Thursday, June 23, 2022

All fall down

 

The Gospel set for Holy Communion today is Matthew 7:21-28, and includes this:

[Jesus said] ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house[-hold] on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house[-hold] on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

Matthew 7:24-27

In English, the force of the rain, floods, and wind appear identical. But in the Greek, they are contrasted: prospiptó and proskoptó.

The former is to fall prostrate before; the latter, to strike against.

There is no life that does not, from time to time, face the storm. But it is possible to order our lives, and the lives of our household, in such a way that the storms fall down before us in awe and reverence, acknowledging defeat; or to order our lives, and the lives of our household, in such a way that we are knocked down with such force that we don’t get up again.

The difference is whether we construct our lives implementing the words of Jesus, more than (not less than) teaching, words of life-giving hope.

Your physical house can be utterly destroyed, as the homes of so many who have fled Ukraine in recent months can testify. But to hold fast to Jesus is to overcome.

 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Taken up

 

The Gospel set for this Sunday is Luke 9:51-62

Why would anyone follow Jesus?

In this passage, Jesus is about to be taken up (we’ll return to what that means below) and set his face to go to Jerusalem. Aware of the witness of the Jewish scriptures concerning what happens to those who represent the covenant-making god Yahweh before the covenant-breaking people; aware that seemingly powerful men who consider Jesus a threat (and thus reveal that their power is precarious) are at work behind the scenes to kill him; aware of the flaws of his disciples: Jesus is confident that he will be betrayed by a close friend, deserted by the rest, and die a very public death, utterly alone. And yet he sets his face to go to Jerusalem. He is determined to go through with this.

Why? Because God desires to be in relationship with us, from before the creation of the world. And nothing will stop this. Not the fact that no world, let alone one with the necessary conditions for life to evolve, existed. Not the Ages required for human beings to evolve. Not death, neither our deaths nor our putting God-with-us to death. Like Paul after him, Jesus is convinced that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And he is about to be taken up into this, in his Passion and crucifixion, his resurrection and ascension. To be taken up, and to take us up with him. The promise of being one with God forever.

On his way up to Jerusalem, they pass through Samaria, and one village refuses to offer them a bed for the night. There is little live lost between the residents of Samaria and Judea. And James and John, the so-called Sons of Thunder, counsel calling fire down from heaven, a holocaust, to consume the villagers as an offering. But Jesus will have none of it. Which is just as well, for James and John, given that just days from now they, too, will fail to receive Jesus, will abandon him to his fate.

As they continue on their way, others approach, or are approached by Jesus, but he sets a high bar. To follow Jesus is to fully recognise all that would try to stop us—the hostility of the world, or non-existence or not-yet-existence of an unfolding world in which we might be found; the unavoidable reality of death; the bounds of time and space, with its seasons and places and relationships—and, trusting, follow anyway. Trusting that all these things will also be taken up, with Jesus, and in the end redeemed, beyond all we could hope for or imagine. Even if, for now, they look anything but promising. Even if we are sorely tempted to settle for less.

So, why would anyone follow Jesus?

Perhaps because they have known the hard realities, and know that they will face more to come, and yet, in Jesus, see a great hope, the promise that nothing can separate us from the supreme Being who has gone to unimaginable lengths for us to share in a perfect love in time and for eternity.

And that might be crazy talk. But then, when you think of it, so are the alternatives.

 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Corpus Christi

 

Today is Corpus Christi, the Thanksgiving for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. There are two Sacraments of the Gospels: baptism, and communion. There are further Sacraments of the Church, including marriage, and the anointing of the sick.

Sacraments take something of the world (water, bread, wine, metal, oil) and recognise it as a place of encounter with Jesus Christ (the one who is both fully human and fully God, in whom heaven and earth are united) and so as a point at which earth and heaven come together.

Sacraments take something temporal (bread corrupts quickly, but even a platinum ring does not last forever) and see in it all eternity.

Sacraments combine something given by God to creation; and by the wider creation to humans; taken up and transformed by human activity (the work of farmer, miller, and baker to make bread; the work of vintner, of jeweller, of herbalist; even water comes to us via aqueducts: What did the Romans ever do for us?) and offered once more; taken up  by God—Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all—transformed once more and given yet again. A circle of grace upon grace, of life-enhancing gift upon gift, begun, continued, and brought to completion in God. The perfection of diversity in harmony.

In the Old Testament reading set for today, Abram (later, Abraham) returns from victory in battle, having taken back his nephew who had been carried off in defeat, and is met by Melchizedek, king of Salem (later, Jerusalem).

‘And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,

‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’

‘And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.’

Genesis 14:18-20

Melchizedek sets before Abram bread and wine, and in this sacrament, Abram experiences strength renewing his weariness and healing for his wounds. Some would say that in his host, Abraham encounters the second person of the Trinity, that Melchizedek is the outward and visible sign of God with Abraham.

Melchizedek pronounces a blessing over Abram: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth…’ and the blessing is deliberately expansive. The word here translated ‘maker’ can also be rendered ‘possessor’ and encompasses both God as possessor of heaven and earth by virtue of being its creator, redeemer and sustainer ‘[Blessed be Abram by] God Most High, maker of heaven and earth…’ and Abram as the one who possesses heaven and earth by virtue of being in covenant relationship with God Most High ‘Blessed be Abram [by God Most High], possessor of heaven and earth…’].

Jesus said, ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ (John 10:10) Jesus came that we might know love, joy, peace, comfort in our sorrows; but these gifts of heaven, these spiritual graces, can be stolen from us in the outward and visible dimension of life, such that we grow weary of life itself. In the sacrament of Holy Communion, Jesus, our High Priest in the Order of Melchizedek, sets bread and wine before us, the outward sign of his body and blood, and as we eat, our souls and bodies are nourished.

So come, those who are weary. Gaze upon Mystery! Eat, and drink. Be made whole.

 



Images: detail of a pelican feeding her chicks with her own blood, a Medieval symbol of Christ nourishing the Church with his body and blood, embroidered on the chasuble I wore at Holy Communion today.

 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

demons

 

The Gospel reading set for this coming Sunday is Luke 8:26-39, in which we meet a man possessed by a legion of demons.

I note the ubiquity of alien life-forms, of gods and monsters, benevolent or malevolent, of the supernatural and paranormal, in the stories that capture our imaginations on screen and page. They can be projections of our inner selves, the battle between serving others for the common good or selfishly seeking to control others. Or ciphers of the clash of nations, cultures, proxy wars in which we find ourselves caught up. The strength of will to survive, in the face of challenges, perceived or real. And the recognition that these things, even as they are within us, are simultaneously out-with us, bigger than any individual, a shared experience. Awareness of demons might indicate that our mental health is out-of-kilter, or that our mental health is robust, in a world that is out-of-kilter. I note these things, and I take it as read that this man is possessed by demons; that we know perfectly well that demons are real; and that we know that demons must be wrestled with and overcome.

The man is weighed down by layers of stories, from which some part or other, or himself, erupt, from time to time. He lives in, or rather on the edge of, an Hellenistic city-state enjoying an autonomy guaranteed by Roman protection in the context of a surrounding Jewish culture. The Greeks, settling in the wake of Alexander the Great, brought their stories of Zeus of Olympus, and, seeing parallel universes, named local gods as multi-Zeus’s. Later, the Romans brought their own pantheon of gods in parallel with those of Greece, and with them the imperial cult, the emperor as the son of a god. The independence of the city-states of the Decapolis from Rome was protected by Rome, raising further cognitive dissonance. Caught in this is a man whose identity is shattered into countless, swirling parts, in search of resolution, wholeness, a singular story.

One might suggest that the way to be set free would be to throw off the shackles of every layer of story. And yet there is ample evidence to suggest that there is no such story-naked stance, only the search for a story to live by.

Into the story steps Jesus, the one who is possessed by love, which by its nature does not grasp but sets free. The one who desires neither to control, nor extract, but to make possible restored relationships.

And the people of the city-state are terrified. But the man who knew terror from the inside out was in his right mind.

Jesus sent him to tell his household—having been restored—what God had done for him. The man, recognising that what God had done for him was done in and through Jesus being with him, went and proclaimed through the entire city population what Jesus had done for him. It is one and the same, and the ripples spread from the one man to his family to his neighbours, from the domestic to the civic.

Such stories retain their cultural currency today, and those who have a story to tell of what God has done for them should tell them, humbly, but with confidence.

 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

suffering, endurance, character, hope

 

The New Testament reading set for today is Romans 5:1-5.

‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to his grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

Around half of our congregation at Sunderland Minster is made up of asylum seekers and refugees; men, women and children who have endured suffering, but who can also testify to possessing peace with God through Jesus. They come from several nations, and do not necessarily receive a warm welcome in the UK.

I am quite aware that trauma can rob us of peace, can cause deep wounds that need patient healing. That not all suffering produces godly character. But the heart of the word to suffer relates to having things done to us—for good or ill—in contrast to those things we can do for ourselves. So, in older English translations of the Bible, Jesus says, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and do not stop them.’ That is, carry them, for they are too young to walk.

When we do to, or act towards, others as we would wish them to do towards us—and more, when we do to others as God has done towards us—then we see God’s glory. Not the tawdry glory humans so often seek, but the divine glory that is revealed in a person who has come through suffering—being done to for their vilification by other people, and done to for their vindication by God—to the place where their character can be entrusted with hope, and hope’s realisation.

Again and again, we have seen people come to us in great need, and, as they find a home here, rooted in the peace Jesus gives, they have given of their gifts and skills, their unique abilities and creativity, their willingness to serve and desire to bless.

I am so thankful for these sisters and brothers, whom God has sent here to us, for a season.

 

Thursday, June 09, 2022

hard to swallow

 

Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of rushing rain.” And in so doing, Elijah holds our grace to his enemy, inviting him to know the gift that is from God.

But in the preceding verse, Elijah has single-handedly killed four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, holders of public office, who had eaten and drank at the table of queen Jezebel. That is hard to swallow.

It is understandable. These were a lobby group who had campaigned, successfully, for the systemic hunting down and wiping out of any prophets of Yahweh. Obadiah, the official in charge of the palace, had risked his own life by defying the king and queen, hiding one hundred prophets of Yahweh, fifty to a cave, and providing them with food and water, in the middle of an extended drought. The prophets of Baal had taken the people of Israel down a disastrous path. Elijah’s actions are understandable, and there are those who would advocate for such action today. But it is hard to swallow.

Sometimes the fare served up for us in the Bible, as nourishment, is alien and unpalatable. Like fugu, certain parts can be deadly if served up without training. Bloodshed begets bloodshed.

Psalm 23 proclaims, ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley [or, the valley of the shadow of death], I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.’ (Psalm 23:4, 5). Every time we sit at table, eating and drinking, with friend and foe alike, our actions point to a greater table, beyond the scar of death—the bloodshed of this world—where the most vehement of enemies might be reconciled.

 

eat and drink

 

The Old Testament reading set for Holy Communion today is 1 Kings 18:41-46. I am struck by these words: ‘Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for here is a sound of rushing rain.”’

The context is this. After decades of turmoil, and four regicidal dynasties, Ahab comes to the throne of Israel, and makes a marriage alliance with Sidon to the north. His queen, Jezebel, presides over a great revival of worship of the rain- and crop-fertility god Baal. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah appears from nowhere to stand before Ahab and declare that there would no longer be rain, or even dew, in the land, except by his word. A mere mortal, usurping a god in his realm, his sphere of influence and command. Elijah then disappears, as abruptly as he had appeared; and Yahweh, the god who had made a covenant with Abraham and liberated his descendants from slavery in Egypt, establishing them in this long-promised land if they would stand before him as Abraham had done, sends this Elijah to the Wadi Cherith. There, he will have water to drink, and Yahweh would send ravens to supply him with (carrion) meat.

Eventually, the seasonal brook runs dry. Yahweh sends Elijah to Zarephath, to a widow whom he has appointed to provide for him. Finding her, he asks her for water, and for bread. She tells him that she has no bread, only a handful of flour and the last of her oil: indeed, she is gathering sticks to make a fire to make scones for herself and her son, a last meal after which they will wait to die. Elijah tells her not to fear: if she first makes a scone for him, she will find that the flour and oil will not run out, but, on Yahweh’s reputation, would be renewed from now until the rains returned.

After three years of drought, Yahweh sends Elijah back to Ahab, to challenge the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of his mother Asherah, who ate at the queen’s table, to a contest: which god will answer? The outcome is decisive: the prophets of Baal first shed their own blood in petition to an unmoved god before their blood flows at Elijah’s hand. When news reaches Jezebel (1 Kings 19), she vows that Elijah’s blood will be shed in vengeance. Elijah runs for his life, wanting only to die of thirst before he is tortured and murdered. But an angel comes to him, with a jar of water and a cake of freshly baked bread. 1 Kings 17 & 19 frame 1 Kings 18 with Yahweh’s provision of food and drink.

In the latter part of Solomon’s reign, before the kingdom was torn in two, the king over Israel in Jerusalem had proclaimed, “I know that there is nothing better for [his successors, and their subjects] than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13). This forms the backdrop to Ahab’s accusation to Elijah, and Elijah’s retort, that each is ‘the troubler of Israel’ (1 Kings 18:17, 18). But it also forms the backdrop to Elijah, having been vindicated by Yahweh’s defeat of Baal, telling his enemy, Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for here is a sound of rushing rain.”

It is a stunning statement, to desire that your enemy enters the best thing that can be experienced, the gift of God, even when they have been dead set against receiving that gift or letting anyone else receive it either. To eat and drink. We don’t know when we may be cut short, but for now we can respond.

This is why Jesus charges his followers to remember him by eating and drinking together.

This is why we share bread and wine—and why it is so egregious an error to withhold Communion from anyone who wishes to receive this gift of God. And why we eat together in other settings: with the homeless, with the isolated elderly, with children, with asylum seekers, and with political leaders—with anyone who is willing to sit and eat with us.

In our own context, facing food shortage crises, where increasing numbers of our neighbours struggle to feed themselves and their families as a result of grievous government policies at home and abroad, Elijah holds out to us a key organising and tangible ethic. Justice and mercy, in our eating and drinking.

 

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Generous, subverted, difference

 

At Pentecost, the Spirit of God is poured out on all flesh—the baptising of every human culture—revealing God’s desire to be with all humanity, through and with Jesus. Arguably the biggest challenge the first generation of Jesus’ followers faced concerned the outworking of that expansion of God’s desire—or at least, their understanding of it—to include Gentiles as well as God’s ancient covenant people, the Jews. The most significant presenting issue was Peter going to the home of a Roman officer and eating with his household. Though it is likely that a Jewish-god-fearing Gentile, and man of means, would do everything he could to present Peter with food that would be acceptable to him, this time together, which proved so utterly transformative for both parties, must have raised the anxiety of host and guest alike. It was also deeply controversial, within the established Church, a community that was still essentially Jewish by heritage. After open and honest conversation, James proposed that the Gentile believers be asked to adapt to two elements regarding food: that it should be kosher in preparation, and not offered to idols. After all, god-fearing Gentiles would have been familiar with Jewish customs, indeed attracted to them, and likely already attempting to live in ways shaped by them to a greater or lesser extent. Tensions remained, however, and as the gospel to the Gentiles spreads through Paul and his companions—increasingly moving beyond the god-fearing fringes of the synagogue—Paul is hounded everywhere he goes by Christians who insist that new Gentile believers in Jesus must become culturally Jewish. Three times, Paul asks the Lord to remove this ‘thorn from his flesh,’ a reference to tribes who resist the settlement of the Land by the descendants of Abraham whom God had brought out of Egypt. On the other side of the argument, some Gentile Christians insisted that idols were emptied signifiers, and so the prohibition against eating food offered to idols—essentially, anything offered them at the table of their fellow citizens—was not fit for purpose. Paul agrees, in principle, but also asks them to take on a greater principle: that they did not allow the actions they took with a robust ethic to damage the conscience of their sisters and brothers in faith who took a different—what we might call a traditional—view on the matter (Romans 14, 15). At some later point, James’ half-way-house is abandoned.

Tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians were as much an issue in Rome as anywhere. Though Paul had not planted this church, he intended to visit them, and wrote to them, addressing this vexing issue up front. In a breathtakingly bold move, Paul goes to what had become a litmus-test (arguably, the litmus-test) of the Jewish diaspora, the distinction by which they lived among Gentile neighbours while retaining their own identity: that the sexual proclivities of the Romans were not only circumscribed by the Law but also unnatural, or, contrary to nature—contrary to that which is deemed self-evident.

First, Paul deals with the Law, and its relationship to the flesh (our different heritages), taking considerable time and various arguments to demonstrate that in the coming of Jesus to be with us, the written Law has fulfilled its duty and been discharged (and, likewise, natural law). This is the recurring disagreement Paul finds himself having to address in city after city, church after church. Then, and only then, does Paul take up the image of what is contrary to nature (Romans 11, after nine chapters devoted to discussing the Law; though even in chapter 1, Paul has noted the tendency, as prevalent among Jews as Gentiles, to turn what is natural into an idol). Using the imagery of the vine, a symbol of God’s people, he speaks of God breaking off natural (Jewish) branches, grafting in (Gentile) branches contrary to nature, and then re-grafting in original (Jewish) branches, again contrary to nature. The technical term ‘contrary to nature,’ used to demarcate the difference between Jewish diaspora and Gentile neighbours, is explicitly taken by Paul and subverted to become the very thing that, in God’s wisdom and grace, unites the two.

If Paul is brave enough to employ self-gratifying, loveless, same-sex brief encounters (which he does not condone, and which—as power injustices—the New Testament consistently censures) as an incomplete image for God’s desire and action to be with all humanity, surely selfless, loving, intentionally lifelong same-sex relationships are a more complete (inevitably still imperfect) image of this incredible gospel? As we see heterosexual marriage as a sacrament that participates in and points to the relationship between Christ and the Church, so we might see same-sex marriage as a sacrament that participates in and points to the union of Jew and Gentile within the Church (personally, I do not see these two things as interchangeable, and so, if we are to authorise liturgy for same-sex marriage, would want to see more than flexible pronouns) or even to the communion of the Jewish and Christian faiths within the greater totality of the people(s) of God. The litmus-test of ‘orthodox’ (though, in truth, this has nothing to do with the Creeds) Christianity, for a Church living in exile or diaspora among a post-Christendom society, becomes the very thing that unites not only Straight and Gay, (post-)liberal and (post-)evangelical, but—perhaps most significant of all—older, aging Christians with Millennials, Gen Z and Generation Alpha.

As someone who seeks to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God, with Jesus, shaped by the authoritative witness of the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit breathes life into them, in the company of Paul, Peter, James (and countless others, including many women) and within the heritage of the Church of England, it seems right to me that we should be able to affirm and offer same-sex marriages as we do traditional marriage. And that this be a matter of conscience, and local discernment. To do so is to stand within (or, be grounded in) biblical narrative, with Paul, and to point to something far bigger than any gay wedding.

It seems to me that those who discern, together, that within their own local community—a community people are free to join or to leave—they will ask LGBTQIA+ people to embrace either traditional marriage or celibacy, also stand within biblical narrative, with James. To do so is not inherently homophobic; and such communities, being open and un-defensive, will help save LGBTQIA+ people, enjoying the rising tide of history right now, from hubris. On the other hand, to insist that such a position is the only acceptable Christian view—or even the only acceptable Evangelical view—is to be what Paul describes as a ‘mutilator of the flesh,’ inflicting harm on LGBTQIA+ Christians and seekers, and cutting off heterosexual Christians from their sisters and brothers in Christ.

It seems to me also that those who discern a freedom to affirm and embrace same-sex relationships as fully as possible need to attend to Paul’s call not to despise or cause harm to the weaker brother or sister, whose conscience before God does not permit them to share the same conviction. This, too, is to stand within biblical narrative, with Paul and the house churches in Rome, whose correspondence is so pertinent to the matters the Church must engage with today. Which does not make it easy but is part of the ongoing and essential tension of working out how we live together, in as much as we are able, as we live into the unfolding gospel of Jesus drawing all things to be one in heart and mind, and one with God.

There is no settled position on these things because the gospel continues to speak to every generation afresh, and every culture, from within and at times from without the Church. There is only a willingness to take seriously the big questions, the reality of people’s lives and the depth of the (mutual) desire to be with Jesus, trusting that, if we are wrong—as we may be—God is still committed to being with us; or a falling away into fear that we, or some other, fall from those pierced hands—and so to see, in the invitation to meaningful encounter, only threat. With Paul, I choose to proclaim that ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39).

All of which brings us back to Pentecost, and the (messy, disruptive) promise for all, whether near or from far away, whom the Lord our God calls to him.