Saturday, 28 March 2015

People of the Book? Or People of the Word?

When Christians meet with Jews and Muslims and want to emphasise their common heritage, the expression “Abrahamic faiths” is often used. This is an accurate description historically, and it also helps us to remember that our differences of belief are in a sense disagreements within the family.

An expression that is not so helpful is “people of the book”, the description given to Jews and Christians in the Qur’an and often used by Muslims today. It is often hard for us to explain that this does not adequately describe the relationship of Christians to their Bible. It is not true that “just as” Jews have the Tanakh, Muslims the Qur’an, Sikhs the Guru Granth and so on, “so” Christians have the Bible. Christians do not see it in quite this way. Some sects on the fringe of Christianity, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, base their whole system of belief on the Bible as God-given data, and there are perhaps some extreme fundamentalists we can rightly regard as more biblical than Christian. However, even the most conservative of Christian Bible-believers would say that see the heart of their faith and experience as a living relationship with Jesus Christ: the Bible is not the ultimate object of their faith, it is the vehicle that conveys Christ to them. The Christian faith is faith not in a Book but in a Person. Christians do not lose sight of the New Testament statement (John 1:14) that the Word of God is Jesus.

“People of the Book” is thus not a good description of Christians. But perhaps “people of the Word” is nearer the mark. Many people call the Bible “the Word”, but the two expressions are not the same. A book, however sacred, is an inanimate object that remains unchanged. It can be interpreted and discussed, but you cannot ask it what it means and get a direct answer. A word is the utterance of a living person at a particular moment in time. It speaks to the present situation.

A word is not necessarily just a piece of information. It often addresses us at an emotional level: comforting, cheering, encouraging or challenging, making us laugh or cry. A word can be an action: sealing an agreement, making a promise, opening a new relationship or restoring a broken one.

The story of the Jewish and Christian faiths is one of hearing the word of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures a prophecy is often introduced by “the word of the LORD came to …”. The prophets had no canonical Scripture to study and interpret: they believed God had spoken to them directly. Sometimes they contradicted each other: there were “true prophets” and “false prophets”. The only reliable definition of true prophets was that their prophecies turned out to be right, but there was no infallible way of knowing at the time which was true and which was false. Sometimes the prophets themselves argued with God and doubted their own call, or the words they felt God wanted them to say. Just as in human relationships, so in relationship with God, a word cannot convey absolute certainty: it can only be taken in trust, and in the context of a relationship.

 “Word” can sometimes mean promise, as when we say “I give you my word”. When the preacher in Isaiah 40:8 said, “the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever”, he was not referring to Scripture, but to God’s promise to restore Jerusalem. He was quite probably referring specifically to the prophecies of the original Isaiah.

In the New Testament, when we read (Acts 6:7) that “the word of God continued to spread” it doesn’t mean that the apostles went around distributing Bibles! The “word of God” was the message about Jesus. The expression is sometimes still used today, as when a preacher is introduced with words like “so-and-so will now bring us the word”.

No, Christians are not “people of the book”. We are something much more dynamic, more immediate and more challenging: we are “people of the word”.

Monday, 19 January 2015

When the Answer is 'Neither'

The story of the meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman is meaningful on many levels. One feature of it seems to me to suggest a model for inter-faith dialogue.
The Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' time were a bit like Christians and Muslims today – worshipping the same God, but deeply divided and disassociated from one another.

When the woman started feeling uncomfortable with what Jesus had to say about her personal life, she decided to change the subject. Religion was a safer topic! So she said, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem". This was a stock point of controversy between Jews and Samaritans.
The answer Jesus gave was to raise the whole question to a higher level: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem ... the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth".
Jesus seems to be saying that what matters is not where people worship God but how.
Perhaps the equivalent controversial question Muslims raise with Christians is something like this: "We Muslims believe in Jesus as a great prophet,  but you Christians say he is the Son of God."
I wonder whether the best response would be that the real question is: how close are any of us to the spirit of Jesus? Are we in the end judged on what we believe about the nature and status of Jesus, or on whether we follow him? 

Friday, 9 January 2015

A Wake Up Call from a Little Known Prophet

Zephaniah is one of the least known books of the Bible. A fairly short book, it seems to consist mostly of "doom and gloom" - the sort of book we are inclined to ignore as "typically Old Testament". But it is well worth looking at.
Zephaniah preached in the reign of Josiah in Judah (639-609 BC). This was a heady time of promise and threat. Judah was experiencing a brief moment of relative freedom as the Assyrian Empire was in its final decline. In this situation, Josiah presided over a radical reform of religion. All artefacts associated with idolatry were removed from the Temple and destroyed, the offering of sacrifices in places other then the Jerusalem Temple was abolished, the shrines destroyed and the priests removed.  A ceremony was held in which Josiah led the people in a covenant to obey the laws of God, and a reformed Passover was celebrated. Josiah is recorded in the histories as an outstandingly godly king.
However, the sense of a new beginning was short-lived. By that time the days of Judah as a kingdom were numbered. About ten years after these reforms, Josiah was killed by the King of Egypt while trying to prevent him from going to the assistance of Assyria against Babylon. This attempt to help Babylon did Judah no good in the long run. Twelve years later the Babylonians took control of Judah and deposed Josiah’s son, and after another eleven years they destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of its leading citizens to Babylon.

As Zephaniah looks out over the devastations  being wrought by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, his book begins:

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea…..”

However, this does  not apparently include the kingdom of Judah. God’s purpose there is to cut off all remnants of the worship of Baal and other gods, and to seek out and punish all those who have participated in these practices. Other nations, meanwhile – the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Assyrians and even the faraway Ethiopians – will be utterly destroyed.

Along with this will come a humbling and purification of the “remnant of Israel”. The proud leaders will be removed, leaving behind “a people humble and lowly” who will seek refuge in the true God of Israel and live in his ways.

Like most of the prophets, Zephaniah projects his fears and hopes for Israel and surrounding nations onto a cosmic screen. This is part of the style of prophetic hyperbole, a feature still found in poetry today. But looking from the point of view of our own time there is perhaps a new relevance in Zephaniah’s language. Today, with nuclear weapons and climate change, the inability of human beings to act justly, to curb their inordinate greed and ambition and to live together in peace is posing a threat to the whole global environment. There is now a real possibility that not only human life but even “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea” could be swept off the face of the earth. Or, if that does not happen, there could remain a depleted human race, “a people humble and lowly” to start the hard task of rebuilding civilisation on sounder principles. That rather obscure and grim prophet who lived 2,600 years ago is still able to furnish a “wake up” call to humanity in the twenty-first century.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Unanswered Questions

The Bible is often hard to understand. Maybe it is meant to be so – not to hide things from us or intimidate us into servile reverence, but rather to make us think. 

Take for instance the story of the Magi. What does it really mean? What is the point we are meant to take from it? Who were these “wise men”? 

The name magi already makes us think. Two other people in the New Testament share that label. One was Simon (Acts 8:9-24) who practise mageia and was converted to Christ, but temporarily fell back into his old ways and was sternly rebuked by Peter. The other was Elymas (Acts 13:6-12), a magos who opposed Paul when he was preaching to the governor of Cyprus and was struck blind.

The English word “magic” is derived from the same root: they were magicians, “wizards” rather than “wise men”. John Henson has a version of “We three kings” that is more realistic. It begins:

“We are freaks who follow the stars,
Pleiades, Neptune, Venus and Mars;
men and women, dressed in linen,
peddling our lucky charms”

They were also astrologers. The idea of their following a moving star is a bit of traditional embellishment. The story simply says that they saw a new star which, to them, meant that a king had been born among the Jews. They came to look for him in the obvious place, Jerusalem, and were redirected to Bethlehem. Then, to their great joy, they saw the same star again.

The Bible never has a good word to say about magicians or astrologers. In the Book of Isaiah the people are mocked for trusting in them:
“But evil will come upon you, which you cannot charm away…  Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries … perhaps you may be able to succeed … let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars and at each new moon predict what shall befall you.” (Isa 47:11-13).

Today we have our “stars” in the newspapers, but few take their predictions seriously, and orthodox Christians generally disapprove.

Unanswered question number one: what does this story imply about astrology?

It is also clear that they were not of the Jewish faith, nor did they share the Jewish expectation of the Messiah. They were probably Zoroastrians. Unanswered question number two: after this experience, did they “see the folly of their ways” and become believers in the God of the Bible?

Number three: did they, years later, hear the story of Jesus and become Christians?

And number four: if they did not, and if (as traditional evangelical doctrine asserts) only born again believers in Christ go to heaven, where are they now?

This apparently simple story leaves a lot of questions unanswered! But in this respect it is closer to our present-day experience of faith than we often realise. In today’s multi-cultural society the old “certainties” don’t hold any more. Life isn’t as simple as we used to think.

The story of the Magi is meant to tell us that Jesus came for the whole world. But how does this work out in practice? Can people be led to Christ through other faiths or by means we think are heretical or superstitious? And if so does this mean they are meant to become Christians? And if not, can we say that it really doesn’t matter what you believe? Yet more unanswered questions!

This is the nature, and the power, of the Bible. It  doesn’t give us answers: it gives us stories and leaves us to work out their meaning in the confusion and ambiguity of real life.

Monday, 22 December 2014

A Sermon partly inspired by Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection (2012), makes the point that Christian faith relies too much on the deus ex machina. Rather than taking pain and evil seriously, it robs them of reality by jumping too quickly to the happy ending. Believers do not allow themselves to feel the sense of abandonment expressed in the words of Jesus on the cross, because there is always the consoling thought that “it doesn’t really matter because he rose on the third day anyway”. Similarly, we do not take the problems of the world seriously because we believe either that this world is just a “vale of tears” we are passing through on the way to heaven, or that Christ will come one day “on the clouds of heaven” to do away with this world.

These beliefs, says Rollins, are unreal and ineffective, and it is partly because of them that organised Christianity in Western society is dying out. This kind of “faith” makes no real difference to anything, and where it exists it is marginal even to the lives of those who profess it. In order to practise real faith we have to feel the pain and tragedy of human life and the guilt in which we are all involved as part of society. He suggests that this kind of awareness should be built into the life of the Church so that worship becomes a truly honest and authentic experience. Our prayers and hymns should have more genuine lament and less easy confidence, and our preaching should address reality and not hold out the easy assurance that God puts it all right.

Some of the implications Rollins draws from this are very radical and uncomfortable, but, believing that he is making an important point, I bore this in mind in preparing my Christmas sermon this year. Here is a brief summary of it.

“The light shines in darkness”

I am always very moved by the story of the “Christmas truce” which happened 100 years ago. It is a hopeful story that reminds us that ordinary people want peace, and at the same time a tragic story, because after that one day they all went back to killing each other. If only they had stopped the war then! 16 million people would not have died, the Second World War (with its 60 million deaths) would not have happened, and the whole history of the 20th century would have been different. But that didn’t happen. The following Christmas there were strict orders not to fraternise with the enemy, and by the Christmas after that the fighting had become so bitter that there was not much inclination to a truce. The story is yet another reminder that Christmas makes very little difference to the real world.

As we are celebrating Christmas this year there is fighting in many places, including the land where the whole story began. Syrian children are starving in the cold. People in Pakistan are mourning the senseless murder of more than 130 children in a school. But then, doesn’t the Christmas story itself include a mass murder of children? Terrible things happened then, and they still do.

We often have some fun pointing out the totally unrealistic scenario in the first verse of “In the bleak midwinter”. Winter in the Bethlehem area is never as cold as that, and we don’t know that Jesus was born in the winter anyway. Nor, in spite of “Silent night” and the tradition of Midnight Mass, do we know that he was born in the middle of the night. But the story grips us at a deeper symbolic level. We celebrate the light and love of God coming into the world at its darkest and coldest. But in what sense did this light come?

At Christmas we sing about “peace on earth”. But where is this peace? Will it ever come? Today it seems as far away as ever. The prospects for the future are no better, what with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the spectre of climate change. Some parts of the world may become uninhabitable in the next few decades. There will be more refugees than ever. There will be wars not just over oil but over more vital things: water, and space to live.

Will Jesus come to put it all right? Some people believe this whole world will suddenly end when Christ comes down on the clouds of heaven, and so until then we need not worry about what happens to this world. Some think Jesus came so that we would have the chance of going to heaven when we die. I think both those ideas are a cop-out. I believe in the much more difficult hope that the biblical prophets believed in: that God is at work in this world, and his will is done in the course of history. This belief calls for unreasonable faith in the face of real circumstances.

Did Jesus come to rescue us from war and suffering? Was there really “good news of great joy” for the shepherds of Bethlehem? Yes and no! No, in the sense that the hope of peace was not fulfilled at that time, nor has it been in the centuries that have followed. The Messianic age did not come. Israel was not set free. Jesus was rejected and crucified. Those who preached that he was alive were persecuted, and their successors went on to create a church that was just as corrupt and violent as anything that had gone before. So it looks as if the coming of Jesus, like the Christmas truce in 1914, was just a brief moment of hope that was soon extinguished.

Does that mean that the coming of Jesus did not save us? Does it mean we are on our own? In a sense yes. If there is to be “peace on earth” we are going to have to make it ourselves. The solution is not in a long ago event nor in an imagined future: it is in what we humans do here and now.

Part of the answer is in John’s Gospel. One of the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?  His answer was, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John, in his first Epistle, says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us …”

Yes, God did come into the world, and he is still in the world – in us. Is our celebration of Christmas escapism? Is it fantasy? No, it is possibility.


Friday, 23 May 2014

Why we don't read the Prophets

When I started my studies in preparation to be a minister, it suddenly hit me how little I knew of the Bible. In the process of study I learned quite a lot. Most people, even enthusiastic church-going Christians, do not get beyond that stage of ignorance. They are especially ignorant of the books of the prophets. What average church-goer could tell you anything about the content of Ezekiel, Micah or Zephaniah? The one that stands out as an exception is the Book of Jonah. Everybody knows something about him: he was swallowed by a whale.

This points to what is probably the main reason why most of us know so little about the prophets. Stories stick in our minds. We know something about Elijah and Elisha because there are stories of them performing miracles. We know parts of the Book of Daniel because we heard the stories when we were children: Daniel in the den of lions, the three men miraculously preserved in the fiery furnace, Belshaazar’s feast and the writing on the wall. Virtually all we remember about Isaiah is the story of his vision in the temple, when he heard the voice of God saying, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” and responded with “Here am I: send me”. The prophetic books tend to be unknown and un-memorable because they don’t have stories.

Another reason is that when we try to read them we are put off by what seems a solemn, ranting and very negative tone. They seem to be talking about judgment all the time and saying mysterious, incomprehensible things about nations and tribes we have never heard of. It all sounds rather like the ravings of an esoteric and rather nutty religious cult, or a street preacher shouting religious clich├ęs that passers-by ignore.

However, this feeling has a lot to do with the way most of us were taught to think about the Bible. We have been conditioned to think that because the Bible is “the Word of God” the prophets have a very serious message from  God for us that we must struggle to understand. When the prophetic books are read in  church it is usually in a monotone that makes them sound more obscure and tedious than they are. Those of us who are not fundamentalists have come to feel that the struggle is not worth it: the prophets were people with a negative, kill-joy message which is typically “Old Testament” and nothing to do with what we understand as Christianity.

It is sad that we have come to this conclusion. The prophets in fact were sensitive people who, if they had a message of doom, were no different from many people today who warn us about climate change, remind us of the injustice of the world, or predict the collapse of our society. They were not people who loved to condemn: they were responding to the issues of their time and trying to wake people up to what was happening. Their books don’t generally tell stories, but with a bit of imagination we can detect the story behind what they are saying, and then their words can come alive to us. The prophets were poets, and some of their poetry is sublime: it can stir and inspire us even if we cannot always understand it. There is no need for us to think we ought to accept it solemnly as a word from God, or feel guilty about not accepting it. Our watchword in reading the prophets should be, “Never mind the authority – feel the passion!”

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Relax and Enjoy!

The Christian faith began as a joyful message spread about by people whose lives had been changed by meeting Jesus of Nazareth. After he had been condemned and executed by crucifixion, these people had experiences that convinced them that he was alive and would never die. These experiences were of different kinds, as we can see hinted in the New Testament. They did not all understand resurrection in the same way, but it was real to them.

Out of these experiences came a variety of messages, all centred on Jesus. Some proclaimed that he was the promised Messiah, come to liberate the Jewish people. Others saw him as the expression of the true God in a human being with a universal relevance for the whole of humanity. Others again interpreted Jesus in terms of one or other of the various philosophies and spiritualities that were around in the cosmopolitan culture of that time. The one thing all these had in common was that Jesus was central to their thinking and to their lives.

Some of this variety can be seen in the writing of the New Testament. To the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was the new Moses who went up a mountain to give a new Law which, unlike the old Law, was meant for the whole of humanity. To Luke the mission of Jesus was to bring God’s forgiveness to all kinds of people in word and in action. To Paul, the converted persecutor of Jesus’ followers, he was the great Reconciler who, by the very fact of his being condemned by both Jews and Romans, was the means by which all humanity can be reconciled to God and to each other. To the writer of John’s Gospel, Jesus was God’s Word in the flesh, come into the world to call people to a new dimension of life under the supreme rule of Love.

These different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus were all part of the rich variety of early Christianity. However, tensions soon began as some people became more and unhappy with what others were making of Jesus. This too is apparent within the New Testament. Paul, enthused by the new, inclusive human fellowship that was coming into being, was furious with those who wanted to fit all the followers of Jesus into a narrow Jewish mould. At the other extreme, he and others were dismayed by the various exotic cults that were emerging and presenting a complicated system of teachings further and further removed from the simplicity of Jesus. And so, inevitably, conflict arose as different groups began to claim that they alone stood for the true, authentic understanding of the meaning of Jesus. And with this conflict there emerged the issue of authority.

The Christian movement was born within Judaism, a religion that reveres its Holy Scriptures as God’s authoritative word. However, Judaism has always used the Scriptures creatively, feeling free to question them and to argue about how to work out their meaning in every new situation. From what we see in the Gospels, Jesus too was creative in his interpretation. He went so far as to say “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”. He took stories from the Scriptures and gave them a new, sometimes quirky meaning. This was all part of the tradition of Jewish rabbinic discussion, and Jesus was into it as much as any other rabbi. Above all, whatever the Scriptures said he interpreted their essential message as radical, uncompromising love for God and neighbour.

So how did Christianity come to be characterised by so much unloving dispute and so much insistence on fixed and unquestionable authority? The cause of this development probably has a lot to do with the culture of the Roman Empire. The Christians in Rome inevitably came to see themselves as the metropolitan church with some right to keep the rest in order. As the churches became more numerous and influential, and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, authority began to express itself in coercive ways. Church leaders were now able not only to tell people they were wrong but to punish them for it. And so began the unhappy history of inquisitions, witch-burnings, heresy trials, religious wars, persecution of Jews and Crusades against the Muslims.

Though in some cultures even today the social and political pressure to conform is still very strong, we can be thankful that most of Christendom has grown out of the practice of imposing “correct” beliefs by physical compulsion. However, we have not grown out of the idea that there are “correct” beliefs. Christians may not burn heretics any more, but they still disapprove of them, and sometimes threaten them with an even worse burning in hell.

This idea of “correct” belief has entered deeply into the consciousness even of the most open-minded of Christians. We approach the Bible with the assumption that it has an important message for us and that we ought to study it very carefully to make sure we get the “right” message. The Bible does indeed have an important message for humanity, but it is not the kind of message that can be delivered and understood in a straightforward way like factual information or practical instructions. The Bible is a great collection of literature that speaks with many voices. We can hear the message only by listening to all the voices and joining in their conversation.

Discussion of the authority and interpretation of the Bible among Christians has mostly been burdened with the wrong kind of seriousness. In our concern to get the “right” message we have argued endlessly about “hermeneutics”, literal versus figurative interpretation, typology, allegory, “progressive revelation”  and so on, as if it were a matter of life and death not to get it wrong. I believe the time has come for a more relaxed approach, the kind of approach we adopt towards other literature.

There is no doubt that most of the Bible is great literature, and as such is open to all kinds of observations, comparisons and reflections. In the world of literature we can echo the words of Ecclesiastes and take a step further by saying, “of the making of many books, and of books about books, there is no end.” Literary critics can find all kinds of things to say about the books they read, some helpful, some controversial, some superfluous, but there is never the suggestion that what the critic offers is the meaning of a play by Shakespeare, a sonnet by Keats or a novel by George Eliot. It is one of the many possible facets of its meaning. This does not mean that we need to go to the post-modernist extreme of saying that anything can mean anything: some interpretations are spot-on, some are far-fetched but interesting, and some are just incompatible with the spirit of the text. However, there is a vast range of interpretations that are quite acceptable, stimulate the imagination and enhance our enjoyment of literature.

To read the Bible in this way is a relatively new approach, but actually closer to the way Jesus read it than the kind of fundamentalist reading that has usually been predominant in the Church. As we learn to appreciate the profundity of some of the great myths, the joy of the story-tellers, the concerns of the controversialists, the wit of the wisdom writers, the warm devotion of the psalmists and the passion of the prophets, and to accept their differences, we will find that reading the Bible can actually be fun. And while we are having this fun, now and then I think God will sneak up behind us and whisper an authentic word into our ear that can make us say “Aha!” or “Wow!”, or perhaps even “Ouch!”