Monday, 7 December 2009

Updating the Good News

This Blog started out as a Sermon - so I have left it as that, hence the reading to look at first: Luke 11, 1-13 and Colossians 2: 6-19. My text was from Colossians 2. verse 8. For me both the text and the readings (set for the day I preached it) were a real challenge to work with. You’ll see why!

How about this text for a warning to progressives and those engaged in a personal spiritual journey!
Like 11, 8 - “Be on your guard; let no one capture your minds with hollow and delusive speculations, based on traditions of human teaching and centred on the elemental spirits of the universe and not on Christ.”

So in this Blog I want to wrestle with the challenge of verse 8, and thus seek to explain my understanding of Jesus as the 'Christ' and introduce my new vision of the scope of Christianity. A modest task!

But first some background on the text. Colossians is thought to be written from Paul’s prison in Rome towards the end of his life. The context for the letter is variant teachings in the church at Colossae – with some saying that “elemental (angelic) spirits” were intermediaries to Christ – who should be accessed by exotic rituals. This concern makes Paul spell out his “high Christology”, “for” – verse 9 – “it is in Christ that the Godhead in all its fullness dwells”.

Lets be clear, I admit that what I’m about to share with you is in some ways “speculation” based on “human teaching” (that’s to say contemporary biblical scholarship) and it will lead to a slightly different take on Paul’s phrase “it is in Christ that the Godhead in all its fullness dwells”.

I make no bones about owning up to ‘speculation’ – but not the “hollow and delusive” speculation Paul was condemning. Speculation of the best sort sees open not closed minds at work. The best “speculation” can be sourced from spiritual insight too. Basically what I’m saying is that we do not need to defend a “faith once and for all delivered” – as the current Pope seems to be doing, as if all modern insight and tolerance and dialogue is to be contained. Nor am I happy to see the ridicule of Christianity that thoughts like those of former Bishop of Cumbria gave on the previous floods in Carlisle produced afew years ago. Such views (that they implied God's judgement) is a reflection of a Christianity seeking to turn its face both against scientific insight and common human morality – anchored in the strange world of Biblical literalism. Despite what the Old Testament and even the New Testament say, a God sending floods as a hint to better behaviour is not a God I would want to honour.

There is both insight and challenge on this in the passage from Luke 11. Here is a God who is to be honoured for giving our daily bread, for never accusing us, for encouraging us to be loving and giving and non judgemental to others. Jesus’ God is not One who cannot be bothered to listen. Jesus’ God is not capricious. For Jesus, God was his intimate alter ego – his ‘very self’. Perhaps this way of putting it is struggling with the same explanation as Paul’s “fullness of God”. God is not a distant wonder working sky God who sends floods as a warning. Noah’s story is not literal history, but it is a use of biblical metaphor  – just as is much of the miraculous in the New Testament.

We need to find new pictures of Jesus and of the God who filled his life – which can be made comprehensible for us today. What Jesus taught was that Jesus’ God is always there for us too – ready to be at the heart of our life’s struggles – not offering floods when we ask for housing, or calling us to repent when we simply want to be the human beings we were born to be or choose to be – straight, gay, whether single or as couples ‘living together in joy’ or formally married. Jesus’ God is one who wants to be fully in us and our living whether we acknowledge him or not. For God’s Spirit is the reality we all inhabit – our alter ego – our very self. Being a Christian is to own “the Way” that Jesus taught and illustrated – the way of bringing the mystery of God deep into our lives – so that we can live out God’s life of transformation and love – just as Jesus did. As we begin to live that transforming life – it is the Christ in us whose life is continuing to unfold in the world.

Whether we like it or not there is a struggle going on in the Churches. It is based, on the one hand, on claims of some to “own” the fundamentals of Christian faith based on Biblical authority, as providing a plain source of plain truth. On the other hand, there are those who seek to reinterpret faith in terms relevant to the modern world as we are coming to understand it scientifically and through other human insight. They also take fully into account the fruits of contemporary theological reflection and scholarship and seek to find new language to express the place of Jesus and also better capture the mystery we call “God”.

So I do not mind if I stand accused of ‘speculation’ – of seeking to find new ways to recover the original ‘Way of Jesus’ behind the ancient language. For the old language and old “faith” were born of times when people had no concept of the scale of the universe or of its evolution towards life, of the birth of self aware minds seeking understanding of our meaning and purpose.

So – this is my speculation, my contemporary Good News, my updated Gospel. In summarising it I have borrowed heavily from Marcus Borg’s book “The Heart of Christianity”. For those willing to own Jesus as their “gateway to God”:
  • We will still begin from the Bible – but we are free to see it as a record of our human response to God, not as a divine product with divine authority.
  • For us the Bible is historical and metaphorical – not literal and factual.
  • The Bible explains and motivates through metaphors and sacramental actions – it is not a source of given doctrine and morals – but a route to ever new insight and responsibility.
  • What the Bible points to is a “transformation in this life” through inner relationship with the reality Who is in all things. The emphasis on belief as a way to salvation in an afterlife - is a misinterpretation.
So, what would it mean to be a Christian in an open, progressive Christian community, built on these principles?

First we need to get to the heart – the essence - of the tradition. I believe we need to radically reinterpret and restate core elements in Christianity in order to renew the faith and begin to call new disciples!

  • Faith would be essentially experiential, not overly concerned with ‘belief’. It would not be about “assent” to certain increasingly unbelievable interpretations – but about a way of action in and for the world. Remember the passage in Hebrews 11 – “By Faith Abel, etc …”. It was their deeds that demonstrated faith. There would be no tests for orthodoxy, just a welcome to “follow the Way of Jesus”. We would have an open table at communion – celebrated as “Christ’s feast with the world” – God in sacrament of bread and wine – everyday things for everyday people.
  • The Bible would still be affirmed as central to Christian identity. It remains our foundational source document, though we would not claim it as the only source of God’s disclosure. It would inform ethics and morality but not free us from the task of doing our own thinking in a world of ever more amazing human capacities in science, medicine and technology. The Bible only has very general principles to offer on most of the hard choices facing today’s decision makers. As Christians we have to “come of age” – and need to take on the responsibility for the planet and our world order – alongside all people of faith or humanistic care.
  • God would still be explored as the “heart” of Reality. Christians would affirm God as the mysterious, tremendous, facinating “more” at the heart of all things – over against the non religious world view that claims there is no “more” only “this” – the space-time randomly evolving world of energy matter and life. How the mystery of God and the life we are in this Universe came to be would be an exiting ongoing quest – tested through both science and theology.
  • Jesus would be for Christians their decisive disclosure of God, without saying he’s the only source of God’s disclosure to the world. We would honour Jesus as a complete human being, fully grounded in the heart of the universe - revealing the Heart of God - the Christ we too are called to be.
Second we need to think through what this means for the Christian Life. These are just a few headline thoughts:

Born Again – is the traditional language used to express the process by which people reach a mature decision to follow Jesus. Being a Christian is about transformation – of ourselves and our society. It is personal and political – bringing political, social, economic and environmental justice to the world. We are born again or renewed when we awaken and begin to live out that call. Mission is thus a call to change our and others ways of life. We need to align our daily living with the insight that comes from letting God’s reality flood our lives. This does not come from believing things but from trusting, insight and experience. It is metaphorical language but can lead to real change. What Nicodemus failed to see in John Chapter 3 is that God calls all human beings to personal transformation.

The Kingdom of God – is the traditional language used to explain the Bible’s underlying theme, that God is deeply focussed on overthrowing injustice. The Christian life needs to be profoundly focussed on the transformation of human society. This is way beyond UK party politics in the 21st Century. In evolving with the universe and forming societies, human beings have distorted the flow of life, birth and death, in harmony with planetary capacity – which seems to be God’s way. The Jewish vision of future justice is to be realised in our here and now – in the human dream for a “peaceable kingdom”. Ask Biblical scholars what Jesus was doing and they will be virtually unanimous. He was working against the systemic injustice of the Kingdoms and Empires of this world. It was that task that killed him – removed by the combined powerbase of Rome and the Jewish religious right. The Christian disciple must stand square behind that fact – to be a Christian means continuous challenge to the ways we live now.

Sacrament, Worship and Prayer – are the traditional focus of spiritual formation for Christians. That remains true – but the old patterns of worship, personal or collective, can be very different when viewed from new theological perspectives. I am sure there will still be a need to meet to nurture and encourage one another – and dedicated buildings as well as homes will be used. What I really question is the role of big structures (cathedrals / large churches) to symbolise God’s presence. God is not “out there” but “right here” in the everyday places and activities we all do – it is in those realities we must live closest to God’s reality. Jesus thus attacked the temple but thought his thoughts with God alongside nature. We do need – as humans have since long before Judaism or Christianity – to find places that are somehow “thin” – where God’s reality is clearer. For many it is in wild places – both countryside and in the midst of urban pain – where God speaks – not in suburban safety – and most of the time not in old Victorian buildings singing out of date hymns to out of date tunes! Often worse still are modern tunes with out of date theology! To me it’s all up for grabs. There can and should, in a universe of infinite variety, be all sorts of ways of being “church” – so let the “new expressions” develop apace!

Being a Christian, as I and many others have begun to redefine it, is exciting and mind blowing – and I am sure we are on the edge of a new reformation. In many denominations the older and newer ways of looking at God and Jesus and the Christian life are ever more divided. Reaction to change is always frightening and people want often to stick with what they know – and religions are often thus intrinsically reactionary.

But the Bible taken overall is clear – the God in all things is on the side of difference and variety and humanity – that’s what Jesus means. God’s creating never stands still – God is not impassive and unchanging – we live and move and have our being in that unfolding Reality that we call God. This universe, this planet, human society is the unfolding Kingdom – the dreamtime – is still being made.

It is the forces of religious reaction that hold up change, even perpetrating great injustice, when human insight has long moved on from where old interpretations led. There are clear troubles brewing in many denominations. But I hope you will agree there need not be a fight.

We all need to open up our minds and hearts to the new (yet old) word being said from God – that love and grace are at the heart of the universe.

So, basically its all OK! Whatever our views, lets get stuck in to building the vision together where we can, honouring but challenging difference – and seeing where it all leads.

Copyright ©2009: Rev John Hetherington. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for this sermon to be reproduced upon condition that full acknowledgement of author and copyright details are included.

John Hetherington – July 2007

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