Thursday, June 28, 2012

This is my body

I'm writing a magazine article on the relationship between the eucharist and our embodiment. This is quite long, but if anyone feels like reading it and also feels moved to comment, I would love to hear what you have to say and maybe discuss it a bit here. This comes from Austin Farrer's 'Said or Sung'. It is the transcript of an address delivered at the Eucharistic Congress at the Albert Hall in 1958 That might provide some needed context!

A speaker to an unfamiliar audience has to take a risk. He has to assume that his interest in the matter he discusses is shared by his hearers. In the present case my anxiety on this head is not great. For surely you feel the curiosity I feel when I consider that moment in which our Saviour said, 'This is my body.' How could Peter, John and the rest have understood him at all? They could not, anyhow, understand him altogether; why, the Holy Ghost came down presently at Pentecost for this very purpose, to give them, after the event, the understanding they had lacked; and to lead them into all truth, about the sacraments as well as about other divine things. But even at that moment, sitting at the Supper, they must have understood something. It was not our Saviour's way to talk with his friends in a language they could make nothing of; and least of all, in the night before he died. They cannot have been quite bewildered to hear him call the bread his body; even though his own living body sat there amongst them, holding the bread in his bodily hands, and calling it his body with a bodily tongue; even though in the next moment, Jesus ate a crumb of what he had called his body, putting his body into his body. That, you might think, was utterly confusing for his companions; and I do not deny that it was mysterious; but it was not so bewildering for them as it would be for us, and this is the reason - they had certain ways of thinking about their daily food, which have become less familiar nowadays.

I will ask you, then, to think for a moment about this old-world attitude to bread. Not that there is really anything old-world, or difficult, or unnatural about it, once we get round to thinking of it. We, surely, can say two things about our food, both equally true. First, food is a sort of fuel, which keeps us running; we turn it into warmth and energy; we burn it up in living; we can say, for short, that food is life. But in the second place, food is body-building; it is not merely consumed, or used by the body, it becomes the body. No doubt a small portion of matter came to us from the bodies of our mothers, but however much or little it was, it has long ago been replace. Every particle of what we now are has come to us from our diet; unless it has come from sunlight, or from the air. But roughly or picturesquely speaking, our food is our body. Food is body, then, and food is life, both equally and not more than the other; both ways of speaking are in the Bible; both, indeed, are applied to the Sacrament. the sixth chapter of S. John tells us that the flesh of the Son of Man nourishes us for eternal life; and it is familiar enough with us to think of the Sacrament as life, or sustenance. The other thought is not so familiar nowadays – I mean, the thought that food is body. But this is the way we need to think, if we are to understand what happened at the Supper.

If a Jew blessed his food - that is, if he said grace for it – and added, before eating it, 'This is my body,' his friends would not have been altogether surprised. They would have wondered, if anything, why he bothered to say it. It was his body, of course – his body to be; not actually his body, as anyone could see; he would need to digest it first. But it was already consecrated to be his body, because he had first said grace for it; and if he liked to call it his body, well, perhaps he could. 'Blessed be thou, O Lord, King of the World, who bringest bread out of the earth' was the old Jewish grace. When the Jew had blessed God in such words for his bread, he reckoned he had hallowed it for its proper use. Bread that is blessed is to eaten, it is to be the eater's body. God has given it for that purpose. 

Grace before meat is an important Christian action; by saying grace we acknowledge a divine gift, and no less a gift than the renewal of our bodily being, bestowed on us by the hand that made us. Every meal renews the wonder of our creation, all eating is a natural sacrament. In our morning prayers, we take our life again afresh from the hands of God, to use as he has chosen. And in our daily meals we receive our very existence, our physical being, the stuff of ourselves from God, to use according to his will. So Christ taught his disciples to look to heaven for their daily bread, and to receive it at their Father's hands; even though man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. What Jesus taught, he practiced, and the supreme example of grace-before-meals is that of Jesus at the Supper. He takes the food from his Father's hand, to be his body; he rises from the table, he goes and does with that body what his Father desires. and what is that? He offers it on the cross for his Father's honour, and for our salvation.

I have been talking as though Jesus, at the Supper, had said grace for himself alone. And he did say grace for himself; but not for himself alone. He said grace for the company; and to make the fact more evident, it was his duty to crumble the loaf for which grace had been said, and pass the pieces round; everyone present must eat a crumb of the one blessed bread. Now if the blessed bread of a lonely eater is his body, the blessed bread of a whole company is their body, the body of them all; by eating the one loaf, they have their common existence from a common stock.

Think of the family of Christian children, sitting round the table. They are all, in Bible language, the issue of their parents' loins; but besides this, they have constantly, year in and year out, built their bodies up from the one food their father earned them, and their mother prepared for them. So we Christians are all one family at the table of our Heavenly Father. S. Paul does not think he is saying anything remarkable to the Corinthians, but quite a matter of course, when he says: Since the loaf is one, we many partakers are one body; for we all partake the one loaf. He is indeed expressing an idea ages and ages older than the Christian sacrament – the immemorial bond of common food. Those who build their bodies from one loaf are one body; just as those who draw their being from common parents are one blood.

Jesus, then, said grace for the company. But if so, why did not he say 'This is the body of us all' when he had blessed the bread? Why did he say, 'This is my body, which is for you'? The point is not merely that they share a body, but that the body which they share is his. Once again, the ideas of that ancient world would help the disciples to understand him. If friends feasted together who were equals, the bond of bread accepted equally – they were all one body, all members one of another, to quote S. Paul again. But suppose an ordinary citizen went to dine with a great man, a prince, a king? Then he could say: 'This is the royal food, made ready to become the king's body; it has been blessed to be his flesh. And I, a common man, am privileged to share it, to be one body with my lord.' It was in this way the people of God thought of the temple-sacrifices, where the Lord of the banquet was divine. They were privileged to come to the table of God Almighty. they could not think that he actually ate any part of the feast; that would be gross, heathenish and absurd. But they did think that God, of his loving-kindness, had appointed the altar to act as his deputy, or representative. God was graciously pleased to receive what the altar flames devoured, though he had no need of such offerings; and so, in eating the rest of the victim, his people had a sort of table-fellowship with their creator. 'Look at old Israel,' says S. paul. 'Do not those who eat the sacrifices come into communion with the altar?' But that God would push that altar aside, and take its place, that God would come to them in human flesh, to sit at their table, and give them a share in his body – there was a mercy, and a condescension of God, for which they dared not hope. Yet here, at the Supper, was Jesus saying: 'This is my body, which is for you.'

He says it now, rather than at any previous feast, because now he has to leave them; and before he goes, he wishes to join them with himself by the covenant of bread. Ah, but do the disciples understand the nature of the bond? Jesus has blessed his food, to be the body he will offer in his sacrifice; do they know that they are committed to membership of such a body as that? A body flogged, broken, crucified – see, he crumbles the loaf before their eyes. Do they perceive the new meaning in the ancient custom, the breaking of the bread? Are they willing to be parts of such a body, are they willing that his body, with its sacrificial destiny, should be theirs? The disciples were not yet fully willing, but they came to be, and so we all must; for if we do not want to be given and surrendered to God, why touch religion at all? By partaking of the sacrificial body, we are to be made capable of sacrifice, taken up, as we are, into the sacrificial being of Christ.

Let us return to our starting point, and see what we have accomplished. We wanted to explain how the disciples could have seen any meaning in the words, 'This is my body.' And we have seen that there was plenty there for them to understand. Messiah, their heavenly king, has blessed the bread, to be his body. He is going to die for them, but he first gives them a share in his body, by the fellowship of bread.

I wonder, now, what you think about this line of interpretation. If I were sitting where you sit, and hearing such ideas for the first time, what should I think? 'This Oxford man,' I should say, 'has overdone it. He has explained too much. He set out to explain the disciples' thoughts, but has ended up explaining away the Master's action. it seems there was nothing in it, after all Christ was saying grace in the Jewish way, and pointing a Jewish moral about the grace he said. Everything was as natural as could be.' That is the sort of objection I should feel, and that is the sort of objection which, I dare say, you do feel. What are we to say in reply?

'Everything was as natural as could be.' Suppose it was, what is there in that to disturb us? Who expects Jesus to be unnatural? What more natural, more human, more sweet, that Jesus in Mary's lap, or sucking at her breast? But he is no less Son of God for that; Son of God, conceived of the Holy Ghost, and not by natural generation. All Jesus' acts are natural and kind; nothing could be more human, yet there is a fathomless depth in them, a meaning inexhaustible and divine. For he who does these things is not man only, but God. it is so with the Super. The words of Jesus are human, and they are divine; natural, but all the more supernatural for their naturalness.

When any pious Jew blesses his food – or when any of us blesses his – we may consecrate it to be our body, we cannot make it our body. Only God does that, the God, that is, of nature. Our creator, whose will gave us this bodily being, brings to pass by process of nature the transformation  of bread into body, after we have eaten the bread. If any of us calls his food his body, he means his 'body-to-be,' anticipating the action of God, which will make it so. It is otherwise when Christ blesses bread, and declares it his body; for then the voice that speaks is the Word that made the world. It is the Creator who blesses, when Christ blesses bread. Creation, we remember, is itself a blessing. As God makes each thing, we read, he sees it to be good; he blesses his living creatures, that they might increase and multiply. We are what we are by the blessing of God; we join our wills with his when we bless him for making us what we are. At the Summer, the Eternal Son joins his will with the Eternal Father, blessing him who gives the bread to be his body. The blessing is creative and almighty. He says it is his body, and it is his body, by appointment of the will no creature can resist. It is his body for every sacramental purpose, for communion and sacrifice, on the altar and in the tabernacle, on the palms and in the mouths of sinful men.

What is it, then? the age-old bond of common bread, and the custom of grace before meat, are the natural foundations on which Christ has built; and a scene of touching human simplicity, of jewish household piety, becomes the sacramental mystery of our redemption. When we feed on this bread, we do not merely stock our bodies with the same stuff as Jesus used for stocking his. The bread is his body now, it is on him we feed; and this is it that unites us. If, in our Christian being, you and I are one, it is because we have nothing as Christians but what we draw from Christ. Each of us has little human knowledge about most of the others who sit with us in this hall; but we are all one body, being partakers of that one bread.

(Austin Farrer, Said or Sung, 125–131)

To Will as God Wills

Some more words from Traherne:

O the nobility of Divine Friendship! Are not all His treasures yours, and yours His? Is not your very Soul and Body His: is not His life and felicity yours: is not His desire yours? Is not His will yours? And if His will be yours, the accomplishment of it is yours, and the end of all is your perfection. You are infinitely rich as He is: being pleased in everything as He is. And if His will be yours, yours is His. For you will what He willeth, which is to be truly wise and good and holy. And when you delight in the same reasons that moved Him to will, you will know it. He willed the Creation, not only that He might Appear but Be: wherein is seated the mystery of the eternal generation of His Son. Do you will as He did, and you shall be glorious as He. He willed the happiness of men and angels not only that He might appear, but be good and wise and glorious. And He willed it with such an infinite desire, that He is infinitely good: infinitely good in Himself, and infinitely blessed in them. Do you will the happiness of men and angels as He did, and you shall be good and infinitely blessed as He is. All their happiness shall be your happiness as it is His. He willed the glory of all ages, and the government and welfare of all kingdoms , and the felicity also of the highest Cherubims. Do you extend your Will like Him and you shall be great as He is , and concerned and happy in all these. He willed the redemption of mankind, and therefore is His son Jesus Christ an infinite treasure. Unless you will it too, He will be no treasure to you. Verily you ought to will these things so ardently that God Himself should be therefore  your joy because He willed them. Your will ought to be united to His in all places of His dominion. Were you not born to have communion with Him? And that cannot be without this heavenly union. Which when it is what it ought is Divine and infinite. You are God's joy for willing what He willeth. He loves to see you good and blessed. And will not you love to see Him good? Verily, if ever you would enjoy God you must enjoy His goodness: All His goodness to all His hosts in Heaven and Earth. And when you do so, you are the universal heir of God and all things. God is yours and the whole world. You are His, and you are all; or in all, and with all.

(Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, first Century number 53)

Monday, June 25, 2012

The New Song

For those who have reached (or are about to reach) the end of term, I thought you might appreciate this, from Austin Farrer.

We notice that late in the summer term noises and confused cries, for which no reasonable cause can be assigned, are apt to trouble the midnight air. A friend of mine who lives in a College off Radcliffe Square lay awake against his will, hearing without much pleasure 'the shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast'. Before he made another attempt at composing himself to sleep, he thought he would refresh himself with a taste of the coolness outside; he dressed, and walked into the square. The sound of riot had suddenly stopped; it was quite dark, and perfectly still; and a pair of nightingales in Exeter College garden were singing their hearts out. His own heart turned over in his breast. the performance, indeed was not new; we have heard nightingales before; and nightingales have been singing the same song since long before mankind got the wit to enjoy them. Yet thought there is nothing fresh for them to sing, they sing freshly, their singing is their life, they are not putting on a stale record. And it is a stale ear in my human head that cannot feel the freshness, or yield to the magic of it.

'Sing unto the Lord a new song',  says the old Psalmist, for God's most strange love is insulted by a stale adoration. And yet the newness will not be in the song, since there is nothing new to sing; but in the singers, to whom God may perpetually grant a newness of heart, in voicing his praise. Our tired imaginations see eternal sameness in the chanting of heavenly spirits; and yet, says St John, they sing a new song in honour of a wonder that will never grow old. For as God in the cradle is a wonder on earth, which angels celebrate, and shepherds adore; so man on the celestial throne is a marvel in heaven, which those heavenly eyes can never cease to drink in with amazement.

Salvation is all or nothing. God's other works are subject to his hand; his human creatures, to whom he has given a particle of his own spirit, he saves by uniting with his own everlastingness. There is no comfortable half-way house for us to abide in, midway suspended between God and the created world. It is the mercy of God to make us sharers in his own sovereign life, and this he does by uniquely and personally uniting the manhood of Jesus to his own being, and then associating us with that manhood of Christ. The heart and focus of humanity is there with God; and when we lift up our hearts, and put them with the Lord, we recollect what we are, and where we truly belong. Kings have always been credited, whether superstitiously or in mere ceremony, with a shadow of godhead. The substance is Christ's alone: his is the royal will by which we can live, for it is one with the will that made us; his purpose is the purpose of our being. The wonder of it never stales.

And so it is always a new song in heaven, with which we on earth can join, that the Lamb was slain, and has redeemed us to God by his blood out of every kindred and tongue, every people and nation, and made us unto our God kings and priests, by our association with that royal right, and with that redeeming sacrifice.

(Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, 107-108)

Ben Witherington III - Women and the Ministry Part Two

Women and the Ministry Part Two

Here is the second part!

Ben Witherington III - Women in Ministry Part One

Women in Ministry Part One

Watched these this morning. I think Ben Witherington argues really persuasively (as persuasively as you can in seven minutes) for reading the trajectories of the New Testament: In the world of the New Testament Church "... everything was geared to a male centered kind of world. So when you're looking at the New Testament and what it says about women and their roles... what you need to look for is not primarily affirmations that women were part of a man's world... what you need to look for is trajectories of change and difference."

After this I'll also post the second video, which deals more specifically with the ministry of women in the New Testament.

What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!

Some wise words from Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth century Anglican priest and metaphysical poet.

Suppose a river, or a drop of water, an apple or a sand, an ear of wheat or a herb: God knoweth infinite excellencies in it more than we: He seeth how it relateth to angels and men; how it proceedeth from the most perfect Lover to the most perfectly Beloved; how it representeth all His attributes; how it conduceth in its place by the best of means to the best of ends: and for this cause it cannot be beloved too much. God the Author and God the End is to be beloved in it; Angels and Men are to be beloved in it; and it is highly to be esteemed for all their sakes. O what a treasure is every sand when truly understood! Who can love anything that God has made too much? His infinite goodness and wisdom and power are in it. What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!
(Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, Second Century, number 67)

Monday, June 18, 2012

1 Corinthians 3.1–17 – Real Church: Real Spirituality

We have preaching a series on 1 Corinthians at St Nic's at the moment. Here is my offering on the first seventeen verses of chapter three.

As I was working on my Sermon, I realised that what we have in these readings from 1 Corinthians is a description of the real church. Not the church we fantasize about, not the church that we would like to see, but the church as it is, with all its messiness and fighting and trouble. What strikes me about the letter’s Paul wrote to the Corinthian church is that, despite all its problems, you could not deny that this church was alive. These Christians, as Paul says in our reading, are God’s temple, with his spirit living in them. Isn’t that strange, the most vibrant church in the New Testament, the church you could best describe as ‘alive’, is a church which is so full of problems. Perhaps this shouldn't surprise me, life isn’t smooth, and living things always face problems. You don’t, after all, get any trouble from the residents of a grave yard. Real, living Churches always face difficulties, it’s part of the growing pains of the children of God. And the church of Corinth was no stranger to this. We don’t see a perfect church in this letter, but we do see a real church, a church whose problems we are familiar with. And in this letter we also find an Apostle who, like a mother, wants to feed and nurture these young christians, to help them grow up into maturity in Jesus.

And so we come to this morning’s reading, which I think could be given the title, ‘Real Church: Real Spirituality’. Notice the first words of the reading, “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3.1). The Corinthian Christians were very proud of their Spirituality. In fact they were quite critical of Paul for not being spiritual enough (2 Corinthians 12)! They were quite convinced that they were the real deal when it came to matters of the Spirit and that everyone else was, well, the opposite,  fleshly. But Paul immediately turns their own elitist way of thinking about spirituality back on them. They think they are Spiritually mature, but in reality they are babies, so immature that they can scarcely be called spiritual. Paul wasn’t known for pulling his punches, but that is just down right insulting, isn’t it? How can Paul say that about the poor Corinthians? You might even start to feel sorry for them.

The answer is that Paul knows a secret about the spiritual life. He knows that true spirituality bears fruit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, he says in another of his letters (Galatians 5.22–23). But when he looks at the Corinthian church he sees the complete opposite. He sees jealousy and quarreling. They are Christians and of course every Christian has been given the gift of the Spirit by Christ. But the Corinthians were behaving as though they hadn’t received Christ’s gift. The fruit of their lives was telling a different story to the words that were coming from their mouths.

What makes matters more serious is that their ‘jealousy and quarreling’ wasn’t about trivial things. I get quite jealous of people who have the must have clergy gadget, the ipad, but this isn’t the kind of jealousy Paul has in mid. They weren’t jealous about each others cars or houses or jobs. In fact, it’s probably better to translate jealousy as ‘zeal’. The Corinthians were religiously zealous. They were keen on promoting their strongly held religious opinions, and it was this which caused their quarrels. They were quarreling over religion, and don’t we know the pain of that! There were factions in the congregation, and they each had their favourite religious teacher: Paul, Apollos, Peter, and then there were the really conceited ones who claimed to only have Christ as their teacher. And division into religious parties wasn’t just fanboyishness, they were asking really serious theological questions: How should we grasp God’s wisdom? How can we avoid worshipping idols? How should the Spirit be manifested in worship? These are important questions to ask… and these were the sorts of questions which were taring the Corinthian church apart. As long as their zeal for their favourite teacher or their theological hobbyhorse were causing quarreling and disunity, they were living as though they had never known the spirit, as though they had never become Christians.

So what does it mean for the church to be spiritual? According to Paul it means to live without rivalry and disunity and quarreling. Paul says that the way to have real spirituality, the way to be spiritually mature is to stop fighting. The real measure of spiritual maturity is seen in the unity and peace of the Christian community.

I don’t think it’s too hard to see spiritual elitism in our own lives. We might get ‘into’ a particular spiritual writer, I’m a fan of Eugene Peterson, but it could be John Main, or Richard Rohr, or Ignatius of Loyola or St Francis of Assissi or Thomas Aquinas or Junlian of Norwich or whoever. Perhaps we start to think that this person we find inspiring has all the answers and that nothing else quite hits the mark. Or I might have a particular way of praying which I think is really neat. So why should you bother with anything else? Right? After all anyone who doesn’t pray how I pray, or worship as I worship is really missing out! You’d have to be foolish to not want to do things differently! It might be that I think I am the one with the correct doctrine or that I am a proper catholic or whatever. But whatever standards we set up to prove that we are the real deal, the genuineness of my spirituality will be seen in one thing and one thing alone: do I live in love and peace with my brothers and sisters?

So how do we live in unity and peace in the church? The first thing Paul does is to remind us what we already are in God’s eyes. The church is God’s garden (3.5–9), God’s building (3.10–15) and God’s temple (3.16–17). The church is God’s prized possession. He couldn’t love the church (the real church, as it is with all its messiness) more. We don’t need to engage in spiritual one-upmanship or elitism, trying to prove that we are better than the rest, because God already loves us all just as we are.  The second thing he does is to remind us that the church belongs to God, and not to us. We are given tasks to do in the life of the church: we are to sow and to water; we are to put brick on brick. But ultimately, the garden, the building and the temple belong to God. ‘Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’ (3.6). How do we move beyond divisions in the church? By realising that we are all working to the same end. By realising that we are co-workers and that final responsibility for growth doesn’t lie with us, but with the God we serve.

Despite our differences of emphasis, despite the different ways feel God’s presence with us, despite the external differences of practice between this church and other churches, one thing can truly be said, we are all co-workers, planters and waterers of God’s Garden, brick layers in God’s building. True spiritual maturity isn’t evidenced by our rigorous spiritual practices, or by our detailed knowledge of spiritual writers. It isn’t found in our orthodoxy, or in the correctness of our particular form of worship. True spiritual maturity is found the church living at peace, it is found in serving God and serving one another.