Worthy of Our Trust: Luke 4:1-13

There’s a tongue-in-cheek joke doing the rounds in our St Martin’s community at the moment. Tongue-in-cheek jokes are the way something of the utmost seriousness is made bearable when veiled with humor. So, the joke goes this way: What’s the new name for Hallworth House – the skilled nursing facility situated on the Episcopal Cathedral precinct? It’s St Martin’s Annex.

The tongue-in-cheek nature of the joke, makes me only too aware of my own anxiety -an anxiety many of us also share. For cloaked behind the joke is the barely masked pain of our encounter with the human suffering of our friends with whom we share this community. 

Of course, Hallworth House is not the only facility in which members of the parish are currently being cared for. Westgate, Bethany Home, and Tochwotten, are also on list of specialist nursing and assisted living facilities within our parish orbit. We are relieved to know that it’s Hallworth House, where a number of our friends currently reside. For we know that those we love are in a place with a trusted reputation for quality in medical, nursing, and rehabilitation care. We are further comforted by knowing that Dr. Denny Scott, henceforth officially designated parish doctor, is the one who is taking care of those we hold dear.

For empathy means the capacity to see ourselves in the situation faced by another.

There are seasons in our ministries of pastoral care and support when he realities of illness, and death cruelly confront us. We are called upon not only to marshal our resources of compassion and empathy, but we are also challenged by the need to discipline our own fears. For empathy means the capacity to see ourselves in the situation faced by another. Visiting our parish friends currently in Hallworth House, each of us comes face to face with the frightening question: at what point in my future will illness strike, and what form will it take, and how will it leave me? I find myself uttering the age-old prayer: O God, take me swiftly; let me not linger long in illness’ wake!

And so, we enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to bring a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger, and a legion of envious resentments. The acknowledgment of sorrow in a spirit of repentance for the actions and omissions that have hurt others. Or we might required to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

Domesticated biblical texts are of little use, I think.  We have trained them only to speak when spoken to.  We have taught them to sit quietly until we call for them.  We have developed tricks for them to do that we can predict.

Richard Swanson.

Luke writes of the breath of God leading Jesus into the wilderness immediately following the baptismal declaration: this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. Baptism is where Jesus ministry begins. So why does God show his pleasure in Jesus by sending him into the wilderness?

In Mark’s version he leaves what happens to Jesus during the 40 days in the wilderness up to our imaginations because he tells us only that while there Jesus was both tempted and also ministered to by angels. Yet our imaginations are not blank canvases. They have been already colored by Matthew’s and Luke’s portraits of the three great temptations faced by Jesus at the hands of the Devil. And in this imagery, lies a problem.

Although translated as tempted, the real meaning of peirazo, the word Luke uses, is tested. The figure doing the testing is not our Medieval Devil, but the Hebrew Satan – the prosecutor general of the heavenly court; the same figure we find putting Job through his tortures. The Satan is not a personal name but the title of the one who acts as the prosecutor or accuser general in the heavenly court.

So, it seems that Jesus’ having been filled with the Spirit of God is by itself not enough. Like an American President, God it seems may nominate only. The wilderness is Jesus’ confirmation hearing before the heavenly court. Under the pressure of accusation and innuendo, the Satan, heaven’s prosecutor, perhaps aware that the proceeding is live on heavenly cable TV, is tasked with testing to confirm Jesus’ qualifications for the role of messiah.

Does Jesus pass his Messiah confirmation hearing? He does, but not in the sense that we often conclude.

Human beings are vulnerable creatures and so we mask our weakness by projecting invulnerability onto our God. We want a Jesus who resists all temptations, coming through with flying colors because he’s our superman messiah who could fly through the skies and jump off tall buildings in a single bound – if he had wanted to.

But these are not temptations which Jesus easily resists because of his secret divine powers. They are the tests that reveal a Jesus so qualified for messiahship because he shares the same limitations of being human as we do. We have no use for a superman messiah, the kind of messiah we need is one who can empathize with us through his own human vulnerability, having travelled this road ahead of us.

Faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not satiate the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice does not flow from omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus once again reaffirms the his human limitations. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his messiah confirmation hearing by acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.

We have a messiah who has been tested in every way as we are and thus has been proved worthy of our trust. That’s the point here!

In Luke’s story Jesus echoes Job’s refusal to doubt God’s love no matter how much The Satan ratcheted-up his suffering and pain. Jesus qualifies as messiah because echoing Isaiah’s suffering servant – he is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He qualifies as messiah because he’s just as human as we are. Immersed in our human experience of facing our fear and living through our vulnerability, it is only Jesus who is worthy of our trust.

In our search for a messiah on this first Sunday in Lent I am taken back to where I began –the joke about the St Martin’s Annex in Hallworth House. As we visit our friends, some of whom embody our worst specters of the illness that strikes us in the noonday – unexpectedly and forever changing the trajectory of our lives, we encounter the all too human figure of Jesus who because he has tested human fragility to its limits is able to walk with us through whatever suffering comes upon us. I wish there was a less costly answer – one more to our success oriented tastes. Trust in the absence of a more agreeable answer to the plight of human suffering, is our wilderness testing where we are being asked to trust God as we face the possibilities that lie ahead. This is a very hard testing to endure but try to hold onto this. It is only by God entrusting Jesus to a fully human experience that God was able to do the new thing – the new thing we know as Easter.

It’s God’s Vision: Transfiguration Year C

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs


“Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”

Which was it? Were they awake, or were they asleep?

Yes.

Such is the nature of visions.

Someone asked me recently if I believed in visions.  If by that did he mean do I believe that God has ways of getting our attention in ways that defy our intellectual capacity and even our physical senses? Well yes, I do. The biblical tradition of dream and vision, which spans both testaments from Genesis to Revelation, and the historical tradition of religious mystics like Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich to name just three, is a long and—depending on who you’re talking to—an honored one.

But it is a spiritual gift that, if not held with the utmost humility and care, can be easily misunderstood and misused. For example, Constantine’s fourth-century vision of the Chi Rho—the symbol of Christ—in the sky before the battle that effectively made him sole emperor of the Roman Empire and resulted in his conversion to Christianity—this vision entwined Christianity and Empire in a way that Verna Dozier has called the one of the major “falls” of humankind—a major detour from the Way of Jesus and the Dream of God. On the other hand, Teresa of Avila went to great effort to discern the nature of her visions and used them for the spiritual growth and nurture of the members of her community; her spiritual guide, The Interior Castle is one of the classics of Christian spirituality.

The power–and potential danger–of a vision lies in its aftermath—in what actions are taken, or not, afterward, and who is served as a result. A true vision from God illuminates God’s vision for us, not our vision for ourselves.

That being said, here’s another question:

“Was the Transfiguration a vision or did it really happen?”

Yes.

Either Luke was writing in the language of vision, as he often did, in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, or he was relating an event of such significant import that it was included in all three synoptic Gospels and in the 2nd Epistle of Peter. There was reality and truth here that transcended the ordinary and captivated the imagination. Four men went up a mountain. And when they came down—which is really the most important part of the story—they were not the same.

Look at the context of the writing: Luke’s late-first-early second-century audience was coming to terms with the fact that their idea of Jesus’ “imminent” return–and God’s idea of that return– were not exactly the same. Luke needed to put their waiting into the context of salvation history so that they could find a way to chart their path forward as a community. How were they to live—together, and in the world? What was God calling them to do and be in this transitional moment?

For a transitional moment it was. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration marks a bridge point in salvation history. The vision of Jesus in conversation with Moses—the liberator of the People of Israel, the bringer of the Law from Mount Sinai—and Elijah, the prophet and harbinger of the Eschaton, or End of Days—this vision effectively places Jesus at a fulcrum point between Old and New Covenants. And the Transfiguration itself is the fulcrum of Jesus’ own life: his ministry on earth is almost done, and now he will journey down the mountain, to Jerusalem, death, and resurrection.

Placed powerfully within this vision’s gleaming white brilliance—sees his identity and his path forward with new clarity. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”

My Chosen. Also translated, My Beloved.

In this moment you can almost feel the tectonic plates shifting.

And for Peter, James and John; the witnesses—what now? Stay and bask in the glory, or turn away—leave it behind and head into an unknown future?

Of course Peter’s first reaction (bless his heart) was to focus on the comfort of the glorious present. His intentions may have been good, but he was thinking more of how this vision made him feel, rather that what it was calling him to do. An understandable temptation. Who wouldn’t stand transfixed? Who wouldn’t want it to last forever?

But no. The point isn’t the friends’ vision for themselves. It’s God’s vision for them, and for the world.

“LISTEN.” Don’t just look. Listen. And go down the mountain.

This moment calls to us as well—this is a fulcrum point in the liturgical year. We are at the end of the season of Epiphany, in which we have observed milestones in Jesus’ life that illuminated his identity as God’s son. The divine voice of the Transfiguration echoes Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan at the beginning of the season: “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

Beloved.

Named Beloved as Jesus began his ministry at Baptism, and now named Beloved again as he emerges from the Vision and sets his face toward Jerusalem. When the four friends come down the mountain, “they were silent.” Were they excited? Resolute? Anxious?

Yes.

And as they descended from the mountaintop, the vision fading into memory, they were confronted almost immediately by a different, more gritty and visceral reality—

Crowds. Demons. And frustration.

The father of a suffering child says, “I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.”… [Jesus responds,]”You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?…Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”

Healing. Reunion. And awe. Such is the nature of the work of the Vision of God.

As we enter Lent in the coming week we are called deeper into the work of the Kingdom; into a new season of looking inward to our hearts and outward to a world in need. We are challenged and called to a season of renewed spiritual discipline; as the Ash Wednesday prayer says, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

As we set our faces toward Lent and Easter, we are called to journey with Jesus; a journey that must begin by going down the mountain, strengthened, but not imprisoned, by the vision. We’re called to hear that we, too, are beloved children of God—beloved with all of our frailty, brokenness and Peter-like tendencies to shoot from the lip. We are called to be liberated and nourished by that knowledge; not in order to bask in it and rest on our laurels but to see and serve that belovedness in the troubled world that lies down the mountain from this Transfiguration moment. It won’t be easy. It isn’t meant to be.

Are we ready for the journey? Are we excited? Resolute? Maybe even a little anxious?

Yes.

Are we alone?

No.

Christian Essentials 4: a whirlwind overview of Church history

Summary of Milestones in Christian History

First 150 years from 33 The Birth of the Church on the Day of Pentecost begins a process of growth with the Gospel. Centered on Jerusalem it begins to be preached further afield in different parts of the Greek and Roman world by the Apostle Paul and his companions. By the early part of the 2nd Century we have the recognizable shape and feel of growing Christianity that we find in the New Testament.

150-800. In the year 312, the young Emperor Constantine, stationed on Hadrian’s Wall separating Roman Britain from the Pictish Celtic tribes of modern day Scotland, had a dream in which he saw the banner of Christ in the form of the Greek letters Chi Rho – an abbreviation for the name Christ leading him into battle.

With the conversion of the Empire to Christianity the period we know as Christendom begins. Christendom describes  the evolution from a disparate number of independent church communities, each with their own history connecting them to one of the original Apostles, into becoming an official religion of the Roman State.

Now theology and politics flow in the same channel and the political needs of the Emperor begin to impact the Church.  

This is a period of consolidation and considerable conflict as four emergent centers of Christianity known as patriarchates: Rome-Western Europe, Constantinople-Asia Minor, Antioch-Syria and the Middle East, and Alexandria-Egypt and North Africa, struggle for power and political influence as theological differences take-on political ramifications.

The Conciliar Period

In the interests of stability, successive Emperors summon the bishops to sit in Ecumenical Council.  There were seven Ecumenical Councils, each addressing the long-running disputes. The main areas of controversy concerned: the nature of God – three persons in one God i.e. the Trinity, the relationship between the human and divine natures in Jesus, and the development of the Canon of Scripture which required decisions as to which books were to be included and which to excluded. To us the passion behind these disputes seems odd, but we need to remember that theology can no longer be separated from political struggles.

1054 This is the year of the Great Schism, which separated the Greek-speaking Eastern regions of Christianity from the Latin-speaking Western region – a slit that neatly represented the existing cultural and political division of the Roman Empire between the two competing administrative centers at Rome and Constantinople.

From this point-on, Christianity is no longer a unified, if fractious whole, but two mutually antagonistic branches. We see a growing ‘catholic’ identity centered on the Pope, the Patriarch of Rome in the Latin speaking West, alongside several Greek speaking ‘orthodox’ identities divided between the patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria.

As Anglican Christians we uphold the teaching of the universal Church – that which was universally believed in both Western and Eastern Churches.  Our doctrine is confined to the existing doctrinal developments up to this point. Anglicanism rejects Roman Catholic doctrinal development after the Great Schism e.g. the Assumption of Mary, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Immaculate Conception which refers to the birth of Hannah, the mother of Mary, Papal infallibility, Purgatory, and a host of juridical classifications of human behavior into mortal and venial sins.

The Development of Anglican Identity

Anglicanism is the Christian tradition of the English people – evolved of a 1000-year period. The term Anglican does not emerge until the 16th C. But the seeds of what comes to be known from the 16th C onwards as Anglicanism are laid down from the earliest times of Christianity in Britain.

The Rule of St Benedict and the influence of the development of the Benedictine tradition is the single major shaper of Anglicanism distinctiveness. It could be said that we are Benedictine Christians. The two Benedictine characteristics we inherit are: a privileging of the local, and an emphasis on finding holiness in the ordinary events of everyday life.

An illustration of privileging the local: Both the Catholic and Episcopal Cathedrals in San Francisco have murals around the walls that represent phases and events in Christian history. In the Catholic Cathedral murals commemorate the conversion of the West to Christianity from Constantine through to the evangelization of the Americas. In the Episcopal Cathedral the murals commemorate key events in English Anglican history and the evangelization of California.

An illustration on holiness in everyday life: holiness is found in the experience of daily life. It’s practical and experiential in a world infused with the goodness of God. Anglicanism is Incarnationally rooted, God made the creation to be good into which he sent his son to proclaim the goodness of love found in ordinary human and worldly events. This is contrasted with more cross centered and redemptive theologies that see the world and an evil place rescued by Jesus, and human beings as sinful in need of complete redemption. It also contrasts with Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on juridical distinctions between sacred and profane, and declarations of being in or not being in a state of grace, which is the necessary state required to receive the sacraments of the Church. Being in a state of grace is not a description of personal holiness but a legal classification that follows having been to confession.

Anglicanism emerges through the events of the English Reformation, and the struggles with extreme Protestant reactions – we identify with the Puritans. The English Reformation led to an affirmation of a synthesis of the Apostolic and Catholic identity of the Church, the three-fold order of ministry – bishop, priest, and deacon, and the sacraments with the Reformation theology of both Luther and Calvin.

The Reformation Upheavals

1517 Martin Luther in challenging the sale of indulgences sparks the first phase of the Reformation. The Reformation is a theological reform movement, but its roots lie in the growth of an urban, economically powerful, and increasingly educated, middle class in Northern Europe, which bitterly resented the financial burden of the Church taxes levied by Rome.

1522 First Bible German Bible (Gutenberg Bible) and in 1526 the first Bible in English (Tyndale Bible). 

1533  Henry VIII divorces Catherine, his first wife thus triggering the start of the English Reformation. Unlike the Continental Reformation of Luther, Calvin, and others, Henry’s Reformation is primarily political, not theological. Already Defender of the Faith, Henry declares himself Supreme Head of the Church in place of the Pope. The Church in England now becomes the Church of England, maintaining its essential catholic theology and structure. Henry abolishes the Monasteries in England from 1536 onwards. This is a move motivated by a desire to get his hands on their wealth, rather than Church reform. 1549 the First Book of Common Prayer published by archbishop Thomas Cranmer is the first evidence of more serious theological and liturgical reform.

1547-1558  is a period of instability with more Protestant reforms under Edward VI, followed by a return to Roman Catholicism under Mary I, the synthesis of catholic structure with protestant theological emphasis becomes settled with the accession of Elizabeth I and is known as the Elizabethan Settlement.

1558- 1601 is the period of the Elizabethan Settlement establishing the Church of England as we know it and the emergence of Anglican identityAnglican identity rests on being the middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglican tradition is both catholic in structure and reformed in theological emphasis.

1611 sees the publication of the King James or Revised Standard Bible, named after James I. James continues the Elizabethan Settlement. The KJ Bible becomes the most formative religious text for the English-speaking world.

1611-1642 is a period of religious flowering under the inspiration and scholarship of a group of bishops known as the Caroline (Carolus the Latin for Charles) Divines during the reigns of the Stuart kings, James I, Charles I and Charles II. They represent the classical period of Anglican spirituality and traverses the interruption of the English Civil War.

1642–1660 marks the English Civil War and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell following the execution of Charles I. During the Commonwealth the Church of England was abolished and Anglican identity suppressed. While this conflict has a religious flavor its roots are in the political conflict between autocratic monarchy and early parliamentary democracy.

1660 sees the restoration of the Monarchy and the Church with the return of Charles II accompanied by many bishops and priests who had fled to France in 1642.

1662 a new Book of Common Prayer is published for the purpose of reestablishing a strong Anglican identity. In the Church of England, the BCP of 1662 is still the authorized Book of Common Prayer.

1600-1776 covers the period of initial settlement of the 13 American Colonies. While many Puritan and other religious dissidents fled England to settle in the New England colonies, the Church of England became firmly Church in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies. This period ends with the War of Independence.

The Episcopal Church Emerges

1784 Following the Revolution, Samuel Seabury becomes the first bishop consecrated for the newly formed American Episcopal Church. He was consecrated in Aberdeen by the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Seabury was consecrated in Scotland by the Scottish Episcopal bishops, who had already separated from the Church of England, because he was unable to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King demanded by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A curious aside: The Scottish and American Episcopal Churches were the first Churches of Anglican Tradition independent of the Church of England. This move laid the groundwork for the development of the Anglican Communion – the world-wide body of autonomous Anglican Provinces, in the 19th C. After the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion is the second largest single tradition of Christians.

In 1789 the first American Book of Common Prayer is published as a political adaptation of the 1662 BCP. One condition of the Scottish bishops in ordaining Seabury was that the American Church would take the Anglican Church in Scotland name of Episcopal Church, and that it would incorporate the more catholic theology of the Scottish book’s prayer of consecration in the Eucharist.

The first decades of the Episcopal Church saw growing tension between the episcopal minded Anglicans and the burgeoning Methodist societies. The Methodist societies had been part of the Church of England in the Colonies and represented a revivalist low church tradition among the rural population, esp. in the South. Seabury’s refusal to ordain Methodist lay preachers without a university education resulted in the Methodist societies leaving the Episcopal Church to form their own church. A great swathe of the rural population thus left the Episcopal Church, leaving it concentrated in the urban centers of the East Coast.

Joke: The Baptists evangelized the West by walking, the Methodists rode horses, the Episcopalians had to wait for the invention of the Pullman Car.

Two Key Anglican Concepts

The Centrality of Worship 

This is a crucial period in our history. You may have wondered why the Episcopal Church emphasizes its identity as a community of worship, tolerant of differences in theological emphasis and outlook? It stems from the historical accident of this period when everyone regardless of theology or politics had to belong to the same church. The experience of people who agreed about little, sitting alongside one another in the same pews, meant that identity had to rest on relationships structured around common worship, rather than shared belief. Over time the magic of the Book of Common Prayer molded a community of common worship, which is the unique foundation of Anglican identity.

Today Anglican define their identity as those who agree to worship together using the BCP. Worship defines us not common or shared doctrinal statements or beliefs

 The Three Legged Stool 

This is the name given to a distinctive characteristic of Anglican Tradition. The three legs are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Anglicanism maintains these in a mutual tension with no one aspect being more important than the other two. In Protestantism, Scripture is the most important aspect, in fact the sole defining aspect – sola scriptura –only scripture. In Roman Catholicism Tradition is the dominant aspect.

Scripture is the Bible. Tradition is how the Church interpret the Bible and theology, i.e. the teaching of the Church,  Reason relates to a sense that there are ways of perceiving God and affirming the existence of God that are independent of scriptural revelation. In viewing the goodness of creation and the natural world, human beings become aware of a higher set of values such as love, beauty, honesty and human integrity-nobility – a kind of natural law.

In Anglicanism, Scripture is held in check by being subjected to the understanding of the community of faith i.e. Tradition. This means that the community of the faith – the Tradition of the Church, decides what importance to give to various parts of Scripture and is able to declare parts of Scripture no longer binding, e.g. the N.T. texts supporting slavery. But Tradition is subject to the independent challenge of Scripture, particularly the Gospel. Custom and practice of belief has to sit under the critical evaluation of the Gospel. Both are subjected to the assessment of Reason. Reason challenges the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition when either fly in the face of the higher values of the natural law.

Scripture, Tradition, Reason and the pendulum swing or looking at history through another lens. 

A simple way to view the major shifts in Anglican Church history is to see them as a playing-out of the tensions between the three legs of the stool. Inevitably one leg either grows too long or begins to shrink, either way causing the stool to lose its stability. This results in a correction that returns, for a time at least, some stability to the stool.

Key Swings of the Pendulum

The English Reformation period from 1533-1660 represents a period in which Scripture and Tradition are in serious tension. The movement begins with an elevation of the importance of Scripture as a challenge to Tradition. Remember Tradition is not everything the church does, but represents the major emphases that shape understanding and practice. The dominance of Tradition, always more important in Roman Catholicism, makes sense when most people can’t read and have no direct access to the Bible. In this context, Tradition as represented by the bishops and clergy dictating the content of faith.

Once people start to read the Bible, esp. in their own language, it then becomes possible to challenge Tradition, to challenge the stranglehold of clerical power. This is the underlying dynamic of the Reformation, which elevates Scripture’s position as a counter to Tradition. During this period the balance of power shifts back and forth. Tradition is challenged by people’s direct access to Scripture. This results in a reform of Tradition and an example of this is the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The BCP had three major revisions (1552, 1559, 1662) during this period in response to the tensions between Scripture and Tradition.

During this period the extreme scriptural party, known as the Puritans, are in continual struggle with the more centrist Anglican and Calvinist theologies represented in the mainstream church. An important development of this struggle led to the Puritan emigrations to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in search of a place to practice their form of extreme Biblical Protestantism, and in turn to persecute others who disagreed with them. Political (King verses Pope, King verses Parliament) and economic (rise of educated wealthy merchant class) drivers of social change are all mixed up with theological reform (Protestant direction) and counter reform (Catholic direction) in this period.

After 1660 and throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries there is a tension between the growing influence of Reason spurred-on by the beginnings of the scientific revolution. Remember that Newton and Bacon and all the great scientific figures of this time are all Anglican priests because until the early 19th Century to teach in the Universities required ordination.

Throughout this period the importance of Scripture wanes dramatically and Tradition and Reason are in principle contention. Tradition fights a series of losing battles and Reason triumphs with the forces of the Enlightenment. By the latter part of the 18th Century, Reason is supreme, and this is represented by a movement known as Deism.

Deism replaces the Christian revelation of God with God as the supreme architect of the Universe. Creation comes to be seen as a clockwork mechanism over which God reigns from a distance leaving human agency, guided by reason to keep things in good running order.

Church architecture follows a return to Classical Greek and Roman styles. American civic architecture, established in this period displays the strong influences of the Roman Imperial style of domes, columns, and heroic friezes.  

The Founding Fathers were not as often contended today, good Evangelical Christians, but Deists. The God of Jefferson and Washington was the God of rationalism, the natural laws of self and social improvement, and political and scientific enlightenment.

1790’s to 1850 are dates marking a broad period when Scripture begins to challenge the triumph of Reason. John and Charles Wesley represent a growing desire to return to Scripture and the centrality of a heart-felt relationship with Christ that is capable of changing lives. This is the period of the rise of Methodism and the Evangelical Revival.

This very necessary swing back toward the importance of Scripture and personal piety lays the foundations for great social reforms, the greatest of which are: the movement for the abolition of slavery, Quaker led reform of the prisons, and the abolition of child labor. The evangelical God is a God who is no longer dispassionate, overseeing from a distance, but a God who cares about and is involved in the plight of individuals. The British social democracy tradition of the Labour Party is not the legacy of Marxism – as many American believe,  but Christian Socialism – of Evangelical and Quaker application of the Bible in the service of social reform.

1840’s to Mid 20th Century. Nothing is more certain that after a period of steady rise in the assertion of Scripture over Reason a swing in the direction of Tradition was inevitable. The Oxford Movement was a reassertion of Tradition, which led to a revaluing of Anglicanism’s catholic heritage.

The emphasis of this movement marks a return to the centrality of liturgical worship as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. This essentially conservative Tradition-focused swing expressed itself in a revival of the medieval Gothic style of architecture, and a return to ‘catholic’ ceremonial.

Throughout the period of Reason, the main Sunday service would have been Morning Prayer with a very long sermon. The Evangelicals didn’t favor liturgical worship much at all, preferring revivalist styles of gathering with fervent hymn singing. The Oxford Movement, reestablishes the Eucharist as the first service on a Sunday with Sung Matins remaining the main service, now much embellished by the addition of ceremonial and music etc. Eventually, in many Anglo-catholic Churches Matins was replaced by a return of the High Mass – a very elaborate celebration of the Eucharist.

Parishes described as ‘Broad Church’, which had stood out against the Anglo-catholic movement became influenced by the Parish Communion Movement following the First World War. By the middle of the 20th Century Eucharistic Anglican liturgy, as we now know it, had fully returned to most parts of the Church. This ‘liturgical’ development was finally completed in the Episcopal Church with the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer instituting changes to the structure of the Eucharist as the fruit of the liturgical reform movement of the Second Vatican Council.

The Mid 20th – 21st Century is a period of balanced equilibrium between the three legs of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. 

Scripture was strengthened by contributions from the new academic disciplines of history, archeology, and textual analysis. It became possible to understand the complex textual and historical developments that produced the books of the Bible in a new and deeper way. We will look at this in greater detail when we come to study the Bible. 

Tradition now played a central role, not only in stressing the importance of Eucharistic-centered liturgical worship, but Tradition as the expression of the mind of the community of faith built-on developments in understanding and interpreting Scripture. For instance, Anglican Churches came to understand the changing relationship between men and women as a shift in Scriptural emphasis. More recently, the emancipation of LGBT people follows a similar pattern. Tradition also encouraged a return to spirituality and the importance of a devotional life. 

Reason brought new ways of making sense of the Christian Faith in the light of scientific progress. This has allowed Anglicans to accept that the value of science lies in its observational and explanatory approach to the material world. The value of religion lies not in a competing explanatory power but as the rich source for truth as history and truth as metaphor.

The Relationship of Revelation and Experience

Revelation and experience are integral to each leg of the stool, yet, each leg represents a position on the continuum between revelation and experience. Scripture is the revelation end of the continuum. Scripture is the primary source for revelation. Yet, Scripture is dead if that revelation does not evoke experience of God in the personal and communal spaces of the here and now. Tradition lies at the experience end of the continuum. For Tradition is the revelation of Scripture embodied in the lived experience of the community. Lived experience of the community is a good tag for Tradition. Through being faithful to our participation in the lived experience of the community we remain open to being touched in new ways by revelation. Reason, is the farthest from Scripture on the continuum. Reason contains its own sources for revelation independent of Scripture. This is revelation that comes to us through our natural senses of the world around us, and our ability to consciously reflect on our experience. So reason is revelation at its most experiential. 

The three-legged stool as metaphor is limited by the mental picture of the stool. The image of the stool is about the need to communicate the importance of stability that comes only when no one leg is more important than another. Yet, another image is of the three-stranded cord, and maybe this offers a more dynamic flexible image. Yet, the relationships between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are always dynamic as history shows the ebb and flow between them. Also within each there is a dynamic flux between revelation as that which is given to us, and experience, which is how we make this, our own.

Reflection Questions

  1. How does the balance between the importance of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason play out in your temperament, i.e. which do you find more important for you?
  2. Do you need to pay more attention to your development in one of these areas?

What Goes Around, Comes Around: Luke 6: 27-38

As I pointed out last week, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are different treatments of the same story, each shaped by the particular concerns and ideologies of the writer. Luke’s presentation has a directness that brings Jesus’ teaching into the tense and contested negotiations of everyday life. In particular Jesus addresses the two most intractable problems that promote competition between one person and another, between one group in society and another, between the few and the many.

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Faced with this text even Christians who believe all scripture should be read as the plain meaning of the words on the page will feel the impossibility of taking these words on this page at their face meaning. Love our enemies – at least in principle is a noble aspiration, and we would expect an idealized and perfect Jesus to have said nothing less. Yet, when practiced as Jesus suggests it implies relinquishing all appropriate measures of self-defense and self-assertion.

For most of us we are forced to reject the plain meaning of the text because it’s impossible to live like this. To do so is to embrace a spiritualized form of emotional masochism, a recommendation frequently offered to women in the face of male domestic violence. This text has often been the justification for accepting one’s helplessness, one’s powerlessness.

Is Jesus asking us to give up all power and material protections in situations where another seeks to impose themselves upon us?

When everything in this section of his teaching is seen as pivoting on the line do to others as you would have them do to you, I think a clearer perspective emerges.

Between one person and another, between one section in society and another, there lies a contested ground. Our competitive society promotes self-protection and if not a spirit of strike first before you are struck, at least if struck, strike back harder. Everyday life is viewed from the competitive perspective of contested ground. Each of us must be the first to occupy the contested ground. It does not require much imagination to see what results from this.

In his commentary on Luke in the New Interpreters Bible, Alan Culpepper notes that Jesus teaching is both a repudiation of privilege based on wealth and the repudiation of retaliation that spawns violence. He notes that Jesus’ teaching is:

diametrically opposed to the assumptions of the marketplace and the media that shape American culture: The wealthy are privileged, and conflict requires that one show strength through retaliation. Our heroes, therefore, are usually neither poor nor non-violent. As a result, the power of materialism and the question for possessions have increased dramatically during this century and violence in our homes, schools, and streets is rampant.

Is the choice only between strength and weakness, invulnerability and vulnerability? If you read Jesus words in a binary fashion, black or white, true or false, then you are rather stuck in the face of this question. Remember the pivotal line in this section of the Sermon on the Plain is do to others as you would have them do to you. This line counteracts notions of competition by establishing a fundamental commonality between parties in the contested areas of everyday life.

It’s important to remember that Biblical texts have an original context and understanding this often will open up new and unforeseen possibilities of meaning.

Jesus uses the very specific language of striking on the cheek and there is a context in his world for doing this that makes his meaning here clearer. Without knowing this we either reject his words as parabolic- exaggerated and thus impossible to apply, or we think he’s telling us we need to become passive doormats in the face of others aggression.

In Jesus time the standard practice for masters disciplining slaves, fathers disciplining children, and husbands disciplining wives was to give them a good slap on the face. As far as acts of aggression go this is a relatively non injurious way of showing who is the boss. The real point of slapping someone in the face is not to injure them, but to humiliate them. If you’ve ever been slapped in the face you will know that the blood rushes to the surface of the skin, not simply because of the physical force of impact, but because of the shame of this experience. If someone punches me in the stomach, I will pull back and nurse my injury. I will look at them and ask, why? If someone slaps me in the face, I am more likely to strike back as an automatic response, spurred by the rage of the humiliation inflicted on me.

Now here is where original context comes in. Masters, fathers, and husbands struck the left cheek of the lower status person with their right hand. When Jesus says turn the other cheek, he is saying present the right side of your face to be struck. But the striker can’t slap your right cheek with his right hand. To do so he would need to use his left hand. In a society where left hands were only used for actions considered unclean, there would have been a prohibition from using the left hand in this situation because to do so would bring intense social shame to the striker.

Presenting the other cheek is not the action of becoming a doormat, a passive acceptance on another’s violence, it is to defy the aggressor with a nonviolent action of resistance.

Likewise, the requirement to give up my coat and even my shirt is a challenge to my reliance on the material protections of wealth and security within which I insulate myself from the more direct challenges of life. We live in a society that encourages the acquisition of material wealth and power as the best forms of self-protection and self-preservation. This is about our aquistive and possessive attitude to material possessions.

When Jesus tell his hearers to give up their coat and even their shirt, he is affirming God’s intention of creating a world where there is enough for all to share. A situation of my having more than I need resulting in another having less than they is a product of the injustices of distribution and inequalities of access. This is what Jesus is asking us to confront directly through our nonviolent willingness to share with others from our abundance.

Do to others as you would have them do to you.  

Attitudes and actions have a habit of interconnecting, interpenetrating in a field of complexity. Resistance is not acceptance. Where violence provokes violence, Jesus asks us to interrupt and redirect this dynamic by offering nonviolent resistance in the face of aggression.   Towards the end of this long teaching Jesus says:

Give, and it will be given to you: a good measure, having been pressed down, shaken overflowing will be given into your lap. With what measure you measure it will be measured to you.

What goes around comes around, as the old saying goes.

Are Your Ears Burning Yet? Luke 6:17-26

In last Sunday’s installment of Christian Essentials, i.e. those core understandings that underpin our identity and experience as Christians living in this present age, we engaged with the second question – Who is Jesus?

Who is Jesus? The answer first finds it’s echo in the book of Isaiah’s longed-for expectation of one arising in whom God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled. For the early Christians Jesus is the embodiment of this Hebrew longing. In Jesus the first Christians experienced the inauguration of God’s plan of setting not only Israel, but the whole world to rights.

The writers of the New Testament present different portraits of Jesus, and I write about this in more detail in the Christian Essential series on the website. It’s enough to say here that the gospel writers are like portrait painters. Even when the subject of the portrait is the same, the interpretation of what the painter sees is always particular to the painter. The subject of the portrait emerges through the filter of the artist’s world view.

Jesus’ sermon known as the beatitudes is one of his most loved, yet also one of the most misunderstood and argued over of his teachings. That Matthew and Luke depict this incident in which Jesus teaches through the beatitudes differently only adds to the confusion.

In 2019, Epiphany 6 gives us Luke’s portrait of this event in Jesus’ teaching ministry.

The difference between the Matthean and Lucan versions of this story reminds me that in the later traditions of Western religious painting, holy scenes are set in the foreground against a deeper background that is full of highly symbolic detail. It’s the background detail that differs greatly from painter to painter. It is so with Matthew and Luke. The difference in the way each situates Jesus’ teaching against a particular topographical background alerts us to a tension that goes to the very heart of our experience as Christians in today’s world.

In your mind’s eye create the following scene: Matt 5:1: When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said: …. .

Now picture this: Luke 6:17: Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him; so many people healed! Then he spoke: …. .

The scene painted by Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Here we see Jesus emerging as the new improved Moses, delivering his new model Torah from the mountaintop only to those who constitute the new and improved community of Israel. 

Luke’s depiction of this scene is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus emerges clothed in the hues of Isaiah’s universalistic figure ushering in the messianic age: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. This is an age characterized by an expansion of God’s promises beyond Israel to include the whole world.

As well as being an embodiment of Isaiah’s messianic vision, Luke depicts Jesus as a cosmopolitan healer, an image that conveyed wide appeal to Luke’s Gentile audience.

Luke’s Jesus, having broken out of the straitjacket of Jewish expectation comes down from the lofty isolation of the mountain top to mix it up with all in sundry in an intimacy with the desperate and seething throng of humanity; promising healing to all.

Between mountain and plain lies the tension between different approaches to what living the Christian life involves; a tension that continues into our own time. There is a Matthean approach that from a lofty height emphasizes the distinction between who’s included and who is not, who’s committed, and who isn’t, where the question always is: how high do you have to jump to get into the kingdom? Then there’s the Lukan approach that assumes that none of us can be included in the kingdom while any one of us remains outside – that is, intentionally excluded from the invitation of the kingdom God.

Matthew’s portrait of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the importance of holding firmly to spiritual values sustained by the promise of future reward. Here Jesus proclaims: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – a phrase that suggests some future state.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus delivering the sermon on the Plain emphasizes human experience in real time. Jesus says: Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God –a phrase that suggest something right now in real time.

To Matthew’s: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled, Luke says: Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Matthew addresses his hearers in the third person – they, theirs leaving the hearer with a more impersonal and generalized experience. Luke uses the more direct second person address– you and yours, as in: hey you, yes you, I talking to you!

In truth, a balanced Christian life must acknowledge the Matthean emphasis on an expectation of a future fulfillment of kingdom promises through perseverance and courageous faithfulness in the face of very real present time challenge.

However, it’s the Lukan emphasis on living in the kingdom now, not looking forward to it in the future that is the greater priority for Christians in today’s world.

We need to do more than hold firm in the face of the evils of the world in the hope that all will come right in the end. We are required by Jesus to continue his work of agitating for the arrival of the kingdom of a God who is already present and active in the world, and who requires our assistance through the action we take in real time.

Although I value Matthew’s very Jewish depiction of Jesus’ message as the promise or expectation of future rewards for present fidelity, it’s those who feel comfortable with the status quo of worldly business as usual, ignoring or explaining away the systemic inequalities and injustices that characterize our present social order who will choose Matthew for support. Looking to Matthew’s spiritual emphasis for justification, they avoid the uncomfortable truth of Luke’s Jesus who counters blessing with threat as well as blessing.

But woe to you who are privileged now, for you will be subpoenaed to give account. Woe to you who are now satisfied, for you will know the hunger when self-satisfaction fails to fulfill. Woe to you who are enjoying the good life now, for disaster is always only one breath away.

Luke’s is a political message about confronting economic injustice, the self-satisfied pride of the rich, by living the kingdom’s expectation for greater social and racial inclusion as a present imperative for the Christian life.

This is a call to action, which if heard,are your ears burning yet?

Christian Essentials:3. God Jesus and the Church

Summary so far

  1. God is a community within a single identity (refer back to session1). The Genesis creation accounts of God as Creator bringing order to the universe are set in the predawn before human history. We refer to these accounts a myth or stories that convey timeless truth.
  • In Exodus God self-declares within human history as Liberator in the Old Testament and as Loving Savior in the New Testament. With Exodus we begin the great epic or the story of God’s relationship with Israel and then the Church conveyed within time through the events in human history.
  • Within the divine community we can identify creative, expressive, and energetic elements which the Nicene Creed refers to these as persons. But because they are of the same substance they comprise only one divine identity.
  • The expressive- communicative aspect of the divine community is known as Logos (word, reason or plan). In English we translate this rather inadequately as the Word. The Word enters into creation in the human person of the Jesus (refer back to session 2).
  • The divine person of The Word and the human person of Jesus co-exist alongside each other within a human life. The divine and the human sit in mutual relationship – healing the breach between Creator and creation.
  • Through the death and resurrection of Jesus – resurrection as understood as life, after life after death – God realizes God’s historic promise of liberation and restoration of the creation through an act of bringing the future into the present. In raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated ahead of time as it were, what he intends for the resurrection of a new creation at the end of time.
  • The Church is the divine-mystical and human-institutional embodiment of the continuation of the work begun by Jesus as the Christ-Messiah, work which is now empowered by the third person or energetic element of God we know as The Holy Spirit.
  • The Church sits in the time in-between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the world – the age of The Holy Spirit.
  • As in Jesus The Word and the human co-existed, so now the divine Spirit (the energetic expression of God which hovered the chaos at creation) and the human institution or organization co-exist alongside each other in the life of the Church which as the Body of Christ continues to embody the ministry of Jesus in the world.

What is the Church? The short answer is the Church is the human community that through its divine empowerment by the energetic Spirit of God continues the work begun by Jesus and now continues in us; the work of setting the world to rights.

Doctrine is the articulation of the Church as it understands the truth of God’s relationship with the world.

The Holy Trinity

The Trinity is the doctrine that speaks of God’s essential nature as three persons in one identity. Before the Trinity was a doctrine it was an experience of the first followers of Jesus the Messiah that gave the particular shape to their experience of God. They already knew of God the creator. They had come to personally encounter God present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Finally, they had the experience of God infused within them and all around them as divine spirit.

The first followers of Jesus three-form experience of God was a lived, daily experience. With the passage of time, the immediacy of this experience among the followers of Jesus needed an official articulation. As the influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the successive generations of increasingly Gentile Christians became the tool kit for speaking about a God experienced in three manifestations but was not three gods but one.

The Holy Trinity is a philosophical theory that gave the growing Christian Church the language to both speak about this triune nature or as I refer to it this communal nature of God. But the primary function of the trinity as doctrine is not to explain God but to protect the mystery that is God from being reduced to only that which successive generations were able to understand.

In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that nevertheless shared one nature or substance – hence three persons in one God.

It might have been simpler for the Early Church if it had used instead of Aristotelian Logic the simple poetry of the Ancient Irish:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints of the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all water their origin share,
Three Persons in God; to one God alone we make our prayer.

A modern reframing

Our individual sense of self – who am I, is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me. This is a wonderful analogy for the identities or persons within the divine community of the Trinity.

You might like to visit http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon explanation.htm  which expresses this concept of beholding and being beheld in the gaze of the other. Rublev’s divine persons express their individuality through their look at each other, yet they look with exactly the same face.

Relationship not Function

The Father (the lover) is the creator source of all things. The Son (the beloved) is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit (love sharer) is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but their relationship. They enjoy a relationship which is the fruit of each divine person discovering themselves in the gaze of the other two.

Traditionally we used the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to refer to God. What’s important about these names lies not their gendered nature, but as relational terms. Sometimes we attempt to escape the gendered overtones of these traditional names for God by talking of creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. These are certainly adjectives that describe function, but they cannot express relationality. Therefore, we should avoid referring to God by use of functional adjectives and instead find other terms that denote relationship. I prefer lover, beloved and love sharer. Each term links and refers to the other two, which is the nature of relationship.

Baptism – Belonging Preceding Believing

Baptism is the ceremony of entry into the Church. Contrary to a lot of popular belief, baptism is not about individual salvation. It’s coming to belong, about belonging, and about nurturing and growing as part of a community of faith.

Baptism involves four key elements. The first is Spirit. Baptism finds an echo in the actions of God’s Spirit hovering and brooding over the void at creation in Genesis 1. It also finds echo in the Spirit breathing life into the lungs of the human being fashioned out of the elements of the earth in Genesis 2. The Spirit, which is the source of all life, is given to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Christians the Holy Spirit is the sanctifying and sustaining energy of God active in the world.

The second element is Water.  Water is necessary for life. It is elemental. It also nourishes, cleanses and restores. In our baptism we find an echo to the passing of the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea – a rite of passage. In the waters of baptism, we also die and rise to the new life in Christ whether through the symbolism of total emersion or the pouring of water over the head. Both have the same meaning in the sense that the Eucharist is a meal even though we are only given a piece of bread and a sip of wine.

Thirdly there is Covenant. In the 31st chapter of Jeremiah God speaks of a new relationship with his people in which his law is transformed from a set of commands to something written on the inside of their hearts. In baptism we are signing ourselves into the New Covenant initiated by Jesus through the cross and resurrection. Baptism is our response to God’s invitation to enter into covenant. Like a contract, a covenant is a conditional offer that requires a response of acceptance to transforms it into something potential to something realized.

The fourth element is Community. All of created life is sacred. Physical birth ushers us into the goodness of God’s Creation. Being created involves neither a choice nor a response from us. In this sense to be human is to be most like God. Baptism reminds us that no one drifts into the Kingdom of God by mistake. As Christians we embrace the fundamental goodness of creation by making the choice to enter into a deliberate and particular covenant with God. In this sense being Christian is to know that to be human is to be most like God. Baptism is our entry into the saving and cross bearing community we call the Church.

Additional Elements

  1. Baptism is the same for all whether you are three months-old or 30 years-old.
  2. It is a once in a lifetime event.
  3. No prior knowledge or demonstration of faith is necessary to be baptized. What is required is an intention to journey within the community of the Church. Belonging precedes believing.
  4. The importance for baptism is what happens following it. Its meaning and effect grow within us through a daily renewal of our baptismal promises of the Baptismal Covenant.
  5. There is no special status within the Christian community beyond that of being baptized. Both St Paul in Romans 12 and the writer of 1 Peter:2 speak of the community of the baptized as a royal priesthood.
  6. Even those set aside by ordination hold the same spiritual rank as all other baptized members.
  7. Ordination for ministry is a call from within the whole body of the baptized for leaders to guide the community into becoming more fully an embodiment of the Kingdom of God.

Baptism and The Eucharist

Any baptized person, no matter their age is invited to receive Holy Communion. Why? Because Baptism is the sacrament of entry into community of the Church and Eucharist is the participation in the life of that community. Confirmation was the traditional rite of passage to Communion. This was a historical decision not a theological one because confirmation adds little other than an opportunity to confirm baptismal vows, when made by us as infants. Thus, the current practice of the Episcopal Church is to communicate infants and children who have been baptized.

The Nicene Creed

There is a funny story told about Fr. Harry Williams who was a well-known member of the Community of the Resurrection – one of the great missionary communities in the Church of England (Desmond Tutu along with a generation of South African leaders were all educated by CR.)

Over the top of each monk’s stall in the choir was a light operated by pulling a dangling cord. When the monks all stood for the recitation of the Nicene Creed, Fr. Harry would sit down and turn off his light when they came to particular lines in the creed he didn’t believe.

I am often asked do we have to believe every line of the creed? Well Fr. Harry Williams clearly didn’t. But this is an amusing anecdote because Fr. Harry should have known that we say the creed not as a statement of individual belief, but as a statement of what the Church has always believed.

The Nicene Creed represents the historic faith of the Church. We have a dynamic relationship to shared faith. Some bits we readily affirm while other bits we may have doubts about and this is a continually moving target over a lifetime. This may change from day to day as an expression of how we are feeling – hopeful or despondent.

However, the faith of the Church continues to remain the faith of the historic community. Its truth does not rely on our individual assent, nor is it invalidated by our individual doubts.

The Church has down the ages affirmed its shared belief in God as Trinity, and in Jesus as both divine and human, not in order to explain God but to protect God from being explained away.

For further reflection

  1. One Christian is no Christian. Discuss.
  2. How might a growing sense of 1. above influence the way you live and think about your membership in the Church?
  3. Trace in your mind’s eye the emergent sequence of experiences that led the first Christians to conceive of God as Trinity.
  4. How do the five vows of the Baptismal Covenant BCP pg 304-05 influence your actions and worldview?
  5. Go to the link given for the Rublev Icon of the Trinity. Gaze at it. Note the sequence of movement from Creator to Word to Spirit. Reflect on the experience of gazing at identical figures and ask yourself the question: the figures look identical, but do they feel the same to you?

Christian Essentials Who is Jesus?

Jesus in the Old Testament

The Prophets in the Old Testament look forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise to raise up a Messiah – an anointed one – whose coming will usher in a new age of fulfilment for Israel.

The book of Isaiah offers two significant images for the Messiah: that of a child and the other of a suffering servant. In First Isaiah chapter 7 we read:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

In Chapter 9 we also read:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

In Chapters 42,49,50, 52-53 we find the four Servant Songs – made so familiar to our modern ears as the texts used by Mr Handel to set to music in his The Messiah. The one promised who will redeem Israel comes with strength and in hope.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “your God reigns”. 52:7

The mood darkens however, as the Servant is also a figure who through suffering will redeem Israel.

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; “a man of suffering and acquainted with grief; as one from whom others hide their faces” he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; … But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 53:2-5

Whoever, the prophets had in mind when they proclaimed their vision for the final fulfilment of Israel, the first Christians understood Jesus to be the embodied fulfilment of both kinds of Messiah, the babe who will usher in a reign of justice and the servant whose suffering will redeem not simply the community of Israel, but the whole world.

Jesus in the New Testament

In the New Testament we have five accounts identifying Jesus. They all agree that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed promised one. But they vary widely in the details.

Mark is the first gospel to be written. Writing for a community undergoing persecution he links Jesus identity to that of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. The Son of Man, the title Mark uses for Jesus, physically takes on the suffering and sin of the world and in doing so enables God to bring about a new beginning. Mark establishes Jesus continuity with the prophetic messianic. Jesus first appears in Mark as an adult man coming for baptism by John. John, for Mark roots Jesus in the OT prophecies for John the Baptist is the embodiment of Elijah, the forerunner who will announce the arrival of the Messiah.

Matthew, writing for a beleaguered Jewish Christian community recently expelled from the synagogues present Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new Law. Matthew offers the first birth narrative in which his opening words are:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David and son of Abraham.

We need explore no further to understand Matthew’s image for Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new Law, in effect condensing Moses’ Ten Commandments into two Great Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew has an exalted sense of Jesus and so prefers the title Son of God, a title which also has deep Jewish roots.

Luke is the internationalist propagandist of the New Testament. Luke also provides a birth narrative more closely tied to Isaiah 7. Where the focus of Matthew is on Joseph as the conduit for transmitting Jesus’ Davidic heritage, Luke’s attention is on Mary, and his message is of Jesus as the healing reconciler of divisions and the herald of a vision of divine inclusion.

If Matthew’s image of Jesus is a rebuke to newly forming Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the temple in 70 AD, Luke’s message has the wider Roman and Greek world in its sights.

Both Matthew and Luke use the title Son of God in its historical Jewish sense – meaning one chosen by God. We have to wait for John to give its characteristically Christian meaning of God the Son.

John’s Jesus harkens back to the Genesis stories of creation we looked at last week. Jesus is God the Son, the logos, or the Word, the communicative element of the divine community, present with God since before the creation of the world.

In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God. … The Word was made flesh and lived among us.

If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree on who Jesus is, they differ on how Jesus comes to be who he is. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ unique relationship with God is through birth. For Mark it’s through adoption and baptism. For John, it’s through preexistence as the second person of the divine community, the embodied bringer of God’s love into the world.

Paul, the most influential of early Christian writers communicates a mystical vision of Jesus the Messiah. While on route to Damascus to arrest the Christian there, the Pharisee of Pharisees Saul encounters Jesus in a blinding experience. For Saul-Paul this is- a vision of God appearing with the face and voice of Jesus the Messiah. Paul does not explore the biography of Jesus. However, steeped in the study of the Torah and the Prophets, Paul’s Jesus the Messiah, the promised one, the Lord, in whom the hopes and dreams of Israel have been fulfilled by God.

Who Jesus is and how he comes to be who he is hangs on two baffling and confusing questions.

The Conundrum of the Incarnation

So, is Jesus God’s Son in the Ancient Jewish sense of one anointed by God as Messiah? Or, is he God the Son, the divine nature in human form? And if so, is he more divine or more human? Is he really divine masquerading as a human being? Or is he a human being who enjoys a special level of conscious awareness of connection with God? Or is he a mixture of both divine and human in a uniquely new way?

The Church struggled with these question for the first 5 centuries of its life. Much blood was spilled in the process. Although ‘officially’ settled, the tension in these questions still bedevils us today. Eventually, the official or orthodox position emerged which in the words of the Nicene Creed holds that Jesus is both human and divine, that in him both natures sti alongside each other; neither taking precedence over. We might say that in Jesus the divine and human sit in a mutual relationship of equals.

This belief is crucial to Christian faith. But it is not an attempt to actually describe the nature of Jesus as it is to protect the two truths we do know:

  • That Jesus is in a unique sense connected with God,
  • and that in Jesus God proclaims that to be most fully human is to be most like the divine. Discuss

The Conundrum of the Resurrection

How are we to understand Jesus being raised by God three days after his attested physical death? There are two possibilities: Resurrection could mean life after death? Or it could mean life, after life, after death? Resurrection is commonly misconceived of as a two-step process as n life after death. But it’s a three-step process. First comes life, then comes death, then comes life after physical death. Discuss!!

In a personal reflection on this session, the following statements are in tension. Notice the one that speaks more to you and reflect on why this might be. What does this tell you about yourself and who Jesus is for you?

a. I can relate to Jesus because he was God’s Son and this makes him special, divine, more than human.

b. I can relate Jesus because he was subject to the same limitations and struggles I experience, and this makes him human like me.

c. Resurrection is a spiritual experience that the disciples had of a mystical presence of Jesus still with them.

d. Resurrection is Jesus’ return to physical life after death as the beginning of a process that will finally end with the physical making new the whole creation.

e. My Christian goal in life is to see resurrection as my eventual get out of jail card so that at the end I too my go to heaven to be with Jesus and God.

f.My Christian goal is to live the life of the resurrection in the here and now – working with God in real time in the healing of the world.

h. to believe the right things in the right way is what is important to me.

i. To live in the right way with right relationship with others being more important than believing the right things is more important to me.

Who will go?

An observation: how many of us make the connection between the scene depicted in Isaiah 6:1-8 and the atmospheric tone of our Anglican tradition of worship in the Episcopal Church? Some of us are fortunate to worship in churches where the craftsmen of a past generation have employed stone and wood, color and iconography, glass, tile and rich fabric to create a context rich in the symbolism and atmosphere of Isaiah’s description of his experience in the Temple at Jerusalem.

There are, indeed, contemporary churches where in a different way the architectural purity of unadorned line and spaciousness of dimension recaptures the grandeur of Isaiah’s experience. Yet, even when our church building may seem rather pedestrian and ordinary by comparison with great cathedrals and churches, care is never-the-less taken to make the sanctuary a fitting place for the worship of God.

For the worship of God is what Episcopalians do first and foremost when they meet together on Sunday morning. No matter the building we happen to find ourselves in, the structure of the liturgy communicates the very essence of Isaiah’s experience. At the climax of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, the congregation loudly proclaims the Seraphs’ cry:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Isaiah 6:1-8 has created the imaginative template for Christian liturgical worship. Sometimes this template translates as a physical space, but always as an internal space, independent of physical environment in which the members of the worshiping congregation are drawn into a collective experience facilitated by the heartbeat of the liturgy. For worship offers us a collective experience that is greater than the sum total of our individual parts. Whether celebrated with pomp and circumstance or with a simple and quiet dignity by a priest and a handful of faithful worshipers.

A second observation about this passage is that it is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful account of a call or conversion experience to be found anywhere in scripture. Overwhelmed with sensory overload, the young Isaiah in response to the Seraphim song ejaculates: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips: yet my eyes gave seen the king, the Lord of hosts!  Extending the metaphor of unclean lips, a seraph takes a burning coal from the incense stand and seers his lips as absolution is pronounced.

I had a rather facetious thought that I should always have a brazier of burning coals to hand when I hear individual confessions – but I guess that this is not a good way to encourage privatized Episcopalians to avail themselves of this spiritual remedy for a troubled conscience.

My third observation concerning this passage is that immediately the deal has been sealed between Isaiah and the Lord, the Lord makes a request in the form of the question: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

I am struck by the fact that God asks instead of simply assuming; for relationship of the sort God seeks with Isaiah requires the giving of consent. Isaiah consents: Here am I; send me!

In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle, Paul hints at his own conversion experience, which compares well alongside that of Isaiah’s. Saul as he was then known, while travelling to Damascus in pursuit of the followers of Jesus whom he – Pharisees of the strictest party of the Pharisees was persecuting, he is struck down by a vision that leaves him disoriented and blind for several days.

Saul, would have been extremely familiar with Isaiah’s account of his call in the Temple. Many times his meditation upon the text may well have convinced him of his divinely appointed mission to bring the renegade followers of Jesus to book. Perhaps it was his meditation on Isaiah 6 that as his mind sought to fill the time as he travelled on the hot and dusty road, Saul suddenly saw more than the hem of the Lord’s garment. Did Saul gaze upon the very face of God and see the face of Jesus asking him: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul, the Pharisee, driven by a jealous longing for the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel was confronted with the realization that the promise that motivated his waking hours and haunted his dreams had come to fulfilment already in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So far, we have two examples of fairly mystical and somewhat ecstatic conversion experiences. The account of being called that Luke offers us in Chapter 5 is set in the context of everyday activity. Peter and his companions are small boat owners. They are tired after a hard night fishing and frustrated with little to show for it. Who is this guy sitting in a boat talking nonsense about throwing out the nest again?

In most translations Simon addresses Jesus as Master when he protests that they have been at it all night. While grammatically correct, Richard Swanson suggest a more idiomatic choice of boss, suggesting something of a facetious edge underneath Simon’s outward respect to this itinerant teacher who is, frankly, just making a nuisance of himself. In to Jesus suggestion the spirit of Simon’s response seems to convey the meaning of:

Hey boss, you’re the expert – which when it comes to fishing both Simon and Jesus knew was not true.

It’s all a big surprise when the nets are so full of fish they can’t be hauled in without help. In that moment, whatever it is that Simon recognizes, it causes him to fall at Jesus feet exclaiming: Go away from me for I am not worthy enough to draw your attention to me. We hear the echo of Isaiah’s words: I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.

Jesus in effect says: Never mind, there’s nothing to be afraid of because from now on you will be catching people. Luke tells us, Simon and his partners James and John left everything in that moment and followed Jesus.

Do you have a recollection of a call or conversion experience? For most of us the growth into faith is gradual and allowing for some ups and downs, coming to faith is a steady process over time. And yet, can we recall a memory of a moment in time – when looking back – we now see a turning point when we set out on a new path towards faith?

Mine came at the age of 15 when I attended the service of Evensong for the first time in the beautiful stone church of St Barnabas, in Fendalton, the East Side of my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand. As I gazed at the altar – alight with two tall candles burning below the great East Window through which the last of the summer twilight filtered, I became enthralled by the sung rhythm of the suffrages – the call and answer responses that are intoned, alternating back and forth between officiant, choir, and congregation. I heard the words in my head: how come I never knew there was anything as beautiful as this?

This memory is more a testament to my internal experience rather than to any extraordinary uniqueness of this particular Evensong; for this is the nature of call or conversion experience. Sometimes, the moment of call comes with dramatic special effects, but mostly it comes through ordinary events that for the individual take on extraordinary significance.

I went home that evening, outwardly unchanged. But looking back, sitting in that church, on that particular evening, I set out upon a different path. It took many years for me to be able to say: here am I, Lord, send me.

We are all people with unclean lips, and we too find in us the echo of Simon Peter’s words: go away from me Lord, for I am not worthy. Yet, the Lord calls uncovers the trustworthiness that is in us.

We certainly live among a people with unclean lips, and it’s clear that the purpose of God’s call to each of us is to advance the expectations of the kingdom identifying and challenging the evils of the human societal status quo which always favors power and wealth in the fight for justice and liberation from all forms of oppression. But we also have seen the Lord of hosts.

Each week we come to worship, where we hear and receive God in the dignity of the liturgy and in the faces of those with whom we worship. We take God into our mouths, and we feed on him in our hearts. We too have seen the Lord of hosts and we are ready, if we will but know it, to take hold of the opportunities and meet head-on the challenges that lie ahead. Yet, one more thing is needed. Our consent. God still asks: Whom shall I send, who will go for us? Do we have the courage to say: here am I, here are we, Lord, I/we will go.

Christian Essentials (2019) What or Who is God?

What is God? God is Creator

What is God?, is question set in mythological time – that is, taking place before the dawn of historical time.

Genesis 1: the first story of creation from which we learn the following:

  1. The Creator exists as the prime mover of creation, existing before the act of creation itself.
  2. In the act of creation, the Creator brings order to the chaotic, swirling elements ordering them in the structures of creation.
  3. The created order is built up layer upon layer.
  4. The final layer of creation is human. All the elements of creation are expressions of the Creator’s desire to make something lovely. But humanity is different – how?
  5. Like all artists each layer of the creation in some vital way is Creator’s self-expression.
  6. However, humanity is the layer of creation that is most like God – able to behold the goodness of creation and to know the Creator of the beautiful ordering of creation – humans are given a quality that only God has up to this point – awareness and self-awareness.

In Gen 1 we learn that God as Creator is relational by nature. God uses the pronouns we and us and our, not I, me or mine -let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created them.In humanity God’s intention is to make a layer of creation that directly reflects back to God the attributes of the divine – the divine as a relational community.

Genesis 2: a second story of creation from which we learn:

  1. That creating humanity is God’s first and the last action of creation. Between the first human being – Adam and the last human being to be created – Eve, we find the other layers of creation established.
  2. Genesis 2 also has a central theme of relationship; each layer of creation is made with the intention of providing Adam with company so that he won’t live in the garden all alone. We can deduce that relationality is a central attribute of the divine community of God.
  3. God waits to see what Adam names each new element in creation – again there is an expression of a desire for intimacy to be an essential attribute in creation.
  4. Finally, God sees that animals are not quite right as true companions for Adam. God realizes he needs a complementary blueprint of being human to provide a true companion for the human Adam.
  5. God takes an element of Adam’s body and separates it out into a separate created being; a true companion who embodies complementarity – the same and yet different;  to Adam’s masculinity comes Eve’s femininity.
  6. Chapter 2 ends with the hint about a special type of relationship – a relationship that expresses the notions of companionship based on both similarity and complementarity.

Where might God’s deep desire for human beings to experience relationship come from if not as an expression of God’s essential nature. Harking back to the ending of Gen:1  –let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created themAdam and Eve come to mirror the relational and communal character of God.

What can we deduce here?

  1. God is communal – relational and not solitary.
  2. The Divine is neither male nor female but expresses a complementarity of masculine and feminine principles.
  3. We are made to reflect back to God and into the rest of the creation God.
  4. To be fully human is in this sense to be most like God

God and gender – a side note.

God is energetic – in whose nature can be found the creative energies of the masculine and feminine – yin and yang – animus and anima. 

A further question: Is maleness only an expression of masculine energy? Is femaleness only and expression of femininity? If God is neither male nor female then biological gender is not an essential characteristic of God. But in human identity, despite the procreative function of biological gender, identity as it seems to be within God, is a reflection of a variety of energetic combination and recombination of animus and anima, masculine and feminine, rather than a simple biological binary of male and female.

Genesis 3: a third creation story from which we learn about the tensions and interplay between free will, awareness and self-awareness as essential divine elements reflected in human beings.

So far, we have been building up a picture of God through the idea of humanity being an image of God. An essential element of the Creator’s nature is that God is free. Therefore, God must also intend humanity to be more than lovely puppets to be played with and adored. God intends humans to be truly free to know our own mind through the exercise of choice.

In Gen 3 we see the tensions played out when the creation exercises the full rights given to it by the Creator It becomes messy. Did not God foresee this? It seems not.

No relationship can exist if one party is not free to choose. God seems to understand this from the very beginning but also seems strangely unprepared for what happens when humans do what humans are created to do – make choices as an expression of free will.

In the 3rd creation story humanity comes of age, maybe a little sooner than God intended and sooner than Adam and Eve seemed able to cope with, like children prematurely thrust into the responsibilities of adulthood.

What is God? This is a back-to-front way of really asking, who are we or what does it mean to be human? The answer to this is that to be human is to be made in the image of God. To be fully human is to be most like God. We are made for relationship with one another and with God.

Who is God? God is Liberator

Who is God?, is a question set in epic time. – that is, unfolding within human historical time.

So far by exploring how our human identity as a reflection or image of God reveals some essential aspects to what God is – What is God, God is creator.

The question: who is God takes us into epic time recounted in Exodus 3. Here we find a different kind of question to explore namely who is God, that is who is God in human history?

In the story of the call of Moses we encounter God operating within human history, building a relationship with the man Moses. In Exod 3 we have a completely new question and a new answer. It’s no longer what is God, but who is God?

In revealing [himself] to Moses God identifies as:

The God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Furthermore, I am the one who has heard the cry of my people who are in Egypt and I have come down to deliver them.

Who is God?

God is the liberator who hears the cry of the oppressed and frees them from bondage. 

To be fully human is to be most like God.

Who is God? God is love

Revelation occurs when God breaks into history with a final and complete self-identification.

John’s Prologue speaks of God as Logos or Word. The Word is in the beginning with God and is God. The Word is identified with Jesus, who was with God at the beginning of creation and has now finally come into the world – full of grace and truth. 

In the human face of Jesus we find God’s final and fullest self-revelation – the ultimate answer to the question: who is God? The Creator moves from outside the creation to become one with the creation. The Creator becomes by choice, subject to the conditions of creation as an expression of profound love. We will take this up more fully in the next session Who is Jesus?

Questions to ponder.

  1. What does it mean to me that I am made in the image of God and how might this realization change my view of God and or my view of myself?
  2. Is it important to me to discover that God is relational and a community rather than solitary and individual? If so how does this change relating to God for me? How might this affect how I relate to other people?
  3. Understanding that I have free will – freedom to respond or not to respond to God – how might this help me in the experience of life – day by day?
  4. What implications flow for us from God as the one who hears, is concerned for, and who is the agent of liberation?

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑