1998

 

Recently I joined with other Anglican writers in the creation of a new collection of essays, Grace and Truth in the Secular Age (Bradshaw, 1998) prepared for Lambeth. The cover to that volume includes an illustration of someone bearing clay water jars -- presumably "grace" and "truth"--with great difficulty. It seems that a despair of this balance has led some in our Anglican communion to leave us: those of us who remain find ourselves in ongoing debate. Contrasting responses to Bishop Michael Ingham's book, Mansions of the Spirit, and the question period after his presentation last Monday night are prime examples of this controversy. Perhaps it is helpful for us to remember that our problems are not new. The apostle Paul, too, found himself at the end of an era: we are in a post-Christian age, he wrote during the time when Judaism as he knew it was coming to an end. Paul, too, knew what it was to live in the midst of an unintegrated society, and feel the uncertainties, the jostling claims, the malaise of a complex world. Paul also knew the pain of seeing that the confusion of the world had laid hold upon his faith community, the very community that should nurture life with God. That pressure is so great today that some wonder whether the strategy of holding together different expressions of the Church through an Anglican "middle way" is at the breaking point. After all, was Cranmer even, in the first instance, attempting to forge a "middle way" of compromise? Is it not rather that he, and others with him in the first years of the English reformation, were concerned to weigh various Christian voices and then express, as closely as they could, what they understood to be the truth?

This morning, I would like for us to look at some complex and interconnected issues, and to use Paul's example as we tackle them. Paul's congregation, like us, faced problems concerning the identity of Jesus, and the relationship between the Church and the world. Paul was worried that his converts at Corinth were too easily swayed by so-called "super-apostles" who claimed spectacular spiritual experiences and gifts, but who in fact preached a distorted picture of Jesus, a different "Jesus," and who imparted a different "spirit," all the while denigrating Paul's witness to the Lord. But Paul could appeal to the Corinthians because they believed, with him, that God had been seen in our world particularly in "the face of the Christ," the one to whom the first apostles witnessed.

For us today there is a further problem: it is not simply that a different "Jesus" is being preached, teaching which we can correct by appeal to the apostolic witness. It is that many have come to believe that there is no one Jesus at all, and indeed that Jesus himself is one among a number of human mediators of life, if in fact the individual requires such mediation. We need to think about what it means to know God in an age that is not simply plural or multi-faceted, but pluralist. Many people assume that there is no common focal point for truth, knowledge and glory: the story I live by is my own story, and no one else's. What are we to do, we who say that God has a particular story for the whole world, and that this is not our personal story, but God's very own story, a story revealed and enacted in Jesus, his Son and his anointed? Although Paul's problems took a different shape, I think that his words, as found in 2nd Corinthians, Romans and Philippians, will be of enormous help. We begin with 2 Cor 3:16-4:7, 16-17).
1. We must cultivate honesty, and open hearts:
"We have renounced underhanded ways, and refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word ... but commend ourselves to every person's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor 4:2). This is a harder thing to do than it might seem at first blush. Paul renounces deception and distortion, and resolves to handle the Scriptures with integrity and in charity. He commends this openness --towards God and towards others--to everyone. As Christians we all have "unveiled faces" before God: there is nothing to be hidden from the One who shines on us! And in his letters he begs the Corinthians to "open their hearts to him" (7:2) as he has been vulnerable before them.

It is all-too-easy, when aware of danger from both outside and within our communities, to lose heart, and so to adopt strategies of secrecy and cunning. We may be tempted to envy the arsenal of others, who handle the Scriptures in order to score points, or to sway the listener with insubstantial rhetoric. Frank Johnson rightly pointed out to us, from Wesley's renowned sermon, that in Mark 9 we see peace and generosity exemplified by Jesus, over against his rigorous excluding disciples. But some have adapted this passage to suggest that ...



The presence and power of God are not in Jesus alone. When the disciples report that someone other than Jesus is casting out demons, Jesus replies, "Whoever is not against us is for us" ... Jesus instructs the community of his followers to seek and celebrate the power of this Spirit wherever it may be found. (UCC document, Toward a Renewed Understanding of Ecumenicism, 1994, pp.3-4) 

Those who interpret the passage in this manner have omitted a crucial detail, however. The stranger to the disciples in Mark's gospel (9:38-41) was casting out demons in Jesus' name. Moreover, in this passage Jesus goes on to speak pastorally about the change that will take place in one who is not opposed to him, and who trusts in his power, although he or she is not yet following as a disciple. The accent of the gospel account falls squarely upon the name or power of Jesus; it doesn't suggest that the Spirit works in people independently of the person of Jesus!

It would seem that Bishop Ingham made a similar move to the UCC interpreters of Mark 9, last Monday night when he isolated Peter's assertion in the Acts of the Apostles: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34). The statement may be read in one manner when separated from its larger context. However, a careful hermeneutic will join Peter's statement with the whole sequence, in which the generous-minded apostle also goes on to proclaim that "Jesus Christ is Lord of all" and that "to him the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 10:36, 43). Peter is inclusive precisely by opening the gospel beyond Israel to any who fear God: he doesn't conceive of salvation outside of the One whom God has sent.

We will need, then, to insist that Scripture be read honestly, and in context. Yet there is more to learn here. Perhaps the most common response among those who strive for credal fidelity is to forget that we are called, with open hearts, not only to tell the truth, but to re-present it in our beings: returning again to Paul, we find that the centre of his hope, and his life, and his defence was Jesus himself. He had met the glory of God in the face of Christ, and continued to gaze steadfastly at that glory so that he would himself be changed. So Paul did not argue first for a system of belief, nor even primarily for the veracity of the Scriptures and the apostolic witness (though he believed in this): he concentrated upon the One who was the Word, preached Jesus Christ as Lord, sought to bring "every thought captive to Christ" and saw himself as the servant of others for Jesus' sake. This is all personal language, language which moves us into a deeper identity than being mere "people of the book," wonderful though this is. For we are people of the One who is the Word, and called because of Him, and in Him, to be servants of others. Servanthood in the style and through the Spirit of the servant Jesus requires that we be open in heart to those whom we seek to help, even to those who do not accept our service, and to those who consider our service to be naive or destructive.

This emphasis on the personal brings us to our second lesson from Paul. We have seen that not losing heart implies that we will cultivate honesty and openness of heart. However, if Paul is open in heart, he is not content with na´vetÚ. Not losing heart will also mean that in the present situation we must, like Paul, listen carefully to those who speak.
2. We must hear and understand the problem.
We have to listen to what is being said wrongly about God's truth, and respond to it. If the Christian story tells us anything about the world in which we live, and the errors into which people can fall, it reminds us that distorted light, and not total darkness, is our most insidious enemy. People within the church are not removing Jesus from centre stage out of sheer perversity. Rather, they displace him because of distorted and misplaced desires--the desire for unity, for generosity of spirit to those who do not name Christ, and for freedom.

Bishop Ingham, for example, chastises the "doctrinal terrorists" who "have historically believed our religion to be superior to everyone else's" (public address To Whom to Bow, 1996.) But the bishop has, I think, missed the point--and we too must be careful to maintain our proper focus. For we do not start with doctrine or with a system of belief. We begin from what God has shown us about His very nature--this we have learned in words, and also in less propositional ways, in the history of Israel and the Church, in the life of Jesus as mediated through others, in the lives of others, in our own hearts, and in the centre of our communities. We begin with the particularity of a God who is Alpha and Omega, who led Israel, who revealed through Jesus that he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit from and for all eternity. Christians cannot begin with "I think, therefore I am." Rather, the Godhead is a source and pattern for us of being, truth and love, and overflows in these good things to us: "we are loved, therefore we are." We begin, so far as we are able, with the living God who has shown himself to us in various ways, but most perfectly in and through his Son.

It is not, then, that our "religion" is superior. Rather, to abide within the Christian tradition means to affirm two "scandals", to use the words of the theologian Emil Brunner. The first offence is the scandal of particularity, because this Living God has come to us among a particular people, the Jews, by acting in their midst and finally taking on human flesh in the particular man Jesus. The second related offence is the scandal of universality, which from the beginning has insisted that this active revelation, or this revelatory action, is for all humanity, as Paul would say, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile. We do not affirm these scandals in an attitude of triumphal imperialism, or because they are cherished intellectual constructs, nor out of arrogance or out of fear, but because we have been touched, all of us from the first disciples down to today, corporately and personally, by the One who Is: how can we deny him? Part of our response to him will mean that in love we make every move possible to heal the brokenness of his body, which he prayed would be one; it will also mean that we do this in all honesty and truth, not pretending that there is unity where essential differences remain beneath the surface. In the end, our healing is and will be always from the One who is Creator and Re-creator.

But in these days all the talk is of "a global ethic" and "whole world ecumenicism." Within this perspective, the particularity of the incarnation is frequently swallowed up in a "Christ", who is seen as the embodiment of an ideal: often distinctions are made between Jesus, and "the Christ." For example, Bishop Ingham comments "There is in each of [the great religious traditions] a mediating principle between humanity and the godhead ... What we name as Christ will be named in some different way" (To Whom to Bow). But in the Bible, the term christos is very precise, and meant "the anointed of God." In the Hebrew Bible, kings, prophets and priests could be anointed; in the NT the term "messiah" as well as the term "God's Son" takes on utter particularity, as God's purposes find full expression in Jesus, the Christ, the Son. To reduce "Christ" to a "what" or a "principle" is a decisive move away from the person who was the Christ to a religious idea of mediation. God does not need us to invent this figure in order to safeguard his dignity or our faith from injustice: to confess Jesus as the Christ of God is not to consign all those who do not yet know him to death or meaninglessness. A reverent agnosticism as to how God deals with those who have not heard the gospel in propositional terms, is appropriate here. The One who is the head of creation, and the firstborn from the dead knows how to bring light out of darkness. It is important, I think, for us to be clear, since others also speak about such "agnosticism." In particular, Michael Ingham has appealed to the writings of Lesslie Newbigin in this regard, although he is in fact saying something quite different from Newbigin. Newbigin challenges the wisdom and rightness of asking about the ultimate salvation of the individual, and directs us instead to ask "How is God to be honoured and glorified?" Ingham uses Newbigin's words to suggest a "moving beyond the bible" and a "drawing wider of the circle" (Mansions of the Spirit). But, against Newbigin's direction, Bishop Ingham continues to ask the question of "possibilities for human redemption" (134) and he answers in a pluralist manner. In the same vein, he speaks familiarly of the importance of "a deep personal commitment to the gospel and to the person and work of Jesus" before we proceed in dialogue, and coins the phrase "grounded openness." (MS, 138). Such phrases sound reasonable and good, until we remember that the bishop is at the same time deeply committed to the concept of "God's unfolding revelation" (126), the evolution of religions and the "emerging God consciousness" (127) that will lead "noble spirits" (126) in mysticism beyond the personal and the propositional to a transcendent point where all faiths meet. (Refer here to Huston Smith's spectrum diagram, reproduced in Mansions, p. 120.) In commending this view, he employs the ideas of theosophist Frithjof Schuon (The Transcendent Unity of Religions) to distinguish between personality types, those who are "exoteric" (read "immature") and those who are "esoteric" (read "enlightened.") Exoterics get stuck at the particulars, consider the world to be real, understand truth as concrete and practical, see God's personal mode as his only mode, ground their faith in doctrine, and aim to love God. Esoterics, on the other hand, treat form as a vehicle for substance, are drawn to the universal, consider the world to have only a qualified reality, see God as an absolute that cannot be spoken, recognise numerous ways of revelation, and seek to know the transcendent. For the exoteric, religions are mutually exclusive; for the esoteric, they all meet whence they have sprung--in the final Reality. In dealing with such difficult statements as Jn 14:6 ("I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.") the esoteric will employ his or her "supple ... capacity for spiritual abstraction," and understand "me" as "the Logos" (123). In using Schuon's distinction of types, the bishop reduces our current debate about particularity to a description of spiritual and intellectual maturity. He concludes, "the difference between them (exoteric and esoteric) has more to do with the subjective approach of the believer than the objective truth believed" (Mansions, 123). While Bishop Ingham tries to suggest that both exoteric and esoteric need each other, each making up deficiencies in the other, it is quite clear that he favours the esoteric's ability to move beyond dogma in charitable appreciation, creativity, and the flexibility required to "pursue God's unfolding revelation." In describing this progressing revelation, Bishop Ingham unfortunately is very selective with the biblical narrative. He tells us that the prophets "shifted the religious axis from ritual to ethics," that Job "shifts it to mystery ... and sheer belief," and that Jesus stands "unambiguously" in the prophetic tradition of Amos, Isaiah and Job (Mansions, 130). This progression is intended to open us to an evolution, as we are "drawn into larger and larger circles of seeing." Jesus himself was not keen on "propositions" and by the new covenant enlarged "God consciousness" so as to declare "all people are now chosen people" (Mansions,132, my italics), a truth supposedly articulated by Paul in Galatians 3:28. Bishop Ingham moves on to his most poignant plea: If ... we take the view that the growth of God-consciousness need not end with Jewish-Christians of the first century, that new understanding is possible and indeed necessary [my italics] for world peace and survival, then we may feel ourselves impelled towards a yet wider view of God's self-disclosure this would, in my view, be entirely consistent with Scriptural tradition taken as a whole and with the God of love made manifest in Jesus Christ. It would be faithful to the pattern, already evident in the Bible, of historical evolution in human understanding of God, an ever-widening circle of knowledge based on the core foundation of the old and new covenants between God and Israel (Mansions, 134). Here is the problem: we must get the story, or the pattern right, and we must know the major character of that story, if we are not to walk right out of the biblical narrative into a world of our own imagination as we respond to what we deem as necessary. So, we move on from cultivating honest hearts, and understanding the problem.
3. We must give our response.
Again, Paul is helpful for us, since he had an analogous situation in his day. If we turn to the central core of the book of Romans (9-11), we see Paul dealing carefully with the very issues that concern Bishop Ingham and us, as we ask questions about Christianity in a pluralist society. Paul clearly criticises the besetting sin of Israel, their attempt to establish a righteousness of their own, a righteousness peculiar to them: but never once does he deny that they were God's own chosen people. He goes on to show how the righteousness and faithfulness of God are now extended beyond Israel to include all who name Jesus as Lord: but never once does he speak of this without reference to what God has done in Israel, the final chapter of which was the sending of the Messiah, God's own Son. Paul sees a progression, but it an active progression in history, not a simple unfolding of God's will to those with more and more spiritual maturity. God did something in Israel, God did everything in Jesus, God is now active in his extended people through the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus known. Amidst Paul's discussion of God, righteousness, Israel, and the Gentiles, he sounds a clear caution about a path which ought never again to be pursued. This caution speaks directly to Bishop Ingham's "pursuit of God's unfolding revelation" and to his suggestion that mystically enlightened knowledge is the only answer to peace in our world. In Romans, Paul explains the gospel mystery to newly converted Gentiles, some of whom thought that God had rejected Israel for them. To them Paul declares that God's holy Law, the Torah, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, with its stories and commands, had indeed been given to Israel. But now it was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah, so that Jew and Gentile could be made one. Paul also had to combat the persistent belief in national privilege among some Jews and Jewish Christians who did not understand that the Torah had had only a temporary role until Jesus came. It seems that some Jewish visionaries were questing in pursuit of angelic-like transfiguration, seeking through esoteric means to establish their own " righteousness." There are clues that this mysticism had also captured the imagination of Paul's own "children", particularly those in the congregation of Corinth, who seem to have held visionary pursuits in high regard. These esoterics had missed the boat. To mystically search for further confirmation of their standing in Christ, or for further knowledge about God meant they did not see that the critical quest had already been undertaken--by Jesus, the Anointed. So Paul warns them in Romans 10:5-7:



And the Righteousness from faith speaks in this way: "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend to heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or, 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to lead Christ up out of the dead). But what does Righteousness by Faith say?--"Near to you is the word, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith which we proclaim) 

Paul is completely clear that this "word of faith", centred on Jesus the Lord, is for every creature, whether Jew or Gentile. Human hope must not be on the older story and commands surrounding Israel (the Torah), nor on personal spiritual exploits, nor on the hope for some new, transcendent understanding that will supersede what God has done in Jesus. For Jesus is the main actor in this drama that began with the stories of Torah, and it is by his Spirit that we are enabled to continue the drama with integrity and vitality.

Both the past acts of God, and human mystical experiences pale beside the climax of God's drama--the coming of the only One who has soared the heavens and plummeted the abyss. The giving of the word, the making near of that One to our minds and our hearts, through the Spirit, means that the drama continues--but the shape is forever marked by the greatest gift of God, who cannot be surpassed, only known and loved more and more. Bishop Ingham and other contemporary mystics seek to bring down or up a new revelation which will harmonise all contradictions--but this cannot be done, for He has already come. We cannot go beyond the personal--that is what God gives to us when he gives himself. We cannot go beyond love to a deeper knowledge--for in the giving of Jesus love and knowledge meet. Our own living is not, thereby, a static one, but a dramatic entry into a story which graciously enfolds us. And the story includes not simply humankind, but the whole cosmos, which is being and will be transformed as God's own people are brought to glory. We have what is necessary for a cosmic vision of peace and joy already.

The great mystery of our faith is that the One who is the creator, and who is above all things, has come to be with us, and in us, through the Incarnation and the sending of his Holy Spirit. We affirm both that God is totally other, separate as Creator from his Creation, and that he is through his Spirit "in all places, filling all things." Because he has come in history to reside in Jesus, because sin has been dealt with on the cross, and because death has been conquered through the resurrection and ascension, we know that God has taken humanity up into himself; yet His Spirit is now most specially within his living Temple, the ones "called out" to worship Him and to minister within his creation, until the creation is liberated from its bondage, along with all the children of God. In the Christian story, particularity and universality, past action, present life and future hope, come together in a marvellous way. (Romans 8:18-27)

The early church had a hymn which celebrated God's great act in Jesus. We find it in Paul's letter to the Philippians, 2:5-11. Here is marvellous medicine for our individualistic, relativistic, and flatly egalitarian age.



Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

Paul recites these words to the Philippians, explaining that these will help them with the problem of mind-set that they are having--a problem of ambition, pride and disunity. He says, consider for a moment the grandeur of what God the Son did--let it fill your hearts, your minds, your spirits. Let this hymn seize you and change you: what God offers you is the mind of Christ. Look: Jesus had the highest status imaginable: and he gave it up, completely, to become one of us, to become a man who died on a cross of all things. Down to humanity and death, and the grave, and up to the highest place, to be worshipped by every creature everywhere! Learn, mark, inwardly digest, let this invade your imaginations--then you will shine, you will no longer complain and argue, you will look out for each other, and be completely loving, just as Jesus was and is and will always be. Let the Lord of Glory change you as you praise him!

To say, "Jesus is the LORD" is not a matter of exclusivism and "doctrinal terrorism," nor of inclusivism and arrogant imperialism which claims that non-Christians are Christians without knowing it, nor even of pluralism and its confused attempt to forge a new unity out of discordant voices. Nor have we any need of an esoteric "transformationist" view that promises to go beyond the gifts of God offered in Christ--what could be newer than a new creation, a new name, a new heaven and earth. We have to do with the living God who commanded light to shine out of darkness and who has given us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Christ. We have to do with the Son, Jesus, himself, the one in whom God's promises were fulfilled and the One by whom our hopes will be answered. Our answer to those of other faiths can only be to tell, in utter humility, the story of Jesus in our corporate and personal lives. We tell this story in who we are, and also in word, but always making sure that it is Jesus whom we are proclaiming, and not our own cultural baggage. As Paul puts it, "we have this treasure in clay vessels to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor 4:7). Our answer to the pluralist need not be, in the first place, to speak of the dangers and absurdity of pluralism, nor to dwell on the securities of orthodoxy--though we must understand these things, and may come to speak of them with our differently-minded friends. Our first answer will be to respect the image of our God in the face of the one with whom we speak, and like Paul, to "proclaim that Jesus is Lord" because he was a Servant! It is not ourselves, nor our systems, that we commend, but Jesus himself, who is the Truth, and who is (through the Spirit) capable of moving the heart and removing the veil that is over the eyes of the blind. Not losing heart will mean that we seek to understand the complex problem of our pluralist culture, and our implicated churches, and that we will speak and live in the light of the only real solution we have--our personal God, known to us in Jesus.

 

 

God's Treasure in Jars of Clay