St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Feast of Christ of Christ the King

November 25             NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Feast of Christ of Christ the King

Texts:  Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Theme:   "Christ the King" will do fine.

Introduction.  This is the last Sunday of yet another liturgical year, the Last Sunday before Advent.  Traditionally called "Stir-up Sunday", a better name for it may be "Sum-up Sunday".  Liturgically, it's the last chapter of the book, the final denouement, when all is revealed and explained.  The purposes of God, embodied in the life and mission of Christ, past, present and future, are finally laid bare for all to see.  And a special note here for preachers.  Do not take one look at the Lectionary and throw up your hands in horror!  There is plenty in these readings to get your teeth into.  The Books of Daniel and Revelation may not have the appeal of, say, Isaiah and John (except to a certain brand of American Christianity, perhaps), but it is hard to see what our liturgy might look like without them.  Even more than usual, it all depends on how we hear/read them.  At one extreme they seem to prescribe everything that the Lord held unholy – military might to inaugurate and defend Christ's rule on earth.  But as the wonderful little dialogue between Pilate and Jesus makes clear in today's gospel reading, that is a complete misunderstanding of the kingdom of God.

Background.  This whole concept of "the kingdom of God/heaven" is central to Christ's teaching.  Mathew and Mark agree that the first message Jesus gave at the very beginning of his public ministry was, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near": Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15.  The question is, what does that mean?  What sort of "kingdom" are we talking about here?

That's been a problem for us for all the 2,000 years of our Christian history.  Too often we have equated "kingdom" with power in the sense of autocracy, dictatorship, etc.  Strong men (and occasionally strong women) usually acting badly in the pursuit of self-aggrandisement and to the detriment of the people.  Every night, just about, we see examples of this sort on our TV news; Assad in Syria is only the latest in a long and horrific list of dictators who will stop at nothing to preserve their kingdom for themselves and their toadies.  A minor, slightly less vicious home-grown example was served up by the Labour Party this week, as personal ambition seemed to some members to be far more important than the interests of those they are supposed to be serving.

For all the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a sense that here we see a power struggle that is illustrative of the biblical take on all such personal grabs for power.  According to one report I read, the leaders of Hamas, democratically elected to government in Gaza and therefore (despite the Western view) the legitimate rulers of Gaza, would like to order the cessation of rocket attacks on Israel, but dare not for fear of losing some of their power to a more extreme faction of Hamas; and the Israeli Prime Minister would like to reach a deal with Hamas to end the fighting, but dare not because he needs to keep the support of more extreme parties in the Israeli government.  In other words, that sort of worldly power is derived, not from strength, but from fear.  That is exactly the picture the New Testament gives us in the scene where the supposedly powerful King Herod orders the beheading of John the Baptist for fear of losing face; and it's exactly the picture we get with Pilate as he ends up handing Jesus over for crucifixion even though he believes him to be innocent of all charges.  He's afraid of the mob.

So where can we find a better example of the sort of kingdom Jesus is proclaiming?  At the risk of seeming to be a rabid royalist I suggest that we could start our quest by looking at the Queen in her Jubilee Year.   Yes, she has great wealth, many large palaces, and all the privileges and trimmings usually associated with worldly rulers.  Yet as we look back over her long reign we see, perhaps, more a picture of service than of megalomania.

We need to be careful with the word "world" in this context: "My kingdom is not of this world" can so easily seem to mean that Jesus' kingdom is some sort of Shangri-la up in the clouds, or off in the never-never land of the far distant future.  But the prayer he teaches us should put pay to that: if that is what he meant, why does he instruct us to pray that the kingdom may come on earth as in heaven?  So perhaps he is saying to Pilate, my 'kingdom" is not of the sort the world understands by that word.  The rest of that verse (19:36) supports that sort of interpretation, I think: If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place.

So on this "Sum-up Sunday" how can we sum up Jesus' understanding of the kingdom he has come to proclaim and inaugurate?  An obvious place to start may be the so-called "kingdom parables – 'the kingdom of heaven is like...'  From these we can say it starts small, like a seed, it grows slowly, invisibly – it is alive, organic, not something static and unchanging.  It is not yet – it is in the process of becoming.  It is hidden, more apparent from its effects than its substance, rather like the wind blowing where it will.  Perhaps the central image of these parables can be said to be the garden or farm, where the seed is sown, it sprouts and needs tending by the gardener until it reaches full maturity, ready for harvest.

As I pondered my understanding of the kingdom I found myself going back time and again to that little dialogue between Jesus and Peter as Jesus started to wash his disciples feet at the Last Supper: John 13:6-10a.  Peter is horrified at the thought of Jesus acting like a slave to him.  Is that humility on Peter's part?  Or false pride?  Or something else, something more like an unwillingness to let Jesus be Jesus?  "No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet."  Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me."  It seems to me that we could translate Jesus' answer, "Unless you let me do what I want with you, you cannot enter the kingdom of God."  Peter is a slow learner; he next tries to direct Jesus' action from a mere foot-wash to include a hand-wash and a hair-wash as well.  Jesus demurs, in terms that have led some commentators to suggest that this is now a discussion about baptism.  Personally, I don't think that will wash: the issue is and remains, will Peter submit to whatever Jesus has in mind, or not?  "Rule or "reign" might seem too heavy here, but that's the issue.  And there might be an issue here for us, too.  If Christ has told someone to do something for us and we decline that person's help, what are we guilty of, and what part do we have with Christ?

Daniel.  Remember that this is part of a vision and is best looked at more than read.  It's full of symbols.  "Thrones" symbolise power and authority.  (Try not to choke when you hear talk of the "enthronement of the next Archbishop of Canterbury".)  God is called "the Ancient of Days", capturing the idea of "time immemorial", "from the beginning", or simply "eternal".  His robe is white, spotless, symbolising purity and perfection.  His hair is white, perhaps here the sign of wisdom.  There is fire around God, and even pouring like a river from God, bearing the purification of judgment to the world, perhaps.  God is surrounded by beings, countless as heavens stars, either the angelic host or the great cloud of witnesses comprising the communion of saints, or both.  The scene becomes a courtroom.  Justice is to be found in the one on the throne.  (Think Royal courts of Justice, Royal prerogative of mercy, and so on.)  Another shift of focus, and now we see one like a Son of Man arriving and being led into the presence of the one who sits on the throne.  Notice how the language here is adopted into the Ascension accounts in the gospels: Matthew 28:18; Luke 24:51; John 20:17.  All nations will worship him (in fulfilment of the Abramic Covenant), and his kingdom will have no end (the Davidic promises).

Taking It Personally.

·   Review the last 12 months of your faith journey.  What have you learned along the way?  Where are you being led?

·   Does our story make sense when read as a whole?  Look at the Nicene Creed (Prayer Book, page 410): is that a fair summary of our story?  Can any bit be struck out without leaving a gap in the logic of the story?

·   Spend some time "looking" at Daniel's vision in this story.  What picture forms in your mind?  How do you feel about it?  Does it seem strange and alienating, or does it draw you and nourish you?

·   Now meditate for a while on verses 26-7.  What do you think?


Revelation.  From one vision to another.  The same advice applies here: we need to look at it more than read it or listen to it.  Get the picture, literally.  Having said that, there is an extraordinary richness of words and phrases here; perhaps rather than a "picture" what we have here is more like a "tapestry".  We begin with that wonderful greeting "Grace and peace."  Who is greeting us?  "...him who was, and is, and is to come".  As I said above, so much of our liturgy is drawn from books like Revelation; but here these words are applied to God the Father, whereas in the liturgy they are used in respect of Christ: see Prayer Book, page 469.  "Seven spirits" is perhaps better translated "the seven-fold Spirit", seven being the perfect number.  "Throne" again symbolises power and authority.

In the next verses attention shifts to Jesus who is a "faithful witness", the first-born from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.  He loves us, has redeemed us, and empowers us to become a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father. [Daniel 7:26-7 again!]  When the focus shifts to Jesus' Return, notice that everyone will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn!  ("Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.") 


Taking It Personally.


·   Start with our familiar piece of liturgy: "Grace and peace to you from God." {Prayer Book, page 404.]  Have you ever really heard that?  Notice those two little words "from God".  God is greeting you!  Isn't that something?

·   But wait, there's more.  God is not just saying "hullo" or "g'day"; he is sending you his grace and the peace that passes all understanding.  Isn't that something else?

·   Meditate on verse 8 – even memorise it.  God is the beginning and end of all things.  You have come from God and will end in God.  Spend time in praise and thanksgiving.


John.  I have already said a bit about this little passage.  Here's a bit more.  Pilate goes back into his palace, the symbol and place of his power.  He summons Jesus, an exercise of power.  He puts a straight question to Jesus; but Jesus invites him to reflect on where that question originates.  In other words, is Pilate just quoting others (who do people say I am?), or is he beginning to engage with that question himself (who do you say I am?).  (See also Matthew 16:17 here.)  But Pilate is not prepared to go there!  He pushes him away.  In verse 37 the punctuation in the NIV translation is interesting: "You are a king then!" rather than "You are a king then?"  Jesus' response is even more intriguing.  "For this reason I was born" stresses his humanity; "and for this I came into the world" stresses his divinity.  He is to "testify to the truth": he is "the faithful witness" of Revelation 1:5.


Taking It Personally.


·   What is the "truth" to which Jesus testifies?

·   Are you convinced?  Why?

·   What are your hopes for Advent?


Friday, 16 November 2012

Feast of Christ in all Creation

November 18             NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Feast of Christ in all Creation

Texts:   Genesis 1:26-2:3; Romans 8:18-27; John 1:1-14

Theme:  The title of the Feast is the obvious choice.  An alternative may be "All in All", in which case a better choice of epistle reading might be something from Colossians, perhaps 1:15-20.

Introduction.  This is a fairly new "Feast", and for some reason there are no "official" readings prescribed for it in the Lectionary.  It is offered as an option for each of the last three Sundays of the Liturgical Year, but is not considered essential.  All in all my suspicion is that this is a compromise between the Green advocates and the not so keen within General Synod, leading to a rather half-hearted compromise.  The readings set are suggested on our Diocesan Website.  The selection of the two lessons seem explicable if not exactly creative (excuse the pun), but the selection of the gospel passage is more intriguing.  Given the theme we might have expected something from the Genesis creation narrative, although perhaps not the particular passage chosen: it seems to make the case for the domination of nature by our species, and has a strong bias in favour of a vegetarian diet.  The reading from Romans commends itself as a reminder that human salvation does not take the form of a dramatic rescue from a doomed earth; the whole of creation (of which we are but one species) awaits redemption.  Christ is as much, therefore, the redeemer of mosquitoes and moss as he is of the human species.  As for the gospel passage, it may be that verse 3 was considered a sufficient reason for its choice, but perhaps there is more to it than that.

Background.  We are reminded from time to time that the Anglican Church is committed to a five-fold mission, the last 3 of which all tend to attract devoted followers, and all three of which bring with them a similar danger.  The danger is that each can become an end in itself, severed from the central core of the business of the Church which is to worship God and give him the glory.  The care of those in need, the fight against social injustice, and the care of the environment are all important elements of the mission of the Church, but unless they arise from and are rooted in our love of God, they cease to be Christian ministry.  They all too easily become the outworking of political and ideological commitments, rather than part of our loving response to the love God gives to us.

Perhaps, therefore, part of what we are about today is to reflect on what we mean by "Christ in all Creation", and why that is essentially different from the thinking, policies and programmes of the Green Party or the Environmental Defence Society.  A good starting-point might be to reflect on the terms "Creation" and "Nature".  We tend to use them interchangeably, but as people of faith we shouldn't.  "Nature" seems to be something in its own right, something that is what it is, and perhaps always has been.  "Creation" is not something that just is; it means something that has been created, by a Creator.  Creation is a religious term in a way that "Nature" is not.  Nor is "Environment", come to that. 

That takes us part of the way; but now what do we mean when we acclaim Christ "in all Creation"?  People often tell me that they don't need to attend Church – they meet God in the natural world, the great outdoors.  But I don't think anyone has ever told me that they don't need to attend church because they meet Christ in that way.  Yes, I know, we're all Trinitarians – but the people I have in mind probably aren't.  Certainly the natural world CAN speak of God – as the psalmists amongst others testify – but when it does it usually omits any reference to the doctrine of the Trinity.  How, then, are we to know which god is being spoken about?  In other words, as Christians we care for the environment, not because it is beautiful, and not because it supports life, but because it is the handiwork of the same God who made us.  It is holy, sacred, because it is God's creation, not because it is the playground of Pan and his mates, nor because it is our "Primeval Mother".  The natural environment is NOT the source of all life: God is.

And before we go any further perhaps we need to get a dose of realism into our reflections.  Watch any documentary by the great Sir David Attenborough and it won't be long before something is catching and eating something else.  That's the world as it is, not as devotees of Walt Disney might prefer.   There might be coming a day when the lion will lie down with the lamb but it's probably not going to dawn in Sir David's lifetime.  And perhaps another way of saying all this is that, whatever term we use, "Nature", "Creation", "The Environment" or Even "Gaia", they are all inadequate if we tend to think in terms of a noun rather than a verb.  The key reality lies in "becoming", not "being".  God is making the heavens and the earth: as someone has said, we are still living in the sixth day of Creation.

So back to the question, what do we mean when we speak of "Christ in all Creation"?  Are we saying anything more than what we say in the Nicene Creed: "through him all things were made", taken perhaps from John 1:3?  And if we are saying more than that, is the key to be found in the very next verse of that gospel: "In him was life"?  That seems to be getting us somewhere, at least in respect of all living things.  If Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and if all life is one, then Christ is the life made manifest in all living creatures.  In that sense St Francis' habit of calling other creatures his brothers and sisters is profound theology, not sentimental twaddle designed to appeal to free-spending tourists heading to Italy.

That still leaves the "inanimate" part of Creation; but can we say of anything comprised of atoms and sub-atomic particles and all the rest of the amazing inner life of stone, metals, and every other material thing that they are inanimate.? Are they not alive with the energy of their Creator, and is that not life as surely as we live?

One more heresy before turning to the readings.  Evolution seems to be heading in a specific direction, from simplicity towards ever greater complexity.  It is surely not too anthropocentric to think that perhaps evolution has always been and is now a process designed to produce consciousness, and through consciousness, awareness of God our Creator.  In which case, is Christ not the master/conductor of the whole evolutionary process, leading all things to a final consummation in God??  Is that at least part of what we mean when we worship Christ in all Creation?

Genesis.  This is the passage that is so often slated by the Green Movement for appearing to give biblical authority for what is perceived to be an exploitative attitude towards the earth and all that lives in it.  We can see something in that criticism if we assume that words like "rule over" and "subdue" are to be read in an ordinary secular way.  But, of course, that is not how they are to be read in the bible.  God has created all things, not just humankind.  God is love.  God looks and sees that all he has created is good; indeed, after he has created humankind, his verdict is raised from "good" to "very good".  But we need to be very careful here.  I've seen it suggested in some commentaries that "good" applies to the rest of creation, and "very good" applies only to humankind.  The text clearly does not support that view.  Creation without humankind is good; with humankind included it is very good.  And a second point is this: biblical rule is quite different from the usual run of worldly rule.  Among people of God rulers do not exploit those whom they are ruling – they serve them.  The Lord himself said, "I am among you as one who serves."  To rule over creation, in biblical terms, is to care for it, safeguard it, promote its health and well-being, as a shepherd cares for the sheep.

Taking It Personally.

·        What sort of "rule" do you exercise over any part of creation over which you have authority, such as your garden?   Is your approach to dominate and subdue, or to revere and govern wisely?

·        In what way might your understanding of this text govern your gardening practices?

·        Spend time meditating on verse 27.  It's very familiar, but have you ever really taken its meaning and its implications to heart?  Ask the Holy Spirit to take you deeper into the truth of this verse.

·        What do you think about the idea that Creation is an ongoing process – that we are still in Day 6?  Could that provide some basis for a re-think about issues of faith raised by earthquakes and other catastrophic natural disasters?

Romans.  St Paul has a new take on the "no gain without pain" principle; and he applies it across the whole of creation.  Just as humankind, fallen from grace and in the process of being redeemed through the saving work of Christ, experiences pain and suffering along the way, so, too, he says, the rest of creation is being brought through a similar process of pain and suffering to salvation in Christ.  We sometimes want to draw a distinction between human evil, for which we are responsible and natural evil (disasters) for which we are not.  But St Paul does not see things like that.  For him the whole of Creation was affected by the Fall, and the whole of Creation is in the process of being redeemed.

Taking It Personally.

·     Reflect on St Paul's approach: does it change your view in respect of natural disasters?

·     St John the Divine in the Book of Revelation talks about a new heaven and a new earth.  How does that fit with St Paul's idea of the present creation being redeemed, set free, or restored?

·     Ponder especially verse 22.  Is this mage helpful or unhelpful in helping to "understand" why earthquakes, volcanoes, etc, seem to be part of the natural order of things?

·     What is the ambit of the "hope" we have as Christians?  Do we hope for our salvation (humankind only) or do we hope for the redemption of the whole of Creation?

John.  It is widely agreed among scholars that the wonderful Prologue (verses 1-18) is a meditation on the Creation narrative in Genesis re-visited in the light of Christ.  Notice, for example that according to the author of Genesis 1 the first thing that God spoke into existence was light; so the first act of creation was to bring light into the darkness of the chaos that preceded Creation.  So Christ 's coming into the world is seen as the true light coming into the darkness of the world.  And notice too he brings light to all people (verse 4), and not just to a chosen (religious or faithful) few.  Compare that with verse 12, where only those "who received him, [... ] those who believed in his name" are given "the right to become children of God". 

Taking It Personally.

·     Meditate on the passage as a whole, slowly, phrase by phrase.  Try to be open to whatever the Spirit is telling you as you do so. 

·     Notice the intertwining of "light" and "life", as much a fact of the material world as the spiritual one.  And ponder especially verse 5.  What do you take from the phrase "but the darkness has not understood it"?

·     Is verse 10 making the same sort of point? 

·     Are things any better today?

·     This week, every time you turn on a light, say to yourself (or be really brave and say it to anybody else who might be present) "Jesus is the light that shines on in our darkness."


Thursday, 8 November 2012

Remembrance Sunday

November 11                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Remembrance Sunday

Texts: Micah 4:1-5; Romans 8:31-39; John 15:9-17.  [Note: The Lectionary gives 4 options for each reading for this remembrance: these are the readings that have been chosen for St Barnabas, Warrington so I will stick with these.]

Theme:  I'm going with "Lest We Forget"; an alternative might be "What Should We Remember?"

Introduction.  The fact that the authors of the Lectionary have been unable to decide on an official line and given us the equivalent of a free vote in itself illustrates the difficulty we have in reconciling our faith with anything relating to war, particularly war involving our own people and nation.  Hence the suggestion above that what we might do today is ask ourselves what exactly we are supposed to be remembering and why.  Whether any of the possible readings help us to address that question any better than any of the others is a moot point.  [I quite like Sirach 51:1-12 and 1 Timothy 2:1-7.]  Micah looks to a time when war will be no more, when the Lord God himself will judge between the nations, and justice will prevail throughout the world.   It's a wonderful vision to which neither the Church nor the State of Israel has shown any real commitment to date.  Our other two readings have clearly been wrenched out of their proper context in an attempt to appear relevant to this remembrance, with the unfortunate result that, in the case of the epistle, it borders on the blasphemous, and in the case of the gospel it sanitises the reality of war in an attempt to make it seem noble and heroic if not actually holy.

Background.  What a week it has been – the Report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Mine Disaster, the Melbourne Cup, and the American Presidential Election.  I wonder which of those evoked the greatest amount of prayer.  And as we are marking Remembrance Sunday, here's a question to ponder: which of those should we remember the longest, and why?

I must confess the one that dominated my thoughts and prayers this week was the Presidential election; and yet, with that behind us, I find the thing that is buzzing loudest in my mind is a question John Campbell raised in his coverage of the Royal Commission Report.  Commenting on the fact that warning after warning about dangerous levels of methane gas in the mine were raised and ignored in the days leading up to the disastrous explosions, Campbell asked, "Where were the whistleblowers?"  It's a good question but is it a fair one?  The Safety Officer at the mine, who has so far escaped any criticism (presumably on the ground that one of his sons died in the disaster), has stated that he constantly raised his concerns with his boss, who took no notice.  Should he not have picked up the biggest whistle he could find and blow it as loudly as he could?   Should he not have at least alerted the authorities, or even gone to the media?

Well, maybe, but think of the circumstances at the time.  Would any of us have wanted to be the one whose whistle-blowing caused the mine to close with a loss of all those jobs?  Knowing what has happened, of course we might say yes, but if someone had taken that course of action and avoided those deaths would Greymouth have acclaimed him a hero or run him out of town?  Listen to the mayor and you'll know the answer to that:  "This is a mining's in our's our's all we know...all we want to do...."

It would have taken a very brave person to blow that particular whistle, wouldn't it?  Or, perhaps, a person of faith?  A person who answers to the One who tells his followers to lay down their lives for others, and assures them that the truth will set them free.  Whistleblowers are in the business of telling the truth, often at very high personal cost.  Another name for them, particularly if driven by the Spirit, is "prophets".  Today, on this Remembrance Sunday, perhaps yet another name for them would be appropriate: let's call them Conscientious Objectors.  New Zealand has a terrible record in dealing with them; so, sadly, does the Church.    

From the very beginning Christianity and the State clashed over the competing claims of the teaching of Christ and the prevailing view of patriotic duty.  The Roman authorities were not much interested in theology and biblical studies.  Christians would have been left alone to believe and practice whatever took their fancy if they had only accepted two basic principles: first, that the Emperor was divine in the sense that everyone owed ultimate allegiance to him; and secondly, that sacrifices were to be offered to the Roman gods who protected the State from its enemies.  Christians, believing in the one true God and in the lordship of Jesus Christ could do neither.  They were tried (usually for treason) and executed in large number.  Early Christian documents from this period show a list of proscribed occupations that Christians should not undertake as being incompatible with being a follower of Christ.  Bearing arms was one such proscribed occupation.

All this changed when the Empire became officially Christian in the 4th century, when it was thought that there was no longer any conflict between Church and State.  The enemies of the Empire were pagans attacking a Christian empire; of course, Christians should bear arms in defence of the empire.  In such an atmosphere St Augustine and others developed the doctrine of the Just War, which has plagued Christian theology ever since.  To that great saint and theologian, and to all other proponents of such sophistry, Jesus has one simple answer: "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Who said that?  The One who, faced with arrest, torture and death, commanded one of his own disciples, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword shall die by the sword."

No wonder the Lectionary authors couldn't pick a winner.  It isn't that it's too close to call; there are no contestants able to run the course the Church has chosen to run.


Micah.  A messianic prophecy of the end of the age.  It looks to a time when all the gentile nations are drawn to Jerusalem (the dwelling-place of God), who will adjudicate on any disputes.  The image is of some international court of law, but presided over by God.  When such an order is established, there will be no more war or preparation for war; and all the hardware used for war will be converted to agricultural use.  Verse 4 brings this lofty vision down to earth; peace and security on a global level necessarily implies peace and security for the individual, too.  I've seen it suggested that verse 5 is a vote for religious pluralism, which seems a little unlikely as the nations of the world have gathered around Jerusalem to be taught God's ways and to learn to walk in his paths!  More likely, it is a dismissive remark aimed at the poor benighted fools who follow lesser "gods" who couldn't possibly bring about such a glorious state of affairs.

Taking It Personally.

·       Spend some time with this vision.  Contrast it with the present state of the world.  Then pray, slowly and earnestly, "Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven."

·       What can you do, either alone or with others, that might be one small step towards making that vision a reality?  If you can't think of anything, ask God to suggest something (but only if you are prepared to accept the suggestion).

·       Have you ever been in a situation where the urging of your faith was in conflict with the expectations imposed on you by others?  How did you resolve it?

·       What does Remembrance Sunday mean to you?  What are you most "remembering" on this day?

Romans.  The most dangerous of all the passages for use on this day.  Every nation in war is inclined to assume that God is on its side.  "If God is for us, who can be against us?" makes perfect sense in the context in which St Paul wrote it: but in times of war it would so easily slip off the tongue of some political leader seeking to boost the country's cause.  Verse 35 is also a little worrying: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?"  (Before you go any further, have a good look at John 15:9-10.)  And even the wonderful verse 37 has dangerous overtones in the context of war.

Taking It Personally.

·       Do you feel that God is for you?  Has there been a time when you didn't feel that God was for you?

·       Generally, is this passage a nice bit of encouraging rhetoric, or does it (or any of it) describe your own experience of God?

·       What does it mean to you that Christ is interceding for you?  When you pray for yourself, do you feel that you are joining in Christ's prayer on your behalf, or that he is praying with you as well as for you?

·       Have you ever felt separated from Christ's love, or from the love of God?  By what?

John.  Here, surely, is the classic example of using Scripture out of context.  There has long been a reluctance in the RSA to become too "religious" in its services and on its memorials, but it seems to have accepted the "imposition" of this verse 13".  One year in Kawhia I was asked to take an Anzac Day service in the village, and took this passage as my text.  I asked the question, "Did those who enlisted intend to lay down their lives for their friends; or was their dearest hope to return home fit and well?"  I then answered my own question and suggested that the RSA should give back the "present of religious language" because it did not accurately describe the reality of war.  About one third of those who died in the trenches in the First World War died of dysentery and other diseases, rather than by enemy fire.  Had they laid down their lives for their friends?  In fact, the vast majority of deaths by enemy fire were the result of sheer bad luck – being in the wrong ship, plane or ground position at the wrong time: in what sense could that be described as a willing laying down of one's life?  Isn't the real truth of the matter that virtually every casualty of was an unwilling victim?  Many of the elderly veterans present that day made a point of shaking my hand and thanking me for that message.  No one took issue with me.  Those who had been there remembered the truth – and one or two told me of their resentment at the role of the Church in pretending it was something else.  That is one thing I shall always remember on Remembrance Sunday.  Look again at this verse 13: is it not clear that Christ is talking about the quality of our relationships within the Church?

Taking It Personally.

·       How might the Church offer pastoral support, empathy and love to the victims of war and their families without betraying Christ's pacifist teaching?

·       How might we reconcile verses 10 and 14 with our belief that Christ's love for us is unconditional?

·       As you "remember" today, what is it that you are remembering?  What are you thankful for?  What do you regret?  Make these thoughts the centre of your prayers this week.

·       Ponder Matthew 5:9 (Blessed be the peacemakers): are you a peacemaker?  How might you exercise that ministry in your family, workplace, local church, or other social grouping in the next week or so?

·       Pray for Syria or another war-torn country this week, perhaps using the petition, "Your will be done in Syria as in heaven".

·       Pray for the UN, the International Court of Justice, and other organisations and people working for peace.

Friday, 2 November 2012

All Saints’ Sunday

November 4                           NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Theme: We're spoilt for choice this week: perhaps "The End's in Sight" might best cover the essence of all three readings.  Or for those of us who like to boast of our humility, what about "Saints?  Who Us?"  I'm going for "A Great Cloud of Witnesses" (but that's because I shall be preaching more on readings that aren't set for today, than on those that are).

Introduction.  Following on from the subtle hint in the previous paragraph, I'm not very impressed with the choice of the readings for All Saints' Sunday.  Personally I would prefer something from Genesis 15, for instance, with the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens.  Then something from chapters 11 and 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews.  The gospels are more difficult, I must confess, so I'll duck it and get back to today's readings.  They are all looking forward to the age to come – the finishing line of this earthly existence.  Isaiah (who seems to have been something of a gourmet, gourmand or glutton in his time) looks forward to a magnificent feast on the Holy Mountain with God as the host.  St John the Divine shows his green credentials, seeing the whole of creation cleaned up and made new; while the Fourth Evangelist gives us a reminder that the way forward for us all is through death and being raised again.

Background.  November is a great month in the Church; four successive Sundays with the emphasis on remembering, praising and celebrating.  We start today with the great champions of the faith.  Next week is Remembrance Sunday when we remember and give thanks for those whose personal sacrifices made possible the freedoms of today.  Then follow two great triumphant feasts as we worship Christ in All Creation and Christ the King.

As I started to reflect on this feast of All the Saints all sorts of (possibly unrelated) bits and pieces came into my mind.  I remembered the All Saints Sunday in my first parish when I asked the congregation, right at the start of the service, "Are there any saints present?"  As I had rather expected and hoped, only one person put up her hand, so I was able to look terribly clever and biblical by reminding them that according to the Scriptures all believers are saints – that's what the word meant in biblical times.  I was deservedly shot down when a voice from the back called out, "You're new here – believe me, we're no saints!"

Then that great line from one of John Betjeman's poems (about the only line I can remember from my fourth form years) when he describes the oak rafters in an ancient English village church as "beams burnished by the prayers of a thousand years."

On a similar theme, hearing a speaker in the meeting house on Raukawa Marae in Otaki talking of their belief that the words spoken in that building in the past are still present in the air, to warn and to guide those who come after them to speak only words of importance in that building, lest we fill the atmosphere with verbal rubbish.

Some words of science followed.  Before the earth could support life it had to develop an atmosphere to act as a shield to reduce the amount of radiation that would otherwise make life on earth impossible.  And vague memories about ozone layers, and holes in it, and fluorocarbons – half buried in the storage recesses of the brain, but showing up in the catalogue when I "googled" "All Saints".

All this followed by a snatch of liturgy and another of Scripture.  Therefore, with all your witnesses who surround us on every side, countless as heaven's stars, we praise you for our creation and our calling, with loving and with joyful hearts. [Second Liturgy, page 486]  And so to Hebrews 12:1: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

And then, for the first time ever, it struck me that our liturgy misses out a strange word that the writer to the Hebrews uses.  A "crowd of witnesses" makes sense; but what are we to make of "a cloud of witnesses"?  And off I went again, this time "googling" "cloud".  Clouds have been in our faith history almost from the beginning.  A cloud led the Israelites by day in the wilderness; clouds hid God on Mount Sinai; clouds came over the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, the Judgment Seat, and so on.  Clouds were often where God was.  St Paul had an interesting take on all that in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 (no, look it up for yourself); and clouds are associated with our Lord's Transfiguration, Ascension and "Second Coming."  The writer to the Hebrews chose his loaded word well. 

After all these flights of fancy, here's a serious piece of research from "For All the Saints": it quotes Jeremy Taylor, a 17th Century preacher and teacher, thus: The memories of the saints are precious to God, and therefore they ought also to be for us: and such persons, who serve God by holy living, industrious preaching, and religious dying, ought to have their names preserved in honour, and God be glorified in them, and their holy doctrines and lives published and imitated.

All very right and proper, of course, but I found it somehow unsatisfying.  Pondering why, I found another item in my mental storage.  It concerned a conversation I had some years ago with an abbot from England called Fr Gregory.  We were talking about St Paul, and in an unguarded moment I said, "Poor old St Paul – he gets a rather bad press these days."  Fr Gregory responded with some considerable energy, "I know, and it's so unfair!  St Paul is such a lovely fellow!"

And there's the real truth at the heart of our doctrine of the Communion of Saints.  They're not museum pieces from a long lost culture, worthy examples from a distant past.  They are alive and well, and surrounding us on every side, cheering us on as we "run with perseverance the race marked out for us", and forming a cloud, an atmosphere of prayer, protecting us from the spiritual radiation that might otherwise make our life here impossible.  Why do they bother?  The astonishing answer to that question is to be found in Hebrews 11:39-40.  (No, look it up for yourself..)

Isaiah.  This is "set" in the "day of the Lord", the Day of Judgment and vindication to which the writers of the Old testament make frequent reference, and which in Christian terms means the day of the Return of the Lord at the end of the age.  So this is a vision of final peace and reconciliation between God and humanity.  The central image is a great feast hosted by God, to be held "on this mountain", probably a reference to Mount Zion, or possibly a throw-back to Sinai or Horeb.  Notice that the guests are to include "all peoples" (it was during the time of Isaiah that the God of Israel was recognised as being the God of all nations).    The food and wine will be of the very finest, perfect spiritual nourishment.  Here, surely, is the material from which the idea of the "Wedding Feast of the Lamb" is drawn; and Jesus' parable about the Wedding Banquet.  The shroud or burial veil that enfolds all people (that is, death) will be removed for ever.  Mourning will be no more, and all past shame (sins and failings) will be absolved.  The only possible response to that will be praise and thanksgiving.

Taking It Personally.

·        Before coming to Isaiah, reflect on the material in the "Background" section, above.  Ponder the phrase "The Communion of Saints".  What image comes to mind as you do that?  Are the saints just "role models" for us today, or do you agree there is more to it than that?

·        Turning to Isaiah, remember this vision of things to come is described to people who are in crisis.  Is it real hope for the future, or pie-in-the-sky stuff?  Do you feel included?

·        Then "rejoice and be glad in his salvation".  Spend time in praise and thanksgiving.

Revelation.  A wonderful passage, and what a relief after some of the earlier chapters!  As with the passage from Isaiah, this is a view of the end of time.  It is also a great refutation of all the Hal Lindsay nonsense in the USA around the idea of the saints (meaning Hal Lindsay and those who have bought all his books) being snatched from earth and taken up to heaven while everyone else is doomed to extinction (or worse) back on earth.  The bible says God is coming to join us, not the other way around!  (As some wit has said, "I hope I don't get snatched up with Hal Lindsay – I don't want to miss God going in the opposite direction.")  St John seems to be familiar with Paul's writing in Romans 8: the whole of creation will be made new (except perhaps the sea, the Jewish hatred of the sea being reflected in verse 1.)  The passage ends with the simple declaration, "It is done", echoing the words from the Cross, "It is finished."

·        This passage could be summed up, "from Eden to the new Eden".  Everything, the spiritual and the material realms, things seen and unseen, are to be renewed and restored to the original state of complete harmony between God and creation.  Spend time with that thought.  If necessary, ask God for the grace to believe it.

·        Try not to get hung up on the details!  This is an image addressed to our hearts, not our minds.  Approach it as you might a Rembrandt masterpiece, and give thanks.

·        Visualise a curtain (a veil or even a shroud) between the material and the spiritual realms.  Then see light beginning to shine through it from the other side.  Make out shadowy shapes – tell yourself that they are the saints waiting to welcome us.

·        Now remove the curtain.  How do you feel?  Bring this image to mind next time you pray the words, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven".

John. Today we have a short extract from the climax to the rather strange but gripping story of the Raising of Lazarus.  John may rank behind Luke in the art of story-telling, but he does a wonderful job with this bit of this story.  We are spared no detail.  We feel the tears of Mary and the others, and hear her slightly accusatory tone as she speaks to Jesus.  Jesus offered some explanation of what was happening to Martha, but he doesn't try that with Mary.  He weeps with her.  Now we hear the commentary from the "chorus", some of whom recognise Jesus' own sense of loss, while others take the critical line – "if he can heal the blind, why couldn't he have hurried here and saved his mate?"  Thence to the tomb, the description of which "reminds" us of the one in which Jesus will be laid fairly soon.  And as we hear the admonition of the ever-practical Martha warning that the body is likely to stink by now, we can almost see people drawing back, while still keeping their eyes on the tomb entrance.  Jesus calls him by name (ring any bells?), and out he comes, still draped in the burial cloths, which the Risen Christ will leave behind in his tomb.  Lazarus requires help before he can walk free.

Taking It Personally.

·        Definitely a passage to be prayed with the imagination.  Try to enter into the experience of the crowd.  (We surely cannot imagine what was going through Lazarus' mind!)

·        Compare this "raising story" with the others in the gospels.  Why is it that this one always seems to have far more impact than those others?

·        Now turn your attention to the sisters.  Can you understand their grievance about Jesus' late arrival?  Can you recall an occasion when you felt Jesus (God) delayed too long in responding to your need?  With the benefit of hindsight, do you have a different view of the matter now than you did at the time?

·        Pray for those who are mourning the loss of loved ones at this time.