Monday, 24 June 2013

Amazing Grace?

The question Paul is wrestling with is this.
He has had a revelation that faith is the only thing that matters, and this revelation came through his Damascus road experience.
But if faith is all that matters how come God revealed himself through the law?
What satisfies him intellectually is the notion that although faith is all that matters, the world needed to be nannied and led towards this revelation – the the experience of the Israelites and the ten commandments and the reams of prohibitions that came after was a necessary precursor to this final and best revelation that faith is what really matters.
Actually when you read Paul some more he rationalises that much more to his satisfaction by noting that Abraham, who operated by faith, pre-dates Moses. So in fact, faith did come first, but the law was a necessary part of the plan.
All very well, but what difference does it make? Well in Paul’s case, as I noted last week, this discovery means Freedom.
He feels set free. If knowing Christ through faith means freedom, then his lifetime as a Pharisee, his religious life was lived as if in a prison, bounded by rules, regulations, rituals, creeds.
In his experience, God circumvented all of those conventional religious means of making contact and contacted Paul direct. If you remember his conversion story, he was struck blind, and through the intervention of another Christian “the scales fell from his eyes.” This is a metaphor forthe profound change that had occurred in his life – he had gone from darkness to light – from a prison to freedom.
But freedom can be a dangerous thing. In fact Paul has to spend some time in his letters trying to tell people that Christian Freedom doesn’t mean you can do just whatever you like whenever you like, disregarding all around you. This freedom exists within the law of love. As he writes,  “All things are possible for me but not everything is profitable, not everything edifies”.
This difference between licence and freedom, and the difficulty is discerning which is which is the reason that for most of its history the church has disregarded Freedom and preferred to fall back into being a religion of rules and laws. Grace, the fundamental gift of Christianity to the world - unmerited love – is not most Christian’s experience of the church and its ways. The word Grace  is spoken of, but the message most often received is that you need to be good to get into heaven.

Something to think about for yourself. What is Christianity for me? A source of freedom, or a written moral code? If it is essentially freedom – can I handle that freedom, or do I prefer the safety of the guilded cage?   

Come to the well.

In this modern parable – the divine, the universal principle of wholeness and unity, the source of beauty and creativity is available to everyone equally, entirely free of charge. 
God is here and with us now. He is around you and within you. In fact nothing can separate you from the love of God.
If you want to find God you can find Him in the beauty and creativity that is all around us and you can also find him by looking inside yourself – for as Jesus pointed out  - you won’t find the kingdom of God anywhere else, for the Kingdom of God is within you.
And this God within you – his essential character is LOVE.
In John’s letter in the New Testament, if fact he says that GOD iS LOVE .
I’m sure that many will say here today that I might believe in God if I could only feel or experience God.
Well the Christian revelation is that every time you give or receive love,  in thought words or deeds, you have experienced Love because God IS Love and Love is GOD.
Every time you forgive someone or are yourselves forgiven, every time you feel compassion or someone feels compassion for you, every time someone helps someone else, you are experiencing God in your life.
You have direct access to this divine through your own heart, soul and mind. You have free access to the well that is fullness of life.
Jesus, when he spoke to the woman at the well, told her of a spring that would well up from deep inside her.  He called that well of God’s love – Living water.  We all have free access to that water.
In the parable people came and told us that you can really only come to the water if you have to fill in lots of forms and wait your turn or do a dance in the right way and wait to see if you are judged worthy to gain access.
And that is how many people see God today – as a distant phantom unconnected with their real lives and hidden behind  loads of barriers and obstacles that we have to fight through to eventually get to him.
Don’t believe it. You are, we are, God’s children. When we come together on a Sunday morning in church – it is not to fight our way through an obstacle course to try and qualify for an audience with the divine – we come out of gratitude to celebrate what we already have. The gift of our own lives and the presence of God within them.  

That is why we celebrate. Though we all have troubles – life is a gift. Make the most of it and celebrate. God is here. His Spirit is with us.

Monday, 17 June 2013

It is not I who live.....

When we read dense theology like Paul’s letter to the Galatians we become acutely aware that we are reading someone else’s mail and have no idea who he was responding to and why they were at odds with Paul.
But from reading Paul’s arguments we have normally understood, in crude terms, that Paul believed that he was made right with God through his faith in Christ. And this was in a natural opposition to the Jews (by which we understand the term to refer to the Pharisees or a pharisaic frame of mind) who  thought that they were made right with God by observing the law. So Paul champions Grace and the Jews champion works.
But actually that simplistic view is rather undermined by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus who wrote this interesting phrase in his book “The antiquities of the Jews”;
“It is not possible for men to return thanks to God by means of works, for the Deity stands in need of nothing and is above any such recompense”
If we take Josephus’ statement as the standard mainstream Jewish viewpoint, it means that they didn’t observe the law because they thought they would gain anything from it – they observed the law out of gratitude to a God who loved them. Following the law was something that indicated grateful acceptance of what God had done for them.
If that is so then the sharp dichotomy between a Jewish and Christian understanding of law versus grace becomes very blurred indeed.
You could in fact say that what Jesus did is simply clarify what that law really meant and took the written word and its’ laws and myriad constraints and duties and made them an affair of the heart.  Jesus in fact clarifies and simplifies the law by cutting straight to the heart of the matter.  Jesus sums up the law in the Golden rule “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes an external set of codes and internalises them. In the last days the law will be written on their hearts said the Old Testament prophets.
I think it serves us well to remember this when we read parables where the fall guys are always the scribes and the Pharisees, and sometimes the Sadducees.
Rather than an example of a split between Judaism and Christianity, the differing attitudes employed by Jesus and the Pharisees, might better be seen as examples of different dispositions that we all possess.
Heart and mind don’t always work in tandem and often the Pharisee in all of us gets the upper hand over the Jesus  way within us.
These two dispositions are on display in the parable in Luke. The central character is a woman who we are told up front is a “sinner” but who hears that Jesus is in the house of Simon the Pharisee as his lunch guest and goes to see him herself.  Her gratitude at being forgiven is evident in her lavish treatment of Jesus, anointing his feet with oil and drying them with her hair.
All the Pharisee sees is a sinner, but Jesus sees a person who is wholeheartedly sorry for whatever she has done and the gratitude in her for knowing that she is forgiven is enormous. The line attributed to Jesus is those who are forgiven little love little. At first sight a bit harsh, because it implies that only people who go seriously off the rails can love God a lot, and those of us who never do anything very seriously wrong, well our love is always going to be a bit tepid.
But on reflection perhaps he is right. I don’t think he is making a judgement – he is simply being straightforwardly honest.
Taking St. Paul as an example. In Romans 8 Paul makes a huge thing of no longer being condemned by God for all his transgressions because he has discovered Grace and forgiveness.
But what if like me, it never entered your head for a minute that I was ever condemned by God in the first place? What was a blessed relief to Paul and a cornerstone of his theology to me is just incomprehensible words.
I think it is apt here to discuss this word “Sin” as well. Our normal understanding of the word is that it is tantamount to evil, or wrongdoing. But in the Christian scheme of things “sins” i.e. wrongdoing  is simply a consequence of “Sin” capital “s” which is more properly means “separation from God”.
The answer to separation is being together which we call atonement. Our sins, our transgressions or trespasses if you prefer, are a natural consequence of being separate from God. Our sins are products of our self centredness, our egos run riot. Only “I” matter. I am the centre of all things.
The antidote to that is God-centredness. When we realise that it is not just “me”, it is “us”. When what is separate is brought back together and made whole. We are all a part of a deeper and all encompassing reality. It is what Paul meant when he wrote, in that Galatians piece “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me”
It is then that we learn to love more and be more compassionate. Then that we learn to be a bit less judgemental, a bit more expansive. But we have to keep at it. Metanoia, repentance is not a once for all thing, it is a daily decision.
The Pharisee is still there within us, and will assert himself at any and every opportunity. To welcome or not to welcome, to love or not to love, to include or not to include. Daily decisions made easier if you know you are already an intrinsic part of the whole and have gratitiude for that greatest gift of all – your own life.. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

Be the change you are looking for.

Let me start by drawing out some important points from the story of the raising of the widow’s son in Nain.
Widow’s were amongst the most vulnerable people in Jewish society in the first century. Along with orphans they were a shorthand way of describing someone in absolute dire need.  In her society, without a husband her son would be her provider and protector, and with him dead her state was parlous, and faced probable destitution.
This parable then sees Jesus as the embodiment of God answering or meeting a great need. Note also that nobody asks Jesus to act, and no one declares any faith.  But God, and the transformative nature of God’s presence is “in” the situation and makes a difference.
Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible said to have raised people from the dead of course. In fact in the old testament the prophets Elijah and Elijah both raise the dead children of widows (1 & 2 Kings) parables saying exactly the same thing – that God’s presence meets dire need and can have a transformative effect.
The very nature of God is to bring life out of death both symbolically and literally, both within our mortal lives and beyond our mortal existence.
As a premium example of someone being brought from spiritual death to spiritual life within his mortal life, St. Paul recounts his own experience in his letter to the Galatians.
He writes of his own experience of being an active opponent of the church and having a profound spiritual experience on the road to Damascus that transformed his life.  We can easily forget that St. Paul never knew Jesus and has no knowledge or very little direct knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry which is why you find no references to Jesus’ life or sayings in any of Paul’s letters.
All he would have had to go on was his meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem after disappearing to Arabia for three years after his conversion experience. In our translation, after his sojourn in the desert it said that he “visited” Peter, but apparently the English word doesn’t do Justice to the Greek. It was more of a private consultation where there would have been an exchange of views and Peter would doubtless have also furnished Paul with some basic information on what Jesus was actually like in life.
Paul’s  “knowing” of the Spirit of God in Jesus wasn’t based on a personal flesh and blood encounter, it was based on a spiritual encounter – a spiritual encounter that Paul himself puts on the same level as the post resurrection encounters of the twelve apostles by the way. That encounter resulted in a re-orientation of Paul’s mind and Spirit that we call metanoia  - but a more common word would be a transformation.
So for us, the template for transformation is Paul rather than the disciples. We, like St. Paul, never knew Jesus, but the possibility of God taking our lives and making them more productive and fruitful based on a spiritual encounter, or a series of spiritual encounters - a deeper knowing of God -  is exactly the same for us as for Paul.  (And actually exactly the same as it was for Jesus!)
I noted in my mid week letter that both Paul and Jesus took time to discern what their encounters meant. Both took a long time in the desert or wilderness, which you can take metaphorically or literally to think and contemplate and work out what this encounter really meant for them.
We are the same. Whatever inner compulsion you have for going to church, whatever experience of the nebulous you have ever had, whatever nagging questions you have ever had about your life and place in the cosmos – we need to honestly lay those questions out in front of us to allow us to think about them in the context of a Spiritual reality we call God and trust that in following that light however dim it might sometimes feel, we might discern his presence with us and trust that we are heading in the right direction and are heading towards our goal – which is also God.
A little further on you may also discern that this journey is actually one of self realisation. In coming to know God you come to know yourself and likewise, in getting to know who you really are in the core of your being, you come to know God. I am reminded of the old lliturgical greeting..
Come near to God and he will come near to you.
This comes from the letter of James and seems to encapsulate what I am trying to say. Of course James, Jesus’ brother, was the other person Paul names as meeting in Jerusalem. James is yet another example of Spiritual life out of death. Jesus’ family were against him in his life but came to a new understanding of his brother’s life and message after he had died. And so, because of his provenance as Jesus’ brother it was James rather than any of the disciples that came to pre-eminence in the early church in Jerusalem. James writes of an internal Spiritual transaction;
Come near to God and he will come near to you.