Friday, January 28, 2011

Epiphany +4

The other day I read some background about the custom of saying ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezes - apparently it can be traced right back to the Roman empire – and of course back then sneezing was a very good sign that you might have contracted plague, so possibly the ‘bless you’ originally had a serious precautionary purpose – the person being blessed might be just about to fall off their perch so they needed all the blessings they could get – there are some other theories too but the point is whatever the original meaning was, it has been lost – it’s become an automatic thing – someone sneezes, we say ‘bless you’.

I have to admit to being a bit ambivalent about it as a form of ‘goodbye’ – sometimes it strikes me as a bit hokey – on the other hand there’s something in the words, ‘bless you’ that can’t just be translated ‘have a nice day’ – there’s something in it that conveys – at the very least – a sense of well-wishing, a sense of protection against the uncertainties of life – at the very least the words ‘bless you’ seem to represent an appeal to God’s will that God’s creatures should thrive and be fruitful – and to say ‘I have been blessed’ is to evoke an image of generosity, of joy and of plenty. 

So blessing is about protection and favour, gift and abundance.  This is of course an image of creation itself, that in the Genesis story is is surrounded by God’s blessings from the very beginning, and of the abundance of God’s creative goodness.  In the ancient world beatitudes – lists of proverbs that started with the words, ‘blessed is …’ were a popular sort of folk wisdom -  though most of them were fairly trite, along the lines of ‘blessed is the man who has many fine sons’ - but in today’s reading from the Gospel, Jesus takes the popular idea of blessing and turns it on its head.  For a start when we look at the people he’s calling blessed, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of abundance or good fortune.  This is even more obvious when we read Matthew’s version of the blessings alongside what seems to be the older version preserved in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus’ blessing is pronounced on those who are literally poor, the literally hungry and those who weep.  The kind of poverty Jesus is talking about includes the poverty of those who are homeless or unemployed, the poverty of widows and orphans, as well as the poverty of a whole people who are oppressed – and in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Jesus is more clearly echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah – proclaiming a new deal for underdogs, claiming that God’s priorities and God’s kingdom are connected with justice and transformation in the here and now.

However Matthew’s version of the blessings has undergone a subtle change – the focus in the version we read this morning is not so much on those who are literally oppressed as on those who are being challenged to live in a new way and take on a new set of priorities – not the poor but the poor in spirit.  It is not that Matthew, when he writes his gospel, disagrees with the original sayings – but that the community he is writing for are reasonably well off and need to hear a word for them in their own circumstances.  It’s a fair enough question, isn’t it? - if the kingdom of God is a new deal for the poor, well, what does that mean for the rich, or at least for those who – like us – at least know where they are going to sleep tonight and where their dinner is coming from?  And so Matthew says it is about living out of the right relationship with God, and with other people; an attitude of humility, of lowliness, of hunger for righteousness, purity of heart, of being peacemakers, of being compassionate.  An attitude, in short, that means we are living in solidarity with those who are literally dispossessed, who are literally hungry. 

The danger in reading Matthew’s version of the beatitudes without one eye on the Luke’s more literal version, is that we can over-spiritualise them – keeping them connected with the earlier meaning reminds us that righteousness is nothing less than a yearning for and working towards God’s reign of love in the here and now.  Matthew’s version, like Luke’s, points us toward the fact that the people Jesus is calling blessed are the ones whose lives do not overflow with the sort of abundance and security that we would rather think of as blessing.  And if Luke’s more literal version makes it sound as though the blessing that the poor will receive is going to happen in the next life, as a sort of compensation for the rough deal they’re getting now – then Matthew’s list of beatitudes that focus on the how and the why of faithful living makes it clear that blessing is not a sort of delayed reward, but a natural consequence of a particular way of living.  Matthew’s beatitudes point to a paradox – that it’s only when we give up the illusion of security and abundance that money and security and status provide, it is only when we open ourselves to the risk and insecurity of a life lived in dependence on God and in relationship with others, that we experience real abundance.  Those who mourn feel pain because they have lived in relationship, open to love and growth and pain and loss.  The merciful offer mercy  - because they have taken the risk to live with open and vulnerable minds and hearts.  Peacemakers offer reconciliation and a new start - because they are prepared to take the risk of seeing life from their enemy’s perspective.  The poor in spirit are blessed - because they refuse to believe in the myth of their own self-sufficiency, instead taking the risk of living out of the awareness of their true relationship to God and to those around them.  Blessing is a process, not a payment, and it comes as we learn to engage God and the world around us in a new way.  Blessing comes as a consequence of reorienting ourselves towards another, of making room for others by taking up less room for ourselves – blessing, in other words, comes when we participate in God’s primal act of creation.

St Paul gets to precisely the same point – what Matthew describes as poverty, Paul talks about as foolishness.  The point is that the technology of self – the whole apparatus by which as competent adults we learn to navigate the world – the technology of self is what we have to give up if we want to live in right relation to God.  Does this sound a bit tough?  Because it is!  When Paul talks about the wisdom of the world and contrasts it with the foolishness of God, he is not just saying, oh, even on a bad day God has got more power than all the armies of the world put together; even when he’s not even trying God is wiser than human wisdom – what he is doing is pointing out the paradox – or the apparent contradiction - that God encounters us not in power and strength, but in weakness – the cross, after all, was the Roman Empire’s greatest and most brutal symbol of shame and failure.  A bit hard to take seriously as a symbol of salvation if what you’re really after is to be reassured that God has got it all under control.  God’s power, in fact, is precisely the power of humility and weakness, it is the power to trust in relationship more than in competence, even when laying down everything we think we know and all the power we think we have means getting pushed aside onto the cross. 

So Paul is claiming that God uses what is weak in the world to expose the poverty of human claims to power.  When power and status become an end in themselves, and especially when the exercise of power and the privileges of wealth deny the basics of life to others, then it becomes demonic – a point perhaps that resonates with the footnote this last week – so far as I know it didn’t even rate a mention on the nightly TV news – that the death toll in Haiti from the ongoing cholera epidemic has now exceed 4,000.  This tiny, impoverished and politically bankrupt country in the Caribbean, only two hours flight from the richest nation in the world, continues to shame the humanity of the entire western world.  Our own country, Australia, spent five times as much last year on a failed attempt to get the world to play a game of soccer here in 2020, then on humanitarian aid since the earthquake that devastated Haiti a year ago.  So how can we claim, as the suffering of the Haitian people continues, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed?  There are no pat answers, but as long as the suffering of the world’s poor continues, Christ continues to be crucified. 

The beatitudes tell us that we are blessed, and we become a blessing to others, when we join with God in the self-emptying and self-giving work of creation.  To be blessed is to be recreated and transformed into the image of God.  The promise of Jesus is that God’s good and loving purposes will be completed in all who suffer.  For that, we can only wait in faithful expectation.  But if, like Matthew’s community, we are not living under oppression ourselves, then we are being challenged to live in solidarity.  If there are people in our own community who live on the edges, people whose experience is of being excluded or not being welcome, then we are challenged to live in solidarity.  That’s what it means to be poor in spirit.  When we dare to take a perspective that’s wider than our own horizons, when we learn to live out of awareness of our true relationship to God and to others, then we will be blessed. 

 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Epiphany 3A

I suppose it’s no secret that I’m a bit of a Dr Who fan ... whenever there’s a new episode, it’s a big evening in the Pederick household ... Alison is very gracious about this.  Everything else takes second place, the phones get put on silent, dinner is scheduled early, the washing up forgotten, Dr Who and I have got a universe to save ...

A series or two ago we were introduced to the Ood.  A funny race of slow-moving sentient creatures with big cow-like eyes and octopus tentacles where their noses should be - the Ood are odd.  When we first meet them they are enslaved, being used by creatures from another galaxy to do their dangerous mining work on some asteroid or other ...  But we quickly learn that the Ood are mentally and morally way in advance of the rest of us, able to communicate with one another telepathically - so even though they are able to express themselves in words with other people they find it kind of awkward, like an imperfect translation of what they can express among themselves directly – as you might expect, with beings who can communicate perfectly, directly from one mind to another, the Ood are also perfectly united – as Dr Who’s assistant soon discovers, when you talk to one Ood you are effectively talking to all of them – the answer you get from one is like a group consensus – in their own estimation the Ood  are also perfectly wise and bowed down by the weight of their own destiny – in short, they are a boring and conceited lot, and because they agree with one another perfectly in all things they have a fatal weakness - they refuse to admit anybody else could have a better idea – they are closed off to anything new and innovative.  Even though the Ood are theoretically on the good side they are a big problem because they end up working against the very things that a new and different situation demands – the Ood are a good example of unity gone wrong.

We don’t have that problem in the church, of course.  Not much perfect communication – in fact exactly the opposite – endless conversations at synods and between church factions and denominations that often seems more to entrench misunderstanding and conflict than to lead us towards consensus and unity.  We divide ourselves into factions depending on what we think God is like, and what we think God’s attitude might be towards the issues that divide us – and we pull in opposite directions.  It happens in a smaller way at parish level as well, when different groups have different priorities and different pet projects and we find ourselves in competition for scarce resources.  What does unity mean?  Does real unity mean always agreeing with one another, always thinking the same thing, and if it does, is that such a good idea? 

In his first letter to the church in Corinth St Paul is clearly concerned about the unity of the church that he founded there.  It’s not totally clear what the relationship was between Paul and the Corinthians – or even whether he generally approves of them or thinks they’ve lost the plot altogether.  What is clear, though, is that the Corinthians are a divided bunch of Christians, they’ve been going their own way on a number of things, some of them are even refusing to eat with others they don’t think are good enough for them, so that the Eucharist is in danger of getting divided into economy class and business class; there are different and conflicted ideas about marriage and dietary practices, and those who speak in tongues are setting themselves up as a spiritual elite so the church in Corinth is divided into factions – some of the controversies, like the one over whether or not to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, might strike us as being a bit quaint, but the parallels between the church at Corinth in the middle of the first century and the church of our own time are a bit too close for comfort.

So Paul is appealing for unity – Chloe, who appears to be a person of some standing in the community, has sent word to Paul that things aren’t so rosy and Paul is writing back to plead that the Corinthians should be united – and even though he doesn’t spell it out here, if we are alert we see in this an echo of Paul’s claim elsewhere in the letter that as Christians we have the ‘mind of Christ’ – Paul’s claim in the letters to Galatia and Rome that in baptism we die to ourselves and rise to new life ‘in Christ’ – what he seems to have in view is that being Christian means identifying with Christ at such a fundamental level that it becomes part of who we are – if each of us through our baptism has put on the mind of Christ then how can we not be united?  If Christ can’t be divided – then neither can we!

Characteristically, this point is put in more picturesque language by Jesus himself, for example in Mark’s gospel, ‘if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ and then at the end of John’s gospel Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, even as he and the Father are one – in other words, unity is the key to the Christian gospel that human existence and human relationships are an image of God’s own life and we are oriented toward God because we have a stake in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Unity, in other words, is not just an optional add-on, unity is the day-to-day practice of being God’s people.

Paul refers to the factionalism at Corinth – some say they belong to Paul, others to Apollos – then he pokes fun at that by inventing a couple more factions – what follows in the next couple of chapters is a lecture on how even though Paul came first and planted the seed so that all Apollos had to do was water it – the point being that the Corinthians should follow the example of Paul and Apollos themselves who even though they seem to have had quite different styles and disagreed on much, saw themselves first and foremost as co-workers.  In fact the example of Paul and Apollos demonstrates the sort of unity Paul is talking about – because, as the rest of the letter to the Corinthians makes clear, unity is not the same thing as uniformity - Paul never overlooks the individual integrity of believers, never suggests that unity means there should be no difference between believers.  But what he does always do is put the community of the church ahead of the individual and insist that individual decisions need to be made in the context of faithfulness to the community of faith – for example explaining that the decision whether or not to eat the meat that has been sacrificed needs to be made on the basis of not putting obstacles in the way of those who are new to the faith.  Those who speak in tongues should not do so in church unless there is somebody there who can interpret what is said for the community.  Paul always recognises that there is a give and take between the individual and the community, and he recognises that individuals in the community have got different gifts and different roles – in short, the unity that Paul is talking about is the unity of integration, the unity that does not blunt differences but makes them serve the community experience of life in Christ.  This sort of unity in fact can make us even more aware of differences, and even of differences of opinion, because it leads us to appreciate what each of us can contribute to one another and how each of us can challenge one another.  Real unity that nurtures and treasures difference without defensiveness and doesn’t see the need to protect boundaries is stimulating and creative – real unity is nothing like the unity of the Ood.

So this unity that isn’t the same thing as sameness – what does it look like?  If there is no conflict in our community – does that mean we are united?  Not necessarily!  Mightn’t it be just as possible that if there is no conflict it is because there is no energy?  That we’re just drifting?  If there is no energy or commitment – if no one passionately cares what happens in our community – then of course there will be no conflict – but there’ll be no unity either.  The orientation toward Christ as the fulfilment of our individual existence that Paul talks about as being ‘in Christ’ – the point is that this isn’t a static thing, it’s dynamic - an experience of moving toward something and finding that the only way to get there is in community – if unity means acknowledging and nurturing our differences then it also means working together to seek a vision, to share our faith and our hope and to encourage one another.  Unity is active, not passive, and it grows out of shared effort, out of acknowledging the conflicts that always arise when people are passionate about what they are doing, and continually recommitting ourselves to one another and to the goal of shared life ‘in Christ’.

So, how do we do it? How do we intentionally practice the sort of unity that celebrates and nutures difference, and that holds us together as a people who know we are growing together in Christ? First and foremost it means recognising that it is God’s vision, not our own theories and our own vision, that is important – that it is God’s vision of the future, not our own comfort zone, to which we need to be orientated. It means recognising the glorious possibility that we might be wrong about much that we hold dear, but that we are still God’s beloved people with much to learn from one another and from the world around us.  And it means commitment, the everyday unglamorous work of dreaming God’s dreams and putting them into practice, of looking for opportunities not to be served, but to serve, of supporting one another and of building one another up in love.

 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Late posting! For Feast of the Epiphany, 2 Jan 2011

A writer I follow recently reflected that today’s Epiphany celebration comes just after the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year.  From now on, she rejoiced, we get a bit more light every day, we start to be able to at least believe the vanished sun will reappear.

Well of course, but as Aussies we are absolutely soaked in light at this time of year, so our Epiphany is a feast of sunshine, one might almost say too much of a good thing.  But whether you celebrate in the dark of the northern winter or the over-saturated light of the antipodes - today’s liturgy rejoices in the metaphor that the coming of Jesus is like the rising of the sun, like dawn in the desert, or a splendid supernova that lights up the night sky and provides a signpost for ancient navigators and all who seek the truth.  At more or less the same time we have pale secular imitations, which match neither the brilliant light of the natural landscape nor the wild beauty of the Church’s metaphor – such as the pyrotechnic revelry of fireworks that mark the climax of celebrations on New Year’s Eve – though for me at least the main significance of those was that finally I could go to bed.  Christmas, too, is a feast of light – just walk around the streets at night at Christmas time and see the neighbourhood competition to have the brightest and gaudiest Christmas lights.  But Epiphany is the ancient festival of lights, the festival that predates Christmas and invites us into a reflection that is, I think, more cosmic in its scope.

Today’s readings speak of two kinds of light – Isaiah is promising the light of hope for a city and a people that have gone through repeated stages of destruction and forced migration – a trauma that of course still echoes down to our own day for the people of Israel and Palestine.  And the prophet proclaims that the darkness of despair has been lifted, and a new day of restoration has dawned.  In one of the possible Gospel readings for today - the reading from Matthew’s Gospel - the light is more literal, as the magi – the priest-magicians or proto-scientist of the ancient far east are led by the light of a star to discover the hope of the world in the form of a vulnerable infant.  And we can only speculate about exactly what realities lie behind the fabulous story. Matthew certainly shapes the telling of it to illustrate his theological emphasis on Jesus as the messiah, the hope of all the nations, and of course it has the beautiful, otherworldly feel of mythology, but the main point is that it is by God’s guidance and through human discernment and sensitivity to the divine leading that the wise men are brought to the holy child.

But it is there, I think that we run into the real challenge of today’s celebration of the light.  Because behind the images of kings and camels lies the claim that God, not the social or political structures of the day, is the source of our light.  Matthew is insisting that whenever and wherever God breaks into our world that makes all our agendas and priorities relative.  That we need discernment and wisdom and humility to read the signs of the times, and that when we do encounter the light of God in our world we are invited to live in it and to offer up the treasure of our lives in order to do so.  It’s a tall order, and it goes way further than a cute Sunday after Christmas story.

The word, epiphany, of course, doesn’t mean light but refers to the human experience of suddenly getting it, what we sometimes call it ‘seeing the light’.  Not the light, but what happens to human beings when the light goes on.  The realisation of what always has been but we ourselves have just seen because the light has dawned for us.  In many ways, I think, it is not Matthew’s story of kings and camels but the alternative Gospel reading for today, the wonderful Prologue of John’s Gospel that is more suitable to today’s liturgy, because it is the quintessential epiphany text, the greatest of all the “aha”  texts in the Gospels that makes cosmic claims in revealing who Jesus is.  Where Mark begins his story of Jesus in the desert, as Jesus begins his adult ministry, where Luke and Matthew begin at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, John begins at the very beginning, the beginning of all things, and makes the startling claim that before all things, before time and space, as the Word and Light of God, Jesus is.

For John, the story of Jesus is too big to be contained within the normal human calculations of time or even space. John's opening words push us outside our own time frame and the created universe – plonking us straight into the presence of God that transcends both time and space.  The words are as lofty and seem almost to roll over the top of us, impossible to comprehend.  And yet, the point of this text is that the transcendent, beyond-words God took on flesh, came to us, found us, sought us out, took on our own existence, with its pains, its sorrows, its vulnerability and its joys – that to use the language of modern war reporting, God is embedded with us in the human struggle.  To translate the Greek text more literally, the Word "pitched a tent" in our midst, a down-to-earth image for such a hard-to-grasp idea. Whatever else the passage means, what it states completely unambiguously is the depth and the intensity of God's love for the world, God’s pursuit of creation through time and space.

In this passage, we read that Jesus shows us who God is, and that we receive from him an abundance – “grace upon grace” or “gift after gift”.  It’s a theology of abundance, the claim that once we have recognised God with us, we experience the fullness of God’s generosity in creation and in our own lives, an overflowing of goodness.  I wonder, though, whether as Christians we are entirely comfortable with this, especially as we so often face the reality of limitation in our lives, the limitation of illness or financial hardship, daily reminders of the limitations in the world around us like environmental degradation and climate change, drought and flood and famine and war.  And it can be almost an embarrassing disconnect to speak seriously of a theology of overflowing generosity. 

And yet, if as Christians we can claim that there is more than enough of everything our spirits need most – forgiveness and reconciliation, grace, life, truth, joy, generosity, healing, justice – perhaps we can also believe that there is more than enough of what creation needs to flourish – more than enough of clean air and water and habitat – more than enough peace and space for human beings if we can just believe it and learn to live it into reality – and enough also for our own lives to be lived with fulfilment.  This, of course, is the practice of voluntary self-limitation, and the practice of contentment.

John’s Gospel, of course, doesn’t know about the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the compromise formula of fourth century theologians – but struggles to articulate the relationship between God and the Word who is also God.  And it is this passage that makes the startling claim that the Word of God present before creation is the same reality that comes into the world as a helpless baby.  Actually, it's hard to relate to a transcendent God, but we can relate to a baby, a mother, and even the shepherds who came to give homage.  High-flown as the Prologue seems to be, the Word isn't an intellectualised, abstract God but an enfleshed, living, breathing God who comes alongside us in our everyday experience.  It’s not, actually, a conceptual claim but a gut-claim, a claim that the embodied experience of God with us can move us to experience one another differently.  It means that Jesus’ vision of peace was God's vision for the world from before creation began, a divine vision of freedom and justice, of nonviolence and peace, and of an earth in which all living creatures have a fair and equitable share.  If this is God’s perspective on the goodness of creation – then the challenge seems to be for us to learn to live within the framework of a love that sees its own fulfilment in the flourishing of others.

The passage from John’s Gospel does more than tell us what God did at the beginning of time, or what happened that first Christmas, because it reminds us that God is organically and powerfully present in the world and in history throughout time, even in our own time, that we can expect the reality of our lives to disclose God’s presence and purposes.  Maybe you, like me, are a bit tired and relieved that Christmas is over – but Epiphany reminds us that the Light of the world is here to stay.  Christmas actually takes a while to celebrate, the fact of the incarnation needs to be digested and absorbed into the flesh of our own lives until it awakens in us a gift for compassion, generosity, patience and love.  In other words, until the Word becomes flesh in us.  As individuals, as a congregation, we ourselves embody the words we live by – what word is revealed in us?  Are we, as John the Baptist claimed he was, witnesses who testify to the Light?  In what ways do we live out the central truth that we proclaim, that the Word and Light of God has made a home – in us?

 

 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Epiphany +2

I wonder what it would take for us to really believe, and to experience for ourselves, that Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness of our world, or as John puts it in today’s reading, the lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin?

What would it take for us, in other words, to experience the reality of the world we live in as centred on and shaped by the logic of reconciling love that is capable of transforming the limitations of our lives, rather than dominated by, and inescapably shaped by our most fearful circumstances?  And I wonder, in part, because already, as the flooding begins to subside in parts of central and south-east Queensland and parts of New South Wales and Victoria, and other communities still brace themselves for the water bearing down on them, already the voices of some Christian leaders have been heard saying that this is a punishment.  God, according to one prominent Christian pastor, is picking on the women and men and children of Queensland because of the Godless policies of the Australian government.  Everything that happens, according to this view of the world, is God’s doing, and when tragedy strikes that means God is punishing somebody.  The same Christian leader made much the same unloving and unhelpful comment after the Victorian bushfires devastated dozens of tiny communities two years ago.

The same sort of fatalism, but without the vitriolic hatred, underlies the words we’ve all heard following some tale of miraculous survival or rescue: ‘mate, somebody up there was looking after you!’ As though somebody up there picks a few to protect while allowing others to be swept away, plays favourites by leaving this house standing while whole streets burn.  And maybe the unspoken fear behind all this is that God, in fact, is actually not in control of the accidents and the human evil of this world, that our faith actually isn’t some magic formula by which we can be sure that tragedy will always strike elsewhere – and reveals the human longing for security that makes us invest so much effort in looking for reassuring formulas – whether the secular version of looking for somebody to blame or the religious version of imagining a God who at least will protect us personally.

‘Ultimately’,  a colleague wrote the other day, ‘ultimately as Christians we do believe that God is in control.  That the Lamb of God does in some way, take away the sin of the World.  And that all the savagery and despair and evil, all the stuff of the world that is not of God, is in some way dealt with by Lamb of God.  Ultimately we believe that, but we are still left wondering and questioning, sometimes whistling in the dark to reassure ourselves.’  We need a sense of where the centre is, of how we can know the reality of Jesus as the Lamb of God who redeems all that in our human experience is irredeemable.

And I think this is what John’s Gospel points to, most clearly, in our reading this morning.  And it points us to the reality of Jesus, not as an incantation or a formula, not as a divine insurance policy, but as a relationship and a way.  And the key is in the interchange that Jesus has with two of John the Baptist’s disciples, one of whom John’s Gospel tells us is the brother of Simon Peter.  ‘What are you looking for?’, Jesus says to them.  This is straight after John has proclaimed Jesus as the one to whom he has been pointing, the anointed one of God.  ‘What are you looking for?’

One commentator I read last week says the disciples are completely caught off guard, fluff their answer like daydreaming schoolboys caught off guard by a teacher’s question.  So they say, ‘Oh, teacher, where are you staying?’  Um, well wouldn’t you think as disciples of John they would have had a better answer than that?

But actually it’s not, I think, such a bad answer.  In many traditional cultures, certainly in the world of Jesus, to ask somebody where they come from is to ask more than that - more than a street address or directions on a map, the question is really asking: ‘who are you? What are you about? Where do you come from? Who are you related to?’ And not only that, the question  introduces one of the key words of John’s Gospel, one of the words by which the Gospel writer tips us off that something important is being said here, the word, in fact, that informs us what Jesus does for us and how we are meant to respond.  And the Greek word is meno, which the translation of the Bible we read from this morning translates here as ‘to stay’, but often gets translated as ‘to abide’.  So the disciples ask Jesus: ‘where are you abiding?’ Do you start to get it? Jesus has just asked them: ‘what are you looking for?  Do you want a guarantee, a magical formula, is that what you really want?’ And the disciples who, I think, do get the point, reply: ‘where do you abide?’  And so Jesus says: ‘come and see’.

It’s an answer that cuts through 2,000 years of crusted on Church doctrine, through all our preconceptions and whacky self-serving theories about ourselves and about God.  Because we are invited, not into a set of doctrinal beliefs or ossified creeds but into a relationship, an experience and a journey.  Check it out, come and see for yourself.

And so they came and saw where Jesus abided, and they abided with him.  The first thing is what this is not saying.  It isn’t saying, this is what you have to believe.  Here is a set of propositions of facts – about Jesus, or about God - that are going to explain the world to you and keep you safe.  It says something way simpler, something more like: ‘spend the day with me. Abide in me.’  Because abiding, in the sense of faithful remaining with, identifying with and dwelling with, is what according to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the Word is ultimately about.  The Word who is in the beginning with God, and who is God, pitches a tent among us and abides with us.  So what is being offered is both organic, woven into the structure of created reality, and foundational to who we are and who God is.

Many Christians initially come to faith because we want to know what is certain.  What life means, what the world around us means.  And because deep down we want some assurance that whatever life means, it will endure.  And our yearning for certainty leads us, sometimes, to invent structures that appear to give just that.  Structures that all too often get shaken when tragedy strikes, or when human evil breaks into our lives, and our certainties start to get exposed as a bit flimsy.

What’s being offered, instead, is not certainty in the sense of protection from the world around us, or even certainty in the sense that we will never again doubt or lose our way – but certainty in the sense of knowing where the centre of our existence is.  Certainty in the sense of locating our lives within the matrix of relationship with the source of all life.  What’s being offered is a journey from the centre, which is God, into the future, which is also God; and the assurance that whatever happens, we will abide in the relationship that informs us who and why we are.

We have seen, in the stories coming out of Queensland over the past few days, a remarkable sense of a people rediscovering who and why they are, of communities struggling together and supporting each other, rising above individual loss to reach out to others in greater need.  It’s a lesson in abiding, of recognising that what makes us who we are is remaining in faithful relationship, living from the centre of that relationship which invests hope in all things, and that even in the midst of heartache and tragedy believes in the future.  As we abide in God, and God in us, so we also learn to abide in one another and this, ultimately, is to learn the way of Jesus.

 

 

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Baptism of our Lord

I heard a while ago the true story about twins born on different days.  I guess, when you think about it, it must happen fairly often.  One of these boys was born just before midnight, the other 30 or so minutes later, on the next day.  So, year after year, the boys’ birthdays were celebrated on two separate days, they grew up with the family story that they were twins with different birthdays.  But it was only years later, when they were well and truly grown up – as is also often the case, I guess – that the twin born after midnight told his brother how hard it had always been for him to be the younger brother, to be constantly reminded that his twin was older than him, and how he had always felt he lived in his 30 minute older brother’s shadow.  Maybe there was a twinge of guilt there for the older twin, as well, who had grown up with all the little privileges of being the eldest.  But from that point on they decided to celebrate their birthdays, every year, together - at the stroke of midnight.

I’m reminded by this by the story of Jesus and John the Baptist, who according to Luke’s human interest version of the nativity were first cousins – John born to the sister too old to bear children, Jesus to the sister too young and too unmarried to fall pregnant.  And we hear nothing more about their relationship, or even get any idea that they knew each other, until we see them together in today’s story as adults.

This is actually the second time in a few weeks that we have been with scary John the Baptist in the desert.  The first time was during Advent, where we encounter John in his hermit’s gear, fresh from the desert and skinny from a diet of locusts and wild honey, telling off the crowd of excited people who have come to hear him preach and baptising them in the Jordan River.  It was a highly-charged symbolic action, the Jordan of course being the dividing line between the wilderness and the land of ancient Israel, the land that God promised to the people who fled with Moses from slavery in Egypt.  So the Jordan is the river that Joshua had to lead the people across to enter into the promised land, the river whose waters God held back so that they could enter, and it was on the banks of the Jordan that they heaped up 12 stones from the river bank and offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.  So when John baptises people in the Jordan, he is making them symbolically clean so they can be worthy of the vocation that God has called them to.  And he doesn’t mince his words, calling them vipers and telling them the time of judgement is coming.  In fact, he says, one is coming – one with a winnowing fork who will really sort them out and whose sandals John himself isn’t even fit to bend down and tie the laces of.  It must have been superb street theatre, because it made headlines not just according to the Bible but also according to the 1st century historian Josephus.  John is joining the line of Jewish prophets who had predicted the coming of the one long expected, the Messiah of God, and going one further, daring to announce that the long-awaited one is coming right about now.  You can imagine the consternation.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t fit the stereotype.  When he finally arrives on the scene – the same river-baptism scene we visited during Advent – he doesn’t in any way fit with the popular conceptions of what a Messiah should be like.  An army, for example, might have been a nice touch.  At least a literal axe and winnowing fork, surely the Messiah should have been even scarier than John the Baptist.  But Jesus isn’t, and the first words he and John say to each other are what reminds me of the story of the twins.

Because the story of John baptising Jesus in the Jordan is embarrassing.  Not to Jesus, perhaps, but certainly to Jesus’ earliest followers, and according to the way Matthew writes it, also a bit of an embarrassment to John.  Jesus might have been born second, his mum might have been a pregnant unmarried teenager, but Jesus is the important one, the Son of God no less – and it was a deep deep embarrassment for the anointed one of God to have to undergo baptism like everybody else.  In fact there is a little heard-of sect around the region of present day Syria called the Mandibeans who continue to believe that is was John, not Jesus, who was the Messiah of God.  But at any rate, John objects, and his younger cousin tells him, ‘it needs to be like this.  We need to do it by the book.’

According to John, baptism is a cleansing, an action by which we claim God’s forgiveness of our human sinfulness.  But Jesus has a different take.  Yes, the receiving of forgiveness is part of it, becoming clean and fresh and entering into a new start is a part of what both Jesus and John understand about baptism, and it’s certainly part of what the Church understands about baptism.  But Jesus demonstrates that baptism is also about entering into a new relationship, and a new self-understanding.  As the baptism service of the Church expresses it, baptism is the sacrament though which God adopts us as children, as heirs of God’s promises, as members of the Church which is the literal body of Christ, the visible, earthly, flesh and blood body of Christ on earth.

So Jesus, by being baptised, is demonstrating his willingness to be counted among God’s people.  As we proclaimed on Christmas morning, the Word of God was content to pitch a tent among human beings and live with us and like us.  At his baptism, Jesus shows that same commitment in action.  As Matthew’s Gospel puts it, by being baptised by John, Jesus is fulfilling all righteousness – not just doing it by the book, actually, but by revealing his basic self-understanding as the one who is with us and for us.  Baptism with fire and Spirit has its unremarkable beginnings in an act of humble solidarity.  There is, of course, a little excitement – the heavens are opened and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove and a voice declaring, “This is my Son which whom I am well pleased.”  These words which in Mark’s more succinct account are heard only by Jesus himself, in Matthew’s Gospel are heard by the assembled crowd.  It’s a grand flourish, but the point is simply this: that it is at his baptism that Jesus’ mission and ministry begins.  And so it is also for us.

After this, various scripture passages bring us back to baptism. In the reading from Acts today, Peter explains to new followers that the spreading of the message of peace preached by Jesus Christ began in Galilee after Christ’s baptism. We know other stories, such as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip and the baptism of the prison guard’s whole household by Paul, and of course, the baptism of more than 3,000 after Pentecost. Baptism is critically important to our understanding of who we are as a people of God.

It’s tempting I guess – especially on the day on which Cameron comes to be baptised – for us to compare our own baptism with Jesus’ baptism - and for us to come off looking a bit second-rate.  Jesus after all is anointed with power and the Holy Spirit.  He is, after all, the Son of God – he is in the business of healing and teaching, of getting crucified and rising from the dead.  But our baptism surely doesn’t carry such cosmic implications.  Surely we can get baptised and put the photos in the album and then get back to just being ordinary, maybe even forgetting the day of our baptism until we find the card at the bottom of the drawer years later to remind us.

Well, not really. The church reminds us every year at this time about Jesus’ baptism. That’s the first clue that our own baptism is vitally important. We should remember the day that we too were baptised with power and the Holy Spirit that Matthew describes as descending on Jesus like a dove.  We actually are just as adopted, just as filled with the Spirit, and given a ministry and mission as Jesus.  Our baptism is and should be understood to be life-changing.

I wonder if you can remember the promises you made at baptism?  You might object that you were too young – but the promises you certainly made for you and on your behalf, and if you have been confirmed you made the same promises for yourself.  We make promises at baptism, we also are tasked with mission and ministry and the telling of the good news of God’s love, we are challenged to care for the poor, to build up the weak, and to spread peace.  Do you remember that?  If not, take home a Prayer Book and read through the baptism service and refresh your memory.  Learn by heart the promises and the challenges of baptism that are nothing short of an act of humble solidarity.  The promises and the commission that constitutes the Church and that, as Christians, are meant to underlie our basic understanding of who we are.

The implications of our baptism, of course, need to be worked out in the way we actually live.  But I think that the Church gives us this celebration of Jesus’ baptism every year, as a reminder to us to remember our own baptism.  To remember that we are created in the image of God, that we are loved beyond measure, and that, adopted and loved by God we are driven by the Holy Spirit to work in love for the world that God has created and loves.  To celebrate our own baptism with our older brother, Jesus.