Monthly Archives: March 2015

Three ‘Martyrs’

Stephen was the first Christian martyr: right? Well it depends what you mean by martyr. Stephen’s death is described in the Acts of the Apostles. In verse 58 of chapter 7 it says:

“….and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of  a young man named Saul.”

So according to this account it’s those who watched the stoning of Stephen who were the martyrs. The Greek word means simply ‘witness’. Gradually the word came to be applied only to those whose witness to their faith caused their death. As us Christians move towards Easter in our liturgical calendar we enter a fortnight known as Passiontide. So let me introduce you to three ‘martyrs’ – two Dutch women (one a Jew) and a German man. Two were killed for their commitment to the truth as they understood it. One survived into old age.

Etty Hillesum (1914 – September 1943) was what you might call a secular Jew. Together with many Jews she died in Auschwitz on September 30th 1943. (At least that’s when the Red Cross reported her death). She kept a diary and here’s an extract from it:

“I know the mounting suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all. And yet, at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms around me are so gentle and so protective and my own heart-beat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop. That is also my attitude to life, and I believe that neither war nor any senseless human atrocity will ever be able to change it.”
‘But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

“…..if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matt 26:39)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 1906 – April 9th 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler and imprisoned by the Nazis. On the day the failure of that plot was revealed he wrote the following letter from prison to a friend:

“During the last year or so I have come to appreciate the ‘worldliness’ of Christianity as never before. The Christian is not a homo religiosus but a man pure and simple, just as Jesus was a man, compared withJohn the Baptist anyhow. I don’t mean the shallow this-worldliness of the enlightened, of the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious. It’s something much more profound than that, something in which the knowledge of death and resurrection is ever present………Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman (the priestly type so-called) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. This is what I mean by worldliness – taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and that is what makes a man and a Christian (cf Jeremiah 45). How can success make us arrogant or failure lead us astray when we participate in the sufferings of God by living in this world?” July 21st 1944

“…..unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Corrie Ten Boom (1892 – 1983) survived Ravensbruck concentration camp. She and her family had been betrayed by Dutch informers for sheltering many Jews in a specially constructed attic in their house. The rest of her family were executed. Corrie was released. She afterwards discovered that her release had been a clerical error. After the war Corrie visited Cologne Cathedral. As she approached the door she was horrified to see, standing there greeting worshippers with outstretched hand and smiling face, one of the concentration camp staff. In her heart she said, “Jesus, I cannot forgive this man. You must do it for me.” She felt a relaxing warmth spreading through her body that set her free to grasp the other’s outstretched hand
“…..he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven;….” (John 20:22/23)

Advertisements

Spotting the clues

Matthew chapter 16

An advertisement on London Underground trains aimed at fare dodgers asks, ‘How would you recognize a ticket inspector?’ Answer, ‘he/she looks just like you’! Jesus, of course, looked just like any other human being because that’s what he was. But clearly, he was a very charismatic human being with commanding presence and a challenging message.

Religious authorities felt threatened by Jesus and challenged his credentials. Locked into a narrow understanding of their scriptures they wanted to fit Jesus in to their way of seeing things. And they weren’t the only ones who were confused. So were the disciples. The miracle is that the Gospel authors did not try to gloss over the disciples’ confusion. Perhaps it was because the emerging Christian communities were themselves still trying to sort out what they thought about Jesus and his message. The disciples were confused and Peter got it wrong. The sequence in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel is about recognizing the truth about Jesus. Once again, after two thousand years, there’s confusion about it. What are we to make of his teaching? Was he claiming to be the Jewish Messiah? If so how did he understand what that meant?

Here’s my summary of the sequence in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel:

  • Verses 1-4 Give us a sign. OK look at the story of Jonah.
  • Verses 5-12 The yeast of the Pharisees? What’s he talking about? The disciples are confused.
  • Verses 13-20 Does Peter get it right? Maybe, but then….
  • Verses 21-23. Peter gets it seriously wrong.
  • Verses 24-26. Now here’s the truth but then….
  • Verses 27-end. Now here’s the church probably getting it wrong.

Jesus did not come to start a church, so what we have here is a conversation amongst the first Christians about what he was really up to. Fortunately it’s laced with references to things Jesus probably did say. Does that conversation really matter to us 21st century Christians? Surely it does matter but only as a warning about the dangers of trying to fit Jesus into our preconceived ideas and systems. We do not need to see Jesus’s credentials (Messiah, Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity) before we follow him. How do we know which passages of the Gospels most represent the path Jesus points out to us? I suggest three clues:

  1.  Read the Gospels in the way this blog tries to show and draw your own conclusions.
  2. Ask yourself, does what I am reading now fit with the sermon on the mount?
  3. See everything in the light of the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to Christians at Corinth. Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.

When to break the rules

Matthew, chapters 14 and 15

“His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.” (chapter 14 verse 12)

Was it a headless body they reverently gathered up and buried? The head, you recall, had been presented on a gruesome platter to the daughter of Herodias.

Clearly John and Jesus had been close. John’s baptism had been a decisive moment for Jesus. After it, he withdrew to the desert to discern the direction he should take.

Both men upset the Jewish religious authorities. They both challenged the way things were done. They both based their challenge on a fresh understanding of the Hebrew scriptures. In chapter 15 of his gospel, Matthew shows us why the Pharisees and Sadducees got upset. For them outward observance had become more important than inner truth. Making sure you’ve got clean hands is less important, much less important, than having a clean heart, says Jesus (chapter 15 verses 17 to 20).

Then, as if to show that a Gentile understands this truth better than some Pharisees and Sadducees, Matthew gives us a story about a Canaanite woman (chapter 15 verses 21 to 28). Apparently Jesus had to be persuaded to respond to her. “Send her away,” say his disciples, “for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus appears to agree with them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Even more startling, Matthew has Jesus add, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Can Jesus really have said that? Remember, until Paul was converted the earliest Jesus Movement was a purely Jewish affair based around Peter and the original disciples. But Jesus had been willing to sit and eat with social outcasts: hardly the action of someone sticking to religious rules! No, I think we have here echoes of the controversy, stirred up by Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, about the future of the Jesus Movement. Was it to be a purely Jewish affair or did the teaching of Jesus contain the seeds of a universal truth crossing boundaries and freeing us to acknowledge the presence of God in every human being, whatever their beliefs and regulations? There’s nothing wrong with regulations, provided they don’t dominate the heart. There’s nothing wrong with the way in which every major religion expresses the truth. We all need signposts. The trouble starts when we mistake the signpost for the inwardly experienced reality.