August 21, 2011
Isaiah 51, 1-6; Matthew 16, 13 – 20.
It’s a normal question to ask when you meet a person for the first time. “Who are you?” Sometimes you probe further, “What do you do for a living?” “Where do you come from?” Whatever the answer, it will have to be couched in terms the questioner will understand. It would be no use telling a native of an Amazonian rain forest tribe that you’re a computer programmer; it would mean nothing to them. That occupation only has meaning in the context of a modern technological society.
It’s most unusual, on the other hand, for someone to ask you, as Jesus is shown doing in this morning’s Gospel reading, “Who do people say I am?” and almost unheard of for someone to ask “Who do you say I am?”. Which is a sure indication that what we are dealing with here is very unlikely to be a record of an actual historical conversation, but is actually a statement of the belief of the early Church.
The Jesus we know from the Synoptic Gospels did not seem to be at all interested in what people thought about him. He didn’t talk much about himself. What he talked about was God, and God’s Kingdom, and how people should act in order to serve God’s Kingdom on earth. He didn’t ever claim to be the Messiah, he didn’t ever claim to be the Son of God. When his followers, or those he healed, or the demons he was exorcising gave him those titles, he commanded them to be silent.
Yet, within a generation of his crucifixion, when the Synoptic Gospels and Acts were written, he was being proclaimed as Messiah – in Greek ‘the Christ’, in English ‘The Anointed One’. It had become so much associated with him that it had changed from being a title – ‘Jesus, the Christ’ to being something like a surname, ‘Jesus Christ’ or even to being a name on its own, ‘Christ’. Then, by the third quarter of the first century it was being used as a way of describing his followers, who became known, as we are, as ‘Christians’.
But what did these titles mean to those who first used them?
In the Judaism of the time of Jesus, there was a hope for a Messiah, a person appointed by God to save Israel, defeat her enemies, and restore the Jews to freedom and pre-eminence. It was not a major element in their faith, but it was an expectation among ordinary people, and a subject of speculation among some of the sects, such as those who lived at Qumran, and whose writings we have in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The main expectation was of a Messiah who would be a king in the line of David. This King Messiah would defeat the Gentiles in battle, would restore the fortunes of Israel, would instil the fear of the Lord in the people, lead them in holiness of life, and administer justice with righteousness. Other ways of referring to this person were ‘Son of David’, ‘Branch of David’ and ‘Star of Jacob’.
There were claims that this person had come, especially during the time of the last uprising of the Jews against the Romans in 135-137 AD, when the leader of the rebels, Simon bar Kosiba, was renamed bar Kochba, ‘Son of the Star’ by those who thought he was the promised Messiah.
There were other expectations. Because the royal line of David had died out, the High Priests exercised political as well as religious power. So some groups expected a Priest Messiah rather than a King Messiah. Simon Maccabeus, who lived about 150 years before Jesus, was praised in Messianic terms which spoke of his star rising, and the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of the Messiahs of Aaron (a Priest-Messiah) and of Israel (a King-Messiah).
There was an expectation that one of the great prophets would return to herald the coming of the Messiah, as we read in the New Testament; but there was also some expectation of a Prophet Messiah, either alongside the King and Priest Messiahs, or as one facet of a person sent from God who would combine all these roles. The historical Jesus came closest to the role of Prophet-Messiah.
Some texts especially after the 1st century AD spoke of a pre-existent Messiah, whose name and essence were known to God before he came into the world, but this person remained only an idea until he was actually born. Other texts said he would not know he was the Messiah until God anointed or appointed him. However, the one characteristic of all these Messiahs was that they would be human, and like all other humans, they would die.
It is perhaps because Jesus’s view of his mission was so very different from all these expectations, and the reality of his life and death did not in any way fulfil popular ideas of the coming of the Messiah that the New Testament shows him as commanding his disciples and the demons to keep their ideas secret, and moving immediately to speak about his coming passion and death.
Similarly, the title ‘Son of God’ would not have had the overtones of divine status that it does for us, influenced by nearly two thousand years of church dogma. Several sorts of people in the Jewish society of Jesus’s time might have been known as ‘son of God’. The Jewish Bible called three groups of beings ‘sons of God’: angels, the people of Israel as a whole, and particularly the Kings of Israel. Psalm 2 calls the Davidic King ‘God’s son’ and the Dead Sea Scrolls also say the Messiah will be God’s son. Therefore, it was natural to combine this title with that of the King Messiah. But in the inter-testamental period, it was also a designation of a just or good man, or one who worked wonders, or one who healed. The Book of Ecclesiasticus says “be a father to the fatherless and God shall call you his son and deliver you from the pit”. Jewish charismatics at the time of Jesus believed that saints and teachers who were especially close to God were acclaimed in public by a Divine voice which called them ‘my son’. This voice was heard only by spiritual beings, evil as well as good, which was why demons are shown in the Gospels as recognising Jesus as God’s son.
Another feature of the holy men, or Hasids, of Judaism at this time is that they called God ‘Father’, using the Aramaic term ‘Abba’ which Jesus also used.
All these traditions would have fed into the disciples’ belief that Jesus was, as Peter proclaimed, ‘The Messiah, the son of the Living God’. Some strands of early Christianity saw his Messiahship as beginning with his resurrection and Ascension, others from his baptism, and others from his birth or before. There was a need make major adjustments in their thinking to cope with a Messiah who did not fulfil any of the expectations of the King/ Priest/ Prophet Messiah, but who was condemned as a criminal and died on a cross.
Eventually, the Jewish understanding of the terms was lost in the Christian Church, as its Jewish element grew smaller and smaller and eventually died out all together. The move into the Gentile culture of Greece and Rome, and nearly three centuries of Hellenistic philosophical and religious debate ultimately transformed the meaning of these titles of Jesus, until eventually the Church acclaimed him as the second person of the Trinity, the ‘only-begotten Son of God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God’ that the Nicene Creed proclaims.
The understanding of Jesus as a divine being, sent down from heaven to live and die among us, and returning to heaven to reign with God until he comes again to judge the world, is one that was full of meaning for people in the centuries since Nicea. But it doesn’t seem to have much meaning for many people in our time. It has often been pointed out, by Bishop John Robinson among others, that whereas at one time the heavenly realm was more real to people than a foreign country, nowadays the exact opposite is true. Nowadays, to speak of heaven and divine beings is seen by many as talking about something that is unreal, on the same level as fairy stories. If we are to convince people outside the Christian community that the spiritual world is a real and relevant as the material one, then we need to present Jesus in a way which means something to them.
It is obvious from the New Testament that when people came into contact with Jesus, they knew they were in the presence of someone special, someone whose words and actions opened their eyes to the reality of the Living God. People today are just as much in need of that encounter as they were then. Our mission and ministry, the mission and ministry for which we were commissioned at our baptism, is to enable that encounter to take place. Through our words, and even more so, through are actions, proclaim the Kingdom. It is not just Peter who was given the keys to the Kingdom; we hold them to, and we need to open the gates to the people of our time. But to do so, we will have to find new answers to that age old question of Jesus, “But who do you say that I am?” answers that are true to the life and teaching of Jesus, but which will resonate with the hearts and minds of people today.
December 5, 2010
Isaiah 11, 1-10; Matthew 3, 1-12.
In the time in which our Old Testament passage was written, there were three groups of people through whom God communicated with the Jewish nation.
The first were the monarchs, descended from David, the son of Jesse. By the time First Isaiah was writing, the high hopes raised by the reigns of David and Solomon had diminished, the early promise of the dynasty was unfulfilled. The kingdom had split into two, the Northern Kingdom was about to be destroyed by Assyria, and there had been a number of kings who ruled badly and served foreign gods as well as the one true God. The kings were supposed to defend the people from attack, and administer justice in God’s name, according to the laws set out in the Mosaic covenant. The later Jews also believed in another covenant, between God and the House of David, which promised that his house would rule for ever.
The second group were the priests, from the tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron. Their task was to serve in the Temple, offering the daily sacrifices, and the sacrifices for sin and of thanksgiving, as set out in the covenant. They also offered prayers on behalf of the people and the nation, and, initially, they were also responsible for teaching the people about the law of God. By the time of Isaiah, there was also some disillusion with their role as mediators between God and his people, and some criticism of the cult. Later their role of explaining the law was taken over by the Scribes.
Some of the original prophets were associated with the temple, and were ‘seers’ using methods of divination to try to foresee what would happen; but the great prophets whose words are recorded in the Bible were those who spoke to the people as the messengers of God. Their Hebrew name comes from a root meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘open’, indicating they were completely open to be filled with God’s Spirit, and to offer warnings, rebukes and commentary on events as God’s mouthpieces.
Some may have come from within the religious establishment, but some (such as Amos, the shepherd) were outsiders. All of them tended to end up as outsiders, because they frequently voiced criticism of the king and the cult as they recalled the people to the full implications of the Covenant. Some of them, as well as speaking and writing, acted out their messages, performing often bizarre actions to make their point. Many of the prophets suffered ridicule, persecution, abuse, and some were even killed, since their messages inevitably disturbed those who were in power, and sought to change the old ways of doing things. Their message was sometimes about the religious practices of Israel; but more often they criticised kings, judges and politicians, for acting unjustly, and oppressing the poor and the weak. Social justice was as important to them as ritual purity.
Our passage from Isaiah begins by looking at the reality of the moment – that the royal house of David is now so degraded that it is no more than a stump or a root. But then the prophet looks forward, to anticipate the reign of a new king, another descendant of David, who will fulfill the promise of the covenant. Like a prophet, he will be filled with the Spirit of God. He will rule not with physical force, but through the power of his words.
He will carry out the traditional roles of the king and administer justice without favour, giving justice equally to the poor and the rich. He will be both righteous and faithful.
This is a picture of an ideal monarch, one who follows so closely the will of God that the conditions of the Garden of Eden will be restored on the earth – traditional enemies in the animal kingdom such as the lion and the lamb will be reconciled, and even the snake, symbol of the Fall, will no longer injure human children. The benefits of this king’s rule will be enjoyed not just by his own people, but by the whole world.
No one king of the House of David ever lived up to this ideal – and the portrait of the ideal ruler came eventually to be applied to a heavenly Messiah who would be sent from God to save and rule his people – and Christian writers naturally applied the prophecy to Jesus, which is why we hear these Messianic passages from Isaiah during Advent and Christmas.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, it was felt that prophecy in Israel had ceased – but then along came John the Baptist! You can see him as the last of the Old Testament prophets, recalling people to the Covenant; or the first Christian prophet, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus; but either way, he is a difficult character to understand, with a fairly unpalatable message for his people. If Luke’s account is to be believed, he came from a priestly family, but he rejected that vocation to become a prophet.
His way of life was an acted parable: he lived in the desert and ate food from the wild, as did the people of Israel during the Exodus, when they found God again and entered into the Covenant. His dress recalled that of the first great prophet, Elijah. He baptised people in the Jordan, a ritual which carried two messages. First, it was the rite through which Gentile converts entered Judaism, so he was saying that Jews could not rely on their birth to make them children of God: they had to repent and make a new start. Second, the Jewish nation passed through water to escape slavery in Egypt and to take possession of the Promised Land: so, to be ready for the Kingdom of God which was coming, they needed to pass through water again.
John’s proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom was an disconcerting message for those who were comfortable in the existing religious regime. His picture of how God would judge his people was far from reassuring: he used images of violence – the winnowing fork, the threshing floor and the fire. And, like Isaiah, John also looked forward to the arrival of a major figure, a servant of God endowed with the Spirit, who would separate out the righteous and punish the wicked.
Like the Old Testament prophets, John warned people that something new was about to erupt into their world, something that would disrupt all that was old and destructive in their religious, social and political lives. He warned them that they needed to make concrete decisions to re-order their lives in accordance with the rules of God’s Kingdom. He told them that they didn’t have much time to do this. He instructed them not to rely on their traditions, or their previous religious practices, or their birth, but only on God, his Spirit and his Anointed One to bring them salvation.
That is also his Advent message to us, as we prepare to welcome Jesus, God’s Messiah.
Our monarchs don’t really have much influence on our religious lives today, although the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That simply means that she opens new sessions of General Synod, speaks to the assembled delegates, rubber stamps the appointment of bishops and signs any church legislation that goes through Parliament. Some people want to get rid of even that slight involvement and disestablish the Church of England.
The priesthood disappeared from the Jewish religion with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Christianity, however, adopted priestly leadership, and was run exclusively by priests for most of its first 2000 years. The Church of England may now give the laity a voice through synods, but they are still outnumbered two to one by clergy representatives in the houses of priests and bishops. A religion run by priests tends to be traditional and conservative. This can bring stability and comfort in times of change – but can also lead to inertia and ossification.
And what of prophets? There has been no recognised role for prophets within the Christian Church since the time of Paul. But of course, there have been prophets, people who have spoken out in God’s name, criticised the church’s practices both ritual and social and urged it to return to the teachings of Jesus. Like the Old Testament prophets, like John the Baptist, many of them were persecuted, punished and killed by their monarchs and priests and their representatives. Some of them, however, were heard, and they became the great reformers of the Church, like the founders of monastic movements and leaders of the Reformation and social reform.
And do we need prophets in the church today? Not if we want a quiet life! Prophets are always disturbing and disruptive. They call us out of our comfort zone, and challenge us to listen anew to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
There are several voices claiming to be prophets within the church today, from very different parts of the theological spectrum. One such is a website run by fundamentalist Christians, which seems simply to be promoting hatred of Muslims, gays and women. Other groups see themselves as prophets, calling Anglican Christians back to what they claim is orthodox belief and practice. But from the other end of the theological spectrum, there are people who claim that attempts to define and impose orthodoxy will stifle the prophetic voice in the church; they would say the voice of prophecy is coming from those who want Christians to go back to the example and practice of Jesus Christ, rather than the written word, and include everyone within the covenant people.
But, as in Old Testament times, the voice of prophecy may sometimes come from outside the religious establishment. Those of my age will remember a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s, which contained the line “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”. John the Baptist spoke his prophecy from the wilderness, outside the limits of society. God is not confined to speaking through official channels; the word of the Lord may come to us from a place we don’t expect. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern the true from the false prophets.
As we prepare to welcome again the One who is both Prophet, Priest and King, may we always be alert to hear the words of the prophets, no matter how they come to us, no matter how disturbing they may be.
August 1, 2010
Our reading today from the Gospel of Luke is about money. That’s not surprising. Eleven out of 39 parables in the New Testament concern money; one in every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke mentions money. One website I consulted said that Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject, except the Kingdom of Heaven!
So I should be preaching on money this morning. But I’m not going to! Instead, I’m going take my cue from the collect and preach on something that Jesus is recorded as saying nothing about in the Gospels – the role of women in the ordained ministry.
At the beginning of this month, General Synod (the ruling body of the Church of England) voted to pass through the revision stage a Measure which would allow women to become bishops in the Church. This Measure will now be passed down to diocesan synods to debate. If 50% of the dioceses approve, the Measure will then come back to be debated again in General Synod, and if it then passes with at least a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses of Synod – bishops, clergy and laity – it will go to Parliament and become law.
Contrary to some reports in the media, there is provision in the Measure for those who cannot accept women as priests or bishops. Each diocese will have to draw up a scheme to make alternative provision for those who don’t find the ministry of their diocesan bishop acceptable (either because she is unacceptable because of her gender, or he is unacceptable because he ordains women or was ordained by a woman).
This is an issue which (if you believe the media) is going to split the Church of England. Groups in the church are threatening to leave and join other churches (notably the Roman Catholic Church), to withhold parish share from the dioceses, and to disobey their bishops and archbishops.
The group of people who will have the final say on this are our representatives on General Synod – and we will be re-electing those in September, through our Deanery Synod representatives. Our Diocesan Synod members will also have to vote on it before it goes back to General Synod, and there may be discussions in Deanery Synods and PCC’s – so it is important that all of us know what the arguments are, for and against, when the time comes for us to give guidance to those representatives on how we would like them to vote on our behalf.
We should actually know the arguments very well, since the Church of England has been publishing reports on women’s ministry since 1917 – nearly a century! The order of deaconesses was reintroduced into the Church in 1861 and a report in 1920 said this order was the only order for women with biblical approval. Reports in 1935 and 1966 debated whether deaconesses were in Holy Orders or not – some said they were, some not. In 1975 General Synod voted “that there were no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood” but failed to take the next step of asking for the barriers to their ordination to be removed. A measure to do this in 1978 was passed by the Houses of Bishops and Laity – but failed in the House of Clergy. Finally in 1984 there was a positive vote in all three houses for women to be allowed to become priests. However it took until November 1992 for the legislation to be passed. In the meantime, in 1986, women were allowed to become deacons – that is to be clergy, wear ‘dog collars’ and be called “the Reverend”. This was less contentious than admission to the priesthood, since deacons cannot preside at communion – one of the points of opposition.
Before the first women were priested, an Act of Synod was passed in 1993, which allowed those parishes which were opposed to opt out of having women priests presiding, or as incumbents in their parishes (Resolutions A & B) , and to ask for ‘Alternative Episcopal Oversight’ (Resolution C) from a bishop who opposed women priests – and three ‘Episcopal Visitors’ or ‘Flying Bishops’ were created to cater for them. There was also provision for financial compensation for those who felt they had to leave the ministry of the C of E over the issue. (This cost £27.5 million between 1994 & 2004)
The opponents of women’s ordination fall into two main groups. One group opposes because of what they believe about the nature of priesthood. These tend to come from the ‘Catholic’ end of the spectrum. These see the priest as an ‘icon’ of Christ and God when they stand at the altar and consecrate the bread and wine. An icon is more than an image or a symbol, and becomes in some way the presence of what they represent. To quote “The priest presides at the altar and says what Christ said, does what Christ did; there is a very profound sense in which, at that moment and in that ministry, he is Christ.”
This group argues that maleness is an essential part of being an ‘icon’ of Christ because Jesus was male, and had to be male in order to represent God. Not because God is male, (that is a heretical statement) but because the essential character of God as creative and initiative are characteristics of the human male, who takes the initiative in creation in the world. If you argue that Jesus was also a first century Jew and we don’t insist that only first century Jewish males can be priests, this group says that being Jewish, and born in the first century were ‘accidents’ of Christ’s humanity, whereas maleness is of the substance and therefore essential.
This fact is reinforced, they argue, by the fact that Jesus chose only males as his disciples, and that they chose only males as their successors down through the centuries.
There are several arguments against this reasoning. Can you argue that certain attributes of God demonstrated in the act of consecration and blessing (like initiative and creativity and giving) are ‘male’ attributes rather than being found in the whole human race? The French philosopher Voltaire commented with some irony on this assertion: “God created a man in his own image; and the man returned the compliment!” Are these so called ‘male’ attributes the ones which are being exercised in the priestly ministry? Can you argue that being Jewish and living in the first century are ‘accidents’, that is, not essential to God’s plan of salvation, whereas maleness was essential? Many of the New Testament writers appear to think quite the opposite, that being a descendant of Abraham and David was very much part of the plan!
Jesus chose 12 men as his disciples or apostles (although the gospels don’t all agree on their names!). Did he choose these as as ‘priests’ – or as a symbol of a New Israel? They were sent out to preach, and heal and drive out demons, not to preside at communion! The word ‘priest’ is not used of any one individual in the New Testament except Jesus. The connection between the apostles and the orders of bishops and priests was made much later in the church’s history, to establish the “apostolic succession” – guaranteeing the validity of the priesthood by arguing there was an unbroken sequence of men laying hands on other men right back to the disciples. But, historically, this theory is on very shaky ground!
This group also has objections on the grounds that they cannot be sure that they receive the grace of the sacraments if the ‘priest’ is not validly ordained, and that while other churches, such as the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox do not accept the ordination of women, we cannot have this ‘sacramental assurance’. This is why they want to be able to choose bishops to minister to them who have not ordained women and have said they will never do so. But, of course, other churches with whom we are in communion and with whom we are having talks about re-union, like other Anglican provinces, and the Methodists and URC, do have women exercising priestly and episcopal roles, so we are at the moment out of step with them.
All four gospels show that Jesus taught women and instructed them to take his words to others. Acts and the Epistles show that Paul regarded many women as his “co-workers”, who led churches. Is this not apostolic ministry? When Jesus said at the Last Supper “Do this in remembrance of me” was he speaking only to the men present – or, as the church has always taught, to all believers throughout time?
The second group of opponents of women’s ordination argue on the basis that the Scriptures teach ‘male headship’. They tend to come from the Evangelical end of the spectrum. This group of opponents argue that God has decreed that human society should be ordered with men having authority or ‘headship’ over women (just as God is the head of Jesus, and Jesus is the head of the Church). This is based on passages in the letters to the Ephesians, chapter 5 and Corinthians chapter 11.
Furthermore, they quote from two other epistles (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 3) passages which say that women are not to speak in church or to teach men.
There are several arguments about whether these particular scriptures should be taken as definitive instructions for the ordering of church and social life for every generation, or whether they should be seen as particular solutions for particular problems which the churches were struggling with at the time. Paul, in particular said different things about the roles women were to play in church and different times. For instance, in the same letter in which he says women are not to speak in church meetings, he gives instructions for them to cover their heads when they preach, pray or prophesy in church. Which is the definitive ruling? And in Galatians 3 he proclaims that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or freeman, male or female; you are all one in Christ”.
And are priesthood and episcopy about authority – or are they principally about serving others, as our readings for the Feast of St James last week suggested.
When we read contradictory statements in the Bible we all have to decide which statements are definitive for our faith, and which are not. For me, the example of Christ is the most important piece of evidence to help us make those decisions, and whenever he was asked about women departing from their ‘traditional’ roles (as we heard two weeks ago in the story of Martha and Mary) he tended to reply “Leave them alone -they are doing nothing wrong”. Alongside this we also need to consider the evolving and constantly changing tradition of the church, and to use our own reason and conscience.
The fact that the Church of England has allowed women to preach as deaconesses since 1935 and Readers since 1968 shows that it long ago decided that the prohibition on women teaching and preaching is not a command from God that is valid for all time. Neither does it now support an ordering of society in which men always have authority over women – the modern marriage service now sees family life as a mutual partnership.
The ordination of women as priests, and the moves over the last few years to allow them also to be ordained as bishops can also be seen as part of the development of tradition to meet the needs of a new age. The majority of the Church of England has decided that this is in accordance with Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Some still disagree, and provision is being made for them, as it was for those opposed to having women in the priesthood, under the process of ‘reception’ by which the unity of the church is maintained and both sides in an argument are accepted as full and loyal members while a development comes to be accepted or rejected by the universal church.
This is why it is important for us all to understand the arguments on all sides and to pray for those with whom we disagree as well as for those with whom we agree, because, as Paul reminds us, “We are one in Christ”.