Saturday, April 21, 2018

The life-giving "Good Shepherd"

Easter 4

In our gospel this morning is a phrase that warms and encourages me – the words of Jesus “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Catacombs image
I know very little about sheep.  I have ministered (in Waiapu and Taranaki) in rural parishes with sheep farmers in the congregation and as a child in suburban Wellington I happily wandered on sheep farms that were virtually on our back doorstep.  Nonetheless  I have only a townsman’s knowledge of sheep and am most assured when the sheep is in the form of roast lamb; but paradoxically I still feel a pang of guilt and compassion whenever I see a loaded stock truck heading for the freezing works.  Yet we are a pastoral economy and in the national psyche is the legend of number 8 fencing wire and the pastoral humour of Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats cartoons.

Ignorant though I am of sheep, I am very familiar with the Church’s field of imagery of sheep: the paintings, the stained glass, the poetry, the hymns and the bright coloured pious little textual images that were once given out at Sunday school.  Such images have permeated our thinking:  in one of Milton’s poems (Lycidas) he plays upon the biblical imagery of shepherds to attack the bishops of his day as he scathingly refers to them:
Blind mouths! That scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs!  (Lycidas lls.119-121)

The ‘blind mouths’ is a scathing critique of the episcopacy of his time – they are ‘blind’ who should be instructors and teachers – they are ‘mouths’, in other words they are consumers, when they should be sources of spiritual nourishment to their flocks.  Compare this to Jesus who says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

When Jesus talks about sheep and shepherds he is talking to people who, whether shepherds or not, had some familiarity with sheep and shepherding.  He was also talking to a people who were pretty familiar with the Old Testament and the great tradition associated with the associated images – God being described as the ‘shepherd of Israel,’ and the promise of a new messianic shepherd who would rescue the people.  So, in Jesus’ time, the references, the images, the tradition were all there to supplement the local pastoral familiarity with what shepherds were meant to be like.  Jesus transforms all this when he says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

We are in that stage after Easter where the lectionary readings seem to take us into thinking about whom Jesus is and John’s gospel offers us a series of incidents and discourses that push our thinking further and harder.  To make sense of the passage of the good shepherd sayings we need to look at the context that immediately precedes the sayings:  Jesus has just healed a blind man; blind from birth.  This man has never seen; never seen light or the world and people about him; he is brought into sight and faith and, effectively, is a new creation.    The outrage of the religious authorities is that this healing has happened on the Sabbath.  The fury and outrage is clearly inappropriate and misdirected; where there should be wonder and joy, there seems only fear and anger.  The man who was blind now sees (literally) and not only sees but now believes.  The leaders who should see now act as if they are blind – and their response to Jesus is a wilful blindness.   Belief or unbelief in this context is not a reasoned or even reasonable thing but an activity, a determination, of the will.  We can understand the process in ourselves.  We may choose to say, I don’t understand but I choose to believe.

 Running through the gospel are the ‘I am’ saying ‘ego eimi’ and going back to the Old Testament when Moses is addressed by God, God’s name is given as ‘I am’ – so these Johannine ‘ I ams’ is a crucial trace of Jesus’ identification with God.

In the shepherd sayings there are two instances: Jesus speaks of himself as the gate (of the sheepfold) – the place of entrance into safety and the place whereby the sheep are led out to find pasture.  In verse 10 Jesus gloriously declares his purpose “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

So this is the key to our gospel passage this morning, this who ‘The good shepherd’ is.  The ‘good’ is this life-giving wholeness and freedom that comes from God, from the deep life of God made available in Christ’.  This goodness is not the sentimental loveliness of the Jesus as portrayed in some pious paintings but something more grounded and utterly real and attractive.  As William Temple (1881-1944) noted on this passage:
“The Good Shepherd: The shepherd, the beautiful one.  Of course this translation exaggerates.  But it is important that the word for “good” here is one that represents, not the moral rectitude of goodness, nor its austerity, but it's attractiveness.  We must not forget that our vocation is so to practise virtue that men are won to it; it is possible to be morally upright repulsively!  In the Lord Jesus we see “the beauty of holiness” (Psalm xcvi,9). He was “good” in such manner as to draw all men to Himself (xii,32). And this beauty of goodness is supremely seen in the act by which He would so draw them, wherein He lays down his life for the sheep.”
(Readings in John’s Gospel)

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Hinge of the Flesh

Easter 3 Reflection

Reading: Luke 24:36b-48

The resurrection stories are a fascinating field for study and exploration in our faith.  In an epistle from Paul, 1 Corinthians chapter 15, we have what is usually assumed to be the earliest of the resurrection accounts in a summarised form.  It shows what the early church believed long before the gospels came to be written.  After that come the gospels: which each tell the story in a narrative form, in the process reshaping the story with the effect that the significance of the resurrection is explained with different nuances.  Moving from one gospel to another has a confusing effect!  Which is right?  Which is wrong? Those are not the right questions.

Duccio, Apostles at table
Luke’s telling of the resurrections stories shows how in the telling of the stories the first believers came to understand the significance of what they had witnessed and to resolve the cognitive dissonance between their experience and their convictions – so on the Emmaus road the opening of their eyes to read the texts and the opening of their eyes to recognise Jesus truly are both part of the same complex process of seeking and finding meaning. 

One of the exciting things about Luke’s narrative is that we can glimpse how the process of telling and interpreting the diverse resurrection experiences begins to build a community story and to build the community  itself.  The diverse characters come together in one place with one shared story ‘The lord has truly risen’.

This morning, the gospel fragment from Luke is quite startling – the emphasis on touching the hands and feet and eating the fish – seems to over-emphasise physical sensation and definitively prove that the resurrected Jesus is not a ghost. However a closer reading shows that Luke is affirming both the reality of Jesus presence and its difference from his former earthly presence – as when he says “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you”.

Another strand to Luke’s focus on the physical reality and the difference of the resurrected Jesus is that we are nudged toward understanding our own (as yet un-resurrected) flesh differently: that in our innermost physical reality there is already the mystery of immortality. Karl Rahner quoted one of the ancient fathers of the church when he said ‘the flesh is the hinge of salvation’ and expanded the thought by saying “the reality beyond all the distress of sin and death is not up yonder; it has come down and dwells in the innermost reality of our flesh.”

Frankly I find this thought difficult to grasp.  Paul touches on it in 1 Corinthians 15 – such a key chapter in the New Testament.   And yet, I am so aware of the abuse, violence and horror of what human flesh suffers that I struggle to see how already in us are the signs and promise of transfigured life and that the reality of this risen Jesus is a token of what is to happen in us.

Yet ours is an incarnational faith.   All our sacramental life  - baptism, Eucharist – hinges on the flesh.  We speak of mystery, the mystery of Easter, the mystery of what happens in our worship, what happens in our living and our service – all hinges on the flesh.  We remember the parable of recognising Christ in the marginalised ones, and serving them – that hinges on the flesh.  So, in the gospel words, we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, care for the stranger and resist the structures and institutions that conceal injustice and perpetuate suffering.  Yes that all hinges on the flesh.

And yet I suspect that I am still missing something.  I go back to Paul and offer this curious insight from 1 Corinthians 15.

“The first humanity was from the earth, a humanity of dust; the second humanity is from heaven....Just as we have borne the image of the humanity of dust, we shall also bear the image of the humanity of heaven. (1Cor.15:47,49)”

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Thomas: The Privilege of Doubt

Easter 2 Reflection

Readings:  Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Detail, Caravaggio, (1571-1610) The Incredulity of Thomas 
This Sunday after Easter we commonly call ‘Low Sunday’.  After the intensity of Holy Week, and the Great Three Days (Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day), the Church pauses to draw breath: the choir goes into a brief recess; clergy take leave; we all, and at a slower pace, reflect on what we have experienced and, even more slowly, try to make some sense of it all.  And, since we are at this point, let’s be clear about this: no, we cannot explain the resurrection.

In the start of John’s Gospel, that magnificent start, the first fourteen verses we call the Prologue, we are told:

“And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

John proclaims the Incarnation: that this is a gospel from those who have witnessed the mystery of God in human flesh; from those who have witnessed and experienced him living among them; from who have seen his glory and who testify to his grace and truth.

Think of what we encountered in Holy Week.  We followed the story so closely.  Nearly every service concentrated upon events and images deeply rooted in the senses, engaging the nature of the flesh.  In the Chrism service one remembers the healing oils and their fragrance; on Maundy Thursday Jesus washes, each friends distinctive feet– calluses, sores, corns, scars, dirt, fungus, toenails deformed and discoloured; the bread broken; the wine poured; the crown of thorns, the purple robe, the spittle; the jellied mutilated flesh of Jesus’ flogged back; the heavy cross; falling; the nails, agony; last words; his death; the spear in the side; water and blood. All these are deeply physical, utterly material details that probe the implications of the incarnation.
Incredulity of Thomas, Duccio (1308-11)

It has been suggested that such materiality might, paradoxically, make it harder to recognise the resurrected flesh of the Incarnate Lord.  There are the instances that come to mind: near the tomb in the garden, on the road to Emmaus, in the Upper Room, on the beach in Galilee – why was it difficult to recognise Jesus?  Is our dependence upon sight unreliable?

John takes us to a deeper level when he presents us with Thomas and that memorable encounter in the Upper Room behind the locked doors.  Forget the shallow nickname of Doubting Thomas, after the raising of Lazarus it was Thomas who suggested they go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die with him.  He was a realist as to the likely consequences in Jerusalem, yet nonetheless loyal.  One commentator has (hilariously) observed “He is not really a doubter, more of a depressed donkey, a loyal pessimist, like Eeyore, who looks at ground level and sees the thistles.” (Burridge, p.234)

Incredulity of Thomas, Caravaggio (1571-1610)
He exercises the privilege of doubt: his insistence on seeing and touching the risen Lord before he believes is a realistic approach to the resurrection.  He voices our questions and our doubts.  John presents a variety of possibilities for faith: Mary hears his voice by the tomb; on the Emmaus road he is recognised when he breaks the bread; in Galilee Peter recognizes him after the catch of fish.   Others believe when the Lord appears among them: when he breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  However it is significant that Thomas was not present at these encounters with the risen Lord so he doubts their claims. He pushes the need for conclusive evidence harder than any of the other followers. He demands substantial material reality as the condition of belief.   He wants to see and touch the risen Lord.

A week later the opportunity is given.  The moment has been celebrated in paintings: that by Caravaggio is probably the most famous and the most dramatic as it shows Christ holding Thomas’s hand and directing his finger into the wound in his side.  This representation goes further than the account in John – because while the invitation to probe the wounds is given, there is no indication that it was acted upon and without any further examination or inquiry, Thomas simply exclaims “My Lord and my God”.

This is a threshold moment.  The privilege of doubt has allowed Thomas a deeper experience of the resurrection.  Physical and material reality have been demanded and offered, but the encounter itself has proved enough to impel Thomas into faith and into that bold confession of the risen Jesus as Lord and God.  He is changed in this moment and, as tradition tells it, went on to found the Church in India.  Thank God for the privilege of doubt.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Image of God and the Emmaus Road

For me, at least, the week after Easter has tended to be a kind of torpor, after the spiritual banquet of the Triduum a time for digestion seems essential.  Of course one has followed this path many times, but each year brings its own particular discoveries, as if there is so much to be learned and re-learned. Of course there is!  I merely paddle in the shallows!

In the sermon at Evensong on Easter night I was diverted by the question of the appearance of Christ and how it was that he was unrecognised. 

Earlier that week there had been a meeting where an issues we discussed led to comments on our theological anthropology and how that might influence our understanding and behaviour on same gender issues related to marriage and to ordination.  I reminded those present of the foundation for theological anthropology, the understanding that we are made in 'the image of God'.  Someone else observed that while we may affirm the 'imago dei', we may not recognise the same set of implications.

In the imago dei I argue is the foundation for our missiology and our understanding of human rights.  The imago dei reminds us of who we are and of our calling.  As I understand it, the divine imago is, despite 'sin', defaced but not destroyed, and so remains the ground of our hope amidst the human condition.   It is the constant free sign of God's grace with us; it is not anything earned or confirmed by 'approved' behaviours, conduct or compliance.

As our church's General Synod prepares to determine Motion, 29, (a proposal for a mechanism by which our church can stay together, agreeing on how to disagree) I keep returning to our understanding of the image of God and (as on the Emmaus Road) to wonder whether the imago dei enables a multitude of possibilities in the resurrection appearances while also allowing for specific and particular details such as wounds of the crucifixion. 

Encounter on the Emmaus Road

One of the things we have been reminded of this weekend is that the Easter story is not pretty.   No matter how we dress it up with beautiful flowers and gaily decorated Easter Eggs, it is not pretty.  There is no escape from the grim reality of the Risen one whose wounds Thomas is invited to probe; would the fragrance of the spices provided for the tomb have lingered still: and something of horror lingers in recollection of the resurrection of the putrefying Lazarus.

The Ezekiel vision of the Valley of Dry Bones carries a similar frisson of horror.   Certainly as we try to imagine it: the bones rattling together – so connectedly as the song reminds us – but more so horribly as we visualise sinews being layered and finally flesh.  A monstrous army –but lifeless until the prophet speaks to the wind, the breath, the Spirit of God – and they may breath.  This is not really an Easter story; but most powerfully a story for a people in exile who have lost all hope.  As history goes on to show, these same people return to their homeland and the promise of the prophet is fulfilled.  The spirit of God gives life, restores hope; for all of us who feel stuck, despairing; this is a story for us. This is a poetic and prophetic image for all who endure a sense of hopelessness.  God is as close as breath.

The story of the encounter on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35) is a favourite with me.  It is found only in Luke.  It begins slowly enough, as with the account of two followers of Jesus leaving Jerusalem for their journey home via Emmaus.  I imagine their pace and conversation along the way – this is not the stride of those who are confident bearers of good news but, more likely, the plodding steps of the disappointed and dejected.  We hear that they have been talking, it is more likely they have been arguing because when they meet the stranger on the road (verse 17) he asks them (literally) ‘what are these words that you are throwing against each other’? They share their story and their disappointment and on the way the stranger re-frames their story, so expounding the scriptures that they come to understand everything they have previously thought and experienced quite differently.

However the question that intrigues me is really if this is the risen Christ who walks with them and opens their minds as he talks, how is it that they did not recognise him until much later?  And this is not a unique phenomenon in the resurrection stories – it happens elsewhere – as with Mary mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener.  Maybe it was simply that none of them expected Jesus – and accordingly did not recognise him when they saw him.  But, maybe he looked different.  Paul hints at this in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verse 49, a fascinating passage where he speculates on the nature of the resurrected body: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” 

But what happened for those two on the way to Emmaus is told in a remarkable sequence of events that follow a pattern familiar in worship, offered on a Sunday: the scriptures are first interpreted, then the message is proclaimed, and finally in the sacrament, the offered bread and wine, the living Christ is encountered and recognised; the same pattern occurs here every Sunday.  However while that pattern of worship shapes the telling of the story, the two involved reported that “he had been made known to them in the breaking of bread” (24:35) and we may wonder how this happened.  The event would have been common to any Jewish meal; unless perhaps Jesus had a particular manner of doing it or even that in lifting up his hands to break the bread the scars of his crucifixion were revealed.  Whatever it was, the disciples on the road said that this was the moment when recognition took place.

This resurrection encounter on the Emmaus road strikes me by its reflection of human experience.  Jesus encounters two miserable, angry, dejected men who need to get over their own self-absorbed disappointment.  This involves the body – their walking to Emmaus; the mind – their conversations on the road; and the spirit – which is what happens when they invite Jesus to eat with them: body, mind and spirit are all engaged and open the way to recognise Jesus.

That recognition can reshape how we think about our spiritual journeys.  We tend to think of them as something in the mind, private and spiritual.  But more truly it may be that we have to get over ourselves, as the two on the Emmaus Road had to.  We have to move physically, we have to move intellectually and we have to move spiritually and emotionally.  We have to move beyond ourselves, beyond grief and anger, beyond our prejudices before we can recognise the Christ who is our life. 

I think it is encouraging to remember that we can’t quite manage this by ourselves.  It is a note in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism where he explains the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed and reminds us that we cannot believe by our own reason or strength, but that it is by the Holy Spirit that we come to believe.  And so, holding doubts and uncertainties, we keep placing ourselves in circumstances where the Holy Spirit may work in us.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A domestic Easter morning

A quiet grey Easter morning with the start of daylight saving.  Our resident grandchildren (Amber and Kyla) have greeted the day with squeals of excitement as they search the garden for Easter eggs (carefully set out by their Dad) and have just bounced into my study to show off their treasures.  These are lovely moments. 

There has been preparation for this.  They have watched Christine carve and paint the Cathedral's Paschal Candle and had to carefully stay away from where it had been set aside before the Easter Vigil.  A sense of expectation has filled our deanery household.  Usually I would have been off far earlier, but +Steven  is taking the early Mass and I am grateful to appreciate this peaceful morning of the resurrection. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday Evensong: Expectations?

A brief reflection for the start of Holy Week:  reading the Isaiah lesson brought to mind a maxim “that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected”, it is of course also from the Bible (Luke 12:48) In a very clear and direct way that maxim seems to apply quite literally here.

We discover that the one who has made the vineyard is not a disinterested observer but expects fruit.  We expand that thought a little further; could it be that the one who is the creator of all that is, is not disinterested, but similarly has expectations; maybe expects fruitful lives and good living?  Imagine: something is expected for all the work that has been done; a return for all that has been invested; and something for all the energy that has been expended.

One might conceptualise this in terms of a dark domestic comedy or, more likely, a tragedy.  Imagine the indignant teenager who is reminded of the expectations of the parents who have lavished such focused care and attention upon their child.  ‘What do you means expectations?’  How dare you?  I did not ask to be born!  I am my own person, I have my own life.

It is as if the idea of expectations, of consequences, has dropped out of our cultural conversation and the mere thought of expectations and consequences may feel alien and an imposition. We may not care to admit that.  Because, after all, it is only a short step of the imagination to replay the whole scenario in terms of the primordial myth: the story of the first garden and the first humans who fail what has been expected of them and they bear the consequences – they are expelled; they and all the rest of humankind bear the burden.

The Isaiah writer is a clever poet; he plays on Hebrew words for the botched expectations: God expected justice (mispah), but saw bloodshed (mispat); God expected righteousness (sedaqa) but heard a cry (se a qa).  He hammers out a sustained lament at social injustice and the plight of those who are vulnerable and exploited by cruel economic policies. It sounds terribly familiar, frighteningly contemporary, given the vast and ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the working-poor today.

The second lesson gospel passage from Mark shows Jesus reworking the Isaiah image of the vineyard.  It is a grim warning and it speaks of the Passion and all we consider this Holy Week; God is not finished with us, but in Christ immerses himself in our world and our condition.  The cross is not far from this parable.  

What is the expectation that this sort of engagement and commitment carries?  Do we fend off that thought from having any relevance to us?  Are we like the teenager – bloated with a vague sense of entitlement; indifferent to expectations; mindless as to consequences?  Are we just accidents in a vast process of evolution? Or, are we charged with moral significance and purpose in a cosmic process beyond our comprehension though dimly glimpsed in our readings this evening.  Who are we becoming?