Some lessons from a mother from Zarephath

ismail-al-rifai-motherA sermon preached at Box Hill Baptist Church, 13 November 2016
Text: 1 Kings 17.8–24

It is not for the first time, but what a dark world we have entered – a world where hate and xenophobia and misogyny and the rape of natural resources is given free reign; a world poisoned by self-interest, and where contempt for the rule of law grows louder. It is not for the first time, but we are living in a world where what is being violently compromised is any sense that if we are to flourish and not flounder as human community then we simply must find ways to befriend the stranger and to celebrate the dignity of our differences. This world has a name: fear.

Little wonder then that not a few parents are writing letters to their children apologising for our inability to protect them from the growing horrors, and to renew their own daring determination to fight the powers of death wherever such rear their heads in the desperate hope that while the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, it does finally bend towards justice. Such letters, it seems to me, are a profound act of desperation born of faith and, more importantly, of love. It also seems to me that those who stand on the side of life will need to get used to writing such letters, and will need to ask again and again ‘How then shall we live?’

So we gather to hear the living Word of God. Our text today is part of a pattern of the presentation of very many lives of mostly unnamed women in the Bible who are contending with forces that threaten life and trade in death. From the Hebrew mid-wives back in the days when Israel was enslaved to the foreign powers of Egypt and their resistance to Pharaoh’s call to slaughter their own children; to the tragic story of a young woman in Judges 11 who was victimized by the stupidity of her father Jephthah against whose violence she had to carve out for herself a space where she could affirm her dignity in the face of impending and unnecessary death; to Naomi and Ruth, two widows threatened by famine and who became vulnerable migrants who find a way, against all the odds, to preserve life and to endure; to a pregnant teenager desperate to find a safe place to give birth to a child whose name was given by angels but whose arrival was greeted with a mixture of unbridled joy, confusion, and as a threat to the ruling powers. The women in the Bible find themselves ensnared in a hostile world that is stalked by death and in which they are called to preserve life.[1]

This story from the Book of First Kings about a widow and her encounter with the prophet Elijah is not an altogether unplayed track. She is, it seems, a religious person, but her God goes by a different name than does Elijah’s. And she is living in Zarephath in Sidon, deep enemy terror for Elijah because it is the home of Jezebel and the land of Baal. This means that she represents something of a risk to this unkempt stranger, this ‘man of God’ (as she calls him) from the wilderness. Her vulnerability too speaks of risk, a risk that the word of God presents to those who confront it. Will he harm her? Will she tame him?

This unnamed woman who has already survived the death of a spouse is now grasping for hope in a time of literal and of emotional drought. In the economies of the ancient world, people like her had few choices – to carry the shame of returning to their parent’s house, or to become a beggar, or to find employment in the oldest profession in the world – whatever made survival a possibility.

And there is a child involved as well, a fatherless son. They are, together, Bible shorthand for the most vulnerable and at risk members of the human family. And there is a famine in the land. Certainly this woman and her son are up against it, their lives profoundly threatened in a world and a system that seems to conspire against them. For them there is no social security, no hardship funds that they can tap into, and no food.

Their lives are caught up in a conflict between the powers and the gods around them to which their lives mean nothing. That’s why there’s a drought – because Baal and his promoter Ahab, and Yahweh and his promoter Elijah, are embroiled in an arm wrestle over who’s god can control the weather. It is all very well for the gods to try and out-manoeuvre and out-muscle one another, but caught up in the conflict, implicated in the struggle, is this widow and her son, helpless victims of divine warfare. And as with previous stories of widows at risk there is a scene of great poignancy at the heart of the narrative, as in this case our nameless mother is pictured gathering sticks in order to make a fire to prepare a last meal after which she and her thin and listless son will lie down and die.[2]

What an image this story offers us for our world today – a vision of a reality in which life itself is at the mercy of social and political and economic and natural and spiritual forces and powers that threaten us and threaten a kind of death of creation itself. Here is an image of a world that makes victims of us all, and a world that mocks our grand pretensions while tempting us to look to our own idols of technological sophistication and to the allure of a neo-capitalist machinery for liberation.

Up against this tide of death and seemingly-unbridled violence, it is just so hard, isn’t it, to keep believing in life; indeed, to keep believing in anything at all. It seems impossible, or worse, to imagine a way out, a way that ends with anything other than the experience recorded here in vv. 17­–18, with the pitiful death of this widow and her son, and with the brute accusation that this prophet of God, this religious nutter, had in fact been complicit in the death of this boy.

Thank God that there is another word here; that there breaks into this pathetic scenario four words – four crucial words that reverberate throughout Scripture, four words that promise another possibility, another ending, another future; albeit one almost impossible to imagine from what we know of the history behind us and from what we can see now on the horizons in front of us. But let us be as fools and risk hearing them anyway, these words recorded in verse 13: ‘Do … not … be … afraid’. ‘Do not be afraid’, says Elijah. Just as Isaiah spoke to exiles languishing hopeless and helpless before the mighty powers of Babylon, so too does Elijah dare to speak such insanity to those diminishing under despair and the abuse of power. ‘Do not be afraid!’ – the same words echoed many years later by an angel to a teenage girl about to relinquish all control over her life in giving birth to a son.

‘Do not be afraid!’ – words spoken in the sure knowledge that there are indeed forces at work in the world that leave us helpless and impotent, and that would destroy us. And these words are also spoken out of the promise that there is an incommensurable power at work in the world, a power that works not against us but for us, a power that leads us not into destruction but into well-being and into the flourishing of life in all its infinite forms. There is indeed some good in this world, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us; and it’s worth fighting for. It is the power of grace – grace that produces flour that does not give out, and oil that does not fail; grace that speaks life – strange and unexpected – in defiance of death.

Here is this widow on the brink of starvation with her last drops of water and her last handful of flour and her last dribbles of oil and Elijah asks her to give the first portion of it all to him, and she does. Why? Why the hell would someone do that? Such a selfless, generous act makes no sense at all. It’s a pattern played out again today in so many parts of our world, where the poorest among us – the Lebanese, for example, who have taken in over a million people from Syria, and the Turks who have welcomed 2.7 million Syrian refugees – extend hospitality while many of the richest and most powerful among us shut the door to the other – to those like the Syrian man Rabia and his family who were kidnapped and tortured by their own government, and then threatened by and forced to run and hide from various other terrorist organisations, and who had their business ransacked by gunmen, and who have been waiting and hiding in Lebanon for over two years after applying for an Australian refugee visa because our elected government told them that ‘If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door’.[3]

There are certainly no easy or painless answers here. The Lebanese, for their part, have certainly not forgotten the 29 years, between 1976–2005, when they lived and died under Syrian occupation. Here too the life-giving power of grace enters the world in ways that appear foolish and counter-productive and that require irrational amounts of trust.

The Bible has another word for all of this; it’s the word ‘love’ – love which perseveres, which believes all things, which hopes all things, which presses on in faith and hope towards the healing of all things, which looks up towards the horizon for the coming of the untameable promise of God.

The friends of Jesus see themselves in this widow, for like her we are called to lean into the counter-intuitive, apparently counter-productive and foolish ways of love. The friends of Jesus are summoned, like this widow, to demonstrate that love works its way into the world by strange but determined means. The friends of Jesus are called to witness to the world that violence will not defeat violence, that killing is not the way to overcome the forces that threaten life. The friends of Jesus are baptised to be peace-makers in ways that will never make sense to a world dominated by powers committed to work in other ways. The friends of Jesus are those who, in hope that what is promised is really coming, exemplify forgiveness, and reconciliation, and patience, and cheek turning; they model a pattern of life that in the amphitheatre of death appears as futile as a starving widow giving her last scraps to a foreigner. And the friends of Jesus are also a bit like Elijah as well – wild and untamed by circumstances, and committed to living a life that would make no sense where it not for the word of God itself. And when accused of bringing about the death of innocence, rather than defend themselves they do all that they can to try to find ways of bearing that death themselves, crying out to God, and then, as we read in v. 21, stretching themselves out upon the body of death, taking some responsibility for it, and waiting for the impossible – for life to emerge from the ruins. I am here reminded of words from the poet Arnold Kenneth:

The fuse as long as love, the burst a birth,
A second world after the blackout’s done:
And out of my debris you timber heights,
And into my despair you hammer grace.[4]

This was the kind of courageous vision that spurred the work of the great American priest, anti-war activist, and poet Daniel Berrigan who died earlier this year. It was his conviction that

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.[5]

In her time of drought, a widow holding her lifeless son opened her life to an unwanted stranger. In doing so, she may well have discovered that where she was, was where God is found: in prolonged absence, and – inescapably – amidst the stench of death, broken and abandoned on the cross – not for God’s self but for God’s enemies. The cross is where God goes in order to enter into the madness, and pain, and shame, and confusion, and fear, and darkness, and hypocrisy, and terror … and every hell of the world. ‘Where we are and who we are is the furnace where the Son of God walks’.[6] And because the cross is not an event locked in the past but is the eternal present of God in the world, perhaps the faithful Creator has not abandoned this world after all, but is here – hidden in impossible possibilities, and with the determination to not leave creation orphaned. If this is indeed so, perhaps there could be nothing more important to do today than to go out and plant a tree. Amen.

–––––

[1] Here and elsewhere, I am indebted to some reflections on this passage from Lance Stone’s sermon ‘The Power of Grace’, preached at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge, 11 November 2012.

[2] ‘Caught between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine, she reacts with an oath and fatalistic resignation’. Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1987), 110.

[3] See Josh Butler, ‘Syrian Refugee Family Waits 27 Months For Australian Visa’.

[4] Arnold Kenseth, The Holy Merriment (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 61.

[5] Daniel Berrigan, Love, Love at the End: Parables, Prayers, and Meditations (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 76.

[6] Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford: Lion Books, 2003), 98.

[Image: Ismail al-Rifai, ‘Mother’]

The parable of the Good Samaritan: a sermon by Marilynne Robinson

Rudd - Faith in Politics

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is more complex than it might seem at a first or a hundredth reading. Its central point is precious and also clear, that we are to help where help is needed, putting aside every distinction and consideration that might give us an excuse to pass by on the other side. If we are more like the scribe and the priest on too many occasions, sometimes we encounter, and sometimes we are, good Samaritans, people who do the kind and necessary thing, even the difficult and costly thing, when occasion arises, hoping nothing in return but to secure the well being of a stranger. This nameless, and fictional, Samaritan has left innumerable descendants, and they have been a blessing to us all.

Luke gives the parable an interesting context. A lawyer rises to “test” Jesus. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the law. He answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies, “Do this and you will live.” Good brothers and sisters in Christ, let us ponder the fact that, if Jesus is to be believed, the law of Moses is fully sufficient to the securing of eternal life.

The lawyer is offering an established first-century Jewish understanding of the essence of the law of Moses. Notice that here the lawyer cites the law. In the Gospel of Matthew it is Jesus who quotes it. He does so repeatedly, a fact which might explain, though it cannot excuse, the belief widely held among Christians that the commandment originated with Jesus. I have even seen it argued that this commandment to love, which is found in Leviticus, a Book of Moses, epitomizes the difference between the law of Moses and the law of Christ, between Judaism and Christianity. It’s hard to know sometimes whether to laugh or to weep or to tear one’s hair. Be that as it may. Here Luke gives us two first-century Jews discussing the correct interpretation of a particularly venerated law of Moses.

What is called a “law” here is in fact a phrase taken from a law, Leviticus 19:18, which forbids grudgeholding and revenge. In the New Testament the phrase is consistently understood to have a much broader meaning than its original context would give it. Indeed, it seems to be in its nature somehow to have and to acquire always broader reference. The phrase occurs three times in the Gospel of Matthew. In the first, Jesus enlarges the circle of those to be loved to include one’s enemy, since God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” Again, when a young man asks what he must do to be saved, Jesus cites the Ten Commandments, and then, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is remarkable to find this phrase, stripped of its context, given equal standing with the Decalogue. Its great importance is made clear again when Jesus responds to a question put to him by another lawyer – “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replies, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all the soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first Commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.” In the Gospel of Mark Jesus quotes the great commandment, to love the Lord, as the first in importance. Then he says, “The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, There is none other commandment greater than these.” Paul quotes the phrase in Romans, saying that the law is summed up “in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He says, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

In the exchange in Matthew that prompts the famous parable of compassion in today’s text, the lawyer who is testing Jesus grants the authority of this commandment, but, being a lawyer, he wants a clarification. “Who is my neighbor?” Luke says he is seeking to justify himself when he asks this question, which might be understood to mean that he is asking “Whom am I obliged to love? and, conversely, who falls outside the range of those to whom love is owed?” Presumably the lawyer in his attempt to be obedient to this law has been proceeding on a definition of his own that allows him to be a little bit selective. The Hebrew word translated “neighbor” can mean kinsman, friend, companion, or neighbor as we understand the word. The Greek word suggests less in terms of personal relationship and more in terms of nearness, physical proximity. In both cases, the concept “neighbor” is potentially somewhat narrow, as it is for us. The lawyer, intent on his own salvation, clearly does not want on one hand to risk loving where he would realize no eternal benefit from it, or, on the other. to allow himself indifference or hostility toward anyone on whom his eternal happiness might depend. In the way of pious people in all times and places, he wants to get it right.

Now, as it happens, there is another law, another commandment to love, in the same chapter of Leviticus, fifteen verses on, which is far too little known, though we must assume Jesus knew it, and probably the lawyer did, too. It says: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. A phrase very like the one with which we are familiar could have floated free of this context – Thou shalt love the alien as thyself. Here the law specifically draws the stranger, as stranger, into the great defining narrative of the people Israel. Aliens are in effect naturalized, made, in the same language, properly the objects of love just as neighbors are, and on precisely the grounds that they are outsiders. Without reference to origins or any other quality, their circumstance is all the identity that matters. Put these laws side by side, and together they make neighbor and stranger equivalent terms. In the language of the Hebrew Bible there is a structure called a merism. The naming of two extremes – heaven and earth, good and evil – implies everything that falls between them. This is to say that, taken together, the commandments to love in Leviticus are very broad indeed. Whence, perhaps, the energy that makes this fragment of a law, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, rank among the greatest laws.

Boat peopleStill, the lawyer seems to feel that he can love where the law requires, that the requirement of the law can be limited and defined – and that self-interest can inspire a good enough approximation to that exalted emotion to satisfy the commandment, and to serve his eternal purposes. Looking at context again, this characteristic pairing of the laws to love God and neighbor makes them both dependent on the one word “love.” Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and thy neighbor as thyself. To perform actions that only signify love of God is not sufficient – is in fact reprehensible, offensive to God, as all the prophets tell us. The very emphatic language of the first of the laws – love is to engross heart, soul, strength and mind – makes this point. It is in effect a definition of love, that it is engrossed by its object, and is in that sense selfless. The lawyer is using his own interests, piously defined, to determine the limits of his love as well as its proper focus. Insofar as his thinking influences his feeling, he is preventing himself from really loving anyone. The self-forgetfulness love requires is impossible for him.

I propose that the parable turns on this point. The kindness of the Samaritan has no self-interest behind it, no motive of friendship or kinship. In fact, there was inveterate hostility between Samaritans and Jews. In a broad, cultural sense, the Jew was the Samaritan’s enemy. Freud might have referred this hostility to what he called the narcissism of minor difference, the tendency of friction and conflict to occur most frequently between populations that are most similar to each other. Our own United States has engaged in three wars in which its national survival was at stake – the Revolution and the War of 1812, fought against England, and the Civil War, between our own North and South. Over the centuries Europeans have found differences among themselves that were intolerable to them and trivial or invisible to outsiders. And so with the world at large.

The kingdom of Israel became divided after the reign of Solomon. After the separation, the northern kingdom was called Israel, then Samaria, and the southern kingdom was called Judah, then Judea. This distinction is reflected in the word “Jew,” which means Judean. Both peoples centered their faith and worship around the five books of Moses. The Samaritans did not accept the prophets or worship at the temple in Jerusalem but at a temple of their own in Bethel. These distinctions are reflected in the Old Testament text from the writing of the prophet Amos. Christianity, of course, has its origins in the religious culture of Judea, which might lead to further, sadder reflection on the narcissism of minor differences. In any case, the antipathy felt on both sides, Samaritan and Judean, was very real and is certainly a factor in this parable. The compassion of the Samaritan expresses an utter freedom, on this occasion, at least, from the mean distinctions culture and history seem always to generate and to impose. In making the good man of the parable a Samaritan, another inheritor of the traditions of Moses, and specifically of the commandments to love in Leviticus, Jesus suggests that this “heretic’s” understanding of them and obedience to them were of a higher order than the lawyer’s, a man who had devoted himself to mastering the law, and probably prided himself on his command of it. Jesus is inviting his hearers to put aside these same mean distinctions, to emulate a Samaritan. In putting aside the strictures of religion, they will enable themselves to be truly obedient to the law. We are all painfully aware that the most telling indictment of Christianity is our persistent failure to distinguish identity and adherence from actual, lived faithfulness.

But Jesus broadens the question much further. A commandment to love is mysterious in itself. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God. How is this done? If one’s heart does not incline to love, or to this kind of love, what then? How does one love God, of Whom reverence itself requires us to acknowledge that we can know so little? Jesus says; the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is like unto the first great law. How is this to be understood? For Christians, the answer lies in Jesus Himself, in the Incarnation. In another famous parable, this one in the 25th chapter of Matthew, the Son of Man, appearing enthroned as apocalyptic judge of all the nations of the earth, says to the blessed, “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me.” To the Samaritan he would say, “I was beaten and robbed and left lying by the road, and you bound my wounds and cared for me, bearing every expense of time and effort and money, expecting nothing in return.” This parable in Matthew is also addressed to the question put by the lawyer in the text we have read today, what one must do to inherit eternal life, and there is absolutely nothing sectarian in the answer it gives. Humanity’s remotest ancestors could come under its blessing. The impulse to be kind manifest in the parable of the Good Samaritan is a human impulse, rarer than it ought to be and beautiful wherever it finds expression. Christians can know that they honor God Himself whenever they honor another human being, showing that they understand the value of his or her dignity, life, peace and safety. Jesus, man of sorrows, Son of Man, gives us most explicit instruction on this point. If we fail in our reverence toward others, it is not because we don’t know better.

Still there is a question. Can we oblige God to think well of us by showing mercy and generosity? As children of the Reformation we must answer, no, we cannot. The revelation we are given in Matthew’s parable of the Great Judgment is not simply that heaven blesses acts of mercy, but something vastly more astounding, that Christ is present in those who are vulnerable to our oppression or neglect, and that Christ feels and remembers in his own person every kindness that is done to them. It is not the pathos of the world but its profound sacredness that is shown to us. At issue in our parable is not how the word neighbor is to be understood, but what is meant by the word love.

That one verb expresses the right relation of ourselves to God and of ourselves to whomever circumstance puts in our way. Notice how Jesus’s parable shifts our perspective. The neighbor is definitely not a relative, not the member of the community, not a co-religionist. Jesus’s having made his protagonist a Samaritan suggests that he takes the lawyer to expect the definition of the word “neighbor” to fall within one of these categories, if not more than one. The letter of the law could be used, as it so often is, to deny the spirit of the law. Jesus does not even allow the word to mean “whoever needs our kindness or our help,” though this would be a very broad definition, since everyone does need kindness very often. Instead he defines the neighbor not as the proper object of love – but as the one who acts lovingly. More precisely, his story moves the lawyer to this recognition. If love of neighbor were a commandment honored generally, then its effects would be reciprocal. As neighbors we would receive the benefits of this love, and also extend them to others. We create ourselves as neighbors – and fulfill the law – when we honor our side of this shared bond, whether the bond is acknowledged on the other side or not. The word has as broad a definition as we have insight, engagement and compassion to give it.

And there is always another, much larger, context. The Gospel gives us a scene in which a legal scholar is disputing with a self-taught carpenter about a point of law. A bright fellow, he must have thought, interesting enough to spar with a little. He’s attracting crowds, and that can be dangerous. If I give him a question we specialists have struggled with, I might take him down a peg. No harm in that.

The writers of the Gospels take this carpenter to have been, in fact, the epitome of holiness, the Word made flesh, the universal judge. The lawyer is debating the law with God Himself, whose own commandments are at issue. This makes the scene most remarkable. But it is remarkable for nothing more than for the fact that Jesus, the Christ of Luke’s Gospel, is an ordinary man. On a landscape where prophets have appeared he is taken by some people to be one more prophet. Others have no opinion, or take no notice. But, in light of the utterly singular Presence the writer we call Luke understood him to be, there is the greatest significance in the fact that he really is one of us. He might have been the man lying injured by the side of the road, and he might have been the Samaritan who took him up. His wounds would have bled, his voice and his hands would have comforted, just as theirs did, just as ours do. The deep holiness with which human life is invested, which is so great that the Christ could take on true humanity without the least diminishment of his holiness, should tell us who we are and whom we are among, and why it is that the love of neighbor is “like unto” the love of God.

Let us be truly faithful to the last commandment of Jesus, that we love one another. Amen.

Marilynne Robinson preached this sermon at the Congregational United Church of Christ of Iowa City, 14 July 2013.

[A note on the first image: The first image, of Kevin Rudd, is accompanied with words from Rudd’s essay ‘Faith in Politics’, published in The Monthly, October 2006. It seemed a fitting image to use given the subject of the sermon, and the shameful political context in Australia during recent days from where I first read it.]

Good samaritans

Hope and Memory (Job 14.1–14): a sermon

Oldřich Kulhánek - Job 2

There’s a scene in Terrence Malick’s film Thin Red Line where a young soldier gives voice to a series of imponderable and ancient questions about meaning, about the ‘thin red line’ between life and suffering and death. In what is essentially a prayer, he asks:

This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?

These questions haunt human history and seem to give lie to the claim that the earth is good, that behind and before history, that behind and before our life, that behind and before our agonising questions, stands one whom the NT calls ‘love’. It is little wonder then that we ask ‘why’ – why, if the Creator is good and powerful and loving, are there tsunamis and earthquakes? Why, if the Creator is on the side of life, will 29% of New Zealanders die of cancer? Why, if the Creator is the one who brings shalom, do 20% of us suffer from anxiety and mood disorders on a daily basis?  Why, if the Creator is a father who knows how to give good gifts to his children, are there 925 million people who share life with us on this planet hungry? Why, if Jesus is the bringer of a new thing, is the world so unchanged? If this is how a good God governs the world, and because our cry for answers seems to illicit no response, it is little wonder that we lose hope and we begin to wonder not only do I have a future, but also does creation itself have a future, and even does God have a future.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell spoke for not a few when he wrote:

I can imagine a sardonic demon producing us for his amusement, but I cannot attribute to a Being who is wise, beneficent, and omnipotent the terrible weight of cruelty, suffering, and ironic degradation of what is best, that has marred the history of Man in increasing measure as he has become more master of his fate.[1]

And so we come to the ancient Book of Job, a book which begins with these words:

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants … (Job 1.1–3)

Such fertility represents signs, in the Semitic world, of a family under the blessing of God. But not for long. Soon Job is robbed of every iota of financial prosperity and security that was his familiar lot, his children all die in a tragic accident, his livestock are stolen from him, he himself falls victim to a painful and disfiguring chronic disease, and then even his wife turns against him with the words, ‘Curse God and die’. And, perhaps most terrible of all, the book suggests that all of these things happen by God’s permission.

And then for the next 36 or so chapters, Job’s so-called friends – the would-be theologians – instead of waiting with Job for God to speak, they rush in to defend God with their moronic and ignorant theological speculations and they try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong to bring about this state of affairs. On the other hand, Job, for his part, rather than engage in philosophical speculation about the meaning of suffering – as if there might even be such meaning – turns to address God; first by cursing the day of his birth, and then later by challenging God to a day in court where the injustices of his life might be evaluated before someone or something manifestly less prejudicial than God. And what strikes me about this litany of complaints is that rather than jump onto some ancient equivalent of an online social networking site and whinge to others about his loss, Job turns to prayer. He is completely in the dark as to the reason for his suffering, but again and again and again he commits his cause to God. Consider these words from chapter 13:

See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face … Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy? Will you frighten a windblown leaf and pursue dry chaff? For you write bitter things against me, and make me reap the iniquities of my youth. You put my feet in the stocks, and watch all my paths; you set a bound to the soles of my feet. One wastes away like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten. (13.15, 24–28)

This theme is further developed in chapter 14 where we are invited to ask, ‘In the midst of such tragedy, in the midst of our agonies, in the midst of living with our demons and black dogs, in the midst of so many unanswered questions, “Can we hope?” And, if so, what might possibly be the basis of such hope?’

The chapter begins with a sober description of the experience of human life:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. (vv. 1–4)

And then we hear something of Job’s bitterness towards God as if he is addressing the schoolyard bully:

Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. (vv. 5–6)

In other words, ‘God, since you have already planned all our days, and even our deaths, why can’t you just leave us alone to live out whatever life we have been given, because it seems like every time you come near, my life just falls apart’.

According to Job, our fate is hopeless. We all die, and when we breathe our last, we lie down and never get up. In fact, Job says that even the trees have more hope than we do:

For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. (vv. 7–12)

Now most scholars argue that the real turning point of this chapter is in v. 14 when Job asks the question: ‘If mortals die, will they live again?’ (v. 14). And many commentators highlight how Job’s question here whispers that something else might be possible; that despite all evidence to the contrary, some crack might appear in an otherwise closed door and let in some fresh air, some crack which suggests that despite every appearance we are creatures not of chance but of One who has orientated us towards a hopeful future. It’s a fine way to read the passage, though I wonder if it too quickly closes our ears to something else that is important here.

For it may be that the real turning point in this passage actually lies on either side of these words – in v. 13 and in the second half of v. 14 – where Job speaks of both remembering and of waiting:

O that you would hide me in Sheol (i.e., in the underworld, the hiding place from God’s scrutiny and anger), that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! … All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.

The language of remembrance and of waiting is, of course, familiar language around the church. It’s the language that we hear not only around Advent, but also during Lent and during Easter, and during so-called Ordinary Time. But if there’s one day in the church’s calendar when the language of remembrance and of waiting is most intense it is on the quietest day of the Christian year – Holy Saturday. And the story of Job is the story of one faithful person’s experience of Holy Saturday, just as the book of Lamentations recalls on a corporate level the whole community’s journey through its own experience of God abandonment. And Holy Saturday reminds us that there’s waiting and then there’s waiting. For whereas the quality of Advent waiting brims with expectation and preparation for hope to ring and joy to arrive like having warm bread in the oven, the air of Holy Saturday reeks of stale smoke, as though something was burned the day before. The silence of this day is not like the silence of restoration and anticipation and peace. The silence of Holy Saturday sounds more like the buzz of a lonely streetlight on a dark deserted road in the middle of nowhere. It’s the silence of paralysing shock. It’s the silence of shattered hopes. It’s the kind of silence when nothing feels safe or dependable anymore.

The waiting of Job and the waiting of Holy Saturday are like waiting for a teenage son or daughter who has missed a midnight curfew to come home, or like waiting for the surgeon to emerge from the hospital operating room, or like waiting for the phone to ring with a report of biopsy results. Like Job’s questions, Holy Saturday is a day of suspense. It is the boundary marker between the undeniable and the inconceivable. It is, in the words of one theologian, what ‘appears to be a no-man’s land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel’.[2] And it is the space all too familiar to those of us who grieve the loss of one whom death has claimed prematurely. It is the space all too familiar to those of us who live with the burden of unreconciled relationships. It is the space all too familiar to those of us who live with the anxiety of not knowing whether or not we will always be recognisable to our loved ones.

And I want to suggest that what holds that space together – what fills the boundary between death and life, between despair and hope, between love experienced and love unimaginable – is the divine memory. It is God’s memory of us which makes it possible for us to neither abandon our sorrow nor to surrender the horizon of hope. It is God’s memory which places a boundary to our hopelessness and our dislocation. It is the memory of the God who remembered Rachel and filled her barren womb (Gen 30.22). It is the memory of the God who heard Israel groaning under the burden of cruel slavery and remembered an ancient promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the memory of the God who heard the desperate cry of a frightened thief and made a promise to accompany him even beyond death. And it strikes me that the dead Jesus is resurrected too precisely because he is not forgotten by the Father and the Spirit.

Job knows that one day all who know him will pass away and that his achievements will be long abandoned. He knows the futility of trusting in what will only return to dust. He knows the futility of trusting in those shrines of remembrance that we erect in our lives and in our churches and in our communities. But as fragile as he is, he is not finally without hope, and his hope is not that he will be faithful enough to remember God but that God is faithful to remember him, that he will be kept alive only by God’s memory of him. Job’s hope is that despite all appearances, God’s memory outlasts this creation which is passing away. This is great news for those of us who have ‘lost’ their memory, and for those of us who live with those who have ‘lost’ their memory – for it announces that our dignity and hope and humanity are not to be found finally in our ability to remember and to love but rather in the promise of one who both remembers and loves and who does so beyond the boundaries that death itself would seek to erect.[3]

When pain torments our body; when unwelcome fantasies invade our sleep; when friends unite to condemn or to abandon us; when death hovers on our doorstep – then, it is not finally a kind word or a new resolve that we need but rather an encounter with the God who remembers us, who remembers that we are dust; who is, in the words of Psalm 8, ‘mindful’ of us; who remembers that our history is not something that can be discarded willy-nilly, and who, in Jesus Christ, enters into the boundary of our dislocation and into the emptiness of our long-abandoned memories and who publicises to and for us that we are not forgotten. The reason for our hope is that we are remembered in life; we are remembered when disaster engulfs robbing life of joy and peace; and we are remembered in our graves. The reason for our hope is that we are remembered by God when all other memories have dried up, when all has passed away and the creation itself undone, when (as in v. 19) the waters wear away the stones and the torrents wash away the soil of the earth and all human hopes are extinguished.

And, finally, in the crucified God, we hope together with those who do not share our hopes, and with those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, and with those who are disappointed and indifferent, and with those who despair of life itself, and with those who have been the enemies of life, and with those who for whatever reason have abandoned all hope. In and with Christ, we hope and we remember them before God. In the crucified God, we hope together with the God who remembers us and who, in remembering us, is our hopeful end. Amen.


[1] Bertrand Russell, Last Philosophical Testament: 1943–68 (ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner; The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 2; London: Routledge, 1997), 87.

[2] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 2–3.

[3] No wonder that John Calvin once said that ‘there is nothing [human beings] ought fear more than to be forgotten by God’. John Calvin, Sermons from Job (trans. Leroy Nixon; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1952), 78.

The Beauty of Holiness

LambA guest post by Chris Green

Ps. 96.7-9
1 Thess. 4.3
Heb. 12.15

God means to make us holy. As one of our texts put it, “This is the will of God: your sanctification.” But what does this actually mean? What exactly is it that God wants for us? Simply this: to make us like Christ. St Paul says it directly; we are predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son. Sanctification, then, names the process by which the Father, working in, with, and through us by the Spirit, accomplishes this work of making us like the Son, our humanity through and through glorified by sharing together in the Triune life.

Making us like Christ requires a healing of all that sin has corrupted, disfigured, and destroyed in us. And it requires a reordering and reenergizing of our loves and habits of body, mind, and spirit so that we come to live lives worthy of the gospel. Such radical renovation of our lives depends upon our being baptized in and filled with the Spirit—made to partake of the divine nature, as St. Peter has it—so that we come, over time, to take on Christ’s divine-human likeness. Only in this way are we made apt for God, neighbor, and creation. Only in this way are we made truly ourselves.

If we aren’t careful, however, our talk about holiness will slide into nonsense—or something worse. In many people’s minds, the call to holiness is a call to a certain kind of moral rigor. To be holy is to be “good” in an extraordinary, perhaps even superhuman, way. For me, this kind of perversion is exemplified by Bro. Wright, a cranky old man from the church my family attended when I was kid. Bro. Wright—it’s impossible to overstate how pleased I am that this happened to be his name—believed that he was “fully sanctified,” and so not only couldn’t sin but also couldn’t even be tempted to sin. Every December 31st, during what we called the “watch night” service, he would testify that if he had the year to live again he would do nothing differently. I don’t need to tell you that he was unbelievably distant, mean-spirited, condescending. No lie: he sat to the side of the sanctuary, in a metal folding chair, and presided over the services. In the end, not long before he died, he became so weary of dealing with the rest of us that he quit coming to church altogether.

Of course, Bro. Wright—or, more accurately, my memory of him—is a caricature. Still, I suspect that many of us recognize in this sketch an image we know. Perhaps we recognize something of ourselves? Regardless, it’s safe to say that if we’re thinking of the saintly life as one that leads away from the ugliness and inconvenience of life together, then we have utterly misunderstood the gospel. Sanctification moves us always deeper in, more toward the center of community, in the world as well as in the church.

The Fourth Gospel teaches us that Jesus is the one who prays for us to be where he is, interceding for us to have a home in his nearness to the Father. To be like Jesus, then, is to be “with God,” to abide “in the Father’s embrace,” and precisely in that place to open our lives for others, especially those most removed from God—the godless, the ungodly, the godforsaken. Christ prepares for us a place in the Father, the room he himself is. “I go to prepare a place for you,” he promises, “that where I am, you may be also.” He is the Father’s house, and as we become like Christ, we too become roomy, opened more and more for others to find their place in God through us. To be where Christ is, is to embody the mind of Christ, as Philippians 2 describes it; that is, to refuse to fixate on or take refuge in our personal relation to God, but instead to go on emptying ourselves, in myriad ways, in the unpretentious care of our neighbors and enemies, becoming obedient, day after day, to the cross we’re bound to bear.

The horizontal beam of this cross is the otherness, the strangeness, of our sisters and brothers, outside and inside the church, and all the difficulties their strangeness causes for us and for them. As Bonhoeffer says, “Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not merely an object to be controlled.” The vertical beam is the otherness, the strangeness of the God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are beyond our thoughts. Enduring this manifold strangeness, we identify ourselves with Christ in his intervening, atoning agony and just so find ourselves taking on his character. Look again at Hebrews 12. The holiness to which we are called, the holiness without which we cannot see the Lord, is a holiness we are called to make possible for others. “See to it,” the text says, “that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” See to it that the weak are made strong, that the lame are healed. See to it that bitterness can take no root. See to it that Jacob and Esau live at peace.

Intercession, then, is the surest mark of holiness. Like Abraham, we intercede for Sodom—not only for God to spare their lives but also for God to forgive their sins. Like Moses and Aaron, we stand in the midst of the rebels—the very ones calling for our demise—and resist the divine judgment against them. Like Christ, even as we are dying, falling into the abyss of godforsakeness, we cry out for our oppressors’ forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” A.W. Tozer famously said that the most important thing about us is what comes into our minds when we think about God. That’s not quite right. The most important thing about us is what comes into our hearts when we see the sins of our enemies. In the end, the sheep are known by how they see—and see to the needs of—the goats.

Finally, I want to return to the language of the “beauty” of holiness. In what ways is holiness beautiful? In just the same way that Jesus himself is beautiful. The beauty of holiness is the unrecognized, undesired beauty of the Suffering Servant who suffers for others’ salvation, his life utterly expended for theirs. As we become like him, we too will be despised, held in no account, as we, like and with him, bear others’ infirmities, carry their dis-ease, making their wounds our own, letting their iniquities fall upon our heads. Oppressed and afflicted, we will hold our tongues, and find ourselves again and again led like lambs to the slaughter. For his sake, we are sure to be killed all day long—and precisely in these moments to know ourselves to be “more than conquerors.” It is this beauty that will captivate the world, so that they’ll say of us, “they have been with Jesus.” By this the world will know that we are his disciples. What more could we want or ask for?

[Chris’ recent book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom, was reviewed here]

Do you love me?

Stanley Hauerwas is always worth listening to. Here he is preaching on Jesus’ words, ‘Do you believe in love me?’, at the recent closing convocation at Duke Divinity School:

‘The Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee’: a sermon by the Rev Dr Thomas Fortheringhame

norwich-canaI have been at pains, of late, to discover a more erudite and faithful exposition on chapter 2 of St John’s Gospel – on the wedding at Cana – than that preached by the Rev. Dr Thomas Fortheringhame, who served as minister of the parish church of St. Peter’s which stands at one end of a sandy bay on the west coast of Orkney. Of course, the current House of the Lord there is a small square stone utilitarian structure built in the year 1826 by the freely-given labour of all the parishioners; women are said to have carried the stones from the quarry three miles away on their backs, a slow, holy, winter-long procession. But there were churches there before the present church was erected. The inscribed tombs in the churchyard go back to the seventeenth century, and there are older anonymous stones.

The good reverend doctor was the author of two volumes of sermons published in Edinburgh, not half a mile from The Mound. He complained in a written account of the parish that ‘the Kirk roof is full of leakings and dribblings in the winter time, and of draughts at all seasons of the year, whereby the parishioners are like to catch their death of cold, and often my discourses are broken by reason of their hoastings and coughings. The masonry is much delapidated’. It was soon after this that plans were drawn up by the laird for the building of the present church on the same site. But there were other churches there even before Dr Fortheringhame’s wet and draughty edifice. Among the clustering tombstones is a piece of a wall with a weathered hole in it that looks as though it might have been an arched window, and slightly to one side an abrupt squat arrangement of dressed stones that suggests an altar. The Rev. Dr Fortheringhame – O what a gentleman of such magnificent faith! – says curtly, ‘There is in the vicinity of the Kirk remnants of a popish chapel, where the ignorant yet resort in time of sickness and dearth to leave offerings, in the vain hope that such superstition will alleviate their sufferings; the which Romish embers I have exerted myself to stamp out with all severity during the period of my ministry’. Anyway, without further ado, I commend to your learning and most earnest meditation Dr Fortheringhame’s sermon, dated August 1788, on the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee:

‘Brethren, some of you might be thinking that the piece of gospel I read out just this minute anent the Lord Christ’s turning of water into wine at Cana of Galilee is divine permission to you to make drunken beasts of yourselves at every wedding that takes place within the bounds of this parish this coming winter; ay, and not only at every wedding but at every christening forby and every funeral and harvest supper. It is the devil of hell that has put such a thought into your minds. It never says in holy writ that any wedding guest was drunk at Cana of Galilee.

‘Magnus Learmonth, you in the second pew from the back, at the wedding you made for your third lass Deborah at Skolness at the back end of Lammas, all the guests lay at the ale-kirn like piglets about the teats of a sow till morning, to the neglect even of dancing; and two women in this same district came to themselves next morning in the ditch of Graygyres. Bella Simison, you do well to hang your head there at the back of the Kirk – it argues a small peck of grace. Andrina of Breck, you were the other defaulter – don’t look at me like that, woman! – you have a brazen outstaring impudence commensurate with your debauchery. Well I know you and your runnings back and fore between Breck and the alehouse with your bit flask under your shawl. Things are told privily into my lug.

‘What this text argues, brethren, is that the host at the wedding, the bridegroom’s good-father, was a careful and a prudent man with his bawbees. No doubt this provident man said to himself the day the marriage bids were sent about the countryside with a hired horseman, “If I order too few pigs of drink, they’ll say I keep the purse-strings drawn over tight, and if I order too muckle they’ll say I’m a spendthrift. And so I find myself between devil and deep. What is the right quantity of drink for a celebration such as this?” … Being a prudent man, I say, he ordered too few pigs of drink (only it wasn’t pigs of usquebaugh, whisky, in that foreign place, nor yet ale; it was jars of wine). The which when the Lord came he corrected, he set to right, as he will beyond a doubt set to right all our exaggerations and our deficiencies, since only he kens what is stinted and what is overblown in the nature of every man born. He adds and he takes from. The stringent economy of the host drew no rebuke from him. He accomplished the miracle. Then there was dancing, then there was fiddling, then no doubt near midnight bride and groom were carried into the ben room with roughness and sly jokes and a fiddle and five lanterns.

St Peters Orkney‘Nor was this the end of meat and drink as far as the Lord was concerned. You ken all about the multiplication of the five bannocks and the two cod-fish, concerning which I preached to you for an hour and more last Sabbath. There came a night at the supper-board when he suddenly took an oat-cake and broke it and raised his jug of drink and leaned across and said to them who were no doubt wanting to fill their bellies without any palaver, “This is my body,” he said, and then, “This is my blood” – a most strange and mystifying comparison indeed, that the papists would have us believe to be a literal and real and wholly breath-taking change of substance effected by a form of words. Whatever it means, brethren – and our General Assembly has not and doubtless will not bind you to any infallible conclusions as to the significance of these utterances – whatever it means, it teaches us a terrible reverence for the things we put in our mouths to nourish us, whether it is the laird’s grouse and claret or the limpets that Sam of the Shore eats with cold water out of the well in the lean days of March.

‘You will not go home, therefore, and hog down your brose like swine in a sty or like cuddies at a trough. The common things you put in your mouths are holy mysteries indeed, beyond the taste and the texture. Therefore, brethren, with reverence you will make them a part of your body and your life.

‘Prudence, my brethren, a proper proportioning of our goods, estimation, forethought – so much to the King, so much to the laird, so much to the Kirk, so much for the maintainance [sic] of ourselves and them that belong to us, so much to the poor – that is doubtless the meaning of this text; and for the things we lack, that we should ask the Lord to supply them, and so rest content in our estate.

‘John Sweynson, I observe that you bought a new shawl to your wife’s head at the Kirkwall Market, with what looks to be silken lacing round the edge of it, a thing of vanity, and new black lace gloves to her hands. She will not darken this kirk door again, no nor you either, with these Babylonish things on her body.

‘Samuel Firth, of the operations of your farm, Dale in the district of Kirkbister, naturally I ken nothing, nor does it concern me. But you have seven black cows on the hill if you have one, and fifty sheep forby, and a hundred geese. Is it a proper and a godly thing, think you, that your three small bairns sit in the front pew there under the precentor blue and channering with the cold, they having no right sarks to their backs nor boots to their feet? Have a care of this, look to it, as you call yourself a Christian. Amen.

‘Concluding, I have two announcements to make. John Omand, on account of the bastard child he fathered on Maria Riddoch at Michelmas, appeared before the Kirk session on Wednesday and being duly constrained answered Yea to the accusation, wherefore he will suffer public rebuke three sequent Sabbaths in this Kirk on the stool of penitence, beginning next Sabbath.

‘I hear that the French brig Merle, Monsieur Claude Devereux, master, discharged some cargo at the Bay of Ostray in the darkness of Friday night. The gentlemen of the excise were at Kirkwall, playing at cartes. Will you, therefore, James Drever, deliver as usual a keg of best brandy at the Manse tomorrow morning, when Mistress Skea my serving woman will see that you are recompensed for your pains’.

[Note: The ‘sermon’ appears in George Mackay Brown’s delightful book, A Time to Keep: And Other Stories.]

Lovers, Watchmen, Chorus: a sermon on Song of Songs 3.1–5 and 5.2–8

Song-of-SongsA guest post by Chris Green 

Anytime I preach from Song of Songs I’m reminded of a “gift” my mother gave Julie and me not long after we announced our engagement: a 12-part sermon series from Song of Songs on love-making and the art of marriage. We were, as you’d expect, traumatized by such a graphically “literal” reading; but rest easy—what I’m offering today is a typological reading.

More seriously, I’m struck by the resonance of a theme—or chorus of themes—I’ve heard spoken in our chapel services this year (for example, in sermons by Jonathan Martin, Dr. Gause, Dr. Martin, Chris Brewer, Michael Pogue, and Dr. Cheryl Johns): the invitation into the holy, transfiguring Presence of Christ—holy because he alone transfigures; transfiguring because he alone can share with us his holiness. We have been invited again and again to tryst with him in the garden of agony, to know him in the fellowship of his sufferings, to be melded into him, as a branch is one with the Candlestick. I trust whatever I say today will be heard as a voice in that choir.

**

Reading Song of Songs is a bewildering, at times impossible, venture. On a close reading, the text turns out to be an impenetrable tangle of characters, exchanges, and metaphors/images—a “thick darkness.” At times, the text slides into apparent meaninglessness, or at least becomes unreadable. As Paul Griffiths says, “Almost everything … is puzzling and disconcerting. The Song’s reader must look for help, first elsewhere in the Song and then elsewhere in Scripture.”

Why would God give us such a text? Perhaps precisely because God means for us to acknowledge our helplessness, allowing ourselves to be forced into the desperation necessary to see all things new. Perhaps because it is only in our shared struggle to make gospel sense of the written Word of Scripture that we are ourselves being made apt for transfiguration into the image and likeness of the living Word, Jesus Christ. Seeing that, we know this “thick darkness” of meaning as in fact a form of the radiant darkness enthroned on the Ark—it’s not without reason that ancient Jewish and Christian readers described the Song as the Holy of Holies of Scripture—, a darkness that makes us aware of our blindness and just so begins to open our eyes, ever so gradually, to the rising light.

***

When they’re read side-by-side, a pattern emerges from these two scenes. The lover, abed at night, is consumed with longing for her beloved, whom she names “The-One-Whom-My-Heart-Loves.” She dives out into the night to find him. She encounters the watchmen, who prove of no use. Her desire is ultimately unmet, and in the end the chorus is invoked to act. Of course there are variations: for example, in the first scene, her longing is awakened by her own fantasies; in the second, they are stirred by the beloved’s attempts to break into her rooms; in the second scene, she does not find her beloved at all; in the first scene she does in fact find him—only to fall asleep before they can consummate their love. But there’s something about this pattern of frustration that demands our attention. Why the seeking? Why the not-finding? Why the finding-and-losing? Why the failings of desire? Because Jesus is not only the one whom we desire; he is also the one who must educate, master, our desires. We desire the wrong things. So he has to teach us to desire the right things. We desire the right things wrongly. So he has to teach us to desire the right things the right way. As our lives are more perfectly aligned with Christ’s, we find ourselves desiring more than our nature can in fact receive. So we must be transfigured into his likeness, sharing in his divine nature, so we can be made capable of truly enjoying the infinity of God’s love.

As these scenes illustrate, Christ both draws near to us, awakening our desire, and withdraws from us, hiding himself, frustrating that newly-awakened desire. But make no mistake: he does it all for our good. As Song 2.14 makes clear, he longs to see our face even more than we can desire to see his—but we do not yet have faces to face him; our eyes cannot yet behold his glory.

We belong to Jesus and he belongs to us. But we cannot “hold” him, cannot keep him in our “mother’s house,” in whatever reality we’ve know as “home.” If we would be strange with his saving strangeness, we cannot domesticate him, drawing him down to the size of our lives. Instead, we must be ever increasingly enlarged until we are conformed finally to the full measure of his stature, filled to overflowing with the fullness of his life. To that end, he says to us, as he said to Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me!” He does not want to be as we remember him, or as we wish or imagine him to be. He insists, for our good, on being all the Father knows him to be for us. Until the End, therefore, we must ever be pursuing him in the Spirit, always reaching out to apprehend that for which we have been apprehended; never grasping, always being held.

****

The watchmen—or “sentinels,” as one translation has it—play a major role in these scenes. In the first scene, they ignore the woman’s cry. In the second scene, they abuse her for her forwardness. Some readers have taken them as types of the prophets, whom God uses to chastise God’s people. But I see them as religious figures who regard themselves as gatekeepers entrusted with the preservation of a certain “order.” Concerned with keeping the status quo—and confusing it with the Kingdom—they, like Eli did with Hannah, fail to discern the difference between the disordered passions of those dominated by the “flesh” and the Spirit-inflamed longings of the God-intoxicated. Like the Pharisees, they fail at the most basic level to understand that this God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt. 9.10-13).

The text says that while the lover was seeking her beloved, the sentinels “found” her. Clearly, then, they are no longer searching for the beloved. They have reduced themselves to watching out for rule-breakers, for those they identify as bandits or outlaws. In truth, they have abandoned their “first love” (Rev. 2.4). Now, they love their “city” and its “order” far more than they love the one who dwells always outside the city gates (Heb. 13.12-14), the one who befriends sinners and dies with thieves.

“Watchmen,” of whatever kind, trade in perverse notions of holiness. As Jonathan Martin put it, they are more concerned with standing up for Jesus than with standing with him. We, however, should be those who recognize that Jerusalem shall be inhabited as a city without walls (Zech. 2.1ff)—and so has no need of sentinels, at least not of this kind.

*****

We need to be like the daughters of Jerusalem. Unlike choruses in classical Greek drama, this chorus of “young women” is engaged with the characters and not only the audience/readers. Again and again, they ask questions of the lover and her beloved. In 5.9, they ask her the question: “What is your beloved more than another beloved?” And, hearing her ecstatic response, make the decisive offer (6.1): “Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?”

They can ask such a question and make such a promise because they see her differently than the watchmen see her. They see her as “fairest among women.” In fact, they see her exactly as her beloved sees her. In this, they show us the true nature of Christian being: to know one another rightly is to see one another as Christ sees us. As St. Paul says, we know no one “after the flesh” any more (2 Cor. 5.16). Let this, then, be our prayer: in our seeking may we find not only The-One-Whom-Our-Heart-Loves, but also one another. For, in finding one another, we begin to become the people who can know as we are known.

[Chris’ recent book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom, was reviewed here]

Rick Floyd on ‘Low Sunday’

AngelRick Floyd writes some wonderful sermons. Here’s a snippet from one he preached a few years ago on John 20.24–29. It’s on ‘Low Sunday’, and it’s titled ‘Behind Locked Doors’:

The Second Sunday of Easter, traditionally called “Low Sunday,” is a tough Sunday for a preacher for a number of reasons.  First of all, the context of our preaching can be a bit discouraging. We have fewer than half the people we had last week, and I always preach better for some reason when their are more people present. It must have something to do with group dynamics. Easter is always a high holy day in the church, a bright and festive day, and though the church in theory believes that Easter lasts for the Great Fifty Days, the second Sunday is, well you know, Low Sunday.  Plus I am always exhausted and worn thin after Easter. But having said all that let me make a confession: I like low Sunday.

I like it for two reasons. First, the folks who come on Low Sunday tend to be the faithful core of the congregation and I feel I don’t have to explain so much of the Gospel to you. To use Eugene Peterson’s helpful distinction, on Low Sunday there are more pilgrims and fewer tourists. I say that not to disparage religious tourists, God knows we have all been that at one time or another. God meets us where we are and even spiritual tourists need God’s mercy and love. My point is just that hardly anyone feels a pressing social or cultural need to get up and come to church on Low Sunday, so those who are here tend to be serious about what we are doing here, and I appreciate that, since I am serious about what we are doing here.

But the second and more important reason I like Low Sunday is that it speaks deep truths about how the risen Christ comes to us. Low Sunday is sort of a down and out Sunday, and the Lord Jesus seems to appear especially to the down and out. If you read the stories of the resurrection appearances it is startling that without exception the disciples are doing nothing especially religious when Jesus appears to them. They aren’t praying or worshipping. In Luke they are walking on the road lamenting what had happened, or they are fishing, having given up their discipleship to return to their day job. Here in John’s Gospel on Easter night the disciples are in a locked room, hiding in fear.

And it occurs to me that is the church’s natural state: a bunch of scared people locking out the world. You might argue that the disciples are not yet the church, until Jesus comes to them and gives them the Holy Spirit (John’s version of Pentecost) and you would be right.  The church without the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit is just a bunch of quite literally dispirited people hiding in fear from real and imagined enemies.

And that is one of the reasons I like Low Sunday. The disciples are so obviously failures at being disciples and so they share that in common with us. It’s Easter and they don’t even know it. They have nothing to offer as the church, no vision, no energy, no courage, no conviction. They are hiding. They are afraid. As far as they know Jesus is dead and done. The shepherd has been struck down and the sheep have scattered.

You can read the rest here.

In inconsolable times …

mother-weepingJust after beginning to come somewhat to terms (I say ‘somewhat’ for with evil there can be no such arrangement) with the devastating and deadly powers unleashed in Cyclone Evan, we find ourselves again on this day stirred with rage, frustration, despair, lament and grief birthed by news of yet another mass shooting in the USA. It is timely (and sadly so) that I happen to be working on a book of essays on the Hebrew notion of tikkun olam (to mend the world). It is timely too that today my friend Rebecca Floyd drew my attention to two sermons by J. Mary Luti. The first, first preached after the tragic events of the massive Indian Ocean tsunami, and the second, an excerpt from a sermon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, both speak to this week’s events. Here are a few snippets. From the first:

We Christians sometimes find it hard to refrain from overwhelming great empty spaces and terrifying silences with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and abiding presence. We are people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is second nature, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when Easter comes too quickly, when we get Jesus off the cross and into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps this haste is a reason why Easter is doubted by so many.

There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and of all our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our lives, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. Times when we need the cover of night.

Sooner or later, we all wonder with Job why we were ever born. Sooner or later, we all pore over the lexicon for a word with which to fashion inconsolable laments—and we find the cross, Christianity’s most believable symbol. It offers no answers. It offers instead a common lot: sooner or later life deposits us all at the cross. It is the gathering place for the world’s sorrow, its wasted efforts, its tormented children, its unimaginable catastrophes, and its utter silences. When we arrive at its foot, we also discover its hope – not the hope of Easter, but the hope that comes simply from having a place to gather when the pain is unspeakable and the sorrow beyond all bearing.

It is not yet the dawn. Not yet. We need to be healed, and we will be, but not too fast. We have to wait. It takes time. And we have to stay together, with every loss and horror creation has ever borne. We have to stay together so that it is not too frightening to wait, so that our waiting does not become despair. Like that inconsolable man in Indonesia, we may even prefer to wait, just as long as we are not alone. Together we will outwait death and come startled and blinking to Easter.

But no, not now. Not yet.

RachelAnd from the second:

She will not be comforted. There is no way to address a grief like Rachael’s, and she stubbornly refuses everyone who tries. She refuses, in other words, to have the unspeakable reality of innocent suffering  diminished in any way by attempts to assuage or explain it. Rachael is a witness to the things in human life that are so awful that they cannot be addressed, explained or repaired. They can only be wept over, lamented, mourned.

Rachael, in her single keening voice gives voice to all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan and nation from whom children have ever been torn away and destroyed by a police state, by Jim Crow or apatheid, by political greed and indifference, by the glorification of war, by random violence, or by crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. She will not be pacified.

But we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices — knowing voices that explain and justify the unfortunate necessity of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity: Guns don’t kill people … Cool voices that cover up or prettify what violence actually does. False voices that paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering. Pragmatic voices of tyrants. Pandering voices of politicians. Patriotic voices of presidents and generals. Blaming voices of the self-made. Aloof, pious voices (God help us!) too often of the church.

At the start of a new year, especially one that will almost certainly see at least one new war unleashed on this gasping planet, the stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children urges us to resist and to refuse those false voices of explanation, rationalization, justification, and obfuscation of all the things that are just not right and which must not be condoned.

Rachael’s grief, never to be comforted, urges us also to rip apart with our own lamentation (and our own repentance) the curtain behind which hides the greatest lie – that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the suffering of the innocent, the enslavement and destruction of the future. For the stuff of her life is the stuff of ours: the murder of innocents, whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, hospitals with inadequate supplies in Iraq, famine in Ethiopia, orphanages in Rwanda, school buses in Tel Aviv, a shot-up elementary school in your small town, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.

When Rachael makes her brief appearance on the Christmas stage; when this wailing mother of a dead child shows up beside a sleeping child watched over by a virgin tender and mild, we are also reminded, thankfully, that what human words cannot speak of adequately or truthfully, God’s Word, the word we experience in Jesus, can.

The babe who escaped this time, the child whom one Herod could not find, but who will be found by another Herod in thirty-three years’ time and will not escape him then — this child is God’s final Word to our world. It is a Word of comfort Rachael might finally accept, for it is a Word of justice. A Word from a Voice clear and true, a ‘yes’ profound enough and persevering enough (through trial, cross and grave) to address whatever horrific stuff our living and dying, our ignorance, sin and fear can present.

Now and forever it is spoken powerfully against the powers-that-be, defeating death itself — even ours, if we follow its resonance and welcome its light.

And my friend Bruce Hamill has penned the following prayer for tomorrow’s church service:

Today we pray for a society obsessed with weapons of destruction and sometimes mass destruction, obsessed with self-defence and the perpetuation of violence. We pray for America and we pray for our own country inasmuch as we share the same cultural patterns and values. Lord we lament with your people everywhere, how much we have talked of the gospel but failed to appreciate the gospel of peace, replacing it with a gospel of personal security and individual salvation. We have failed you. Have mercy and bring your judgement first to the household of God. If we do not bear witness to the gospel of peace, who will? Lord have mercy on us.

Keiji Kosaka - Reconciliation in the Midst of DiscontinuityAt times like these, however, I often find myself both reflecting on Keiji Kosaka’s profound sculpture ‘Reconciliation in the Midst of Discontinuity’, and turning to both Donald MacKinnon and to Gillian Rose, and to their efforts, each in their own way, to resist premature closure of what must remain open and patient and in agony. MacKinnon’s reflection on John 1.10–11 (‘He was in the world and the world took its origin through him and the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his own people did not receive him’) provides one such example of what I mean. Here’s an excerpt::

It is sheer nonsense to speak of the Christian religion as offering a solution of the problem of evil. There is no solution offered in the gospels of the riddle of Iscariot through whose agency the Son of man goes his appointed way. It were good for him that he had not been born. The problem is stated; it is left unresolved, and we are presented with the likeness of the one who bore its ultimate burden, and bore it to the end, refusing the trick of bloodless victory to which the scoffers, who invited him to descend from his cross, were surely inviting him.

What the gospels present to us is the tale of an endurance. “Christ for us became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” The writer of the fourth gospel invites his readers to find in the tale of this endurance the ultimate secret of the universe itself. For the ground of that universe is on his view to be identified with the agent of that endurance. So his teaching cannot easily be qualified as optimistic or pessimistic. He is no pessimist; for he is confident that we can find order and design, the order and design of God himself, in the processes of the universe and in the course of human history. But if men would understand that design, they must not, in random speculative mood, look away from the concrete reality of Jesus of Nazareth, from the bitter history of his coming and rejection. Where the speculative intellect finds answer to its furthest ranging questions is still the same place where the bruised spirit may find consolation from the touch of a man of sorrows.

To suggest that Christianity deals with the problem of evil by encouraging the believer to view it from a cosmic perspective is totally to misunderstand both the difficulty and the consolation of its treatment. Rather Christianity takes the history of Jesus and urges the believer to find, in the endurance of the ultimate contradictions of human existence that belongs to its very substance, the assurance that in the worst that can befall his creatures, the creative Word keeps company with those whom he has called his own. “Is it nothing unto you all ye that pass by? Behold and consider whether there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” It is not as if the passer-by were invited immediately to assent to the proposition that there was indeed no such sorrow; he is asked to “consider”. It is a profound mistake to present the Christian gospel as if it were something that immediately showed itself, that authenticated itself without reflection. It is of the manner of the coming of Jesus that he comes so close to the ordinary ways of men that they hardly notice him, that they treat him as one of themselves. “There stands one among you whom you know not”: so the Baptist in that same first chapter of John to which I have so often referred. But how, except by coming so close to men, could he succour them? A Christ who at the last descended from the cross must leave the penitent robber without the promise of his company in paradise; and such a Christ we may dare say must also deprive himself of the precious comfort in his own extremity that he received from the gangster beside him; for it was that gangster who in Luke’s record continued with him to the very end of his temptation.

I am not here offering an apologetic, only bringing out certain elements in the complex reality of Christianity that seems to me of central importance. I would say that nobody these days, who is concerned at all with issues of faith and unbelief, can afford to treat them as opportunities for being clever. If men still believe – in spite of the strong, even overwhelming, case of the sceptic – it must be because they find malgré tout in Christianity the revelation of the eternal God, a revelation that touches them in the actual circumstances of their lives, whether in the common fear of a week of international crisis, or in the more personal extremities of sin, failure, bereavement, of unresolvable conflict of obligations when they find themselves pulled in two directions by claims of pity and by claims of truth. Is the so-called gospel in any sense good news to one who has bestowed love and care upon another whom he is forced in obedience to the claims of truth to acknowledge as worthless and corrupt? If it has no word of consolation in such extremity, how can we call it good news to the individual? What value is there in a cosmic optimism which leaves unplumbed the depths of human grief?

So I come back to the place where nearly I began, to the figure prostrate on the ground praying that the hour might pass. It is the claim of Christianity that men find God there, that in some sense all who came before that one were thieves and robbers, that he indeed it is in whom all things consist, through whom they take their origin, and by whom they will find their consummation. Men may well find in the end that this claim is beyond their acceptance, that it demands assent to what they cannot, if they are honest, say yes to. But those who believe its truth as long as indeed they do believe it must at least make sure that what is rejected is the substantial reality and not a counterfeit bereft alike of pity and of glory.

It may seem strange that I have gone so far without even mention of the Resurrection; but my reticence in this respect is of design. In one sense belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, that the Father pronounced a final Amen to his work, is a prius of my whole argument. To discuss the issue of the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus and the complex theological problems that it raises would take me beyond the limitations I have deliberately imposed upon myself. Yet it is the prius of my whole argument; for it is in the Resurrection that we find the ultimate source of that peculiar tension between optimism and pessimism which I have judged characteristic of Christianity. One thing, however, in conclusion, I would dare to say, and that is this. It is a commonplace of traditional theology that in speech concerning God and the things of God “the negative way” must precede “the way of eminence”. If men would give sense to what they say, they must be agnostic before they dare invoke the resources of anthropomorphic imagery; they are always properly more confident concerning what they must deny than concerning what they may affirm. So with what men intend when they speak of the Resurrection of Jesus; they know what it is not in a way in which they cannot know what it is, inasmuch as its ultimate secret rests with the Father who raised him.

In knowing what it is not, they know that it is not a descent from the cross postponed for thirty-six hours. It is not the sudden dramatic happy ending which the producer of a Hollywood spectacular might have conceived. In the stories as we have them, it is only to his own that the risen Christ shows himself with the marks of his passion still upon him; his commerce with them is elusive and restricted, as if to guard them against the mistake of supposing that they were witnesses of a reversal, and not of a vindication, of those things which had happened. It is a commonplace of theology to speak of the Resurrection as the Father’s Amen to the work of Christ; yet it is a commonplace to whose inwardness writers on the subject often attend too little. For if it does anything, it drives one back to find the secret of the order of the world in what Christ said and did, and the healing of its continuing bitterness in the place of his endurance.

“Come down from the cross and we will believe.” Many Christians have joined in this cry; many continue indeed to make it their own, even when they pay lip service to the gospel of the Resurrection. But it is only in the light of the Resurrection that those Christians can learn rather to say with understanding the profound words of Pascal, that Christ will indeed be in agony unto the end of the world.

On the sermons of PT Forsyth

It might well be argued that before he was anything else, PT Forsyth was principally a preacher. It would certainly not be going too far to say that the greatest portion of Forsyth’s public life was given over to preaching, and to encouraging preachers. To be sure, and by any standards, his literary output was significant. But by far the majority of the words in his published articles and books are sermons, or were ideas developed from sermons. And even those that are not betray the rhetorical form of one shaped by the pulpit and the task that attends that space. And this is not so strange, for Forsyth believed in preaching.

I too believe in preaching. I also believe that Forsyth has much still to teach us about preaching. To be sure, not everything about his own manner or approach remains helpful today, or is particularly worthy of emulation. (But of whom might that not be true!) Still, regarding the things that really matter, it is difficult to go past the likes of one like Forsyth. (We could add here too the names of Karl Barth, Eduard Thurneysen, James Denney, Helmut Thielicke, Paul Tillich and others.)

I have suggested before that one of the real gifts that the Aberdonian bequeaths to the Church is the encouragement of her pastors to forego the ‘sin of bustle’ that would see them running errands for the culture motivated in no small part by an attempt to convince the world – and the church! – of the use, value and worthiness of their vocation, and to instead give themselves to preach the Gospel, to believe in that divinely-ordained foolishness – what Forsyth calls ‘the folly of the cross’ – and to trust its effects to God.

Those who carry the burden – a joyous burden to be sure, but a burden nonetheless – of preaching week after week will no doubt be familiar with that anxiety that attends the final read through the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very real possibility of God’s communication – which is nothing less than God’s self-disclosure – to those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also to those long-deafened by the drums of seemingly-endless counter words, that Saturday-night feeling that, despite all one’s best efforts, things for tomorrow’s sermon just don’t seem right, that the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon was penned, and perhaps the best that one can now hope for is to simply trust that something that one says might find fertile soil. To be sure, to believe in preaching is to believe in miracles; or, more properly, it is to believe in One who not only already longs to speak but who also ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17). Moreover, to believe in preaching is to believe that such calling into existence occurs via the irresponsible method of liberally sowing seeds whether in places where there is no soil, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, or in fertile and productive soil.

I’m in the near-final currents of preparing a manuscript of some unpublished, and hard to find, sermons of Forsyth’s. This will be published by Wipf & Stock under the tentative title of ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. To those who also believe in preaching – or who wish to believe in preaching in spite of all appearances – I hope that the words of this volume might come as as much an encouragement to them as they have been for me.

As I write, I’m thinking about why people read Forsyth, why they should, and what strikes them when they do. One of my friends, who has himself published on Forsyth, has suggested that the answer lies somewhere in the fact that ‘Forsyth loved the Lord, knew the scriptures, and understood ahead of his time the pitfalls of both a vague liberalism and an obscurantist fundamentalism. He also knew the difference between theology and anthropology. And he could turn a phrase’. Another has been struck by the ‘affective tone of the whole; the desire to really embrace the Triune God in all the beauty, terror, majesty and mystery’. I agree with both of these statements, and the latter reflects too what Forsyth so appreciated about Jonathan Edwards’ theology, and Calvin’s for that matter. I will post some more thoughts in due course, but for now I’m very keen to hear yours. If you’d prefer to email rather than leave a comment online, then you can reach me here.

Unheard sermons

A friend of mine asks: ‘What are some particular subjects or passages that you have never heard a sermon on, which you would like to hear being addressed from a pulpit?’

I’m sure to think of other topics, but in my haste I fired back the following suggestion: ‘The sermon and the responsibility of, and invitation/command to, the hermeneutical community to hear the Word of God; i.e. how do we hear the sermon’.

How would you answer my friend?

[Image: Dave Walker]

When dog food is more than edible

I notice that among this week’s lectionary readings is the text Matthew 15.21-28. A number of emails this week have alerted me to a sermon on that text that I once preached and posted here at Per Crucem ad Lucem. The sermon, entitled ‘When dog food is more than edible’, can be read here.

Living Easter Faith: a reflection on Luke 24.13–35

Easter is always a surprise. Whether Easter meets us in the bustle of busy-ness, or in the deep surges of grace overturning tragedy in our lives, or in the celebration of the eucharist, or in the world with its tsunamis, earthquakes, assassinations, tornadoes, and wars, Easter is always a surprise. And it’s the kind of surprise – thank God – that invites, even shocks, us into waking up, to having our eyes pried open, to recognising that the world in which we fell asleep no longer exists.[1]

And our waking up births new questions: How will we learn to walk in the new reality that Easter’s dawn has opened up? And how shall we proclaim the reality that in the raising of the dead Jesus God is inaugurating the re-creation of all things, and that a new politic is at work in the world? And how shall we avoid being stuck at Good Friday as custodians of the crucifixion, or on Holy Saturday with decimated hopes sealed in a sarcophagus?[2] And what does it mean for us to join Cleopas and his unnamed partner on the road of broken dreams when the very embodiment of our expectations for liberation is walking right beside us … and when – in spite of his imminence – our eyes are kept from recognising the incognito God?[3] In other words, how might we live with both familiarity and mystery, with recognition and doubt? And what might it mean that in the absence of Jesus, it is the presence of the Spirit who makes life meaningful?

Luke tells the story of those who have bet their lives on the wrong messiah. And so, confused as much as anything about the recent events birthed in Jerusalem’s corridors of power but played out on a cross outside of Jerusalem’s walls and around Joseph of Arimathea’s ‘rock-hewn tomb’ (Luke 23.53), these two hit one of the ancient city’s outbound roads and head to Emmaus, a village about 11 kilometers from Jerusalem. Like the others, these two sorry disciples are heading back to fishing nets, back to tax offices, back to missed appointments, back to familiar territory, back to how things were before Jesus interrupted their lives. Carrying their bag of unanswered questions with them, they are on the road that will return them to what T.S. Eliot called ‘the human condition’, a condition marked by the maintenance of a ‘common routine’ and an avoidance of ‘excessive expectation’.[4]

They confess in v. 21: ‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’. That hope is now gone. It is hope in the past tense. This story is about those who have held on to Jesus’ message, but whose lives are now in limbo because God’s plan seems to have run out of steam. It’s about those of us who can’t quite get our minds around Easter. And it’s about those who mourn in post-Christendom bewilderment, wondering how God’s promises relate to the relentlessness of institutional decline.

And as we read this text together, we’re tempted to keep our eyes on the two disciples, tracing their movement towards hope and faith. But Luke turns the spotlight onto Jesus. It is Jesus’ actions which provide the impetus for the narrative. And Jesus’ first action is simple but profound. We read in v. 15 that Jesus simply ‘came near and went with them’. It’s an unremarkable sentence, until we remember that this is just 10 verses after the resurrection. Here is Jesus, fresh from the domain of death, out on a dusty road, still seeking and saving the lost. Frederick Buechner says of this text:

You’d have expected a little more post-resurrection fanfare – an angel choir filling the sky with a Hallelujah chorus perhaps. But instead, Jesus is pursuing two sad pilgrims on a dusty road to a little village out back of beyond. He comes in the middle of all their questions. It’s the sheer ordinariness of it all that is so striking.

What a stunning reminder that God is both closer and stranger than we think. As Buechner put it,

Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but … at supper time, or walking along a road. This is the element that all the stories about Christ’s return to life have in common: Mary waiting at the empty tomb and suddenly turning around to see somebody standing there – someone she thought at first was the gardener; all the disciples except Thomas hiding out in a locked house, and then his coming and standing in the midst; and later, when Thomas was there, his coming again and standing in the midst; Peter taking his boat back after a night at sea, and there on the shore, near a little fire of coals, a familiar figure asking, “Children, have you any fish?”; the two [people] at Emmaus who knew him in the breaking of the bread. He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks.[5]

Luke places Jesus with us on the road of our confusion, and tiredness, and frustration, and discouragement, and cynicism – when every ounce of hope has been wrung out of us, and his presence alone is all we have left. And even though we don’t really know who he is, we let him talk, and his words begin to peel away the calluses on our unbelieving hearts.

‘Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’, Jesus said. ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ In other words: ‘Where have you been all your life? You go to synagogue every week. What Bible have you been reading? Don’t you know your own story? Don’t you remember how, in the economy of God, that even death is no obstacle to God’s determination to bring life to every citadel where death reigns? Maybe those women spouting stories about an empty tomb aren’t so crazy after all’.[6]

But the rebuke is only the beginning! Jesus then walks these pilgrims through Moses and all the prophets. Just as he had done in his hometown synagogue, and just as Philip would do a few years later with an Ethiopian seeker, Jesus directs them to the Scriptures. Why? Because Scripture is the cradle in which we hear the living voice of God.[7] And to hear that voice is to know something of what the two Emmaus pilgrims experienced – our hearts burning within with the very life of God.

And their response? From v. 28:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (vv. 28–31).

The disciples on the road fail to recognise him, even in the Bible study. And when they do finally recognise him at the cracking of bread crust, Luke tells us that he ‘vanished from their sight’.[8] It’s easy to miss these few words. The moment of recognition lasts just long enough to surprise, to remind, to reassure, and to release vision and energy enough for a lifetime. Like those first disciples, we too wish he would stay longer, we long for more permanence. Yet, whatever else faith is, it cannot be chronic certainty.[9] Jesus refuses to be contained by us. Even when he makes himself known, he remains strangely elusive, free of our attempts to constrain him, to shape him into our image, to enlist his support for our own cultural, theological and political agendas. And he rejects all our attempts to create an image of an unbroken, impartial and unambiguous God. Jesus will not have us live by sight. The constituents of Easter faith are wonder and surprise, risk and trust, voluntary vulnerability, and contentment with hints of truth and glimpses of glory. That walk to Emmaus could have left the disciples where they were – bewildered, resentful, and at a loose end. But a stranger drew near, and he walked with them, and won confidence enough to not only speak, but to be listened to, and on being asked to stay longer he welcomed their welcome, and shared their meal.[10]

And this brings us to another thing to notice: Recall the first meal in the Bible.[11] ‘The woman took some of the fruit, and ate it; she gave it to her husband, and he ate it; then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (Gen 3.6–7). And now Luke is describing the first meal of the new creation: ‘When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight’. The resemblances here are startling. But what is more astonishing is that the couple at Emmaus discover – through the breaking open of Scripture and in the breaking open of bread[12] – that in Jesus the Christ, the long curse has been broken, that God’s new creation, brimming with life and joy and unforeseen possibility, has burst in upon the world of decay and death and sorrow.

But this table fellowship does not erase the memory of the past, so much as recall the way that in Jesus Christ the entirety of our history – with its shame, betrayal and failure – is gathered up in the reconciling love of God made concrete in Jesus Christ. So Rowan Williams notes how, for both St John and St Luke, the resurrection meals

echo specific occasions of crisis, misunderstanding, illusion and disaster. They “recover” not only the memory of table-fellowship, but the memory of false hope, betrayal and desertion, of a past in which ignorance and pride and the rejection of Jesus’ account of his destiny in favour of power-fantasies of their own led the disciples into their most tragic failure, their indirect but real share in the ruin of their Lord. Yet Jesus, even as he sees their rejection taking shape, nonetheless gives himself to his betrayers in the breaking of bread. The resurrection meals restore precisely that poignant juxtaposition of his unfailing grace and their rejection, distortion and betrayal of it.[13]

Here, Word and Sacrament redefine life for us, challenging our assumptions about Jesus, and about his message of radical love rather than revenge for our enemies, because it is only as we love that we see the nature of the God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6.35).[14] ‘Oh, how foolish … and how slow of heart’ the world has been this week to hear this message. To claim Easter faith is to claim the great alternative to the way of death. Easter faith recognises God’s passion for the life of every person threatened by death. And Easter faith participates in love’s process by getting up out of the apathy of misery and out of the cynicism of prosperity, and fighting against death’s accomplices – the economic death of the person we allow to starve; the political death of those who are oppressed; the social death of the handicapped and the refugee; the noisy death that strikes through tomahawk missiles and torture chambers; and the soundless death of the apathetic soul. This is the protest for life that the Word and Table call us to, and equip us for, and keep us from turning to death’s tools to accomplish, and from losing heart.[15]

The promise of this text in Luke is that Jesus will meet his beloved through the opening up of Scripture and ‘in the breaking of the bread’. There is no hocus pocus here, as if Scripture and Holy Communion are some magical elements by which we can manipulate God. Rather, there is only the promise of the God who in the freedom of love confronts us again and again and again in Jesus Christ, leading us into God’s future, and joining us wherever we read the Bible and share bread and wine together.

I finish with a poem:

We walked into the sunset
brooding our deep loss,
sure that the best days of our lives
lay dead behind us.

We talked around the rumours
spread by our small group,
but feared to embrace the good news
lest it be false hope.

A stranger then overtook us,
travelling our road,
he unfolded the truths and loves
our grief had betrayed.

Our hearts trembled within us
for the faith we’d lost,
we reached an inn at sundown
wanting to break fast.

We sat at table together
to share cheese and bread,
he took up the loaf and broke it
and out danced the dead![16]


[1] The eruption of newness in which we find ourselves is itself birthed by an event entirely original and unpredictable and even inconceivable. The resurrection of the dead Jesus is an event which so shatters all of our explanatory categories that no one story, no one account, can adequately capture what it means. Whether we think of the story in John’s gospel about the resurrected Jesus penetrating locked doors, or of Matthew’s description of earthquakes and of frightened soldiers, of resurrected bodies coming out of the tombs and entering Jerusalem en masse, or this account in Luke’s Gospel. In contrast to Matthew and John, Luke has no resurrection appearance at the sight of the tomb. See Christopher F. Evans, Saint Luke (London: SCM Press, 2008), 901–4. The NT communities are straining to find words to adequately bear witness to an event about which words betray their limit. So Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978), 107: ‘There is not any way to explain the resurrection out of the previously existing reality. The resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God whose province it is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair’. But of the fact that the early disciples are amazed and eager to bear witness to the things that they had seen and heard concerning Jesus there can be no question. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the themes of perception and response play such a central role throughout Luke’s Gospel. And even in this chapter, we see that despite the clarity of Jesus’ prophecies, the empty tomb leads to mixed evaluations. It seems that it is only with the direct intervention of Jesus in the Emmaus scene that the possibility of truly seeing who Jesus is is strengthened. See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, et al.; The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 841.

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 418. The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that ‘if the gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s resurrection, faith would be easier for me’. I think that Weil was challenging the common but shallow assumption that the resurrection makes life easier for those who believe. It doesn’t. For one of the realties that the NT paints is that the reaction to the news that ‘Christ is risen!’ suggests not confirmation and relief but disturbance and disorientation. Those first disciples were like the walking wounded after an explosion, and their subsequent witness was as overwhelmed as it was overwhelming. That’s why those courtroom-inspired ‘proofs’ of the resurrection are so misconceived and insipid. They not only fail to resolve the insurmountable literary and historical problems of the Gospel texts, but they turn the irreducibly mysterious into the demonstrable and manageable, as if the resurrection were under our control and for our consolation. See Marva J. Dawn, ‘”Behold! It Came to Pass,” Luke 24:13–35 – The Third Sunday of Easter’, Journal for Preachers 28, no. 3 (2005).

[3] On the journey metaphor in Luke see James L. Resseguie, Spiritual Landscape: Images of the Spiritual Life in the Gospel of Luke (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004).

[4] T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950), 139: ‘The condition to which some who have gone as far as you/Have succeeded in returning. They may remember/The vision they have had, but they cease to regret it,/Maintain themselves by the common routine,/Learn to avoid excessive expectation’.

[5] Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 77; cf. Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 86–7: ‘There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not recognize him … See [your life] for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace’.

[6] Corbin Eddy, Who Knows the Reach of God?: Homilies and Reflections for Year A (Toronto: Novalis, 2001), 142. Modified.

[7] To be sure, Scripture, like every gift of God, can be misused – whether to claim the superiority of one race or ethnic group over another, or to propagate anti-Semitism, or to sanction horrendous acts of violence and ethnic cleansing, or to justify the subordination of women to men and related acts of domestic violence. But received rightly, it is in Scripture that we hear the very voice of love. See René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 278: ‘Western culture as a whole, whether Christian or post-Christian, … is moving further and further away from Christ … It is struggling to rid itself of Christ for good. But at the very point when it is under the impression of moving in quite a different direction, Christ is to be found beside it, as he has been for a long time, “opening the Scriptures”’.

[8] See Buechner, A Room Called Remember 7–8: ‘[Christ] is our shepherd, but the chances are we will never feel his touch except as we are touched by the joy and pain and holiness of our own life and each other’s lives. He is our pilot, our guide, our true, fast, final friend and judge, but often when we need him most, he seems farthest away because he will always have gone on ahead, leaving only the faint print of his feet on the path to follow. And the world blows leaves across the path. And branches fall. And darkness falls. We are, all of us, Mary Magdalene, who reached out to him at the end only to embrace the empty air. We are the ones who stopped for a bite to eat that evening at Emmaus and, as soon as they saw who it was that was sitting there at the table with them, found him vanished from their sight’.

[10] That Jesus longs to share his hospitality – the hospitality of the Triune God – with us there can be no doubt. That he does so through Scripture and Holy Communion is the testimony of a Church two millennia old. That the hospitality of God might be the hospitality of travelling strangers becomes the doorway to grace. And here in Luke’s telling, the willingness of this stranger on the road to enter the space of another – our space, our history, our limitation – recalls a level of trust and hope almost entirely foreign to us. That Cleopas and his companion welcome this stranger into their home expresses a deep vulnerability. And yet it is precisely in this moment of encounter, this moment of tangible love that embraces the brokenness of betrayal and the fragility of human hope, that the rays of Easter sunlight come burning away the frost that has rotted the human mind and made cold the human heart. And weary travellers are revived, and their hearts renewed.

[11] See N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 296–8.

[12] A key word here is ‘revelation’. ‘Revelation is’, as one writer put it, ‘the clue that enables one to put together the disparate experiences of life into a meaningful, coherent whole, to see a pattern and purpose in human history, to overcome the incongruities between what life is and what life ought to be’. John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 30.

[13] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 39–40.

[14] This point is well made in John Howard Yoder, Nonviolence: A Brief History. The Warsaw Lectures (ed. Paul Martens, et al.; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 89.

[15] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless: The Word of Liberation for Today (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 123–6. For all kinds of reasons Luke’s Emmaus narrative of that troubled journey and its resolution, touches into those deep places of our human experience, those parts of our journey that are also troubled, from which we don’t emerge unscathed or unchanged. But in the breaking of bread, the Guest becomes the Host, our eyes see, and our souls are fed – and life is nourished again towards wholeness. So Walter Brueggemann, Living the Word: How Do We Practice an Easter Life? [nd (cited 30 April 2011)]; Online: http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj1105&article=how-do-we-practice-an-easter-life: ‘The walk with the risen Christ is an ongoing process of having our anxiety transformed in faith, and our despair transformed in hope. While our anxious, despairing world is inevitably self-destructive, the church alternatively lives in buoyant faith and daring hope that issues forth in an emancipated life in the world’.

[16] Bruce Prewer, ‘Emmaus’ in Beyond Words: Reflections on the Gospel of Luke (Melbourne: The Joint Board of Christian Education, 1995), 62.

Herbert McCabe: ‘Human words become God’s Word’

Back in 2001, for the Feast of Corpus Christi, Herbert McCabe O.P., delivered a fascinating sermon on the Eucharist. It was titled ‘Human words become God’s Word’. It reads:

‘The eucharist is about the way we are with each other, about our unity. This is obvious from its shape, a ritual meal, an eating and drinking together, to say we share one life.

Now it is not just an ordinary ritual meal, but a sacramental ritual meal, because it expresses the mystery of our unity. It is plain that the eucharist is not a meal any more than baptism is taking a shower. It ought not to look like an occasion when hungry people come to eat and drink. It is a token meal, when something is said. The bread and wine are there for symbolism, not nourishment, though of course they wouldn’t have their symbolism if they weren’t food and drink.

A purely ritual meal in which all share a token portion of bread and wine is purely symbolic, a piece of language, a word. It is not because the eucharist is a sacrament that bread and wine become signs: they are already signs in a perfectly ordinary way. To see the eucharist as a sacrament is to see it as symbolic not just of our human friendship or of the human mystery within it, but of the unfathomable mystery within and beyond it, of community in the Spirit of God.

We cannot express this unity in the Spirit in the same signs with which we symbolise human friendship; they have to be transformed into a new language. We can attempt to express the depth of human relationships in human words, but they cannot adequately express our relationship in the Spirit. Only God can speak of God: to express this unity we need not just human speech but God’s speech. That is what it is for the eucharist to be a sacrament: what on the face of it are human words deepen into God’s Word, which speaks the unfathomable mystery of his love in which we share.

The eucharist is also the sacrament of the human body of Christ. The Word by which God’s love is made present amongst us is not in the first place words, but a human being of flesh and blood, not an idea about God, but the enacted life-story of Jesus of Nazareth. When we say God’s Word expresses our unity in the Spirit in the eucharist, we mean that language used for our love for each other is no longer just human words of bread and wine, but the divine Word-made-flesh, the real body and blood of Christ.

This is the difference between Catholic teaching and the idea that bread and wine are human symbols expressing what Christ does for us. Catholics say that this cannot be expressed except in God’s language; it can only be spoken by God’s speaking his Word, the bodily reality of Jesus. It is not just that our language is now used to speak of Christ, but Christ himself, the Word, is now our language: our words, symbolic bread and wine, have become Christ, the flesh and blood of God’s Word.

So while to one without faith we seem to be dealing simply in human symbols, we know that that is only to look at appearances. In reality it is the body and blood of God’s Word, his whole humanity, that is the sign of our unity in the Spirit. When we eat his body and drink his blood, we speak and hear God’s Word telling of our divine friendship, just as when we share human food we speak a human word of human friendship.

Finally, the eucharist is the sacrament of a body broken and blood shed. Jesus’ life-story was completed in his execution. His obedience to his mission to be truly human meant that we, the world, killed him. Because of the disunited world we have made, the Word takes flesh that is tortured and killed. The divine language and sacrament of our unity is Christ’s body broken and blood shed.

This feast of friendship celebrates the cross. This friendship the world will hate and it belongs to those in solidarity with the victims of the world, and expects only suffering and death. The sacrament of love is also sacrament of death – Christ’s death through which we come to a new life in the love which is the Holy Spirit, in which we shall live for eternity’.

On the ‘expository sermon’

On Monday, I posted from Dietrich Ritschl’s book A Theology of Proclamation, a volume that I recently had reason to return to again. One of the things that I love about this book is the way that Ritschl understands the Word as the dynamic God in the free act of gracious self-unveiling through human speech and deed. God’s Word, through Jesus’ presence in the Spirit, becomes entangled with our word which, by grace, is ‘of no less authority than [God’s] own Word’ (pp. 67-8). He cites 1 Thessalonians 2.13 [‘We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers’] in support of this claim, and then proceeds to note the cruciality of the claim regarding Jesus’ presence in the Spirit:

‘This is not just a “theological formula”. If we left it out, we would have a Word of God that is separated from God; we would make God the prisoner of our thoughts or theologies. We would have a Word with which we could operate, a Word we could “use”, a Word we could judge. But it could not be the Word of God, the Word which operates with us, uses us, and judges us. Our work in the Church, therefore, can only be a service to this one life-giving Word of God. The clearest expression of this truth is the fact that there is no other way to preach than to preach an “expository sermon”, and even this is not a guarantee’.

Some encouragement for preachers: Dietrich Ritschl on the sermon

‘The Word of the sermon is indeed a new Word and not a repetition of last Sunday’s sermon, but this does not mean that each sermon devaluates or extinguishes the previous sermons. If this were so, the New Testament could never speak about a “Church” and Paul could never refer to the message he had brought before … This is true because Jesus Christ’s presence among His people does not consist of appearances discontinuous in time, i.e., which occur …

‘The presence of Christ in the sermon is nothing less than the presence of the eternal Father who speaks in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit His very own Word of judgment and consolation, life and light; but it happens according to the secret of the ubi et quando visum est deo, the free decision of God to reveal Himself wherever and whenever He decides. The identification between God’s Word and the word of the human witness is under no circumstances the work of man, but always the free work of God’.

– Dietrich Ritschl, A Theology of Proclamation (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960), 72, 73, 77.

‘This is my truth. Tell me yours’: A Sermon on 2 Timothy 2.8–19

A guest post by Jono Ryan.

What do you believe to be true? About the meaning of your life? About the meaning of death? About the existence of God, and the relationship of this God to our fragile world? What do we believe to be true? For most of the generations that have preceded us in faith, questions and statements of belief were of great importance—worth dying for, or even worth killing for. On occasion, we may wonder whether our Christian forebears took these questions too seriously, but it seems that in our day, we have gone to the other extreme. For within the church these days, the question of “what it is that we believe” can seem an arbitrary and ambivalent one.

About ten years ago, a British indie rock band named the ‘Manic Street Preachers’ released an album entitled: “This is my truth. Tell me yours.” The album title wasn’t so much provocative as it was ironic, and captures well our engagement with questions of truth within the church. Sometimes I think we approach the question of “what we believe” like the pick-n-mix section of the supermarket: we wander along the aisle with our bag and little scoop, maybe passing over this passage of scripture, and that teaching of Jesus but taking a little of that one, and a little of this one until we find a personal, customized blend that meets our appetite for the day. The world is created by God? One scoop. This God is good and loving? Two scoops. This God was revealed in Jesus Christ? Half a scoop? Jesus Christ was crucified, and resurrected on the third day? Christ will one day return, bringing creation to completion? Perhaps I’ll pass on those ones … but I’ve found something that works for me. The question of what is true is based upon what we find intellectually plausible, or emotionally appealing—whatever works for us. This is my truth. Tell me yours.

This album title may capture well our attitude to truth, but I think it’s fair to say, however, that the apostle Paul doesn’t have the Manics on his iPod as he is writing to Timothy here. We recall from last week that this is a pastoral letter: Paul is writing to encourage Timothy, to challenge and to coach him in his personal life of discipleship and ministry. And central to this pastoral care is the question of belief—of what it is that Timothy  believes, and what he subsequently teaches to others. It’s clear that Paul is taking quite a different tack here. The word of truth, Paul insists, must be “rightly explained.” And he claims that to “swerve from the truth,” as some church leaders like Hymenaeus and Philetus have, will instead produce gangrenous effects throughout the community, a rotting away of the body of Christ. It seems that Paul cannot say, “this is my truth, tell me yours,” for the truth of which Paul speaks is clearly something more than pick’n’mix personal preference; this is a truth grounded in something more substantial; it stands firm.

At this point, we might be inclined to simply dismiss Paul as being a closed-minded conservative, but let’s not forget that, while once he was certainly a narrow-minded dogmatic, since being confronted by Christ on the Damascus Road, his whole belief system has been blown apart. In Christ, he has discovered a truth that required his understanding to be rebuilt, piece by piece, as he learnt anew what it means to live rightly before God. And as part of this renewing of Paul’s mind, Paul has been challenging others to broaden their horizons, Jews and Christians alike.

But for all this broadening of horizons, here Paul is directing Timothy to the centre, to the fundamental truths so central to Christian identity. It would be easy for us to think that, in giving this teaching, Paul is saying “here is the truth,” “here is the correct statement”, as if the truth was something that could be learned by rote. But this would suggest that “the truth” was simply a matter of words—precisely what Paul is opposed to, when he warns us to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good, but only ruins those who are listening.” Words and statements of belief are important—indeed, Paul has devoted much of his life to them—but in the Christian tradition, truth is a person, not a statement. “I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the life,” Jesus said. To be a Christian is to confess firstly that in Jesus Christ, God is revealed; that in Jesus Christ, we see what is truly true: about God, ourselves, and about the world God has created. For Christians, the truth or falsity of anything else we might say or do is revealed in relation to Jesus Christ.

Perhaps we can appreciate then, why Paul urges Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ.” Paul would not undergo suffering for a doctrinal statement. He wouldn’t become a prisoner for a good idea. But for the person of Jesus Christ, for the truth Paul has encountered in Jesus Christ, he will willingly undergo hardship, even the injustice of being locked away for his faith.

The teaching Paul gives then, directs Timothy towards the person, the truth of Jesus Christ. In doing so, he quotes a statement of faith—“this saying is sure” he says. But like any statement of faith, it is sure, not because of its theological rigour, but because of its faithfulness in directing us toward Jesus Christ, the one in whom we can be sure. And this is certainly true of the saying Paul quotes, for in every phrase, we are linked up with Jesus Christ:

“If we have died with Christ, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful
—for he cannot deny himself.”

This saying is an important encouragement for Timothy’s own life of discipleship. However, this “word of truth” is also of vital importance for those around him too: this word of truth must be “rightly explained” to others, Paul urges, for those whose teaching has “swerved from the truth” has upset the faith of many in Timothy’s community. Paul’s concern is not to get everyone to conform, to tow the party line, but rather a pastoral one, because he can see that this misleading teaching has “upset the faith” of many, and is becoming like gangrene, eating away at the body of Christ. We need only consider the effect of the “health and wealth” gospel, or the way the gospel has been used to oppress women, to be reminded of the negative impact of untruthful teaching in the church. Drawing this community back to the truth of Christ, then, is not so much an exercise in doctrine as it is an important exercise of pastoral care, something we see in each of these four lines Paul quotes from this “sure saying”.

Firstly, “If we have died with Christ, we will also live with Christ.” Pastorally, there may be those who think that the Christian life is solely about sacrifice and dying to self, leading them to the point of despair. Alternatively, there may be those who are all about “new life in Christ,” but have no idea that following Christ will always be a costly decision. Here, then, we are reminded of the central truth of our Christian identity: that in baptism, our lives are woven into the life of Jesus Christ, the one who suffered death, and was resurrected to new life. For some of us, there is a challenge here: “if we have died with Christ, we will also live with Christ.” For in following Jesus, all of us are required to shoulder a cross, to be willing to die to our own ambition and self-interest. But there is also a great encouragement, for these moments of dying to self-interest, and of physical death itself, are all bound up in the cross of Christ, and if we have participated in this death, how much more will we participate in this life of Christ. Whatever it may have cost us, we have much to be hopeful for.

Second line: “If we endure, we will also reign with Christ.” Pastorally, perhaps Timothy or others around him were finding the Christian life too hard, discouraged by opposition or distractions. Or perhaps also there were those who didn’t find it hard enough—who assumed that the Christian life was one of ease and comfort. Paul reminds him, “If we endure, we will also reign with Christ.” We know from the gospels that Jesus, the King of kings, did not receive much by way of royal treatment. Rather, in embracing the frailty of human life, Christ’s journey was a difficult one, requiring endurance, even to the point of death. However, it was by walking this path that the power and authority of Christ was displayed. For us, perseverance is required in the Christian journey. It is a long road, and it will sometimes be difficult, but we are encouraged to persevere, because “if we endure, we also will reign with Christ”.

Third line: “If we deny Christ, Christ will also deny us.” This might trouble us, but the pastoral relevance of this teaching becomes clearer when we consider the trouble that the likes of Hymenaeus and Philetus are stirring up with their dodgy teaching. The truth of Christ we are reminded of here is that, despite our attempts to create a huggy sort of Jesus, Jesus did not shy away from confronting his opponents. “Whoever denies me before others,” he said, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” It is a matter of some consequence whether we decide to seek the truth, or swerve from the truth, and particularly when, like Hymenaeus and Philetus, we have been charged with responsibility and leadership for others in the faith. Those who are outspoken in their opposition to the lordship of Christ will be confronted.

We need to weigh this warning, however, against the closing line, which breaks with the pattern of the first three lines. For until now, these lines have started with our actions, and moved to their consequence. But here: “If we are faithless, Christ remains faithful—for Christ cannot deny himself.” Pastorally, this is an urgently needed truth for Timothy and his peers. For do not all of us struggle to be faithful to God? What if we don’t have enough faith? What if we stuff up, and make mistakes? This “sure saying” culminates in an important encouragement: that Christ is the faithful one—that while we will ebb and flow, it is the very character of God to be faithful and trustworthy. Ultimately, our relationship with God is not grounded in our flaky attempts at faith, but in Christ’s enduring faithfulness. This closing line reminds us, then, that the truth Paul is directing us toward is not simply a slogan to memorise, or words to wrangle over. The truth that Paul urges Timothy toward is the truth of God’s character, the truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

A pick’n’mix truth that is simply the sum of our appetites and personal preferences has no ability to change and transform us, to call us on to anything new. Such a truth simply reinforces these chains that bind us. But as Paul reminds us, even though he himself is in chains, the word of God is not chained. As we read in John’s gospel, when we encounter Jesus, we encounter the truth, and this truth will set us free. Encountering the truth of Jesus Christ has significant consequences for our life, and the life we share together. For this is a truth that is life-changing, life-demanding, and life-giving, a truth Paul challenges Timothy to take seriously, and a truth that demands our attention also. Amen.

Richard Hays on ‘Limping and Praising’: An ordination sermon

richard-haysHere’s a sermon preached by the Rev. Richard Hays for the ordination of his son, the Rev. Christopher Hays, at La Crescenta Presbyterian Church, La Crescenta, Calif., on March 8, 2009.

Texts: Genesis 32:9-1122-30Colossians. 1:9-14Revelation 4:10-5:10

I have to admit, I didn’t always see this coming. But having watched Chris grow up, I realize now that I probably should have anticipated this day, because there is a pattern here.

When Chris was five years old, there was that classic pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, the one that ended in a one-game playoff won by the Yankees on Bucky Dent’s home run. Chris watched his longsuffering dad desperately rooting for his beloved Red Sox – and he decided to become a Yankees fan.

Later, when Chris began to feel the inexorable pull of vocation to the serious academic study of theology, he sized up his father’s career as a New Testament scholar – and decided to assert his intellectual independence by going into the field of Old Testament studies.

And so, when the time came that Chris felt God’s powerful call to ordained ministry, it was probably inevitable that he would take note of his dad’s service as a United Methodist minister and once again rebel against the paternal example – by being ordained in the PC(USA). And so we find ourselves here this evening … to celebrate this latest contrarian act of rebellion.

To be fair, I should acknowledge that Chris comes by his Calvinist inclinations with an honest sense of family roots. His proud mother was a cradle Presbyterian and indeed served as an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of New Haven during Chris’s formative adolescent years. And even his Methodist father harbors the secret opinion that Calvin and Barth got a lot of things right.

The truth is, of course, that all of us are here to celebrate this glad occasion with great joy, along with the due sense of awe that always attends any service of ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament in the church of Jesus Christ. We are here to solemnize the particular call that lies on Chris’s life and to confirm publicly the office he now assumes within the church. But at the same time, we are mindful that ministry is first and last the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, and that all of us, as the people of God, are called in one way or another to share in the work of ministry through the diverse gifts and graces which the Spirit distributes broadly among us all. And so, as we reflect together on the Scriptural texts and on the prayers and liturgical actions through which we set Chris apart for this work, each of us here should also prayerfully consider our own calling and renew our own sense of vocation, whatever it may be, within the church’s ministry.

But as we enter that process of prayerful consideration, we have to acknowledge that the Scriptural texts Chris has chosen for this occasion are more than a little daunting. Interestingly, none of them says anything at all about ordination or about ministry as such. The letter to the Colossians is addressed to all “the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae,” (Colossians 1:2) and it speaks to all of them, together, as people who have been “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13) And we get the distinct impression from our other two texts that being transferred into that kingdom is both a cause for joy and – at the same time – a strange and fearsome experience, as love always is. I want to reflect with you tonight about these two strange texts from the beginning and end of the canon, from Genesis and Revelation. What do they have to teach us about ministry?

We begin with Jacob. From the day of his birth, he was a trickster and an operator, grabbing and scrambling, figuring the angles to outsmart and outmaneuver his brother Esau – indeed, cutting a deal to swindle him out of his rightful inheritance – then later jockeying for economic advantage with his equally devious father-in-law, Laban. You can bet that if the banking business had existed in his day (it was actually forbidden by Old Testament law – but that’s a topic for another day), Jacob would have been packaging derivatives and collecting sweet executive bonuses. But – as is always the case – the day of reckoning was coming. After long absence, Jacob is returning home, preparing to face his estranged brother Esau, whom he had defrauded. And it is under these circumstances that he meets God.

God does not come to him as some sweet, forgiving presence. Rather, under the cloak of darkness, God comes as a mysterious adversary, appearing from nowhere to accost Jacob in a wrestling match. The struggle is lengthy and inconclusive, but Jacob hangs on for dear life, refuses to let go without receiving a blessing. And the blessing he receives includes a new name: Israel – the one who strives with God. The name Israel recalls a protracted struggle in the dark – a struggle that leaves Israel lame, permanently limping as a reminder of surviving a strange face-to-face encounter with God.

What does all that have to do with ministry? First, if Jacob/Israel is our precursor as one who first receives and then finally gives blessings (and surely that is not a bad description of what we do in ministry), then we should remember that we don’t deserve what we get or get what we deserve. Why does God choose Jacob as the one through whom the line of promised blessing is to extend? God knows … but it certainly wasn’t because Jacob was more devout or virtuous than others around him. One of the particular charisms you Calvinists bring to the church universal is the gift of depravity. You remind us constantly that we receive God’s grace despite our total unworthiness. That’s not a popular message in an age that prizes self-esteem, but it is, simply put, the gospel. That is what Paul means when he characterizes God as the one who “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). God chose Jacob to become Israel for reasons we cannot begin to fathom. Just before this midnight encounter, you will recall, Jacob had rightly prayed, “I am unworthy of the steadfast love and all the faithfulness you have shown to your servant” (Genesis 32:10). And so it is also with those who are called to ministry – not just Chris, but all of us here.

richard-hays-1

Precisely for that reason, the encounter with God as Genesis 32 describes it is a fearsome one. If we unworthy servants are to be transferred from the power of darkness, that means God is going to have to come after us in the dark. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see it couldn’t be any other way. And it also means that ministry has its genesis in a struggle. Those who encounter God in the dark will be not only changed but also marked, left with the wound created by God’s wrenching us out of one life and blessing us with a new one. And this God who wrenches us free may well have a dreadful aspect.

Such a God cannot be lightly named. Jacob asks the name of his adversary, but the only reply he receives is this: “Why do you ask my name?” What kind of an answer is that? In the book of Judges, there is a similar passage that may give us a clue. The angel of the Lord appears to Samson’s mother and father to proclaim that they are at last, after years of barrenness, to have a child. They too ask the messenger’s name, and this is his answer: “Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful” (Judges 13:18). So also with the divine figure who wrestles with Jacob: His name is too wonderful to be spoken. And thus Jacob comes to realize with whom he has been wrestling: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Those called to the work of ministry will emerge from such an encounter limping and chastened, knowing that our words are inadequate, that we are not sufficient for these things. But we also will know that the God whom we serve, the God who has graciously and inexplicably called and blessed us, is wonderful beyond all telling.

And with that we turn to our other text from the Book of Revelation. Those saints casting down their crowns around the heavenly throne know well the wonder of God. The God they worship is worthy “to receive glory and honor and power,” for this is the God who has created all things. This word “worthy” echoes through the whole passage. The Lord God on the throne is worthy, but no one else can be found who is worthy to open the scroll.

Now, I don’t know for sure why Chris chose this text for his ordination service, but I do know this: For those of us in the business of biblical scholarship, there is nothing more enticing than an unopened scroll with hidden writing on it. You could build a whole career on the basis of finding something like that. But apart from any career-building concerns, we are just dying with curiosity – holy curiosity, if I may say so – to find out what might be in that sealed scroll. This scroll, it seems, contains the revelation of God’s hidden designs for all history. So we go to school for years and study Greek and Hebrew, or even Akkadian and Ugaritic, in hopes that we might be deemed prepared and worthy to read that mysterious text. But the seer John is insistent: “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look into it” – not even if they have a Ph.D. in Old Testament. And so he weeps bitterly. You have to understand how frustrating this would be: all those years of study, all this vast erudition – it all comes to nothing. No one is worthy.

There is only one, it turns out, who is worthy to open the scroll that hides the secrets of creation, the one whom one of the heavenly elders calls “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.” And so we are expecting a glorious, roaring figure to appear and break open the seals. But then John looks, and what does he see? “A Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered.” The heavenly chorus proclaims in their new song that only this one is worthy to open the scroll. Why? Not because he is smarter than everyone else, not because he commands an army, but precisely because he has been slaughtered. And by his blood he has ransomed a great throng from all over the world and “made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.”

So again, I ask, what does this have to do with ministry? As it turns out, everything. We constantly live with the illusion that our effectiveness in ministry, our fitness for the job, will have something to do with our intellectual acuity, our level of dedication and hard work, our interpersonal skills, our passion for justice. The book of Revelation punctures that illusion with a simple devastating pronouncement: No one was found worthy. It is only the slain Lamb who can be the revealer. If Jacob was marked by a limp, this Lamb is marked by the wounds of the cross. Only so does he open what is otherwise hidden, and only so does he make us into priests serving our God.

What, then, is our role in ministry? Chiefly, above all else, it is to follow the Lamb wherever he goes and to join the great heavenly chorus, singing – perhaps to music composed by Handel – “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” Praise is our vocation. It is in blessing God that we in turn are blessed. As the Reformed tradition confesses, our chief end – and our fulfillment – is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. That is why it is fitting that our first hymn today offers up this prayer: “Come thou fount of every blessing,/ Tune my heart to sing thy grace,/ Streams of mercy, never ceasing,/ Call for songs of loudest praise.”

“Tune my heart.” Just as the tuning of a guitar is different from the tuning of a violin or the tuning of a piano, for each of us it will mean something slightly different to have our hearts rightly tuned for praise. For Chris, being rightly tuned for praise will indeed mean opening books, including those Ugaritic books, and sharing with students snatches of the mysterious melody of creation and redemption. That is at least part of the unfinished song he has been given. Much of the rest of it remains to be disclosed and played later.

So, as we wrestle with these texts, they press upon us this understanding of ministry: We are unworthy of the blessings we receive and the tasks to which we are called, limping as we go. The heart of our service is simply to worship faithfully, to declare the praise of the God who spoke us into being and rescued us from the power of darkness by the self-giving death of the One who is worthy: the Lamb. All else will follow from that.

Only when we understand ministry in this way can we join together in praying for Chris the prayer that Paul offers for the Colossians:

“… May you walk worthily of the Lord … as you bear fruit in every good work, and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”

[Source: Faith & Leadership]

Forsyth on the current claptrap against theology

forsyth-13‘It is doubtful if anywhere so much ability is going to seed as in the pulpit, if so much toil, ingenuity, intelligence, and feeling are being wasted anywhere as in the thousands of sermons that go to their drawers as to their last cradle and long home, week by week, to haunt as feckless ghosts the preacher’s soul. Hence the restlessness that is observable in the ministry in various quarters, the sense of ineffectiveness, the desire to try a new soil with the same seed, in the hope that the Spirit may at last reward the effort and bring back His sheaves with Him. But it is not a change of sphere that is required most. That may but foment the unquiet, or else become the soul’s narcotic, It is a change of note that is needed, and a change that no new place can bring. If the lack is power, the cause of the lack is the absence of a definite, positive, and commanding creed which holds us far more than we hold it, holds us by the conscience, founds and feeds us on the eternal reality, and, before we can do anything with it, does everything with us. Every Church and every preacher is bound to run down without such a creed, and no amount of humane sympathy or vivid interests can avert the decline. In every direction, the Church is suffering from the inability to know its own spiritual mind, or to strike a stream from its own rock, and from its indisposition to face the situation or its impotence to fathom it. For a generation now we have been preaching that experience is the great thing, and not creed; till we are losing the creed that alone can produce an experience higher than the vagaries of idiosyncrasy, or the nuances of temperament, or the tradition of a group, or the spirit of the age … The current claptrap against theology is only an advertisement of the lack in religion of that passion of spiritual radicalism and mental veracity which will settle nowhere but at the very roots of things, and must draw its strength from the last realities of the soul’s intelligent life. The result of the defect is a vague sense of insecurity as to foundations and an insidious dubiety which, unconsciously to the preacher, conveys itself to his flock, and generates a malaise that nobody can explain’. – PT Forsyth, ‘Veracity, Reality, and Regeneration’, London Quarterly Review 123 (1915), 194, 195.

The Scandal of Weak Leadership: A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 11:16–12:10

herculesSt Hercules Presbyterian Church in Lake Paringa is looking for a new minister. The ad reads:

Minister Required:

  • For a growing, charismatic church with a congregation of diverse backgrounds.
  • Must have strong leadership qualities and the ability to cast vision.
  • Must be an excellent preacher.
  • Needs to demonstrate appropriate spiritual gifts.
  • The ability to interact with influential figures in our local community is a definite advantage.
  • Attractive remuneration package with bonuses available when the church grows (which, of course, it will just as brother Ebenezer received the vision).

This is the sort of ad that I can imagine the church in Corinth writing. How disappointed they must have been when they got Paul! He was not the eloquent speaker for which they had hoped. Instead of providing the ‘strong’ leadership they wanted, he treated them with gentleness. And while he was prepared to teach about spiritual gifts, he hardly ever talked about his own ‘spiritual’ experiences, even less gloat about them. And rather than mixing with the influential, he insulted them. Even worse – he would not take their money!

Instead of getting Arnold Schwarzenegger or Napoleon or Takaroa, in Paul the Corinthians were given a weak, sick, persecuted, afflicted and bruised human being. And then to add insult to injury, Paul had the audacity to tell them that his weakness was actually proof that he was genuine!

What we have come to call 2 Corinthians constitutes Paul’s defence of his apostleship. All through this letter, Paul insists that the appropriate model for Christian ministry is one where divine power is demonstrated in the presence of weakness. He begins in Chapter 1 praising ‘the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction’ (1:3-4). In Chapter 2, he pictures himself as one led in a procession of death for Christ’s sake – not as the great victor of heroic Greek epics, but as the defeated captive of the exploits of worldly power and ambition. And he makes it clear that his presence in such a procession is not due to his own achievement, nor to God’s failure to care for him, but rather is due to God’s victory. And twice in the space of just a few verses (2:17-3:6) Paul tells us that he labors as he does because of his relationship with Christ, and because the focus of Christian ministry is to bear witness to one who was – as Paul tells us later on – ‘crucified in weakness, but who lives as a result of God’s power’ (13:4).

The fact that ministry can only be conducted in God’s power is reiterated again in Chapter 4. Indeed that’s precisely why, Paul says, we should not loose heart (4:1). He is even more explicit in vv. 7-11. Reading from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us – trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us – he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us.

So welcome to Christian ministry. Welcome to the life of the baptised, to the way of God’s reconciling the world to himself in Christ.

shard_potteryThroughout this letter, Paul is up against the criticisms and accusations of those ‘pseudo-apostles’ who consider him weak and inferior. But instead of succumbing to boasting of his family connections and academic qualifications and spiritual experiences, Paul is embarrassed to talk about them. Instead of hiding those things in his life which would make him appear weak and vulnerable, he glories in them, no matter how much it makes him feel ‘a fool’ and ‘out of his mind’ to do so. Instead of putting together a hero’s résumé to impress the great minds of his age, Paul recites the persecutions he has endured, the dangers from which he has only narrowly escaped, and the crippling sense of responsibility that pressurises him every day. ‘Troubles, deprivations and anxieties – that has been my lot’, says Paul. ‘And how do I cope with all that? Do I emerge like some old President, dopey but glowing with self-confidence at the end of each test? No way!’: ‘Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?’ (11:29). ‘In fact, if you really want to know what sort of apostle I am’, Paul says, ‘I am the sort who when the going gets really tough, bails out. In fact, I’ve always been like it. One of the first things I did after I was baptised was to run away’: ‘In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands’. (11:32-33).

And as for that mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’, who knows? The commentators have a field day here: Paul had a theological opponent; Paul had an unbelieving wife; Paul had poor eyesight; Paul had homosexual urges; Paul had malaria – all of which are possibilities, but must remain speculations. Whatever it was, and however much Paul at times wished it removed, it served as a constant reminder to him that the integrity and effectiveness of his ministry would rest not on his worthiness or credentials but on God’s grace. And even though we can’t know what the thorn was, Paul at least tells us why it was given to him and he asserts God’s promise to him that no hindrance would be suffered in his ministry as a result of it:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (12:7-9a)

‘… power is made perfect in weakness’. That’s how v. 9 is usually translated. But the verb used here (teleitai) could equally be translated as ‘brought to an end, finished, done with’. In other words, ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for power is brought to an end in weakness’. Indeed, the context indicates that Paul’s intention was not primarily to comfort people who were weak and suffering, but rather to challenge those obsessed with a particular brand of power. At heart, what Paul bears witness to is the revelation of God’s way with us as the way of paradox – of that recurring Word which warns against overly-optimistic reliance upon techniques or technicians which can intensify or alter creation’s true way of being, as if creation could fulfill and complete itself apart from the action of the initiative-taking God.

Paul’s words invite us to consider a different form of human life and service than that which is often trumpeted by so-called leadership gurus. For when we stand in God’s service, we must be able sometimes, and perhaps for long periods, to be still, to wait, to keep silent, to suffer. This, too, is power. Indeed, it is the power of God, the power of Jesus Christ, the power of the Lamb as well as the Lion, of the cross as well as the resurrection, of humiliation as well as exaltation, of death as well as life. As one theologian put it, the power which comes from God is

the capacity to be high or low, rich or poor, wise or foolish. It is the capacity for success or failure, for moving with the current or against it, for standing in the ranks or for solitariness. For some it will almost always be only the one, for others only the other, but usually it will be both for all of us in rapid alternation. In each case, however, it will be true capacity, the good gift of God, ascribed to each as needed in His service. God demands one service to be rendered in the light, another which can be performed only in shadow … Either way, it is grace, being for each of us exactly that which God causes to be allotted to us.[1]

Indeed, here is grace’s way – of Israel’s birth through a barren womb. Here is grace’s way – of the champion from Gath killed by Jesse’s youngest son. Here is grace’s way – of the Word taking on fallen flesh and stubbornly refusing to be fallen in it. Here is grace’s way – of ostracised women being commissioned as proclaimers of God’s good news. Here is grace’s way – that the deepest revelations of God are not given to the wise and understanding but to infants. Here is grace’s way – that God has a deliberate policy of positive discrimination towards nobodies, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and that the earth will be inherited by the meek. Here is grace’s way – love your enemies and bless those who make life hell for you. Here is grace’s way – of God making foolish and weak the wisdom and power of the world. Here is grace’s way – of God putting his treasure into jars of clay in order to show that God’s all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here is grace’s way – that only in humiliation do we find God exalting us, only in dying do we find God making us alive, only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Here is grace’s way – of power being brought to an end in weakness. Here is grace’s way – that we might actually be more use to God with our thorns than without them. Only when I am weak, am I strong.

chain2Father Mike Buckley once wrote a letter to ordinands who were preparing for ordination. In it he asked them this question: ‘Are you weak enough to be a priest?’ Buckley was taking a shot at the way society commonly evaluates people by listing their strengths. If someone is a capable speaker with an agile mind, we think they’ll make a good lawyer or a persuasive politician. If someone has good judgement, a scientific bent and manual dexterity we decree they’d make a splendid surgeon. And the tendency, Buckley says, for those of us in the church is to transfer this method of evaluation, to line up all the pluses to say that such and such a person would make a good minister.

Buckley says that such a transfer is disastrous because a more crucial question is ‘Is this person weak enough to be a priest?’ That’s a key question that needs to be asked by students training for pastoral ministry. It’s also a question that parish councils need to ask when they are meeting with a prospective minister. Is this person deficient enough that they have not been able to ward off suffering, that they have lived with a certain amount of failure, because it is in this deficiency, in this weakness, in this tasting of temptation, that they become qualified like that great high priest to sympathise with others in their weakness.

So Henri Nouwen reminds us, and with this I finish, that:

The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross … Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest … To come to Christ is to come to the crucified and risen One. The life-giving apostle embodies in himself the crucifixion of Jesus in the sufferings and struggles he endures as he is faithful and obedient to his Lord. So Paul preaches the crucified and risen Jesus, and he embodies the dying of Jesus in his struggles to further point to the Savior. His message is about the cross and his life is cruciform, shaped to look like the cross … I leave you with the image of the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader. May that image fill your hearts with hope, courage, and confidence.[2]


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (trans. A.T. Mackay, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 396-7.

[2] Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 62-3, 70, 73.