Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lent 2 The Scandal of Faith

Lent 2

Readings:Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38.

“…in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed …”(Romans 4:17-18)

Our readings today all centre upon the scandal, the difficulty and absurdity of faith.   We don’t see faith in these narratives, rather we see unbelief, misunderstanding and resistance.   The great man of faith, Abraham: we catch him at a moment quite late in his story, where his relationship with God is quite advanced and fraught by doubt and misunderstanding rather than trust.  Instead of trusting God, Abraham’s urgent desire to have a son has already caused him to make his own arrangements.  He has set up a ménage a trois in his own household and Sarai’s servant Hagar has conceived and given birth to a son for Abraham, Ishmael.  It is perhaps not surprising that Abraham’s domestic situation has so soon become unmanageable.

But God has another effort at fulfilling his purpose with Abraham.  He establishes another covenant and tells him that he will make him the ancestor of a multitude of nations and that the barren Sarai shall give rise to nations.  Not only does he promise this but he changes their names; Abram (noble Father) becomes Abraham (Father of Many) and Sarai (Princess) becomes Sarah, (Mother of Nations) – an irony that intensifies the foolishness and ambiguity of faith when their lived experience is so at odds with these new names.

A few verses later we hear the mocking laughter of Abraham and Sarah as they laugh at their situation and the unreality of God’s covenant with them.  In verses 17, 18, Abraham utterly doubts the promise and instead appeals to the fact of the son in hand, Ishmael, and is willing to rely on him as the alternative to the promised one.  After all Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is ninety: the promise flies in the face of the facts, it is contrary to reality – this is not how the world functions!   Abraham, so often presented as the father of faith is here presented as the unfaithful one, unable to trust.

At this point the doubt of Abraham fits with the stubborn unbelief of the disciples in Mark’s gospel (8:14-21).  They see the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 but they understand nothing of the life-giving, future creating resources present in the person of Jesus.  The failure to understand is not a matter of intelligence but of will.  They do not understand because of hard hearts (6:52).

In the same way, the disciples can make no sense of the call to the crucifxion or the future of the resurrection.  So, in the passion sayings of Jesus (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) they either resist, do not understand, or quarrel about the future.  At every point they fail to recognise that in Jesus the power of God is at work to create something new and independent of everything that they have known before.

Both Abraham and the disciples have the same crisis of faith.  Just as the disciples fail to discern the life-giving power of the bread the Lord gives, so Abraham fails to discern in God’s promise the capacity for new life.  Just as the disciples cannot make sense of the passion sayings; likewise Abraham seems unable to accept the discontinuity between barrenness and the yet to be born child of promise.  At this point it seems that Abraham understands nothing.  And yet Paul, with hindsight, says of him in the epistle … “…in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed …”(Romans 4:17-18)

At nearly every point, the story of Abraham shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is.  Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception.  In the same way the promise of the gospel is not conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else.  To embrace the radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity.  The story of Abraham circles about the vast question (18:14) “Is anything impossible for the Lord?”  It is the question which surfaces everywhere in the Bible and it is the fundamental question every human being must answer – and how it is answered determines everything else.

So in our gospel Jesus tells the disciples of the radical gospel they are not prepared to hear.  He takes them, and us, beyond our frames of reference, our parameters of reason, wisdom and common sense, he takes us well beyond our definitions of reality.  No wonder Peter takes him aside but here, as elsewhere in the gospel, Peter has not understood either.  He has failed to recognise that the Messiah is not as he has imagined – the Call of Christ is something different.  Is God’s power finally limited by our expectations? Another way of asking that could be “Is God God?”  Can the world say “no” to the creator?  Faith remains a scandal, challenging us at the very edges of our willingness to believe.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Lent 1 "The Time is fulfilled"

This reflection has its origin in a domestic scene – it is at the deanery and Christine, my wife, is painting, the canvas is on the easel and she is experimenting with an abstract to mark the start of Lent.  Experience has taught me to keep out of her way while she is occupied like this but I sneak a peep – I don’t understand what she is doing but I recognise the form of the cross and sense the energy that swirls about it.  I venture a comment –‘I like the energy about the cross’ –“the cosmic powers she says.”  The cosmic powers – yes!

So it has arrived, this first Sunday in Lent.  We look toward an apprehension of the cosmic powers and I begin with a question: how might we imagine the end of the world?  What we call The Apocalypse?  It is a question very relevant today: there are many films that explore it in terms of science fiction, climate change, nuclear war as our fragile foothold in life and on this planet is realised.  It is a thought that haunts the imagination.

Our Genesis reading revisits the biblical account of such an apocalypse – a horrific flood that swept away all life except for that retained in the ark.  The flood narrative faces a basic incongruity in human life.  The fracture between creator and creation is the premise and agenda of the flood story. On the one hand God has called the world into being to be his faithful covenant partner.  But, on the other hand, it has not happened that way – the creation proves resistant  to the purposes of God – by whom and for whom it exists.  A careful reading of the story reveals the hurt and anguish of God as judge and, despite everything, his commitment of redeeming love and faithfulness to the creation.

Now turn your attention to the rather difficult passage from the First letter of Peter: it is a fine passage for the start of Lent.  It resounds the dramatic highlights of the story of salvation: the cosmic powers inherent in the passion, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ that demonstrate God’s triumph over the powers of the universe.  Peter claims the cosmic reach of that salvation extends back to the beginnings of humankind at the time of the flood.  So now, as Christians use the time of fasting and penance during Lent to renew our lives, we should remember God’s grace that was given to us in baptism.  Peter also reminds all believers that our hope extends beyond this life to reunion with the heavenly Lord, whom we do not yet see.   The cosmic powers are close to us; acting in baptism; in the Eucharist to come; and near to us in every moment of our lives.

So in the gospel this morning we hear of Jesus baptised by John; this is the prologue to the gospel and we are told straightaway precisely who Jesus is: his identity and authority are made clear.  It is more vivid in the Greek than in most English translations.  “As he (Jesus) was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens in the process of being ripped apart.”  The verb used is the same as for the temple curtain which, when Jesus died, was rent from top to bottom (15:38).  In both cases what has been long sealed is suddenly flung open.  In Mark, unlike Matthew and John, the vision and the voice are for Jesus alone.  This is a secret epiphany – others must discover this truth by listening to what Jesus says and watching what he does.

Immediately after this great moment of revelation and affirmation for Jesus we find that the Spirit of God drives Jesus into the wilderness.  This tells us something about God, Jesus and ourselves.

About God:  God does not tempt (Satan does) but word tempt in Mark means to test.   Reflection on this passage suggests that “God uses  harsh means, including the very powers of hell, to accomplish redemptive purposes.”

About Jesus:  “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”  The divine Son was not exempted from testing or struggle.  Gregory the Great commented that “Jesus dwelt among beasts as a man; he was ministered to by angels, as God.”  The human and divine natures are both present.  In Mark Jesus’ single combat with Satan is the ordeal that validates Jesus as the Saviour.

About ourselves:  the most obvious thing to be learned is that the onslaught of Satan is strongest just after the exhilaration of a moment of revelation.

Finally in this gospel, hear the words that Jesus proclaims as he begins his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’"

This is the point in the Gospel prologue where the gospel transitions to Jesus’ public ministry.  "The Time is fulfilled" tells us: 
(1) that the coming of Jesus fulfils God’s plan for the grand sweep of history;
(2) that John’s time is over and Jesus’ ministry begins; 
(3) that now, as the good news in proclaimed, it is decision time; "the time is fulfilled."  The call now is to believe.  This is the urgency that pulses through the gospel and must in our proclamation.  This is the call to us in Lent!   The cosmic powers are present in this gospel and in our Eucharist this morning.  "Repent and believe in the good news".

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Prayer and the Incarnation

This evening we are at a turning point in the church year: we are at the end of Epiphany season and on the cusp of Lent – the season of reflection, simplicity, even austerity, in which we discover more of the will, love and purpose of God.  So I begin by placing this perspective and context before us as I declare what I attempt to reflect on this evening.  The Lenten Studies for the next 5 weeks are on prayer – so that is my focus tonight.  I am alarmed at my ambition and presumption in attempting this – about 45 years ago I was ordained and the Bishop asked me “Will you be diligent in prayers?” and I replied “I will endeavour myself so to do, the Lord being my helper.”

In the big picture against which I try to think about prayer is the question, “Why?”  I find myself thinking back to the question of who we are and what it means to be human.  Our starting point in theology is the story of creation where we find the account that God made us in his own image.  As we unpack that thought we come to the realisation that there is that spark of God in us that reaches to the Source in whom and by whom we are created and are sustained to have our being.  So I leave that theological peg (the imago dei) on which we may hang prayer – for the moment.

When I think of prayer, I find my memory draws me back to a pastoral visit in a parish about 15 years ago.  I was visiting a very elderly couple and Bill’s wife, was near death.  These were two much loved and much admired parishioners and, before I left, I asked to pray with them.  What struck me at that moment was the instinctive response Bill made: he immediately knelt, by Audrey’s bed.  No words were needed.  He simply knelt - and we were in the presence of God.  The impression has never left me; his kneeling told me something of who he was.

This comes back to tell me something about prayer – that in prayer we encounter or discover something about who we are.  I’m not sure that we always want to face that – indeed this may be one of the reasons why we both long to pray and at the same time why we delay or loath praying.
Just the desire to pray is in itself a kind of prayer: it is the Spirit in us reaching toward the source.
Yet we delay and defer because we are reluctant – we don’t want to confront our own emptiness, our silence, our lethargy, our distractedness, our fear of the void.

I talk of the Spirit but don’t be misled: A human being, in the biblical view, is a psychosomatic totality — not a soul imprisoned in a body and seeking to escape, but an integral unity of the two. The body is not just an obstacle to be overcome, a lump of matter to be ignored, but it has a positive part to play in the spiritual life and it is endowed with energies that can be harnessed for the work of prayer.

We must also remember the great mystery of our faith: in Jesus Christ God Incarnate, is the Word made flesh. Christ at his Incarnation took not only a human mind and will but a human body, and so he has made the flesh into an inexhaustible source of sanctification. How can this flesh, which to God-man has made Spirit-bearing, participate in the work of prayer?

So I want to share with you one of the oldest and simplest forms of prayer.  You will have heard of it and maybe have used it – we call it The Jesus Prayer.  The words are very simple, drawn from scripture:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God / have mercy on me a sinner.”  We keep repeating the prayer. Some advocate the prayer is said briskly (Greek tradition) others more slowly (Russian) and encourage a pattern of breathing: breathing in with ‘ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’ and out with ‘have mercy on me a sinner.’  Body and Spirit working together.

There is a vast tradition and literature on the Jesus Prayer, especially in the Orthodox tradition.
To say the Jesus Prayer a hundred times attentively and without haste, about half an hour is needed, but some require even longer. Do not say the prayers hurriedly, one immediately after another. Make a short pause after each prayer, and so help the mind to concentrate. Saying the Prayer without pauses distracts the mind. Breathe with care, gently and slowly.

The intention is to help body, mind and spirit work together.

The Jesus Prayer is not just a device to help us concentrate or relax. It is not simply a piece of ‘Christian Yoga’, a type of ‘Transcendental Meditation’, or a ‘Christian mantra’, even though some have tried to interpret it in this way. It is, on the contrary, an invocation specifically addressed to another person — to God made man, Jesus Christ, our personal Saviour and Redeemer. The Jesus Prayer, therefore, is far more than an isolated method or technique. It exists within a certain context, and if divorced from that context it loses its proper meaning.

"The context of the Jesus Prayer is first of all one of faith. The Invocation of the Name presupposes that the one who says the Prayer believes in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour. Behind the repetition of a form of words there must exist a living faith in the Lord Jesus — in who he is and in what he has done for me personally. Perhaps the faith in many of us is very uncertain and faltering; perhaps it coexists with doubt; perhaps we often find ourselves compelled to cry out in company with the father of the lunatic child, ‘Lord, I believe: help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24). But at least there should be some desire to believe; at least there should be, amidst all the uncertainty, a spark of love for the Jesus whom as yet we know so imperfectly."

God's "Yes" - reading Mark 1

Reflection 6th Sunday in OT
Mark 1:40-45
 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

It pains me, it really pains me, to come across people who blithely, casually dismiss the Bible as a load of codswallop, superstition and religious nonsense.  They usually look blankly at you if you ask them what they know of the Bible; or what types of biblical literature they have a problem with.  The fact is that in many cases we are simply confronting ignorance, prejudice and, in some cases, a very ill-informed militant atheism.

However, looking back to an earlier age, to the great radical atheist, the poet Shelley: I came across a note citing one of Leigh Hunt’s essays where he recalls how he once asked Shelley what book he would most like to save, and the great atheist replied, “The oldest book, the Bible;”   “It was a monument to him,” Hunt says, “of the earliest, most lasting, and most awful aspirations of humanity.”

Which makes me ask a question: how did we get it, I mean, the Bible?
In the first instance we inherited the Hebrew scriptures.  The Jewish tradition was the source from which the Christian church evolved.  The earliest Christian scriptures originated from within the apostolic circle:  in 2 Peter we find Paul’s letters to the early church being defined as scripture. eg: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15,16)

But beyond that by 397 the Western Church had confirmed what the Canon of scripture was and the matter was closed. There were many texts available but the Fathers of the Church had sorted the wheat from the chaff: The Church Councils confirmed what they recognised from their own experience as something that spoke of God; they recognised the importance of trusted sources (apostles, prophets, witnesses); they referred also to the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts: a complex process, comprehensive, communal and cumulative in its workings. And, so many years later the radical atheist Shelley rightly treasured the oldest book, the Bible.

The question now is how might this oldest book speak to us this morning?  

I find Mark’s telling of the story invigorating.  He does not tell us or lecture us but he draws us into the story and helps us see it through and alongside the disciples as they try to understand Jesus.   

We need to understand that from Old Testament times leprosy was imagined as a kind of death (i.e. maybe because of the pallor associated with it, and perhaps because of the ruthless isolation it imposed) and its cure was considered equivalent to raising the dead.  Yet in the gospel this morning we hear a leper approach Jesus and say ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’    

Implicit in those words may be a sense of who Jesus is, a vague recognition that Jesus is the powerful one of God. 

But also hanging there is an implicit question in the words ‘if you choose’: it is a question we recognise from within our hearts; ‘Is God good? Does God care for us? Will God choose to help us?’  Think of the times when we have been desperate and have prayed desperately: maybe our prayers have been answered; maybe they have not, or not how we wanted.  In the oldest book, our most contemporary, most human, questions can be heard.

Yet in this gospel, here is this man, reckoned by most as good as dead, who approaches Jesus, and proposes the unthinkable: ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’  There is no delay: the question is answered immediately and decisively: ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ There is an immediate and overwhelming response – he is healed.   Yes, Mark says more; he tells of Jesus being moved with compassion and we are free to reflect on that, but the overwhelming reality is that this man is suddenly now healed, alive and whole.  He is restored to being the man God created him to be.   We can all identify with that.  We might even be able to imagine that tremendous sense of liberation.   He is not just himself but his deepest questions are answered; for him the world and the meaning of life are transformed; for a moment at least.

There is that curious conclusion where we see the man instructed to say nothing but just confirm the healing with the religious authorities and be silent.  But he has heard God say “I do choose”; God has said “Yes!”  So, this is also the man who cannot now be silent and we see the consequences as people flock to Jesus.  The leper has hit the jackpot and everyone wants a share in this.  So do we.  We want to hear God’s ‘yes’ to us.

In the Eucharist we receive God’s yes to us.


Getting started with Mark - 'Arise, shine'

Reflection 5th Sunday in OT 2018, 02, 04
Arise, shine for your Light has come… Isaiah 60.1

I love reading Mark!

Mark is the shortest gospel
It is the only gospel to call itself Gospel.
Mark is generally agreed to be the first Gospel.
Gospel – we all know means ‘Good News’ but that is a rather tired expression – the word Gospel is more a cry of joy: think of it – we are reading the cry of joy about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, according to Mark.

Gospel as art form – somewhere between sermon and sacrament
sermon uses words but holds a larger purposes
sacrament uses symbols to communicate but holds a larger purpose
Gospel has elements of both

Draws us into the narrative so that we encounter Jesus alongside the twelve and we experience the same dilemmas, choices, failures, confusion, anxiety and joy – he writes not to get us to hear his cry of joy about Jesus Christ; but writes to get us to utter the cry of joy ourselves.

There are so many twists, turns, techniques that Mark deploys to various effects:
  • ·       suddenness and immediacy
  • ·       mighty acts high-light the power of Jesus not a creed oriented JC
  • ·       No emphasis on JC as teacher – fewer than in other gospels
  • ·       Vivid, concrete narrative
  • ·       Juxtapositional narrative with contrasts between events
  • ·       The end of the story is the centre of gravity drawing the story toward itself
  • ·       Patterns of doublets and threefold patterns within stories
  • ·       Messianic secrecy
  • ·       Inverse character development – character of Jesus grows whereas  disciples diminish

Why do we have Isaiah as the First Testament reading this morning ? - because Isaiah in the Greek version of the Septuagint uses the Greek word for Gospel (euangelion)  and the Jewish readers of Isaiah will remember Isaiah's announcement of survival, freedom and homecoming for exiled Israel.

Arise, shine for your Light has come… Isaiah 60.1

In our Gospel this morning Mark gives us a sample day of Jesus in public ministry
It is explosively active and fast moving – short on words but powerful in actions
We watch mesmerised as deed follows deed.  Mark calls miracles not signs but works of power:

Arise, shine for your Light has come… Isaiah 60.1

Simon’s mother-in-law is healed simply by Jesus taking her hand and raising her. (resurrection hint?)
Peter's mother-in-law is lifted up as in the Resurrection we celebrate in Easter. And she begins to serve - just as the apostles are sent out to serve, as we celebrate in Pentecost. She is the church's first deacon. She announces the Gospel by her action. Healed, transformed, and readily at service she slips into her role as easily as if her life-time had prepared her for it. Which it had, of course. 

She serves, like Jesus himself. For the son of man came not to be served but to serve. (Mark 10:45) She receives the Light into her home, she is raised up by the Light, the Light shines through her as she ministers to others. She’s a mother of the Church.

And, say witnesses, the place designated as her home in Capernaum is to this day the site of many healings.
The action expands and we hear that by evening the whole city is gathered at the house:
Some older translations use the phrase "the whole world was pressing up against the door." This is the new gathering place, the new company of Jesus. It embraces those in need of healing and those healed and grasped for the victory of justice, helping the multitudes who come to Jesus.

Arise, shine for your Light has come… Isaiah 60.1

How might this connect with us now?

The other evening, one of the young cats our grandchildren dote on, had a problem.  A twig had become caught across his upper jaw and he could not free himself.  He was panicking and lashing out fiercely at anyone who tried to help him.  It is terrible to watch an animal suffering and frightened.  We panicked.  We dashed to the local vet and, to the great relief of all the family, his problem was quickly sorted and he was restored to the lovely friendly animal we love.   This domestic crisis got me thinking…

Some of the most difficult experiences in life are those times when we feel trapped.  We may feel trapped in our bodies or in our homes, by sickness, frailty or age.  We may feel trapped in our circumstances, trapped by financial problems, by dysfunctional relationships; trapped in our minds, in our inner being, by depression or mental illness.  At the very least, the experience is frightening and the range and power of the emotions we may feel can be unimaginable, terrifying.  There can be moments when we feel all control is lost and sheer panic takes over.  If you have ever had an experience of this kind you will understand what I am saying and the most basic response has to be to seek help; to remember that such feelings are part of our common human condition; and we get help where we can.  From our local doctor; from friends, family and pastors; wherever we can; just to reach out is to discover that we are not alone.  We turn from the darkness that seems to trap us, to the light. 
Arise, shine for your Light has come… Isaiah 60.1

What the gospel shows us is the message – just to be close to Jesus is to be in the presence of God.  The presence of Jesus is enough to heal, calm and restore all who are brought to him.  I look back to that prayer we just shared, the prayer that responds to the gospel: “Healing God, in the touch of Jesus the sick were healed, the chains unbound.  Freedom is before us.  Set us on a new path of wholeness, deliver us from all that binds us, turn us to embrace that life giving love.”   Whatever your circumstances may be; reach out and do that; turn from darkness to the light.

Arise, shine for your Light has come… Isaiah 60.1

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Moment in Time

The Presentation in the Temple

Reflections for Candlemas 2018

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2:22-40

You have to let your imagination speak and make you alert to some of the possibilities for us in the scriptures and how we receive them.  So, let's imagine ... Just another Sunday in the Cathedral and a couple enter with their baby; they are just casual visitors and you don’t know them.  If you are on the door as a sidesperson (or not, just someone else in the congregation) what do you do? Smile, welcome, greet – pay attention or virtually ignore – the Anglican ‘chill’ at its best?

I hope not the latter! Pope Francis has this to say:
"Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness."  (In paragraph #88 of his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium),”

The Feast of the Presentation focuses our attention on an extraordinary moment: it is a midpoint between Christmas and Easter: we look back to Christmas and we look ahead to Easter.  It begins innocently enough, as we hear the phrase ‘When the time came’.  We are drawn onto a moment of encounter.

‘When the time came’: time is complicated.  There is the time we measure by our watches and the unfailing sequence of hours, days and years, we call it Chronos; and there is another measure of time that operates in scripture, we call it Kairos; the time understood by great moments, the time in which God acts and by which we understand ourselves and our world differently.

‘When the time came’: to the casual observer this must have looked like any other day in the temple: a poor couple coming to do what custom and law required after the statutory 40 days.(Leviticus 12: 2-8). We may imagine a lot of activity going on in the temple at the time.  Priests and Levites taking turns to be on duty, busy, various sacrifices being offered, a variety of people coming and going, lots of movement, noise, distractions, the ordinary business of time, chronos.

Except that Luke focuses his account on two figures:   Simeon and Anna. In the briefest of descriptions we are given just enough detail about each to understand that they were people open to the Holy Spirit and receptive to God.  And at this particular moment in time, ‘Guided by the Spirit’ Simeon enters the temple and takes Jesus in his arms. 

‘When the time came’: for Simeon this is a Kairos moment: God has acted; this is what he has been waiting for, all these years.   It is at this tender moment that the Evangelist places on Simeon’s lips the canticle Nunc Dimittis, a prayer rooted in ancient Israel  and in the Church  "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel" (2:30-32). This is the voice of song and poetry, that reaches beyond that ordinary moment as worlds and time intersect.

The moment is grounded in the particular deeply physical reality of the incarnation as Simeon holds the Christ in his arms, feeling the warmth and weight of this new life.  No parent or grandparent could fail to understand or imagine his feelings in that moment – a lifetime of hope and waiting held in his arms.  This new life, so vulnerable, so slight, so in need of care and protection – ‘My eyes have seen your salvation’… A world of possibilities is held in that moment; he holds the future close to his heart.  At the same time, even as Simeon remembers the past; the ages long years of waiting, he also turns towards the future and to Mary, pointing toward the future (and the Easter that is yet to come): “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

In this moment of encounter, time shrinks, chronos and Kairos fuse, the ordinary moment has a new significance, the encounter with the other, with the Holy.  That is why we are here in the Eucharist – for such encounter.  I am told that in the Eastern Church the Divine Liturgy begins with the Deacon declaring to the Priest “It is time for the Lord to act” reminding all present that the time of the liturgy is an intersection with Eternity.  May it be so. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

"Now in a mirror, dimly" Paul and the Body

Feast of St Paul

Last Sunday, I referred to the Old Testament account of the Call of Samuel (Samuel 1) and the gospel story of Jesus’ encountering Nathanael (John 1) but it was the epistle that I left out – I chose not to address it.  Afterwards the reader of the epistle tapped my shoulder and asked with some feeling, why we had that reading with all that stuff about prostitution and fornication, and I responded with something like, “I know.  It’s difficult isn’t it?”

Now it may not surprise you that the epistle I rejected was from St Paul.  Most of the epistles are from St Paul and the New Testament would be desperately thin without his writings.  There is a problem with those facts alone – you could for an argument – throw caution to the winds and claim that Paul invented Christianity!  After all his writings shaped it and critically formed our understanding of it.  How do we feel about Paul’s influence; about the influence of this one critical figure, this one strongly opinionated figure, as the shaping formative force behind the New Testament?

Now last Sunday, as I thought about the question ‘Why did we read that lesson?” and ‘Why did that reading get ignored?’ 

I realised that it was the different voices I heard in the scriptures.  There were such different voices:  There was Samuel, a fine history, a clear narrative.   There was John’s gospel with the lucid and metaphysically dense craftsmanship of the Word, the mystery beyond all things, and yet now incarnate, “and we beheld his glory full of grace and truth.”  In that context the sighting of Nathanael under the fig tree is charged and luminous with possibility.  

But, in sharp contrast, the voice of the Epistle – was dissonant, it jarred against those texts.  It was the typical voice of Paul in his epistles, the Pauline diatribe (and if you are trying to remind yourself what diatribe means, an impolite but handy synonym is ‘rant’.  None of us like being ‘ranted’ at and I have a fair hunch that we struggle with Paul because we are uncomfortable with the diatribe, the constant unerring sense of argument and debate.  But that’s the art of Paul; the diatribe is the voice that commands your attention with all its ploys and rhetoric.

So listen now to the diatribe of our patron saint, as we might have heard it last Sunday:  Remember this is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 …

Conversion of St Paul
‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.   Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Paul begins with a saying that seems to have come from the community of Corinth, and which he uses to berate them with:    behind this passage lurks a question; what does it mean to live in the body?  Paul points to the resurrection of Jesus “… And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”

There are Christians who, often thinking they are following Paul, have come to a theological understanding of our humanity that would have the body/flesh at odds with the Spirit; that see the body and our capacity for sensual pleasure, as something to be shunned; there are those who have considered Paul as the source of religious guilt regarding sexuality.  The diatribe we have just read can be misinterpreted in such ways but there are powerful statements that seep into the soul: 

“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

But Paul’s theology is more developed than that.  One only has to turn to Chapter 13 with its reflection on love; to read that glorious paean on love, to realise that Paul’s vision of how we live in the body is charged with the Spirit.  Hear this other voice of Paul: the diatribe that is a paean of love!

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

My thought on Paul and the body ‘Now, in a mirror, dimly’…