Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Resurrection: Myth or Reality?

The Resurrection: Myth or Reality is the title of a book published a few years ago by Bishop John Spong. In the run-up to Easter I have been re-reading it. I love the Bishop’s profound knowledge of the Bible. He explores the contradicting stories about the Resurrection in the four Gospels and reminds us that they are not history books. They are examples of ‘midrash’: that Jewish method of exploring a profound spiritual experience by commenting on or expanding earlier Biblical stories. The remarkable parallels between the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection and what we Christians call the Old Testament are well known. Traditionally Christians have appealed to these parallels as proof of the way in which the ‘Old Testament’ prophecies are fulfilled in the Gospel stories. However to the non-Jewish mind, and especially to 21st century people the contradicting details will no longer allow us to accept that we are reading historical accounts of something that literally happened.

Having explored all this the Bishop comes up with an imaginative reconstruction of what might have happened on that first Easter. Whatever the Resurrection event was, he suggests it happened not in Jerusalem three days after the crucifixion but in Galilee six months later, just before the feast of Tabernacles. The Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem becomes the return of Peter and his fellow disciples from Galilee to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, their consciousness now awakened. Like  blind Bartimaeus in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, NOW they see!! Now they KNOW what Jesus meant by the kingdom. In this reconstruction bits of the Gospels’ jigsaw fall into place: the Transfiguration, the cursing of the fig tree for example. I cannot summarise a carefully argued book here. It’s worth reading if you are unfamiliar with it.

“God does not know how to be absent” wrote Martin Laird in ‘Into The Silent Land’. I wonder what the Christian liturgical calendar would look like for a God-does-not-know-how-to-be-absent Church?!

Happy Easter!

Awakened consciousness: living the resurrection

I belong to a dispersed community called Contemplative Fire and here is the Easter message from the founder, Philip Roderick, to all of us ‘Companions on the Way’ as we are called. Most of us are in the UK but there are others in Canada and even Hawaii. Philip writes:

Christ is risen! Alleluia! How is this mystery to be revealed this week, this day, this moment in my life, your life, our life? As the darkness of night gives way to the lightness of dawn (as I write), and as the dying back of winter gives rise to the buds, leaves, blossoms and fragrances of spring, how do you and I discover an Alleluia in our own awareness, lifestyle and service?

I am inspired by the work of Cynthia Bourgeault. I was delighted to learn in Wisdom Jesus of her gratitude to Jim Marion’s Putting on the Mind of Christ, where he explores a different way of interpreting Jesus’ often-repeated phrase “the kingdom of heaven”. He sees this as a metaphor for a state of consciousness, “It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness…” So, “the kingdom could well be translated as “awakened consciousness” or “unitive consciousness”. So often, Jesus would begin a teaching by saying “The kingdom of God is like….” Could a way of doing full justice to the inner structure of his teaching be to say: “Awakened consciousness is like….”?

Living in the awareness of God’s kingdom was the clear focus and aspiration of the Jesus mystery, expressed in his teaching of the close disciples and the crowds. The main challenge to that unitive state and liberated intention during Jesus’ last days was suffering and desolation, pain and disintegration. Or so it seemed to the ones who travelled deep with him. This was the end. It appeared so even to the Marys and to John, devoted followers, gathered in grief in the hellish place of absence and aridity. They were at the cross, holding on to scraps of truth in the midst of lies.

He, the awakening and the awakened one, was not only on the Cross, but in the Cross. Dying into the place of intersection. We, as his disciples, as his body, may find ourselves there also – occasionally, regularly, permanently? The point of departure proves to be the place of arrival, but in a new key, at a new level of being. In his Living Between Boundaries, Philip Sheldrake looks into the significance of a cross over a burial site – a meeting place of apparent opposites. The cross embodies a “cosmic entrance and exit point where the material world and the world of the spirit were believed to come into especially close contact.”

Consciousness of God is not tripped up and ambushed by Christ’s journey into the closed quarters of hopelessness and ultimate homelessness, into death. Rather, immersed in the turbulence of our own aspirations, trajectories and periodic buffetings, to our surprise, we discern that what, on occasion, we feel to be the end of meaning, the eschaton, the terminus, is not in fact. Chaos, we gradually discover, is able to sponsor and release from within itself a new beginning, an unfolding of divine-human solidarity; love at all levels.

Rowan Williams once wrote: “The resurrection is cross-shaped”. As with Yeshua, so with us. The rising happens from within the tomb, from inside the hidden place of dying to self. Absence yields presence. There is a greening of the desert, a leavening of the dough, a rolling of the stone, a rising of the sun. Having negotiated the Lenten beckoning to “Risk Reality”, our invitation now is to “Welcome Life“.

Happy Eastertide! May an awakened consciousness be graced to each of us!

Amen to that!

Entering Jerusalem

Mark’s Gospel chapter 11.

Suppose Jesus had lived to a ripe old age. Would the truth of his teaching be diminished? I think not. Plenty of people (of all religious persuasions and none) have lived this truth, and many have died for it. This blog is dedicated to the recovery of Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher rather than a Saviour. I don’t want to belittle those believers for whom Jesus is their saviour, the one who died for them on a cross. I do, however, want to affirm another way of following him.

I have to confess I have a problem with this part of the Church’s year, called Holy Week. It’s based on the account of the final few days of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, covered in detail in all four Gospels. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of Christ seemed to take an almost sado-masochistic delight in the suffering inflicted by Roman authorities on anyone they regarded as a criminal. I notice a physical sensation of sickness and dread in my stomach even as I write this now, with images of crucifixion coming unbidden to mind. Does it help to concentrate on how they killed Jesus? In my case at least, the answer is, no. What matters, for me, is having my eyes opened (like Bartimaeus in chapter 10) to the truth of Jesus’ teaching. Of course I freely acknowledge that he demonstrated dramatically and painfully the truth of his teaching.

Exactly what happened in those last few days of Jesus’ life is difficult to discern. Actual historical facts are shrouded in what today we might call spin. As the earliest Christian communities reflected on the life transforming experience they were all part of it was natural for them to search what we now call the Old Testament for clues. Turn to Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9 and you will find a reference to the future King of Israel entering Jerusalem on a donkey. If Jesus deliberately entered Jerusalem in this way, he wanted to make a point based on the Zechariah passage, but it must have been a subtle one because later when Pilate asks him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus replies, in effect, ‘Well that’s your word’, as if to say, ‘it’s not as simple as that’. What we know of the teaching of Jesus is that he certainly would not want to be thought of as a ruler who lorded it over his subjects would he? Nothing could be further from the truth of his teaching, could it?

Of tyrants and servants

Mark’s Gospel chapter 10 verses 32 – end

Mark keeps giving us hints about the fate of Jesus. Here’s another one in verses 32 – 34 with its dramatic picture of Jesus striding ahead on the road to Jerusalem, the disciples struggling to keep up. “What’s he up to? Doesn’t he realise Jerusalem is a dangerous place for him?”

Verses 35 – 45 also give us another of Mark’s favourite themes: the failure of the disciples to get it. They think Jesus is going to turn everything upside down when he gets to Jerusalem by becoming the great promised Messiah, the king of Israel. James and John have a request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  There’s a wonderful irony in Jesus’ reply:

“… sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (verse 40)

Of course he cannot grant James and John’s request! His ‘throne’ will be a cross and those on either side of him will be two thieves.

The other disciples are angry that James and John are trying to steal a march on them and get positions of privilege in the kingdom that Jesus keeps talking about. Remember, the gospels were written up to 40 years after the death of Jesus. The authors were part of the rapidly emerging Christian church. Did Mark keep returning to the disciples’ failure to get it because there were already struggles for power among the leaders of those young communities?

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” (verse 42)

Hmmm! So nothing much changes then! Plenty of tyrants around today. How difficult it is for us to get it. Perhaps it really is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for us to become servants and give our lives for others.

Talking of tyrants, they don’t have to be political rulers. Think of the alarming spread of modern forms of slavery.

Chapter ten ends with the healing of a blind man. Mark is hinting at the possibility of healing for all of us who don’t get it:

“Go, your faith has made you well.’

Immediately Bartimaeus regains his sight (he gets it in ways that James and John obviously didn’t) and he follows Jesus on the way. Where were they heading? Jerusalem, where Jesus was to demonstrate the ultimate in not being a tyrant. We’ve got to chapter 11 in Mark’s Gospel which begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem. Let’s look at that in tomorrow’s entry in this blog.

Let go and ‘suffer’?

Mark’s Gospel chapter 10 verses 13 – 31

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (verse 15)

So what is it about children that makes Jesus say this? They are not particularly ‘good’; at least, not judged by adult standards and requirements. They are relatively unselfconscious – once again, until adults get at them. They have little power or status and they are dependent on adult help and support. They are open to learning new things. Above all they have yet to develop strong egos. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘ego’ as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. I looked at Self and self esteem in a previous blog post [on chapter 8 verses 34 – 37. Posted March 13th 2014 ]

Egos, as I said in my last post, are blind. Only getting in touch with the grounding truth about us restores our sight. Then we can see …what? The kingdom of God! Yes but what is that? It is the Presence of God in everything especially in other human beings. Egos think almost exclusively in terms of past or future but the kingdom is visible only in each present moment. The King James Version of verse 14 is ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’. Suffer meant ‘allow’ or, in this current version, ‘let’ the little children come. The disciples could not ‘allow’ it because they had fixed ideas about the place of children. Maybe there’s suffering to be undergone before we are able to allow, to let something happen, when we think it is not appropriate. Can we say that the disciples’ egos: their self-esteem or self-importance, were getting in the way of allowing children to approach Jesus? I can only speak from personal experience. Most of the pain I suffer (21st century meaning) is caused when I refuse to suffer (17th century meaning) things to happen; that is when my ego, with its ideas about what is appropriate for me, gets in the way.

In Mark’s next story, about the rich man (verses 17- 22), it’s his wealth that is getting in the way. He cannot move on from his faithful keeping of the ten commandments (good as that is) into the radical letting go that Jesus offers him. We know nothing about this rich man except that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” (verse 21) It’s one of those intense brief encounters when a spark is ignited between two people and Jesus invites him to join his little band of followers. The man turns away. Jesus then warns his disciples about the difficulties posed by wealth when it comes to following his Way. The essence of this Way is, let go! No hoarding. No clinging. Fortunately for most of us in affluent countries, “for God all things are possible.” (verse 27) Wealth is not of the essence of letting go, but perhaps only if we don’t let our need for self-esteem or self-importance get in the way.

No ego – no problem

Mark’s Gospel Chapter 9 verses 33 – 37 & 38 – 41

‘No ego – no problem’, goes the Buddhist saying. There is a problem however: we’ve all got an ego! So how do we deal with it? The teaching and life of Jesus give us lots of clues: for example, in the next few sections of chapter nine as Mark builds up to the climax of his gospel.

All three of the synoptic gospel writers give us stories of Jesus and children. Here in verses 33 to 37 we have the disciples’ egos arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus, his arms around a child, tells them:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

I don’t know about the place where you live, but here in London UK almost all public statues of men demonstrate their powerful egos. I know of only one place in Europe where you will find a statue of a man being gentle. Pestalozzi ( stands in the centre of Zurich with his arms around a child – surely a reference to the next words in this story of Mark’s:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Verse 37)

Our egos like to compare themselves with others. They can easily feel threatened by what they see. Either, they feel better than that other person, or they feel worse. Either way, there’s a problem for the ego. Notice, I keep referring to the ego in the third person. That’s because the good news is that fundamentally we are not our egos. We are all human beings in the image of God. That’s the reality underneath all the shinanakins the ego gets up to.

Verses 38 – 41 reveal the disciples’ egos at work again. They say to Jesus:

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

‘Not one of us’, is a favourite ego attitude. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by, ‘not one of us’!! Nothing strengthens the ego more than being right and making other people wrong. Egos are blind. They cannot see through to the deep reality about every human being on the planet. God is the very ground of our being.

The next section (verses 41 – 49) tells us how seriously Jesus wants us to take the problem of the ego. All right, so the language is over the top for modern readers but maybe that was Jesus’ startling way of saying, wake up; pay attention; this really matters.

We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song

These two weeks are called Passiontide in the church’s Calendar. They focus on the last two weeks of Jesus’ life. By coincidence my journey in this blog through Mark’s Gospel enters the writer’s build up through the story to the trial and execution of Jesus. Here in chapter nine verse 31 the author puts some editorial words into the mouth of Jesus:

The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.

Of course Jesus knew the risk he took in going to Jerusalem and no doubt he tried to prepare his followers for trouble but as usual Mark reveals the disciples’ lack of understanding. These words bear the quality of Mark’s hindsight.

But hang on! All of us Christians have the benefit of hindsight. As a memorable poster once proclaimed: “We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song.” Which is why I find these two weeks leading up to Easter somewhat difficult. They demand that I forget that I am already part of the Easter experience in order to relive, in some liturgical detail, the events that led up to the death of Jesus. Why? Because the Gospel writers (and the church) are keen to help me interpret what happened to Jesus in the light of the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament to Christians). They want me to see Jesus as a saviour. But as you can see from the heading to this blog,  my purpose is to recover the idea of Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher. He is a teacher who offers ‘salvation’ but not, in my experience, because he ‘died for my sins’. Rather, he shows me the way and teaches me how to walk it. His demonstration of the way included his willingness to die and plenty of his followers have likewise been willing to follow that way to a similar end. Christians were known at first as followers of The Way. We are offered a way to live, not a set of beliefs to accept.

So I wish Easter came before Holy Week in the church’s calendar if only to try and avoid some of the misunderstanding that surrounds the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The miracle is that so much of his teaching still shines through the spin so quickly put on it even among the earliest followers of the Way. Some of these misunderstandings are dealt with in the next verses of chapter nine. I’ll take a look at them in my next blog entry.