holy City as part of one dedicated people.

This is what we must be committed to also – in our own time, and with our own ‘them’ – because otherwise our society will ‘go to the dogs’ in the worse sense.

Do not be Afraid.

August 7, 2011

(1 Kings 19, 9-18; Romans 10, 5-15; Matthew 14, 22-33)

I spent all of the early part of my childhood living near the sea. My mother was also brought up at the sea side, and we spent our holidays with my grandmother and my aunt – who both lived by the coast – so I was always at ease in the water. I can’t remember learning to swim – I just always could, and in those days I did things I’d never dream of doing now. When we lived at Dover, I used to jump off the breakwaters into the sea; when I look at them now, as we go through Dover to join a cruise ship, I wonder how I ever had the nerve.

I swam and played in the water with confidence only because my mother was nearby, and I was sure she would not let me get into difficulties and would rescue me if I did. But coming from a family with seafarers in my ancestry, and spending so much time near the sea taught me a respect for the power of the water, especially when it was rough weather.  That means I would never have dreamt of doing anything as stupid as getting out of a boat into a rough sea, as Peter is shown as doing in our Gospel reading.

But we are not meant to take this story literally. As the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, pointed out in his book “The Meaning in the Miracles”, trying to find out what actually happened when these incidents took place – or even if they did – is pointless. What is important is what the Gospel writers are trying to tell us through the miracle story.

First of all, the miracle is telling us about Jesus. There is a strand of the Old Testament that sees the sea as the place of chaos, inhabited by sea monsters who cause storms and the deaths of seafarers. But one strand of the creation myths, echoes of which are found in the Psalms and Job, tells how Yahweh defeated the sea monsters to form the earth. So, when Jesus calms the storm, the text is telling us that God is present. There are also passages in the psalms which talk of God walking on the surface of the sea. So when Jesus walks on the water, the story again is telling us that God is present in him. And just to confirm it, Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, I am” ( using the name of God given to Moses in Exodus).

The miracle is also telling us that Jesus is at hand to help, even when he appears to be far off. Perhaps the church for whom the Gospel was written was going through a time of troubles, when they thought their very survival was in question; and as their troubles continued, they felt that God in Jesus had deserted them. Everything, represented by the waves and the contrary wind, was against them. The story tells them, and us that on the contrary, though unseen, Jesus is keeping watch from far off, and will come when they really need him – and that when he is there, the storms will be stilled, and they will reach their  safe harbour quickly. In this, the miracle story echoes our Old Testament story. Elijah, too, thinks God has deserted him, and sinks into depression and despair; but it is only when he has reached this lowest point that he is able to hear the ‘still, small voice’ of God, commissioning him to undertake the impossible in God’s name.

Secondly, the miracle of walking on the water is telling us something about the life of the Christian disciple.  It is telling us to trust in God’s care and presence, even if we cannot feel him close. It is telling us to trust that his help will be there when the storms and troubles are at their worst, when we most need it. It is telling us to keep our eyes upon Jesus if we want to succeed in following him.

Peter, the story tells us, was able to walk on water so long as he kept looking at Jesus. It was when he looked down, and let his trust be overwhelmed by fear, that he began to sink. In the same way we need to keep Christ at the centre of our thoughts as we live out our discipleship, and to trust in the way of love and acceptance he showed us, however difficult it may seem. We follow the path of discipleship not in our own strength, but in the strength we get from Christ. That is why being part of the Body of Christ, the Christian fellowship, is so important for us. If we try to do God’s work in our own strength, through our own limited resources, we will not succeed. This is also the message of Paul in our passage from the letter to the Romans. It is through our faith in Jesus that we will be saved, not through our own actions, however righteous.

But this miracle story also tells us that sometimes God in Christ will call us to get out of the boat, and do something amazing for him. Too many of us live our lives firmly sat down in the safety of the boat, firmly enclosed in our own comfort zone. In our church life, in our daily lives, we are not willing to take risks for God. But sometimes Jesus asks us to metaphorically get out, and  into dangerous waters to meet him – because Jesus is not often to be found sitting where it’s comfortable and safe!  So, the story is saying, be ready to leave your comfort zone if Jesus calls, and willing to do things you would not normally do – you will never walk on water until you do.

Of course we will sometimes fail; but that should not deter us from making the attempt. What people tend to remember about Peter is that he sank – they forget he was the only one of the disciples to be courageous enough to make the attempt. Just as they remember that he denied Jesus – and not that he was the only one  of the Twelve who came out of hiding and followed Jesus to the High Priest’s house.

Taking risks and failing is as important as succeeding. We cannot live our lives without risk. Our present day society tries to minimise risks, especially with children – and as a consequence we are raising a generation who don’t know how to judge when a situation is really dangerous, or how to cope when things get difficult, or how to judge who to trust. With our children, and with ourselves, we have, sometimes, to face difficult situations in faith, even if we fail.

The story reassures us that, when we do try, and when we sometimes fail, God in Jesus will be there to catch hold of us and keep us safe. If we keep trusting in God, he will not let us go under.

The final and most important message to Christian disciples from this miracle is contained in Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid”. As Bishop Gene Robinson said in his sermon at Putney before the last Lambeth Conference, we live in a world and in a church which is paralysed by fear. Much of it is unrealistic, a fear of things and situations that are not really so much of a threat as they seem. But whether the fear is realistic or not, the effect of being afraid is to prevent us from loving, and loving is what we are commanded to do in Christ’s name.

“Do not be afraid. I am” said Jesus. And the storm ceased and the wind dropped.

When I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, I was sent a prayer in the Celtic style, one of a collection by David Adams. I found it a great help in keeping me calm and unafraid when things were difficult. Perhaps it will help you to stay confident in the midst of the storm, and even to walk on the water, if Jesus calls you to do so:

Circle me O God.

Keep peace within.

Keep turmoil out.

Circle me O God.

Keep calm within.

Keep storms without

Circle me O God.

Keep strength within.

Keep weakness out.