Learning to read was a great gift to our granddaughter Claire – who has continued-on to become an avid reader. As a 3-year-old she would mimic her parents reading in bed. Lying on their bed she wanted to show us that she too could read a book. She would gabble away to herself in her 3-year-old language, clearly delighting in some gripping yarn, all the while completely oblivious to the fact that she was ostensibly reading the book upside-down.
When Claire first started reading whole books, I would ask her what she was reading? I’m reading a chapterbook, she would reply. I was struck by her response, which was to tell me about the type of book she was reading and not its content. By referring to her book as a chapterbook she got me thinking about the nature of story. Chapters organize the development and progression of more complex stories. That was the point she had grasped; she was no longer reading books with a single simple story but was now reading books where the story progressed in stages by means of chapters.
The term theology often has an adjective attached. For example, there is systematic, moral, pastoral, soteriological (salvation), ecclesial, mystical, and process theology, etc., etc. To call myself a theologian always seems somewhat pretensions and overblown, yet even if I think of myself as more of a practitioner, I guess theologian is an appropriate title for who I am and what I do.
But what kind of theologian am I? I suppose the adjective the I would attach to the title theologian would be narrative. As I continually assert in the entries of this blog, narratives are the building blocks of meaning. We make sense of the world around us, including making sense of ourselves to ourselves as well as to others through the construction of stories.
Constructing a story to make sense of her 3-year-old world was what Claire was doing when she lay on her parents’ bed mimicking their reading. It was irrelevant to her construction of a story that she was holding her book upside down. At 3-years of age, the problem for the rest of us was that only she could understand the story she was making.
The Bible is in a sense like one of Claire’s chapterbooks. It builds the story of God chapter by chapter. It’s primarily a story about God told from our perspective and each chapter is our attempt at making sense of our world.
For Christians, the Story of Jesus forms the penultimate section of chapters in the long Biblical story. The the story of Jesus builds through the chapters chronicling Jesus’ birth. We read of his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, before coming to a close with his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church as the continuance of Jesus’ ministry in the world.
The Jesus chapters form the penultimate part of the chapterbook of God because as Patel, the hotel manager in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reminds us: Everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.
Continuing with my analogy of the Bible as a chapterbook, Pentecost is the final chapter in the story of the Jesus cycle. In the previous chapter of the story called the Ascension, the all too human Jesus has passed through the membrane separating the parallel worlds of Our-Space and God-Space. As parallel dimensions, Our-Space and God-Space occupy the same location although separated by a permeable membrane that allows energy to flow from one to the other.
At the Ascension the post-resurrection but still human body of Jesus passes through the membrane from Our-Space to God-Space. In doing so Jesus does not jettison his humanity like a worn-out suit of clothes in order to don a new divine suit on the other side.vIn the Ascension, it’s his very humanity that is embraced and incorporated into the nature of God’s self.
In the present chapter called Pentecost, energy passes in the opposite direction, i.e. from God-Space to Our-Space. Having received Jesus’ full humanity into the divine nature, God now sends the divine Spirit back through the membrane to empower us – now constituted as the community called Church – to continue the work begun by Jesus.
We have two ways of talking about Pentecost – the 50th day after Easter. The first focuses on the pyrotechnics of the day: wind, fire, and an experience of instantaneous translation between the speakers of myriad of languages. The second is to develop a wider perspective with a focus on the fruits of the day itself.
Tom Wright describes Pentecost as:
the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples is translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples.Pentecost Day Sermon 2017
This is how Luke tells the story.
Awe came upon everyone, ….All who belonged were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.Acts 2
Luke’s description of the early Christian community is a description of what Our-Space infused with the energies of God-Space looks like. Equality and magnetic inclusion become the hallmarks of such a community where the phrase: from all according to ability -to all according to need – is lived out in real time. This produced among the first Christians the most magnetic community that drew increasing numbers of people into a new way of being human – in a new kind of community – namely –a community investing itself in those who had yet to become members.
This image of Christian community frightens us – and so it should! For it stands as a perpetual indictment upon the values and practices thatwe live by in our own society.
Luke’s story in Acts 2 raises serious questions for us. Chief among them is how is this vision of transformation and risky living shaping the story we currently tell ourselves about American society? Clearly, there are several answers to this question because there are always competing visions. What matters is not the competing visions for our society, but the kind of Christianity that informs these visions?
As Episcopalians we pride ourselves on espousing a tolerant inclusive Christian vision. Yet, while heavy on tolerance and inclusion we run light on accountability. We like faith as a comfort as long as we can remain unchanged by its disturbing imperatives.
Many of us understand faith as personally life changing. We also understand that there is a connection between personal transformation and the process for social change – the WWJD -what would Jesus do, question. Yet, we also expect our faith to let us off lightly by making few demands on us. We do not expect to be made accountable to the imperatives of our faith.
To make a start:
- We cannot engage in acts of charity towards the less fortunate while failing to confront systems that deprive whole communities of access to the fruits we expect to enjoy.
- We cannot reject calls for personal accountability in our communities – leaving when we fell challenged or uncomfortable might be an option for members but not disciples.
- The story we live by tells us we need to feel troubled if the fruits of our own material success blind us to the inequalities in wider society.
- We need to stop expecting our faith to insulate us and allow it to disturb us.
Next Sunday, Trinity Sunday, signals the beginning of my 6th year at St Martin’s. I view my first five years as the period when we together stabilized the parish community and prepared it for new change and growth by deepening our encounter with spiritual resources, chiefly the Bible. So, what will the next five years bring us? More particularly, how will our challenges open us and to unforeseen possibilities? All I know at the moment is that without challenge, the stability we have achieved will slowly dissipate over time.
Pentecost reminds us that in looking forward to the next stage of community life, we know three things:
- In a community where many of us earn our daily bread in the financial investment sector, we of all people should know that the more we invest, the richer the return on our investment.
- Therefore, our community is only as real as the energy we invest in transforming whatever challenges lie ahead into opportunities.
- That which we can imagine for ourselves; that which through hard work and effort we can build by ourselves, pales in comparison to that which God – working through us – can and will empower us into.
Let us not forget that Pentecost celebrates:
Now herein lies both our challenge and our opportunity!