Thursday, 2 September 2021

On God’s Love, Spiritual Discipline, and the Freedom of Patience

In Jesus and the Spirit the Father has shared with us God’s (the Holy Trinity’s) own life with us. Not just that God loves us, but much more than that. God is love, and we live in that love. There is not another face of God inconsistent with the face of Jesus. The Breath/Spirit of God is the Spirit of that Jesus shared with us. What we see in Jesus – this is what God is, really. Moreover, there is nothing more that the Father can give us. There is nothing more intimate than the Son and the Breath/Spirit of God. Everything we can receive has been given. There is nothing God is withholding, waiting for us to earn. Everything is given – what more can there be than the love that is God? The effect of what God has done in Jesus and given in the Spirit is still working its way through our lives and, indeed, the whole of creation. But we have been and are lavishly blessed by God. 
 To live into what has been so lavishly bestowed on us requires new habits of thought and feeling, and this means practicing the spiritual disciplines to allow the sense of the presence of God to blossom. That makes it sound like hard work. And while part of the Christian calling is to learn some new habits of awareness and gratitude, the answer is not always an intense discipline, but a freedom and patience that waits for God in our lives. This might sound strange, but often the less intense we are while faithfully engaging in the spiritual practices the more likely the presence of God will be unveiled in our life now and in our past. After all, joy can’t be manufactured, it is a gift.

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. (Psalm 51:1) 

[And that is exactly what God has done in Christ.]

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:5) 

In a particularly difficult time in my life I had a dream that I remembered the next morning. In the dream I was in a large gathering, robed, and in the Gospel procession to the middle of the large crowd. The Gospel Book was opened and I was about to read and realised that the wrong reading was open. But I spoke the good news of the gospel (it was John 10, the Good Shepherd) to the crowd, but I read it by heart. 

I was talking to someone recently who told me of an occasion when they forgave someone for something most people might bear a grudge over. It was like it just flowed out of her heart. She didn’t need to coerce herself, fight with herself over what to do. I said it sounded like a flowering of her heart, like she knew the good news by heart and lived it. (It reminded me of my dream.) 

The problem was recognised in the Hebrew Scriptures. We are told that God is not swayed by outward appearance, but looks on the heart. (1Sam 16:7) And what is in the human heart? After the flood, God promises to never again curse the ground because of humankind, for evil dwells in every human heart. (There’s no simple solution to evil, like killing off the bad people to leave the good people.) The problem is the human heart. (Gen 9:21) Jesus teaches this too: it is what comes out of a person, from within, from the heart, that defiles a person. (Mark 7:21-23) What is to be done? The Psalmist cries out to God, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (51:1) The problem is the human heart, and the solution is for God to cleanse the human heart. The prophet Jeremiah recognises this when he contrasts the old covenant with the new covenant. Instead of the law being written on stone tablets that must be inculcated into the human heart, God will write the law on our hearts, and we will come to know God by heart, and ourselves as God’s people. (Jer 312:31-34. See also Ezek 36:26; Matt 26:27-28; Rom 2:29) Or to put it another way, God will replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. (Ezek 11:19-20) 
The transformation of the human heart is accomplished in Jesus. Jesus knows God by heart. God begins the new creation with Jesus. His heart is God's heart, our heart. But it is not as if Jesus just glides through life serenely oblivious to the temptations and despair of life, as though his heart is insulated from real life because it is God’s heart. On the contrary, Jesus has a true heart of real human flesh. His heart makes him more open and vulnerable, and through him, we are opened to this real human heart. His via dolorosa is the way of a human heart. 

In the same way, the rebuilding of our hearts into hearts of flesh does not insulate us from the world. There are many ingredients necessary for the spread of the good news of salvation in Jesus, not least his disciples opening the door of their hearts to their neighbour and inviting them in.

Saturday, 21 August 2021

The Epithet of Sinner (John 6:56-69)

In today's Gospel reading (John 6:56-69) those who follow Jesus are being pared back. They are a remnant of what they were. Jesus collected quite an array of followers, but over the course of his ministry they disappeared. The righteous are being thinned out. Today, they are thinned out because of his teaching about the bread of life and consuming him for eternal life.  And in the end Jesus would lose all his followers, and he, Jesus, would be the remnant, the righteous one. His righteousness covers me, that’s part of being redeemed. Being crucified to my old self, the self that makes crosses and all sorts of metaphorical crosses for others. 

So I like the epithet of sinner. Not just sinner. Redeemed sinner. It’s why Christians don’t mind being named as sinners. We are redeemed. But often we think of ‘sinner’ as a judgment on us. A source of shame, and a state we should escape from. Not being a sinner is preferable to being a sinner. But I prefer to see ‘sinner’ as a way of being that is my identity, how I am in the world. Not as a description that can and should be jettisoned as soon as possible. I think of ‘sinner’ as something almost permanent; this is how I am. Not a layer poured over the top of who I am that I could peel off at some point (if I stopped doing bad things perhaps) and resume being me. I think redeemed sinner is who I am. Sounds negative, and the world rejects and avoids such an epithet. (“I'm not one of those...”) Or sometimes it is embraced as an expression of a deep dislike of self. (“I’m worse than everyone else.”) But for me it is always redeemed sinner, and that changes everything. 

But doesn’t "redeemed" mean that I am no longer a sinner? No, better to keep ‘sinner’ than not. Here’s why. Sinners redeemed in Christ know that they are loved. Not because of their own righteousness (the remnant is Jesus, not Jesus and me), but because of God’s unearned and freely given mercy and love. I receive and therefore my reconstitution comes from gift. That’s what it means to be a redeemed sinner. 'To be' because of gift, the gift of love, or more precisely, the gift of a relationship of love. It changes how I see the world. It’s all gift. I am built up by receiving, in thankfulness, not in grasping or resentment. What I learn as a redeemed sinner becomes a prism through which to see all of life. It is the beginning of joy and the scent of the peace that passes all understanding.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Crucifying the Dividing Walls of Humanity

I know that the obvious boundary in the Bible is Old/New Testaments. I prefer to make the split Genesis 1-11 and the rest. Genesis 1-11 contains those stories we might say are universal. I read them and understand that I am being described, as is the world, and our universal, human predicament.  (E.g. Noah and the flood, here.) God's response we read about from Genesis 12. (Here.) The universal predicament of humankind brings a particular response, God's call to Abraham and Sarah to leave their secure home and to wander the promised land in faith, and God promises that through them all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:1-3.) Paul makes much of this (Rom 4 & Gal 3) including that marvellous claim that this blessing to the Gentiles is the Gospel! (Gal 3:8) This blessing is manifest in the union of humankind through the dismantling of the barriers that divide us. (Acts 2:1-11 compare Gen 11:1-19 see hereherehere) These barriers that divide us are universal, and our universal predicament. They have as their root human envy, rivalry, arrogance, and the violence to maintain and create dividing walls, all to be found in increasing intensity as we read through Gen 1-11. Christ saves us from this predicament, by bringing us, Jew and Gentile, together through the cross. (Ephes 2:16, but Jew/Gentile as paradigms of all dividing walls, see Gal 3:27-29.)  And that is the extraordinary thing. Crosses maintain the barriers. Jesus, accused blasphemer, crucified to maintain the wall that divides, brings us together through that very instrument of violence and division. Through Jesus, handed over into the hands of sinners yet vindicated in the resurrection, Satan's ruse (here) is unmasked for those with eyes to see. That which divides us - the accusations, the pride, the rivalry, all of it - and that crucified Christ, is now crucified to us so that it is Christ who lives in us. (Gal 2:20)  

This is why St Paul rails against division and the sort of attitudes and behaviours that cause it. (1Cor 1:10-17, and notice he then launches into his great proclamation of the power of the cross, 1:18-25. See also Rom 12:3; 1Cor 8; 11:17-22; Gal 5:16-26.) Division in the church insults the Gospel itself, for our unity in Christ is integral to the Gospel, not an added on extra. If you don't believe me search and see how often Paul links poor behaviour and its renewal to the death of Christ and the death of our old nature. (E.g. Col 3:5-17.) And notice how Paul's explanation of faith, law, grace, and justification can lead to his reflections on God's promise to Abraham. (See Rom 1-3 leading into Rom 4, and then keep reading into Rom 5! Also, Gal 2:15-21 leading into Gal 3.) 

In an age of intensifying polarization, with accusation and counter-accusation, here is a mission for the traditional church. Traditional churches eschew fads, do not have a cause derived from Jesus (that is a cause having a life apart from Jesus) and are wary of the heightened emotionalism and easy judgements of the mob. Nurturing this and living into our unity in Christ, while still holding a variety of opinions on different topics (often divisive topics in the world around us) is not an easy road. But because it is the gospel itself it includes cross-work (Mark 8:34-35) but also freedom and human dignity, and the whiff of resurrection.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Virtual Choirs, Perfection, Clay Jars, and Making Space for Each Other

Recently I listened to a choir conductor explain the process of creating a virtual choir performance. It requires skill, but also a sensitivity to the human because the best virtual choir performances won't be 'perfect' if they are to sound beautiful. Perfection, when put together by a computer program will sound robotic and manufactured. In creating a virtual choir performance slight 'imperfections' are introduced to make the performance not just beautiful to the ear but also human. What a great metaphor for being human, and the church for that matter.

We are clay jars (2Cor 4:7-15), but who prefers the factory manufactured clay piece to the piece of art that has within it the 'imperfections' of the human hand? The more perfect, the less human, generally. And we recognise this on the screen in those dystopian movies and TV shows that have regimented societies seeking perfection by brainwashing and violence. History is replete with real-life examples. Thank God the preferred human way of fashioning human perfection is not God's way of bringing the metamorphosis of transformation! God works with our imperfection and makes something beautiful from them.

This is not to abandon the call to perfection. (Matt 5:43-48 cf Luke 6:32-36) But it is to make space for each other's imperfections. There is something beautiful about the 'making space'. And this 'making space' is to make space for our mutual imperfections without condoning or condemning ourselves or anyone else. And in this space, we seek the transformation that comes through God's love discovered in our mutual love of one another.

Last week I spoke of the space that the cross gives human beings. (Here.) God provides space for us to be who we are, even to the point of crucifying the Son of God. And it is in this space of weakness (1Cor 1:18-25) that God brings the transformation of forgiveness and resurrection. It is a space of mutual forbearance, but not of carelessly inflicting our imperfections on each other. It is a space of discipline and a space for repentance, for experiencing the love of God in forgiveness without any hint of self-rejection.

Friday, 18 June 2021

Who is this? Mark 4:35-41

 Without the cross, the answer to the question (about Jesus) "Who is this?" pops out wrong. But with the cross and the resurrection of the crucified, the answer is Christianity. Because of the cross and the resurrection of the crucified:

1. Christianity has a sensitivity to the voice of the victim and the human tendency to scapegoat. Where Christianity has taken root in a culture so too has the moral high ground of victimhood. (Look at the West now and the place of the voice of the victim. But this sensitivity is meant to be coupled with conversion to Jesus and his way of forgiveness to prevent making new victims.)

2. Christianity teaches of a God who is sympathetic to the human condition, for in Jesus God has suffered with us in the flesh. And it is through this suffering and death as a victim of human sin that God has brought about union with us. A union with us at our lowest point, i.e. as sinners.  (See Rom 5:6-11) One can never get to this spiritual insight without the cross (and resurrection) of Jesus.

3. And then, this crucified Jesus, now risen, offers forgiveness, not vengeance or 'justice'. (John 20:19-23) There is no line in the sand that to step over brings destruction. Instead, we discover the patience of God and space for human freedom, and the means to be transformed through repentance and forgiveness.  (2Peter 3:8-9) 

4. And in the space (to sin) that we see in the cross of Jesus, we see also a model of what creation is like. As Creator God does not transgress our freedom but gives creation space and its own integrity to be who we are, and in that space to be transformed by love. (1John 4:7-12)

5. To be Christian is to know God's love revealed in Christ and his cross and resurrection. And to be judged by this love, not the judgment of others or the judgment of self-loathing. This love that has given all and reaches the depths of who we are, asks of us everything. For it is in the spiritual renunciation of all that we believe we are that we transcend the boundaries of our current humanity, bringing to light that which is hidden. In other words, we learn to be loved and to love.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

The Kingdom of God is Like a Weed

 Jesus likens the kingdom to a weed. (The mustard seed grows into a weed.) So the kingdom isn't the project you are doing in the shed, it is to be found behind the shed in the unkempt part of the yard not usually visible from where all the action is happening. That's funny. It must have provoked at least a little snigger amongst some, while others may have been a little offended.

These days it is difficult to find someone in the church who doesn't recognise the danger of identifying our pet projects with the kingdom. We know that when we give our hearts to pet projects (that is, the pet project becomes an idol, displacing the kingdom from its place of honour in our hearts), all kinds of problems and disasters occur. Idols always distort those who worship the idol and the outcomes. 

If avoiding making our pet projects into idols were as easy to say as do, I suppose human history would look significantly different to what it actually does. And this isn't just for religious people. Pet projects become ideologies, driving adherents to say and do all sorts of crazy stuff. Like any idol.

And this is why the parable of the mustard seed is so helpful. It's a warning against pet projects. Even when we think the pet project is the kingdom. Even when the pet project begins in kingdom-type activity. It's just too easy to equate what we are doing and thinking with the kingdom. We all decry the empire-building of yesteryear but are happy enough to think that when we act justly or evangelise (or whatever it is your church tradition values in particular) that we are doing God's work. Well, yes, possibly. But it is a slippery slope, and is why history looks like it does.

I could just say, let's hang loose people. Let's not invest too much in our pet projects. But how to give (of self) genuinely and hang loose? How to avoid becoming tepid? (Neither hot nor cold, see Revelation 3:16.) Well, keep looking behind the shed. That's the point of the parable, or at least part of it. Keep looking behind the shed. And when we do, and we see the weeds growing, let the weeds take your interest for a while. We can divide our attention, which is a good, practical way to get our hearts off the pet project and (at least potential) idol in the shed. God is doing all kinds of stuff, not just our pet project. It might be time to move on from the pet project. The kingdom requires nimbleness.

Here is a parallel from the Christian tradition. People hunger for spiritual experiences. Christians have always hungered for spiritual experiences, and when an 'experience' is granted, hang on to the experience. And not just Christians, it seems that many contemporary people are hungering for 'spiritual' experiences, although who knows exactly what the world thinks it means by 'spiritual'. Anyway, the advice from the Christian tradition is not to hang onto the experience. The experience may well be helpful, but hang onto it and it will become less and less helpful until it has the opposite effect. Kind of like how the pet project can become an idol. The advice is to just go back to praying, like normal, and leave behind the experience. The experience has done what it was meant to do. Move on. And that is part of the problem with seeking a  'spiritual experience', it feels like it is helping us grow, but it will actually stop us from moving and growing in a relatively short space of time.

Or another parallel. In the Christian tradition, God is more unlike than like any image or thought we have of God. Words and images have the tendency to become replacements for God, that is, idols. Or, less dramatic, prevent us from continuing our journey into and with God. We get stuck. Just like spiritual experiences, we can get stuck. Just like pet projects. We can get stuck. The kingdom is moving on, let's keep looking, moving, joining, looking, moving ...

Monday, 7 June 2021

Satan Casting Out Satan

 When the opponents of Jesus turn up accusing him of being in league with Satan (Mark 3:22) he doesn't so much as deny it as play with it. It is not the ones we humans expel as evil/immoral/ etc who are in league with Satan, but the accusers (who believe themselves to be righteously casting out Satan) who are in league with Satan, the great accuser: Satan casting out Satan. (3:23)

This dynamic of expulsion is played out among us and through human history. It seems good and right, even necessary to expel. And its effects of a temporary peace (by expelling the supposed source of conflict/sin) reinforce and support the sense of virtue retained/regained. But this peace is temporary, for a house divided is inherently unstable. (3:24-26)

And Jesus will ransack the strong man's house by first disarming him, like a thief. (Mark 3:27; compare Matt 24:43, 1Thess 5:2, 2Pet 3:10, Rev 16:15) The strong man is Satan, and he will do this on the cross. Satan will cast out Satan, and Jesus, in the disguise of a criminal and immoral person rightly crucified, the lie of accusation will be unmasked and God's vindication of Jesus in the resurrection will give us eyes to see.

This is scapegoating, Satan casting out Satan. When we participate in scapegoating we are in league with the diabolical. Of course, we all think we would never do such a thing. No one ever does think that, we always think we are innocently and righteously identifying the problem (someone else). All kinds of self-righteousness accrue.  Social causes are vulnerable to being pulled into the diabolical. (Its why someone always ends up against the wall when the revolution comes.) Whatever you think of the righteousness of a pet cause (to say this should immediately give pause), the conditions for just such scapegoating are visible around us. 

The lie that allows humans to be content in self-righteousness is best maintained if the scapegoat is guilty of something. That way the fiction of their (whoever they are) guilt can have at least an air of credibility. Scapegoating pops up as sides and causes are taken, and as victims (of evil) and perpetrators (of evil) are discovered and denounced. Satan casting out Satan. As mentioned, it is best if there is some element of guilt present and some element of ostensible (self-)righteousness. But the guilt need not be related directly to the 'crime', only tangentially. But when the invective rises and continues to rise, when we are all forced to take a side, or when to not take a side is to be accused of being on the wrong side of history (siding with evil), Satan is casting out Satan.

Following Jesus asks us to be sensitive to the victims of the diabolical who are innocent of the crimes heaped on them (not necessarily innocent). To be a follower of Jesus is to renounce the false peace and feelings of righteousness that flow from Satan casting out Satan. At a minimum, to be Christian and part of a Christian community is to find our communion in love and forgiveness, not in expulsion.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Am Important Detail at Pentecost

Acts 2:1-12 tells the story of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples after the Ascension of Jesus. It is easy to miss the significance of a small detail embedded in the story. It is crucial that the disciples are given diverse tongues rather than the hearers enabled to understand the (single) dialect of the disciples. Imagine if it were around the other way, with the listeners enabled to understand the one language. Christianity would be another religion, a religion in which God's word is uncluttered with the varieties of human culture, indeed of human experience. A religion that perceived variety as an impediment to unity, or should I say, an impediment to uniformity.
    Christianity affirms that humans don't have to be translated into a monoculture.  We don't have to reject who we are, where we come from, how we have learnt to be human, to be Christians. Hence the church's commitment to translating the gospel into the language of the people. Christianity is a religion in which variety is celebrated, and this variety is not an impediment to our unity.  There still remains a gospel to be heard, and this gospel will change us and the languages and cultures in which we express ourselves. But the gospel is accommodated to the human family in all of its variety, not the other way around. 
Not that this little detail in the Acts story begins God's accommodation to the variety of the human family and all creation.  The pedigree stretches way back.  Most especially so in the Incarnation, with God becoming human in Jesus so that we can share in God's life as human beings. (John 1:14; 2Corinthians 8:9) 
    And this story is not the only example of Christianity's insight that variety is not the enemy of unity. Christianity likes bringing together that which is usually separated. A doctrinal example is the doctrine of the Incarnation. According to the belief of the church expressed in the creeds,  Jesus is not a mish-mash of divine and human, nor some divinised quasi-human. Think here, for example, of the Creed of Chalcedon, 

... without confusion or change, without division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together ... 

The union of that which is usually apart - divine and human. This union provides us with a glimpse of our future in God: union with God without our diminishment (or God's).  But if Jesus were in some way not fully human and fully divine the little detail in the Pentecost story would have to be the other way around. And we would have to change St Paul's reflection in 1Corinthians 12 (especially vv 4-7) on the variety of gifts given to the church. So too the Christian insistence that our final fulfilment is not to be dissolved back into some great sea of being, but to be who we are, in Christ united with the Father, through the Holy Spirit. (1Cor 15:20-28.) And we would have to change our doctrine of creation. In Christianity God not only permits 'the other'/creation, but loves creation, providing creation with its own integrity. (Christianity is not pantheism.)
    All of these examples speak of God's sensitivity to our particularity and personhood, and the variety of all creation in which God delights. So, of course, when the Spirit is given the disciples speak in diverse languages rather than the Spirit squeezing the listeners into a cultural straightjacket.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Glorified Wounds

 Jesus is the Lord who came to save us by dying for us on the cross. The wounds in Jesus' glorified body remind us of the way in which we are saved. But they also remind us that our own wounds are much more than roadblocks on our way to God. They show us our own unique way to follow the suffering Christ, and they are destined to become glorified in our resurrected life. Just as Jesus was identified by his wounds, so are we. (Henri Nouwen)

Friday, 16 April 2021

The Wounds of Jesus are Not an Embarrassment

 The wounds of the Risen One are neither an embarrassment nor inconvenient.  The cross was not a mistake that needed Plan B to correct. If the wounds of Jesus were an embarrassment or an inconvenience we would not have an account of a Christophany of the Wounded-Risen One.  It is almost like Jesus wants his disciples to see his wounds.

In popular culture the afterlife is portrayed in ethereal terms with at least the world of suffering and death a past memory, or perhaps even ignored. Think of Dumbledore and Harry P speaking near the end of the movie series in a railway station of sorts. Like an escape from reality, a dualism with the unreal afterlife wholly disconnected from the evil world from which he has escaped. Not so the resurrected Jesus. He is no bodyless spirit or vision. The resurrection takes all that we are, and our histories, into God's future and transforms us. Resurrection has nail holes.

We should be rattled. Imagine seeing a dead man who is so visibly alive as the risen Christ yet has all the wounds of death. The kind of wounds that kill. It isn't enough to say that such a person is alive. It would be better to say that a dead man is alive. And that doesn't make any sense, or at least not in the way we ordinarily think of life and death. It wasn't just a matter of God reversing the death of Jesus, as though death was banished. It is more like God gave life to a dead man who remains dead, except that death has lost its sting, its meaning, and its power. Life and death, as two sides of the one coin as we experience life and death, no longer mean what we think they mean. Christ is risen!

I like that little bit in Colossians where we are told God made a public example of the rulers and authorities, triumphing over them in the cross. (2:15) When the risen Jesus flashes his wounds to his disciples (John 20:20; Luke 24:39-40) he is making a public example of his victory over death and the power of death. Not the public example of a Roman general in a Triumph. Indeed, the evidence of the triumph of God in Christ is exactly what Rome would see as signs of defeat. But, because Christ is raised (not just alive again instead of being dead), death has lost its sting, death has lost its meaning and power, the wounds of Christ are his Triumph.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

The Hand and Feet of Jesus

 Jesus' hands and feet were not just anyone's hands and feet, but the signs of his real bodily presence. They were the hands and feet of Jesus marked with the wounds of his crucifixion. It is of great spiritual importance that Jesus made himself known to his disciples by showing them his wounded body. The resurrection has not taken his wounds away but, rather, they had become part of his glory. They had become glorified wounds. (Henri Nouwen)

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

The Death of Jesus v the Death of Socrates

The death of Socrates is very different from the death of Jesus. Socrates dies with equanimity, almost elegance. With a bit of philosophizing, he helps others see the necessity of his death, and so he then dies with great dignity. This is very different from Jesus. Jesus sweats blood. Forget the question of whether that is physically possible. It's a great metaphor for Jesus' inner anguish as he approaches death. 

At the last supper, Jesus gives a portion of bread to his betrayer. Is this an act of forgiveness, an offering of his 'body'? (See here.) Whatever you think of that, one can't help feel the poignancy of the moment. Jesus' world is collapsing and he still offers the bread to Judas. And then Jesus makes his way to Gethsemane. He needs his friends as his world darkens, but they fall asleep. "Take this cup from me ..." The God who has been so diligently responsive throughout his public ministry is now silent. Where will this end? On the cross, with loud crying (Hebrews 2:7) and a cry of lament, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" His inner turmoil is apparent as he experiences God's absence. Jesus dies a lonely, isolated figure, and I feel our common humanity in his suffering and anguish, made intolerable by desertion and godforsakenness. His end is extreme, but we know something of anguish, isolation, and suffering. 

Jesus' death is so different from the death of Socrates. It is hard to imagine Socrates crying over anyone, but Jesus cried over Jerusalem. Jesus felt a deep sympathy with those he healed, so much so that the New Testament says that, in respect of his healing ministry, Jesus 'took our infirmities and bore our diseases.' (Matt 8:17. See Isaiah 53:4-6.) Jesus is no philosopher like Socrates. He is a High Priest offering himself in the depths of his humanity and ours for the salvation of the world, a path that leads right through the middle of suffering not around it. Jesus could relate to people and heal them: not because he was distant from them, but because he knows us from the inside. (Heb 2:14-18) And it is why we can relate to God through him. We are not leaving behind our humanity when we come to God through Jesus, but are invited into a more intimate sharing of our common humanity. We are not less prone to inner anguish, but more prone to feel the world and its pain. 

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Is Forgiveness a Duty?

Is forgiveness a duty? Is it the case that if we don’t forgive others, then God won’t forgive us? Do we have a responsibility to hand God’s forgiveness of us on to others? And are we obliged to forgive others so we can break the cycle of revenge? That's duty, and it has its place. But the motivation for forgiveness is love, not duty. 
   
But what is the alternative to dutifully 'forgiving' someone if we can't really forgive them? Well, if we are not able to forgive the alternative is not to tell ourselves that we should forgive others. The alternative is an act of will not to seek revenge against that person, and to guard against subtle acts of retaliation. There is a level of authenticity in this kind of non-aggression. We are not trying to make out everything is fine. And it doesn’t extend the harm that has already occurred. And then we can do the spiritual disciplines that I outlined previously. (Here). Maybe, one day, we will forgive the other party.

This question is similar to helping others out of a sense of guilt. The motivation for forgiving others or helping others matters. St Paul says we can do all sorts of incredible feats of self-sacrifice, but without love, nothing is gained. (1Cor 13:1-3) Acting out of guilt is really about us. Helping others out of guilt is then really about us, not the ones we help. And the 'help' we offer is very easily skewed or distorted when it is offered for our benefit.  Moreover, guilt is too closely related to self-disgust to take us very far. And guilt doesn’t build a future but is stuck in the past. 

And responding to the needs of others out of guilt will bring unintended consequences. For example, let’s say someone is feeling guilty about the blessings in their life so they decide to be ‘generous’ in money/time/goods toward those they perceive to be less fortunate. And isn’t it handy that the recipient of the largesse then comes to depend on the ‘generosity’ of the giver! I say 'fortunate' because then the feelings of guilt can be easily assuaged. Almost like a vending machine. Whole industries of charity are built on evoking this ‘generosity’. 

 In the same way, forgiving someone wallowing in guilt won’t relieve their guilt but more likely feed it. The person feeling guilty feels a little better after being forgiven, encouraging them to seek forgiveness over and over. A kind of moral addiction if you like, and Christianity calls such addiction salvation by works. (Or these days we might call it virtue signalling.) And the moral addiction easily becomes a moralistic addiction seeking out other sinners to denounce. We have a plague of this at the moment in western societies. 

 But to return to the original question: do we have a duty to forgive others? Duty ultimately skews relationships. It is good to remember that. We might think that we should at least mouth forgiveness for the benefit of the person seeking forgiveness. Maybe, but inauthenticity on our part won’t get them very far. Remember, a genuinely remorseful person won’t necessarily require us to forgive them. That's because they won't be seeking forgiveness for their sake but to heal a relationship as best as can be done. So they will let us have our feelings and our work to do rather than require us to forgive them. And genuine remorse means the person has already done some of the work themselves about their actions, who they are, and the future. 

Contrast this with the person who needily seeks forgiveness. They will need more than a show on our part. They could come to church and authentically open themselves to the One who has already forgiven them so as to heal and lead them beyond their neediness.



Friday, 19 February 2021

Some Biblical Texts on Forgiveness

This Sunday we are gathering to discuss forgiveness, and in preparation, I have distributed the following as a bit of a guide to forgiveness in the Bible. This isn't everything there is to say. But just doing this, compiling it, was an overwhelming experience. Sometimes we have a tendency to focus on bits of scripture which might be of interest but miss the overwhelming themes. So here goes:

 The New Testament uses a variety of images to express the unique event and consequences of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Words like justification, rescue, freedom, healing, ransom, reconciliation, adoption, peace, sanctification, and forgiveness. (And there are still more.) Forgiveness is a keyword from everyday experience that is used as a lens to understand what God has accomplished for us in Christ. Here are some passages from the (Old and) New Testament that speak of forgiveness. There are more! 

 Genesis 33:1-4 Esau forgives Jacob 

Genesis 45:1-8 Jacob forgives his brothers 

Jeremiah 31:31-34. The prophet in this passage looks to a New Covenant that stands as both a renewal of the Old Covenant and stands in contrast to it. The New Covenant will bring a new intimacy with God and God’s ways, for no longer will people have to get the law from a stone tablet but it will be written directly on the human heart. They would know God’s ways by heart and their sins will be forgiven. (Jesus claims the new Covenant is enacted in his blood, see Mark 14:22-25) See also Ezekiel 36:22-28. 

 Ezekiel envisages God washing clean the people of God and providing a new heart of flesh rather than their old hearts of stone. With new hearts and a new spirit within them, they will be able to follow God’s commands. (36:25-27) And they will, finally and truly, be God’s people and God will be their God. (36:28) And notice that God does this not because the people deserve it, but it is an act of grace, because of God’s name, that is, who God is. (Compare with 1John 2:12) 

 Matthew 6:7-15 Lord’s Prayer and forgiveness 

Matthew 18:21-22 (See Genesis 4:23-24) vengeance and forgiveness 

Matthew 18:23-35 a huge debt forgiven compared to the miserly slave

 Mark 2:3-12 What is easier to say? 

Mark 11:25-26 when you pray, forgive … 

Luke 6:37-38 forgive and you will be forgiven 

Lk 7:36-50 Which of them will love him more? … hence she has shown great love 

Luke 15:11-32 the forgiving father 

Luke 24:44-49 proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins (see also Acts 5:30-32; 10:37-43; 13:38-39) 

John 20:19-23. Receive the Holy Spirit … 

Acts 7:60 Stephen forgives his murderers (see also Luke 23:34) 

2Corinthians 2:5-11 forgive and console him …anyone you forgive I forgive 

Ephesians 1:3-14 with a smorgasboard of images for God’s love for us in Christ. 

Ephesians 4:29-5:2 

Colossians 2:14 

Colossians 3:12-13 

Philemon 1:17-21 the debt he owes you, add to my account 

Hebrews 10:11-18 quoting Jeremiah 31 

James 5:13-16 

1John 1:8-2:2

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Further Thoughts on Hypocrisy (Part 1)

 Hypocrisy is such a nasty word. Its root is from Greek for an actor with a mask in a performance, a critic/interpreter underneath (the mask). That is, what you see is not the real person. 

The usual way of thinking of hypocrisy is to picture someone who acts and speaks in a way that does not reflect who they really are, and they wear this 'mask' to dupe those around them. Undoubtedly, this does happen, but it is not the only problem. Most of us don't want to be knowingly false to ourselves. Think of someone who has lost the fire in the belly for their 'passion' (what a terribly overused word these days) and no longer believes in it, and yet still must maintain the talk and the walk. Hypocrisy, I suppose, but most people get hollowed out and unhappy becasue they know they are play acting. They move on and discard the mask.

What is more common is the hypocrisy that is not directed to the outside world, but inwardly, to the hypocrite themselves. The hypocrisy is more likely unknown to the alleged hypocrite, at least consciously. The more common hypocrisy is the attempt to convince ourselves that we aren't who we really think we are.  We put on a mask for ourselves, desperate to convince ourselves. Forget the idea that we are trying to dupe others, hypocrisy is primarily about self-deception. Of course, the self-deception is strengthened if our hypocrisy convinces others as well. This is one reason why trying to be 'good' is a trap. ('Only God is good' says Jesus, see here.) Wanting to be good can easily become wanting to be good (or whatever the deception) because I suspect that I might be, or could be, bad etc. That's hypocrisy. And it is a path that leads away from our full humanity. No wonder Jesus didn't like it much. (See here.)


Saturday, 13 February 2021

A Longer Reflection on Forgiveness

 

Forgiveness is important,  as is its lack. But before we talk about forgiveness there are useful spiritual disciplines to mention first. 

So, let us say that we believe/feel we have been wronged. Perhaps we are angry. Here is a discipline that, under some but not all circumstances, may help as we head to forgiveness (or not), and grow into the full stature of Christ.

1. So, who is the person who has done this? I mean really, who are they? Questions to ask: I wonder how they have come to be this person? What have they been through, how have they grown past the difficulties of their life, whether these difficulties are self-inflicted or inherited? Continue with these and other explorations about the person and the incident(s), and what has led to this alienation between you that you are experiencing. Call this increasing our sympathy or empathy for the one you believe has wronged you.

2. How about me? Where am I in all of this? Think about the lead up to 'the incident(s)'. What can I learn about myself? Am I ready to 'die' to whatever has brought me to be so angry or offended? (E.g. pride, self-importance, or perhaps my anger reveals a part of me that I am actually uncomfortable with, a discomfort that has led to my angry reaction and feelings.) This is not a call to attack oneself, but rather, an invitation to self-understanding, or you could call it sympathy for our own particularity as human beings.

I find that this discipline leads to insight about myself and others, and can let me give up some of what is driving my alienation from the other person. Sometimes, because of this discipline, I can forget and move on. 

Not all feelings, not all actions, not every alienation from someone, will yield to the above discipline. Sometimes there is a remainder: I understand something of why they did this, and yet ...

 Indeed, plenty of human history will never and should never yield to the above discipline. No matter how much we understand what lays behind or led up to the incident(s), there is no simple forgetting, no easy moving on as though it 'doesn't matter'. (The discipline above can lead us, in some situations, to say exactly that, "It doesn't matter." And this can be real and genuine. To say "It doesn't matter" is to say I've grown, and it - the incident, action, and the alienation I felt - doesn't matter like it did formerly.)

But when there is a remainder, or when understanding, sympathy, empathy, do not cover the sin, we have entered the realm of forgiveness.

The first thing to say about forgiveness must be its asymmetry. Forgiveness is not deserved, it is not earned, it is not a reciprocal coming down off our mutual high-horses and meeting somewhere in the middle. It is full of grace, if you like. 

Forgiveness costs us. We venture into alienation, and bringing reconciliation where there is human alienation is neither easy nor cheap. Grace is always costly.

Jesus is, if you like, God's spiritual discipline as outlined above. In Jesus God becomes one of us, one with the human condition. God knows human sin (in need of forgiveness) from the inside, as a victim of it, to the point of betrayal, desertion, torture and execution. God knows us and our sin. God understands us and sin. But the Incarnation (God becoming human in Jesus), death, and resurrection of Jesus are more than (to use my metaphor above) a spiritual discipline. In Jesus God overcomes the alienation of sin. This is God and God's way: God becoming what is not God (in this case sin, godforsakenness, and alienation, see 2Corinthians 5:21 and Mark 15:34) and in this complete embrace of what is not divine bringing reconciliation with what was formerly alienated (us). 

And then there is the resurrection. Of course, we should not separate the two, cross and resurrection. The forgiveness that is brought about through God's embrace of godforsakenness (see Mark 15:34) is the resurrected Jesus. The forgiving victim of sin offers forgiveness and sends his disciples out to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

There is freedom in this. God's freedom in embracing human sin, and in this freedom carrying our freedom (misused in sin) so that we can grow into our true freedom as children of God.

And there is grace in all this. Undeserved forgiveness (there is no other kind) that is utterly asymmetrical. Forgiveness is always ahead of us; in Christ forgiveness never catches up to us, but we catch up to forgiveness. That is, even though we seek forgiveness through repentance, and hear the word of grace and absolution after, it is forgiveness that arrived first at that place, and we were drawn to it.

Friday, 5 February 2021

Freedom

 After the Western ideal of unlimited freedom, after the Marxist concept of freedom as acceptance of the yoke of necessity—here is the true Christian definition of freedom. Freedom is self-restriction! Restriction of the self for the sake of others! (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Jonah, Resentment, Idolatry

There is a lot to say about the book of Jonah. After all, people write good commentaries on the book even though it is only a few pages long. The book begins with Jonah fleeing from God because God wants him to go to Nineveh and warn the city of impending destruction. He eventually goes to Nineveh after a short sojourn in the belly of the great fish, and calls the people to repentance. He doesn't try too hard. (See 3:3-4) But it works; the people repent, much to the chagrin of Jonah.  After the people of Nineveh repent and God relents from destroying the city, Jonah is displeased. He complains to God,

Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." (4:2)

It's tough when you are the last one to repent. It's a bit lonely I suppose. The Ninevites repent, and even God relents, that is, changes God's mind, which is a kind of repentance. But Jonah can't relent in his judgmentalism. And he is angry.  So God tries to show him why God has relented. God brings a little bush up and then has it die. (4:6-8) Jonah is upset again, this time about the bush. And God says, in a way similar when Jonah was angry about Nineveh's escape from destruction, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" (4:9, cf 4:4)

Idolatry is always hard to give up. That's why the 'idol' (see here) became an idol in the first place. Jonah has a set idea of God fuelled by his judgmentalism, anger, self-righteousness or similar. And not even God's enacted parable with the bush and explanation following, can change him. Well, actually, we don't know. The story ends without us knowing Jonah's response to God's explanation of God's mercy to the Ninevites. The book closes open-ended, functioning as an invitation to us to repent of hardness of heart, directed at others (and by implication ourselves). 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Idolatry

Whatever we adopt and assert as the ultimate controlling factor in our lives is our god. We do not need to love it and worship it. We can even fear it or hate it. But in our religion we try to control it. (KarlBarthfor Dummies)

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Authenticity, Worship, and Confession

 Christians seek, among other things, authenticity. So what makes authentic worship? Scripture links authentic worship to our lives outside of worship. Our love for God is expressed in worship just as it is expressed in our lives. In gratitude for what God has done for us, our lives are to express God’s love through the practice of righteousness and justice, faith, and mercy. That is, we are to love God by obeying God’s commandments, a love expressed through worship as well. But it is not so much that worship must be accompanied by a life of righteousness, mercy, etc, but that without a congruence between our lives and what God commands the worship of God loses its authenticity. Worship and our lives are not separate silos; lives of righteousness and mercy are the precondition for worship. That’s not a call to try and earn God’s love in our lives, but a call to live lives of gratitude by practising mercy and love in faith. 

So a precondition of authentic worship is authenticity in our discipleship day to day. And that’s a problem. Whose life is one of perfect obedience? Does this mean that our worship is necessarily inauthentic? Confession in worship can help us out here. In confession, we come as authentic sinners confessing authentic sins to an authentically loving and forgiving God. And God’s forgiveness is ahead of us in this. It is not that we repent and confess our sins and God forgives us as a reward. God’s love is already waiting for us and does not need our confession first to then be able to forgive us. God loves us now, so we confess in the knowledge of that love. And so confession and absolution become an expression of authenticity and the means to seek greater authenticity. We acknowledge who we have made ourselves into, and in this context of forgiveness and love need not hide from who we are. That’s authenticity. And we can begin to unravel what we have made ourselves into via this path of authenticity. That’s authentic change. 

 In other words, confession is an aid in avoiding hypocrisy, an archenemy of authenticity. We don’t have to come to worship ignoring our failure to live authentic Christian lives. Instead, we can come to the God who is rich in mercy as an authentic sinner who is authentically forgiven. It is, after all, not the perfection of the pure that makes the angels rejoice in heaven, but, if I could rephrase Jesus, the sinner authentically repenting.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Our Poverty Implies God's Fullness.

We are incomplete. As humans. It is our nature.

We see this clearly, as the poet says:



On the Mystery of the Incarnation 


It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:

not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.      (Denise Levertov)



There is a 'taint' in our own selves. The poet recalls for us the terrible things we humans do to each other, from truly horrific violence to all kinds of mundane emotional cruelty. But, she says, this incompletion is the way in which our hearts and minds can be transformed, converted. (“…that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart…”)


There is plenty more evidence for this lack in us, this incompleteness. Not just incorrigible human failure like ethnic violence, family and generational violence, but also the more mundane distress we have all felt in our families of origin, in our own families. Parents see themselves in their children, good and not so desirable, and wonder how the not-so-good happened despite our best efforts! It’s common. 


Utopianism is further evidence, if it is needed. We are currently in the power of all sorts of extreme utopianisms. Utopianism is a kind of denial of our incompleteness. A kind of ‘she doth protest too much’, an over-insistence to cover the fear, to protest against, and to reject of the lack in us.


Our tendency to monument building is another sign of this incompleteness. We don’t last, We are like the grass of the field, as scripture says. So, let’s build a monument to ourselves, our family, our culture. Nothing necessarily wrong with monument building, it’s just that it sometimes can be, once again, a protest, against our evanescence: we age, we fade, we disappear.


Or again, the self-help industry. It’s good, why not try to help yourself? But, again, it is an acknowledgement of our incompleteness, there is more to us than what we are now. So we try all sorts of methods to change and grow, all kinds of methods, philosophies, and irrationalities.


We are told to embrace honestly, or at least, to accept this incompleteness in the myriad ways it shows itself. To change what needs to be changed, to grow, to accept.. Of course.


But there is something missing in that account. The Christian account, while accepting what I have just said, thinks there is something more. It’s not just to accept and or change, as good as these are. It is to acknowledge our poverty, our spiritual poverty. The incompleteness doesn't mean that we just have to learn new methods of self-enquiry or a helpful technique to grow psychologically.  We are poor, but to acknowledge this is to acknowledge God’s loving fullness waiting to be poured into our hearts. Christianity doesn’t say we are poor; it says God is rich and wishes to share God’s richness with us in our poverty. We are made incomplete to be filled by God’s Spirit, to take us to a new depth of loving that we ourselves cannot bring about. And this fullness doesn’t just complete us, it brings healing. The very signs of our incompleteness can be transformed and healed in God’s fullness. Anger, hate, malice, fear, anxiety, violence and revenge, alienation and the fear of death, all can be healed and we can be taken where we were made to go.


This is Christmas. God comes as a human being, the beginning of a new humanity filled by God’s Spirit. The weak, helpless baby a sign of God’s desire to stoop down to us and take us to where God is. Not just the birth, of course. There is to come Jesus’ ministry, rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection. But God has done in Jesus what we are made not to be able to do on our own: to be a complete humanity, in the image of that same Christ. 

Saturday, 5 December 2020

More than a Prophet

Prophets, at least as we use the term now, lack identification with those they criticise. Those they come to save are on the other side of the dividing line, and those who are condemned have to make it over to the prophet’s side of the river. The modern-day prophet tends toward black and white judgment, and speak with deep resentment, not sympathy. Or so it seems to me.

Although, not just modern prophets. John the Baptist, who the NT sees as the last of the OT style prophets, is more than a bit like this. I imagine he would have approved of the parable of the sheep and the goats we heard in Matthew a couple of weeks back. A nice, easy division between those in and those out, the good and the bad, the blessed and the damned. (I was going to say a nice dividing line down the middle, but John the Baptist was anything but in the middle; most people wouldn’t have made it by John’s judgement.)
He offered a water baptism to escape the fiery wrath to come, too bad about the unwashed.

Jesus was seen as a prophet. But he is more than a prophet. Not just in stature as indicated by John today with the metaphor of the sandal. Jesus stands apart also because of his willingness to identify with those he came to save. This identification begins with his baptism by John in the Jordan. The significance of Jesus’ baptism is brought out particularly in Matthew’s Gospel. For the Baptist the messiah cannot, should not, be baptised. That’s for sinners. Jesus should be doing the baptising. There is a divide that should not, cannot, be broken. Jesus disagreed. And, of course, Jesus’ death on the cross: complete and utter identification to the point of godforsakenness – you can’t get any deeper identification with sinners than that.

The black and white condemnation of a prophet just doesn’t sound like Jesus. He is more than this. (Just as his good news of the kingdom is more than a parable about dividing sheep and goats.) Indeed, John the Baptist doesn’t sound like Jesus. John thought this himself. John had serious doubts about Jesus before he, John, died. Prophets are often graceless. Jesus was full of grace and truth.

We all have a bit of black and white condemnation in us. But more likely in a church like this, we might meet the same gracelessness but in a softer version. Something like, “If only everyone could just love one another,” or “If only people would be kinder/more respectful etc.” Sounds reasonable, but such sentiments lack grace. Behind it is the assumption that people are the problem, and the solution lies with people. That lacks grace. People might be the problem, but the solution lies with God. This is why God became human as Jesus. That’s why Jesus was baptised by John and died on the cross. God is with us in our human failure, not as a prophet, but as more than a prophet.

Gracelessness also encourages despair. Where’s there to go after “if only people would …”? I suppose we could condemn them, force them, or I suppose we could just keep trying, plod on because what else is there to do? I think a lot of people are in that place of plodding on.

When I pray for the kingdom I don’t pray, “If only people would be kinder etc.” It’s self-righteous. I pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done …” We are not those who have fallen into despair or cynicism or just plod on, we live by hope because it is God’s kingdom. Grace is alive and well in the world. Jesus is risen. (Come Lord Jesus!)




Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Cracks, Light, & Sainthood

It is part of popular culture that our cracks let the light in. It is another example of the Christian legacy in western culture. It is not in strength that God’s power is made perfect but in weakness. People easily miss the point that talking about our sins is another way of talking about our cracks. God doesn’t start with any self-proclaimed wholeness or perfection. God’s love winds its way into our hearts through the cracks, or to use traditional language, our sins. God’s love won’t divide us up, ostracizing the cracked bits and just working with the parts that aren’t cracked (to stay with the metaphor) but works the cracks to bring about genuine wholeness. People ask me why Christianity is so sin focused. This is why. Our cracks aren’t meant to be ignored or covered over. The cracks are God’s way in. God works the cracks, not the uncracked. ‘The saints’ in the New Testament are those made holy by God, and why so many great saints don’t have a holy past.


Sometimes we forget it is not the cracks that are important, it is the light. No one wants to admit to wallowing in our problems. So it is more common to find the reverse of wallowing in our problems (cracks), such that admitting the cracks is in some way a noble gesture of great character. Or something to be proud of. That is really just the other side of the coin of wallowing in one’s problems. Wallowing in our cracks, or vainly parading the cracks focus on the cracks. The cracks are still a problem. The cracks remain unsettling, dangerous. The Christian tradition suggests a different path. A humbler path. Honesty, yes. Honesty, authenticity, lie at the heart of repentance. But the Christian path focuses on the light, not the cracks. It is because we are bathed in light that the cracks can be healed.


The cracks let the light in, but once the light is in, the whole vase is aglow. That’s the path to sainthood as most of us think of saints. The light shines through the saint. The cracks can let the light out, but the whole person is irradiated. While it is tempting to downplay ‘the saints’ because sainthood in the New Testament referred originally to being made holy, it is also important to remember the saints. They are, if you like, evidence of the power of the light.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Incomprehensibility and the Image of God

In theory, could human beings come to know everything about the universe? Putting aside the kind of human arrogance that thinks all is possible because they think they are God, is it at least theoretically possible to know and understand, to comprehend, the universe?


It’s too big. OK, agreed, probably a bit big. But, in theory, what would be encountered on the other side of the universe, could such phenomena be investigated and understood?

No, it is too complex. OK, but if we did have the right tools and equipment, the right technology, would it be possible? In theory, yes. Our intelligence seems mapped to understanding the reality around us. (If it were not so, it would be difficult to understand how and why the Western scientific method has been so successful.


And then, there is mystery. Mystery, in the Christian schema, is not the currently unknown, but that could be known under the right circumstances. In Christianity, mystery refers to the incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, even in theory. We can’t slice mystery into manageable bits, and we can’t wrestle it into shape and compare it to what we do know to therefore grasp it, at least partially. I’m talking about God. God can reveal Godself, in all God’s glorious incomprehension. God can become human in Jesus, but that does not mean we comprehend God. Jesus reveals the incomprehensible God, who remains incomprehensible. That is, God is not our plaything, and cannot be put to our use as we do with everything else we understand (even partially understand). When people of faith try to control God terrible consequences follow. Hence, the prohibition against idols and misusing God’s name embedded in the Ten Commandments.


And we are made in the image of this incomprehensible God. Attempts to identify the image in us with certain attributes or capacities abound. And whatever the benefits of such approaches, we should never think that somehow, we have made the image comprehensible. That would be to break the second commandment. Reductionism has its place in the study of our humanity, but the irreducible remains. Kathryn Tanner sees an imitation of God’s incomprehensibility in the plasticity of our nature. In comparison to other species, we are born with little hard wired in us. We grow, learn, change, exponentially so. Our nature is “in a sense unlimited, unbounded by a clearly delimited nature, in virtue, in the human case, of an expansive openness and initial indefiniteness.” This natural openness is a negative imitation in that God’s incomprehensibility is from complete fullness, whereas our imitation is a “lack, through an initial failure of predetermination, not by being anything in particular in any very concrete way to start.” (Christ the Key, p. 53)


If God is beyond our understanding, incomprehensible, what is an appropriate response to God? Awe, joy, bliss. Prayer, thanksgiving, faith.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Idolatry and Purity

Recently, on ABC Adelaide radio, prominent educationalist and author Kevin Donnelly was cut mid-stream from the broadcast for referring to or quoting from, Mark Twain. (Ironically Donnelly was being interviewed about his latest book on free speech in education!) I'm sure the purists of the ABC were satisfied. 

Purity and extremism often follow one another. Purity is important in a recent Sunday reading today. (Exodus 32:1-14.) The people of Israel make for themselves an idol, a golden calf.  When it comes to sins, it doesn't get much worse than idolatry. Idolatry is held execrable because, among other reasons, it leads to all kinds of inhumanity. The worst idolatry is to substitute ourselves for God, rather than maintain ourselves as made in God's image. This was Solzhenitsyn's criticism of the monstrous history of the Bolsheviks, and more and more the modern world. In response to the danger of idolatry, Christianity has sought to overturn idolatry wherever it is found. But while this pursuit is pure, purity, as I said, often leads to extremism. Purity has no grace, and no place for failure, or the sinner. And it easily becomes an idol.

It is ironic that the quest to prevent idolatry ends in all kinds of inhumanities. Purity makes new victims in its efforts to prevent the impurity. But let us not restrict such puritanical pursuits to Christianity or religion in general. It seems to be a general characteristic of human beings. Think of all the great movements of purity from the French Revolution through to the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and Pol Pot. Good atheists the lot of them.

Irony abounds. The ranks of the new puritans in the West (including in the Church) are to be found in those who would claim to be dismantling old oppressive systems of purity or preventing their re-emergence. 

So, what is the antidote to idolatry? As I have said before, Christian faith does not develop by just trying harder. Purifying oneself of any skerrick of idolatry may have the opposite effect than the one desired. (By making an idol out of the pursuit of purity.)

Better to love God. Practice loving God, even if it comes hard, or we are imperfect in it. It is love that overcomes idolatry, not purity. 

Saturday, 5 September 2020

The Lost Sheep

 Tomorrow in the Sunday lectionary we will be reading Matthew's version of the Lost Sheep parable. If you are thinking that you have heard enough explanations about this parable (whether Matthew's or Luke's version) check out a post I put together a while back comparing the canonical versions with the version fo the parable in the Gospel of Thomas. (Here) It is different. In Thomas, the shepherd seeks the lost sheep not because it is lost/weak, but because the shepherd loves it more. An elitism foreign to the canonical versions. The New Testament takes great pains to reiterate God's universal love for all of creation. God has no favourites. Jesus didn't come just for those with esoteric knowledge.

Having been hard green-left thirty or more years ago, I know how tantalising it is to think that God does have favourites. Christianity's insight (derived from a resurrected and vindicated victim) that the voice of the victim is the voice of God. This is not meant to be an ideological tool to make new victims. It is the sensitivity to the victim and our mutual making of victims that comes with the territory of being a follower of Jesus. But, without the conversion to the way of Jesus himself, this insight is distorted into a new ideology wherein to have any moral ground one must be a victim or speak on behalf of a victim.  The result? Look at where we are now in the West. New victims, self-righteousness, revenge, we have it all.

Friday, 14 August 2020

The Joseph Story

 The Joseph story is one of my favourites in scripture. It doesn't get much more real (except perhaps the cross!). A husband and his two wives ("And it was Leah!), favoured sons, bitter rivalry and envy, betrayal, forgiveness, conversion, and through and in all this God's presence.

I have posted some material before on Joseph. Check out this post on the conversion that Joseph leads his brothers to, and the way in which God's response to evil is not a moralistic separation of the good and bad, neither is God's response a gnostic ignoring of evil, but joining the story and putting the evil on a broader canvas of God's purposes. ("God intended it for good.") Or this post, a short reflection on how Christ is feels no envy toward us, and that through his Spirit we need not be envious of him, for everything that we can receive has been given to us.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Sinner: Changing How We see God, Ourselves, and Others.

Someone recently commented that, in the Victorian Stage 4 lockdown,  churches and brothels fall into the same category of activity and therefore restriction. Someone else quipped that both accept sinners! (Here.)I like that. Although it is a bit too easy to say compared to its practice. Contemporary society, allegedly, has moved beyond 'sinner' and the judgementalism that follows. However, using the word 'sinner' isn't necessarily judgemental. If you think it is necessarily judgemental then read on because I suggest you might still be stuck in the tight little circle of judgementalism that you are trying to leave. Scared that it might be true, we reject it. Protesting too much, so to speak.

These last few Sundays we have been reading the stories from Genesis about Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. The stories are about their schemes to make God's promise to them come true. (For the original promise, reiterated over and over throughout Genesis, see Genesis 12:1-3.) God doesn't need their schemes to bring about the promise, although God is free to use the schemes. (For example God doesn't need the scheming that brings about Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael. See Genesis 17:15-22. But God uses the scheming of Joseph's brothers to ensure the survival of the people of Israel during the great famine. See Genesis 37-46:7.) The stories show us a God who is accommodating of all kinds of human shenanigans and failures. The fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah, fulfilled in Jesus, is no cause for human pride. God's plan is not accomplished by human (self-)righteousness. It is God who brings about what God promises. But this is more than God just putting a brave face on a hidden resentment toward us. This is not the God of projected human self-righteousness and self-criticism. This is the God who can teach us how to relate to human failure (sin), both our own and the inadequacy and failure of others. This is what God is really like, through and through. God is with the people in promise and fulfilment, in covenant and law, with them, carrying them, loving them, making space for them, and ultimately saving us.

We see this in Jesus, intensely in his crucifixion and resurrection. God with us. Victim of human sin, literally carrying the instrument (symbol) of human sin, a cross. And from within the experience of bearing that sin bringing life and forgiveness. It is this God, with us (Matt 1:22-23; 28:16-20) truly walking our human life with us in the flesh: the life and death of Jesus, the God who makes space for sinners because God is love, it is this God to whom we relate as sinners. But that is not how most people think of the term 'sinner'. James Alison (here) says our language has a different tone than what people might think. (Words like God commands, desire, will, law. And, as I am saying here, a word like sinner.)

But not just our language changes. We are changed. "Sinner" isn't a term to demean, but when uttered in the Christian context, by a God who knows us and loves us, who truly empathises with us in Jesus, sinner becomes a term of grace. Sinner: I don't need to be perfect, I don't need to save myself, I am loved, known even in my human failure. There is nowhere left to fall away from God in Christ. 

Saturday, 28 March 2020

The Raising of Lazarus

In the season of Lent we are in preparation mode for Easter.
No wonder we get this set of readings. From life to death, to life.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is often referred to as the resurrection of Lazarus. It wasn’t a resurrection, Jesus is the resurrection, not Lazarus. But the so-called resurrection of Lazarus is a figure of what was to come. Lazarus’ raising is more like a kind of resuscitation because Lazarus will die again. Jesus’s resurrection is an utter transformation that takes who he is and all that he is into God. Including the human failure that crucified him, evidenced in his wounds. Even sin finds its end in resurrection. We call it forgiveness.
But the resurrection of Lazarus is also a figure of our conversion and life of discipleship. Lazarus moves from life to death to a life given back. So too our movement as we move deeper into God’s love: a movement from life to death and then back to a life renewed, life given back to us. In our daily dying and rising with Christ we die to the false self in Christ to receive back a renewed self, and renewed sense of self.
Imagine Lazarus. Who better to appreciate the gift of life than the dead, or the dead given back their lives. Lazarus must have really been smelling the roses (so to speak) after he was raised. Consciously living the gift of life as a gift despite the dark times of life. (This reminds me of that cartoon from Michael Leunig that has Jesus carrying the cross and because he is bent over he notices a flower on the path.) We too are called to smell the roses for we have gained our lives, not lost them. Whatever cross you bear there is a flower on your path just waiting to be noticed.
And part of our discipleship is to help others leave behind the barriers to living life more fully.
 The raising of Lazarus also speaks to us now as our personal and communal lives change, perhaps for ever, because of COVID-19.  Many of us are feeling once again the fragility of the human project, the project to continually make ourselves individually and communally. This self-made person and society is so fragile. Most of the time we wander around as though our projects are here to stay.  But the potter’s wheel of life has a tendency to pull the illusion down. It is tempting to live the illusion and rebuild the project. I most likely will. But I won’t do it with quite the same blithe arrogance that ignores the reality of our fragility and our dependence on God. When we are allowed to resume our former lives, I, like Lazarus, might live the gift of life given back, but more consciously live it as the gift it is.