Sermon for Pentecost
Once again, my friends, I am speaking to you from within a hospital room that echoes, with a voice that Satcho himself would be proud of, and into the internal mic of my laptop.
This is an address I would find difficult to speak in a life liturgy on the day of the festival of Pentecost. Most parish churches will have gone to a good deal of effort for this day. That is something of a change that has taken place during my lifetime. In my youth, Pentecost, generally known then as Whitsunday, was not widely observed as a major festival, real focus being Trinity Sunday. It was the Pentecostal/Charismatic renewal movement of the 1970s that shifted the focus to Pentecost.
The problem we face with Pentecost, and even more than the other major festivals, is that the event they celebrate almost certainly never happened. Had the Day of Pentecost been a real occurrence, it is unthinkable that Paul would not have referred to it in his letters. It pops up here some 50 years later than the time it was supposed to have happened, and no other writer refers to it. Furthermore, although Paul, Luke and John each give a lot of attention to the idea of the Holy Spirit, each of them means something different, have a different theology of what the Spirit is and works. John has the Spirit given in one of his appearances to the disciples after the resurrection.
So here we come to the heart of the crisis affecting Christianity in our day. We are clearly seeing that the more educated and intelligent sectors have widely abandoned Christianity, that it no longer connects with the best minds. We take refuge in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which he dismisses the intellectual philosophies of his age and declares that they are ignorant of God. We see the pretensions of the so-called New Atheists and they are pathetic, as blind and dogmatic as the fundamentalist Christianity they hold up as their paper tiger which they confront. But the reality is that the vast number of people are turning away from faith because it tells a story that is simply no longer credible, even when it has broken from the shackles of Biblical literalism. Nor is it just those who have left the church. The story of faith that we proclaim Sunday by Sunday rarely connects with the real world, even for the faithful among us. Even as we may draw inspiration, the deep inner connection that says, “This is my story” doesn’t often happen.
It is not just Pentecost, not even just Christmas and Pentecost. Even the resurrection, proclaimed as an actual event in history no longer holds us as something upon which we can lay foundations of faith. At best, today, all we can say is, it might have happened, and that is never enough to build a firm faith foundation.
Of recent years, our entire understanding of the history of the Hebrews as described in the Old Testament has been turned on its head, with the archeological facts revealing that Jerusalem did not exist as a city until only a few decades before its destruction by the Babylonians. Not one bit the story until that time – including Abraham and the promise of the land, the time in Egypt, the exodus under Moses, the covenant at Sinai, the invasion and occupation of Canaan, the kingships of David and Solomon, Solomon’s Temple, the coming into existence of a northern state of Israel, the prophets who were supposed to speak in that northern state – not one single part of that story has any historical foundation. None of it happened. All these stories, and the wealth of wonderful narrative that accumulated around these stories, were woven in later ages. They were important stories in their time for they enabled the Hebrews to survive against huge cultural, religious and political pressures. So in this sense, they were salvation stories, for without them the Hebrews would have disappeared. The narrative kept them alive, renewed their faith, and in that, they were the seedbed prepared for the coming of Jesus.
But these stories are no longer our stories, in the sense that we can say, this is how our faith came to be. We are free to turn our backs on the notions of God and morality that so much of this material projects. I love the story of Elijah and the still small voice in the cave. But what is the prophet commanded to do by God? Go out and slaughter. There is no real difference between the Old Testament ideas of a genocidal God (The ultimate expression of genocidal God being the Noah story) and what ISIS is doing today. Even down to its destruction of precious heritage, ISIS is following the Old Testament idea. We cannot both condemn what the Islamic extremists and doing and simultaneously revere the scriptures.
Although not to the extreme of the Old Testament, we face a parallel dilemma with the New Testament. Our earliest record of the life of Jesus only emerged a generation after his death and while the next two gospels after Mark’s account rely heavily on the first gospel, Matthew, Luke and, much later, John, have a very different take on who Jesus was and what he said and did. All these writings come after Paul, who clearly turned the story of Jesus upside down, making him a figure of mythical nature, barely rooted in history at all as a human person. We may think we know the story of Jesus, but in fact we don’t know anything, nothing about either what he said or what he did with any sense of confidence and certainty. About the only thing we can affirm is the fact that he lived and that he died a criminal death and that the community that gathered around him experienced ‘salvation’ such that they came to recognise that in Jesus they had encountered God is a unique way. Over the New Testament writings, the central question always being explored is the nature of Jesus as they encountered him, as they continued after his death to encounter him in the breaking of bread, and, above all else, what was the meaning and significance of his death on the cross.
In answer to these questions, the New Testament writers and beyond, down through the centuries, have come up with multiple answers and multiple narratives about how it all came about. John’s understanding and story, for example, is utterly different from Paul’s understanding and story. In an effort to clarify things for the faithful, the church devised the schema of the Church Year, beginning in Advent and punctuated by festivals such as Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost, all designed to tell a consistent story. That story once had a power that commanded the respect and attention of whole nations. Today, it makes almost no impact upon society except the retail sector, forced to close down on three days a year (at least in my country).
So the most immediate challenge that you and I and the whole church faces is how we tell the story of our faith today. There will be for sure, many who will say that the story as traditionally told is beyond changing, but this ignores the fact that the story always has been changing, even through the scriptures themselves. To stand dogmatically on the traditional story is to condemn Christianity to death
How then do we tell the narrative of our faith today? The key issue is that we have to be credible, not just to the world at large, but to ourselves. There are, in fact, two stories that exist side by side, and we have to move from one to the other and back again. The one story follows the secular narrative that begins with the Big Bang, the formation of stars and their deaths, the shaping of our planet, the arrival of water, the growth of life and the long years of evolution that have produced where we are today. If this were the only narrative to be told, then there is no room for God or any kind of spirituality. Nor is there any meaning or purpose or destiny. It is of course a constantly changing narrative as new data and new theories emerge, and this will always be so. But for our world it is a credible narrative, and any faith narrative that ignores it loses all credibility.
But parallel to that secular narrative is the grace narrative. If the secular narrative is governed by the dimensions of time and space, and the laws of physics, the grace narrative transcends all of that and sees everything as directly from God. So the grace narrative tells of God In the Big Bang, in the tiny imbalance between matter and anti-matter that enabled matter to form, in such things as the salt levels in the oceans being just right for life, our planet being positioned in the Goldilocks zone and a host of other things that the grace narrative sees as coming directly from the hand of God. This is not the imposition of supernature on nature, but two different ways of seeing the same reality.
The grace narrative goes on to see the hand of grace in all human society but in particular coming to shape in the story of the Hebrews, even if that story is very different from the one that the Bible portrays. For at the centre of our faith story, lies the self-revelation of God in Jesus, prepared for through the history of the Hebrews, but also through the Romans and Greeks. And the story rolls on into our own time and beyond to countless millions of years to come.
In telling the story, the experience of the Spirit is central and critical to the way we tell the story. For our story is not of a God who manipulates the world from afar, or that of some autocratic potentate dictating the way the people must live and obeys commands. Our experience of the Spirit is of the intimacy of God in everyday life inspiring, empowering, always leading us into new ways. God is in the midst of us and I don't mean just we Christians. It doesn't matter who we are, where we are, what we have, old or young, male or female, the Spirit of God fills out life. The fundamental difference it makes having the faith of Christ is that we are able to see the Spirit, and moreover that what we see is the face of Jesus. This transforms everything. To know this is to know salvation. Salvation is not the future wish that the present reality. Salvation is not something that happens after death: it is now, in the present, or it has no reality at all.
To be saved is to know the three things we petition God for in the Lord's Prayer. It is to know that we are given what we need for every day, lacking nothing. It is to know that we are forgiven everything from the past, carrying no condemnation. It is to know that we have nothing to fear from the future, whatever the future may hold, and that evil will never triumph. In a very real sense, these three things are all we need in life. But they rest upon our ability to tell a credible story that makes them sensible, not wishful thinking.
If we are going to survive as a Christian church, we have to tell a credible narrative that makes sense of the faith we have. It will be our story, but it may not be the story that the next generation tells, just as each succeeding generation of New Testament told different stories that explained and interpreted Jesus. In what we are doing, we trust that the Spirit is with us, guiding us and we walk forward in that trust.
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Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Easter
Jesus (Audio file)
Note: Audio recording made in hospital through internal mic and some difficulty in speaking.
Whoever has the Son has life, and whoever has not the Son of God has not life.
All of John's writing, both the Gospel and these letters from which we read this morning, puts everything in black and white, no shades of grey or room for ambiguity. Real life isn't like that so it is important that we always filter what John has to say through the lens of reality. Nevertheless, by putting the issues in such black and white terms, John faces us with the question of the choices we make. It is one of the most fundamental choices we make that we choose to be aligned to Jesus or not. The real problem we face, however, is in understanding what it means to align with Jesus. Who is this Jesus? We cannot even answer this from the texts of the Gospels, because they were written many decades after the event, and in the case of John's Gospel, a full 70 years after Jesus's death. So part of the reality we face is that we genuinely know very little about what Jesus did, said, and what his disciples made of him. We know from Paul's letters that he brought about a radical change in the way Jesus was understood by the first-generation Jerusalem Christians, and the first three Gospels were all written after Paul and were shaped by his interpretation of Christianity. Paul's vision of Jesus was clearly shaped by his Pharisaic background in apocalyptic thinking and dominated by his notion that Jesus would soon return. The first three Gospels, in turn, reflecting this apocalyptic view, which turned out to be false to its age and ever since. So the real Jesus in history is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. Many find this frustrating and resort to dogmatic affirmation of the text, but it is in fact a liberation that enables us to rediscover Jesus today.
But the real issue is this: who and what is Jesus to us today? Does our belief in Jesus mean anything real?
Would it make any difference if we eliminated Jesus from our faith? After all, this is what is happening widely in the world today as people are switching their sense of allegiance from describing themselves as Christian to saying they have no religion. They see no place for a Jesus in in their life. Those who are remaining in allegiance to Christianity are finding they need the hyper religion of evangelical culture to maintain a faith while the more hands off approach of mainline Protestantism and Anglicanism (Episcopalian) is no longer supporting an active faith because its traditions are so rooted in the old culture and haven't made the transition to the new global culture and its way thinking.
What then are we to make of Jesus today?
We certainly have to begin with one foot planted firmly in the affirmation of Jesus as a historical figure, a real man in real time and a real place. That does not mean that we have to take the gospel record as being an accurate story of his life. We are free to doubt his miracles and to question whether the teaching is his or comes from later generations. Even the details of his death, so precious to our liturgical tradition, have clearly been shaped by reflection upon Psalms like 22 so that the real story was probably very different. The stories of Jesus's birth are certainly legendary and we do the Christian gospel no good service by telling them at Christmas as if they were real. There is no more reality to the shepherds, angels, and wise men then there is to Father Christmas.
But through the legends, ambiguities and scepticism that we rightly bring to these texts, the light of Christ shines. The sheer existence of these records proclaims the power and importance of Jesus. This Jesus cannot be explained by turning him into just one of the many religious teachers of the world. The witness of all the New Testament documents is that Jesus was experienced as possessing divinity. This remains the starting point for any reflection on the meaning of Jesus. The core of our faith is that, in the person of Jesus, and under the conditions of ambiguity, the life of Jesus was a revelation of the nature of God, and this is the touchstone. If we lose this touchstone, we enter the realm of total relativity by which any idea or concept of God is as good as any other.
Of particular importance today, in a time in which humanity is being seen as just an incidental moment in the evolutionary process, the affirmation of Jesus stands as an affirmation of humanity as having a central place at least on this earth and even possibly the universe. God took humanity, not the body of an ant, and that is immensely significant. The proclamation of Jesus's victory over death, even if we doubt the physical nature of the Resurrection, is the word of salvation to our world today.
If it is vital that we have one foot planted in the Jesus's history, it is equally vital that we have the other foot planted in the experience of Jesus present in our life.
And this of course is where we have our greatest difficulty. What does it mean to have Jesus in life? There is no objective measurement that we can resort to that will tell us whether we have Jesus or not. You can't measure it with listening to your blood pressure or heart, you won't find it by ultrasonic scan; surgery will not discover it. For many it is just a feeling supported by faith belief. For others, and I include myself in this, it is rooted in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. The sacraments take us out of our feelings, which come and go, and root us in something that we can physically see and take hold of. The sacraments root us in the community of Christ. To know Jesus in our lives is to know our connectedness with the whole community of the baptised. This is the essence of being church, which is not a gathering of like-minded people but a community of people bonded together by the Spirit, and the Spirit is the presence of Jesus. We can model baptism is an act of fusion that joins our individual lives to the life of Jesus expressed through the church as Jesus’ body. This sense of fusion is incredibly important. In the first place it gives us a tangible and outward sign that we are in Jesus and Jesus in us. It does not matter that, if we were baptised as infants, we have no personal memory of our baptism. It is enough to know that we have been baptised. We can say with full confidence that we are in Christ and you don't have to go searching for signs of faith or anything else that might tell us whether we are in Jesus or not.
It is certainly true that many people who have been baptised do not outwardly live their lives as Christians, from our point of view. However, it is imperative that we never judge others as to whether they are Christian or not by any other measure than whether they have been baptised. We may only look at their baptism; that is the only standard and anything else puts us into the place of playing God. Every baptised person is and must be in our eyes a child of God, a member of the community of the church, with whom we may share communion. Never forget that the standard with which we judge others is the standard by which we ourselves are judged. If you use any other standard but baptism, by that standard you too will be judged, and inevitably be found wanting.
Then we come to the Sacrament of Eucharist. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the outward sign and symbol of our ongoing life in Jesus, a life lived in the community of the church. As we share one bread and drink from the one cup, together with people of all kinds of ethnicity, theological tradition, age, gender, social status and wealth, we express and cement our unity across all these and any other divisions. We proclaim that we are the body of Christ, as a community, and each individual within the community.
I have two favourite images that help me interpret the Eucharist. The first is the image that arises from the concept that we are what we eat, so that as we eat and drink the Eucharistic elements in the liturgy seeing them as Christ's body and blood, we become what we eat.
The second image I have is drawn from the cave paintings found in France that date back 40,000 years. Deep in the caves, on what were clearly seen as sacred rock faces, the people of that time placed their hands on the rock and over their hands sprayed paint so that when they withdrew their hand it appears as if the hand has passed through the rock into the sacred space. That is how I often view the Eucharistic experience, as one in which the person who I am passes through the membrane of the physical world and enters the world of grace. What is most important is that we do not understand communion as being a psychological act, effective only if we have the proper faith and understanding. If that were the standard, not one of us should ever dare to receive communion. Likewise, we should never presume to judge another as to whether they should be in communion with us and with Christ, for once again that takes us into the place of judgement and by that standard we too will be judged.
So the question of how we know Jesus in our lives starts and ends with the sacraments of baptism and communion. This is the rock upon which our spiritual lives are built and we get into deep water if we go outside of these foundations. Because we have no need to torture ourselves with questions and doubts about whether we are in Jesus or not, we are able to live freely in the life of grace, knowing that everything is given to us, knowing that we are loved and cherished, forgiven and embraced. All that comes as a free gift, not related to anything we deserve, or a state of faith. Its continuance does not depend upon our fulfilling conditions or performing actions. In a real sense, to engage in the liturgy of the Eucharist could be described as the only thing that God asks of us, knowing that this is the powerhouse that leads to action that is in Christ. This is the core and heart of all spirituality, and however else we may be changing in the way we practice our Christianity as we move into the realm of global culture, the sacraments of baptism and communion remain the beginning and the fulfilment of our Christian life.
There is no question that Christianity has to radically reinvent itself if it is to form the core of global spirituality that will arise out of global culture. To that culture it brings the power of communion that transcends all our divisions and diversity, and allows for that diversity in practice, in belief and custom. The sacramental life is the key to that, for anything else leads to division and the breakdown of community. The challenge for us is to bring this recognition into the forefront of global spirituality, and that starts right here with us.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Standing on the border of Canaan (Part 2)
Standing on the Borders of Canaan (Part 2) Audio fie 8 Comments
This morning I pick up the theme begun last week. The image: we are standing with the Israelites on the borders of Canaan, having reconnoitered the land.
Humanity across the face of the planet faces one of two alternate futures: on the one hand, there is the breakdown of all organised and civilised life everywhere, perhaps even the extinction of our species. The alternative is a new way of living as humans, a new way that is embraced by the whole of global humanity, a global culture. There is no half-way house, no muddling through. The political and social compromises we are constantly making even as we become aware with ever greater force with each passing year will, at the very most, extend the onset of the catastrophe by a few years, perhaps long enough for us to die off, we who are still living off the future, content to leave it to the next generation to suffer the consequences and enter into the disaster.
In all this prospect of catastrophe, religion, including Christianity, stands convicted as being a prime mover in the events that are unfolding: at very least, guilty of complicity in that we have given not challenge, not the word of God, but wishful thinking, even exploiting the disaster. Two images from the thirteenth chapter of Ezekiel haunt me. The first is the image of the religious leaders who are like those who plaster over the cracks in the wall to create the pretence that all is well. That is wishful thinking, and today, where there is growth in Christian adherence, it is almost entirely built upon the willingness of people to believe in promises that are based on what we wish God would do. But the wall is cracked and will fall down, bringing ruin and disillusionment to those who trusted in the religious leaders and pastors. The other image in Ezekiel thirteen is of jackals among the ruins, those who feed off the disaster, profit by it, and that too describes only too graphically the character of so much religion in our day. The entire cacophony of the merchants of the so-called Prosperity Gospel are Ezekiel’s jackals. And how they prosper! They feed off the poor and the vulnerable and the dispossessed. Their mega-churches are the shame, not the glory, of the Christian community.
In last week’s address, I drew on the old scriptural story of the desert wandering to picture where we, the faith community, have arrived at. We have arrived at the border of Caanan, the land to which God has guided the community. We have reconnoitered it. We know its character, and the challenge it faces us. We know that to enter into the land will change us and our way of life. This is the call of God, but the faith community is choosing to refuse the call and to opt to stay in the desert, consigning the entire generation to death. That is the significance of the embrace of counter-culture by the greater part of the Christian community, even more so in Islam and other religions. But there is much more at stake than even in the desert story. The choice of the Christian community to turn its back on the call of God spells doom for all humanity, for in what we have lies, literally, the key to humanity’s salvation. We doom not just ourselves and our generation. We doom all future potential generations, not just of the faith community but of all humanity. The stakes are that high. And the core of the problem: the church doesn’t by and large care, consumed by its own culture of selfish introspection and living by wishful thinking. Oh yes, I am aware of the degree to which Christians become involved in humanitarian aid, but even that can be seen through the eyes of the story, imaged as those who make a desperate sortie into Canaan, only to be driven back.
We can choose differently. We can follow the call of God. We do not have to reject where God has led us.
The most fundamental part of responding to God’s call lies in acknowledging that global culture is a creation of the Spirit of God as much as it is a product of our human endeavour. It is ambiguous on both fronts. Here again we can draw on the old Hebrew story, but now extending it beyond the desert to the era that follows the entry into the land after forty more years of wandering. The story is embraced in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. No matter that none of this is actual history. It is real inner story and it is real because it displays so powerfully the ambiguity of life in the promised land. It was no land of milk and honey, of peace and prosperity. It was never possessed by the Hebrew people who were ever only one element in a polyglot population. Whatever the myth, it was never ‘their’ land, only ever shared with others. Even in religion, the Hebrews were polytheists, worshipping many gods, and this was true right up nearly to the time of Jesus. Yet in all this messy existence, far, far from any ideal that advocates of strict Judaism may have promoted, we see the hand of God in unique power and creativity. Never, ever think that if global culture becomes mature and brings a new way of living to humanity, that it will ever match any ideal. Our promised land will be as messy, as ambiguous, as almost pathetically inadequate as anything we see when we look back on the real story of the Hebrews. It is in that very fact that we rediscover the power and relevance of the scriptures for our day, including, very significantly, the Old Testament narrative. The scriptures witness not to a call to a perfect society but to a recognition that the land that God calls us to enter will bring with it all the messiness of life that we know and all the ambiguities that we wish we didn’t know.
The most terrible and destructive movements within humanity in every age have been those driven by idealists. We so often exalt people for idealism, especially young people. We should be warning against all idealism, and most especially of all against all and every form of religious idealism. Look back over the roll-call of idealists of the last century. The Russian communists, the fascists and Nazis, the South African nationalists and their apartheid system, Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia: all driven by ideals. Today, who are the idealists? Bin Laden when he was alive, ISIS, Boko Haram, a multitude of Christian sects proclaiming that they have the way of God. Even many a Western liberal and their PC pursuits. At the heart of all idealism lies the denial of ambiguity and the embrace of wishful thinking. If you do things my way, the promised land will be all milk and honey. All idealism ends in destruction and disillusionment and despair and this is intensified when our idealism is put into a religious framework so that we come to believe that this is God’s way.
The authentic way of God, throughout history, in all history, has always been the way of messiness and ambiguity. When Luke wrote his account of the Christian movement, aiming to convince the Roman authorities that Christianity was a good movement for the empire, he created an idealised picture of the first generation in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. The picture served his purpose but he created a curse that has been upon the Church ever since, the curse of believing that there has been a ‘pure’ time and if we could get back to being like that time, all would be well and the church would once again grow like Luke portrayed it. Luke’s account was pure indeed, pure fiction as far as we can see at this distance. The church we do see, particularly though Paul’s letters, was a messy, ambiguous community, fraught with tensions and discord and split into factions. Paul himself, in his towering greatness, was deeply flawed in person and theology, as much wrong as he was right. Read any document of the New Testament and we cringe as much as we celebrate. It is messy. It is ambiguous. Yet in and through it all, through the life of that first century church and all its writings, the creative Spirit of God was and is manifest. The church of the twenty-first century, now and however it shapes into the rest of our years, is and will always be messy and ambiguous. This is the way of God. The way of denial of God lies in the pursuit of purity of life and theology, manifest in breached communion and judgmentalism towards one another. That path leads only back into the desert and death.
The call of God is to go forward into the world that is being created, and that world is one of global culture. That is the way of life, even if that life is messy and ambiguous. This is the path of salvation for humanity and it is the path that will continue to embrace the gospel and the church. If global culture does indeed mature and succeed in enabling humanity’s survival, it will be accompanied by a global spirituality. If the Christian community takes the path into the desert, that global spirituality will not be characterised by Christianity. If we choose today to walk with God, Christianity will lie at the heart of the culture of the whole of surviving global humanity. So the issue can also be stated as asking ourselves whether we are at all interested in the salvation of humanity or is what we want to be a community of the self-righteous and self-regarding. And no use to God.
If we are to choose to go with God, then there are crucial strategies to be found and adopted. If we go back to the Canaan story again, had the Israelites responded to God’s call and entered the land, they would needed some clear and workable strategies to overcome the challenge that the inhabitants and the environment would have presented them. To confront any task, however mundane and trivial, or great and portentous, good strategies are needed.
To venture forward with God is going to require a set of key strategies that the church needs to put in place. These strategies will individually and collectively change the face of the church as we know it; just as, had the Israelites entered Canaan at God’s direction, the would have changed, not only from their life as a wandering desert people, but from the entire way of life they had developed, according to the story, during four centuries in Egypt. For shorthand, then, I will talk about the change between the ‘Egypt’ church and the ‘Canaan’ church.
The first of the strategies, and the most fundamental, is a complete and top-to-toe change in the way we know anything, including the way we communicate and transmit knowledge. The Egypt church located its knowing in propositions stated in the distant past, or propositions laid down by popes or Reformation fathers. We ‘know’ because somebody, whose ultimate authority we accede to, said something and because they said it, it must be true. The most ultimate of these authorities, of course, was the recorded word of Jesus Christ as written down in the gospels. If Jesus directed that divorce was impossible, impossible to had to remain for all time and for all people. If Paul condemned homosexual relationships, then that is unchallengeable by any age or culture. Biblical literalists go even further and take every statement, however bizarre and far-fetched and accord it this ultimate status simply because it is written in scripture. In doing this, they violate the scriptural injunction against idolatry, because biblical literalism is idolatry in is most blatant form.
There is no possible defence today that can justify the church remaining in this Egypt mode of knowing by old propositions (or new ones either). The credibility of that way of life has been undercut fatally. A Canaan church embraces the recognition that all knowing, not just scientific but also spiritual, is the product of a process, and that process is dynamic and never ending except where it reaches a dead end that recognises that the claim to know is false and delusional.
This means that we are confronted with the challenge to re-examine and re-think all our theological concepts and even the most central tenants of church teaching. All of them, from the ground up, including the foundational assumptions. It means that we have to completely change the way we proclaim the gospel message and seek to transmit the faith. The consequences will be profound as we shift from being an Egypt church to being a Canaan church.
The second strategy is a fundamental orientation of the faith from being future orientated to being present orientated, from being other-worldly directed to being present-worldly directed. Insofar as we can see through the ambiguity of the records we have of Jesus, the conclusion can be legitimately reached that his life and teaching were focused on the present and on this world. That is certainly true, in essence, of the Hebrew prophetic movement of which Jesus is the ‘return’. It would seem, also, that Paul’s radical recasting of the Christian narrative shifted the focus from the present to the future and from this world to an apocalyptic future, and this Pauline shift has dominated the church’s thinking and practice ever since. This worked because the whole cultural climate related to this way of thinking, both in the gentile community to whom Paul was adapting the message and in its successor cultures, as in the West. It is probably the reason why the traditional Christian message is still working in Africa and parts of Asia.
Global culture is orientated wholly to both the present and to this world. It recognises that the present is the only reality we have. The past is gone and no longer real; the future exists only in our imagination. The only place anything is real is in the present. If the gospel is to relate in any way to the new culture, it has to be about the present. And it has to be about this world, not some imagined other world.
The implications of this are vast for the church as it moves from Egypt to Canaan. It means the shift from a faith based on promise of a future land, to living in that land. It is no longer feasible to talk about the world to come as a land flowing with milk and honey, if the people living in the land know that this is simply not true, or, at least, not in the kind of truth embodied in wishful thinking.
We can express it this way. Today we may attend the eucharistic liturgy and receive the sacrament. In the Egypt church this was said to be a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come in the promised land. One day we would feast with God face to face and know God completely. One day, we would look around and see the entire company of the faithful throughout the ages. In contrast, living in the Canaan church, we encounter God in sacrament and life at this moment, in this place, as fully and completely as we will ever know God. The sacramental meal is the pinnacle of life and our relationship with God and there will be nothing ‘beyond’ this. Far from being a disappointment for those whose spirituality is orientated to the wish for something better and more glorious – and less ambiguous – the result is a transformation of all of present life. The sacrament is a window into seeing God and grace in everything, so transforming and redeeming everything. The sacrament is the key to living life in the present, in this world. It is the central point of life in Canaan.
For those who may have already read my Sunday morning meditation, with its note about the challenge to how I was shaping this address, the answer to the question is that it was to this point that the meditation spoke. For it challenged me about hope for the future. Life cannot be lived without hope, and as we enter the time of trouble that lies ahead, salvation lies in having hope. The difference is this. The Egypt church located hope in a land that was utterly different to the one they inhabited. The Canaan church locates hope in the future that is located in what they know in the present. I express hope in this way: my hope, grounded in my entire experience of faith, is that the future, the immediate future or the future counted in millions of years, will be identical to the present. The outward conditions may change, for better or worse, but what the sacrament reveals as the grace of God in everything, redeeming and transforming everything, will never change. This is the power of the doxology, “…as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” Hope is knowing we shall always dwell in Canaan for this is our promised land.
The third crucial strategy as we move into taking possession of Canaan is that we shift the whole orientation of our relationship with the land. In being the Egypt church we were aliens in the land and to its culture. Now the land is our own, the culture is our own: we are its inhabitants (though not alone in that). We are to undertake a fundamental shift in our relationship with the land and culture. At the heart of the message that reaches us from Jesus is the concept of Servanthood and stewardship. It is time to take this message to heart and realise that we, the church, are functionally related to the world of global culture as servant and steward. In the imagery of the metaphor, the entire enterprise cannot exist without service and stewards. The owner of the vineyard, of the owner of a modern corporate, cannot do without people doing the work, the service.
What never works is when the servants think they are the boss, or when they are in fact working for another enterprise or rival company. Or if their hearts are not in their work. All of that describes, essentially, the relationship the Egypt church had with its cultural partner, whatever form that took. It was different in the Eastern Orthodox church, but there the relationship was one of complete subservience of the church to the state authorities, and this is not a healthy model either.
In Canaan, the church embraces the culture as a servant serves in the spirit of Jesus. This does not mean subservience, as in the Eastern Orthodox model, nor does it mean dominance and control as in the traditional catholic model. It means that we recognise that the aims of the culture are our aims for our world, and seek to serve those aims. This means seeing beneath the outward forms and actions that manifest in any particular time and place and see how everything relate to the fundamentals. That may lead us constantly into prophetic challenge to how the culture expresses itself in any given time and culture. It means that we seek to embed the core values that enable the culture to succeed into the hearts and minds of all the people so that they act not out of fear and coercion but from within themselves. That means that the Canaan church embodies, however fragmentarily and ambiguously, the core values of the culture. It models what it means to live successfully and in fact can never expect any part of the world to embody those values in any way that we ourselves fail to realise. If we cannot live in perfect harmony and pureness, we know that to expect this of anything else is fantasy.
Every culture is always under threat. Sometimes those threats are external but much more commonly those threats come from within. We only have to look at the way in which the world of Islamic culture is being torn apart today from within. Or the old Egypt form of the Christian community has been torn apart from within over the past generation. There are always demonic and distorted forms arising and seeking to take control, often allied with religion, as we see demonstrated again and again in our world today. The Canaan church expresses its Servanthood in acting as guardian and protector, prophetically warning of danger and challenging the demonic forces as they manifest. It does so, not in the name of another land, but in the name of the land in which it lives.
These three strategies, then – in the way we know, in our orientation to reality found in the present and in this world, and the embrace of Servanthood as a Canaan church – these three strategies are crucial if Christianity is to follow the call of God and enter the land to which our God has lead us from Egypt to its border. The question now confronting the whole community is this: do we follow God, enter the land and embrace the strategies that will so change us? Or do we insist that we cannot change, even if this means being consigned back into the desert and death? Life or death: the choice is ours.
From Kevin, New Orleans
First, David, let me say that I pray for your physical well-being, with all the faith at my disposal. I was sorry to see that you have been writing from a hospital bed.
My comment concerns "global culture." I'm not so thick that I entirely fail to understand how you mean the term. Nonetheless, the term is troublesome. I have always considered the "culture" of the world to be apathetic or hostile to the kingdom preached by Jesus. The secular culture certainly seems to fueled by greed and selfishness at the expense of humanity. Thus, "global culture"
calls to my mind superficiality, shallowness, ingratitude, fear, ignorance, and so on. And thus I have always felt that Jesus calls us to a counter-culture where grace and love rule. So you know what kind of graceless world I mean when I say "secular culture." Perhaps my thinking is tragically dualistic (indeed, I do see grace and love appear in the midst of all the horrors). But there you see my semantic difficulty.
I don't imagine you to suggest that the church sell out to what I call secular culture, and abandon the essence of Gospel in order to make it agreeable to modern , skeptical, cyncal minds. No, I rather think you're saying we need to unbind the Gospel from the death shroud of tradition that hides its essence from modern minds. Yet sometimes I think you suggest that God is actually driving secular culture in all its wretchedness, down the road to destruction. That is hard to fathom, but it might suit the mongers of the Apocalypse who are making much hay these days. Is it is oversimplistic for me to think that you are urging the church to wade into this secular mess and to embrace its filthy rags it in order to "wage grace" within it, thereby transforming it into what might (ambiguously, of course!) be called the Kingdom of God"?
Otherwise, perhaps I get your point about leaving the "Egypt church" behind and embracing the "Canaan church," though there is a terrifying sensation of free-falling helpessness in letting go of so much that is past. And yet, I have often thought as I get older (I'm 57) that Christians (especially the ones you refer to wall-plasterers or hyenas) refuse to let Jesus come out of the first century or the cold pages of the Bible. People err to read history backwards instead of forwards, as one of my law professors used to say. I think people do that with scripture. Or if they read it forward, they stop abruptly at the last page of Revelation, as if the Spirit has inspired no written words since then.
I hope you continue to present your challenging messages, and may the Spirit guide you!
The starting point is about the nature of culture, all culture. Culture defines what it means to be human just as an elephant is defined by size, a lion by strength and so on. It is the key to how our species survives, which is by creating patterns of behaviour that enable us to adapt flexibly to an almost infinite variety of physical environments. As a species we are incredibly weak and vulnerable but culture, the core of which is that we work as a community, not as individuals, is what has enabled us to be such a dominant species.
If we see this spiritually and theologically, culture is God’s gift to humanity. It is the core gift, without which we would not be able to live.
Not every culture is positive, however. In any and every situation, the culture has to be commensurate to the challenges. The culture of Calafornia climate won’t work in the tip of South America (thinking in terms of native populations, not the enhancements of the modern world). And the entire history of humanity is one of even successful cultures eventually succumbing to challenges they could not adapt to and overcome.
You comment about the shallowness of modern culture, and I couldn’t agree more. What we are seeing is how totally inadequate is our culture today to meet the challenges that are confronting us, and we have developed a culture of denial and wishful thinking in response. It is not just Western culture that is failing. Islamic culture is disintegrating, as is every other culture across the face of the planet. There is not a single existing traditional culture that is capable of meeting the situation facing the whole of humanity in our day and what is coming upon us. We either find a new and successful culture or we die.
This is what is meant by global culture. It is global because we are facing challenges that are global and can only be met by the entire community of humanity functioning as a cultural whole. The changes we have to make are mind-bending, if we are to survive.
Once again, if we thing spiritually and theologically, the Incarnation is God’s word that humanity plays a central role in creation. The survival of humanity is not a secular issue but a call of God. So if we see the hand of God in our world, it is a hand that is breaking down and destroying all the traditional cultures – including the culture of the West – and building a new culture, one with radically new and different values and ways of living, a culture that will enable humanity to survive. The call to the church is to identify itself with the new thing God is doing, not fighting to preserve traditional culture.
I identify with your expression of free-falling helplessness as we move into a new way of living, because there is nothing that is not above change. I think that the secret lies in both being open to change and at the same time keeping our hold firmly within the tradition, but recognising that even the tradition is changing and will change. This, to me, is the essential power of the daily offices, which are, after all, just an expression of culture. The offices and their psalms and readings and prayers, do two things absolutely basic. The first is that they challenge us. My approach is that the lections and canticles confront me, sometimes leading me to say, Amen, but often to say that this is not right and I need to think. The worst possible response to the scriptures, spiritually as well as intellectually, is to treat them as the inspired word of God.
The other essential dimension of the offices is that they connect us to the whole church community. This is the church at prayer and reflection, not myself making my individual devotion. It is possibly the single greatest strength of the world-wide Anglican communion that we share the daily lection in common. It may be only a small and seemingly insignificant act in the context of our global issues, but it points in the direction that we must take under God, that of finding the foundations for a global community.
I do hope that we can continue this conversation, and that others will join in, for which reason I will post this as comments to the sermon.
From Kevin, New Orleans
Thanks very much for your thoughtful answer. I'm daily confronted, albeit indirectly, with assertions that the Bible is God's Word -- inerrant even when not literally true -- and must be obeyed. In some form or another, this has been my instruction since boyhood. My question continues to be how to be guided by it's truth without making it an idol.
In one form or another, we all struggle with this question. The best answer I have to give lies in the words of the election response: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” This is very different from the response often used, ‘Hear the Word of God’. My resolution is this. The life of grace is always lived in the present and it is in the present, and only in the present, that we meet God. Gods word is always in the present and to the present and for the present. Each generation hears the word of God afresh, and that word, while rooted in deep and unchanging fundamentals, can be quite different generation to generation and culture to culture. And it is always ambiguous in that we are never sure that what we hear really is God’s word or is our mind at work governed by wishful thinking and blindsided by our cultural preconceptions. Thus we need always to be humble before anything we may think is God’s word to us, and especially if we think it is God’s word to others.
God’s word does not mean literal, historical truth. God’s word most often comes to us as story, and when it does, it is saving story. At a physical level, we are aware that very little of the Old Testament narrative has any grounding in real history. At a factual level there never was an Abraham (and the promise of the land), nor Moses and the exodus and Sinai covenant. There was in history no King David or King Solomon, no magnificent temple, no northern state of Israel. The city of Jerusalem only came into existence in the century before its destruction by the Babylonians. The first time the Biblical narrative and actual history come together is in Jeremiah and the fall of Jerusalem, followed by the exile in Babylon.
Does this make the Old Testament untrue? Does it mean that it is not the word of God? Far from it. The story (or stories) emerged as saving narratives that enabled the Hebrews to survive and live under the yokes of a succession of oppressors and under cultural attack from Hellenism. Without those stories, the Hebrew people would have disappeared just like the Hittites, the Amorites, the Jebusites and all the other ethnic groups that lived in Palestine. It is that story that keeps the Jewish people alive today.
When we read these stories (and the same applies to much of the New Testament), what we read and hear is God’s word to their present. But when we listen with the ears of grace, putting aside the physical questions of whether these things were factually true or not, then we hear God’s word spoken to us in our present. Take today’s lections (Friday 8 May for me). The OT passage is a catalogue of ethical directions that are completely meaningless in the modern context, while I Peter also addresses ethical issues in terms that may not sit with us as being sound ethical direction in some things.As I listened in grace, what I heard was God’s word addressing the urgent need for ethical reflection on the issues of our time. The word of God comes to us afresh in our time and gives fresh ethical direction that may be informed by the words given in the past, but not governed by them. In fact, as I engaged with the office, the most powerful word came through the writing of the fifteenth century Julian of Norwich whose life is celebrated today.
When we read the scriptures in this way, we see how, over the centuries, the faith narrative was continually changing. Even in the more condensed time period of the apostolic era, the faith narrative changes constantly. Paul effected a radical change from the narrative as embraced by the first generation Jerusalem leadership (Luke’s account in Acts is a reading back of a much later narrative). Paul’s narrative came apart at the seams as the century progressed and his expected praise did not happen, leading to new forms of the narrative, like that in Hebrews. Every period in Christian history from that time to this has told the narrative differently, even when they claim to base it on the Bible. Last century, Pentecostalism introduced yet another new narrative of faith. I see the scriptures as being a charter of freedom to find and hear new narratives in our own time, and that is what is happening. The power of narrative is saving power. Without a story that makes sense of our lives we are defeated by life. Stories, however, can be destructive as well as creative and saving. This is why the imperative is that we anchor whatever form of the story we tell in the knowledge of grace that we experience.
I hoe this helps to answer your question.
To All who listen to David please ;listen to the following teaching
There is no ambiguity is GOD word The bible os the only book which give the end from the beginning in clear understanding. Just because David dos not understand, it does not make the bible embeguas. David should not be allowed to pollute other people lives and increase doubt with such claims of ambiguity nor should he earn living by claiming ambiguity.
As I have said before, I do understand your distress at what I have to say. Yet I an wholly confident that I speak within the Spirit of God and what God is saying to our world.
Two things for me support this. The first is that I have lived with this message for thirty years, testing it, and always having it confirmed to me in my Spirit. The second is expressed intros morning’s (Monday 11 May) meditation on my daily, unfailing and enduring experience of God’s love and grace. If I was as far off-track as you think I am, then I do not believe I would experience such unfailing flow of grace.
I would also stress again that your concept of the Bible is a man-made dogma and does not survive even the most cursory examination of its truth, spiritual of secular.
And just a minor correction. I receive no financial renumeration for my ministry, which is undertaken wholly at my own expense. I do it out of love.
You are being warned by GOD might. you are under the influence of of pain as you said "My mind is dulled with both the pain and the cocktail of steroid, painkillers and anti-histamine I am taking. Every time I have turned to address myself to the sermon, nothing materialises and since stress is a major issue in my condition, it is best that I lay the effort aside" you do not have to publish your garbage and pain . You are independent minister because you cannot and will not take advice and direction..you are selfish . Your past years have been sustained by the evil and not the power of GOD and his grace.
I am disturbed of your attitude which allow you to deceive people because of your personal hallucination....stop and ask for forgiveness for HE is gracious...you are warned
First, please let me correct you on my independence. I am under the authority of my bishop and General Synod of my church and enjoy both good standing and the full support of my bishop. I have four print published books, each of which has a forward by a current or former archbishop. What I have to say is widely endorsed and affirmed in the church community (though, of course, not by everyone). I don’t think, however, I could find a single person in the church that would endorse your sentiments.
God blesses me richly, way beyond anything I deserve (if, indeed I deserve anything at all), and even in my pain and problems at this time, the blessing continue unabated.
Interestingly, as I lay awake for a brief period in the middle of last night, the nature and content of the address that I had been unable to compose earlier came to me fully, and it will be a testimony to God’s love as I have known it in my life. It may take me a day or two to get it recorded, but I suggest you listen to it before you condemn me as evil. Please, Safwat, take care yourself and listen to what Jesus said, that those who judge others, by that standard they themselves will be judged.
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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Standing on the border of Canaan (Part I)
We who live in these first decades of the twenty-first century, live in what is either the beginning of the end for humanity on this planet, or on the brink of a new beginning, a radical new beginning that will change the life of every person living from this day on. Ours is the play that changes the game; that wins it – or it may be that ours is the play that loses the game. There are times in human history around which the future pivots. Fifth century Athens, first century Palestine, seventeenth century London. Twentieth century Hiroshima. Such a time is ours. We may look at our time and say, how could this time be special. How can it be creative? Look at the violence and hatred. Look at the corrupt and dysfunctional politics. Look at the failure to hear and respond to the challenges of our age. Everything points not to a new beginning but to the breakdown and destruction as the end of the process. Everywhere, religion is part of the downward spiral of humankind, not its solution.
If the outcome of this time is a creative new beginning for humanity, it will be on a global scale and will change every aspect of life, including all religion, from top to bottom. One hundred years from now, two hundred years, the world that the generation of that time will see, if anyone is around to see, will look physically, culturally and spiritually such a different place that there may seem little connection to the world we know today. Standing as we do at this moment, faced with such an uncertain future, it is the fundamental of our faith that grace triumphs over everything. Even the worst case scenario we might imagine, even to the extinction of humanity itself, does not defeat grace. That hope is not grounded in any scriptural or doctrinal position, but in our own inner knowing of the working of grace in our lives. Thus, in the light of grace, whatever the scientific and political evidence, we say, this is a time of humanity’s new beginning. The power of the creative Spirit of God is with us, all humanity, to lead us through to a new beginning, a new way of living. This is the heart of the message of salvation that the gospel proclaims to our age. This is the hope that will keep us alive and going even when everything around us is rottenness and despair. If you like, imagine yourself a villager in Syria or a refugee on a sinking boat in the Mediterranean. These places are metaphors of what lies ahead for much if not all of the planet in the coming century.
If we are to come through this time, it will be through the emergence of a totally new way of living, a new culture. That is what we mean when we talk of global culture. Sociologists may see it in a light of human dynamics. The faith community sees it as a saving work of God. When the faith community of the 22nd century, which will look very different from what we know of it today, tells its faith story, it will proclaim the saving power of God manifest in our time. The stories of the Israelite exodus and desert wanderings may not have been about actual events, but they were deeply true, of Hebrew history, of the time of Jesus, of the time of the twenty-first century. As in the old story, we are being led into a new land, and life will be very different in this new land. But the story is also one of resistance, rebellion, refusal to go with God. That, too, echoes our own time. That is why, in the office lections, we continue to read this story even as we know it is not ‘history’. It is truth, however distorted, however ambiguous. However repulsive at times. It is our truth.
I am presenting to you the prospect of a global culture as the place where humanity finds its “rest”, its salvation. But even in the story, let alone in real history, the land of Palestine, in the past as today, was and is a highly ambiguous environment for the Hebrew people, a place of inspiration and horrific injustice and cruelty, a land where the people find both fulfilment and the corruption of everything they stand for. So it is and will be for a world that enters into the ‘promised land’ of a new culture, a new way of living.
This is the significance of the Hebrew story for us and for all humanity. I do genuinely believe that this was and remains a people chosen by God, and not for them to hold a place of special favour and blessedness; not so that they may obtain everlasting peace and prosperity as a people, but as providing all humanity with the metaphor of God’s way of salvation. Theirs is a story of repeatedly being brought to the brink of destruction, of which the twentieth century events, and not only in Germany, are but the latest in a long line. The state of Israel,