Tag Archives: Incarnation

21 April – The wind blows where it wills – the vanity of the Christ

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Easter Day

Ecclesiastes 8:6-8
Psalm 118
John 20:1-18

In a sentence:
The risen Jesus only confounds us because Jesus in his entirety confounded us

The stark world of Qohelet, the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes, is not much different from our own, except in the brutal honesty with which he receives it.

Central to his account of life ‘under the sun’ has been the linked notions of ‘vanity’ and ‘chasing after wind’. On a first, fourth and tenth reading, these are clearly negative categories.

Yet reading him as we have – with the set gospel for each Sunday – they have emerged also with surprising positive connotations, even with significance for illuminating the gospel and the very character of God. On the first of these reflections on Qohelet I half-seriously tossed out the notion that bringing him into dialogue with the gospel might lead us to dare to speak of ‘the vanity of the cross’ which, by any other accounting, could only be impiety.

And yet that is where we have ended up – on Friday the vanity of the crucifixion and, today, the vanity of the Christ. What is crucial – literally, what ‘crux-ial’, ‘of the cross’ (Latin crux: ‘cross) – here is that for Qohelet, vanity is less a matter of vain emptiness and closer the literal meaning of the Hebrew, ‘vapour’ or ‘mist’. It is ‘ungraspability’ – pertaining to things which cannot be comprehended. The negative sense of this is the futile attempt to grasp the ungraspable world in pleasure, in wisdom or in work, in calculation or scheming.

But beyond this is a positive ungraspability: the very mystery of the world as God’s world, and so of God Godself. All that is and happens comes from God but it is not comprehendible how that is the case. God is just, and justifies, but the world is not and does not. Yet this remains God’s world, and we are given to live in it. This is ungraspability as a characteristic of the God-and-world thing itself. It cannot be denied, but just what and how it is cannot be said.

Something similar happens with ‘chasing after wind’. Negatively, this is the comic image of someone actually trying to catch the wind. But, positively, there is something at the heart of what we are which causes us to grasp after the wind, however comic that must be. We heard from Qohelet on Friday that God has put knowledge in us – the King James Version says, ‘he hath set the world in their heart, so that [none] can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. (3.11). Chasing after wind is the necessary yet impossible thing: the felt need to grasp the ungraspable world and its ungraspable God.

It is, perhaps, not for nothing that the book of Ecclesiastes is framed by the compounded ‘vanity of vanities’ (1.2; 12.8): the world is ungraspable, and yet what else do we do but seek to grasp it? Vanity for vanity. Qohelet has to affirm and deny at the same time.

– – – – – – – – – –

We have heard this morning of Mary Magdalene, left behind in the garden by the tomb. Here she encounters – but does not recognise – the risen Jesus. It’s tempting – and typical – to imagine that grief obscures her vision, that she does not recognise Jesus because her eyes are filled with tears and the world is just a blur. But John doesn’t write history like this; psychology and physiology and physics – as we think about them – are nothing here. Mary not recognising Jesus is about him, not about her: he cannot be seen directly; he is ‘vanity’: vapour, mist, ungraspable, ablur.

The world is turned upside down not by vision but by a word: ‘Mary’. She is caught by the wind, and then comes the recognition: ‘Rabbouni’, or, Teacher (perhaps only coincidentally one of the translations English Bibles use for the name ‘Qohelet’…).

This is not yet what we might call ‘conversion’. Mary has heard and – now in that sense – sees something, but she has not grasped what has happened. She feels the wind, but has not grasped him. And there’s a sense in which she cannot: ‘Do not hold onto me’, Jesus tells her. It seems to her possible to grasp the risen Jesus – is he not just there, in reach? It is in this way that she ‘feels’ the wind.

But he resists. And this is not a ‘cringe’. Jesus does not fear her touch, as if she would contaminate him. And he is not in some way ‘charged’, that he might wound her if she touched him. ‘Do not hold me’ is ‘you cannot hold me’. Ungraspability – the best of Qohelet’s ‘vanity’ – is a characteristic of the risen Jesus and what he brings: ‘No one has power over the wind to restrain it’ (8.8).

This is not a ‘mystical’ thing – Jesus is not now special in a way that he was not before. This risen Jesus is the same Jesus she knew before, and the revelation in the garden is that Mary did not really know him before, as he might yet be known.

The story of the resurrection typically seems to us to present the problem of a violation of the times, to recall what we heard from Qohelet on Friday. The report of the resurrection troubles us because the time for living is over, and now death has its time: for everything there is a season.

We cannot come fruitfully to the resurrection from this perspective. It is sheer violation and is excluded by the prior conviction that time – or nature – can only unfold in one way, from a living Jesus to a dead one. We can imagine that there was a Jesus who said and did what is reported. We can imagine him being crucified. There are times for such things. But the risen Jesus eludes us, for such a risen Jesus is not so much ungraspable as impossible. If we start with a time for every purpose under heaven, we cannot get to the resurrection.

But the gospel itself makes a different case: it is not the times which give Jesus his possible shapes but Jesus who gives shape to the times. If, as the gospels assert, it was the same Jesus now risen who yesterday was dead and the day before still alive – then the dead Jesus and the once-Jesus before the cross are everything the risen Jesus is. There is no distinction: in the cradle, on the cross and under the crown as risen lord (cf. the Christmas carol, TIS 321), Jesus is the same miraculous thing. Incarnation at Christmas and Resurrection at Easter are separated only by that ticking of a clock which separates one happening from another. Time does not bind them, they are the bounds of time.

To say, then, ‘Jesus is risen’ is only to say ‘the Word became flesh’. But the ‘only’ is the clincher, the shock of Jesus’ ungraspability by Mary, or by us. ‘The Word become flesh’ seems to most believers to be easy in comparison to ‘Jesus is risen’. Yet there the great ‘Christmas-y’ prologue to John’s gospel means nothing without Mary’s confusion, her seeing that what is in front of her and cannot quite be grasped was always in front of her. It has now simply been displaced a little in time.

The ungraspability of Jesus-as-the-Christ – and now we dare to say, the ‘vanity’ of the Christ – is not his waft-y nature as a risen body or spirit. It is that he was ever the very presence of God, from the very first. What Mary thought she had seen before was just a shimmer on the surface of the real substance of Jesus. Now she is confronted with him as he has always been, and the difference between then and now is the difference between death and life.

‘You cannot hold on to me,’ the wind cannot be restrained. And yet this is good news because not holding, not grasping onto, not chasing after, yields all the gospel: Jesus goes where we cannot go, and the effect is that all that is his becomes ours: ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’ The not-grasping of Jesus brings Jesus’ own eternity as our own.

And so Mary herself will begin to shimmer, and we with her. Those who are in such an ungraspable Christ are beginning to take flight.

This is the thought with which we ended on Friday: to be caught up by the unrestrained wind which is Jesus, is to fly. We will end the service today with the same thought from Charles Wesley,

Soar we now where Christ hath led,
following our exalted head;
made like him, like him we rise,
ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Jesus is risen.

Life begins to shimmer.

Time being renewed so, there is nothing better to do, Qohelet tells us, than to eat and drink, and enjoy.

30 December – Born of a woman, born under the law

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Christmas 1

Galatians 4:4-7
Psalm 8
Luke 2:41-52

Our Galatians reading this morning has been carefully cut by the lectionary to turn it into something which makes it look like a “Christmas” text. And so we hear Christmassy things for the last Sunday of the Christmas season: “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman”.

Yet St Paul has no interest in Christmas as we know it. What he is interested in is Jesus’ relationship to us. And this ought to matter to us as well because unless there is something intrinsic connecting us to Jesus of Nazareth then there is no point in the church honouring him in the way that it does, commending him to the wider world, or celebrating Christmas.

Although Santa is now presenting as a serious rival, the dominant image of Christmas remains that of the baby. We like babies. We once were babies! Christmas reminds us that, as we once were helpless, and innocent, so also was Jesus, and so the sentimental song “When a child is born” has been added to the collection of what is likely to be featured at a Carols by Candlelight or be piped into the background to set the mood in supermarkets. As Jesus was once a tiny bundle of possibilities, and the focus of great hope for his parents, so were we and our babies. When Paul says of Jesus “born of a woman”, we can hear him saying that Jesus was as we are: he was one of us.

Paul goes further, however, in his statement of what Jesus shares with us. Not only is Jesus said to be “born of a woman”; he is also “born under the law”. Here Paul moves beyond basic biology and baby-induced sentimentality to stir us up a bit about our understandings of ourselves. “Born under the law” adds a dimension to human being which is less certain for many of us. It’s not that Jesus’ being born under the law makes him less human; it is rather that we mightn’t be so sure that being “under the law” is a necessary part of the description a human being.

‘Law’ here is not merely the divine instruction but what it becomes in our hands, and what other wisdoms and ways of being also become. To be “under the law” in Paul’s sense is not yet to be free; it is to be bound by something which limits us and not yet to have received the freedom still held in trust for us.

Yet while we know that we all begin ‘born of a woman’, for many in and out of the church it is scarcely believable that being ‘under the law’ in this way is also part of what it means to be human. Is not the freedom of the individual central to our modern self-understanding? And so Paul’s further suggestion that we are “slaves” – and that we move from being slaves to being children of God on account of Jesus redeeming us from being under the law – also doesn’t really fit our perception of ourselves. 

But by reading more broadly around the short section we have heard from Galatians today, we can bring Paul to bear on our own thinking about how we are constituted. The verses which follow on from what we’ve already heard are not so Christmassy, but matter at least as much:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods [that is, ‘enslaved by law’]. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly powers [literally: ‘elemental spirits’ (NRSV)]?

Paul’s particular issue with the Galatians is that they had found a peculiar freedom in Jesus – a kind of human maturity – which they were now giving up.

This freedom involves a shift from living under law: from knowing the rules, being subject to them and abiding by them (or not!), to living out of grace. Paul describes this shift in a little twist which passes almost without notice: “now…that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” The twist is very important.

For us the question is usually about who knows God, or does not know God – who knows the rules, who has measured where God fits in and how we fit into God. This manifests itself at this time of the year with concern in churches and in newspaper opinion pieces about such things as the “true meaning of Christmas” and who does or doesn’t know it and so does or doesn’t know God (or doesn’t need to know God). This is ‘under the law’ existence – human being as argy-bargy. But for Paul the critical point is God knowing us, or not knowing us.

God knows you, Paul declares; God has your measure, and this before you imagined that you measured and knew God. God knows those of us “born under the law”, enslaved to influences and powers even before we know ourselves as such. In this, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

The good news of the gospel is that God know us in this way, and yet loves us. On Christmas Day we sang of Jesus, ‘lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’. This is scarcely acceptable language today for a couple of reasons but that line sums up Paul’s point here, with the emphasis falling on ‘womb’ (Paul doesn’t seem to know or be interested in the story of the virginal conception). In the carol and in our reading today, ‘womb’ is a metonym – one aspect of our common humanity which stands for everything which we have in common: our biology and our broken, ‘under the law’ existence. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus – True God of true God, light of light eternal – is born at all into our human messiness.

What all humankind has in common is not merely our biology but lives lived imperfectly under the law, and so lives enslaved, under the curse of death through sin. For Paul, then, Jesus-born-of-woman has in common with all humankind that he too came to stand under the curse of sin – “born under the law”.

There is, of course, a danger here that the whole sin-thing can be over-emphasised, as it has been too often in the church’s history. The bad news here – that we might be enslaved in this way – is not the starting point but a kind of end point: it is because a light has already shone for us that we are able to look “back”, as it were, and see clearly now how things were before the light was there, how law enslaved us, how we misuse it to try to save ourselves, how we were unfree.

The good news is that this light shines and reveals not to condemn but to liberate. God has already loved us in our very worst moments, and even in what we think are our very best moments but in which we are sometimes the most tragically deluded. Being Christian is a matter of learning to know ourselves as God knows us – less than we ought to be but loved nonetheless. It is only when we know ourselves so loved that we can know that “freedom of the children of God” which begins with being set free. It is only those who have been set free in this way who can become forces for liberation themselves.

The freedom of the children of God is that they know that God knew them before they knew God, that God’s knowledge of them created no barrier to loving them, and that this means they need not be trapped by their own poor assessments or grand assessments of themselves.

Instead, they may move into the future open to all possibilities, great and small, confident in God’s naming them and owning them as his children.

May this freedom reign in the hearts of minds of all God’s people this Christmas season, and always!

25 December – Extraordinary Ordinary

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Christmas Day

Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Luke 2:8-20

The shepherds say to one another: ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing.’ As their journey was a response news of an extraordinary thing, so also is our gathering here this morning.

And yet, if we give it more than a moment’s thought, it is less clear than we might assume just how the birth of Jesus is extraordinary, for the extraordinary is elusive.

We encounter many extraordinary things in the world: the 10 year old musical prodigy, the resolution of the latest smart phone camera, Brexit, the terrorist’s bomb, 5 prime ministers in eight years (not necessarily in increasing order of extraordinariness!).

Yet, what we call extraordinary is typically something indeed out of the ordinary but on its way to being forgotten or to becoming ordinary. There are two things typical of such occurrences.

First, the extraordinary is typically distracting. Violence, political upheaval, talent and beauty cause us to turn aside from what normally commands our attention.

The second thing about the extraordinary is that it is typically fleeting. Either it recedes into the past – becoming a mere memory – or, perhaps more commonly, it remains with us and becomes the new ordinary. Terrorism is extraordinary, until we grow used to walking around the concrete blocks intended to keep weaponised trucks away from crowds. So also for the decay of political stability, the presence of the precocious talent or the ever-improving capacity of modern gadgets. If there is anything new under the sun, it is not new for long.

These two characteristics might permit us to speak, then, of an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ – the extraordinary as it ordinarily works.

It’s a bit of a mind-bend to try to think the ordinary extraordinary but the point here is that if this is how it works – if the glory always fades – then we do better not to speak of Christmas as something ‘extraordinary.’ Or, at least, ‘extraordinary’, or ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’, are less impressive characterisations of Christmas than we might imagine.

The heaviness and difficulties which seem to overlay our cultural experience of Christmas arise from the attempt to hold onto the fleeting extraordinary, to drag it from its receding past, and to retain it by locking it as an ever-returning calendar event. Thus we make the extraordinary into the ordinary, and empty it of anything which could make a difference.

What, then, breaks through the ordinary? The answer is twofold: first, nothing breaks through the ordinary and, second, God does. This is not to say that God and nothing are the same; it is to say that the ordinary is what God finally aims at. God does not break through the ordinary but rather embraces it.

We are generally not very impressed by the normal, although this is scarcely new. When Luke wants to give substance to the birth in Bethlehem he does not just say what has happened; he has a lead angel with a heaven-wide backing choir make the point to the shepherds. This is impressive – extraordinary – but what then do the shepherds expect to see when they get to the stable?

I found myself recalling during the week the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Some of you have probably not seen this film for the sake of piety, though others of you would likely say that it was for piety’s sake that you have seen it (even numerous times!).

But for information, or as a reminder: the film begins with a night sky, across which travels the Star of Bethlehem. On the horizon we see the Magi (the three kings ‘of orient are’), whom we follow through the streets of Bethlehem to a stable where they find and kneel to worship a child in a manger and present their gifts to the child’s mother. (In all this the film mixes up the biblical story but the whole thing is Christmas-card correct). They then take their leave but very soon return and snatch back the gifts, for they have seen down the street another stable – but now one glowing with heavenly light – and they realise that they’ve visited the wrong place.

We get the joke because we’ve seen the Christmas cards and the icons and the stained glass windows and the sentimental life-of-Jesus films with their halos and attending cherubs and angel-choir soundtracks. But the thing is – if the story is true – the wise men should not been able to tell the baby Brian and the baby Jesus apart. Certainly Brian’s mother could scarcely be accused of being ‘full of grace’ but Mary is not the measure of Jesus in that way, either.

And so the shepherds, to whom the news of the birth of a saviour is extraordinarily delivered, trot off to see what any one of us sees in response to news of a birth – a baby. There is no heavenly light and no halo. Whatever a first century Palestinian nappy looked like, there were likely a couple of them waiting for service and we can rest assured that there is little truth in the suggestion that ‘the little Lord Jesus, no crying he made’. It is just… so… ordinary.

And this ordinariness is perhaps the way we need to recast the representations of Christmas as ‘extraordinary’. Halos and miracles make little impression in a sceptical and cynical age like ours. Ours is a blockbuster culture, which is to say that we have tamed the extraordinary. A choir of angels would still impress us, but we would finally turn it into a screen saver or a ring tone, and then hang out for the even more spectacular sequel.

And yet our hunger for the extraordinary, and our capacity to consume it in this way, leads us further and further from ourselves and the potential fullness of the lives given us to live. For we – most of us – are not extraordinary: our lives are not movie scripts, our decisions do not shift the course of history, our highest achievements will scarcely leave a mark. Our fascination with the extraordinary is an escape from who we are.

Yet this is the un-extraordinary normal into which Jesus is born, the ordinary he takes on. It is this normality which causes such great offence when he begins to wax larger in the religious awareness of those around him. ‘Who is this? Where did he get this from? Is he not one of the local boys?’ More profoundly, the question here is, How can the things of God be so ordinary?

If our usual experience is with an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ which eventually recedes or becomes a new ordinary, in Jesus we see the reverse: an extraordinary ordinary.

Jesus’ achievement is just to be a first century Palestinian Jew, an achievement which begins with his being a first century Palestinian Jewish baby. This is the ‘ordinary’.

The ‘extraordinary’ is that he does this ordinariness in such a way that God intersects via that very humanity. The ordinariness of Jesus is not something which leads him away from God, but the way in which he meets God and God meets him.

The glory of God in the story of Christmas is not in the distracting angels or halos. The glory of God is the living human being at its centre, an ‘ordinary’ which will be extraordinarily done.

his extraordinary ordinary is the gift of Christmas, and its invitation.

The gift is a human life in which the limitations of a particular space, time, culture, language, gender and social status become not mere limitations but the outer form of one person’s freedom to be a child of God.

The invitation is to take this extraordinary life ordinary as our own, to have in ourselves the mind of Jesus: to be free of the need to gild the lily which each one of us is, free of the need to grasp after a glory which seems brighter than us.

For what we are is enough to be magnificent, if we receive it from God not as a burden to be overcome but as a gift to be unwrapped and lived.

Every ordinary baby is a promise of great things: the promise of Godly things in human things – the promise of the glory of God. What is extraordinary about the baby in the manger is that the promise which every ordinary baby is is actually kept in his case: here is a human being fully alive, and so the very glory of God.

This is the gift of Christmas, and its invitation.

Let us, then, with the shepherds, ‘go and see the thing which has taken place,’ receive it as our own and, by the grace of God, begin to become it.


25 November – The difference between a story and a book

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Reign of Christ

Ruth 4:13-22
Psalm 126
John 18:33-37

In a sentence:
God makes of our stories a book, of our words a Word

Our Prime Minister advised this week that Australians are concerned about population: ‘The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments… They are saying: enough, enough, enough.’ Hearing ‘loud and clear’ what the people have said, the PM indicated that, to ease the strain, he would move to cut immigration to Australia.

Now, this was an economic assessment. It has to be admitted that pulpits are generally places which manifest economic incompetence and, were I to attempt to analyse what the PM said in economic terms, I would demonstrate that this pulpit is no different in that respect!

My response to the PM’s announcement, however, was not to its economics but to its devastating blandness. There is here no sense of a bigger picture, no sense of movement to a goal, no sense of history. There is apparently nowhere to go, nothing in which we are involved beyond what is already before us – or, more to the point, what is behind us. What we look forward to, or perhaps can really only expect, is an intensification of ourselves and what we have already achieved – even safer streets, even better healthcare, even quicker transit, more accessible and better tailored entertainment on a faster broadband network and, of course, longer battery life in our smart phones. These are the kinds of things our politicians promise us because, to be frank, they amount to about as much as we can imagine it is worth being promised. The kingdom has largely come and what remains to arrive approaches in the increments which come with the passage of time in a stable society.

That is to say, history is for us chronos – the tick-tock of a clock, the accumulation of events and achievements. The old Greeks knew that the god Chronos ate his children, and we new Greeks know just as well that we will be consumed. Our politics – our life together – is directed towards being consumed later rather than earlier, while we hope that – when our time comes – Time’s bite proves to be quick and his teeth sharp. In the meantime, we work so that time ticks over quietly – less traffic, more space – in a world in which there is nothing to see except what can be seen.

But time and history – what we are doing in the world – can be imagined differently. We see this in our readings from Ruth if we take care to note the distinction between the book of Ruth and the story of Ruth.

The story of Ruth is the sum of all she ever did. The story of Ruth more or less comes to its end with the birth of Obed. Most tellings of a person’s story would end in that way, be they comedy or tragedy: the achievement or tragedy of the protagonist is the end of her story. This is time and history as the sequence of events – ‘What Ruth did’ and ‘What Ruth did next.’ In the end, Chronos catches up, and Ruth does no more.

By contrast, the book of Ruth is the ‘value’ of the story. The story of Ruth becomes the book of Ruth with the addition of a few verses running on past her to David: ‘[and Obed] became the father of Jesse, [who became] the father of David…’ So far as the story of Ruth goes, these verses are unnecessary. Ruth and Boaz don’t know what happens next. David is their descendent but not their story. Things going as they usually do –especially then – people tend to have descendants; there is nothing new to see here.

The book of Ruth, however, places her beautiful but also quite normal and self-contained story within the larger context of David who – in his brilliance and brokenness – becomes a sign of God’s presence to the world. The book of Ruth requires her story but also moves beyond it or, more the point, re-casts it. Story becomes book, words become Word, time truly becomes history – a movement not merely from necessary beginning to inevitable end but from divine inception to surprising consummation.

As a society, we today know only our story; we do not know our book. We know time but not history. We have our gods but not God.

The church, of course, is not much different most of the time. If there is anything to be said for the church, it is not that our story is any better but that we expect our story – with the story of the world – to become a book. We expect to be surprised at what the plot actually turned out to be, at how inception found its way to completion.

For we hold that, while we spend our lives writing our story, God is writing a book. Growing in Christian faith is about recognising more deeply that our lives in this world are the stuff of God. These lives in themselves are not God but they carry a plot which is beyond our sense and yet which could not be carried forward without us.

This is the case whether we lives which appear worthy or unworthy of such extraordinary purpose. We noted last week that it cannot be the righteousness of Ruth and Boaz which saw them the forebears of the great king; the king was always coming, regardless. And there is plenty of human failure in the Scriptures – not least king David himself – which nevertheless becomes the vehicle of divine blessing.

But if we believe that our lives are the stuff of God – the means by which God becomes God for us and redeems us – why would we not live as if it were so?

Why would we not pray for our enemies for the sake of the book – for the sake of where history will end – rather than crush them for the sake of our own passing story? Why keep for ourselves what could be given, to link stories which will finally be bound together anyway? Migrant visas come to mind, as well as loose change dropped into a beggar’s cup. Why eat and drink mere bread and wine when it might be God himself by which we are nourished? Why would we not choose to breathe and move through Spirit instead of mere air?

In such ways we sign that our stories are more than we can yet see, that we trust in One who declares,

Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people…

We trust in this One because when the promise is kept, we find ourselves caught up no longer in a bland hi‑story of a kingdom already come but in the advent of God’s anointed king.

This would be a story worth living.

Step out, then, not for more of our yesterday but for God’s tomorrow.

18 November – Naomi, Ruth and Boaz: Glorious Ordinary

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Pentecost 26

Ruth 3:1-13
Psalm 46
Mark 13:1-8

In a sentence:
In the midst of all that goes on in the world, God is also ‘going on’

Something which is not immediately obvious in the story of Ruth, and yet becomes increasingly pressing once we notice it, is that God is pretty much absent from the story.

God is invoked for blessing, is blamed for Naomi’s tragedy, and is praised and thanked at the end but is not active in the story in a way which is typical of the other biblical historical narratives: God doesn’t say anything or do anything (the allusions to such action in 1.6 and 4.14 notwithstanding).

God’s part in the story is less as protagonist than as ‘context’. God is a frame within which the players in the drama do their thing, to which they refer, upon which they rest: God is the space within which Ruth and Boaz and Naomi live and move and have their being.

The effect of this is to render what actually happens in the story less important than it might first seem, or at least to shift how the action is important. Today we have heard something of what led to the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. But for the time to read it, we might have heard the whole book – for the whole of the story leads to the marriage and the birth of Obed and to the link this has to one of the very great stories of the Old Testament – the story of David. Yet if God is more context than agent in the story, then the purpose of narrating Ruth’s marriage to Boaz and the birth of their son becomes less clear.

If God were portrayed as directly active in the book, then the story would be more clearly one of the blessing of God on everyone still standing at the end, for whatever reason the blessing might have been given. This is perhaps the typical reading: Ruth and Boaz are blessed because their devotion and loyalty is something good.

But God is very much in the background. In fact, the story would be just as charming, and perhaps even easier to read and enjoy, were God not referred to at all. This suggests that the link between what the people do in the story and God’s own interest in these people is less direct than is often presumed.

It is possible to imagine that our generally very charitable assessment of the characters in the story rests on the basis of an assumption that God is responding to the situation of those characters – the tragic Naomi, the loyal Ruth and the righteous Boaz. A little more cynically, it does not take much imagination to recast Naomi as the embittered schemer, Ruth as gullible – or perhaps even as seductress – and Boaz as a good-hearted old fogy who suddenly finds he can’t believe his luck. We are far enough away culturally from the historical context that we cannot be at all confident that we understand what is really going on between Ruth and her mother-in-law, or between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor, or in the negotiations for Naomi’s plot of land.

The question is, does the lesson of the book as a whole change if Naomi, Ruth and Boaz are rather more morally ambiguous figures? The climax of the story would seem to be the birth of the child, and the link of the story to David. But the point cannot be that Ruth’s loyalty and openness to the God of Israel ‘earned’ her this connection to David, or even brought David forth. This is because David had six other great grandparents whose stories we do not know. We have no guarantee, and might well imagine that it could never have been given, that the story of each great grandmother and great grandfather of David was just as virtuous as we’ve been given to imagine that Ruth and Boaz were. We’ve no guarantee that they, too, are rewarded for their goodness with a link to David.

The point of the story then comes to be – or at least a point might be – that, as people go about doing what people do – grieving, promising, reaping and gleaning, scheming, seducing, marrying, giving birth – God gets on doing what God does. If it were the case that Naomi did scheme to manoeuvre Ruth into Boaz’ bed, that a simple Ruth just did what she was told and that Boaz then ran a ploy to secure her and her inheritance as his own – and then the baby was born – none of this change the context within which it all happened.

To put it differently, whatever seems to be going on in the world – for better and for worse – God also is ‘going on’ in the world. In the book of Ruth the lives of a few of us are given to us as the very life of God, the lifeblood of God. It is in and through these that God lives and moves and has his being.

This is the scandal of the incarnation: that our life could be the life of God. As we saw last week, the devotion of Ruth to Naomi – her ‘cleaving’ (1.14, AV) to Naomi – is how God is with us: where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge…

To speak of Jesus as both human and divine is not to say anything about the ‘stuff’ of which he was made, but to say that the life of God and the life of the world are properly bound together in this way. The life of God looks like the life of a human being, and the life of a human being is how God chooses to be.

This is not, however, a moral assessment; the point is not that only a ‘good’ human life is God’s lifeblood. For even Jesus is morally ambiguous; this is what the cross shows – that the life of God will not always look like the stuff of God, yet still it is.

This is the promise upon which we are to build our lives – that God makes us God’s own. This is the measure of us; there is nothing else upon which we rely to tell us who we are.

What we are and do is and is done in the God who, despite what little we can sometimes see and what little we sometimes see, brings forth from our lives the anointed one, the christ in its several guises – David the forerunner, Jesus the incarnate Son, and even the motley crew called, amazingly, Christ’s own Body. Sometimes it will look as if this happens because of us. Too often, we must confess, it will happen despite us but always and everywhere it is for us that God creates out of us, as if out of nothing (‘ex nihilo’…).

In God we have our beginning and in God we will find our end; in this way, God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

This is Ruth’s story, and it is ours.

The story of Ruth declares to us: Do not be afraid; eat, drink, live and love – and God will take care of the rest.

11 November – Ruth, the Christ

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Pentecost 25

Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Mark 12:38-44

It has been said of the book of Ruth that ‘the whole world takes this story to its heart’ (Naomi Rosen). It is a gently beautiful story. Tragic in its beginnings, it moves through hope to restoration. Ruth, Naomi and Boaz – the chief protagonists in the story – are filled with recognisable humanity, and the emotion and integrity of their responses to the accidents of their lives are no small part of what gives the story its charm.

Why we have Ruth in the biblical collection might be guessed from some of its principal themes. Ruth’s ‘foreignness’ as a Moabite is strongly emphasised, possibly as a counter to movements against the foreigner in Israel, such as we find in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. And there may be a lesson reinforcing the responsibility of family members to take up the cause of widows through re-marriage (‘levirate’ marriage responsibilities in which a man marries his brother’s widow). The story also serves as a prelude to the establishment of the kingship in Israel, with the last few verses identifying Ruth as the great grandmother of King David, whose story continues to unfold in the next biblical book. This last purpose is perhaps all the more provocative as it gives the very ‘Jewish’ David a very non-Jewish ancestry in a testimony to the startling freedom of God.

Whatever possible historical reason for the book or intentions of its authors, our reading of it over the next few weeks will be quite unhistorical, in usual sense of that word. We will cast the important aspects of the story as patterns for things yet to be fully revealed in the history of salvation and a long way from what could have been the intention of Ruth’s authors. This reflects the Bible’s ‘typological’ method, a patterning of one story or identity into another. A biblical ‘type,’ in this technical sense, is an event or identity which anticipates something yet to come – the ‘antitype’ (the Greek prefix ‘anti’ here meaning ‘in place of’ or ‘upon’). In this way the Bible links together events and persons which otherwise look quite different but are understood to embody the same reality, the same kinds of relationship or actions. Our question will be, In what ways might the story of Ruth, Boaz and Naomi be not simply hi/story and example but also reveal something of God in Christ?

Our focus today will be Ruth’s startling expression of devotion at the end of today’s reading:

‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’

This is an extraordinary promise; perhaps only the promises made in a wedding ceremony or implied in daring to bring a child into existence come close to it, although without exceeding it.

In fact, it is perhaps beyond any of us to make such an unconditional promise, fearless as it is – even reckless – and rising to contradict even death. Such is not the promise of a mortal but of a god. And here we uncover the first of our ‘unhistorical’, typological readings of this text: the word Ruth speaks to Naomi is the word God speaks to the world in the ministry of Jesus, the incarnate Son. For what else does God do in Jesus but demonstrate ‘where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’? This is the shape of the Incarnation: Jesus is with us, as we are.

Ruth’s devotion, then, is a sign of the Christ, a ‘type’ or pattern of Christ. She – as he – is absolutely devoted to one who she is with. Reading the story typologically, however, takes us beyond seeing Ruth as simply giving a moral lesson in devotion or a call to acceptance of those who are different. These lessons are clear in the story but if Ruth’s words are what God expresses in the Incarnation, then the story puts to us that it is not Ruth (only) who is the surprising foreigner, but God.

This shifts the meaning of the ‘difference’ theme in the text. The foreignness of Ruth – or of anyone we reject as foreign here and now – is no longer a characteristic of her alone, with God beyond all our difference yet compelling us to accept what is different between us. The foreignness of those who are different to us is the foreignness of God, for it is God who is the true foreigner. The imperative to love our neighbours is an imperative to love God (which, by the way, reminds us of 1 John, with whom we’ve spent so much time this year).

In the Incarnation God commits to us fearlessly, even recklessly. This is not clear until God is revealed as the stranger, the one rejected as dangerously foreign – a revelation which must wait until even death itself is contradicted in the resurrection, and Jesus now holds a double strangeness – strangely persisting after death but still the same strange Jesus, calling us to the same repentance, the same strange vision of God-among-us.

Against our confidence that God fits – or should fit – our mode of thought, our way of being, our political aspirations, in Ruth the stranger becomes a sacrament of God.

This is why we gather each week around a table not our own, in response to an invitation we did not issue, to be fed – strangely – with the fruits of human alienation from each other and from God: the cross of a Moabite Christ.

We are so fed in order to become ourselves such strange food, foreigners devoted to those who live in alienation and grief, the unexpected possibility of reconciliation and peace.

Ruth’s word to Naomi is Jesus’ word to us, that it might become our word to those around us.

‘Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’

The gospel and the law are that it cannot properly be any other way.

16 September – The incarnation at Easter

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Pentecost 17

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116
Mark 8:27-33

In a sentence:
For God, incarnation is the easiest of things

Today’s reading is, for many of us, a very familiar text.

And the text itself is about familiarity. The disciples report to Jesus who ‘the people’ understand him to be: ‘They know about the prophets, and you are starting to look something like that.’ Familiarity reads what is new and unfamiliar.

When the question of Jesus’ identity is then put to the disciples themselves, Peter responds, ‘I’ve been watching more closely. I know something about the Messiah, and you’re beginning to look like that.’ Again, familiarity reads what is new and unfamiliar, if now differently.

Then comes the truly unfamiliar and unexpected – the shock of Jesus’ prediction of his fate, reinforced with his dismissal of Peter’s objections as demonic.

This is unfamiliar and unexpected to Peter but, of course, some of us have heard it hundreds of times. None of us where shocked to hear Jesus confront Peter this morning. We can hear that Peter was shocked, but we cannot share his shock. We ‘know’ that Jesus was right – at least, right that he would die – and we even have theories as to why this must be so. We cannot un-hear a story we have heard many times and be surprised when we hear it again.

This to recognise that it is almost impossible for a church which faithfully tells its central story not to domesticate that story – even become bored with it – simply because we have faithfully retold it and so know it very well.

And so this text becomes a very hard one to read; we know that we are supposed to be Peter in the exchange, and yet we know more than he does. This is the problem of our own familiarity with Jesus. If familiarities of ‘the people’ and of Peter blind them to who Jesus is, what do our familiarities blind us to?

In fact, there still is a shock waiting for us here. It is almost the opposite of what took Peter by surprise although it also has to do with the identity of Jesus. Peter’s problem is, how can it be that the Messiah dies the death that we die? Our problem is, how can it be that the death of Jesus is different from the death of the rest of us? That is, how can Jesus be different from us?

We have no problem with Jesus dying. This is either because – as sceptics – we don’t think him different from us or – as believers – we’ve already made some sense of this death. Our real problem today is that Jesus lived. That is, the offence for us is that one part of the world – the person of Jesus – could be special in this way: that everything could take its definition from one thing.

‘Specialness’ is offensive to us today – at least the depth of ‘special’ the church has said that Jesus is. This might be surprising but, despite all our contemporary talk about valuing what is different, all difference and specialness is quickly subsumed because true specialness would contradict everything we typically think about the world.

We do not allow ‘special’ in our thinking about nature – in our science.  Special doesn’t fit in a world defined by natural ‘law’, because the notion of natural law was itself developed in no small part to exclude the special – the unpredictable breaking in of God into the mundane. If anything in the world appears ‘special’ – a purported miracle, or whatever – it is either held to be deception or that our theories are not yet comprehensive enough to account for the observation. Here it less that there is no such thing as a miracle than that miracles quite simply have no place to happen if the world is like this.

In a similar way, in our thinking about history, ‘special’ is only related to the shifting fortunes of power – now this one is special, now another – but each is really just another version of the other.

We do not allow that there could be something truly erratic, truly unpredictable and so new in history or in nature. And yet the Jesus of the gospels is portrayed in precisely this way.

This is to say that the shock in Jesus’s response to Peters ancient and modern is that God is both in-and-for the world and external-and-against it. This is the shock of the incarnation – ­that God and the world meet in this way in Jesus, without either stopping being what it is.

This seems contradictory, and impossible – and the impossibility of the incarnation is the point we usually emphasise.

Yet the incarnation was an easy thing, even if for us conceptually impossible on this or that way of thinking (as the ancient and modern Peters know). Despite what we’ve just said, to confess the incarnation is not to say that something ‘special’ happened, if by this we mean something which ultimately ought not to have happened. The incarnation is, in its own way, entirely ‘natural’ or ‘appropriate’ to how this God creates and relates to us. What we call the incarnation is ‘merely’ an affirmation or filling out of the creation itself: this is the sort of world we live in: one from which no part is beyond God’s reach, no part outside of God’s capacity to use it for God – even death itself.

Though Mark’s gospel is a whole other world than that of 1 John, they both orbit the same sun: that the crucified, very human Jesus is the presence of very God (‘God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God’): the home of God is with mortals (Revelation 21.3).

This means that what we consider natural and familiar now comes to be an entirely new thing. And this means that our reception of the world, our approach to the people around us changes. It becomes natural to act unnaturally: to love the stranger, to help those who have no claim on our help, to give to those who have done nothing to deserve it, to forgive what could not before have been forgiven.

That Jesus lived and died as he did – that his was a life defined by giving – is not only what he did because he was the Messiah. It is also that he is the Messiah because that is what he does: he gives, in life and in death, and in this way he is the place at which God meets us and gives us our very being.

Jesus ‘becomes’ like us in life and death that we might become like him in life and death; this is unexpected love which makes us unexpected lovers.

Let us, then, open ourselves to how God would charge the world with himself, and live and love has God has done – to our greater humanity and God’s greater glory.


2 September – Having life

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Pentecost 15

1 John 5:9-13
Psalm 15
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In a sentence:
Love is defined in the coming of the Son in Jesus

Christian faith has an extraordinary capacity to become its opposite, at least in the hands of Christians. We have seen this recently in the scandals about cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the churches. We can see it also less dramatically but no less seriously in understandings of how God deals with us.

Consider, for example, John’s declaration this morning: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (5.12). This, with a good number of similar verses in the New Testament, is a matter of scandal even in many churches. The scandal is the exclusivity it seems to imply: that only those who ‘have’ Jesus have life. This seems obviously to be wrong on account what we’ve just noted – that Christian confession is no guarantee of moral righteousness. And even when this isn’t the case, it seems seriously wrong to suggest that only those who know and confess Jesus ‘have life’, that there are not other ways to life.

Often posited over against the notion that ‘having’ Jesus is the only way to life is the confession that ‘God is love’. God’s love is felt to ‘supersede’ any requirement of confession that Jesus is the Son, to overcome the limited scope for life which knowing and confessing Jesus seems to imply.

The irony is that it is the same John who tells us both that only those who have Jesus have life and that God is love. We address any embarrassment about the need for confessing Jesus only if we force a split right down the middle of John’.

We might believe we have good reason for this, that we can see more we know than John could. But, then, we cannot then sensibly appeal to John’s declaration that God is love. For to do this would be to turn Christian faith into its opposite, no less so than when the church covers up the abuse of innocents for the sake of its own good name.

This inversion, this making-opposite, is in that what we do here is turn the statement ‘God is love’ into a premise – a starting place – rather than a conclusion.

For John, ‘God is love’ is a conclusion. Love is nothing other than what God does, and the central, fundamental thing God does is send the Son in the person of Jesus that we might live through him (4.9,10). John’s ‘take home’ message is not so much ‘God is love’ but what we’ve heard him emphasise a number of times now – that the crucified human being Jesus is the divine Son. That this is the case – or at least the confession – is the meaning of ‘God is love’.

‘God is love’, then, cannot ‘correct’ any overemphasis the connection between Christian confession and having life. For John, having life is what comes with seeing that the crucified Jesus is the Son; life is not some other thing than this. Love is what the cross means and does, as the very cross of God in the Son.

It is, in fact, not clear how the cross does this. There is no divine equation or formula or recipe which shows how the cross of God saves. John knows only that it does save, does bring life.

And so it is at least clear what the cross means. It means life: a life founded on the cross as an act of love. For John, this life springs from, and so looks like, love.

Our anxiety with John’s connection of ‘having’ the Son with ‘life’ – including ‘eternal’ life – comes from our concern for the lovely – those whom we love – and our concern for the loving – those in whom we see good things. That is, in rejecting John’s connection life with Jesus, we make judgements: this one deserves love, deserves life, because of what we see and judge to be of value in him or her.

The declaration that God is love, however, is not a judgement about anything in you or me. We want to say: if we are valuable, then God will love us. John says, God loves us – we must be valuable. Nowhere in John or in the gospel as a whole is love bound up with judgement. Nowhere is there an ‘If this (the condition) then love (the judgement)’.

Love is, rather, judgement overcome. ‘God is love’ does not supersede the confession of Jesus as Lord; it is the meaning of it. The two things are the different ways of saying the same point.

And so we are not to judge the love of others, or their loveliness – for better or for worse. We are to love them, as God has loved us, because it is in this kind of love that God is met, that we have life.

This life is not a thing we have earned, and so not a possession we hold; it is a common-wealth. It creates, it transforms, it connects – to God, to others.

To have the Son is to have life in all its fullness. It is to see life not in effort and reward, not in what we hold to be lovely, but in need met with gift. The need is very great; the sign of our need is Good Friday. The gift is even greater: it is Easter’s transformation of Good Friday from our judgement of God into life together beyond judgement, life on God’s own terms.

Imagine what ‘Life together beyond judgement’ would look like. Imagine what it would look like in the family, in the work place, in the church, across divisive borders, across racial and gender divides.

To ‘have’ the Son, to confess that Jesus is Lord, is to have begun to imagine such things, and to live them, because Jesus is where our own experience of love without judgement has begun. Discovering this, and then exploring what it means in the lives we are given to live, is the meaning of ‘God is love,’ something which we speak only in hope as we ‘prove’ it in testing and demonstration.

Our faith does not divide us from others, neither does it place us above or before them. It turns us towards them, that the life we are discovering in God might be uncovered by them also.

To ‘have the Son’ is to have work to do. This is life.

Let us, then, live that work, that the world may know…

19 August – Conquering the world

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Pentecost 13

1 John 5:1-12
Psalm 34
John 6:51-58

In a sentence:
Love conquers the world by
winning it over

We sometimes get the sense that theological specialists get a little het up from time to time on matters of precision and correctness in faith. I’m probably not immune to such a charge myself. Why bother with the language of the Creeds, with doctrinal precision, with correct liturgical structure?

As a way towards answering this, let’s consider the theological intensity in the middle of our reading this morning from 1 John: ‘[Jesus Christ] is the one who came by water and blood…not with the water only but with the water and the blood.’

If nothing else, this is dense theology. It is neither immediately clear what it means nor why it matters. At the same time, John insists on it, rabidly, foaming at the mouth: this really does matter. There was obviously some controversy in John’s community about ‘the blood’, and whether or not belief in ‘the blood’ had to be added to belief in the ‘the water’. Perhaps the most likely scenario is something like this: there was an argument about whether or not the redeemer – the Son of God – was present in the baptism of Jesus only (the water, or the waters of birth [cf. John 3]), or whether he has also present in the death of Jesus (the blood).[1] What seems to be at stake is the relationship between ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Son of God’.

That is, John defends here what we now call the doctrine of the Incarnation – the meeting of God and the world in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, if this makes sense of the statement, we must then wonder about the next thing: why does the Incarnation matter?

As far as John is concerned, the doctrine matters not for its own sake but for its crucial pastoral implication: it is those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God (that is, who believe Jesus came ‘in the water and the blood’) who ‘conquer the world’.

‘Conquering the world’ is perhaps not the best way of putting it for modern ears anxious about histories of colonisation and so on, but we get the point if we invert John’s way of putting it: it is those who believe in the meeting of Jesus and the Son – in the ‘water and the blood’ – who are not conquered by the world. ‘The world’ is here anything which might constitute a threat to us – the fears in our love, as we considered them last week. To believe that Jesus was the Son is to get a grip on the world, rather than be gripped by it.

This is so because the world ceases to be a place which comes between us and God – and so between us and our true selves; the world becomes the place where God is met and embraces us. In the person of Jesus God meets with the real world, as lived by a real person in time and space, with all its joys and sorrows.

We declare this each week in our recitation of the Creeds: Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’… residing in, coinciding with, ‘was born…suffered…was buried.’ This is not mere doctrine; it is a way of saying that true God and true world can meet. The Creed declares that such a meeting has happened, and it is the hope of all who say the Creed that this will happen again.

And so the Jesus of the gospel is not a solitary individual, a tool in the hand of God, a means to some divine end. He is a real person engaged with other persons. His death is not mere mortality or tragedy, and it is – again (see July 29 sermon!) – not something God demands. The cross is a failure of the world to bear God – a rejection of such a presence of God to the world.

A sad philosopher once observed that ‘hell is other people’. It would have to be said that this was the experience of the crucified Jesus, because it was only by other people that he found himself on the cross; the physical suffering of the cross represented the suffering of the conflict endured throughout his ministry.

But the point of his ministry, and the point of John’s preaching through this dense and circular little letter, was to declare just the opposite: that heaven, also, is other people. This is why – as we saw last week – the love of whatever in the world it is appropriate to love can be the love of God – our love of God and God’s love of us. Our presence to God and God’s presence to us ‘looks like’ loving one another.

We do not believe ‘in the Incarnation’ as a thing which happened. The thing which happened, we believe, is the defining instance of God’s en‑fleshing of himself in our very lives, and this matters for the continuing shape of our lives. To believe that Jesus was the divine Son is not so much to ‘conquer’ the world with right doctrine as it is to declare what the world truly is: a vessel – even ourselves – which God has created to fill with himself.

To believe that Jesus – even ‘in the blood’ of the cross – is ‘true God of true God’ in the world is to believe that there is nowhere in the world which is alien to God, nothing which cannot be raised from the dead.

This is why we are to love not only the lovely but also those who it seems even love would do little good. Such love always seems wasteful, always appears as a throwing of good after bad. But this is not to say that such love is then an expression of kindness or compassion. As a throwing of good after bad, in the manner of God’s own work, our love of the unlovely is an experiment in resurrection. Is there really a passion stronger than death, as Solomon puts it in the Song of Songs (Songs 8.6)? A ‘Yes’ to this question is what marks the Christian.

The world, then, in its constant turn towards deathly things, is not conquered for the sake of the conqueror – whether us or God. It is conquered for its own sake. For the weapon in this struggle is love, and love conquers as much for the beloved as for the lover. God, then, does not conquer the world so much as reach out to gather it to himself; for the closer the world is to God, the more it is what God intended it to be.

This is the promise of the gospel.

And we ‘prove’ the promise – in the double proving of testing and demonstrating – in the love we show to those in need of it.

Once again, then, let us love one another. For nothing else will help.

[1] This occurs elsewhere in John; cf. John 3, where a contrast is drawn between being born of ‘water and the (s)Spirit’. There is also the reference in John 19.34f: ‘one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)’ That is it necessary to emphasise the truth of this indicates that the matter was very important in the understanding (and debates) in Johannine community.

20 May – Bound by a liberating Spirit

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1 John 4:1-12
Psalm 104
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

In a sentence:
The Spirit of God binds us together for love

We live in an age of the resurgence of ‘spirit, a certain sense for ‘spirituality’ which has developed in the last generation or two as a way of expressing how many people feel they experience themselves and the world: as ‘spiritual’ persons.

This is, in part, a reaction against drier, rationalist accounts of the world, ourselves and God which have dominated Western society (at least) over the last century or two. But there is more than this in general spirit-think. At heart, ‘spirit’ conveys freedom. Spirit resists capture, crosses boundaries, shakes foundations. This is the opposite of what cultural constructs like institutions do, whether the institution be a social organisation, a language, a religion or a just set of mores. ‘I’m not religious but I am interested in spirituality’ is a statement which sums up the contrast. Institutions – religion among them – fix in place; spirit breaks free. And we live in a freedom-seeking age.

But there is a very deep problem here. Jesus did not say – but might well have said – Where two or three gather in my name, there you have an institution (cf. Matt 18.20). Institutions – tangible and intangible – spring from community, from the need of otherwise separate individuals to negotiate a way of being together. The weight of an institution is the weight of life together. Sometimes we can lighten that load, but we will always do that by shifting the burden to another institution if it is ‘we’ and not ‘I’ which does this.

The problem here is that if we invoke spirit or spirituality to set us free from all this, spirit comes to stand over against a fundamental characteristic of our life together – that we always, and must, construct modes of relating to each other. Against this, certain understandings of the spiritual allow me to shut my eyes so that you disappear and there is only me and God (or whatever it is I see when my eyes are closed).

To the notion of spirit as escape from one another, John says No, although we have to strain to hear it. There has been a painful split in his community around what we might consider a ‘mere’ doctrinal point – whether or not Jesus was the incarnation of the divine Son of God. But for John the distinction between doctrine and ethics doesn’t hold; that the incarnation deniers have in fact separated themselves is as much their failure as the denial. To confess the wrong thing and to do the wrong thing are the same.

In our reading this morning, John implies that the deniers have invoked an inadequate sense of ‘spirit’ and this has led to the division of the community, the rejection of the ‘institution’ (we might say) by which they first gathered.

If we were to try to reconstruct the theology against which John writes, it might go something like this: God is spirit, and we are spirit. Our physical embodiment is secondary to our spiritual being, so that what happens to or between our bodies does not, finally, matter (perhaps this is why they could say, ‘we have no sin’ [cf. 1.8]). The death of Jesus is itself a denial of embodiment, a liberation from body, a denial that physical things matter; only the spirit of the risen Son is important. The spirit of the Son is free, as we can be free.

On this understanding, John’s insistence on love makes little sense. Love requires bodies, and not only the case in the instance of sexual expression. Bodies are the means of creating personal histories, which are what give us our identities. And these interactions create ‘institutions,’ rules of engagement, ways of being together, bindings between persons; a community is a ‘body’ (consider ‘the body of Christ’ – a body of bodies). Such things are all intimately associated with what we are in and as our embodiment. Wafting spirits neither bind nor are bound (cf. John 3.8). Bodies, on the other hand, do these things all the time.

And so John declares what is otherwise almost incomprehensible in connection to spirit:

4.2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.

The real human body of Jesus the Son ‘in the flesh’ matters because our bodies matter, and our bodies matter because the body of Jesus the Son matters.

What John says, then, is that how we are – that we are embodied persons in space and time, springing from each other and into each other – is of the utmost importance for faith.

The ties that bind us to each other – how we interpret our embodiment – will sometimes be too tight, will strangle. This is the meaning of the prophets’ rage against the barrenness of Israel’s religion, even though it is also God’s religion. It is also the meaning of John’s own command to love, to overcome stale expressions of community, too harsh regulation, or not enough regulation, in order that more joyful life together might be embodied.

But while the ties which bind are sometimes too tight, there is no unbound life before God or before each other. The Spirit of God is the Spirit which points to God’s own binding of himself in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus does not give up his body on the cross; he refuses to disconnect from those who disconnect him, who unbind themselves from him. If God is really only there when I shut my eyes and can no longer see you – when I count you as dead – then I’m dealing with the wrong god.

John does not say then, that the Spirit will make us confess the correct creed. He says that the Spirit will make us human, and that it does this by binding us together in love. It is to this that the doctrine about Jesus as the incarnate Son points. As God has been to us, even to the point of death, so we are to be to each other.

Spirituality should indeed set us free, but not from each other. The Spirit which points to Jesus sets us free from all which might separate us from our fullest humanity or, to put it differently, the Spirit sets us for each other.

Where the Spirit of Christ is, there is freedom – to love.

Let us then heed John’s call: love one another as God has loved us.

In the name of the one who is lover, beloved, and love. Amen.


In confessional response:

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.

And yet we confess that,
in thought, word and deed,
we have not loved you with our whole heart
nor our neighbours as ourselves.

Forgive us when we seek in you
a hiding place from the world
in which you’ve placed us for our benefit,
with its abundant gifts
and light burdens.

Forgive us the love we withhold
the much needed kind word put off
the unnecessarily angry word set free.

Forgive us our attachment to those things –
theories, habits, institutions,
which take more life from us or from others
than they give.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your
binding and liberating Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.


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