Tag Archives: Gospel

It’s open. Come in!

Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!                                   Matthew chapter 7 verses 7 – 11

William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, said, “When I pray coincidences happen.” My personal experience verifies the truth of this. Yet it was precisely this experience of ‘answers’ to prayer that undermined my traditional belief in a personal God ‘out there’ somewhere managing the affairs of this world (caricatured as the bearded old man above the skies). Why did this ‘God’ apparently ignore so many requests? There have been times when I wonder if my prayers have an almost geographical range. Blunderbuss requests for peace in Iraq or the poor in Africa have no (immediate) discernable effect, whereas sniper rifle shots at a specific, limited target seem to fall within the Archbishop’s truth. Please note that I speak here very tentatively. In my last post I referred to my unease when this mysterious process becomes the primary focus of religious events from Lourdes pilgrimages to Pentecostal healing services. Most of them are concerned with healing of one sort or another and of course I deeply desire healing: for people I love, for people I hear about in the media. The suffering of the world moves me.

The Archbishop’s point about coincidences can include physical and mental healing. Again, I can verify the truth of this from my own experience but still I find myself in the presence of mystery. Trying to explain it gets us into real trouble, especially the temptation to think that we can manipulate the process for our own selfish ends. (There are warnings about this kind of temptation a few verses after today’s passage and I’ll explore them in my next post.)

This morning in bed I was flooded by a sense of profound peace. What more could I want? There was no point in asking for anything. To do so would have been to superimpose my puny desire on this ineffable mystery. What I personally want seems pointless in the midst of such reality. So, still speaking very tentatively, I read “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find……” in the context of the rest of chapters 5 to 7. Apart from physical healing the question arises, how desperate am I to find the narrow gate; to enter the realm of the rule of love; to begin the rehabilitation process for my addiction to anxiety, resentment and all the rest of the mental junk that afflicts us? The good news, the Gospel, is that the door I am knocking at is open. The truth I am looking for, the peace I desire, is already present. As many saints and sages have testified, the God I am looking for has already found me: is and always was present in every fibre of my being. I am simply one beggar telling any other beggar who might be interested, where I have found bread.

Matthew’s Gospel

So far in this blog the focus has been Mark’s Gospel. Now it’s time to turn to Matthew. The author of this gospel had a copy of Mark and borrowed passages from it. Perhaps he had a more strongly Jewish background. Although he follows Mark’s general pattern, he expands it a lot, usually with Jewish Christian readers in mind. Some scholars suggest Matthew mirrored the Pentateuch (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament) with his own five sections:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 5, 6 and 7
  2. Instructions for the twelve Apostles. Chapters 9 verse 35 to 10 verse 42.
  3. Parables. Chapter 13.
  4. Community regulations. Chapter 18.
  5. Condemnations and judgements. Chapters 23, 24 and 25.

There’s a wrap-up verse or two, the scholars suggest, at the end of each of these sections: Chapters 7 verses 28-29; 11 verse 1; 13 verse 53; 19 verse 1; and 26 verses 1-2.

So, focusing on Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher, the elusive Jesus of Nazareth (please see my very first blog post for this approach) we start with John the Baptist in chapter 3 who had an important influence on Jesus. John baptises Jesus and it’s clearly a profound experience for him (for Jesus, I mean). Following Mark here, Matthew goes straight on to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4 verses 1 to 11. He expands Mark’s terse account (Mark chapter 1 verses 12 and 13) in a way which later Christians found helpful as they searched in the third and fourth centuries for clues about the spirituality of Jesus. These ‘desert fathers’ as they are called (though women were probably involved as well) had gone into the Egyptian desert to try and recover the essence of Christian spirituality. They spotted that Jesus dealt with temptation by using verses of scripture. Remember, no one was actually there in the desert with Jesus so he must have taught his followers this technique for coping with temptation.

You don’t believe in the devil? Neither do I but sometimes it feels as if what goes on in my mind is part of a deliberate policy to unsettle me! Perhaps Matthew did believe in the devil. It doesn’t matter. The point is that temptation is taken seriously here in chapter 4. “If you are the Son of God…..” The lure of the first two temptations is, ‘so you think you have a calling? think you’re someone special do you? Well then, surely you should have these special powers’. On holiday recently I found myself thinking, ‘what’s the point of all my meditating when it doesn’t make me special? All these people around me on this lovely sunny Greek island seem quite happy without all the spiritual stuff that I try to practice. Surely I ought to stand out from the crowd?’ But, what if I stop expecting anything special? What if I carry on with my daily spiritual routine without any expectation? What if I just try to be present, to live each moment as it comes, without foresight, without forethought? Hmm! Jesus had something to say about that kind of attitude in what we call the sermon on the mount, later in this Gospel. 

“All these I will give you……” This, the third temptation, is still surprisingly relevant to me, even in my ninth decade. I can still find myself regretting my lack of achievement, feeling I should have ‘made it’ in some way; or that I haven’t been recognized enough. This is the temptation to enter the kingdom of ego and pursue power, profit and reputation at the expense of truth. Of course younger people should exercise power, create profitable businesses, be successful politicians. Without all this human society can hardly function. The temptation however is to lose sight of the truth about who we are, to forget our essential vulnerability, to lose touch with the still, silent, immense Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us. More on these temptations in my next blog post in about a week’s time.

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. Let’s do a bit of gardening.

He began to teach them many things in parables

Jesus taught in parables; no serious scholar doubts that. When we read a parable in the Gospels we are close to the authentic voice of Jesus of Nazareth. As Mark says later in this chapter (verse 34):

He did not speak to them except in parables

 But parables caused problems for his audience. Perhaps he deliberately chose to confuse people. Perhaps they are a bit like Zen Buddhist koans – ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’.  Perhaps both parables and koans are designed to stop people in their tracks and say, ‘Hang on! Wait a minute! I don’t get that!’ That must be what the early Jesus movement churches thought because next in this chapter we have the first of several ‘explanations’ of a parable:

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”

Oh dear! Like I said in my previous blog post, the history of the church (and therefore of the New Testament writings) is the history of ‘broken people’. Here is a writer who, with the community of which he is part, is wrestling with the puzzle, ‘why don’t people get it?’ and ‘why do they persecute us Christians?’ He finds his answer in the words from Isaiah that he quotes in verse 12. It’s a tempting explanation, especially if one has stumbled on the truth that, there is a beautiful, vibrant, joyful reality underlying my brokenness that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ and yet lots of people just don’t get it.

With the greatest of respect to Mark, I want to insist that there is a further lesson to be learned about what Jesus called the kingdom of God. The reality to which Jesus points in other parables is that this beautiful, vibrant, joyfulness is present in every human being, no matter how blind to it they are; no matter how much their blindness leads them into shocking behaviour.

Some of the reasons for our blindness appear in the explanation of the parable, verses 13 – 20:

  • Satan. ‘Satan’ was a neat way of explaining the inhuman depths to which we can sink. Most of us today cannot go along with the idea of an independent being out there somewhere of utterly evil intent. The Jewish philosopher/poet Martin Buber, reflecting on the Nazi holocaust, suggested there are two stages of evil. The first he called decisionlessness; what you might call the, I’ll-get-around-to-it-later syndrome. This attitude can leave us vulnerable to his second stage. Here it is possible for otherwise ‘nice’ people to take positive decisions to engage in destructive activity especially if lots of those around us are helping to make it attractive or even respectable. We are queamish about calling something or someone ‘evil’. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to think that anyone is beyond reform and redemption. Eckhart Tolle writes in his bestselling The Power of Now, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That’s not a judgement. It’s a fact. It is also a fact that the sanity is there underneath the madness. Healing and redemption are available right now.”
  • Staying power (verses 16 & 17): people who ‘have no roots’ as the parable puts it. Mark probably had in mind the persecution that Christians were suffering for their faith when he was writing his gospel. But trouble of any kind can knock us off course – for example, illness, other peoples’ cruelty. Or we can behave like children in a supermarket of toys. We get excited about a new technique for meditating but as soon as it proves a bit difficult to keep it up we rush off down the aisles looking for a new toy.
  • Worldly blandishments. They hadn’t heard of capitalism in Mark’s day – consumer, global or otherwise. They weren’t exposed to our daily deluge of television advertising, and celebrity culture. Still the nail is accurately hit on its head here with ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth; and the desire for other things’ (verse 19)
  • Finally the good soil (verse 20). It can take some of us (me for example!) almost a lifetime to realise that there’s ‘good soil’ somewhere deep inside us. The seed has been lying there just waiting for me to do some gardening. The good news is that there are now many people on the planet who realise this and are able to offer help. Eckhart Tolle is one of them. There is an exciting rediscovery of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Here are just a few web sites to visit
  •  http://ecocontemplative.com/index.html
  • http://www.biospiritual.org
  • http://contemplativefire.org
  • http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html
  • http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org
  • http://centeringprayer.org.uk
  • There’s a good summary of what is known as ’emergent Christianity’ in the final chapter of Don MacGregor’s book ‘Blue Sky God’.

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 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 16 – 22. Aha!!

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me….’

Here’s an encounter of Jesus with a couple of men who say, ‘Aha! so this is it!’ Jesus had the kind of presence that wakes you up, alerts you, grabs your wholehearted attention.

A concert pianist comes on and sits at the piano. As she settles on the stool and gathers herself, the conductor waits, the orchestra waits, the audience waits. It’s a moment of intense expectation before the creative performance begins. The energy is there, the creative skill is there. Behind it all there are the hours of hard practice. Now it all comes together. There’s not only the authentic ‘voice’ of Beethoven, there’s the skill and authenticity of pianist, conductor and orchestra.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.

In December 2005 I wandered in to a bookshop and ‘by chance’, apparently at random, picked up a book. It was A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I recognised an authentic voice speaking with a gentle authority which made sense of my experience –  35 years of ministry as an Anglican priest and nine years of retirement during which I had let go of God. It was an Aha! experience. Now, eight years later, having discovered the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer (why had no one told me about it? How had I missed it for 35 years?!!) I return to the New Testament with fresh eyes. I still find difficulty in using the word God: it is too burdened with assumptions that I no longer hold. But the recognition energy of the Jesus event (see my last blog post for this phrase) resonates with me.

So, did I encounter Jesus in that Aha! experience? Do I encounter him now? I can only pose another question: do I encounter Beethoven during a performance of one of his piano concertos? Without his towering genius the performance could not happen; without the creative skills of conductor and orchestra it could not happen. And suppose the audience are all engrossed on their mobile phones while the music sounds around them? What would my experience be then? I suggest that there is a sense in which I do encounter Beethoven perhaps even in spite of an unresponsive audience but how much more if we are all enraptured by the performance.

Likewise, I suggest that without the whole ‘Jesus event’ – Jesus himself, disciples, Gospel writers, Paul’s letters, the emergent Christian community – there’s no way in which an encounter, an Aha! experience can happen. When it does happen, I have entered the kingdom, the realm of Being, that Jesus spoke of. That, of course is just the beginning. I can then work at deepening the experience, learn how to keep on entering the realm of Being so that it becomes more and more a part of me and the way I live.