Monday, September 25, 2017

PENTECOST XVII 2017 (Proper 21)

Christ Pantocrater

This week’s Epistle includes what is arguably the most beautiful passage in all of Paul’s letters – his theologically deep and poetically compelling affirmation to the Philippians of the incarnation of God in Jesus, an indissoluble unity of the human and the divine made possible by Christ's perfect obedience. The climax of this magnificent hymn looks to a time when ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’. 

There follows, however, an instruction to the Philippians that seems to conflict both with the Lordship of Christ, and with Paul’s well known insistence on faith before works. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’, Paul writes. Surely the Good News of the Gospel renders this instruction redundant? Since Christ has saved us by being 'obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross', are we not relieved of the burden of working out our salvation for ourselves? Paul, of course, does not mean to deny this, and so he immediately adds to his instruction this essential qualification – ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Is it God at work, or is it us at work?

Miro - Vineyards and Olive Tree
The Gospel throws some light on this issue. In another vineyard parable, two sons react differently to their father's instruction to work in the vineyard. The one who explicitly refuses appears to be rebellious, yet ultimately does as his father asks. The other appears to be dutiful by saying the right thing, but in fact goes his own way. Jesus asks his hearers to decide which of the two sons is the obedient one. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. The ‘rebel’ is the obedient son because, in the end, he decides to act as his father instructs. Both decision and instruction have key parts to play. The life of faith for us is our communion with God, and this necessarily falls short of Christ's perfect union. That is why the Psalmist prays 'Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation'.

It would be difficult to improve on Paul’s opening advice ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. True discipleship means being of one mind with Jesus. But a crucial part of the sentence is the very first word -- ‘Let . .’.

Monday, September 18, 2017

PENTECOST XVI (Proper 20) 2017

Camille Pisarro -- Workers in the Fields
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and  a punch line, all of which makes it easy to understand -- at one level. The problem, though, is not simply to understand it, but to see just what its message is.

Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace, and implies that Christian bosses ought to pay their workers equally. Or they have found warrant in it for a even wider  principle of Christian ethics -- one that supports equal pay for company workers. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is talking about ‘the Kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other. Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the laborer who complains that he has worked all day. ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. Perhaps so, but is this a good enough answer? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the laborers who worked longer deserve more?

These questions have familiar religious parallels. If the redemption of the world is universal and includes everyone who repents, this means that repentance wipes out past sins. However wicked anyone has been, it doesn't matter in the end. But can it be just for God to treat cheats, child abusers, serial killers and terrorists in the same way as those who have been decent Christians -- or just decent citizens -- all their lives, so long as they express repentance on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness if it makes no difference in the end?

Feast of the Redeemer - Maurice Prendergast
To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’ (as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). That is to say, unlike payment, the value of
knowing the love of God in Christ can't be measured in any meaningful way. Just as time does not determine the value of love between people, so living in the knowledge of God's is supremely valuable regardless of how early or late in life we have come to it. Nothing can improve upon it because there simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. And this remains true, quite irrespective of how God treats other sinners.

Knowledge of our own salvation, then, should dispel any envious glances we might be tempted to cast at those who ‘got away with it’. Are the years they lived in selfishness, dishonesty or cruelty a way of life we would have chosen, if only we had known that we could be forgiven just before death? What kind of life could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

PENTECOST XV 2017 (Proper 19)

    Blake -- God Judges Adam
    In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about judgment, tolerance and forgiveness. In the contemporary liberal democratic world,  being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins, and that explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and embrace instead a non-judgmental inclusiveness that reflects what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ -- God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.

    Conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is not one that concerns us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave.

    To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, the wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ conflicts with a key element in these readings -- that human beings are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do. 

    Old Slave -- Anatol Petrytsky
    No one really thinks otherwise. Racist beliefs, for instance, are almost always rooted in falsehoods, and their fruits, especially when sincerely held, are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to preempt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he cautions his readers. So he takes his stand against human judgmentalism, and yet immediately places it in a larger theological context : “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”. 

    The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice. In the past Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice and do the torturing themselves. Nowadays, perhaps, they are more likely to make the opposite mistake -- presuming upon God’s mercy. The difficult thing is both to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and to do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.

    Monday, September 11, 2017

    HOLY CROSS 2017

    Legend has it that in 326 AD, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered  the True Cross of Jesus . She ordered a church to be built at the site of the discovery. On Sept 14 635 AD a portion of the Cross was carried into the newly consecrated 'Church of the Holy Sepulchre'. Since that time Sept 14  has been a red letter day in the Christian Calendar. Holy Cross Day invites us to meditate on the deeply mysterious fact that God chose an instrument of tortured death to be the means of salvation.
    Many poems and hymns have taken the Cross as their central image. One of the best known is by the 19th century Scotswoman, Elizabeth Cleophane. She died at the age of 39, having written a number of memorable Christian poems that were published only after her death. The first and last verses of her hymn to the Cross speak to the place of Christian faith in an uneventful life.

    Recognition of the True Cross -- Francesca
    Beneath the cross of Jesus
    I fain would take my stand,
    The shadow of a mighty rock
    Within a weary land;
    A home within the wilderness,
    A rest upon the way,
    From the burning of the noontide heat,
    And the burden of the day.

    I take, O cross, thy shadow
    For my abiding place;
    I ask no other sunshine
    Than the sunshine of His face;
    Content to let the world go by,
    To know no gain or loss,
    My sinful self my only shame,
    My glory all the cross.

    Collect for Holy Cross Day
    Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

    Wednesday, September 6, 2017

    PENTECOST XIV 2017 (Proper 18)

    Jan Steen -- Prayer Before Meal
    The Gospel for this Sunday contains a phrase that has powerfully consoled Christians in difficult circumstances of many sorts –‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Faced with social isolation, political oppression, cultural indifference or simply declining membership, it is both critically important and deeply reassuring to hold fast to the truth that neither popular success nor numerical majority is relevant to the promise of divine presence. Indeed, perhaps we have less reason to be confident of the presence of Christ when two or three thousand are gathered together, since mass movements have often proved the enemy of true religion.

    At the same time, there is always this risk -- that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ is reduced to a self-justifying mantra. This happens when it is invoked by opinionated minorities in defense of their splits and schisms. It also happens when it is used to exempt complacent churches from their evangelical obligations. In both cases, divine assurance is displaced by human complacency. It is salutary to remember, therefore, that the wonderful assurance this sentence offers is not unconditional.  

    Vision of Divine Love -- Hildegard of Bingen
    The extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans prescribed for this Sunday, addresses just this issue. Though relatively brief is also remarkably dense. Its central message is that Christ is truly present only to those who have ‘put on Christ’. What does this mean? It means adopting a cast of mind (the mind of Christ) whose key elements are these. First, we need the conviction that ‘now is the time to wake from sleep’ i.e. that the things we often struggle for, such as wealth, power, or personal career, are in an important sense unreal. Second, we need to abandon ‘the works of darkness’ i.e. the devious and destructive ways in which we can so easily pursue our goals, and be willing to have the brightest light shine on the way we conduct our lives. Third, we have to affirm that love best fulfills ‘the law’, which is to say, that living truly in accordance with the laws of God means being motivated chiefly by a love for the world and the people around us.

    Christian conduct down the centuries has shown just how hard it is to follow these prescriptions. Yet the prospect that underlies them is extraordinary – that through Christ mere mortals can participate in the divine love of the one true God.