Why are we delaying the party?

Luke 12:32-48

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded

It would seem that this passage breaks down into two parts, paragraph one is the declaration and paragraph two the dialogue.

In the declaration of paragraph one, Jesus puts his hearers at ease. Daddy God, Abba, wants to give you the kingdom where he lives, with pleasure. So you can get rid of all your possessions and give alms to the poor because your investment is in the kingdom of the heavens, far from robbers and inflation. Do this because wherever you invest your life is where your attention will be.

The master is coming soon to celebrate his victory and even his slaves will be blessed in this celebration. The master will serve the slaves (douloi = slaves who were born in slavery, not enslaved), the only condition is the slaves must be awake and recognize him when he knocks at the door. It might even be in the middle of the night so vigilance is necessary so as not to fall asleep and miss the arrival of the master.

As I read this first section, the sense of immanence and urgency is palpable. The kingdom, the basilea in Greek  is already here!

The second half of the passage has a different feel. The energy shifts and it seems that the immanence and expectancy dissipates. Could there be some delay between the writing of these two paragraphs?

The detective in me wonders why it is Peter who is asking the question? Could this be the voice of Early Christians being put into the mouth of the Petros (stone) on which Christ said he would build his church? The reference to the abuse of other slaves, eating and drinking and getting drunk are all the result of the master being delayed. Is this not a dramatization of the Early Church trying to deal with their crisis of expectations? They had believed, lived and preached that Jesus was returning soon. Luke, writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE, would have known the dynamics of this crisis only too well.

If that is the case, how much more acute is the crisis for us as modern Christ followers, if we are still holding out for a physical return of Christ in time and space?

Allow me to say out loud what many of us have may been thinking for some time. Given what we are discovering about the Universe, its origins, scope and scale, it seems very unlikely that the Apocalyptic visions of the book of the Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel and all others that have been mustered to determine the details of how it is all going to end, will be realised. It seems reasonable to believe that the information streaming from The Hubble Telescope and from the Large Hadron Collider on the macro and micro fronteirs of our exploration demands that we acknowledge the universe doesn’t work like the Mayans, Nostradamus nor even the early Christians thought it did.

In fact, what I have come to realise as I navigate this ocean of opinion in the quest for mainlands of meaning, is that admitting that we have not fully understood all that Jesus was trying to communicate, may open us to a fresh perspective which in turn might be our real hope.

So let me make some statements that might be co-ordinates as we chart our course towards a more integrated and intellectually honest understanding of this Bridal feast teaching.

The first statement is about scripture. If we are to be intellectually honest we have to allow our understanding of the levels of scripture to grow. That journey begins by recognizing that in any text, be it prose, poetry, mythology or science, the literal meaning is the lowest level of understanding.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And Eternity in an hour.

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

Why is it, when we read William Blake’s words from “Auguries of Innocence” we do not demand from the words literal veracity that we demand from similar words of scripture?  Yet it is this very suspension of any demand for scientific and historic accuracy that makes his poem and any other capable of moving us most deeply. I wonder what it will take for us to see the words of Scripture as the profound truths about reality that they really are, despite the fact that they may not square with current scientific information. Truth is truth when it moves our hearts and not merely when it makes us nod our heads.

Moving on from there, my second statement is premised on the first. The kingdom of our Heavenly parent is real and experienced in every moment that we allow peace, compassion and love to suspend our judgment, opinion and our demand for the power of always being correct. I need to pause for a moment, to explain that “the kingdom” is a reign (basilea). The opposite of basilea (reign, dominion, kingdom) is turannis a monarchy, or sovereignty. It is worth noting that the word turannis occurs nowhere in the New Testament. How I wish to basilea that some members of the Fundamentalist Christian Taliban would understand the subtleties of this! It suggests that if I can stop my own fear based tyrannical demand for control of everything and everyone in my world, I can live in the readiness that I am going to hear my master the bridegroom, knocking on the doors of my experience multiple times a day! I will celebrate providence and perfection in multiple moments when I know that I am already feasting with my Lord.

From this place of realized eschatology where I recognize that Jesus has already returned, (in fact he never left) I will relax from always having to judge and discern who is in the Kingdom and who is outside the Kingdom, because Jesus is here and he is the way the truth and the life and not me, nor my doctrine nor my denomination.

“But what about the end times?” you cry. Allow me an attempt at a concluding statement. There are two ways that we can understand “end”. The first is the Latin word Finis I am old enough to remember seeing that word as the final title on the movie screen. “It is Finished” This is the end of the movie. The film has spooled out of the projector.

There is however, another word for “end”. It is the Greek word Telos.
This word means end in the sense of everything being accomplished. It is the root for the word that describes Jesus knowing that all things having been accomplished (tetelestai) then says “I thirst.” (John 19:28) And later himself says, “It is accomplished (tetelestai)” and dies. (John 19:30). It is this word that allows me to suggest that what many Christians still see as only coming in the future, End (finis) times, is already here in these End (telos) times. You see, telos time is like the “whodunnit” mystery novels, it makes sense of the clues that we have been glimpsing all along. The things we suspected all along, but were too afraid to ask or that the Church was too afraid to let us believe lest we would no longer be controlled, attend worship and pay our tithes!

The disturbing second part of our scripture passage, that I suggest are the words of a later, well developed church, point to a community that is beginning to obfuscate the direct experience of Jesus by neglecting and abusing their fellow servants in the belief that Jesus is not going to be around for a while and so the leadership have to take over control and dominate the membership. It is the beginning of the Christian Taliban that has blossomed at various times of history and is in full bloom all around us at the moment.

Exclusionary, xenophobic, ethnocentric, separatist… how many words have we found in our modern vocabularies to describe the horrific clues we have been witnessing in the church but are not confident to name or challenge? At the heart of the abuses of the second paragraph abuses in our passage, lies the drift from a telos understanding of end to a finis, understanding of end. Jesus proclaimed the telos had happened. The church realised that only with the threat of finis, could they keep control. So they switched the focus!

Fortunately, not everyone was fooled. In very generation and thankfully in our own, there have been saints and sages who have lived as if the echoes from the cross were true. “Tetelestai!” they cried as they lived in the reality that the Kingdom is already amongst us, and the challenge of our Gospel first paragraph life is possible. For them, despite severe opposition, from the finis camp, the telos of a loving Father’s kingdom made the present moment vibrant and pregnant with grace and redemption.

Would you like a checklist of the clues they discovered?

  • Reconciliation with God? Accomplished.
  • Binding of Satan? Accomplished.
  • Defeat of evil? Accomplished.
  • Freedom for all? Accomplished.
  • Emptying of Hell? Accomplished.
  • Living in paradise? Accomplished.

But why can’t we see it?” we whine.

Because we are blinded by our dogmas and our devotion to outdated and increasingly irrelevant creeds (If we demand they be understood literally)

But for those who know what the Master wants, who understand that he requires compassion and care for every one of his servants; those who know a lot and those who know very little, if we will do what he told us to do in the first paragraph we read…:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

… for these who can look above the literal and see the mystery of heaven already present and breaking through into present time, those will understand exactly how…

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

TETELESTAI!!!!

The importance of being uncertain.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It was Wilson Mizner who quipped, “I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”

The history of doubt in the West begins not so much with Thomas as with the influence of Rene Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650)

Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to provide a philosophical framework for the natural sciences as these began to develop. In his Discourse on the Method, he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this, he employs a method called hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt, also sometimes referred to as methodological skepticism: he rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then reestablishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.

Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist (Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy). Most famously, this is known as cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”). Therefore, Descartes concluded, if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the very fact that he doubted proved his existence. “The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/René_Descartes

Descartes began the movement in the West away from mystery to certainty, which was great for science but sad for spirituality because he moved the locus of consciousness from the heart to the head. It has remained there ever since.

One of the reasons I find the Philokalia teachings of the Eastern Orthodox so engaging, is the instruction to “stand before God having placed the mind in the heart.”

You see I don’t think Thomas was a doubter as much as he was an honest engager of reality. He wanted to be sure.

It is this quest for certainty that has become a serious challenge to mainstream Christianity today. The rampantly growing fundamentalist wings of all the world’s religions are thriving because in a world filled with uncertainty, the deepest longing of the human heart is certainty. The fundamentalist however make the error of assuming that certainty in matters of faith is possible.

Part of the problem as Karen Armstrong points out in “The Case for God” is that faith has come to mean belief (as in belief in doctrine and dogma) where in fact the word pistis means trust in a person or a truth. Trust whilst being a far more relational (heart) word than belief (head) word also has less certainty to it. Which is Armstrong’s second contribution to this discussion. She points out that in the ancient religions including Patristic Christianity, there was a healthy balance between Mythos and Logos, whereas modern Christianity has lost the mythos dynamic altogether. In fact ask the avergage person today what a myth is and they will say, a fictional story that isn’t true. Fundamentalist Christians won’t even allow their children to read Harry Potter! Mythos in the true understanding of the concept is a symbolic archetypal description of truth in the form of narrative.

I love the story of the elderly Granny who is tell her grandchildren the story of the Exodus and prefaces the telling with, “Now children I need to tell you that this story is absolutely true. It just might not have happened this way!

It is this respect for mystery, mythos and doubt, and my weariness with cock-sure certain conservative Christians that attracts me to the writings of Leslie Weatherhead. He was the person to coin the phrase, “The Christian Agnostic

A-gnosso means “I don’t know

It is the opposite of certainty and the seed bed of real trust in Jesus who seems to come closest to me with his bleeding hands and side, in the moments of my life when I am least certain of myself and of most everything else.

Doubt and Faith are companions and not opposites. “I trust in the areas of my life where I am not certain.”

So as I am feeling a tad burnt-out after preaching through Holy Week and the Easter Tridium , let me end my blog this week with some salient quotes from Weatherhead’s “The Christian Agnostic

Leslie Dixon Weatherhead (1893-1976) was an English Christian theologian in the liberal Protestant tradition. Renowned as one of Britain’s finest preachers in his day, Weatherhead was noted for his preaching ministry at City Temple in London and for his books, including The Will of God, The Christian Agnostic and Psychology, Religion, and Healing. Weatherhead trained for the Methodist Ministry at Richmond Theological College, in south-west London. The first world war cut short his training, and he became Methodist Minister at Farnham, Surrey, in September 1915. After serving in India, Manchester, and Leeds, Weatherhead was called, as a Methodist Minister, to be Minister of the City Temple, a Congregational Church on Holborn Viaduct in London. He served there from 1936 until his retirement in 1960.

“I believe passionately that Christianity is a way of life, not a theological system with which one must be in intellectual agreement. I feel that Christ would admit into discipleship anyone who sincerely desired to follow him, and allow that disciple to make his creed out of his experience; to listen, to consider, to pray, to follow, and ultimately to believe only those convictions about which the experience of fellowship made him sure.”

“As I see it, all questions regarding the factual accuracy of Biblical statements—notably such ‘miraculous’ events as Virgin Birth, Resurrection, etc.—are wholly irrelevant to the true issues. Indeed, I should go so far as to say myself that the whole value of the Gospel story to mankind—and it is very great—lies not in its historical but in its legendary, mythical, or ‘typical’ character. It is not, I think, the Sermon on the Mount—or at least not this alone—that constitutes the peculiar contribution of Christianity to human thought, for very similar maxims are to be found elsewhere, and in any event could be deduced from first principles. It is to be found, rather, in the affirmation that all that is best and highest in man, as typified in the person of Jesus, is bound to arouse opposition, is often persecuted and apparently destroyed—yet is in fact indestructible an does perennially ‘rise again’ triumphant over seeming disaster.”

“The essential in Christianity, past, present and future, is loving Christ and one another, and if the Quaker finds God in the silence and the Salvation Army in the band, the Roman Catholic in the Mass and the Baptist in immersion; if the High Anglican likes incense and ceremonial, and the Methodist puts his emphasis on personal experience, the fellowship of the authentic class meeting and Charles Wesley’s hymns, why talk of disunity?

“When people said to me, ‘I should like to be a member of the City Temple, what must I believe?’ I used to say, ‘Only those things which appear to you to be true.'”

“When I really believe a thing, I mean that its truth possesses me. . . Truth is self-authenticating, and when it possesses me, nothing can shake it from its enthronement until some greater truth displaces it or gives it less prominence.” [ellipsis added]

“We still make of prime importance matters about which Jesus said nothing. How can a matter be fundamental in a religion when the founder of the religion never mentioned it?

“No argument or logic carries the same degree of conviction as insight, and it is the kind of conviction by which we know that dawn over the Alps on a perfect morning is beautiful. Argument cannot produce it and doubt cannot remove it. The outward beauty meets the inward recognition and in our hearts we know.”

“Any man, to the extent to which he is good, reveals the nature of God.”

“I am not prepared to hand over to any other person, though wise and learned, or to any institution however ancient or sure of its position, my inalienable right to search for ever-growing and ever-expanding truth. I believe the craving for security in belief is one which arises from within ourselves, and can only be met adequately form resources which are within ourselves. It seems to me that it is far more important for a soul in evolution to believe a few things because it has struggled, thought and suffered to discover and possess them, than it is for it to have a comfortable and orderly faith which it has adopted from any source outside itself.”

“I reject unchecked subjectivism as the authority in religion. No one can suppose that the final authority in religion is what the individual happens to think is true, unless his decision is preceded by long meditation, the weighing of all the available evidence and prayer for guidance.”

“. . . we must not thrust beliefs on people, belaboring their minds to try to make them accept orthodoxy, we may set these same beliefs before people, showing them the rich truth which we have found and which they may come to receive as their questing mind develops and grows.”

“I would like to be able with authority to present the case for believing in God, but I would far rather be and authoritative argument for believing in God. The saints are the best argument for Christianity. They have the highest authority in the world for they coerce us and yet our coercion is a willing one. They drive us along the way which in our best moments we want to go. When we read their lives, and even more when we touch their lives with our own in day-to-day living, we meet Christianity’s unanswerable argument. We know, with an authority nothing can resist or overcome, that Christianity changes lives and that if Jesus Christ were given a chance he would change the world.”

“For myself, I refuse mentally to close the canon as if inspiration had run out! Why should we follow traditional thought more than modern thought?”

“We must resolutely refuse to judge Jesus by the Bible. We must judge the Bible by Jesus; by the total effect of a consistent personality made upon us from all sources, including our own experience.”

“There is no authority for God’s existence except the inward conviction that is born of mystical experience.”