Tag Archives: Ephesians

Gazing heavenward is missing the point

I was allowed to preach again. It gave me great joy and some measure of struggle. These were the readings (I used an inclusive language version prepared by the liturgists for the week and the Ephesians option for second reading) and here is the reflection I ended up coming up with…

Men of Galilee! Why do you stand there looking up toward heaven? A valid question for them but also I would suggest for the women and men of the church in Adelaide in 2016. For us.

Why do we stand looking up toward heaven? Is it that we want to catch Jesus by the ankles and pull him back down to earth, to make him a king by force as was tried at one point in the gospels?

Let’s remember that the human person we call Jesus, was an embodiment of a person of the Trinity that existed in the beginning creating all things with God. In the Old Testament this same character is often called Sophia. In the person of Jesus we see the courage and the strength of will, the utter commitment to liberation that characterises Sophia, Wisdom.  In Jesus, also called “the Word” or Logos in John’s gospel we see a good news that cannot be stopped, cannot be suppressed, can be killed but springs up again and continues to love and liberate beyond what for a human would be possible.

This essence of who Jesus always was, and continues to be; becomes accessible to us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus has finished the embodied ministry, which was confined to one place and one time. He can no longer walk on the earth, can no longer sit and eat with one small group of friends. Now the meaning and power of Jesus needs to be diffused to all creation. We can no longer look inward solely to those we belong with, to feel the cosiness of a Jesus clique or a church, we can no longer gaze to an escapist heaven as though the ministry of Sophia were finished and Jesus left us nothing to do but act religiously happy.

Even in the Old Testament Sophia always avoided being caught, controlled or domesticated. She goes out everywhere at all hours. In the same way, if we want Jesus we stop gazing upward, wishing the ascending Jesus would pluck us out of the dilemmas and headaches of everyday life and human politics and drag us into the clouds.

We still find Jesus where the disciples always found him, on the road, in their homes, sending them out, breaking their bread, receiving their hospitality and modelling foot washing. We still find Sophia speaking loudly on street corners and opening up her home to all sorts of people for hospitality; always causing an upset of the ordinary and a broadening out of the exclusive ways of being church. We look forward to Pentecost, to being infused within our own bodies and lives with the same Spirit that emanates from God, from Jesus/Sophia.

Church often gets re-imagined as a sort of posse of Jesus’ home-boys who are the clergy and can tell the rest of us what to do. Or even if we have a broader idea of grace and vocation, we still in some way might think of insiders and outsiders and who has “met Christ” and who hasn’t and we might feel superior to others who do not understand or follow Christian values. But that is not our true vocation- to feel superior or comfy within our faith, nor to draw a line between earth and heaven and allow faith to be nothing more than a once a week or few minutes a day gazing upward.

The “glorious inheritance” that we are promised in the second reading will include work and pain and struggle if we look at the realities of Holy Week that we celebrated so recently, or the lives of the saints that (within that inheritance) we aspire to. The hopes that we have are hopes for a world infused with the Spirit of God, guided by Wisdom and honouring its creation and recreation in the image of God. The good news is not a news of escapism upward, it is that Jesus, having ascended, is also still the eternal God that is constantly with us giving meaning to our lives, to the joys and loves as well as the struggles and feelings of inadequacy. This life here is what has meaning and importance. The Spirit is always coming to us to reignite our vocation. The kingdom of God is where we are, wherever we choose to bring it about together with others.

We don’t control Sophia, we cannot chain Jesus to our small section of earth.  In the Spirit of wisdom and perception we come to know her, we come to sense the good news in the possibilities of our own life and relationships. To paraphrase the conclusion of the gospel reading:

And they loved her and returned into ordinary life with great joy and hope, and they were constantly in amongst God’s beloved- healing, working, bringing love to all they met.

Please take a few minutes of silence, knowing Jesus/Sophia in these readings and in your own life and then you may like to talk them over with the people sitting near you.

 

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My useless flesh rejects your mansplaining

Wow do this week’s first and second readings want to get any more patriarchal? Everyone was forced to listen to the important leader man saying “blah, blah, blah” and mansplaining at God for ages with false humility meanwhile no one else gets to speak especially not women and the all male clergy probably slap each other on the back about a job well done, meanwhile the average housewife is bored as hell (especially when I look more closely and realize this really long-winded reading is heavily abridged!!) and wishes she could spend any time away from her housework doing something more interesting than standing on her weary feet trying to stop the kids hitting each other while Solomon/Joshua goes on and on and on.

Then the people of god were relieved the mansplaining was finally over and shouted “hurrah, amen, we agree” to avoid provoking a longer speech.

If we see “righteous” as meaning “oriented toward justice” then I like this psalm for all that it is Utopian and not grounded in real experience (I like the uncut version infinitely better). But that’s the psalms for you, they are sort of bipolar channels for your extreme emotions, passions and grandiose ideas. Which would be why I have always liked them. So on to the second reading which still makes me giggle as I remember my Dungeons and Dragons playing days.

Put on your belt of truth (armor class 7) and your breastplate of righteousness (+3 to defence against media magnates). Yes I am sure the militaristic language was more appropriate and relatable in its time to the implied (male) listener. But I think that I am already too inclined to think of the negative things that happen in the world in these terms, so that people become my enemies and I feel some sort of a desire to “fight”. And resistance is something very complex and subtle, it’s not a matter of flaming swords and winged sandals.

So ok, from my woman’s place (caught between my childcare job and my going home to be a mother) I am not getting a lot out of the first couple of readings. Let’s hope the gospel has something for me.

The gospel is rich enough so that I could ignore the bits that trouble me and just take some sort of spiritually correct orientation toward Christ out of it. But the troubling bits are there. The complete discounting of the flesh as “useless”. Yes, so your words are spirit and life- but I get to live in a world of food and food allergies and sleep and sleep deprivation and belly dancing, and bubble baths and sex and rolling downhill and swimming in the ocean and the salted-caramel dairy free icecream I can share with my son and busting for the toilet and having to pay bills, and heavy layers of clothing because I am cold and coughing into my elbow so I don’t spread germs and the ectasy not just of the beautiful words but having to turn the page to get to them. And no “Lord”, my flesh is not useless. I have hated it, and wished to escape it and it sometimes weighs me down but it is beautiful, it is human, it is earth.

And I can only be a Christian in a material sense- just as I wish to give the refugees the material good of homes and food and schools and playing football at the park not just words of comfort.

My second stumbling block is this gatekeeping “Father-figure”. If Jesus was to ask me “Do you wish to go away?” I don’t think I can speak with Simon-Peter. I don’t think these words are life for me. I think I will be more like “Leave me alone, I have a headache. I am sick to death of you and your mates expecting me to be an audience for your mansplaining and your pompous speeches and your extremes and binaries while my experience is so completely invisible”. Because this teaching is not just “difficult”, it’s downright insulting in places.

So then maybe I will call up my good friend Wisdom from last week and take her up on the offer of wine and maturity. She won’t brag about ascending or ask me to unquestioningly believe things, or screen me through her “father”. She has her own place and understands that bellydancing and cuddles and purring cats are far from “useless” even for beings with a spirit.

After writing this rant I woke in the middle of the night with a hymn distractingly running through my brain

Yes Lord I believe

That you are the Christ

The son of god, the son of man

Who has come into the world” (note the less than feminist wording)

 

The hymn is “I am the bread of life” and like many things from childhood it has embedded itself in my brain. I was trying to get some sleep before a 7:30 start at work but this hymn kept waking me up. When the third time I work up sweating and clenching my teeth with those words invasively banging around in my head I told God I would write in a footnote that I do realise that Jesus and Wisdom are the same people. I am not rejecting Jesus I am just having some fairly significant creative differences over “his” association with patriarchy.

 

I don’t (as I explained to God) repent of what I said, or of my anger. I do now feel I should be clear that my criticism comes from a position of overall faith (however imperfect), conflict is part of any relationship. Maybe my overactive conscience is a delusional part of myself, but once I had made that commitment I fell asleep and slept until 4 minutes before the alarm went off, just as I wanted to.

 

Surely if there was no love there I could easily dismiss the whole baggage of church and faith and God as irrelevant. Anger means that in myself I know that what I am being excluded from, or kept on the margins of is in some way significant.

“Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed”

I know this is an idealised account of Solomon and we could read him in the context of his patriarchal world and the patriarchal text as a whole, but I want to consider this idealised image in and of itself. I have a romantic liking for ideals, sure I fall short of mine but I can’t help always thinking it is good to have them and when I don’t get everything I want out of life it is comforting at times to have lived by ideals- hedonism in my experience only leads to emptiness and doesn’t stave off disappointment and hardship.

So Solomon realises his privileged position, and the fact he has it by fortune, not merit (which is a lot more humble than you would expect from one of those larger than life Old Testament figures). He asks for wisdom and understanding. If only he was able to take the tiny extra step of realising that the understanding that privilege must ask for is the understanding of the “other” the ones who are not the king, not wealthy, free or male but we can insert that into the story when we remember that for us the “other” the “least of our siblings” is always Christ. So to ask for understanding from God is to seek to listen to those with less privilege than we do.

The overtone of judging and discerning in 3:9 then becomes a matter of justice and advocacy. Solomon is often presented as wise and unbiased but God in Jesus in fact never presented as unbiased. God is constantly biased toward the poor and oppressed. For us first-world, relatively comfortable people this may be a hard pill to swallow- we often try to present a “balanced” God. But to act is to be biased and God takes the part (consistently throughout many biblical texts) of the widow and orphan (and refugee).

The alternative first reading (I realise I am not using the lectionary correctly here but I don’t really care) has Wisdom inviting us to her house for a party. It’s a party with food and wine in a house with seven pillars (I guess a nice house then) but it’s a party that will change you forever. You go in to eat her food and drink her wine and you leave your old foolish ways and become irrevocably enmeshed with her (she’s upfront about that at least). It’s a pity you have to choose between these two first readings if you are running an actual church (as opposed to ranting online) because they are actually beautiful read together. Solomon has been seduced by wisdom, she invited him in and he can’t lust for anything else.

I want to be in Solomon’s shoes and as I read the readings I feel that even wanting to be there is a good thing – it’s not everything because there is still the old immaturity that must be laid aside when entering Wisdom’s house, but desire is the beginning of such an intimate and life-changing relationship.

I’ll ignore Ephesians because even though it basically says the same thing it couches it more negatively “stop drinking and having fun and instead do what is right” whereas I prefer the Old Testament version which was “come and get drunk and be seduced and you will begin to want to do what it right”. The beer o’clock Wisdom is a lot more enticing than the grumpy preacher/ schoolmaster Paul.

In the gospel, Jesus echoes Wisdom, offering himself now not only as the hostess with the mostest but as the food and drink in itself. This is more than life changing, this gives us life forever. I find it hard to know what to make of the “life forever” imagery all through John to be honest. As a child I thought there is this place called heaven where we all end up and then when I got older I thought – it’s not a physical place but our internal essence and personality is somehow preserved in relation to God and everyone. And now I just don’t know. I don’t know about “live forever” when even things that are good in this life never last forever. The weather or your mood changes, the people you love move away or get busy, you find you have to be preoccupied with new concerns. The positivity and optimism with which I begin any project, endeavour or relationship at some point begins to flag.

We eat the bread that we believe is Jesus and even if we get on some sort of a spiritual high (and in the past I have done just that) then we return to real life, to ordinary life and not only is life mundane but we are still flawed and mundane too. So is Wisdom a liar? Is it really just a one night stand? At times I have felt that as well, I have felt that this whole “faith” deal that I have been seduced into is a huge con and I have felt very angry. And when we read on about Solomon, sure he did some impressive things but he’s not perfect ever after.

But then when we get back to Wisdom she asked us to leave aside that immaturity; the need for constant reassurance and convenient on-demand grace, the expectation that God will take all the responsibility for this relationship and we don’t have to work at it at all. If I am honest I don’t always “work at it”; I used to dutifully “pray” every day, by set formulas that I was taught and that I did to prove my commitment and I used to beat myself up about how much my mind wanders during those times. What I did I did out of guilt and feelings of unworthiness, out of a commitment that was more fear than love.

Now as a border-line atheist…well not a very good one…I rarely force myself to pray. Now prayer is more something I fall into when I walk in nature, or at work when I am patting the children to sleep or late at night at my best friend’s house when my head is spinning with the wine the writer of Ephesians doesn’t think I should be drinking. And at church too when the vibe happens to be right. I fall into a prayer which may be hard to give words to- or which might just quote words of songs or bible texts, poetry or something I read. I fall into prayer that says “I am here, please help me find meaning in that” prayer that says “please let me feel that you are here”, prayer that says “I want things to be different” “I want to be different” and lately preciously “I now know you love me and I want to weep with relief at that knowledge”

And from moment to moment I have not always been able to find traces of grace in my life, I have not always felt the transformative presence of God and I will still have the grey empty days of weeping and the night terrors of God’s absence. Part of any relationship is absence, emptiness and disconnection after all (it took me a long, long time to accept that). From moment to moment I can’t and don’t believe that I have eaten something remarkable, the bread of life. But when I fall into prayer (like falling in love) then I trace the eternity within that moment not only as an ecstasy or euphoria (which marked more of my “spiritual” experiences early in life) but as a quiet acceptance of self and other and a quiet dissatisfaction with injustice that I feel was planted in me the first time I met Wisdom and now makes up most of what I acknowledge as my identity (even though I don’t always know what to do about it).

And when I look at the journey of my 3 year old self, my childhood, adolescence, turmoils of my early adulthood to middle-aged me – at the same time that the aging process begins to make ideas of “eternity” more ridiculous than ever there is some sort of faithfulness and stubbornness by the presence of God that makes me cautiously hope there is meaning somewhere in the journey. And why would an eternal God be faithful to a slow-learning and non-eternal me? So I am always up for some of Wisdom’s bread and wine and transformative possibility.

Sharing the small loaves: trusting that this is bigger than me.

Responding to lectionary readings. Where there are alternatives I tend to go with the first one I have a gut reaction to. Because this is not a scientific text and you are free to disagree with me.

Oh, here we go, the Bathsheba story! 😦

I have always hated that story even as a child. David is the villain, Uriah is the victim and what is Bathsheba? Nothing. Sometimes people blame her for what happened, sometimes not but she never gets to be a full person in the story- does not have a voice or a point of view, whether she is seen as actively “tempting” or as passively a victim, she is two-dimensional, a stereotype. She is just a woman when real character are men.

I hate the story. I don’t engage with it except in a resistant, sulky, want-to-vomit, gut churning, hating it too much to be coherent sort of a way which earned me one of my lowest marks in my theology degree. So I won’t waste any more of your time with my non-engagement but I will make the sort of faces children make when they think adults are full of offensive nonsense and will drag my feet and

Psalm 14. Hard to believe it was not written about the 2015 political scene, except of course all of our politicians say they are Christians (as opposed to our implied enemies the Muslims…and please note I don’t share this view) they don’t openly go about saying there is no God. They merely act as if “the economy” is their only God. I echo the sentiment here, none of them is good, no not even one. Judgemental of me I know and to be honest there may be a “good” person somewhere in that nest of vipers who is merely cowardly or ignorant rather than out-and-out evil. Only God knows. And God will show me my own cowardice and ignorance and selfishness for calling it in others, but I accept that and pray for grace to be better as I learn how.

But for those who would confound the plan of the poor- when the poor have a plan to flee from terror and death to a new country… when the poor have a plan to look after their children and their health…when the poor have a plan to be workers and earn enough to support themselves and also be things other than “worker”, and to have some leisure time…when the poor have a plan to subsist off the land or to live in the land without being flooded in poison…when the poor have a plan to continue culturally appropriate ways of life on their own original land…when the poor have a plan to better themselves through education…when the poor have a plan to marry the person they love…whatever plan about ordinary day to day life, about safety and food and water and family that the poor have…those who confound these plans risk offending God who is their refuge.

Oh that deliverance would come! Oh that justice would seem less impossible and distant. I also would be glad and rejoice. This psalm seems to build toward that Utopian vision and then trail off as if the psalmist doesn’t quite believe it either…

For this reason I think archaic ideas such as “bowing the knee” are no help whatsoever. Because that is what the ruling class want, a lot of blind obedience and bowing and humility by the oppressed. But every family in heaven and on earth does indeed take God’s name; we all come out of God as out of a labouring mother, struggling for breath and life and learning and desiring loving (re)union with that source.

And if through the Spirit and indwelled by Christ we are strengthened in our “inner being” (by implication there is some sort of pure goodness at the inner-part of each of us) which will cause us to be rooted and grounded in love- then maybe hope will come. Because maybe we will begin to comprehend the mystery of the infinity and eternity and surpassing fullness of God’s love. But I don’t say that for us to have an apathy toward injustice as if it doesn’t matter that hideous things happen to people because God’s love is greater than anything that happens.

It matters a lot when any of our creation-family is hurt or injured or oppressed. God’s infinite love wraps that person so completely, that when that person suffers and injustice God in love also suffers. And if we love God then this suffering is painful (luckily in a smaller way) even to us. So to learn to accept the injustice would be to learn to love God less and to take God’s love for us for granted a little more. That sort of neglect is a type of abuse. We need to nurture God as a beloved, as a child, as our dearest treasure and to desire justice is responding to God’s boundless love with passion. God’s power within us will somehow accomplish something mysterious and transformative. The writer of Ephesians says : “ to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

I paraphrase it: “BRING IT ON!!!!!!”

Much could be said about the gospel, but in the context of desiring justice within a parsimonious society, I think there is a very simple lesson here. Jesus simply does not accept excuses about not having enough for everybody. Jesus is not interested in your “efficiency dividend” or your preventing of a budget deficit or your cost cutting measures. Jesus sees hungry people and wants to feed them. He gives them “As much as they wanted”. Materially of course that is not possible from 5 loaves and 2 fish. Something is going on here.

Jesus blesses and distributes, and we could simply see this as a miracle in the naïve sense: a magic trick. Which is no help at all in the real world because having tried as a child praying and praying for magical miracles like that, and getting nowhere I need to find something here more transformative than the passivity of waiting for Super Jesus to rescue us with magic. I prefer to look to the verse before Jesus distributes where he is “testing” Philip by asking “Where do we find food for these people?” “We” is a collaborative word, not the individual Jesus but the “we” of faith must grapple with feeding the people. Philip responds with an understandable despair “What is that among so many?”

Jesus takes it and blesses it and distributes it. This is Jesus who will walk on the water, and defy the forces of despair and chaos. Whatever tiny amount we have to distribute we begin the job. How does Jesus continue it? There is mystery there, perhaps he also asks someone else- not just Philip. Perhaps some other disciple knows some other person with a fragment of food. Sometimes all it takes is beginning a movement- or following one, sometimes you can’t do everything as an individual. Philip does not feed the people, but he does respond to Jesus’ demand that he begin the impossible task and somehow the task is accomplished.

My challenge this week then is to find where in my life there are five loaves and two fishes I can begin to distribute. Where are the crumbs of justice for a hungry people? Jesus intends them to be satisfied with “as much as they wanted”; my little cannot do all that, but it can be a beginning….somewhere….blessed and increased in the fullness of love that calls this from me.