Posted in Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

The Fulfilment of Emptiness – Advent 2a

_IGP0699 Matthew 3:1-12

You can hear these ideas being preached by clicking here

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

A friend of mine, an eco-psychologist, runs a Wilderness Retreat Centre.  The slogan for the Centre is most engaging, “Go Wild – Get Well”.  You don’t get much wilder than John the Baptiser!   What is worth contemplating is whether for all his wildness he was in any way, a well person.

On the face of it, to our sanitised western eyes, the answer would definitely be no.  I mean the man is psychotic, with severe anti-social tendencies, evidence of bi-polar disorder and just a little disassociated, don’t you think?  This manifests in garish dress, non-compliance with social registers (just look at how he disrespects religious authority) and very unbalanced nutritional programme.

And yet it is of this wild man that Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt11:11)

When I first began having conversations with people who follow an Eastern religious path, I heard a description of a holy person that I hadn’t come across in my Western Christian journey.  They spoke in honour of a person as being “empty”.  Now that was foreign to me who had grown up being told to constantly be “full”.  Full of the Spirit, full of faith, full of hope and full of love. So the attribute of emptiness as a positive in spirituality got my attention.

In the gospel encounters with John the Baptiser, it is his emptiness that is most striking.

He is empty of fear and proclaims.  “Turn your lives around  the reign of the heavens is manifesting.” He also challenges the Pharisees who are “full of it”, “You progeny (gennemata) of snakes, who suggested you should get away from the impending natural punishment (orgés)? That is pretty fearless in a religious culture where the snake was the archetype of Satan! How sad, by contrast, are our faith communities today which are most often characterised by fear-filled avoidance of truth telling so as not to offend anyone.

He is also empty of propriety. His entire lifestyle was in contrast to the sedate and established orthodoxy of the day.  He is styled on the prophets of centuries before, passionate people who had proclaimed the truth of God as they had seen it, with no sense of propriety and often at great risk to themselves.  John was echoing this prophetic voice that had grown strangely silent for centuries before he spoke. Probably my deepest sadness as a Christian who has lived through the prophetic pain of a church in opposition to the viperous system of Apartheid, has been to see how the Church has fallen prophetically silent since the church got into bed with the ruling party. The only prophets who have remained consistent are Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev Paul Verryn who currently houses thousands of Zimbabwean refugees in the Johannesburg Central Methodist Mission and is vilified by church and state for that stand.  It is probably too painful for the church to be prophetic yet many of us fail to see the irony in calling ourselves “Protestants”

Finally the most searing and challenging facet of John the Baptiser’s emptiness for me lies in his complete emptiness of ego.  This is the man with a successful preaching community.  People are leaving the city to come to listen to him in the Wilderness! That is completely against the logic of the day where the Temple in the city was the only conduit to the divine. Yet this man with the successful ministry, knows from the beginning that he is just the opening act, and when Jesus steps onto the stage, John graciously bows out, and sends his own disciples to follow the one who he recognises as the Lamb of God.  How much closer to the reigning presence of the heavens would the church had come if all Christians leaders could model that emptiness of ego?  The Spiritual turf wars that seem to be on every street as we compete for “market share” and “franchise dominance” makes us look more like representatives for Kentucky Fried Chicken than the followers of Jesus.

Where did John get it from, this emptiness?  I don’t know.  But I sense that the wilderness would have stripped him, burnt him and detoxed him to a point where he really did have what Paul described Christ as having,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.  Philippians 2

The Wilderness Retreat Centre says, “Go Wild – Get Well”.  When in that wilderness we discover Jesus as John did, we too will have something worth losing our head for.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

Swept away or Standing firm?

Matthew 24:36-44

To hear the this sermon as preached (Click here)

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I am currently reading a fascinating book by the Institute of Noetic Sciences titled, Living Deeply: The Art & Science of Transformation in Everyday Life. The authors point out that transformative experiences in life involve both assimilation and accommodation:

Jean Piaget, the Swiss-born biologist and pioneering developmental psychologist, together with his colleagues, observed that when a child is presented with a new experience, that new experience is most often assimilated or incorporated into their current beliefs and attitudes (Inhelder and Piaget 1958). Or, if a child’s beliefs and attitudes cannot assimilate a new experience because it’s too challenging or different, their cognitive structures must alter to accommodate, or make room for, the new experience. For example, when children see a zebra for the first time, they often call it a horse. Having no concept for zebras, children assimilate the experience of the zebra into their current mental structures and decide that it’s just an unusual horse. Eventually, a child will learn that there exists an animal similar to a horse in shape but actually a different animal altogether called a zebra. This process is the child accommodating her worldview to include the possibility of zebras.
Thus, as we learn, we’re naturally forced to stretch and revise our world- views. This cognitive process may partially account for the profound shifts in consciousness that we’ve heard about over and over again in our research.
But what makes it more likely that we’ll accommodate rather than assimilate new information? Psychologists Dacher Keltner from the University of California at Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia study experiences of awe and wonder, an area previously ignored by scientists. These two pioneers propose that awe has two essential components: perceived vastness and a need for accommodation (2003). In other words, it maybe that some experiences are so vast, so profound, so far beyond what we’ve previously perceived, that they in effect demand that we transform our worldview in order to accommodate them. Rather than simply trying to assimilate these experiences into our constricted framework, we are forced to broaden that framework. (pg 68-69)

Coupled with that reading has been a reading of Richard Rohr who in an article, We need transformation not false transcendence” writes:

I am convinced that without experiences of liminal space (that place where all
transformation happens), there is no truthful perspective on life. Without truthful
perspective, there is neither gratitude nor any abiding confidence. It is precisely this deep gratitude and unfounded confidence that I see most lacking in our people today, even the people of the church. It makes me wonder whether we are doing our job. We are not being initiated into the mysteries.
Victor Turner, in his classic study of initiation, The Ritual Process, says that some kind of “shared liminality” is necessary to create what he calls communitas, or what I would call church. Communitas in a spiritual sense does not come from manufactured celebrations or events. Havenʼt we all tried that? It is forgotten the next day or even the next hour. It depends on artificial stimulants of food, drink, music, shared common space and energy. It is really lovely and probably necessary, but it does not transform. It merely sustains, and it is often unfortunately diversionary from the deeper task. True communitas comes from having walked through liminality together — and coming out the other side – forever different. The baptismal drowning pool was supposed to have ritualized just such an experience. But something happened along the way. Baptism became a pretty blessing of children

At the risk of being unfair and even making some enemies, I am going to say that much of the church I have experienced in my 58 years of life and 31 years as a priest is much more “liminoid” than liminal. Liminoid experience substitutes group think, shared and engineered feelings, mass reassurance and group membership for any real or significant personal transformation. It works real well. It creates false transcendence in just enough dosage to inoculate people from Real Encounter. It takes away oneʼs sense of aloneness and oneʼs sense of anxiety — and for most people this feels like “God.” And, of course, God is so humble and well practiced that God will use all of these things to bring us to Beloved Union. As I keep saying, these things are not bad, just dangerous and highly productive of delusion. In the world of the Spirit, the real sins are usually quite subtle. The devil is used to dressing in clothes that draw no attention to himself or herself, and if the clothes do,
they usually impress us.

These two quotations I feel need to be  heard before we embark on trying to understand the Gospel passage for this Sunday, the first in Advent.  The reason I say this is because so much of our reading of the Gospel seeks to assimilate Jesus into what we have already decided to believe, and very very little of Jesus’ teaching has the power to confront us with vastness and force accommodation, and to use Rohr, most of our encounters with Jesus are liminoid and certainly not liminal.  We do not expect Real Encounter.

As proof of this assimilating liminoid syndrome, I would suggest that when most Christians read this passage, their attention is grasped chiefly by the two people in the field and the two women grinding and will ponder the details of how and why one is taken and one is left in each case.  This is not our fault. We have been so thoroughly brow beaten by abysmal apocalyptic doctrines of the rapture, and the genre of sensationalist fear based movies and novels it has spawned.

I don’t want to get into too big a rant about the dubious doctrine of the rapture that only surfaced in the nineteenth century (You can read the history of its Irvingite origins here) All I have noticed is that this obsession with end times has had the effect of putting the church to sleep rather than keeping us awake as Jesus intended.

The background to this passage in Matthew is Jesus warning his disciples of the destruction of the temple and all the atrocities that were going to follow.  Having outlined these dark events in Matthew 24:1-35 Jesus then moves to challenge his disciples to be awake to the unpredictability of the parousia of Jesus, which could (and I think, should) be translated, “The being present of Christ” rather than “The (second) coming of Christ” This being present of Christ occurs three times in Matthew 24 in verses 27, 37, and 39.

The context for the Advent One gospel teaching is the flood, where Noah built an Ark despite the derision of his neighbours and so was prepared for the day when everyone and everything else was swept away in the deluge.

What the rapture theorists have failed to note is that the Greek suggests that the ones who remain; the one’s who are Aphietai (= let loose, left alone), are better off than those who are Paralambanetai (= taken along, swept along).  Hadn’t Jesus, earlier in Matthew 24:10-13 said, “Then many will fall (be swept?) away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

It would seem that you don’t have to experience the horror of a Noah type deluge to be swept away.  As I look around the world I see Methane gassed miners in New Zealand, crushed worshipers in Cambodia, shelled South Korean fishermen.  There are whole economies in Greece and Ireland in danger of being swept away, and it looks like that tsunami might well beach in other Mediterranean economies soon.

Although the “being present of Christ” (parousia) is presented in metaphors of flood and thief, nevertheless it would seem that wakefulness is the key to seeing that presence of Jesus in the middle of the crisis.

In the insecurity of these deluge days, it is easy to be swept away by fear.

Despite what the Rapturists ,who are “only visiting this planet”, may preach, I am happy not to be swept away on a wave of Apocalyptic avoidance.  No, I want to stay and stand, firm on the earth where the parousia presence of Jesus is experienced in the liminal transforming margins of our suffering world.

In the gathering gloom of this Advent night.  I light a candle, sip some coffee, and wait to accommodate Christ’s transforming presence by ongoing change in my life and attitudes. We will stand here together as the communitas of the awake ones.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

Jesus…who? (Feast of Christ The King)

Luke23:35-43 (Click here to listen to this post as preached in Port Alfred South Africa on Nov 21 2010)

And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

I grew up believing that Jesus Christ was the name of the man I heard about in Sunday school. He was white, had long blond hair and was usually carrying a lamb around in his arms.

It was only when I began to study theology that I realised that Christ wasn’t Jesus’ last name. I had thought he was Jesus Christ just like I am Peter Woods. I learnt that Jesus, a teaching rabbi from Nazareth had been put to death during the governance of Pontius Pilate, and that outside of the biblical record that was all that was known about him historically.

Inside the biblical writings, (which cannot be used historiographically – that would be like using a reference from your mother when applying for a job!), this teacher Jesus had been experienced as one who fulfilled the expectations of Israel for an anointed one, whom they had called “Messiah” or in Greek “Christos”.

I also learned that recognition as the Jewish Messiah was not the end of the evolution of Jesus’ name, because as the Good News (Gospel) spread through the world after Jesus day, it met up with Greek philosophy. The Greeks, particularly the Platonists, had a notion of a divine ordering principle which they called the Logos. Judaism had already met Platonism and Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) the Jewish Alexandrian had prepared the way by postulating that the Logos was “God’s blueprint for the world

So when Christ followers met the Greek philosophers there was this “Aha!” moment when Jesus, of Nazareth the Jewish Christos was experienced by the Greeks as being the Logos. So, early on in the development of Christian theology Jesus of Nazareth, who was recognised as the Christos (Anointed one), came to be seen also as the divine Logos (The unifying, creative principle at the heart of the Universe John 1:1= “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God and the Word was God”…) This is echoed in Paul where he writes in Colossians 1:17 “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together

It was the Christian theologian Justin Martyr (c 150 CE) who made the formal connection by identifying Jesus as the Logos.

Thus Jesus of Nazareth who had been experienced by his followers as the Christos (anointed one) came also to be experienced as the Logos, (God’s blueprint for the world) Also, did you notice how many times I used the word experience in describing this journey from Jesus to Christos to Logos?  We have to remember that our beliefs are  our attempts to explain our experiences.

By the time I was finished with my academic study of theology, I (sort of) understood that the proper name for the one I follow, is Jesus the Christ and Logos of God, although he insists that I just call him “my friend”.

Now when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King at the end of the entire Christian Year, we are making faith connections and saying that in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe, Gods blueprint for the world, is revealed. That is why we follow, reverence and promote Jesus to the world.

However, this feast of this tripartite faith union of Jesus, Christos, Logos, also demands of us some critical and clear thinking so that we may be honest with ourselves. If we are going to continue to make sense to the world, we are going to have to understand this evolution of understanding that saw Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, the rabbi, become firstly the Christos of Jewish expectations, and later the Logos of Greek philosophy.

This I propose to do by offering some questions for your prayerful consideration. I am not going to suggest full answers because I believe the best theology is done by each of us bringing our logic (logos) and experience to bear on these questions.

Question one: Did Jesus of Nazareth think of himself as the anointed messiah (Christos) or the unifying blueprint of the universe (Logos)? A simple reading of the gospels would answer yes. Jesus affirms Peter for saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Honest biblical scholarship demands though that we ask, how a Galilean fisherman could have come to such a sophisticated philosophical notion? Could this be the editors of the gospels putting words in Peter’s mouth to express the later understanding of the church?

Question two: Has the Logos energy of God (the creative unifying blueprint of the universe) only been manifest and experienced in the life of this one Jesus of Nazareth, or could there have been others in History?

Question three: How much of what we reverence in Jesus, was his intention? Bearing in mind that Jesus is recorded as saying seventeen times in the gospels, “Follow me” and NEVER does he say “Worship me”

I am very clear that for me, Jesus is both Christ and Logos. That is my experience, that is my way, that is my truth, that is my life.

I will share this with everyone who is interested in knowing.

However, as I consider how I have come to this position, and how we as church have explained and constructed it, I have to acknowledge that it is not clear, that Jesus is the only manifestation of God’s Logos in human history nor that Jesus considered being equal with God important ( Phil 2 “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”). It seems more reasonable to me, that the Divine Logos is bigger than one religious creed or cultural experience.

What is abundantly clear from the life and teaching of Jesus as I have studied and experienced them is that Jesus became recognised as Christos and Logos, by living as a servant of humankind and as slave of compassionate love. Our King is a Servant!

Posted in Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

Feel the fear… and endure it. (Proper 28C / Ordinary 33C / Pentecost +25)

Luke 21:5-19

Listen to the sermon as preached (Click here)

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

It is of  interest to me that in the Lectionary, this gospel follows Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees (See The devil IS the detail). In that passage Jesus refuses to be drawn by the straw man debate of those who don’t believe in Resurrection and yet want to argue the minutiae of how relationships in heaven might be! Jesus points his hearers in that context to the reality of life that does not end, which begins when one awakens to the reality of it in the here and now. Debates about the furniture or marital relationships in heaven are non-essential in following Jesus.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus once more points to the interiority of life in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Discussing the temple and its glory, (it must have seemed to people who had probably not travelled more than one hundred kilometres from their homes in their entire lives to be an astounding edifice) ; Jesus is not too taken with the outward appearance of the structure. As a clear and wise spirit he grasps the impermanence that is at the heart of every created thing and sees that even this fine edifice will one day be a ruin.

The incredulous listeners cannot conceive of it and so want to interrogate Jesus for the details. “When, where, how, by whom?” Notice how Jesus does not get drawn by the specifics, the curse of the literal mind. It was the British philosopher Owen Barfield who said, “Literalism is idolatry“.  Jesus knew that. As an armour against distraction, Jesus warns of the dangers and distractions to come but hidden in this passage, which literalists try to use as a map for the future, he gives four clear instructions and one final assurance.

It is these that I choose to focus on:

Beware that you are not led astray. The skilful and wise Christ follower is the one who knows that truth and light are not found “out there”. No book, Mp3, movie, programme, teaching, or guru has the answer. Not that any of these are bad in themselves. They are all fingers pointing to the moon. The person who lacks the inner eye of discernment is prey to becoming obsessed with trying to find the correct finger. I often say, that if I had spent as much time praying as I have reading books and blogs about prayer, I would be a lot closer to Jesus than I am now!

Do not go after them. It is difficult to stay focussed when the herd hurtles off somewhere in search of answers or fads to calm their fear of the present. It is here that the one who knows the secret of unending life, is able to trust their inner compass and light to keep to the path that they know leads to transformation.

Do not be terrified. Here of course is the catalytic secret to our distractions from the path. When we become fearful we become forgetful. We forget the promises, the peace, and the process that has so shaped and guided us this far, and we begin to question and doubt the veracity of simply remaining rooted in following Jesus. The ego doesn’t help because it joins the chorus of doubt that whines about needing more security and surety, which comes at the price of serenity. It needs no underlining that Fundamentalism feeds on fear and terror, and often creates conditions to cultivate those dark emotions, so that it can offer its seemingly watertight and foolproof facile “answers”. I have said it before, “Destructive religion points to certainty; Wise religion points to the mystery”

Jesus’ fourth instruction addresses our neurotic obsession for control in stressful times..So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. As I reflect on the stressful times and conflicts of my life, I realise that I have spent hours and perhaps days, planning encounters and debates with people. I have had answers and arguments loaded in my arsenal of competence, so that I may never be caught out as being at a loss for words or information. Truth be told, not one of those scenarios played out the way I had planned.

What Jesus is suggesting is that our time would be better spent, clearing the clutter and static of our ego broadcasting stations, so that we have a calm, clear channel to God which incidentally will always through our hearts and not through our heads.  Our heads are where all the static is!

By your endurance you will gain your souls. Finally after the four instructions, Jesus concludes with an observation. The spiritual life into becoming Christ, is not about having all the answers, arguments and information, it is about enduring in keeping our hearts open to the mystery of the never ending life of God within us and within the entire Universe. No temple, trend or triumphalist doctrine will stand when the demon of fear comes to steal our souls.

Posted in Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

The detail IS the devil

Lk 20:27-38

This sermon is available in audio (Click here)

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.

Have you ever met people who obsess about details? I have, and in most cases, where I have had the privilege of speaking deeply with such people in counselling, I have discovered that the obsession with details is often a compulsive strategy of avoidance of deeper issues. I suppose it is a similar syndrome that makes a student spend days preparing the study place, the lighting, the timetable, anything but getting down to studying. At least that’s how I remember it from my formal student days.

It would seem, from studying the Gospels that those who question Jesus are often caught up in the details and minutiae of religious practice as a way of avoiding the confrontation with what really matters in the deeper parts of who they really are and what needs transformation? At one point you will remember, Jesus accuses his hearers of straining out gnats and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24)

Could it be that questioning around the details of marriage arrangements in the resurrection, is a similar avoidance of a deeper issue?

I offer as an example of this dynamic, so many  people I meet who are obsessed with past lives regression and similarly with who and what they will be in heaven or in their next life, depending on their eschatological persuasion.  These dear and sincere people are often caught up in a dance with their own egos. After all, who but our false selves would be deeply concerned about the manner in which our lives will continue in God? Please do not hear me dismissing these interests as inconsequential. I know many who have been greatly helped by exploring past lives as well as meditating on who and what they will be after this life.  All I am concerned to point out is that the ego feasts on these exercises of imagination and so lures the false self into deeper and deeper constructs of illusion, thereby avoiding the life changing encounters with Truth.

I am surprised that as I have got older, I have developed a fair amount of sympathy for my ego, or “false self” as Thomas Merton chose to name it. My sympathy arises from the recognition that my false self has everything to lose from transformative depth encounters with God . I do mean “everything”. To follow Jesus in the Kingdom of the Heavens requires “the grain of wheat to fall into the ground and die“. The cross that I have to take up daily in my following of Jesus will require the gentle, but nevertheless, inevitable transformation of the ego into the likeness of Jesus, and thereby an inevitable diminishing of the self with its obsession with self maintenance, defence and perpetuation.

The false self (ego) in what Fr Thomas Keating calls its “Programs for Happiness” will always be aiming away from the target of self transformation into Christ as our true nature and true self.    The false self targets its own gratification as the exclusive focus of this life.  Need I remind us that “missing the target” is the root meaning of the word “sin”?

Merton writes, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. There I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface” (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation pp. 34-35).

The devilishly detailed question of the Sadducees ironically come from a group that did not believe in the resurrection, but who are happy to set up a straw man debate in order to discredit Jesus, thereby avoiding having to deal with his challenge to their lives.

So as I am tempted to dance with this straw man, and get into the details of the possibility of marriage in heaven or not, I am checked by a realization that what is at issue here is not marriage in heaven.  The issue  for Jesus is  “Eternal Life” (zoein aionion literally Life of the Ages)

How interesting to realise that the phrase “eternal life” is never used in the Old Testament. The phrase only begins with the New Testament. In the Old Testament the only one who is eternal is God.

Jesus however invites his followers to begin to imagine and dream that they can share in this wholly other dimension to living. “And this is eternal life, that they may know (ginoeskoesin) you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3

Living eternally, in the teaching of Jesus is not an awaited event that comes at the end of this life, but the awakening from the dead right now.  The resurrection happens when one realises that this life with its cares and woes is not all there is. The kingdom of the heavens is within us, and living from that perspective is the ultimate salvation, right here right now.

It would seem that knowing God through Jesus constitutes an awakening from the dead and a beginning of living eternally. Moses was already in this context so he could speak about God as the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.

So to return to the beginning of this discussion; past life regression and our obsession with reincarnation or all the details of heaven, are activities of the ego. The false self is caught up with the inconsequential details, that actually must die here and now in this world so that the true self may emerge.

Does this mean that Christ followers should not marry? I do not want to suggest that at all. The context of modern marriages as loving, long term partnerships between two completely equal human beings (of any gender), is such a completely different relationship in our time, that to compare it with marriage in Jesus day is just plain silly.

In Jesus day, wives and children were possessions of husbands.  The implication that people who are already living eternal life and who don’t marry is really more about living life with diminished grasping for possessions including wives, children and cattle, than about whether Christ follower today should be getting married or not.

The bottom line of this passage for me lies, in its invitation to avoid being distracted from our chief purpose of realising the transformative eternal life in Jesus. Don’t be seduced by the devilish minutiae of doctrinaire speculations of any kind.