Friday, 16 December 2011

Advent Breathing Space at Seal 3: There and then, here and now

During these Breathing Space talks we’ve been thinking about that famous phrase from the beginning of John’s Gospel “The Word became flesh”. We’ve thought about what kind of Word Jesus might be. We’ve thought about flesh and what that means to us. So there’s not much left to think about, just that word in the middle – became.  But actually that is a word full of meaning for us too in this context.
The Word became flesh.

At a specific time, in a specific place, something happened, says the word “became”.  I became a priest when I was ordained. I became a mother when I gave birth. We become successful if we manage to achieve a goal. “Becoming” can be a sudden event. All in a moment things change. Or “becoming” can be a more gradual process. However long it takes, though, we can look back and see that things have changed and that there is no going back because of what has happened.

When that change is a dramatic one there is one reaction which is very common. It is common whether the event in question is tragic, like the shooting this week in Liege, or happy, like a lottery win. “Who would have thought that such a thing would happen here and now?” people tend to say. “In this place, at this moment, in our neighbourhood, to me, to us…who would have thought it?” There may be no real logic to this. Such events are essentially random – as likely to happen to us as to anyone - but somehow we don’t expect it. Unless we have delusions of grandeur, most of us tend to think of ourselves as basically ordinary, living ordinary lives with broadly predictable courses. Why should anything specially good or bad happen in our neighbourhood, here and now?

The Christmas story, with its assertion that “the Word became flesh” challenges that though. If God was going to become flesh, it had to happen in one particular place and one particular time. That’s the nature of flesh. Human beings, no matter how hard we try, can’t be in more than one place at a time.  We are here, where we are, or we are nowhere. Biblical scholars argue about the historical accuracy of the nativity stories in the Bible but one fact is indisputable. Jesus was born. He grew up in the Galilean town of Nazareth in the early years of the first Century. As our Gospel reading tonight told us, he was born in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke pins it down in time and space very deliberately. There and then this thing happened. He knew it was true – whatever the details – because Luke knew those who had known Jesus, and he had seen the impact of his life on their lives. They had spread his message around the Mediterranean, at considerable personal cost. Many had been martyred. If Jesus hadn’t been real, none of that would have happened. What they had experienced in knowing him had convinced them that this was the work of God among them, that Jesus was God’s message, God’s word. Much to their surprise, I am sure, God had shown up in their world, in their lives, through Jesus, and it had changed everything.

In the Old Testament reading Moses is confronted by the same amazing fact, that God is where he is. He meets God in a burning bush out in the desert, while he is minding the sheep one day. Who would have thought it? Moses had long ago abandoned any idea that he could help his people, and had run away.  Whatever God might be doing to rescue his people – if anything – Moses was convinced he wasn’t part of the plan. But God had other ideas, and out there, in the middle of nowhere, God makes his appearance.

William Blake wrote, in his poem Jerusalem, “and did those feet in ancient time/ walk upon England’s pastures green?” He was referring to the old legend that Jesus had come with Joseph of Arimathea, who happened to be his uncle, on a trading visit to Glastonbury when he was just a boy. Legends like that reveal that, despite our scepticism and our disbelief, deep down we long to feel that God might just show up where we are. That legend isn’t terribly likely to be true – though I wouldn’t say that too loudly in Glastonbury – but ironically the story of the birth of Christ tells us that our yearning isn’t really so far-fetched. Turning up where we are, in the nitty-gritty reality of human lives, is precisely what God is about, whether that is in a scandal hit young mother in Bethlehem or in the muddle and the mess of our lives now. All we need to do is open our eyes and our hearts a bit wider so we can see him.

The Word – God’s own expression of himself – turned up and dwelt with us in human flesh in Bethlehem. That is the Christian Gospel, and it is truly good news, because if he came there and then to ordinary people in ordinary places then there is no reason why he can’t come here and now to us. Wherever and whenever we are, God is with us. In the silence tonight, let us think of the places in us where we might least expect to find him, and let us ask him to be born in us here and now, just as he was there and then.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Advent Breathing Space at Seal 2: Wondrous Flesh

During Advent at St Peter and St Paul's Church, Seal we hold three Thursday evening "Breathing Space" Holy Communion services at 8pm, in the candlelit Lady Chapel. They are very small, intimate services, with just a handful of us gathered together, but for those who come they provide some stillness amidst the hectic clamour of Christmas shopping, cooking and worrying. 
This is the talk I gave at the first Breathing Spaces last night - I will post the others in due course. The theme for these three services is "The Word became Flesh", and what that might mean for us. The  third of these services take place on Thurs 15th Dec.

The Word became Flesh: 2
Breathing Space for Advent 2011
Genesis 1.26-3, John 13.1-16

These three Breathing Space talks for Advent are focussing on the statement so familiar from the beginning of John’s Gospel “The Word became Flesh”. Last week we thought about what kind of Word Jesus was, how God spoke through him. This week we will think just a bit about what that Word became - flesh.

Flesh – we can’t live without it, quite literally, but we often have problems living with it too. It is subject to disease, injury and pain, and to the wear and tear of time. In the end it fails us completely; we all die. Sooner or later some vital part of it gives up, no matter how fit or careful we are.
Even its pleasures can lead us up the garden path into trouble . Food and drink are great in moderation, but too much of the wrong kind and we know there is a price to pay. Then there is that fraught, delightful, complicated business of sex. It’s a wonderful gift, but it can cause emotional mayhem, betrayal and hurt as well. No wonder people through the ages have struggled with their bodiliness, and sometimes wanted to be able rise above it to what seems like a much more serene, spiritual existence. No wonder negativity about the flesh is so persistent – popping up in many cultures and religions. Blame for that negativity in our culture is often laid at the Church’s door, and sometimes that is fair criticism, but there is really nothing in Christian faith itself to justify such an accusation. In fact, once we start looking, we find it is quite the opposite.

The book of Genesis, as we heard just now, begins with a great hymn of praise to all things material. God looks at his creation, this immense variety of physical stuff that he has brought into being and proclaims over and over, “it is good”. The crown of that creation is humankind in this account, men and women, made in God’s image - a “wondrous being” as Haydn describes it in his Creation oratorio. That’s us! Wondrous beings – in all our physicality.

So where did the negativity come from? The problem is that Christianity doesn’t just have Jewish roots. It was also shaped, more profoundly than it realised at times, by the Greek thought world in which it spread during its early centuries. Greek philosophy was very varied, but there was a strong strand in it which distrusted the physical world, which insisted that perfection was spiritual and that to reach it you had to leave the clay of your body behind. The Jewish idea of the goodness of matter was impossible to reconcile with this, and in some ways we have lived with the fallout of the cultural clash ever since.

The idea that flesh is inferior to spirit has often won the day, I suspect, because it chimes with our experience of ourselves, especially if the flesh we inhabit seems less than glorious to us – and that can often be the case. When all we can feel are our aches and pains, and the mirror shows us more wrinkles than we want to see it is hard to think of ourselves as one of those “wondrous beings” that Haydn celebrated. We can understand why people might have felt that it would good to leave their bodies behind. We can all get fed up of them sometimes.

But there was one big challenge to that negativity, one reason why it never completely triumphed in Christian faith. And that was the incarnation, the idea that in Jesus, the word and will and identity of God became this troublesome flesh. That God himself felt its pains and delights, and ultimately endured death, just as we all must. For those early Christians of Greek origin, this was very difficult to get their heads round. It was counter intuitive, faintly disgusting. But they couldn’t just ignore what was, after all, a foundational doctrine of their faith, and there it has been, a highly inconvenient but ultimately wonderful challenge, ever since. The Word was made Flesh, says John. We don’t quite know what John, of his fellow early Christians, understood by that, but it is clear that they believed it. God, the mighty God, was one of us, like us, suffering and delighting, living and dying. And if you believe that, then you have to believe that flesh is blessed not cursed, loved not hated. If incarnation was good enough for God surely we should be enjoying it and treasuring it too, recognising flesh for the gift it is.

That doesn’t just affect how we think about ourselves, but how we think about others too. If our flesh matters, then so does everyone else’s, including those whose physical existence is painful, those whose bodies are starving, or cold or crying out for loving touch. In our Gospel reading we heard of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. I am very glad that when he showed us what love and service look like he didn’t just choose to say a prayer or demonstrate a particularly sensitive counselling technique. Good though those things are, washing feet was an infinitely better choice. You can’t wash feet from a distance. You can’t wash feet in an ethereal, spiritual way. You’ve got to get down on the ground and take them in your hands and touch them.

The Word became flesh, and thank God for that. God became a “wondrous being” to remind us that every other being – even me, even you - is wondrous too.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Word became Flesh: Advent Breathing Space at Seal: 1

During Advent at St Peter and St Paul's Church, Seal we hold three Thursday evening "Breathing Space" Holy Communion services at 8pm, in the candlelit Lady Chapel. They are very small, intimate services, with just a handful of us gathered together, but for those who come they provide some stillness amidst the hectic clamour of Christmas shopping, cooking and worrying. 
This is the talk I gave at the first Breathing Spaces last night - I will post the others in due course. The theme for these three services is "The Word became Flesh", and what that might mean for us. The second and third of these services take place on Thurs 8th and 15th Dec.

If you come across any other online resources for Advent which you think people might like to read, please let me know and I will post them, or add a link to them here.

Breathing Space 1:  Hebrews1.1-4, John 1.1-17

“In the beginning was the Word,” says John’s Gospel. There are no shepherds, wise men or angels at the start of his account of the life of Christ. It is just straight in with the theology – beautiful theology, it’s true, but harder work than stories of mangers and starlit journeys.
But there is a big clue in John’s opening line to help us understand what he is telling us, because we’ve heard something very like this before; back in the book of Genesis, in fact, where it all began. “In the beginning” was how that story started too, with the creation of the world and everything in it. All it took then were some words. “Let there be light…”, said God, “and there was light”. 

People who study words and the way we use them call this a “performative utterance”, words which make something happen. A marriage vow is a performative utterance. It’s saying the words “ I, N, take you, N, to be my husband, to have and to hold, for better for worse” which actually makes you married. In English law it’s not signing the registers which does this, it is saying the words. Once you have said the words, everything is different.

God’s performative utterance in creation “Let there be…” brings into existence the sun and moon, the land and sea, the elephant and the earwig, and everything else, including us according to the book of Genesis. When John  echoes these words, “in the beginning” he is trying to tell us that God is about to speak again, to utter a new Word in the person of Jesus who will bring about a new creation, a new kingdom, a new beginning for anyone who is prepared to let his life take root in them.

But what kind of word is Jesus? Words are expressions of ourselves, our wishes, our opinions, our beliefs. The kind of words you can write on a page can be precise and unambiguous. But a Word made flesh – a person - is a very different thing. There’s no way you can fully describe another human being. You have to meet them to know them, and in any case, people are different at different ages and in different situations, different with different people.

You can understand a word on a page. You can pin down what it is saying, but you can’t do that with a person, a Word made Flesh. That’s why the lawyers around Jesus were so frustrated by him. They loved words, and they loved to be precise with them. Jesus baffled them. What was he saying? What did he mean? What might God be saying through him? What they didn’t realise was if you really wanted to hear this Word, God’s Living Word, you had to get to know him. It was the relationships he built with all sorts of people which really spoke the loudest about who he was. In meeting him they discovered they were loved and precious – they became  a new creation because of him.

God’s word changes the world, not by giving us a new rule to keep or a new set of beliefs to subscribe to – dead words on a page - but by inviting us into a new relationship with him. He speaks to us in a Son, says the letter to the Hebrews, a Son who comes to show us that we are all God’s children, part of his family. Through his life, his death and his resurrection Jesus shows us what that means. We are ultimately safe in God’s hands. God does not give up on us because, like the best of loving parents, he just can’t. It is impossible, unthinkable for him. Because of that we can be sure that we  have an enduring place in his family, room to be ourselves, to grow and change, to get it wrong and put it right, to become that new creation he wants us to be.

In the next two Breathing Spaces we’ll be exploring a bit further what it means to call Jesus the Word made flesh, but for tonight I’d like to leave you thinking about that family of love into which we are called through Christ. Are you confident of your place there, or do you hang back, peering through the windows and wondering if it really means you? Come on in, says God, through his Living Word – it’s a whole new creation and it is for you.

Advent Links

Advent has begun
Here are some resources which might help you to stop, think and pray as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ,
Here is Christian Aid's online Advent Calendar

Christian Aid also has four reflections for the Sundays of Advent to download.

Paperless Christmas Nine short videos to make you think. From Bible Reading Fellowship.

Advent ideas for families from Domestic Church

Daily videos to make you think from Changing Worship

Jesse Tree resources to colour and decorate in the run up to Christmas

Ready, Steady, Slow - Advent reflections from the Church of England