Monday, 19 August 2019

Friday, 19 July 2019

Mary and Martha

On a recent Sunday in church, we read the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel according to Luke. (Luke 10:38-42) The story focuses on the interaction between Mary, Martha, and Jesus. I am sure many sermons have been preached on the complementarity of Mary and Martha, urging us to unite active and contemplative, inner and outer, either within us or within our communities of faith. Other sermons will try to reconcile Jesus' rebuke of Martha, or perhaps be offended by it.  (See further helpful comments on the text from Ian Paul.)

But an aspect of the story possibly overlooked is Martha's resentment of Mary. (See this picture for Martha's face full of resentment.) She is resentful that Mary is not helping, or perhaps that Jesus favours her slack sister, or that she, Martha, is not receiving the recognition from Jesus that her service is meant to receive. A universal experience. Resentment makes the world go around.

St Paul says that without love all we do is worthless. (1Cor 13:2-3) It might seem a bit extreme, but he is right. At root, an act of service might also be about convincing ourselves that we are ‘good’ people, or perhaps a search for recognition. And when I say ‘convince’ I don’t mean in an explicit, conscious way. More like playing a subterfuge on ourselves, not just the world around. Hidden motivations lead to resentment very easily.

It has struck many people that whatever resentments Jesus may have held during his life and early ministry they have been refined out as he makes his way to the cross so that his death and resurrection are without resentment. ("Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing," and "Peace be with you.") He dies and lives for us.

In the story of Mary and Martha the latter’s resentment is disclosed. She wanted more than to be a servant. Jesus, on the other hand, in the time of his public ministry is satisfied to be Jesus, beloved of God, servant of humankind, without resentment even when crucified by those he loves.

Monday, 1 July 2019

A Children's Talk on the Holy Trinity

It can be difficult to know what to say to kids about the Trinity. Try this next time:

Can anyone tell me why they think the love we give (and receive from others) is imperfect?
I reckon it is because human love is always given with a good splash of our own needs mixed in. And our needs - most often legitimate - shape our love so that it is not actually for the other person. It is for me as well. No parent can love their child perfectly, just as no child can love their parent perfectly. So too with our friends and anyone else for that matter.

But not so with God. God is love already. God doesn't need us to have someone to love, or need us to have someone to love God back. God is love. A communion/community of love. That is what the language of Father and Son, and their mutual love of the Holy Spirit, is meant to signify. God doesn't need us. But this is exactly why God loves us. It is for us, not mixed in with God's own neediness. (God is needless in this sense, not in a frigid sort of cold and distant sense.)

This is why it is so important to let God be God, and ourselves and everyone to be less than perfect. So many people bear a grudge against a parent or child or friend or someone they hardly know because that person was human, that is, couldn't love them perfectly. But that is to ask them to be who they cannot be. Why ask people to be who they are not? What they are not?

See also:
God Alone is Good
You can Trust God
Further Thoughts on Transcendence

Friday, 24 May 2019

Doctrinal Purity and the Pre-Eminence of Love

It is easy to wonder why the church has stuck so doggedly to its claim that Jesus is pre-eminent.  According to the traditional line of belief, Jesus is God in the flesh, with no one and nothing above him. This kind of claim can be seen as arrogant, divisive, and exclusive. (It certainly is the latter.) If Jesus is pre-eminent, then there is no other Messiah to expect, no other figure equal, no other religion to merge with Christianity or replace it. An unfashionable belief in our (allegedly) relativistic age. So why not be more open to changing our beliefs? Why not give up the doctrine and believe in ‘love’ or ‘inclusion’ instead of Jesus? The reason is that, if Jesus is pre-eminent, without equal and not to be superseded in any way, then self-sacrificing love, compassion, mercy, communion (etc.) are pre-eminent. And not just a bloodless, hypothetical form of love, but an enfleshed love that shows us the way to love and be loved. Subtract the belief in Jesus and how would the pre-eminence of love hold? Add the traditional belief back and we see that Jesus is not just the exemplar of love but the guarantee of love’s pre-eminence.
It seems to me that this is the practical effect of holding to the traditional doctrinal purity of the church’s belief in Jesus. Rather than diminishing love, compassion, mercy, and self-sacrifice, the traditional belief intensifies them. Love displayed and lived on a cross. This is the very nature of God! There can be nothing more primordial or nothing more important. And this provides a way for us to bring together (as good Christology – theology about the Christ – always does) that which we have torn apart in the church. Often it seems that Christians divide into two camps: those who hold to doctrinal purity and those who stand for justice and peace. The two are meant to go together.

Friday, 23 November 2018

God Alone is Good

Jesus says that no one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18) Well that’s a relief. It’s a burden to think that the task of our lives is to be good. (Which is to say, not being bad.)

Jesus makes the above declaration about God in response to a question from a rich man. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus begins with the affirmation that God alone is good. “But anyway” says Jesus, “how you going with the commandments?” “Great” says the guy, “I seem to have them down pretty well.” This guy thinks he is good. And he thinks Jesus is good, and that Jesus thinks that Jesus is good. And so he tries to identify with Jesus, to build up a mutual back-slapping club with him for all those who are good.

No such luck for the guy. “Give up everything and follow me.” To give up his wealth would be to give up the evidence that he is good. (That is, God blesses the righteous, and the guy’s wealth is therefore evidence that he is righteous. We call this the prosperity gospel these days and it is alive and well not so much in the church but in society around us.) Jesus invites the guy to give up the burden of his (self-) righteousness and to follow him, Jesus. “No way fella”, he says, and off he goes grieving for (we are told) “he had many possessions”.

People can often feel guilty about their wealth when they hear this reading. And that would be to miss the point. Guilt about not being good? ("I feel guilty about my wealth", which is to in some way say that I am bad because of it.) Oh dear. But isn’t Jesus saying that God alone is good? Imagine if, having felt guilty about one’s wealth after reading this passage, one gave it all up. I suppose we could feel very good rather than guilty (bad). But would this be discipleship?

Only God is good.

The call to discipleship that Jesus makes to the man is not a better way to be good, that is, free from possessions.  The passage is consistent: Jesus says it’s not about being good (God alone is good), the man says that he is good, Jesus calls him to give it all up and follow him, surely not just to be good, but to escape being good. Discipleship of Jesus is not about being good.
It’s a call away from being good.

Here’s another way of looking at it. If I said I was showing compassion to someone because I was good, or if showed compassion because I felt guilty, that wouldn’t be compassion. That would make my ‘compassion’ be about me, not the person I am being compassionate toward. Being good to please God is about us, not God. Jesus asks us to love not be good.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Pentecost, Ideologies, and the Reversal of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel occurs in Genesis 11:1-9.  United by one language, a monochromatic humankind builds a monument to its own glory, a great tower. God ‘comes down’ to see this arrogant attempt at greatness, and scatters the people giving them many different languages to disunite them. One could read the story as an act of grace in a way, because God’s intervention prevents humankind uniting under a banner of uniformity. (A parallel to the human arrogance of the story of Babel is the great projects of human arrogance in the twentieth century – Nazis, Bolsheviks, etc. – and the way in which they crushed the diversity of the people under them, literally killing off the diversity that would not yield to their ideology.)

The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11) is, among other things, the reversal of the Tower of Babel. Pentecost was a Jewish feast day, and Jews from different lands (and languages) came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. The Holy Spirit allows the disciples to speak to the listeners in the tongues of the listeners. The Gospel unites the listeners not by squeezing them into the language of the disciples as though the gospel were an alien ideology, but the gospel comes to the listeners from the inside of their thinking and culture. It is a gospel for all people without uniformity.

This last point is very important in a world of ideology. The Holy Spirit did not work on the listeners to allow them to understand the language of the disciples. That would be squeezing the listeners into the culture of Galilee. And the church from then on would have had the licence to squeeze everybody into an original language and culture. Instead, the natural impulse of the church has been to enculturate the gospel wherever the gospel went by, for example, translating the Scriptures into the common tongue. In fact, if the Holy Spirit had worked on the listeners instead of the speakers, this would have been contrary to the Incarnation of God in Christ. God became human, entering into our very humanity, to be one of us, to speak ‘our language’.  This original mission of God in Jesus continued on the day of Pentecost, continues to be the driving force of Christianity.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

God's Love and the Royal Wedding

The preacher at the recent royal wedding stole the show in a way. True to his roots, he preached a style of sermon that was refreshing and complemented the straight-down-the-line approach of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Touched off with a marvellous rendition of  Stand By Me gospel style. And with perhaps 2 billion people watching Bishop Michael Curry took the opportunity to speak of the transforming power of God’s love and the possibility of our mutual love seen in a couple about to discover this love in a life lived together in holy matrimony. It was a good sermon for a world of limited Christian understanding and showcased the Christian emphasis on love.

The bishop said many things, but here is my very short summary:

If we love each other we will transform the world.

As someone said, it was classic Progressive Christianity. Of course, if we could love each other the world would be different. A new creation. But the world isn’t different, so presumably (the awkward, unspoken inference of the sermon) we don’t love each other well enough. So try harder. And here we meet the soft underbelly of Progressive Christianity. Generally speaking, while so-called progressives begin with a concern for the excluded and for peace and justice, Progressive Christianity ends wagging the finger as much as its arch-rival, the conservative evangelicalism. “If only we loved each other more …” We don’t, so try harder. I find progressive Christianity as law-driven and critical of those who don’t measure up as anything it allegedly opposes. Progressive Christianity is adept at the backhanded compliment.

The readings for Trinity Sunday (Year B) have as the Gospel reading a great chunk of John 3. It narrates, among other things, God’s action in Jesus to change people and the world.  It is not a call for us to try harder, even to try harder with a good measure of aid from God. The traditional gospel affirms our neediness and inability to save ourselves, to contribute to our salvation at all. Our contribution is elicited, enabled, sustained, and fulfilled by God. We can’t even claim a tiny, little sliver of unaided contribution that was topped up by God.  Of course, we can call each other to greater acts of love. But how to do this without the implied criticism? Better to be honest about the criticism and see where you end up.

The preacher at the royal wedding got away with it because his ancestors were slaves and here he was preaching to the Queen of England. A good dose of irony in that, irony that sits very comfortably with Christianity. But, generally speaking, progressive Christianity has as much trouble with criticism and exclusion of those who don’t measure up as do any of the conservatives.