Jesus: Less Hero than Human


reflections on Christ - crucifixionMeditation for Good Friday. 

Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razer that leaves your soul to bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need … 

We are required to go deeper, beyond being spectators recalling Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross. The human heart has an affinity with suffering, nevertheless if we go deeper we begin to realize that Good Friday is not about Jesus the noble victim sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. If we just stop there, no matter how thankful we might feel, we fail to see that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by suffering, but by the power of love.

I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our moral, emotional, and spiritual way of being. God invites us to enter into the way of love not by standing back and beckoning us from a distance. In Jesus, God takes the initiative and leads us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for transformation, for it is 

the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live. ….

Entering into the way of love leads us to challenge the status quo and risking the consequences. As a community, it means uncovering and challenging the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture. It means risking loving without expecting acknowledgment. Yet, above all else it means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of being, one step at a time. In this transformation we are God’s collaborators and not merely, grateful children.

When the night has been too lonely, and the road has been too long and you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snows lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose. ….

The meaning of Good Friday lies in accepting entry into the way of the Cross of Christ. This is the way of love, which leads through risking into believing, hoping and loving. This is not a hero’s path, Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On Good Friday, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but by the impossibility for God, of not loving.

The italicized text comes from The Rose by Bette Midler

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzisVBFMMdE

 

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Lazarus, Come Hither!

Previously

Since the second Sunday of Lent we have been journeying with Jesus through the eyes of John the Evangelist, the writer of the Fourth Gospel. John does not follow the same gospel structure, first developed by the Evangelist Mark, and followed with some additions and variations of emphasis, by both Matthew, and Luke.  Instead, John paints a purely theological picture of Jesus. John’s theological picture of Jesus, his identity, and his mission, jumps out at us as he builds his Gospel around  seven stories, offered as stories concerning the Signs of the Kingdom.

Each story is followed by Jesus’ own discursive interpretation as a way of teaching of his disciples. The overarching theme in John is Jesus’ commandment: love one another. For Jesus, this commandment expresses a three-fold sequence uniting the cosmos:

As the Father has loved me, and I love the Father; so I, and the Father through me, love you; therefore you must love one another. 

Or

As the Father and I are one, and you and I are one, so the Father and you are one.

For John, love is the principal sign of the presence of the Kingdom among us.

At https://www.facebook.com/azcathedral?ref=hl and here at my blogsite at you can review my treatment of the last three Sundays Gospel readings: the woman at the well, the healing of the one blind since birth, and today, the raising of Lazarus. In each I have employed the metaphor of the play, divided in two several acts or scenes in order to unpack and explore the complexity within each Sign of the Kingdom story. Any metaphor, however fruitful, is vulnerable to over use. So I want to approach today’s gospel from a different tack.

Rethinking the exegesis of the text

Psychosynthesis, is a psychological and philosophical school belonging within the tradition called Transpersonal Psychology. In Transpersonal Psychology the ultimate goal of psychological development is the spiritual integration of the psyche and the soul within a three-fold unity of body, mind, and spirit. Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis was an early disciple of the great Sigmund Freud. However he parted company with Freud over Freud’s discounting of the spiritual component in human development. In viewing psycho-emotional and spiritual development proceeding in tandem, Assagioli coined the term bi-focal vision.

My psychosynthetic training proves invaluable in my ministry as a priest. In my pastoral relationships I employ Assagioli’s concept of bi-focal vision to keep my eye on both the emotional and spiritual aspects within another person’s reporting of their experience. It occurs to me that the concept of bi-focal vision offers us another way of exploring the complexity in John’s Signs of the Kingdom stories.

Bi-focal vision tracks two distinct elements that are nevertheless interconnected and intertwined. Applied to John’s Gospel, the use of bi-focal vision allows us to identify distinct, yet interwoven transpersonal and personal themes, out of which John weaves his theology of Jesus.

Text Synopsisimages

In the story of the raising of Lazarus the synopsis is: Jesus, with his disciples received a message from the sisters of Lazarus that their brother is ill and dying. Jesus greets the news with what appears to be detached disregard, saying Lazarus is not going to die, rather that what is happening to him is an opportunity to glorify God. He then delays setting off for Lazarus, Martha, and Mary’s home in Bethany by two whole days. In the meantime Lazarus does die and is interred in his tomb. After two days Jesus nonchalantly declares that now Lazarus has died it’s time to visit his friends in Bethany, which is not far form Jerusalem. This fills his disciples with dismay for Judea is now a very dangerous place for Jesus to go. Last time he was there he narrowly escaped being stoned to death. Nevertheless they all set off and as Jesus nears Bethany, first Martha, having heard of his approach rushes out to greet him. Likewise a little later Mary, when she hears of Jesus’ approach also goes out to greet him. Despite his seemingly contradictory delay in coming, Jesus, now in state of some emotional distress, eventually arrives at the tomb and calls Lazarus to awaken and come out, which he does.  

When we apply bi-focal vision to this story, we can begin to more distinctly view both the transpersonal, i.e. the dimension beyond the personal, and the personal, i.e. human relationship dimension. Both dimensions are integral elements in the stories and by which John articulates his theology of Jesus.

Seeing the text through a bi-focal vision

I want to take and contrast the two encounters Jesus has, first with Martha, and then her sister, Mary. Incidentally, we know both these women independently of John’s account. Both Martha and Mary appear in Luke 10:38-42, from which we learn that Martha is the active, doer, always on-the-go, while Mary is the contemplative one. While John does not mention any of that it’s interesting that Martha is the first to go out and meet Jesus, while Mary takes some time to learn of Jesus’ approach.

I find it fascinating to note that both sisters greet Jesus with identical words: Lord, if you had been here my brother Lazarus would not have died. It is interesting to observe how Jesus’ encounter with each sister could not be more different. In his response to Martha we see Jesus in transpersonal focus. His response to Martha’s words of mild rebuke, is to evoke from her a profession of faith in the resurrection. He then identifies the resurrection with himself, leading Martha to proclaim: Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. Here is John’s transpersonal theology being proclaimed.

In the transpersonal space, Jesus understands the death of Lazarus as an opportunity not for sorrow, but one through which God will reveal his true identity in order to provoke an individual recognition and consequent leap of faith. In this space there is no need to hurry because the result is already ordained. In his encounter with Martha there is no hint of the human emotions inherent to this very stressful situation. The human dimension, with its intense emotionality of relationship remains invisible to our gaze. Through the bi-focal lens we view the event only at the level of its transpersonal significance.

By contrast, Jesus response to Mary using the same words as her sister, reveals to us his identification at the human level with the love and grief he feels for this family. In response to Mary’s weeping, Jesus is overcome by the disturbances of human emotion. John reports Jesus as being greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. The result is that Jesus too, begins to weep with Mary. He then goes weeping to her brother’s tomb. Through the bi-focal lens our gaze now falls upon the human dimension of empathic feeling flowing from ties of love and affection. Nowhere else, does Jesus appear more vulnerable and human, than in his response to Mary and his experience at the tomb of his dead friend.

At the tomb we see the coming together of the intertwined nature of the transpersonal and personal dimensions in John’s story. While still weeping, Jesus now invokes his special transpersonal connection with God: so that they [the onlookers] may believe that you sent me! 

For John, the raising of Lazarus is the turning point at which there is no return from the path of the cross. We learn if we could read-on in our text that some of the onlookers reject the transpersonal message of salvation and go off to conspire with the Temple authorities, who now vow to put Jesus to death as apolitical expediency for the sake of the whole nation. 

Looking forward from the text

The Fifth Sunday in Lent is traditionally known as Passion Sunday and marks the beginning of Passiontide. From here, the following week leads us to Palm Sunday and the commencement of Holy Week. During Passiontide we get to sing some of the best hymns of the whole Christian Year.

The Anglican Tradition in our Episcopal Church bequeaths to us that great liturgical tradition of ancient, catholic and apostolic Christianity. We are liturgical Christians and at no other time of the Christian year is this fact more important than over the next 14 days. For liturgy is a vehicle and the purpose of a vehicle is to transport us from one place to another.

Liturgy too, has to be viewed through a bi-focal lens. Viewed in this way we see liturgy as a vehicle transporting us from one location in physical time and space to another, i.e. Passion Sunday to Easter Day and beyond. We also perceive that the liturgy transports us from one psychospiritual space to another, i.e. from pre-resurrection to post-resurrection in transpersonal time.

I encourage all to participate by climbing on-board the liturgical vehicle that is about to embark on the final phase of the journey that conveys us to the true joy of resurrection in post-resurrection time. Beginning on Palm Sunday, and continuing over the days of the week that follow, please join us in the multiple opportunities provided by our Holy Week liturgical calendar.

By attending the liturgies of Holy Week, and the Triduum – the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Saturday, and Easter Day, we have the opportunity to become active participants (not merely passive bystanders) in the unfolding liturgical drama of the cross and resurrection. When viewed bi-focally, these are events of huge transpersonal significance, yet equally events that move us at the deepest levels of our human emotional need.

Liturgy is about the transpersonal transformation of the Christian Community. It is also through liturgy that we connect with the human dimension where we identify with Jesus’ experience as he tramps his weary way to the cross. Through the liturgies of Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter, we travel with Jesus the way of the cross so that we too, may arrive with him at the joyful Day of his Resurrection. There is no magical transportation to Easter Day that skips the way of the cross. As the Friday Collect in the Book of Common Prayer phrases it:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy before he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it no other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. 

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Christian Essentials 101: Spiritual Practice

Spiritual Practice

Introduction

Spiritual Practice lies at the very heart of what it means to be an Episcopalian. Our Anglican Tradition of spirituality has deep roots in the ancient Benedictine spirituality that came to be one of the chief characteristics of English Christianity. This ancient spirituality was given a reemphasis at the English Reformation, particularly in Thomas Cranmer’s reforms of the liturgy that led to the creation of The Book of Common Prayer. Benedictine, and what later came to be identified as Anglican spirituality, emphasizes the importance of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. It teaches that God is to most often found in the midst of the ordinary events of the daily round of our individual lives, and our life lived in community.

The great figures of Anglican Tradition are not referred to primarily as theologians, or prelates. Historically we have used the word divine to refer to our great thinkers and spiritual practitioners. This communicates another of the Benedictine influences which has resulted in the formative figures of our tradition being valued because of their teaching and practice of the spiritual life of prayer, study, and reflection. The period of the 16th- 17th centuries saw the flowering of classical Anglican Spirituality as exemplified in the lives and writing of a group known as the Caroline Divines http://anglicanhistory.org/caroline/ We continue to look back to this period as the one in which the quintessential expression of Anglican spirituality comes into modern flower.

St Benedict referred to his small community as a little school of prayer. The Greek’s used the word askesis to describe a kind of gymnasium for spiritual practice. This gives us our English words ascetical or ascetic to describe the disciplines of the spiritual life. Anglican theology is really ascetic theology as described by Benedict as a little school of prayer.

Worship

Worship, for Episcopalians is the primary spiritual expression of the Christian life. All other aspects of Christian ministry and service flow from the central root of worship. Worship is where the community of faith and God primarily encounter each other. It is in worship that we transcend personal differences. In each generation it is in worship that we hear God’s invitation to conversation addressing the challenges of Christian living. It is in worship that the human heart soars to meet God in praise and thanksgiving.

We use the term liturgy to refer to the practice of worship. It is another Greek word, which in origin means the work or the service performed by the community of the baptized in the world. Liturgy is also the word we use to describe the way the community of the baptized structure the patterns for their service of worship. The Episcopal Church is therefore, a liturgical Church.

Liturgy and Music

Liturgy and music emerge out of an inheritance from the past, reformulated for the yet-to-come through the prism of present. The Anglican musical tradition gives expression to a remarkable synthesis of transcendence and intimacy able to address the hunger at the heart of modern imagination. We need more, rather than less, of this food. Present day challenges catalyze musical and liturgical innovation enabling our tradition to speak in an age characterized by plurality of spiritual need, rich individual and communal diversity, and rapid, destabilizing change.

Liturgy and Psychospiritual Need

Psychospiritually, liturgical worship is best likened to a process of oscillation between our here-and-now awareness and the deep unconscious currents of God’s communication with us as the faithful community. Through worship we approach a thin place where the dimension of time and space intersects with the dimension of divine energy. We enter worship as individuals. In worship we become formed into a corporate body – the Body of Christ. Here, we are nourished and refreshed by the energies of encounter with the divine.

This is a journey that we undertake every time we celebrate worship, esp. Eucharistic worship. The formality of Anglican liturgy invites transcendent connection, which paradoxically floods individual experience with a longed-for warmth of intimacy with God and with one another. Liturgy addresses the human psychological need for spiritual transformation. Movement and music are liturgy’s tools. The Episcopal Church is the location where liturgy and music become effective instruments for transformation in the lives of individuals identifying with multiple and overlapping communities of interest.

In the 21st Century, church has little concrete meaning for many people who nevertheless are discovering the Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church as a location for encounter with a sense of the numinous. Each week, I meet at least four or five such persons who pass through the Great Doors of Trinity Cathedral. They seem propelled by an inarticulate sense of spiritual loneliness and longing. At Trinity, they encounter the power of our liturgy, which beckons them to return. Eventually, many report three identifiable components in this encounter: traditional Anglican liturgy, preaching that seeks to address the bewildering confusions at the heart of their spiritual loneliness within complex contemporary life, and the experience of seeing themselves reflected in the diversity of the faces of other people around them. Through liturgy, music, and welcome of diversity, our churches become the location for a unique quality of spiritual encounter for people with little connection to religion but for whom spirituality is a search for meaning.

Our Anglican Tradition of worship, structured by The Book of Common Prayer, places the Episcopal Church at the intersection of contemporary social, civic, and spiritual life, as never before. Here, the spiritually seeking, the spiritually illiterate, and the conventionally religious find a location for spiritual and social encounter capable of addressing the plurality of today’s needs and the opportunities, and hopes, of tomorrow’s world.

Common Prayer

This is both a form of worship as well as comprising the second element of Anglican spiritual practice. The reference to common simply means prayer of the people of God I distinction to individual prayer.The ancient patterns of the Daily or Divine Office comprised of seven services of prayer throughout the day and night. The rhythm of this cycle of prayer not only expressed a need to praise God, but also regulated the daily round of life. This seven-fold pattern is condensed in the Book of Common Prayer of 1979 into four orders for Morning, Midday, Evening and Night Prayer. It was Cranmer’s original intention – see back to the session on The Book of Common Prayer http://relationalrealities.com/2014/03/26/christian-essentials-101-true-worship/  that these become services of public worship, in addition to forming a daily pattern for personal devotional practice.

When we participate in these patterns of common prayer, either by reading them from the prayer book, or prayer book app https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/book-common-prayer-daily-office/id574757244?mt=8 or listening to them http://www.missionstclare.com/english/ , or attending them in a church, we are plugging-into the perpetual cycle of the Church’s common prayer, rather like a plug is inserted into the electrical current. While the current flows all the time, we only light-up when plugged-in.

Anglican Tradition, because of its Benedictine nature, places great emphasis on the importance of participating in common prayer or the Daily Office. This practice remains a formal obligation of the clergy of the Church of England and a strong spiritual practice for the clergy of the Episcopal Church. As you can see from the links above, we now have wonderful electronic access points so that all of us can participate in the patterns of common prayer in ways the fit well with our busy modern lives.

Study

Study is the third element of Anglican spiritual practice. This can include many different kinds of reading for the purpose of deepening our understanding and experience of God. Historically, study also had a very specific meaning within the Benedictine Tradition. It referred to a method of reading the Holy Scriptures known as Lectio Divina – literally, divine reading. There are many forms for Lectio Divina, all variations on a common pattern. The form I like is as follows:

Open the Bible randomly and let your eyes full on a section of verses, maybe no more than 3 or 4 in number e.g. Mark 4:26-28. For those of us new to this practice I suggest use the psalms or the Gospels for this. 

Then read the passage slowly three times. What is the word or phrase that stands out for you? Repeat it softly to your self over the period of a minute or so. 

Then read it twice more and ask yourself how does this word or phrase connect with my experience at the moment, what are my associations to it, what does it remind me of or make me think about? 

Read it again letting it sound in your mind or out loud and ask yourself – is there an invitation from God in this passage that applies to my life over the next 5 – 7 days? 

Finish with prayerful reflection on gratitude and thankfulness for what God is revealing to you through this passage. 

This is a method for praying the Scriptures rather than just studying them.

Reflection

Reflection is the forth element of Anglican spiritual practice. The Caroline Divines used the lovely phrase, habitual recollection to refer to the spiritual practice of reflection. This is the cultivation of an awareness of the presence of God in the world around us. This can be a sudden experience of beauty in a sunrise or sunset, a moment of encounter with another person, or an experience that fills us with gratitude. God is present to our rational faculties of perception in the natural world and in human society. The practice of contemplation is mindfully reflecting on the presence of God. Habitual recollection may also open us to experience the seeming absence of God, during times of disappointment.

Today we might use another word – meditation – in place of habitual recollection. Meditation can follow many patterns. Today our Christian experience of meditation has been deeply enriched by the presence of Buddhism in our society. A simple form of Christian meditation is:

find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere so to bring your attention to the rising and falling of our breath. We imagine the breath deep within our belly, rather than in our chest while we simply observe ourselves breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God, who is the breath that is the source of all life. There is never a moment when we are not breathing. Yet, because we do it all the time we hardly ever notice the experience. 

Once we have stabilized and relaxed into our observation of breathing we can allow a word or mantra to rise and full on the breath. This can be anything, but the one I recommend is the Aramaic word Maranatha. Aramaic was the language commonly used by Jesus. Maranatha simply means: Come, Lord. 

It is important that the word we use does not stimulate intellectual thought. It is also important that we use a word or a phrase that can be easily divided into syllables that attach to the rising and falling of the breath. In this way the first two syllables ma-ra attach to the in-breath, with na-tha sounding on the out- breath.

Habitual recollection or meditation or contemplation, are all methods for developing a mindful awareness of God in each present moment of the day.

Conclusion

Spiritual practice is best thought of as a daily routine to orient us to the presence and experience of God in our lives. I have listed the formal components of a balanced approach to spiritual practice. However, there are lots of permutations and combinations and the most important thing is to begin something, and to begin with a structure and pattern that fits the demands of your life. There is nothing to be gained by being overly ambitious. So start small, start slow, but the important thing is to make a start. For busy, people make use of the apps that are now available to smart phone and tablet devices. These afford flexibility and convenience.

Spiritual practice is also a way to manage the stresses of our day. Benedict advised his monks to start and then to consciously stop activity and allowing a pause before starting a new activity. Our problem today is that we start, but never really stop anything, reaching the end of the day with an accumulation of unfinished business weighing us down. Stopping does not mean completing, it simply means recognizing a natural boundary when one activity or task, of necessity makes room for what needs to follow in the day. There is always next time!

The patterns of common prayer: morning, midday, evening, and night reflect the human body’s biorhythm as well as the changing mood and texture of the day. Each prayer evokes the tone of the time of day. Paying attention to this helps us regulate ourselves emotionally and energetically, as we move through the course of each day.

Other helpful links: Lectionary http://www.iphonelectionary.com/ or

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.jimscomputerprogramming.dailyofficelectionary

Daily Office http://www.missionstclare.com/english/

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/book-common-prayer-daily-office/id574757244?mt=8

http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Sacred-Pauses-Mindfully-Through/dp/1933495243/ref=sr_1_1/176-7795031-9892123?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396645565&sr=1-1&keywords=the+seven+sacred+pauses

if the hyperlinks don’t connect cut and past to your browser.

 

 

 

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A Man Blind from Birth

This Lent the Lectionary takes us to John’s Gospel with four of his Signs of the Kingdom stories. John builds his theology of love and the Kingdom of God around and through these stories. We began on Lent 2 with the story of Nicodemus and his nocturnal and clandestine visit with Jesus and will end on Lent 5 with Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha and the raising of their brother Lazarus. The hallmark of these signs stories is the focus on Jesus’ true identity and the effect when this  becomes known to the other actors in the drama of each story.

Today we are given the story in which Jesus heals the man blind from birth. We need to remember that each Sunday the lections refocus us on the question: how is God seeking conversation with us today? Today’s conversation opens with Jesus once again challenging the crude and cruel conventions of his religious society.

A useful Metaphor

John unlike the other Evangelists does not construct his Gospel around the chronology of Jesus’ three years on the road. Instead, he constructs a theology of Jesus’ ministry around his seven Signs of the Kingdom stories. Each of these stories functions like a play. I suggest the concept of a play as our metaphor for capturing the complex flow and movement within these stories.

Today’s story is a play in four acts:

  • Act 1 – Jesus and the disciples encounter the man blind from birth. This is not any blind man, for its crucial for John’s later development of the plot that we know from the outset that this man was born blind. The discussion about sin ensues and Jesus challenges his disciples assumption that illness or misfortune results from sin. Instead, Jesus invites them to see the man’s blindness as an opportunity for God to open not only his eyes, as in to restore his sight; the man’s blindness is an opportunity for God to open all their eyes to the bigger picture of things, as in invite them into insight.
  • Act 2 – Jesus and the disciples exit to stage right. Entry from stage left, the blind man’s acquaintances and neighbours. In this act the drama unfolds around their confusion about what has taken place for this man. The only way they can make sense of it is to dispute that this is the same man, whom they have known as blind from birth. He protests that he is the very same and that the man Jesus, healed him. The act closes with the group asking: so where is he? The man formerly blind says he does not know. At this stage he knows only that he can now see, and does not know who has performed this healing.
  • Act 3 – The group take him to the Pharisees – scholars of the Law, because this is all too much for them to handle. The Pharisees can’t work out what has happened either. They end up arguing among themselves with one group saying this could not be a healing because Jesus performed it on the Sabbath, and so Jesus himself is a sinner; ipso facto God can not work through sinners. The other group object that the evidence of their own eyes is that God has acted, Sabbath or no Sabbath. Two interesting developments now take place. Having asked the man who he thinks Jesus is and shocked by his answer they call for his parents in an apparent attempt to continue to question the veracity of the man’s blindness. We should note how the focus now subtly shifts from questioning the healing to questioning Jesus’ identity. The act concludes in considerable disarray. The man’s parents fearful of being cast out by the Pharisees put the whole responsibility on their son for declaring who Jesus is. We see the man, under the relentless pressure of the Pharisees’ interrogation moving from the simple statement: all I know is that I was blind and now I can see, to: the facts seem to be these, this man cured my blindness, an action that clearly cannot be performed by someone who is breaking God’s Law, therefore, all I can say is that he is of God. We now see him in the process of moving from sight to insight. We see the religious authorities approaching the invitation to insight, and pulling back in horror. The act ends with them rejecting the man, who for dramatic purposes, is left alone on the stage.
  • Act 4 – Jesus enters from stage right having heard that the Pharisees had rejected him. He asks the man who has healed him? Remember that the man was blind when he last encountered Jesus so he has no way of recognizing him. Jesus identifies himself and the man proclaims his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The act close with Jesus teasing the Pharisees with the suggestion that: if you were truly blind you would not be sinners because you can’t be blamed for what you can’t see. But because you claim to be able to see, and clearly have no insight, then for that you are culpable.

The play spirals back to end on the opening theme of sin and culpability.

Text and context

This is a text, which we simultaneously hear echoing in three contexts:

  1. The original context of Jesus, the disciples, the man blind from birth, and the confrontation with religious attitudes that enshrine the hardness of the human heart rather than the love of God.
  2. Some 60 years later John records this original story in his Gospel. John reconstructs the story to connect with the issues, current in his own community. We hear the echo of a mighty struggle between the Johannine Community and the Jewish Synagogue. John is writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. Judaism had regrouped around the Synagogue-centered Rabbinic movement, the descendants of the Pharisees of Jesus day. The Synagogue had expelled the Christian community by John’s day leaving John’s community struggling to hold itself together in the face of persecution from without, and division from within. One of the significant divisions in the Johannine community was between those prepared to proclaim Christ and take the consequences and those who still wanted to secretly follow Christ for fear of being excommunicated by the Synagogue – a theme played out in the story between the Pharisees and the man’s parents.
  3. In 2014 we receive this text within the context of our own time and place.  We hear the echo of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees and the Johannine Community’s struggle with the Synagogue some 60 years later. Our task to to receive this text as God’s desire to open a conversation with us about the challenges of being faithful in 21st Century America.

For me the story of the man blind from birth opens us to the challenges of continuing to live our lives as a community being called by God to proclaim the expectations of the Kingdom. We live in a time when under the impetus of unparallelled change older forms of Church are passing away and we still can’t quite see what will take their place. This fills us with anxiety.

In my last sermon blog on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, I drew some general conclusion about the similarities between the community of John and our Anglican tradition in the Episcopal Church. I did so to remind us of the unique gifts that we as a tradition offer the wider society of our day. http://relationalrealities.com/2014/03/28/the-woman-at-the-well-a-sermon-delivered-to-an-unknown-community/

Receiving the text

As he walks along with his disciples they come across a blind man. The disciples give voice to the age-old desire to explain-away illness and misfortune in terms of sin. They ask: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents; that he was born blind. 

It always pulls me up short when I encounter the tendency of people who consider themselves quite religious to use religion and religious explanations as a mask to validate the hardness of the human heart. 

Wanting to see this man’s blindness as the result of his or his parent’s sin comforts the disciples and give them a false sense of security. This illusion of security holds out the prospect that if they can avoid the commission of sin, then the callous gratuitousness of affliction, will pass them by.

I don’t often recall these days that my undergraduate degree was in law. Growing up in New Zealand it was the English Common Law tradition that I was trained in. This tradition still forms the bedrock of most American State legal systems, though not all. English Common Law works by appealing to precedent. Precedent operates when counsel, or the judge appeals to an earlier decision of a court of equal or superior authority, as binding, i.e. binds the court in the present case to arrive at the same conclusions as in the previous case. The legal device of distinguishing is the way counsel argues that there is a crucial difference between the precedent and the present case, thus arguing that the judge is free to decide the present case on a different basis.

Distinguishing is not only a legal device. As the disciples demonstrate the desire to distinguish is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Though Episcopalians don’t usually appeal to sin as a distinguishing device, we nevertheless distinguish all the time when we attribute another’s misfortune to the results of their own carelessness, or their own fault.

Jesus challenges our desire to protect ourselves from our fears in the same way that he cuts right through the disciples desire to distinguish themselves from the man blind from birth. Like us, the disciples are seeking to distance themselves from this man’s fate because of their fear – fear that the precariousness of life’s bad fortune could strike them at any time. In so doing they act-out religion’s tendency to scapegoat those different from us when their point of view or their misfortune threatens our security or complacency in some way. We love to scapegoat such individuals or groups by casting them into the role of the other, the outsider, the sinner, and appealing to religion to validate our actions in doing so. Throughout his ministry Jesus’ most serious conflicts always center on his confrontation with religion operating as a mask for the hardness of the human heart.

How we distance ourselves from our own fear of life’s unpredictability is one theme in this story that we need to take to heart. There is also another theme that seems to me to be significant. This story offers us a nuanced play on the movement from sight to insight. If we receive this story of the man born blind into our own lives, by which I mean, allow the authority of this story to apply to us, we immediately face some uncomfortable questions:

  1. Where and to what do our fears still blind us?
  2. Do we have the courage to allow our blindness to be healed and begin to see?

These two questions are challenging enough. But there is a third and more difficult one to face.

  1. Having recovered our sight can we risk the journey from sight to insight?

The man born blind seems at first to be content simply to have his physical sight back. Yet, John’s point is to show us how by refusing to be cowered by religious authority, he moves from the possession of physical sight to the acquisition of spiritual sight. To put this another way, we see him moving from sight to insight. It’s only through insight that he discovers who it is that has not only healed him, but more to the point, calls him to a new experience of life.

What is this new experience of life, you ask? If we read-on into chapter 10 we find Jesus offering his own interpretation of this story of the man blind from birth in his metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep. The sheep are not confused by the voice of the imposter because they know the shepherd’s voice, and knowing him for who he is, they trust him. The new experience of life is a life lived with the courage to trust. Trust means that no matter what – we know ourselves to be loved. Is this not the best insurance policy against the fear of the unpredictability and precariousness of life?

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The Woman At The Well: a sermon delivered to an unknown community

I. Some general observations about John’s Gospel

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well is one of those very rich stories that functions for John as one of seven Signs of the Kingdom. We love these stories from John, especially– the wedding at Cana, Nicodemus’s night-time visit –which formed last weeks Gospel reading, and of course the raising of Lazarus and the story of Mary and Martha. Today’s story of the woman at the well, like the others Sign stories appears only in John’s Gospel. Why is this?

John’s Gospel is the last of the Canonical Gospels to be written. John writes within the context of the Christian Community in Jerusalem. It’s fair to assume that already possessing the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, John’s community didn’t need yet another synopsis of the events of Jesus’ Ministry. After all, by now everyone knew the story back to front.

Although Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s blueprint, they each add additional stories while also bringing their own theological and community context to bear on Mark’s blueprint. Therefore, John’s adding of new story material is in itself, not remarkable. What is remarkable is that John’s purpose in writing seems so very different from the other synoptic writers. John is not telling the story of Jesus’ ministry through the chronology of times, places and events. John is building a theology of Jesus’ ministry around his series of seven stories, each intended to be sign that in Jesus, God’s Kingdom breaks into the human dimension of the here and now.

II. Approaching the text

On the face of it the story of Jesus and the woman at the well is rather complex with a number of different moving parts. It could be thought about as a play in three acts.

The first act of the story opens with a conversation between Jesus and a woman he encounters at Jacob’s well.  This is a place of significant religious and historical controversy. Both Samaritans and Jews claim Jacob as their ancestor. Jesus surprises the woman by asking her to give him a drink of water. From his request there then ensues a conversation about living water.

You might ask, what is so surprising for the woman that Jesus should ask for water from her? In order to answer this question we need to know something of the social and political context for this encounter.

By asking her to give him a drink, Jesus is challenging social convention. He surprises the woman with his request because as a man Jesus shouldn’t have spoken to her in public. She was neither his wife of a female relative. In fact, he addresses her, ‘woman’ , implying a relationship of equality, not hierarchy existing between them. This Samaritan woman is doubly taken aback because she can see that Jesus is a Jew, and Jews don’t speak to Samaritans. In asking the woman for a drink Jesus is not only challenging social custom he is also challenging political and religious exclusivity. In order to more fully understand this we need to take a detour into historical context.

After Solomon’s death the United Kingdom of Israel, united by his father David breaks apart into the Northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria and its Temple on Mt Gerizim, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah centered on Jerusalem and The Temple. Here is where the similarity to Crimea comes in. In 722 BC the Assyrians destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel and deport around 30,000 Israelites in order to relocate five other ethnic groups to replace them. Over time the remaining Israelites intermarry with the foreigners. In 587 BC the southern Kingdom of Judah falls to the Babylonians and the people in Jerusalem are taken off into captivity in Babylon. However, unlike the fate of the northern exiles who never return, in 538 the Jerusalem exiles are allowed to return and begin to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans object to this and petition the Persian King to withdraw Persian support for this initiative. thus cementing the hatred between Samaritans and Judeans.

The core of the enmity centers on notions of pollution. The Judeans despised the Samaritans because of their intermarriage with non-Jewish populations, rendering them racially impure. The Samaritans, on the other hand despised the Judeans whom they saw as having polluted the Law of Moses through the Levite reforms instituted during the period of exile in Babylon between 587 and 538. For the Samaritans had despite intermarrying remained faithful to an older operating system – to borrow from the language of computer software, i.e.the Law as it was understood in 722.

There is a dramatic shift of focus as we move into the second act of the story. Here Jesus requests that the woman go fetch her husband. Her response opens the way for her to recognize Jesus’ true identity. Taken by itself, this section alone has led to the familiar misogynistic (women hating) patriarchal treatment of the woman as a prostitute, or even worse and adulterous. Yet, Jesus, nowhere implies that the woman is of anything but impeccable character. Quite the contrary, he sees her as an evangelist, who not only recognizes him as a prophet, but also brings the rest of her community to faith.

Jesus’ reference to her five husbands is a historical metaphor for the five foreign peoples with whom the Samaritans had intermarried. The man she is currently with, and who is not her husband, extends the metaphor to include a sixth group of foreigners introduced by Herod the Great in 37 BC. Unlike the first five this man is not her husband and this alludes to Roman occupation, which had forbidden intermarriage between this last group and the Samaritans population.

In the third act we see the return of the disciples who had been shopping for supplies. They arrive back and totally misconstrue the situation they come upon. They are scandalized that Jesus should risk both social and religious criticism by talking to a woman and a Samaritan woman to-boot. This final act of the play concerns Jesus’ discussion with the disciples about mission. Mission is an important theme for John who introduces the metaphor of gathering-in the harvest – a harvest that someone else has planted. Here Jesus is telling his disciples to embrace the Samaritan converts, that through her testimony the woman is bringing to Jesus. This woman, whom they condemn has recognized his true identity as the Messiah. As a result she now brings her neighbors and friends to also believe in him. This is a harvest, the seeds of which the disciples have not sown, but yet now must bring-into the community of Jesus’ followers. 

The nature of Christian Community

This is an important story for John and his community. The core of John’s teaching centers on the primacy of love – a kind of love conquers all, approach to faith. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ central commandment is to love: as the Father has loved me, so I love you, therefore you must love one another. 

John’s community comprised a number of different groups with different theological understandings. In the absence of common agreement between them, this teaching on love holds them together in some semblance of community. Like our own Anglican tradition, John’s community is defined not by agreement on shared belief.  It is held together through an emphasis on right relationship. For Episcopalians, right relationship rests on our behaving with love towards anyone who is willing to join with us in worship. Our unity lies in our being able to recite the words of the Book of Common Prayer, despite holding different understandings as to what these words might mean. For John the woman at the well is a Sign of the Kingdom because it powerfully depicts Jesus reaching across the social divisions of gender relations, as well as the political and doctrinal divisions rooted in a history of conflict and mutual antipathy.

Text and context

Understanding biblical texts is usually a more complex business than we are often led to believe. We see in this story of the woman at the well the interlacing of three layers of context:

  1. We have the historical context within which an event takes place, i.e. a meeting between Jesus and a woman at Jacob’s Well sometime between 30 and 33 AD.
  2. We have the reporting of the original story by John writing about the event many years later, probably around 90-100 AD.
  3. We have our reception of John’s text in the first decade of the 21st century. This is always how the ministry of Jesus comes to us – transmitted across two thousand years of time.

Of the three layers it is the third layer, our reception of this text and the meaning we give it, that is our chief focus. Therefore, I ask the question: what might this text mean for those of us sitting here this morning?

Receiving the text in the here and now

There is a trap that a visiting preacher can fall into if he or she is not careful. The trap is to speak with certainty or authority, assuming a knowledge of his or her hearers and their community that he or she does not possess. I have only the most general awareness of how my reflections on this story might be received. All I can say is that this story introduces a conversation that God is intending to have with this community. Lacking specific knowledge of this community, I would like however, to make some general points from my experience of how God might intend to have this conversation with any Christian community.

This story from John’s Gospel depicts Jesus demonstrating what a relationship of love, looks like.  This is not erotic or sentimental love I see here. I see a love of mutual respect emerging between Jesus and this woman. I note a growing tenderness, which differences of gender, ethnicity, and religion cannot frustrate. In contrast to the worldview of his disciples, Jesus values diversity! This is often a real issue for Christian communities. You know the old joke: the Episcopal Church welcomes you – but only if you are like us. As a Church we may be very theologically inclusive, yet the fact that our parish communities are shrinking indicates another old adage: that we behave as if everyone who might become Episcopalian – already has.

In our communities we must examine and uncover attitudes of mind and heart that result in our clinging to safety rather than risking to reach-out to those who are different from us. Our Anglican tradition has so much to offer the modern world and it continues to amaze me how it remains America’s best kept secret. Through sheer accident of history Anglican Christians have developed an idea of Christian Community that is not a community defined by shared believe, but one defined by the generosity of God experienced in common worship.

We are the community where traditional worship and a radical commitment to face the challenges of our contemporary context, meet and engage one another. Our parish communities are rooted in the local, rather than the universal. We are Catholic Christians of place and locality and this must embolden us to embrace new populations whose arrival can be seen as a challenge to our sense of privilege  -which to be honest, is a boat that sailed a long time ago.

Let us not only love one another, but love the stranger. Let love empower us to catch up with the world around us, embracing it as it really is, and not retreating into fantasies of how we still long for it to be. Let us offer the deep richness of our Anglican Tradition’s valuing of toleration and welcoming of diversity. These are two qualities so badly needed in a world of increasingly polarized divisions.  We offer an appreciation of dignified worship through which the echo of the ancient Church can still be heard. Accompanying this is an appreciation of beauty.  Our Anglican Tradition commits us to sitting in the tension between being faithful to the Tradition with a capital T and being open to the challenges of being Christian in a world of rapid and bewildering change where many are alienated, cast adrift without the anchor of traditions of any kind.

However, what we have most to offer the world around us that simple truth lying at the heart of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. This simple truth is that the only thing that matters is the quality of our relationships. Individually and communally we are only as good as our ability to build effective and loving relationships with others. Through relationships that we build connections. Through relationship that weave webs of mutual support based on the simple notion that my prospering is dependant on my concern for your wellbeing.

The world is sorely in need of receiving the Signs of the Kingdom. These signs become our expectations for the continued realization of the Kingdom of God, something that is already here as well as still in the process of unfolding. As Episcopalian Christians, we are called individually to lives lived in, and through, community defined by right relationships, not shared belief. We live-out the Signs of the Kingdom through the promises of our Baptismal Covenant http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/baptismal-covenant  .

Like the woman at the well, may our neighbors say to us: It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.

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Christian Essentials 101: True Worship

Worship and Common Prayer

Worship plays an important role in most Christian Traditions. However, in the Anglican Tradition, of which the Episcopal Church is the American representative, it plays a central and crucial role. We are one of the few, if not the only tradition, which defines itself by its worship. The boundaries of our communion are defined by the activity of worship because we know we are a community primarily, not by our experience of shared belief – as in- we all believe the same truths defined in the same way, but through our experience of worshipping together. For Episcopalians, Jesus’ saying in Matthew 18:20 – For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them becomes that where two or three gather to worship in my name, there am I with them. Episcopalians have another adage: as we worship so we believe.

We know ourselves and recognize each other in community when we gather to worship God. The worship of God is our priority. It is important for us to understand why this is and where this approach to Christian community has come from.

  1. The roots of a worship-centered approach to religious identity are very ancient. At the time of the English Reformation the majority of English religious houses and monasteries followed in one form or another, the Rule of St Benedict. Benedict structured his religious communities around the centrality of worship. The Benedictine ethos has shaped our Anglican identity as a communion to a greater extent than is the case in any other Christian Tradition.
  2. The Elizabethan Settlement (a series of Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I) resulted in English Christians, whatever their theological or political beliefs finding themselves compelled by Law to sit alongside one another in their parish churches. Although they did not share theology, nevertheless traditional catholics found themselves sharing pew space alongside neighbors who embraced the protestant reforms.
  3. Anglican identity did not emerge out of an agreed approach to belief based on a shared way of looking at God and the world. Anglican identity formed from having to tolerate difference within a national, Church of England.
  4. With agreement on belief impossible, a notion of right relationship became the crucial element in the formation of Anglican identity. Anglicanism emerged from a shared experience of right relationship, which over the generations became increasingly shaped into a communal identity by the worship and language of The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. This historical accident continues to shape our identity as a community. We are Christians who recognize one another through our willingness to worship together. We continue to be shaped by the words of The Book of Common Prayer, even though we may not share any common agreement as to what these forms and words might mean.

The Book of Common Prayer (BCP)

The Book of Common Prayer is unique. Other traditions have a book of services and prayers. No other tradition has anything approaching the contribution made by The Book of Common Prayer, which has single handedly shaped our community’s identity. On the landscape of American Christianity, it is the BCP that gives the Episcopal Church its unique characteristic as a community tolerant of considerable diversity, defined and held together by its shared approach to worship. Despitecover centuries there having been a number of revisions of the BCP, our current 1979 revision still carries the shape and linguistic stamp of Thomas Cranmer. Alas his soaring command of the English language, his poetic prose has to some extent been replaced by the use of contemporaneous English in the new Rite II service options. However, some semblance of Cranmarian English survives in the Rite I versions of Common Prayer and Eucharistic Services.

An Historical Overview of the BCP

In 1532, Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury during the last years of Henry VIII’s reign. In 1544 he published his first vernacular service. In 1549 he published the first Book of Common Prayer, based on an extensive reform of the English Catholic liturgy known as the Sarum (Salisbury) Rite. Cranmer was a master wordsmith and alongside the language of the later King James Bible, it is the cadenced prose of the Book of Common Prayer that has shaped the Anglican religious consciousness to the extent that Cranmarian English has become a term of linguistic classification. In 1552, under the more Protestant influences during the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer produced a first revision of the BCP of 1549. In 1559, the BCP was further revised in a more Catholic direction during Elizabeth’s reign. The prayer book of 1559 remained in effect until 1662. For the Church of England, the revision of 1662 remains the quintessential revision of The BCP, and remains the only Parliamentary approved version of the BCP despite more recent Church authorized liturgical revisions.

Cranmer’s intention was that the liturgy should be in the language spoken by the people. The hallmark of Cranmer’s approach lay in his insistence that the participation of the laity was as essential as the actions of the clergy. No longer could a priest alone, celebrate the Eucharist without the presence of at least one lay person, but the daily pattern of the Divine Office, hitherto prayed only by the clergy in private or in monastic choir now became simplified into morning and evening prayer or Mattins and Evensong. These became public services of the Church in which the laity were expected to take a full part. However, a subtle yet significant shift from the ancient Sarum Rite resulted from Cranmer’s creation of a tradition for worship and common prayer, not only accessible to ordinary people, but which celebrated the events of ordinary life in this world. This approach was in sharp contrast to the older liturgical emphasis on celebrating the life of Church and the Saints in heaven.

The BCP contained orders for Common Prayer, the Eucharist, and the liturgical celebration of life events in services of Rogation (blessing of the land and crops), birth (the Churching of Women), baptism, marriage, and death. It also contained The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. These were a reformed interpretation, based on Cranmer’s return to Early Church and Biblical sources, of the historic belief and practice of the Church. The Thirty Nine Articles became the foundation for Anglican belief and practice. To complement the BCP Cranmer also compiled a two- year Lectionary of Scriptural readings for use in Church. He also wrote a separate collect prayer for every Sunday of the year as well as other major feasts and celebrations.

In 1789, following the Revolutionary War the newly established Episcopal Church authorized its own Book of Common Prayer. The first American BCP followed the English BCP concerning “the particular Forms of Divine Worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein”. The reason for a new book was the need to remove any political allegiance to the British Crown. The 1789 BCP followed the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer found in the BCP of the Scottish Episcopal Church rather than that of the English BCP. This was a condition imposed by the Scots in return for their bishops agreeing to ordain Samuel Seabury as the first American Bishop. The Episcopal Church revised the 1789 BCP in 1928 and then in 1979. The 1979 revision was needed to take into account the changes in liturgical practice resulting from the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical revisions during and following the Second Vatican Council. The 1979 book remains the book in current use.

The Major Sections of the BCP

  1. Historical Ratification (1798) and Preface
  2. The Orders for Common Prayer – the collective daily pattern for the Divine Office or the prayer of the Church
  3. The Great Litany – a form of prayer used in Lent and at other times of national or communal crisis
  4. The Collects – opening prayers that pick up on seasonal and lectionary themes for a particular Sunday or feast days
  5. Proper Liturgies for seasonal or special celebration such as Christmas and Easter, etc
  6. Holy Baptism
  7. Orders for the Holy Eucharist
  8. Pastoral Offices – celebrations of significant life events such as marriage, ministration to the sick, death and burial of the dead, and the reconciliation of the penitent
  9. Episcopal Services – those only performed by a Bishop such as confirmation and ordination
  10. The Psalter of David
  11. Prayers and Thanksgivings
  12. An Outline of the Faith or Catechism
  13. Historical Documents of the Church including the Articles of Religion
  14. Tables for finding the date of Easter and other Holy Days
  15. The Lectionary

Link to useful resources

file://localhost/Users/marksutherland/Desktop/Education/EP101/BCP/Book of Common Prayer 350 years (2) | Liturgy.webarchive

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Common-Prayer-Biography-Religious/dp/0691154813/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395872365&sr=1-12&keywords=book+of+common+prayer

http://www.amazon.com/Opening-Prayer-Book-Churchs-Teaching/dp/1561011665/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395872626&sr=1-3&keywords=new+church%27s+teaching+series

http://www.amazon.com/Theology-Worship-New-Churchs-Teaching/dp/1561011940/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395871736&sr=1-7&keywords=new+church%27s+teaching+series

http://www.missionstclare.com/english/

 Recommendation

Go online to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It comes in a variety of formats: just the BCP, BCP and Hymnal combined, BCP, Lectionary and Daily Office combined.

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Christian Essentials 101: The Bible -Interpretation

The Bible II

Understanding the Text

“Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Acts 8:30-31

The Historical Backdrop

The most important event of the 16th century is undoubtedly the Protestant Reformation. As the initial New Testament period -the period following Jesus’ ministry when the texts of the NT were written- drew to a close around the middle to end of the 2nd century A.D., there followed a long period of approximately 1400 years during which Christianity became largely a Tradition dominated affair. Remember, that by the word Tradition with a capital T we mean that view of what it means to be a Christian which is defined by what the clergy say it is. In Western Europe, the Middle Ages identify the period from about the 9th to the 14th centuries, as the time between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Renaissance literally means the revival. Revival here refers to the rediscovery of the learning of Classical Rome and Greece. What is significant about the Middle Ages is not the absence of learning, but the restriction of education and literacy to a very small class of men and women religious, i.e. monks, nuns, and priests. For the largely illiterate nobles, knights, and peasantry alike, the Christian faith was something taught second hand through Tradition.

The Renaissance expands education with increasing numbers of people among the growing urban mercantile classes now able to read and write. They begin to question Tradition as the only source for Christian Faith. The Protestant Reformation was fuelled by the rise of a literate middle class, now able to read the Bible in its own language. We noted in our history session that 1522 saw the first German Bible (Gutenberg Bible) and in 1526 the first Bible in English (Tyndale Bible) appears. Once again the actual text of Scripture becomes a primary source for faith.

The most significant event of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is a period when rational thought and Reason, fuelled by Renaissance rediscoveries of classical thought combine with an increasing ability to observe the natural world. The scientific revolution is born; initiating a movement away from Scripture and Tradition towards the importance of Reason as a new basis for understanding not only the natural world, but also Christian Faith.

The 16th century Reformation led to Scripture becoming once again a primary source for faith. With advances in literacy, biblical translation, and the advent of the printing press greater numbers of people began to read the Bible for themselves. However, this posed a serious problem. People now have direct access to Scripture. With their ability to by-pass the quality control of Tradition the question arises: how will they understand what they read? 

The 17th century Enlightenment led to Christian Faith becoming increasingly subject to the rational analysis of Reason. In reaction some Christians retreated into a new approach to biblical interpretation, which we know as Christian Fundamentalism. The answer Fundamentalism gave to the question of how were people to understand Scripture was, everything a Christian reads in the Bible is to be understood literally. The paradox is that this sets up biblical narrative in opposition to scientific reason by treating biblical narrative language as if it too, is a language of factual, observational description. We are still living though the false conflict created by Fundamentalism’s reaction to Reason; most prominently in the debate between evolution and creationism; a sub-discussion of the religion verses science debate.

Anglican Tradition of Scriptural Interpretation

The Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church with its emphasis on the mutual relationship of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason – the three-legged stool from our history session –rejects the Christian Fundamentalist approach to the meaning of Scripture. We accept that:

  • Individual Christians have direct access to the text of Scripture, being free to hold personal views of interpretation.
  • Tradition – the common mind of the Church as a community of belief and practice, ultimately decides the meaning of the text and the authority to be given to it. 
  • Tradition is guided by the application of Reason as we take into account literary analysis of the functions of different forms of language.  For instance we recognize a difference between the way scientific language seeks to literally describe what can be observed, and biblical language, which is a language of narrative, creating meaning through the use of metaphor and allegory.
  • We recognize the way advances in the disciplines of historical analysis elucidate the influences of the social and political context in which texts were originally written or later edited. 

In 2002 the Episcopal Bishops of New York published: Let the Reader Understand; A statement of Interpretive Principles by which we understand The Holy Scriptures. http://www.dioceseny.org/pages/372-let-the-reader-understand 

This initiative was in response to the 1998 Lambeth Conference discussions between Anglican Bishops on the interpretation of Scripture. Their starting point was Acts 8:30-31 quoted above. Here the Apostle Philip comes across an Ethiopian reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Let the Reader Understand offers a series of canons for interpretation, sourced from the teachings of Scripture itself, and consistent with the creeds and documents of the Early Church, and The Book of Common Prayer. 

Here is a paraphrased summary of the main points:

  1. Scripture is the Word of God not because God dictated the text, but because God inspired human authors to write inspirited texts to be read within the sacramental worship life of the Church, in order to teach the faithful.
  2. Scripture provides the guiding principles for our common life with God through narrative, law, prophecy, poetry and other forms of expression. Jesus as the living Word of God uses the Scriptures to call the Church as a diverse community of belief and practice, through which he shares his divine word, wisdom, and life.
  3. Despite the huge variety of documents representing diverse authors, literary forms, and cultural contexts, the Church received and collected the Scriptures and interprets them in the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
  4. The Scriptures witness to the relationship between God and humanity. This relationship takes the form of an invitation and response – a covenant, respectful of human freedom and evolving within changing historical contexts, cultures, individual experience and need. Through the Scriptures the Church as a community of belief and practice seeks to respond more faithfully to God’s covenant renewed in Jesus Christ.
  5. The New Testament interprets and applies the Old Testament as announcing the coming of Christ. This is the lens through which the Church understands all the Scriptures.
  6. Individual texts must not be isolated and made to mean something at odds with the revelation and teaching of Jesus Christ.
  7. Not every text received by the Church is regarded as authoritative. The meaning of any text is never given, but always discerned within the lived experience of the community of faith.
  8. Because meaning is never given and always discerned no text can be used to condemn or approve anything simply on the basis that it is somewhere in Scripture condemned or approved.
  9. The first stage of faithful interpretation requires the Church to use the gifts of memory, reason, and skill to find the sense of the meaning through locating the text in its time and place (original context). The second stage is to seek the text’s present significance. Present significance is shaped in the light of Jesus’ commandment to love one another, and is consistent with the mystery of God as a relational community in whose image we have been created as relational beings.
  10. The Church’s interpretation of Scripture is our human response to the experience of being transformed and empowered by God’s love.
  11. The Church’s reading of Scripture is always subject to human fallibility and is an expression of a wayfaring community, which makes mistakes while discerning, conversing, and arguing to find its way.
  12. Correct interpretation does not rely on the Church’s infallibility as a teaching authority. Correct interpretation is tried and tested through our individual and communal living-out of the grace of baptism, which is embodied through the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.
  13. The Scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation. The Scriptures operate within the sphere of human freedom. The sphere of human freedom places a limitation on tendencies towards justifying excessive demands in faith and practice by reference to scriptural texts. The Scriptures ultimate purpose and intent are to bring all people to the blessed liberty of the children of God, whose service is perfect freedom. 

Truth Claims

Truth as history remembered – the Bible records events that happened, e.g. Jesus did die on the cross.

But there are three contexts within which truth as history needs to be viewed. Context 1 is the historical context in which the event took place i.e. the events of Good Friday in 33AD. Context 2 is the way the event is remembered and recorded by the writer, writing many years after the event, i.e. what the cross and resurrection event means to the gospel writers and their communities. Context 3 involves the way history remembered impacts the mind of the community today.

It is possible to divide truth claims into two main categories: Truth as history remembered – the Bible records events that happened, e.g. Jesus did die on the cross. Truth as metaphor: (1) metaphorization of and event (Borg), e.g. Jesus walked the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. The spiritual significance of this event is not the physical journey but Jesus’ embracing his destiny as a metaphor for the road of discipleship.(2) purely metaphorical narrative (Borg) – no remembered event but story works   symbolically. A story that articulates a truth but has no origin in historical or factual event.

For a fuller discussion of this go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiF-U7zh0Ek

Biblical truth hardly ever responds to a black or white notion of true or false. In fact, biblical truth is not something to be passively believed in, but something to be actively engaged with.

Spiritual Practice

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on a passage of Scripture. I suggest the following example: Mark 4:26-28. If you don’t have a Bible go to: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+4:26-28&version=NIV 

Find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

1.     Then read the passage slowly three times. What is the word or phrase that stands out for you? Repeat it softly to yourself over the period of a minute or so.

2.     Then read it twice more and ask yourself how does this word or phrase connect with my experience at the moment, what are my associations to it, what does it remind me of or make me think about?

3.     Read it again letting it sound in your mind or out loud and ask yourself – is there an invitation from God in this passage that applies to my life over the next 5 – 7 days?

4.     Finish with prayerful reflection on gratitude and thankfulness for what God is revealing to you through this passage.

This exercise is known as Lectio Divina and is the most ancient methods for engaging with Holy Scripture.

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