Friday, January 19, 2018

Outlaws

The Lectionary for Holy Communion today continues to juxtapose the lives of David and Jesus, bringing together 1 Samuel 24:3-22 and Mark 3:13-19.

The former is a playful account. King Saul has renewed his intention to kill David. David has escaped, hiding in the wilderness, where a large band have made themselves outlaws by gathering to him. Saul and his men go searching for them, but are frustrated in their manhunt. We pick the story up with Saul caught short, in desperate need of a poo. Mindful of preserving the respect of his men, he removes himself into a cave, oblivious that he has unwittingly stumbled upon the very cave where David and his men are hiding.

Saul takes off his cloak to do his business, and while he is so occupied, David creeps up behind him and cuts off the corner of the cloak. Job done, and Saul headed out and at a safe distance, David emerges from the entrance to the cave to shame the king by his starkly contrasting choice of sparing the life of the man hell-bent on taking his.

David remains true to himself. But being true to himself does not mean living a self-determined life. Indeed, quite the opposite. David recognises this; and Saul confirms it.

The Gospel reading is the account of Jesus going ‘up the mountain’ (into a wilderness place) and calling a group of men to gather to him: a band of followers who will return with him, ‘Then he went home’. Yes, appointing twelve would appear to be an intentional reference to the twelve tribes of Israel; but this unlikely band of merry men tips it hat to acknowledge David’s outlaws too.

Jesus, and his apostles, root the call of God on their lives in a specific history.

Today’s readings underline the paradox that being true to ourselves requires being what the apostle Paul described as being grafted-into a story that is not our own, but which may become our own, through the action of another. We are not the primary author or actor. Not all stories are equal. Your own simply does not have the necessary thickness to sustain you, let alone allow you to flourish.

There is the distracted escapism of shell-thin stories, in which we cast ourselves as the hero. And then there is the purposeful escape from all that of the outlaw who joins God’s anointed one, eventually returning with him as part of a new society.

The biblical view of history is incredibly cyclical* with God proving himself to be true to his word** through it all. It may be that the Church must find itself once again outlaws, and not, at present, as those who live in palaces. In other words, we don’t get to choose whether we poo in a cave or not: but we do get to choose whether we do so with a clear conscience or a troubled mind; as patient residents or those caught out by circumstance.


*Just read the book of Judges, or the surviving chronicles of the kings of Judah and Israel to get the picture. Even at the end of the biblical record, the book of Revelation, Rome is cast as Babylon-the-Great (the city God raised up to judge his people: Judah was exiled to Babylon in 587BC and destroyed by Rome in 70AD) and Babylon-the-Fallen (having used them as an instrument of judgement, God then judged them for their own sins: Babylon falling to Persia in 539BC and Rome falling to Christianity in the fourth century AD) and as the new Jerusalem, the seat of the triumph of Christ(-ianity; that is, through his followers who remained faithful through persecution) over the pagan nations of the (Greco-Roman) world (the mechanism through which Rome was itself judged: see—circularity).

**Ultimately by raising Jesus from the dead and seating him on the throne of David, established for ever, to rule, contested-but-secure, over the often-rebellious nations. This faithfulness is the grounds for faith, and template for faithful living, in the face of ever-changing fortunes.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Son of David

The Lectionary for Holy Communion today brings together 1 Samuel 18:6-9, 19:1-7 and Mark 3:7-12.

The parallels between David and Jesus, a thousand years apart, are striking.

David is fĂȘted by women who ‘came out of all the towns of Israel’ because he has set the people free from Philistine oppression. Jesus is fĂȘted by crowds who come from Jerusalem (the centre-of-the-world) and the South and the East and the North—from all points of the compass except the West, due to the Mediterranean Sea—because he has set the people free from the oppression of disease and unclean spirits.

David’s popularity results in the jealousy of King Saul. Jesus’ popularity results in the jealousy of the rulers of his day [not present in this short passage, but framing it].

Jonathan’s actions provide David a place of shelter from harm. Jesus’ disciples have a boat ready for him, should he need shelter from crushing.

In Mark’s Gospel, and elsewhere, we see Jesus as the Son of David—the descendant of David, whom God has set on David’s throne*. The ‘force’ of the parallel is not that charismatic figureheads of populist movements always attract hostile attention from those who hold conventional power (true though that may be); but that God has ‘remembered’ his people and is showing himself to be faithful to his covenant promise.

This is a rooted story. It is the story of salvation being rooted not only in God’s universal love but in God’s chosen methodology.


*Jesus explicitly identifies himself with David in Mark 2:23-28 and 12:35-37, and is identified by others as Son of David in Mark 10:46-52 (explicitly) and 11:1-10 (implicitly). Besides this, David and his Mighty Men arguably provide a type for Jesus and his disciples (alongside, of course, Israel and his sons).


The kingdom of heaven

At Morning Prayer, I find myself thinking on the kingdom of heaven.

Kingdom is one of the great themes that runs through the Bible. It does not refer to some future and perfect realm—a utopia—but to the ability to see God at work in the changing fortunes of human history. That is why Jesus’ parables describing what the kingdom of heaven is like are so messy, so full of flawed actors—not simply as a foretaste of a delayed rule but as a rule that is fulfilled imperfectly. It is also why ‘apocalyptic’ is best understood as pointing to imminent events (and, secondarily, cyclic events) rather than end-of-time events.

At times in the Bible, the kingdom of God—the exercising of God’s sovereign rule through human rulers—is manifested in events his people find incomprehensible, such as the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon or to Rome. Or an innocent man hanging on a cross.

So, if we are brave enough to pray with Jesus, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ we must recognise that the answer to that prayer may look far from our ideas of justice. Or, we might find ourselves learning to see God at work in human history, even through the politicians and societies we don’t like.

That is not to preach resignation, or fatalism, nor to affirm political leaders—past or present—without question or challenge. Rather, it is to understand how God rules.

The conversion of Constantine was not a disaster that derailed the Church from her mission for a millennium-and-a-half. Christendom was the kingdom of heaven on earth. But now Christendom is passed; and that is not a disaster, either. Christendom gives way to new expressions of the kingdom of heaven.

To see the kingdom of heaven around us, as the parables do, is to have hope instead of despair. To rest, instead of striving. And to remind those who exercise power now that God, who raised them up, will also bring them down.

In other words, it is deeply subversive.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

How (not) to be destroyed

The Lectionary for Holy Communion today brings together 1 Samuel 17:32-33, 37, 40-51 and Mark 3:1-6.

The reading from 1 Samuel is the story of David and Goliath, arguably one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. As Malcolm Gladwell points out, Goliath may well have suffered from acromegaly, where a benign tumour of the pituitary gland causes an overproduction of growth hormone*; and compresses the nerves to the eyes, resulting in restriction sight and double vision**. David would not have known about acromegaly, of course; but he knew that he could not compete with Goliath on Goliath’s terms. And he knew that he didn’t have to.

David had at his disposal the well-honed ballistic skills of a sling-shot. And ballistics beats spears and swords every time.

The funny [ironic, tragic] thing is that king Saul came from a tribe that was famous among the tribes of Israel for their skill with a sling-shot. But Saul, along with his whole army, had been persuaded to see themselves as a lesser version of Goliath***.

Only David refused to be a tribute act to someone else****.

At the end of the Gospel reading we hear that the Pharisees and Herodians conspired against Jesus, ‘how to destroy him’.

The best, the most effective, way to destroy someone is to convince them to not be true to themselves, to persuade them to settle for being someone else.

When this fails, as it did with Jesus, you are forced to resort to murder; but that is far riskier, in the sense that it is nowhere near as effective.

Be the person God made you to be—and gave you to be. That is the one thing no-one else can do.


*He was a giant, and a fearsome specialist close-combat warrior.

**Is his shield-bearer in fact his guide? And why does he think David is carrying sticks, when in fact David—who becomes a moving remote target—is carrying a stick and a sling?

***The comparison game is helped by the fact that Saul was also tall, head-and-shoulders taller than many of his men, though not as tall as Goliath…

****Twice: first, refusing to take on Saul’s armour.


Monday, January 15, 2018

to equip the saints for the work of service

The local churches we read about in the New Testament were economic households. In Philippi, one household dealt in fine cloth—literally, a fashion house—and another was responsible for law and order. In Ephesus, the church was rooted in a philosophy debating hall, broadly-speaking the social equivalent of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London coffee houses, where people gathered in their leisure time (the long break in the middle of the day) to put the world to rights.

Distanced from the Jewish diaspora community, and cut-off from the pagan religious practices on which the conducting of business depended, these churches needed to be economically viable, not so that the building didn’t close but so that the believers didn’t starve. The account of the church in Ephesus recorded in Acts tells us that the Christians became so effective in operating an alternative economy that they had an impact on the old, temple-based, economy so significant that it resulted in social uproar.

This is the context in which we ought to understand Paul’s insight into apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, who are given ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry [service], for building up the body of Christ…’ (Ephesians 4:12; see also the teaching on economic households that takes up much of the second half of Paul’s letter, as well as featuring in other letters, and which include the likelihood of being married to or employed by someone who is not a believer).

Our churches today are not primarily understood as economic households (though they have budgets to balance) and this may skew our view of ‘ministry’. Nonetheless, our congregations are made up of households (whether one or more members of the household identify with the church) who work (paid or voluntary, or in need of work). In some contexts that might be in the same business, where the local economy is dependent on one or two employers; in other contexts, this is increasingly not the case. Still, the life of faith remains intimately connected with the work we do.

Let us then (re)imagine what APEST might look like in the context of a (fictional, but plausible) local Church of England congregation, seeking to be a faithful presence:

Alison’s primary vocation is to be an apostle, with a well-developed secondary gifting as a teacher. This is expressed in her working role as the executive headteacher of two schools. She no longer spends much time in the classroom, but oversees the whole environment, attending to the many and potentially-conflicting demands, and to embedding a culture that will best enable the two communities to flourish. Alison has been on the PCC of her church, but her term on the PCC is coming to an end and she does not intend to re-stand in April. The church appreciates that her focus is in the workplace, and prays for her regularly. With Alison’s support, members of the congregation go into one of the schools with ‘Open the Book’. Even though she does not have capacity, at present, to be part of a church-based working-group, the vicar knows that he can run certain things by her (within reason) and values her insight.

Peter’s primary vocation is to be a prophet. Peter is a local artist, who took early retirement and who volunteers two days a week at the food bank that runs out of the local Baptist church. Keenly aware of the problem of social isolation, and the attending de-skilling, in the community, Peter started running art classes in the (parish) church hall, advertised through the voluntary network. Recently the group put on an exhibition of work recording the (post)industrial identity of the community where they live. The PCC sees Peter’s art classes as a ministry of the church (covering room hire, heating & lighting), and two other members of the congregation have joined, to support that work.

Emma’s primary vocation is to be an evangelist. Her infectious personality makes her a natural recruiter to whatever she is involved in. She does the local parkrun, and has persuaded several of the other school-gate mums to take up running too. She’s also roped half-a-dozen of them into coming along to the monthly Messy Church. The PCC is planning a series of events in the church diary over the coming 12 months. Everybody knows that Emma is great at bringing other people along, but also at enthusing everyone else about what is going on—so important when some get discouraged by the scale of need or seemingly endless stream of bad news.

Sarah’s primary vocation is to be a shepherd, or pastor. She works in the local pharmacy, where she knows many of her customers. Even at busy times, she makes them feel that they matter. About four years ago, Sarah was invited by the vicar to join the pastoral care team, who visit people in their homes. Then, about a year ago, Sarah found she needed to step back from her involvement while she cared for a family member; but they have made a good recovery and Sarah is really enjoying being involved in the team again. Knowing that at times Sarah feels taken for granted by her employer, and that at times she takes on too much, the vicar and church wardens felt it important to release her, and, also, to regularly ask after her over those months (they didn’t always remember!) but they are happy that she is back.

Tim’s primary vocation is to be a teacher. He is a secondary school science teacher. To be honest, it can be hard motivating the kids to learn; and then there is the endless interference by the government. Sometimes, Tim feels like quitting, and retraining for something else. But Tim is married to Emma (you remember Emma?) who is taking time out from being a dental hygienist while their own children are young, and so when Tim feels like quitting, he also feels trapped. Emma is wonderfully supportive, but sometimes even that makes him feel worse. The monthly men’s curry night with church friends has been a place where Tim has found real support; a conversation with Alison, also a teacher though not at his school, was helpful too. Wanting to encourage Tim to remain in teaching, but also to make good use of his gift within the life of the gathered church, the vicar supported Tim through Reader training (a licensed—that is, recognised by the wider Church—lay ministry). The congregation follows the lectionary readings at their main Sunday service, but Tim is part of a group that helps put together study series at certain times throughout the year. This Lent, they are running weekly afternoon and evening groups in parallel, and Tim will lead the evening group.

Alison, Peter, Emma, Sarah and Tim are fictional; but each is an amalgamation of several real people I know, some of whom would describe themselves as Christian and others, not. Likewise, the church they are part of is fictional; but the range of activities described does not seem to me to be unrealistic for many, though not all, churches. Though not an actual place, the wider community should also be recognisable. Lastly, while the vicar is also fictional, he may be recognised in any number of vicars, male and female, seeking to invest in the people-gifts God has sent to them.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

On humanity, enmity, and belief

Difficult verses from Psalm 21 set for Morning Prayer today—but we need to sit with them if we are to understand the role and value of religious faith in the world, something the overwhelming (and growing) majority of people hold to.

Your hand will find out all your enemies;
your right hand will find out those who hate you.
You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear.
The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath,
and fire will consume them.
You will destroy their offspring from the earth,
and their children from among humankind.
If they plan evil against you,
if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
For you will put them to flight;
you will aim at their faces with your bows.
Psalm 21:8-12

This text can be understood in several ways. We need an understanding of historical context—and contexts—and interpretive communities. The list of interpretations below is not exhaustive; nor are the possibilities necessarily mutually-exclusive.

1. This text endorses the killing of our enemies, with excessive force, with disproportional vengeance. Religion perpetuates conflict.

Variations of this interpretation include seeing it as timeless, or as of-its-time—a time and an understanding ‘we’ have moved on from (or not). Of course, this view of the world is not only a religiously-motivated one, but a human impulse...

2. This text sees God at work in human history, in that men of violence and oppression do not last for ever, but eventually are removed from the face of the earth and in time forgotten. Also reflected in this text is the belief in a human governance that, while not perfect and, indeed, not without violence, limits evil action in the world.

This understanding resonates with secular ideas of the UN and of ‘good’ and ‘rogue’ nations.

3. This text can be internalised, as personifying the thoughts and emotions that oppress us or hold us captive, such as fear and anxiety, judging ourselves (and therefore others) overly harshly, with-holding mercy from ourselves (and therefore others). In such an appropriation of the text, we find hope that these ‘enemies’ can be swallowed up when we become aware of the presence of a loving God who comes to rescue us and set us free.

This also resonates with faith in love, not as a deity but as the ultimate ground we are surrounded by.

Just because certain texts are complex, and contested, does not mean they should—or can—be ignored.


Monday, January 08, 2018

Baptism of Christ


Today the Church marks the baptism of Christ. John the Baptist refers to Jesus in three ways that link him to the story of the people of God—a superabundance of imagery.

1. The description ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ links Jesus to Isaiah’s vision of a restored Israel, post the Babylonian exile (Israel having been judged by means of Babylon). See Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52, 53, with the lamb imagery in 53:6, 7.

2. The Holy Spirit resting on Jesus in the form of a dove, as he stands surrounded by the waters of baptism, links Jesus to the post-flood. Noah sent out a dove who returned with an olive branch and later did not return, indicating that the flood had subsided and life could begin again. See Genesis 6-9, especially 8:8-12.

3. The title ‘the Son of God’ links Jesus to king David, called God’s ‘firstborn son’, whose throne God promised to establish through all generations. See, for example, Psalm 89:19-37.

What John ‘foresaw’ comes to pass within a generation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The First Jewish-Roman War (66-70AD) saw the end of the Herodian dynasty, and the destruction of the temple: an existential crisis for Judaism in the aftermath of which the Church would emerge as a world-changing community (Judaism would also re-emerge in a new form).

Jesus’ baptism, then, prefigures imminent and cataclysmic judgement on the people of God (and then beyond) followed by a restoration (for them, and then beyond). God active in human history. It is not so much Jesus identifying directly with sinful humanity, as Jesus identifying with the covenant-making God, Yahweh, who calls and works with a particular people for the blessing of the nations of peoples.

Does this have any relevance today? And not as abstract theology beyond history, but as pattern in history?