Archive | March, 2018

Good Friday – The Cross

30 Mar

March 30 2018

The carried cross (like St Andrew’s cross) reminds me of school when I got a cross on my work, which I took as a criticism, a blow to my self-esteem and like a punishment. BUT it also – when I was at my best – made me recognise my mistakes, made me want to improve – do better in future, made me want to do better next time – made me want to be the best I could be.

Sometimes Christians focus too much on the cross – on the horror of crucifixion but it was not an uncommon way of execution in those days and in that place. It was for criminals – offenders – so why for Jesus?

Jesus was genuinely human – actually an ideal human. And what do we know of this Jew in his later years (30 was getting on a bit in those days!)?

He had a taxman for one of his friends (they were not the favourites of most people); Matthew and Zacchaeus, the small man up a tree out of curiosity.

He was not afraid to relate to women (though remaining single himself); he was touched by the pushy woman with excessive female bleeding.

He cured the Centurion’s daughter – one of the occupying Roman forces.

He spoke freely with the Samaritan woman at the well – a foreigner from a different Jewish denomination – and more than a bigamist.

He broke religious customs and laws when they were unhelpful to being a caring, helpful person – touching a leper and working a miracle on the Sabbath.

He was even quite rough with the profiteers plying their trade in the Temple courtyard.

 

Jesus showed us what we should aim to be like – he was a human caring for all others as best he could – even at his own expense.

The land he lived in was occupied by the Roman forces; actually the Roman leadership were relatively easygoing on them, not forcing them to conform to the acceptance of many different gods which everyone else in the vast Roman empire were required to do. But the Jews thought their god was the only real one and that He wanted them to have independence from the polytheistic Romans – the people they did not at all love!!

It was this rigid and selfish attitude that caused Jesus trouble. He had become popular with many enthusiastic followers and they thought he might lead their rebellion against the occupying forces especially with his miraculous power and large enthusiastic followers – they had missed the point of his life!

So the Jewish authorities who were co-operating with the Romans probably just to preserve their own leadership positions, these leaders were worried about the crowd pulling success of Jesus and eventually wanted rid of him. And this led to the end on His life in arrest and crucifixion.

But the end of His life was the fulfilment of mission, of his humanity. It was the completion of living here on earth as the ideal human – so his last words according to John’s gospel are “it is completed!” sometimes translated as it is finished, which can give the wrong impression.

This human being – that man – was really one of us, is really the ideal human being, is the challenge for me to be the best human I can be.

So now I want to see the cross as a vote, a decision, and option for something – what does the cross of Christ say to me? I must opt into proper humanity, must try to be the best person I can – a really good human like Him!! Let me vote for that today with my cross!!

And then the cross can become a kiss!

 

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Talk given to Edinburgh Newman

9 Mar

Read the Bible: but “What is Truth”( John 18:38)

 

The Christian belief is that in the Bible we can encounter the word of God (or should that be capitalized as the Word), and are we not keen to find true guidance for ourselves therein? But we usually confront short extracts, often don’t know the context and seldom critically examine what we read. In this short talk I mean to use examples from the of the three sections of the Old Testament (Law, Prophets and Writings) and one from the New, to illustrate how referring to the context and a critical examination of the text can help. We want to get close to the truth of the text for us, at least sufficiently to help us improve as Christians. The word of God is in human language which depends on context and can rarely fully express what the speaker/author has in mind.

 

The text from the Law (the first five books of the OT) about what is called the ban. The ban is the total destruction of a town or city after conquering it; in the last book of the Law (the first section of the Old Testament) in Deuteronomy (Chapter 20) we can read what the priest is to say to the people –

 

16 But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17 You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.”

 

I want to illustrate this with the interesting story about and around what we call the battle of Jericho from the OT book of Joshua. The story (written like history) is that God had promised the people a land (Canaan) and now leads them to it, beginning with Jericho on the Eastern border; it is spied out first and the spies are kindly sheltered in the house of a Canaanite prostitute, then it is approached, its walls are demolished and the story is so dramatic that there is even a popular song to this day about it. But then God says to them: “The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent” (Joshua 6:17) – this is what is called the execution of the ban. The ban was a practice in that part of the world to be used on certain occasions after conquering a city involving the destruction of all the living. The Moabite stone (in the Louvre Museum, dating c 830 BC) tells of an Israelite city (Nebo) destroyed this way by the Moabite conqueror at the request of his god. The Israelite army also had this practice at times in accord to its own writings in Deuteronomy and here in the book of Joshua.

 

So the ban seems historical because of the extra-biblical example. It is true also that the people at that time believed it was from the instruction and with the help of their God that they did this. But we, today, would want to say that the truth surely is that God loves all people although some think that God being for them means He is against others – they misunderstand how God is and what He wants. We must examine our own lives and attitudes in the light of our understanding of the truth of this passage. Yes, God loves us and wants to see us succeed; but, yes, we do quite often misinterpret God’s intentions – sometimes unknowingly, but sometimes when we should know better. This consideration of the word of God in the Bible should say to us quite clearly, I believe, that we shouldn’t be too confident of what we believe God wants of u whatever evidence we find for it in the Bible or whatever even our leaders might suggest – never be too sure!!

 

The second text I want to examine is about the call of Isaiah in the section of the OT called the prophets. The first 39 chapters of the long book called Isaiah in this section of the Old Testament largely concern a prophet called Isaiah in the 8th century BC.   Much of what he had to say on behalf of God to the people was upbeat but inevitably at times had to be harsh. People will be familiar with these encouraging sections. The UN building displays the passage “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares …” and Christians are usually familiar with “Behold a maiden shall conceive … and call his name Immanuel (meaning God is with us)” and there are other such encouraging passages.

 

But the call of Isaiah to speak in human words what God wants to say to the people in Chapter 6 tells of Isaiah in the Temple and hearing the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ and he replies ‘Here am I; send me!’  Then God tells him to go to the people and

 

“… Make the mind of this people dull,

and stop their ears,

and shut their eyes,

so that they may not look with their eyes,

and listen with their ears,

and comprehend with their minds,

and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:10)

 

This apparent instruction is very strange. His task, it seems, is to ‘preach’ to the people so that they will not pay any heed nor see what it is he is explaining; and Isaiah is to do this so that the people will not grasp what he is saying and improve their way of living to be ‘cured’ of their wickedness. This surely is not what God wants but in the light of the actual way that the people responded to the preaching (and to that of many other prophets) it seems to reflect historical what actually happened in the course of events after Isaiah’s preaching. We have to remember as well that when this was written down it may have been told several times and have gradually evolved into what we now have – namely not just that he preached to the people but that they didn’t respond to his message. Nonetheless this account from the Bible, the word of God, has something to say to us. The message says something to us about way we today heed God’s call and the message He has for us about how to live, because we often respond in much the same way that the people in his day did. We must consider what we are called by God to do and do we do it!

 

 

 

From the Writings, the third part of the Jewish Bible I look at he book of Job. It has 42 chapters and its length is somewhat off-putting. Most of the middle section is in poetic form with three main voices plus one other, as well as words from Job and a good section (33- 42:6) from God. The book cannot be dated accurately. The beginning and the end form the context for the long speeches and makes an interesting story one commentator suggested it might well begin “once upon a time.”

 

The prose opening of Job tells how God was up in heaven with his council of advisers (angels); looking down upon earth He pointed out the person called Job, saying what a good living person he was with his wife and family and well-run farm etc. But one of the council members, referred to as the Satan (the tempter) points out that all was going well for Job, his situation, his health etc. and said it is no wonder that he is ‘good living.’ God responded to this challenge by saying He would send all sorts of disasters upon Job and see how he responded then; and this he did.

 

It is in Job’s state of misfortune and ill-health that the poetry begins and the comforters come with their logic that he must have done something bad to deserve all this trouble from God; but Job insists he hasn’t. It is this dialogue with Job’s ‘comforters’ that occupies the next 30 plus chapters, with Job complaining to God and to them about his sorry state. The comforters imagine a just God who blesses the good and punishes those who are bad. Not only a just God but similarly a wise and good God. But Job holds out that all his troubles are not because he has lead a bad life – he is quite angry with his comforters.

 

But in the end God explains Himself – He is so much more than we can comprehend that we just need to be humble before Him – as Job eventually acknowledges, saying:

 

‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:1-6 passim).

 

We learn from this fictitious story that we must be humble and avoid the mistakes shown in many places in the Bible – in its stories of old, from its understanding of prophecy and here from the wisdom in the book of Job. God is a mystery to us – even now in our ‘enlightened’ times and after the coming of Christ – and we cannot fully know the truth about Him or His will for us and for His creation.

 

My final example text is from the NT – from the Gospel of John.            The opening of the gospel reads as a poem though there is possibly an insert about the Baptist. It is about the entire notion of the Mystery of Jesus the Divine and how it affects us and creation in general. It uses the word Logos, usually translated as Word which scarcely appears elsewhere in the New Testament in this sense, and it certainly doesn’t mean what we mean by word. There was a Jewish and especially an Hellenic background to this word logos, it was seen as the construct or essence or role of things of every thing in the creation. We don’t really have an equivalent notion in our way of thinking; and it is probably for this reason that nearly every translation just uses the literal meaning – the English ‘word.’ Although I think the Japanese bible uses ‘Christ’; The best I have come across is in the Chinese modern bibles where the Chinese word ‘dao’ is used which means the Way and is part of traditional thinking about life, how it should be, how we should live and the world how it operates.

 

The opening phrase of John’s prologue “In the beginning” is deliberately the same as the beginning of the creation poem in Genesis, for the events of the New testament augur a new stage in creation; but in John’ prologue creation comes later in verse 3 – “through Him all things were made…” We should best render the opening phrase as ‘in the beginning the Logos already was.’

 

Translation always has difficulties.             In the phrase “… the Logos was with God.” the word for God has the definite article with it (literally ‘the God’), referring to a divine Person – the Father. Whereas in the phrase “… and the Logos was God” the word for God has no definite article and so refers to the divine ‘nature’ predicated of the Logos and best translated as “the Logos was Divine.” We are in the realm of eternity and mystery.

 

In verse 14 we have “… the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The word ‘flesh’ in the Greek refers to our nature – what it is that defines us as human; and the word translated as ‘dwelt’ has its roots in camping together with others, but developed to refer to the community of people together. The Logos embraces humanity and even becomes a human being so as to exemplify and enable true humanity: we could put it “… and the Logos became human and joined our human society.”   Many translations in English maintain the word ‘flesh’ which seems quite inappropriate – it occurs again in John’s gospel in reference to the Eucharist where other gospels use ‘body.’

 

So in conclusion we draw from these two verses the mystery we call the incarnation. This is true – it is what we believe: namely that throughout our time on earth we participate in the very humanity that God has taken on. But because we are living in the dimension of time we don’t share in this completely, and because of our weaknesses we even hinder our becoming the complete human we are going to be. This is the truth but it is not within our grasp because we don’t know completely what it is to be human or how each of us should aim to become fully so. Truth is a mystery! Believing is not knowing but rather trying to live towards some ideal as best we can and as best we understand it.

 

In conclusion I want to affirm that we learn from the account of the invasion into foreign territory by way of the destruction of the city of Jericho, that we must not be too dogmatic as though we have the right understanding of God and His creation and what He wants of us! The chosen people got it wrong and even wrote about it confidently and proudly. And we should see from the people’s rejection of the preaching of the prophet Isaiah that we must try to cooperate with our best understanding of what God wants for us and even seriously consider what others say to us about all this – they may be prophets of God! And from the various understandings of God by Job and his comforters and the wisdom of the poetry in the book, we must try not to credit God with our ideas of what is best for us! Let us celebrate the mystery of it all in humility! And believing that the mysterious reality of God actually inhabits our human nature, we should aim to become as human as we imagine He wants us to be! Surely we also must see something of God in all humans as well as in creation in general.

 

I was reminded after all my reflections on these texts, of a book by John Oman, a Presbyterian theologian from Orkney, educated in Edinburgh and Heidelberg, ministering in the north of England at the very beginning of the 20th century. Influenced by the chaos of the first world war and the advancing ideas of science about the nature of the world, he recommended eschewing all dogmatism and certainty for a stumbling progress more like the ramblings of a river over the centuries through its environment than the artificially straight, level and supposed efficiency of the canals. (see his Grace and Personality, 1917).