A teaching-based identity (Judges 8,32-9,24; Hebrews 8 / Tuesday after the Sunday after Ascension Day, BCP)
Today’s pair of readings sets up the possible starkest contrast. On the one hand, we see when a community gives in to idol-worship and totally loses its true self. ‘And it came to pass, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel turned again, and went a whoring after Baalim, and made Baal-berith their God. And the children of Israel remembered not the Lord their God, who had delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies.’ On the other hand, we can see the firmest possible connection rebuilt between man and God. ‘We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle.’
The big question faced by our generation is this. How to transform one’s nature from being an ‘idol worshipper’ into a genuine recipient of God’s revelation? How can we bend our habits, conditioned by the idols of consumerism, to serve God? Only in this way shall emerge Christian communities on the ‘ruins of Christian communities’.
This requires extra work. The Church of England is particularly facing the challenge of recovering its sense of doctrine. Without the knowledge and understanding of our faith, who we are, there is no firm identity. When people are drawn by the Christian teaching, and not only stimulating music, then we can say that there is genuine church growth.
Paul’s important and beautiful icon of Christ, as our living doctrine, is a pivotal motive on this journey towards growth. ‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know they Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.’
This passage tells us that the knowledge of God is important. Also, it informs us, that the renewal of this knowledge-based covenant is important. However, the heart of the message is that God is willing to teach us, to transform us, through Christ, who is our bridge to divine life. This passage by Paul radiates a healing peace and a reassurance that our relationship with God is permanent! The gates of understanding divine Love are open; so ‘discipuli, advertite animos!’ Disciples of the Lord, open you souls to the one who is speaking/teaching!
If we are honest, we should admit that Deborah’s song of victory over Sisera is a disturbing one. This is a song which celebrates, in graphic details, the death of the chief captain of the enemy. We know that we are celebrating Israel’s victory, yet, we feel unease when reading the song. Jael, the wife of Heber, the kenite invites into her house the fleeing Sisera. ‘He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth buttery in a lordly dish. She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.’
However, in this song, which bears the marks of cruelty of the age, powerful insights are emerging. Amidst wars, there is a profound desire for peace. ‘They are delivered from the noise if archers in places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the Lord.’ Beautiful lines, indeed. Radiant of yearning for peace and the Light of the Law.
Today, there is such a danger of sinking back into this ‘violent chaos of warfare’! That is why the consolation offered by Saint Paul is so important! This is God’s all penetrating and all enlightening Spirit that can dispel the chaos of violence and endless wars. ‘For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’
Thy Kingdom Come is a global prayer movement, which invites Christians around the world to pray between Ascension and Pentecost for more people to come to know Jesus Christ. What started out as an invitation from the Archbishops’ of Canterbury and York in 2016 to the Church of England has grown into an international and ecumenical call to prayer.
Yesterday evening, representatives of Fulham-parishes celebrated the mass of the Ascension of the Lord. The service was followed by a Eucharistic adoration with prayers, a whole night Vigil. At the heart of the City of London, a city-church with open doors. People walking by could see the light of the candles surrounding the monstrance exposed on the altar. It was a sacred time.
A sacred time, which echoes today’s reading from Judges. In the friendly presence of the Blessed Sacrament we could face the reminders of our culture’s fall. ‘And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim: and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord’s anger.’
We no longer read our situation in Biblical terms, but what our culture is doing is a dangerous forgetting. ‘And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves until them…and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them.’
Yesterday’s vigil was a healing time. Full of warmth and compassion. The more time we spent with the Sacramental Jesus, the more the balance got right. It was so good to feel that there is a Eucharistic Center of history, which speaks, heals, embraces and creates anew. In the words of Saint Paul: ‘But now we see not yet all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.’
‘And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.’
The of renewal bestowed on us is told here. God can restore our lives upon the ruins of the day (a whole culture). When everything is broken, this is God’s ‘Eucharistic presence’ from which we can regain our hope in the future and the necessary vitality to rebuild it. Joel’s vision is our inspiration to ‘stand in the rain’ of Divine sustenance. Let God be God, the Life-giver again, among us. ‘Be not afraid you beasts of the field: for the pastures of the wilderness do spring, for the tree beareth her fruit, the fig tree and the vine do yield their strength. Be glad then, ye children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God: for he hath given you the former rain moderately, and he will cause to come down for you the rain, the former rain, and the latter rain in the first month. And the floors shall be full of wheat, and the and shall overflow the wine and oil.’
Being showered upon by grace (= God’s life in us) is beautifully expressed in the second, ‘Andante’, movement in Mozart’s first Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in F major, K.37. Our world, when the anti-terrorist armed military personnel are patrolling the streets of London and other cities, really should listen to this healing voice of Mozart-Joel.
Musical illustration: Mozart, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 in F major, K.37, second ‘Andante movement’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r71CE16ONzg
Contemplating the icon of Life (Deuteronomy 28,1-14; Luke 5,1-11 / Tuesday after Fifth Sunday after Easter, BCP)
‘…and all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground…’
This passage describes what happens to us when we contemplate God’s commandments. These precepts are like the holy icons in a church, pointing to God. We contemplate them – and become like Him. The above list of blessings, is like painting an icon, layer by layer. We are being painted by these commands. We are becoming God’s icon reflecting abundant life; by imitating his inner Life. As a result, Deuteronomy teaches us, a godly order in our businesses emerge.
In Luke, Jesus invites the people for the same type of ‘life-bearing’ contemplation. We are to behold God’s gifts/word as the icon of his abundant Life. ‘And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship’…‘Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught…And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes.’
This miracle of catching ‘abundant life’ is a prophetic recapitulation of God’s giving abundant life, which we saw in Deuteronomy. The ‘depth’ of the Commandments, when reached and understood, is life giving.
In view of yesterday’s terrorist attack on children (Manchester, 23.05.2017), we can add something more. ‘Depth’ is the synonym of God’s beauty. Its contemplation is the only way of removing the ‘negative bombs’, which occur in the moral vacuum of uncontemplated (= ‘unplanted’) Divine life.
For contemplation: The Icon of the Holy Trinity.
The dialogue of liberation (Deuteronomy 7,6-13; Matthew 6,5-18 / Monday after fifth Sunday after Easter BCP)
'…The Lord brought you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.’ ‘King of Egypt’ was the most powerful kingdom and person at the time. As symbol for the ruling superpower it never expires. The great news is that God can deliver us from even the greatest powers of today. Cyber-realities? Powers of consumption, or the negative powers of social, cultural, and economic deprivation?
This liberation by God takes place through love: ‘because the Lord loved you’. However, this liberation is not a naïve vision of love, an emotional ‘oceanic feeling’. There is commitment and investing ourselves on our part. ‘Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgements, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto they fathers: and he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee.’
The ‘our Lord’s prayer’ shows a close connection with this liberation. It reveals the same two-sided dialogue of the Covenant; the same loving attention - on a personal level. ‘For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.’ It ends with the most important sentence in human history. This is the only way to create lasting peace and heal already existing divisions. The ‘Our Father’, as a prayer, is the most peaceful rhythm in the whole universe… The very words of the healing Jesus.
'And the Lord said unto Joshua, Fear them not: for I have delivered them into thy hand; there shall no man stand before thee'. And the predicted victory comes.
God who can see the future can give us insight into the forthcoming. These are rare moments – but not impossible moments at all. We mentioned yesterday that God wants to fight a different war, when the victims and consequences are mourned and atoned by the victors. It is through this act that history becomes 'sacred history', 'Salvation History'. This sacred history insinuates that if the heart of the community is 'merged' with this intention of God, he can and will share the future with us.
This deeper sight is vital. Without this 'sacred eye' in us, we will remain entrapped in the present. We will live outside 'Sacred History', in captivity. Over against this exile, it can be seen in a more clear way what sacred history is. It is about a 'sacred hearing': perceiving God's corrective Presence. Living in sacred history means our burning desire to witness that there is an ideal 'parallel' history, which could happen in place of its devaluated or negative version – in which we are now. Being a Christian means a commitment to rebuild our present on the ruins of missed opportunities of the Sacred. That is, the missed opportunities of love.
God wants a different war (Joshua 5,13-6,20-end; Joshua 7; / Wednesday after fourth Sunday after Easter, Book of Common Prayer)
There is so much to learn from the God of Life. Actually, we must relearn, time and again, the most important things. This striking passage from the Book of Joshua is about such an essential. Why does God punish his victorious soldiers who took possession the treasures of the defeated enemy? Why did God order the army beforehand that 'all the silver, and gold, and the vessels of brass and iron, are consecrated unto the Lord: they shall come into the treasury of the Lord. Surely, as a history, we can (re)learn something vital from this command.
To put it simply, God wants 'a different war'. And this is the Lesson of lessons he wants to teach us. That is why the 'war-prey' must go 'into the treasury of the Lord'. Even if bloodshed happens, which, sadly, cannot be excluded from human business, this wound must be mourned. God simply does not want us to be overwhelmed, and then governed, by the desire to grow into unstoppable aggressors. Who are after the 'prey'. Instead, the shed blood, the nameless enemy, should be mourned.
That is why the victors should resign from their blood-earned acquisitions. This 'silver and gold' is to be absorbed into sacred history. Being melted into God's intention to free us from further human greed, 'God's sacred war' aims at breaking down the negative patterns of violence. Had this mourning been successfully applied now we could speak of something else in place of colonisation, or the extinction of the ingenious tribes of the Americas. There might have been a First World War, but not World War II.
Achan's confession, if it comes in time, is the archetype of these positive turns. 'And Achan answered Joshua, and said, Indeed I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done: when I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it. ' Without this recognition, our world ends up, as it is now, sadly, in its own parallel 'negative' history. God wants 'to fight a different war'. God wants us 'to fight a different war' in order to end up in a different place from where we are now.
When the 'centres do hold' (Acts 21,37-22,22; Joshua 3 /'Tuesday after Fourth Sunday After Easter', BPC lectionary/)
These days, Acts has presented us with Paul's 'long apology'. He is put on trials time and again by Jews or Greeks. In these speeches he explains his conversion to Christ. When talking to his own peoples, to the Jewry, he sums up the whole of salvation history. He demonstrates how Christ is the fulfilment of the Law from Abraham to the event of the Resurrection.
Both emphasis is equally important. The arrival of the Messiah in the person of Jesus, and how Israel's long journey with God is part of this event. 'Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him. And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth.'
For us as a church, this 'recapitulation' of history by Paul, is something vital and liberating to contemplate. Now when the dominant agenda is mission aiming at producing numerical 'growth' the 'vertical dimension' of mission should not be lost of sight. It is worth reading Paul's attempt to 'integrate' the old Jewish history with the new story of the Church as the expression of the 'Catholick' nature of the Church. Rediscovering the sense that we are called to be part of God's unified family, that the human family is 'universal' in Christ – is a liberating experience. Actually, this Catholic sense of belonging together is the most powerful motivation for 'mission'. Knowing that we are not floating, isolated (ecclesial) islands, is healing, as it were, 'therapeutic'. There is nothing more regenerating than the sense that we are held by a centre; when 'centres do hold'.
(Joshua chapter 3 models this 'Catholick' centre 'which holds'. 'When ye see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it...And Joshua said unto the people, Sanctify yourselves...and to the priests, Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people.')
This centre, indeed 'holds'. It gives life, it helps the people both in ordinary and critical situations. What is fascinating to see is how this Centre (God's Glory) renews its presence among the people by the ministry of Joshua. 'And the Lord said unto Joshua, This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.' Actually, Joshua's priestly ministry expresses the progressive work of renewing God's presence. 'And Joshua said unto the children of Israel, Come hither, and hear the words of the Lord your God. And Joshua said, Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you.' The priest's ministry is not the only way of keeping this remembrance alive. However, it is an inevitable element in relating to the 'Catholick centre', from which, literally, Life stems forth to be shared.
'When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient to his voice; he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.'
There is an underlying message to the fact that Deutoronomy, a priestly writing, deals so much with faithfulness to God, and the fatal consequences of giving up the covenant. The sub-text is that 'ritual orthodoxy' – liturgical observance – is vital in preserving God's Presence in the community. By observance we also mean the regularity of prayer and charity.
Luke's Gospel shows us Jesus at work in his own form of prayer, the faithful observance and imitation of his Father's compassion. He heals the sick; and gives back the dead son to the mother. His constant toiling in gifting those who are most in need leads to the recognition: '...And they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us.'
When John the Baptist learns of the 'prayer work of Jesus' (giving Messianic life), he sends over his disciples to ask Jesus: 'Art thou he that should come? or look we for another? What is interesting is that 'in that same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits, and unto many that were blind he gave sight.' In that very hour when the Baptist, through his envoys, approached him in full of faith. As if the our opening 'dialogue' would be repeated here. The faithful trust of Jewry, represented by John, and God's response of generously multiplied Life! That is why, the exchange of words between the Baptist and Jesus is the most important fulfilment of the Old Testament promise (our opening quote).
'Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.'
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..