June 2 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Te Pouhere Sunday*
[*Note. For readers of these Notes who are not members of the Anglican Church in this country, I should explain that our General Synod has designated this Sunday, the first after Trinity Sunday, as a day on which we "celebrate our life as a three Tikanga Church". Through a major overhaul of our Constitution, completed and brought into force in 1992, we adopted a structure of three "tikanga" or cultural strands, identified as Maori, Pakeha, and Polynesian or "Pacifika". Briefly, this allows for each of those broad cultural identities to worship and practise their faith in a way that is culturally appropriate for them. It also means that in the governance of the Church each of those partners has an equal say, and may dissent on any particular issue where a proposal that is acceptable to one is not acceptable to another. While all this sounds (and is!) of limited interest to anyone who is not afflicted by an incurable love of canon law, or by the far more common addiction to interminable conferences in Auckland and even more exotic locations in the South Pacific region, the issues raised in these notes may be of wider interest to Christians of a more practical bent.]
Texts: Isaiah 42:10-20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; Luke 6:46-49
Theme: The orthodox choice would be something like "Together we are one in Christ". In similar vein might be "Christ in all Cultures". More pointed would be something like "Recognising our Differences".
Introduction. When we find particular difficulty in selecting appropriate readings for a particular celebration, it's usually a clue that we have in mind, perhaps, the things of human concern rather than the concerns of God; and I must confess that when I first saw this set of readings I thought this might be an instance of that. (I'll get to the Sentence of the Day shortly!) Our gospel passage may just pass muster: for "sound foundations" read "sound Constitution" and we get the point. The second lesson, from Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, is a little more problematic: while the theme of reconciliation may seem apposite, and verse 17 may seem capable of applying to our new constitutional arrangements, it surely preaches a contrary message by urging us not to regard anyone "from a human point of view" any longer. But isn't that exactly what our new Constitution requires us to do? It raises the issue of our fundamental identity: am I a Christian who happens to be a Pakeha, or a Pakeha Christian, or (heaven forbid!) a Pakeha who happens to be a Christian?
But the most fascinating choice of readings we have today is surely our first lesson, from the Book of Isaiah. What is the subtext here? I have an idea, but it must wait for later. First, there are some positive things to say about our Constitution, and its creative attempt to tackle the conflict that is at the very root of our humanity, and it's time I acknowledged some of them.
Much of our evolutionary and subsequent history as a species down to the present day can only be understood when we recognise the tension we all experience between our existence as individuals and as members of a larger grouping. In general we can say that our sense of individual identity slowly evolved with the emergence of self-consciousness. Before that, we were no doubt driven by our instincts to seek survival, but beyond that we belonged to our small, largely kin-based groups. As our sense of self developed so the group to which we felt we belonged expanded. Families became extended families, extended families became clans or tribes, and tribes became nations. The process continues today, but with ever-increasing resistance. There are many in Scotland who want out of the United Kingdom; there are many in Britain who want out of Europe; and so on.
Within countries we see growing tension between native-born citizens and later arrivals, particularly those later arrivals who look different, sound different, and are intent on preserving their own culture without integrating fully into the local culture. None of this should come as a shock to readers of the Bible: it's all there almost from the beginning. Look at the tension between the tribes of Israel over who has and who has not borne the brunt of the fighting or the building work.
Can faith overcome our endemic tribalism? St Paul might seem to think so. The Sentence of Scripture for the day (Galatians 3:28) is one of his many assertions that our identity in Christ transcends our national or ethnic identities: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Hence the temptation (one to which I have given in on a number of occasions) to hold that in Christ there can be no such thing as "Maori and Pakeha", and therefore our new Constitution is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. But in my older and wiser years I am wondering if it really is as simple as that. First, the Book of Revelation suggests that ethnicity or nationalism is not going anywhere any time soon: see, for example, 7:9, which seems to attest that among the vast multitude singing out "Salvation belongs to our God..." will be some singing in Te Reo Maori and some in Gaelic!
But to my mind, the more important challenge to St Paul's pithy universalism comes when we think about it from a Jewish perspective. How does his assertion sit with them? Granted he was a Jew himself, which may lessen the offence slightly, but does it not still sound somewhat imperialistic to Jewish ears? Like a slogan or even a battle-cry of an invading force?
Which gets us back to our Constitution and this mysterious choice of our first lesson from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah. If we take chapter 42 as a whole, today's reading begins to make more sense. The previous chapter ended on a pretty dismal note, with a general diatribe against idol-worshipping. Things had reached rock-bottom, and the question therefore arises, what can God do about it? Enter the enigmatic figure of the Servant. He is going to bring in a new reign of justice and righteousness. So far so good – Israel, God's chosen people, is to receive a divine visitation to make all things good again. But as we go through verses 1-9 we find that the mission of the Servant is not limited to the people of Israel, but has universal application. He is to "bring forth justice to the nations" (verse1), and God has given him "as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations".
Today's passage opens with a call to worship, throughout the lands, from the mountains to the coastlands, and the mood remains generally upbeat until, in verses 13-15, it suddenly darkens, before swinging wildly in verses 16 and 17. But the real crunch comes in verses 18-20, where suddenly we discover that the Lord's specially chosen Servant is as spiritually blind and deaf as everyone else! What on earth is this all about?
It seems that all this marks a growing revelation of two things. First, Israel's calling is not exclusively for its own benefit, and certainly not in recognition of any particular merit on its part. God has created and called Israel to be his instrument in the redemption of the world. So the mysterious Servant is not a prophet or some other individual person but the nation of Israel itself. And before Israel can pump itself up with pride again it is made clear to Israel that it is no better than the other nations to which it is called to minister – it suffers from the same spiritual blindness and deafness as they do.
Now, where does that get us? Are we any closer to seeing a possible connection between this reading and our brave new Constitution? Well, here's my take on this. Britain saw herself as special, advanced, civilised, Christian – and only just, through natural British reserve and a distaste for discussing religious faith in public, restrained itself from claiming to be the New Israel itself. Britain certainly suspected that it had been called to be a light to other nations, and there was a good bit of this attitude in its approach to New Zealand, shared, of course, by the early Missionaries, including those from the Church of England. They had come, not so much to bring Christianity to these shores, but civilisation itself. They had come to convert the "heathen savages" into civilised (read "British") men and women, and adopting proper Christian beliefs was a part of all that. Hence, after an early heroic attempt on the part of individual Christian leaders, including some Anglicans, to protect Maori interests and secure for them a modicum of justice, the Anglican Church soon became the Church of the (white) settlers, the "elect" ones who were there to help the Maori people to become like them.
Quite unaware of their own spiritual blindness and deafness. Our old Constitution incorporated that sense of superiority, and that is why it needed to be changed. Not just to bring justice to Maori, but to heal us of all such manifestations of arrogant pride. In doing so, perhaps, it gave us another interpretation of St Paul's famous dictum: in Christ there is no such thing as superior and inferior – or is that what he meant by "slave or free?" The blind cannot lead the blind, said our Lord; but perhaps by coming to the same Divine Therapist we can both be cured of our blindness and our deafness.
And when we are it might be time to revise our Constitution again.
Taking It Personally.
- What impact (if any) has the new Constitution had on your faith journey, or on the practise of your faith? Does it have any relevance for you?
- Go slowly through verses 11 to 15: how much might apply to New Zealand's geography and history?
- What sort of "Servant" might this country be for the other nations of the world? What light do we shine on them?
- Spend time in prayer for our country. Give thanks for the good things about it. What do we need to do better? How might you contribute to a better future for this country? Pray for guidance, encouragement and empowerment.
Corinthians. In this passage St Paul is very clear: just as we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, so the foundation of our life has been made new. Everything is different: the former things have gone – there is a new creation. And we can continue this work for we have been given the same ministry of reconciliation, to call people back to God through Jesus Christ. At the heart of this is a single petition from the Lord's Prayer: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Taking It Personally.
- A time for self-examination and reflection. With whom do you need to be reconciled? What are you able to do to bring that about? When are you going to do it?
- Perhaps you need to start with a little mirror time? Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself, "Christ died for me, so that I might now live for him. Therefore, I am a new creation, and will no longer regard other people from a human point of view." Repeat until you are sure you believe it. Then go and be reconciled.
I'm out of space. This passage needs no explanation; but it does raise an obvious question. What are the foundations on which you are building your life? Are they strong enough to withstand anything that might come your way? What strengthening work might be required? When are you going to start on that?