Our Psalm for church today was the Twenty-Third Psalm, still the most popular choice of readings at a funeral, especially funerals of those who have some kind of Christian religious background, but were either luke-warm or lapsed in their belief in Jesus at the time of their dying. That fact that, in popular English-Australian culture, we still read the twenty-third psalm as words of comfort in the face of death, grabbed my attention as I came to reading the gospel of the day, which in itself take us directly to the heart of this easter season: that Christ died on the cross, once for all, to bring us to God. Christ, of course, utters these words about ‘the good shepherd’ before his death, recorded in a large chunk of Jesus teaching in the gospel of John, where Jesus is carefully instructing his disciples so that when all things become clear to them at a later date – that is after his resurrection – they will have everything they need to make sense of Jesus’ passion. Jesus tells them here, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.’ Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I think there is here again, the theme I have emphasised through-out lent and easter, that if Jesus death cannot be understood as a love event, then it cannot be understood at all There is something mysterious about death and love, and it is perhaps summed up best in a phrase from Song of Songs that ‘love is stronger than death.’ Jesus’ parable about the shepherd points out that when there is a personal relationship or bond between the shepherd and his sheep, he will go out of his way to keep them safe, even putting his own life on the line for them. This is not an unfamiliar sentiment when we think about people who love. For example, a friend of mine told me that when his mother was sick he prayed that God would take 5 years off his life and add it to hers. A grandmother once told me that when her young child was sick she did a bargain with God that if the child lived she would devote her life to serving God. Have you not ever heard a spouse say, if only I could change places with my beloved and let their suffering be mine’? Love is prepared to suffer even death for the sake of its beloved, for love is stronger than death. So, perhaps we should not be surprised that love and death go together in Jesus passion. But why is this death and this love so significant that it changed the whole course of salvation history? Why is this death so significant that it means love for us? Is it not because Jesus was God? Well, yes, I guess we are used to hearing that. This is God dying on the cross for our sins, and yes, I do believe that is important – the sacrificial system within the theology of the old and new testament is too significant to be able to sweep under the carpet – Jesus death deals with our sin, whatever that means and however that happens, we’ll leave that for another day. But the significance of Jesus death and love for us has a particular meaning if we view it through the parable of the good shepherd. Jesus is the shepherd, we are the sheep, we have – therefore – a personal relationship and bond with this shepherd. It is the bond of creation, of God who made us and us God’s children. We are Go’d sheep. We belong to God. Jesus’ death is the death of God-who-is-love, in order to keep those of whom God loves, safe in God’s care! Not exclusively us, I don’t think. For if Jesus came initially to the Jews and had sheep in other folds, why would we think that we were now his only fold? No, I’m fairly confident that we need to understand Jesus is the good shepherd of all who live, because Jesus is the God of all that is, and that God loves us, and loves all. Jesus death, is a death that enfolds us in the loving arms of God. It is a death for all people, and I suspect further for all living things, it is the death of the shepherd who knows his sheep by name and lays down his life in order to keep them safe. At a funeral, when I read the twenty-third psalm for a family that are mourning the death of a loved one, I am declaring that Jesus death is love for them. We may not understand it, and they may not even believe it, but I can still proclaim it and perhaps more than at any other time, they can hear that death and love must somehow be connected. Love is stronger than death, and in human terms, love doesn’t get buried with the deceased in the grave, we know it lives on. Love is stronger than death – in the passion of Jesus – and in God-terms, this one death, means love for us. The love is there, we need only lift our eyes upon the cross and open ourselves to it.
All through my PhD I had the same song running through my head. Unless you are a teen-child of the 80s you may not know it, and if you do, it’ll already be playing through your head! Howard Jones, ‘What is love’?
‘What is lo o o o o love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?’
It’s the question that arises when relationships turn to shit (excuse the language, but when relationships go this way only extreme language seems adequate). Did he ever love me? Did I make it all up? Is she even capable of love? What the f*&k is love anyway?
Whilst this seems to be an inevitable part of life, it is a problem for Christian theology. For love is inextricably central to theology – as Saint Augustine said, ‘if anyone cannot love God and neighbour-as-self by his understanding of Scripture, then (s)he has not yet understood them correctly.’ If Christian theology cannot be described as loving, then it cannot be Christian! Systematic thinking about God-who-is-love (1 John 4) and the Christ who was sent into the world because of love (John 3), cannot be anything but love, if it is speaking truthfully about its theos.
So, what the heck is a Christian theologian to do, when they are in those moments of life singing Howard Jones into a handkerchief?
This question was the driver behind 4 years of full-time theological research. It resulted in a proposal for understanding the function of the ‘what the f*&k’ stage in the normative human process of change, of growing up. A crisis of love is no cause to give up on love, only an opportunity (painful as it can be) to reassess our assumptions about love. What is love, anyway?
For love cannot be contained by human thinking, not even theological thinking. Love is a concept that cannot ever be fully spoken or written or imaged or drawn or described by any human means. Poets and artists do the best when they evoke a sense of love which we can feel in our bodies and the centre of our being, remembering the energetic throb of the experience beyond words.
Furthermore, love cannot be contained in any one relationship, connection or context. Love can arise between a parent and child, in friendships, sexually charged relationships, and – I would argue – between a person and material things or ideas and imaginations that they passionate about! We need all of these in our lives and more – just one love is never enough! Many people point out that there is only one word in the English language for love, although it is describing a whole range of different experiences. I think that is an advantage rather than a problem – for love should be understood as a concept that has a family of meanings (Wittgenstein’s family resemblance concept of words) each one displaying a family resemblance but with particular expressions in each instance.
What resulted from my pondering of love as a key concept in Christian theology, and forgive me if this leap is too long here in this instance, is that love requires a great generosity on our part. Each and every time love is evoked, it has the capacity to take us beyond itself, into the heart of the family, toward the fountain of love at its source. Plato suggested that when we reach perplexity of intellectual knowing (aporia) we simply step over the thresh-hold of our limited understanding into a different kind of knowledge, perhaps hidden to scientific rationality, but by no means hidden to the priests and poets (says Plato). We enter into an ‘open-space’ of knowing where it is possible to encounter love – and God – beyond human form.
This gives a Christian theologian enormous freedom in the current climate of cultural change, where the established norms, forms and institutions of love are in radical transition. There is no need to pitch so-called ‘Christian’ forms of love over and against other forms of ‘un-Christian’ love in anxious competition. Neither does this mean the opposite, that because the cultural norms of love are changing, that Christian norms of love must necessarily fall into line! Because most Western Christians think through the frame of reference of the European Enlightenment, we have arranged our understanding of love along a linear spectrum, with a forced binary opposition between two Greek word-labels for love – agape and eros. In its most extreme form the former is exclusively God’s domain and deemed perfect, the latter is the Human realm and unavoidably feeble. This understanding of love was made popular through C.S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves. Academically, the definitive argument is laid out in Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros.
I am now happy to declare that I passionately refute such an arrangement of intellectual thinking about love!
I propose that all human forms of love (which in the first place cannot be reduced to the Greek eros) should be intellectually conceived as an arrangement around a sphere of open-space. There are an infinite number of particular love phenomenons. Each one is an invitation to go further, so open ourselves to the possibility that there is more, and especially that there is more that will never adequately be expressed in words. This is the open-space of both thinking and prayer, where divine love can be encountered beyond the need for form.
Love requires freedom. Freedom requires vulnerability. Vulnerability enables us to suspend judgment on individual expressions of love and enter into an enquiry of the mystery behind and beyond them.
Well, it’s been a while – and in truth a long road – but I’m back to blog at reddresstheology!
My PhD thesis has been submitted (cue: crowd roar) and I have spare headspace for the first time in 18 months or so. I am now awaiting examination (which will take a couple of months) and getting on to spruking my services and superior Phd intelligence (cue: rolling of eyes)!
So, stay tuned for a return to regular posts from me as I get myself sorted into a new post-PhD life, full to overflowing with exciting adventures.
Oh, and just in case you’re curious as to what I ended up writing about, here is my final thesis abstract. If you find the academic writing incomprehensible you’ve just discovered why I needed to take a break from blogging while I got this thing out of the way!!
Saint Augustine, the founder of Western theological hermeneutics, declared the double-love command of God and neighbour-as-self to be the key to Christian theology (On Christian Doctrine). Love is touted as central to theology, but love has a fluid range of meanings and its expressions are enmeshed within contextually specific forms. How can such a slippery concept form a stable guide for Christian theology, particularly in contexts where the sociocultural forms of love are in transition?
This thesis develops a theological hermeneutic for contexts of change utilising liminality theory from the discipline of anthropology. First, it outlines the challenges for theologians in these contexts, and second, it directs attention to the theological resources required to negotiate these contexts. Central to liminality theory is a movement of ‘open-space’—a chaotic but creative opportunity where stable sociality falls away in order to be transformed into a new sociality, fit to express the complex relationship between the individual and the universal. By negotiating the cultural open-space via a spiritual open-space of contemplative prayer—an embrace of apophatic strategies for knowing without form and for the refinement of human wisdom—the theologian is equipped with the resources required to love in liminality. This can be translated into a theological method such as Rowan Williams has proposed, for theology as a conversation, where dialectical propositions are held as ‘thresh-holds’ to be traversed into a ‘liminal’ way of knowing, instead of limit-situations that are roadblocks to ‘rational’ knowing. Sarah Coakley’s methodological privileging of contemplation for the transformation of desire is shown to match liminality’s capacity for the transformation of sociality. This ‘contemplative communitas’ affects both an objective and a subjective transformation of theological knowledge.
Re-examining Augustine’s theological hermeneutic of love with these resources in place, it is argued that if love is to be a guide
for theology in contexts of cultural change, the conception of love itself must fall into liminality and be re-formed in the crucible of personal spiritual encounter with God-who-is-love. What results is a theological hermeneutic that loves from God, through self, to neighbour in continuous, life-giving connection.
Pentecost Sunday 2014, St Martins Community Church
Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Romans 5:1-5
I have been part of many memorable Pentecost Sundays, with creative children’s talks bringing the dramatic story of Pentecost to life! One year particularly sticks in my mind when our quietly spoken, tree-hugging youth minister brought a leaf blower in to church. Who knew the Holy Spirit smelt so strongly of petrol! There was quite a kerfuffle when the started smoking, but luckily it didn’t blow up or we would have had the flames in church as well as the wind! After we’d all taken our fingers out of ears, this dear, gentle man quietly explained the gift of the Spirit and the love of Jesus who gave it.
The disciples were gathered together and the Holy Spirit was given to them, in a way previously not experienced by people on mass. It came like a rush of violent wind that in Victoria we might associate with footage from the Black Saturday bushfires. The Spirit entered into each one there and they began to speak in languages previously unknown to them. A large crowd gathered in response to the roar – it seems the wind was loud enough to be heard from several streets away, and it becomes evident that these languages that had been given were human languages from far and wide, so that everyone who came could hear about the gift that had just been given to the friends of Jesus in their native tongue, the intimate language of their mother’s voice. The crowd could tell the message they were hearing was about ‘deeds of power’ but they could not make out its meaning, and so Peter, standing with the eleven, proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ to them, and about 3,000 people believe and were baptized on that day.
The disciples had been waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive, as Jesus had promised that it would. I’m not sure they were expecting tongues of fire, but tongues of language should not have surprised them. In John chapter 14, we have recorded some teaching on the Holy Spirit by Jesus before his death. He said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth … he will abide in you.’ (v. 15-17) The Spirit continues the teaching ministry of Jesus, and enables his disciples to both fulfill and pass on what they have been commanded: to love one another as Jesus has loved them.
Since the gospel message of Jesus is Love and the Holy Spirit’s role is to guide Jesus’ disciples deeper into that message, Saint Augustine concluded that the Holy Spirit is Love. Like all of us, Augustine had his favourite passages of Scripture, and his suggestion that the Holy Spirit should be synced with the Love of God is directly related to one of them, Romans 5:5: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ That is, God’s own Love, the Love that is so integral to God’s character the author of 1 John says God is Love, Divine Love is poured into our hearts when we receive the Holy Spirit.
This is really important, because often we fall into the trap of trying to fulfill Jesus command to love through our own strength, but we all know that human love can be fickle and unreliable. It’s not that I think divine and human love are a different type of love, by the way. I think love is love, and human love is cut from the same cloth as God’s love, but God’s love is perfect in a way ours is not. Ours is partial and evolves in quality and capacity over a lifetime, whereas the love that the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts is perfect at all times and in all ways. Therefore, regardless of how well we have been loved in life – by our parents, siblings, friends, Lovers and fellow Christians, the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a bigger capacity for love, to keep loving even in the face of fear, failure, rejection, betrayal.
I watched the movie Philomena over the weekend. An old Irish catholic woman searches for the son that had been taken from her in the harsh, misguided years of Irish Catholicism which had no comprehension of healthy sexuality and no mercy to unwed mothers. In the end, we discover the most bitter betrayal – the nuns lied to keep mother and son from meeting, refusing the last wish of a dying man so that they never get to meet in this life. But, girded by her simple, life-lived faith, Philomena offers forgiveness to an old nun twisted by misguided zeal. Her journalist and atheistic companion Martin cannot comprehend her actions and, to my mind is quite reasonable in his exasperation: whereas Philomena leaves with a declaration of ‘I forgive you’, Martin says, ‘I cannot forgive.’ Indeed, how does Philomena forgive the obvious hatefulness in the person of God who kept her from her son? How is such love possible? Only through the gift of God’s own love for us into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, descending like a raging fire to ignite a love which transcends all hate, grief, brokenness and bitterness.
St John of the Cross, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic wrote a poem about it, called the Living Flame of Love, and since he wrote a theological exposition on the poem, we are in no doubt that he is speaking about the Holy Spirit. I’ve put copies of the poem around for you to read and take home, I’m just going to read the first stanza:
1. O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest center! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!
2. O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.
3. O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.
4. How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.
The poem talks about the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit initially as a wound – being cut to the heart – but then the shock recedes and gives way to a sweet, delicate breathing or touch. A touch, that tastes of eternal life, and rights every wrong.
When I received the Holy Spirit at age 15, I experienced a warm, tingly glow enter into my body from the top of my head, and falling all the way down into my toes, like stepping into a hot shower. It was a moment that fundamentally re-oriented my life from that point onwards, but its not the experience itself that has shaped my life, it is the love of Jesus and walking in his way. There is no evidence that I can give you as proof on the inward encounter with the Holy Spirit, but there is, I trust, evidence of a life lived in, from and through the love of Jesus. The ‘proof’ of whether or not I have received the Holy Spirit, is in the quality of my love of God and neighbor.
Going back to the story of Pentecost, I think we can see the link between Love and the proclamation of the gospel message for ultimately, if there is no Love, there is no message. If our words about Jesus take on a harsh edge of judgment and condemnation – a role Jesus has reserved for himself – then they are not the gospel message. The only way we can hope to pass on the gift of the Holy Spirit, is to speak about Jesus in a way that can only be described as loving.
Another mystic writing about Love and the Holy Spirit, who died a few decades ago as opposed a few centuries ago, is the Anglo-American Thomas Merton. Merton drew my attention to the fact that when the message of the Word of God loses its Love, the Word becomes mere words, meaningless chatter. I like that as a description of the crowd gathered around listening to the Word of God on the first Pentecost. At first, what they heard were a lot of words, which didn’t make sense to them, even though they were heard in their native language, the language in which they would express love and affection to their families! It was only when they understood the meaning of the message, that the cacophony of words became one Word, the Word Made Flesh. The One sent from the One who is Love.
And so this is where I want to finish today, with this reflection on our speaking and living the Word which is Love. The natural consequence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is to start speaking about Jesus, in the same way that we speak about all the people in our lives whom we love. I met a woman on a plane recently who’d just become engaged, she couldn’t stop telling me about the wonders of her man and was literally glowing with the warmth of love as she did so – that’s the kind of speech that comes from the Word Made Flesh.
The warning is, with the busyness and mundane duties of life, we all know that this woman radiating with the thrill of her pending marriage will not speak about her husband in the same way in a couple of years time. But hopefully, if the relationship progresses the way it should, there is a different kind of tenderness to her speech, a gentle peacefulness that comes from love refined. And if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, maybe that’s the kind of love that will characterize your speech about Jesus – the deep tenderness for the One who has been with you through thick and thin.
In the chatter of the world, our speeches about Love and Jesus as likely to be quiet moments of connection, like the one I had with this woman on the plane, rather than grand speeches to crowds of thousands. And because our message is love they are more likely to be conversations rather than monologue proclamations, it is likely your actions will do the preaching for you. There is no need for many words, no amount of scholarship and logic is going to convert a determined atheist, we simply offer a testimony – in our loving speech and actions – to the One Word, the Word Made Flesh, the Word of Love.
On Life and Love
Sermon for St Martins Community Church Collingwood
Mothers Day (11/5/14)
There is an image that I want to work with today, and it is this image of space: round, circular, almost fluid but with a definite skin, like a one of those ginormous bubbles that warps and wobbles as it wafts through the air. Would you like to outline it with me, like I’m doing, doesn’t matter what size your space is, just use your hand to imagine its roundness, no sharp edges, plump like a balloon.
In the Orthodox tradition of theology, there is an icon of Theotokos – the God bearer, in which you can see this space in Mary. In Orthodox theology Mary is honoured, not as equal to God herself, but as the ultimate model disciple, the one who said Yes to God, and welcomed God into her inmost place. Mary’s love for God brought life and that life brought love into the world. Mary’s womb is a picture of this space, a safe circle of love in which God the Son is given human life. Again, use your hands if you want to, imagine what that space is like, imagine it in yourself, for even if you don’t have a womb, you have a space like that in which God dwells if you have said yes to welcoming Jesus into your life as the Son of God. That is the space into which God has poured God’s own love for you into your heart, through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5).
So, briefly, let me make a few points from the passage from 1 John chapter 3 and makes some links with the whole of the bible story.
1 John 3:1 – See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
Why are we God’s children? Because we have been loved!
In the first place God loves and therefore brings a people into being, and it has always been thus:
- in creation – In the beginning God-who-is-Love created the heaven and the earth (as described in Genesis 1 and 2)
- in the creation of Israel – In sermons we have recorded in Deuteronomy, Moses urged the new community to obey the commandments of God so that they might live long in the land. This is the first time the commandments were summed up in the shema – to love God and neighbor as self. Keep loving well and you will live well.
- and then in Christ – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16)
- and finally in life after Christ – As Paul teaches in Galations, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
God’s cycle of life unfolds thus: Love leads to life and life leads to love and on and on it goes.
1 John 3:10 – This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
If we have life as God’s children, then we will love – love and life go together. We know this by what Jesus taught us: love one another as I have loved you, by this everyone will know that you are my disciples (John 13). Which is a renewal of the two greatest commandments from the Jewish law and the prophets which Jesus came to fulfill: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love Your neighbor as yourself.
As a consequence of the new life we have as Christians, we love, and that in fact is proof of life from God. Life leads to love. Indeed, to return to the image of Mary’s womb, we labour love into life.
1 John 3:14 – We know that we have passed from death to life because we have loved one another
Love leads to life and life leads to love. And on and on it goes.
Interestingly, this life begets love thing is not just a test for Christians. There is a wisdom proverb that suggests this is true in a similar way for all of God’s creatures: ‘He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.’ (Prov 21:21) It’s a fact of life, that those people who believe in love, find love! Though sometimes that requires them to find love in the least likely of places and sometimes it requires bloody hard work!! But why would we assume love does not require self-sacrifice and commitment?
1 John 3:15 – This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
So, Love and life go together, it is the very cycle of life, the thing that keeps us all going, and it sits within us, in this space, this round bubble of beautifulness, the womb like void of our inmost parts, the pause at the end of the outbreath.
Can you visual again that roundness we outlined with our hands, do it again if you feel like it, pretend it is the lightest of balls, filled with delightful, oxygenated breath. We are going to locate that space in the cycle of our breath.
Pay attention to your breath for a moment. Everyone in the room can do this – if you are sitting near a little one or anyone else who might be struggling to understand my instructions, you could help them to do this with you, even babies can become conscious of their breath, if you do it with them. Take a deep breath in, slow it down a bit, and then a big breath out. Don’t force it, just notice what happens in the cycle. You breathe in – out – and then, notice, notice what is there just at the end of the outbreath – there is a little pause, a little space. Breathe in naturally, just let it happen because you will keep breathing whether you like it or not. Breathe in, and out and there, notice there is a little, natural gap, a waiting, a pause before the cycle of life begins again.
In the cycle of the breath, there is space, a beautiful, womb-like space of rest, and that, is the space where love happens.
Love requires space. If I love you but in my insecurity I move in too close, what will you feel? Smothered. But if I love you and in my insecurity I guard myself too closely and keep my distance what will you feel? Lonely. Love is like fire, it needs air to burst into flames, but too much or too forceful and the flame will blow out! The difficult, painful lifetime work of love, is learn how to negotiate this space.
In silent prayer practice, which by the way, is a very ancient way of praying for Christians and one which we would do well to recover in our time, as a tonic for our chronic addiction to busyness and noise, we learn how to expand that space at the end of the outbreath, so that is grows, not unlike Mary’s womb. It becomes the welcome space for God, the God-shaped hole if you know that phrase, sometimes I think of it as a vast cathedral filled with prayer or even a dance floor where my spirit is deeply moved. In silent prayer we get to know ourselves and our limits. We know where we end and God begins and that space where paradoxically we are fully ourselves and might encounter God fully in Godself, we learn how to love God without smothering or withdrawing. We can sit still and just be.
That is how we must learn to love. Its not a passive thing, if we are to love like Jesus then we must pursue justice and righteousness and serve one another in love, so learning how to maintain an inner stillness before another person involves outward activity. But we must learn that if we stay with whatever is present in the space, the cycle of life and love will continue, and we will be ok.
Mother Theresa, one of the twenty-first century’s greatest example of mother-love. She loved hundreds of thousands of children, knowing every day that there would be no end to their suffering. I can only imagine the burden of going to bed each night knowing that the children you love will be hungry again tomorrow. Your children will be sick and in danger of physical harm again tomorrow. Indeed, Mother Theresa struggled with depression, her love was a burden! And yet, through prayer, through seeing Jesus, through seeking out Jesus in the face of every child, she could get up in the morning and do what she could. She didn’t try and solve everything, and she didn’t hide herself away, she just loved any child that came into her view that day, loved them as if she were loving Jesus himself. We don’t know at least two spiritual tricks Mother Theresa had to keep herself in the cycle of love and life: she knew this space and she prayed to Jesus there, and she loved each person in front of her as if they were Jesus.
Love is never easy, that’s why we who love in the name of Jesus are all called saints.
A final, personal example. It is mothers day and I am here with you without my children, as are many of you – both children who have been born to you and longed for children who have not been born. As we speak, my sons and my own mother are standing in the rain on a soccer pitch in the suburbs, playing sport on a Sunday which was definitely not part of my perfect family plan of years gone by. My sons also have a step-mum, whom they love, who they will phone at some point in the day, to wish her a happy mothers day. And they also have a God-mother (who coincidentally doesn’t have biological children of her own) who they have made a card and gift for and we will make sure they see her at some point in the day today for a special mothers day hug. Now, even just scheduling all those things into the day is a piece of work, but I can tell you it takes a lot more than that for me to facilitate a phone-call from my children to the woman who replaced me as wife! How is that possible? How is it possible to keep loving even when life is not as we would have it?
I do it by breathing. I find that space at the end of the outbreath and I let it calm me. I let whatever is there in that space be there, and I let life continue – the breath in comes regardless of whether the pause in filled with joy or grief. The breath will leave my body eventually even if I try and hold everything in. A funny thing happens when we accept the life for what it is: broken, a work in progress, full of contradictions, we learn that vulnerability is essentially to love, there is no love without risk, but big risk – embracing life in all its glory, results in big love! My life is overflowing with love today – not much of it easy, some of it distinctly uncomfortable, but it is love none-the-less, and the cycle of life and love goes on.
Bible readings: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I have two boys, aged eight and ten and we have just spent a few days away together down at Philip Island, which has made for quite a different Holy Week in some ways. And yet, entering into the world of my boys has prepared me for this evening in a surprising way. Eight and ten year old boys are deeply into stories: big, mythological stories with dragons, heroes, battles and big, big themes about what is important in life.
These stories we read today, are our hero stories, our mythology, the tales we tell each other and our children, to bring meaning and order into our lives. We tell these stories because they bring light into our darkness, meaning into our mediocrity, love into our brokenness.
Jesus of course, was not just a story, he was a man who lived and breathed and walked the earth. He was born into a story though, and stories were born through him, through his prosecution, his death, his lying in the tomb, and his rising again to life on the third day. So let us consider these stories.
This Maundy Thursday liturgy is a remembrance of Jesus last supper with his disciples, a celebration of the Jewish Passover, and an invitation to a new kind of supper in the Kingdom of God. The Passover Feast of the Jewish people was a fairly solemn affair, with lots of readings of the old stories, symbolic lighting of candles, symbolic eating of particular foods to match elements of the story. It commemorated the evening that God rescued the Jewish people from a terrible life of slavery in Egypt. They were in dire, desperate circumstances, having lived four hundred years as foreigners in the land, the privileged relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh long forgotten.
On this evening God had given Moses instructions for the people, that they were to eat knowing they were about to leave, and be ready to depart their homes at a moment’s notice. Blood across the doorway to their houses would indicate to the dark angel of death that their household was to be saved from God’s judgment on the cruelty of Egypt. They were to be spared from death in order to embark upon a new life as God’s people, a life where they would worship God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and no foreign power would restrict them otherwise.
The Passover, like most stories that make sense of our lives, is a story about power. God is the hero of the story. God wields the strongest power. Worldly power, even that of the infamous Egyptians, is no match for this God. God will defeat injustice. God will vindicate the righteous. God is generous with those faithful to his way. God wants good and true relationships with this people of his own making. God alone is to be worshiped and honored. It is an image of God’s power that befits the ancient world from which this story comes.
In this last Passover though, when Jesus institutes a new story, or rather reinvents the ones of old, Power is described in very different terms. When we retell the story of that last meal with his disciples, like we have in the words from 1 Corinthians 11, we read about Jesus taking a loaf of bread and then after supper taking a cup. Scholars think that each of these actions are referring to specific symbolic actions in the Passover Meal. Before the meal, bread was prepared without yeast. All the leaven in the household is removed, as a ritual representation of consciously removing sin from the household. Jesus is the body from whom sin has been removed. A body to be broken, shared, consumed for the same of God’s people. The cup after the meal is most likely to have been the ‘third cup’ of the Passover, the Cup of Redemption. This cup reminded all who drank from it that they needed a gift from God, to cover all the unavoidable mistakes and shortcomings of being human. In ancient Israel God provided for this in the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Jesus is initiating a new pathway, a pathway through his own sacrifice.
It is probable that the washing of the feet, which we enact again on this evening to remind ourselves of the type of God we worship, was also part of the Passover Meal, as it was a regular part of dining with God’s people. After an initial blessing, the diners would all ritually wash their hands to symbolize their religious cleanliness. That is, it was a declaration that one had obeyed the religious rules and done one’s best to come to the meal with a clean heart.
But Jesus takes on all the cleaning himself. He is the one who makes people clean, it is not something we do for ourselves, and probably the fact that the ritual hand cleaning was never a completed action should have informed everyone at the last supper of that fact. But they were still surprised that Jesus takes this on for himself.
Jesus takes on the dress of a servant to wash the feet. This is not the Mighty God who swept through ancient Egypt with the angel of death. This is the Compassionate God, who does WHAT EVER IT TAKES to bring his people to the place of worship.
Why the feet? Well, perhaps it was because it is the dirtiest part of us, especially in a world of dirt roads and open shoes. Certainly, Jesus went to the most extreme lengths to redeem the ugliest and most evil parts of humanity. Not a day after this meal he descends to the depths of hell, to redeem all who have fallen into the greatest pit of despair.
Perhaps also, I like to think, it has the metaphorical significance of walking with God. Our feet signal our intentions. The people of God had to walk out of Egypt, in order to go and worship. We too, need to set our feet upon the right path, and walk into worship of the Almighty, through the way of Jesus.
So when we tell this story of the foot-washing to each other and to our children, we tell of a hero who sacrificed himself. A hero whose love knew no limits. A hero whose sacrifice forged a new pathway to life
Note now though, if you haven’t already, of the very different kind of power in this story. This is paradoxical power. Power by service. Power by sacrifice. This is the power of non-violent protest. It’s not that Jesus is an anti-hero – that is, a hero who we are to learn from by what he doesn’t do – Jesus is a hero in whom we marvel, at the greatest power of all – the power of Love to bring us into worship with the God who is Love, the God who loves us, and has sent his only beloved Son into the world to redeem sinners.
This is power-in-vulnerability. Because Jesus is who he is, he doesn’t need to prove anything, he just needs to offer himself. He is God, he doesn’t need to do anything to become powerful, he just is, and so by making himself available to us, we are welcomed to encounter God in all God’s powerful majesty. Jesus unleashes his power upon us, just by being himself, just by opening his arms in welcome.
Now, centuries later, we who walk in his footsteps mimic this power in vulnerability.
An excellent example of this from the past week are the Christian leaders who staged a peaceful Easter “pray-in” in Julia Bishop’s office. They refused to leave until she answered their question on asylum seeker human rights. Last Sunday, thousands of Christians walked through the city in peaceful protest of a different kind, asking for a change in government policy over its treatment of asylum seekers. This is the power of love not violence. It will bring about change.
A different example comes from our inner walk with Jesus. In the prayers we experience in hard times, we discover a special power, gentle yet life-giving, which enables us to move on, even if its just the next step. In letting everything go and trusting that God hears the very cries of our heart, we discover the shape of the spirit there, we know God within, and we come to trust that the source of love is never far away in the darkness.
You see, this liturgy tonight, is an invitation to join Jesus in making yourself vulnerable. Vulnerable to God. If there is ever a time to embrace darkness, to embrace unknowing, to grieve for your losses, to feel the pain of disappointment, it is this next forty-eight hours. Don’t fear it, God is with you. Don’t avoid it, it is the pathway to resurrection. Just make yourself open to it. And let Jesus the Almighty, stoop to wash your dirty feet.
10.30am – 11.00am: morning tea
11.00am – 12.30pm: Keynote Address by Sarah Coakley
12.30pm – 1.30pm: lunch
1.30pm – 2.30pm: Benjamin Myers
2.30pm – 2.45pm: afternoon tea
2.45pm – 3.45pm: Chris Hackett
3.45pm – 4.00pm: break
4.00pm – 5.00pm: Teresa Brown
Professor Sarah Coakley (Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge): “Rational Sacrifice: Possibility or Impossibility?”
In this keynote address Sarah Coakley considers the massive resistances that have accrued in the modern period, and especially in the post-WWII era, to the idea of sacrifice as rational, productive or redemptive. Exposing the paradoxes at the heart of Rene Girard’s famous critique of the destructive violence of sacrifice, she turns the philosophical and theological tables back on this thesis in order to argue once more for a cosmological vision of productive sacrifice, one now illuminated afresh by evolutionary theory and made the more urgent by the ecological crisis that threatens human flourishing.
Benjamin Myers (United Theological College, NSW):
“Exegetical Mysticism: Scripture and the Spiritual Senses”
Drawing on the work of Gregory of Nyssa, Sarah Coakley has developed a rigorous contemporary account of the patristic doctrine of the ‘spiritual senses’. According to this doctrine, the soul has its own senses corresponding to the five physical senses. In this paper I explore the roots of the spiritual senses tradition in the work of Origen. For Origen, the ‘senses’ refer not to a wordless or non-thematic mystical experience, but to the spiritual practice of scriptural interpretation. Origen uses extravagant sensuous language to describe the process by which the soul is drawn more deeply into the life of God through the reading of scriptural texts. Based on this analysis of Origen, I consider Coakley’s retrieval of the spiritual senses, and raise some questions about the relation in Coakley’s work between spirituality and scripture, mysticism and exegesis.
W. Chris Hackett (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University):
“By the Renewing of your Minds: The Theologian’s Task between Contemplation and Concepts”
The passage from theôria to theory that defines philosophical thinking is fraught with difficulties and provides the itinerary and challenge for a ‘way of life’. In religious-philosophical thinking, the difficulty is made all the more acute. How does the theologian—defined in the first place as the one who speaks to God—properly speak about God without constructing an idol out of his concepts? We will explore this question in light of Sarah Coakley’s recent work and with special reference to St Paul.
Teresa Brown (School of Theology, Australian Catholic University):
“Reframing Trinitarian Theology: Coakley’s Essay On the Trinity”
In this paper we will explore the ways in which Sarah Coakley reframes and reorients key insights from the classical tradition of trinitarian theology to present a theology which speaks to the contemporary Christian, particularly from the perspective of feminist concerns. Focusing on the first volume of her théologie totale, entitled, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, we will critically examine her project in light of the pressing contemporary questions she addresses: How to speak of God and name God in a contemporary, feminist context, and how to live in the world in such a way that we image God the Trinity, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’.
click here for a downloadable version: Sarah Coakley in Melbourne
Oh my goodness! How did it get from July 19 (my last post) till October 9?Well, first of all, PhD land has its own particular time zone! Second, it’s been a big couple of months for me, with my Dad passing away on July 28. Grief has been a dominant part of my life recently, as it is a part of every life from time to time, sometimes a long time. I mention that to introduce this post of writing that I did for a sermon last Sunday (lectionary readings for 6 Oct 2013), in the hope that you can note the theology done through experience: scriptures and life operating together in the crucible of prayer.
Actually, this is a sermon that is less about personal grief than it is about the grief involved in being the People of God, and that too has been a painful part of life for me, as it is for so many Christians. The Church lets us down, Life lets us down, and sometimes we even feel like God lets us down. So we need Lamentations as part of our prayer repertoire.
This was an important piece of writing for me, so I offer it in the hope that others find some encouragement.
Lamentations 1:1-6How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly. Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
These are the opening lines of the Book of Lamentations, and I thought today I would say a few words about that book, because its not one we are often encouraged to read. So, I would like to try and convince you today, that Lamentations might be something you want to open up at home and not only read, but pray with, reflect upon, and let God speak words of comfort to you through.
These verses we read give quite a good indication of what you will encounter in the rest of the book:
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!”
In the Hebrew bible, the books are labeled by reference to the very first word, and the first word of Lamentations is ‘ekah, meaning – Alas, how, or oooh – it is a cry of despair, a word whose meaning is conveyed by its sound, a deep, heart wrenching sigh – argh.
Lamentations is a book of poetic prayer, about those moments in life when all seems lost. In terms of the history of Israel, scholars believe that it relates to life after the fall of Jerusalem, when the Hebrews were sent into exile in a foreign land. Theologically, the people were forced to question where God was, what happened that their God had seemingly abandoned them. But coming to an intellectual understanding of God is never enough, especially in times of deep grief, so this is theology that must be done with feeling, and this language of poetic prayer is heart language. It is the deep sigh of grief.
My father died in July this year, and a friend of mine warned me that when her father had died, amongst other things, she found herself walking around the house sighing. Deep breaths in and almost guttural breaths out. Oohhh. Lament.
“Like a widow she [Israel] has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks”
There are times in the life we live with God, where we find ourselves in grief. It is a normal part of every life and every relationship. When you experience grief in your relationship with God, you should take heart that is a sign of genuine connection with your heavenly Father!
In the verses we read from 1 Timothy, for example, we see a hint of difficulty that comes from running the hard yards – sometimes we need encouragement just to keep going, as Timothy is urging his readers – don’t give up! Rekindle the gift of God within you. Join with me in suffering for the gospel by relying on God.
In the gospel reading we have a different scenario hinted at in the sometimes troubling advice about the mustard seed. Jesus says, you are like a slave in ancient times: a person who has no control over their own life, subject to the will of her owner. He would not have intended the negative judgement we automatically read into this passage with our twenty-first century western lens, rather, he is simply stating the way things were. There are slaves and masters. One obeys the other. It’s just he way things are. And sometimes the way things are in our lives are pretty unpleasant but there is nothing to be done about them, and no judgment to make – the onset of serious illness, the happening of a tragic accident, unrequited love – they are all outside of our capacity to remove them. We have only the choice to respond as best we can.
But God has the capacity to engage in the world of God’s creation. Faith can move mountains because it is faith in God, and God can move mountains. Deep grief comes to us in those moments when we experience the full impact of our own powerlessness in the world – when we are diagnoses with a serious illness, when a loved one is struck down in an accident, when a friend decides they don’t want to see us anymore. Oohhh how that hurts. We lament.
Lamentations assures us that deep grieving is part of life, and is urges us to make it part of prayer.
“among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.”
Not just her, singular though. Lamentations is a book for public prayer, for grief is also a part of being the people of God, first the Hebrew nation, now also, the Church of Jesus Christ.
“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”
Israel were sent into exile because God judged them and found them wanting: that much is clear from the prophets Jeremiah and others, which we’ve also been reading in the lectionary lately. So, we have to be careful not to turn self-indulgent in our grief, we have to be honest about our circumstances. The Church of God makes mistakes, gets caught up in power plays, gets too involved with the world and hence subjected to ebbs and flows of the culture around it – we are not immune from being human. But the response, the invitation offered by the book of Lamentations is, don’t resist the sadness – grieve and grieve well, it’s part of staying in relationship with God.
Every gathering of the Lord’s Church that forms community is subject to the same disappointments, and every church community is called to live the same life. In the era of deep grief, we pray.
“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals”
[The pray-er is lamenting the fact that the city of Jerusalem is empty, because the people of Jerusalem have all been taken away into exile]
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”
We grieve our empty church buildings, we grieve the unbelief of our sons and daughters, we grieve the broken relationships in our fellowship.
“Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.”
Grieve for what has happened, know your own part in the terrible mess, know the limits of your own part – for as much as some of it will be about your sin, it will also be about things much bigger than you! Grief has an uncanny way of putting us in our place – we are as insignificant as slaves in the first century, when it comes to running the universe. And so we cast ourselves onto God. We trust fully in God. We have faith in God, as the only place of redemption and new life, and then, we discover, that kind of faith, even in the midst of the deepest grief, can move mountains! There is life after death!
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a revised English Translation (Blackwell; Oxford, 2001) third edition.
I wont pretend to have read all of Philosophical Investigations thoroughly (though it was surprisingly easy to read) but I have skimmed the whole and digested the relevant bits as required for my research. It became evident very early on in my PhD research that doing theology at this level is very difficult without a background in philosophy! (Those first year BA lectures in 1989 where I zoned out and wrote bad poetry have come back to haunt me!) Hence, I have taken crash courses in Wittgenstein, Hegel, Heidegger, Riceour, Plato and more! Yes, it has been as hard going as that sounds and I have frequently felt overwhelmed!!
Anyway, I need to get into Wittgenstein because he presents a solution to the problem of the language of love. Love is sometimes described as a game. Now philosophers are not known for their frivolity, but with Wittgenstein, it is true: to speak of love is a word game.
The problem is that l-o-v-e, this four lettered word in the English language, basically defies empirical definition. When employed as a noun it denotes different emotional and relational states of the human person. When employed as a verb it denotes a range of actions towards others and within ourselves. The phenomena of love is essentially multiform and complex.
I love my family, chocolate and Jesus – each of these experiences has a distinct feeling about them and the actions flowing out of my feelings are different for each one (except for the occasions when I eat my children!) And yet, you seem to understand what I mean when I say each of these things. I have deep commitment to the well-being of my family; I enjoy chocolate more than any other food; Jesus makes my world go around!
Affection, attraction, interest – these attributes of human relationship figure strongly in the experience of love, but without further clarification, these words do not get close enough to confining the dazzling array of feelings, actions and propositions that love can entail. However, that does not mean that we don’t know what we’re talking about whenever we deploy the word; on the contrary, we know what we mean, it’s just that we mean a lot more than the word can literally say! The word evokes meaning, depending on its context.
In this sense, the word functions similarly to a whole range of abstract language that I am interested in for my research – beauty, God, prayer, mystical experience – and its not confined to English. This category of words which defy empirical definition preoccupied the mind of Wittgenstein and, upon reflection, he came up with an illustration of what was going on based on the word ‘game’. He shows how some words gain their meaning not through reference to a concrete absolute, but through a process he named ‘family resemblance’.
Here are the key paragraphs – #66 and 67 – in Wittgenstein where he explains his concept of family resemblance in word games, which I think explain how we should understand the word ‘love’ in the English language (you can skip Wittgenstein if you want to short cut to my conclusions, but he is fun!)
Consider for example, the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?- Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!- Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.- Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.
I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc., etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family. And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a – direct – relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this may be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things that we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres. But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions – namely the disjunction of all their common properties” – I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread – namely the continuous overlapping of these fibres”.
So, as Wittgenstein says, there is something that runs through the whole thread, whenever we use the term ‘love’. It is a poetic word: a word that alludes rather than proscribes; a word that suggests rather than stipulates; a word whose meaning grows within its context. When writers employ the word they rely on the ambiguous nature of the language to fill their work with colour; to paint a picture in the imagination; to evoke a memory of an experience. It is a word that conjures a whole scene of meaning rather than a snapshot frozen in time and space.
Traditionally, theology has sought to confine the meaning of love to a particular sibling within the family of meanings. C.S. Lewis canonised this approach for a generation of Christians through his explanation of four Greek words for love in his 1960 book The Four Loves. For example, most Christians would confine ‘agape’ love to describe the love of God and ‘eros’ love as that between two sexual lovers. Whilst it is true that agape is the preferred Greek word used in the Scriptures, and in fact eros is not used at all, the reasons for the original writers employing those particular terms did not intend to segregate meaning in the way that we have done in the scientific era.
Now, I’ve been wondering, what if the poetics of the word love is maintained in its usage? At the very least it will change the way that I write about love. But what will happen if I take seriously the actual phenomena and experience of love which is always complex, dense and messy? Love is rarely experienced in any single form: even when I love my children, it is mixed in with love (or otherwise) of my parents, love (or not) of their father, love (hopefully) of the life that I lead with them, our friends, our activities, and the God whom I believe is involved with it all?
So, what if we reject a single dimension approach to love when it comes to theology? What if God’s love is fundamentally and irreducibly multidimensional?
What if God’s love for humanity is eternal and unconditional, just because God loves us (agape), and God loves us because we are valuable (eros), and God loves as a family member loves another family member – as a father and a brother (storge), and God loves us because that’s the way relationships work best to produce mutually beneficial outcomes (phileo)?
To write of God and human love like this requires beauty, poetry, feeling, intelligence, slowness and openness. We cannot do away with the stage upon which the love is spoken, the story within which love unfurls or the conversation into which the word is uttered. That’s the theology of love I want to write.