Monday 24 January 2011

May Jesus's disciples be one!

I was very privileged to be invited to give this address at the Evening of Prayer for Christian Unity, hosted by Nenagh Catholic parish in St Mary's of the Rosary on 23rd January 2011.

Dear friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.
How wonderful it is to come together from our different Christian traditions to worship, to hear God’s word, and to pray together for the unity of Christ’s disciples!

As we do so, we follow Jesus’s new commandment, to love one another as he has loved us, and we echo his prayer, that his disciples may be one, as he and the Father are one.

On behalf of those here from other traditions, I want to thank the Catholic parish for calling us together and for hosting us in this beautiful church.

There are some – Baptists, Methodists and the Living Water prayer group - who sadly cannot be with us tonight, because of prior commitments, but I know they too are with us in spirit and would wish me to extend their greetings to you.

The worship materials we are using this evening were developed in Jerusalem.
Christians in Jerusalem today live under tremendous pressure, from both the political and religious situation and their dwindling numbers. But despite that, they are communities of faith which worship, pray and study together, which work for the good of their society, and which pray for unity of Christ’s Church and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Representatives of their many Christian traditions meet informally each month as the Ecumenical Circle of Friends. The World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity asked them to prepare materials for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

They chose as a theme ‘All things in common’, and they invite the world-wide Church to pray with them not only for Church unity, but for justice and peace in the Holy Land and throughout the world.

They invite us to pray for unity, but that is not the same as uniformity. God loves diversity in the life he has created, and I don’t doubt he loves the diversity among his disciples, their different ways of worshiping, their different ways of understanding their faith. The unity we pray for is surely not uniformity, but a unity of love for one another, and a unity of purpose, to proclaim together, to all who will listen, the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

The theme chosen by Christians in Jerusalem is a challenge to us all.
It is taken from the description of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem in Acts (2:42-47), which we have just heard. How hard it is to see these characteristics of the earliest Church in today’s splintered Christian landscape!

‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. Fellowship in breaking bread? We encounter such difficulty sharing the Eucharist together, not just between our different traditions but even within them – I’m thinking of my own Anglican communion - for profound theological reasons we are told. But can these so-called obstacles really be insurmountable?

‘All the believers were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need’. Living simply so that others can simply live? Christians live embedded in the greedy consumer culture around us, in which we are defined by what we possess, and we are constantly urged to acquire more. God’s creation suffers to feed the greed, and the needs of the poor and vulnerable are too often ignored. As Christians we may be personally generous - but do we do enough to challenge that pervasive culture of greed and waste, with Christ’s values of loving God, and loving our neighbours as ourselves?

How will we respond to the challenge from Jerusalem?
Will we leave here today with a warm feeling that we have done our duty by praying together for unity this one day of the year?

Or will we leave here determined to act together this coming year to bring unity closer, a unity of love, and a unity of purpose to proclaim together the good news of Jesus Christ?

Let us join ourselves in Jesus’s prayer, that we his disciples may be one!

Sunday 16 January 2011

Here is the Lamb of God

Adoration of the Lamb,
Detail of the Ghent Altarpiece, Jan Van Eyck

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
Beginning with these words from St John’s Gospel (1:29-42), John the Baptist publicly testifies to the great truth about Jesus, which had suddenly come to him as he baptised Jesus the day before – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
And pointing to Jesus, the Baptist says to two of his own disciples the next day, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ One of them is Andrew, who after spending a day with Jesus goes to find his brother Simon Peter, to tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’. Andrew and Peter go on to follow Jesus and become two of his chosen apostles.
Jesus as the Lamb of God is such a familiar image, isn’t it? We’ve all seen those icons of Christ as a lamb holding a cross. And we still sometimes use the Agnus Dei during communion, which I remember from my childhood in the ancient chant, ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us’.
The seal of the Moravian Church, featuring the Agnus Dei.
The image is so familiar that we often don’t realise just how strange it is – the Son of God represented as a small, vulnerable lamb. Wouldn’t a noble beast like a lion be more appropriate for the Son of God? CS Lewis in his Narnia books chose Aslan, a fearsome lion, not a tame lion, to represent the Christ-like character in his stories, not a lamb. Jesus chose to describe himself as the Good Shepherd, not as a lamb. So why does the evangelist have John the Baptist describe Jesus as the Lamb of God?

The image of the lamb had layer upon layer of symbolic meaning for Jews at the time of Christ.
It would remind them of the old story of the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12). The Israelites are told to sprinkle the blood of a lamb on the doors of their houses, as a sign to the Lord to pass over the house without killing the firstborn within. The Lord strikes down the firstborn of the Egyptians and the firstborn of the Israelites live. The Passover Lamb protects and saves the Israelites and they escape from Egypt.
It would remind them of the daily sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem of ‘two male lambs a year old without blemish’, one in the morning and one in the evening, as an offering to God (Numbers 28:3-4), an offering intended to turn God’s wrath away from the sins of the community.
So the lamb would have represented reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sins – atonement in the language of theology. The English word atonement originally meant ‘at-one-ment’, being put in harmony with someone.
And the lamb would also have represented uncomplaining gentleness. Jeremiah writes, ‘But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter’. And Isaiah writes of God’s suffering servant, ‘Like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter … he did not open his mouth’.
Today we are horrified by the cruelty and injustice of sacrificing living animals to God. It also horrified the prophet Isaiah (1:11-17), who told the people of Judah that God did not want their animal sacrifices, but rather wanted them to ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. But his words were ignored, perhaps because of vested interests - the privileged status and livelihood of priests would have depended on sacrifices continuing, and sacrifices were no doubt cheaper and easier for the well-to-do than Isaiah’s alternative. Jewish practice of animal sacrifice did not cease until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD.
Jesus taught his disciples that God would pardon their sins if they truly repented. In perfect obedience to God’s will, he submitted to a cruel death upon the cross although an innocent man. Perhaps it’s not so very surprising that his disciples, the first Christians, should identify Jesus with the sacrificial lamb, as John does, and as Paul did too.
As the years passed, early Christians came to see the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the final and complete atoning sacrifice, taking their sin away, reconciling them to God, and making further ritual sacrifice of animals unnecessary.

The imagery of Christ as the sacrificial lamb lived on after animal sacrifice ceased.
Christians have always meditated upon it. And very many have pondered just how Christ’s death on the cross reconciles us with God – that is, how atonement works. Theologians have come up with innumerable theories.
There’s ‘ransom’ atonement: Adam and Eve are held to have sold humanity to Satan at the time of the Fall; Justice requires that Satan be paid a ransom to free us from his clutches; God pays the ransom on our behalf through Christ’s death; Justice is satisfied and we are freed from Satan’s grip of sin and death. I can’t accept the dualism of this theory. I believe in one God, and I do not believe in any kind of anti-God like Satan.
There’s also ‘substitution’ atonement: the debt humans owe for their sin is not to Satan but to God himself; human kind deserve God’s punishment for sin; God’s Justice means that God cannot simply forgive the sin without exacting punishment; but God takes the punishment on himself by sending his Son to die on the cross in our place as a substitute; and this cancels out human sin, allowing us to receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God. This theory repels me, because it makes God appear to collude in the unjust punishment of Jesus, rather than being the loving, forgiving and merciful Father that Jesus revealed to us.
And then there’s ‘moral influence’ atonement: Jesus’s self-sacrifice on the cross shows us how to deal with the consequences of sin, and also demonstrates God’s love for us; we respond with repentance, and receive God’s forgiveness; we are reconciled to God and transformed by the Holy Spirit. I find this a much more satisfactory explanation of atonement.
But all these musings of theologians are like smoke compared to the fact of atonement.
Human attempts to define the purposes of God must always be inadequate, and we should not let differences of opinion about how atonement works divide us one from another.
Rather we should rejoice together in the reality of atonement - that Jesus Christ reconciles us to God, who will forgive our sins if we repent.
It is to this reality that John the Baptist points when he says, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.

Sunday 9 January 2011

God has come close to me, as close as my own skin

Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.
So I take this opportunity to reflect on what Jesus’s baptism means, both to those at the time, and to you and me 2000 years later.

But first I invite you to picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to settle on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

It is a striking and dramatic scene which engages our senses – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it? And artists have painted many beautiful images of it over the centuries.

The Baptism of Christ, Joachim Patenir, c. 1480-1524, Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna

I don’t believe Matthew the Evangelist was an eyewitness to Jesus’s baptism.
Nor is he likely to be the same person as Matthew the Apostle, the tax-collector Jesus called to be one of the twelve, a while later.

Whoever he was, Matthew is describing an epiphany, in which God reveals himself to be the Father of Jesus and sends his Spirit to Jesus. The very same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.

For Christians by the 4th Century AD these baptism passages came to be seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.

Matthew, like any educated Jew of his time, would have known the prophesy of Isaiah well. He would surely have noticed the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a humble servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.

What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?
John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism, not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?

John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. I think John must have believed Jesus was such a good man that he had no need of baptism, repentance and forgiveness. But John knew he did need them himself.

The gospels tell us next to nothing about Jesus before he started his ministry. However Luke (2:41-52) does tell us that Jesus amazed the teachers in the Temple with his understanding when only twelve, and that afterwards Jesus ‘increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favour’. John’s reaction confirms Luke’s picture of Jesus as a man widely seen to be remarkably holy and charismatic.

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.

Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insisted, and John consented. And we know John then experienced the same epiphany described by Matthew, since John’s Gospel records him saying: “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is not just a remarkably holy man, but is in fact the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God.

I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.
Jesus very deliberately chose to ask John for baptism, and insisted on it – it must have been of great significance to him.

Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God wished him to be baptised by John. But baptised for what purpose?

Perhaps God's Spirit prompted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect it had on John. But Jesus himself surely also needed to be certain of his identity before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understood that he was Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associated himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - because he went on to proclaim this message in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus did so because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful people like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if Jesus had no such need himself.

So to finish, what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?
Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.

The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah in the 1st reading, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.

Before it Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it Christians could begin to see the relationship as one in which God is incarnate in a human being like you or me.

Everything is changed and made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like that of our loving Father; to be like thst of Jesus, his Son, our friend and brother; to be like that of the Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.

Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.