Metaphors for God

May 26, 2013

Rublev_OT_Trinity(Proverbs 8, 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5, 1-5; John 16, 12-15)

Today we mark the one festival in the Church’s year which celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person. Belief in God as Trinity is one of the cornerstones of our faith – yet it is something that most preachers find it difficult to preach about. So much so that JHR, a previous Vicar of mine, later a Bishop, once told me ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’; and someone else advised the preacher on Trinity Sunday to “say nothing and just show pictures of kittens” to make everyone feel good.

heresykitten

Why are preachers so reluctant to preach on Trinity Sunday? Because it is almost impossible to do so without falling into explaining it in a way that has been denounced as heretical at some time in church history. Belief in the Trinity is set out in the three Creeds – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and most comprehensively, in the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans are supposed to use on Trinity Sunday, but rarely do nowadays!) But these are felt to be too complicated for ordinary folk in the pews to understand. So preachers resort to metaphors to try to explain it more simply.

I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some time or other: God the Trinity is like a shamrock, one plant with three leaves; God the Trinity is like a person who plays different roles in their life (mother, daughter, sister), but is the same person; God the Trinity is like water, which can exist as solid, liquid and gas but is still H20; God the Trinity is like an egg, shell, yolk and white, which together make up a complete egg; God the Trinity is like an electric cable,which consists of positive, negative and earth cable; and so on. But all of these fall into the trap of committing one heresy or another. If you can find it, there is a funny cartoon film on the internet  called ‘St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” in which St Patrick tries to draw simple analogies to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants, only to be told they are all heretical; so he gives up and quotes the Athanasian Creed to them instead!

So how did we end up with a central doctrine so difficult to explain?

The doctrine of the Trinity was something that developed slowly, out of the experience of the first disciples. As they reflected on their life with Jesus, and as they lived on after the Resurrection, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, they came to realise that both Jesus and the Spirit shared the character of the God of Israel they had been taught about in the Torah. So all three were ‘God’ to them.

As the New Testament was written, its authors drew on images from the Hebrew Scriptures (and later also from contemporary Greek philosophy) to try to express their experiences. Our Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, speaks of Wisdom, as something which is of God and from God, but is somehow distinct from God, working alongside God in the creation of the world. Wisdom came to be identified in Christian thought with Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel as the Logos or Word; and with the Holy Spirit.

Though a developed doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere spelt out in the New Testament, there are hints of it. In the letter to the Romans, from which our epistle reading comes, all three persons of the Trinity are present. Paul says that through God, Jesus and the Spirit working together, the believer experiences peace. In John’s Gospel, written towards the end of the first century AD, the writer reflects the experience of the apostles – that what the Spirit teaches follows on from what Jesus has already taught them about the Father. The Spirit’s role is not to dominate but to point beyond itself to Christ, and so to glorify God. Yet, the way which the Spirit leads them is the same way Jesus led them – so Father, Son and Spirit are one.

This recognition of a divine unity of teaching, action and purpose runs through all the New Testament writings. It was not problematic for those first believers, even though they came from a monotheistic background. It was only when the Christian faith moved out into the Graeco-Roman world, and people who didn’t know the historical Jesus began to speculate on how exactly Jesus and the Spirit could be God; and exactly when Jesus became God; and which bits of him were divine and which bits human; and whether there was a hierarchy of divinity within the Godhead; and when philosophers began to try to define exact answers to these questions, and to insist that everyone had to believe the same things, that the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic. Which is not surprising, because such questions are unanswerable, especially several hundred years after the event.

The doctrine of the Trinity uses a metaphor to try to encapsulate the disciples’ experience of God, which is also the experience of those who lived the faith after them.

Jesus taught his followers to call God ‘Abba’ – Daddy. The New Testament writers followed his lead, and used the metaphor of ‘father’ and ‘son’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. They were as similar to each other as family members often are – yet were different beings. The same ‘Spirit’ or breath breathed through them, and was part of them both.

The Greek speaking fathers of the church used the term ‘hypostasis’ which means being or manifestation, or underlying reality to refer to each part of God the Trinity. When the creeds and other theological documents were translated into Latin, the word used was ‘persona’, which originally meant a mask worn by an actor, and then came to mean the role played by an actor. Translated into English, the word became ‘person’, which means a human being. Hence our tendency to imagine the Trinity as three people, or two people and a bird, which can be a severe limitation on our concept of God, who is beyond all our  imagination, and not to be limited by human concepts of what a person is and can do.

The language we use about the Trinity is metaphorical. Metaphors point beyond themselves to something that is incomprehensible. That is why to explain the Trinity (a metaphor about God) with other metaphors simply makes a bigger muddle. A metaphor is not an explanation, it is something which helps us to explore, which cannot grasp the whole truth, but which encourages us to keep engaging with the mystery.

But metaphors are limited. The metaphor of the Trinity imagines  God as three – persons, identities, modes of being or whatever. But the Bible, and Christian spiritual writing since speak of God in many more ways than just Father, Son, Spirit, or even Creator, Redeemer, Comforter.

In the Old Testament, God is much more than creator; other names for the divine include, Lord, King, Shield, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Light to the Nations, The Most High. Jesus is is not just Son; he is Saviour, Bridegroom, High Priest, Bread of Life, Head, Teacher. The Spirit also has many names and roles.  The Trinity is just a shorthand for the multitude of  ways that Godself is revealed to us and the infinite number of ways through which we may come to know God.

There is also a tendency for people to confuse the metaphor with the reality. So, because we speak of two of the persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, some people imagine that they can only be spoken of in masculine terms, and represented by males. To speak of God or Jesus as Mother, and feeding us with milk from herself, makes some people uncomfortable, as does referring to any part of the Trinity as ‘she’. But God is not a being, and so is beyond gender, so it should not do.

Perhaps it might be better not to use words, but to use pictures or diagrams. In some churches you will find triangles, representing the Trinity. I like the Rublev icon, known as the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity as three androgynous figures, gazing at each other; but it perhaps falls into the trap of making God seem like three human persons. Another representation I find it helpful to meditate on is this ancient Irish symbol, where a continuous line unites the three parts, without ever ending, so illustrating unity in eternity.

IMG

The Greek fathers spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis’ or indwelling – a relationship of perfect unity of will and harmony of action. Some modern scholars have proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity, which reflects perichoresis, saying that that the unity of the Trinity consists in loving relationships. This implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about relationships: the relationships within the Godhead and the relationships between the divine and the human. Within the Godhead there is difference (reflected by the theological language about ‘persons’) but a perfect unity. It speaks against the individualism of our culture for the importance to human flourishing of life in community.

So, perhaps we are just called to accept that the Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and simply to live it. And that means working out how to reflect, in our individual and church lives, a God who reveals the divine through the Spirit, through the life of Jesus and through the created world.

If we are to live in accordance with our belief in God who is a Trinity of perfect love, unity and co-operation, then we need to find a way of being church that reflects God’s love unity and co-operation.  We are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, so we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best. Living in love and unity will mean not insisting on that.

Trinity Sunday is a yearly reminder to us that if we want to be true to our faith in our lives and our church, then we need to minimise the differences between us and other Christians and concentrate on the relationship with God we share, a relationship of love, of self-sacrifice, of unity of purpose. If we concentrate on that, then perhaps neither the  complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the inadequate metaphors which try to help us understand the doctrine need worry us too much.

And wouldn’t that be a relief?

Into Temptation…

February 17, 2013

SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)

(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)

Christ-In-The-Wilderness-Ivan-Kramskoy-small

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”.

Modern Lord's PrayerAgain, 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 Trad Lord's Prayerservices, 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.

Are you Ready for Christmas?

December 18, 2011

(Romans 16, 25-27; Luke 1, 26-38 & 46b-55)

 

It’s a question people constantly ask you this time of year. “Are you ready for Christmas?”

 

Is anyone ever ready? There’s so much to do, so many things to arrange at home and at church: services to plan, shopping to do, meals to prepare for, presents to buy for different age groups, and celebrations with family members to co-ordinate. No wonder so many people collapse exhausted on the actual day!

 

The trouble is we all want to have a ‘perfect Christmas’. When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought’ last Thursday http://tinyurl.com/7qk9g5t, he spoke of his belief that God doesn’t wait until we are ready and everything is perfect; God comes to us, in the same way as he came at the first Christmas, in the middle of the mess, to bring love and joy.

 

In the account we heard from Luke’s Gospel, it’s quite obvious that Mary wasn’t in the least bit ready for the events of the first Christmas Day. She wasn’t ready to be a mother: she was betrothed to Joseph, but, as she explained to Gabriel, they weren’t yet living together and she was still a virgin. She certainly wasn’t ready to be the mother of the Messiah, the Saviour of the World and the Son of God. So her response to the angel’s announcement was, “Why me?”

As she knew, she wasn’t anyone special. Two thousand years of Christian devotion may have turned her into something remarkable, through doctrines such as her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption, and titles such as Theotokos (God-Bearer), Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and Co-Redemptrix; but, as many of our TV Nativities show, in reality she was a simple girl, probably still a teenager, from a provincial village in an occupied country, with very little education, destined for a life of hard work, marriage and motherhood. The choice of her to be the mother of Jesus was nothing to do with her special qualities; it was an act of God’s grace.

 

Luke’s account tells us about Mary’s response to the announcement of Jesus’s coming birth, and at the same time, gives us pointers to how we can make ourselves ready to receive him when he comes into our lives.

 

Mary responded with humility. She puzzled over the announcement that she was ‘highly favoured’, because she didn’t think she had done anything to deserve that. But she accepted God’s plan, not just as a ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’ as the text is usually translated, but as a slave, which is what the Greek original usually means. She demonstrated that she was ready to go along with what would happen to her, even though she knew it would make her life very messy and turn the ordinary life she was looking forward to upside down.

 

She also responded with acceptance and obedience. “Let it be with me according to your word”. She accepted in spite of her doubts and questions, believing that with God’s plans, even the most unlikely events were possible. She demonstrated at the Annunciation that ‘obedience of faith’ that Paul spoke of in his letter to the Romans.

 

Mary also responded with joy. The Magnificat, which we heard in our second reading from Luke, is a psalm of praise to God for everything that will come about through the birth of Jesus, the Saviour.

 

But she also responded with insight. The Magnificat is a prophecy, which describes the distinctive and revolutionary character of the Messiah which Jesus will be. Through his coming, the poor will be exalted, the mighty will be brought down, the hungry will be fed and the proud will be scattered. This anticipates the whole of Luke’s Gospel, which  proclaims that  the titles which were given to the Roman Emperor – Saviour of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of God – actually belong to Jesus, not Augustus Caesar. The coming of Jesus undermines the worldly standards of wealth, status and power; his reign is not just for the Jews, but includes the Gentiles and those considered outsiders (Romans emphasises this as well). A peaceful revolution is about to begin!

 

What the Magnificat also tells us is that Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is about the birth of a whole new order of peace, love and justice, which this child brings into the world. It is about the birth of the Kingdom of Heaven. How ready are we for that this Christmas?

 

The celebration of Jesus’s birth should not be an escape from the harsh realities of life, as is the case with so many people’s Christmases these days. Mary is not going to escape reality. Luke’s story shows her as part of a poor family, which is pushed around and has their lives disrupted by the decisions of the civic authorities. She gives birth in squalor, away from the support of her own family and the familiarity of her own home. She has to rely on the kindness of strangers.

 

It’s very different from the sanitised version that we are so often presented with in Nativity plays, where politics and poverty are very much in the background. Most people prefer it that way, and see the Christmas holiday as a chance to retreat into domestic life, and forget the problems of the world. But the Magnificat calls us to the very opposite of escapism. It calls us to active engagement with the powers of this world, in the name of a God who comes to undermine the established order. At Christmas we are challenged to be part of the new order of things which the Magnificat describes.

 

We are called to called to engage with the way power is exercised in our world – but to do so as servants, as Jesus  did, not as dictators. We are called to tackle the issues of poverty, but with generosity and through sharing, as Jesus did, rather than by assigning blame. We are challenged to do something about the causes of disease, homelessness, and prejudice; but we are called to do so as collaborators, as friends, as welcomers, as Jesus did, rather than judging and excluding those who suffer from them.

 

The story Luke tells us this morning, and the psalm which Mary sang, tell us of a new way of living within the old order; a way which is messy, which turns our normal lives and expectations upside down, but which is ultimately joyful and transforming. They call us to connect with the outcasts, the marginalised and the poor of the world and of our community, and to live Christmas in the same servanthood, humility, and simplicity as Mary did.

 

So, are you ready for Christmas? Am I?

 

No, I’m not! If I knew one of the local clergy was coming round, I’d have a tidy up. If I knew a member of the Royal Family was going to pop in for tea, I’d get some new crockery and make sure the front room was newly decorated. But how  can I be ready to welcome our heavenly Priest and King into my life, if he’s going to enlist me into his revolution, and turn my life upside down? I’m not a revolutionary, and I like my life the way it is.  How can I be ready to be a servant of the poor and the marginalised, to be open to those whom society disapproves of, to be someone who challenges those who exercise power in church and state in the name of Christ.

I may be ready for the comfortable, sentimental family Christmas, that concentrates on the baby and the animals and the Magi with their strange useless gifts, but I’m certainly not ready for that sort of Christmas.

 

Yet I know I have to try. That’s what Advent is about. Advent 2011, like every Advent before, is when God gives us an opportunity to become more Christlike, a fresh chance to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas and an invitation to make ourselves ready to welcome the Baby of Bethlehem as the bearer of the Kingdom of Heaven, our King, and the Saviour of the World. So, let us get ready together!

Let us pray:

God of all hope and joy,

open our hearts in welcome,

that your Son, Jesus Christ, at his coming

may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself.

Amen

(© New Zealand Prayer Book)

 

Who do you say that I am?

August 21, 2011

Isaiah 51, 1-6; Matthew 16, 13 – 20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not be Afraid.

August 7, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circle me O God.

Keep peace within.

Keep turmoil out.

Circle me O God.

Keep calm within.

Keep storms without

Circle me O God.

Keep strength within.

Keep weakness out.

 

Slaves to Freedom

June 26, 2011


Proper 8. Yr A. Romans 6, 12-23: Matthew 10, 40-42.

 

Can you imagine yourself as a slave? Can you imagine living in a situation where you have no rights at all, where you are obliged to do everything someone else tells you to do, where you have no home or clothing or possessions or food that does not belong to someone else, where even your children may be taken away from you and sold to work in another place, where you can be abused without any recourse, where you can even be killed, and no-one will object, because you are simply a possession, to be disposed of at will?  That is the sort of situation Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans, a society where everyone is either free or enslaved.

 

It’s almost impossible for us to conceive of living in such a society. We tend to complain about even minor restrictions on our our freedom to do what we want and go where we wish, when we want. But that was a reality for many of the new converts in Rome to whom Paul was writing, and even those who weren’t slaves would have known what life would be like as a slave. And yet Paul uses slavery to illustrate what it is to belong to Christ.

 

Our society values freedom highly. We celebrate when we think people have won their political freedom, throwing off the shackles of totalitarian systems or absolute monarchies or theocracies. But experience tells us that freedom is difficult to obtain and even more difficult to maintain. So often, as we watch events unfold, we realise  that the ‘revolution’ has simply replaced one sort of tyranny by another. The rule of the Shah is replaced by that of fundamentalist clerics, the army takes over from a corrupt dictator, or a dictatorship, often of one tribe or ethnic group, takes over when an imperial power withdraws. Again and again we see the pattern of dictatorship, followed by anarchy, followed by another dictatorship. Jesus made a point about this in Luke 11: when an evil spirit leaves a place, he said, he often returns, and finding the place swept clean invites seven more evil spirits to come and occupy it (Luke 11, 24-6).

 

These illustrations seem to indicate that human freedom is something of an illusion; we are always under the power of something. That is something that sociology and psychology tends to confirm – the way that our actions are strongly influenced by the spoken or unspoken customs and conventions of the society we live in. Some social systems may be less directive than others; but human beings need to be equipped to handle freedom, and it is not easy. I expect most of us can remember a time when we were suddenly given a new freedom to make decisions for ourselves: perhaps when we went from school to university, and had to discipline ourselves to turn up to lectures or hand in work; or when we first left home, and found that the flat and the oven didn’t miraculously clean themselves.

 

So when Paul wrote to the Romans about the choice between being a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness, he was not speaking theoretically, but about a real dilemma in which new Christian found themselves, and in which we still find ourselves. Believers are converted or make a commitment to Christ. They are justified and saved. But while salvation brings forgiveness for sin, it doesn’t bring freedom from sin. What Christians then experience is sanctification, a long process of growing in grace, but in which they continually struggle against the power of sin.

 

It’s important to realise that when Paul talks about ‘sin’ he is not talking about the occasional lapse into wrongdoing. He sees ‘sin’ as an external power, a spiritual force to be contended with, and one which humans could not defeated in their own strength. Only the power of God was strong enough to overcome the power of ‘sin’.

 

This view of sin helps me to make sense of the concept of original sin. It says it has nothing to do with our being born as a result of sexual intercourse. Rather, it speaks of the reality that we are born into a world where the pressures of society incline us to put ourselves, our desires, our family or our social group first. It is a real struggle to escape from that inclination, a struggle in which we need to put ourselves under the direction of a spiritual power that is as strong as our inclination to be selfish and do evil.

 

In chapter 6 of the letter to the Romans, from which we heard, Paul is talking about justification, the process of being put right with God. In the first 11 verses he talks about baptism, and uses the analogy of dying and rising again with Christ. In the passage we have today, he uses the analogy of slavery to show how we have a choice about who is to ‘own’ us and direct our lives. In the next chapter, he uses another analogy, that of marriage, to show how we are bound in union to Christ, and must obey him, as a Roman wife was bound to obey her husband.

 

So he says, Christian believers are like slaves, who have been bought by a new master, and must commit themselves wholly to the service of their new owner. But, the reality is that we are constantly tempted back to serve our previous master. That, he argues, is stupid. We may not wish to feel enslaved, but we have no choice about our enslavement. All we can choose is what sort of master to serve. If we choose sin, we are enslaved by a cruel master, in a life which is humiliating, exploitative, and exhausting. Slavery to sin is like an addiction, more and more difficult to escape from the more we obey it. It leads, Paul says, to spiritual death and separation from God.

If we are enslaved to righteousness, though, we have a loving master, who offers us not wages, but a free gift of salvation, freedom, and eternal life in the presence of God. And both this death and this life are to be experienced here and now. We are are not talking about what will happen to us after death, but about what happens to us as we live our lives on this earth.

 

This is not to say that being a ‘slave of righteousness’ is an easy life. Like any slavery, it demands obedience, and is costly, particularly because our previous master, sin, is still trying to direct our lives. Jesus warned us that we cannot serve two masters, but often we try to do so, with great cost.

 

The reality of slavery is that your whole body is at the disposal of your master; and Paul talks in this passage about putting our whole selves, bodies as well as minds, into the service of righteousness. Our society tends to emphasise the freedom of each individual to do what they like with their bodies; so this instruction of Paul’s goes against the cultural norms of our time.

 

Unfortunately, when we talk about bodies and sin in our society, the emphasis tends to be on sex.  This is sad, because it limits our conception of sin to just one part of us. As the letter to James tells us, our tongues are capable of inflicting great damage on others and doing many evil things. Our use of our bodily strength can inflict real physical damage on others, and our minds lead us into all sorts of wrongdoing. Desire for food, for water, for money, for living space, for all sorts of physical comforts lead people into many more evil acts than their sexual desires. When we think about surrendering our whole selves to Christ, we are committing every part of our bodies and every part of our lives to the service of righteousness.

 

In this passage, Paul presents us with three pairs of choices: to choose righteousness over sin; to choose freedom over slavery; to choose the gift of God over the wages of sin.  In the letter to the Romans he also indicates the resources we can draw on in order to have the strength to continue to be obedient to our righteous master.

 

The first resource is our baptism, when we are incorporated both into Christ’s death, but also into new life through him in fellowship with God, and are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.

 

The second is the Christian community of which we are part, which, when it is truly working as one body, enables each of us to offer our particular gifts in the service of Christ, and strengthens us when we are weak. The third is the Holy Spirit, given at baptism, inspiring the Christian community, which controls the minds and spirits of those who are committed to Christ, and helps them to overcome the evil desires of their human nature.

 

Committing ourselves to obedience does not come easily to us in our society. We live in a culture that tends to think that sin is exciting and liberating, whereas commitment to a belief system is limiting and stupid. We are urged to grasp the freedom to do whatever we like – but which so often is just conformity to a passing fashion or to something which eventually damages our minds or our bodies. It requires an act of faith to commit ourselves to struggling for a righteous life, in faith that it will bring the peace and perfect freedom that Paul promises us. But as he says in the letter to the Corinthians, to chose righteousness is to chose the foolishness of God over the wisdom of this world.

 

The choice which the non-believing world presents us with is obedience versus freedom. The choice which Paul presents us with is to be freely obedient to righteousness which will eventually bring us real freedom, or enslaved to the illusion of freedom which will eventually kill our spirits.

 

Which one will we choose?