Saturday, April 30, 2011

Royal Wedding

I absolutely loved watching the royal wedding yesterday, and can’t help reflecting on the occasion.

This wedding is important, on lots of levels, including theological ones.  Weddings – every wedding – point beyond themselves, beyond the couple getting married, to the great future wedding banquet celebrating the marriage of the Lamb of God and his spotless radiant bride, the church.  Every wedding, regardless of whether or not those taking part recognise it.  And yet we need, from time to time, to witness a wedding on such a scale that it draws back the curtain of time for a moment and points, really points, to that day.  The sort of wedding very few can afford to hold and host.

I loved the trees that lined the knave of Westminster Abbey.  A building on such a scale needs something to bridge the human-scale and the heavenly vault above.  And trees – which will be replanted – are a biblical image standing for the healing of the nations.  This occasion, where royal leaders from around the world gathered together between the trees, pointed to that day; to a healing which is yet to be fulfilled, certainly, but which has begun, for all that is yet to come.

I loved the Bishop of London’s sermon, on the spiritual significance of marriage.  Yes, it might appear a million miles from most people’s understanding; but I love that in our pluralist society the Church is able to speak to the heart of how we understand and order ourselves.  In my view, the Bishop spoke not to the intellect – for want of a better word for the body of things believed in our culture – but to the soul.  In terms of what people think about, he was out-of-touch, but he spoke to the soul with clarity.  This is significant, as we debate clarity in preaching: Jesus never once spoke clearly, at an intellectual level, and even when he claims to speak clearly, it is not clear according to my cultural understanding of clarity – which leads me to conclude that it is our understanding of clarity that is misplaced, that is earthly rather than heavenly, that speaks to the mind rather than to the soul.  Perhaps rather than speaking clearly (to the mind) we need to help people to hear with the soul, or at least ask the Holy Spirit to open those ears, which have become so stopped-up?

Yesterday was a fairytale.  And I recognise that for some, fairytales are problematic: divorced from reality.  I am not convinced: fairytales endure, not simply because of escapism, but because they enable us to reflect on the deeper realities.  They not only need to be told, they insist on being heard.  Their great theme is redemption – Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast – though within that framework they explore a host of other themes.  The popularity of Lord of the Rings is due to its nature as a male-friendly fairy tale.  Yes, yesterday was a fairytale, but that should be engaged, not derided.  The interesting question to ask about this wedding is, ‘What is being redeemed here?’

The other thing that is problematic for many is the great cost of such a day.  It is not fair.  But, God is not fair.  God is like a wealthy businessman, who distributes resources unevenly among his servants as he goes off to amass more wealth himself; or an employer who pays unfair wages.  God is profoundly unfair.  But God is also just, and will hold each to account.  The Queen is very wealthy, and I am sure that one day God will ask her questions about how she has used that wealth – though I also suspect that this will not be an unfamiliar conversation between the two.

So I say three very patriotic cheers for William and Kate!  May God pour out his richest blessings on them, now and in all the years to come.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Resurrection Icon

I like creativity, and I like icons as windows into the story of salvation.  Today, I’ve been working on an image based on a traditional icon of the Resurrection, which depicts not the event as history (women approaching the tomb, soldiers guarding it, earthquake, angel) but as theology: what this event achieves and signifies.

In the first image, we see Jesus exiting the tomb.  The tomb is depicted as a stylised vulva, making the theological statement that physical death is the birth-passage from one form of life into another: employing the analogy of the world experienced from within the womb (distorted sounds, light and dark) and then experienced through sight and sound and touch and taste and smell.  The labia are always white; the inner-lining often blues and silver or yellows and gold.

In the second image, we see hell, depicted by barren rocks, represented behind Jesus.  And under his feet, the smashed-down gates of hell, its broken locks and discarded keys.  The theological statements being made are that Jesus went to hell, and defeated spiritual death (sometimes death, in this sense, is depicted as a body, or as a collection of scattered bones, lying under the fallen gates).

In the third image, we see Adam and Eve, representing humanity, being raised from death to life by Jesus.  They are depicted in funeral-clothes, usually in grey and red-brown respectively, symbolising the dust/earth from which we come and to which we return.  (Sometimes other figures are included: King David, King Solomon and John the Baptist on Jesus’ right; Adam and Eve’s martyred son Abel, and two figures representing the Gentiles on Jesus’ left.)

This traditional icon is full of theological significance.

How would you depict the resurrection through art?  What – and who – would you include?  What colours would you employ, and why?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rowan Williams

Two links to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, both from Ben Myers’ blog:

Love Wins?

Jo and I and several other friends went to hear Rob Bell speak on ‘Love Wins’ at Liverpool Cathedral during Holy Week.  I have also read the book; and read a number of the more graciously and thoughtfully measured responses, such as those of David Fitch, Scot McKnight, Andrew Perriman, and Mark Sayers; and the official response by the Evangelical Alliance UK, which is gracious and positive, and – rightly – articulates an evangelical position, but is also confused by an additional review which, I would suggest, fails to hear Bell across a generational divide [1].

The first thing that strikes me about Rob Bell, both in person and in his writing, is how passionately and infectiously he loves Jesus.  The second thing – and the two are inextricable entwined – is how much he loves people.

The third thing is how much he loves and respects the Bible.  Disagree with how he reads it, by all means, but to present him as someone who disregards scripture is grossly unfair.  As Eugene Peterson endorses: ‘It isn’t easy to develop an imagination, a thoroughly biblical imagination, that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation.  Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination.  Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all.’

I love Jesus, falteringly, and the Bible, and struggle to love people; but I long to love Jesus and my fellow men and women and children and the recorded narrative of salvation history as much as Rob Bell does.

The other thing that I would have to say is that there is nothing in ‘Love Wins’ that steps outside of the breadth of orthodox Christianity.  Controversial though Bell has been branded, nothing he says about heaven or hell or God or humanity has not been affirmed by earlier thoughtful, devout Christian teachers and leaders, within the Early Church, the big-C Catholic churches, the big-O Orthodox churches, and even (with qualifications against Roman ideas) the Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist traditions.  The vision Bell paints is an alternative one to that painted by the conservative evangelical and liberal progressive Protestantism that has so dominated late-twentieth century British and American Christianity – arguably both being reactions to an earlier loss of concern regarding heaven and hell, and so, along with Bell now, all contributions to renewing and reforming Christian proclamation – but neither conservative evangelicals nor liberal progressives ought to claim to be the sole guardians of true Christianity.

The loudest, shrillest criticism that has been made against Bell is that he is a universalist, and therefore a heretic.  But to accuse Bell of being a universalist, in any sense by which the word is generally used or understood, requires wilful misrepresentation.  Bell argues that the scope of the reconciliation God has worked specifically and uniquely through Jesus is universal; but that it is possible to resist and reject what God has done, both in this life and beyond this life; and that there are serious consequences, both now and in the future, to taking such a course.  He believes that the imperative to respond to Jesus’ invitation to die to one way of life in order to live the life God has for us is urgent, not so much as a one-off response, but the kind of response we are invited to make countless times every day.  These are not the beliefs of a universalist.  But Bell suggests that the picture scripture paints for us is one in which death does not have the final say in our destiny, and that ultimately God will somehow see his desire that all is reconciled fulfilled.  And while that is controversial to some, it does not take Bell outside of the hope of orthodox Christianity.  (To be honest, it doesn’t even take him outside of open evangelicalism – as I think was attested to by the overwhelmingly positive response in Liverpool Cathedral.)

Others have found things, even much, to affirm, but criticise Bell’s vision for being inadequate (of course it is inadequate: all human talk of God is inadequate, Bell’s critics as much as Bell; and yet we are compelled to speak of the God who reaches out to us); for being selective (it is: but this work is narrative theology rather than systematic theology; and, are evangelical choices any less selective?); for raising as many if not more questions than it answers (can’t we live with that tension, to which God has invited us since the beginning, and not least in Jesus’ questions and resistance to answer the questions by which we seek to exercise power?); and for not being as well-written as earlier and weightier works on which it draws, which people would be better reading instead (why can’t we write about something that has been written about by someone else, in another time, to another context?  can’t we write for different audiences?  doesn’t the story need to be proclaimed in and to every generation afresh, in its own language, language in its broadest sense?).  Perhaps the most crucial questions being asked are not around orthodoxy – right belief – but rather whether engagement in media manipulation is consistent with orthopraxy – right living.  And that is a hard call to make – or at least questionable grounds on which to pass judgement – for the gospel has always been communicated through engaging the normative media of the day, with all its flaws and biases and distortions.

Bell’s vision is a compelling one, and one which I find to be true: not in a provable sense, nor necessarily in every detail, but in its sweep and trajectory.  At the same time, I recognise that many thoughtful, devout Christians – including many I know personally, love, respect, and am deeply thankful for – hold (a range of) very different views, which are also well-attested to within the breadth of orthodox Christian belief.  That is why we must make space to hear one another; to disagree and to question; to honour one another, and to resolutely forgive and seek forgiveness where we fail to honour one another.  Authentic witness is not dependent on all saying the same thing (if it did, why have the Gospel of John alongside Matthew, Mark and Luke?); but where we allow room for different perspectives to coexist, robustly, without giving way to sectarianism – a visible and outward sign of the inner reality of fear – the world will see what it looks like to begin to enter in to the reconciliation Jesus has won.

[1] I suggested that in his book review of ‘Love Wins’ Derek Tidball fails to hear Rob Bell across a generational divide.  Here are some reasons why:

It is very strange to claim that Bell ‘never mentions repentance,’ when the absolute necessity to undergo a change of mind and heart and direction and to die to self in order to enter into the reconciliation God has achieved in and through Jesus is there on almost every page.

In locating a sacrificial understanding within a primitive cultural world, Bell does not ‘sidestep’ the cross as sacrifice.  Indeed, he sees Jesus’ death as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – but argues that, precisely because that now-ended system is so alien to us in a West shaped by Christendom and post-Christendom, we might rethink how we present the cross, clearly including sacrifice, but not making it our starting-point or our pre-eminent point.

The use of a phrase such as ‘he assumes’ and a question such as ‘but why does he think ... ?’ invite an inference of a lack of setting out why, which is not the case.  Though this may well not be implied – for such an implication would be unworthy – it plays into the negative rhetoric being engaged in elsewhere.

While Bell is critical of a particular popular view of heaven and hell, which leads to a range of withdrawals and engagements, I don’t see the portrayal of a uniformly unengaged evangelicalism Tidball appears to claim to find; nor would I think it fair to imply that Bell would identify ‘nasty people’ with evangelicals.  Perhaps there is some unwarranted defensiveness here?

Lastly, the critique of communication choice – stylistically ‘confusing’ and ‘theology-lite’ – is a cultural observation, and made from the perspective of a culture that is not Bell’s primary addressee.  Bell is not for everyone, any more than NT Wright or CS Lewis are.  Where Tidball sees confusion, I see poetic clarity and beauty; where he sees ‘theology-lite’ I see refreshing accessibility.

I note these issues not to discredit Tidball in any way, but because he is, rightly, concerned for truth.  Truth cannot be conflated with Tidball’s – or Bell’s, or my – interpretation of the truth.  Moreover, we cannot even hear one another accurately: there is always a degree of distortion, even in our best attempts to listen and speak back what we have heard – and where I have misheard Tidball, I ask forgiveness.  The best response is ongoing conversation, in a spirit of love and humility, recognising our limitations and yet daring to speak out.  That is why, for all our falling short, we ought to be grateful for these conversations.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Let There Be Light!

In the beginning, God created ... everything.

But then, something happened.  Rebellion, from within the created order.  Rebellion, which left creation overwhelmed by chaos, void of life.

And so God set to liberating his creation.  Beginning with light: light, which more than anything else emanated from and shared in God’s very being; light, which had been overwhelmed by darkness.  God spoke, and the light sprang forth from its prison.  God continued: liberating first the air and then the land from the deluge; liberating plants from the ground, releasing creatures into sea and sky and soil; commissioning the great lights and a new creature – this one, not seen before – to partner in his reign over the heavens and the earth.

On another occasion, the world was once again submerged, as consequence of rebellion.  Once again, God moved to liberate life out of death.  And once again, he began by liberating light: this time, in its full spectrum: red and orange and yellow and green and blue and indigo and violet ... and white: unity in diversity.  The start of another week.  Creation set free to start again.

Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus: the Light of the world, who was overwhelmed by darkness, who was imprisoned for three days while the Spirit hovered over the chaos, and who was liberated from his prison by the God’s words: Let the Light come forth!

Let the Light come forth, and let it shine until it fills the entire heavens and earth!

The start of another week.  The starting-point of a freed creation.

That’s the pattern.  That’s what God does.  These are decisive moments in the story.  And one day, Jesus will return: Light will be released, and creation will be free again.

In the meantime, let there be life!  For where there is light, there is life, in its diversity and splendour.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Meditation

Good Friday 2011: meditation on the wounds of Jesus

Today, as we gather at the foot of the cross, I would like us to take some time to meditate on the wounds inflicted on our Lord and Saviour.  For as the prophet Isaiah foresaw, it is by Jesus’ wounds that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, in the context of 52:13-53:12): and as we look upon those wounds we learn what it means to live as people who are receiving healing, in a world of hurt and pain.

I am indebted to my theological college principal, Christina Baxter, whose meditations on this subject have sparked my own.

His back:

Jesus of Nazareth, son of a builder, apprenticed in working with wood and stone.  His back, strong, muscular, walking ahead of us through the crowds.  His back, which had become so familiar to his disciples as they followed him along the road.  His back, which gladly takes up a yoke in order to share our burdens, to lighten our load.  His back, turned on rebellion against God: get behind me, satan.  His back, turned away from comfort, in order to carry the sin of the world.  His back, beaten and flayed raw.  His back, forced to carry a heavy, roughly-hewn wooden beam; eventually surrendering to its weight; and then thrown down, against another, longer, beam.

Will you follow his back?  Will you follow his back, wherever he may lead?  For if we are his disciples, we must familiarise ourselves with this back, must know it better than our own.  Will we model our back on his?  Will we carry one another’s burdens?

His head:

Sight, hearing, taste, smell, even touch: though we experience the world with our whole body, our senses are particularly focused on our faces, that part of our body which is most exposed, that part of our body which most readily makes us recognisable.

His face, his very identity, betrayed with a kiss, a touch-sensation on the cheek: light as a feather, gentle as a breath, heavier than a bandits club, sharper than an assassins dagger.  His head, spat upon.  His head, blindfolded, robbing him of sight, of orientation, of navigation.  His head, beaten; a twisted crown of woven thorns, hard as nails, pressed down, breaking the skin, blood seeping into the blindfold, stinging the eyes.

And what of our head?  Does our identity come from our power, our ability to navigate the world by sight?  Or, powerless, from knowing, deeply knowing, that we are God’s, and all shall be well?

His hands:

His hands, writing in the dust as those around cry out for blood.  His hands, reaching out to Peter as he sinks beneath the waves.  His hands, touching lepers and making them clean.  His hands, taking loaves, and – having raised them in thanksgiving and blessing – breaking them, over and over, not running out, to feed a multitude.  His hands, making a whip and driving out those whose activity within the temple crowded-out space that was meant to be set aside for the gentile nations to worship, robbing them of inclusion.  His hands, reaching out and healing the ear of one of those who had come to arrest him; his hands, rejecting defence and surrendering to being bound.  His hands, no longer free.  His hands, large nails driven through the wrists: pinning him down to torturous death-by-suffocation when he was no longer strong enough to push against those nerve-shredding nails in order to fill his lungs.

Will you be the hands of Jesus?  Will you reach out and touch others, to heal, to bless, to protect from hatred?  Will we forgo our claim to the right to self-defence?  Will we accept that God is not bound, even when he asks us to submit to binding?

His feet:

His feet, calloused by the miles, the dusty roads across Galilee, the Jordan rift valley, Judea, Samaria.  His weight-bearing feet, which had walked in the colonnades of the temple courtyards, the stone hard and cool beneath his toes.  His weight-bearing feet, which had shifted over sharp volcanic rock on the lake shore as he called fishermen to leave their nets and follow him.  His weight-bearing feet, which had walked on water, the very waves lifting him up in worship.  His feet, which had been anointed with perfume and tears, wiped dry with hair, in preparation for his burial.  His feet, which had borne him all the way to the cross.  His feet, nailed through the ankles.  His weight-bearing feet, pushing against those nails in order to summon the breath to bless: his enemies, with forgiveness; his mother and friend, with family; his Father, with trust to the end, even in the face of abandonment.

Our feet.  The feet of pilgrims, following Christ along the road.  The feet of messengers, carrying the news that he is coming, on his way here, even now: how beautiful on the mountains are the calloused, dusty feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7).  Will we bring good news, proclaim peace?  Will we follow, when Jesus says ‘Come to me’?  Will we go where he sends us?  Will we walk the road to dying to self, to rise with him?

His side:

In proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, Jesus called to his side those who had been elbowed-out by the power games of this god-forsaking world.  At his side, those who had betrayed their people, exploiting their neighbours for an upstart puppet king, or the Romans directly.  At his side – side-by-side with the betrayers – zealots who had opposed Roman rule by spilling blood.  At his side, those compromised by sexual immorality.  At his side, those under the curse of leprosy, or blindness.  At his side, parents whose child had died, women whose husband had died, those whose family had been torn apart.  At his side, friends who would desert him.  At his side, a friend through whom he would be handed over to die.

His side, pierced with a Roman lance, pushed up, between the ribs, plunged into the heart.  His side, already filled with internal bleeding, the unseen result of the torture he had been subjected to.  His side, releasing a stream of blood and water.  Blood, declaring him the sacrificial lamb killed in our place so that the angel of death would pass over us.  Water, declaring this event not only our shelter from death, but the fount of our life.

Our side.  Jesus said, ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within them.’ (John 7:38)  The Holy Spirit, given to us to quench our thirst; flowing out from us, to quench the thirst of others.  Flowing out, as our side is pierced.  Are we willing?  Are we willing to draw the broken, the hurting, the abandoned, those judged cursed by God, those trampled underfoot and left to die in the gutter ... are we willing to draw them to our side, whatever it might cost us?  Are we willing to let our side be shaped by his, so that we fit there, close, our head on his chest, listening to his heart-beat ... listening to his heart, his compassion, for the lost, the hurting, for us?

Let us meditate, then, on the wounds of Christ; for by his wounds, we are healed.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday Meditation

Maundy Thursday 2011: meditation on the prayer of Jesus at Gethsemane.

So here we are, in the final hours before Jesus will be nailed to a cross and hung up to die.  Here we are, in the darkness, in a grove of olive trees at the foot of the Mount of Olives.  In the distance, through the trees, we catch glimpses of the fires around which other pilgrims, here to celebrate the Passover, are camping on the hillside above us.  We can sense their presence: the background hubbub of a great festival; the night pierced by the singing of psalms; shouts of recognition; the cry of a man, zealous for God, encouraging those round him to praise his unspeakable name.

But here, at the foot of the hill, at a distance from the crowds, the mood is different.  Jesus, who always seems so sure of God with him, is disturbed, agitated, overwhelmed.  We’ve known him show all kinds of emotions – rejoicing at a village wedding; weeping at the tomb of his friend; sadness standing just further up on this very hillside, looking over Jerusalem on the other side of the valley; anger in the courts of the temple itself – but never anything like this.  This feels ... dangerous – dangerous, and more overwhelmingly sorrowful than anything else in the world.  Almost as if the cry of the psalmist, uttered a thousand years before, which we had sung at the end of our Passover supper had been written down with this very night in mind: “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow.  Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘Lord, save me!’” (Psalm 116:3, 4).

Why are we here?  Why is Jesus here?

He is here to watch and to pray.  And he wants us to watch and pray with him.

What is it that Jesus wants his disciples to watch for?  If they have any idea, it is probably the same assumption on our mind: that we are to watch for approaching danger.  Disciples always have had a knack for missing the point, now as then.

If not watching for danger, then what?  Well, what has Matthew written down for us, from start to end?  Jesus begins his public ministry with the statement: the kingdom of heaven is near!  He calls his disciples to him, and, sat on a mountain-side, tells them what kind of person the kingdom of heaven has been given to (those who are persecuted because of righteousness).  In time, he sends them out, into the towns and villages, to proclaim the same message: the kingdom of heaven is near!  Again and again, he tells parable after parable to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like – in order that we might recognise it when it arrives.

And here, in the garden, Jesus tells his disciples to watch with him.  What is he watching for?  The kingdom of heaven!  Jesus is watching, not for those who exercise earthly authority, coming to take a stand against the kingdom of heaven, but for the kingdom of heaven – the rule of the heavenly king – arriving right here, right now.

And as he waits, Jesus prays.  He prays the way he taught his disciples to pray, the way he habitually prayed.  But tonight, his prayer is in conversation with a psalm, Psalm 116, one of the Passover psalms (Psalm 113-118).  And tonight, we will pray with him; and praying, learn more than we have known.

The Father’s Character and Kingdom:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven ...

God is faithful to his name.  His revealed identity is trustworthy: who he has been, he is, and ever will be.  That is why we recall this night the night long ago he brought his people out of Egypt.  That is why we celebrate the Passover.  That is why we drink four cups with the meal, to represent God’s declaration, his four saving acts: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.  I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement.  I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:6, 7).  I will bring you out; I will free you; I will redeem you; I will take you.

At the third cup – “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” – Jesus had done something new tonight.  He had called it his blood, covenant blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Was he referring to himself as the Passover lamb, killed in our place?  Was he referring to his own arm, stretched out for us?  Then he had said that he would not drink wine again until he drank it with us in his Father’s kingdom (see Matthew 26:27-29).  And then we left, came here: did not drink the final cup.

Jesus, a little farther on into the night, has come to the fourth cup, the cup we call the cup of salvation.  And he is wrestling with these familiar words, as if they were not familiar at all:

“What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.  I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.  Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of those who are faithful to him.  Truly I am your servant, Lord; I am your servant, as was my mother before me; you have loosed my bonds of affliction.”  (Psalm 116:13-16).

Jesus is praying that the kingdom of heaven would come, here, now.  He knows what that kingdom looks like: deliverance, freedom, redemption, a new identity.  But he also knows that when it comes, he will be required to die.

The Father’s Provision and Forgiveness:

Give us today our daily bread.  Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors ...

Jesus pours out his deepest hopes and fears, and his disciples sleep.  A fitful sleep, no doubt; a sleep which holds no restorative power; a sleep tormented by dark dreams: more a succumbing to the overwhelming sorrow than a choice to rest.  But not watching for the kingdom of heaven.  Not even for an hour.

Watch with me, Jesus enjoins Peter.  Don’t miss it now, having come so far.  And pray.  Pray that you won’t fall into temptation.  The spirit is willing, but the body is weak: I know that, Peter: my body is weak too, weaker than it has ever been, weak to the point of death.  Pray with me: ask the Father for his provision for the body, for his strengthening, ask that he would supply all that you need this day, this dreadful hour, to live, to overcome.  And for the spirit, Peter: it is willing, but it needs nourishing too: we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God.  Feed on the Passover psalms with me, that you will be strengthened, and that the Father would be glorified.

You sleep too soon, too lightly; but sleep is not the end.  Ask the Father for his forgiveness, where you succumb.  Ask the Father to forgive those who are coming, who will arrive here soon enough.  The kingdoms of the world live bound by debt, burdened by what we cannot hope to pay our creditors, burdened by what we are owed that our debtors cannot pay us.  Oppressed; enslaved; debtors: the very condition God comes to bring us out from, to free us from, to pay our debt – and to take us as his own.  The kingdom of heaven is gift: freely given; freely received; freely passed-on again.  Keep watch: the kingdom of heaven is near.  Receive it; extend it in the world: taste freedom; set captives free.

Peter, in what is about to happen, what will you see?  A man, a friend, bound; or a man, a friend, who is free?

The Father’s Guidance and Deliverance:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Watch and pray, Jesus had said, so that you will not fall into temptation.

Are you still sleeping and resting?  Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is handed over into the hands of sinners.

The kingdom of heaven, for which he has been watching, is arriving.  And what does its arrival look like?  Jesus is handed over into the hands of sinners.  Handed over.  Our English translations tend to say, ‘betrayed’: that is, a human action, on the part of Judas.  But over and over in describing this moment the Greek says ‘handed over.’  Handed over: not by human hands, but by the Father’s hand.  Behold the cup of salvation, the cup that recalls God’s declaration “I will take you” – the cup that Jesus did not want to take up, asked to be taken from him.  This moment – which looks for all the world like unanswered prayer – is taking place to fulfil the purposes of the kingdom of heaven.  The Son hands himself over to the Father, becoming for us the cup of salvation; the Father hands over the Son; and the angels look on with baited breath: what will be done to him?

Rise, let us go!

For three years now, we have watched Jesus pray; have learnt to pray from him.  To ask for the Father’s guidance, that we might not be lead into temptation; to ask for the Father’s deliverance from the evil one.

And here is Jesus, walking in to danger, walking towards his death.  Pray, lads!  Pray like you’ve never prayed before!

Jesus, of course, is calm: calm and collected; focused, for the first time since we arrived in the olive grove, where only hours ago he had been visibly distressed.  Having called on the name of the Lord to save him, he has come to the place where he can say, “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” (Psalm 116:7).  In walking towards those who have arrived – at the very same moment as the kingdom of heaven – to arrest him, he is being led away from temptation: away from the temptation to run, to hide, to live a long and peaceful life; led by his Father, into his Father’s will, that he be handed over to us, for us.

With the psalmist, Jesus can proclaim, “For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 116:8, 9).  And he will be delivered from the evil one.  But the Father’s deliverance is not away from evil, but straight ahead: a direct assault on the evil one: deliverance on the other side of a spent, defeated power of hell.

So let us watch, for the coming of the kingdom of heaven.  Let us learn to recognise what it is we wait for:

a God who comes to save us to be his people;
confronting false kings;
strengthening us in the struggle we find ourselves caught up in;
paying our debts;
leading us away from rebellion against his perfect will;
and delivering us from death itself.

And, standing in the dark hours of Gethsemane, let us pray that we might place ourselves with Jesus into the mighty hand of

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.  Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
(Matthew 6:9-13)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Twin Follies

Two things must be graciously refused with equal conviction:

that we can speak with dogmatic certainty about God, who is far, far beyond our understanding;

and that we cannot speak with confidence of God, who is so passionately committed to revealing himself to us.

Power : Part 2

What happens when God’s power breaks in to our world?  Far more than what is immediately apparent.  For every time God’s power breaks in, the whole universe is changed, rippling out from the epicentre.  In Jesus, all things are being reconciled, to God, and to each other.

Here is a current example.  Some of us have been praying for a friend who has been profoundly deaf since he had life-threatening meningitis at three months old.  Last week he reported being able to hear a text arrive on his mobile phone, without his hearing aids in; to hear background music; and to be able to feel his ears for the first time (along with deafness, nerve damage had left his ears numb).  Praise God!  Then he reported something else: having been colour-blind, he could see colour.  But we hadn’t prayed about that!

What was going on?  Well, every time God’s power breaks in through us as we exercise the power and authority Jesus has given his disciples, the effect is far greater than the immediate focus of our prayer.  The immediate focus is only the epicentre.  Epicentres are often deep beneath the surface – we might not see an immediate response – but the waves roll outward.

Of course, the greatest impact is closest to the epicentre ... and if God’s power breaks in as we pray there are at least two subjects in the epicentre: the person or situation we are praying for, and the person or persons praying.  (And, indeed, a third: God himself, the source of the power in question.)

It is impossible for God’s power to flow through us in such a way that another life is transformed without ourselves also being transformed.  We do not exercise God’s power from a position of power – of patronage – but in exercising God’s power we share in the transformation of the universe, as it is being reconciled.

But it is easy to miss that ‘being transformed’ element of being an agent of true transformation.

Jesus was fully human, and, being fully human, was fully part of the created order.  Every time Jesus exercised the Father’s power, he was changed, the universe was changed: being reconciled.  And Jesus was fully God, was fully part of the creating Trinity.  Every time he acted in the power of the Holy Spirit, God was changed, in relationship with creation: being reconciled.  (God remains true to his revealed nature and purpose – that is, is unchanging – precisely by allowing himself to be changed, through incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, ongoing reconciliation.)

Transformation: being changed: being reconciled:

The poor will never be lifted out of poverty unless the rich are changed in such a way that they no longer have a consuming appetite for wealth.  The elderly will not know dignity until those in the prime of life are changed in such a way that they embrace their own mortality.  And God does not merely want to open the ears of the physically deaf and the eyes of the colour-blind, but to open the ears of all our hearts to hear his voice, so easily drowned-out by other voices, and the eyes of all our hearts, that see the world in monochrome and accept that that is all there is.

At the epicentre, those praying and those prayed for.  Around the epicentre, witnesses: all of whom will be changed, as they respond positively or negatively to what they have seen and heard.  And beyond: perhaps we will never know in what ways, but the whole universe is changed, to its farthest reaches.

What have you seen God do for someone else as you have prayed?

How have you been changed by being at the epicentre of that particular break-in of power?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


The world says that power is the fruit of experience: that previous experience creates in us a pool of knowledge which we can share with those who lack the knowledge we possess, enabling us to serve others from a position of power.

God’s Word says that power is the fruit of obedience: that as we step out into the unknown, in obedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, God’s power is able to flow through us.  For God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.  Or, God’s power is free to flow where we have voluntarily handed our claim to power into his hands, and chosen powerlessness.

In other words, it is not our experience that counts, but our obedience.  It is not our previous experience – which, where it was fruitful, will have been the consequence of our past obedience – that counts, but our present obedience.

The problem is that we are so conditioned by the world that it is second nature to us that power is the fruit of experience, and that we empower others by sharing our experience with them.  And so we perpetuate what is second nature, rather than returning to what is first nature to us: what we know, but overlook; what is always in front of us, but we so often miss.

This particular second nature is especially hard to put to death for those of us who genuinely want to help others.  It is unlikely that we will kill it with one blow.  More likely, we will have to nail it over and over again, each time we catch ourselves operating or trying to operate out of experience and power rather than obedience and powerlessness.

At least, that is how it is for me.

That is why I need (not only the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, but the measured final approach of) Holy Week, year after year after year.

Lord, help me to walk in obedience to the cross, and there to put to death my past, that I might know you and experience your transforming power today.  Amen.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week

I love Holy Week, our annual remembrance of the most dreadful and wonderful week there ever was; our walking with Jesus, purposely, towards the cross.

I love the richness of this week, for story-telling.  Maundy Thursday alone gives us scope to tell the story of the Passover, the meal celebrating God’s deliverance, that Jesus reframes in the context of the cross; to tell the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet; and – as I will be doing this year – to tell the story of Jesus’ agony in the garden.

This year I am leading meditations on the prayer of Jesus on Maundy Thursday (in the context of a week of 24/7 prayer) and on the wounds of Christ on Good Friday; and also a Stations of the Cross walk along the two dual-carriageways that form a cross centred on our parish church, on Good Friday afternoon.  But first, tomorrow, I am presiding at a communion service in a local nursing home.

The reading is John 12:20-36, in which some Greeks ask to see Jesus, and Jesus speaks of his being lifted up in death.

It strikes me that Jesus is made visible, in this world, in the context of pain – his pain, and ours.  There comes a point at which Jesus’ choosing to give his life into the hands of his Father becomes a voluntary choice to give up his life into the hands of his Father – having submitted himself to taking on human form, submitting himself to the full consequence of human nature: loss of strength; loss of agency (the move from being able to do things for yourself to having to rely on what others will do for you, for good or ill); death.

It strikes me that we can only see Jesus from a place of lost agency.  To the extent that we are in control of our own destiny – to the extent that we operate from a position of (perceived) power – we will be as blind to Jesus, even stood directly in front of us, as Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod were.  To the extent that we are in control of our own destiny, we will deny Jesus as much as Peter did.  And, to a greater or lesser extent, we all exercise agency.  But where we have lost agency, we will see Jesus, lifted up.

There is hope and invitation in that, for those whose agency is stripped from them, by old age or ill health.

And challenge, too – for those in the prime of life: will we, like Jesus, voluntarily let-go of agency, in order to be where he is, in order to see him?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Grey Skies Over Liverpool

Today is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, ninety-nine years ago.  Many of the crew who went down with the ship came from Liverpool.  Whole streets were left without their men: husbands, fathers, sons.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster.

These are black days for Liverpool.

This cry of the heart – a psalm Jesus sang at the end of the Passover meal on the night before his death; the words on his lips in the garden of Gethsemane – seem appropriate: Psalm 116.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Palm Sunday : A Tale Of Two Myths

This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, a key turning-point in the approach to Easter.  It is, I would suggest, a tale of two myths – of two stories that transcend time and space, from which we construct our understanding of the universe we live in.

The setting is Jerusalem, at Passover: a potential flash-point.  Two myths are converging, from opposite directions.  The Roman provincial governor is approaching from the west, from the Mediterranean Sea, from the base of Roman rule, the military harbour of Caesarea.  He heads an army, to swell the permanent garrison stationed in Jerusalem.  He comes to enforce peace – the Pax Romana – the gift bestowed by the god-man Emperor.  Admittedly, that peace didn’t prosper everyone equally; in fact, only a very few; but it was, nonetheless, self-evidently better than any alternative system by which to structure the world.

At the same time, a stream of pilgrims approach Jerusalem from the east, rising out of the desert, the direction from which God has promised he will return.  As they crest the Mount of Olives and descend into the Kidron Valley, looking to the Temple on its other side, and the city beyond, they are singing psalms.  They are singing a particular set of psalms, known to us as Psalms 113-118, which tell of the time when God delivered his people from another empire, Egypt.  This is how the celebration, the commemoration of the Passover, begins: this is how they enter-in to it as not just as ancient history that shaped them, but as their story, in their time.  There is another hope by which to understand the universe.  Year after year, they sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 118:26a).  Year after year they respond to the exhortation, “With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” (Psalm 118:27).

Among the pilgrims, Jesus, riding on a foal, making a messianic statement that God will once again rescue his people from slavery.  People point him out – is that? ... it is! ... that’s Jesus, there!  They join in his celebration of – his entering-in to – the Passover.  And yet ... and yet, they were blind to who he truly was and what he came to do.

Jesus oriented his life by the same mythic story as the other pilgrims.  But as they sang “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.  What can human beings do to me? ... The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! ... This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter ... The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes ...” (Psalm 118:6, 16, 20, 22, 23) he alone took the words as speaking particularly of him, as he entered-into this particular Passover.

The same two myths still converge today.  In my culture, the myth of Empire tells us that we can all enjoy the peace, can all prosper.  Politicians of all parties hold out their alternative answers to the troublesome reality that there are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ – hold out their competing proposals for helping the ‘have-nots’ to have more.  But there is an underlying problem, that the myth of Empire will never address: that the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is getting wider, and will never be bridged until the ‘haves’ are willing to have less.

In my culture, the myth of God’s deliverance [1] sees Jesus in the crowd, riding on a foal, and knows that he comes not to overthrow the Romans but to overthrow the powers and authorities behind all Empire.  And yet ... and yet I fear that we are as blind to who Jesus truly is and what he comes to do as we are to the governors who come promising peace.

That is why we need Palm Sunday.

[1] Some Christians are uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘myth’ because they understand it to be a denial of truth-claim.  But all myth is by definition a truth claim, in the deepest sense; whereas not all truth is myth.  If I tell you that I had a bowl of cereal for my breakfast today, I have told a certain kind of truth (historically-bound, empirically-measureable); but it does not transcend time or space as a story from which anyone will construct meaning by which to live.  The story recorded in the Old and New Testaments has primacy among the myths by which I understand the universe.  I find them to speak deep truth.  Nonetheless, my own telling of the myth can never fathom those depths, never contain them.  I must not mistake my telling of the myth of God for the myth itself.  God has revealed himself to us, but we do not yet fully know, or even – truth be told – penetrate much beneath the surface.