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Friday, 16 December 2011

Mary: Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink


Readings:        2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
                        Psalm 89.1-4, 19-27
                        Romans 16.25-27
                        Luke 1.26-38

There is in some circles of Christianity a type of nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach to key moments and passages in the story of the people of God. More perhaps than any other this applies to the stories of the conception and the resurrection of Jesus. It is as if there is in some circles a psychological need to distance interpretation from the naïve openness, the innocent readiness to believe, that we perhaps all exhibited as children, but are embarrassed about as adults.

This is no new thing, reaching back to the post-enlightment period of the nineteenth century, as scientific method was applied to the doctrines and texts of faith. Sometimes the methodology was applied well, breaking down the elitist self-interest of some clergy who wielded biblical and doctrinal knowledge as an iron rod, keeping hoi polloi firmly in their place. Sometimes though it was applied inappropriately – a little like the famous passage that reduces the act of osculation – kissing – to a biological description of the muscular contortions and fluid exchanges involved. The love story that scripture should be was reduced to a mechanic’s handbook – which it was never intended to be – and then sneeringly dismissed as errant nonsense.

Ironically the same era gave birth to what we call fundamentalism, the literal or perhaps literalistic interpretation of the text. This too, like a doctor reading Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’ in order to make a diagnosis of her condition, is a misreading of the ancients’ texts. And while it can sound as if I’m bleating on behalf of the only person in step, it is imperative that we find approaches to scripture that avoid these two misguided extremes. The Spirit is too energized to limit us to any one interpretation, particularly of so vast as text as the conception and resurrection stories, but there are boundaries of common sense, and too much Christian wordage passes beyond them.

The shock horror school of interpretation of the birth narratives bases its approach largely on two recognitions: in the first place that Mark, the earliest gospel account to be written, did not incorporate a birth story, and in the second that stories of virgin birth of extraordinary people were a kind of point of religious pride around the known world of Luke and Matthew’s time. With that two-pronged informational overload they surmise that they have heralded the death-knell of simple Christian interpretation – often trumpeting their superior knowledge with more glee than the late Christopher Hitchens. Unfortunately they forget that first century Christians were not all dimwits: the issues surrounding Luke and Matthew’s tellings were as complex to first century believers as they are to twenty-first century believers.

First century believers, however, did not expect Luke or Matthew to be providing a blow by blow narrative of the DNA transmission of Jesus of Nazareth. They knew that they were being told a simple truth: that in the hands of the God who flung stars across the heavens the conception of a child within the womb of an obedient servant is not arduous. The subsequent complexities of divine and human nature, and of the presence of timelessness and time in the DNA of that child, these were more complex. But these were issues to ponder over for subsequent millennia: for now it was enough to remind the communities of belief and non-belief that the Creator of the spheres is pretty much a can-do sort of God.

Luke’s and Matthew’s audiences knew, too that they were being referred back to other stories and moments in faith-history, particularly the Book of Judges. They knew that they were being told a story of God’s ability and readiness to work miracles in the lives of those who open themselves up to divine possibility. They knew they were being told a story of God’s preference for the uncluttered and unpretentious. They could even see in the subtle contrasts between Elizabeth’s and Mary’s encounter with the will of God that the latter showed an even greater ability to be a channel of the purposes of God.

A channel of the purposes of God but, despite the misapplication by history of some of the language of this and other scriptures, Mary is no meek-and-mild pushover. The language of a woman ‘overshadowed by the power of the almighty’ can be disturbing when read through the filters of modern awareness of the abuse of women in homes and churches throughout history – and it is right to pose those questions. But like questions of the DNA of Jesus, they are not questions that the text is setting out to address – in any case a glance at the feisty Magnificat of Mary that we read last week should make it fairly clear that God has not chosen a wallflower to be the home of the Incarnation.

These are stories about the ability and possibility of God. But they are stories, too, about the ability and possibility of those who open themselves up to the challenges of God – ironically Mark poses similar questions right at the original ending of his gospel-telling, as frightened women become the source of all resurrection knowledge, but we can explore that moment at another time.

Luke, though, wants us to know that Mary, mother of Jesus (mother of God as she is rightly known in the patristic traditions, for Jesus is nothing if not God), is the example par excellence of risk-taking in the service of the gospel. By seizing a unique moment in history this vulnerable, soon to be outcast, soon to be refugee woman becomes the home of God and the incubator, as it were, of salvation. A woman known personally to the earliest tellers of the gospel-story becomes a paradigm of our own responsibilities to serve God. Her experience of course is unique, but we all have within us the opportunities to seize the day of God’s call to proclaim hope and justice and compassionate love, we all have within us the opportunity to serve or thwart the gospel.


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Second Coming? Yeah Right!



Isaiah 64.1-9 
Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1.1-9
Mark 13.24-37  

There are times in the journey of scriptural interpretation when we have to set aside the rational, logical brain – to the extent that we have one! – and allow ourselves to be, as two Isaiahs and a Jeremiah saw so clearly, clay in the hands of the potter. It isn’t altogether easy, though as I have often said in previous faith communities, it is easier for someone like myself, who had apparently slipped away to the toilet when scientific brains were handed out, than it is for those who have a scientific mind. Nevertheless, there are respected and highly intelligent scientists and philosophers who are able to ensure that they know the limitations of human enquiry, know that there is a moment in which we can surrender to the ‘too big’ and ‘beyond our ken’ vastness of God and acknowledge that ‘that than which no greater can be conceived’ (to borrow Anselm’s phrase) is greater than the human mind. This, incidentally, is not to lapse into fundamentalism, a surprisingly modern, more or less late nineteenth century form of biblical interpretation that imposes a literalist interpretation on the text – the Hebrew and early Christian minds were always far larger than that.

Nevertheless, in the 21st century it is hard not to be slightly swayed by the reasonable scientific suggestion that, given the current evidence, the Christian doctrine of a second coming of Christ is somewhat spurious. Some scholars argue that even as early as the time in which Paul writing his letters, the decade from the late 50s to early 60s of the first century, the Christian community was altering its expectation of the imminent return of the Messiah. Certainly in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians all systems appear to be go: describing the role of the faith community Paul reminds them ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1. 9b-10a), and when Paul prays for his Thessalonian audience, ‘may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’ (1 Thess. 3.13), he does so believing that this coming is imminent: ‘the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever’(1 Thess. 4.16b-17). Do we have to say of Paul that he would have received a nasty shock some years later when he was executed by the Romans, his Lord still seemingly absent, in visual terms?

Perhaps, but I am not convinced. The Book of Revelation, a little later than Paul, hangs tenaciously to the expectation of the Second Coming or Parousia. The gospel records and Acts do likewise. Like many doctrines of New Testament theology it would have been far easier to jettison this belief in order to sidestep the mocking antagonism of the critics and enemies of Christianity. Yet those early Christians were prepared to hold to it, even as, one by one, the eye witnesses of Jesus died out, and the first generations of Christians followed them. Certainly, later, as Christianity became a significant and later still the dominant paradigm in society, interest in the Second Coming dwindled. But, from time to time, as Christianity stagnated, the expectation was reawakened (not always to the good!), and, in each era, it has been as hard to believe and as risible as it is in our own. Do we dare to jettison this belief in our century?

In geological terms we know now we live on an ancient planet, circling a sun that will one day grow old and die. It may be that this is all that is meant when we speak of the second coming – that, long after our species has surrendered to its own exploitation of the planet, and long after new cycles of warming and cooling have restructured this blue globe, after new tectonic shifts have rearranged our continents far beyond our present imaginings, then life will simply peter away, and the final surviving species will dissipate into nothingness.

Maybe – and the doctrine of the Second Coming says that is okay too. For it says, primarily (as we remember in the rites of Easter), that the Alpha is the Omega: that the author of creation’s beginning will be the author of its endings. But the Doctrine of the Second Coming says more than merely that, for it says that not only the life of the universe, cosmological history, but the life of the sparrow and the life of you and the life of me is held in the tender, redeeming, hope-bringing hands of God. It is for that reason that Paul could write so confidently ‘may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’. The details of what John of the Apocalypse calls ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ are in the hands of God – but that is the point: they are in the hands of God. They are in the hands of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. And in the hands of God: judge.

Much contemporary theology – and even more contemporary a-theology – is keen to do away with the doctrine of judgement. We do so at great peril. Not that I want people to listen to hell fire and damnation sermons or want to attempt to frighten people into the clutches of faith. Apart from anything else, it is clear that those so-called evangelistic techniques are counter-productive in our current, nonchalant world. Judgement? Who cares?

For us the answer must be:‘we do’. There is an onus on us to live as a people under judgement. The tragic trail of sexual abuse in the church – though no worse than in some other institutions – is a sign of amnesia in some individuals as they forgot the doctrine of judgement, and predatory and exploitative sexual gratification became a greater creed. I suspect a Jesus saying about millstones, necks and oceans has much to say about the perpetrators of such evil. But for those of us who are not perpetrating such evil there is still always the need for long, hard self-scrutiny. Advent – and later, Lent – provide opportunity for just that. I do not understand the mechanics of the end of time, nor the mechanics of the Second Coming. But I try to remind myself that I stand in the shadow of that event, and try with the help of God to live a life at the closure of which I may be gently led into the unfathomable mysteries of God’s for-ever.

For that reason, more than 25 centuries after he wrote the words, I can add my amen to Isaiah’s plaintive prayer:  

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider: we are all your people.  


Monday, 7 November 2011

God's Garden


Readings: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78.1-7
1 Thessalonians 4.9-18 
Matthew 25.1-13

By way of apology I should outline my caution towards so-called special Sundays. A little like the ‘Year Of’ pronouncements that emanate, I suspect, from a small office in the labyrinthine corridors of the United Nations – with its religious ‘Year Of’ counterpart in the smaller but equally labyrinthine corridors of the World Council of Churches – these declarations can become a hailstorm of cataclysmic proportions, spitting passionate and often worthy concerns at us faster than the speed of light and initiating 'awareness faitgue', let alone compassion fatigue . It seems to me on any one day we can, if not exhausted, find ourselves in the Decade of Evangelism, the Year of the Child, the Year of Being Nice to Endangered Species, the Year of Looking Out For Nasty Weeds, The Month of Being Kind to Grandmothers, The Month of Protecting Endangered Rock Oysters, the Day of Remembering Dolphins and the Day of Making Sure You Are Proud of Your Prayer Book, Hymn Book and Pew, all unawares. I’m a kind of Church Year and lectionary junky, not because I’m some sort of bombastic Anglo-Catholic (though I might be), but because I believe these are the best tools available to ensure that neither worship nor preaching becomes a cyclical focus on the Michael Godfrey personal obsession collection. By preaching and praying the liturgical calendar, imperfect though it may be, we are taken out of cosy comfort zones and forced to encounter the often discomforting regions of the scriptures of our faith. We are not forced into a form of dead mechanicalism, but we are steered away from smorgasbord faith, popular in some churches (evangelical and liberal alike), where we pick and choose the flavours that we like.

That whinge aside, however, I am on this occasion allowing a degree of special focus in our thoughts, for Care of and Hope for what I call ‘God’s Garden’, Creation, is a fundamental mission of the Christian Community. For many years now the Anglican Consultative Council has recognized and affirmed five marks of mission:

• to proclaim the Good News of the Reign of God
• to teach, baptize and nurture new believers,
• to respond to human need by loving service,
• to seek to transform unjust structures of society, and
• to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

The fifth – (which reads like a sentence put together by a working party!) – was a late addition to the first four, arriving on the scene in 1990. Nevertheless it is an important acknowledgement that Creation is an act of God’s sharing love, that the nurture of Creation is a commission given to humanity in the creation stories, and that the lives of many of our sisters and brothers in the human race lie perilously balanced as we often selfishly devour and destroy the resources of God’s earth.

There is then a sense that all our interpretation and application of scripture at all times must incorporate a degree of concern for the garden God has entrusted to us. It would be false to pretend it was overt all the time – as it would be false to pretend that every scripture selection commissions us to evangelize or to strive for justice – but it is there. And serendipitously, it is there by implication today, as our readings towards the close of the liturgical year begin to pick up the crescendo of apocalyptic expectation. It is even present in Paul’s impassioned and moving address to the Thessalonians, which, while hardly a Green Party Manifesto, commissions his audience to live their lives in such a way of love that they benefit and enhance the lives of those around them: ‘live quietly, … mind your own affairs, … work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one’. Paul was far from considering ecological issues, but if we are to read Paul in the 21st century we must ask whether our western lifestyles really demonstrate propriety towards others. Many analysts suggest that the fury that runs through the veins of El Qaida is nurtured at least in part by the bitter gaps in economic status between the West (or, as it is now inexplicably called, ‘the global north’) and the Muslim world, as we gobble up resources that could fuel and feed and clothe all seven billion in the world. It is simplistic, but it is a partial truth.

Sadly, as the Christian community read its apocalyptic texts, as I have mentioned now many times, it read them from a listening or reading site vastly different to that in which they were written. Those of us engaging in the Advent studies will be reminded of this yet again during December. Too often, though, Christians, especially those with an apocalyptic or millenarianist bent, have used expectation of a glorious Second Coming as an excuse to disregard or, more shamefully still, to hasten the desecration of the earth: an ecclesiatical 'bring it on' so that a selfish elect can skiddle to 'glory'. That parody of Christ-mission has understandably led socially compassionate Christianity-averse writers such as Seattle songwriter Charlie Murphy to remind us bitterly ‘the earth is a witch and we still burn her’.

To ignore our responsibility to nature is to drive a wedge between the miracle of our origins, in which God commands us to ‘husband’ creation, and the expectation of Christ’s return. To drive a wedge in such a way is blithely to forget the doctrine of judgement, and to forget those parables in which Jesus warns us that will be asked to account for the gifts we have had entrusted to us. It is to forget, too, that while we often emphasize the ‘friendship’ of Jesus, parables such as that of the ten maidens are texts that remind us of our obligation constantly to evaluate and re-evaluate our lives in the light of the glare of Christ: where were you when I was naked or hungry or thirsty in the global south or in the nations disappearing beneath rising sea-waters?

I do not believe we are called to follow any political party line in approach to these questions. I do believe, though, that we are called over and again to re-focus our lives to ensure that we nurture and care for the gifts that God has given us, and use them constantly in ways which glorify God. We are called to ensure that our lifestyles are not destroying God’s earth, and where they are, or where they are denying the livelihood and the very existence of our fellow humans and other species, to seek forgiveness, make alteration, and in that way ensure that our candles burn with eagerness as the bridegroom arrives.

May God help us so to do.


Thursday, 3 November 2011

Pie in the sky?


Readings: Deuteronomy 34.1-12
                 Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17
                 1 Thessalonians 2.1-13
                 Matthew 22.34-36

Paul’s remarkable letter-writing ministry began, as far as we know, when he wrote to the Thessalonians. As he moved around the Roman Empire, proclaiming the gospel that he fervently believed had been entrusted to him, to which he had been commissioned primarily by his encounter with the risen Lord, Paul left behind him faith communities that were forced to find their way on their own. He had no choice: it was his belief that he was called to move on and on – in the end he never reached his final destination, which was the area we now call Spain and Portugal – covering enormous distances and undertaking great risks to serve his Lord. The cost of his wandering, peripatetic ministry was that the communities he founded and nurtured in faith had to learn to fend for themselves. Like a parent, he had to set them free to fly solo.

Paul’s was a pastoral heart, and he never ceased to care for his people: as news reached him of trials that were being experienced by his beloved Thessalonians he turns to quill and papyrus to stand in as a substitute for his own comforting and encouraging presence. In an age of easy email it is hard for us to imagine the thrill his letters – at least those to Philippi and Thessalonica – would have brought to their recipients.

Thessalonica, though not one of the major cities of the Roman Empire, was no backwater, either. It was a city whose inhabitants were keen to stay onside with the leadership of the Roman Empire, and the presence of a new upstart religion in its midst was bound to be a course of concern to many in positions of power. Slowly the Christians found themselves first ostracized, alienated and shunned in the markets and other social circles, and then persecuted for their faith in Jesus. It was becoming increasingly difficult to remain optimistic, as many were barred from purchasing food in the local markets, and as normal community infrastructures were being denied them. Some Thessalonian Christians were dying – not necessarily as a direct result of the persecution, though that was no doubt a factor – and life was increasingly difficult.

This then is the dire context Paul addresses – with in part a heavy heart – as he writes to the Christians whose suffering is a direct result of his own ministry and evangelism. He seeks to encourage them by reminding them of the joy they experienced as he worked, preached and pastored amongst them, reminding them of the first flushes of divine energy they experienced as they surrendered their lives to the risen Lord.

Paul asks the Thessalonians to reconnect with their previous joy: when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word. But as he writes the Thessalonians he uses another technique, too, a kind of pre-membering, looking forward to the experience of the fullness of the Kingdom, the completion of God’s work in the realm that is yet to come. It is a primary technique of the style of thought that we call apocalyptic, a vision forward, cynically able to be dismissed as ‘pie in the sky’, yet in reality able to transform the hearts and minds of believers for more than two millennia. In particular we can recall the way in which hope of a better existence kept the Afro-American slave communities alive through decades of abuse and neglect.

The hope of heaven, as we might call it, is a powerful medicine, even if it can be criticised by some as keeping the downtrodden in their place. Paul makes clear though that he sought always to share not just words but his very life as a sign of the compassionate love of God: So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. It is perhaps because of the quality of Paul’s love that we still have and read his letters today. It is this kind of life-transforming quality of love that Jesus is referring to as he speaks of love of God and neighbour. But central to all he writes to the Thessalonians is a word of hope: God is in control. Martin Luther would one day capture Paul’s hope in his own remarkable and most famous words:

Despite all foes, the Word shall stand 
against all their endeavour; 
God’s gifts and Spirit, close at hand, 
shall be with us for ever.

What can it mean for us? Few of us have suffered or will suffer much for our faith, and pray God we won’t have to. Paul urged the Thessalonians and other Christian communities that they would not be tested beyond their ability to endure, but it is clear that some at Thessalonica had undergone considerable trial. Paul was pitting the claims of his God against the claims of Caesar, and there was always potential for that battle to end in tears. For us life is more simple. Nevertheless there are times we need to stand up for values that our wider society has forgotten. There’s a tacky-but-true bumper sticker that says ‘if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ There’s no doubt that for the Thessalonian Christians the answer was ‘yes’; the challenge you and I face is to ensure that this would be the case for us as well, as we strive on in our witness to the God who comes. This will involve proclamation of a word of hope – a dimension some theologies dismantle, as well as a word of compassionate love and justice. This is the commission we share.


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Render unto Caesar? Refugees and Sacred Cows.


Readings:   Exodus 33.12-23
                 Psalm 99
                 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
                 Matthew 22.15-33

To comprehend our communion with God we need to know the back-story, in Māori the whakapapa, of our faith. We are in the spiritual loins of our forebears as they are called into ‘peoplehood’ by a compassionate God. We are in the spiritual loins of our forebears as they are called to be God’s chosen people, led out of the sweat-yards of the Nile delta (where tragically our sisters and brothers in faith are once more in great danger: thank God for those of our Muslim cousins who have stood in solidarity with their suffering and vulnerable Christian neighbours). The people of Israel had previously been little more than a no-people, a rootless and wandering Middle Eastern tribe, descendants of patriarchs touched and blessed by God, but a people without direction. We are called by God never to forget that we, spiritually speaking, were once refugees: we were boat people even if our ocean was a desert. We were fleeing from oppression.

These are the people whose heart-cry God heard as they slaved for Pharaoh in Egypt. God heard them and had compassion not because they were a holy or nice or righteous people. God heard their heart-cries because they were a suffering people. The cries of suffering people have first-class access to the heart of the Creator. Our suffering, refugee ancestors were led by God from Egypt, perhaps in waves, or perhaps in one great and miraculous migration, escaping slavery, but soon turning on the hand that saved and fed them, soon whinging about the flavour of the manna. Rather than offering lives of thanksgiving to a saving God, they built a golden calf, generating an alternative deity: God, you may recall, was not amused. We must always recall the extent to which the story of the recalcitrant people of God has repeated itself – the degree to which for example the new people of God, the Christian community, soon forgot and still forgets its call to compassion and justice, and refuses to hear the voice of those who Frantz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’.

It is worth pausing to reflect on our own golden calves. As a new religion Christianity displayed at its best considerable integrity until the fourth century, establishing itself as a religion of conspicuous love and justice, bravery and compassion. Later we tended to forget our vocation to the way of the cross, and at our worst began to proclaim the way of the sword instead. At our worst we have done that ever since – or at least until recent decades when we lost, thank God, our institutionalised supremacy (outside the US Empire).

We were not, thank God,  always at our worst, despite our frequent mistakes, and more than all Muslims are terrorists – as the brave Muslim protectors are reminding us in Egypt. Few would forget, once they heard the story, the bravery of the Northern Territory, Arnhem Land missionaries who stood in the way of the guns of those European Australians who would shoot indigenous people as a form of entertainment. These missionaries were not operating out of a theology of the sword, but a theology of the cross. Still: Our Anglican denominations, perhaps even our own faith community, certainly ourselves as individuals, have had moments when we have allowed shibboleths to usurp the place of God in our priority. We have, like Moses’ recalcitrant people, come very close to becoming the no-people, the no-person we were in the loins of our ancestors.

God is a God of grace, and, although his rescued chosen people are soon a stiff-necked people, God does not reject them. Over and again that is the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story even of our Christian Testament, the story of our Christian history, and the story of our own lives. God maintains a presence with the people of God, tainted as our history may be; Moses continues to be God’s chosen instrument as the wayward people are led to their undeserved destiny.

When Matthew depicts the Pharisees’ approach to Jesus ‘to trap him’ he makes clear that they have lost all respect. We who are believers have the hindsight advantage of knowing the identity of Jesus as Lord (either in terms of the textual narrative, or in our own lives, or both). There is little doubt though that Matthew is depicting the Pharisees as a people who have lost respect for all that is wise and holy, not just Jesus. The come to trap Jesus, not to engage in conversation with him. They come armed with obsequious phrases. They come to sneer: it is not a good way to gain insight or wisdom (though we as Christ-bearers have often adopted a similar attitude when we have encountered ancient cultures previously unknown to us, and sneered at their presumed unsophistication).

Matthew’s Pharisees encounter something greater than they can comprehend. The God of Jesus Christ is not a player of games, and despite hundreds of years of misinterpretation – misinterpretation that was caused by Christian interpreters losing the perspective of the cross and interpreting from the perspective of the sword – Jesus does not here give the Emperor of Rome a ringing endorsement. The tone is far more one of ‘render as much as you like to Caesar, but God will always be God’. Wherever claims to divinity are made – whether in the form of a golden calf or the form of an emperor who proclaims himself divine – God’s voice of justice will eventually speak out, and false deities will crumble.

These days, as we of the community of Jesus are increasingly marginalized, the voice of God will be an ever more subtle revelation, an ever more counter-cultural revelation of divine will. Prime Ministers and Political parties may have their own golden calves, and little time for any consideration of matters of faith, justice, or God at all, yet even so sometimes God’s compassionate voice will speak. While it’s too early to crow, the events surrounding the rejection of off-shore bases for the so-called ‘processing’ of asylum seekers suggest that even in contemporary Australia in all its disinterest in Christianity the voice of the compassionate God can still be heard. This is so, it seems, despite valiant attempts by Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard to out-tough each other, to out-Hanson each other in the name of a Golden Calf named National Interest. Whatever the national interest – the head of Caesar, the sacred cow – might be, the interests of God are always love and compassionate justice. Refugees, like the Hebrews in Egypt, will find a home. The onus will be on us to be the face of Christ in the home they have found. In every possible way.


Friday, 7 October 2011

Inclusion or Disgrace?


Readings: Exodus 32.1-14
Ps 106.1-6, 20-24
Philippians 4.1-9
Matthew 22.1-14

If we were to take but one message away from the Year of Matthew, year after year, (or third year after third year!) it would be the need to recognize that the context in which a biblical text is written is always an inescapably powerful weight resting around the shoulders of the text and its interpreters. Approaches to the scriptures that see them as effectively dictated from on high may well provide a great sense of satisfaction to the reader, to any person in the in-crowd, but they will not proclaim the grace-filled, welcoming and embracing Reign of God, the central message that we are commissioned by Jesus to proclaim. An outstanding contemporary Serbo-Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, has written a book called Exclusion and Embrace, in which he argues that a church that does not embrace inclusion even at the cost of reconciliation with bitter enemies (he is, remember, a Balkan Christian who saw the brutality of Slobodan Milosevic and his allies) is failing to embrace the Great Commission of Jesus.

To be a church of welcome in our post-modern world is to be a church that listens to the ways our words may fall on the ears of those who are hurting most in our communities and societies. We may, thank God, no longer be the powerful player that we once were in the western world – governments fail to quake in their boots when an Anglican or other Christian leader makes a pronouncement these days – but we are nevertheless a people of privilege. We are the wealthy of God’s earth, and most of us live lives of considerable comfort. Matthew was writing the gospel for a community who were unsure whether they would see their next meal, let alone where it would come from. Matthew’s telling of the Jesus is a gospel of hope for a frightened people. We are generally not a frightened people – though moments of trial in our lives may frighten us, and can open our ears to hear as Matthew’s people once heard.

You may have seen the chilling and multi Academy Award winning 1997 Italian movie film Life is Beautiful , directed and starred in by Roberto Benigni. In it the lead character, played by Benigni, creates a narrative alternative to reality in a concentration camp in order to protect his pre-school son from the Nazis. It is a chilling film, one I hope never to see again, yet undoubtedly one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. The point here, though, is that Benigni’s character creates a narrative in which the four year old boy believes he is in a game in which the child who remains hidden the longest will win a German tank. By this Benigni’s character conceals the boy from the Nazis, and although his own life is taken in the closing moments of Nazi control of the camp, the boy’s life is saved.

While we rightly look on Hitler’s Third Reich as one of western history’s darkest hours, we need from time to time to recall that the earliest Christians underwent their periods of abject fear and persecution, and that the most exclusive of the Christian writings - not least the Book of Revelation that some of us will soon be studying together – were written in such a context. As with Benigni’s tale, Matthew tells the story of Jesus in such a way as to offer hope – the hope of redemption and of divine retribution – to Christ-followers living in fear for their lives.

We could of course use this analysis to dismiss the hope-filled writings of our scriptures as pie-in-the-sky. It needs to be said that these narratives would not have transformed frightened believers into willing witnesses and even martyrs were it not for their over-powering experience of the presence of the victorious risen Christ who came to them in worship, in scripture and in fellowship. I fear too many of our most liberal analysts of the scriptures forget this, turning resurrection stories into a motion passed by a committee of story-tellers. It was not so, but rather the life-transforming experience of those who first and subsequently encountered the risen Lord.

At the same time though we must remember that as they began to tell the Jesus story they began to be victimised. Again, as I’ve said a few times recently, we lost the impetus of the Jesus story when we became the dominant religious paradigm, and used the story to keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Eventually, tragically, in recent decades we have been exposed as having blundered into an arguably worse morass, enabling a church culture that allowed and then set about protecting perpetrators of gross betrayals of human decency, let alone of the gospel. In recent decades we have come once more to be a minority in society, to be back where some of the first Christians were – though perhaps not a persecuted minority like Matthew’s people. Nevertheless, as a marginalised and sometimes parodied people of Jesus we are cast back on the mettle of our own integrity, cast back for example to the place where Paul’s Philippians were (twenty years perhaps before Matthew) as they struggled to be Christ-bearers in a world that was largely scornful of their new religious movement.

Even there though, as Paul knew only too well from his struggles particularly with the Corinthian and to a lesser extent the Galatian people, there was room for destabilisation of the Jesus community. Philippians is, along with 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s most loving letter, but it is not without its cautions. Euodia and Syntyche, perhaps amongst the founding mothers of the Philippian Jesus community, are beginning to show signs of slipping into a power struggle, that most human yet most demonic of destructive force in church communities. Unlike the Galatians or the heinous Corinthians, the Philippians have not surrendered to the dark side, but the possibility is there, and Paul does all he can to nip it in the bud: I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche, to be of the same mind in the Lord. They have, Paul indicates, done much for the gospel, but this can be undone.

We need to know that too, for our world is in that respect unchanged from theirs: there can be no place for power struggles in the servant people of God. Paul – genuinely believing his own Galatian adage ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’, offers his own life as an example (few of us would be so brave!). Paul has just written I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death that somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead; now he adds whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things … it is these things that have been for years now the sole grace-filled focus of his life. That is our challenge too, as we seek to become a grace-filled, inclusive people of God, graced guests at the Feast of God, a people of inclusion and embrace.


Saturday, 24 September 2011

A Tale of Two Siblings


Readings:  Exodus 17.1-7
                 Ps 78.1-4, 11-16
                 Philippians 2.1-13
                 Matthew 21.23-32

The late Colin Slee, until his recent untimely death the Dean of Southwark Cathedral in London, was known for pushing a complacent Christian community outside the boundaries of its cosy-zones. One powerful example of this, with considerable relevance to a reading of today’s gospel passage, was when Slee pronounced that Christians – perhaps he said preaching Christians – need a licence to read the bible.

Such a claim of course sends evangelical and reformed Christians scurrying to their reliquaries to clutch relics of Martin Luther, but Slee has a powerful point. The bible – apart from being one of the most abused collections of writings in human history – is potentially as toxic a resource pool as any mining company’s arsenic wash-pools.

Perhaps the most potentially toxic of writings, with their other worldly worldview and disinterest in the fate of those beyond the chosen or redeemed, are the ‘apocalyptic writings’. Unfortunately, and we need to remember this every third year, Matthew is the most apocalyptic-influenced of the gospel-tellings, and, tucked away in our tiny sample of Matthew’s good news, is an example of a Jesus saying, retold by Matthew, which has had horrendously noxious implications for some of society’s victims ever since Matthew made its way to the front of the New Testament.

It got to that position because of the large degree to which Matthew told the Jesus story within the context of the story of the Old Testament people of God. That chain of events is a continuum: Matthew made such strong links with the Hebrew as he turned to the language of apocalyptic, that relatively late strand of Jewish thought that is so full of vision and codified reference to political leaders, military dictators and oppressors who had made hell of the lives of Jewish people. He did so because Matthew’s own faith community was similarly experiencing persecution and oppression. Ironically this is now coming in part at the hands of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, as the wedge between Christians and Jews became wider and wider, and as the Jewish leadership were keen to make clear top the Roman authorities that Christians, including Matthew’s largely Jewish Christians, were not Jews.

Why does this matter? It matters because, when Jesus told the story, and when Matthew recorded Jesus telling the story, of a first son who initially refuses and then accepts the mandate of the father, and of a second son who initially accepts and then neglects the mandate of the father, it was quickly applied to a Jewish community that once served God and Torah, but neglected Jesus (the second son), and a Gentile community that once neglected God and Torah, but in the person of ‘tax collectors and the prostitutes’ changed its mind and received the (law-observant) gospel-message. In our scene it is the Jewish religious leadership that are challenging Jesus, who are his co-conversationalists, and who stand condemned by the exchange. In the hands of the history of later Christian leadership, however, the passage became one of many in which the Jews were condemned as executors of Jesus. Such condemnation, culminating in the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich, but much foreshadowed in the anti-Semitism of all Europe in the pre-Hitler centuries, is a blood stain on the hands of the Christian community, and one for which we must always be humbled in our relationships with those of other faiths and none: we got this wrong.

Matthew, however, was telling this Jesus story in a different world. To his audience the saying of Jesus about two brothers was a reassurance that there was for them the assurance of grace, that God had received them, and that even though the power-players in the Jewish community were persecuting them, God was on the side of the persecuted, the new Jesus community. For us reading these Matthew stories interpretation is a delicate tight-rope walk. The simple message is timeless: that God does dwell with the people of God the Christ community, in those times of trial that we pray deliverance from in the great prayer of Jesus. At the same time we do need to remember and acknowledge that we live in a different world. In our history we have become the persecutors, the Jewish leaders trying to trap Jesus, rather than the broken and vulnerable, God-needing Jesus community, the son who gets it right. In our opening decades of the twenty-first century the pendulum is swinging again, and we are no longer a people of power – the interpretation of Matthew’s stories is in a sense far easier when we are a marginalised, if not yet victimised people of God.

We can be assured of the presence of God in our trials, though we might also always make sure that there are none who we victimize or oppress by our faith or even our lifestyles, seeking to set to right where we do wrong. Helpfully (and ironically, given, I suspect, the lack of love in Matthew’s mind for Paul and his law-free gospel), Paul’s great hymn of the self-emptying Christ may always serve as a litmus test of the appropriate nature, or otherwise, of our Christian living. Are we indeed emulating the Christ who, as Wesley put it after Paul, emptied himself of all but love, emptied himself particularly of power? Or are we like Christians of many centuries, wielding inappropriate power, oppressing others, and by that using the name of God in vain? For too long we oppressed in the name of Jesus, but in the 21st century we have new opportunity to be a servant community, rumouring resurrection by the quality of our lives, not the power of our society. We have opportunity at last to hear the words of Jesus spoken to a community whose sole weapon is that of Christ-pointing love. May God help us to be the son who gets it right!


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Inconvenient Grace


Readings: Exodus 16.2-15
Ps 105.1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1.21-30
Matthew 20.1-16

It often amuses me that we listen to a parable, a powerfully vivid word picture of the itinerant poet-preacher Jesus (who is of course so much more, but of that another time), agree that it is one of those Jesus-passages that are timeless and need little or no explanation to translate it into our own culture, and then spend some twenty minutes enlarging upon it, explicating it and perhaps even tragically diluting it for our own time and culture. There are of course one or two of the words pictures painted by Jesus that can benefit from a little bit of explanation to give them applicable meaning in our very different culture, but on the whole they are few and far between. Forget trades-union, but simply know that we are hearing a story about the right of God to do whatever God chooses, and that we are simply not in the driver’s seat of cosmic or salvation history. I suggest that, despite the track record of history, which has spent enormous amounts of ink and hot air telling God who should be a participant in the New Heavens and Earth of apocalyptic longing, the choice is probably God’s, and we – even the most proscriptive of us, may be in for a few surprises as we wake up in the celestial dormitory.

In fact I suspect we should spend a lot less time than Christians traditionally have in the border maintenance of deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. I have my own beliefs that there probably isn’t an in or an out, but I shall leave that particular heresy for another time and another place. We might however just note in passing that a parable about the kingdom of God that is all about the inclusion of newcomers and outsiders may have something very serious to say about how we as a Christ-community should responds to the plight of those feeing international atrocities and landing on our shores. Not, I might add, questions about ‘the national interest’ or even about ‘due process’, but about the values of a compassionate and welcoming Christ who touches and transforms the lives of those most on – or beyond – the margins of society. But the parables of Jesus are oten about grace and compassion, after all!

The great and passionate ambassador of Christ, Paul of Tarsus, is an entirely different kettle of something fishy. Too often we read the incomprehensible letters of Paul – and have done for two thousand years – improbably divorced from their context, intoning solemnly in some way or other that they are ‘the word of the Lord’, nod knowingly, perhaps extrapolating one or two displaced truths, and move on. In doing so we lose the topicality of Paul, and ironically in doing that we often lose all hope of applying to our own world the Spirit wisdom that informed him. Even so simple a phrase as ‘To me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ can be rattled off glibly, and we can nod sagely, but what was Paul on about?

In a sense the answer is simple. To one who absolutely believes, as he writes elsewhere, that it is no longer Paul who lives, who matters, but Christ who lives within him, it is simple: Christ, like a benevolent but nevertheless predatory wasp devours his caterpillar of a life, to become his everything. Paul’s practice of the presence of God-in-Christ is – he prays (I suspect) – so complete that death and life alike are inseparably caught up in Easter hope. In fact, as these are amongst the last words that Paul wrote, written at a time when it must have been growing increasingly apparent to him that his life was on tenterhooks and likely to turn to custard (if I may mix my metaphors!), these were brave words. To live or to die, either way, my life is so immersed in the Easter event that Christ’s resurrection DNA is already pulsing unstoppably in my veins. It is a hope that we can only pray that we can grow into – and often the answer to that prayer comes only, as it did for Paul, by considerably suffering and considerable discipline, self-discipline and what we might call divine disciplining, the vicissitudes of a God-given life.

I for one do not have a shadow form of Paul’s faith. Ask Anne and those closest to me – I whinge at the hint of social or physical or mental discomfort. But the life of Christ-immersion is not about arrival, paradoxically, but about being on the journey. The late-comers to the vineyard were considerably less practiced in the art of withstanding trials and tribulations than the morning-starters. Grace is a funny thing like that: we may grumble that some Jonny-come-lately is dwelling in the next bed in the celestial dormitory, someone we think is too gay or too Pentecostal or too Buddhist or too atheistic to be in our selection of ‘the saved’ but it simply isn’t up to us. What is up to us – and no one said it was easy, and I for one will fail minute by minute – is to see Christ and the wholeness of God’s love growing in the flesh and blood and life story of each person who I meet: that way we can by the grace of God become a people of grace.


Saturday, 10 September 2011

Whakapapa and the Magisterium


Readings: Exodus 14.19-31
Ps 114
Romans 14.1-14
Matthew 18.21-35

While there are schools of biblical interpretation that seem determined to demonstrate that almost all that we have that purports to be the sayings of Jesus are fabrications and creative imaginings of the post-Easter Christian community, I beg to differ. I am no scholar of oral tradition but I cannot be anything but aware of the remarkable ability of traditional and even to some extent modern rural communities to tell and retell stories in a form very close if not identical to the original. In our Territorian context where we can hardly but be aware of the power of dream-time legend we can, while acknowledging that it is likely that there have been some revisions and accruals over tens of thousands of years, nevertheless be fairly sure that the legends that are feeding indigenous communities today, legends that were all but lost in post-colonial myopia, are once more vehicles of ancient wisdoms about survival in and co-existence with this harsh red land on which we live. We might say the same of many ancient and indigenous mythologies, and as a Christian community we must never be afraid to listen and to learn from the ancients. We might learn, too, from the gracious spirit of forgiveness that many ancient peoples have exercised towards their colonisers: learn from but not exploit their forgiveness. We learn our lives from our stories, our narratives, whether they be stories of conquest or forgiveness. We practice what we narrate.

Jesus was a rural story-teller. At this point I do not want to engage in what else he was – the Son of God, the ‘revelation of the heart of God’ as I somewhat laboriously refer to him from time to time. He was those – and as such I want to set him apart from other great figures of wisdom like Confucius, Zoroaster, Plato – but just for a moment I want to acknowledge his ordinary yet extraordinary oratorical powers. As Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey spent a lifetime pointing out, this was a rural, itinerant speaker (I hate the word ‘preacher!) – who had an uncanny ability to pluck from around him simple and to his audience unambivalent imagery that would serve as a vehicle to convey the great message of the reign of God. By and large the sayings and images of Jesus need little enlargement, and interpretation of his tale of a forgiven and yet unforgiving servant is not restricted to rocket scientists or even biblical theologians: those who have known forgiveness better practice forgiveness, or it’ll bite them where it hurts.

Or something like that. We learn our lives from our stories.

I have mentioned in passing that biblical interpretation has often fallen into the hands of the institutionalised Church, the magisterium, and lost thereby its ability to pronounce compassion and justice to those most hungering for the transforming touch of God. In recent decades we have been pushed to the margins of society, and, while that hurts, it has done us no harm as we are forced once more to rely on the integrity of our message in order to be heard. Whether we have yet learned that lesson is another matter. Now though we must proclaim our message – our story – from a position of powerlessness. This surely is reminiscent of the powerlessness of the Crucified God, the Christ of the Cross who proclaims those ultimate words of forgiveness: ‘father, forgive them, for they know not …’. For as long as we were in the corridors of power we developed unhealthy amnesia, forgetting like a recalcitrant Narnia-child the power of divine love-touch. We heard stories of the overthrow of the Pharaoh, but heard them not from the naked powerlessness of the crucified Christ but from the shoes of authority, and we told anyone who would listen that they had to learn our ways (and adopt our amnesia), accepting all that we imposed on them. But the Spirit of God is bigger than the magisterium, the institutionalised church, and we are losing our social power so we can relearn God’s meek power.

When history is written by the victor it becomes a dangerous weapon, and we become trained in horrible response. Perspective is everything: we don’t need to be card-carrying supremacists to be deeply unsettled by the reminder that what we learned to call ‘settlement’ in this and other similar countries was soon to be known as ‘invasion’ by those who were there before us. We needed to hear that heart-cry if we were to discover again the Christ of the Cross and his gospel of forgiveness. We needed to hear again our need to be forgiven – to take our hands off the throat of the servant who were throttling for a few measly denarii. To say this, incidentally, is nothing to do with something called ‘political correctness’. I have no idea what political correctness is – it tends to be a pejorative term that we use to avoid compassion and justice to those in pain. I do know though that our scriptures show a bias to the poor, to the have-nots, and that the ‘haves’ face removal from their thrones.

But this can all be terribly big-stage, and few of us dwell on the big stage. Does it apply to our smaller stages, the stages of our small lives? Can we apply Jesus-compassion and cycle-breaking forgiveness within our smaller ambits – and does it matter? Forgiveness is one of our most unpopular doctrines, and rarest practices. We prefer tenacious anger – we only have to witness the lynch mobs that form when a paedophile is arrested – or even released from gaol – to know that long retention of memories is far preferred in society to forgiveness. This is not to suggest that we should smack heinous offenders over the wrist with a wet feather – the judge in Jesus story does not do that. It is to suggest, though, that it is harder to practice forgiveness than to practice the hate-breeding cycles of vengeance. We, as Christ-bearers, are challenged to practice forgiveness.

No one claims that is easy, whether the demand be in the context of personal or global atrocity. Ultimately every atrocity is personal, and the full weight even of a 9/11, or a Koota Beach is most meaningful when we encounter the personalised grief of the victims’ families. We might well ask the question though, ten years after 9/11: where is Christ in the events of this day ten years ago? Is he in the storm-trooping of Afghanistan or, worse, Iraq? Or is he there in the brave struggles of those who want Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville Pennsylvania to be shrines to forgiveness, to peace studies, and to reconciliation between Christians, Jews and Muslims (all of whom lost their lives that day). Do we effect reconciliation and hope with revenge, or, for example, in the brave attempt to feed and educate Muslim youth so that hatred of the west can be their creed no longer?

Forgiveness is possible. It is desperately necessary. We are challenged by the ancient prayer of Jesus – forgive us, as we forgive others. May we learn by the grace and with the help of God to grow into the second part of that petition: by the grace of God may we become a people who model grace and forgiveness in our own lives: seventy time seven is shorthand for infinity.


Friday, 2 September 2011

The Alfafa and the Blood


Readings: Exodus 12.1-14
Ps 149
Romans 13.1-10
Matthew 18.1-20

The Christian use of the word ‘blood’ must strike any who encounter it from outside the Christian culture as very strange. As we turn to the powerfully formative Exodus reading today, we find blood appearing as a central symbol. In the New Testament of Christian faith we find Jesus demanding that his followers devour his body and his blood – a statement that led early and subsequent critics of Christianity to accuse us of committing cannibalism in our secret rites. We readily – in some traditions more so than others – sing songs about our being ‘washed in the blood’, an image that would or should be enough to send our non and post-Christian neighbours reaching for a puke bucket. I will shortly invite you forward to eat the body and blood of Christ. They are images that should send shudders down our spine – I remember vividly an elderly lady to whom I used to take communion when I was a curate at Bentleigh, interrupting me during the traditional ‘prayer of humble access’. As we solemnly intoned the words ‘so to eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood …’, she remonstrated: 'they're not very nice words, are they?' They are chilling words, but what do they mean?

Paradoxically I have no intention of giving you in one sermon a direct answer. I hope over the weeks and months and years to come to drop hints of what it might mean to use the discomforting, unsettling language of our faith – language that we must never jettison. If nothing else we should simply notice that the formative events of our faith are often deeply disturbing – yet in these events of chilling human experience, God is particularly present. Whether, in the brutal language of the Exodus, God is present for the Egyptians is another matter – that too is one we will take months and years to unpack.

By and large, as liberation theology for all its faults nevertheless inescapably taught us, God is most present in the life-stories of the oppressed. The Exodus is not written from the perspective of the Pharaoh, or we would read a very different story. The New Testament story is not written from the perspective of powerful dominators of society, but from those shivering in the metaphorical catacombs of Christian fear. It is when we became the dominant paradigm of society, arguably from the fifth century onwards, that we began to unlearn the powerful subversive voices of the gospel, and hear instead voices that kept slaves in their chains, women and children in their hellholes of domestic abuse, and refugees dumped in processing centres, preferably far from sight. It was when we became the dominant force in society that we turned away from some of the powerfully subversive gospel messages about casting down the mighty from thrones, feeding the hungry, and empowering women and children; we clutched instead to out of context readings in which Paul appears to tell us at all times to submit to the authority of the land: whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Is such a saying binding for all time? As it happens Moses and Aaron didn’t think so, but perhaps we should leave them and their subversion of authority for another time. But does Paul mean that when we are confronted by a Gillard government touting a so-called ‘Malaysian Solution’, or a Howard government touting a so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ to the question of boat-people we should quietly acquiesce? Should we not instead begin to hear alarm bells ringing when we hear tell of human beings being ‘processed’, wherever that processing takes place, like the cattle whose processing was halted, however controversially, because of inappropriate procedures? And should we not hear alarm bells ringing still louder when either side of politics begins using the word ‘solution’, with all its chilling echoes of Hitler’s Germany and his Final Solution? And, for that matter, surely one of the great criticisms of most of the Christian communities in Hitler’s Germany was that, obedient to a misplaced Pauline passage, they closed their eyes as the brownshirts came in the night and took Jewish neighbours away?

The late but wonderful Dean of Southwark in London said controversially that we should have a licence to read the bible. While he was possibly setting the Reformation back 500 years, he had a point. Paul’s words, here and elsewhere, about submission to any form of authority do not apply when the authorities become wielders of demonic power. When Jews are trucked away in the night, or refugees processed off shore, or David Hicks and others are incarcerated in contexts where standard US and International laws do not apply – processed with the acquiescence of the coalition of the willing – then the bearers of Christ are not called to sit in meepy submission to authority. When women are being beaten or children exploited in hell holes of abuse, the bearers of Christ are not called to sit in meepy silence, citing Pauline passages about husbands’ and parents’ and teachers’ authority. Paul was writing, like the author of the Exodus narration, from a position of powerlessness. We are no longer – for now – in his shoes.

We are called to evangelise by being a counterculture of compassion, what Alan Walker called ‘a contrast society of Jesus’. This will mean that when we see our often Muslim cousins incarcerated behind razor wire we must speak to them and for them. We must speak not of queue-jumpers, the popular phrase used in the politics of hate, but of women, men and vulnerable children made in the image of God. ‘Love’, says Paul, ‘does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’. We know who Jesus would have said today was our neighbour. It is ironic that it is the Greens of politics, most of whom do not share our faith, who are constantly reminding us of the compassion of Jesus towards the outsider (though they, too, sometimes forget some of the other most vulnerable members of our society, as they turn collective backs on the fate of unborn children).

If there is perhaps a meaning of ‘blood’ that can connect with our world it may well be related to the ‘life-force’ beloved of crystal-hugging (alfalfa chompin’, muslin-wearing’...) new agers. From them too we might need to learn something. As we gather as a Christ community Sunday by Sunday – and hopefully at other times too – we are challenged by God’s traditions to be a people of conspicuous compassion and care, a life force mid-wifing God’s eternal reign of justice and compassion. So may God help us to be.


Friday, 26 August 2011

Knitting for the Fast God

SUNDAY, AUGUST 28th 2011

Readings: Exodus 3.1-15
Ps 105.1-6, 23-26
Romans 12.9-21
Matthew 16.21-28

The welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas speaks in his poetry of God as a ‘fast God’, always moving ahead of us and leaving warm footprints as we arrive. It is a powerful image of the God of Judaeo-Christian thought, the one on whose face we can never look and live, but of whom, in the understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, the servant Moses was once privileged to see, as it were, the back disappearing from sight. In Christian doctrine we have an alternative privilege, of course: we have the eye-witness reports of those who saw and dwelt with the face of Jesus, who they came to know as the ‘all that is needed to be known’ of God. But he, too, has passed beyond our sight, is just around the corner, leaving warm footprints as we arrive. For all who have lived in the two thousand years since the ascension there is just – just! – the experience of the presence of Christ made known to us by the Spirit, the unseen Christ who dwells in our midst in word, sacrament and the fellowship of Christian living.

There is much silliness spoken in the name of God. There is much carry-on that pertains to be God-sent but is in reality no more than collective euphoria – in itself not harmful, but certainly not the gospel of a suffering, justice-living Messiah. God, if I am going to be consistent with my own thoughts, is not limited to my small ideas of where a God should dwell, and may even turn up in the ecstatic experiences of Pentecostalism, but the litmus test of an experience and its godliness is the degree to which it points to the God whose disappearing face is revealed throughout the scriptures. I once inherited a group of well-meaning women who had been powerfully liberated by the experience of crawling around and barking, dog-like, for Jesus. While I’m sure the experience was one of bonding, and probably most memorable, I am even more sure that it had nothing to do with the God of the Cross.

Nevertheless, God turns up in unexpected places. Often for me that turning up is in nature, sometimes of course it is in Christian liturgy (I remember for example an experience of Taizé worship in Alice Springs, and the same again on Cottesloe beach at Perth), sometimes it is in gatherings of the religionless or of those of religions (not just denominations) that are not mine. I hosted on a few occasions in New Zealand non-religious (or not specifically religious) memorial services for those affected by HIV-AIDS, and could not but be aware of the presence of a compassionate, caring and justice seeking God as hurting and loving people gathered together in common purpose. The God of the burning bush will not be restricted, but will turn up wherever it seems meet to God so to do.

Having turned up in unexpected places, God will not readily be restricted. The process of ‘naming’ is one that imposes identity and control on the recipient of the name. God will not allow Moses the privilege of knowing or granting the divine name, not because God is a God who rejoices in some sort of occult mystery, but because God will not be limited by the myopia of human vision, will not dwell in human boxes. While Christianity may belong to God, God does not belong to Christianity: God will not be a part of charlatan religion, Christian or otherwise, and by the same token God will not be barred from the lives of those whose faith, of whatever flavour, is deeply immersed in justice, love and compassion, for these are the givings of God.

For us as a committed people of God, though, there is a responsibility to ‘remember’ God as we gather together in worship, focussed on God’s presence. We glibly use the word ‘remember’ in our liturgies, and it has been the cause of some bitter arguments between Christians, particularly in the context of the eucharistic liturgy – arguments in particular about the presence or absence of God in the elements of bread and wine. The arguments are specious, based on misconceptions and misunderstandings of the Hebraisms that informed the words of Jesus in the upper room. The celebration of a God whose acts and words are ‘membered together once more’, made present again in our sacred repetition of those acts, such celebration is a powerful force for transformative good in our collective and individual lives, a powerful tool by which our lives may be transformed into Christlikeness which is godliness. Lives transformed that way begin to rumour the hope of heaven, and that is our calling.

So we must find ways in which to rumour and even exemplify the just and compassionate heart of God. When our societies proclaim lust for exclusion and revenge – and we do – then we must above all proclaim a gospel of inclusion and cycle-breaking justice – both of which dwell at the heart of our radical but unpopular experience of grace. Peter looks for a Jesus who will dwell in the attractive and popular places, but Jesus calls him Satan, the opposer of God. On issues of environment, sexuality, medical and social ethics, economic justice, race relations – in all these melting pots of our involvement in the world we are challenged not to look for a place of comfort but a place that maximises our ability to proclaim a God for the hurting and the lonely and the unsure, a God who will sometimes emerge from unexpectedly burning bushes, a God who will unexpectedly welcome strangers that we would rather send away. Discerning God’s purpose in such a way, incidentally, will never follow party politics, though democracy and its parties have a place.

Six days after this encounter with Jesus Peter attempts to place Jesus in a cosy box on a mountaintop: God though will not rest comfortably in the cosiness of our expectations. Our yardsticks of Christ-bearing are not always unambivalent. Faced with a rapidly changing society we will often find it easier to hide than to face the ambiguities of God in a burning bush. We will often want to name God so we can keep him under our control, keep him neat and tidy and in the image that we have always found comforting, even keep him as a him. Sometimes though the fast God is far ahead of us, and as the Spirit moves ahead of us in society we can only play catch-up. Hard and ambivalent though it is, as the world struggles to give birth to its own future, we are called to find the compassionate and just action – to reach out and touch the broken and the spat upon that society relegates to its fringes. Who are they? That’s a question into which God leads us daily.


Saturday, 30 July 2011

On Being the Tenth Leper

SUNDAY, JULY 31st 2011

Readings: Genesis 32.22-31
Ps 17.1-7, 16
Romans 9.1-16
Matthew 14.13-21

I mentioned two weeks ago (and am not expecting you to remember!) that the word ‘calling’ in its theological and liturgical sense, in its preaching sense, is always a word laden with meaning. The same must now be said for its near-synonym, the theologically laden word ‘naming’. Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptural records the verb ‘to name’ and the process of naming is riddled with divine intention and divine meaning. This has never changed, as we name our children, and perhaps in other contexts too: our churches, our schools, our businesses, even to a lesser extent our pets – are given labels that are saturated with our hopes and expectations, as well as with our own story and life-map.

Even today, if we name our child ‘Jjjayck’, spelling it ‘with three Js and a Y (the Y is silent)’, we make a statement. We make a statement about our individuality, about the child’s individuality, or perhaps about our post-modern nonchalance towards rules and social norms of any form, including those of education and grammar. (I should add that I personally resent the rugby league player Micheal Luck, whose name is deliberately or accidentally but nevertheless legally spelt the way Michael should not be spelt!). Naming is an act of control, however vacuous, exercised over the lives of those subject to us; some children will later opt to change their names, in adulthood, an act of gentle rebellion against something in the dreams and expectations of their parents.

When the narrator of the story of Jacob’s wrestling match creates his tale he plays games with us, his audience. We unfortunately hear the story, most of us, with not only our own life-time or partial life-time of familiarity with the tale and its ending but with perhaps three thousand years of telling and re-telling. That is one of the reasons that there is so much room for creative negotiation with the text, finding the meaning and nuance between the words: in much Jewish reading of scripture the meaning is found not in the words but in the blank, interactive spaces between the words and letters, or even within the shapes of the words and letters. There are boundaries to interpretation, but they are fluid, allowing for change and growth in the Spirit of God. So we are not told that Jacob is wrestling with an angel, only that he is wrestling with a stranger (and every stranger might, after all, be an angel, as the author of Hebrews intriguingly reminds us [Heb. 13.2]). There comes a moment, though, when Jacob unwittingly oversteps his boundaries, inquiring of the stranger a name, an identity, and, in this context, a hard-won familiarity. God, as Moses discovered, does not give out the divine name, does not surrender identity to we who are ultimately mere created beings. We are not God’s boss, no matter how much some forms of Christianity or perhaps even pseudo-Christianity give the impression of turning God into a form of entertainment.

It is this tradition that informed the now less than popular theological insight of the theologian who most profoundly and I believe wisely informed the thought of the twentieth century. It was the timeless insight of Karl Barth that we are not ever in a position to question, much less control the thoughts of the Creator. We may have moments in which it appears to us that we wrestle with God, but on the whole we are not Jacob, and it is unlikely we will prevail. The passage in Jacob’s life in any case is a metaphor of his entire life to this point: Jacob the underhand, Jacob the deceitful, becomes in encounter with God Jacob the chosen bearer of God’s purposes and plans. He is re-named, ‘re-identitied’ accordingly (a name change that may have come as something of a surprise to his ‘two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children’!). Karl Barth’s reclaiming, in the twentieth century, of the absolute authority of God may not, in the twenty-first century, be popular, but it is a fundamentally biblical insight, and fundamental to the integrity of our faith: all things, we might echo Paul in saying, ‘depend not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy’.

If this is the case, are we left with nothing to say or believe when a self-righteous and deluded gunman takes bombs into the heart of his city to create a distraction, and then takes an arsenal of automatic weapons into the heart of a young people’s holiday camp? There is in fact very little anyone can say in the face of injustice and cruelty, whether of humans or of fate (and is there a difference)? When a tsunami shakes the life out of Japanese cities, or tectonic plates turn a New Zealand city into blancmange, or when a lonely gunman turns Port Arthur into a graveyard, then words are utterly inadequate. When aboriginal communities not only in Australia but in the Americas and the Pacific have been decimated and sometimes even eradicated by expansionist histories and collisions with modernity, there are no words to suffice, beyond genuine expressions of sorrow. This is so whether they be the words of an atheist or the words of a Christian, the words of a Richard Dawkins or the words of a Rowan Williams.

Our beliefs and actions though cannot be separated, and it is only to be hoped that in the face of tragedy we will work, always alongside those of other beliefs and no belief, to proclaim light in darkness and Easter in Good Friday. We can believe, too, that our God is big enough to work divine love and compassion through the hands of an atheistic Fred Nile or Stephen Hawkins or Richard Dawkins, whenever they too act with Christlike compassion (for sometimes they will), and do so as easily as God can work through Jacob’s deceitful hands or Paul’s feisty hands or your flawed hands or my flawed hands.

Where then does this leave us? When Jesus saw the suffering of his people, he withdrew. For those who are activists this may seem a strange strategy. At the very least it demonstrates the prioritizing of prayer over action – though not the substitution of prayer for action. It can remind us that we are called to be primarily a people of prayer. Like the tenth leper, who I mentioned two weeks ago (and again don’t yet expect you to remember!!) we are called to be a people who turn back and, in all circumstances, give thanks, in all circumstances acknowledge the presence of God, breathe God’s hope-filled energies into a context before we blaze in with strategies and ideologies.

By being a Eucharistic people, a people of prayer and of connection to God in bread and wine and water we become bearers of a great if unseen, intangible hope in a world in which hopelessness and despair often seem to be final. No one claims this is easy – nor even that the Christ community will be thanked for its words. Nevertheless that is our task, as it was the task of the first disciples, speaking words of resurrection hope in a culture of corruption. The great Feast of Pentecost and the season that follows it should remind us that we do not do this in our own strength, but in the strength of the one who named Israel.


Hell is for Christians Only

SUNDAY, JULY 24th 2011


Readings: Genesis 29.15-28
Ps 105.1-11
Romans 8.26-39
Matthew 13.44-58

I may as well let you into the deep dark secrets of your new priest’s life right from our first encounter! It’s around 14 years now since Anne and I bumped into each other in a Canberra car park. I was living and working in Adelaide at the time, while Anne was studying for her Masters in theology in Brisbane. As a result of our encounter in Canberra we began a long-distance and potentially slow-growing relationship – I can tell you that the distance from Adelaide to Brisbane is 3020 kms (not so great a distance to Territorians, but nevertheless a reasonable test of the flames of passion!). In an exchange of letters Anne suggested she might consider marriage in seven years – it was, I emphasize, Anne rather than her then still-alive father, who made the suggestion. My response is possibly not quite repeatable in a liturgical setting, but was a reasonably emphatic indication that I was not Jacob! We married a little under two years later.

I tell you the story not just out of nostalgia. Apart from anything else it reminds us how vastly different the culture is in which we practice our faith to that in which Jacob carried out his own struggle to be obedient to God. Anne was not property, to be bought from her father by seven years of sweat (much less fourteen years). We live and read our texts of faith in a world that has changed since the events they narrate, and we need to be cognizant of those changes every time we seek to interpret them and apply them in our lives. This leaves us balancing precariously on an interpretive knife-edge, and surely serves as a warning that it is only in fear and trembling that we dare to imply that one interpretation, or even one moral code, applies to all people for all time. Reading of the scriptures of our faith is a delicate negotiation and a delicate surrender of ourselves to the Spirit of God.

The cultural sensitivity with which we are called to approach our faith is a minefield. We can read the history of missions in Australia – not just the Territory by any means – or Africa or the Pacific, to name just three regions, to know that many mistakes have been made. We need to know, too, that many wonderful deeds have been done throughout history by those who were bearers of the gospel. There is a tendency in a post-Christendom world to hold the missionaries to account only for their mistakes, not to praise and rejoice with them for their great works of faith. Nevertheless, the tale of Jacob and Leah, and of Jacob and Rachel, is a cautionary one. Much has changed: what in the tale remains the same?

Ultimately our Genesis story is a tale of patience, fidelity and trust. It is the tale of Jacob’s trust both in God and in his own God-given dreams and longings. It is worthwhile to note that the cultural emphasis of Laban is not condemned. His pronouncement ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn’ is not condemned, even when it is, to all intents and purposes, an act of betrayal. Jacob, the one-time cheat, is growing into a remarkable man. We might well learn about the need to respect the cultures and societies and sub-cultures and even perhaps ‘sub-societies’ into which we are called, and with which we are called to rub shoulders, before we speak words of condemnation that come too easily to our lips.

Though much of our language of the Spirit, what we call pneumatological language, is variously based on Luke’s and John’s gospel-accounts, it is important that we don’t allow ourselves to lose sight of Paul’s experience of the Spirit. The Spirit is to Paul the one who makes known and available to us the work of Christ, and who empowers us to proclaim the events of Christ to the world around us, who empowers us to participate in and benefit from the saving work of God in Christ, past and present. If we extrapolate from Paul’s new covenantal understanding of the Spirit back into the life of Jacob, then we might say that it is the Spirit who empowers Jacob to hold to his dreams against difficult if not impossible odds of pedantry and betrayal. In some churches the Spirit is transformed into a form of entertainment, turning human experience into silliness and triviality. To speak of the Spirit in such a way is to blaspheme: the task, as it were, of the Spirit, is to point to the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is this that Paul is referring to when he refers to the intercessions of the Spirit, helping us in our weakness. The Spirit may heal, the Spirit may intervene even miraculously in human lives where that intervention serves the purposes of the gospel, but the Spirit who ‘intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ is no entertaining plaything.

The Spirit will, however, strengthen us in our human weakness – strengthen us not in any superhuman, superpower form, but in the sense of holding us true to our abilities in the service of the gospel – holding us, as Jacob was held, true to the dreams of God. And where Jesus preaches so-called ‘kingdom-parables’ on the need to retain focus on the values of the reign of God, to retain focus on the priorities of the gospel, it is to the Spirit of God, or, in Trinitarian terms, the Spirit of Jesus that we turn in all our fallibility.

Fallibility will be, naturally, our hallmark. Over and again New Testament writers make it clear that perfection is beyond us – though another task, as it were, of the Spirit is to sandpaper away the rough edges of our fallibility, transforming us into the likeness of the one we serve. Fallibility and hypocrisy are of course vastly different animals. We begin and continue an authentic journey in the Spirit of Christ precisely when we acknowledge our weakness and our need for Christ, helping us to escape our volitions to sin and failure. We venture into hypocrisy when we begin to play games with God, transforming the Spirit into entertainment, or God into a plaything to serve our own self-aggrandizement and need for power or exaltation. At that moment we remove Jesus from the driver’s seat and find ourselves fingered by the warnings of hell fire and damnation, of gnashing teeth, and of the wonderful pithy insight I borrowed last week, from biblical commentator Marcus Barth, that ‘hell is for Christians only’.

For we who are Christ-bearers, then, there are severe yet welcoming warnings in the kingdom parables of Jesus: is he our focus and priority? Fortunately, when most of us in moments of honesty are forced to admit this may not be the case, there is the good news of grace, of the whispered ‘sorry’ that we offer to God, and the invasion of the praying Spirit who invades our life once more.


Friday, 22 July 2011

Carried in the Loins of Jacob?

SUNDAY, JULY 17th 2011


Readings: Genesis 28.10-19a
Ps 139 1-11, 23-24
Romans 8.12-25
Matthew 13.24-43

There was in the university days of my first exposure to Christianity, and perhaps there still is, an evangelistic line that goes something like: ‘if you died tonight where would you spend eternity?’ Although it is loosely based on some of the Jesus sayings, such as the parable of the barn in Luke 12, it not only misses the point of that parable in particular, but more importantly misses the point that Jesus never, except in the face of religious hypocrisy and greed, threatened hell to or for his audience. Of the eleven times the New Testament records Jesus referring to hell – always a translation of γε΄εννα (gehenna), a reference to the city dump – all are in the context not of the failure to believe but of the double standards of those whose hypocrisy prohibits the tentative and vulnerable beliefs of others.

Such a form of evangelism contrasts darkly with the openness and compassion of Jesus, who, despite referring to himself occasionally (and only in John’s gospel-account) as judge, spends his life not threatening hell but proclaiming God’s inviting love. Indeed one wonderful commentator, Marcus Barth (son of the great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth) once proclaimed, provocatively, that ‘hell is for Christians only’. I will cite him often.

I have no adequate or even trite answer to misguided would-be evangelists who ask me where I would go if I died on any given day, but I suspect that by and large Jesus doesn’t bother with one either. I would rather approach the misguided question in terms of the compassionate and inviting love of the Creator God than with petulant threats of some form of eternal punishment, a doctrine that, although predominant in the history of Christianity, is by and large irrelevant to and absent in the biblical texts that should shape our faith. The language of judgment and of hell in the New Testament is directed at those who burden others around them with weights of fear and oppression, not at those who for whatever reason choose to believe something different to what you or I believe. Hell is for Christians only.

I refer to the New Testament, of course. In the Hebrew Scriptures language of afterlife at all is at best shadowy and unformed, and, as a late development, is often utterly absent. It’s fairly safe to say the Hebrews only developed a refined sense of judgement and of heaven and hell after their exposure to Persian religion, Zoroastrianism in particular, during the Babylonian exile five or six hundred years before Christ. But the language of blessing, central to our Genesis reading, was and remains critical not only to the Hebrew people but to us, their cousins-in-faith: we serve the same God. The Hebrew people were, in the actions of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, called into special relationship with the one creator God. They were in this relationship called to be a distinctive people – the Covenant (and certain operations experienced by their men-folk) was one way of expressing or signifying that relationship. It was not however, as so much Christian preaching implies, a relationship that was designed to leave non-Jews, non-Hebrews, burning in an eternal hell. And, despite occasional outbursts to the contrary, outbursts made always in times of persecution, nor was or is the New Covenant relationship with the Creator God, the new relationship made possible in Christ, supposed to leave those outside the Christ-community burning in some eternal hell, eternally weeping and gnashing teeth while a saved elite sip their celestial nectar and watch on in blesséd joy.

The people of God, old and new, are called to be blessing. This is the meaning of the words spoken to Jacob: all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. By this relationship to the Creator, the people of God, Old and New, are called to be a sign, and by being that sign are blessing to the communities around them. It is with this relationship to God in mind that Jesus calls us to be seed amongst wheat, or elsewhere calls us to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. It is this that is at the basis of Jesus’ response to the ten lepers (another passage I will often cite), healing ten but rejoicing in the thanks of the one who returns to say thank you. We are called, if you like, not to ‘save’ the world, despite what our Dean and Administrator said the other night (not to contradict him, either), but to stand in the world as a reminder that it is saved, as a reminder that Good Friday in all its injustice and sorrow is not the final word on human existence.

Paul, as he sets about the most dispassionate and reasoned of his letters, Romans, is acknowledging this as he writes of ‘creation longing for the revealing of the children of God’. Despite the tragic mishandling of this passage in some hands, this is not about some part of creation finding itself to be eternally separated from divine love, watching as the children of God are in some way whisked away to a blessed eternity while non-believers are left behind. Rather this is about the Good News that all creation, all people, even the nine lepers, are caught up into the unthwartable and eternal purposes of God. To this end we are called to be a people of praise, turning again and again, despite our inadequacy, to the God who invades our lives and makes us whole. We are called by our familiarity with the God we worship and love in Christ, the God who we can approach as ‘Abba’ (beloved parent), to proclaim glory. We are called by our practice of the presence of God, our liturgy especially, but our lives too, to proclaim God’s glory, the news that God’s is the final word to creation, and that that word is not the ‘no’ of mortality and injustice but the ‘yes’ of eternity.

It is this that is your task and mine, the task to which we are called together and in which we are all commissioned by our baptism.


Slaughtering Sons for Jesus?

SUNDAY, JUNE 26th 2011


Readings: Genesis 22.1-14
Ps 13
Romans 6.12-23
Matthew 10.40-42

One of the great formative passages not only of Judaeo-Christian thought but also of the narratives of post Judaeo-Christian literature is the almost-sacrifice of Isaac. Writers of the late nineteenth century and twentieth century, most notably Sigmund Freud, but reaching back as far as the founder of existentialist philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard, have had a field day with the passage as a narrative of human frailty, anxiety, and psychological vulnerability. One could barely begin to imagine the emotional scarring that the event would have on the young child Isaac, aware enough to recognize the sudden threat to his life represented by his father’s obedience to the voice of God. Enough of us have seen our children and grandchildren give up the narratives of our faith just because it is less exciting than a morning in bed (perhaps I’d better rephrase that!) or a morning of sports or a morning mowing lawns: imagine the excuses we would provide them if our blind devotion to a Higher Power led us to draw a knife and threaten their lives!

It pays then not to read the great formative passages of Judaeo-Christian faith through the eyes of modern or post-modern sociology, psychology, or other humanities and sciences. Perhaps we can plead, in any case, the healing of memories as Isaac and his father make their way down the mountain after the ram is sacrificed. Perhaps, but probably not: I’m not altogether sure I want to play ball with a God who plays too fast with the synapses of my memory banks! On the whole I think we are better off understanding the story as a parable of priority: a brutal and impossible ‘as if’: we are called to live as if we had such trust in God that we would expect a happy ending to an impossible situation. Yet I am only too ready to admit I do not have even a shadow form of such faith: my knife would remain sheathed and I would stay home. God in any case does not ask us to make sacrifice – thank God! – nor to sacrifice others before we sacrifice ourselves (though perhaps one day my children will hearken back, in therapy, to the devastating decisions made by their parents, dragging them from the safety of an established network of friends to an unknown realm and an uncertain future. My oldest daughter does!).

In reality we often need to be reminded that the world of our scriptures is a world vastly different to our own. Even when we read Paul assuring us that ‘the wages of sin is death’ we need a little caution. Our scriptures do link sin, or fallenness, with death within their narratives, from the time of the mythical Eden onwards, but we might also recognize that the cost of cellular structure is decomposition, and that even an object as sinless as a kauri tree – our beloved Tane Mahuta, is mortal. We are, as my guru Bobby put it, ‘stone cold dead as we step outside the womb’, and it may well be that it is misleading in our preaching and evangelism to give the impression either that ‘sin’ is a list of naughty things that we have inevitably done, or that naughty things lead to death: the Christchurch earthquake is not wages for sin. We live in a post-Christian generation that rejected the tenets of our faith at least in part because the idea of a celestial God tallying up our misdoings was somewhat less than attractive as an eternal hope. No: a passage such as Paul’s letter to the Romans needs careful interpretation, though I for one believe Paul was striving towards timeless truths about the need for imperfect humanity to surrender to the reforming, transforming, transcending love of the Creator, the one we encounter through Christ, through the Spirit of Christ, in Bread and Wine and hymn and prayer, in scripture and fellowship-koinōnia and in (but perhaps only after the others), the divine poetry of nature.

Must we, though, take on board some sort of religious dogma at all? The baggage of a God that calls Abraham to impose immeasurable damage on the psyche of his son in the service of faith, or that seems to hand out a death sentence as reward for a few naughty things we may or may not have done (after all, we didn’t eat any fruit in a far off garden) is surely a baggage we can jettison? Modern decades of western society have responded with an overwhelming ‘yes’, and while our patterns of substance abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and the deepest damaging forms of self-abuse (including workaholism) suggest we are not after all better off, we certainly have rid ourselves of some burdens of oppression – as films such as The Magdalene Sisters, for those who remember it – told us with chilling effect.

Surely the teachings of Jesus are simple? In fact many have suggested, at least since the nineteenth century, that we need to rid ourselves of all the other doctrinal and liturgical baggage and simply get back to that; whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will receive the reward of the righteous (even that passage has been brutally abused through history by those who saw themselves as wielding the powers of the disciples). A good bit of social service, the establishment of a soup kitchen or some social reform programme: isn’t that enough? Love your neighbour, don’t diddle your taxes, and don’t swear at old ladies … isn’t that the gospel? I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian, after all. Boy Scouts, Rotary, the National Party and the local surf-lifesaving club: aren’t they adequate expressions of goodness, lifestyle equivalents of ‘giving a cup of water’?

Indeed they are, if Christianity is no more than a set of rules. Similarly, what if Christianity is no more than a gaggle of feelings – the re-claiming over and again of peak moments in our lives so that we never come down from the heights, however terrifying, of Abraham’s Mountain, staying up there for ever with our new found ram, getting ourselves baptized and re-baptized literally or metaphorically each time God encounters us in some new life-experience? If that is the case then Christianity is no more than a drug, keeping us on a high, keeping us in a fuzzy and euphoric state of unreality. If Jesus is no more than the key to a good feeling, or a good teacher, then we should join the exodus and play golf Sunday by Sunday.

But, as I hope I hinted last Sunday, and as I hope I have been hinting over and again in our four year journey together, it is neither of these things. Despite my sometimes too-big words, faith is not big words and doctrine, not good feelings and mountain top experiences, nor even good deeds and good living. Faith is surrender to God, the triune God, made known to us in Christ, by the Spirit, the God of mountain top and valley, of birth and death: faith is surrender to receive God through Christ in word and sacrament – always both, and always invaded by God’s Spirit! – and only then to proffer cups of water or financial advice or solace or sermons: faith is the surrender to the God who takes us through the valleys and over the mountains, who never leaves us or forsakes us, and who will, in the end of our times, takes us into the immeasurable joy of divine eternity. Christian faith begins, continues and ends with the acknowledgement that Jesus alone is the Lord by whom humanity enters eternity, and by whom eternity enters humanity. However chilling the Abraham narrative is, it is a magnificent metaphor for faith: faith is surrender into the admission ‘yes Lord, my life and all I love is yours’. We will always fall short of Abraham’s surrender: for that reason we will mutter over and again the plea ‘Yes Lord, I believe: help thou my unbelief’, and stutter our ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you’ before reaching out our hands to receive the miracle of God’s invasion of our lives. Faith is our yes to God, and God’s ultimate yes to us and all creation.