Loving the Other

February 3, 2013

 

(Jeremiah 1, 4-10; 1 Corinthians 13, 1-13; Luke 4, 21-30.)

Sometimes St Paul gets things wrong, as he does when he engages in obscure Rabbinic arguments to try to make his point; or when he forgets that being in Christ is about grace, and tries to set up rules and regulations about who God accepts and what different people may or may not do.

But sometimes he gets things gloriously, spectacularly, wonderfully right, so right that it takes your breath away! And today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians is one of those moments.

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The hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best known and best loved passages of the whole Bible. Any of us could probably quote bits of it, and so could a good many other people, even those with little church connection. Even Richard Dawkins quoted a bit in his debate with Rowan Williams in the Cambridge Union last week!

It is a favourite to be read at services which celebrate family events, especially weddings. Yet how many of those who hear it read realise that it is not really talking about married love, or the love within a family at all; it is not, as it sounds,  a celebration of a loving situation that already exists. It is a sharp reminder to people who are failing of just how far short they fall of the ideal they should be aspiring to. This is not written to a dewy eyed couple, talking about the sort of love that is celebrated by red roses, teddy bears and candlelit dinners. It is written to a community riven with differences about the love  that is faithful to death, even death on a cross.

Corinth was a major city of the Roman Empire, a crossroads of trade between north and south, east and west. It had many extremely wealthy people, some of them among the Christian community. It had people of many races, including Jews like Paul, Prisca and Aquila. There were very poor people and slaves and former slaves. It contained adherents of many different religions and philosophies. They had been drawn to the Christian faith for a number of different reasons, and by a number of missionaries apart from Paul.

After Paul left Corinth and travelled to Ephesus, he received disturbing news about how the community was being broken apart by arguments about all sorts of things, which he details in the previous chapters of this letter. The passage about love comes as a climax, contrasting their quarrelsome behaviour with that which should spring from true Christian love for one another.

He reminds them that they should be kind to those who differ from them, and patient with different ways of doing and seeing things; that they should not envy others their good fortune, or make a great fuss about their own. He reminds them not to think themselves better than others and that nothing excuses rudeness. He reminds them that their way is not necessarily the only, or the right way, and they shouldn’t insist on it, or become irritated or resentful if others don’t fall in with their understanding. He reminds them not to be constantly on the look-out for others doing wrong, but  to be ready to celebrate what is good. He reminds them to take difficulties on themselves, rather than pushing them onto others to bear, and to persist however difficult that may seem.

Many commentators see the hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 as a pen picture of the Jesus that Paul believed in, the Jesus he had seen in a vision and which had converted him from adherence to the rule-keeping religion of the Pharisees to what he described as ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ We see Jesus proclaiming that liberty in the passages from St Luke’s Gospel we heard read last week and this. Luke shows us that the people who heard it in the synagogue at Nazareth at first found it as attractive as Paul did, and as we do; but then they turned against Jesus, even to the extent of plotting to kill him. Why?

After all, hey saw him as one of their own. They were proud of his preaching ability and his healing powers. They rejoiced at his proclamation of the time of God’s favour, of healing for the lame and the blind,  of liberty to the captives and good news for the poor. What they weren’t pleased about was that Jesus said all this wasn’t just for them, just for the Jewish nation, just for the good, just for the believers. Jesus, like Jeremiah, like Paul, was sent as an apostle to the nations; the good news he brought, he told them  was not just for US – it was for THEM, for the OTHER, too. And because they found this message unacceptable, they rejected him. “He came to his own and his own would not receive him.”

Opponents of religious faith very often say that religions cause most wars. That’s not true, but what is true is that religion is one of those things, like race and class and wealth, which is often used to draw lines in societies between US and THEM, between those with whom we co-operate and to whom we do good, and those who we believe are wrong, or even evil, and with whom we are prepared to fight and even to kill. Why is this so?

Why does a religion which starts out preaching the unconditional love of God for all humankind, end up urging its adherents to fight and kill members of other paths to God, and even members of its own faith who see things differently? Why have the conflicts of Corinth been played out again and again through history? Why is it that we seem only to be able to have a strong religious identity of our own at the cost of hostility to those of other faiths?

Book cover

I have recently been reading an inspiring book by Brian D McLaren called “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road?” Its title, of course is based on the old joke about the chicken, but McLaren uses it to bring us up sharp before an image of the great religious leaders of the world doing something as ordinary as crossing a road together, and making us ask ourselves whether they would do so in an atmosphere of respect and friendliness; and if, as he thinks, they would, then why is it that their followers, and particularly so many Christians, seem incapable of doing the same. From this he goes on to argue for a new vision of Christianity as both strong and confident in its faith, but also benevolent, respectful and cooperative to other faiths.

All of this is based on acceptance that the core message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of Heaven is for everyone, that God made all human beings in the divine image and loves them without exception, and that the only commandments that really matter are the commandments to love – to love God, and to love our neighbour, who is everyone made is God’s image, whether like us or not, whether Christian or not.

To work for this reformed vision of Christianity is not an easy task. As Jesus and Paul and so many of the prophets found, to stand up for the ‘other’ means risking being identified with the other and suffering the same hostility as they suffer. Jesus sided with the outsiders – so eventually, he suffered the fate of an outsider: But the more Christian strength is build on hostility to those who are different, McLaren believes, the less it reflects the message of Christ.

If we follow McLaren’s vision, it will require us as Christians to look honestly at our history, and see how much our faith has become distorted by being bound up with the dominance of secular empires, first of all Constantine’s, but many others since.

It will require us to look carefully at what our core doctrines really say about creation, about original sin, about the uniqueness of Christ, about the Trinity, about election and predestination and about the Holy Spirit, to see how they can be expressed as healing doctrines, which create harmony and allow for difference, rather than as weapons to divide and exclude.

To arrive at this reformed and benevolent Christianity will also involve looking carefully at the Bible, and recognising that is speaks with many diverse voices. It will need Christian leaders to take up the authority Jesus gave them to bind and loose, and  to proclaim the strands that portray God’s universal love as more authentic to Jesus’s message, and therefore more binding on us who follow him, than others which preach a God of vengeance and war. McClaren points out that both Jesus and Paul quote selectively from the Bible – Jesus even does so in the passage from Isaiah quoted in Luke 4 – so there is no reason why modern Christians should not also do the same.

As we struggle to free Christianity from its toxic elements, those which engender and perpetuate hostility between us and  those of other faiths, we may also have to look again at our liturgy, our hymns, the way we frame our missionary activity and our sacraments, to check that they too are helping us to walk alongside those of other faiths, to listen to them and to appreciate their treasures, rather than perpetuating hostility.

world-religion

Of course, this is not just something for Christians to do, if religious faith is to become something which brings peace and harmony to the world, rather than war and hostility.  It will need brave people of other faiths who are prepared to look with unprejudiced eyes at current expressions of their own faith, and criticise where they see it has departed from its original ideals; and who will be open enough to listen to those of a different faith, and appreciate where it is good, and reflects their experience of God. It will need people of goodwill and deep faith from all religions to be prepared to cross the road to talk and listen to each other, convinced that is the way to meet more deeply with the God who is wholly Other but in whose image we are all created. It will need people who are prepared to witness what to what they believe in without needing to be hostile to what others believe in, in the faith that the Spirit of God is not bound by our human limitations and categories.

I have never been able to believe in a God of love who condemns others to eternal torment simply because they didn’t believe the right things (which is so often simply the result of being born in the wrong place or the wrong time).

I could never say, as some Christians do, that Gandhi must be in Hell, because he was not a Christian.  I appreciate the beauties and insights of other faiths as well as my own, while being only too aware of the evils done the names of all of them. In the vision of renewed strong, benevolent Christianity reaching out in witness and friendship to other faiths that McLaren sketches out, I see the possibility or faith becoming the blessing to the world that it ought to be. And that’s the sort of faith I want to be part of.

When I hear the words of 1 Corinthians 13, I don’t picture the love of married couple, or a family, or a national group, or even a church for those who think and worship like themselves. I see the love of Jesus, as he strides out from the synagogue in Nazareth, transcending in God’s name the limitations of loving only people like himself, in order to offer God’s new covenant of love to anyone who is willing to accept it. That is what he was chosen before his birth to do. That is what I believe we have pledged ourselves to do in our new life in Christ. That is what we come to re-inspire ourselves to do each time we come to worship God. Amen.

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Prayer of the Righteous

September 30, 2012

 

(James 5, 13-20; Mark 9 38-50. Proper 21B)

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. (Jas 5.16)

What does that mean?

To some it means Christians should rely on prayer to heal them. Last month there was a debate in the media about the ethics of cases where parents of seriously ill children insisted on the continuation of invasive medical treatments, which medical professionals considered pointless, because of their belief that the child would be cured by divine intervention prompted by their prayers.

And until relatively recently, members of the Christian Science sect refused normal medical care because of their belief that prayer alone would heal them.  These cases are very problematic for those concerned with medical ethics, especially when they concern children who are too young to have consciously adopted religious beliefs for themselves.

However, the passage can be a problem even for those who don’t refuse modern medical treatment. All  churches pray for the healing of their sick members. What do we expect to happen? How do we react to those who say: “I prayed for my loved one who is ill, but they didn’t get better. What went wrong? Was I not righteous enough for my prayers to be powerful?” There are no simple answers to these questions.

This passage can also be used  to support teaching that I believe is a distortion of Christian teaching. When I was a secondary school teacher, a speaker came to our lunchtime Christian Union to talk about prayer. One of the teenagers asked why her aunt was continuing to suffer from her illness, even though she had prayed for her. The speaker answered that this was because the prayer was not ‘in the Holy Spirit’; the Holy Spirit obviously wanted something different to happen to the child’s aunt, and because those who prayed for her weren’t praying for the same thing, God was making her aunt continue to suffer. I think that answer probably destroyed the child’s faith in a loving God; I believe the visiting speaker was profoundly wrong in his analysis and was himself not speaking ‘in the Holy Spirit’. I don’t believe in a God who heals or sends illness on people according to whether they or their family prays in the right way, or prays at all. That is not the God who was revealed through the life &  teaching of Jesus.

So how do we decide on the relationship between belief, prayer and scientific medical treatment? Is prayer for healing a waste of time, as many prominent atheists would have us believe?

Most of the evidence about the relationship between prayer, faith and healing is anecdotal. Some people believe that prayer has healed them – I have a friend who sincerely believes that the prayers of her church caused a cancer to disappear in between its discovery and the beginning of treatment. Others, and I am among them, feel that the prayers of others, while not curing their illness in the medical sense, helped them to cope better with the diagnosis and treatment and life-changes which that illness involved.

There is some limited scientific evidence to support the beneficial effects of faith and prayer. Studies show that religious faith, on average, increases length of life, reduces physical and mental ill-health and that sometimes people who are prayed for recover better than those who are not. But against that, you have to put the fact that the most prayed for people are probably our Royal Family, and they are not noticeably healthier or happier than the general population, although some of them, the women in particular, seem to live a long time!

If we look at the passage from the letter of James, we can see that it is not giving us a systematic guide to prayer for healing. Our passage needs to be taken in the context of the whole letter, which is actually about Christian speech and its connection to Christian action; and the section on prayer is found among other sections which talk about expressions of faith, the evils that the uncontrolled tongue can cause, swearing, prejudice and confession.

It is not saying that the only way to deal with human suffering is to pray. Earlier sections of the letter say just the opposite to that – that words without actions are not the Christian way. James gives guidance on the way that believers should express themselves in different circumstances: to sing when they are happy and to give praise to God even in bad times. The advice to pray when you are sick forms part of a section addressed to the whole church, which advises that when someone is sick, the elders should go to visit them, not only to pray but also to anoint them with oil. Oil was a medicine in New Testament times, so the elders’ prayer involve practical medical help as well.  It is typical of James to link words with actions.

The passage also reflects a belief in the connection between a person’s mental and spiritual state and their physical health, which has been endorsed by modern psychology. A person who is anxious or wracked with guilt is less able to recover than one who is calm and optimistic. The prayers of the elders, their visit which gives the sick person human contact, the power of human touch in anointing, the easing of conscience through the confession of sins, and assistance from fellow church members in reconciling broken community relationships are all things that may contribute to the healing of the sick.

It is important also to recognise that this passage is not just talking about physical illness. In New Testament Greek the same words are used for ‘healing’ and for ‘saving’, and for both ‘saviour’ and ‘physician’. Healing for the first Christians was about much more than physical health; it encompassed the whole person, body, mind and spirit, being brought into balance and communion with God. That, I believe, is what Christian healing and Christian prayer should be concerned with.

Our two readings should also prompt us to question the belief held by some in the church that the only healing that can be ascribed to God is ‘miraculous ‘ healing which goes against the expectations of the medical profession, and that comes as an answer to the prayers of the faithful.

This belief reflects the attitude of the disciples in  our Gospel passage, who complain to Jesus when someone who is not a disciple cures someone in his name. (Perhaps, as one commentator suggested,  they are especially cross about this as earlier in the same chapter Mark shows them as failing to perform a similar exorcism). Jesus, however is very relaxed about it, and tells them that whoever is not specifically speaking against the work of the Kingdom is for it. This reflects the teaching in Matthew 25, that it is good deeds that address human need which  are the criteria for approval by God, not signing up to a church or to specific beliefs about God.

Mark links this incident to several disconnected sayings about what encourages and what can provide barriers to those who are on the fringe or new to the faith. Jesus uses the typical exaggerated Jewish speech of his time to make it very plain just how serious this problem is for the growth of the Kingdom. We are not really expected to cut off our feet or hands, or tear out our eyes if they lead us  or others astray, but we are supposed to be self-critical, and very aware of how our words and actions affect the way the Christian faith is seen by others. What we may need to amputate in order to improve the church’s image is not part of our physical body, but our exclusiveness, our sense of being ‘the chosen ones’, our criticism of others, and our hypocrisy.

Often (and even in the New Testament) Jesus’s words have been turned round to say that anyone who is not for Christ is against him. But that was very clearly not Jesus’s attitude. Other writers in the New Testament, like Luke and Paul, recognise the power to heal as a gift of the Spirit; but we don’t need to assume that it is a gift which is linked only to healing through prayer, or even only to practising Christians.

Christians in the medical professions, or who work as counsellors or therapists or in projects that build and heal communities, are assisting in God’s work of healing; but so are non-Christians who do this work. All of them, whether they acknowledge it or not, are helping to build the Kingdom. People who try to limit God’s work to Christians, or even worse, to one sort of Christians, are, in my judgement, working against the Kingdom, because that sort of attitude actively deters others from hearing the Gospel message. There is so much good being done in the world, by all sorts of different people; it is tragic when Christians refuse to co-operate in that work with others because of denominational, theological or religious differences. It is equally tragic when  Christians are prevented from taking the opportunities that come their way to bring healing because of rules and regulations, hierarchies or church structures.

It is tragic when Christians become known as people who are always speaking against other people, because they are of a different faith or a specific gender, or sexuality, or because they choose to live in certain ways, rather than being known as people who are for things, like whatever is pure, just, honourable and worthy of praise, as Paul recommends to the Philippians.(4.8) If Christians followed this advice, we would be known as a very different sort of religion.

Brian McClaren wrote about his dream that Christians would be part of that sort of religion in his book “A Generous Orthodoxy”. He wrote: ‘I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace with other religions. If anything I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul calls ‘the law’) by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up a new something beyond religion – a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone, but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children. It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion, but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God”.

I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers in which we try to align our wills with the will of the God who loves every human being, and with divine grace, forgives all sins. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers which mirror Jesus in rejoicing in what is good, what reconciles, what builds community, what brings peace, no matter whoever is doing it. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which ask the help of the Holy Spirit to bring healing and salvation to people in need, whether that means physical recovery, or calm acceptance of continuing illness and coming death, or reconciliation, lifting of guilt and peace of mind. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which are not just words, but are followed by action, by those who known themselves to be the Body of Christ on earth.

May we pray and work to become a community of powerful and effective prayer of that kind. In the name of Christ