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Sunday, June 26, 2011

'Here I Am'

Genesis 22.1-14; Rom 6.12-23; Matt 10.40-42

When Abraham hears the voice of God calling to him, he replies ‘here I am’.  When Samuel the prophet hears the voice of God calling to him in the middle of the night, he also replies ‘here I am’.  When Mary of Nazareth is called by the angel Gabriel to be the mother of Jesus Christ, she replies ‘Here I am’.  ‘Here I am’.  It is a phrase that signifies the willingness of the individual to put aside whatever they might have been doing, whatever they might have planned to do, whatever (indeed) they might have previously understood the will of God to have been, in order to obey and give themselves over to this new word from God which arrives, fresh and new born, in the moment of the call. ‘Here I am’, says Abraham.  And taking his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loves, Abraham heads off to the mountain of Moriah to sacrifice not only his son, but everything he had come to believe about God’s plans for himself and his family up until that point.

The simplicity and immediacy of Abraham’s response in our text seems to offend our sense of how things would ‘really’ be, psychologically, if we ourselves we confronted with such a call.  Abraham had, afterall, been working to a rather different game-plan up until now.  Long ago, God had called him to leave his home in Ur and travel to a land far away where he had no family ties or right of claim to the land.  Then God had made a solemn covenant with him, promising that through his son Isaac, God would make of Abraham’s descendents a great nation through whom the whole world would be blessed.  And let’s not forget that God had brought Isaac into the world against the odds, in the years of his parent’s dotage, when the time for childbearing had well and truly passed!  Psychologically, then, I think I would have been quite disturbed if God suddenly turned around and said to me, ‘Oh, that game plan we’ve been working on all these years, I’ve decided to throw it away.  Time to do something different.  I want you to kill your son, and with him every sense of destiny that we have ever produced together’.  Psychologically, I think I would have been deeply disturbed at what was being proposed.  I think I would have struck up an argument with God right there, just as Abraham himself had done a few chapters earlier over the proposed destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  I would have argued that if God were really to go ahead with this change of plan, then God was nothing more than a two-faced liar who could not be trusted to keep a promise.  But there is no sign of an argument in the text we have received.  The text says, very simply, that Abraham took some wood and some fire, and his son Isaac, and headed off toward Moriah to make the sacrifice.

It should also be acknowledged that the story also offends many of us at a moral level.  How can the God of life, the God who called life into being from the watery chaos and condemned Cain for killing his brother Abel, now order his most faithful servant to kill his own son?  Isn’t there a fundamental inconsistency there?  Isn’t this kind of blood sacrifice the kind of thing that the pagan gods demanded?  Surely it is not the God of Jews and Christians, who would later say ‘do not kill’ to Moses on the Mount of Sinai, who now commands Abraham to kill his only son, whom he loves? Well, yes it is.  It is ‘Yahweh’, the God of the Jews, in a story that the Jewish people preserved as a treasured part of their holy canon of Scripture.  It is not a pagan import. So, what are we to make of all this ethical and psychological trauma, the trauma we ourselves experience in reading this text?  And why is there no sign of such disturbance in the text itself?

Time for a little theology!

Today’s gospel calls those who receive the word of God ‘prophets’ and ‘the righteous’.  But what does righteousness really mean, in Christian faith?  Is it to keep the commandments and follow the letter of the moral law?  Well yes . . . and no.  Yes, baptised Christians are indeed called to give themselves over to the good described by the Jewish law, to reject those attitudes and behaviours which make only for misery and death in favour of the way of life of goodness that leads to life.  That is what the Apostle says to his readers in Rome.  ‘Now that you have died with Christ to all that is wrong with the world,’ he says, ‘you are no longer the slaves of sin, but the slaves of righteousness.  So give your bodies over to doing what is right’.  OK, but that is not the whole story!  For the righteousness that Christians are now able to do is not something that they can either produce for themselves or, as something self-produced, depend on to get them into heaven.  The Apostle also writes that the righteousness of Christians is a gift from God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, the son of God, who alone is righteous in God’s eyes.  It is not something that anyone is able to produce for themselves.  It is not a reward for being good and keeping the moral law.  It is a gift, the gift of Christ’s very life which, having been laid down for us on the cross, now wells up in us as the power of resurrection, the power of life beyond the wages or consequence of our failure to keep the moral law, namely death.

In this perspective, the Christian is not under law, but under grace.  We are called to do what is right, certainly, but what is right is no longer defined by a narrow keeping of the moral law, as if that could save us.  It is defined by a fundamental decision to trust in the promise of God and cling to God as one who graciously gives life, even to the dead.  According to Saint Paul, it is this very faith and trust in God’s promise that motivated Abraham.

What our Genesis text preserves, you see, is the virtue of this fundamental faith and trust in the God of life.  When God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son in an act that would appear to contradict everything that God had hitherto promised to do, Abraham chooses to believe that appearances can be deceiving.  He makes what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard rightly called ‘a leap of faith’, a leap into what appears (to our human imagination) to be either irrational or immoral in the name of a fundamental faith and trust in the God whose gift to us is life, even when we are dead.  At the moment when the call came to him, Abraham had no way of knowing for sure how the story would finish.  The simplicity of his submission, his ‘Here I am’ exudes a quiet but hard-won faith that God would again gift him with life and future, in spite of the logic of what appeared to be happening, the logic that would lead to the death of his son, and with him, of the promise of a nation that would bless the whole world.  At this point, he chooses to believe in the God of life even as that God appears to be leading him into the land of death.  His faith is vindicated, of course.  The story ends with another call from God, and another ‘Here I am’ from Abraham, in which the boy Isaac is saved, and God provides a Christ-like ram to sacrifice in his place.  Still, at the moment when faith is called upon, the way is not always clear.  One must choose to trust or not to trust, to give oneself wholly over to God in a belief that all will be well, or else to second-guess God and proceed according to our own lights.

I put it to you that if we are really Christians, we cannot proceed according to our own lights.  I put it to you that our own lights get us nowhere except a place that is very dark and dead.  Where has the celebrated ‘reason’ of the so-called Enlightenment got us, if not to the world we actually live in, where technology is stealing away our very humanity, where the vicissitudes of cyber-space and the small-screen distance us from one another, and from caring for one another in the flesh?  And where has the ‘morality’ of the so-called Enlightenment got us, if not to a world where the powerful control everything, even the bodies and the appetites of the poor? Christians are called to listen to other voices, the voices of the prophets who proclaim a salvation that does not come from ourselves - our moral codes or our reason - but from a God who, in the figure of the Crucified One, has forgiven us our many sins and gifted even the dead with life.  To those who receive their word and believe it, to those who make a leap of faith into Christ’s arms, there is indeed a reward.  The reward that is Christ himself, the light of the world and the author of life in all its fullness.  So, to we who profess to believe, there remains the ongoing challenge that is as new today as it ever was.  When God calls, shall we reply with a ‘Just a minute, let me see how reasonable that request seems’ or a ‘I just need to see if that fits my moral code’?  Or shall we reply in the voice and with the faith of Abraham, ‘Here I am?’

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rublev's Philoxenia

Texts:  Genesis 1.1-2.4; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20

Today is Trinity Sunday, and that excites me a great deal.  You may find that surprising.  To the modern heart and mind, and even those of Christians, the Trinity can sound like an anachronistic formula from the mystical and magical past.  One might fairly ask questions about both the intellectual integrity and the social relevance of the doctrine.  Does the idea that the one God is really three make any sense?  And even if it did make sense, what difference would that make to anything important?  Would it stop the bloodshed in the Middle East, for example?  Or cancel the debts of the 2/3rds world?

I could spend the next fifteen minutes trying to answer those questions.  I could tell you that theologians of every confessional standpoint have rehabilitated the Trinity as perhaps the most important of Christian symbols, a symbol which mirrors and represents the whole history of God's identity and mission.  I could tell how the post-modern imagination has been drawn to the Trinity as a quintessential icon of the reality in which we live, composed as it is of that splendid interplay between identity and difference.  I could tell you how political and liberation theologians have found in the Trinity a model for re-making both church and world in the image of a God who is, first of all, an egalitarian community of love . . .   But I'm not going to go on with all that.  There's no need.  Because it is all present in this wonderful painting from 15th century Russia.  It is all contained in Andrei Rublev's marvellous icon, know as the Philoxenia.

Why don't you look at it for a moment?  Take your time.  What do you notice? 

There are three figures in the painting, sitting at a round table.  Each wears a cloak and bears a staff, indicating that they are resting a while in the midst of a long journey.  The figures have androgynous features, that is, we can't be certain if they are men or women.  But we do know that they represent the three persons of the Trinity. The figure in the middle is Christ.  He is looking to the figure on the left, which is the Father; the Father appears to be gazing at both Christ and the Spirit, who is the third figure; the Spirit seems to be looking at both the Father and the chalice of wine which sits in the middle of the table.  There is only one cup of wine, which is apparently being shared by all three.  But if you look carefully, you will notice that the shapes of the Father and the Spirit form the silhouette of a larger chalice, which actually surrounds and contains Christ.  Finally, note that in the background of the picture are three objects:  a house or temple, an oak three, and a mountain.  You yourself, as you look at the picture, are in the foreground.

What does all this mean?  Many things, but I have time only to mention a few.  First, the seating arrangement of the three speaks of an equality between them.  There is none who is more important than the others.  There is none who sits at the head of the table, because the table is round.  God, you see, is more like a circle than a pyramid.  No one is the boss because all three are the boss.  They make their decisions together, and there is no room for hierarchy or for lording it over another.  Second, the three gaze at each other as if they are in love.  There is an uncanny knowing between them which can only be described with words like respect, deference, trust, hospitality, communion, peace.  The word communion is reinforced by their use of a single chalice of wine.  It is, of course, the Eucharistic cup, which stands for love poured out by a profound sacrifice of the one for another.  This sign of Christ’s crucifixion therefore says that at the centre of the relations between Father, Son and Spirit is a mutual self-giving for the other, a laying down of life that the others might be made alive. God, then, is a circle-dance of love where each is constantly being enlivened by the sacrifice of another.  In this view, God continues to be God only by a never-ending movement of mutual hospitality and giving.

Third, the painting invites its observers—that's you and me—to take our place at the table with Father, Christ, and Spirit.  There is a space spare, and its shape is a chalice filled with Jesus.  Here Rublev, who is from the Orthodox tradition, wants us to understand that we, too, may become part of the divine community:  if only we will accept the grace of God which overflows into the world in the shape of Christ crucified; if only we will take the cup of sacrifice and receive from it the renewing life of God;  if only we will accept the cruciform mission of the Trinity, to lay down our own lives for the sake of another.   The message is clear.  We may all become children of God if we will walk the way of the Christ; if, in baptism, we are willing to put aside the life of self-aggrandizement, and embrace a new existence controlled by Christ’s neighbour-directed compassion and mercy.  There's something in there, I think, about changing the world, about becoming involved in a revolution of radical hospitality.  Perhaps if Christians were to take that seriously, then the bloodshed in the Sudan could indeed be stopped . . .?  Perhaps we could put aside our differences as Roman or non-Roman Christians, and share at the Eucharist together?

But what of those objects in the background of the icon?  The house of God, which is the church?  The tree of life, which is at the end of our journeys?  The mountain of revelation, where we meet the Lord and hear his word?   Each is there to remind us that God is forever present, to be encountered in any number of places along the way.  The trick is to make one's way with eyes and ears open and expectant.  Otherwise a house might just be a house, and a tree just a tree, and a mountain just a mountain.  It is the life of daily prayer, prayer immersed in the stories of God in the bible, which enables us to recognise God in all the business of life.  How is your prayer life going?  Have anyone ever taught you to pray?

Finally, Rublev's icon remind us of the Trinitarian form of that ritual we call the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.  He wants to show us that wherever or whenever the supper is taken, the Trinitarian God is present and active in both church and world.  Have you ever noticed that the classical Communion prayer, sometimes known as the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, has three key elements?  The first is a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father-Creator (eucharistia) for everything that he has done to save us from our sins and make us whole once more.  The second is a remembering of Christ (anamnesis) and his sacrifice for the sake of the world.  This part culminates in the narrative of the last supper which Jesus shared with his disciples.  The final part invokes the creativity of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis), to make real the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, and make that presence real and effective in the mission and discipleship of the people of God, who go out from the feast as the newly constituted body of Christ.

A picture paints a thousand words.  But I hope this icon will inspire us to move beyond words and into an active communion with the Trinity of love.  Use it in prayer.  Allow God to draw you into the divine community, there to experience its grace and its love.  Allow God to send you out into the world, there to serve the poor and despised as Christ did; there to make your sacrifices for the sake of love and of peace.

Glory be to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit­ - as in the beginning, so now and for ever, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Christ's Ascension: superabundant presence

Acts 1. 1-11; Psalm 47, 32-35; 1 Pet 4.12-14; 5.6-11; Jn 17.1-11

The story of the Ascension, where the risen Jesus takes leave of his disciples and is taken up into heaven by God, can be found only in Luke, the Gospel, and in The Acts of the Apostles.  You will not find the story in Matthew or John, and the reference to an ascension in Mark 16 comes from a very late manuscript which almost certainly relies on Luke’s account.  So the Ascension belongs to Luke.  It is his story.  But why does he tell us the story at all, where the other gospel writers do not?  And why does he think it so important that he tells it not once, but twice—once at the end of his Gospel and once in Acts?  These are questions I’d like to consider today.

One very modern reading of the Ascension is actually a rather distressing story, because it appears to both repeat and fulfill a story that has become very familiar in our modern age: the one about a God who deliberately takes his distance from those who need him, and who, in the end, abandons his people to their own powers of survival.  Even the Church sometimes reads the story thus.  On the television and in the press you will today hear religious voices, voices claiming to speak for the Church, who will tell you that God has indeed left us.  Because there is no longer any authoritative teacher amongst us, they say, we must each of us invent our spirituality, invent our morality, invent our religious practices.  Because Christ has taken leave of us, because God is either dead or permanently absent, we have no alternative except to accept responsibility for our own destinies, to assume the mantel of godhood ourselves. We are condemned, as it were, to a freedom without God.  

In his influential book, After God: the future of religion, the Cambridge philosopher Don Cupitt argues that from now on we must view Christian faith as a fictional novel which human beings, alone, have authored.   In this thoroughly modern schema, Luke’s Ascension story is cited as a one of the primary figures of divine abandonment.  First, God dies with Christ on the cross.  Then he appears as an illusory flash of memory and wishful thinking in the resurrection.  Finally, he disappears entirely into a cloud of superstitious obscurity at the Ascension.  And what of the Spirit that Christ promised, the Spirit who would come to us after he had gone away?  To the modernists, this “Spirit” is just another word for the spiritual life we invent in God’s absence.  The Spirit is our invented meaning-structures, something like a collective unconscious in which we collect the stories we have written to rescue ourselves from absurdity. 

Well, how ought one respond to such thinking?  Perhaps like this.  First, it is important to recognise the legitimacy of the experience from which it arises.  For many folk, Christ has indeed left the stage.  A Catholic friend recently told me she has stopped going to church because of the abuse of children by priests.  She couldn’t understand how a Church full of the Spirit of Christ could allow such a thing.  For her, any residual sense of Christ’s presence in the world has now disappeared.  And who can blame her, or any of the victims of abuse or repression, for seeing things like that?  Certainly not me!  Yet, today I would bear witness to another way of reading the Ascension story, and, as a consequence, another way of understanding the experience of abandonment.  For there is a bigger story here in Luke’s account, and I believe that if we can only allow ourselves this enlarged vista, then even the very real ‘fact’ and ‘experience’ of divine abandonment will turn out to be something other than what it appears to be.

Let me summarise what Luke has to say like this.  While, by virtue of the Ascension, Christ is indeed no longer present as a particular human being who occupies a particular place and time, he is nevertheless, also by virtue of the Ascension, more abundantly present and active than he has ever been before.  And this not as some kind of ghostly presence who hangs in the air but never takes form.  No, says Luke, Christ is now present as the material body of Christian believers, brought into being and inspired by the very Spirit that made Jesus who and what he was.  The Spirit now makes the Church what Jesus of Nazareth was, so infusing and shaping its life and work that the mission of Jesus continues in the Church as a real and tangible Christ-presence for the world.  

If Luke were here today, I think he would say that the modernist use of his story seriously neglects some of the crucial details.  There is certainly a withdrawal of the divine presence here.  Christ is taken from the community into heaven.  But it would be premature and reductionist to then assume that the gap, the emptiness left by God’s withdrawal, may be filled only by the activity and imagination of human beings.  Now, I want you to listen carefully, because this next bit is a little tricky.  Presence is not, as the moderns insist, simply about being able to see and touch things in such a way that we can get our heads around them, to so imagine things that they take on an objective solidity that we can measure and put boundaries around.  Presence is not, as the philosopher Edmund Husserl claimed in 1913, something which human beings make and cause to appear by the power of their thinking.  On the contrary!  Following Luke, I put it to you that presence is more properly what is given us in the resurrection and ascension of Christ - the irreducible power and authority of the Other (exousia in Greek), a presence which so exceeds and overwhelms our powers of comprehension that when God visits us, while we know he has done so, but we are left powerless to explain how or why.  Even to ourselves.  Why?  Because the Other is a strong and passionate love that takes hold of us completely, body and soul, covering and surrounding us like baptismal water, entering our lungs as if to drown us.  In a repetition of the death and resurrection of Christ, our human powers are put to death, our powers to know things, to objectify and use other people, to control who and how God would be.  We suddenly find ourselves dispossessed of even our power to picture what God is like.  So much so, that we imagine that God has abandoned us.  We flounder, we struggle, we suffer terribly.  We feel that God has left the theatre, and we are left alone with nothing but a forlorn hope.  We despair.  We die . . .  But that is not the end.  Finally, this Other arrives in our bodies as the power of a new life, life lived on a plane hitherto unimagined, life lived in communion with the God who is love.  In that power, we are commissioned and sent to bear witness, not to the power of this presence in our lives, but to the power of our lives in this presence, a presence forever marked now by the sacred names of “Christ,” “Spirit,” “Love”.

Whew!  Let me try and say all that in another way.  In the wake of the Ascension, Christ remains present to us, but this presence is of a different order.  It is what Jean-Luc Marion calls a ‘saturating presence,’ a presence which so pervades and infuses the world with God’s glory that it confuses and dazzles our limited imaginations.  Ever heard the expression “He couldn’t see the wood for the trees”?  It’s like that.  While we may not be able to pin Christ down to a particular bodily form and draw borders around him which define where he is an where he isn’t, he is abundantly, even super-abundantly, present in material realities that we encounter everyday:  in the body which is the Church, past, present and future; in the bread and wine broken and poured out for the life of the world; in the Scriptures read and preached; and in the stranger, the widow and the orphan we are called to meet in our ministry of care.  Christ is ascended to the Father so he can be “everywhere present”.  

But how, I hear you ask, does this presence really address our sense of God’s absence?  What good is a superabundant presence if it dazzles our eyes so much that we cannot see that Christ is with us?  Here we turn, for a moment, to John’s Gospel.  We read there a prayer of Jesus for the Church, which comes as the end of a long conversation which John stages at the Last Supper before Jesus is crucified.  It is a conversation about how the disciples will cope when Jesus has gone.  As with Luke, John does not portray Jesus’ imminent disappearance as a withdrawal of presence, pure and simple.  In a profoundly paradoxical statement in chapter 14.28, Jesus says to his friends “I am going away; but I am coming to you”.   Hear that?  “It is by going away that I will come to you”.  For John, the going away is exactly what is needed in order to accomplish a more profound communion with Jesus than was ever before possible, a communion which echoes and redoubles the love which Jesus already shares with his Father.   For Jesus will now come in the Spirit to gather his people into the divine presence by the power (exousia again) of the Name which is “I Am”, the divine name, which signifies here a participation with Jesus in that sacrificial giving and receiving of divine love which we call, in shorthand, the Trinity.  It is a participation which goes way beyond knowing and seeing, or even imagining.  Love, you see, does not cling to the thoughts and images by which we would normally try to master each other.  Love surrenders to the invisible gaze of this other who can neither be seen nor objectified, and learns to do the same by way of return.  Love surrenders itself, as Christ surrendered his self. And in surrendering, it finally abandons its sense of abandonment.  

I conclude with this.  The Ascension is for Christians both a fact and a promise.  The fact is this: that Christ is everywhere present as the authority and power of God, a power which before and behind us, a power which forever seeks our surrender to God’s love.  And here is the promise:  if we will first discipline ourselves, through prayer, to discern Christ’s presence in the midst; and if we will then surrender ourselves to his transgressive love, body and soul; then that wound of abandonment which haunts every human being will ultimately find its healing.  For Christ has not left us as orphans.  He comes to us tangibly and bodily every day, to love and care for us as only God knows how.  If only we will recognise and surrender.