Reflections on Discipleship – Bold Holy Prayer

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

 

Yesterday I had to celebrate Communion in our local cathedral, and the passage set by the lectionary was from Matthew 7, the bit where Jesus tells us that if we ask, seek and knock we’ll get what we want. There are actually quite a few passages like this in the gospels: I know, because I once had to do an seminar at Spring Harvest about them, and why they are manifestly not true. I don’t know about you, but I’ve prayed for loads of stuff and not got it, even with a mustard seed’s worth of faith. Neither have I ever thrown a mountain into the sea (although to be honest I’ve never tried). So what are we to make of these passages?

 

As always, we gain comprehension of biblical passages if we take the trouble to understand what the original readers would have understood. There was a strong tradition in Judiasm of the ‘bold holy pray-er’, someone who dared to ask God for the outrageous and because of his boldness got his prayer answered. The archetypal person in this tradition was Elijah, who brought drought and rain at his words, parted a river, and even called down fire from heaven. In the tradition his power came from a life dedicated to God, a life of sacrificial service, and a selfless commitment to God’s will. So when Jesus is commending to us the power of prayer, all this is in the background. It isn’t so much an invitation to getting whatever we want out of God as though he were a slot machine as a calling to Elijah-sized commitment. Then we’ll pray the kind of prayers which change nations, rather than ‘God bless my family and please can I win the lottery?’ prayers.

 

Neither is there any timescale ever given in these passages, although we tend to read them as meaning ‘immediately’. I have no doubt that Elijah’s bold holy prayers were prayed for years at a time. Recently my son visited Belfast for the first time, a place where his wife had studied at university. He came home having fallen in love with the city, which, although still scarred by the Troubles, has regenerated itself into a buzzing metropolis. He confessed to me that growing up in churches where I was the vicar he had got fed up with intercessions week after week for Northern Ireland, with no discernible results. But now he was able to see that those long-term faithful prayers had indeed been answered.

 

A friend had a similar experience when Desmond Tutu addressed the clergy of his diocese. ‘Your prayers changed South Africa’ Tutu shouted at them ‘but you don’t believe it! You have no faith!’ Disciples may not be those who go around planting mulberry trees in the sea, but they should be bold holy pray-ers, whose persistent and committed intercession can move metaphorical mountains, if not physical ones. And those prayers should be prayed out of lives of outrageous commitment to God’s world and his will.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Song of Songs

Time for a cold shower this week as we take a look at a book unique in the Bible – a collection of erotic love poetry. There is no mention of Yahweh, little which looks like wisdom literature, and no reference whatsoever to God’s law. The only clue to its dating is the ascription in 1:1 to Solomon, although the form of the language, as Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew as the language of Israel, makes this seem unlikely and the date at least post-exilic, if not later. There seems to be little structure, although it is possible to discern three voices, which some translations like the NIV helpfully add as titles in the text. There is a man, a woman and a group of friends who act a little like a Greek chorus to help the readers see the scenes. These divisions of the text are not there in the original, and are largely deduced from the gender of the Hebrew terms.

The man and the woman are clearly very much in love, and there are some pretty graphic descriptions, but at the same time there is a certain restraint and chastity running through the poems, which make it not in the same league as 50 Shades. Some of the more erotic parts are only enacted in dreams, and the woman repeatedly tells her friends ‘not to awaken love until it is ready’. She is described as a locked garden, a spring enclosed and a sealed fountain in chapter 4, all symbols of chastity. All this gives the effect of real sexual desire, and real eroticism, but strictly within appropriate limits.

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Jews were a bit reluctant to admit this book into the canon of scripture, while interestingly Christians had no problem with it. But in the first century Jewish commentators began to interpret the book allegorically, as a poem about God’s love for Israel, which therefore made it OK to read as Scripture. Christians soon followed suit, and beginning with Origen in the 2nd century the book was interpreted as being about the love of Christ for his bride, the church. This is still how many Christians read it today.

On the basis of the hermeneutical principle that ‘a text cannot mean anything the original writer didn’t mean the original readers to understand it to mean’ we can safely say that this is a book about sex, not Jesus. Christians of course have a bit of a reputation for being down on sex, or at the very least pretty coy about it, and at different times in history we have been disgusted by the whole dirty business. Theologian Peter Lombard said in the 12th century that the Holy Spirit leaves the room when a married couple have sex, even if they do it without passion. This book reminds us that it is a gift of God for our pleasure, for making love grow and develop, and as such is to be celebrated and enjoyed to the full. But when taken in the context of other biblical stories we are also reminded that such a powerful area as human sexuality has great power to lead us astray if left unbounded. Like everything else it has to be enjoyed within God-given limits, but enjoyed it undoubtedly should be.

Old Testament Lectionary March 1st Lent 2 Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

As we move to the second Sunday of Lent we have for our OT reading the second of God’s covenants, this time with Abraham. Last week we considered the covenant with Noah, but as time has moved on there are some significant developments here. We noted last week that the covenant with Noah was entirely one-sided: nothing was required of him. It seems that that is the case here too, but actually there are two conditions, and two responsibilities on Abraham’s part. He must walk before God faithfully and be blameless (v 1), and he is to undergo, and ensure the continuance of, circumcision (v11) (although this section has been cut off by the lectionary compliers. See what I did there?)

Faithfulness and blamelessness take us back to the description of Noah in Gen 6:9, and they are not so much moral terms as terms of relationship. It isn’t that Abraham is never to do anything wrong, or that will blow the relationship for good. It is more about continuing faithfully in a relationship which already exists; not going off the rails or losing the plot.

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Circumcision can be seen as equivalent to the rainbow in the Noah story. God puts a mark on the created world to remind him of the special relationship he has with its inhabitants now that the reality of human sin has been acknowledged. Now he puts a mark in human bodies as the ‘sign of the covenant’.  Like the rainbow this is to be an eternal sign, although of course Paul has to explain later that it is not physical circumcision which means anything under Christ, but the covenant relationship with Christ through the cross.

But perhaps even more significant in this passage is the changing of three names. Abram becomes Abraham, which means that he is no longer merely an ‘exalted father’ but is now the ‘father of many’, and Sarai (the argumentative one) becomes Sarah (the princess, the mother of kings). These names stick: who ever thinks of them as Abram and Sarai today? The change is permanent, in line with their new covenantal relationship with God. But it is not just the human figures in this story who get new names. God himself is named for the first time here as El Shaddai, a name which bristles with translational difficulties, and which may mean God of the mountains, God the destroyer, God of breasts (ie fertility – quite probable in this context) but almost certainly doesn’t mean God Almighty.

So what? I hear you cry. I think the key verses, and the key character here, are v 15-17 and Sarah. Thirteen years earlier, in response to God’s promise that Abram would have a son and heir, he had slept with Sarai’s servant who produced Ishmael. Almost certainly they had assumed that because of Sarai’s infertility Ishmael was the fulfilment of God’s promise. But here El Shaddai specifically names and renames Sarai, and spells it out to Abraham that he will give him a son by her. Amazing though that seems, the story speaks of a God for whom nothing is impossible, and of humans who happily settle for less than a downright miracle. Thirteen years is a long wait, indeed it is twenty five years since the promise of a son was first made. But God is faithful, and to hold on to his promises, and to remain faithful and blameless before him, will eventually bring its rewards. And to be renamed by God is a deeply symbolic reminder of our remaking in Christ. One of my favourite songs is loosely based on words from Isaiah 62:

I will change your name

You shall no longer be called

Wounded, outcast,  lonely or afraid

I will change your name

Your new name shall be

Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one

Faithfulness, friend of God

One who seeks my face

Reflections on Discipleship – Not Joining In

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.  They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:3-4)

Really? As we enter the penitential season of Lent this reading invited me to reflect on my own lifestyle, and my blog challenges you to do the same. My first reflection  is to ask myself just what it is that I don’t join in with that my pagan friends abuse me for. Um … not a lot, if I’m honest. It isn’t that I do join in with my chums’ wild drug-fuelled orgies, drive-by shooting sprees or credit card fraud. I just don’t have those sorts of friends. And, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t think I have spent enough time in the past being naughty in the kinds of ways Peter says I have. On a really bad day I think not nearly enough.

This passage highlights the difference between becoming a Christian out of a godless and pagan culture in the first century and being brought up as one in a nice twentieth century middle-class stable family. Of course our culture is every bit as godless and sensual as the first century Greek one is portrayed as being in the pages of Scripture, but much of the time we do tend to be godless and sensual nicely. Many in the church today simply have not had much spectacular sin in our backgrounds, so coming to Christ and following him as a disciple didn’t, if we’re honest, make that much of the radical difference it might make to an ex-addict or a serial killer who has seen the light.

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That’s all good, of course. I’m not suggesting that a bit of serious debauchery lurking somewhere in our backgrounds makes us better Christians. But I think it does mean that we have to work a bit harder at seeing just what following Jesus as his disciples means, or what a radical difference it should be making. I’m aware that only around 35% of us have ‘Damascus Road’ conversion experiences nowadays, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the church has stopped expecting people to make a radical decision and change of lifestyle and so has stopped preaching it. The message of Jesus and of Lent that we begin this journey with repentance has got a bit lost over the years: instead we expect people to slip gently and painlessly into the kingdom. So it is not surprising that it isn’t always easy to see how we’re that different as a result.

So I wonder whether a good Lenten meditation for us might be to look harder and discover some of those things with which we don’t join  in, because there will be some. Call me a dinosaur, but my family still refuses flatly to go shopping on a Sunday. My kids never did their homework either: Sunday was a day where we were set free from the concerns of the rest of the week to enjoy ourselves. I try not to do office gossip or politics – not always an easy job. I try to praise people behind their backs instead of slagging them off. Little things, but as I think about them I’m encouraged to realise that I might just, after all, be a little bit different.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ecclesiastes

We have already noted that the three main OT books of ‘Wisdom Literature’ might be compared to the building of a house. Proverbs tells us how to build well, and Job explores how we react when that house is suddenly struck by lightning. As we come to our third book today we have a very different scenario: our house is old, decrepit and falling to bits. How do we cope with that?

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As with David and the Psalms Solomon is clearly the ‘patron saint’ of wisdom, although in what sense he was the ‘author’ of this book is much debated. We seem to have a narrator or editor, probably a fan or disciple of Solomon, who writes up his story and his musings in the third person in the name of ‘Qoheleth’. The Hebrew word means something like ‘one who gathers an assembly in order to address it’, and so is usually translated ‘the Teacher’ or ‘the Preacher’ in English Bibles. The story of Qoheleth is difficult not to identify with that of Solomon, but he is never named as such. It is virtually impossible to date the book, but it must be later than the time of Solomon.

 

It has been said that these words are those of a cynic. He has tried all that life has to offer, all its pleasures, excesses and delights, but found at the end of the day that they just do not satisfy. So the lasting message is that in returning to his childlike faith he finds wisdom, the best way to live. The book oscillates between misery and joy: having found pleasure and work useless, his advice is simply to enjoy food and work, which are a gift from God (1:24). This refrain recurs: in 5:18, having found wealth to be meaningless, we should simply enjoy food and get on with our work. Even wisdom itself comes under scrutiny, and in chapter 2 is declared a waste of time too, as both wise and foolish people come to the same end eventually. But wisdom is, we’re relieved to hear, all in all better than folly, even if only just.

 

The final verdict, and the great purple passage of the book, comes in chapter 12, where we are counselled to ‘remember our Creator’ while we can still enjoy life and have the faculties to do so. The symbolic description of the decrepitude of old age in 12:2-7 is devastatingly accurate. The bottom line, according to 12:13, is to fear God and keep his commandments, an instruction which reinforces the motto of all biblical wisdom literature, that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’.

 

What does the book do for us today? It reminds us, first of all, that wisdom is not necessarily ‘nice’. It is not afraid to look at the realities of life head on, and to acknowledge that for much of the time it does all seem pointless. It never pretends that with God everything will be lovely, and it clearly comes out of a rich life experience which, although having left Qoheleth wiser, has also left him much sadder. Yet it is fundamentally a book of apologetics: it shows us life without God as fundamentally meaningless, and offers us an alternative which at least makes some sense, as it puts us in touch with a God who is repeatedly said to be generous. Qoheleth, during his lifetime, has tried pretty much everything, but returns to a relationship with God as the only thing which makes any real sense. This book, therefore preaches a significant message to our consumerist, cynical, experience-driven culture. God is the only one who can make any sense of all this, and who can make life in any way worth living.

 

 

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 22nd Lent 1 Gen 9:8-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of the things you often hear is that after the events of 9/11 ‘the world will never be the same again’. Sometimes cataclysmic events do leave the world a different place, and the Flood narrative tells of such an event. This event, however, has even more far-reaching consequences: it leaves God different.

There is a really difficult text in the lead-up to the Flood story: in Gen 6:6-7 God ‘regrets’ that he has made the world in the first place. I leave the philosophers to argue over whether an all-knowing God can regret anything, but the point here is that the world has lost its innocence, and God must as it were renegotiate his relationship with it. The paradise of Eden has been well and truly lost, and as an act of mercy God decides to put an end to the violence and pain once and for all, whilst in even greater mercy he saves a remnant of his creation with which to start again. Paradise having been lost, though, it is never going to be regained. Human sin has become an indisputable part of earthly life, and so God has to make some new rules about the way in which he is going to cope with it. This is described as him ‘establishing a covenant’ not just with human beings but with every living creature. This is unusual in that here a ’covenant’ is not an deal made by two parties agreeing the terms: it is purely God’s initiative and God’s rules. It sounds much more like a promise than a treaty. He promises that never again will total destruction be the solution to the problem of sin, and in token of this he will use the rainbow to remind himself of this policy.

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When seen like this, the new deal tells us some radically surprising things about the nature of God. The first chapters of Genesis show us an all-powerful divine being at whose words creation springs into existence, an immutable unchangeable God for whose pleasure were all created. But now, almost as though he were sadder and wiser, we see his as someone who is moved, who has regrets, who shows mercy rather than legalistic judgement, who makes new promises, and above all who guarantees an ongoing relationship with a less-than-perfect world, but who might need a visual aid to remind him of all this. This really is radical stuff! There is a sense in which we might describe this almost as though God were becoming more human.

This is a highly radical and dangerous thought, but it might also be a helpful one. It isn’t of course, that the events of the Flood changed the nature of God, but it did change the way in which humans thought of him and relate to him. In the church we can get so used to all the ‘omni-‘ stuff we believe about God that it is easy to slip into the belief that the Father is the rather scary and inflexible member of the Trinity, so we need Jesus, the nicer one who really understands real life, so plead our cause for us, or, in some circles, the even nicer, even more human Mary. That God the Father understands the mess which is our world yet remains committed to it gives the lie to this kind of heretical but all too common thought. This passage is one which brings God closer to us. It doesn’t compromise his sense of justice, but it certainly sets it alongside his mercy.

Secondly, this text, calls us in a different direction, to a respect and care for creation. God insists that his covenant is with all living creatures: how can we treat the world with any less respect that our Father does?

Reflections on Discipleship – Purify my Heart

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I’ve been reading 1 Peter recently, and I was struck by the logic of the few verses overlapping chapters 1 and 2, which I think give the lie to a lot of thinking about discipleship. Many Christians have picked up the idea that it is all about hard work, trying, striving to be more holy, and so on, and I honestly think this puts some people off even trying to think about being better disciples. Peter (or whoever) is clearly writing to newish Christians – elsewhere the NT urges people to leave off the milk and get onto meat instead, but here it is milk which is commended – but his starting point isn’t about how they should try harder. He begins by telling them an objective fact about their status in Christ: ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’.

They have become Christians: ‘You have been born again’ he tells them in the next verse. The quote from Isaiah 40 demonstrates that they have stepped out of the merely human cycle of birth, life and death because the Word in which they have put their trust is an eternal Word. They will almost certainly ‘go the way of all flesh’ sooner or later, but for them that won’t be the end, but rather a new beginning. So he clearly establishes the fact that they have crossed the line and have become disciples of Jesus Christ.

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Then comes that fateful word ‘Therefore’ in 2:1, a word so often used in the Epistles as a transition from what is true, what has happened, and what they must now do about it. It’s a little word, but it has vital implications. What the author is saying is basically ‘You have changed your status before God – now learn to live that out’. You have been ‘born again’: now get rid of the baggage that you don’t need any more. It’s a similar argument to that used in Hebrews 12 about throwing off the sin which so easily entangles us. The picture there is of a Roman soldier getting rid of his voluminous cloak ready for action. Stuff like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander simply don’t belong to the changed life you now live, so fling them off, as you would a restricting garment. This can , of course, be hard work, since old habits die hard. But what he doesn’t say, and this is where we get it oh so wrong, is that you have to behave differently in order to live in a new relationship with Christ. So we get back to that age-old heresy of salvation by works: I live the right way in order to get right with God, not because I am right with God. I’ve been purified, so now impurities are simply no longer appropriate in my life.

When we really know who we are in Christ we are filled with the desire to live up to that calling: when we believe that we have to work that hard so that Christ will accept us, it’s easy to see how we can believe we’re onto a loser from the start and stop bothering. After all, being a mere ‘churchgoer’ feels like a lot less hard work.