July 28, 2013
When I was about 16, my grandmother had a stroke, and came to live with us for a while. Because our house was fairly small, she had to sleep in the same bedroom as me. One night, I was woken up by the sound of her voice. As I listened, I realised that she was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in her sleep.
I was surprised. My grandma was not a churchgoer when I knew her, and I had never heard her say a prayer before. Yet, in this time of illness, what came from the depths of her memory to meet her need was the Lord’s Prayer.
I would imagine that some of you may have had similar experiences – of people returning to these familiar words at times of stress, fear, pain or approaching death. They are, I would think, the words repeated most often by Christians – the only prayer used at virtually every Christian service (and even used twice in Evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer! ) – the one prayer that all Christians can say together.
In the Gospel today, we have one version of how the words of the Lord’s Prayer were taught to the disciples: in response to a specific request: “Lord, teach us how to pray”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus prefaces it with a warning against showy and repetitive prayers.
What, I wonder, was our Lord’s intention when he taught these word to his followers? Did he mean them to become a fixed format, repeated down the generations, to become the prayer of his church? Or were they, as many think, meant not as a fixed prayer, but as a pattern for prayer.
For one problem with the Lord’s Prayer is that we use it so often, it is so familiar to us, that it can easily become the sort of prayer that Jesus warned his disciples against in the Matthew passage – “vain repetition” as the King James Bible puts it, or “meaningless words” as the Good News Bible translates. You know how it is when you drive a familiar route, with your mind on something else – you do it on autopilot. It’s easy to do the same with the Lord’s Prayer. You repeat it without actually hearing what you are saying; you come to the end and realise with a jolt that your lips have been repeating the phrases automatically, and that although you’ve said the prayer, you haven’t actually prayed it at all: mouth in gear, brain and heart in neutral!
How then can we overcome the problem of familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer and bring it alive for ourselves again?
One way is to read these passages, in Luke 11 and Matthew 6, where the prayer first occurs. Each of the evangelists presents the situation slightly differently, and the contexts give the prayer different emphases. They also have quite a few differences in the words of the prayer. Matthew speaks about forgiving debts and debtors; Luke about sins. In the phrase about daily bread, Matthew uses the Greek form of the command ‘give’ which is used for something that happens once; Luke uses the form for something that is to keep on happening, and adds the words ‘each day’, whereas Matthew only has ‘today’. So, we can see Matthew taking things day by day ( since he wrote for a community that expected the Lord to return soon ) and Luke takes a longer perspective ( since, perhaps, his community no longer expected an early Parousia.)
It is also good to read as many different translations as you can, to pick up all the different nuances of the prayer. Different translators help you to find new insights into the prayer. It is particularly useful with the Lord’s Prayer, where there are difficulties in translating some parts. For instance the Greek word ‘epiousios’ in the petition about bread is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, so we can only guess what it means. It is usually translated ‘daily’ but it could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘necessary’, ‘for today’ or ‘for tomorrow’.
You might even find it useful to read the Lord’s prayer in a foreign language! You don’t have to be an expert in the language to do so – after all you know the translation off by heart! But if you understand even a little of the language, the different words, the slight difference of emphasis in another tongue might bring a new depth of meaning to the prayer for you. Just an example: several years ago, I picked up a version of the gospel of Matthew in French from the chapel at Lyons Airport, in which the petition about daily bread was written ‘Donne nous aujourdhui le pain qu’il nous faut’: literally, give us today the bread which is necessary to us, which picks up one of the possible alternative meanings of the original Greek.
Although the process of liturgical revision has its down side, in that there are now several versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English, so that you can no longer assume that when you say ”We will now say the Lord’s Prayer together’ everyone will recite the same phrases, it has brought the benefit that we can now choose from three or four liturgical versions of the prayer, as well as the versions in Luke and Matthew, if we want it in a different form. And there are also unofficial translations, which bring the petitions up to date – like this one from Jim Cotter:
Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!
With the bread that we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.
A second way that you might find new depths of meaning in the Lord’s Prayer is to move as you say it. Many years ago, I took a youth group away for the weekend, and we spent part of out time exploring how to worship through dance. I worked out a dance version of the Lord’s Prayer to a folk setting of the communion service I had on tape, and I learned that to express the prayer with my whole body gives it a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have when I just say the words.
Perhaps the idea of ‘dancing a prayer’ fills you with horror. It is certainly an unusual thing to do in our religious culture, which is so word and brain fixated, that we have been encouraged to worship God from the neck upwards and forget the rest of our body. But if you read your Bible, and particularly the Psalms, you will find there a long tradition of worshipping God not just with words and music, but also with dance.
But perhaps you feel your body is no longer up to moving to music. In that case, move just your head and arms. Rosemary Budd, in her book Moving Prayer, has several suggestions of simple movements that can be added to the Lord’s Prayer, as an aid to a deeper devotional life. And if you obey Jesus’ instructions about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, and go into a room by yourself and shut the door when you pray, there’s no need for you to feel self-conscious about moving your body as you pray.
A third way of getting more out of the Lord’s Prayer is to use it as, perhaps, Jesus intended, as a pattern for prayer rather than a complete prayer in itself. So you take each phrase separately, think about its meaning, and allow other prayers to arise from it. ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’ may lead you into praising God’s holiness and loving care for us, or into intercessions for the conversion of a particular person, or for mission to a particular part of the world. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ might lead to prayers for political situations. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ might lead to confession, and ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to asking for God’s help in reconciling yourself to those whom you feel have wronged you – and so on.
You might find it helpful to read a book about the Lord’s Prayer by an expert theologian, to help you tease out the real meanings of the petitions, especially those that are difficult to translate adequately, like “lead us not into temptation’. One good book on the subject is William Barclay’s “The Plain Man looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ -which can be used by the plain woman just as well.
‘This is how you should pray’ said Jesus, and instead of giving us a lengthy treatise on prayer, he gave us ten short, easily remembered phrases – his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the pattern for all our prayers. It is a prayer which puts God at the centre, and which lays before God our present, past and future lives. It is a prayer which is so simple that we can pray it unconsciously, yet which is so deep that we can come to it again and again, and find new meaning in it.
As we continue to use the words which our Lord taught us, as we use our minds and our voices and our bodies to explore its depths, may it bring us ever closer to him.
Jim Cotter. Prayer at Night. 1983
July 7, 2013
Isaiah 66, 10-14; Galatians 6, 1-16; Luke 10 1-11.
I recently read a story online about a couple and their daughter who emigrated from Hull to Australia after watching a TV documentary about the luxurious life there – and then returned to the UK two months later because of the high cost of living they encountered, the difficulty of getting their favourite foods, and missing their families. It cost them £10K to move to Australia – and now they are back without their furniture, and without a permanent place to live.
I just can’t imagine making a major decision like moving house, let alone moving continents without a lot of research beforehand. Even when we go on holiday, we look up hotels on TripAdvisor and make sure we have somewhere to stay; we make lists for what we pack, and plan out routes before we set off.
So, the Gospel passage for today, which has been described as ‘The Owner’s Instruction Manual for Christian Mission’ is really rather daunting for me. I tend to follow the Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’, but this passage seems to be saying “Be UNPrepared”. It seems to go against everything that our society regards as sensible – planing things out, taking out insurance, making sure you’ve got the resources to finish something before you start, relying on yourself and your abilities, and so on. What is God saying to us through this passage?
This passage comes in the second half of Luke’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. It parallels the sending out of the 12 Apostles in Luke 9, and reflects Luke’s special interest in mission to the Gentiles (in the Bible 12 is the number of Israel and 70 or 72 the number of the whole earth). So this passage is telling us about the wider mission of the church.
Jesus doesn’t minimise the challenges of mission activity – then, as now there will be plenty of resistance to the Good News, fuelled by fear, by indifference, by self-interest as the message of the coming Kingdom challenges the prevailing power structure. Jesus warns his disciples that they will be going as “sheep among wolves”. He warns them that the work will be hard: “The harvest is ready but the workers are few”. He doesn’t give them impossible targets; their job is simply to prepare the ground for his arrival. They are to speak words of peace, heal the sick and announce the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. The implication is that he will do the rest, building on their preparatory work, when he comes.
Some of the instructions Jesus give seem familiar to us as we plan church activities. First of all he instructs his disciples to pray – but the prayers are not for success, but for each other, and for more and more people to become involved with the work of mission. That’s a good reminder for us that mission is not the work just of the ordained, or of trained mission workers, but of every Christian.
Second, Jesus instructs them to go out in pairs, a sensible instruction when we go out into hazardous environments; but it’s not just about our personal safety – it reminds us also that we are part of a Christian community, made up of members with many different skills and talents, all of which may be useful in bringing different sorts of people into fellowship. In today’s world, when there is so much cult of personality, we tend to focus on individuals and what they achieve; it is all to easy to forget the people who support and co-operate with the front line workers, and so play their part in the harvest of mission. The church has tended to do that too: this story is a useful counter to that. We know the names of the 12 apostles who were sent out, and have made them into saints, and named churches after them. We don’t know anything about these 70 or 72 disciples, not even their names. They stand for the thousands, even millions of faithful Christians who have worked to bring in the Kingdom of God throughout history and continue to do so now.
Jesus also gives them a script to follow. He tells them what to say: “Peace be on this house. The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” It’s a very simple slogan – short, to the point, affirming. It would even fit into a Tweet!
Modern evangelism courses often try to equip ordinary Christians with a script; but they are rarely as simple and affirming as that. How often have Christians gone into situations speaking words of peace and affirmation? If you look at the media today, the impression given is that Christians are against things and people, and condemn rather than affirm. Perhaps we would do better at bringing in the Kingdom if we went back to Jesus’s script!
These instructions are easy to follow. It is the rest of the manual that goes against our instincts. Every mission initiative that I’ve heard about has involved lots of preparation, lots of expenditure and lots of equipment. But Jesus says: take nothing with you, not even any money, rely on strangers for food and accommodation, accept whatever you’re offered without complaint – in short, travel light!
That might have seemed less strange in Jesus’s time than it does now. Hospitality to strangers was a social obligation in Biblical society in a way it is not for ours. To mistreat visitors brought condemnation of the harshest kind. Later, in a continuation of the passage that we don’t get in the lectionary, Jesus says that it will be better for the town of Sodom on judgement day than for any town that rejects his disciples, reminding us that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality – it was mistreatment of strangers and abuse of hospitality that brought punishment and destruction upon them, not gay sex.
What was Jesus really saying to the disciples with these instructions? I think he was asking them to rely on God, and not on themselves. In our Old Testament reading, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s promise that he will nurture those who serve him as a mother nurtures her children, and protect them as they would be protected in a walled city like Jerusalem. It is that sort of total trust that Jesus asked of his disciples and asks of us. He asks them to make themselves vulnerable when they are engaged in evangelism – and he asks the same of us. He tells them to eat whatever is put in front of them; that would have been a much harder instruction for observant Jews, with their complex food laws, to accept than it is for us, but it reminds us that we are instructed to rely not just on those who are like us, but also, perhaps on those from a very different culture and with very different tastes from those which the Church has traditionally endorsed.
So how do we interpret these instructions for mission in today’s world? I don’t think it is really telling us to be unprepared in the sense of not spending money or using modern equipment with us when we engage in mission. But it is telling us to keep things simple and to concentrate on the essential of the Christian message and not get sidelined onto peripheral things. It reminds us that often it is the small things, not the grand gestures that advance the Kingdom – things like speaking words of peace and comfort, bringing healing into a tense situation, accepting the hospitality of those different from us, and not making a fuss when things are not done as we think they ought to be done. And things like helping at a foodbank, buying Fairtrade goods, twinning your toilet, or demonstrating for peace and justice.
It reminds us that we must be prepared to work with all sorts of different people to build the Kingdom; in our society that might include government agencies, atheists and humanists and even people of other faiths.
Above all it reminds us that the only equipment we need for mission is trust in the grace of God revealed through the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the message that Paul gives to the Galatian Christians in the letter from which our Epistle reading came. He is advising them to rely on the Holy Spirit, and to live a life based on mutual love and service, rather than relying on the keeping of the Jewish law to bring them salvation. He acknowledges that this path will not be easy: it led Christ to the cross, and may well lead his followers to the same place, but it is the only way to serve God faithfully. What Christ’s followers must trust in is not their own individual talents, or earthly power-structures or miraculous demonstrations, but in God’s commitment to peace and justice, which will ultimately prevail.
So, however little it may seem we have available to us to fulfil the missionary task that Jesus gave us, we are not really unprepared. As Paul assures us, doing what is right, working for the good of all, trusting in the way of the cross will bring the harvest and bring in the new creation for which we hope.
June 9, 2013
Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name.
Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. Now matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.
In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work. There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories describe the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus, his person and his mission.
The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.
Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her economic security and her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death.
When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.
The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha; In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.
All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify not John but Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews.
The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from the Jewish people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.
Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’ the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers. He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.
But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater.
There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation. He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. He shows himself to be above human laws of purity. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple command “Young man, get up”. His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.
Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.
The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. I trawled the internet and couldn’t find a single modern example of a ‘resurrection’ without medical procedures which had been independently verified. But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable, and and, therefore, fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to tell us.
In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a Gentile widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it.
In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow Jesus gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.
All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.
In the Bible, physical death, like physical handicap, can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through true faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life and that is the most important resurrection of all.
The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions.
Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, just as the gospel writers did; but particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives. We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.
And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.
June 2, 2013
Ordinary 9. Proper 4C
1 Kings 8,22-23 & 41-43; Galatians 1,1-12; Luke 7, 1-10
Last weekend there were a number of demonstrations against Islamic extremism in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich the previous Wednesday. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.
In Newcastle , a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised by many Muslims and anti-fascists, for compromising with the promotors of prejudice and evil. When they learnt that the EDL march was targeting their mosque in York, its leaders decided to have an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussion, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.
In each of these incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat a non-believer, and those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.
This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.
The passage from 1 Kings is part of the description of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. Unlike the later Temple, built after the exile and expanded by Herod the Great, the first Temple did not have different courts and barriers to keep Gentiles and women away from the central sanctuary. Solomon’s speech showed that he hoped his magnificent Temple would become a place of prayer to the one true God for people of every nation. Its magnificence would draw people to become insiders.
In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, which consisted largely of Gentiles.
After he had left, it seems, Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law, including, in the case of male converts, circumcision. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome as a Christian through the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.
The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew, John and Luke).
The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean. He would not have been allowed to approach the holiest part of the Jerusalem temple; he would have been confined to the outer Court of the the Gentiles.
Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’s early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’s fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.
Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.
Third, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master/servant. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and further proof of its alliance with evil.
Yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist. It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.
And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a member of the British Raj asking for help from a Hindu Sadhu or a colonial official in Africa approaching a witch doctor.
The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions to risk making himself ritually unclean to help, and commended his faith as being greater than that of any insider.
This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts. It highlights the irony, that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus – but a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle – the healing of the barriers against a hated and excluded group, who are now included.
The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.
Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. Even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.
Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. Our Spirit inspired mission is to invite the turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.
April 28, 2013
EASTER 5. (Acts 11,1-18; Rev. 21, 1-6; John 13, 31-35)
Some years ago, I watched a programme about Victoria Wood visiting parts of the British Empire. When she was in Hong Kong, she had a conversation with a dog beautician, who told her that one way rich residents demonstrated their wealth was to buy expensive and rare breeds of dogs as pets – and then serve them up as gourmet meals to their friends. When she visited Borneo, she was presented with another gourmet meal of bird’s nest soup – which she did not enjoy because she had previously visited the caves where the ingredients of the soup were collected – one of which was bird spit.
The expressions of disgust and horror I can see on the faces of some of you must be very like the reactions of members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem when they heard the description of what Peter had been ordered to eat in his vision. (Acts 11, 1-18) All the foods in the sheet that was lowered – birds of prey, reptiles, and insects – were unclean according to Jewish dietary rules, and observant Jews were forbidden to eat them.
Many religions, like Judaism, have rules about what their members may or may not eat. As Peter’s experience shows, it is a discipline, but also a way of keeping a holy people separate from nonbelievers, since you can only socialise in a limited way with people you cannot share meals with. The food laws were one important strand in defining who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and keeping them apart, so that the Jewish religion was not watered down or compromised.
Most societies have conventions about food – for instance the French eat horse-meat- which we tend not to; and they eat snails, which we don’t although we do eat whelks. Many of these are breaking down as societies become multi-cultural, and restrictive food laws are often the first things to be jettisoned when a religion undergoes a liberal reformation.
This is what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ushered in a new era, in which the restrictions and regulations of Old Testament Judaism were no longer appropriate. The fact that this event is described in more or less detail three times in Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, shows how important a decision it was. The Book of Acts shows the disciples struggling with the implications of the new age. This particular extract seems to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles was accepted once and for all after Peter’s explanation. But further reading in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles show that the issue continued to cause division in the Early Church, especially after St. Paul’s missionary journeys brought many more Gentile converts into the church. It took a long time to decide whether those Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to keep all the food laws or just some of them, had to undergo circumcision if they were men, and had to observe Jewish religious festivals. We tend to think that deep and bitter divisions about what is essential and what is peripheral to the Christian faith are a relatively modern phenomenon. A careful reading of the New Testament soon demonstrates that divisions were part of the Christian experience from the very beginning.
The food we eat is no longer a major cause of dispute within the Christian Church. But then, it was not really the issue at stake for Peter and Paul in their missionary activities. What was really in dispute was who could be admitted as full members of the covenant community, and that continues to divide Christians. In the past people have been denied full participation (which includes full participation in worship and sacraments and being able to occupy positions of leadership and authority) on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin, on the basis of their age, and on the basis of their gender. Now the burning issue on which some parts of the church wish to exclude others is the issue of sexuality.
The church is both a divine and a human institution, so it is not surprising that sometimes human limitations take over. But God has no such limitations, and the Spirit (as the reading shows) is constantly breaking through those barriers which human beings construct around themselves to make themselves feel safe or comfortable. As faithful Christians we will find our selves constantly being challenged (as Peter was) to follow the Spirit’s lead to situations and places we would rather not go, and our minds constantly being opened to new possibilities of inclusion in our fellowship.
If we take on board fully the implications of this story, perhaps we will feel afraid. It makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit of God is free to bring about the will of God for the world, to transform it into a new heaven and earth, in unlooked for ways. It makes it clear that we cannot use our conventional short cut of categorising people by race, gender or sexuality in making decisions about them. It makes it very plain that the life and death of Jesus brought about salvation for everyone, and all sorts of people who we may not like, or approve of, are going to be grafted into our community whether we like it or not. It shows that to discriminate n against those to whom God has given the gifts of the Spirit is to oppose God – the worst of sins.
It is hard for human beings to keep up with God. And though we may believe that we will follow wherever the Spirit leads, putting this into practice its not always easy to do. We need always to be asking ourselves; “ Do we put limits on God’s offer of salvation? Are there groups of people that we regard as ‘impure’ and unworthy to be part of our fellowship? How can we tell if it is truly the Spirit leading us, and not our own desires, or human fashion?
God does not leave us without guidance, however, The gospel reading, taken from John’s account of the Last Supper, gives us one means of judging whether people are truly Jesus’ disciples or not. The guidance is placed just after the moment in the story where Judas leaves to betray Jesus and the others to the authorities, thus demonstrating that people who betray their friends are not true disciples. Jesus warns his disciples of his imminent death, and gives them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them; then he adds that they can tell if others are his disciples by the quality of their love for one another.
This is a very practical yardstick for us to use. It means we do have to judge each person individually, rather than relying on human categories. It is also a yardstick by which we know we all fall short – for none of us is able to show the boundless, sacrificial, all-inclusive love which Jesus did when chose to he died on the cross rather than resist with violence. So we are all included in the community of the Church by grace, and we have to be very, very careful about excluding others without good reason.
Inevitably, Christians will continue to be divided, as the Jerusalem Church was divided, over where the limits of inclusion and exclusion should be set. The story from Acts gives us some guidance about how we should deal with those divisions. Peter didn’t indulge in a long discourse about the theory behind the dietary laws and how things had changed; he didn’t bandy passages of Scripture with those who challenged his actions. He was honest about his own reservations, but detailed clearly how after prayer and being open to the Spirit’s leading, a new and unexpected experience had changed his deeply held opinions.
Peter’s experience is a real challenge to many in the Church, who seek to keep themselves in little enclaves of orthodoxy and supposed purity, and refuse to allow themselves to be open to the ministry of those – be they women or gays, or whoever – whom they seek to exclude.
Of course, being open to the leading of the Spirit is not without risks – but risk-taking love is what Jesus was all about.
April 7, 2013
(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)
How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John? Do you identify with him? Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?
Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorate one incident in their lives. Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a “Doubting Thomas”.
The reading we had was one of the three ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul’s gives yet another account in his letters. This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”
In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.
So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.
Then he commissions them to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.
Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life. In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel.
Although John’s Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus in Chapter 3 and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelter) the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate, to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.
It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with the God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.
Sunday evening was one time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in the two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing.
The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance. ‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and has quite a different meaning from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out it does not mean believing a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English word ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.
Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see – the marks of the nails and the spear – the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering. Easter without Good Friday.
Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body – it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. Although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.
Jesus’s response is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question ‘Are you the King of the Jews” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so this can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as Paul says he did; and those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.
Thomas, likes the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful, and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission. The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.
Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.
John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith, which is belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught. We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.
May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.
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 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?
February 17, 2013
SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)
(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)
When the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) was working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the last but one petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.
Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind that. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew behind this clause, again it could be active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.
Again, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.
However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction (and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’.That’s how it is used to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God. In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event.
Some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, and of human beings.
For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?
Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. (Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.
So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this part of the Lord’s Prayer?
Modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.
The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.
Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language services, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, the Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. The Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and kept “Lead us not into temptation” in their modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in the traditional language one. I rather like Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”
When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others, bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.
When we face these situations (as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God answer this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.
The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness, or is a sign of God’s favour. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.
The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which are seen as works of the Devil.
Finally there is the temptation to encourage faith by demonstrations miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access. Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way. During his ministry he always refused to provide miracles ‘to order’ to prove his credentials.
Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. Psalm 91 assures us that God’s love and support is with us through the difficult times too. For Jesus, his relationship with God was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition (in his case the Jewish tradition), his constant reference to God through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility.
As we face the tests and temptations of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship with God can save us too from trial and temptation and deliver us from all evil.