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Two of My Mentors

My dear friend Gerrie Lubbe has written his memoirs, entitled Embraced By Grace: The Story of a White Ant (Potlaka Books, 2014, ISBN 978-0-9814175-1-6). In them, he tells of his life as a white Afrikaaner in South Africa, who grew up dissatisfied with the injustice he saw inflicted on those of a different color. His courage came at a cost to him. You should read the book, and learn his story for yourself, so I won’t comment on it here, except to point to the wonderful work he did as the founding National Director of the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religions and Peace from 1984 to 1994.dt_gerrie

His ability, as a deeply Christian ordained minister, to work with and learn from leaders and ordinary people of other faiths to seek justice and pursue it, is inspirational. We first met at a World Council of Churches sub-unit on dialogue meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the early 90’s. I am proud to know him and to be his friend. Those of us who have spent our lives seeking to live by and point to the good things of religion, rather than its depressing exclusivities and trivial certainties, can find solace, encouragement and hope in Gerrie’s book.

Another, even earlier influence on my developing religious life was that of my teacher, John Bowker. Over his long academic career, he’s had the extraordinary knack of anticipating some of the intellectual challenges to Christian and wider faith from the natural and social sciences, by framing a Christian defense in clear and irenical ways, seeking to promote respect and understanding, even where agreement isn’t possible. His two books about concepts of suffering and death in the world’s religions have haunted my imaginal worlds for decades, and have helped me in dark times.speaker_johnbowker

John turns 80 this year, and I’ll be present at a celebratory lunch for him at the end of July in Magdalene College Cambridge, presided over by its Master, Rowan Williams, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury. A book has just been published in his honor: A Man of Many Parts: Essays in Honor of John Westerdale Bowker on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, edited by Eugene E Lemcio (Wipf & Stock, 2015, ISBN 978-1625640710). I am proud and glad to have contributed a chapter entitled A Pilgrimage of Grace: The Journey Motif in Luke-Acts. I shamelessly commend this book to you, and hope you will buy it in honor of a great scholar and, like Gerrie, a great Christian soul.

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Meanings of Christmas

The older I get, the more I think that Karl Barth was right to maintain that religion is unbelief, though not perhaps for the reasons he gave. So much religion is exclusive, trivial and violent.

In this, it’s like any other human creation. One mistake some, though by no means all, non-religious people make is to suppose that, if religion withered on the vine, the world would be a happier place, freed from self-serving claptrap. In reality, religion would simply make way for other nonsensical ideologies and convictions held and practiced by inadequate, damaged and damaging people. Furthermore, since I seem unable to stop being religious, I hope that the life of faith, at its best, is more than self-serving claptrap!

I often think back to the words of my wise teacher, Michael Skinner, who told me that, at the very least, it’s important to support institutional religion because it keeps alive great and transformative stories, by passing them on from one generation to the next. As Christmas approaches, I reflect on how right he was. (And, as I get older, my indebtedness to him and to others who helped shape my life, seems more and more clear to me. But that’s not quite the point I want to make.)download

Too many theologians freeze dry the stories of Christmas, having shaped them into some narrow doctrinal certainties. The accounts of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, the birth of her son, the visits of the shepherds and the wise men, should, instead, warm our hearts, stir our imaginations, and set our minds free to make all sorts of connections between them and us and the world we live in. They should teach us to live and learn us to die (as Lady Jane Grey wrote to her sister, just before her execution), not tell us what to think and do. The great Muslim mystic, Rumi, though educated in theology, got it spot on when he described many such people as ‘curs, baying at the moon’. They claim to know too much, and what they know is often beside the point.

I wish you all a merry Christmas. More than that, I hope that these ancient stories, full of wonder and of all the possibilities of hope, help to transform us into better people, whatever our beliefs or lack of them.

A time for change: an orchestral conductor, a pope, and …

The great English orchestral conductor, Sir Colin Davis, who died earlier this year, was loved as well as revered by many artists who made music with him. They admired his gentleness and kindness. He didn’t carry a loaded gun in his pocket into rehearsals and concerts, as Artur Rodzinski is alleged to have done; he got his results by quite different methods. It wasn’t always so. I remember sitting in on a bad-tempered rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall way back in 1968. Apparently, upon the disintegration of his first marriage in 1964, he spoke to himself in the mirror and told himself that “it won’t do”. And so began a process of change, a happy second marriage, and a growth into greatness. Change takes time: my experience of a difficult rehearsal was four years after his moment of self-discovery. Christians call that moment and continuing process: repentance.sir-colin-davic-conductor-393267

Something similar appears to have happened to Pope Francis, formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I’ve just finished Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2013), which is quite candid about his earlier life. His time as provincial of the Argentinian Jesuits split the order and, when he left that post, an outsider was called in to heal the wounds, and Bergoglio was sent into exile to Germany. His actions when Argentina was viciously ruled by a military junta have also come under scrutiny, particularly his treatment of two of his former teachers, whom some claim he informed on to the junta. They were tortured. One died in 2000, convinced that Bergoglio was his betrayer; the other has since been reconciled with him. There are still plenty of people in Argentina who have nothing good to say about him, and believe that all his popular actions as Archbishop and later Pope are self-serving and narcissistic.

Vallely tells us that somewhere along the arc of his ministry, Bergoglio changed. I’ll leave you to read about that for yourselves. It’s fascinating stuff. The conservative opponent of liberation theology became an ardent advocate of God’s preferential option for the poor. An authoritarian lover of the old pre-Vatican 2 traditions has become an advocate of collegiality and inclusiveness. Rather like the great Pope John XXIII, his essentially traditional beliefs seem now to be tempered and even transformed by a generosity of spirit.pope_francis.jpg.size.xxlarge.promo

As I prepare to retire from Methodist ministry at the end of this month, I’ve taken to reflecting on great Christian terms like “repentance”. When I was a pastor of churches, made up of people of all sorts and conditions, it was touching and humbling to see some difficult people change for the better. But I also saw people pretend to change. It wasn’t hard to separate the sheep from the goats. Those who faked transformation did so because they’d been found out, and wanted to wriggle off that hook without any consequences for themselves. So they’d use language about everybody needing to learn, when the truth was that others didn’t need to, and they wouldn’t and possibly even couldn’t.  I was also inclined to look at what people did rather than what they said. It amazes me how many people let phonies get away with it. They shouldn’t: manipulative, self-involved people need to be called out on their actions for the sake of their souls, and for the common good.

I rather think that Pope Francis is a changed man. Let’s see what he does.

The Great War

I recently returned from an abbreviated trip to England, where many people were talking of the centenary of the Great War. As I drove in wonderful weather across the center of England, I was mindful of the fact that the summer of 1914 was glorious. I could almost discern the ghosts of people then who, seeing, as I did, England’s verdant countryside, riotously colorful with flowers, were all unaware of the calamities to come.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was killed with his wife in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. He shouldn’t have been. His car took a wrong turning, much to the surprise of Gavrilo Princip, a 19 year old member of the Black Hand, who took advantage of the mistake to murder them. This was the thread pulled from the complex fabric of European relations and treaties that soon unraveled and plunged the continent into war.

Historians often tell of the great political and economic consequences of the Great War: the end of four absolute monarchies, and the fateful clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. But it was the sheer destruction of a generation of young men, and its massive social consequences, that marked the lives of many ordinary Europeans. My father’s father died in the war. His mother had eight children; she kept some of them, and gave others of them, including my father, to an orphanage. My mother’s father returned from the western front with lungs fatally damaged by gas, and he died a young man less than ten years later, leaving his wife to bring up four girls in poverty. Such stories were common.

It should have been a war that was over by Christmas. Then, it should have been the war to end all wars, but it was only the introductory salvo in a century of genocide.Image

As I listened to people tell of what their village planned to do to mark the centenary of the First World War, I was intrigued that they didn’t want to draw easy conclusions. They just wanted to remember.

There are no facile lessons to be drawn from the carnage of the Great War. Understandably but not wisely, a generation later, English and French politicians were unwilling to go to war again against Germany, and chose appeasement rather than confrontation, until it was almost too late to stand up against the demonic powers of tyranny. In the 1960s, President Johnson was reluctant to seek any peace in Vietnam that smacked of appeasement. He remembered Chamberlain and Munich, but overlooked the fact that his situation wasn’t comparable, in any meaningful way, with that foolish and vain man who talked inanely of ‘Peace in our time’. Drawing lessons from history is more elusive and complex than we think. Often, we’re better just to remember. And to hope that, in the ugliness, there are glimpses of beauty.

I leave the last word with George Butterworth, an English composer who died, aged 31, during the Battle of the Somme. In 1911 and 1912, he had set to music some of A.E. Houseman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’. Here is the most poignant of them, a fitting memorial to him and his lost generation of young men.

Love the Stranger: Luke 1.26-38

This is the last of five Bible studies I gave at Swanwick, Derbyshire, in the summer of last year.

The Christian vision of God, for the most part, sees an infinite, qualitative distinction between the creator and the created. God is not like us. Still, that distinction isn’t a matter for despair, as though the gulf between us were unbridgeable. Elsewhere, Luke’s gospel contains a story of an unbridgeable chasm, but that’s between a rich man who, having shown no compassion in life, is now tormented in Hades, and unable to receive the help that he denied to others (Luke 16.19-31). There are many points to that subtle story; the one to which I wish to draw your attention is that the rich man’s lack of love and unwillingness to hear of the divine love formed that unbridgeable chasm. Put this another way: the larger chasm between God is less to do with God’s essential superiority to and difference from humans, and more to do with human sin. When we learn how to love, we uncover or recover the image of God within us. But, until that happens, God and humans are, to a great extent, strangers to each other.

The story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, to tell her of the birth of a son, illustrates both human closeness to God and a certain distance between them. To begin with, the distance is emphasized. God doesn’t walk with Mary in the cool of the day, as he’d done with Adam and Eve before the fall. He doesn’t come himself to tell her but instead sends an angel, a messenger, to convey this astonishing news.

Yet the result of the news is to bring humans and God close together. The experience of Mary is crucial to the Christian doctrine of salvation. Her response to the angel’s words is magnificent: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ As a result of her acquiescence, to use the angel’s words: ‘And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary co-operates with God in the drama of salvation. Without her acquiescence, there would have been no savior, no way back for humans from the results of our own folly.Image

This encounter between God and Mary, leading to the birth of a son, has led some readers of the text to write of it as cosmic rape. This relies upon viewing the image of God implied in this passage as a macho superman who uses brute power to get his own way. It’s as if he thinks: ‘I’m going to save the world through the birth of a son, and I’m going to use Mary to do it, whatever’. To be sure, some Greek and other stories from Antiquity about sexual encounters between gods and beautiful woman (or, if we read the story of the birth of Achilles, a resourceful king and a helpless goddess) are rape or something very like it. But this story? For one thing, Mary consents to the divine gift of a son. Gabriel speaks, certainly, as though he knows that Mary will say: yes. But it’s one thing to be a judge of character, good or bad, and quite another to do what you were going to anyway. God knew his woman, and Mary cooperates with the divine will; she is not coerced by it.

Luke’s account of the message of the birth of Jesus, by which humanity will be recreated in God’s image, is subtly different from the original biblical creation story, with which we began this series of bible studies. The first creation story in Genesis depicts a largely serene and untroubled God who creates in a calm and orderly fashion, conjuring forth things by a word of command, rather like a cosmic Dumbledore. But Luke’s Christian twist on the story of how God recreates humans in God’s image is another matter. The Genesis story tells how humans were supposed to cooperate with God, and to rule the world in God’s image, in love, as he would. Mary, who does indeed cooperate with God in the birth of Jesus to recreate the possibilities of being human, serenely accepts her vocation, but thereafter, the story clouds over and becomes troubled. This drama of salvation isn’t a command performance, but an act of agonizing love. For the creation of a human baby is, for the most part, a messy business and a woman’s task. Men always play minor and, at best, supporting roles in it.  Luke’s laconic and reticent description of Jesus’ birth tells us enough to know that Mary went into labor far from home, not with her mother, aunts and sisters about her, still less with a midwife, but instead with only Joseph in attendance, in or near a stable, placing Jesus in a manger for want of any better place to rest. When Jesus later said that ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9.58), Luke is recalling his birth as a marginal, homeless person.

The disruption and marginality of Jesus’ birth is shortly followed by a reference to more trouble, more anguish. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem at the time of her purification and his presentation, forty days after childbirth. Luke records that: ‘Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”’ (2.34-35)

Sure enough, when Jesus grew up, his uncomfortable message of inclusivity, of a God who loves the stranger, who has no favorites except to use them to show that he favors everyone, caused division, confrontation and suffering.

And a sword pierced Mary’s soul, also. How old was she at the time of Gabriel’s visit to her: fourteen, perhaps? At any rate, she was a young girl. It must have seemed to her then an exciting adventure, to be chosen by God for his purpose of salvation. But what when she saw her son grow up and away from her, into a life of dedication to God that frightened her by its intensity? Mark’s gospel tells us that she came with his brothers and sisters to fetch him home from his life of teaching and healing, saying that he was crazy (3.20-21). This earned her and them a stinging rebuke from Jesus, who said that those who did the will of God, not his actual relatives, were his true siblings and his mother (3.31-35). But look at things from Mary’s perspective. It’s one thing for a young girl to agree to cooperate with the divine will; quite another, when an older Mary has to come to terms with the fact that God’s will threatens the life of a beloved son. Little do many of us know, when we set out on the venture of faith, what the cost of discipleship will be. Mary seems eventually to have made peace with her vocation. John tell us that she was at the foot of the cross on which Jesus hung, who gave her into the care of his beloved disciple (19.25-27). And Luke tells us that she was with the disciples, family members and other women, devoting herself to prayer, after Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1.14).

I find it touching and genuinely helpful to my own vocation, knowing that Mary occasionally rebelled against hers. I used to wonder whether God was being fair to her, hardly more than a child, by letting her agree to a task whose magnitude and cost would only become clear to her as time went by, and youthful optimism gave way to a more adult understanding of her responsibilities. Probably he wasn’t. But thank God that he’s loving more than he’s fair, and gives us the strength to bear the results of our youthful idealism, rather than shielding us from them and making us cautious before our time.

What exactly was Mary’s vocation? In one sense, that’s easy enough to answer. She brought to birth and then to manhood, a son who was to change the world. Since, for many, perhaps for most people, a mother’s love (or lack of it) is the most important and seminal of all influences, her responsibility was tremendous. Jesus was her creation, but not only biologically. To a great extent, she would have guided and shaped the man he became. That much all Christians would want to say. Protestants, for the most part, stop there. Many liberal Protestants are reticent about claiming too much about Jesus, and would say that he was a good man, exemplary even, but they hesitate to go further. The creeds of the church and the beliefs they enshrine seem to them like cultural relics from the far past, an embarrassment, a hindrance rather than a help to understanding what Jesus means. Other more conservative Protestants have a strong Christology but often attach it to a view of God that emphasizes his uniqueness, and the gap between divinity and humanity. Many are willing to idolize the Bible, but not Mary. They are wary of making any significant claims for her. Catholic and Orthodox Christians would say more. Since Jesus is more than a good man, and Mary is his mother, then she can be regarded as theotokos, the bearer of God. That’s a common designation in the Eastern Orthodox churches. She is sometimes more carelessly and imprecisely called the mother of God, especially in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

If we assume, for the moment, that the churches’ development of Christology was an essential rather than optional or even aberrant part of Christian faith, then Mary’s vocation was more than being a good mother to a human Jesus. She was, in some sense, a co-creator with God of Jesus, a man in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’ (Colossians 2.9). She was then a necessary agent in our salvation, in our re-creation in the image of God. She represents in the most obvious way, the human necessity to work with God for our salvation.

Although I share with most Protestants a nervousness about some of the claims for Mary, and find the phrase ‘Mother of God’ a bit outré, over the top, I’m comfortable with the description of her as theotokos ‘bearer of God’. Certainly, whatever else Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity have to tell us, they tell us that humanity and divinity are inextricably linked. And the annunciation is the moment in the story of Jesus that most describes that link: Mary works with the power of God’s spirit in the story of our human redemption through the god-man, Jesus.

Of the many, many human attempts to explain what God has done in Jesus, I like most of all the largely Eastern Orthodox teaching of theosis: humans cooperate with God and are transformed so as to attain likeness to or union with God. Jesus makes this possible. As St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote: ‘For He was made man that we might be made God’. This doctrine of theosis stresses the spiritual insights of the saints rather than the more rational approach to theology of the western church. A Methodist like me naturally relates it to Wesleyan holiness and the Wesley brothers’ emphasis upon sanctification, and I’m right to do so. For holiness was a doctrine they acquired from their reading of the eastern fathers of the church.

Perhaps doctrine isn’t quite the right word here. Western Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike, have made much of the need for correct teaching, whereas the Orthodox churches have emphasized the direct spiritual insights of the saints and encouraged Christians so to pursue these insights as to seek union with God.

Let me overstate and exaggerate in order to highlight this difference, which is one of degree and not of kind. The rational-deductive tradition of the Western church would ask, of the story of the annunciation: what happened; why did it happen; what does it mean; what sort of angel is Gabriel and why him rather than, say, Michael? Since the Enlightenment period of European History, we might add: did it really happen; does it matter if it really happened; how does it all relate to a meaningful and defensible concept of truth? The mystical tradition of Orthodoxy would instead ask: how does Mary make us holy; how did she cooperate with God in order to understand and bring out his will? Eastern theologians have stressed the importance of the theology as experiencing God rather than explaining him. For this experience to be meaningful and helpful to others, the person of faith receives faith so that it can purify her, rather than so that she can understand it.250px-StJohnClimacus

I’m a mere dabbler in theology, whether of the East or of the West, since for the most part it bores me and often seems like the irrelevant spinning of fancy and often exclusive theories. The fault is mine, I know.

So let me move to the Wesley brothers who, knowing Eastern as well as Western Theology, developed their idea of sanctification with the help of the transformative process and goal of theosis, likeness to or even union with God. Let me turn to Charles, and to one of his great hymns, in which one can detect his obsession with holiness

Lord, that I may learn of thee,
Give me true simplicity;
Wean my soul, and keep it low,
Willing thee alone to know.

Let me cast myself aside,
All that feeds my knowing pride;
Not to man, but God submit,
Lay my reasonings at thy feet;

Of my boasted wisdom spoiled,
Docile, helpless, as a child,
Only seeing in thy light,
Only walking in thy might.

Then infuse the teaching grace,
Spir’t of truth and righteousness;
Knowledge, love divine, impart,
Life eternal, to my heart.

The knowledge to which the last verse points is not so much human reasoning, of course, which has its proper place, but the result of contemplating what faith has revealed to us. I like to ask myself the absurd question: how would Mary have sung this hymn after the annunciation, how would she have understood it?

We may have seemed to have moved far away from the theme: love the stranger. Not so. We are strangers to God because of our sin. But God takes steps to restore her image within us. God bridges the chasm. Holiness is, as we saw in earlier studies, ‘otherness’: God, and the particular places where God is believed to dwell fully, like Jerusalem. Holiness reminds us of all we could be. Yet even holiness is tarnished by human sin. But, if we accept faith as a gift, and work with God to let it purify us, we shall become like him: holy and pure love. Some theologians of the Eastern church have gone so far as to say that, even if Adam and Eve had not introduced sin into the world, God would still have sent Jesus to reveal to us that we can become even closer to God, even more like God, than they were.

God loves us. God loves the stranger.

This conviction leads me back from the fathers of the Eastern church to my own Methodist roots, and to finish these bible studies with a testimony. Long years ago, when I was the age my daughter now is, I went to India, after studying in a theological college, to work and study at a Christian Institute for the study of Islam. As it turned out, I discovered that God had got there before me, and not just through the work of Christian missionaries. My long years of association with India have shaped my life forever, and made me appreciate holiness where perhaps, through my ignorance or prejudice, I had not expected to find it.

So, for example, I think of a Shia Muslim couple, Kamran and Sabiha Latifi, who took me under their wing. He was a graduate of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and I was his guest at an Oxford and Cambridge dinner on the evening of March 16th, 1976; and she fed and fussed over me. I came to call them: ummi and baba, mum and dad. I think too of a Parsi poet, Bano Taheera Sayeed, who gave me copies of her work that touched me deeply. On one occasion I interviewed for the BBC an Indian Jew, Simcha Khedourie, who had set up schools in Mumbai for needy kids of her own and other communities. I could go on, but won’t. The point is that I encountered, among Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Jews, Jains and others, as well as Christians, people who struggled after holiness, not despite their tradition of faith but through it, and to whose love I am everlastingly indebted. I must also point to the things I learned from atheist and agnostic friends, in their quest for meaning and integrity. Diversity is a mystery. But it’s also a gift.

To be sure, some Hindus, Muslims, and so forth whom I met were tiresome, self-centered, and deeply unlikeable. Just as some Christians can be.

My Christian reading tells me that those lovely people from different religions, who changed my life forever and for good, were co-creators with God, helping God to make the world holy. They, of course, might explain it rather differently.ed and martin-1(1)

Not that it matters:

‘That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’

So I have been encouraged, because of the love of strangers, to love them in return so that they become friends, and to work with them, to help mend this broken world and make it holy: different than it now is, re-made in the image of God.

 

 

 

Points for discussion

  1. How does Wesleyan holiness help us understand Christian living?
  2. Why should we love the stranger?
  3. Can Mary be an exemplary figure for Methodists?

Loving the Enemy: The Way of Non-Violence

This is the penultimate Bible Study I delivered at Swanwick, Derbyshire, last summer.

JEREMIAH 20

God created a divers universe and world, and saw that they were good. God made humans in God’s image, male and female he made them, to express her own diversity, and to rule the earth as they would. That’s a complicated sentence (referring to God as ‘he’, ‘she’ and then ‘they’) but the doctrine of the Trinity is, of course, a recognition that diversity is built into the Deity. My colleague from Cambridge days, Nicholas Lash, once described the Trinity to me as two blokes and a bird! Anyway, the point is that God trusted us to act as God would. Big mistake! Power and pride and curiosity and a pile of other things got the better of humans, and, as a result of all this, murder erupted and other forms of violence towards other people and the whole created order.

God wills shalom: peace, wholeness. All created beings should live in peace with each other and in harmony with the universe. The easy thing would be to exclude humans from the process. But God seems to be reluctant to do that. So instead of giving up on the human experiment, he planned to redeem his error.

She created a people, the Jews, to be a light to the nations. And eventually, he elected a second people, Christians, to further this task. Meanwhile, there are hints that God’s love for other people wasn’t exhausted by these two choices. For example, in the book of Amos:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (9.7)

The special attention the Bible pays to God’s dealings with Jews and Christians isn’t to single them out for being especially good, or favored to the exclusion of all else. It is to take a major part in the task to help God recreate humans in God’s image.

This, then, is one influential and enthralling reading of the biblical story of the divine engagement with humans. One problem with it is that Jews and Christians have often no more been able to live up to God’s hopes than has anyone else, from Adam and Eve onwards.

But again, instead of abandoning the human experiment, God improvises and keeps on reminding recalcitrant Jews and Christians (as he does other people) of their obligations, and of their potential for good. In the Old Testament, the prophets were that group of people who kept bringing an often faithless people back to what God demands of them. They reminded Israel that God and his people had mutual obligations. One biblical way of expressing the prophets’ task was to have them emphasize the covenant that God had made with the Jews on Mount Sinai, to be his God, to look after them, and to tell them again and again that their responsibility was to obey God’s laws. Another way of looking at the prophets is to see them as the people’s moral conscience. Although they can often be caricatured as prissy scolds, that’s to do them an injustice. Basically, they were saying: If you don’t trust God, if you act in ways you know he disapproves of because they’re against your best interest, or if you second guess God and think you know better, then as sure as night follows day, you will bring disaster upon yourselves.

This means that prophets read the signs of the times. Unfortunately, we often turn them into a coven of Mystic Megs, gazing into crystal balls and foretelling the future, whether it be the birth of Jesus, or the date of Israel’s calamitous destruction at the hands of a great empire, or the end of the world, or whatever. This is to trivialize them and to put their importance in the wrong place. The point was not that they knew precise hours and dates of future events, but that they knew all about the likely results of the foolish and wicked things they presently saw in the events around them. Think of them as you would the father of an out-of-control teenager, saying, often to no effect: ‘If you carry on like this, then…’ He doesn’t know for sure when a bad thing will happen, but he surely knows that it must.

Jeremiah was late on the scene as a prophet. There had been prophets in Israel for over half a millennium before he was called by God, as a small boy, in about 626 BC. Moses is always a special case, but I reckon Jeremiah to be the greatest of prophets, a pain-filled and tragic figure. Ten of the original tribes of Israel had already disappeared into history when, almost a century before Jeremiah’s birth, the Assyrians had destroyed the northern kingdom. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained, in a small kingdom of Judah based on Jerusalem. Jeremiah prophesied during this final forty years of Judah’s history. It will help us understand Jeremiah, if we take a look at the cataclysmic events he lived through.Image

A few years after the call of Jeremiah, King Josiah began widespread religious reforms, sweeping away the idolatry of his father and grandfather and restoring the sole worship of Yahweh. Jeremiah approved of this. But after Josiah was killed by Egyptian forces at Megiddo, now famous as Armageddon, in 609, his reforms ran out of steam, and were even reversed. By this time, Assyria was played out as a great power, and the new macho kid on the block was Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar II.

The Egyptians quickly deposed Josiah’s successor as king, and placed Jehoiakim on the throne. He paid lots of money as tribute to Pharaoh Necho until the Egyptian ruler was defeated by the Babylonians at the battle of Carchemish in 605; thereafter, he paid Nebuchadnezzar instead. But when, after three more years, the Egyptians and Babylonians were still fighting each other, Jehoiakim took a gamble and returned his allegiance to Egypt. As a result, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem in 599. During it, Jehoiakim died, probably murdered, and his body was thrown over the city wall, possibly to appease the Babylonians. They weren’t having it, though, and eventually Jerusalem fell in March 597.  Jehoiakim’s son Jeconiah was deposed as king, and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah. Jeconiah was exiled to Babylon, where he lived peacefully for many years.

Zedekiah didn’t learn from his brother Jehoiakim’s mistake. Instead of paying tribute to the Babylonians and accepting status as a vassal king, and against the advice of Jeremiah and many others, he entered into an alliance with the new Egyptian Pharaoh Hophra. A Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem again in January 589, and the city fell after a terrible eighteen months, during which people turned to cannibalism, even eating their own children, in order to survive. The city was badly damaged and looted by the victorious Babylonians. Solomon’s Temple and the Ark of the Covenant were destroyed and with them, one might think, the Jewish religion itself. Zedekiah’s sons were put to death before his eyes, and then he was blinded and sent in chains to Babylon. There were no more kings of the Jews until Roman times, five centuries later.Image

I expect you to have remembered all this information, and will shortly give you a quiz on it! The important thing to remember, of course, is that the times were perilous, bloody, and just plain awful. The Jews were in the wrong place at the wrong time and made the wrong choices. The kingdom of Judah lay at a crossroads where fighting Assyrians, Egyptians and Babylonians were bound to meet. It seemed as if, in order to survive, the king must choose one or other great power as an ally, in order to survive. They chose badly.

Some of the great prophets of old had, in similar circumstances, counseled a king to trust in God and in no earthly prince. But it looks as though the kings in Jeremiah’s time, Josiah and his successors didn’t feel able to follow that strategy. Look at it from their point of view. As great powers fought it out for dominance, with Judah as a pawn in their game, the kings must have thought that any advice to do nothing was crazy, even if it came with an assurance that God would take care of his people. And it was understandable that they preferred to deal with Egypt. Compared to Assyria and Babylonia, Egypt was a long established empire and could be expected, despite setbacks, to see the other powers off. But that never happened.

The kings were encouraged by some prophets who urged them to take the steps they did. Jeremiah regarded them as false prophets, and this brought him into trouble with them and with their followers. One of these supporters was Passhur, who was deputy chief priest of the Jerusalem Temple. At the beginning of our chapter, having heard Jeremiah prophesying judgment upon the king and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Passhur had him beaten, which may have meant forty stripes indicated by Deuteronomy 25.3, and put on stocks overnight. This did not browbeat Jeremiah into submission. When he was released, Jeremiah defiantly said to Passhur that his name would no longer be Passhur, meaning ‘splitter’ or ‘cleaver’, but would now be the Hebrew word for ‘terror on every side’, because he would be a terror to his friends, whose deaths he will witness at the hands of the Babylonians. Passhur himself would be exiled with his family to Babylon, and there he and they and his surviving friends would die.

Passhur’s decision to punish a prophet can’t have been an easy one to make. You don’t really want to get on the wrong side of someone who’s a mouthpiece of God, telling it as it is. Yet Jeremiah was in a minority, even among the prophets. Most prophets were being more upbeat about events. To Jeremiah, they seemed like frauds, whistling in the dark. To them and to Passhur, who seems also to have prophesied a bit, he seemed the odd one out, the charlatan, who could therefore be punished for being such.

Passhur was wrong, but not necessarily a wicked man. Like so many people, he fooled himself, hearing what he wanted to hear instead of what he must hear for his good. Would we have done differently than Passhur? Some of Jeremiah’s actions seemed treasonous, lowering the country’s spirits at a time of national emergency and counseling appeasement of the enemy. The analogy isn’t exact, but Jeremiah must have seemed more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill.  After the first siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah wrote a letter to Jews who’d been taken to Babylon. In it, he counseled them:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.” (29.4-9)

Wise words, to us who have the benefit of hindsight. But, at the time, they would have seemed spineless and treacherous to many, perhaps most Jews. In fact, after the second siege of Jerusalem, during which Jeremiah had been imprisoned and left to starve in a muddy cistern, punishment for lowering the morale of the people and the soldiers by his gloomy prognostications, the Babylonians freed him and let him choose where he wanted to live. He went to Mizpah, a city in Benjamin. Then he was taken, perhaps against his will, to Egypt, where likely he died.

In fact, Jeremiah was a realist, not a traitor. The smaller part of his realism was his recognition that the Jews could not hope to win if they angered a great power, so should keep quiet and keep their heads down rather than take sides. The greater part was his acknowledgment that God sought the welfare of the Babylonians, and presumably the Egyptians, as well as Jews. Jeremiah’s letter makes this clear. God loves all whom he has made, despite their violence, and wants them to lead peaceful lives, marrying, planting gardens, and stuff like that where people co-exist rather than fight and kill.

Jeremiah certainly suffered for his treachery, if that’s what it was.  He was attacked by his own brothers (12.6),beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet (as we’ve seen), imprisoned by the king (37.18), threatened with death (38.4), and opposed by a false prophet (28).

Here’s the thing: Jeremiah hadn’t wanted to be a prophet, and tried to get out of it when God called him, claiming he was too young and wasn’t an adequate speaker (1.6). I think we must take Jeremiah’s reluctance at face value. Other prophets, like Isaiah, thought it was cool to become a prophet. He’d said: ‘Here am I! Send me’ (Isaiah 6.8). There wasn’t a prophetic convention to pretend to be surprised at being called by God, whilst actually loving it, like a hotly-tipped Hollywood actor playing down her chances of an Oscar and doing the whole ‘who? me?’ thing when her name is called out to come up and get it. Isaiah was okay with being a prophet, and was on record as saying so. Not so, Jeremiah.

Jeremiah prophesied, reluctantly. He knew the cost of that form of discipleship, and hated it. In the early part of the Book of Jeremiah, there are a series of what have been called ‘the Confessions of Jeremiah’ (11.18-12.6, 15.10-21, 17.14-18, 18.18-23, and 20.7-18). These lament the tragedy of his vocation. There are two of them in our chapter, verses 7-12 and 14-18.

Let me remind you again that the prophet’s witnessed to God’s creative desire for shalom, a universe at peace and in harmony. The forty years we’ve looked at today shows the human capacity for power play, viciousness, and self-deception. Jeremiah lived in a violent world, and told the truth about God, who willed non-violence but who spelled out to his people the consequences of living in other ways.

Jeremiah suffered the consequences of witnessing to the truth. The first of these confessions begins his lament that ‘I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.’ He admits that the mockery and worse that he faces make him want to give up his vocation. And so we get to one of the greatest of biblical verses: ‘If I say, “I will not mention him [God], or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.’ Some commentators try to extrapolate from this verse details of how the prophetic gift works – like a consuming fire. That strikes me as fastening on the relatively trivial in order to avoid dealing with what it tells us of the immense pain and anguish of the man, who simply can’t give up his vocation despite his anger at its ruination of the life he wants to live, with friends and family. This verse gives the lie to those trivial taunts that religious people always or mostly are in it for what they get out of it. Not always.

That verse tells of a man all but destroyed by his vocation as truth-teller, who determines to keep shtum; yet the truth burns within him, and he can’t hold it in. Powerful stuff! Why, is a great question, and you should ask it when you talk together afterwards.

So Jeremiah was stuck in playing a role he hated, because of its consequences to him, yet somehow unable to give it up. Remember what happened to Passhur, the Temple grandee, earlier in this chapter. His name would be changed to ‘terror on every side’ and he would end his life in despair, a failure. Jeremiah picks up that new name, and applies it to himself: ‘For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.”’ Is Jeremiah saying that he’s no better than Passhur, in despair, a failure?

The first confession in our passage ends with a recognition that God’s on his side as a dread warrior, and that God’s delivered him, or will do, from the hands of evildoers. This strikes a false note at the end of these bleak verses, and some commentators think that they were added later by some pious scribe who couldn’t cope with their desolate sentiments. For myself, I’m rather inclined to think that Jeremiah did what many of us do when things go pear-shaped. Having got the anger and agony off his chest, he then muttered pieties, as a sort of whistling in the dark, hoping against hope for better things to come whilst not really believing it.

The second confession in this chapter is rather like Job 3 and, indeed, is likely an influence on that book. It’s a cry of utter despair and anguish. Jeremiah curses the day of his birth, and the man who told of the news of his arrival to his father. He asks that that man be overthrown and burned up, as were Sodom and Gomorrah. Jeremiah wishes instead that his mother had died in childbirth and him with her. There’s a classic bit of transference, of course. In cursing the messenger, and wishing his mother and himself dead, Jeremiah is really cursing God, and wishing his vocation to be a prophet, dead and buried. And there’s no pious utterance at the end of this passage. Only pain, and anger, and despair.Image

For the most part, the relationship of a prophet to God is beside the major point of the content of the prophetic message to God’s people. But Jeremiah’s anguish raises the veil over the bond between God and her prophet. This is Chapter 20 and there are fifty-two chapters in the Book of Jeremiah. Whilst the book isn’t in chronological order, the positioning of this lament in the book suggests that God wasn’t through with Jeremiah. There’s more to this story after this dreadful outburst. Even so, subsequently there are no more confessions of Jeremiah. God’s silence in the face of this outburst is fascinating. Does God feel guilty at what he’s demanded of his prophet? Is he simply ignoring him? Or is silence sometimes the only appropriate response to tremendous grief and pain and outrage?

We’re left with an awful irony. God who wills shalom, peace, harmony, non-violence, allows catastrophic violence to befall those who, for the sake of others, keep alive the message of God in dark times.  The influence of Jeremiah’s confessions casts a long shadow over the rest of the Bible, especially on the story of Job, the description of the suffering servant of the Lord in the later chapters of Isaiah, and the life and death of Jesus. Perhaps, to suffering individuals, out of the silence, eventually speaks a divine voice of redemptive love? If so, it must sometimes seem too little, too late.

And yet. The apostle Paul tells us that Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God’, who makes ‘peace through the blood of his cross’ (1: 15, 20). Peace or non-violence is not a negative or passive thing. It is costly, as the cross of Christ demonstrates. The life of Jeremiah, too, reminds people of faith that the way to peace is sometimes through violence: through violent times, to be sure, but also in risking violence for the sake of truth. I teach my students about Gandhi, in the course of a class on the History of Modern India, and about Dr. Martin Luther King, in a course on U.S. History since the 1960s. They suffered greatly, paying the final price with their own life, in showing that peace, for the sake of truth, is far better than violence.

Points for discussion

  1. Why didn’t Jeremiah give up being a prophet?
  2. Are religious people in it only for what they get out of it?
  3. Is non-violence only about not being violent?

Learning Through Diversity: Revelation 21

The third of five Bible Studies, given in the summer of 2013

At the end of the Christian Bible, we have a great vision of diversity in the Book of Revelation. The writer says, of the new Jerusalem, that: ‘The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.’ We have to wade through a great deal of curious, colorful and violent language, and some anger to get there, but his vision of the new Jerusalem is, perhaps, worth it. I interject the note of caution because the book of Revelation almost didn’t get into the Bible. The Eastern churches showed especial restraint. Although they regard it as fully canonical, even today it isn’t used in the liturgies of the orthodox churches of the east. In other words, you will never hear it read there in public worship. Other Christians, too, have found the book’s violence and bad-temper off-putting and untruthful. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther found it difficult to harmonize the vengeful God of Revelation with Jesus’s prayer to God as Abba, Father. His first translation of the Bible into German relegated it to an appendix.

The book’s spleen is probably understandable. The author of Revelation lived at a time of the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Domitian towards the end of the first Christian century, and he had little sympathy for Christians whose courage wasn’t up to the high standard he set. He loathed the oppressing Roman authorities (thinly disguised as Babylon in his work), and predicted a dire and painful end for them, in lurid language. It may be, as the slightly later theologian, Tertullian, was to say, that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’, but it won’t do to glorify suffering. If it can sometimes ennoble a person, it can as equally embitter those who endure it, and suck compassion out of them. The book of Revelation illustrates both of these possibilities. Look at verses 7 and 8, for example:

“He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

That’s both nice and nasty. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed and touched by this vision of the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Despite all the book’s anger and hatred, it conveys the sense that, after the trials and tribulations of living faithfully in God’s world, humans will know the truth of God’s words to Mother Julian Norwich that: ‘…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

Of course, the Book of Revelation has been the source of the teachings of many a sub-Christian zealot with a taste for literalism, and of countless fringe groups in Christianity. The last verse of our chapter, for example, with its reference to the Lamb’s book of life, has proven irresistible to those who think they know who and how many souls are in it, or not in it. But that verse is really more important for its statement that nothing unclean shall enter the new Jerusalem. We’re back to this idea of holiness. God wants us to be holy. And the author’s depiction of a new Jerusalem is a brilliant way of conveying the need for holiness.220px-BambergApocalypseFolio055rNew_Jerusalem

Let’s remind ourselves of what it means to be holy. To be holy literally is to be ‘set apart’ or ‘other’. This has sometimes been expressed religiously in terms of morality (I behave appropriately, and you don’t) and sometimes in terms of membership of a religious organization:  the holy, universal church as a whole, or some bit of it that claims especial holiness or rightness. These are really rather trivial explanations of holiness. A better definition stresses ritual purity: the sense that, in worship, or in purifying ourselves, spiritually or physically, we draw near to God. In order to help us understand the meanings of holiness let’s use Jerusalem as an example. The author of Revelation does so, and the reasons why probably lie in the longstanding sacredness of the city.

For Jerusalem’s been a holy city for over five thousand years, long, long before Jews, then Christians, then Muslims each laid claim to its holiness. It was holy, three thousand years before St. John the Divine dreamed this dream of a new Jerusalem. The earliest settlement on the site of today’s Jerusalem was built on a hill in the back of beyond, but even so flourished because of a stream that welled up and made it possible for people to settle and live there. Originally, it was probably dedicated to a water sprite, and then to Shalim, the Canaanite god of twilight. Two thousand years before Jesus, Melchizidek, the High Priest and ruler of Salem, or Jerusalem, blessed the patriarch Abraham. And a thousand years after Melchizedek, King David seized the city from the Jebusites and made it his capital, the city of David, a sacred place for Jews.  Geographically, Jerusalem doesn’t make much sense as a capital city, but it had holiness, and no other nearby settlement could claim anything as attractive as that. David’s son Solomon built a Temple there to house God, which was built again twice, before the Romans brutally destroyed it forty years after Jesus’ death.

Jerusalem may be holy, but it’s steeped in blood. During its long history, it’s been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. Jews and Christians and Muslims have fought over it, claiming its holiness for themselves, and often denying it to others.

If you think that holiness is exceptionally good behavior, as displayed by those saints and other religious heroes whose portraits are painted with haloes over their head, Jerusalem’s sanguineous and conflict-ridden history may cause you to scratch your head in disbelief. But holiness isn’t about being decent; it’s about being faced with the living God, dealing with the mystery of what God wants of you, and what God thinks of others. Like all sacred places, and for many people it’s the most sacred place of all, Jerusalem knocks you off base, fills you with wonder, and makes you ask whether there’s a great deal more to life and death than you ever thought there was. God may be everywhere but somehow, Jerusalem makes more people face issues of life and death, what it means to human, than does, for example, Milton Keynes or Manchester. Or even Swanwick.

The Emperor Constantine made Christianity respectable and paved the way for it to become the state religion of the late Roman Empire. His mother, the Empress Helena visited Jerusalem from 326 to 328, and spent a lot of her son’s money rebuilding it. She also located a pile of stuff associated with Christian origins and so began the obsession of late antiquity and the medieval period with finding religious relics. I particularly like her story of distinguishing the true cross. Helena had a dying woman brought from the city. When the woman touched two crosses, her condition stayed the same, but when she touched the third cross she speedily got well, so Helena declared that last cross to be the cross that bore the body of Jesus. Now you know. She was completely bonkers. Divinely mad. As a hatter. But her idea that whilst most pieces of wood have nothing special about them, one piece of wood may draw you into the greatest story ever told, brings us somewhere close to the heart of what holiness means.Image

If you want to understand Jerusalem’s holiness, don’t just look to its better class of inhabitant, now and in the past. Look instead to pilgrims, some of them saintly but many of them riffraff, toughs, tarts and tourists, who’ve traveled there for millennia to face the truth about themselves, life’s deepest mysteries, and other people; and who find, in the muddle of Jerusalem’s many messages, grounds for faith. As it happens, I was once in Jerusalem when I heard of serious illness in my family. That day, serendipitously, our group went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which homes the traditional sites of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I went to the place where, it is said, Jesus had been laid out in death; I knelt and stretched out my hand. I was (what are the words I’m searching for?) confused and deeply troubled but also: hopeful. I felt that it was providential to be in such a place at such a time; rather than, shall we say, on a beach in Florida. Holiness concentrates the power and the love and the utter otherness of the divine.

People kill for it. The blood and the horror of holiness spill out because humans, being weak and fallible, often want the benefits of holiness for themselves and those like them, and not for anyone else. We understand God’s generosity, to us and people like us. We just can’t take in how breathtakingly generous she is, even to those who seem to us to be wicked or pointless. We’d often sooner deny holiness to others than share it with them. Or, if we’ve advanced a little but not nearly enough, we’ll allow them a little access to God’s grace, in the foolish belief that we, rather than God, are the gatekeepers to life’s deepest secrets. Even St. John the Divine couldn’t quite get the point that pagan emperors can hear and do God’s will, for good reasons and for bad; and that some lukewarm Christians may be doing more than he thinks to live by faith, even if their fear of torture, persecution and cruel death limited their willingness to parade their religion before others.

Christians see God’s breathtaking generosity in Jesus. In a wonderful gospel passage we witness his lament over the city:

“Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Luke 13.34-35)

Jesus looks to his people’s religious past to see beyond the holiness of Jerusalem to its inhabitants’ longstanding ability to turn a deaf ear to God, when they’re told what they don’t want to hear. He foresees ruin and desolation. God wants to be tender, like a mother, but her brood is unruly and unhearing.

In fact, Jesus had problems with the idea of holiness. Holiness is like religious laws, which can to easily be misused to suit the prejudices and exclusive claims of religious people.

The funniest and crudest illustration of Jesus’s attitude to religious cleanness is found in Mark 7:

He said to his disciples, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (7.18-23)

Stuff outside us, like food, doesn’t contaminate us. We eat it and excrete it. Impurity comes from inside us, not from outside us. It’s our loveless heart that shuns holiness. So Jesus had a general contempt for the human capacity to substitute religiosity for true holiness.

Jesus’ specific problem with Jerusalem’s holiness was focused on the Temple. The Temple was the heart of Jewish religious life, where God dwelt in a focused and concentrated way. Twice a year, Jews from all over the Mediterranean world and even further, poured into the city to offer sacrifice there. The Temple of Jesus’ day was an extraordinary structure, built a few years earlier by King Herod the Great. It still wasn’t complete when Jesus was alive. It was built on Temple Mount, holy Jerusalem’s holiest place, where Abraham is believed to have been willing to sacrifice Isaac.

On one occasion, Jesus made a whip and drove out of the Temple, the animals that could be bought there, along with their owners and the men who changed money for people who wanted to buy a dove or a sheep or whatever they could afford as a sacrificial animal. I don’t think Jesus was just angry at people making a quick buck out of religion. After all, animal sacrifice was part of Jesus’ religion. People needed to buy animals for the purpose of sacrifice. The system might have been abused by some, but it was there for a good religious reason and most of the sellers were probably men making an honest day’s work. So how are we to understand what Jesus did, making a scene in the Temple and driving out man and beast?

His fury arose from his convictions about God’s breathtaking generosity, his compassion for all whom he’s made. Jews believed God to be God of the nations. God had a special covenant relationship with Jews, but had made the world and all upon it. That was, as we’ve seen, a stunning insight, to look beyond local deities and tribal gods to the belief that, in the beginning, one God created the heavens and the earth. And yet, so often when people encounter holiness, they try to capture it, narrow it down, include themselves and exclude others. Or: they’re just not inclusive enough. They put limits on God’s love that knows and accepts no limits.

The Temple was the holiest structure in the world’s holiest place. There was a number of ascending courtyards. The court of the gentiles was open to all but there was a notice in Greek, the mostly widely used language by cultivated people of the Mediterranean world in Jesus’s day, that any gentile, non-Jew, who ventured further would be responsible for his or her own certain death. After the court of the gentiles, the court of the women was as far as Jewish women could go. Jewish men could enter the court of the Israelites, beyond which Jesus couldn’t go, or any other Jewish man who wasn’t a priest. Then there was the court of the priests, and after this was a place where only certain priests could go, chosen by lot for a period of time. And then into the Holy of Holies only the High Priest could go, and he only once a year on the Day of Atonement, to make sacrifice for the sins of the people.

The building was breathtakingly beautiful, a feast for the eyes and for the human spirit. And yet, for Jesus, a faithful but eccentric Jew, it was a problematic place. In his estimation, it included people, but also excluded them. It emphasized human differences, unhelpfully. He believed that God’s undistinguishing love should make the Temple a house of prayer for all people. It was somewhat, and yet it wasn’t enough. The tragedy of many decent religious people is that, believing in God’s love, they parcel it out as best suits their prejudices.

The glory of Jerusalem is that it’s a holy place, an axis mundi, a place where the world turns, if you have the faith to encounter the living God. The tragedy of Jerusalem is that sinful humans think they can capture that encounter, and dole it out to others on their own terms, if at all.

So it’s interesting, isn’t it, that in St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, there is ‘no temple…, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb’ (21:22)? This is surely a way of saying that, when you get to heaven, there’ll be no need of a religious building, any more than we’ll the clergy, a Bible or any other traditional religious means by which we lay hold of the divine. There is a wonderful Buddhist parable warning us that the map is not the territory. The story tells of how a man is trapped on one side of a river. On this side, there is great danger and uncertainty and on the far side of the river is safety. However there is no bridge spanning the river nor is there a ferry to cross over. What to do? The man gathers together logs, leaves, and creepers and fashions a raft from these materials. By lying on the raft and using his hands and feet as paddles he manages to cross the river from the dangerous side to the side of safety.Image

The Buddha then asks the listeners a question. What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river thought to himself – That raft has served me well I will carry it on my back over the land now? The monks replied that it would not be a very sensible idea to cling to the raft in such a way. The Buddha went on – What if he lay the raft down gratefully thinking that this raft has served him well but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore? The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude. The Buddha concluded by saying – So it is with my teachings which are like a raft and are for crossing over with, not for seizing hold of.

As with the raft, so the Jerusalems of this world and their temples are a means to an end, not the end itself. When they have served their purpose and, by their otherness, by their holiness, they have brought us safe home, let them go. A dear friend of mine, a Methodist minister, who recently died, wanted to be laid out in his ministerial robes. That I understand, for his vocation was an indelible part of who he was; and who, by God’s grace, he still is. But he has fulfilled his purpose now, and many people are grateful for all he did to minister the grace of God. The trumpets have sounded for him on the other side; as, we hope, one day, they will for us.

Rhetorically, I should end there, for good effect. But I need to say one thing more. We’ve seen that Jerusalem is an imperfect symbol of holiness, gathering exclusive views of holiness that have often turned to violence. My friend, being human, was also an imperfect symbol of holiness. As St Paul wrote: ‘We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’ We are frail, breakable, yet contain within us the grace of God. The Book of Revelation is an imperfect vehicle of God’s grace, though it has the capacity to move and transform us, as well as chill us with its anger and bile.

No one person or place or book can, of itself, adequately convey God’s power to re-create us in his image. We learn through diversity of the grace and holiness of God.

Points for discussion

  1. Where can holiness be found?
  2. Has anyone been to Jerusalem or any other holy site? If so, what did you make of it?
  3. What do we learn through diversity?