Friday, 13 December 2013

My back, the kingdom of Heaven and a one storey universe - part 1

Backs are handy things. They help you stand upright, lend strength to lift things and give you something to lean against a seat with when you are tired. One unintended use, I am recently discovering, is that when they 'go' you have little option than to stay still and rest, two things I am particularly bad at. That is the position I find myself in after yesterday when, having come out of the shower, I innocently leaned forward to pick up something from the bed to experience something I have not had for about a year or so now, a painful spasm which had the unusual consequence of causing my whole body to lean painfully to the right as it tried to cope with the hyper-tense muscles in my lower back. This worsened as the day wore on and left me in the state I am in today popping Nurofen (I don't like the strong stuff) and sitting upright in my pyjamas and dressing gown typing away this blog.

But the 'good thing' about this, as referred to earlier, is that I have been forced to stop and rest, and therefore think. And the result is the opportunity to put onto my blog some of the things I have been mulling over the last week or more.

It all started with reading the first part of a book I recently came across written by an Eastern Orthodox priest called Fr Stephen Freeman. The book is entitled "Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe." The first part of the title comes from the following prayer to the Holy Spirit I learnt from the Orthodox Prayer book:

"O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth who art everywhere, and fillest all things, the treasure of blessing and the Giver of life, come and abide in us. Cleanse us from impurity and of thy goodness save our souls."

I learnt the prayer - among others - because I was sick of my own rather superficial prayers and needed something deeper and more profound to 'borrow' and use. Well Fr Freeman has taken this prayer, and especially the phrase in italics, in order to examine his own heart and the Christian Church and question if it really holds to the truth of that statement which is/should be the basis of what it is we as Christians believe.

He calls this belief, the belief in a' single storey Universe' where God is 'here' and 'everywhere' and not just up 'there' in heaven (a two storey view of the Universe and God). To quote the Foreword written by Fr. Freeman's (then) Bishop - Jonas - and mentioned in an earlier blog:

"One of the most fundamental principles of the Christian vision of reality is that God is present everywhere, filling all things. This underlies the essential Christian task of becoming consciously aware of that Presence and bringing that awareness into every aspect of our life."

I am sure all of us can say 'Amen' to that. But do we really believe it? A sure sign of whether we do or not is seen in our daily practice or in our attitude to prayer or the sacraments. The bishop continues:

"Secularism is the compartmentalization of God and religion, and everything else, into autonomous and unrelated parts of our lives. Secularism does not deny that God exists, but rather states that He has His place and does not necessarily affect other areas of our lives."

How does this insidious belief work out in practice? Let's take the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Those who believe it is a sacrament believe that somehow, in some way, when the bread and wine is blessed God is present 'in' them, that somehow and in some way Jesus's body and blood and the bread and the wine become 'one'. The more secularist Christian - if I can call them that - believe that this is superstition or nonsense and will tell you that the bread and wine are mere symbols of Christ's body and blood. What they have done in taking this line, however, is to banish God from His world and say that all that Jesus has left us with is an idea rather than his actual presence. And yet, as plainly as he can say it, he tells us that "this is my body which is broken for you....this is my blood which is shed for you..." In other words "I am fully but mysteriously present in the bread and wine as you eat and drink it".

Another evidence of the secularization of our faith is prayer. Of course not all prayer is like this, but sometimes the way we pray, inviting Him  to act, seems to imply that He is either in another place or far away and needs to be summoned. Okay we must allow for the fact that language is not always exact and sometimes prayer in this way is just another way of saying 'help'! But it can also betray a mindset that sees God separate from His world and needing to be called in like some heavenly emergency service or rescuing cavalry. But isn't God always here? Isn't that what Jesus came to tell us? Isn't prayer therefore an acknowledgement of that?

This came home to me more recently as I was preparing to preach on Matthew 3: where John the Baptist preaches: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near" (or "at hand") something Jesus takes up later in Matthew 4:17.

Let's look at this. The word "repent" is often associated with sorrow, confession of sins and a desire to put things right that we have done wrong. All that is true. But the word also means "to change one's mind" or even "to think differently". Put all this together and you could say that to repent means that action of God at work in you which leads to a change of mind about Him, sorrow for having thought and acted the wrong way and a resulting change in direction of your life that brings it back into line with God and his intentions for you.

We see this played out in the passage that follows as people have been struck by that fact that they are wrong in what they have been doing and thinking about God, and confessing this, they have undergone symbolic baptism for the washing away of their sins in the River Jordan. And the fact it is the Jordan is itself a powerful symbol referring back to the Israelites crossing over the River (see the Book of Joshua) from the old life of slavery to the new life of freedom, form the old kingdom of Pharoah into the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Israel.

Later in the passage John is unconvinced of the Pharisees' intentions as they came to hear him, as their refusal to be baptized (inferred in the passage) demonstrates that their thinking is unchanged and therefore their lives are set firmly on the (wrong) path that will ultimately reject Jesus and His teaching.

The second part of John's message is a reference to something the Israelites may have had an inkling about. Every Jew knew that one day God was going to finish His work in the world and bring everything to an end. At that point their belief in Him would finally be vindicated and He would come and finally establish - or re-establish  - his Kingdom founded by their greatest King, David. Evil - in the form of unbelieving gentiles - will be done away with and all the believing Jews will share in a great banquet with God in celebration of His victory and the defeat of evil. So thinking that that is what John the Baptist was announcing - and that he may be the long awaited Messiah - people flocked to him to prepare for God's imminent arrival.

But this belief was predicated on the idea that God was somehow "up there" and was coming "down". This was further underlined by the way it worked in the Old Testament. There Moses had to go up a mountain to get the commandments Exodus 19-20) and Elijah too (1 Kings 19)  to get his head right again and his mission back on track. And when God did turn up it was usually in the form of angelic visitors (see Genesis 18) or in one of the several theophanies in the Books of Genesis (Chapter 14:18ff) and Daniel (Chapter 3). In other words God was generally considered absent from His world unless He turned up for some special purpose or summoned His leaders/prophets to a special place (Temple) or special mountain (Sinai).

But here John was actually taking the idea and adding a new twist. In saying the Kingdom of heaven was near he was saying that God is now drawing near, but not in order to end something but start something new. And this something new referred to his 'moving in' to stay with us.

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