Sunday, 29 October 2017

Reflecting on communion (part 1)

For quite some time, the church here has been planning a discussion about how we celebrate communion. Some of those who know me will know that this topic is one which lies close to my heart. I have had both deeply beautiful and deeply painful experiences of the celebration of communion. I have known it both as a wonderful expression of Christian love and as an unwelcome reminder of deep divisions.

Here, the conversation has finally begun, and I was given the opportunity in a service to offer some biblical reflections as we begin to reflect together about what we do and why we do it. Here, as in the service, I offer it in two parts, beginning with a reflection on Exodus 12, the story of the Passover. (This was written to be shared aloud in the context of a church service and I decided against any substantial rewriting so please bear that in mind if there are a few bits that don't quite scan as a blog post!)

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I feel the need to begin with a confession: I am not a biblical scholar. Even if I were, there are 2000 years of debate and theological treatises around the topic of communion so anything I can say in the next few paragraphs could never be more than a very limited introduction. When it comes to thinking about the celebration of the Passover, there are another few thousand years of debate to add in to the mix. My intention then, is simply to share a few of my own thoughts on a theme about which I care very deeply and about which I have reflected at length, attempting to help us seek together the heart of God in our exploration of this theme.

While I want to reflect in more depth on the gospel text, the story of the last supper, I think context is hugely significant when we reflect on any biblical theme, and as such I don’t think we can begin to think about communion without first returning to the Passover. 

The Passover celebration was the context in which the disciples, the early church and Jesus himself would have understood what was happening at the Last Supper. As far as I understand it, in Jewish thought and tradition, the celebration of the Passover feast is not just a commemoration of a historical event but is a moment when, in a mysterious way, the God who exists outside of time allows his community to be present in two historical realities at once. At the last supper, Jesus and his disciples would have truly believed they were present to one another both in the upper room, and at the same time in Egypt being led out of slavery.

And so that context: the context of the Passover, which was so important to Jesus when he took bread and wine that evening, is therefore important to us too. It is context which is, I believe, very clear: the Passover is the moment at which God very concretely takes the side of the poor and the oppressed; the Passover is what makes possible the liberation from oppression. 

Admittedly, I’d probably question some of God’s methods on this one: I’m not sure that amount of death and destruction is ever the best solution to a problem, but for me that in no way undermines what this says about the character of God in relation to the weak and powerless, and it in no way undermines the reality of the Passover as a witness to that. For me, in fact, it is this which is the very essence of the whole story.

And if the weak, the powerless and the enslaved are at the heart of the Passover story: it behoves us to consider how we ensure the weak, powerless and enslaved are at the heart of our communion celebration too.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Seasonal Stories (1)

It may be a cultural stereotype, but it is true that there is, if you live in the UK, always plenty to be said (or written) about the weather! 

It was one of those days. Even now, at midday, the winter sun was struggling to make its presence felt through a thick blanket of monotonous grey. The dark mass was insufficiently distinguishable to merit the name clouds but didn’t quite justify being called fog either. It wasn’t raining as such, but the dampness in the air seeped through even the most waterproof of layers leaving him drenched without really knowing how. The bitter wind which whipped across his face stung a painful redness into his cheeks. It was one of those days ... and it perfectly matched his mood.

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There is nothing quite like a thunder storm on a summer evening. Most people hide inside when they see them coming: but she was not “most people”. And so it was that at the first crash, she ran outside, tipping back her face to catch the rain drops. She breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the scent of freshness. Smiling, she imagined the neighbours peering out from behind their floral curtains. She didn’t care. The sight, the sound, the smell, the touch, the taste of it: this, more than almost anything else, reminded her that she was still fully alive.

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When she stepped barefoot into it, the lawn was still wet with dew which sparkled and glistened beneath the rising sun; but the sky already held the promise of a balmy heat which would envelop the later part of the day. There was a near-silence at this hour, too, which would evaporate as quickly as the dew drops on the lush blades tickling her feet. Even the birds seemed to call to each other in more muted tones. She would be happy enough, later, to join in the garden’s endless social whirl. On balance, though, she preferred it like this.

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A blizzard had swirled constantly around their mountain home for the past three days making it impossible to so much as step out of the door. As soon as she woke this morning, though, she could sense something had changed. The air held a hushed stillness, pregnant with promise. She leaped out of bed, silently grateful to the inventor of under-floor heating, and ran to draw back the curtains. Through intricate frost patterns she gazed out at a magical Christmas card landscape. The sun had broken through the clouds at last, and the whole world sparkled and glittered beneath it. 

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Outside the window, the early morning frost sparkled on the bare branches. He would go out soon, making the most of these few precious hours of sunlight. Hanging low in the deep-blue sky, the autumn sun’s rays crept through the woodland canopy creating a dappled light beneath. Sheltered from the autumn rains, the rusty leaves here were brittle and offered a satisfying crunch beneath his feet. Later, he would curl up by an open fire with a slightly battered copy of a favourite book, hot buttered teacakes and a large mug of steaming tea. This was autumn at its best.

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* If this post makes no sense, read this one for some context:

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Put Down the Sword

Last weekend, on Peace Sunday, I was offered the opportunity to reflect on an appropriate bible passage. I chose to say something about Matthew 26: 47-52, where Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, at the moment of his betrayal, tells his disciples to put down their swords. This is, more or less, what I said:

This text is one which means a lot to me: it inspired the title of one of the first books which introduced me to active non-violence and inspired the name of the group with whom I have pursued a path of creative peacemaking.

Together with its parallels in the other gospels, it is a text I find both immensely challenging and deeply beautiful because I think it deals with one of the biggest questions we face as people told we are “blessed” when we take up our role as “peacemakers”: the question to which every aspiring pacifist has to have an answer ready to roll off the tongue. The question that asks: peace is all very well in theory, but what does one do, in practice, in the face of great evil? How does one respond to Hitler, al-Assad, to Kim Jong Un? To terrorism or white supremecism or the oppression of empire?

What does one do in the face of the slaughter of the innocents?

For me it is this text which holds the key, the answer of how Jesus calls us to respond to our anger, our fear, and our pain.

When the betrayer comes to condemn innocence to death, Jesus greets him as “Friend”. This is loving your enemies in action. And make no mistake, these were the enemy. They are either a rather unsavoury vigilante mob, or they are the soldiers of an oppressive, militaristic occupying regime, or most probably a combination of both. Let’s not pretend this was somehow easier than the enemies we face today and therefore doesn’t really count.

So Jesus responds by greeting his betrayer as a friend. And his followers ... hmm, not so much. One of them, unnamed here, but according to John’s gospel it is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, draws his sword in defense of the innocent. This is ‘just war theory’ in action, which the majority of the church as well as the majority of society subscribes to. A theory that would have said yes, on this occasion, violence is justified to protect the innocent. Tonight, in the garden, force can be used. This is the culturally comfortable answer.

But it is not Jesus’ answer. The final commandment Jesus offers to his disciples before the passion is “Put down your sword.”

There is never, Jesus says, a just reason to use violence. This is never, he says, the right answer.

And it seems that this is the moment when his followers realise just how serious he is about this whole love your enemies thing: serious to a point where he’s going to get them all killed. And they run away. They run away because guess what, peace is not the easy way out, the soft option. There is a big difference between being passive, and choosing pacifism: and the latter can be a pretty scary place to tread.

Fortunately though, although this is Jesus final commandment to his disciples before his death, it is not by any means the end of the story. Jesus does offer an alternative to violence. He does offer another way out.

He offers the way of resurrection.

Jesus final act of non-violent resistance is to rise from the dead: to tell the empire powers of violence, darkness and death that they will not have the last word and to invite us to be part of a different story instead. The way of resurrection is to offer forgiveness instead of seeking retaliation, to peacefully resist the aggression of the status quo, to dare to love those we are advised to fear or to hate.

The poet Edna St Vincent Millay wrote “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death”. Peace is not some big out there thing beyond our control: it is every thought we nurture, word we speak, decision we make, every prayer we pray. Life and death choices are the bread and butter of our everyday decisions as those who try to follow Jesus. They are our personal pledges to do something, however small, in our own lives and in our interaction with the life of the world, that say we will try, today to put down our swords and to live as people of the resurrection.