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Thursday, 1 May 2014

Nine o'clock in the morning?

(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)

Readings:       Acts 2:14a, 36-41
                        Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19
                        1 Peter 1.17-23
                        Luke 24.13-35

If you’ll forgive something of too personal a tale then my exposure as a child to Anglicanism, or indeed to Christianity of any form, was to a very rigid and unsmiling form of correct behaviour, delivered with a lot of words and all the passion of a gravestone. When later, independently, and to me slightly surprisingly I converted to the faith I had set about pillorying I found a very different and I must confess rather liberating form of practice. There was much dancing, much ecstasy, and a great sense of the immediacy of the God who previously, if I had thought existed at all, had dwelled at the far-flung outer reaches of the universe.

Somewhere in the period of my childhood, unknown to me, something called the charismatic movement had swept through the corridors of Anglicanism and other forms of mainstream Christianity, liberating structures from structuralism, form from formalism, faith from something that more resembled fear of a changing world than liberation into the awesome presence of God. As a fresh convert I was suddenly liberated to dance and sway and sing in tongues – or at least to mumble in tongues – with the best of my new neighbours. It was an incredibly important time for me, as indeed it may have been for many of you. Gradually however it seemed to me that there were babies disappearing out with the bathwater, that the experience of the worshipper rather than the majesty of the divine trinity was becoming the focus of experience. Renewal, the “nine o’clock in the morning” syndrome that Luke refers to in his highly symbolic telling of the birth of the new people of God, and which charismatic writers such as Dennis J. Bennett wrote about with enthusiasm, was becoming all of the thing, rather than merely an oeuvre, an opening into the mysteries of God. By the early ’80s this little convert was embarking on a journey up the candle, discovering the rich resources of ancient traditions, but hopefully never forgetting or abandoning the sheer liberating and empowering joy of those first months and years of faith.  

I suspect in the end there came to be something self-indulgent about much of the charismatic movement, but in its ecstasy and awe it delivered much mainstream Christianity from a strait-jacket of propriety. I’m not sure that we have realised yet, just a generation later, what it has all meant, and I suspect too that we are still being pulled in different directions. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great movements of God’s Spirit have always shattered expectations and proprieties, always (if I may misuse a Jesus-metaphor) scattered the sheep wildly before turning and drawing them in a unified direction. If I were to look for a unifying feature that suggested in which direction we were through our myriad experiences and priorities it would be that “love be genuine”, that genuine community of costly love that the author of 1 Peter and other New Testament writers point to over and over again. As the TaizĂ© chant puts it (and indeed ancient Gregorian chants put it long before), ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is charity and love, there God is. It is an awkward translation, but you get the gist. Where there is a community of conspicuous love, there the Spirit of God is at work, and there, too, the work of evangelism is inspired and reaches out.

Such love, while binding the community of faith in warm embrace, will never stop there. It will of course proclaim justice. Sometimes it will do so at great cost: the comfort zones of structuralist and formalist faith are not only challenged when we allow charismatic informality to enter our collective experience, but when we open the doors to the prickly and uncomfortable outsiders. Do we for example as a parish dare to make our post-communion morning teas not only more sumptuous than the fare of soup kitchens, but more accessible to those who walk past our severe and austere doors? Do we dare to make both our communion of bread and wine and music and liturgy more accessible and our communion of tea and coffee and good convivial conversation – as I said in my pew sheet notes on the liturgy, when “we go out to proclaim God’s Reign to God’s world, engaging in what one theologian called the ‘Holy Saturday task of the Church’ … that work should begin with the sharing of God’s kai,* the morning tea and good food that is every bit as important as the liturgy.

At the heart of our faith – and I suspect I discovered this some years after my first explosion into the world of Christianity – are simple and meaningless signs, primarily of bread and wine and water, two of which are elements that Luke tells us the stranger on the road presented to the disciples. They are meaningless, risible signs, pretty much idiotic to the outsider, the non-believer. Yet more than anywhere else these are the place where we begin relationship with the Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life. But there is a complex task for us: how do we make these sacraments of the victory of God, along with what Archbishop Coggan called “the sacrament of the word” in which we are now engaging, how do we make these pulse with the awe and the mystery of God while yet attracting the seeker and even the scoffer, the lonely and the broken as well as the proud and the together, so that they too can share in these glimpses of eternity?

The task is yours and mine, but I suspect our hearts will only burn with the fire of faith that the two disciples experienced when we ensure that we are an open, accessible and yet mystery-filled, life-transcending and life-transforming people, walking to Jerusalem with the renewed expectation that there we will meet the risen Lord of Easter.

* Food (as verb and noun)
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