Amazement – the beginning of a creative end to conflict

Whenever I peel a ripe banana I am amazed at the seamless transition between the flesh of the fruit and the skin and yet it peels so effortlessly.  How does it become like that?  There are other fruit, of course, where the flesh and the skin are distinct, but more difficult to separate the two.

Whenever I think about the human body I am amazed that from two distinct cells, when they unite, become a living thing and as the cells divide they begin to take on their own function.  How do all these cells, dividing from the same single cell, become a kidney cell, a brain cell, a muscle cell?  And when, if some parts of the human body are damaged, it can heal itself.

When I look into the sky at night I am amazed by the concept of infinity, by the thought that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing speed – from what, into what?  Nothingness?  And in all this an ever-increasing realisation that the chances of another planet having the necessary characteristics to sustain a level of life equal to humanity is improbable.  The chances that we should even exist are so small that we ought to consider ourselves unique.

These are just a few of the things that I find amazing and led me, from my science background, to believe that God exists.  Jesus, by his life, teaching, healing and miracles, repeatedly caused amazement in those who witnessed these things to encourage them to respond to God in a new way.  Pontius Pilate was no exception.

‘But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed (thaumazein).’ (Mark 15:5)  Matthew puts it this way, ‘But [Jesus] gave no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly (lian) amazed (thaumazein).’  Matthew 27:14

Amazed, elsewhere in the New Testament carries a sense of doubt, astonishment, surprised by the charm and grace of Jesus, or surprised by the wisdom of Jesus’ answers.  But here Pilate seems to be amazed that Jesus does not defend himself against the charges that have been brought against him.  I find myself wondering what Pilate may have been thinking after his amazed response to Jesus’ silence.  Or, to put it another way, asking, ‘What is motivating Jesus to not defend himself?’  Clearly he expected him to.  Did he think that he was wise not to say anything?  Did he think that he had some sort of plan taking place?  Did he think he was being graceful, or forgiving, or compassionate to his accusers?   We don’t know, but Pilate seems not to be convinced that Jesus had any case to answer – the charges against him were spurious and malicious; based on the jealousy of the Jewish religious hierarchy.

We do have the sense that Pilate was either a coward or stuck between a rock and a hard place.  It was his responsibility to keep the peace in the place of his assigned protectorate.  So, he handed the decision on to the crowd, according to a custom that Mark records.  The crowd call for the release of Barabbas and Pilate acquiesces.

There is something in this idea of amazement that expresses an internal conflict, a moment of mental crisis.  What is seen or experienced does not match up with our expectations of what will happen, or should happen.

The interesting thing about this kind of conflict, or crisis, is that it causes us to rethink, to re-evaluate, what we originally thought or believed.  Or we can just bury our head in the sand and do the same thing we have always done; believed the same thing we have always believed.

As disciples of Jesus, these moments of conflict or crisis of thinking are the beginning of the process of repentance, of coming to believe in something new, or believe in something in a different way.  We have been calling, in our discipleship process, this moment of crisis of thought, Kairos, the God moment.  Kairos is the moment in our life experience where God breaks in and reveals something new about himself, about our self, or about the world in which we live.  Repentance is the process where we open ourselves to the possibility that there is a different way of believing.  Conflict and crisis, therefore, has the potential to bring about something new if we allow ourselves to respond creatively.

There was no conflict for Jesus in these things that were taking place.  He expected them.  So there was no need to change what he did.  Jesus’ silence was intentional.  He was not going to defend himself because they were correct.  The only question he answered was, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Of course he had a completely different understanding of what being the King of the Jews was all about and what the kingdom was.  Jesus had set his face to the inevitable suffering that would come.  And he did so with true human expression, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  I can’t think of a better description of the real pain he was experiencing.  Jesus’ response in the light of what took place, according to Philippians, led to him glorifying God and him being highly exalted by God.

We don’t expect suffering and we don’t wish for suffering, unless we have a substantial mental disorder.  Jesus didn’t want to suffer, but I think he knew that was going to be the inevitable outcome of his continued proclamation of the kingdom of God and challenge of the religious hierarchy of his day.  Jesus was a conflict for them and, instead of looking for a creative response to the challenge he presented, they chose to remove the source of their conflict.  They lobbied to have him crucified.  With our 20/20 hindsight this did not get rid of the problem; Jesus was raised from the dead to have a greater impact on the world than he did while he was alive.  It does not help us to deny the conflict – it only means we are postponing the inevitable.

When those who complain that there can be no God in the face of suffering that takes place in the world, they are making a statement that the conflict that causes suffering does not exist.  Suffering in the world is conflict and crisis at its greatest, but the problem is not that it proves God does not exist, it shows that in our sinfulness humans are unable to act creatively in the face of it; or to avoid it.

We are amazed by the level of suffering in the world, but, like Pilate, we do not do anything differently and so suffering continues.  As Irish Statesman, Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [sic] to do nothing.’  Our being amazed should lead us to consider how we need to act in new and creative ways in the world in which we live and by the nature of the God in whom we believe to bring an end to conflict.

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The Idolatry of Permanence

The temple had become a stumbling block to the understanding of Judaism, the Jewish faith and the heritage of our own Christian faith, as a spirituality of journey.  The tabernacle and tent of meeting, established during the wandering of the Hebrew through the desert during the exodus from Egypt back to the promised land, a structure that could be packed up and moved, had become a permanent fixture as a temple of stone.  Judaism had transitioned from being journey to having arrived.  It seemed clear to me that a part of what Jesus had come to do was not to destroy the temple, but remind the people of God that faith in Yahweh was a journey, not arrival or even destination.

The Christian tradition since Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, had been on a journey, especially in relation to its buildings, as they continued to grow in their understanding of who God was through Christ and as they found their position in society.  The early Christian Church had always had a flexible and transitional relationship with where it worshipped and what those buildings would look like. I suggested that it was ironic that since the reformation, the last great transition of the Church some 400 years ago, which led Anglicanism into being, we have stopped this journey and become settled.  Whenever there has been changes taking place within the life of the Church, there is outcry with people leaving vowing they would never return again.  Ironically, this either meant that they went somewhere where things were different anyway, or they stopped worshipping anywhere.

I recall being told that when the candles came out on the altar, here at St Stephens, people left, never to return.  I heard that, just recently, in one of neighbouring more catholic Anglican parishes, some very tall candles were used on the altar, simply because the sacristan like the look of them, and a number of people complained that it was too catholic.

I did note, however, the transitions that had taken place in St Stephens, including the development of communion on the round in the reordering of the chancel and sanctuary and the installation of the Evans lead-light window.

I want to continue that theme of recapturing the transitional nature of our faith, that Christian faith is a faith of journey, not arrival or even the destination, in exploring the danger of allowing things that are only signs or symbols to become idols, when those signs and symbols become stumbling blocks to our relationship with God.

We are confronted with the story from the exodus of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land.  In the midst of the journey, God’s people begin to grumble.  “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”  They were recalling that in Egypt that they had homes and food and drink.  But Egypt also meant slavery along with those things.  They were slaves in their permanence and enslaved by their settlement.

I can’t help myself comparing this situation to our own.  in all the churches I have been in, the congregations are in slavery spending most of their time and energy raising money and spending their own money trying to maintain the buildings and the way they worship in the face of the facts that there are fewer and fewer people to do it.  We are slaves to keeping things the same.

In the light of this desire to make things and be settled, the writers of the story of the exodus believe God sends a plague of snakes, poisonous ones, to bite the people and kill them.

I find myself chuckling at an idea, when people say to me, “You’ll move one pew in this church over my dead body,” to which I reply, “That can be arranged. And people tell me I do a really good funeral.”

God is opposed to things remaining permanent.

When the people of God realise what is happening, they turn again to Moses and acknowledge that they have been speaking against the Lord, asking him to intercede on their behalf.  According to the writers, God tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and whenever they are bitten by a poisonous snake, that person should look at the bronze serpent and they will live.

We would have thought, in the context of what was taking place, the Israelites would have thought that it was by God’s power that they were healed of their snake bites, and the bronze serpent was only a symbol of God’s faithfulness to them.  But we read in the second book of the kings,

In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign… He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.  2 Kings 18:1-4

The people of God took this bronze serpent, set it up in some holy place, gave it a name and offered sacrifices to it.  What was meant to only be a symbol became a thing to be worshipped.  Let me make it clear, they were not using it as a symbol to help them worship God, it had become a thing being worshipped in its own right.

All too often, those things that are meant to be signs for us, we give so much power to, that they become things of worship.  The evidence of this is expressed in our changing of them, or our removal of them, and the outcry that ensues.

As Anglicans we are a sacramental church.  By this I don’t mean just those 2 ordained sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and 5 commonly called sacraments of Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Confession and Absolution, and Anointing.  If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward a spiritual grace, then we are a church of many symbols and signs that remind us and prompt us of who God is and what God has done.

The question we need to ask ourselves, as a church and as individuals, is “Can we worship without them?”  If our answer is “No!” This does not mean we should discard all symbols and signs.  It does, however, challenge us not to be enslaved to them and by them, not to give them the power and glory that belong to God alone.  It is so easy to allow these things to become idols to which we are slaves.

There is another important symbol that we often forget and that is us, especially as a church.  May I remind you that I am not talking about the building here, I did that last week, I am talking about the people of this congregation and all of the members of St Stephens.  We are a symbol.

I have quoted Richard Giles previously from his book Re-pitching the Tent, the church throughout history has continued to transform itself and its places of worship according to how it understood the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ.  We have not always got it right and we live with the burden of some of those transformations today.

Our understanding of God continues to grow and develop, and our understanding of ourselves as church, therefore, continues to grow and develop.  We will, or ought to, then, be a symbol of that.  I finished last week saying how excellent it is that our church building looks like an impermanent tent.  I finish today asking the question, what image do we reveal to those who would walk into this church for the first time?  Is it an image of how we understand ourselves as moving toward growing a Christian community for all, are we expressing a church that is growing as a ministering community, are we worshipping in a way that reminds us of our call to be a ministering community?

It seems to me that we need to allow symbols to be the reminders of the internal and spiritual grace they are meant to be and allow ourselves to create new symbols that reminds us of what God is calling us to be.  Otherwise, we may be continuing to call ourselves into the enslavement of idols.

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Lent – a time for examining motivations

Lent is an interesting time of our church calendar.  I say interesting because I am always slightly bemused by the plethora of thinking about what Lent is meant for.  Questions as to whether we should eat fish on Ash Wednesday (stating categorically that not on Fridays especially Good Friday); of giving up – I am amazed at the number of people who are giving up their Facebook; of a particular time to participate in a bible study or reflections; of somehow participating in, if not just recognising, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness; and the list could go on.

All these miss the historical origins of Lent as our liturgy for Ash Wednesday puts it,

At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin.

In course of time the church came to recognize that by careful keeping of these days all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel, and so grow in faith and devotion to our Lord.

  And so,

…since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.  It became the custom of the church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting.

 It seems to me that Lent is primarily a time of self-examination in the light of the revelation of God through his Son Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in the Bible.

If we are to fast, whether that means literally having times when we do without food or giving up something, then it ought to be concerned not with just giving up, but doing so in order to make more time and space in our busy lives to focus on where we are in our knowledge and love of God and what that means for who we are and how we are to express our identity in God in the world.

It is not just enough during Lent to give up something as much as this may encourage us to support the work of mission through the church.  It is a legitimate time for naval gazing.

The beginning of our Lenten reflection this morning speaks of the journey of Jesus.  First he is baptised and, coming out of the water he has an experience of the Holy Spirit providing an affirmation of who he is in God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  If that were my experience I think I would want to understand this meant for me.

And so, we are told, by the Holy Spirit, he is driven out into the place of being alone, to be alone with God, and there he was, as the text describes, tempted.  Mark does not give any details of what these temptations might mean, as Matthew does.  But if it was me, I would have to deal with bad pride; God has marked me out as special.  I would be tempted to think that I have pleased God so far, I can do whatever I want.

Following this time in the wilderness, Mark provides us with the length of time Jesus was in the wilderness, after John the Baptist was arrested, begins his ministry, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

This itself is telling, because it defines the ministry that Jesus has come to understand his role to be.  As Matthew’s account of the wilderness testifies, there are many possibilities that Jesus could have entered into: a miracle worker, of assumption of political power, and self-glorification.  But Jesus comes to understand that it is not about him, although it is through him.  His purpose is to draw others away from all things including religious rites and law and restore them to God and place their trust in God in order to enable the kingdom of God to become a reality.  Jesus does not draw attention to himself.  Just as the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus, Jesus points us to the Heavenly Father.

Jesus baptism, wilderness experience, and entering onto the world stage of ministry, encourages us to be a people who are examining our motivations for everything we do especially the mission and ministry we do in God’s name.

We don’t need to look too hard to find those paedophiles whose motivation for offering themselves as clergy, or teachers, or scout leaders, or anything in order to have access to children.  But we also need to ask ourselves about our motivation for any of the things we do.

In the reading for Ash Wednesday we hear of Jesus asking this motivation question of those who provide financial charity, who pray aloud on street corners and in synagogues, who disfigure their faces while fasting.  There is nothing wrong in giving alms, or praying aloud, or fasting, but they do it in order that others may see how generous, religious, and pious they are.

We, too, can fall into all kinds of motivation for what we do, and don’t do: that we might be seen as nice, generous, good, holy, clever, manipulative, controlling.

Lent is an important time for self-examination about where we are in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in Scripture and an important time for self-examination for discerning our motivation for what we are being called to do and not to do in our mission and ministry.

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