Saturday, January 19, 2008

Epiphany 2

Have you ever noticed the number of stories in the Bible that involve somebody getting their name changed?  In the ancient world a name was believed to have great power, at the very least there was something in the name that conveyed who that person really was, or what they were about.  Even today I guess the name parents choose for their newborn suggests something about what they hope for their child, who they imagine their baby might grow up to be.  One of the things I really like about the Orthodox tradition is that babies get named twice – the first time the family gives the baby a name for everyday - the second naming is at baptism when the parents choose a saint’s name to remind their child of what he or she might become.

In our Gospel story today, we hear John’s version of how Jesus called his first disciples – and of course the first thing to notice is how different it is to Matthew’s version where Jesus calls Simon and Andrew away from their fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.  In John’s Gospel the writer remembers a tradition that Jesus’ earliest disciples were originally followers of John.  The sequence of events is different – in John’s Gospel it’s right here, the first time Jesus claps eyes in the disciple who was going to become the staunchest and the most outspoken, if not quite the bravest, of the whole bunch – in Matthew’s Gospel it’s about half way through when Simon realises finally who Jesus really is and blurts it out loud – but in both Gospels Jesus gives this disciple a new name – from now on, I’m calling you Peter.  Because when Jesus looks at Simon he can see something that nobody else can see, he sees not what Simon is now, but what Simon can become, and he gives it a name, the Greek word for ‘rock’ – that’s how come in English we use words like ‘petrified’, Jesus gives Simon a nickname, Mr Steady-as-a-Rock, Mr Unshakeable, the one the whole structure is going to built on.

I guess with the gospels being written 50 years or more after the events there might be a ‘benefit of hindsight’ thing going on here, the gospel writers are certainly aware of the tradition that Peter did go on to be the cornerstone of the church in Jerusalem, they know the tradition that Peter became the first bishop of Rome and that he died a martyr’s death there.  But the point is that Jesus sees something in Simon that Simon doesn’t see yet, Jesus sees what Simon is going to become and gives him the name that helps Simon to see it too.  It’s a bit like the comment attributed to the famous Michelangelo when somebody asked him the (maybe not very bright) question, how did you start with that massive block of marble and end up with something so sublime as the sculpture of David – ‘oh’, he said, ‘I just chipped away everything that wasn’t David’.  Jesus just chips away everything that isn’t Peter, until Simon becomes what God originally created him to be.

I think the really useful thing about the example of Peter, for fairly flaky Christians like me, and maybe you, is that we know how very un-rock-like Peter is most of the time.  Jesus has got a whole lot of chipping to do and right up to the very end of the Gospel story Peter is anything but a rock – extravagant promises he can’t possibly live up to, self-doubt and denial, lying, running away, shame and self-loathing, at the end of it all with nothing left to do but go fishing.  Peter who’s all out of courage but who still loves Jesus enough to hear the words that can transform his shame into new energy and purpose.  Peter takes a whole lifetime to grow into the truth of the name Jesus gives him – much, I suspect, like most of the rest of us.

Did you know that being a Christian means saying ‘yes’ to Jesus chipping away from you everything that isn’t what God wants you to be?  I wonder what God’s secret name is for me, the name that reminds God of what I’m meant to be, not just what I’ve amounted to so far?  Peter’s story reminds us of something Christians sometimes act as though they’d prefer not to know, which is that being a Christian is about transformation, about growing into the image of God which is, of course, impossible for us but all in a day’s work for God.

Here’s the odd thing, though.  If I’m honest, it’s as though I’ve made a bargain with God. ‘Listen, God.  I know I’ve still got heaps of growing up to do.  I know there are streaks of selfishness and atheism in me a mile wide, so here’s the deal.  You go to work on me.  Transform me into what you need me to be.  I’ll just resist you every step of the way.  Good luck!’

Has anyone else made a bargain like that with God?

In psychotherapy resistance is a part of every relationship between a client and a therapist.  The closer the therapy gets to what’s really at stake, the real reasons for the patient’s emotional distress, the harder the patient works to cover it up, to project the problem onto the therapist, working furiously to hold on to old, familiar but counterproductive patterns of thought and behaviour.  Spiritual growth, in exactly the same way, always involves a certain amount of kicking and screaming.  The sort of transformation God wants to work in our lives involves us letting go of a whole lot that has always seemed comfortable and familiar, and venturing into unknown territory.  That’s why St Paul calls it dying with Christ.

I suspect it’s a process that has a parallel for our communal life, as a Church, as well.  ‘We do know, God, that you are trying to invite us into a new way of being your Church.  We know we have to change in order to represent the truth of your gospel in new ways for a new century.  We want you to change us.  Do your best – we’ll just cling as hard as we can to the solid ground of the past.’

Of course, Peter does change – by the time we get to the Acts of the Apostles, which is the sequel to St Luke’s Gospel, we see Peter beginning to grow into the meaning of his name – Simon maybe still inside there somewhere but definite signs of the foundation stone of the Church that Peter is becoming.  Perhaps, however, the tension between Simon the Shaky and Peter the Rock lasted right until the end of Peter’s life.  The Bible doesn’t follow his career right through, but according to one old legend in a book called the Martyrdom of Peter, when the word gets out that the Emperor Nero is in a crucifying mood Peter heads straight for the exit.  Hurrying out the backdoor of the city, Peter encounters none other than Jesus, going the other way.  ‘Lord’, says Peter, as you would, ‘what are you going in that direction for?’  ‘I have to go into Rome to be crucified again’, Jesus tells him – and on hearing those words Peter turns around and heads back into the city to meet his own destiny.

The tension between who I know myself to be and who God knows me to be does last a lifetime.  The trick is to learn to see ourselves as God sees us.

This is a truth that the prophet Isaiah knows very well.  We read this morning one of the so-called Servant poems, a mysterious collection that sometimes seems to be talking about an individual, sometimes about the whole nation, the people of Israel, sometimes about other servants, in fact the servants of the original Servant whose death in chapter 52 we Christians see as paradigmatic of the redeeming death of Christ.  As unclear as all this is, the Isaiah Servant poems are most helpful, maybe, because they remind us firstly of the vocation Jesus has for us, and then of the vocation God is inviting us to accept.  The Servant complains that nothing’s going right – failure and teasing is about all he’s got to show for it so far – but God’s perspective sees further than human limitation.  The transformation God promises has got nothing to do with the Servant’s own abilities – the initiative is God’s, that’s the first thing.  We’re called not to be clever, or successful, or powerful.  The second thing is that the vocation – to be a light to the nations – God wants to turn us into light! - means that the transformation God promises us is to reorientate the direction of our lives – away from preoccupation with our own needs, towards concern for the needs of others.

So if God’s job is to chip away at us, what’s ours?  I think there’s a clue in one of this Gospel writer’s favourite words – the Greek word is meno, and it occurs in today’s passage no less than five times.  In English it means stay, or persist – often our English Bibles translate it as abide – in slang we could translate meno as ‘hang on – or hang around, hang out, or even hang in.  For example:

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending 
from heaven like a dove, and it hung on to him.


They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you hanging out?” He said to 
them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was hanging out, and 
they hung around with him that day.

Later in the Gospel we hear this word a whole lot more.  In chapter 15, Jesus says,

Hang in with me as I hang out with you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it hangs onto the vine, neither can you unless you hang around with me.

Hang around.  Hang in, hang out – hang on for dear life.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Baptism of our Lord

One of my all-time favourite movies is the film ‘Oh brother, where art thou?’ – starring George Clooney – the story which is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey revolves around the fortunes of three escaped convicts on a quest for hidden treasure who eventually discover where their real treasure lies.  In the story, the three prisoners are on the run after slipping away from a work gang when they come across a bizarre scene in the woods.  It is a mass baptism – long lines of white-robed figures are converging on the river singing over and over, ‘o sinners let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down, o sinners let’s go down, down to the river to pray’.  Delmar, who is easily the dumbest of the three, gets caught up in the beauty and the emotion of it all and jumps the queue – running headlong into the river, yelling at the preacher that he wants to be baptised – he throws himself backwards into the river just trusting that the preacher will be able to catch him, simply expecting that he is going to come up out of the water into a new life - saved and forgiven.  When the preacher finally lets him up for air he roars up out of the water spluttering ‘boys, I’m saved!  The preacher said my sins done been washed away!  Come on in, boys, the water’s fine!’.  And at first it seems the dunk in the river has done the trick – convinced that the baptism has worked like some sort of magic he sits in the back of the getaway car with a happy but dazed sort of expression, assuring the others that all the wrong things he has ever done don’t count any more – of course, before he knows it, Delmar is unwittingly dragged back into the chaos and chances of life on the run.

Which, of course, is the story of each of us as well – whether we were baptised as babies or as adults, whether or not we have any memory of our baptism at all – whether we were baptised because it was what we chose for ourselves or because our parents chose it for us - no sooner do we emerge from the water of renewal, regeneration, new birth and new life, than we find ourselves right back where we started.  No sooner does the water dry than we find ourselves bang smack in the middle of the murky moral choices and compromises of real life – we Anglicans don’t do altar calls, and we don’t really go in for tearful displays of repentance, and certainly we don’t do rebaptisms – we don’t believe that God needs to prove, over and over, that we belong to him – but we do believe in taking a look at ourselves once in a while, in the water of the baptismal font – if in baptism we have really died to sin and risen with Christ then once in a while we do need to remind ourselves of that.

The story of Delmar sounds like it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to the story of Jesus’ baptism that we read in Matthew’s gospel, and yet they’ve got something in common.  Jesus comes to John to receive the baptism of repentance – however hard to explain that seems to have been for early generations of Christians - Jesus receives a baptism specifically targeted at the forgiveness of sins – and for Jesus just as much as for Delmar that baptism is no guarantee that for ever after he will be immune from the effects of human sinfulness, from the full range of human experience or from the moral choices and the pain of human relationships.  The question of why Jesus chooses to submit to the baptism of repentance is one that continues to exercise the minds of modern theologians – surely Jesus was without sin? – say some – but did Jesus really see himself as sinless, say others?  Because if Jesus is really human – if in Jesus God is really sharing the whole range of our human experience – well, part of being human is knowing ourselves to be flawed – being human, like being in love, always means having to say you’re sorry.  Leaving aside such imponderable theological questions I think the point that really matters is this – that Jesus chooses to stand in line with sinners – here in his baptism, as always, Jesus chooses to act in solidarity with those who are labelled as sinful, and that, thankfully, includes us.

We don’t know, quite, where the sacrament of baptism in water comes from.  There’s no really clear precedent for it in Jewish tradition, but scholars think the Essene sect that John the Baptist may have belonged to practiced some form of ritual washing.  So we’re not really sure what the symbolism may have meant for John, but we know he was expecting the coming of the Messiah.  John understood that the time was right for God to act decisively to free God’s people from oppression and tyranny.  And we can guess that John’s choice of the River Jordan – the river that the people of Israel had to cross when they entered into the land of promise – we can guess that for John there is a connection between the baptism of repentance and a sense of waiting faithfully for the new promise to be fulfilled.  We can also guess that the waters of John’s baptism in the Jordan represent the watery chaos that God transforms in the mythological story of creation – so baptism is somehow connected both with creation and with re-creation.

But it’s just about here I always find my own inner voice objecting that water isn’t always refreshing and life-giving, it can also be terrifying and dangerous – as for example the tsunami that struck on Boxing Day three years ago taking over 150,000 lives in the space of a few hours and leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless and injured.  Have you ever noticed that the exact same images the Bible uses to represent the power and presence of God - water, wind, and fire – that these are the very images that can destroy life just as quickly as they can create it?  Scripture keeps reminding us that the God of creation is also present in chaos and destruction, that there are aspects of God we can’t control or understand.  This is where the psalm we read this morning seems to be headed, that God is in the chaos and the flood – it’s an image that seems a bit disturbing when we are confronted by a disaster on such a ghastly scale – or is it perhaps nothing but the sober truth that the God who creates and sustains all life can be also be seen in the chaos and the destruction that is a natural part of that creation?  As the great 5th century preacher, Peter Chrysologus, suggested, maybe the image of the dove that seems to descend on Jesus as he comes up from the waters of baptism is meant to remind us of the dove that signals the re-creation after the great flood in Genesis, the dove that signifies God’s ability to bring new life and beauty out of the deep waters of despair.

All of which means that baptism isn’t a simple safety net.  Baptism is certainly God’s way of saying, ‘you’re mine, and I love you’, but this side of salvation, at least, in the real world where the unforeseeable and the chaotic and the morally murky are ever-present facts of life, the assurance of God’s love doesn’t stop bad stuff happening.  Remember how God got a pretty bad rap for a while there, after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004?  I remember letters to the editor complaining, almost in the same breath, either that God doesn’t exist and allows us just to muddle through in a universe governed by nothing more meaningful than the laws of statistics, or else that God does exist and allows this appalling thing to happen.

The promise of renewal and the grown-up realism of experiencing God in the context of a universe of chaos and suffering.  Both extremes of human experience are whispering in the background as the dove comes down on Jesus’ head, and as readers of Matthew’s gospel maybe we’re meant to hear in the whispers a hint of lies ahead for Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the cross.  Finding ourselves adopted as God’s beloved daughters and sons, as we are in baptism, doesn’t offer an easy way out, certainly not for Jesus, not for Delmar, and not for us, either.  Looking at our reflection in the water of baptism does however reveal something very powerful indeed, which is that in our lives God is most present and most known to us exactly at the times when the boundaries of our individual lives aren’t strong enough to contain our experience – at the times of great suffering as well as at the times of great joy and renewal.

I don't know what Delmar hoped for when he jumped the queue to be baptised in the river.  I do know what I hope for whenever I see the baptismal font filled with water: I want to be reconnected with the God who continually creates and recreates us, the God who day by day is continually revealed in the beauty and in the chaos of my life, in the suffering and the joy of human existence; the God who is revealed to us in compassion and in faithfulness – the God of solidarity who has the power to restore us, to renew us, and to draw us from death into new life.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008


In Monty Python’s famous movie, The Life of Brian, a group of intrepid Oriental explorers follow a moving star across the deserts of Central Asia all the way to Bethlehem.  Unfortunately, they have a bit of trouble working out the point that’s directly underneath the star when it comes to an abrupt stop (haven’t you ever wondered about that?) and turn up at the wrong stable door at the exact moment when Brian’s mum has just welcomed him into the world.  After worshipping Brian and giving his bewildered mum gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (she tells them they can keep that one), the astrologers leave – only to come back a minute later and demand the presents back again because they’d got the wrong stable.  Brian’s life turns out a bit confusing after that, because he keeps getting mistaken for the kid next door at the most inconvenient moments.

Well, every year we celebrate – just a bit after Christmas – the visit to the infant Jesus by a group of foreigners that the Bible calls magi – this is a word that means astrologers, or sorcerers – not kings, not even necessarily wise men as some Bibles translate it – in fact, not even necessarily men! - but the sort of people who elsewhere in the Bible get a pretty bad rap for following a false spirituality and dabbling in occult powers that – at best – might seem to be seriously misguided.  But today we recognise these people getting it right.  Not only that, but we call our celebration the feast of the epiphany – this wonderful word, ‘epiphany’, isn’t just a church word, you also hear it from time to time in regular secular language and it means something like – ‘aha!’ – a sudden realisation that seems to come almost from nowhere - a glimpse of what’s really going on.  Like all of a sudden the fog clears and we get to see clearly, just for a moment, what life’s really about.

But Epiphany is also part of the general celebration of Christmas – in countless church nativity plays the magi appear in the stable at the same time as the shepherds, one after the other – so why are we devoting a whole Sunday to them?  I heard a story the other day about a small church who put on a children’s Christmas pageant but there weren’t enough kids for all the parts so one little girl had to be all three magi.  Someone gave her the three presents to carry, all brightly gift-wrapped and looking highly desirable, and she proudly carried them on a pillow right up to the manger.  When she got there, she announced in a loud voice, "Lo, I bring rich gifts to the baby Jesus - gold, circumstance, and mud."

Of course everybody laughed.  Kind of sounds right, but the meaning’s wrong – or is it? – when I thought about this story in the light of world events in the year we’ve just said goodbye to, the appalling disasters that continue to disproportionately affect the poorest countries in our region –the overdose of circumstance and mud in the lives of the poorest of the world’s poor that sits a bit uneasily with the gold and glitz of Christmas in our comfortable part of the world – then it seemed to me that all we can really bring to God is the mud and circumstance along with the gold of our lives. 

So, what are the magi telling us?  Are these barbarian astrologers just a fancy way of saying the whole world is going to sit up and take notice here?  Well, yes, at one level that’s exactly what the story’s saying.  In this way of looking at it the important thing is what the magi aren’t – they aren’t Jewish – they’re not the sort of people who are supposed to get it right because they’re not supposed to be included in God’s plan – the fact that these outsiders recognise and pay homage to Jesus when the bigwigs in Herod’s court and the chief priests feel threatened and reject him suggests that - in Jesus – God is breaking the mould and breaking all the boundaries that up to now have defined who is supposed to be acceptable and who isn’t – so this story belongs to the strand of Jewish theology that says all the nations are eventually going to come to us and find themselves blessed in the God of Israel.  It’s a generous theology of inclusiveness that has been part of the self-understanding of the people of Israel right from the start – and what Matthew is saying is that this is fundamental to the meaning and purpose of Jesus.  What stops this from just being a shallow sort of triumphalism is that at the same time Matthew is pointing to the cross as the ultimate cost and the key to this divine inclusiveness.  Because of the birth of Jesus, even Gentiles with their strange habits – people like you and me, in other words, get to find the purpose and the meaning of their lives in Israel’s God.

But I want to just speculate for a bit about what it is that the magi are.  Not only are they foreign, but they get to find Jesus because they are adept at studying the stars – these astrologers or sorcerers are the specialist revealers of hidden knowledge and wisdom in the religion of their culture, the scientists, the revealers of epiphanies.  This means that the magi are into stuff that not only the Jewish tradition but also the Christian tradition takes a very dim view of.  Yet it’s this limited spirituality, this skill and learning, that brings them to where Jesus is.  Almost.  The magi do take a wrong turn and end up in Jerusalem.  There, they turn out to be almost fatally naive to the realities of political power and fall straight into Herod’s trap.  The point is that our limited and partial technologies of competence and control get us so far.

But here’s the point – however they get there, the magi eventually get to Bethlehem, and there they are blessed.  They find the child with his mother, they do homage and offer their gifts, and they are blessed with wisdom – it is only after they find the Christ-child that the magi really become wise men, able to listen to their dreams and hear what God is trying to tell them.  Maybe, if we look at it like this, the magi represent all of us, who are looking for the Christ-child but get muddled and lost in our own illusions of competence.  But they – also like us – are eventually brought to where the Child is, not through their own skill but by God’s own persistence and prompting.  And when they get there, they find something that upsets all their theories and all their science, because they find a child who is himself the revelation!  One suggestion I read recently is that the precious objects they give to the baby Jesus could be the symbols of their own status and learning as astrologers – which would mean they were not so much giving presents to Jesus as surrendering the emblems of their own competence and their own knowledge.  Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, the magi have been on a long and dangerous quest, and what they have discovered is that the one thing they have to give up is the symbol of their own power and their own competence.  The vulnerability of God coming as a tiny baby exposes the illusion of our own control and our own self-sufficiency.  Could it be that there’s something more important than bringing gifts to the One who is the giver of all gifts?  Could it be that when we encounter the baby Jesus, and we see God daring to be weak, when we see the reality of God’s powerlessness in the world, that we are being challenged to lay something down – to lay down all the illusions of control that we build up as defences in a world where nothing seems safe and certain?  That the love and the vulnerability of God-with-us – is paradoxically more life-giving than the most powerful ideology of control.  Because it’s at the manger that we see clearly the power of an incarnate God which is the power of humble, vulnerable love - not the power to stop tectonic plates from shifting, or the power to stop suicide bombers, but the power to suffer and die, and the power to renew and restore us and all things.

Whatever the exact meaning of the gifts the magi give, what happens when they meet the Christ-child is that the magi worship, and hand over the treasures of their heart – the things that are most important to them, and in return they are given wisdom, the gift of discerning the truth, and that is what they take home.  That’s the deal for each of us when we seek Jesus, we recognise the illusion of our own strength and our own competence by the light of God’s weakness and God’s vulnerability, and we are unexpectedly blessed.

On the feast of the Epiphany the Church has always called us to think about exactly what is revealed in Jesus Christ, and on how we respond to that in the world we live in.  Epiphany, in fact, was celebrated by the Church long before Christmas ever was, as a feast of the coming of the light.  Epiphany, I think, is a day for self-examination, a day for being honest with ourselves about what God needs us to give up, so that we can receive the gift of humble love that alone can transform us into the wisdom of God.