Thursday, April 27, 2006

Be Known To Us In Breaking Bread

There's nothing so irritating as someone who doesn't know what's going on, especially when everyone else is glued to the news because of some headline grabbing event that has stirred things up. The two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed companion – probably his wife, cannot believe it when the stranger asks them, 'What things?' [1]
We've all been in the same situation, haven't we? 'You mean to tell me that you don't know! Where have you been?' we ask, incredulously. 'Haven't you seen ”The News”?'
Of course, there's more than a smidgen of irony here. If the stranger has lost touch it's not because he forgot to turn on the TV news bulletins. He's been dead and buried! And all the time – whether he was alive or dead – he was at the very centre of the events they describe. When the two disciples explain how Jesus of Nazareth was handed over to be condemned to death and crucified, and how – since then – his body has disappeared from the tomb, the stranger knows exactly what they are talking about! He has been there and done it.
St Luke's decision to gloss over the stranger's explanation of what it all means sets a precedent which soon gave rise to a dangerous trend in early Christianity. All manner of people came up with ready explanations of precisely what it was that Jesus had shared with his disciples during his resurrection appearances. Their starting point was always that Jesus needed to interpret the secret truth about himself which is hidden in the Scriptures. And, of course, they – and they alone – had the low down on what it all really means. Forget the obvious interpretation, this is the truth which was revealed to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, or to Thomas on the Mount of Olives, or to Judas Iscariot.
This to misunderstand entirely what St Luke is trying to say. There is no big secret. We already have the key which will unlock the true meaning that lies concealed within the text. If we want to understand the God whom the Old and New Testaments are pointing us to, we simply need to keep in mind that God's Go-Between, Jesus, had to suffer before he could enter into his glory. Those were the only rules of the game and, once we have recognised that, some of the long narrative of salvation history begins to make sense – the forty years which the people of Israel had to spend in the wilderness, their exile to Babylon, the prophecies about the Suffering Servant who would redeem Israel, and the story of Jesus himself.
St Luke never claims, in any case, that knowledge is the key to understanding. The disciples listen, but they do not hear what the stranger is saying to them. The moment of recognition comes not as he unfolds the secret mysteries to them on the road, but in the simple act of breaking and sharing bread. It is only then that their eyes are opened and, with the benefit of hindsight, they remember how their hearts burned within them while he was opening the meaning of the Scriptures.
Readers of books like The Da Vince Code are easily convinced that there are still conspiracies and secrets waiting to be uncovered which will reveal the truth about Christianity. This so amused Peter Smith, the judge in the recent trial of Dan Brown for plagiarism, that he concealed a cryptic message within his Judgement, using a code which he had invented especially for the occasion, 'The Smithy Code'. The judge said he didn't see why his ruling shouldn't be fun – a view that surely can't be shared by the losers in the case, the authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.
But the really exciting thing that is waiting to be discovered is not a secret at all. St Luke explains that it is this – we can encounter the risen Jesus ourselves as we gather around the table to share Holy Communion. He is with us, and makes himself known to us, every time the bread is blessed and broken.
[1] Luke 24.13-49

Thursday, April 20, 2006

There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth

(More reflections on John 20.19-31)
The Bishop of Oxford wrote an article for one of the Sunday papers [1] in which he criticised non-believers for not taking religion seriously. He didn't mind them being doubtful, he said, but he did mind if people simply dismiss faith out of hand without thinking through the arguments in its favour.
For instance, he noted that when people want to attack religion they always focus on the worst examples – the Crusaders sacking the city of Jerusalem and murdering its inhabitants, the Spanish Inquisition torturing heretics, Muslim terrorists blowing themselves to pieces, or people who insist that the world was made in seven days because they think that's what the Bible tells them they must believe.
The Bishop cited the example of the scientist in Korea who falsified his results in order to claim that he had made amazing advances in the field of cloning. Just because there are a few rogue scientists, we are not expected to stop believing that science is a good thing, so why should we stop believing in religion because some people get it wrong? Shouldn't both science and religion be judged by their best endeavours, not by their worst examples?
The bishop also noted that non-believers are always accusing religion of being irrational when, again, nothing could be further from the truth. Religion does involve faith, but at its best it also involves reason and experience, and looks for beauty, truth and goodness.
Of course, non-believers make these assumptions because they don't want religion to be compatible with modern life and they don't want it to make sense – otherwise they might have to change their minds. As a result, they play into the hands of religious fundamentalists and fanatics. They make it seem as though we must all choose between blind faith and the evidence of the world around us, like the person who accused me the other day of using 'scholarship' to study the Bible, as though scholarship were the opposite of faith.
The example of Thomas shows us that this can't be true. He isn't prepared to live by faith alone. He wants to bring reason and experience into the picture too, and they help him to believe.
People have often said that Thomas was wrong to demand proof, but Jesus doesn't actually say so. He merely points out that most of us will have to come to faith in him without getting such strong evidence to convince us. However, that doesn't make it wrong to test our faith against evidence, or reason, or experience. It just reminds us that evidence and reason can only take us so far. They cannot prove the existence of God, or that love conquers death. They can only suggest that these things might be true. Faith has to take us the rest of the way.
On the ministers' email group which I belong to someone suggested that, just as some of us are better at maths, or English, or carpentry, or needlework, some people have a gift of discernment that makes it easier for them to be spiritually aware. Perhaps that was a problem for Thomas – he was just not as spiritually aware as some of the other people who had seen Jesus. If so, he was to learn something that non-believers could do with taking more seriously as well: that there are more things in heaven and earth than are sometimes dreamt of in our philosophy.[2]
[1] Richard Harries, The Observer, Sunday April 16, 2006
[2] Shakespeare's Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why Selfishness Doesn't Pay

I listened to a deeply depressing radio programme the other day. It was about selfishness.
One man said he had persuaded himself that it was right to buy a Porsche with a legacy which had been left to his wife. His wife was a gifted pianist and she had been given explicit instructions to spend the money on a better piano, but she had agreed that there was nothing much wrong with her existing one, leaving the way open for her husband to buy himself the Porsche, instead. 'Is that selfish?' he asked, 'I don't know.' The depressing thing was that he needed to ask!
Worse still was a woman who described how she had been challenged by her new husband to rethink her own attitude to self. 'Soon after we were married,' she said, 'We found ourselves running along a platform to catch a train. A man with a limp was running to catch it too, and I found I just couldn't overtake him – I had to slow down. My husband got really cross with me and afterwards he told me I would have to decide whose side I was on – was I on the side of the Salvation Army or was I on my own side?'
Of course, if the husband had wanted to be more sophisticated he might have argued that it was selfish of the man with the limp to arrive late for the train, and then try to hold up all the other passengers who had taken the trouble to be on time. Or, he could have argued that a more sensible thing to do would have been to overtake the man and then stand poised, with one foot on the platform and the other inside the carriage, until he caught up. That way all three of them could have caught the train instead of missing it.
Such sophistication would have made the husband seem less unpleasant, but it would have been wasted on his wife. She had immediately seen the good sense – she said – of being on her own side from now on. However, I thought that, given the same choice between taking the side of the Salvation Army or being on my own side, I – for one – would have had to choose the Salvation Army.
The only sensible contribution to the programme came at the end when somebody said, 'Selfish people may get what they want, but it will never be enough.'
The Easter Story affirms that loving self-sacrifice is the ultimate success story. Total unselfishness can triumph, even over death. Thomas [1] finds this so counter-intuitive that he wants to see proof. Very astutely, he realises that it is the marks of his crucifixion which will prove whether the risen Jesus is simply a wish fulfilment or the real thing.
Would any group of sane and balanced people wish that suffering and self-denial might be the gateway to eternal life? Of course not. What the disciples really want is for the whole episode to have been a bad dream. So – if the risen Jesus can show Thomas the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the spear in his side – then the appearances cannot be a case of colourful wish projection.
When Thomas sees the nail marks he knows at once that the crucified and risen Jesus is for real. This is not a 'happy ever after' ending but a promise that, while selfish people are doomed never to find the fulfilment they seek, unselfishness actually works.
[1] John 20.19-31

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Love Without Limits

Most people agree that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is crucial to being a Christian, but what do we mean by the word 'resurrection'? Some Christians take it to mean that Jesus' physical body was miraculously transformed and disappeared from the grave as St Mark reports [1], while others argue that his new spiritual existence is much more important than what actually happened to his earthly remains. Either way, if we don't believe that Jesus is alive, can we really call ourselves 'Christian'?
However, if the resurrection is so crucial to belief in Jesus, what are we to make of the curiously downbeat ending to St Mark's Gospel? Let us make no mistake about it, the Gospel does end here and the rest of chapter 16 consists of later additions by people who felt that St Mark's abrupt conclusion to his story is much too severe.
At least we can take some reassurance from the psychological honesty of the Easter accounts in all four Gospels. The narratives reveal that the disciples were not convinced by the empty tomb. Instead, deep doubts and fears persisted for quite some time. And this is realistic. The Easter story is not a fairy tale ending. In some ways it is mysterious and disturbing.
Since the dawn of human existence, people have always longed for eternal life, but Jesus' resurrection is not the kind of life beyond death which they were hoping for. Even today, most people want heaven to be the fulfilment of all their dreams and wishes, with a smattering of old friends and close relatives thrown into the mix to complete their happiness.
This isn't the same as the resurrection life enjoyed by Jesus. His new life involves being out in the world – going ahead of the disciples and urging them to go on confronting new challenges. It is eternal life, Jim, but not as we know it from previous myths and legends. It's not a cosy promise of future bliss. It's a guarantee that Jesus mission is unstoppable and that God's love is indestructible. It's amazing, but it's not comforting in a wrapped in cotton wool way. It offers us hope, but only if we continue the struggle to follow Jesus' example and identify ourselves uncompromisingly with his cause. No wonder the women were terrified and decided to keep quiet about their discovery – at least for the time being.
Are we ready for new life with Jesus? Are we ready to meet him, still going ahead of us, to challenge and sometimes terrify us with his powerful claim on our lives? And are we ready – after our own death – to share the resurrection life of one who is the living embodiment of love without limits?
[1] Mark 16.1-8

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Gospel of Judas and The Gospel of John

Last week the National geographic magazine published the text of a long lost Gospel, the Gospel of Judas. Its discovery was hailed by some scholars as the most important archaeological event for sixty years. It took five years to piece together and translate what remains of the manuscript. Newspapers printed headlines claiming that the new Gospel would shake the foundations of orthodox Christianity. The Guardian newspaper, which is not noted for its piety or interest in serious theology, mischievously made the whole translation available to its readers.
According to the hype, The Gospel of Judas shows that a completely different understanding of God, the world, Jesus Christ and the salvation he came to bring, was circulating among some early Christians not long after the canonical Gospels were written. Critics of Christianity are thus able to argue that the New Testament interpretation of who Jesus was, and what he came to do, is just one of many competing attempts to make sense of his life.
In the Christian Gospels as we know them, it is Peter who is the first of Jesus' disciples to recognise who he really is, but in the Gospel of Judas that honour falls, of course, to Judas Iscariot. As a result Jesus shares secret knowledge, with him which is then recorded in the Gospel. That secret knowledge, or gnosis, is what allows the Gospel of Judas to be classified as one of a collection of writings produced by a group called 'The Gnostics', who existed on the fringes of the early Church.
In the fragments of the Gospel which have survived, Jesus spends most of his time berating the disciples for their lack of understanding. Even Judas is sometimes found wanting, but the terrible truth he has to come to terms with is very difficult for him to bear, so he – at least – has some excuse.
As in other Gnostic teachings, a great deal is said about the imperfection and corruptibility of this world, from which it is the disciples' duty to escape into the pure realm of the Spirit. Judas is told that the only way to do this is to get in touch with God's secret Wisdom. But, according to the Book of Judas, God's Wisdom seems to have more to do with special sacred numbers and silly names than with anything remotely wise or sensible.
The terrible secret with which the book ends is that Judas has been commissioned by Jesus to hand him over to be crucified. Judas is not, therefore, the arch-betrayer. Instead, he is the only disciple close enough to Jesus to be entrusted with this special but heart-breaking task.
Well, forget the hype. No one's faith will be shaken by the Gospel of Judas. Last week's newspapers made much of the fact that this book, like many other apocryphal works, was excluded by mainstream Christians from the Bible. There were hints that the rest of us had missed out on something very important as a result, and that a grave injustice had been done. However, the English translation of the Gospel reveals it to be unutterable drivel. It has no narrative to speak of, it contains no spiritual insights and it has absolutely no literary merit. It is a mere curiosity whose value lies solely in what it tells us about the fevered imaginations of the people who wrote it. No one in their right mind would ever compare it to any of the books in the New Testament.
The Gospel of John is actually the closest thing in our Bible to the Gnostic writings, like the Gospel of Judas, which were excluded. In fact, for a while there was considerable argument about whether it deserved to be part of the New Testament at all because it was so different from the other Christian Gospels, and contained so many difficult things to understand. Like the Gospel of Judas it contains references to knowledge. 'If you know these things,' says Jesus, 'You are blessed if you do them.' [1] Yet a moment's comparison with the Gospel of Judas shows how marvellous John's Gospel is and how much it has to teach us about Jesus.
First, John says that Jesus did understand that there was no way he could escape death without being untrue to God's purpose. His hour had come. However, John insists that Jesus did not ask Judas to betray him. Nor was there anything inevitable about Judas' role in the story. John is very clear that Judas was not doing the will of God. Jesus simply foresaw that evil intentions were going to get the better of Judas and, indeed, were already poisoning his mind. Some people have suggested that Judas was trying to force Jesus' hand – to make him declare open rebellion against the hated Roman authorities. Whether or not that is true, Judas certainly lost the plot.
Then John gives us the beautiful picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Jesus had talked elsewhere in the Gospels about his mission to be a servant king but it is only here that he actually shows us what he means. The Buddha once did a very similar thing. To the horror of his own disciples, he washed the body of an elderly monk who had died. This kind of humility is the mark of true spiritual greatness.
When John talks about the things which people need to know in order to be put right with God, he isn't referring to the mumbo jumbo and esoteric nonsense of the Gospel of Judas, he's referring to the open secret that we are called to love and serve our neighbours in imitation of Jesus Christ, who loved us to the end. For it is in self-giving, and in loving, that the true glory and meaning of Jesus' life and work is revealed.
[1] John 13.1-35

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Prayers for Holy Week

Dear God, we praise you because it is part of your nature to want to share our life with us. And not just the good times, but the bad times, too.
But your love for us does not stop there.
We praise you because you not only came in Jesus Christ to share our life and death, but also to draw us to yourself with an invitation to become your children.
But your love for us does not stop there.
We praise you because, when we accept this invitation to become your children, we open ourselves to the energy and power of your Holy Spirit which can give us the rich possibilities of life in all its fullness.
So let us open the doors of our church, and let us open our hearts and lives, to let you in. Amen.

Like your disciples, who ran away on Maundy Thursday evening and left you to be crucified alone, we let you down.
Whenever we leave innocent people to suffer alone, we let you down.
Whenever we fail to keep watch with people who are struggling against injustice, we let you down.
Whenever we choose the way of violence instead of the way of peace, we let you down.
Whenever we run away from difficult challenges or refuse to get involved in order to protect ourselves, we let you down.
Whenever we deny that we are your followers, we let you down.
Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.
Jesus, redeemer of the world, grant us peace. Amen.

When We're In Trouble

The picture of Fireman Michael Kehoe climbing one of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was printed in papers all over the world because it was a symbol of courage. Everyone else was leaving, as quickly as they could, but he was risking his life by going into the burning building and for a while no one knew whether or not he had survived. In fact, he did get out and he has said since said that he came down those stairs again in no time at all!
Of course it was a different world then. Everyone believed that the first plane which hit the Twin Towers had done so by accident. Afterwards, when the tower collapsed, six of Michael Kehoe's colleagues died. Would they have gone into the building if they had known what was really happening?
At the time they said that they would. Lieutenant Andrew Graf of the New York Fire Department said, 'If you know there's life in there, you go inside. That's what they're paying us for.'
It's a comforting thought, but Health and Safety rules dictate that rescue workers are sometimes told not to help people in trouble until they can be sure that their own lives will not be put in danger. So on the 7th of July, and in other situations too, emergency teams have waited for permission to approach victims who were bleeding to death.
It's understandable that the authorities, mindful of the lawsuits and recriminations which would inevitably follow if they put their staff in peril, are fearful of sending anyone to help victims who are in dangerous situations. But when I reflect, once again, on the events of the first Good Friday, I am glad that Jesus did not hesitate to put his life on the line. [1]
It is as if God said to him, 'If you know there are people who need saving, you have to go for it. That's what I sent you to do!'
Jesus died because he wanted to make known to us – and to all people – the depth of God's love for us. That's why the day he died was a good one – good not for him, of course, but for the world. Now we know beyond doubt that God is there for us when we're in trouble, even when we're in danger of death.
[1] Mark 14.32-15.39

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Woman Who Understood Jesus

As the recent news headlines about bird flu have proved, illness makes people afraid. In France and Germany some people have even stopped feeding garden birds and have taken down their nest boxes. This may be daft but it's just an ordinary human reaction.
When we hear that someone else is poorly, the first thing we usually ask ourselves is, 'Can I catch it?' And even if the answer is, 'No, ' still some of us feel uncomfortable about visiting sick people. Perhaps that's because illness reminds us how fragile we are. It shakes the illusion that health and fitness can be taken for granted.
Leprosy is a serious illness and in Jesus' day there was no cure for it. Although, like bird flu, it isn't particularly contagious – people took no chances. They were afraid of leprosy and they stayed well away from anyone who had it. The fact that Jesus went to the house of Simon the Leper is interesting in itself. [1]
Had Jesus healed Simon's leprosy? Was this a celebration or a thank-you party? Or was this the house where Simon used to live, until he had to leave because he was ill? It's even possible that, when Jesus went to share this meal, Simon was the host and he still had leprosy. Most people would have refused to visit him, let alone eat with him, but Jesus was never afraid of being with people who were ill. He touched them, ate with them, talked with them and gave them comfort.
While they were eating, along came the unnamed woman. In another story – or is it a different version of the same story – a woman pours perfume on his dusty feet and wipes them clean with her hair. Here, the woman seems a bit more restrained, but only just!
Little stone jars made from alabaster were a favourite way of carrying perfumes and ointments in the ancient world. Once they were filled, the lid was sealed with wax to stop the jar from leaking. Although alabaster is fairly brittle, and she could easily have broken the jar itself, it's probably the seal which the woman broke open when she poured the oil over Jesus' head.
And what about the contents – the costly ointment of nard? Nard is a plant which grows naturally in India. From its roots perfumers extracted an oil which they mixed with various other ingredients to create twelve highly sought-after fragrances.
In the Song of Songs we are told that a bride would dab herself with a few drops of nard on her wedding night. We also know that Horace, a famous Roman poet, was so keen to get his own little alabaster jar of nard that he offered to give a whole cask of his most expensive wine in exchange for it. (A cask, in case you're wondering, is a barrel which holds the equivalent of 304 bottles of wine.) St Mark says the ointment of nard was worth even more than this – about the same as a year's wages for an elite Roman soldier.
Consider for a moment how bold it was for a woman to walk into someone's house, in the middle of a meal, and empty a jar of ointment – any ointment – all over the head of a rabbi. And then consider the sheer extravagance of using so much costly perfume when a few drops would have filled the room with its fragrance. And finally, imagine the stir it would cause if people realised that this was a perfume usually associated with romance. No wonder the onlookers scolded her.
I guess they expected Jesus to agree with them. Of course, he would never have upbraided her, or bullied or tried to humiliate her, but a gentle ticking off might have seemed in character. After all, he had told the woman caught in the act of committing adultery that she must not sin again. He had condemned all kinds of attention seeking behaviour. And, on many occasions, he had encouraged people to give generously to the poor.
Imagine everyone's amazement, then, when Jesus affirmed and encouraged the woman. Yet, perhaps this wasn't entirely unpredictable. She may have been wealthy, but her unconventional behaviour had made her very vulnerable, and Jesus naturally sides with the underdog and with anyone honest enough to reveal their true feelings.
The way he responds also uncovers something much deeper. It is evident that Jesus felt she was not simply meeting her own need to show affection. Probably without even knowing it, she was also responding to his sense of vulnerability and need.
As we approach any frightening or troubling event, we all need comfort, reassurance and support. Jesus seems to have had a premonition that he would die alone – abandoned by his friends and feeling abandoned by God. By her flamboyant act of generosity and love, the unknown woman helps him to feel that he will not die unmourned. Even if it does not feel like it when the time comes, her kindness to him will remind Jesus that some people care very deeply about what is happening to him.
On this occasion, the poor went hungry, but there is more to helping other people than simply spending money on them. We also need to help them tell their story. This unknown woman, who was scolded for wasting money which could have been given to the poor, was the first person to recognise what Jesus was about to go through, and the only person to get alongside him and help him tell his story. It was a story of sorrow and suffering which his other friends and followers did not want to hear. But it was also a story about sharing and sacrifice – a story about good coming out of evil and triumphing over it. This is why what she did is told in remembrance of her, wherever the good news about Jesus is proclaimed.
[1] Mark 14.1-9