Maundy Thursday, 17th April 2014

Paradoxial power

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.


Bernard Lonergan on Conversion as Falling in Love

In one of my recent essays I drew upon Bernard Lonergan’s conception of conversion as ‘falling in love.’   It’s something that I intend to explore further and, if I have seemed a little preoccupied with sex and romance, is partly responsible for that intellectual adventure.

Lonergan thought that being in love was the best analogy for religious conversion because it described the type of total absorption of the experience.  It’s prompted by something wonderful (God) and draws our whole selves into relationship with that Being.  It’s more than intellectual, more than feelings, more than physical, more than conscious, and in the end, we would give our very lives just to Be With our Beloved.  Being in love inspires us to see the world in a whole new light and we become open to adventure, to wonder, beauty, goodness and the mystery of life!

This is the relevent section from my essay (read the whole essay here) – reads like a MTh essay I must say – big words!!

Lonergan explicated an epistemological method which made very careful distinctions in the process of consciousness.  At the core of his hermeneutical method he describes coming to know something as a type of conversion.  Unrestricted questioning about all that is ‘other’ is “the radical intending that moves us from ignorance to knowledge”(Lonergan 1973, 11).  In other words, we cannot know new information about ourselves as subject or an other as object, without the prompting of our lack of understanding.  We cannot become conscious of what we know, until we are aware that we do not know.  Within Lonergan’s framework, he describes this as a process of objectivising, that is, externalizing, our subjective knowing within which there are three stages of cognition.  He refers to this as experiencing, understanding and judging.  The first is the world of common sense;  the second is the commencement of theories or hermeneutical constructs; and the third is an integration of the two (Lonergan 1973, 93).  The stages are not experienced as distinct but rather the beginnings of the next stage evolve in process with its prior stage as previous knowledge begins to fail the knower as an adequate epistemological tool for their life experience.

When Lonergan applies this epistemological process he distinguishes between intellectual, moral and religious conversion: knowledge that is cognitive, performative and transcendental respectively.  They are distinct and, yet again, not unrelated.  “To achieve the good, one has to know the real.  To know the real, one has to reach the truth.  To reach the truth, one has to understand, to grasp the intelligible.  To grasp the intelligible, one has to attend to the data” (From a 1969 lecture. In Lonergan 2004, 37).  In most cases, one can expect intellectual conversion to be prior to moral and/or religious conversion, but, Lonergan argues, knowledge of God is a special case because God subverts the process by loving us first (Romans 5).  “As this gift of love animates and subsumes all other forms of loving, it gives intelligence a clouded awareness of a mystery, to provoke its own kind of questions and to lead to its own kind of answers.  The gift of God’s love occurs as something of a holy disruption in the routine flow of life, with religious, moral and intellectual consequences” (Kelly 2008, 11)

In relation to the recent research on sex, romance and long-term love which I’ve been blogging about, I am really intrigued as to how those universal human experiences might continue to play out as analogies for the religious life.  For example, the passionate romance of new love subsides into something much stronger, stable and secure over the longer term.  That certainly describes my own Christian life.  And a marriage that has lost it’s romance and/or it’s sex is dry and monotonous – which seems to describe the spiritual experience of many Christians who are turning up to church but nothing is actually happening in their Spirit anymore.  There is also mature (able to look beyond ourselves) and immature (self absorbed) versions of sex, romance and long-term love so it’s important to distinguish between a teenage crush on Jesus and a gracious love affair.

I’m collecting a list of authors to read on this subject, so if you have suggestions let me know!

If you want a general intro to Lonergan click here to go to Wiki.  Or you can go here for an overview of his philosophical work.

‘The Judgement of the World’ by Rowan Williams

Chapter 3 in On Christian Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 2000)

I’m a Priest.  I talk to people about God all the time!   Why should anyone be convinced that what I believe about life, humanity and the universe might obligate what they believe about life, humanity and the universe?

Again, if you understand nothing else, understand that for Williams theology is all about conversation.

Let’s imagine (not hard if you know me well) that you and I are sitting down at my big kitchen table with a cuppa – the kids playing boisterously outside in the back yard.  What are we doing?  Talking!  Having a conversation in which I share about my life and you share about yours.  Some of the things in our lives are the same, some are different.  That is exactly how the Christian story is able to relate to others who do not share a Christian commitment to Christ.

Genuine conversation respects the unique integrity of each person.  Imagine, sitting down at my big kitchen table, I reprimand you in regards to your children’s behaviour – they are out of control because you don’t discipline them severely as I discipline my own (hmm… much more likely someone would be criticizing me for this particular failing).  I would hope that you would be offended!  Grab your kids and leave my house never to return – I have been rude and wrong!  Instead, imagine that when listening to the dramas created by the challenging behaviour of our offspring, we share tips we’ve learned along the way, books we’ve read, things we’ve observed.  Jesus is no less real because he has been encountered in my subjective experience.  But it is the field of my subjective experience that others may first encounter Him.

There are a whole host of concerns shared by all humanity, particularly amongst those who express some kind of religious faith – sustainability, human spirituality, global poverty, etc, etc.  The grounds for conversation and working together with others on these concerns furthers the kingdom of God as Christ instructed us, this work is no less our faithful response to Jesus just because other people are involved in it as well for other reasons and God will use it all.