Could we Tweak the Trinity?

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Let’s not underestimate the power of this doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  It is not merely some speculative sophistry on the part of idle theologians.  Blood has been shed, empires divided, and the first constitutional split in the hitherto united church of Rome hinged on this doctrine. (See Filioque debate). That was just one of many conflicts and councils around this doctrine.

The passion with which the Church has defended the trinity was inevitable. After centuries of defending monotheism as a minority view in the Middle East, the Jewish Christians were committed in blood and brain to the unity of the one God.  Add to that the contrast that they had to preserve against their most recent conquerors in the decades before Christ, namely the Greeks and then the Romans with their populous pantheons of gods, and we can understand why, in the Jewish mind, God had to be ONE.

There were just two problems.  These Jewish thinking Christians had experienced the divinity of the man they met as Jesus of Nazareth but whom they had come to understand as The Christ of God. As if that wasn’t conflicting enough, after Jesus had been translated back to the non-physical dimension of God being, they then experienced a presence and power so ecstatically and dynamically divine they could only reference that power as Holy Spirit.  Game on.

It is my contention as a steeped Wesleyan that a well balanced basis for theological thinking has four legs and not the traditional: Revelation, Reason, Tradition of the patristic model.  The fourth leg that is essential, is Experience.  I would hold that experience gives the contexture to theology and keeps it from being merely heady armchair speculation.

It was the experience of the church of God – Jesus  – Holy Spirit as a divine continuum and union, that led to the formulation of this complex doctrine which was settled into stone by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So it has been since for millennia of our history. “World without end”?  Maybe not.

Given the fact that so much has happened to our understanding of the world in the last one hundred years (a mere wink of an eye in the history of this doctrine), and given that heretics are seldom burned at the stake anymore, I would like to propose a fresh look at this doctrine, not to change anything but to perhaps expand our understanding in the context of third millennium thinking.

Firstly I would want to suggest that we recognise that Father is often not the most helpful reference for the being that we want to understand as the source of unconditional love.  Exposure in our time of the horrors of domestic violence and patriarchal abuse that for centuries been hidden or even worse, condoned leaves some people unable to reference God at all because the referent of Father is so abhorrent. Referring to the first person of the Trinity as The Father and Mother would make things easier, but I wonder if the time hasn’t come for us to speak of that first experience of God as The Parent?

The second person of the Son, is also somewhat limiting because it is my contention and my experience that there is as much blessing to be experienced by realising that a large component of the nature of Jesus is also as brother to the believer. I am not sure how we could verbalise that in the creeds but I would ask that we seriously affirm the Sonship of Christ to the Father and the brotherhood of Jesus to the believer.  If the church does not make Jesus more relational as soul-sibling I do believe he loses the impact of his Incarnation.

My final expansion on our statement of the Trinity would be firstly to celebrate that we no longer speak of Holy Ghost, which infantilizes that face of God, but also ask that we perhaps bring Holy Spirit out of the shadows of the Parent and Son/Brother so that we may recognise that Universal Spirit is the very (I am tempted to say “only”) source of life, creativity, and change in the world.  As a Christ follower, I cannot conceive of anything good, true or beautiful that does not spring from Holy Spirit.  Once again I am not sure how we word-work this into creed, but I do want to plead that we do it somehow.

So that is my expanded understanding of the Holy Trinity: Parent, Son/Brother and Creative Breath of life that is the complexity and singularity we call God.

“Do you really want One?” –Easter 7a

 

John 17:1-11 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

As all of us on the web are, I too am an inveterate Googler.  No question needs ever be unanswered!  However this time I didn’t ask Google, I asked the other Behemoth of the Cyber-jungle, Amazon.  I wanted to know how many books and movies have “The One” in their title.  The answer surprised me.  Not because I wasn’t expecting thousands of results.  No I was surprised that it wasn’t just books and movies titled “The One”.  There are songs called “The One”  and there is even a Dolce & Gabana perfume with that name. All available with ONE click shopping from Amazon.com.

Why are we so enwrapped by this notion of the one?  Is it because we know at some primal level that our origins are from The One?  Creationists and Evolutionists, Mystics and Physicists all concur on probably only this ONE thing.  In the beginning there was one.  Call it God, all it the Singularity, we know in the very strands of our spiralling DNA, that there is a centre, a still point, a One. 

It also seems to be the curse and quest of human consciousness to forever be on pilgrimage to return to “The One”.  Some may look into the very limits of Hubble clarified space, others may race around like the electrons in the Large Hadron Collider.  In churches, caves, or cemeteries, or in a puff of Dolce & Cabana perfume, we are looking for the One.  The One inspires our lyrics, our longing, and according to Carl Jung is the  optimum balance point of opposites where our passion flows most creatively.

Small wonder then that this One-ness, Unity and Union, is the deepest prayer of Jesus for his disciples and by inference, his Church.

It was after all, the core experience of Jesus of Nazareth.  He knew that He and Abba parent were One.  His whole divine – human life, his reclusive – public life, his teaching – listening life; was predicated on there being a unity-union between himself and the very Source of Life.  His words and actions were motivated and empowered by returning all those he met to The One.  The gospels record the miracles that resulted from that re-UNION.  Fathers and Prodigal sons, Tax Collectors and Zealots, Rich Zacchaeus and poor Mary and Martha, Dead Lazarus and Lustful Peter, all found their place at the centre of this singular person.  Jesus, who broke bread and had his body broken and was able even in that shattering of his sacred centred life, to unify humanity with God.

If we think of the words that describe human suffering, we notice that they are words describing states moving from that One-ness. Disassociation, Depression, Division, Divorce, Ex-Communication, Alienation, Rejection, Apartheid.  Divisive, splitting words, describing what is worst about human suffering; the Edenic Alienation from the Garden of Unity.  Our exile from The One.

Conversely, when we speak of the good, the true and the beautiful aspects of the human condition and mission, we reach for words like, CommUNITY, CommUNION, Compassion, Integration, Reconciliation, Reunion, Wholeness.  Wondrous and healing words. Words that describe the entire life of Jesus, living as he did out of his singularity with God. The return to The One.

Small wonder it was Jesus’ deepest desire and prayer for us, his divided and conflicted followers, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Do you know your rights Miranda? Easter 6a

John 14:15-21

”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

I live very far away from the United States on the Southern Coast of Africa.  Yet despite the distance, thanks to the wonders of television and the excellence (most times) of the film and television industry, I am very familiar with many things American.  I still prefer cricket to baseball, even if you can play the game for five days and still not get a result! I also prefer Rugby to Gridiron, probably because you can see Rugger players bleed more profusely without all that padding and those helmets!

One of the aspects of American life that I have seen and heard often is the Miranda warning.  Often dramatised in movies at the point of arrest, the officer of the law has to say: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”  I have heard the Miranda warning so often that I could almost recite it verbatim, despite never having been arrested.

What I didn’t know and what Wikipedia informed me of, was the origins of the warning.  In 1966 the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Ernesto Arturo Miranda who was arrested for rape and kidnapping, had his rights violated in the way he was arrested and tried.  (He was subsequently retried and convicted).  The Miranda warning came to bear his name.

Reading the gospel for this Sunday I couldn’t help feeling that I was witnessing Jesus coaching his disciples with a Miranda like warning.

Before getting into that discussion it is worth noticing how Jesus turns the common understanding of commandment keeping on it’s head.  Most Christian teachers tend to imply that if we keep the commandments that will enable Jesus to love us.  That is not the truth.  We keep the commandments (the promises of our committed relationship to Jesus – loving God and our neighbour as we love ourselves) not to make Jesus love us but because we love Jesus. Jesus loves us into keeping the commandments.

However in the keeping of the commandments to love, in repaying the debt of love that St Paul speaks about in Romans 13:8, we sometimes miss the target (the core meaning of the word “sin” is an archery term “to miss the mark you were aiming for”)  At these moments of failure to love, the accuser, the oppositional energy, Satan will try to indict us.  At this point we need to know our rights.

Our right to remain silent

The gift of contemplative living is that it cultivates an awareness that silence is most often the best response to accusations.  Whether the accusations come from without or within, to be silent is to allow wisdom to slowly brew up within that silence.  I have found that if I can withstand the knee-jerk impulse to justify myself or argue my own defence, then most often a deeper and more skilful response is forthcoming which I am sure is my helper’s words and not mine.

Our right to an attorney

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever”

If ANOTHER helping attorney is coming it implies a prior one, who must be the speaker, Jesus.  The one who justifies us and who pleads our case is Jesus.  His Holy Spirit is an ongoing attorney who explains our rights and who silences the indictment of the accuser.

Our right as Children of God

If we stopped here I believe we would miss the point of this teaching of Jesus.  The paraclete, helping advocate, the Holy Spirit is not with us and in us only to argue our case against the accuser. 

The Holy Spirit makes our case for freedom on the basis that we are not orphaned, dislocated beings cast adrift and at the mercy of any and every accusation that may be thrown at us. The Holy Spirit is after all the attorney that affirms our divine status as children of God.

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

It would seem to me that this case is never coming to trial.  The evidence of our failures, so easily used to accuse and indict us, does not in any way threaten, dilute or invalidate our grace given status as God’s children.

So any accusation that may come is not directed against an orphan with no standing in the community; rather, it is an accusation against a child of God.  I wonder who would risk even trying that!  This is of course difficult for us to understand where the law in our day shows no favourites, but in biblical times familial affiliation was a factor in applying the law. For example in Leviticus 21 we read “No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives,2except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother; 3likewise, for a virgin sister, close to him because she has had no husband, he may defile himself for her.

It would seem that our association with this Holy Spirit Advocate brings with it a winning argument against condemnation, as well as immunity from judgement by accusation.

Could the Christian’s Miranda Warning be something like this…?

You can keep silent as long as it takes to stop your fear from speaking.  When you do then choose to speak, tell everyone who accuses you of your failures to love that you are trying, by the life of God in you to get it right each time. However, when you do fail, it in no way invalidates your status as God’s child who can try as many times as you like without penalty to be more like Jesus your master.

Now that is Divine Justice.

“Is it Really You?” – Easter 2

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.

The sign in the shop says, “Nice to look at, lovely to hold, but if you break it, consider it SOLD” Understandable I suppose.  Which is why my childhood memories of going into stores are underscored by my Mother’s mantra, “Look don’t touch!”.  Yet we are tactile beings.  The very first sensations we have as humans involve touch and then of course putting the held object into our mouths!  What a consternation causer for young mothers.

Thomas wasn’t a doubter he was simply human.  “Don’t tell me, show me.”  After all, didn’t the Psalmist say, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8

I am reminded of the countless movie scenes where a long-lost–thought-dead loved one returns.  The director usually has the other character hold the returner’s face in their hands and say something like, “Is it really you?

Despite the risk of touching instead of just looking, despite my Mother’s nagging voice, I am a Thomas too.

Like him I have had moments of loss, confusion and chaos when I have shut down and denied the possibility and probability of any return from the dark desperate void of my own broken grief.  My heart has shut down as securely as the locked doors of that upper room on that first Easter evening.

I am never sure how, or why, Jesus has come to me and stood in that sequestered place of fear and forgetfulness, but he has again and again.  He is miraculously there despite my barricades and belligerence that often make Thomas sound tame.

He is there, and all I want to do is what the movies characters do.  I want to hold his face in my hand and sob, “Is it really you?

I never do that though.  Perhaps it’s my Mother’s voice, “Look don’t touch”?  I don’t think so.  Rather I believe it is the overwhelming experience of real resurrection renewal that makes me not hold him nor poke fingers of incredulous questioning into him.

In moments of resurrection encounter I like Thomas, can do nothing other, than fall on my knees before his patient ever-returning grace.

“My Lord and my God!”

Back AWAY from the drawing board!

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

There is a monastery close to where I live and from time to time I have visited the monks there.  These are experienced Benedictines, most of whom are life professed which means that they have been in the religious life a long time.  Yet despite them knowing what it is to be monks, knowing how to be monks and obviously BEING monks,they chuckle when they tell of how many visitors to the monastery who don’t know what it is to be a monk, or how to be a monk and who, despite not being monks, consistently tell them what they think the monks should be doing!

What is it with our culture that somehow assumes that despite inadequate training or experience we can opine about anything with grandiosity?  My doctor was telling me of a similar problem in her profession. “Patients enter my consulting rooms,”she said, “armed with a file of Googled results.  They sit down and instead of telling me their symptoms, they proceed to tell me the diagnosis of their condition and what medication they want me to prescribe!” I could sympathise with my doctor because as a priest I have had to put up with other’s “expert”opinions about religion for most of my ministry.  My studies and qualifications aren’t worth a hill of beans because everyone is an expert.

You will therefore understand why I take such delight in the Father’s put down of the disciple’s great opinions and plans for what should be happening on the Mount of Transfiguration. Their best laid plans of “Let’s build three booths up here and …” is cut short by The Voice that thunders, “This is my beloved Son, LISTEN TO HIM

Now here is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus.  Could it be that, our five year plans, mission strategies and files of Googled answers deafen us to what Jesus is really saying to the church?

Am I being too provocative when I suggest that maybe the church has been booth building for twenty Centuries too long? The record of that moment of transfiguration seems to suggest that Jesus’ desire will most often be contrary to our plans.  The disciples want to build booths and Jesus says, “Get up, stop being afraid, let’s go!”

If we read on in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, we discover that at the foot of the mountain a desperate father is waiting with a suffering son.  There is no time for building booths nor basilicas. “Get up, don’t be afraid let’s go”  It seems that the glory of God shines on Jesus to get him ready for Golgotha, or a least to heal a suffering boy in the foothills of transfiguration.

Could the same be true for our worship Sunday by Sunday?  Do we hear the Father’s acclamation that we are God’s children as a reason to bask in a booth, or as the inspiration to , “Get up, stop being afraid,”  and to go down to the suffering of humanity and our personal crosses that wait?

I’ll be right with you Jesus!

I’m just rolling up this blueprint and the five year plan!

We might still want to build something someday.

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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.

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!

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.

Camouflaged by shame

Luke 19:1-10

To hear this sermon preached click here

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

I grew up in a culture that was peppered with prejudice about all sorts of people and people groups. A product of the height of Apartheid, and a white male South African, I was fed a steady dose of all the stereotypes that went into making up our society. It may surprise you that the stereotypes weren’t all about race! Many of them were about other physical features, like, “Never trust anyone whose eyes are too close together“. I do beg your clemency for this bigoted upbringing and would offer as mitigating circumstance that I grew up deprived of “Google”. If I’d had the Internet I could have verified all these misperceptions on Wikipedia. (Yes, that lump on my face is indeed my tongue in my cheek!)

Another of these cultural biases was located around persons of short stature. Short man syndrome or a Napoleon Complex, was used to judge people of less than average height who competed aggressively with those who were taller. Behind the bias lay an unspoken principle: short people should know their place. Interesting that there isn’t a short woman syndrome, are women just expected to be small?

Coming this week to the most famous short man of the gospels, Zacchaeus, I find myself wondering if the short man syndrome was a bias in the days of Jesus? If it was, poor Zaccheaus had to face a double whammy. Short of stature, and also a tribute collector, what a difficult incarnation to carry.

All this nostalgia for the prejudicial upbringing of my past also dredged up a song from my youth. It was written by another short man and performed by his short self and his tall partner. The opening lines were, “When you’re weary , feeling small…

Are you old enough to remember “Bridge over Troubled Water“(YouTube Link) by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? It was 1969, so you may not want to admit to that.

I think those opening lines would have got Zacchaeus’ attention if he had heard the song back in the day. Zacchaeus knew what it was to be weary and also what it was to feel small. In the shame based culture of his time (is there any other kind?) being a tribute collector was tantamount to being a spy and a traitor. The only difference was you were required to perform your treachery in public! Collecting the extorted tribute from the Jewish populace and then handing it over, sans your sizeable administration fee,  to the Roman oppressors would not have endeared this profession to your peers.

I can’t help wondering if the tree climbing that Luke tells us was to get a better view was not also an attempt at concealment and camouflage?

Zacchaeus knew who he was, he also knew what he had done. He saw the shame in the looks his fellow Jericho-ers, including some of his family, gave him as they looked down on him literally and in every way. Zacchaeus was quite happy to be concealed in the sycamore-fig tree that day. To catch a discreet glimpse of the travelling Rabbi, that so many were speaking of.

On the Internet there is a name for people who enter chat rooms and who never participate in the discussion. They are called “Lurkers“. Zacchaeus was a lurker. Drawn to the teacher Jesus, he didn’t believe he had anything to offer and certainly believed he was not worthy to receive anything, so he lurked in the sycamore-fig tree, the very tree that was ironically a symbol of the nation of Israel and of blessing. Knowing what we do now about the outcome of this narrative, the sycamore-fig tree was an inspired choice. Zacchaeus might not have dreamed about the blessing of Zechariah 3:10, “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.“, but somehow he knew he had to see Jesus

When I preach on a Sunday I sometimes find myself wondering how many Zacchaeuses are in church, or even reading this blog. People who are drawn by the promise of healing and wholeness from Jesus, but who have experienced too much shame and have been looked down upon just once to many, for them to risk disclosure of their need? They lurk in the back pews, or don’t even attend church, constantly reading blogs like this trying to find some redemption from the harsh judgement they see in the eyes of others. Sadly, the most despising and diminishing looks come from the disciples of Jesus.

Here is the good news. Jesus is drawn to shame. Shame and sadness are the pheromones that attract the amazing grace of Jesus.

Just one look up the tree of shame and concealment and Jesus encounters the one who is lurking there.

It took me a while before I grasped the irony of the tribute collector hiding in the iconic fig tree of Israel and of blessing. At the risk of totally mixing metaphors, and confusing everyone may I point out that Jesus “the vine of the New Israel” calls Zacchaeus Smallman, to leave the concealment of the laws of shame and blame and also to leave his false blessing of wealth and extortion. He is called to leave that which makes him live in concealment from everyone, and “come down” to take his place as a forgiven son of Abraham.

No longer will Zacchaeus have to lurk up the tree of shame and blame, he will now be able to sit under that tree in the blessing of God. How? Because, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

This is not merely a story for Zacchaeus. It is a call to each of us as Small-people.

Let us risk climbing from the perches of false guilt caused by prejudicial bias where we have been lurking, and leering at the world.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Wow! Zacchaeus, how you’ve grown! You are taller down here than when you were up the tree.

Why God doesn’t…

This Sermon is available in Audio by clicking here Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.‘” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” One of the real challenges I set myself by using the Lectionary (which is not required by my denomination) is to come to the texts once in three years and not remember how I worked with them last time around. It was very tempting to look for someone else’s take on the reading this week, particularly as I return to the mainstream lectionary after detouring into the Season of Creation series during September and a week off preaching whilst leading a retreat on October 3rd. This past Sunday I was with St Francis blessing the animals, but now it is back to the extraordinary text this Sunday in Ordinary time. As I read this well known pericope, I instinctively know one thing. This is not about nagging prayer or an unwilling God, it is about a God who bears the suffering of people with them. I think I speak for most of us from Western Christian backgrounds when I say, “We would like to have all our problems fixed quickly.” It may even be one of the main reasons we pray at all. Prayer thus becomes what one Textweek blogger recently referred to as , “a process of giving God a ‘to-do’ list” That is not what Jesus understood by prayer. Jesus had been speaking about the suffering and confusion that was to take place within the lifetimes of many of his hearers. The coming of the Kingdom of God, was going to be in the midst of tumultuous upheavals. Luke continues, “Then Jesus told them a parable…” It is a strange story of a nagging widow that pesters a judge for justice against those who have wronged her. The story is almost inaccessible to us when we read it in 2010, for our context is so different from the one into which Jesus was speaking. We cannot comprehend what it was to be a widow in the time of Jesus. This was not a society where everyone was entitled to their day in court. The irony of the story in its context is that the widow would have no rights and she certainly would not have access to a judge in a formal procedure of law. So her crying out for justice is in fact a parody. A little background may be in order: “Women’s behaviour was extremely limited in ancient times, much as the women of Afghanistan during the recent Taliban oppression. In Jesus day:

  • Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father.
  • Married women were not allowed to leave the home of their husband.
  • They were normally restricted to roles of little or no authority.
  • They could not testify in court.
  • They could not appear in public venues.
  • They were not allowed to talk to strangers.
  • They had to be doubly veiled when they left their homes.”(Reference)

So as a woman with no man to speak for her, she would have been walled behind her veil and widow’s weeds. Effectively silenced, the very setup of this story Jesus is telling would have evoked interest and bemusement in his hearers. It was loaded with ironic fantasy. This woman can only cry out to the judge unofficially. Perhaps she calls to him as he passes her on his way to the city gates to judge the disputes and charges of the men for the day. The cries of the woman eventually sway the cold heart of the judge who gives in to her request. A mistake many exegetes of this passage make is to miss the ironic subtlety of Jesus. This is not an encouragement to badger God with incessant “to-do” requests and requisitions. The message I hear from Jesus is this, “If hard hearted judges can be moved to act, how much more will your ABBA-Parent be willing and eager always to help the children of God?” Yet this is still not the main point of this parable. I say this, because the parable ends with Jesus asking, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Why should the Son of Man not find faith on earth? Perhaps there is doubt in Jesus’ question because it is very difficult to keep praying in trust to a loving parent, when every circumstance of your life seems intractable and horrific. How do we keep trusting for “justice, liberation, wholeness, and cure” when there is no obvious way out? It is here that the widow becomes our teacher. The widow had no rights. She in fact did not have access to the judge, but that did not blight her to bitterness, nor temper her trust. She kept right on calling, trusting despite all evidence to the contrary that there would be a breakthrough in her hopelessness. I heard recently of a monk who had disrobed and left the order to pursue life outside the monastery walls. Months later he wrote back to his monk friends and said, “I am living my new life, but have realised that this is not IT“. When I heard the story something in me wanted to say to the ex-monk, “Yes, this is IT” The “IT” being the constant unsatisfactoriness of life. Buddhism calls this “dukkha”, a difficult word to translate but a concept that points to the suffering and stress of life. Buddhist Scriptures say, “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.”(Reference) I find this honesty of the Buddhists refreshing. “Suffering exists” is the first statement Buddhists make about reality. It is their first Noble Truth. Jesus is honest about the suffering of women and widows in his time. The quick fix, romantic and utopian obsessions of our culture will always be tempted to expect our relationships with God to be fulfilling, successful and to have positive outcomes. If my life experience as a parent teaches me anything it is that this is not always so. My relationships with my children and theirs with me is not always rewarding and fruitful. That does not mean that they, nor I, intend them to be so, but the “dukkha” of life somehow directs that the longed and worked for perfection does not always follow according to my schedule or theirs. Yet despite all my experiences of suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness I still cry out to my ABBA and long with God that it could all be different. Somehow the calling helps. It helps even if nothing changes. I have discovered that it is far more consoling to have a God who feels the pain with me and who longs for a better world than to have a MacGyver God who fixes everything at my beck and call. A Mr Fixit God leaves me fickle and superficial. It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable. This is IT!” Life isn’t following the script I wrote for it. Some situations are unworkable, stuck, and full of poignant, imperfect, suffering and stress. But I still trust that good things may come. I still have faith that in the end it will all be perfect or that I will see the perfection of the seemingly imperfect. “Will the Son of Man find faith upon the earth?” As long as people who are immersed in dark nights of suffering dream, rather than despair, I believe he will.