Category Archives: theology

The Poor in the Gospel of Luke – an addendum

A few years ago I did a blog series going through the gospel of Luke, discussing what it said to us about the poor (which can be found here). Having recently re-read this series as part of some sermon prep on the same theme, I found (with the help of a commentary) some important additions from chapter 7 of Luke.

John the Baptist is in prison, shortly to be beheaded, and he is having doubts. He knows he is the one who was to announce the coming of the Messiah and prepare the way for him, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one, or it there is another to come, presumably for his peace of mind. This is Jesus’ response.

21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Luke 7:21-23

“Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” A question here would be to ask, who is the poor? Another would be, why is this incident placed here in the gospel? Just before we have two accounts of miracles by Jesus. The first is the centurion who comes to Jesus asking him to heal his servant (7:1-10). He exhibits his faith by saying to Jesus “Just say the word and by servant will be healed.” Following that is the account of jesus raising the dead son of a widow, brought back to life off his funeral bier (7:11-16). After the incident with John the Baptist’s disciples, we have the description of the Jesus having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a woman who “had lived a sinful life” came in, began crying over Jesus feet and then poured expensive perfume over them – during the meal! (7:36-50)

It is well known that Jesus called to him those who were on the edge of society. In this chapter, Michael Wilcock (from the BST commentary) argues that all the recipients of Jesus grace in these accounts were poor in some way. The centurion was a Roman, and whilst probably materially well-off, he wouldn’t normally have had access to the synagogue, the temple, or Israel’s God. In this sense he was socially poor as he was from the wrong ‘tribe’. The widow was facing material hardship. Her husband had already died at some point in the past, leaving only her son to be a wage earner. In the days before social welfare, families would have been the last line of support before financial hardship, and now her son has died too. Jesus not only reaches into her grief but alleviates her poverty at the same time.

In the final passage, the ‘sinful woman’ was spiritually poor. By being labeled “sinful”, she would have been on the edge of society, and most respectable people would have avoided her. She cries over Jesus’ feet and Jesus proclaims her sins forgiven, and declares “Your faith has saved you”.

So we have the socially poor, materially poor, and spiritually poor all encountering the Kingdom of God in Jesus, with the latter being declared ‘saved’. This reminds me of one of the Lukan Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6:20). Jesus’ understanding of the word ‘poor’ goes beyond the material sense that we often associate it with.

Here and elsewhere, Jesus talks about “preaching” or “or claiming” good news to the poor. Yet it is evident from his actions that this also involved practical help. The Kingdom of God comes where gospel words are supported by actions, and actions by words.

Be filled with the Spirit.

John Stott from his Commentary on Ephesians.

When Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative implying that we are to go on being filled. For the fulness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation….

To the defeated Paul would say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit, and he will give you a new love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.’ To the complacent Paul would say ‘go on being filled with the Spirit. Thank God for what he has given you thus far. But do not say you have arrived. For there is more, much more, yet to come.’

 

Only sleeping

jarius daughterSome thoughts/questions on the account in Mark 5:35-43 of Jesus raising a young girl from death back to life.

– Jesus is demonstrating his authority over death, to add to the other authorities that Mark presents. The girl is not raised with any magical formula but with a very normal “Up you get!” – the sort of thing a parent might say to a child who they are trying to wake up from sleep. To him this is normal and well within his power.
– In spite of this, there is no sense of triumphalism, with Jesus again reminding people not to tell anyone about it (as he does after a good number of miracles). Could this be because great miracles alone are not the basis of faith, but a secure walk in his footsteps. Miracles alone may lead to a shallow faith, always wanting to be amazed. He wants engaged followers who are always listening and acting.
– But what about all those who die that Jesus doesn’t raise? Off the top of my head, in the gospels I can only think of Jarius’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow’s son whom he raises to life. There must have been many others who died. Of courses, Jesus’ own resurrection from death is different, defeating it, coming through the other side and initiating a new order of things, unlike Jarius’ daughter et al who were restored to the old order.
– Therefore, part of what he is demonstrating is the initiation of a new kingdom, when all the usual foes and fears (including death) get turned upside down. In this sense it is a signpost to his own resurrection and this overcoming of death is open to all, not just those he happened to meet and raise in the flesh.
– I’m also thinking a little of the final scene from the Disney movie frozen, where love conquers death.

Waiting

A slightly belated Advent post, the text of a talk a couple of weeks ago. This owes huge thanks to Paula Gooder’s The Meaning is in the Waiting for inspiration!

——–

Who likes waiting? Not many of us. The thing about waiting is that we usually know what we’re waiting for. It can be very frustrating when we don’t know how long we’re waiting (like on a stuck train) or what the reasons for waiting are.

Advent is an odd time: we’re waiting for something that has already happened – Whats the point of that? We’re waiting to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, which happened about 2000 years ago. But we’re also waiting (still) for the second. It’s a waiting that is turned inside on itself

The passage I want to think about is from the Old Testament, written about 600 years before Jesus was born, by Isaiah, one of the prophets.

Although it was written so long before Jesus, it is still a traditional advent reading and is often heard in carol services. This is because it is thought to refer to Jesus’ coming

Isaiah was speaking at a time when the Jews had been conquered. The residents of Jerusalem  had been dragged away to live in Babylon – over 500 miles away. They were forced to live in there and because of this, they felt that they had been abandoned by God.

Suddenly, these words puncture their existence and give them hope:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (Is 40:1-2)

Speaking into their present, it is quite clearly saying that there will be a time in their future (but our history) when their exile will come to an end – that their  time of abandonment is coming to an end. Soon God would be coming back to them. The next thing Isaiah says is this:

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God. (verse 3)

In other words “God is coming back to you – Make a path for God to come… ” And they did eventually return to Jerusalem and resume worship in the temple.

But we also know this passage as something else. The “voice of one calling in the wilderness” became known as the voice of the one who would precede the coming of the Messiah. You and I know him as John the Baptist, born shortly before Jesus and who ministered before Jesus went public.

So in one passage, they are waiting for God to return to them in their near future, as well as for someone to precede the coming of Jesus in their more distant future.

A couple of verses later we get something which is different again – pointing even further forward:

 

  Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (verses 4-5)

That sounds pretty good doesn’t it!

On this side of Jesus’ birth, in one sense, we have seen God’s glory in Jesus, and God’s kingdom is present. In another sense the full glory of God fully transforming creation is yet to happen. God’s Kingdom is still to be fully realised. And this will only happen when Jesus comes again.

Advent is about remembering all those things. We wait for the day when we remember, the fulfilment of the prophecy of the coming of Jesus – we celebrate his birth 2000 years ago. We also wait and look forward to the final coming of God’s kingdom, the ultimate transforming of society at Jesus’ return, when all pain and injustice is wiped away.

Advent invites us to hold those two things in tension. By looking forward and backward we are anchored in the present, and we ask, where is Jesus in the present. We can look for signs of God’s transformation in the present. This week we’ve been remembering Nelson Mandela, who after 27 years in prison left his bitterness and desire for revenge behind. He came out speaking worlds of peace and reconciliation and enabled his nation to move past the past and begin to forgive one another. Surely this is an example of God’s kingdom being seen in the present. We look for these things, and, as we wait, we participate in them.

Where are the signs of God’s Kingdom all around us?

“Waiting for the future involves a recognition of what the world might be and the resolve to bring our part of it one step closer. Yet again waiting becomes active: waiting for the future involves transforming the present.” Gooder

 

Communion

communionA wonderful (lengthy) quote from Unapologetic on the meaning and importance of communion (probably my last quote from the book). And as it’s quite difficult to quote Francis Spufford in small chunks, here’s the lot:

“Every Sunday morning, in all the church’s human niches, from downtown Isfahan to downtown Manhattan, in places of great wealth and comfort and in cities under bombardment, on every continent including Antarctica and once, I believe, on the moon, we hold again a stylised version of the original Passover meal in Jerusalem. There is bread, there is wine. We bless them using one of the Passover prayers. We break the bread, we pour the wine into a cup. We repeat Jesus’ words from the story. This is my body. This is my blood. And then for us the bread, made unmysteriously from wheat, and the wine, made unmysteriously from grapes, are different. There has been a change in their meaning. For some of us, the material bread and material wine have altered (on a tiny domestic scale, with crumbs and dregs and washing-up) in the same way that the material world was altered by having its creator within it. Right there on the table, the set of the world once more contains itself as a member; once more, a peculiar knot has been tied in the fabric of existence. For others of us, the change of meaning is made by the material world aligning itself to form a sign of what began happening once in Jerusalem long ago, and (the sign reminds us) is still happening now. Either way, the change puts the same strange burden on our imagination and our understanding when we do what we do next, and eat the bread and drink the wine. We’re eating God. We’re eating Jesus. The body [of Christ – the people of the Church] that wants to the a body is eating the body it wants to be. The pun multiplies. ‘O taste and see’, the choir may be singing, if it’s the altar of a cathedral we’re filing towards to take our bite and our swallow of the meal. The tasting is literal: tongues, teeth, gullet and intestines are all involved. The God of everything is demonstrating again his gross indifference to good taste in the other, polite, little-finger-extended sense. Because it’s inescapable: this is an act of sacred cannibalism, in symbolic form. The Romans, used to temples where the literal blood of animals flowed, passed round rumours of the vile stuff Christians got up to on a Sunday, and perhaps it’s too easy for us now to soothe away into familiarity the language we use. Perhaps there ought to be a hint of repulsion, of taboos overridden, when we sup the red stuff in the chalice, to keep us reminded of where our sign is pointing: which is towards Skull Hill, and the human body on the cross there. We aren’t just eating Jesus. We’re eating his death. We eat and we drink because we desire monstrosity’s end, but the sacrament carries us into the monstrous, through the monstrous, to get us there, just as the story we tell only arrives at hope by way of tragedy. The meanings of the bread and the wine line up along a bloody corridor, as barbarous as the barbarous world God is working on, and at the end of the corridor, once we have accepted the strange and frightening gift we are being given, there is forgiveness, We eat the bread, we drink the wine, to be joined to the act by which forgiveness came. We eat the end of cruelty and shame. We eat amnesty for whatever the particular load of the HPtFtU* was that we brought to the dinner table. We eat the rejoicing that this one time, in spite of all sorrow, the world’s weight was flipped over and turned to joy. We eat grace.

And that’s what the church is for. Forget about saints, popes, bishops, monks, nuns, processions, statues, music, art, architecture, vicarage tea parties, telethons, snake-handling, speaking in tongues, special hats. All of that stuff (OK, I’m not sure about the snake-handling) can be functional in its time and its place, can do things sometimes to inch forward the work of love, but it’s all secondary, it’s all flummery, it’s all essentially decorative compared to this. We eat the bread. We drink the wine. We feel ourselves forgiven. And, feeling that, we turn from the table to try to love the world, and ourselves, and each other.”

* HPtFtU – The Human Propensity to F*ck things Up is Spufford’s way of describing the brokenness of the world, sin.

Square brackets are mine, round brackets are Spufford’s own footnotes.

Wiped Out

I’m thinking about the story of the flood, Noah and the Ark, and one of the questions that arises is ‘Why did God choose to wipe out all of humanity?’ This verse precedes the account of Noah in Genesis 6.

So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them. (Gen 6:7)

This got me thinking about something we watched last night. My wife and I have become engrossed in the new Battlestar Galactica series’ which were aired between 2004 and 2009 and which we are accessing trough Lovefilm streaming. A race of cylons – half human machines – have attacked and wiped out humanity on the colonised planets of Caprica. Only about 50,000 survive in several spaceships, and they are being chased and ambushed across the galaxy with the military ship, Battlestar Galactica, for protection. In last night’s episode,  Adama, Commander of the fleet, speaks with their cylon-prisoner, Sharon (who sake s human form) about why the cylons are trying to wipe humanity out.(Couldn’t embed the video, but this link should take you direct to the right place)

 

Commander: “I’ve asked you here to find out why the cylons hate us so much?”
Sharon: “I’m not sure i know how to answer that.. I mean hate might not be the right word.”
Commander: “I don’t want to fence with you. I just want to know why.”
Sharon: “It’s what you said at the ceremony before the attack, when Galactica was being decommissioned. You gave a speech that sounded like it wasn’t the one that you’d prepared. You said that humanity was a flawed creation. And that people still kill one another, petty jealousy and greed, you said that humanity never asked itself why it deserved to survive… maybe you don’t!”

Certainly that gets to the heart of the issue. Fortunately, in the story of Noah, God’s grace precedes his judgement and humanity is given a new start.

Beauty

BASTIEN-LEPAGE Joan of ArcI’ve been reading an article which attempts to answer the question ‘Why does beauty exists?’ by analysing what happens in our brains when we experience beauty. The author, Jonah Lehrer, argues that according to recent research, the area of our brains that lights up is that same area which piques when we are curious about something. Could it be that beauty is linked to curiosity? Finding something beautiful maintains our attention, we dwell on it maybe trying to work out the pattern or to find the deeper meaning in it.

I can identify with this to an extent. I like various forms of art, both painting and photographic, but to me the least interesting art is that which presents the object as it is. Some painting attempt to depict things in an almost photographic quality. Whilst I can see the skill in creating it, the image itself is not so interesting as I may as well look at the original object. My favourite paintings are those which point to the original object, but play with it in some way, or draw out a theme, an aspect, or a deeper character. For example, Vermeer’s work is beautiful because of what he does with light, whilst Monet and Seurat because their painting techniques give a feeling and ambience to the picture. One of my favourite paintings is the one above, Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, depicting the vision she has of the Archangel Michael. This is a physically huge painting, on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and I can gaze at it for ages. In it, Joan is almost photographic but she is set in the more impressionist style background of a dreamy garden, giving the effect that she is physically protruding from the painting. Bastien-Lepage has painted this in such a way that we ask, “What could it have been to have transfixed her so entirely?”. And if we know the story, we hear it is a spiritual experience.

On the other extreme, some forms of contemporary art are not beautiful to me because they are so far removed from what they are trying to depict, that they make no sense. Or they are not depicting anything at all. In these, there is no underlying pattern or deeper truth that I find discernible.

In this sense, the writer asserts that beauty may be useful, as it draws us in a points us onwards.

The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

Speaking of music:

One way to answer these questions is to zoom out, to look at the music and not the neuron. While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.

I’m sure we can all agree with this one. Nursery rhymes quickly get boring as there is little variation in pattern. Mozart was hailed as ahead of his time for the way he played with and adapted the melodies and underlying chord patterns. I also love Bruckner, who tantalisingly gives you half a melody and plays around with it.

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.

“For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.

I wonder, could that be the case for all beauty. Are we created in sure a way to see and appreciate beauty, but for that beauty to be, in some way, incomplete –  to point us beyond onto something else? If we’re all made in the image of God, and the universe is his creation, coming out of the mind of The Creator, perhaps is it not inconceivable that the curiosity that beauty stirs in us is actually a curiosity for God himself. Beauty entices us to know more, to appreciate more, to understand his mind.

His conclusion is that beauty is useful:

We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.

And I don’t want to argue with that. Surely if it points us beyond and piques our curiosity, then it can be useful. Beauty points us to God and if we discover him through his creation or the beautiful works of humanity, that is great. Theologians would call this general revelation: a certain knowledge of God can be discovered through the natural world, philosophy, art, or general reasoning.

But is that all it is? The Westminster Catechism, written by protestants in the 17th century states that the purpose of mankind is to “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”. If beauty is to point us to God, and God is to be enjoyed, then surely beautiful things are to be enjoyed too. Just as we can rest in the presence of God, we can rest in the presence of beauty, and enjoy that scenery, painting, sculpture, piece of music, or so on. In this sense, beauty doesn’t need a purpose. It just is to be enjoyed.