St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Feast of Christ the King

November 24                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Feast of Christ the King

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Theme:  There's no great need to depart from the title of the feast, "Christ the King"; "the Reign of Christ" is apparently more politically correct, although I must confess I don't understand the distinction.  Taking our lead from the wonderful choice of gospel passage for this celebration, we might want to beef it up into "Christ the King Enthroned on the Cross"; or to steal the first line of the chorus from Graham Kendrick's great hymn, "This is our God, the Servant King".  [And if I may stray outside my usual brief, that hymn is a must for this celebration, and if you have a large crucifix available to gaze at as this hymn is sung, so much the better.]

Introduction.  We come to the triumphant conclusion of the liturgical year with this great feast, which should be given far greater prominence than has been our custom in the past.  This is not a day for the Church to be humble or apologetic – or overly sensitive to the feelings of non-believers or adherents of other faiths.  This is a day to celebrate the vindication of Christ and all who have believed in him.  This is the day when the extraordinary promises mouthed through the great prophets centuries ago, men like Jeremiah from whom our first lesson comes this week, are seen to be coming to fulfilment.  This is a day for celebrating the extraordinary vision of St Paul, as typified by this week's passage from his Letter to the Colossians.  Above all, this is the day to give thanks for the gift of faith that enables us to look at the tortured and broken body of Jesus of Nazareth dying the most terrible of deaths on the Cross and to cry out in joyful defiance, "THIS IS OUR GOD, THE SERVANT KING."  What a wonderful finale to another year of worship that is; and what wonderful preparation for next Sunday (Advent Sunday) when we re-commit ourselves to the never-ending task, so beautifully  summarised in the final verse of Kendrick's hymn:

So let us learn how to serve,

and in our lives enthrone him;

each other's needs to prefer,

for it is Christ we're serving.


Background.  So many thoughts and images have been flying around in my mind this week as I have once again prepared for this feast.  For some years past, when I was preaching regularly, I often took this Sunday as an occasion for summing-up all that we had thought about in the second half of the liturgical year.  In broad terms, Trinity Sunday was the conclusion of the first half of the year, with its emphasis on the identity of Christ – Summing-up Sunday No.1, so to speak.  Then at the conclusion of the second half of the year, with its central theme of discipleship, this feast presented an opportunity to summarise what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  All very logical and sensible, perhaps – and maybe that approach has been helpful to some over the years.  But it now strikes me as far too dry and "theological": above all, it doesn't seem to me to recognise "the mystery of our faith" – a mystery unravelled in particular by people like St Paul (and the author of the Fourth Gospel) who looked at the cross and saw – the King and Lord of all!  It is in dying that we are raised to eternal life!


Various memories have come to me this week, as I thought about the usual images of royalty.  I remember very clearly, my classroom teacher at primary school telling us that the King had died, and then bursting into tears.  I had no idea what that meant, but anything that could bring Mrs Roberts to tears was enough to terrify me, so I burst into tears with her!  I remember watching the coronation of our present Queen and being astonished at the size of the building: I have loved huge buildings ever since, despite my Christian (and political) convictions telling me I shouldn't.  I still watch programmes showing splendid palaces and stately homes with great wonder and admiration.  They are symbols of great power and wealth and success – they are what we expect of royalty and other important people.  I remember the "rogues gallery", as we used to call a long corridor in the old Parliament Buildings full of oil paintings of terribly important people of the past, mostly long forgotten today, of course.  And now I imagine for a moment what a religiously minded version of Banksy the artist might do by slipping a portrait of the crucified Christ in amongst portraits of the Kings and Queens of England!  What a point that would make!  And isn't that exactly the point our Lectionary is making with its choice of this passage from Luke's Gospel?  We might have expected something from the Ascension, perhaps, or from the "Second Coming"; but instead we get this passage from the crucifixion.


This is real faith in a real world.  Think of the things that have been in our headlines this week alone.  Our Prime Minister and his equally important counterparts from around the Commonwealth dining in splendid buildings in Sri Lanka, discussing important things, while outside people demand justice for the victims of alleged atrocities.  On to Thailand, and more important people, more fine food, more staggeringly beautiful buildings, sharing the news with increasingly desperate scenes of human suffering on a vast scale in The Philippines.    More terrible loss from natural disasters in the US Midwest, while above the border the usually sane and settled Canadians are transfixed by the increasingly bizarre behaviour of Toronto's mayor.  The list goes on and on – this is the world in which we live – this is the real world in all its shades of grey – and this is the world about which we are speaking when we proclaim that, in its midst, at this very moment, despite all appearances to the contrary, God is working his purposes out, and he has exalted the one hanging on the cross to be the King of all creation.


And finally I have been thinking again of the ongoing losses of people in this country – through the earthquakes, through the Pike River disaster, through financial scams and rip-offs, through problem gambling and material greed, through sexual and other violence, through bullying and mockery and suicide.  And here all that is summed up in this extraordinary passage from St Luke' gospel.  It all comes together at the cross of Christ.  Crucified between two criminals, Jesus hangs on a cross, in full view of all sorts of representatives of humanity.  Gamblers were there; some just looked on; others scoffed and mocked.  And, according to Luke, the two criminals were divided in their own opinions of Christ.  For Luke, this is the key to the cross: it is the supreme venue of judgement – which is another word for choice.  Each person decides his or her response to the invitation of God written on the cross.  Who is this who asks you to come and follow him?  Do we stand and watch?  Do we scorn and deride?  Do we kneel and worship?  Do we stand tall and proclaim "This is our God, the Servant King"?    


Or, as Teilhard de Chardin put it:


[The cross] stands up even straighter at the crossroads of all values and problems, at the very heart of humanity.  It can and must continue, more than ever, to be the place where the division takes place between those who climb and those who descend.


Which gets me to a more personal note.  In my own spiritual practice at the moment I am using 15 Days of Prayer with Teilhard de Chardin by Andre Dupleix, O.S.B.  On Day Three the theme is The Meaning of the Cross, and he ends with these "Reflection Questions":


How do I view the Cross?

Do I see it as a goal for which I strive, as a sad reminder, or as something to avoid?

Do I seek to unite myself with the Cross?

Do I seek to accept the suffering and transformation that accompanies the Cross?

Can I understand the Cross as a means of uniting myself to Christ in Suffering?


To which I would add:


Can I in all truth and with complete conviction proclaim – "THIS is my God, the Servant King"?


Jeremiah.  A promise of better things to come for the people of God, following the pain of exile.  The promise is threefold.  First, a clear-out at the top – the leadership (the shepherds of the people) have failed and need to be removed.  Secondly, God will re-gather the people and appoint new shepherds.  Thirdly, God will raise up a new King from the line of David to rule the people with justice and righteousness.


Taking It Personally.


  • A time for spiritual stock-taking.  What do you need to replace – thoughts, habits, beliefs, attitudes, etc – as you prepare for a fresh beginning next Sunday?
  • Are you too scattered – do you need to be more gathered, focused, single-minded in your faith practices?  Where might you start that process?
  • Have you enthroned Christ in your life?  Do you seek his kingdom first?  Do you bring your life as a daily offering of worship to him?


Colossians.  Another wonderful gift from the pen of St Paul.  First, a prayer to teach us how to pray; and secondly, a brief biopic of Christ to teach us how to adore.  Recently, a group of us were reflecting together on intercessory prayer, particularly in the context of a service of worship, and we made an interesting discovery.  We are comfortable about praying for the physical healing and well-being of our fellow-worshippers, but not for their spiritual well-being.  St Paul would have found that even more baffling than we did.  As for his paean of praise to Christ – again, remember that he is talking about the one whose death is being described to us in our gospel passage – and that he is writing this no more than 30 or so years after that death.


Taking It Personally.


  • Use verses 9-12 as a template for your own prayers, first for your own spiritual growth and then for the spiritual growth of the members of your faith community, your family, and your friends.
  • Would you feel uncomfortable praying for someone's spiritual well-being?  Why?
  • Read very slowly and prayerfully through verses 15-20, preferably before an icon of Christ ("eikon" is the Greek for image in verse 15).  Offer prayers of adoration.


Luke.  I don't think I need to say anything more about this passage: it speaks for itself.  Avoid any intellectual game-playing – what does it matter that Luke's account differs in detail from the others?  It is not addressed to our minds but to our hearts.  If we are not deeply moved by this passage, our hearts must already have stopped beating.


Taking It Personally.


  • A classic passage for praying with your imagination.  Where are you in this scene?  With the crowds looking on silently?  With the mockers?  What are your feelings?  Are you scared for your own safety?  Are you outraged?  Why do you remain silent?  What would you like to say?
  • Which side of the cross are you – with the penitent thief or with the mocking one?  Can you identify with both?  Have there been times in your life when you turned against God in a crisis?
  • Focus on verse 34.  Is there anyone you have not forgiven?  Was their offence worse than crucifixion?
  • Visualise Christ on the cross and proclaim:  This is MY God, the Servant King!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Feast of Christ in all

November 17             NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Feast of Christ in all Creation

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

[* I have chosen this Feast for this week's notes because I believe it is far too important (and far too often ignored) to be overlooked entirely, or sort of subsumed in next week's Feast of Christ the King.  It is inexplicable to me that this Feast is "offered" in The Lectionary as a sort of off-course substitute for last Sunday (Remembrance Sunday), this Sunday (where it faces no specific competition – it is simply the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time), or next Sunday.  It offers no readings for the observance of this feast, whenever we might decide to have it.  The Prayer Book is no better.  Fortunately, a very good resource is to be found on the Diocesan website – go to  These texts are listed there.  You will also find some beautiful prayers and helpful suggestions for hymns and songs – as well as some beautiful contributions from Joy Cowley, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Patricia Scott.  Well worth a visit even if you are not charged with designing a service for this Feast.]

Introduction.  One of the reasons why I have chosen to advocate for this Feast is that it forms, with the Feast of Christ the King, a powerful two-fold conclusion to the liturgical year – and therefore to God's story – and a very helpful link to one of the major themes of the Season of Advent, Christ's "return in glory".  [More about that later.]  We start with either the longer or the shorter passage from our first creation story in the Book of Genesis, the shorter version being primarily concerned with the creation of humankind as the final act of the whole drama.  Then we have one of St Paul's major "cosmic texts", which tends to suffer with the others a sort of benign neglect.  (Simple test: when was the last time you heard a preacher describe St Paul as "a pioneer in the field of cosmology", or words to that effect?)  And finally we have the magnificent Prologue to the Fourth Gospel, believed to be a Christian meditation on the Genesis creation stories.

Background.  Two things to get off my chest first.  First, so fearful has the Church been over the centuries of the power of Pan that it has gone to the opposite extreme in its teaching, and thereby inadvertently built the foundations on which the modern heresy of scientism has been joyously erected by Richard Dawkins et al.  Pantheism ranks alongside Pelagianism as the mother and father of all heresies; so all too often we have been presented with, and in turn have presented to others, a picture of Christianity as a search for a God who is much too transcendent, holy and pure to come anywhere near the dust of the earth and who will, if we are faithful to him, pluck us to safety from the stain of a anything physical or material.

Secondly, we have wasted far too much breath in pointless arguments over creationism and evolution, and in trying to distance ourselves at least intellectually from the Genesis creation stories, without realising just how astonishingly accurate those stories are in the light of modern science.  We have far less to apologise for than we often seem ready to concede!  And we have no excuse, particularly if we are in the practice of regularly reciting the Nicene Creed.

Students of Church history will tell us that the creed, which only finally appeared in its present form at the Council of Constantinople in 461, was the fruit of a hard-fought battle over the true nature of Christ; and so we tend to think that the most important part of the Creed is the assertion that Jesus Christ is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father".  We perhaps don't notice the assertion that immediately precedes, and that which immediately follows, those statements.  The Creed opens, of course, with our belief in God "the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen".  And that, of course, reflects our first creation story in Genesis, which starts "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".    Now, leave aside for a moment the faith claim made here (that God created everything) and focus on the even more fundamental assertion that is being made here.  The Universe had a beginning.  That's now accepted by science as a fact – but how on earth did our faith ancestors know that?

Now, come back to the Creed.   We begin by asserting of God the Father that he is "the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen."  Do we ever notice that in this way we have placed creation at the centre of who God is?  There are many other things that we could have declared about God the Father, aren't there?  In the Hebrew Scriptures God is identified as "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", or "the one who brought you out of Egypt".  Drawing on the New Testament, we could have agreed to begin the Creed with something along these lines: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, who is both Spirit and Love, and whose nature is always to have mercy."    True – just as true as anything that we do affirm in the Creed – yet it did not make the cut.  The Ecumenical Councils chose out of all possible options God's creative power as the identifying mark of the God in whom we believe.

And there's one more thing we say in the Creed without perhaps paying it too much attention. When the Councils turned their focus from the Father to the Son they dealt first with his nature and then with his work; and before saying anything about his birth, death, resurrection, ascension or final return they said this: "through him all things were made".  There's a pattern here, surely: the first thing we affirm about God the Father is that he is the creator of all things: the first thing we affirm about the work of God the Son is that he is the medium through which God the Father created all things.

Where did they get this extraordinary idea from?  Well, most obviously from our gospel passage for this week, the Prologue to the Gospel of John: see especially verses 3 and 10.  But St Paul, in one of his other "cosmic texts", takes it further: he affirms that all things were created through, in and for Christ: Colossians 1:16.  But wait – there's more!  Oh, yes, much, much wonderfully more!  Scroll down to verse 20 of that chapter and you will find this: "through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross."  You see?  One of the things that was nailed to the cross was anthropocentric theology!  Christ died for the whole of creation – through him God reconciled to himself ALL THINGS.

And when you've got your head around that, have a look at Ephesians 1:9-10 where the divine plan is to "gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth".  All things were created through Christ; all things have been redeemed through Christ; and all things are being gathered up in Christ.  This is not pantheism: this is orthodox Christology!  And we ought to be proclaiming it and celebrating it this Sunday with gusto!

Genesis.  There is one more curious feature of this creation story that ought to gladden the heart of any scientist.  One of the key ideas in evolutionary biology these days is the concept of "emergence".  When the evolutionary process reaches a certain point something wholly new suddenly emerges.  The classic example is life itself.  For millions of years particles had come together to form atoms, atoms had come together to form molecules, and molecules became ever more complex – until suddenly life emerged.  Now look at verses 20 and 24; "Let the waters bring forth..."; and "Let the earth bring forth".  There's the biblical version of emergence.  The arrival of the human being, in our present form, sometimes called Homo sapiens sapiens (because we know we know) is another example of emergence: in us, self-awareness or self-consciousness was something entirely new.  And a feature of that was an awareness of the Divine.  The Biblical version of that is that for the first time a creature was created in the image and likeness of God: biologists tell us that it was our ability to plan, to think ahead, to foresee and to strategise, that enabled our species to survive against predators, and to capture prey, which were stronger and/or faster than us.  And there's another thing.  If it is true that our ancestors were vegetarian before we became carnivorous or omnivorous, verse 29 might be spot on!

Taking It Personally.

  • Read through the longer version (2:1-:2:4) slowly, remembering that some consider it to be in the form of a hymn of praise.  What new thoughts strike you? 
  • This passage has often been said to "justify" the exploitation of the earth, rather than the care of the earth?  What do you make of that?  Have you seen or heard mining company executives, for example, pleading this passage in defence of their commercial operations?
  •  Does this story support or contradict the view that the human species is as much a part of creation as any other species?
  • Go to your bathroom mirror, look yourself in the eye and say: "I am made in the image and likeness of God.  I am a unique manifestation of God's creative love."  Repeat until you believe what you have just said.
  • God saw that everything he had made was very good, and he blessed it.  Spend some time pondering your own view of the world.  How would you describe it? 

Romans.  This is perhaps the best known of St Paul's "cosmic texts": my impression is that it turns up regularly in our Sunday readings.  But do we really attempt to wrestle our way into its deeper meaning, or do we tend to treat it as a typical flourish of rhetorical hyperbole?  What are we to make of this claim that the whole of creation is waiting "with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God"?  It seems that every form of life known to us is infused with a desire to go on living – a will to live – so why not a will to have life to the fullest extent possible for that species?  [John 10:10]  At the very least, could it not be that when our species is fully redeemed all other species will be set free from the threat we pose to their well-being?


Taking It Personally.


  • Spend time in slow, prayerful reading of this passage.  Do you agree that it points to the redemption of the whole of creation?  What does that do to your understanding of heaven or of life after death?
  • Richard Rohr says: "The material world is the hiding place of God".  What do you make of that?
  • Thomas Keating says: "The Ascension is Christ's return to the centre of all creation where he dwells now in his glorified humanity.  The mystery of his Presence is hidden throughout creation and in every part of it."  Does that help?  Think about that in relation to the consecrated elements of the Eucharist.  Is there a sense in which every aspect of creation can be said to be "consecrated"?


John.  It is good to have this week's passage from Genesis and this passage from the Fourth Gospel side by side, so to speak.  Although it is written as a Prologue it reads more like a one page summary of the whole gospel, a final summing up by the author in one last attempt to say what he means, or rather what has been revealed to him in some sort of mystical state as he pondered the mystery of Christ in the light of the creation story in Genesis 1.  As noted above, the key verses for present purposes are verses 3 and 10; but we make a huge mistake if we try to study this passage as a theological tract.  It is a passage of adoration, to be listened to by the ears of our heart.


Taking It Personally.


  • This is sometimes described as John's version of the Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke, but at a much deeper level.  Do you find that idea helpful?
  • Ponder verse 3, particularly the words "what has come into being in him was life".  What do you make of that?
  • Notice the association of "life and light".  Reflect on the importance of photosynthesis in the evolution of life.
  • End in prayers of praise and thanksgiving for Christ in All Creation.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Remembrance Sunday

November 10                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Remembrance Sunday

Texts:  Micah 4:1-7; Ephesians 2:13-18; John 15:9-17*

[*There are a lot of choices to be made this week.  First, do you choose to observe Remembrance Sunday, or stick with the readings set for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time?  If you do decide to go with Remembrance Sunday, you will face a choice of 5 lessons from the Old Testament/Apocrypha, 4 lessons from the New Testament, and 4 choices from the gospels.  Unable to please everyone I have chosen to follow the choices made for us at my local church of St Barnabas, Warrington.  Hopefully something in these notes will be of some use whichever choices you make.]

Theme:  The simplest approach may be to go with "Remembrance Sunday".  I am going a little wider with "The Power of Memory", although I have wondered about "The Power to Create Memory", or even "Myths and Memories".

Introduction.  Some might argue that with the rise to prominence of Anzac Day commemorations, complete with truncated and sanitised "services", there is no longer a need for this special Sunday, particularly as it might seem to be too closely associated with the First World War.  However, in my view the converse is the stronger case: that precisely because we can acknowledge the personal tragedies and losses war always involves on Anzac Day, Remembrance Sunday can be a day of lamentation and confession within the Christian community of faith at our collective failure to stand firm in our faith whenever we feel threatened by those we are told to consider to be our enemies. 

It has always been that way, but we start with a wonderful reminder from the prophet Micah that it does not always have to be that way.   In a passage to which the editors of the New Revised Standard Version have given the heading "Peace and Security through Obedience", Micah foresees a time when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more".  Building on that foundation, our readings continue with yet another wonderful extract from the Letter to the Ephesians where the end of hostility, the birth of peace, is incarnated in the very Body of Christ.  Only when we get to the gospel passage is the very clear anti-war message obfuscated almost beyond recognition.  We will know that the Church has finally freed itself from the Roman gods of nationalism when our Lectionary insists that the proper gospel passage for this Sunday is Luke 6:27-36.  (Yes, I know we got the first bit of this last week, but it belongs on this Sunday IN FULL!)

Background.  This week I watched the first of a new series called "Family Secrets".  Basically, the story was about a man who was working in India at the time of the British Raj and suddenly vanished, leaving a wife and three young children at home.  The bit that caught my attention involved family members sharing what they had been told about the reasons for this disappearance.  These ranged from being lost in the desert to being eaten by a lion!  It is unlikely that those who told them these tales actually believed them, so here we have examples of false "memories" deliberately created.  In many other cases families have memories which are fervently believed, but which occasionally turn out to be myths.  In my own family I was told stories about my maternal grandfather who had been a Church of England priest, before dying "tragically young" through what today would be called "clergy burnout"; and I was assured that I had been baptised as an infant by this man.  Only when I was being ordained (at the age of 48) and my Mother decided it was fitting that I should have a few of Grandfather's "papers" that I discovered that he had died of typhoid fever at the age of 63, nearly two years before I was born!  [A whole new meaning for the modern term "recovered memory"!]

Usually such family myths and memories are innocent and harmless, although not always, of course.  Where they become particularly dangerous is on a national level, where history becomes the servant, not of truth, but of political and national power.  Many years ago I subscribed to a weekly magazine series on the History of the Second World War.  The great strength of this series, in my view, was that on each event covered in it four historians from four different countries wrote their own account and commentary.  Usually the four came from the U.K., Germany, the USA, and France.  Sometimes a Russian historian also contributed.  I can still remember the shock and unbelief I felt when reading the "other" (that is, the non-British) accounts – how blind and biased those people were!  Why couldn't they just stick to the truth like the British historians always did!

Today we shake our judgmental heads at those Japanese politicians – and those Japanese school textbooks – that fail to record accurately the Japanese "war crimes" of that era: we demand that Serbia hands over its "war criminals" to face international justice, and we rejoice to see various "war criminals" from Cambodia, and from a number of African Countries, being brought before various international courts and tribunals.  How easily we forget the old adage, "history is written by the victors".    Memories are created by them, too. 

And so is theology.  In the wake of the terrible slaughter of the First World War the teaching and preaching of the mainline churches, at least within New Zealand, underwent a sudden conversion.  No longer was faith in Christ considered the only route to eternal bliss – a parallel path was created for those who died "in the service of their country" – a special order of military martyrdom was created within the pantheon of saints.  To be fair, one of the driving forces of this new heresy was a desire to offer pastoral comfort and support to the grieving families at home, but whether or not they did find comfort in the assurance that their loved one (often aged little more than 20) was now "safe in the loving armies of Jesus" must remain a moot point.  What is more certain is that many bishops and clergy became little more than recruiting agents for the armed forces, responding out of fear of appearing unpatriotic rather than standing firm in their calling to preach the gospel of love in season and out.  Not for them the promised blessing that comes when "people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man".

So perhaps the first thing we need to remember on this Remembrance Sunday is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  War is always sinful: it is always born of failure – and that is even more so when the principal proponents are self-described "Christian countries".  Let us never forget that before the plane carrying the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima took off a Christian chaplain prayed God's blessing over the bomb and prayed for its "success".  And let us never forget that part of that "success" was the annihilation of a Carmelite convent when the nuns were in chapel at prayer.  Memories should be made of this – particularly on Remembrance Sunday.

Micah.  What a wonderful vision this is!  Notice that this is not about all ethnic or national identity being given up in favour of a sort of composite uniformity.  We still have "peoples" and "nations": what we don't have is weapons and war.  We have a universal recognition that we are all in this together: that we are all children of the one God: that God is the author of peace and concord and that to follow his ways is to live in peace and harmony with all others, and not just those who look like us or speak our language.  And when we are tempted to dismiss this as unrealistic idealism gone mad, let us remember the progress that Europe has made and is making in this direction.  Britain, Germany, France and Italy are today less likely to go to war with one another than ever before – and this within 68 years of the end of the Second World War.  Yes, there is a long way to go before weapons are recycled into implements for food production, but Micah's prophecy is not looking quite so ridiculous as it was 70 years ago, is it?

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on the gift of memory – how important is it to you?  When was the last time you gave thanks to God for that gift?  Are you overdue?

·        Does your family have any treasured memories that may in fact be at slight variance with the facts?  Does that affect their value as family stories? 

·        What is your earliest memory?  In general, do you tend to remember happy or difficult times most easily?

·        Do you have, or have you heard, memories of war within your family?  What is the "emotional colour" of those stories?  What have they taught you about war?

·        How much do you think New Zealand has "air-brushed" it's memories of war?

·        How would you feel if someone described you as a "Christian pacifist?"  Why?

·        What is your opinion of "conscientious objectors"?

·        Richard Rohr has written that it is easier to belong to a group than to remember that we belong to God.  Meditate on that.

·        Next year is the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War.  As Christians how should we mark that anniversary?

Ephesians.  As Christians living in the twenty-first century it is hard for us to grasp how shocking it would have been for Jews of Paul's time to hear that the barrier between Jews and Gentiles was no more, and that they were now all one people in Jesus Christ.  And what on earth could it mean that this extraordinary reconciliation had occurred in the flesh, or in the body, of Christ?  Perhaps we can get something of the enormity of what Paul is saying by thinking about this: if it is true that peace has been established within the Body of Christ, than it must also be true, at least for Christians, that when war breaks out it does so within the Body of Christ.  Someone has said that all wars are "civil wars", fought within the one human race.  If we all belong to the one family of God, then all wars are gross manifestations of sibling rivalry.  And Paul would lead us to go further: all wars are an acute manifestation of disease within the Body of Christ.


Taking It Personally.


·        Personalise all this.  Reflect on your relations with other Christians.  Have you quarrelled with any of them?  If so, how do you feel about the idea that your quarrel took place within the Body of Christ?

·        If the hostility between you was put to death on the cross, is it not time to let it go?

·        This is a good passage for slow, reflective reading (lectio divina).

·        End with prayers of confession and thanksgiving, as you are led.


John.  This is a dangerous passage at the best of times, and even more dangerous on occasions such as Remembrance Sunday.  First, "abide" sounds as though it might mean something like "remain"; in which case verse 10 seems to suggest that we will only remain in God's love if we continue to obey him.  But how then can we proclaim that God's love is "unconditional"?  For me, a better understanding of "abiding" would be more like "living or residing".  As we obey Christ's commandments, as we live our lives as he has shown and taught us to, so we will experience the reality of God's love more and more.  His love remains even when we disobey, but we lose the experience of it. 


The greater danger, the pre-eminent one on Remembrance Sunday, lies in the twisted theology the Church has created on the basis of verse 13.  Christ was preparing his disciples for his own death: he was talking about that death.  It is perfectly true that he voluntarily lay down his life for his friends – but, of course, not only for them – he laid down his life for the whole of creation.  To apply such language to every death on the battlefield is outrageous.  No doubt there were individual cases of extreme heroism, where one individual sacrificed his own life to save another.  But the vast majority of deaths were not like that, were they?  The victims did not lay down their lives voluntarily in those cases: their lives were cruelly taken from them by the normal occurrences of war.  Often, they were the unlucky ones, felled by a bullet that could just as easily have missed them and hit someone else; or they were in a plane that was shot down or a ship that was torpedoed.  Or they died of dysentery or other disease, or a lack of good medical care after receiving what would otherwise have been a non-lethal wound.  And thousands of them were at the front because they had been conscripted, and certainly had no wish to lay down their lives for their friends or for anyone else.  To take this important passage out of its sacred context and use it to alleviate our feelings of guilt over the senseless slaughter of so many young men is surely offensive and borders on the blasphemous.


Taking It Personally.


·        Do you keep the Lord's commandments?  All of them?  All the time?

·        When are you most aware that you are abiding in his love?

·        Do you feel more comfortable thinking of yourself as a "servant" of the Lord, or as a "friend" of the Lord?  Why?

·        Ponder verse 16.  You are chosen by Jesus (whether you believe it or not).  Do you believe it?  Does it make you glad? 

·        Think about the qualification "fruit that will last".  Fruit is notoriously difficult to keep fresh.  It can perish in all sorts of circumstances.  In what sort of circumstances might your faith fail?

·        Have you been offended by anything in these notes?  Why?  What would you like to say in response?  Take your feelings into prayer.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Notes for Reflection

November 3                           NOTES FOR REFLECTION             All Saints Sunday

Texts: Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1:9-23*; Luke 6:20-31

[* The Lectionary prescribes verses 11-23; but to me the critical verses are 9 and 10, which give context and meaning to all that follows: in fact, I would contend that they are among the most important verses in our Scriptures.]

Theme:  If we take our lead from the gospel passage, we can't go past "Plain Speaking", remembering that, according to Luke, what we know from Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount actually took place "on a level place" (verse 17).  However, for those who do not share my love of puns and other word-plays, something more grown-up may be "The Kingdom Comes".  This would fit well with both lessons, and with the spirit of the gospel passage; and it will also recognise that this Sunday and the next succeeding three are sometimes collectively referred to as "The Kingdom Season".  While some forms of "Christian Triumphalism" can be as cringe-making as jingoistic nationalism, it is good to be reminded that God's great story does have a happy ending!

Introduction.  We start with one of Daniel's mysterious visions, to the endless fascination of some of us, and the acute discomfort of the rest of us.  The key message comes in verse 18, which assures us that whatever kingdoms and empires might rise and fall in the coming centuries on earth, the people of faith will share in the only kingdom that ultimately matters, the eternal kingdom of God.  This is reinforced by the wonderful "vision" of St Paul in our second lesson, as he reveals God's creative plan, his purpose or will, that he has been unfolding from the Big Bang onwards and will be ultimately fulfilled when "all things" come together in the Body of Christ.  In the meantime, we are called to cooperate in this divine work, to be co-workers with God (we might even say co-creators with God); and we live out this great vocation by absorbing and accepting the teaching of Christ, the kernel of which we find in passages such as the one we have in our gospel reading.

Background.  I was recently invited to offer a series of teaching "on prayer".  When I began to think about what material I might use for this series I was about to turn to my book-shelves when a sudden thought struck me; wouldn't a better first step be to pray?  So I sat in my "prayer chair" and tried to open myself to whatever may come to me.  What came to me was a question that I had never thought of before: what is the nature of the world in which we are to do our praying?  And hot on its heels came a supplementary question: how should the nature of the world inform our prayer?  What emerged from all that was a Quiet Day of reflection on those questions, followed by a four-part series examining the classic four "categories" of prayer (adoration/praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication/petition/intercession) in the light of our reflections on the Quiet Day.  This week's readings offer another opportunity to consider these issues; indeed, the reading from Ephesians (along with extracts from Romans 8 and Colossians 3, together forming St Paul's so-called "cosmic texts") were central to our reflections on the Quiet Day.

In a nutshell, the thought that struck me powerfully as I started my own work on these issues was that the form and content of our prayers are so closely linked with our cosmology that many of our difficulties in our prayer life arise because we have not up-dated our cosmology.  The picture we have traditionally drawn of the world from the bible is rather like a theatre in which we play out the drama of life.  It is a very static image; God has built the whole thing, and all that matters now is the divine-human relationship.  We now know, of course, that the universe is very different.  Yes, it had a definite beginning (as the author of Genesis brilliantly perceived), but the creative process was not completed before we arrived on the scene, and has not yet been completed.  It is continuing.  So far it has taken about 13.7 billion years, and shows no signs of finishing anytime soon.  Scientists call that process evolution: we call it the process by which God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.  (Try singing that great hymn to yourself as you read slowly through this magnificent passage from Ephesians, and see what you think.)

The static view of the universe can lead our prayer into the dangerous world of magic, as the great Evelyn Underhill never tired of pointing out.  We prayed that God would intervene – just this once – to change the script, or the scenery or something in the theatre on which we were strutting our stuff at any one time.  Every prayer can seem to be asking for a miracle – a personal exemption from the way things usually are and would be unless we can somehow persuade God to do us a favour.  God as a benign form of Dr Strangelove can easily follow from that form of prayer infected by that type of cosmology.  But once we substitute for that static view the dynamic view of the universe in the process of being created according to God's "good purpose" (as St Paul puts it) we find that our prayers  become aligned with that purpose.  In short, our prayer can be summed up in that very familiar petition: "your kingdom come, your will be done".  The emphasis shifts from asking God to intervene (and perhaps what we really mean is "interfere") in the ways of the world, to asking that his will be done whatever obstacles may be presently holding it back.

So far, so good; but there is one more important thing here, I think.  If we are to be co-workers or co-creators with God we are surely called to do more than pray for the "success" of God's work - "to pray ringside", to borrow a phrase from Ring Lardner, "may be a nice idea but a good left hook wins more points".  Someone has said that whatever we pray for, we must be willing to be at least part of the answer to our prayer.  More elegantly, and more usefully given this week's gospel passage, Richard Rohr says this:

We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, and not by demanding it of others or trying to force it on others.

He goes on to give some specific examples: the one that most struck a chord with me was this:

If the world seems desperate, let go of your own despair.

Daniel.  Is there any book in the whole of the Old Testament more deserving of being consigned to the flames than this one?  Well, perhaps we shouldn't blame the book itself; perhaps we should consign those who wage endless and pointless arguments about its authorship that should be burnt at the stake (metaphorically speaking, of course).  But, really!  Does it matter if the book was indeed written by the prophet around the time of Cyrus' invasion of Babylonia, or it was written by someone else around the time of the Maccabees 400 years later?  It seems it does to ardent conservatives who want to emphasise what are claimed to be extraordinarily accurate historical predictions; and likewise to equally ardent liberals who wish to dismiss the possibility of prophetic foresight as super-natural nonsense.  Who cares?  The theme – indeed, the whole point of the book – is the Sovereignty of God, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.  Remember Nebuchadnezzar, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, and even Ian Smith in Rhodesia?  Remember all those Pharaohs, Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and their much-decorated military commanders?  All, in the broad sweep of history, gone by lunchtime.  Only one Kingdom is eternal.  That's the message of this book and it remains the message of Scripture through to the Book of Revelation: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah", as the chorus sang in response to the seventh angel's trumpet voluntary (11:15).

Taking It Personally.

·        Read verses 6:28 and 7:1.  A new reign brings uncertainty for Daniel.  Perhaps his fearful dreams reflect that.  Have you had times of change and uncertainty that have frightened you – are you facing such circumstances at the moment?

·        In general, do you take your dreams seriously, or dismiss them without another thought?  Can you recall a dream that proved helpful to you in some way?

·        Remembering the fraught political times and circumstances in which Daniel is said to have had his visions and dreams, how valuable would the reassurance in verse 18 have been to him?

·        Do you find the idea of God working his purpose out helpful in times of crisis when everything seems to be going wrong?


Ephesians.  I've always rather liked the old story about the labourer on a building site somewhere, with trowel in one hand and a small piece of stone in the other.  Some local dignitary was visiting the site and said to the man, "And you, my good man, what are you doing?"  "I, Sir," replied the labourer, "am building a cathedral".  Whether or not St Paul wrote this letter, I neither know nor care.  Whoever wrote it had the same breadth of vision as the labourer building the cathedral.  Within a few decades of the death of Jesus of Nazareth someone had discerned that God's plan was, and always had been, and continues to be, to bring the whole of creation together in his transformed Body.  It is against this background – this understanding of the world as it is – that the author goes on to pray for the people at Ephesus.  And what does he pray for them?  Not health, food, shelter, freedom from persecution or disaster.  But for spiritual understanding – not the sort of understanding that may be achieved by thinking – by "nutting things out", as we might put it – but the sort of understanding that comes through the eyes of the heart, enlightenment, to use a somewhat dangerous word.  To grasp the vision is to be swept up in it, to want to work for it, and hope for it, and pray for it to the end of our days – one small piece at a time.


Taking it Personally.


  • This is surely a passage to be read over and over again, slowly, phrase by phrase, word by word, drinking it in, until our innermost being becomes saturated with it.  Try it: if you are looking for a richer spiritual life, this is the drink for you!
  • Pause regularly to offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
  • Ask God to show you how you can better fulfil your calling, each day, to be his co-worker in building his eternal kingdom according to his good pleasure.
  • Use verses 17 to 19 as a template for your prayers of intercession for family and friends, and for members of your local congregation.


Luke.  How often have you heard someone say of religion, "Oh, we don't need all that churchy stuff – all that doctrine and carry-on.  It's all very simple, really – it just boils down to the golden rule.  That's what Jesus was really on about, eh?"  Next time you might like to respond; "Ah, you're thinking of Luke 6:26, I think.  So when was the last time you did to your enemies what you would have them do to you?"  But first, recognise that we are sometimes just as guilty of a blind misrepresentation of Jesus' teaching.  How many times have we been urged from the pulpit to love one another, compared to the number of times we have been urged from the same place to love our enemies?  How many times have we been exhorted to be generous to the poor compared to the number of times we have been encouraged to embrace poverty for ourselves?  How many times have we been encouraged to lend without seeking to recover the loan, or to respond to a thief by giving him something more?  How many times have the churches advocated pacifism, and taken up the cause of conscientious objectors?  If we want a world free of war, should we not start by refusing to fight?


Taking It Personally.


  • A passage for self-examination and confession.  How well do your attitudes, beliefs and practices accord with Christ's teaching, rather than society's norms?
  • Do times of misfortune, illness or setbacks tend to strengthen your faith or weaken it?
  • When you are offended by someone, do you pray for them?  Does that make any difference to the way you feel about them?