Life is Sacrifice – Easter

In the last couple of days I came across a well meaning article about ‘Sacrificial Giving’. As so often such pieces – in this case written in response to a news item regarding a church – skims the surface and fails to ask any deeper questions or examine presuppositions regarding the very nature of things, or in this case questions like ‘why do we have paid ministers at all?’

The following was written over a week ago but I forgot to send it for inclusion in the Parish Magazine. What I suggested was that all giving, that is all Living involves sacrifice. Sacrifice is unavoidable, the question is ‘What is the Goal of your life?’ Your End? This determines the nature of the Sacrifice and whether or not it is Good. We all Give all the time. All Giving is Sacrificial . . . but to what End? (Which brings us back to ‘paid ministry’ and the World of what Joseph Pieper calls ‘total work’ which we inhabit and shapes our perceptions regarding work and reward and indeed ‘The Good’.) But enough of that – here is the article I wrote.

‘Death and Resurrection’

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

We continue our journey through the Easter Season. On Good Friday we heard how Jesus, the Living One, by his death on the Cross tramples down Death, and thus sets us free from the fear that death generates, free to Live his Life in obedience to his commands, which are Spirit and Life.

At Easter we heard more of how Jesus’ Death and Resurrection was not simply a three day period in a 30 year human life, but how it encompassed his entire life and ministry.

Coming from the Eternal Father into the realm of death and dying, corruption and decay in which all things are subject to moth and rust, and in which thieves break in and steal. Jesus is born into Good Friday and Death, as ikons of his birth at Bethlehem reveal; the swaddling clothes and stone feeding trough mimicking the shrouds of burial and the stone tomb.

Thus Holy Saturday in which St Peter tells us ‘He preached to the spirits who were in prison’, refers as much to his speaking words of life to us in a world bound by fear, as it does to any speculative going to ‘the underworld’. As Jesus says, ‘My words are Spirit and Life’ – spoken to us who are in the realm of Death and Sin.

Finally Easter reveals the One who is Alive for evermore, and so we live in the season in which we learn what it is to follow him in a living that looks like death to the world bound in fear of death. Letting go our fixed grasp of life, to Live.

Reflecting upon the nature of a life well lived, Jesus is surely its pattern, for all life requires sacrifice, ALL life. Sacrifice is the means by which we spend every moment of our existence, and indeed the way in which we enter the world.

A very simple illustration. Any choice we make for a certain course of action necessarily sacrifices a literally infinite number of other choices, most hidden from our eyes. Thus it is we live, by dying to other possibilities, and thus the shape of every life comes into being. I can’t help but think of the story of Michelangelo, who said that he saw his great sculpture of David within the stone, waiting to be revealed. Our lives come into being as we chip away at that which will not constitute us – in the End.

The Question that this leaves us with is this; ‘to what End’ do we live? Towards what goal? What is our Guiding Star? For we who dare to call ourselves Christian, our LIght and Life is that Known in the revelation of the Eternal Life that is in Christ Jesus.

Such a life is marked by self-forgetfulness. It is not marked by making plans for ‘the life we have always wanted for ourselves’. For a Life we live for ourselves in the End is one which moth and rust consume, and into which thieves break in and steal. A life that is rather, in the pattern of Christ, life given away for the Glory of God – is one which is revealed finally to be Life without end, rather like a river, a metaphor which Jesus himself uses and which bookends the Holy Scriptures in Genesis and Revelation.

St Paul expressed this well, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Living by faith is Living with the eye of our heart directed towards God in Jesus Christ. It is a Contemplative Lived and Living response towards God in which God then goes to work to sculpt a Life after his image and Likeness, as Living Stones. We entrust ourselves into his hands, as Jesus did upon the cross. This brings to mind a favourite prayer of the Iona Community, returning us to the fashioning of our lives through sacrifice . . .

O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
who at the last through wood and nails purchased our whole salvation;
wield well your tools in the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your work bench may be fashioned to a truer beauty by your hand.
Amen.

May we say Yes to His Life and Good purposes for us, as He shapes us in these days of Resurrection

Grace and Peace

Eric

Learning God – Week 5

Learning God – A study for Lent 2022

If we are to learn God, then we need to be as little Children and to allow God to fill our conscious imagination, and in childlike trust follow the Way of Jesus

Week 5: Matthew 6

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount can be expressed in Chapter 6 and 7, as distinct sections of Jesus teaching but each fleshing out as a whole a significant aspect of the journey so far. Therefore, before setting out on the penultimate part of our study, it might be worthwhile refreshing out memories about one or two aspects of what we have explored so far.

Firstly we recall that the wilderness brings us in a sense to a childlike state, that of utter dependence upon God. We sometime speak of such occasions as ‘coming to the end of ourselves’ (We explored this in greater detail in last years lent studies) What does such a phrase suggest to you? Is ‘coming to the end of ourself’ something we seek, or flee? In what ways does the World suggest to us that this is a state best left, until we have no choice in the matter? (Bear this in mind especially as we read Chapter 6)

Second, the Beatitudes describe such dependence – each of the ‘blessings’ is the blessedness of incompletion. If we believe ‘we have it within ourselves’ to live the Life of God, then of course we confuse ourselves for God. One of the foundational things we must learn is that we are not God. (Or perhaps in the light of Genesis 3, we need to unlearn our propensity to ‘play God’, in the negative sense, rather than the more positive light in which we imagined it in our second session).

Finally, at the end of Chapter five, we saw as it were ‘the end of all our journeying’. Remember that it is this ‘Telos’ – that is ‘Goal’, ‘End’, ‘Wholeness’ – which must inform our reading. If the journey is ‘up’ a mountain, then we need to keep the ‘ascent’ mindset before us, or as I once did on a misty day on a Scottish hill, we might spend our days going round and round the mountain in circles.

As we begin to explore Chapter 6, take time to read it through in its entirety, then read it again, having the ‘Telos’ of Chapter 6 in view throughout.

What appears to be the thread linking Jesus’ teaching in this chapter? (For once, the chapter divisions aren’t entirely arbitrary or unhelpful) What is the ‘Goal’?

We begin with Jesus’ teaching on what have become the three classic Lent disciplines; Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.

            What common theme links Jesus teaching on each of these? In what way might this appear to conflict with Jesus teaching in Chapter 5 concerning Salt and Light? In what way does Jesus prior teaching harmonise with his teaching here?

Last year we explored the notion of ‘The Kingdom of God’. Do you recall anything from that teaching which might help explain what Jesus is pointing us towards in these verses? What might Jesus mean by ‘the inner room’? Or, ‘Your Father who sees in secret’?

Notice how often the word ‘Heaven’ comes up in the Sermon. Matthew’s gospel accounts for nearly half of the occurrences of the word in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount it occurs more than in the entirety of John’s Gospel! This is a ‘heavenly minded’ Gospel and Sermon. What do we mean when we say ‘heaven’? Obviously, given the arena within which we are commanded to store up riches, it might help to consider what Jesus means . . .?

How might the teaching of Chapter 5 and its ‘Telos’ help us to understand this?

Jesus three times speaks of those who have already received their reward. Look back to Chapter 5: 43-8. It is here that Jesus first mentions ‘reward’. In what way is the reward of the Father unlike that received by those who pray ‘to be seen’? It might help again to consider the character of the ‘Blessed’.

Moving on to vs 19-21, how does the nature of reward accord with that of ‘treasure’, on earth or in heaven? What words might describe the two natures of these rewards?

Given all we have so far considered, what does this suggest about vs 22-3? (Remember the ‘headings’ put into the text were only included in the C17! Jesus doesn’t speak them ) The word ‘healthy’ carries with it the notion of ‘generous’ (perhaps ‘merciful’ 5:7) What might be the opposite of a ‘generous’ eye? How does this resonate with what we have so far read? How does it lead on naturally to vs 24? (You might also like to consider the parable of the rich fool, and how the man was not generous towards God)

So we hasten towards the end of the chapter with Jesus ‘other worldly’ teaching about ‘worry’. This begins ‘do not worry about your life’ What is ‘your life’? This teaching remember is given to his disciples, in the hearing of the crowds. How might the circumstances of the disciples differ from ours? What worries might we substitute in our condition of life?

Bearing in mind that we are commanded to pray for ‘daily bread’, how might this illuminate the final verse of the chapter? This verse is commented upon by Wendell Berry  in his essay about ‘The Future’ in a dialogue with a scientific friend. Berry dismisses ‘the future’ as a helpful notion. Certainly the idea of ‘planning for the future’ is one which is only meaningful to those who have a sense of the certainty and solidity of existence. It can cause much anguish and anger with God when our ‘plans for the future’ are thrown into chaos . . .

What does this bring up for you?

NEXT WEEK

Our final Study – when ‘the ‘future’ breaks in . . .

Learning God – Week 4

Learning God – A study for Lent 2022

If we are to learn God, then we need to be as little Children and to allow God to fill our conscious imagination, and in childlike trust follow the Way of Jesus

Week 4: Matthew 5:17-end

As we read further in the Sermon – perhaps you might take a moment again to orient yourself as a disciple towards Jesus who is seated – his mouth open, words proceeding from his mouth  . . . cf Matthew 4:3-4. (See also John 6:63 – what does this suggest to you about the significance of the words of Jesus? And again Luke 6:46 which comes from ‘The Sermon on the Plain’)

Take time now to read again from where we left off at verse 16, to the remarkable culmination of the chapter. Bearing the overarching theme of our studies – learning God, or indeed as Paul puts it in Ephesians 5:1 ‘Therefore be imitators of God, as dearly loved children’ – what responses are evoked as you read these words? (You may wish to write them down.) How do your responses resonate or otherwise with what we thought about above, about Jesus’ words?

Last week, we briefly considered how Jesus sitting down, and the disciples standing as they listened, made clear the hierarchical dynamics. The one seated is the one in authority, over those standing (and a little playfully contrasted this with ‘listening to a sermon’ : – ) ). Are there differences between reading a text and hearing it read? Audibility problems aside, do you notice a difference with regards to our current situation where the text is not projected onto the screen in church? What is our physical position with regard to books we are reading? Is the physical position also in some respect placing us over, rather than under the authority of the words of Jesus?

As we shall see, Jesus says some very difficult things in these verses . . . do we simply say, ‘well of course these words would be different in a first century Palestinian context, and we have to reinterpret them for our times’, as I recently heard someone say of the teaching of Jesus regarding money?

Jesus starts out effectively reminding us of what some of us spoke a week or so ago. He comes to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, or The Old Testament. Put another way, He Is the fulfilment of all that was written (You might like to read John 5 vs 30- end for how this works out, especially form vs 39. Jesus suggests that if they really knew the Old Testament, they would respond positively towards him and acknowledge him for who he is) Jesus IS the Life of the Scriptures.

Then he says in v 20 a most extraordinary thing. We shall unwrap this in length as we move on, but for now, merely we note that the St Paul says he kept the Law faultlessly,  Phil 3:6 (et seq). Jesus says the righteousness of the disciples must ‘exceed’ that of the S+P. (The word in Greek, helpfully has conotations of an ‘overflowing’ – does this help understand what he is saying?)

Jesus begins to reveal what this looks like as we listen on. What do you make of vs 21-end?

Note the repetitive phrase which comes over and over . . . you have heard it said but I say to you . . .

What is the Goal of all of this teaching? (Quite literally in that it is the last verse of this part of the teaching, which prefaces all that will follow) It is Very important to bear this in mind. This is Not teaching about ‘how to get on in life’, it is about Learning God and growing into his likeness. SO how do the teachings and being obedient to them reveal God? (Look back at last week, the notes on Salt and Light)  Why are these not simply a set of difficult rules to follow?

Like ascending a mountain, keeping the goal in mind helps us to find our way. So to, if we lose sight of the goal, then these teachings can sound like highly irrelevant words. In order to comprehend them, we need to keep the goal in mind. It is the Telos, the End which enlightens the way. So Jesus who is the ‘Beginning AND the End’ of our humanity, embodies the Father as ‘The Son of God’, the One born of God coming into the world.

It is this which explains the ‘Other worldly’ aspect of the Sermon, which has led many who simply try and follow it as a set of ethical rules, to give up.  They surmise it is ‘only the way we live in heaven’ Yet is not our prayer, your kingdom come on earth as in heaven? Is not Jesus the one from heaven come to earth? Again we miss the important point that God is ‘everywhere present and fills all things’, and that ‘all’ Jesus and those who follow him do ‘is reveal his glory’ 5:16

As we shall see next time, the whole question of where is God?; of the location within Creation of God; is given a surprising answer, or at least a surprise if we hadn’t taken on board the Law and the Prophets, beginning with the very first chapter of Genesis.

Learning God – Part 3

Learning God – A study for Lent 2022

Week 3

If we are to learn God, then we need to be as little Children and to allow God to fill our conscious imagination, and in childlike trust follow the Way of Jesus

Matthew 5:1-16

This week we begin a four week exploration of The Sermon on the Mount. This is a fundamental part of our ‘Learning God’, as Israel in the Wilderness came to Sinai (although this is not the same, for Jesus is the fulfilment of all that has gone before, of which Sinai is but a part – Hebrews 12:14-end).

The opening of the Sermon, the setting is important, and most English translations obscure this by misunderstanding that figures of speech are never just ‘figures of speech’. Jesus, seeing the crowds went up the mountain – Moving towards the Heavenly Realm – and there he sat down. The seated one is the one with Authority and Judgement – it might be interesting for a moment to consider our attitude to sermons in this regard?  The Cathedral is the site of the Bishop’s Cathedra (Seat). Judges sit, defendents stand. Kings and Queens are enthroned. We stand up (or some of us do when someone higher up the order comes into the room (Which is the root of why I was told always to stand when a woman entered the room)

Jesus takes his seat (Rev 20:12) and his disciples come to him. Those who know their life to be in his hands (They have of course left everything behind to follow him. However confusing they find what he says and does, they only have his life, of which they are learners, disciples).

Then ‘he began to teach them, saying’ (NRSV) – here in particular we miss the impact of the words. Literally, ‘and opening his mouth he taught them, saying’  . . . cf Matt 4:4.

PAUSE

Allow this to sink in

How do we respond to this?

The Greek word for mouth is ‘stoma’. Those of us with a Biological background will know that this is the name of the small holes which open and close in leaves to allow the life giving exchange of gases. (You might like to ponder not only this, say in the light of Psalm 1:3; but also that ‘Spirit’ in both Greek and Hebrew is a word which means Spirit/Wind/Breath John 6:63)

So, what is this life giving teaching? Firstly it is pronouncement of the ‘Makarioi’, the ‘Blessed’ in most translations. But perhaps Eugene Petersons translation about which he has written, ‘Fortunate’, is a little closer. (As always direct translations are at best, approximations)

Dallas Willard, from an American context suggests that all Jesus is saying is that his good news ‘extends to those who are losers in the world . . .’ Given what follows I suggest he may be wrong, not least in the very plain parallel passage in Luke where the ‘Blessings’ are contrasted with the ‘Woes’.

In what sense are The Beatitudes (as we commonly call them, The Blessings) for those in The Wilderness? Take time to recall what we have learnt about Agency in the past couple of weeks, not least how The Wilderness gives us a truer appreciation of our place in the scheme of things (You might also like to consider how the Book of Job does precisely this . . .)

Certainly the Makarioi don’t look that way in the World’s eyes . . . How can we learn new ways of seeing? Simply meditating upon these Blessings can open us up to a renewed imagination regarding the Kingdom of God. Take time to do this

If these are the blessed, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes much of how the disciples are learning ‘poverty of spirit’, ‘Mourning’, Peace making and the rest, do our attempts to ‘make the world a better place – note that while God loves the World, the World is the dominion of ‘The Prince of this age’ – actually take us further from God? Note Jesus strong words in Matthew 23:15. After all just how well is the human project of improvement going?

Jesus then perhaps gives yet more shocking teaching, but perhaps we miss it’s meaning? Before reading verses 13-15, read verse 16. What first comes to mind?

Now consider the nature of Salt, and Light. What is the common purpose of both?

Think of food, why is salt important, apart of course from nutritionally?

Now look around you, why is light important?

For a rather alarming example of what being Salt and light does NOT mean, consider Acts 12:22-3.

What is the purpose of our saltiness and light? How might that contrast to our initial thoughts about verse 16?

How does this relate to a child ‘reflecting the parent’?

(When we consider ‘Treasures in heaven’ in two weeks time, we shall give this some more consideration, but for now, how might we misread verse 16 and store up treasures which decay?)

Next Week

The Life of Overflowing Righteousness . . . in the Image of God

Learning God – Part 2

A Study Course for Lent 2022

Matthew  Chapter 4 vs 1-11, Chapters 5,6,

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil” Matthew 4:1 (ESV)

Last week we began pondering the idea of ‘Learning God’, in the same way as a small child unconsciously learns their parents – looking to them and imitating their ways, almost as a form of play

Have you ever thought of Christian Life as a form of play? Read the end of Chapter 11 – note that Jesus calls us to be with him and learn what one translation calls, ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’. Is that how your life feels at the moment?

What is the difference between learning God, and learning about God? (Can you put this in terms of how a small child might relate to a parent?)

Jesus time in the Wilderness echoes, or perhaps to use a favourite and much stronger word of St Matthew in his gospel, ‘fulfils’ in the forty days what the Hebrews, adopted by God and ‘brought out of Egypt’, failed to learn.  (Matt 2:13-15).  (Note by the way, the 40 days do not ‘copy’ the 40 years, not least because Jesus as ‘faithful Israel’ resists the devils temptations, and so enters the Land of Promise)

(You may wish to compare Matthew’s account with that of Luke – they are subtly different in a couple of ways)

We read that Jesus was ‘led up by the Spirit, into the Wilderness, to be tempted by the Devil’. What does this suggest to you?

Recently there has been in some places a return to more rigourous – what we call ascetic – Christianity. In the Anglican Church in New Zealand we of course have the Urban Vision Monastic Community, young people living amongst the poor in our cities, especially Wellington. It has been suggested that young people today are looking for something more demanding from religion and that to quote ‘the decline of the church in the West is simply because it doesn’t demand enough’ What do you make of this? Why have the traditional practices which have been part of the non-negotiable parts of the faith – Prayer – Fasting – Almsgiving – Forgiveness – gone into decline?

Jesus fasts 40 days and was (unsurprisingly) hungry. Whilst this clearly sets the scene for the first temptation, what purpose does fasting fulfil in the life of a Christian?

Recently there has been in some places a return to more rigorous – what we call ascetic – Christianity. In the Anglican Church in New Zealand we of course have the Urban Vision Monastic Community, young people living amongst the poor in our cities, especially Wellington. It has been suggested that young people today are looking for something more demanding from religion and that to quote ‘the decline of the church in the West is simply because it doesn’t demand enough’ What do you make of this?

Why have the traditional practices which have been part of the non-negotiable parts of the faith – Weekly Worship – Prayer – Fasting – Almsgiving – Forgiveness, even – gone steeply into decline? Has contemporary culture suggested to us it can ‘fill our needs’? What ‘needs’ does it fill? What is left empty?

Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. What does his reply suggest as an answer to the question we have been considering? What is his priority as, as it were, The Human? (You might recall how we are dust, and only raised to Life by God’s Spirit) In what does He trust? In what do we trust?

PAUSE IN SILENCE

Allow that emptiness to be apparent, boredom perhaps?

Feed on God’s Word – Psalm 42 and 43 are suitable for this

Jesus is taken to the top of the Temple. What is the nature of the Temptation? (As revealed in Jesus’ response) Jesus is in the Wilderness, what questions must run through his head.

Tempted not to trust God for Life, now the temptation steps up a gear. If he doesn’t trust God, how does he even know God is there? See how it follows on?

Finally the greatest temptation. For context it is perhaps worth comparing with Genesis 3:1-5.

Three Temptations

Do not trust God – Test God – Be God . . .

Do you find resonances with your own life? Take time in the quiet to consider this?

Respond in prayer as appropriate

Next week we begin the Sermon on the Mount and see how Jesus’ teaching clearly contradicts the Devil’s blandishments

Juxtaposition

If you are patient with them, words come together . . .

“Grandmother, let’s not have any godtalk while you are here, okay? I believe that God is everywhere. Let’s just get on with life” Charity – five years old. Reported to Eugene Peterson and recorded in ‘The Pastor – A Memoir’

‘The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.” ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ trans. Benedicta Ward

“It may be that the advent of language alone produces, and indeed requires, this distancing from reality, this degree of alienation . . .It has often been surmised that there is likely to be a relationship between language and psychosis. I believe that this is correct” Iain McGilchrist: The Matter with Things

“For God alone, my soul waits in silence” Psalm 62, verse 5