Friday, August 21, 2015

The Great Leveller

Sundays after Pentecost Proper 9 [14] Year B

I am very happy being part of the Anglican Church, but sometimes there are aspects of our life as a church that strike me as being unhelpful in making the gospel clear.

One of the things that comes over again and again in the teaching of Jesus is that the world’s way of power is not God’s way.  “My Kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says to Pilate and in these words he is not referring to his Kingdom being “out of this world” which is the way many Christians take it.  What he means is that the way of the EMPIRE – of power, force, oppression – was not his way.  He proclaimed an alternative way that did not involve sucking up to people of power and influence.  He found power in weakness.

Now we in the Anglican Church sometimes forget this.  Because in Britain we were an “established” church the leaders of the church naturally rubbed shoulders with the King and politicians, and the church was filled with what we call “the Establishment”. 

And we model our church life on structures of power.  Bishops are described as “monarchical” by which we mean that whatever they say goes.  When they write official documents like my License as your priest they use the “Royal ‘WE’”.  We this is repeated in the structure of a parish.  What I say as PP goes.  I authorise musicians, Sunday School Teachers, Op Shop workers and the like – and I can stop any of them without needing a reason.  These hierarchies of power are the same as we have in the world – monarchs, governors, presidents, prime ministers, premiers.  Each uses their power to have what they want.

But the Kingdom of God is not about power – we get that very clearly from the story of Jesus as a powerless baby in our Christmas stories and as a defeated and crucified felon in our Easter stories.  Nothing could be more powerless than these two images.

Paul is grappling with the same paradox in the passage we read from 2 Corinthians 12 today.  Paul’s leadership or authority as an Apostle had been challenged by various people in and around Corinth.  It seems they claimed to be closer to the Apostles in Jerusalem, that they did amazing signs and wonders and that Paul had done none of these things.

Paul uses this as an opportunity to teach the Corinthians something really important about the Way.  He says that we shouldn’t boast like this.

He somehow learned that God’s power was most commonly found in our weaknesses.  This was a great relief to him, because it meant that he could let people judge him very simply on what he said and what he did.  The pathway of humility is the way of Christ.

Have any of you ever explored Christian meditation?  This contemplative practice of seeking God in silence has helped many people in their spiritual journeys, but one thing I have noticed about the meditation communities is that they all seem to have their gurus or people who they look to for guidance because, presumably they do it well. 

Gurus may be wonderful, but they can have a devastating effect on novices – it is almost universally the case that people struggle with meditation.  Their minds focus on ridiculous things when they try to meditate.  They can’t stop these thoughts intruding into the space and it is very easy to think they are an absolute failure because of the overwhelming feeling that “nothing happened.”

A man once told me a wonderful thing – perhaps we as a “guru” for me in that moment.  He said to me “Every time I begin a meditation I think of myself as a beginner – that kills the expectation that something will happen.  Then, when it does, it will be a surprise.”

Paul discovered that he needed a constant reminder of the need to be humble – to not get “puffed up with pride” as he says.  And don’t you find it interesting that he is able to use something that he really doesn’t want – this thorn in the flesh that he had prayed to God three times to be free of – as a “messenger from Satan” that keeps him on the straight and narrow way.

This affliction could have been thought by many as a sign of weakness.  We don’t know what it “really” was.  I like to think of it as having the flexibility to be whatever it needed to be.  So if Paul was among a bunch of people who were very, very smart philosophers then his affliction would be that he was rather incoherent.  If he was among a group of people who were big on signs and wonders like healing or speaking in tongues, then perhaps this affliction was that he wasn’t healed, or that he couldn’t speak in tongues when he was with them.

Whatever it was, Paul thought of it as a weakness through which Christ’s power became all the more obvious – since whatever may have happened, it hadn’t been because Paul was powerful, smart, whatever.  “My grace is all you need, for my power is strongest when you are weak.”  This little message he carried with him where ever he was.

So the thing I have been pondering all week is how do I keep reminding myself of this?  And I am wondering it that is something you need to think about, too.  How do you keep yourself relying on the wisdom and power of Christ, rather than your own smarts?

One thing I do know is this.  When we all understand this together the Church is a very level place – not at all hierarchical.  There is no room for celebrities or monarchs or gurus.  We are all on a level playing field in this spiritual endeavour.

The Whole Armour of God

Sundays after Pentecost Proper 16 [21] Year B

In England, the Church of England is called the Established Church.  The meaning of this is that the church and the civil authorities sit very closely together.

The Head of State is also the Head of the Church.  Bishops in England have seats in the House of Lords – that might also explain why in olden times people addressed their Bishop as “My Lord.”

What this also means is that people of power and influence in society very often exercise positions of power and influence in the Church. 

And this is still very much the case for the Anglican Church in Australia, even though the Church is disestablished here – there is a complete separation of church and state.

Because this is our “normal” so to speak, we sometimes do not notice the subversive themes in the Early Christian writings.  Much of the teaching of Jesus was a direct challenge to the Powers that Be of his day.  The designation of Jesus as “Son of God” was not just a theological statement.  It was a direct challenge to the Emperor who styled himself “Son of God” on Roman coinage.

We are not used to seeing the church as a small marginalised group of society that refuses to collude with the powers of the Empire.  As a result we often miss some of the meaning implicit in Biblical metaphors such as we read from Ephesians (6:10-20) today.

When you live in a situation of occupation or dominion by a foreign power it is very tempting to keep a low profile and be as compliant as possible so as to survive, and maybe even get on well. 

Rome held onto its position of power by military force.  What Pilate was most afraid of at Easter time was a riot that he would have to quell with disproportionate force – many would die.  But he would do it.

The political and religious aristocracy of Jesus day collaborated with the Romans and so relied on the same military force to keep their positions of influence.  But Jesus and the early Christian leaders pointed to another way.

So, when Paul raises in our minds this metaphor of the Armour of God, he is not just saying here’s a good metaphor for teaching something important.  He is saying to the Ephesians, and all others who have read it since, that we have a higher power that protects us – we do not need Roman forces.

By using this image of the protective armour of a Roman Soldier, Paul is saying quite unambiguously that we should not put our confidence in that armour – rather we should rely on the WHOLE ARMOUR OF GOD.  And the reason is clear – and simple.

Our real enemies, against whom we need protection, are not flesh and blood, as in other human beings.  The powers that range themselves against the Kingdom of God are described here as what we might call “METAHUMAN” – they may be embodied in human beings but they are best described as “the authorities” or “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” or “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  With these images we get a sense that that battle is with more than just human beings but with God as well.

Against these forces, we human beings must be prepared to defend ourselves.  And I must say that the meaning of each item of the armour leaves us with something pretty flimsy against the cosmic powers that seem to be in control of the universe.  What have we got?
            The Spirit, and
            The Word of God
These hardly seem to be the kinds of things that could win a cosmic battle.  Well, in truth, they do not need to be.

With the exception of the Sword of the spirit, all other items mentioned are defensive or protective.  We are not asked to take up weapons that will vanquish the foe.

We are asked simply to take up this armour so that we will be able to withstand our opponents.  The task of believers is to defend themselves and the faith against the enemies of God, speaking boldly about the Gospel whenever an opportunity arises.  The battle itself is left to God.

Let us praise God for the confidence we have in him and pray daily for the courage to face whatever forces are railed against us and our faith confident in the Whole Armour of God with which we dress ourselves each morning.

How, then, Should we Live

Sundays after Pentecost Proper 15 [20] Year B

One day a very little boy was heard by his mother saying words that he had obviously heard his older brothers saying while they were playing in the street.

Now this woman was a particularly wise woman, having a great understanding of how a little boy’s mind would work, so she took him aside and spoke unexpectedly gently with him.

“Those words you said, just then, are not really nice words for a good boy to say, but I thought I should tell you that there is one thing I never want to hear you or any of the big boys ever saying.”

“What’s that, Mummy?”

“I don’t ever want to hear you say “Rule Britannia!”

The little boy solemnly promised never to say such a bad thing.  But it wasn’t long before his older brothers heard him one day stomping his feet in the back yard shouting “Rule Britannia!  Rule Britannia!” because he was very cross about something.

We call this reverse psychology and in some situations it works.  But in my teaching experience I always found that I preferred not to teach what I wanted kids to do by showing them what not to do.  It was always much better to show them what was good or right.

Unfortunately, St Paul was not up with the latest in pedagogical theory, having learned mostly from Gamaleal some 2000 years ago who was working out of the Hebrew peripatetic tradition.  Thus we have in our selection from Ephesians (5:15-20) today something expressed quite differently from what we had last week.

Last week, he was telling us very positively what to do and why.  Over these few verses we have three emphatic contrasts drawn to our attention – but with the same purpose as we were given last week – unpacking for us what it means to be new creations in Christ; what this new life really looks like.

“Don’t live like ignorant people,” he says, “but like wise people.”  I guess we would all like to do that, but what he is really getting at is a very particularly Jewish way of thinking.  The Greek and Roman philosophers of the day thought they had captured WISDOM with their knowledge about all things and their powers of logic.  For the Hebrew mind, however, WISOM is about the orientation of your life towards God and God’s values.  So, what Paul is calling us towards is to live in keeping with God’s commands, pursuing those traits of character that make for a peaceful and harmonious life, and attending to God’s wisdom as revealed in our Scriptures.  Now that is a rather big call, isn’t it.

The second pair of contrasting things he raises for us is in verse 17: “Don’t be fools then, but try to find out what the Lord wants you to do.”  In first century philosophical thought, the opposite of foolishness would be self-possession, discipline and an independence of spirit and the will.  Paul calls us towards a very different kind of wisdom.  Foolishness for Paul is relying on your own wisdom, but true wisdom is found in trying to understand God’s will for us.

Finally Paul warns us of the misuse of that terrible spirit – alcohol.  “Don’t get drunk with wine, which will only ruin you; instead be filled with the Spirit.”  I have always been intrigued by the word play that exists for us in English by our use of the term SPIRITS to refer to strong alcoholic drinks.  I discovered that in the etymology of this term is the pre-scientific notion that what made people behave strangely when they had too much wine or beer was a spirit that had possessed them.  Indeed it was not uncommon then and now for people from various religious traditions to use alcoholic drinks or other mind-altering substances to induce an ecstatic experience that was deemed to be a means of accessing the gods.

Paul is clearly aware of this and he wants to push us towards the True Spirit – the Spirit of God – who alone can give us those truly ecstatic experiences of the divine.

Finally, Paul commends to us all the important work of thanksgiving to God – for EVERYTHING.  Since God is greater than all creation and God is in all of the creation, everything we have is a gift from God, and it is an appropriate act of reverence to thank God for that.  Likewise in our interdependent relationships with each other, the appropriate act of reverence is to give thanks for all that we mean to each other.  It is also a great way of keeping the peace.

Now I hope that these words make some sense to you.  They are a clarion call to live our lives centred firmly on God through Christ.  It is in Christ that we discover the will of God for us.  It is in Christ that we find true wisdom.  And it is in Christ that find the voice that will truly and rightly praise God, in whom we live and move and have our being.

On Being a Christian

Sundays after Pentecost Proper 14 [19] Year B

A long time ago, right after I finished High School, I was offered a place at Mount Lawley Teacher’s College.  This was a very different kind of place to a university – where the goal is to increase your knowledge about whatever it is that you were studying – maths, science, history?  Whichever.

As a Primary School Teacher, I already knew more than I would need to know – so far as KNOWLEDGE goes.  What I didn’t know yet was how to BE a TEACHER.  There were indeed some very practical teaching skills I needed to learn, but the most important work I had to do there was learning how to BE a person who would inspire curiosity in children and empower them to learn – something that is much more easily said than done.

I think that many of the early Christians knew that BEING a Christian was also something much more easily said than done.

Our selection from Ephesians this week – 4:25-5:2 – takes up a challenge laid out in the verses preceding it.

So get rid of your old self, which made you live as you used to - the old self that was being destroyed by its deceitful desires.  Your hearts and minds must be made completely new, and you must put on the new self, which is created in God's likeness and reveals itself in the true life that is upright and holy.

This, of course, invites us to ask certain questions; like
            What exactly does all this mean?
            What does this new life look like? and
            How will I know if I am living it?

I think our selection today is trying to flesh out the answers to questions like these.

There are some interesting little rules in this selection.  Some seem to be echoes of Old Testament rules, while others have echoes from elsewhere in the New Testament writings and some even have an echo of the local philosophical ideas.  None of them are particularly striking, really, are they?

But the one thing that I think is interesting about them is that six times we are given a particular reason why we should behave in that particular way; and perhaps even more interesting is that none of these reasons are in the form of a threat; they simply appeal this sense of what the Christian identity is all about.

Truthful speech becomes a requirement for the Christian community because “we are all members together in the body of Christ.”  Now you realise that “member” in this context is something far more intimate that being on the parish electoral roll.  It means being a member like a body part is a member of your body.   Being untruthful among ourselves is like the eye telling the nose that it isn’t smelling an onion – it actually couldn’t do that.  So it should not be possible for a Christian to be less than truthful.

The little rules about anger are interesting.  Anger is a really powerful emotion – you only have to see a little kid getting scared of how strong their own reaction of anger is to realise this.  We can also think of stories of road rage in our own time to understand how our anger can lead us to doing really bad things.  Here we have an appeal to beware of forces outside the community that are capable of undermining our strength.

One thing we noticed about this part on Thursday morning was that we are not old not to be angry.  We are simply told not to let that anger lead us into sin.

The next one is a bit of a surprise, isn’t it?  Anyone who used to rob is told to stop robbing, not because robbery is wrong, but because it is far better for them to earn an honest living. 

The matter of our speech is raised again.  How easy it is to utter harmful words.  However, in the Christian community, we are here encouraged to do our utmost to build each other up with our words, rather than tear each other down.  Again, we have a positive reason given for behaving differently rather than a rule that we should not do this.

Did you notice the little reference to the Holy Spirit?  I love that idea that the Spirit is what marks us a God’s forever, but this reference is right in the middle of what we have before us and it seems to me this emphasises a vital consequence of our failure to live in the prescribed way – the Spirit of God is grieved.

The last area of behaviour that is focussed on is forgiveness.  This really is a hard area of life for us sometimes.  When someone hurts us we generally hold back forgiveness for as long as we think we can get away with it.  Along with these words in which we are encouraged to see the example of God’s willingness to forgive us our failures as a motivation to forgive those who have offended us, my three year old granddaughter has a message for us all from her favourite cartoon movie – “Let it go!  Let it go!” a song from the movie Frozen. 

There is an epithet of local wisdom going around that “withholding forgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  It is a good analogy because I think it illustrates well the effect upon us of the poison.  But we are called to live differently – forgiving others because God has forgiven us through Christ.

So then, all these little rules and their motivating assertions come together like a climax in the final verses of our selection:

Since you are God's dear children, you must try to be like him.  Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God.

Elsewhere we read about imitating Christ, and there is a sense in which this could be taken to mean the same thing.  I also take it to mean that in the same way that a child looks up to and imitate the parent – mother or father – so we should look up to God and imitate all that is good in the character of God, as supremely demonstrated in the death of Jesus which is here described as a sweet-smelling offering that pleases God.

There is some lovely imagery here interweaving the idea of the Gospel and our response to it.  God’s action in Christ in a sense demands certain behaviours of human beings, but alongside these comes the gifts that make them possible to yield to: our “membership” in the body of Christ, the seal of the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of God and love of Christ.