March 31, 2013
Acts 10, 34-43; 1 Cor. 15, 19-26; Luke 24, 1-12.1
Some years ago, on Good Friday, The Times reported on a survey by The Spectator in which the diocesan bishops of the Church of England were asked the question: ‘Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ?’ Rather to the surprise of the author, two thirds of them answered ‘yes’. However, about a quarter of the bishops declined to answer ( sensible men! ) and a further three bishops gave what were called ‘more subtle answers’. Nevertheless, this survey prompted the Times’ journalist to draw the conclusion that ‘At least three quarters of the Church of England’s bishops still proclaim a belief in the literal truth of the story of Easter and the physical resurrection of Jesus as described in the Bible.’
However, when you read what the bishops are said to have replied, things are not so clear. The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones said: “I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus for both historical and theological reasons. The fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time shows that it was not a subjective but an objective experience”.
A spokesman for the Archbishop of York said: “The Archbishop believes that the physical body of our Lord was raised from the dead on the first Easter morning and that it assumed a spiritual form which continued to sustain the Apostles and the early Church until the Ascension”.
A spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Jesus Christ is risen. That is a fact’.
The Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich said: “It’s immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit” and the Bishop of Bristol said: “I stand by the tradition of the church and St. Paul in particular, that we celebrate at Easter the rising of a spiritual body”.
The article did not record what other comments these bishops and others may have made. However, it recorded the results of another survey, of the general public by another journal, which showed that one third of 1000 people questioned believes in the biblical version of the resurrection, and half believed there was another explanation. I was not one of the 1000, but if I had been, I would have been a rather uncooperative respondent. Before answering I would have asked ‘Which of the biblical accounts of the resurrection do you mean?’ and ‘What exactly do you mean by resurrection?’
The problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are very inadequate and often misleading things to describe the transcendent reality that is the Easter experience. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it. Moreover, you have to interpret it according to words which reflect your thought forms and already existing beliefs, and those of the culture from which you come.
The biblical accounts of the first Easter began with the experiences of 1st century Jews whose world view was very different from that with which we operate. When these experiences were written down, they were written in Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English at different periods of English history. Each of these translation processes would inevitably have slightly affected the way the experience was expressed and understood, simply because there is very rarely an exact one for one correspondence between the words of different languages.
Let me just give you one example of how it affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun ‘resurrection’ amastasir appears hardly at all in the New Testament, When what happened to Jesus is described, verbs are used, and mostly verbs in the passive. That is, the New Testament does not talk about Jesus’s ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but about Jesus ‘being raised’ by God from death to heaven. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.
What is more, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and appearing to people, and these have a number of differences, more than would be expected if these were just different witnesses to the same event.
The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day according to the scriptures. He then appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (note 12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to James, then to all the apostles (who are they?) and lastly to Paul himself. There are several things to note about this account. Paul does not mention the women, the tomb, or any demonstration of a physical body, and he gives his own appearance of the risen Lord (at least a year or more after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the first followers and family of Jesus. What is more, in the same epistle he argues that the body which is raised is a spiritual body, not a physical one, since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’.
The Gospel of Mark records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem in order to anoint the body and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, he has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb (no Salome) to be told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. They then meet Jesus, worship him and the message is repeated. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and Jesus comes to them on a mountain and commissions them to go and baptize in his name.
Luke, as we heard, has an unspecified number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They are reminded of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, and go back to tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and some others are now named. They tell the disciples, who don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and sees the grave clothes lying but no body. The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. It comes in the context of the exposition of Scripture and the breaking of bread. Jesus then appears to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, and he then eats a piece of cooked fish. He then tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and then takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This ascension story is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is on Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens after 40 days. The coming of the Spirit happens several days later, on the feast of Pentecost.
In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She is not going to anoint the body, since Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea have already done that before the burial. She calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters the tomb and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple, who believes (in what is not specified). There are no angels. It is specifically said that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up. (John unusually uses the active verb ).
Jesus then appears to Mary, and tells her he is ascending to God (not that he has risen!) That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem through a locked door, and shows them his feet and side. He then breathes on them and gives the Holy Spirit (no separate Pentecost gift). He appears again a week later the same way, through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a later addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples. This involves a fishing trip similar to one described before the calling of the disciples in Luke’s gospel. The disciples do not at first recognise Jesus. They share a meal of fish and bread. This is described as the third appearance, but seems very like a first encounter with the risen Lord. Peter is then forgiven for his denial, and commissioned to lead the church and the manner of his death is predicted.
So, when people say they ‘believe in the physical resurrection of Christ as described in the Bible’ which of these accounts are they referring to? Quite apart from the discrepancies in the appearances, there are inconsistencies in the descriptions of the burial and the tomb that make it inconceivable to me that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.
I believe, as do many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that these Scriptures are attempting to communicate, in symbol and myth, reworking the religious traditions of Judaism in the form known as midrash, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe these accounts as ‘parable’, and point out that the truth of a parable does not depend on it having a basis in fact or history. What matters about a parable is its meaning.
This experience was real. We know that by its effects: by the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran home and hid, to those who were prepared to face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus as their Lord; by the change in them from orthodox Jews who held that the ‘Lord our God is one’ to followers of a new ‘Way’ who preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been taken up into God; by the change in them from those who shunned contact with non-Jews to those who preached the Jewish Messiah to all the known world; from those who saw death on a cross as a sign of separation from God, to those who saw it as the gateway to eternal life in God’s presence.
So the proper question to ask of the Easter narratives in the Bible is not ‘Did it really happen?’ expecting answers in terms of things that could be photographed and videoed if they happened now. Rather the question we need to ask of the Scriptures is: What did the experience mean to those first disciples, especially Mary Magdalene Peter, and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them? This is a question that goes beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.
Crossan and Borg suggest several things that the Easter stories tell us. The first is that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, but among the living. He is to be experienced through the Holy Spirit and in people living out his teaching in every age. The second is that, in raising Jesus to Heaven, God expresses his approval of Jesus and his way of life. He vindicates him against the power systems of the Roman Empire that killed him, and all such power systems, and those who collude with them. The resurrection asserts that these systems will not ultimately triumph over God’s Kingdom. Third, the Easter stories tell us that Jesus is Lord and Son of God, not the Roman Emperor. We follow his way, not the way of power and violence, when we live in God’s Kingdom; and that way will bring us life that is eternal.
If I am asked: Do you believe in the Resurrection?, I would answer: Yes. I believe that Jesus was raised after his death to glory with God. If I was asked if the disciples saw the risen Lord? I would again answer: Yes. I believe that at some time after the crucifixion (not necessarily on the third day, or after 3 days and nights, since that is ‘religious time’ ) the disciples saw Jesus in his exalted and glorified body, and that this was an experience shared by many people, some of whom are named in different parts in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous. If I am asked if I believe that Jesus is alive? I would answer: Yes, in the same way that I believe all of us who have faith in his revelation of God are transformed, renewed and alive in a way physical death has no power to extinguish.
Christ has been raised. We may be raised with him. Alleluia!
March 29, 2013
Opening Music: Schubert. Death and the Maiden (arr Mahler)
This afternoon, we will hear the last chapter of Mark’s Passion Narrative. Mark’s Gospel has been described as a Passion Narrative with an extended introduction. One eighth of its 16 chapters cover the Passion.
It has a different emphasis from the Passion narratives in the other other three Gospels. Like the rest of Mark’s Gospel, it presents Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God, and as the misunderstood and unrecognised Messiah. He is powerless from the moment of his arrest in the garden. He does nothing; things are done to him. He says very little. From the moment he answers Pilate saying “You say I am” he is silent until his final cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In Mark’s Passion, Jesus is totally forsaken. His disciples all run away and deny knowing him. The woman who love him stand far off. Passers by mock him, and even the insurgents crucified alongside him taunt him. At the end he feels that even God has deserted him.
Try to hear Mark’s Passion story without any echoes of the other Gospels – as Mark intended you to hear it.
Why does Mark say Jesus died? There is no hint of a sacrificial death or penal substitution. Mark says Jesus died because he was obedient to the will of God, following what he believed was God’s will, even if it meant his own death. He died because of the wickedness of his enemies in Jerusalem and Rome, because he stood up against the religious and political power systems that oppressed ordinary people, and these reacted in the way they normally do. He died because of the sinfulness of his world, which is still our world. He died as a ransom for many and to effect a new covenant with God, open to all.
So how is this Good News for this Good Friday? This passion appeals to those who are oppressed or suffering or depressed, because it tells them that the way they are treading, Jesus has trodden before them. It says that through his acceptance of suffering and death, Jesus is vindicated as King of Israel and Son of God. It says that all those who are his disciples and follow him on the Way of the Cross will, like him, be vindicated by God and raised to glory.
Reading: Mark 15, 1-15. Jesus before Pilate
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do* with the man you call* the King of the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
For the things we have done which we regret, forgive us.
For the things which we have failed to do which we regret, forgive us.
For all the times we have acted without love, forgive us.
For all the times we have reacted without thought, forgive us.
For all the times we have withdrawn care, forgive us.
For all the times we have failed to forgive, forgive us.
For hurtful words said, and helpful words unsaid,
for unfinished tasks and unfulfilled hopes,
God of all time,
forgive us and help us to lay down our burdens of regret.
Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us. Amen.
Reading: Mark 15, 16 – 20 The soldiers mock Jesus
16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort. 17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits you have won for us,
for all the pains and insults you have borne for us.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.
Hymn: Praise to the holiest
Reading: Mark 15, 21-32 Jesus is crucified
21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22Then they brought Jesus* to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.* 29Those who passed by derided* him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah,* the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
Creator of all the peoples of the earth,
have compassion on those who do not know you
and on those who have hardened their hearts against your love.
May the grace and power of that love gather us together
in your presence.
We pray this in the Spirit of the One who forgave them
for they knew not what they did. Amen
Hymn: Drop, drop slow tears
Reading: Psalm 22 1- 31
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth* is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;*
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life* from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued* me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;*
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,*
but heard when I* cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor* shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.*
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 To him,* indeed, shall all who sleep in* the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.*
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and* proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
God of compassion,
have mercy on all who cry out to you
out of darkness and despair,
and strengthen us as we face the cost of discipleship,
in union with your Son,
our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Reading: Mark 15, 33-47 Jesus’s death and burial
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land* until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’* 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he* breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*
40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46Then Joseph* bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body,* wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body* was laid.
Lord Jesus Christ, crucified for us,
help us to see and know your love for us.
Help us to see the cost of our forgiveness,
so that we may be made new through your love.
Jesus, Lord of the Cross,
We thank you that you went into
the heart of our evil and pain, along a way that was both terrible and wonderful,
as you kingship became your brokenness
and your dying became love’s triumph.
We bow down before the cross in wonder and sorrow.
Holy God, holy and strong,
Holy and immortal,
Have mercy on us.
March 3, 2013
Lent 3 Yr C. (Isaiah 55, 1-9; Psalm 63, 1-8; 1 Cor. 10, 1-13; Luke 13, 1-9)
How’s Lent going for you? Have you managed to avoid all the things you resolved to give up? Have you done that extra praying or Bible reading, or attended the Lent groups you promised to take up? Now we’re nearly at the mid point of Lent, it may be good time to review.
There’s an ongoing discussion about what Lent is for. Most of us know that it began in the early church as a period of preparation for Easter, when new members were admitted to the Church in baptism, and those who had been excommunicated for serious sin were allowed back into communion. It was then extended to be a period of discipline for everyone, to prepare them for the greatest feast of the Christian year, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.
Alongside the idea of disciplined preparation, there was also the idea that Christians should attempt to walk alongside Christ, and try to identify with his sacrifice, in imitation of the 40 days in the wilderness.
The ‘giving up’ part of the discipline was based on the concept that what got in the way of identifying with Christ were ‘sins of the flesh’ particularly sex, eating and drinking. It reflected a very gloomy idea of God, as one who disapproved of everything that made life enjoyable, and whose reaction to human wrongdoing was to come down strongly with devastating punishment. The message was that you could only please that sort of divinity, or try to avoid the punishment that was coming to you, if you made yourself thoroughly uncomfortable and miserable.
We can see hints of that idea of God in the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul sees the disasters that fell on the Israelites in the wilderness as punishments sent by God for their idolatry and sexual immorality, complaining and pleasure seeking, and highlights them as a warning to the followers of Jesus who might be tempted to do the same.
The same idea of God is found in the first part of the Gospel reading from Luke. The idea was frequently expressed that illness or disaster was a sign of punishment for wrongdoing, or just of God’s disfavour. Other people’s misfortune, says this bit of Luke, is a warning to mend our ways. It’s almost as if we believe God trying to frighten us into being good, and if we make ourselves thoroughly miserable, along with saying sorry, he won’t be so hard on us.
But parts of the readings give us another, rather different picture of God. The passage from 3rd Isaiah, pictures a God who is eager to give people the richest food, wine and the best of meals at absolutely no cost to themselves. It pictures a God who is eager to reward his people, in keeping with the covenant made with them, and is ready to forgive them their wrongdoing the moment they turn back to follow him. It makes the point that God ‘s ways are very different from human ways; he doesn’t automatically strike out at those who disobey, as a human ruler would. God is love, not power. God builds up, rather than destroys. Psalm 63 also reflects the picture of a God who fills those who follow him with good things, and offers protection to them, rather than punishment.
And the second part of the Luke passage again challenges the idea of a divinity whose first instinct is to punish and destroy those who don’t live up to the divine standard. The fig tree and the vineyard are both Biblical images for the people of God. The master is all for giving up on those who fail, and destroying them. The gardener, however, the person who truly cares for what is growing, however, is willing to give them another chance.
Lent gives us ‘another chance’ each year to repent in the proper meaning of the word, to turn our minds and our lives round, and to live more authentically the lives that Jesus showed us how to live, under the sovereignty of God.
There’s been a lot of rethinking recently about how we can best use the season to do that.
Giving up things, like chocolate, cake, alcohol, TV or cigarettes has tended to go out of fashion, in Christian circles at any rate. There’s come to be a feeling that it has more to do with a desire for the body beautiful than spiritual discipline. I read a remark recently that giving things up for Lent is sometimes just having another go at keeping the New Year’s resolutions you’re failing to keep by the time February comes round.
There is also the tendency for humans to turn even good exercises into competitions, which means they end up being about ourselves, and our own pride, rather than bringing us closer to God.
Mark Sandlin, a minister in the Episcopal church in America, wrote recently how he got caught up in this ‘devotional one-upmanship’ one Lent. Sacrificing just one pleasure seemed too little a sacrifice – so each year he added something else, till one year he gave up all beverages except water, all meat, all TV and all sweets except his birthday cake, as well as adding extra exercise, daily devotions and charitable giving. And he admits that part of the reason was that when people asked (as he knew they would) what he was doing for Lent, he’d come out looking really holy and righteous.
So, one year, he gave up Lent for Lent. He took a careful look at the things that most people give up for Lent, and concluded that they weren’t actually the things that really get in the way of our right relationship with God. Such obstacles are very unlikely to be alcohol, or chocolate, or television, unless we are really addicted to them. It is much more likely to be our desire to come first, to keep up with the Joneses, and our inability to treat those who are different from us a fellow children of God. It’s a lot harder to give up that sort of socially reinforced behaviour than to give up biscuits, so if you resolve to try during Lent, you are bound to fail, over and over again. So, when Mark did try, and inevitably failed, he just kept on trying, through Easter and the rest of the church year, and he was still trying when the next Lent came round. So, he didn’t need a special season of Lenten discipline any more – he was living in it all the time.
Giving things up has been replaced by a trend for taking things up – using Lent to improve your knowledge of the faith by reading, or joining a Lent discussion group; or by setting aside time to pray or just be silent. Some think it would be a good thing to encourage people to attend extra mid-week worship, or to make a specific commitment to give more to charity during the Lenten season. But many of us lead very busy lives anyway. Trying and failing to do extra reading, or attend more worship or discussion groups, can just leave us feeling guilty, rather than helping us to grow spiritually.
A new initiative this Lent has been the ‘I’m not busy’ challenge, which asks people to spend a limited amount of time each day – between 10 and 30 minutes – just doing nothing. The challenge has been issued because the instigator, Stephen Cherry, sees busyness as a disease of the developed world, one which is ruling our lives and eating away at our souls. He feels it is bad because it distorts our perceptions, makes us feel self-important, makes us rude and impatient, burns us out, and prevents us from considering what is really important in our lives.
Church people are not immune -indeed some of them constantly complain of how busy they are. Busyness is seen as a virtue in our society – but in fact is a corrosive vice. Doing nothing for 10 – 30 minutes each day is just the start: it should lead on to a re-evaluation of what is really important, and implementing some ‘time wisdom’ to make better use of God’s gift of time. Again, this is a Lenten discipline that is designed to continue even after Lent has finished.
Even this Lent discipline, though, can be turned into something that is about us, and what is good for us (for busyness is very bad for our mental and physical health) rather than being undertaken because it brings us closer to God. An obsession with our work, even our work for the church, can get in the way of listening and understanding what God wants of us. But as John Van de Laar writes: “Worship can easily be a good way to hide from ourselves and from God. It’s easy to sing and dance in order to silence the still small voice”. Being an active church member can also get in the way of our openness to God.
This is not as strange as it sounds. He explained that, when he was at college, his philosophy lecturer explained to him the difference between God as an ‘eikon’ and God as an ‘eidos’. The first is the Greek word for image or icon and refers to God as something wholly other, as our OT reading says – one whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. The second ‘eidos’ is the Greek word for ‘idol’ and refers to the God many religious people believe in – a God who we think we can fully explain, using human categories, a God who we’ve created in our own image, who thinks as we think, and whose ways are our ways.
It is the ‘eidos’ God that Ambrosino resolved to give up during Lent: the God of rigid ideologies, who silences questions with threats of Hell, who separates the world into manageable divisions of the approved and disapproved, whose ethical decisions were fixed by age-old writings which cannot be discussed, who gave human beings brains, and then punishes them for using them.
He gives this up in order “to reflect not on the God who rules by power, but a god who leads by love; who identifies with the weak; whose foolishness upsets omniscience; a God who reveals Himself in many ways, who reveals Himself in a first century peasant named Jesus; a God who empties Himself of God, and offers Himself to his enemies in submission and servitude; who is concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, the least among us, and the disadvantaged; who sends Jesus to go after the marginalized and the misunderstood, and to bring back home again those who have been ostracized and forgotten.
I am giving up God for Lent to make room for God. I am prying open my fingers, and letting all of my theological idols crash to the ground. And I am lifting up my empty hands to Heaven in anticipation of God’s arrival, and quietly echoing the unsettling words of Meister Eckhart: “I pray God to rid me of God.”
This is another ‘giving up’ that will continue after Lent is over, in order that we may be open to receive the God who is always arriving unexpectedly, always being born in obscurity, always being raised from the dead. It is a challenge to be a pilgrim follower, always searching for God revealed in new situations, always checking that we haven’t settled for an idol instead of struggling with the amazing, mysterious reality of the divine icon. It’s a giving up that would be a real challenge for many of us. Is it something that feels right to you – or not?
So, take a moment this week to consider: what are you ‘giving up for Lent’ and why?
March 1, 2013
(Leviticus 19, 1-2,33-37; Matthew 25, 31-40)
When I was a teenager, I had a number of pen-friends from abroad: one in the USA, one in Norway, one in Germany and two in France. In the summer holidays before my O level exams, I spent 4 weeks with my two French pen-friends to improve my knowledge of the language.
I remember two things very distinctly about that holiday in France. The first was how home-sick I was. It was the first time I had been on holiday on my own without my family. The food, the money, the customs, even the toilet facilities were very different from those I was used to at home, and, although I was thinking in French by the end of the four weeks, at the beginning every conversation was a real effort. I can remember how I used to pretend not to have woken up, in order to delay starting the daily effort to understand, and make myself understood.
The second vivid memory was walking through the streets of Rouen with my friend Sylviane. In order to get from her home in an old apartment block to the tourist area around the cathedral and the Old Market Place where Joan of Arc was burned, we had to go through the immigrant quarter. I still remember the atmosphere of hostility and fear from both sides as we walked through that area. When I look back now, I realise that some of those immigrants were probably as homesick as I was, especially the Muslim women. At the time, though, all I absorbed was the fear of my hosts at the different and the new.
Later on, when I did French for A level, I had to learn about French culture and politics as well as studying their literature, and I learnt that citizens from the French overseas colonies were supposed to be treated as as French as those born in mainland France. The history of the French colonial empire especially in North Africa and IndoChina showed me this ideal was rarely realised, and explained the tense atmosphere I’d experienced in Rouen.
Current newspaper reports, and the testimonies we have heard in this service from women living in present day France, would indicate that things are not much better for strangers and immigrants to France than they were back when I was at school. But France has a long and proud history of being a place of asylum. Their political tradition – as the land of liberty, equality, and brother and sisterhood – as well as their dominant Catholic faith should prompt them to welcome the stranger as an equal.
The life-stories of women we have just heard – Vera, Françoise and Marie-Léonie, give us hope that things are improving In France. But are things any better in the United Kingdom?
Anecdotal evidence – remarks made to someone I know by people from overseas he sees at a charity he worked for, that they prefer living in London to other major cities, including Paris, because no-one takes any notice here of what you dress like, or what you do; and our own experience of welcoming people from overseas into our own family and church circles, could convince us that we are doing well. But our news bulletins, the headlines in our newspapers and the demonstrations targetting immigrants and asylum seekers in some of our towns and cities should shake our comfortable assumptions of superiority. We have women and children who end up as sex slaves in this country too, we have people who have to work in the black economy, we have children torn from the place they regard as home and deported, just like those we heard about in France.
The first readings the women of France chose to guide our thoughts and prick our consciences today come from the book of Leviticus. We tend to think of Leviticus as a book that doesn’t concern us modern believers much – all about obscure regulations about what the Israelites could and couldn’t wear, or eat or have sex with, regulations designed to keep them pure and separate from anyone else. But the passages chosen here show that parts of it remind the Jews (and us) that a holy life involves justice and fairness for the strangers living within your country, that holiness involves actions as well as a state of mind. We must remember that Jesus took part of his summary of the law from Leviticus “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19.18).
The New Testament reading again challenges our beliefs about what makes us a good Christian. The parable of the Sheep and Goats tells us that it’s not what church we belong to, or what we believe about God, or Jesus, or morality, that we will be judged on in the final instance; it’s how we act, and particularly how we act towards the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate clothing, those who are in prison, the strangers within our communities – in other words, all those who are the most vulnerable in our society and our world. We don’t usually behave as though that is what we will be judged on; it’s not what people outside the churches hear most about from us. How do we respond to that challenge?
In the hymn we will sing in a moment, we will commit ourselves to serving our brothers and sisters, to being Christ for them, in the ways which the parable of Matthew 25 outlined. In the prayers of intercession which follow, we will dedicate ourselves to reaching out to those who come to our country looking for asylum and work, to welcoming the stranger into our communities, and to caring for those who find themselves in vulnerable situations.
How can we make this not just a prayer, but a practical reality?
We can do it first of all by choosing who we listen to. When we are confronted with scare stories about the strangers in our midst in the media, and especially in the tabloid press, and at election time, do we believe them, or do we listen to the voice of the scriptures, which tell us these newcomers are members of our own family, children of the same God, Christ in our communities?
We can do it by choosing carefully what we say. Do we repeat the scare stories that reinforce the suspicion and fear between immigrants and native born, between different classes and religions, between those of different customs, between those who live in relative security and those who are going through hard times? Or do we counter those experiences with our own positive experiences, however unpopular that may make us, and remind our fellow citizens of the core Christian teaching about welcoming the stranger – the teaching that really underlies our culture and our history.
We can make welcoming the stranger a practical reality by offering our help to the strangers and the vulnerable. There are so many opportunities to do so in our immediate area as well as further afield. We can make donations and offer time to the Food Banks and the Credit Unions; we can donate supplies to the Catholic Worker Farm here in Maple Cross which cares for female and child asylum seekers who would otherwise be homeless; we can join the volunteer hospital and prison visitors schemes; we can volunteer for Care; we can volunteer and donate to the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Project; we can support projects for the homeless like the New Hope Trust and Herts Young Homeless. We can make our churches places where newcomers feel welcome.
The WWDP service this year is not, as it often is, about something that happens in a country far away – something we can pray about this afternoon, and then forget. It is about something that affects us, in our own homes and neighbourhoods, as much as it affects the people of France who put the service together.
Can we see in these strangers in need Christ himself needing our help? Do we really accept that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me’?