Category Archives: Paul’s letters

Then and Now

To understand a passage in the Bible it is helpful to take two steps. First I should ask, what did this passage mean for the person who wrote it and his readers then? Secondly I can then ask, if that is what it meant for them in the first century AD what might it mean for me now in the 21st century? Sometimes the gap between the two is so great it is best to move on gently and quietly like a cow that comes across a thistle while grazing the lush green grass. For example some references to Jews in Matthew’s gospel reflect the tension between those upstart Jews who had become Christians and their fellow citizens who had not. Centuries of anti-semitism have flowed from the failure to follow the two step rule when reading those passages. It is also clear that the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth confidently expected his triumphant return in their lifetime in devastating glory to bring an end to life on earth as they then knew it. It didn’t happen and Paul, in one of his letters, had to deal with their disappointment.

The return of Jesus Christ in glory (the Parousia as it is sometimes called) has continued to cause confusion. Some Christians see events in Israel/Palestine as evidence of what they call ‘the end time’. Others have confidently predicted the date of the Parousia with rather sad, sometimes even amusing consequences. There’s a story about John Wesley that I haven’t been able to verify. Asked what he would do when Jesus returned he replied that he would continue whatever he was doing at that moment.

This blog is called The Now Testament because the simple fact is that we can only live in this present moment. What we do now is influenced by our past and by our expectations about the future. Human beings are gifted with this capacity to remember and to make plans. Our curse is our tendency is to allow these gifts to obscure the reality of each present moment. Regular readers of this blog will know that, in my opinion, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God can only be entered now, not at some point in the future. Living the Way of Jesus requires a constant oscillation between the underlying present reality of the Kingdom and our capacity for memory and anticipation. Let’s now apply this principle to the puzzling passage in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel verses 37 – 39

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In the last two hundred years of Biblical study we have discovered a lot about how a passage like this took its present form. You can find it in slightly different form in all three synoptic gospels and in a stark form in the Gospel of Thomas:

Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me. (Thomas 55:1)

So somewhere in the background are some words that Jesus probably uttered but the problem is to find out exactly what he did say. Even if we could find that out we would still have to face the question, if that’s what he meant then what might it mean for us now? Some take the words much more literally than others. Many Christians feel called to follow a path with which their relatives profoundly disagree. In some Muslim countries becoming a Christian is a dangerous and divisive act. And let’s not forget that the same applies to Muslims who decide to join jihadists in Syria against their families’ wishes.

This blog post has already gone on long enough so I’m going to leave it till tomorrow before suggesting another, 21st century way of approaching this passage.

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An inch ahead lies darkness

Mark chapter 6 verse 7

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out by two and two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8. He ordered them to take nothing for the journey….

On stage a good actor has authority, even before uttering a word. Musician, dancer, any good performer, has this authority of presence. Behind each performance lie the tedious hours of preparation and practice. But an actor, a concert pianist, must forget all that as she steps on to the stage. She must ‘take nothing for the journey’ ahead. If the actor is worrying about remembering his next line the authority of his performance is lost. I think it was the actor Michael Caine who said that he takes his next line from the face of the actor he is performing with. He must enter fully into the moment, lose himself in the character he is portraying and the movement of the play.

I was ordained into the priesthood of the Anglican church. That gave me a position, a role, a certain kind of authority within the structures of the church. It did not, however, guarantee the authority that Jesus spoke of when he sent out his twelve loyal followers. Only when I am able to let go of priestly authority and ‘take nothing for the journey’ – only then might the authority of Presence be granted to me. I might have great skill in writing (this blog, perhaps?) or speaking but without letting go into each present moment without foresight, without forethought then (to paraphrase Paul in his letter to the Corinthians) even though I speak or write “in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love” then I have the authority only of a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”.

The writer and spiritual guide, Simon Parke, reminded me in his recent newsletter of the Japanese proverb, ‘An inch ahead lies darkness’. The patient, persistent hours of practice beforehand might prove useless in the next few moments unless – that is – unless they have helped me learn to take nothing for the journey.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4 – Storm on the Lake

A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the  boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion (verses 37/8)

Google ‘storm on the lake’ and you find at least a dozen famous artists whose imagination has been caught by this story. (I wish I could reproduce one here but I haven’t worked out how to do that yet!)

Everyone in the boat is terrified but there is Jesus – asleep amid all the chaos. How could experienced fishermen get themselves into such a state? They must have been used to the turbulent winds which suddenly spring up on that lake. So what is going on here? Well, take a look at Psalm 107: 23 – 30 (and Psalms 18:16; 69:1-3;  77: 16 & 19;  89:9;  93:4). There you have it! This is a story about the Presence of God; a Presence deep within every one of us even when things are going seriously wrong. It must have been obvious to those around Jesus: that utter stillness of real, moment by moment Presence which is also dynamic energy.

Notice, I said a Presence deep within every one of us. I know we easily forget it when things go wrong, especially if we haven’t been practicing our gardening. Gardening?!! See my previous blog post on the parable of the sower.

It’s not that there are no storms once we have learned how to rest in that Presence. Martin Laird, in his book ‘Into The Silent Land’, has a moving account of a drug addict who has learnt how to cope with his craving through the practice of the stillness of contemplative prayer. He comments, “Through his own journey of prayer, struggle, vulnerability, and community, he has glimpsed, however briefly, that precious gateway into the silent land. His struggles have not gone away, but he struggles less with his struggle.”

Charles Wesley must have had this storm on the lake story in mind when he wrote his famous hymn,

Jesu lover of my soul
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high;

Several years before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written his letter to Christians in Rome. In chapter 8 he wrote:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God….

If you are not convinced try reading Martin Laird’s ‘Into The Silent Land’ or ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle.

Mark’s Gospel – interlude

I am a broken man who happens to be a bishop.

One of those present at a gathering I attended last weekend uttered those startling words. Somehow I knew that the speaker knew this was not the ultimate truth about himself. I was reminded of the  story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer who went to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). One boasts of his spiritual and moral practices. The other sees himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Jesus reminds his hearers that it’s the second person who is closer to  God.

Christianity and especially the institutional expression of it we call the church frequently gets a bad press. I suspect this is usually because too many of us too often forget what the bishop remembered last weekend. We are all broken people, just like the rest of humanity. And yet – and yet – as I hinted, the bishop spoke his words with an authenticity that suggested he understood an even deeper truth about himself. The church can also get a bad press when its members never get beyond the knowledge that they need forgiveness. Wallowing in the ‘miserable sinner’ syndrome is missing or misunderstanding the good news that Jesus proclaimed, almost as much as boasting about our spiritual prowess.

Now here’s the thing: there never was a golden past in the history of Christianity, apart, that is, from the life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth himself. It was always, from the beginning a history of broken people. I am not one of those who believes that the Bible is the inspired ‘Word of God’ – in the sense that inspiration somehow overrode the ‘brokenness’ of its authors.

Jesus never wrote anything down – so far as we know. If he did, it didn’t survive. What happened around him was an outburst of spiritual energy that has transformed world history, in ways both good, not so good, and just plain bad. From his life, teaching and death has flowed a river that millions of people are part of now.

Things happened because of the energy of this river of life.  Some of them altered the course of the river’s flow – Paul’s letters, the Gospels and other bits of the New Testament (all written by broken people); the emergence of an ordained ministry, priests, bishops, Popes (more broken people, as the current Pope would, I am sure, acknowledge). Every now and then there’s a major upheaval as the river gets forced into a canyon, becomes turbulent, even falls over a cliff; the split between eastern and western forms of the church, for example and the Reformation. Most of these crises happened because broken people either forgot their brokenness or forgot the deeper truth about themselves.

The waters have been getting pretty choppy again over the last 150 years or so as the Bible is subjected to scholarly criticism and scientists begin to describe a universe that profoundly challenges the way we think about God, the world we inhabit and the people we share it with. Think of gay people, the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, the misuse of our home planet, poverty and plenty.

So when, in my next blog post, I return to Mark’s Gospel, please remember that I start from the assumption that I’m reading something written by a ‘broken’ human being who nevertheless was profoundly inspired by all that Jesus of Nazareth had said and done, especially his message of forgiveness and love. Like the bishop, Mark and his fellow New Testament authors could write with an authenticity springing from a deeper place within them

Mark’s Gospel chapter 3. Who am I?

‘Mark’ (whoever he was) is a skilful writer. He has a plan. The stories he gives us are meant to fit together. It often helps to read a whole chapter in one go. That way we can get his drift and begin to understand what he is telling us about Jesus.

Chapter 3 is about people who just don’t get what Jesus is about, even his family. At the end of the chapter, Mark gives us a strong hint about how to get it – how to really ‘see’ Jesus.

The chapter begins in a synagogue with people who don’t see. Or rather they only see what they want to see. They’ve made up their minds and are watching, waiting to pounce if Jesus puts a foot wrong, breaks the rules….

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent…..

Mark has just given us the story about new wine bursting old wineskins (see my previous blog post). Here’s the new wine of Presence and love overriding religious rules.  As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but ‘they’ can sometimes be the critical voices in my head which are watching to see if people are going break the rules. I mean, I’ve got standards haven’t I, and I think people ought to live up to my standards! The voice in my head can be lightening quick with criticism of others (and incidentally of myself when I fail to live up to my own standards). Like those watching Jesus in the synagogue, I can be afraid of the reckless, outrageous, healing  abundance of Compassionate Presence.

Jump for a moment to verse 21:

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him,  for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.’

The gossip is upsetting Jesus’ family. It’s serious: much more serious than not keeping the religious rules. So Mark follows this with a comment about the stark danger of cynicism, of a blindness so absolute that it is impossible to see compassion and love when it is staring you in the face.

….whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never receive forgiveness….

Then comes Mark’s punchline story.

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting round him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Some time before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written a letter to Christians in Galatia:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Our sexual orientation, the circumstances of our life (whether inherited or adopted), the roles we play – father, mother, business person, social reformer, etc. etc. – are all an important part of living but they are all secondary to the essence of who we are.  To follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth is to discover this profound truth about ourselves: we are human beings-in-communion, with God, and with the whole of creation. Discovering the will of God, as Jesus puts it, is not a question of, ‘Right, this is what I have to do next.’ It is the startling discovery that – to quote Irenaeus, an early Bishop – ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive.’

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 1 -12. Forgiveness

The colours of the rainbow are beautiful but without sunlight they would not exist. The teaching of Jesus is pure, undivided sunlight but it helps if we pass it through a prism so we can see all its rainbow colours. This is what Gospel writers do. In my first blog post I looked at Mark chapter 1 verse 15 which gives us the themes of time, kingdom and repentance. Now, in this story at the beginning of chapter 2 we get a fourth vibrant colour of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. The story appears in all four gospels which is unusual. In John’s version the Scribes object to the healed paralytic carrying his mat on the Sabbath. For the three synoptic Gospel writers it’s Jesus’ claim to forgive sins which upsets the Scribes. Here is Mark’s version (which Matthew and Luke have borrowed) but I’ve shortened it for the sake of brevity in this post.

3. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. 4. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and …they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  …. 10. ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority of earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – 11. ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’

Several of Jesus’ parables shed light on the power and primacy of forgiveness. He had infinite compassion for those who felt they were no good at following in his way. Paul of Tarsus understood the power and necessity of forgiveness. “Wretched man that I am”, he writes in his letter to the Romans, “who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer follows immediately: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What inhibits my ability to follow the way of Jesus is the power of my mind to drag me away from the present moment in which the kingdom lies hidden. I am booby trapped with land mines of the past and sometimes consumed with fear about the future. I have experienced the trauma of being a vulnerable infant in a world which is blind to the kingdom. Then there is that primitive, animal part of my brain which still, after millennia of evolution, tries to ask of any unknown situation, ‘Do I fight it? Run away from it? Eat it? Mate with it?’

Beset by all that paralyses me, forgiveness is the dynamic key that sets me free to pick up my mat and follow the path that Jesus has mapped out for humanity. Forgiveness has very little to do with the past, except when guilt, resentment, and pain cripple me now in the present and so blind me to the power and Presence of the kingdom. Most writers on the practice of contemplative prayer urge gentleness as we deal with all that distracts us from the reality of the Presence. To observe without judgement but with gentle awareness all the antics of our minds is to practice forgiveness.

Some people, of course, have been so deeply hurt by the brutality of others that forgiveness does not come easily to them even though lack of it prevents them from moving on. The press often suggests that a public enquiry will bring closure for child abuse victims, for example. Of course public enquires into child abuse are an essential tool but they do not enable the victims to move on into abundant life. Only the practice of forgiveness can do that.

And here’s a startling truth. Forgiveness cannot be practiced without confession. What?! A child abuse victim should ‘confess’?!! Yes, if by ‘confession’ we mean a total, unconditional, non-judgemental acceptance of myself just as I am now in this present moment, with all my pain about the past; all my hope for the outcome of an enquiry into the abuse or the trial and conviction of my abuser. When I adopt this attitude of total acceptance of the way things are for me at this moment, suddenly forgiveness is at work. For deeply hurt people the process will take time and outside help may well be needed but sooner or later the truth will dawn that the dynamic of forgiveness is always, unconditionally available. Then the outcome of any enquiry becomes irrelevant at least for the victim’s spiritual and psychological health and wholeness. They are able to ‘take up their mat and walk in the pure sunlight of the Presence which Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’.

Forgiveness is not a mental activity that I can exercise at will, just by thinking about it. I enter into it when I ‘repent’ and discover that it is part of that total, ongoing experience which Christians have called the Resurrection, the ever present, pure sunlight of the Presence.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 1 verses 21- 26. Voices in my head.

 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’ Have you come to destroy us. I know who you are, the Holy One of God. But Jesus, rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent….

The authority of Presence is not always welcome or pleasant. The practice of contemplative prayer usually reveals bits of us we prefer not to look at. ‘What have you to do with us….’ the man says; not ‘me’, you notice – ‘us’. All those voices in my head – the scolding, judgemental, frightened, controlling, voices, are like a chorus. Someone passes me in the street muttering to himself and I am tempted to label him ‘mad’. But hang on a minute – he’s only voicing out loud what goes on silently in my head! After the ‘Aha!’ experience I talked about in the previous post, comes the steady, persistent work of learning that these voices are not me – not the real me. Somewhere beneath all the chaos of these voices I discover with Paul of Tarsus that I am rooted and grounded in love; that there’s nothing in all creation that can separate me from the love of God.

‘Be silent….’ commands Jesus. Well, I have to admit it’s no use me saying ‘be silent’ to myself when my mind is in full judgemental flow. That’s like pouring oil on a fire. But to find that place of profound silence within me from which I can simply observe what is going on in my head is to find a healing Presence. It’s like stepping outside a crowded, noisy pub into the quiet peace of a warm summer’s evening. You can still hear the noise going on inside the building but you are no longer caught up in it. ‘Unclean spirits’ is not a phrase we would use in the 21st century but once we have caught a glimpse of the Presence that is always there for us, the noisy pub seems a bit tawdry.