Trinity

Draw a circle on a piece of paper.  Go on, gentle reader, just indulge me for a minute or two. Any piece of paper will do, any poorly drawn circle.

This circle represents the unity of God.  As you learned in geometry class, even though there are only 360 degrees in a circle, there are an infinite number of points on it.

Now put three dots, three points, anywhere on your circle.

These are the points of reference that Christian theology refers to as “Trinity”. These points can be anywhere on the circle but if you draw a line between each point and the other two you will notice that, no matter where you positioned them to begin with, they are always in a triangular relationship with each other.

Alternatively, should you begin with three random dots on your paper, and the lines between them, you will also discover that this triangle, however you have draw it, will always be on the same circle; they will always share the same unity.

A triangle is the only multi-sided shape for which this is always true. It is easy to draw a four-sided shape whose points cannot be connected by a circle; you can also draw a five-sided shape for which this is not true; a six, a seven, and so on. But you can never draw a triangle whose points do not share a circle between them.

A “Trinity” of points always shares the same unity.

The scriptures tell us some things about each of the points of the Trinity, also in relation to the others. But they don’t tell us everything. God is an unbounded mystery. The locations where the divine is revealed are infinite. The words we use to describe these points are only as confined as our vocabulary, reflecting our era and culture, showing up the limits of our language and experience.

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Of Brexit, Trump and Kings of Old

Were they kings, the men who followed the star from the East to honour the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  Or were they merely a rabble of starry-eyed astrologers?  The Gospel of Matthew marks them down as ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’; obscure, yes, but with status or exotic qualities enough to win them temporary fame in all Jerusalem and an audience with the king.

This Gospel story comes to us from the synagogue period of Christian history when followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus were, in the provinces of Palestine at least, primarily Jews.  These Jewish Christians, still members of their local non-Christian congregations, began to see the scriptures with new eyes, discerning in them a presumed meta-narrative, one that transcended the multiple authors, genres, and eras of the various manuscripts, a plot line which tied the canon of scripture together as one.  Hidden in the texts they found hints and fleeting glimpses of a figure whom they recognized as having been personified in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the story of the Magi they heard echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60.1-6).  Solomon too had predicted, “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts; all kings shall fall down before him , all nations shall do him service.  For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper.  He shall have pity on the weak and the poor” (Psalm 72.10-13).

The meta-narrative, the over arching story that bound together their heritage and their new-found faith in Christ continued its development in the later writings of the new testament, most especially in the visions of Paul and John and, as they understood it, went something like this: From one man, Adam, God created a family of diverse peoples among whom a Chosen People – a nation primus inter pares – whose history and society was meant to reveal the character and purposes of God; now – in a new age – through one man, Jesus Christ, God was gathering the complex identities of humanity together into a new society, a community of peoples whose diversity was fitted together like a multi-faceted jewel, the individual shape and angle of each facet adding to the brilliance of the whole.  On offer was an attractive alternative, an opposing vision to the Pax Romana, the world as they knew it, united by the blunt instruments of military conquest and unrelenting suppression.

And so, the Twelve Days of Christmas find their conclusion at the Feast of the Epiphany when the Church remembers the journey of the Three Kings and celebrates the manifestation, in baby Jesus, of the Christ, the long-awaited saviour for a world rent by division and lost in despair.  In the Christ child we look for the fulfillment of the ancient oracles.  We may quibble about whether the accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life are historically accurate or rather, on the other hand, the Gospels contain not only the parables of Jesus but also parables about him, but either way his central role in the story remains.

St Paul writes to the churches: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles) have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise…so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3.9-10). And in the very last pages of our scriptures we find St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, of which he says, “The nations (lit. ‘ethnicities’) will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21.24,26).

So here we are, two thousand years removed from the proclamation of the new age of Christ.  Our forebears, those who have gone before us in the faith, have not always succeeded in making this glorious vision a reality.  The Way of Jesus became Christianity and soon enough Christendom; what began as a counter-cultural movement of inclusion quickly morphed into the mainstream and gathered to itself both the selectivity and accoutrements of political power.  Converts, if one can call them that, came at times by the threat of the sword, entire peoples subjugated or colonized under the banner of Christian dominion, forced to give up the gifts their people had to bring to our new community, cultures lost forever on account of the false supposition that “to make disciples” meant to form them in our own image, not necessarily that of Christ.

Maria Pascua, an aboriginal of the Makah people who inhabit the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States writes: “I am a Christian; I am not sorry the missionaries came.  But I wish they had known how to let their news change peoples’ lives from the inside, without imposing their culture over our ways.  We have lost so much.”  (Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491; National Geographic Magazine, October 1991).

Not in all places, but in many, we find that the vision was lost of a Church composed of the beautiful diversity of humanity.

Which brings us to Anno Domini 2016; to Brexit, Trump and the year gone by.

Much has been made of the “protest vote” aspect of these surprising poll results.  Whether we can rightly attribute them to protest or not, the result is that many of the liberalizing policies of the last few decennia have suddenly and broadly been called to a halt.  Roger Cohen, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times concludes: “It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance [as delivered by Brexit and the US elections] cannot be met by more of the same.”

Thankfully the path of Christ allows for great liberty in the way we order our lives, both individually and in society; a genuine Christian faith can be lived at most points across the political spectrum.  What it does not allow is for us to abandon humility, compassion and sacrificial love for our neighbours, no matter what the colour of their skin or the language they speak at home. To be proud of our own people, to seek to protect our livelihoods and cultural heritage, insofar as these things bring honour to God, is good and right; the uniqueness of our people too is a blessing from God’s hand.  But to raise our own interests so high as to exclude those of others, to make love of nation the sole guiding light for our actions, ignoring the yet purer light of the Gospel – which is to love God first and to love our neighbours as ourselves – this is not the Way of Christ.

We, and all peoples, are equally invited to bring our gifts – the glory and honour of all nations – and bow our knee in worship before the Christ.

 

Gaudete in Domino semper

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

From time to time, if we are able to see through the aura of accumulated holiness hanging thick around the heroes of the Bible, the saints and the prophets, we find in them a remarkable ignorance.  They so often have no clue about how the circumstances of their lives actually fit into the movement of God in their time.  John the Baptist, for example, seems so average here.  It’s as if he is conscious of being carried along by a stream, but is not entirely sure of where the stream is going.

David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity writes:

The Principle of Delayed Understanding…states that you cannot understand what is going on while it is going on….consciousness always lags behind reality. Here is proof: How many of you are still trying to figure out things that happened in your childhood, twenty, forty years ago? The best you can hope for is to minimize the length of time it takes to catch on….When you think you understand what is going on while it is going on, you are most likely delusional. This is simply a statement of reality and frees us from the need to pretend, to beat ourselves up for not knowing the right words or actions. Don’t worry about not knowing the answer immediately. Don’t confuse yourself with Google.

Half the battle of being a person of faith is learning to live with ambiguity, of accepting uncertainty; the other half is learning how to live with it, of not allowing our ignorance to paralyze us with anxiety or diminish our hope.

Consider the rabbinical story, found in various tellings, commonly known as Elijah and the Cow:

Rabbi Jachanan went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and when evening came they arrived at the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. This poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, greeting the strangers and welcoming them in for the night.  They offered them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in their humble circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were given plenty of the cow’s milk, and butter, yoghurt and cheeses.  Satisfied, they were put to sleep in the only bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire.

But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.  The Rabbi looked at Elijah, but he was silent.

Again, they walked all the next day, and came in the evening to the house of an extremely wealthy man. This man, however, was cold hearted and inhospitable, and all that he would do for Elijah and the Rabbi was to lodge them in his cowshed and feed them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for his hospitality, and – noting that one of the walls in the shed was falling down – sent for a man to repair it, paying the bill himself.  Finally, Elijah and the Rabbi were on their way again.

Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, exasperated with Elijah, begged the holy man to explain himself and the way he had treated the two hosts. 

‘In regard to the poor man and his wife who received us so hospitably,’ replied Elijah, ‘it was decreed that the wife was to die that night.  However, knowing how much the man loves his wife, I pleaded with the angel of death – who never leaves empty handed – that he should take the cow instead.’

‘And with regard to the inhospitable rich man, I repaired his wall because I noticed a jar of gold coins concealed in it, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure, something for which he is not worthy.  So, say not to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’

Perhaps you remember how someone else once famously put it: “There are things we know we know; things we know we don’t know; and things we don’t know we don’t know.”  Personally I prefer the sentiment as expressed by the American rock band 4 Non Blondes, in their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?‘:

And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs:
What’s going on?!

It’s Gaudete Sunday this week, the Sunday that takes its name from the first word of the introit to the Mass: Rejoice!   On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we are invited to lighten up, to Rejoice in the Lord always, to raise our heads and look for the dawning of a new age marked by the promise of healing and restoration.

This is that half of faith that says: even if I don’t understand, I will trust.  The half that led the disciples up the mountainside where “they worshipped him, even though they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

Faith is never going to make perfect sense; that’s why it’s called faith.  Thank goodness.  Because in order for faith to make perfect sense it would have to be constrained by a world where everything can be measured and explained and knowable, a world without mystery or profound beauty or unbounded hope.

It is not, and neither are we.

Anglican Fudge

I’ve received a number of queries from non-Anglican, non-church-type friends asking what the recent kerfuffle in Canterbury is all about.  Here’s my best shot at explaining a complex situation in simple terms….

There are about forty countries in the world that have church denominations with specific historical and cultural links to the national church of England.  Literally, the Church of England, established in law as the privileged state religion, some of whose top clergy have guaranteed seats in Britain’s House of Lords.  Well, the Grand Poobah of them all is the Archbishop of Canterbury and he (always a he, so far) is seen as the figurehead not only for English Anglicans, but also for the entire world-wide network of Anglican churches.  He’s not like a Pope – doesn’t have any legal church authority beyond his own country – but everyone respects his position anyway (but not like the Pope…).

Every now and again the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC if you like) invites all the other national leaders (“primates”; go figure) to get together for a chin-wag about whatever issues may be of concern to their international network, or Communion.  For roughly twenty years the issue that has been uppermost in the minds of many of these men (always men, except recently one woman; USA! USA!) is this: “what are we going to do about all the gays and lesbians and queers coming out of the closet and claiming their place in the church, of late even openly becoming clergy (gasp!) and – USA! again – having their same-sex marriages blessed by the church (double gasp!).”

To be fair, you can imagine there are plenty of countries in the world where the idea of LGBTQ rights is still very much an alien thought.  And with modern communications being what they are, when Anglicans in one part of the world do something controversial then Anglicans in other parts of the world will invariably have some explaining to do to their neighbours.  National autonomy is recognized and appreciated but a consistent, shared voice is easiest to defend.  The various expressions of the Anglican church, from one nation to the next, have been increasingly and publicly out of step with one another.

But there’s more at play than just local understandings of homosexuality.  Another factor in all of this is the way the Bible is understood and how it informs the way we should live.  Some Anglicans insist on what they think is a literal reading of scripture: the words as they appear on the page are, they believe, clear and unambiguous.  Just do what the Bible says.  Lemon squeezy.

On the other hand, there are those who prefer a more nuanced approach: the words of scripture are not always plain and simple, they say, and in any case should be understood in the first place as a record of how people across many societies and centuries came to some knowledge of God.  Those ancient ideas certainly inform our own faith experience but we are not necessarily bound by them; we need to take their wisdom and adapt it to our own context.  Furthermore, the Bible is not the only way God speaks to us; we hear God’s voice in reason (science) and tradition (experience) as well.  If what we think the Bible says is at odds with science and experience then there’s a good chance the problem is that we’ve been reading scripture incorrectly, and that is dishonouring to God.

And so to the meeting in Canterbury:  As you might expect, the leaders of the various national expressions of Anglicanism are also varied in the way they view homosexuality in general, and in the way they read the Bible.  A minority of national churches, mostly of the northern hemisphere,  are increasingly fully inclusive of LGBTQ Christians and in the habit of reading scripture in the light of other evidences of God’s word.  But a majority, primarily “southern” Anglican churches, believe homosexuality is outright wrong, and back up their assertion with a handful of scripture texts which, in their view, plainly say so.

In the end, the American expression of Anglicanism, The Episcopal Church, which has been the most progressive of all in making room for LGBTQ Christians, got their wings clipped.  For three years they will still be allowed to come to the party but they won’t be making any speeches. They won’t be allowed to hold representative functions on the world stage on behalf of the Anglican Communion.

This makes the progressives sigh in frustration and the conservatives sigh in relief.  And it buys the ABC more time to figure out his next move.

It’s a typical Anglican fudge.

Boanerges

I knew a Boanerges once.  He was a young man who worked with my mother in the company mailroom in Brasilia, in the 1970’s; a handsome, likeable young man who, if childhood memory serves me well (which it rarely does), caused a bit of a stir among the missionary community on account of some extracurricular activities with some of the missionary daughters.  But that’s another story.

What I more immediately associate with Boanerges is overalls.

Before my mother left on a trip back to the USA Boanerges asked her if she could bring an American “macacão” back for him.  What he had in mind was a pair of denim overalls, of the stereotypical American farmer variety, difficult to obtain in Brazil and hence an object of desire.  What my mother understood, however, was a monkey suit, of the car mechanic variety, and which she dutifully brought back for him.  There was disappointment, overall.

Boanerges.  I’ve never met another one, though it is a perfectly good Biblical name and has a nice ring to it too, a certain I-don’t-know-what.  It is a name thought up by Jesus himself so you’d expect it to be a bit more popular among those groups who like things Jesus thought up.  Why aren’t there dozens of Boanerges-es running around in the playground of the local Christian school?

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3, Jesus gives the name Boanerges as a nickname to two of his disciples, James and John:   He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”)…

Actually, it means nothing of the sort.  At least, there is no etymological connection between the word “boanerges” and “sons of thunder” in any of the languages associated with the biblical text – Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or Latin.  So either Jesus is making up a word, or the writer of the Gospel of Mark is making up a story.  (The closest we can get is a tenuous Greek / Latin connection meaning Busy Lowing – like oxen – or They Act Like Oxen.) Never mind; in essence, whether it be Sons of Thunder or They Act Like Oxen, James and John were remembered among their friends as fellows who had a lot of bark and maybe not so much bite.  A lot of noise, not much action.  Think Elvis: A little less conversation, a little more action, please.

And we see this trait emerging clearly in the Gospels.  In Luke chapter 9 Jesus and Co. have been denied hospitality by a Samaritan village.  James and John helpfully offer to call down fire and brimstone from heaven as retribution.  As if.  And in all of the synoptics (Matthew 20, Mark 10, Luke 22) the boys are again found stirring the pot, causing a kerfuffle among the disciples, when they preemptively come to Jesus and ask him to secure for them the two best places of honour in his coming Kingdom: Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory, they ask him.  This, needless to say,  did not go over very well with the other ten disciples when they found out.

We all know the type.  They are in every group of the faithful.  The ones who believe they are so intelligent or so advanced in the faith that the normal rules of humility, service and preferring others need not apply to them.  Why bother with the inconvenience of other people’s needs or opinions when they know their own to hold sway?  At church council meetings they might as well set up mirrors in front of the other members because, really, they are just talking to themselves and listening to themselves and the vote is going to go their way anyway.

It is a testament to the strength of grace that both these loud-mouthed, impulsive, brash men, these Sons of Thunder, in spite of their obvious character faults, found enduring places of honour in the Christian tradition.

James was the first of the Twelve to be martyred, executed by sword by king Herod Agrippa.  Did his fierce personality contribute to his early demise?  Who knows.    Legend has it that his bones made their way to a final resting place in the small Spanish town which bears his name, Santiago de Compostela, which remains to this day the most popular destination among Western Christian pilgrims, making their annual journey along the Way of St. James.

And John, the other Son of Thunder, had a completely different end.  He is believed to have penned the beloved Gospel and to have died of old age, in peace, exiled to a Greek island.  His thunder eventually lost its sharp and menacing crack, replaced instead with a mighty and distant rumble, a vision of Christ both mysterious and lofty.

Gentle reader, bear with those idiots in your church.  Bear with the obnoxious, the arrogant, the proud, the know-it-alls.  Yes, you see right through their bluff and bluster; you see them for what they really are, and so does God.

But God sees them for what they might well be, some day.

Why I want to quit the Church (again)

This morning as I was brushing my teeth, I saw the image of Donald Trump staring up at me from the little shag carpet we have in the bathroom.  There he was with his goofy hair, squinting eyes and that talented, floppy mouth that always manages to be smirking and saying something at the same time.  His visage was as clear as a photograph to my mind, albeit in threads of carpet and shades of blue.

It’s odd isn’t it, how a preoccupied mind can create something out of nothing?   American politics fascinates me and, if you haven’t noticed, Mr. Trump is a significant feature of political reporting at the moment.  For weeks I’ve seen his image, multiple times in a day, beaming out at me from my computer screen; now I’m seeing him in the bathroom carpet.

When it comes to spirituality and religion, the thing I spend most of my time looking at are the Gospels.  As part of the duties of my employment I am required to compose a short speech – a sermon, a homily, a reflection, what have you – and present it to a small audience on a weekly basis.  The foundation of this speech is always a collection of three or four excerpts from ancient Jewish texts, the centrepiece being a reading from one of the Christian Gospels.

Members of my audience don’t believe me (I know, because some have told me) when I say that this apparently simple task of speechwriting can take hours and hours of my time in the week before delivery.  Most of that time is involved in pre-writing: reading all the texts multiple times, mulling them over, finding what others have said about them, looking into the meaning of words in ancient languages, trying to make connections with a life of faith in our own age.  To do a good job I have to purpose to preoccupy my mind with the prescribed readings, with a special focus on the Gospels, the texts that speak of the life and teaching of Jesus.

This intense focus and preoccupation plays tricks with my mind.  I start to see images of what it might be like to have Jesus as my spiritual director, of what it might be like to be part of a community that lives their life together, committed to his path.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

These sayings of Jesus, and many others like it, are to my mind the individual brushstrokes of a masterpiece, an image created of a new society, a community marked by sacrificial care for each other, extravagant sharing of resources, confident risk-taking, humble and transparent leadership, truth-telling and a distinct lack of favouritism.

Then I look at the Church.  And again I want to quit.

I know, I know, it’s the weary gripe: the Church is full of hypocrites.  (How ironic that the recorded sayings of Jesus in the Gospels may be the oldest known source for the use of that word outside its original thespian meaning of one who wears a mask to play a part.  The word Jesus uniquely re-tooled to apply to the religious leaders of his day is now frequently used to describe his own followers.)

Let’s be honest: our experience as members of the community that bears the name of Christ is very often marked, if not at times wholly characterized, by values opposite to those Jesus espoused.  One doesn’t have to look far in the Church to find favouritism, self-absorbed leadership, an enchantment with money and power, risk-aversion, and a cozy disregard for the needy.

Well, there’s nothing new under the sun, is there.  Most of the latter half of the New Testament owes its existence to the efforts of Saints Paul, Peter, James and others to address similar concerns among their fledgling congregations.  Read between the lines, or even the lines themselves, and you realize Corinth, for example, was not the place to be looking for a new church home with a decent Sunday School.  It seems Jesus had hardly finished his Exit: Stage Ceiling before the plot threatened to be lost entirely.

I’m serious here.  I often feel like leaving.  I feel like it today, as I write.

Wouldn’t I be better off taking the Gospels, my understanding of the sayings of Jesus, and striking off on my own, unencumbered with the baggage of the Church?  “A community can only go as fast as the slowest member…”; well, there’s a heck of a lot of slow members in the Church.  Wouldn’t I do better following the example of the millions who have gone before me, those who have given up on organized religion entirely, exchanging it for the freedom of private spirituality?  Wouldn’t it be more authentic, more “me”?

But then there’s this: the example of Jesus himself.  I don’t even have to guess that he was at times exasperated and exhausted with his own faith community; he says so himself.  “Have I been with you all this time, and still you don’t understand?”  “How long must I put up with you!”  “And taking them aside, he explained the meaning of what he had said.”  Time and time again we see his frustration, his incredulity that his followers just didn’t get it.

And yet, he stayed.  He stayed, I think, for the reasons I haven’t been able to leave.  He stayed because he believed not only in the power of God but also in the value and potential of each individual.  That in spite of our individual and collective failings, in spite of the fact that we so often fall short of our stated intentions, the greatest hope we have is the hope we share together.

Our times together as a community are always better when you – and you – and you – and I….are there too.

Down, not out

Imagine for a moment that, within your church or place of worship, a small clique has formed.  This is not simply a matter of a group who want to extend the parking lot when everyone else does not, or of those who prefer the old hymnal over the new.  No, these are people who have shared in some kind of spiritual awakening, most likely under the influence of an engaging preacher whom they have heard speak or whose books they’ve read.

At first it is just a slight annoyance.  Everyone knows that these people believe their experience to be superior to what is on offer during the weekly service.  They whisper cryptic messages to each other, they huddle together before and after worship, they exchange books.  Eventually it is discovered that they have started their own study and worship groups, meeting in homes to encourage each other in the new teaching.  They are still members of your church, but they obviously have another agenda as well.

As the movement persists and the years pass, the dividing lines become more distinct.  New traditions and customs have been formed; new terminology is being used.  Furthermore, similar groups have been popping up in many locations and their leadership is increasingly at odds with that of the established community.  Finally, the church authority can take it no longer and they force the issue: “you are welcome to attend worship, but not if your first allegiance is to the new group; you must choose one or the other”.  And with that, there is an official split: many people leave and a single worshipping community has become two.

This, very simplistically, is the process which, among other factors, forms the context for the writing of the Gospel of John.  We cannot be sure who wrote this Gospel, nor of the location where it was penned; but we can say with some degree of accuracy that it was written near the end of the first century, some six decades after Jesus died.

The first generation of Jews who followed the way of Jesus did so while still belonging to their local synagogues.  Yes, there were instances of real persecution (think of the martyr, Stephen) and of local resistance to this new Jesus Movement, but it was only after a good number of years that the real break with Judaism occurred.   The Gospel of John was written soon after it became widespread practice to bar from the synagogues those Jews who were followers of Jesus.

Looking back from our vantage point in history – surveying the exponential growth of the church across the world and the privileges of the age of Christendom – we might see this early break with Judaism as a mere bump in an otherwise sure road to success.  To the original recipients of the Gospel of John, however, the break with their heritage was yet another threat to deal with in an already difficult and puzzling time.  The powers in Rome were waking up to the Jesus Movement as well and not viewing it favourably, to say the least.  Furthermore, the holy city of Jerusalem, also an important centre of Christian leadership, had recently been sacked and the Temple destroyed.

To what was a Christian to turn?  The links with the Law of Moses were becoming less clear, Temple worship had ended, the synagogues were off limits, the Romans were making life difficult (in some cases, literally).  From where would a follower of Jesus draw courage and strength?

And so, in this time of great strain and uncertainty, John writes his reflection on the person of Jesus.  For the follower of this new way, he says, Jesus is like the Wisdom of God, he is like a Light to the World, he is like refreshing spring Water, he is like a Good Shepherd in times of peril, he is like a Path to a life of purpose.

To Jesus he attributes these words: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them….This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.

John agrees with his  worshipping community that yes, their losses are indeed true losses and their challenges are real challenges, but that as they stay faithful to their new spiritual identity in Christ, gathering weekly to share in the bread and the wine, calling to mind the teachings and life and execution of Jesus, pledging themselves afresh to God in Christ, they avail themselves of an enduring source of life.

Today we gather around the Eucharistic table just as the early Christians did.  Some of the prayers we say are direct quotations of their recorded liturgies.  We may not face the threats and challenges which they did as a community, but we do bring our own burdens and losses as individuals.  Like them, we share in the sacrament of the bread and wine in the hope and the expectation that, as we do so, God in Christ will again become present for us, feeding our souls with the promise of restoration, of renewal, of resurrection.

Whether I kneel or stand or sit in prayer, I am not caught in time nor held in space, but thrust beyond this posture I am where time and eternity come face to face; infinity and space meet in this place where crossbar and high upright hold the one in agony and in all Love’s embrace.   The power in helplessness that was begun when all the brilliance of the flaming sun contained itself in the small confines of a child now comes to me in this strange action done in mystery.  Break me, break space, O wild and lovely power.  Break me: thus am I dead, am resurrected now in wine and bread.   –  Madeleine L’Engle