Sunday 29 November 2015

A Christmas carol about St Nicholas, the Arians, and the Nicene Creed

St. Nicholas bringing gifts © Elisabeth Ivanovsky
On Facebook the other day, Derek Rishmawy said he wished there were more Christmas carols about St Nicholas' defence of the Nicene faith. The Santa Claus songs are excellent in their own way, but they don't always go as deeply as they could into the problems of 4th-century trinitarian theology. So, as an early Christmas present to Derek, I wrote this carol about St Nicholas, the Arians, and the Nicene Creed.

Possible titles: "Santa Ain't an Arian", or "Put Some of That Old Time Trinitarian Theology in Your Stocking", or "All I Want for Christmas Is the Faith of Saint Nick," or, perhaps best of all (suggested by David Koyzis), "Ho-ho-homoousios". Whatever you call it, just be sure to sing it nice and jolly, accompanied by sleigh bells.

To the tune of Jingle Bells

Nicholas, you’re the best,
Nicky all the way!
Defender of the Nicene ὁμοούσιον Πατρί – hey!
Nicholas, you’re the best,
Nicky all the way!
Defender of the Nicene ὁμοούσιον Πατρί.

“There was when he was not,”
said Arius & Co.
It seems they had forgot
that God has come below:
born in Bethlehem,
crucified and raised,
not a creature but the One
whom angels hymn with praise – oh!


By the candlelight
Share some Christmas cheer!
Give someone a gift!
Drink another beer!
For our light has come
And burned away our dross.
God in flesh: O come let us
Adore φῶς ἐκ φωτός – oh!


Heresy is dull,
a bland philosophy,
it steals away the gifts
beneath the Christmas tree.
The holy catholic church
Bids all our joys increase,
So get beneath the mistletoe
And give the kiss of peace – oh!


Every girl and boy,
And all the grown-ups too,
Let your hearts be glad,
Let Christ be born in you.
Sinners, don’t despair,
There’s no need to be blue,
Lift your hearts up to the Son,
he’s θεὸν ἐκ θεοῦ – hey!


Thursday 26 November 2015

Know-it-all heretics

Eunomius has everything figured out. Which pretty much summarises everything that is wrong with his theology. Divinity is, Eunomius claims, unbegottenness (which is why he thinks that the Son cannot be divine). Basil is aghast: “How much arrogance and pride would it take for someone to think that he has discovered the very substance of God?” (Against Eunomius, 1.12). Eunomius is like every other heretic: an aggravating know-it-all.

Arius is certain that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father. Apollinaris, agreeing that Arius must be wrong, knows that Christ can be fully divine so long as he is not fully human. Nestorius, going with the dismissal of Apollinaris, figures out how the divine and the human natures interact in Jesus (even in Mary’s womb!). Eutyches, standing with the church in rejecting Nestorius, solves the metaphysical problem of two natures (or one or three—the numbers all blend together). The early christological heretics all claim to understand the relation of the divine to the human in Christ. Each heretic solves the problem with confidence, but the church confidently keeps the problems and so keeps the faith.

The orthodox tradition maintains the tension between the knowable and the unknowable in its affirmations. We cannot know what divinity is in itself, just as we hardly understand the nature of humanity, but it seems necessary to say—if salvation is real—that Christ is fully divine and fully human and that these two “natures” are not merely pressed up against each other or mixed together, but are somehow united in the person of Jesus Christ. But orthodox theology rarely attempts to specify that “somehow”.

The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners. “Heretics were too clever by half, thinking they could know God precisely so as to define the divine Being in all exactitude” (Frances Young, God’s Presence, 253).

Rowan Williams points out that the word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis, which connotes making a choice that creates division—“a heresy in St Paul is… choosing to belong to this little group rather than the whole fellowship” (“What is Heresy Today?”). The heretic is the one who looks at the doctrine of God and says “I understand this” or “I can prove that this is so” in such a way as to exclude all other understandings. The creeds, by contrast, were written to establish unity within the church through prayer, contemplation, and interpretation. To riff on Robert Jenson, there is nothing as capacious as a creed.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Tweet review of Edwin Hatch, The organization of the early Christian churches

It is a rare thing to come across such a hair style, or such a book. Edwin Hatch's 1880 Bampton Lectures gave a groundbreaking economic and institutional history of early Christianity. The lectures were published in 1881 as The Organization of the Early Christian Churches. The book was considered so important that it was promptly translated into German by no less a person than Adolf von Harnack. The book was recommended to me by one of my PhD students, and I'm very glad I read it. I was lucky enough to get a copy with uncut pages so I had the added pleasure of cutting the pages with my breakfast knife (following the revered example of Dr Johnson). I reviewed the book with a series of tweets, compiled here for posterity:

Lecture 1. Early Christian institutions have survived. This gives them a false air of familiarity and makes historical work bloody hard.

Lecture 2. The church was one of many civil clubs. Its special mark was almsgiving. This required financial administrators ("bishops") as well as distributors ("deacons").

Lecture 3. Early Christian governance was a continuation of the Sanhedrin: a court of collegial elders ("presbyters"), mostly for purposes of moral discipline.

Lecture 4. The apostles were succeeded by these councils of presbyters, but divisions soon led to the elevation of bishops as symbols of unity.

Lecture 5. Early Christian ordination was appointment to office, the same as in civil institutions. It did not confer spiritual powers. (Tertullian and the Montanists were defenders of tradition in the face of rapid institutional change.)

Lecture 6. So how did the clergy become a spiritually distinct class? Through state exemptions, they first became a civilly distinct class. The spiritualisation of this distinctiveness came later.

Lecture 7. Imperial power helped to weld the churches together until "church" came to mean a confederation ruled by councils.

Lecture 8. The medieval divide between parish clergy and cathedral clergy came from the way differing forms of civil organisation were adapted to urban and regional settings.

Conclusion: Every aspect of church order can be explained by external influences. Institutional forms are not fixed but elastic. They can and should be modified today. Attempts to rehabilitate the forms of earlier ages (he is thinking of the Oxford Movement) are misguided.

Friday 20 November 2015

A letter from a church to local mosques

Here is a letter I drafted for the church I attend in Swansea (UK), Uniting Church Sketty (a Local Ecumenical Partnership, born in May, of the former Bethel United Reformed Church and Sketty Methodist Church). Signed by our minister the Revd. Leslie Noon on behalf of the church and sent to the imams of the three mosques in Swansea – Sunni, Shia, and the University mosque – it is the kind of letter that I pray you might bring to the attention of your own church if you live in a Muslim-Christian context. In the aftermath of the Paris massacre, in Europe, the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, no one is more at risk than Muslims themselves, from local xenophobic abuse and assault as well as from the pseudo-Islamic apocalyptic death cult known as IS, which is, after all, an equal-opportunity destroyer.

In the name of the One God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, we greet you on behalf of Uniting Church Sketty. In the wake of the horrific events in Paris, we write to express our concern about their impact in the UK, particularly on the Muslim community.

The BBC has recently reported that hate crimes against Muslims in London have risen by 70% in the past year. Since the terrorist attacks, there have been disturbing reports of verbal and physical abuse against Muslims around Britain, and such incidents will no doubt increase in the weeks ahead. The toxic combination of panic and fear, religious ignorance, and xenophobic scapegoating suggests that we should not be complacent about Islamophobic violence occurring in Swansea.

In this ominous context we, as a church, reaffirm our solidarity with Islam in the fundamental principles of love of God and neighbour, and in our common search for peace and justice. We also express an especial concern for the safety and wellbeing of Muslims in Swansea during these troubled times. We will, of course, remember you in our prayers, but if there is any practical support that we can give you, please let us know. Both the Qur’an and the Bible say that God is able, and we are ready to work with you opposing what is evil and defending what is good.

May God unite us in purpose and peace.

In friendship, &c.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Tweet review of Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire

The book is Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology, newly translated by fellow blogger Wayne Coppins (Baylor University Press 2015). I reviewed it on Twitter as I was reading it over the last couple of days. I've pasted all the tweets below – first a summary of the book and then some general thoughts.

Summary of each section

1.1 Christian history is not a one-way street of development or decline.

1.2 New ideas have to take root in new social forms. A history of theology is a history of institutions and their guiding norms.

2.1a Early Christians generally participated in the pagan education system with very little fuss.

2.1b Christian teachers adopted diverse educational institutions. This helps to explain the diversity of early Christian theology.

2.1c While some Christian teachers (e.g. Justin) were free-wheeling philosophers, Origen's school was more like a formal university.

2.2 The Montanists sought to recover the power of primitive Christianity by adopting the institution of the pagan oracle cult.

2.3a A third new institution: the Christian worship service. This absorbed elements of both pagan and Jewish cults.

2.3b School-theology was urban; prophetic-theology was rustic; liturgical-theology was universally accessible.

2.3c Early eucharistic prayers show a high degree of adaptation to local contexts. Liturgy was a vehicle of theology.

2.4 When Christianity transformed institutions, the old forms remained recognisable; that was part of the attraction.

3.1a The development of fixed norms isn't a power-play or a theological regression. It's necessary for the formation of new institutions.

3.1b Normative lists of a NT canon weren't only used in ecclesial institutions but also in the free-wheeling schools.

3.1c Marcion's institutional setting was Alexandrian philology. He wasn't trying to create a new canon but to edit an existing one.

3.1d Powerful bishops and free-wheeling teachers both used a NT canon in exactly the same way.

3.1e The Gnostics, free-wheelers par excellence, presupposed the same normative canon but interpreted it differently.

3.1f The point of this is that the canon was not an authoritarian construct used to suppress dissident voices.

3.1g But the canon wasn't monolithic either. Different communities had slightly different canons with a common centre.

3.2 This (amazing) section on the canon has been a case study in the way norms functioned in the new Christian institutions.

4.1 Walter Bauer's thesis of early Christian plurality and of orthodoxy as power remains dominant, even though it can be seen now as a piece of liberal protestant apologetics.

4.2 If Bauer's basic thesis of early Christian plurality is correct, is there nevertheless a deeper unity of Christian identity amid the plurality?

4.3 In opposition to Bauer, the inculturation view argues for a deeper unity by positing an original (culturally pure) gospel embedded in diverse cultures.

4.3b If Bauer's model is an apologetic for liberal protestantism, the inculturation model is an apologetic for Catholicism. Both models impose too much on the sources.

4.4 Plurality and identity go together. Early Christians forged a coherent and bounded identity out of plurality.

4.5 Early Christianity was a pluralism centred on an identity-forming centre articulated in theological institutions.

Bibliography: 100 pages. Small font. German encyclopedic erudition. Anglo-American scholarship well represented too.

General thoughts

Best part is the very rich and very important section on the NT canon. The book is worth getting for this alone.

Other highlights: the account of Origen's school, and the surprising demonstration of local improvisation in early eucharistic prayers.

I see this as a revitalised history-of-ideas approach. It doesn't see ideas as the products of social struggle.

Nor are ideas timeless truths. Nor do they unfold teleologically. Ideas belong to the engine of social life.

The book argues that early Christian plurality is best explained by the diversity of its institutions.

It includes research from ritual studies and material culture (e.g. a nice little section on ancient libraries) but also shows the validity of the "great authors" for early Christian history.

After all, individual talents like Origen weren't just products of institutions but were creative agents of institutional formation.

Compared to the rest of the book, the theoretical basis of the plurality/identity thesis (sections 4.4 – 4.5) seemed a bit thin.

The three institutions studied here are selective and illustrative. But it got me thinking about the theological function of other institutions like baptism, burial, martyrdom, etc.

I wish there'd also been a section on early Christian preaching (especially since Markschies has done top work on preaching elsewhere, e.g. in his book on Origen). But I'm not complaining. 

Also really useful is the way the book maps out the field of early Christian studies. Great section on Walter Bauer and his reception.

All in all, I don't think I've learned so much about early Christianity since reading Peter Brown or Elizabeth Clark.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Stages of grief following a terrorist attack

The Six Stages of Public and Political Grief Following a Terrorist Attack

  1. Shock
  2. Panic and paranoia
  3. Twitter storm
  4. Selective fury, ideological posturing, scapegoating, expressed in Manichaean and apocalyptic discourse
  5. Knee-jerk clampdowns and counter-violence
  6. Shopping and self-beautification

Six Factors Which Inhibit the Grief Process and Suggest the Need for Counselling
  1. Pausing and taking a deep breath
  2. Self-examination
  3. Attentiveness and joined-up thinking
  4. Abjuring demonization and xenophobia
  5. Looking for political solutions rather than relentlessly bombing the barbarians “back to the Stone Age” (Curtis LeMay)
  6. Cultivating empathy (not fashionable feelings), imagination (not the same-old same-old), hope (not liberal optimism) – and prayer (not as withdrawal or escape from world but as Karl Barth’s “beginning of the uprising against the world”)

Sunday 15 November 2015

Hot diggidy doodlings

One Word is worth a thousand strictures.

As quarks and gluons are to matter, so Word and Sacrament are to the church – its two elementary constituents.

The church has too many ministers who use prayer as a form of preaching, and too few who practice preaching as a form of prayer.

All the best things happen in the dark. Observing the evening star or the silver sliver of the moon. Watching fireflies or fireworks. Roasting marshmallows by a campfire. Sleepovers. Canoodling in bed. Dreaming that dream, old man, you’ve been dreaming since you were a child. Oh yes – and Christ’s death (Mark 15:33) and resurrection (John 20:1). There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Dracula and Ann Coulter are nocturnal creatures.

“The Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, in New Zealand, the Very Revd Nick Kirk, has refused to host a concert that includes Karl Jenkins’s Mass for Peace, because the work refers to the Muslim call to prayer” (Church Times, 18 September). Hang on a minute. The Mass is, er, a Mass, and incorporates texts from the Psalms and Revelation. It was dedicated to victims of the Kosovo War (1998-99), most of whom were Muslims – Muslim civilians – wounded, raped, killed by Christians. It has been performed in cathedrals all over the world – including Christ Church Cathedral itself (in 2007). Not to mention that the composer was born and raised in the Swansea village of Penclawdd! In defending his decision, the Dean insisted: “Jesus said there is no other way to salvation except through him. If we start to say any other way is OK, that’s not true.” Well, as a Kiwi might translate Proverbs 26:9: “To ask a drongo to cite a saying of Jesus is like handing an axe to a pisshead.”

We call works of fiction “great” insofar as they save us from the self-fictionalisations that constitute the ego. Thus great drama delivers us from self-dramatisation, great comedy delivers us from self-seriousness, and so on. Reading great literature is a spiritual exercise, an askesis, an assault on the self-deceit with which even prayer can collude. Were I a Catholic taking the sacrament of penance, to the question “When did you make your last confession?” I would reply, “First, tell me, Father, when did you read your last novel?”

After the service, I thanked the minister, particularly for his fine sense of irony in giving a PowerPoint presentation of the Sermon on the Mount – particularly the Beatitudes in bullet points. All that was missing were Like/Don’t-Like thumbs.

At a recent Sunday service, the visiting minister (“I’m keen on interactive worship”) had us break into groups and share our “faith experiences” with each other, i.e., engage in autobiographical idolatry. At such times I think bringing firearms to church isn’t such a bad idea.

And then there is the worship screen, with the words “Prayer Time” and an image of folded hands on a pale blue background. What a godsend! Ten seconds into praying I often forget what I’m doing; now, however, I can look up and say to myself, “Oh yeah …”, and then close my eyes again.

Imagine a Calvinist, hyper,
more pity you’ll find in a viper,
so full of elation
at hell and damnation –
no need to imagine – it’s Piper!

How do you answer the idiotic question, “What car would Jesus drive?” You roll your eyes and sigh, “Christ on a bike!”

It is not that people today are more stupid than they used to be, but we are, I’m sure, less patient, more slow-averse, and so less likely to take the time to make sure that our thinking is joined-up and our arguments are coherent, and more likely to break the speed limits of reason and crash our cogitations into unwarranted conclusions. Which I guess is pretty stupid of us after all.

As an expat, here, in acronyms, is what I miss about the US: NRA, GOP, KKK, SBC, NYPD, ADX, CIA, and NHS (oops, sorry, the US doesn’t have an NHS).

What is a Republican-controlled Congress but a form of Capitol punishment?

Why does the Right persist in climate change denial? Because it is in the interests of big business, of course. But also because climate change is the perfect weapon of mass destruction, as it not only makes no demands on the defence budget, it also targets the enemy, i.e., the poor, with the precision of a drone.

If you had actors speaking the lines of the Republican candidates at the presidential debates, you’d think it was political satire, wouldn’t you? They make the blah, blah, blah of inebriants sound like intelligent speech.

So who does one support as the Republican presidential candidate? Throw in Cheney as Carson’s VP and I’d go for the Ben-and-Dick Option. It’s the perfect combination of buffoonery and barbarity.

Another suggestion for a First Things name-change after its intellectually and morally cringe-worthy Buycott blitzkrieg in the first skirmish in this year’s Christmas kulturkampf, the Battle of Starbucks: The Exceedingly Light Brigade.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
                   Someone had blundered.

I used to have immense respect for the theological acumen of William Stringfellow and Marilynne Robinson, but no longer. After all, neither has a degree in theology.

A recent report in the journal Current Biology, based on the research of 7 universities which studied almost 1200 children in countries including the US, Turkey, and China, concludes: “Children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions – Christianity and Islam – were less altruistic than children from non-religious households.” Which I should think is neither surprising nor unsurprising, nor is the consistency with which religious parents overestimate how nice their children are. Book dedications like “… and to my awesome kids Deodatus and Dorcas ...” – what a chortle they bring to the cynical reader.

What’s the difference between Fort Hood, Texas, the largest US military installation in the world, and AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys?  On any given game-day, you will find a greater military presence at AT&T Stadium.

I suffer terribly from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it’s just begun to kick in: from November until April, no baseball. Apathy, lethargy, tearfulness – it’s time to re-read Smith, Giamatti, and Will, and to re-watch Bull Durham, Major League, and Field of Dreams.  That, and with Rogers Hornsby, “stare out the window and wait for spring.” Easter gives you some idea of the joy of Opening Day.

The human is a bewilderedbeast. What faith does is to transform bewilderment from a burden into a blessing.

“It is the problem of our age: hatred against Germans poisons everyone’s mind…. To sum up, this is what I really want to say: Nazi barbarism evokes the same kind of barbarism in ourselves.… We have to reject that barbarism within us, we must not fan the hatred within us, because if we do, the world will not be able to pull itself one inch further out of the mire” (Etty Hillesum, from Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 2002). For “Germans” and “Nazi”, read “ISIS”, and after the sorrow and the sense of helplessness bordering on hopelessness, you have my reaction to the Paris massacre.

The Sermon on the Mount is an ethical promissory note addressed to people who would only begin to exist after Easter.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Paris and my enemy

Image credit @jean_jullien
Because there was nothing else to be done, I said to myself: I will read Hemingway and drink wine and think only of Paris. So I sat all afternoon by the window and read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his Paris years, and I drank wine and remembered Paris.

Do you remember our first time in Paris? We were staying in that bad hotel and I was irritable because of your disappointment, and the more irritable I was the more disappointed you became. That’s how it always was with us. But the puny moods we brought with us were no match for Paris. We walked along the Seine. We roamed the boulevards. We looked at paintings and old buildings, loafed in cafés. We went in and out of shops along the rue St-Dominique, buying nothing. You ate fruit and I had croissants and dipped them in my coffee. A gypsy girl begged you to let her draw your portrait.

Every day I read Simenon. I bought mouldering paperbacks from the melancholy vendors along the river. At night we ate in cheap restaurants and walked back along the lighted streets and made love in our cheap hotel with the windows open and the lights of Paris gleaming on our skin. The city is older than Christianity, older than morality. It is good sometimes to make love in a place like that, to do it like a pagan, without thought or inhibition or the hurtful bewildering labyrinth of moral meanings. I knew you were thinking of someone else, I understood that, but in Paris it did not matter.

After the September 11 attacks on New York, the French newspaper Le Monde ran an article titled nous sommes tous Américains, we are all Americans.

We found a bar on the rue de la Roquette with cheap beer and loud music and we went there on the first night, and the next night I went alone because it was only midnight and I could not bear to sleep while Paris was awake.

I asked you, Did you catch the news? Did you hear? Did you know that Paris was attacked today? How can anyone hate Paris? How could anybody wish it harm? What is the point of being a man if somewhere in this world a man like me, my flesh and blood, could hate the city of Paris and wish it harm?

One day we hired bicycles and went tearing through the streets while all the solemn trucks and obstinate little cars hurtled by. Drivers swerved, our bicycles clattered over the cobbles. We were fools to brave the busy streets of Paris; we were nearly killed; we were so happy.

St Geneviève, pray for us. For the city you love was under siege today. Teach us to pray for our cities and for peace in our times. Teach us to pray for the best thing that this world can ever give: a carefree street where a mother need not feel afraid. Teach us, if it is possible, to pray also for our enemies, to reach out bloodied hands to seek and find their human faces. Do not forsake us, holy Geneviève, though we are so far God, so far from one another.

All afternoon it rained. I drank wine and read Hemingway and tried to unravel the mystery of Paris and my enemy. I looked a long time at my own face in the mirror but I could not understand.

We are all Parisians.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

The Son is not great: Athanasius on orthodox christology

It is now a well-known fact that Arianism was not overcome by Athanasius, but by modern historical scholars overcoming Athanasius. But we can hardly blame Athanasius for the Arians, since he himself was not a modern historical scholar and so was not in a position to adhere to the guild rules.

Since we are so careful to uncover the true legacy of Arius, we should be equally diligent in our attempts to present the theological vision of Athanasius. It would be simply wrong to say that he disagreed with Arius' "low christology" and presented his own "high christology" in response. The stature of the Son was not the heart of the question. As Athanasius points out, scripture does not depict the Son as more illustrious than other creatures. Divinity is not measured in greatness.

The angels worship the Son, Athanasius observes, but not because he is greater than them. “The angels served [the Son] as one who is other than them.” If all that was required to be eligible as an object of worship was greatness, then we would all be free to worship other creatures instead of God. But Cornelius is told not to worship Peter, and John is told not to worship the angel. The Son is worshipped “not as one who is greater in glory, but as being other… than all creatures.”

As you read through the works of Athanasius, you do not uncover a scheme to elevate the status of the Son, but the astonishment of one who has discovered the humility of God. In De Incarnatione, he addresses those who wonder why the Son should come as a human instead of one of the “other more noble parts of creation… as the sun or moon or stars or fire or air?” Because, he suggests, the Lord did not come to “be put on display but to heal… One being put on display only needs to appear and dazzle the beholders; but one who heals and teaches does not simply sojourn, but is of service to those in need.”

Which leads me to wonder whether the categories of "high" and "low" christology are still useful at all as indicators of orthodoxy. If we think of "high christology" as emphasising the divinity of Christ, we find that Apollinaris undoubtedly had a "high" christology, but he's still a heretic. If we are tempted to think that there can be some negotiated compromise between the two, we need only remember poor old Eutyches, and his fateful mediating ousia. The language can be retained only if they cease to be poles on a continuum. A faithful christology is simultaneously "high" and "low"--a theology of the high made low for our sake.

The Son is not merely greater than us, but is entirely different to us. The good news of the gospel is that he becomes one of us. Salvation rests in the blessed union of difference and solidarity in the person of Christ.

Saturday 7 November 2015

The Widow’s Might: a sermon for Pentecost 24

Ah, bless – the story of the Widow’s Mite. Isn’t it sweet? Don’t we just love it? Don’t we just love her – this dear little old lady, poor as a church mouse, who yet gives what she has for the upkeep of the church? Isn’t that how the traditional homilies go? Or – taking out the pensioner and generalising – it’s not how much you give, it’s the spirit in which you give it – isn’t that the moral of the story? It’s just the passage to preach on a Gift Day, or, even better, when you’re trying to whip up enthusiasm for the Building Fund when your church is undergoing some serious renovation because of the crumbling fabric or those blasted new “health and safety” regulations. And the subtext, of course, is, “Hey, mate, you’ve got more than a mite, give generously.”

And now you’re thinking, “Uh oh, Fabricius is going tell us that that’s not what the story is about at all.” Who, moi? …

First – as always! – context, context, context! According to Mark, this is the last episode in the Holy Week teaching ministry of Jesus in the Temple, where he has been going daily to stir up trouble with his good news – telling challenging stories, deftly sidestepping awkward questions, astonishing everyone with his charismatic authority, and, above all, infuriating the religious elite with his anti-establishment rhetoric. In the passage immediately preceding the story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus warns the crowds about the teachers of the law – the biblical scholars and theologians. He mocks the way they walk around in fancy clerical dress, bask in the obsequious public greetings and flattery of the hoi polloi, reserve high-table seats at civic and religious functions, and – a separate sentence – how they “take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes” under a pretence of piety (12:40).

Widows getting ripped off by the managers of religion – that’s the set-up for the story that follows. And to emphasise the importance of what Jesus is about to say, Mark not only has Jesus sit facing the Temple treasury (12:41), the customary position from which to make definitive declarations (i.e., ex cathedra), he also reintroduces the disciples to the narrative, as Jesus calls them from the wings where they’ve been waiting since the end of chapter 11 to stage front and centre (12:43).

Now: lights, camera, action! Picture thirteen trumpet-shaped chests in the Court of Women, just inside the Court of Gentiles – it’s Israelites only here. And no elders taking the collection in the Temple, rather people throwing their offerings into these huge ornate coffers. Or even more likely, Jesus is facing the treasury itself, where sits a priest to whom the worshippers declare the amount of their offerings – no discreet little envelopes, everything visible and audible – before tossing them into the chests.

Remember, the Temple wasn’t only the house of God, the central sanctuary for worship, it was an economy in itself. There were literally thousands of people employed there, from priests at the top to builders, repairmen, cleaners, moneychangers, and the numerous other functionaries required to keep this micro-economy in the business of sacrifice ticking over. And the Temple treasury – it served as the central bank of Jerusalem, and it held enormous assets, funded by the regular collection of taxes.

So there Jesus sits – and watches the scene like a hawk, noting every detail. First, there are the rich folk who drop in loads of money. And then along comes a “poor widow”. That dear little old lady? Probably not. People just did not live that long in first-century Palestine. Women married in their early teens and were lucky to reach fifty. And widows – they were part of Israel’s underclass, stereotypes of the powerless and oppressed, and in a patriarchal society, a man’s world, they had to be tough just to survive. The younger they were, the more they were considered a danger to the community, perennial temptations to the married family man, so social exclusion often compounded their personal vulnerability. And with no guaranteed inheritance, money was always a problem, not least because of their exploitation by unscrupulous scribes, the teachers of the Law whom Jesus has just condemned.

Just how dirt poor this woman was is suggested by her offering – the two copper coins are Greek lepta, the smallest currency in circulation. Nevertheless, measly as her offering is, Jesus says (in the words of a modern translation, The Message): “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford – she gave her all” (12:43-44).

Of course the traditional interpretation of this passage – that in this woman we have a model of costly, self-sacrificial faith – is not wrong. “Blessed are the poor” – indeed. But that’s not the point. Nor is it wrong to see here an attack on the affluent – Jesus was always having a go at the moneyed classes: “Woe to the rich!” – indeed. But that’s not the point either. It’s the institution, the system, that Jesus has in his sights, the way the Temple systemically fleeces the poor – the system and its suits, the professionals, the managers who ensure that the system runs smoothly; fleeces the poor, and worse, humiliates the poor, taking not only their money but also their dignity. For remember, the transactions occur in the harsh glare of public scrutiny.

The Director of our Windermere Centre Lawrence Moore imagines the scene as the widow reaches “the head of the queue. A public argument begins. ‘You’re winding me up, aren’t you? This won’t buy you anything! What? This is genuinely all you have? Well, for once, I’m going to make an exception. Seeing as you’ve nothing more to give, I’m going to accept your pitiful offering. I’m far too generous for my own good.’” The woman is shamed. Nothing could be worse, not even indigence, in a culture where honour is all. It was bad enough that the widow left an act of worship without any money, but that she left it without her pride …

And a final, terrible irony – context again! – what happens next? Jesus leaves the Temple for the last time, storms out, no doubt shaking the dust off his feet. All the disciples, as obtuse as ever, can say is, “Hey, Jesus, wow! What an awesome cathedral!” They haven’t learned a thing. Jesus replies, “Impressed, are you, lads? Take a good look then, because soon it will all be a heap of rubble” (13:1-2). All that money – and for what? A condemned building! Rather like buying stock in the Titanic. Lawrence draws the conclusion: “Beware the building fund” – that is, when we forget that the church is a people not a steeple, and that mission, not mortar, is the reason for our being, for then these bricks become a blot on the landscape rather than a blessing for the community.

Finally, this. John F. Kennedy famously declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Jesus, you might say, inverts this declaration: “Ask not what you can do for the Temple, ask what the Temple can do for you.” Which for Christians becomes: “Ask not what you can do for the church, ask what the church can do for you.” Not now the walls but what goes on within the walls. People like me – ministers – are always banging on about what you should be doing for the church. Of course! But perhaps we all need to stop and ask, “Just what kind of church are we being told to be doing it for?” More precisely, just what kind of church are we?

Is it a church that does what it been called by God, sent by Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit to do – to be a sign of the kingdom, a witness to truth and peace, a mediator of grace and mercy, a contributor to human well-being and flourishing – and an in-your-face protest to any power that would deny or thwart the loving-kindness of God for all people, for all creation?

Or is it a church that has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage: a therapeutic church that massages our self-esteem; an anti-intellectual church that stifles critical thinking; a managerial church that is obsessed with its own institutional survival; an otherworldly church in the business of hawking afterlife insurance; an I-vow-to-thee-my-country church, or a church resigned to its marginalisation by the state, a church that openly or silently colludes in government lies, injustice, and violence? Are we a church obsessed with saving our souls, let alone with saving our buildings, or are we a church dedicated to expending ourselves on those who are not with us, and may even be against us, prodigal with our love, imitating the self-expenditure we see in Christ, who, as Paul wrote, “rich as he was, spent it all on us, becoming poor so that we would be rich” (II Corinthians 8:9)?

Rich or poor, our true wealth is in God. Many or few, our true strength is in God. Old or young, our true vitality is in God. Is that what our being Christian, and being church, means to us and communicates to others? That is indeed a cause – the cause of Jesus – for which, like the widow, to give our all, such that mite becomes might, as the power of God is perfected in human weakness.

Thursday 5 November 2015

God is love: Varieties of love in Christian tradition

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." 
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The belief that “God is love” is at the heart of the Christian tradition. But when different Christian teachers talk about God’s love, they can have quite different things in mind. Without any claim to comprehensiveness, here’s a sketch of 12 types of love in the Christian tradition:

1. Pedagogical love: God loves us the way a wise educator loves his pupils (Clement of Alexandria, Origen) – our love for God is like an insatiable love of learning.

2. Maternal love: God loves us with the self-giving tenderness of a mother for her children (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) – our love for God is like a child’s affectionate dependence on the mother.

3. Paternal love: God loves us with the strong supervisory care of a father for his children (Tertullian, Calvin) – our love for God is like the reverential admiration and trust of a child with his father.

4. Courteous love: God loves us with courtly courtesy (George Herbert) – our love of God is like a sweet, mutually attentive conversation between host and guest.

5. Married love: God loves us with the courteous familiarity of a spouse (Julian of Norwich) – our love for God is like the free and intimate conversation between spouses (note that this is not a sexualised picture of marriage; it's more Jane Austen than D. H. Lawrence).

6. Celibate love: God loves us infinitely, but with a certain restraint (Methodius, Macrina) – our love for God is like a chaste and never-consummated yearning.

7. Erotic love: God loves us with the warmth and eagerness of a lover (Pseudo-Dionysius) – our love for God is like an ecstasy that takes us out beyond ourselves into unspeakable union with another.

8. Aesthetic love: God loves us because we reflect something of God’s own infinite beauty (Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine) – our love for God is a bigger version of the love we feel whenever we see a beautiful thing.

9. Purifying love: God loves us in the manner of an artist who creates an artwork and then patiently removes the imperfections (Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh) – we might experience God’s love as a fire of torment (i.e. as hell), but it's all for our good.

10. Authoritative love: God loves us the way a wise and charismatic ruler loves the people (Tertullian, Athanasius) – we love God with something like the intense loyalty and admiration that the Macedonian soldiers felt towards Alexander the Great.

11. Brotherly love: God loves us as an older brother loves his siblings (Desert Fathers & Mothers) – our love for God is free, familiar, and confident.

12. Friendly love: God’s love is a firm and loyal commitment to friendship for its own sake (Karl Barth) – our love for God is like reciprocating the loyalty of a friend.

Note: I don’t mean that these are entirely separate things. They’re differences in emphasis, not mutually incompatible ideas. The names beside each type are merely representative. You could put a name like Origen or Augustine beside nearly every type of love on the list, which is probably saying something about Origen and Augustine.

Questions: What have I left out? Which of these types of love predominate in current theology?

Wednesday 4 November 2015

God’s church is a school for learning: a hymn by Kim

A hymn to go with yesterday's sermon on Bartimaeus (to the tune of Bethany).

God’s church is a school for learning,
     life-long learning in the Lord;
here we’re taught to be discerning
     as we read and hear his Word.
Taught to dramatise the Story,
     Christians all have parts to play
in the theatre of his glory,
     improvising on the way.

In the church of God are courses
     in the arts of peace and prayer,
and in using the resources
     from the files of love and care;
classes in the craft of living,
     seminars on grace and sin,
Sunday workshops in forgiving,
     coaching by the Christ within.

Thinking thoughts of God – what wonder! –
     trained in virtue, given space,
we will make mistakes and blunder,
     still in church there’s always place:
place for all – here no exclusions –
     place for each – the fast and slow;
here we see through sight’s illusions,
     here by faith alone we know.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

The Bartimaeus incident

A sermon for Pentecost 22

This is the second time in Mark that Jesus heals a blind man. Both healings come at pivotal points in the narrative. The first occurs at the midpoint of the gospel, just before the critical incident at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, and then reveals his messianic identity. So the first healing acts as a bridge between the two halves of the gospel. Mark is not a careless writer. He does everything for a reason. “Pay attention!” he is saying.

The first healing happened in Bethsaida. It’s a town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In John’s gospel we learn that Peter, Philip, and Andrew lived there. In Mark’s gospel, it’s the town to which the disciples set sail while Jesus went into the hills to pray. You may remember that a strong wind suddenly blew up and surprised them, that they strained at the oars, and that when Jesus appeared walking on water, they freaked out, and were rebuked for their fear and faithlessness. They never got to Bethsaida.

Eventually, however, they did get to Bethsaida, to witness that first healing of a blind man. But there was a hitch: Jesus’ first touch was only partially successful – the man mistook trees for people – so Jesus had to lay his hands on the man’s eyes a second time before his vision was fully restored. And then what happened next at Caesarea Philippi? How interesting: Peter answered Jesus’ question correctly – “You are the Messiah” – but he did not “see” clearly the meaning of Messiah, did not “see” the kind of Messiah that Jesus is, not an all-conquering hero but a nonviolent and vulnerable servant. Still, at least some progress had been made since the fiasco on the lake: the vision of the disciples was fuzzy, but they were not altogether sightless, not after Jesus instructed them about his coming suffering and death.

Which brings us to today’s text, the Bartimaeus incident, the second healing of a blind man – and the last healing miracle in the gospel. Not at Bethsaida – via Caesarea Philippi Jesus has moved on toward Jerusalem, and now he is at Jericho, a suburb fifteens miles from the capital. But this healing too happens at a pivotal point in the narrative: it’s the last event before the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. Again, Mark is saying, “Pay attention!” Indeed, pay particular attention: the blind man has a name, and Mark rarely tells us the names of the characters in his gospel. And the name Bartimaeus – in Hebrew it means “son of the unclean”.

Remember the story of the haemorrhaging woman (Mark 7:24ff.)? She too was “unclean”. Clean-unclean, pure-impure, righteous-sinner, us-them – the distinctions mean nothing to Jesus. He healed that woman. And he told her that her faith had made her well. Jesus also heals Bartimaeus. And guess what? He tells him too that his faith has made him well. Do you think that’s coincidental? And the “crowd” – in both stories there are crowds. And in both stories they are a hindrance, indeed a threat. The woman had to force her way through the crowd; the crowd heckles Bartimaeus and tells him to shut up. Crowds. Public opinion. Soon they’ll be waving palm branches and cheering Jesus into Jerusalem – and soon after that they’ll be baying for his blood. Crowds and public opinion: fickle and feckless, weathervanes, not compass needles. Never trust them. Vox populi, vox Dei? Not.

There is yet another story with a connection to the Bartimaeus incident. Remember the rich guy (Mark 10:17ff.)? We heard about him a fortnight ago. He encountered Jesus (the text says) “on the way” (10:17). Mark uses the exact same words here, but while the rich guy turned away, Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way” (10:52). And Bartimaeus is a poor man. The rich man could not part with his possessions, but Bartimaeus throws away his only means of making a living, his cloak – beggars spread out their cloaks, like buskers put out their hats, to receive a coin or a crust from passers-by. And “the way” – we’re not just talking the Jericho Road here: “the way” was the first name Christians used to describe their faith: they were people of “the way”, the way of Jesus, the Via Crucis. And some scholars suggest that the reason the name Bartimaeus was known to Mark is that he became a prominent member in the early church. Rich man–poor man: the first slipped to last, the last jumped the queue. So many connections. Coincidental? Yes, Mark is a clever writer. Mark was a genius.

There’s still more. Back to the disciples. Immediately before the Bartimaeus incident, John and James had approached Jesus, and Jesus had said, “What can I do for you?” When Bartimaeus approaches Jesus, Jesus replies with exactly the same words. But how different the requests! John and James, the so-called “men of thunder”, asked for the big seats next to Jesus in the kingdom of God. But Bartimaeus – Bartimaeus is sick of sitting and simply wants to see. From their request, it is quite clear that the thoughtless Thors didn’t see at all.

The promise of Caesarea Philippi, when the disciples had at least begun to see, albeit myopically – it had come to nothing. The disciples had reverted to thinking of the Messiah in terms of power and privilege, not meekness and servanthood. Jesus did not, could not, grant the request of James and John, but he grants Bartimaeus’ request. Indeed Bartimaeus sees even before he sees, sees deeply who Jesus is even before he sets eyes on the no doubt not-much-to-look-at Galilean who has just healed him. While still blind, he cries out, “Son of David!”, a messianic title, just as Peter had cried out, “You are the Christ!” But, of course, Peter didn’t see who Jesus is with any more insight than James and John, old Dumb and Dumber. And how interesting: unlike all the other people Jesus heals in Mark, Bartimaeus doesn’t go home, doesn’t return to his livelihood, no, he abandons it all and, yep, follows Jesus “on the way”, with Golgotha just around the corner.

Mark – what a great storyteller – simple, plain-speaking, but as skilful as they come, weaving together people, themes, and even phrases to make a pattern – and to make a point. And what is the point? Discipleship – that’s the point – what it means, what it entails. Discipleship means transformation, beginning with a radical perceptual shift. Everything Jesus says and does, his actions and his teaching – they are all an invitation to a different way of seeing – seeing Jesus – and in the light of Jesus seeing the world and your life – what are you going to make of it, what are you going to do with it? Jesus is not interested in inculcating a set of beliefs, or inducing warm feelings or emotional highs. Notwithstanding Bush’s terminological bathos, it is indeed a “vision thing”. It’s about seeing the world as broken, yes, full of stupidity and greed and violence and pain, but a world that God loves and cares for and graces with possibilities of intelligence, generosity, peace, and healing.

And then it’s about action – acting on what you see, by becoming an apprentice of Jesus and doing what he does, as part of a community of apprentices, mutually supportive and encouraging, dedicated to the disciplines of worship and witness that shape Christian character so that we may be a people of truth, mercy, and reconciliation, people who are free, joyful, and bold in the face of what is oppressive, depressing, and scary, regardless of popular opinion and what the world calls sensible, useful, or relevant.

So the Bartimaeus incident leaves us with several pressing questions. Are we willing to buck the crowd and critique the conventional? Are we willing to reach out to folk who don’t fit and welcome them into community? Are we willing to recognise that outsiders may actually have more insight about Jesus than insiders? Are we willing to throw off our cloaks, the things that protect us and behind which we hide, and fearlessly and faithfully follow the Lord wherever he leads? In short, are we willing to be disciples, which means “learners”? And are we willing to go on learning how to be Christian in ever new contexts in ever new ways?

Almost 30 years ago I bought a book. I revisit it so often that the pages are falling out. It’s called What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning. There is, the author suggests, a constellation of obstructions to learning: the need to be right, the fear of being wrong, the security of the known, the pain of un-learning, the work of re-thinking, the disturbance of dissonance, the ubiquity of distraction. A rebuke of a book, yet with an agenda for the church that is both challenging and promising. As a teacher – a Professor of Christian Education – the author had been working at it his entire career. He died in July. His name was John Hull. The thing is: John Hull was blind. But John Hull saw. How about that, Lord: the blind leading the blind out of a ditch rather than into one!


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