Monday, 28 January 2013

Come the revolution.....

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4: 18 from Isaiah)

Justice for the poor – making sure everyone gets a chance to enjoy the fruits of life is one of the core policies of the Old Testament. I use the word policies advisedly because it often reads like a political manifesto. And these sentiments are carried on into the New. The Bible abounds with it.
From the prophet Amos (as a representative of all the prophets) addressing the rich women of his time thus “Here this you cows of Bashan, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy........behold the days are coming when you will be dragged away on fish hooks” (Amos 4:1)
Luke has already put these words into the mouth of Mary “He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.”  Jesus tells us it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
“Let Justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Says Amos. Justice is far more important in religion, according to all the prophets, than all the worship put together which is revealed as being false worship because if it is indifferent to injustice.
The letter of James – Jesus’ brother – is vitriolic in his condemnation of partiality and says
“But you have dishonoured the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they that drag you into court?” (James 2:6)
As I’ve said many times before – the Judeao-Christian tradition is intensely political. It was politics that got Jesus executed when he challenged the religious and political status quo.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said. “Those who say that religion and politics don’t mix must be reading a different Bible to me”
When Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favour” he is most likely referring to the Biblical notion of Jubilee  where every fifty years, no matter what has happened during the last fifty years all land and property is given back to the original owner and debts are cancelled. It is a notion of society hitting the re-set button – and was designed to stop inequality becoming cast in stone. This is why the Christian pressure group that campaigned to have third world debt cancelled called themselves “Jubilee 2000” if you didn’t already know.
So a big part of the “good news” is obviously social justice. It is how we perceive each other. It provides the base on which Victorian philanthropy was based. Paternalistic certainly but their motivation was  making life better for their fellow man – taking from their excess and spreading it around.
In our dog eat dog, increasingly loveless world  great acts of charity still happen, and charitable giving has probably never been higher, but in our national and international world order, inequality is increasing at an alarming and I would say unsustainable rate. Inequality has become entrenched.
In Britain the latest data tell us that social mobility has stalled. Basically. If you are born poor the increasing likelihood is that you will always be poor. The richest 1% of the country have massively increaded their share of the national wealth in the last thirty years.  Only 7% of the population go to private schools yet 24% of vice-chancellors, 32% of MPs, 51% of top Medics, 54% of FTSE-100 chief execs, 54% of top journalists, 70% of High Court judges …went to private school.
If we are to take Jesus seriously, and take the witness of the Bible as a whole seriously these are questions of great importance for Christians.
The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many runs contrary to the whole history of Jewish and Christian world views.
We coo at Jesus being born in a stable – but miss the hard political point being made there. We have sentimentalised Christianity so much that most people see it as children’s entertainment to get them through the Christmas period rather than the hard political statement it was.
The message is sentimental and infantile.  A religion divorced from life and the way society runs itself isn’t worth very much.
I may have theological differences with our new Archbishop of Canterbury on many different points but one thing he does bring forcefully to the table is an uncompromising attitude towards the city and the mindset of the people who inhabit it.
By introducing the idea that what we do with money has a moral component he is confronting head on some fundamental notions that underpin capitalism, that profit is the only thing that matters. At for that I thank him. Perhaps that is exactly what we need at this time, when socially and economically we are entering dire straits.
Britain, apparently according to the news, for the first time in its history is entering a triple dip recession. Mobility is squeezed, so hope ebbs away. Fragmentation of society is increasing, our national debt is getting larger and we are now on the cusp of having our credit rating down graded.
What we as a nation do with our money – where we prioritise it, who holds it, how it is distributed, what life chances does it afford and for whom – the few or the many are intense political questions.
But they were also intense religious questions. You cannot divorce the two. I would never dream of telling anyone how to vote. I have voted for many different parties over the years, and I must say have been routinely disillusioned by all of them. It is not even a simplistic left/right question either.
But what I do strongly suggest is that a Christian could and should be a political animal and our politics as far as we can ascertain from the entire tradition should be governed by fairness, compassion for the poor, equality, and controversially perhaps (though it is all there in the Bible for all to see)re-distribution of wealth for a more equitable society.
It is far from obvious which parties achieve those aims by which policies but we must be at least looking and thinking about the social consequences of our choices. Jesus never had the chance to vote because he was born in a dictatorship but, if had been allowed to vote, from all the evidence we have, social justice would have been his guiding light. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

Water into wine

Something is always happening on two different levels in John.
There are things that happen on the physical level, the level you can see by the light of the sun, that you can take a picture of and record for posterity.
But within these physical events there is another level of reality being revealed. This reality you cannot see by the light of the sun but only with another light, the light that shines from within the events and ourselves. Our eyes are opened and you begin to see things in a new light.
In all the signs John tells stories of great detail and colour – a woman at the well, a Father desperate to save his dying son, a wedding party where the wine has run out. Things happen at the human level of time and space but John tells us that these things are signs that point to things that are happening at the level of the Spirit.
As a signpost in Gainford will point the way to Darlington so these signs point to things happening on the level of Spirit in eternity. These two levels of reality John calls “up” and “down” – ano and kato in Greek.  
When John uses these two words ano and Kato he is describing two orders, two patterns of reality.
On the simplest level when John describes the order of Kato (Down) he is describing the order where the guiding principle is the dictator ME. My ego centric self, where the pattern of society is people competing with, manipulating and trying to control each other.
In the order of Ano (up) the ruling principle is the Spirit of Love, and the pattern of society is one of compassion – people giving to each other what they really are, and accepting what others are, recognizing their differences, and sharing their vulnerability.
These two orders are in conflict with each other. This is how things are, but not as they could or should be if we are to find peace. The question is how these two sides to reality can be reconciled. All of us on a spiritual quest feel this every day. We are all both earthly and heavenly, both physical and spiritual. We instinctively know that one side cannot be allowed to submerge the other but need to be reconciled to each other.
Our egos are unique. There has never been before, and there will never be again anyone quite like you, with your own capacity to both create and love. You are unique.
But there is a deep longing and unease within us that knows that something is missing. We are not whole. We long to be our true selves and to find our wholeness in the exchange of love with other people. I heard Russell Brand say recently, quoting someone else, that all desire is a desire for communion with God and I think he is right.
What John’s gospel is trying to tell us is that “I have seen and touched the answer”. For John he sees the two orders of reality reconciled in Jesus.
And for me, in seeing that pattern I recognise a pattern available for all humanity.
Another phrase essential to understanding John’s gospel of reconciliation is his use of the words “I AM”. In John’s gospel Jesus uses this phrase again and again. It has two meanings. When Jesus uses it he is affirming his humanity – the whole of himself from head to toe, his body, his passions, his intellect, his self consciousness. His Kato (down)
At the same time he is using the name of God. When Moses asked God “What is your name?” God answered “I AM. Tell the Israelites that I AM has sent you.”
So the heart of the consciousness of Jesus is a reconclliation between  up and down, ano and Kato, earth and heaven, flesh and spirit are one as they interact with each other.
The good news (gospel ) of John affirms this about Jesus  and then declares that  his consciousness can become ours.
Now we can approach the turning of the water into wine, a story which starts On the third day........Perhaps the most important clue to the symbolic intent of the story  is right there in that little phrase. The wedding took place on the third day.
Written about  Sixty years after the crucifixion John had been searching for a metaphor to tell what he saw as the inner truth of the story of Jesus, a story of how on earth a new world order of love was revealed – so what better than a marriage. In an ideal marriage that works, two separate persons begin to become one flesh. But  neither will be submerged but as they confront, and clash and forgive and grow together, they can learn to trust each other and see the truth in the depths of each other. They are transformed together and become one in the to and fro of love.
The fact that this marriage representing  the new world order is on the third day indicates that this third day is a story of life through death and more specifically the death of the ego.  A marriage on the third day is the symbol of the new age to come.
The marriage is Cana represents the ultimate marriage we all look for, the marriage of flesh and spirit, the marriage of ego-centricity and love, the marriage of Kato and ano, the marriage of earth and heaven.
There is much to say about the symbolism in this story, but suffice to say that the water pots and even Mary herself represent the old order, which is why Jesus speaks so harshly to Mary and says, “Woman what have you to do with me?”  It is a confrontation between the old order, also represented by the wine running out, which means it no longer satisfies, no longer excites and the new way of Jesus.
This keynote sign, the guiding principle of John’s gospel is that the water, the raw material of our human nature will be transformed, not by crushing or smashing it. (After all Jesus could have just said – smash the water jars up!)  but by exposing it to the transforming power of Love, and then this transformed water is then poured out and given to others.
In this new order the best wine is always now – the present moment. In our earthly ego-centric world we are married to finitude and death, we get old, our memories fade and we get ill, and we die but in the new order the best is always now. Didn’t Jesus say that he had overcome death? If life can be lived to the full in the present moment, then through each present moment can come that quality of life we call eternal life.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Let's be friends

The way the baptism of Jesus is presented in the various gospels is a fascinating case study in the complex relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist and their respective disciples.
Chronologically: Mark presents the baptism fairly baldly whilst having John say that Jesus is mightier than him. Matthew is a little more embarrassed about the whole incident but still has Jesus being baptised by John. By the time we get to Luke, even more distance is put between the two of them because when Jesus is baptised John is already in prison so presumably Jesus is baptised by one of John’s disciples, and by the time we get to John’s gospel direct reference to the act of baptism itself has disappeared but John testifies indirectly that he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus.
All very confusing as is baptism itself. You cannot construct a coherent understanding of baptism from the new testament because you have people receiving the spirit before baptism, during baptism and after baptism. You have people receiving the spirit in Acts because they only knew the baptism of John the Baptist and in Acts today the even more curious thing that some hadn’t received the Spirit because they had only been baptised in the name of Jesus! 
All very interesting but what the hell has any of it to do with us, with our life, here and now in the 21st century?
A good question and I’m the one that has to come up with somw kind of answer. Well the first thing I would say is the very obvious thing that you simply cannot pin God down and package God neatly in a nice tidy box.  The Spirit of God as Jesus himself points out in another place blows where it wills. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going – and that is the truth. But organisations like the church don’t like things messy like that – they prefer things neat and tidy with no embarrassing loose ends and contradictions.
Lesson one. Don’t second guess how the Spirit of God acts in this world. The best we can do is try and align ourselves with the Spirit in silence and prayer and communion and try to listen to the Spirit’s promptings. Even here there is a huge amount of nonsense spouted in the church.
Lesson two. However the Spirit came and when exactly it came it was revealed as a Spirit of communion. It was the Spirit of relationship. Relationship with the divine expressed by Jesus as a parent/child relationship and strong relationships with other people because we share the same parent.  Strong relationships with the divine and each other are the result of receiving the Spirit of God.
Epiphany is often presented  as the revelation that Jesus is God’s only son, because the Spirit rested on him. But the point of Christianity is that at Pentecost the Spirit symbolically rested on all people making us all children of God. Jesus though is the example that we are to follow if we take that seriously.
When Jesus realised his sonship – his own personal epiphany – he retreated to the wilderness to think, to pray, to meditate on the ramifications of this revelation. What was he going to do with this revelation?
So was launched the Jesus ministry which resulted ultimately in us, the church. People who just like Jesus recognise God as Father and through the  actions of prayer and communion seek to follow in his footsteps.
Closeness to the divine is the defining feature of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition going right back to the common ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – Abraham – Who was known as the “friend of God.”
I love that phrase. In fact acknowledging God as a friend I actually find more satisfying than Father or mother. I  prefer to be known as a friend of God that a child of God because the latter is now so laden with theological baggage it has been rendered almost unusable.
Both are useful and have their strengths – but they say slightly different things. You can’t choose who your parents are – but you can choose your friends.
Friends are friends because they want to be. My favourite poet refers to God as the “friend” often. I started addressing my weekly emails to “Dear friends” not as an affectation but because at our purest that is what we are – friends of God.
Friends become friends because of mutual attraction and affection for each other and when nurtured over time this becomes very deep.
Friends bring lightness and fun into our lives and we comfortable in each other’s presence.
In the New Testament Jesus is presented as an icon of God and so his words are given a kind of divine status, so naturally one of my favourite sayings attributed to him in John (15:15) is
“I no longer call you servants. Instead I call you my friends, for everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you”
Not master and servant any longer......but friends.......who seek each other out because we enjoy each other’s company. And God is in all things and can present himself in many different ways.
That for me, in the greatest epiphany of all.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Lord, let me see

An  epiphany moment is when scales fall from our eyes and the truth suddenly becomes clear to us.
But what truth? In vastly different ways of saying it, Paul and Matthew point in exactly the same direction, though Paul puts it much more explicitly that Matthew who wraps the revelation up in a rather beautifully told story.
The epiphany – the “mystery that has been revealed to him” might seem a little tame to us because it is now such a commonplace thing... is that the Gentiles – that’s you and me – non Jews – are incorporated into the same body.  As Paul writes in verse 6.....
“that is, the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body  and sharers in the promise in Jesus Christ in the gospel”
That is the good news that Paul has become a servant of is the breaking down of the barriers that exist between people. There is no more “chosen people” and the rest – we are all of us chosen people.
Paul’s job he writes is to bring this great news to all the people of the known world. This he asserts was always the eternal will of God but it had been veiled, hidden until this mystery was fully revealed to him through Christ. This is Paul’s epiphany.
My own personal epiphany came when I realised that God’s Grace was indiscriminate – there were no chosen ones – no insiders and outsiders – just one humanity loved equally by the divine. That humanity if we can perceive it is “one body” but not only that but this one body has access to the divine.  So the breaking down of the barriers is both vertical and horizontal – a cross if you will.
All humanity is one and we are all at one with God – a cosmic healing – a mystery revealed in Jesus to Paul, but as we also read today – revealed also to Matthew.
The Magi – who were holy men of the Zoroastrian religion  - which still exists today as a small minority faith in Iran – were gentiles – foreigners – non Jews who are used here to represent the opening up of Judaism to the world.
The Magi represent all non Jews who find themselves on their journey arriving at the revelation in Jesus Christ. The Magi were noted astrologers so the fact that they were being guided by the stars is perfect symmetry – though of course the motif of being born under a star was a well known way of conferring a special status in the ancient world also.
The distinctiveness of the special revelation in Christ is revealed in the gifts they brought. The gold denotes a certain kind of kingship – though not one immediately recognizable to the world at large and of course in Jesus’ active ministry he preached almost exclusively on the “Kingdom of God”. A kingdom centred on the divine mystery we call God. To enter this kingdom is to become theocentric rather than egocentric. It is to discover that we are not after all the centre of the universe.
A gift of Incense can denote a priestly revelation. A priest in the classical understanding of the word denotes a go-between, an intermediary between humankind and God. An integral part of the Christian revelation is that a go between is not necessary – we all have direct access to God in the Jesus revelation so we all possess the priestly role innately within us. We are indwellt by the Spirit of the God Jesus taught us to call Father. We meet God in our own hearts. That was the significance of the curtain in the temple that shut humanity out from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies being torn from top to bottom in Matthew’s gospel.
We are all our own priests. In my theology  I am no more or less a priest than anyone else in this church. I was not ordained to become a priest, I was a priest already just like all of us. But I am a priest that got ordained. Ordination as the name shouts loud and clear is more about order than achieving a special status in the kingdom.
Myrrh is used in the embalming process so refers to the significance of Jesus’ death, which using the Jewish cultural motif of the atoning sacrifice carried out in the temple came to mean an atoning sacrifice for all of humanity, not that I believe in the efficacy of bloody sacrifice myself any more than most of you do.   I, like most modern people find that primeval notion rather baffling and pagan and grotesque. It was rather that his  at-one-ment with God that led him inevitably into a direct confrontation with the authorities that  led to his execution as a deadly enemy of brutal and unjust worldly power  - his determination not to compromise or shut up – that was his sacrifice that is an example to us all. Giving without counting the cost, in a lived example and reflection of God’s grace
The Jewish cultural motif of the atoning sacrifice to make them one with God was something they could understand because it spoke out of their culture but it doesn’t speak out of ours.  In our culture, talk of a bloody human sacrifice to make things right with God just makes us sound ridiculous, but it is what we have inherited and of course it still deeply permeates our official prayers, hymns and liturgies. 
Matthew and Paul are at one here, using vastly different literary ways of communicating the same shift in thinking to their respective audiences. The barriers have been torn down.
In Christ there is no east or west or north and south, no Jew or Greek, no male or female. There is one finite humanity enmeshed with one infinite God.