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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

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.


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?

Who is my neighbor? Who is the stranger?: Leviticus 19:1-18

This is the second of five bible studies given in the summer of 2013. I haven’t changed the original text, which explains the particularity of some of the language.

We already know the answer to these questions, from the first creation story of the book of Genesis. We’re part of the created order and so linked to all things, yet we’re also distant from them. We’re neighbors, and also strangers. This distance isn’t because we’re utterly different from mice and monkeys, as some have misread Genesis to mean. You can accept the theory of evolution and still think that Genesis has something to say to us! Rather, that distance is because God created divers things, so that even in the same species of humankind there are male and female, black and white, and so on. We can be certain, then, that others will always be, in part, strangers to us, beyond our capacity fully to describe or understand. Men will never fully plumb the depth of women’s experiences, or the other way round. When I teach the history of slavery in the United States to a class of African-Americans, it would be trivial and shameful to suggest that I can empathize with the history of their blackness. Even those closest to us can surprise us by a word or a deed. The story of creation tells us that everyone is my neighbor and everyone is, to some extent, a stranger to me.

We know this. But we struggle to believe it. Somehow and shamefully, it gives us pleasure to think of others as our inferiors. Yesterday’s story has an answer for that, also, because it goes on to tell us that God’s good creation, over which humans are appointed to rule as God would rule, has a fatal flaw in it. That flaw is the human capacity to choose, and to choose evil rather than good. Instead of treating the varied wonders of creation with integrity, our lives disintegrate into selfishness and the will to plunder, so that creation groans under the weight of misery we inflict upon it.

Yet we’re not without hope. We bring upon ourselves and others needless calamities, but God doesn’t give up on us. He works with us to restore meaning and purpose to our lives, and to the created order. The Bible tells the story of two groups of people with whom God works to recreate God’s image within us: the Jews, and then the followers of Jesus.

Today we pick up this story of restoration and renewal in the book of Leviticus, which is part of the story of the Jews wandering in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, before they enter the land God promised to their ancestors, the patriarchs. This may seem an unpromising place to resume the story. Mark Twain called the Book of Mormon ‘chloroform in print’, a verdict difficult to deny unless you’re a fervent believer. He could have awarded the silver medal for dullness to Leviticus, with no questions asked. But be patient; it has much to teach us. It accepts that God made the world very good and that, when humans fall short, they can aspire to regain that goodness through ritual and religious law. It encourages people to be holy. That, indeed, is how our passage starts: ‘…the Lord said to Moses, “Say to all the congregation of Israel, you shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’.

Holiness is that special something that marks the presence of the divine, and sets it apart from the commonplace. There’s a nostalgic quality to holiness as though, when we encounter it, it speaks to us of what we could be. We admire it in others who seem closer to God than we are, because of some quality in their life. It’s as if we know we should be holy and could be, but fail to be. It’s a regretful, yearning longing after the image of God that our selfishness covers over but can’t quite destroy.Image

The early part of Leviticus now seems hopelessly dated, even to many observant Jews, with its obsessive interest in how to make proper sacrifices to God, and how humans should deal with bodily discharges, and other things that, as my students would say, gross us out. Jesus had much to say, and that not kindly, about a neurotic concern for ritual. But we ought also to note the rightness of the desire to link ritual to holiness.  As we saw yesterday, in linking creation to worship, we can admire the insight whilst have some reservations about how it’s done. Men  need to move on from chapter 15’s willingness to tell women what to do with their bodies, but humans mustn’t abandon the idea that we should strive to be different from the ordinary, that worship should take us out of ourselves and into the presence of God, that we should offer God the best we can.

The second half of Leviticus, which includes our passage, is more concerned with holiness than with ritual. It asks, how are we to behave towards people and to God’s commands? So, in the same breath, the book says that ‘every one of you shall revere his mother and his father; and you shall keep my sabbaths’. This may seem a bizarre juxtaposition: parents are not the same kind of thing as a twenty-four hour period of time. Maybe, however, there is a link. At their best, God’s commands are meant to make sense of our relationships to people and to the world. So, here, for example, God, who created parents to nurture us, also created the Sabbath rest for us for each family member to take pleasure in each other’s company. The rituals we do, the offering of worship we make, confirm that we are diversely human, who find our deepest meaning in the company of others, whose differences have much to teach us.

So, let’s dig a little further into today’s scripture passage to find out what we can learn about who is my neighbor. We often think that this early part of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is rather embarrassingly violent. The Jews are establishing their identity as a people, with the gift of the law on Mt. Sinai; and, on the grounds that God gave the land to their ancestors, when they finally get there, they cut a swathe through its inhabitants. In fact, however, close attention to the biblical text shows that only some of it portrays the Jews as swaggering macho men.  Other parts show a deeper, more inclusive understanding of God’s will for them and for others. Verses 9 and 10 of our passage, for example, instruct the people to leave part of the harvest and vineyard for the poor and stranger to pick up and eat. Without these verses, we wouldn’t have the later and lovely story of Ruth, the foreign Moabite woman who gleans from Boaz’ field, marries him, and becomes an ancestor of David, Israel’s greatest king. For the most part, this passage is about Jews’ relations with other Jews. But the word ‘stranger’ or ‘alien’ here widens the group of people towards whom we have responsibilities. Our passage ends with the command: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’.

The book of Deuteronomy gives us the reason why we should love the stranger as well as the neighbor, when it says: ‘You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (10.19). The Jews remembered the iron furnace of Egypt as a place of suffering and enslavement, where they were made to build Pharaoh’s cities, where their children were killed, from where God had rescued them. But long before, when they first went down to Egypt, it had also been a place of safety in the days of Joseph, who, with the encouragement of an earlier pharaoh, brought his people there to escape the ravages of famine. It’s as if this passage in Leviticus, finding a space for kind deeds to strangers, builds on the good ways Jews had been treated as strangers, not the times when they’d been treated with contempt as outsiders, and punished for being such. This is remarkable. Think of the context where Leviticus and Deuteronomy are set: the Jews are wandering the Sinai desert, escaping their Egyptian taskmasters. Their prominent memory was that of their ill-treatment that had led them to this nomadic existence, with only the promise and not yet the realization of a land flowing with milk and honey. Even so, ‘you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’; and, the implication goes, you were treated generously before you were treated badly and, if you are to become God’s people, you must remember and practice the kindness, not the viciousness.

This command to love your neighbor, and even the stranger, as yourself can be found in many cultures and religions of the world. This is impressive but it also begs many questions; not least, why it is so often unobserved. There are two versions of the Golden Rule. The first is to love others as you love yourself. The second is that those with the gold make the rules. These days, the second seems more common than the first.  But let’s avoid being too cynical. Even more important, let’s shun sentimentality, which makes us feel good without the responsibility of being good. The word we translate as love has different shades of meaning within different cultures and religions. If the Golden Rule is to become more than a cliché that makes us feel warm and cozy, then we need to get at some of those meanings. Christians see its import refined and defined through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, the usual New Testament word for love, ἀγάπη, denotes God’s covenant love for humankind and also the human response to that love, both towards God and also towards other humans and to the created order itself.  Early Christians tended to pour new meaning into this rather obscure Greek word, based on their experience of the risen Lord. That love involved God’s deep commitment to the human race, becoming one of us so that we can become like God. Many New Testament passages draw upon the creation stories of Genesis in order to tell us that God wills to recreate us in the image of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus talked about the divine love, though more often he acted it out. On one occasion, recorded in Mark 12.28-34, a scribe, a man who had knowledge of the ritual law and was therefore steeped in the teachings of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, asked Jesus, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Broadly speaking, the first commandment is belief in one God: Exodus 20.2 and 3 provide the justification for this: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ Scholars, of course, enjoy arguing about the details or even the truth of the most obvious things. So the scribe wasn’t trying to prove that Jesus was a dunce who didn’t even know the basics of his religion. Likely, he was trying to see whether Jesus was as good an interpreter of his religion as his followers claimed he was. Jesus replied:

“The first [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The scribe was impressed by Jesus’s answer:

“You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Some of Jesus’ encounters with professional religious people were barbed and angry, but this seems to have been a genuine dialogue, ending in mutual admiration.

It’s instructive to see what Jesus has done here. Like many Jewish religious teachers, he treats his Bible to a sort of free association of the ideas it generates. The general rule is that, since the Bible is inspired, you can use bits of it to explain and understand and develop other bits. In his answer to the scribe, Jesus conflates at least two biblical passages. One is from our Leviticus passage: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’. The other is from Deuteronomy 6.4-5:  ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’

Jewish scholars put bits of scripture alongside each other because most believed that scripture needs to be interpreted, a view that they passed on to the early Christians. You’ll remember the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts. The eunuch knew that what he was reading was powerful stuff, but it needed Philip to explain and develop it before the eunuch knew how powerful it was. There is a problem with such interpretations: another person than Philip could have read that passage in a different way and drawn other conclusions from it. If you have a very strong view of the divine origin of scripture, than the role of human interpretation can seem to be almost blasphemous, which is why a minority of scholars within Judaism, Christianity and Islam dislike and condemn opening the sacred texts to human interpretation. But most live with the fact that it’s going to happen and that, realistically, there isn’t any way to shield the divine utterance from human hearing and understanding. So there are many interesting academic arguments, some friendly and others quite heated and even offensive, over the meanings of scripture in the Semitic faiths.

We have such an argument, courteous in tone, embedded in this story of Jesus and the scribe, which we often miss. Jesus doesn’t just put two different passages of scripture together in his answer to the scribe. He clarifies what he means by adding an interpretative gloss. Deuteronomy says we should love God with heart and soul and might. Jesus makes an addition: ‘and with all your mind’. The scribe doesn’t quite buy Jesus’ suggestion and instead offers his own gloss, replacing ‘soul’ with ‘understanding’, to cover both ideas of loving God with your soul and with your mind. Maybe he’s trying to say to Jesus: ‘Sure! We can play around with the text, and I really like most of what you’ve said. But let me think a moment about loving God with all your mind, before I agree with you’. Jesus, maybe amused and certainly impressed with him, nevertheless leaves him with a sting in the tale: ‘You are not far from the kingdom as God’. Are we to think that Jesus concedes that they almost agree? Or is he saying that a miss as good as a mile?Image

Why does Jesus add that explanatory addition to the sacred text? You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind. Let me say that I’m glad that he did. Living as I do in the US of A, where individuals found their own churches, where the mad, the sad and the bad use religion to part fools and the desperate from their money, where there are museums that have dinosaurs climbing into Noah’s Ark and where people glory in opposing religion and science in the most trivial ways, I’m inclined to think that encouraging the use of the mind to examine sacred claims can’t be a bad thing. (There are, of course, wonderful things about religion in the USA, but they rarely get heard over all the hateful, foolish and dumb things that some religious people get up to.) However, let’s assume that Jesus didn’t have America in his sights when he introduced this addition to how we should love God. What was he thinking?

Well, if we return to the accounts of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, from which Jesus drew his summary of the first commandment, his is obviously an intelligent summary of how Leviticus and Deuteronomy are constructed. God’s people are expected to remember many ways of behaving in order to achieve the holiness that God wants for them. In our short passage from Leviticus, people must: revere their parents, keep the Sabbath; avoid turning to idols; make sure that their sacrifice of peace offerings are correctly done, and learn how this is accomplished; and so forth, and so on.

Memory has always been important to Jews. They remember that God made them a people, established a covenant with them, gave them a land; and many more things. The act of memory not only reminds believers of what God’s done; in a way, it reenacts them, and so strengthens belief and offers hope for the future. Jesus was being very Jewish when, at the last supper with his disciples, he told them to break the bread and drink the wine in his memory. He didn’t mean by this that they should remember a good but dead figure from the past. Paul put the truth of it this way: ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (I Corinthians 11.26). Every time a Christian attends the Lord’s Supper, she calls to mind the mighty acts of God, and is linked to the power and possibility of resurrection.

But using your mind is more than memorizing things religions or even God require of you, as this example of the Lord’s Supper shows. You need to see through the rules and the regulations in order to get to the heart of faith. It’s only worth arguing about God if it makes a difference to your life. Eating bread and drinking wine only makes Christian sense if you connect it to what God has done in Jesus.

We know that Jesus reserved his anger mostly for religious people who couldn’t see beyond the rules to their deeper meanings. The sort of faithful person who learns that you should take the Sabbath off work, but never asks why, so God forbid you should encounter him when you’re desperate. ‘If you can wait till tomorrow’, he’ll say, ‘I’ll help you then’. He doesn’t get that the Sabbath was made for humans, for rest and relaxation and to recharge the creative batteries, and any rule can be broken in an emergency. No, for such religious people, and there are lots in every religion, the rules is the rules.

So, I’m inclined to think that Jesus added the injunction to love God with all your mind, to encourage people to see the real purpose of the divine commands. For him and for many Jewish scholars, these oddball rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy could be summed up, for their real purpose, by the desire and the will to love God and love others. Those others include not only likeable people who are like you, but also: if you lived at the time of the book of Leviticus, Egyptians and Canaanites and others; or, at the time of Jesus, Roman soldiers, and Syro-Phoenician widow women; or, with us, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, straight, gay. The list is endless, because God’s creative and recreative grace for her divers world is endless.

We are, to some extent, both stranger and neighbors to each other. But God, the ultimate creator, is mother to all. We may make ourselves strangers to God, by the choices we make, but her love for us is everlasting.

Points for discussion

  1. Who is my neighbor?
  2. Is the Bible a human document?
  3. What does it mean to be holy?

Diversity – something to celebrate?: Genesis 1:1-2:4

Last summer, I had the privilege and delight of offering five Bible studies at the Methodist Summer Fellowship, Swanwick, England. A number of people have asked for copies. So, over the next few weeks, I’ll offer them as blog entries. Here is the first of them:


The world has seen extraordinary changes during my lifetime. In 1956, I was four years old and flew with my mother and sister to Singapore, where my father awaited us. We stopped in Brindisi, at Italy’s heel, at Beirut in the Lebanon, and then in Karachi and Calcutta in the South Asian subcontinent, before we finally arrived at our destination. It took four days. Nowadays, a direct flight between London and Singapore takes about thirteen hours.

Between 1975 and 1977, I lived in India, and wrote, by hand, a weekly letter to my mother and father. That was the affordable way to communicate. Email and mobile phones were, things of the future: the first email had been sent in late 1971, but emails didn’t become popular and relatively inexpensive (you needed to be able to buy the computer) until the early 1990s; the first handheld mobile phone, which weighed two and a half pounds, was demonstrated in 1973, but such devices didn’t become widely owned until the 1990s, or even a little later. When I lived in India, I never phoned home at all: it was too expensive. Now, when I visit there, it costs a few rupees to phone or take advantage of an internet café. A few moments ago, I referred to a prototype mobile phone weighing ‘two and a half pounds’; there’s another change, because you British residents have all been saying 1.13398 kilos since about 2000, or so I’m told.

Technological change is one thing. Social changes have been just as widespread and more problematic. When I took my African fiancée to meet my parents in rural Oxfordshire in 1980, she merited a second glance, for her color as much as for her beauty. Now, Carterton is as multi-hued as many a place in the kingdom, and nobody notices a person’s color. When I lived in London from 1977 to 1982, it was a divers city; now, even more so. In 2011, almost 40% of the capital was non-white. More languages are spoken there than in any other city in the world, and it’s the most religious, and also the most religiously divers, part of this otherwise rather non-religious country.

Until a handful of years ago, I didn’t believe that gay marriage would happen in my lifetime and, when I left these shores in 2001, I wouldn’t even have put money on civil partnerships, here or elsewhere. Yet now, even in the USA, a very traditional society: eleven states, the District of Columbia and three Native American tribes have legalized same-sex marriages. The very conservative Supreme Court of the United States recently struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, which has made it all but certain that gay marriage will soon be accepted nationwide, even though some states are trying to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible.

Such social changes aren’t accepted with the ease of technological change. They’re of quite another order, since they go to the heart of how we perceive that things should be and people should behave. Ironically, whilst concentrating on the rights and wrongs of social issues, whether abortion, or gay marriage, or how to handle immigration, or whatever, people often give a free pass to the malevolent results of technology. For example, the Edward Snowden affair is presented in the U.S. as an act of treason, and very few people there have debated the serious issues that it raises about the government’s knowledge of what we do, what it’s appropriate for politicians and their minions to know about us and what is none of their business. Contemporary misuse of science and technology has deep roots in the twentieth century, as when, for example, Nazis used them to decimate Europe’s Jewish population in the Second World War. The abuse of science as well as the abuse of religion is a troubling feature of the modern and contemporary world. Think of how al-Qaeda and its like use technological know-how as well as religious fanaticism in order to return us to a moral Stone Age.

It troubles me that, these days, the churches are usually on the wrong side of justice and of history. Though I should say that justice and history aren’t the benchmarks against which to measure how Christians should, to use Jesus’ evocative and allusive phrase, ‘do the truth’. More on that, in Bible study number three. Still, many Christians look and sound as if, instead of conserving truth from the past, they want to preserve all its worst practices. They want to preserve male authority over women; they insist on only one way to religious salvation, ignoring the many Christian expressions of truth as well as other human sacred ways; they narrow God’s love rather than celebrate its exuberant variety. They make religion seem vindictive and outdated.

Yet this need not be the case. Christians (and members of other religions, of course) have often been in the vanguard of social change; among other things, condemning slavery and working to end it, and seeking the equality of women. Such Christians are attuned to God’s celebration of diversity. God doesn’t favor monochrome.

In the USA, many judgmental and, to be candid, unthinking Christians convince themselves and others that their co-religionists who celebrate God’s generosity and dislike of uniformity aren’t bible-believers, and, as a result, often make the Bible seem to be a recipe book for a fearsome concoction of exclusive, intolerant and even violent behavior, from which people of goodwill recoil in horror and disgust.

The Bible needn’t be interpreted as a book of fanaticism. Indeed, I find it to be a library of hope, as I intend to show. If we bring to it, bile and bigotry, we’ll find examples of such inhumane convictions and deeds there. If, instead, we bring faith and a warm heart, we can be drawn into a world of meanings that upend all we thought we knew, and recreate us in the image of God.

Today, I want us to look at that idea of the image of God, and to explore what it tells us about being human. This will then give us a base from which we can explore other themes later this week.

That phrase, ‘the image of God’, is found in the very first chapter of the Bible. After God created the world and all that’s in it:

God created humankind in his image,

In the image of God he created them;

Male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)

It may be fine and dandy to be made in God’s image, or else a vocation too appallingly onerous by far to live up to, but that’s not where I want us to begin. Far too many sermons or bible studies assume we know what it means to be made in God’s image, and so plunge into its consequences for us. But those consequences might be more clear and believable if we begin by asking: ‘What does it mean to be made in God’s image?’

Most ancient religions were willing to paint or mold God in sculpture, but not Jesus’ religion, which strictly forbade such visual representations of the divine. When the Jewish scripture talks of the image of God, it can’t mean that humans look like some sort of artistic representation of God, which would have been an obvious meaning of this phrase to most other religions.Image

Well, okay, you might say. We get that. Christians paint and sculpt God, unlike Jews, but we’re close enough to our religious older sibling not to think that humans are being told by the authors of Genesis to resemble, say, Anubis, the jackal god of Ancient Egypt, or Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. But if not that, then what? Many Christians suppose that being made in the image of God must mean to be like God, morally and ethically. That’s not a bad move, but maybe we make it too quickly. If we look at the opening chapter of Genesis, it has other, fascinating and important things to say about the image of God that are not exhaustively moral or ethical.

Above all, it’s a story of creation. Out of formless void, darkness, wind and water, God summons forth the heavens and the earth. God’s creative genius lies at the heart of this story and so, if humans are made in the image of God, then part of its meaning must acknowledge the creative genius of which we humans are capable. And we surely are capable of working with our hands, or with our minds, to bring forth order out of chaos, to understand how things work and why, and to use them. Agriculture, urbanization, great works of literature and philosophy, and many more human enterprises: these all witness to the human genius for creative work, thought and play. Since I’ve mentioned play, or recreation, re-creation, don’t underestimate the story’s insistence that God takes a day off after all his hard work of shaping the heavens and the earth. Re-creative rest is a reward for our creative genius and a way of recharging our batteries for greater creative endeavors. We know the continuation of the story: that after God made us to be like him, he had to save us from ourselves. However we have this far created our lives, we still have more to do in order to complete them as best we can, and will need time out to figure out what else we need to be and to do.

Towards the end of the story, God says:

Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

The story delights in picturing humans as being creative, like God; and also, like God, having power over earth’s ecology, its plant and animal life. In fact, the story tells us that God cedes that dominion or power to us. We can guess at God’s willingness to let us take control of things with him or even for him: above all, he seeks sons and daughters to work with him for the common good rather than slaves who simply do what the master orders. Still, it was a risk. For: give a person power, and who knows what she’ll do.

In fact, the story offers two clues about how we should exercise power. But before we go there, let me offer two preliminary reflections about power itself that I’m sure would have occurred to the writers who were putting the book of Genesis together, four hundred years or so before Jesus, and indeed would have occurred to the original oral tellers of this creation narrative, centuries before that.

Preliminary reflection 1: people seek and need power. Long years ago, I stayed awhile in a small village in Pakistan, where people tilled the land and where it was a big deal to visit the local town. They weren’t desperately poor, but they were of very limited means. Yet each person wanted to have some control over her life. In a village where your religion, your marriage partner and your occupation was mostly decided for you by a conventional and somewhat static custom and practice, men and women alike hoped and dreamed, not to change these, for them, unalterable things, but to find space within them for their own flourishing. One elderly woman in the village, in the very small amount of free time she had, grew herbs, and used them for traditional medicine. She had raised a family, still looked after grandchildren, kept her home clean and welcoming. But the herbs? ‘This is what I can do’, she told me,’ This is me’.  The world is full of foolish people who believe that they have complete control over their destiny, and many of them live in the USA, where this implausible myth of absolute free choice has taken deep root. Even so, it seems we can only feel and be truly human if there is space for us, as individuals, to have some say, however limited, in our own destiny. So maybe God gives us power to make significant, if sometimes very limited, choices, because she knows this.

Reflection 2 about power: many people abuse power. Humans want control not only their own lives, but, often inappropriately, over others’ lives, a theme to which we’ll return later this week. And power has this insidious capacity to make us both ridiculous and dangerous, tempting us to believe that, for example, when our job gives us authority over competent people, we know more than they do about their expertise. Since God cedes power to humans anyone, we must suppose that he thinks it worth the risk that some people, many people, will abuse his trust.

Bearing in mind that people both need some power over their lives but are often tempted to take crazy advantage of it when they can, let’s return to Genesis 1, and to the two clues it offers us about how to exercise power, if we’re to image God.

First, Christians see God primarily through the prism of Jesus, whom the author of the letter to the Colossians describes as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (1.15). So it’s his self-giving love that ought to guide us, not our desire to have our own way at any price, so long as others pay it.

Second, instead of seeing power as the opportunity to wield brute force, whether physical or more subtle forms of bullying, could we not see power as an art form? After all, this primordial story links power to artistic purpose, bringing forth, out of chaos, a riotously divers heaven and earth. This story of the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days is punctuated with God the artist stopping from time to time to enjoy and presumably improve upon what she’s done, and observing that it’s good. Power should be exercised creatively, as by an artist, who sees that what she does is done appropriately, proportionately, and reverently.

Reverently?: that’s an odd word to use, you might think; but, in truth, not so. The language of Genesis’s first creation narrative is poetic, repetitive, rather stately, very different in style from some later parts of the book. It’s the language of worship. At some point, this early account of how things came to be and why, was regarded as so important that it had to be told within the reverent context of prayer and ritual. This means that humans, exercising power on behalf of God, imaging God’s behavior, should do so reverently. We are, after all, temporary and delegated trustees of that power. We need a sense of awe, mystery, wonder, reverence if we are to exercise power as God modeled it for us.

Alas, I need to draw attention, as the book of Genesis does, to our failure to engage seriously with God’s desire that we should live up to the divine image within us. Ironically, although God creates, and sees that what she’s fashioned is good, we’re often not good. The Genesis stories of the world’s origins are followed by the creation of Adam and Eve, their disobedience, and a world consequently plunged into chaos and disorder. The Bible is masterly in describing the human condition, the glory of what we could be, and the shame of who we often are. But the Bible never loses a sense of hope, or, to be more precise, it tells us that God never gives up hope in us.

A while back, I observed that the consequences for us of being made in the image of God might be more clear and believable if we begin by asking: ‘What does it mean to be made in God’s image?’ We’ve seen that, if we are the image of God, a chip off the old block, it isn’t that we look like God, as I might look like my father or my mother. It is, surely, something to do with others seeing in us an action or attribute that seems godly or Christlike. This can’t be reduced to some facile moralism, but is, rather, demonstrating an action or attribute that‘s truly creative, poetic, allusive, reverent.

God’s image within us may be tarnished but, despite the handwringing of those gloomy Calvinists who see us at totally depraved, the Bible tells a different tale to those who come to it without that pessimistic agenda. The psalmist sings that fallen humans are only a little less than God (Psalms 8.5). In the New Testament, Paul picks up the Genesis story of creation, and tells us that in Christ, who is the image of God, we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17). I suggest to you that, in as much as we mirror and reflect the self-giving love of Jesus, who embodies the artistry of God, we reveal, in however imperfect a fashion, the image of God in us. Our task, surely, is to represent or re-present the meaning of the first creation story of Genesis: to be creatively good, so that God’s creation can flourish.

Much contemporary religion is unbelief because it doesn’t take this story, and many other biblical stories, with the seriousness that it and they deserve. And there’s one element to many of those stories that much religion denies, to its cost. That element is the component of diversity.

Genesis insists that God creates, in a profusion of diversity. She gives birth, not only to many kinds of different things, but to variety within many species. She creates: light out of the darkness; the heavens and the earth; every winged bird of every kind; and so on. And, when God created humankind: ‘in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. We image God when we do so as men and women together. It’s not just that diversity’s good, though it is. More than that, we can’t be like God if we don’t acknowledge her creative diversity. If men oppress women, or humans exploit and rape the earth rather than act reverently towards it diversity, then we can’t and won’t understand much about God at all; certainly, nothing of God’s delight in diversity.

But there’s another, equally important thing about diversity. It expresses not only what God does, but also who God is. Some biblical scholars and theologians have pointed out that God said: ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’. God sounds like Queen Victoria, using the royal we, and I am amused by that thought. These scholars go on to see a foreshadowing of the Trinity in this imperial utterance. I don’t buy it myself, but, whether you do or don’t, it can hardly be denied that God’s preference for a divers creation makes us wonder about what this variety reveals of God’s self. If we picture God as he emerges from this very vivid story n Genesis, I don’t see a white man in the clouds with a white beard having a bit of fun with his superhuman abilities, because he can. I have this, if you like, feminine and artistic image of, forgive the mixed metaphors, an ocean of being giving birth to a superfluity of creation that somehow reveals that which has created it. Humans especially, but not exhaustively, because of their creative gifts, bear the stamp, the image, of the creator, if we follow the clues given in the biblical story and stories.

And with that image, I will leave you to your reflections and discussions.

Points for discussion

  1. Why is diversity something to celebrate?
  2. Why did God create humans?
  3. What does it mean for us to be in God’s image?