Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


The Risen Life
May 9, 2016, 1:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The gist of the Quiet Day addresses given to the Bristol branch of the Church Union, in the House of Prayer at Westbury-on-Trym, 16 April 2016.

transfiguration

The purpose of a “Quiet Day” is to be quiet! “Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Psalm (Ps 46.10). Elijah in his cave heard the Lord not in the earthquake, wind and fire, but in the still small voice of calm (cf. 1Kg 19.9-12). Nowadays we aren’t comfortable with silence- every public space seems to need some background noise, even if it is some nice music. But the Lord said through Isaiah, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Is 30.15) My job is to offer a few thoughts for you to reflect on; or (if you will) to ignore and think better thoughts. Although when asked for an over-all theme I opted for “The Risen Life”, what I am actually going to do is to think aloud about God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. This is not the same as Father, Son and Holy Ghost, because the whole Trinity is involved in creation, redemption and sanctification. It is the last of these that touches most explicitly on “the Risen Life”.

God the Creator

In the first chapter of Genesis, the Bible tells how God created heaven and earth. Obviously, this is not a scientific description of the processes by which the universe came into being. Rather, it is a story or parable about what God was up to, in creating this universe. The key points to notice are that God creates by his Word, by speaking, and that he creates human beings in his own image to supervise the world he has made. In fact, as scholars point out, what God is depicted as doing is building a house, or a temple, in which he himself will come to dwell. When we are told that, having finished his work, God “rested” on the seventh day, this means that he took up his abode in the temple he had built, with mankind as priest, leading the worship of creation.

The theme of God creating by his word, or by his wisdom, occurs elsewhere, for instance in the Book of Proverbs, and in the Psalms. Bishop Tom Wright characterises the belief of Israel as “Creational monotheism”. This is the claim that the God of Israel is the One God who has made heaven and earth and all that is in it- and is therefore not one entity within the created universe. God made the world “by his Word”- “He spoke and it was so,” “God said… and it was made.” God made the world by his Wisdom, which precedes all the works of creation, which proceeds from God himself and is as it were his “agent”. Word and Wisdom seem to be two ways of referring to God’s relationship with creation. We also hear of his “Breath” or Spirit bringing order out of chaos, and life out of what is inanimate.

It is this strand of belief that is developed in the New Testament, but with Jesus as the embodiment of God’s Word and Wisdom, and filled with his Spirit. When St Paul writes to the Colossians: “He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him…. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Col 1.15-19) he is deliberately echoing the language applied to Wisdom in Proverbs. This was written no more than thirty years after the crucifixion, and most scholars believe that Paul was already quoting a hymn that was already familiar to his audience. And the Gospel of John, written after Paul, but by one who (we are twice told) “saw and bore witness, and whose testimony is true,” opens with the majestic words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”

I will pause here. Our first focus of meditation is of God as the wise and good Creator, who has made this world to be his own dwelling-place, and who has made us in his own image to look after it.

God the Redeemer

004 (2)

Last time, I spoke of God as the wise and good Creator, who has made this world to be his own dwelling-place, and who has made us in his own image to look after it. When God finished his work, he took his rest. The second chapter of Genesis tells of the creation of mankind in more detail (I don’t mean that it is a scientific description of the origin of mankind, any more than the previous chapter was a scientific description of the way the universe came to be. It is a theological interpretation of human origins, however they may have occurred).

The first thing to notice is that we are now back in “Day 6” of the original scheme. God has not yet finished his work, or taken his rest. In fact, you could say that the whole of the Old Testament is still concerned with “Day 6”. The second thing to notice is that already things start to go wrong. Human beings are made in the image of God, animated with his breath. They are marked off from all other species- Adam, the Primal Man, finds no suitable helper among them. God has to divide the first human, so that there can be partnership (and, of course, increase and multiplication).

The story of the Fall is the story of the abuse of mankind’s freedom, that gift in which much of the “likeness to God” consists. The story shows a grasp of human psychology. The Tempter approaches Adam indirectly. A direct assault might be resisted, but an approach through the one he loves, his “other self”, finds his weak spot. The fundamental temptation is to seek to be “like God, knowing good and evil”. Adam and his wife are already “in the likeness of God”, so this is an incitement to seize an autonomy to which mankind is not entitled, to decide for themselves what is good or evil, instead of accepting that there is a moral structure which they must accept or suffer the consequences. They fall, and the next chapters of Genesis show what those consequences are- their children murder each other, there is oppression and revenge, and lots more beside.

God could now just wipe out humanity and start again (the flood story shows that this is not God’s way). Human beings are his children, not his puppets, and if he is to restore his plan, including the role of humanity, he must go about it in another way. Abraham is called to trust God, to set out on a journey which will, through his descendants, be a blessing to the whole human race. Abraham’s family increases, but becomes enslaved in Egypt. The story of their rescue through the agency of Moses will be a paradigm of God’s rescue of all humanity from the slavery of sin.

I don’t need to go through the whole Exodus story. I draw attention only to the fact that most of the Law that accompanies the Covenant between God and his People is concerned with worship, and with the forgiveness of sin. A Tabernacle or Tent is made in which God himself accompanies his People. The various sacrifices and other rituals are concerned with thanksgiving and with holiness (a holiness conceived at this point in a rather crude way, but nevertheless the beginning of a moral journey that will take these tribesmen to a much more nuanced understanding of what God requires. Later on, the travelling tent is replaced with a stone Temple, associated closely with the Kingship of David and his dynasty. Both the Tabernacle and the Temple were “filled with the glory of the Lord,” the visible Presence of God.

The Temple was regarded as a microcosm of the universe, and God himself came and took up his dwelling there, among his People. But as in the wilderness years, so with the Kingdom: God gave a pattern for human beings to follow, but human beings (including the leaders, kings and priests) constantly fell away. God had warned Solomon, “Iif you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, … this house will become a heap of ruins; and this is what happened: in due course Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple destroyed, while the leaders of the people were taken into Exile. After seventy years they returned and rebuilt: but there is no tradition that God’s glory was seen in the new Temple, as it had been in the old and in the Tabernacle before. Nor was the kingdom re-established. In that sense, the Exile continued, the people were not forgiven.

Throughout all these trials, Prophets assured the people that God would be faithful to his promises. He would return to dwell among his people. He would forgive their sins. He would give them a new Covenant, not on tablets of stone but written in their hearts. And the line of David would not fail: God would raise up an Anointed One (Messiah, Christ) who would inaugurate a New Age in which God’s plan would finally be fulfilled, and all the nations would be drawn in.

Of course, tragically, when the promises were fulfilled, when God did return to his people to forgive their sins, in the very person of the Messiah- He was not recognised! The more he spoke of his own humanity as the true Temple; the more he claimed the right to forgive sins outside the recognised rituals of sacrifice, the more he claimed that to belong to the renewed Kingdom it was necessary to follow him (even through suffering and death), the more offence he gave to those whose minds were closed, who sought a solution through nationalism and violence.

To summarise: God’s plan for the created universe was from the beginning that he should enter into his creation, as into his temple, and there abide with the people he had made in his own image. They would be the means whereby the universe would worship and glorify the Creator. This plan met a setback (of course foreseen by the Creator), in that human beings misused their freedom and refused their role. This was redeemed by the Creator entering his creation as the archetypal human- the true “Adam”. (This, many theologians have thought, was part of the original plan anyway). But as a consequence of human rebellion, and to repair its consequences, Christ chose the way of suffering: taking on himself the effects of human sin. Hence, as St Paul says, “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In other words, unlike the Adam of Genesis, Jesus did not grasp at an equality with God which did not belong to his humanity (even though made in the likeness of God), but was totally obedient, even to the extent of suffering rejection and undergoing the degradation of crucifixion. Precisely because he is human, Jesus can reverse the process begun by disobedience, and set humanity back on its proper course. And it is in his humanity that Jesus is exalted and reigns as Lord over all creation.

St John expresses this in his own way in his Gospel. Pilate presents Jesus to the crowds saying, “Behold the man!” Behold the archetypal Man, the true Adam. Later he says, “Behold your King,” and “Shall I crucify your King?” Despite the protests of the chief priests, he insists on the inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Whatever Pilate’s own thoughts or intentions, he stated the truth. Jesus is both the representative human being, and the King.

So Jesus was crucified, and as he finally dies he proclaims, “It is finished!”; and so he gave up his spirit, and entered his Sabbath rest. The echoes of Genesis are clear: when God had finished his work, he rested on the Sabbath. The crucifixion of Jesus marks the end of the sixth day of creation, and the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s purpose. What this means for us, we will think about this afternoon.

God the Sanctifier

corpus-christi

God has created a good world, to be his temple and resting-place. He has created humankind to be his priests and caretakers of his world. Through his incarnation and Passion he has put right the damage done by mankind’s disobedience. By his resurrection he has inaugurated what the prophets called “the Age to Come”, the “Day of the Lord.” So where does all this leave us?

First, we need to recognise and understand God’s over-arching plan, to make a world in which he himself dwells, and in which we human beings have a central role. Secondly, to recognise and understand our own frailty and vulnerability, and the ways in which we have failed to fulfil our God-given role. Thirdly, to recognise and understand how God himself has dealt with this failure.

An important word is “justification”. To be “just”, theologically, is simply to be “in the right”- specifically, to be in the right relationship with God the Creator, and so with everything else. To be “justified” is to be put into that right relationship. A second important word is “faith”. The Greek “pistis”, and the Hebrew word it translates, means both trust, and the trustworthiness or faithfulness which it presupposes. Because God is faithful to his promises, our trust in him is what puts us in the right relationship with him. Hence “justification by faith”. Even when we are unfaithful to God, he is always faithful to us- or, rather, to his promises to us.

God has chosen to dwell among us by taking our human nature into himself, by becoming a human being, Jesus. Jesus IS God in human form. His human nature is, supremely, the Temple in which the fullness of God dwells bodily. The Old Testament spoke of God’s glory filling the Tabernacle and the Temple; after the Exile the Jews looked for God’s return to dwell among his people in a renewed Temple: JESUS IS WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE WHEN IT HAPPENED. This is what no-one had expected.

This is also what St Paul is talking about when he says that the Church is the Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Church is the nucleus of the new humanity, healed and restored to its right relationship with God and creation, because it is inseparably united to Christ. This is true of the Church corporately, and of each individual Christian. We are “in Christ”, and Christ is “in us”.

Our Lady is our model. If Christ is the archetypal Adam, she is the archetypal Eve, his partner in the work of our redemption. By her obedience at the Annunciation she opened the way for God to become man, to initiate the new creation. In the beginning, God created by his Word: Let it be, fiat. At the Annunciation, Mary responds, “Let it be (fiat) unto me according to thy Word.” At Cana she tells the servants, “Do whatever hew tells you- do according to his word.” At the Cross, she accepts the role of mother in relation to the beloved disciple, and to all the disciples whom Jesus loves. As in the ancient story, Eve was formed from the side of Adam, so on the Cross the Church is formed from the pierced heart of Jesus- and it is made concrete in the mother and the disciple who stand beneath the cross.

All this has very practical consequences for us. To be a disciple of Christ is to accept responsibilities. First of all, it is the responsibility to be as Christ-like as we can. That is why St Paul, immediately before the words about Christ, being in the form of God, emptying himself to become obedient even to the death of the cross, says: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”

Like Christ, we must be concerned for others rather than for ourselves. We must be of the same mind, have the same love, not acting from selfishness or conceit. And we must do this precisely because we are committed to Christ. He is our King, our Lord, and also our brother and our friend. We do this because this is our role in God’s creative plan, caring for his world and caring for one another. We do it because by doing it we give glory and thanksgiving to God himself, the Creator and Father of us all.

We are individually and corporately Temples of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is “the Breath of God.” In human beings, the breath is what makes the difference between a living person and a dead body. The Holy Spirit is what makes the difference between spiritual life and death. In Trinitarian theology, the Holy Spirit as third Person of the Trinity, is spoken of as the Love which binds Father and Son together, their mutual Gift to one another, which is then sent out into the hearts of human beings to share with them the very life of God.

So the risen life is simply life filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Divine Love. In the famous thirteenth chapter of is first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul spells out what love is not- not jealous or boastful, not irritable or resentful, not arrogant or rude. He also tells us what it is- patient and kind, faithful, hopeful, enduring. To the Ephesians he writes, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” To the Colossians he writes: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God…. Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience… and above all these things put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

When asked about the greatest commandment in the Law, our Lord simply quoted the Shema, recited by Jews every day: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment; and the second is like: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

In practice, our worship of God is expressed most perfectly in the Holy Eucharist. Here we unite ourselves to Jesus in his own self-offering to the Father. In union with him, we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice to God our Father. We are Christ’s Body, the blessed company of all faithful people.

As Christians, we know who we are: the children of God, made in his image and likeness. But we must see that image and likeness in all our brothers and sisters, including those who do not know who they are (or not fully). What we do (or fail to do) to the least of them, we do (or fail to do) to our King. We are called to be holy, to be saints, and holiness is simply whole-heartedness in keeping God’s commandment of love. It is living in the conscious remembrance of who we are, and in whose image we are made.

And what of our failures? Our inadequacy in matching up to this ideal? Strangely, the most encouraging thing I have come across recently (although I first read it many years ago) is from Graham Greene’s novel, “The Power and the Glory.” Maybe you remember it, the story of the “whisky priest” in Mexico during the time of persecution of the Church in the last century. He is a typical Greene anti-hero, a drunkard with an illegitimate child: but whereas other, possibly better, priests have fled the country, and others even weaker have simply conformed to the law, he has continued to minister the sacraments, moving secretly from village to village. He is trapped by a bogus call to hear the confession of a dying man, a message that he realises is almost certainly a trap. He is arrested, tried, and sentenced to be shot. The only other available priest, who has conformed, refuses to hear his confession. As the morning for his execution dawns, “He was not at that moment afraid of damnation… He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to be a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage…. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted- to be a saint.”

Of course, in Greene’s eyes (and mine) he is a saint, despite his failures. He has stayed, when others have fled or abandoned their ministry, because the people need him. He has allowed himself to be caught, because there might be a soul that needed him. He cares about the people; he is, in the last resort, faithful to his vocation and to God. And yet he reminds us that all of us, in the end, know that we are unprofitable servants. We can never give back to God more than he has given us. We are all “whisky priests”. In the end, we “go to God empty handed, with nothing done at all.” Even St Francis, at the end of his life, said to his brothers, “Let us now begin to serve the Lord; for up to now we have done nothing.” We should not despair: it is indeed quite easy to be a saint, if we will only let go of our self-reliance, and entrust ourselves to Jesus.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: