January 15, 2011
I’m feeling a bit flummoxed with this post. I’ve just read Matthew 26-28, which contains the entire passion, anointing at Bethany through to Resurrection, and what do you say about that really? Except, wow, that’s all pretty amazing!
Or perhaps that’s not my problem at all, perhaps it’s that I’m not amazed enough. I’ve heard these stories probably more than any others in the Bible, they are familiar to many, whether Christian of not. In fact, I must admit, it occured to me that I could probably write something about this passage without actually having to read it. But then I reminded myself why I’m doing this blog!
So how do we engage with something so familiar? I suppose a good place to start is to imagine that you don’t already know the story, that you are there as it unfolds, with its incomprehensible highs and lows. To put yourself in the place of the women who stayed to the end, who saw Jesus, their beloved Messiah, die next to petty criminals (27-55-56). Or those men who had given up everything for Jesus, only to see him taken away by an armed crowd and told by their teacher not to even try to resist (26:51-54).
We emphasise Good Friday and Easter Sunday in our liturgies and celebration, but when I think about these people it is often the day inbetween that I wonder about. There is a gaping silence in the gospels when it comes to this day. We are told that Jesus is buried and that an armed guard is placed around his tomb (27:57-66), but there is nothing about this disciples; what they did or how they felt. There must have been fear; would they be next? There must also have been despair at the death of their Jesus, for surely, even with his opaque references to resurrection, they would not have held out much hope. After all, we are told by Matthew that when the disciples met the resurrected Jesus in Galilee still some of them doubted (28:17).
I remember one Easter Saturday doing Ignatian imagination meditation on this story. I imagined I was one of the women at the cross, who had then attended his burial, as Matthew tells us the two Marys did (27:61). Perhaps they helped to prepare the body. This left no doubt that he was dead. In this meditation I felt myself lie down in bed, utterly desolate. He was gone; this great redeemer, the man on which my hope was pinned, had died, just like any other man, worse. I remember feeling that I too had died with him.
I have wondered why it was the women who stayed at the cross. Perhaps his male disciples had been known publicly and it was not safe to show themselves. But surely it also that the women, especially those like Mary Magdalene who were not also following their sons, needed to cling to their hope until the last. What would they do if he was gone? They were single women, what was there for them to go back to? Perhaps some of them had left lives they did not wish to return to, for others they could not. Jesus had treated them in ways they would not have dreamed, how would they go back to before?
When I think of these people, then I see how amazing this story is. Chapter 28 has life again as I imagine the two Mary’s, who were there at every stage, seeing that their redeemer lives. There was still a kernel of hope they had not allowed themselves to notice in the darkness of grief, and now it comes alive in them, as they are given the honour of being the first to preach the Good News. He lives. He lives.
I often feel that we see the resurrection as the ‘the bit after the crucifixion’ in the Church. Sure, we mention it often enough, but do we remember it? Do we feel it? Are we sufficiently amazed by it?
Matthew’s gospel ends wonderfully, with words from Jesus’ lips; “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is the resurrection. This is the Good News, surely. Of course the cross is central to our, certainly to my, beliefs, but it is nothing without what comes after.
It life, vitality, dynamism with which this gospel ends.
So may you be given hope where there none. So may you be given life where there was death. So may you know that he is with you always, to the end of the age.
December 20, 2010
I love Romans 15-16. It brings to an end the first letter from Paul that we read in the New Testament and though I have a bit of sense of achievement from getting through my first epistle, that’s not why I like it so much. Chapter 15 ends with promises of a trip to Rome and then in chapter 16 we get the personal greetings Paul sends to members of the Christian community as well as greetings sent by Christians in other places to the Romans. At first, like the many genealogies in the Bible, this can seem like an irrelevant list, something to be skim read so we can get on to the good stuff. But this is not true for the genealogies and neither is it true for these words of greeting.
I love this more personal, more specific ending of Paul’s letter because it reminds me that this was a real letter sent to real people who, like us, were grappling with the Big Questions and striving to live in Christ with each other. What’s more, we get a glimpse of Paul, not as some lofty orator whose voice bellows from the pages of a scripture, but as a real person, with relatives and friends and, dare I say it, favourites.
Let me pick out a few greetings that especially broadened my smile:
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Paul, often quite a lone figure in the New Testament, had relatives, had people whom he had suffered with and, more importantly for me, whom he looked up to. Paul’s writing can sound a little arrogant here and there, like in 15:1 when he says “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak “. (Alright mate, get over yourself!) This, among other things, can lead some to dismiss him out of hand, but I like that in chapter 16 I can see that Paul had people whose words were important to him, who were “in Christ before him”. Conversely, I think that’s also important to remember as sometimes Paul can be held up as the ‘ultimate Christian’, but he too held others in high esteem.
This is also highlighted in 16:13: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also.” Anyone who’s seen Dogma will know why I especially like the mention of Rufus ‘chosen in the Lord’ (it’s just a joke, don’t get your knickers in a twist!). But I also like that there was a Christian woman who mothered Paul. Again this is because Paul doesn’t always read like someone who would let himself be mothered very much, but also because it reminds me that a church, the Church, is at its best when it’s a family.
And it’s worth mentioning that Junia and Rufus’ mother and also Pheobe who is a commended in 16:11 (I assume she delivered the letter?) are all women (there are probably more, I’m not very good with guessing the gender of names). Horrah! It’s nice to see that whatever sweeping statements Paul occassionally makes about his sisters in Christ, he actually rates many of them very highly indeed.
But the reasons above are in way too complex (I know, they’re not very complex, but bear with me), because what I really love is that Paul ends his letter like so many of us would. “say hi to Rufus for me, remember me to his mum, say hi to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas and Hermas”. Okay, I’ve never written to anyone called Asyncritus or Phlegon either, but you get the picture. I just love to imagine this network of early Christians, who knew and loved each other and of whom Paul was a part. When I think of him this way he becomes more relatable and so does his writing.
And what writing it is, say what you like about the guy but he can sign off a letter like nobody’s business. So I’ll think I’ll leave this one to him:
25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.
November 10, 2010
I’ll be honest, I can’t help being more than slightly disturbed when I read Genesis 16-19. The appalling treatment of the slavegirl Hagar (16:1-6); the disturbing story of Sodom when Lot tries to give a ravenous crowd of men his virgin daughters to “do to them as you please” (19:1-11), the creepy story of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so they could become pregnant by him (19:30-38). Let’s just say there are nicer parts of the Bible.
First things first: reading the story of Sodom I wonder how anyone could take the story of Sodom as a blanket comment on homosexuality. The crowd of men that surround Lot’s house and demand to “know” the angels are attackers, not seducers. Yes, their attack may have a sexual element but it’s still an attack. Rape is the ‘abomination’ here, whoever it is done to. And that Lot offers his two daughters in the men’s place doesn’t necessarily imply that it would be better if the rape was heterosexual! Perhaps it implies that Lot himself has been corrupted by this place or if not that he protected them because they were guests (19:8) or even because they were angels (19:1). How this story can be equated with a loving monogamous homosexual relationship is beyond me. Just needed to get that off my chest.
Now, onto to the good stuff. What has made an impression on me more than the disturbing treatment of women and angels in these chapters is the way Abraham (given his name in chapter 17), Sarah (likewise) and Lot all communicate with God.
When told that they will still have a son, despite being 100 and 90 years old respectively, Abraham and Sarah both laugh at God. In fact, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). I can imagine him rolling about on the floor; “O, Lord, that’s a good one!”. He manages to get away with it though. Not so with Sarah, she’s told off (18:9-15). I love how she tries to hide it too, telling God she didn’t laugh, to which he replies “Oh yes, you did laugh.” It’s like a pantomime.
Do you ever laugh at God? Laugh at the possibility of the impossible? Laugh at the idea of your wildest dreams coming true?
It’s nice to see in Genesis that incredulity is not only an aspect of faith in the cynical 21st century, but has always been there. Comforting to think that even the mother and father of a great nation didn’t quite believe their calling.
How about negotiating with God? Ever try your hand at that? Abraham and Lot do. I especially like the scene of Abraham trying to talk God down from destroying Sodom (18:22-33). At first he asks confidently if a Just God will destroy a city if there are even just 50 righteous people live there? God agree to spare Sodom if there are 50 righteous people. Then Abraham sees he’s on to something, tries his luck, and talks God down to 10 righteous people, each time asking with more polite reverence “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more…” Haggling with God? I didn’t know that was allowed. Lot negotiates too. When fleeing he is told not to stop anywhere in the Plain but he says “can’t I just go to that little city over there? It’s only a little one!” (perhaps not in those exact words). And God let’s him!
So what’s that about? How much is negotiable? Is prayer negotiation? When do we argue with God and when do we just do what we’re told?
I like this God who listens to the appeals of his people, who will be reasoned with. It’s a bit anthropomorphic maybe, but there’s something quite appealing about a God that you can laugh with/at and talk to. Hagar certainly knew this in the desert when she fled from her harsh treatment (16:7-15). Although she is sent back (perhaps she could have negotiated a little better there) she is promised that it will not be in vain. And she calls God El-roi which probably means God of seeing or God who sees.
In all these stories God is almost tangibly present, there to be laughed at, scared of, reasoned with and, of course welcomed (18-1-8). He is not far off executing his plan with clinical precision but close, a guest as well as a God.
I long for a relationship with God like this. Most of the time I don’t have it but these chapters, odd and disturbing bits aside, inspire me to think of God as involved in my life. And quite right too. God is present, involved, accessible. We just need to be open to negotiation.
November 2, 2010
Fair reader, I’m not going to lie to you, I skim read some of the passages in Joshua 16-20. All the:
“the territory of the Ephraimites by their families was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6and the boundary goes from there to the sea; on the north is Michmethath; then on the east the boundary makes a turn towards Taanath-shiloh, and passes along…[yada yada yada]”
and the :
“Now the towns of the tribe of Benjamin according to their families were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23Avvim, Parah, Ophrah…[blah de blah de blah]”
just didn’t float my boat this afternoon. And I’m sure it’s all very important for many reasons beyond my understanding (if you know them please do fill me in) but it’s not the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly is it?
However! There are some interesting things going on in all this land-dividing-up business. My favourite serves as a nice contrast to yesterday’s ‘giving your wife to the Pharoah’ debacle. Yes, the bit where the daughters of Zelophehad (pronounce that!), stand up for their rights! Having no brothers to inherit their portion of the land they say to Joshua “the Lord commanded Moses to give us inheritance along with our male kin” and so they get their inheritance. It’s just briefly mentioned in 17:3-6 but this must have been very significant; to give women certain property rights? That’s big. It may not seem big to us, but often women without close male relatives would be destitute in these times, as the plight of Naomi in the book of Ruth shows. So this is pretty right on, and I’m glad to read it. It reminds that though the general tone of the scriptures is pretty darn patriarchal, strong women pop up and are respected again and again. And these women must have been strong to stand up in front of an assembly of men and claim their rights. Go sisters!
Another, more curious, provision comes in chapter 20, with the cities of refuge. These places are created for people to flee to when they need refuge. So far, so good. But they are specifically for those who seek refuge if they have killed “a person without intent or by mistake” and are being pursued by an avenger. Erm, okay…My first question: How do you kill a person by mistake?
Perhaps this is a reference to Moses, who killed someone and fled from Egypt as a younger man. Or perhaps these are just very very different times, when violence is a matter of fact. We forget how cushioned we are, those of us who can sit in front of our computers and read about violence in our newspapers. And although the concept confuses me, I like that there is this provision. That the people of God include refuge in their division of the land and, importantly, that refuge is for “all the Israelites and all the aliens residing among them.” From the beginning the people of Israel are not an insular self-serving community, as some readings may paint them, but one that also provides for those who live amongst them. So even whilst dividing their conquerred lands, the Israelites retain a sense of justice.
You may be surprised that I have found something positive to say about the book of Joshua at long last, I know I am! But if nothing else then that’s what the Good Book does; it surprises you. For better or for worse.