Tuesday, April 30, 2013

C.S. Lewis on the Gethsemane of Jesus

Here is a wonderful passage from Chapter 8 of Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) published in 1964, a year after his death. The book takes the form of a series of letters to a fictional friend, “Malcolm” with whom Lewis discusses prayer as an intimate communication between God and ourselves. Unlike some of his forthright apologetic books, Letters to Malcolm raises questions and paradoxes for which Lewis has no real resolution. This passage is Lewis' meditation on Gethsemane and the suffering of Jesus:

It is clear from many of His sayings that Our Lord had long foreseen His death. He knew what conduct such as His, in a world such as we have made of this, must inevitably lead to. But it is clear that this knowledge must somehow have been withdrawn from Him before He prayed in Gethsemane. He could not, with whatever reservation about the Father’s will, have prayed that the cup might pass and simultaneously known that it would not. That is both a logical and a psychological impossibility. You see what this involves? Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope - of suspense, anxiety - were at the last moment loosed upon Him - the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible . . . and doubtless He had seen other men crucified . . . a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.

But for this last (and erroneous) hope against hope, and the consequent tumult of the soul, the sweat of blood, perhaps He would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man. 

At the end, I know, we are told that an angel appeared “comforting” Him (Luke 22:43). But neither comforting in sixteenth-century English nor “ἐνισχύων”in Greek means “consoling.” “Strengthening” is more the word. May not the strengthening have consisted in the renewed certainty - cold comfort this - that the thing must be endured and therefore could be? 

We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive. But the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God’s will and equally part of our human destiny. The perfect Man experienced it. And the servant is not greater than the master. We are Christians, not Stoics.

Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep - as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This also is characteristic. In every Church, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. Its pretensions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’état. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People - the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become overnight (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked.

As for the last dereliction of all, how can we either understand or endure it? Is it that God Himself cannot be Man unless God seems to vanish at His greatest need? And if so, why? I sometimes wonder if we have even begun to understand what is involved in the very concept of creation. If God will create, He will make something to be, and yet to be not Himself. To be created is, in some sense, to be ejected or separated.

Can it be that the more perfect the creature is, the further this separation must at some point be pushed? lt is saints, not common people, who experience the “dark night.” It is men and angels, not beasts, who rebel. Inanimate matter sleeps in the bosom of the Father. The “hiddenness” of God perhaps presses most painfully on those who are in another way nearest to Him, and therefore God Himself, made man, will of all men be by God most forsaken? One of the seventeenth-century divines says, “By pretending to be visible God could only deceive the world.” Perhaps He does pretend just a little to simple souls who need a full measure of “sensible consolation.” Not deceiving them, but tempering the wind to the shorn lamb. Of course I’m not saying like Niebuhr that evil is inherent in finitude. That would identify the creation with the fall and make God the author of evil. But perhaps there is an anguish, an alienation, a crucifixion involved in the creative act. Yet He who alone can judge judges the far-off consummation to be worth it.

I am, you see, a Job’s comforter. Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. But on second thoughts I don’t regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.

Certainly we were talking too lightly and easily about these things a fortnight ago. We were playing with counters. One used to be told as a child: “Think what you’re saying.” Apparently we need also to be told: “Think what you’re thinking.” The stakes have to be raised before we take the game quite seriously. I know this is the opposite of what is often said about the necessity of keeping all emotion out of our intellectual processes – “you can’t think straight unless you are cool.” But then neither can you think deep if you are. I suppose one must try every problem in both states. You remember that the ancient Persians debated everything twice: once when they were drunk and once when they were sober.

I know one of you will let me have news as soon as there is any.

Monday, April 29, 2013

On Meditation, by Thomas Merton

Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915–1968), was one of the best known Christian writers of the 20th century. This is a classic passage of his on meditation:

In meditation we do not seek to know about God as though he were an object like other objects which submit to our scrutiny and can be expressed in clear scientific ideas.  We seek to know God himself, beyond the level of all the objects which  he has made and which confront us as “things” isolated from one another, “defined,” “delimited,” with clear boundaries.  The infinite God has no boundaries and our minds cannot set limits to him or to his love.  His presence is then “grasped” in the general awareness of loving faith; it is “realized” without being scientifically and precisely known, as we know a specimen under a microscope.  His presence cannot be verified as we would verify a laboratory experiment.  Yet it can be spiritually realized as long as we do not insist on verifying it.  As soon as we try to verify the spiritual presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.

In a word, God is invisibly present to the ground of our being: our belief and love attain to him, but he remains hidden from the arrogant gaze of our investigating mind which seeks to capture him and secure permanent possession of him in an act of knowledge that gives power over him.  It is in fact absurd and impossible to try to grasp God as an object which can be seized and comprehended by our minds.

The knowledge of which we are capable is simply knowledge about him.  It points to him in analogies which we must transcend in order to reach him.  But we must transcend ourselves as well as our analogies, and in seeking to know him we must forget the familiar subject-object relationship which characterizes our ordinary acts of knowing.  Instead, we know him insofar as we become aware of ourselves as known through and through by him. We “possess” him in proportion as we realize ourselves to be possessed by him in the inmost depths of our being.  Meditation or “prayer of the heart” is the active effort we make to keep our hearts open so that we may be enlightened by him and filled with this realization of our true relationship to him.  Therefore the classic form of “meditation” is repetitive invocation of the name of Jesus in the heart emptied of images and cares.

Hence the aim of meditation  in the context of Christian faith, is not to arrive at an objective and apparently “scientific” knowledge about God, but to come to know him through the realization that our very being is penetrated with  his knowledge and love for us.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminister: Joint Anglican-Roman Catholic statement . . .

Syrian Christians attend Sunday Mass in Damascus. 
(Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images) 

Today - 25th April 2013 - the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, the Most Rev’ds Justin Welby and Vincent Nichols, made the following statement on the continuing violence in Syria, particularly the persecution of Syria’s Christian communities:

Since the very first days of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, we have prayed as we watched in horror and sorrow the escalating violence that has rent this country apart. We have grieved with all Syrians - with the families of each and every human life lost and with all communities whose neighbourhoods and livelihoods have suffered from escalating and pervasive violence. 

And today, our prayers also go with the ancient communities of our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria. The kidnapping this week of two Metropolitan bishops of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, and the killing of their driver while they were carrying out a humanitarian mission, is another telling sign of the terrible circumstances that continue to engulf all Syrians.

We unreservedly support these Christian communities, rooted in and attached to the biblical lands, despite the many hardships. We respond to the call from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, urging churches worldwide to remain steadfast in the face of challenging realities and to bear witness to their faith in the power of love in this world. 

We both continue to pray for a political solution to this tragic conflict that would stem the terrible violence and also empower all Syrians with their fundamental and inalienable freedoms. We also call for urgent humanitarian aid to reach all who are suffering. We pray that Syria can recapture its tradition of tolerance, rooted in faith and respect for faiths living side by side.

+ Justin Welby

+ Vincent Nichols

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why I am still a Christian

Preaching on the Gospel Reading last Sunday (John 10:27-30) I emphasised the goodness and love of the risen Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and the promises he makes to his sheep: 

(1) that he gives us eternal life (now); 
(2) that we will never perish (the future); and 
(3) that no one will snatch us out of his hand (our only security). 

At present there is a lot of discouragement among Christians of my particular tradition all over the world, and I sought to emphasise the faithfulness of God. I tried to encourage us all to “hang in there” by his grace. Many are the difficulties we face along along the way, whether the normal ups and downs of human life, or those particular trials and persecutions that come upon us because of what we believe. The basic point of my message was the importance of trusting the promises of Jesus, no matter how bad the pain or how deep the darkness seems to be. 

Because of a few conversations I’ve had about this since Sunday, I was particularly blessed today by a simple yet profound testimony by Bishop Paul Barnett (retired Bishop of North Sydney) on his blog HERE. In my years as a student at the University of Sydney, Paul was the Rector of nearby St Barnabas’ Broadway. As a “Sydney Anglican” he strongly disagreed with large chunks of what had formed me in terms of “churchmanship” and the working of the Holy Spirit. But in his Christ-centred ministry to a wide range of students and others he was unfailingly kind, disarmingly gentle, and had a real pastor’s heart. I often heard him preach and teach in those days, and I owe him a lot. His subsequent scholarly writings on the background of the New Testament and the historicity of Christian claims about Jesus nurtured generations of students.

It is always encouraging for “ordinary” Christians when highly respected leaders are honest enough to admit that they struggle some of the time. With this in mind I share with you what Bishop Barnet wrote:     

Why I am still a Christian
by Bishop Paul Barnett

It was a long time ago.  I had become dissatisfied with my life’s direction and that of the friends in my social circle.  In my early twenties I began to attend a church and thankfully found the minister’s message and the congregation’s welcome deeply encouraging.  I began for the first time to read the Bible.  One day I attended a lunch hour service in St Andrew’s Cathedral where the speaker, Dr Howard Guinness spoke on John 6.37.  That’s where Jesus said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will in no wise cast out’.  I prayed a prayer in which I told Jesus I was ‘coming’ to him.  That was in 1957.

I could now go on and say that life had been easy ever since, one green light after another.  I have indeed been blessed with a wonderful marriage, a loving family and a satisfying life’s work, but there have been challenges to my life as a Christian.  Let me mention four.

One was DOUBT.  Yes, doubt.  While my ‘conversion’ was real and deeply helpful I had questions about the truth basis of Christianity.  My new friends assured me it was true, but they didn’t really know why it was.  Even four years in a good seminary (Moore College) didn’t really address that question.  It was only when I began Ancient History studies that I understood how numerous and early were the sources for Jesus and the spread of earliest Christianity.  I have sometimes often wondered about God’s providential dealings with people, but thankfully I have no doubts about the truth basis of our faith.

Another challenge was the DIFFICULTY of my wife Anita’s prolonged back pain.  She had been a nurse and this had left the unwelcome legacy of extreme back pain that lasted for many years.  Two operations failed but thankfully a third was successful, but that was after a decade of suffering.  Not that she complained or stopped her partnership with me in our work for the Lord.  She soldiered on bravely.  I am aware that many people don’t find the relief that she found, so we count ourselves much blessed by the way things have turned out.  But when things were bad we found it all very hard.

A third challenge has been DISCOURAGEMENT.  I am thinking of my own luke-warmness as a Christian.  Truly I am a Laodician, neither hot nor cold!  My prayer life and Bible reading are pretty average and my ministry to people often falls short.  Along with that I have to say I have been discouraged by some of my fellow Christians, including fellow ministers, whose ethics are sometimes lower than the ethics of the non-Christian company I worked for.  I am thinking of people who have been a bit too keen on advancing their own interests rather than serving the Lord.  I sometimes think that behaviour in church circles are not unlike the attitudes of the chief priests and the Sanhedrin that condemned that innocent man who is our Lord.   But I pass this judgement as one who has not lived up to his own ideals, fully aware that it is precarious to judge the behaviour of others.

A fourth challenge has been what I am calling DECADENCE.  I am thinking of the decline in the social fabric of society.  ‘Where is God’, I ask, ‘allowing this to happen?  Why have you allowed things to deteriorate so much?’  I am thinking of the media’s exaltation of celebrities regardless of their values or lifestyle, of the collapse into binge drinking and substance abuse by so many, and of the decline in civil discourse in public life, to mention just a few examples.

In a way there’s nothing new here.  The ‘good old days’ were not always that good.  The difference is that when bad things happened back then it was against the values of the times, values that were significantly Christian.  When many bad things happen today they are just accepted.

I realize that compared with the headwinds many have struggled against that mine seem relatively minor.  Yet for me they did and to a degree still do represent challenges to my faith and reasons not to continue as a Christian.

Jesus knew well that continuing to follow him would be fraught.  ‘Take up your cross and follow me’, he said, referring to the pain of rejection for those who identify with him.  When the crowd of 5000 whom he had fed drifted away due to his challenging words he asked the twelve who remained, ‘Will you also go away?’  In fact, they all did fall away when at last he came to Jerusalem.  One was a betrayer (for money), another a denier (for approval) and ten who were cowards (because of fear).  Their sins live on in us so that we fail him repeatedly.

It was because Jesus knew how morally feeble we are that he commanded his followers, ‘Abide in me’, words which simply mean, ‘Continue with me’, ‘remain with me, ‘don’t give up’.  St Paul said, ‘We don’t give up’, implying the struggle he had had to do just that.

So the following of Jesus was never going to be easy.  The exodus pilgrims’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan anticipates the pilgrimage of the disciple of Jesus, the spiritual journey from conversion/baptism to the promised kingdom.  Soon after the Lord brought them out of Egypt they worshipped a golden calf, a pagan fertility symbol, in spite of their agreement to his covenant to refuse to make for themselves an idol or image that they will worship.  They grumbled and they sinned so that in the end only a minority actually arrived in the Promised Land.

So we must not underestimate the challenges of continuing and moving forward as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the end, however, we depend on him to strengthen us to continue.  At the beginning he said, ‘Come to me.  I will welcome you and not cast you out’.  But he also said, ‘My sheep hear my voice and they follow me and no one will snatch them from my hand’.  Here the Lord makes two promises.  He welcomes us and he holds us.

This does not relieve us of the responsibility to continue.  ‘Make your calling and election sure’, said Peter.  That means I need to confirm and reconfirm my commitment to Jesus.  Bible reading, prayer and gathering with other Christians is basic to my continuance as a Christian.  I need to support and love of other members of the Christian family and they need mine.  We help one another along the way, not least in times of distress and heartache.

Why am I still a Christian?  Ultimately it is the Lord’s doing.  He made the invitation, ‘Whoever comes…’ and he gives the assurance, ‘no one will snatch them out of my hand’.

(A talk given in Brisbane in March 2013 under auspices of Matthew Hale public Library)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dr Podmore commissioned as Director of Forward in Faith

How inspiring to have been part of the capacity crowd of laity and clergy at St Alban’s Holborn last night (Monday 15th April) for the commissioning of Dr Colin Podmore, the former Clerk of the General Synod, as Director of Forward in Faith, who pledged to “work for the unity of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ and for its mission in the world”.

Members of the organization were joined by former and current members of the General Synod and staff of the National Church Institutions, reflecting what Dr Podmore described as “the breadth of the Church of England, and our commitment to the ‘mutual flourishing’ of its diverse traditions”.

Twelve Anglo-Catholic bishops and over 40 representative priests concelebrated the mass in a traditional language liturgy drawn from Common Worship and sung to the setting ‘Collegium Regale’ by Herbert Howells.

During the service, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham and Chairman of Forward in Faith, promised that the charity would “continue to speak the truth in love about those issues which exercise us, because of their impact, as we see it, on the unity and apostolicity of the Church”.

Encouraging those who take a different view on the issues of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate to hear the organisation’s message “with an equal love”, Bishop Jonathan’s sermon lamented the “tragedy… that the Church of England should have come to this: that faithful Anglicans who are inspired by convictions which the whole of the Church still affirms in her title deeds and carries in her DNA should be perceived by some as disloyal, a fifth column perhaps.”

But he acknowledged that “no doubt blame… can be distributed across the whole Body [of the Church]”, encouraging members of Forward in Faith to “never give anyone the excuse to suggest that we are simply another churchy pressure group”.  The challenge, he said, was to “keep going joyfully, and to keep on in love”, on what was, admittedly, a “rocky path”. But the promise of Scripture was that the vision of “one body, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism” has already been fulfilled. Forward in Faith’s task, he suggested, was to ensure that truth was not obscured.

Bishop Jonathan reminded the packed church that the “minority position” many of the congregation shared is, paradoxically, one “deeply committed to the widest, most inclusive vision of unity and catholicity, that the world may believe and come to Christ.”

Dr Podmore began work at Forward in Faith, which has thousands of members across the Church of England’s dioceses, after Easter. He joined following almost twenty-five years on the staff of the Archbishops’ Council at Church House, Westminster, during which time he variously led the secretariats handling the Church of England’s ecumenical relations; its liturgy; and the business of the General Synod.

Go the Forward in Faith Website HERE.

Download the text of Bishop Jonathan Baker's sermon HERE.

Bishop Jonathan Baker SSC, Principal Celebrant

A procession of bishops - at the end of Mass

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Jesus - not one of the resurrected . . . the Resurrection itself! (von Balthasar)

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) a Swiss theologian and priest (who almost become a cardinal, but died before the ceremony) was a favourite theologian of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He is considered to be one of the most important - and cultured - Christian thinkers of the 20th century. I have lifted this quote from Fr Aidan Kimel’s excellent blog HERE.

I am the resurrection and the life, but not as the world knows them: that decaying cycle of springs and autumns, that millstone of melancholy, that aping of eternal life. All the world’s living and dying, taken together, are one great death, and it is this death that I awaken to life. Once I entered the world, a new and unknown sap began to circulate in the veins and branches of nature. The powers of destiny, the might of the planets, the demons of the blood, the rulers of the air, the spirit of the earth, and whatever other dark things still cover in the secret folds of creation: all of this has now been subdued and is ordered about and must obey the higher law. All the world’s form is to me but matter that I inspirit. My action is not grafted from without to the old life, to the old pleasure-gardens of Pan; being the very life of life, I transform the marrow from within. All that dies becomes the property of my life. All that passes over in autumn runs ashore on my spring. All that turns to mold fertilizes my blossoms. All that denies has already been convicted; all that covets has already been dispossessed; all that stiffens has already been broken.

I am not one of the resurrected; I am the resurrection itself. Whoever lives in me, whoever is taken up into me, is taken up in resurrection. I am the transformation. As bread and wine are transformed, so the world is transformed into me. The grain of mustard is tiny, and yet its inner might does not rest until it overshadows all the world’s plants. Neither does my Resurrection rest until the grave of the last soul has burst, and my powers have reached even to the furthest-branch of creation. You see death; you feel the descent to the end. But death is itself a life, perhaps the most living life; it is the darkening depth of my life, and the end is itself the beginning, and the descent is itself the soaring up.

What can still be called death after I have died my death? Does not every dying from now on receive the meaning and seal of my death? Is its significance not that of a stretching out of the arms and a perfect sacrifice into the bosom of my Father? In death the barriers fall away; in death the ever-forbidden lock snaps open; the sluice bursts, the waters pour out freely. All the terrors that hover around death are morning mists that disperse into the blue. Even the slow death of souls when they bitterly shut themselves off from God—when they entrench and wall themselves up, when the world towers up around them like the pit of a grave, and all love becomes as the smell of mould, and hope withers, and a cold defiance rears its head and shows its tongue, a viper up from the depths: have I not suffered my way through all these deaths. And what can their poison do against the deadly antidote of my love? Every horror became for my love a garment in which to conceal itself, a wall through which to walk.

Do not be afraid of death. Death is the liberating flame of the sacrifice, and sacrifice is transformation. But Eucharistic transformation is communion in my eternal life. I am Life. Whoever believes in me, whoever eats and drinks me, has life in himself, eternal life, already here and now, and I will raise him up on the last day.

Friday, April 12, 2013

C.S. Lewis - Atheism to Belief (Alister McGrath)

Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis continues to inspire and fascinate millions. His legacy remains varied and vast. He was a towering intellectual figure, a popular fiction author who inspired a global movie franchise around the world of Narnia, and an atheist-turned-Christian thinker. 

Numerous biographies of Lewis exist. The most recent is C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister E. McGrath, himself an adult convert to Christianity, and a prolific author in his own right. He is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education, and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College, London. He is also Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. Until 2008, he was Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. 

Having thoroughly examined recently published Lewis correspondence, McGrath challenges some of the previously held beliefs about the exact timing of Lewis’s shift from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. He paints a definitive portrait of Lewis as an eccentric thinker who became an inspiring, though reluctant, prophet for our times. Here is the video of Professor McGrath’s lecture on Lewis at the Sunday Forum at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, last Sunday. It is well worth watching right through.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Bishop Paul Barnett on the "New New Testament"

This article is from the website of well respected Australian historian and Anglican Bishop, Paul Barnett. In it Dr Barnett responds to Hal Taussig and his team who have published a “New New Testament” incorporating some of the literature the early Church ensured was not in the New Testament as it has come down to us. 

Hal Taussig and a team of eighteen scholars and religious leaders have chosen ten texts (out of sixty seven surveyed) to be published alongside the twenty-seven that comprise the New Testament and called it A New New Testament. The ‘new’ texts are from the post-New Testament eras and are mostly ‘gnostic’ in character (an exception is the Acts of Paul and Thecla). 

In fact, these texts are not ‘new’ but go back almost to the era of the apostle and for the most part have been known for many years by historians.

The stated aim of the group is to bring these texts to the general public.

Publicity for the book asks, ‘…don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?’  In fact, however, the New Testament and the extra texts did not form a ‘chorus’ of united voices. The mainstream Christian leaders called the teaching in these texts ‘heresy’. An intellectual and spiritual chasm separated these opposing religious viewpoints.

Hal Taussig and his colleagues say that the ‘canon’ of the New Testament was not really ‘closed’ until relatively modern times and that it is therefore valid to publish other texts with the twenty-seven of the biblical canon within the one book. This asserts that the canon is, in effect, elastic. It is an elastic canon, capable of the addition of new texts.

That was not the view, however, of church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. By ‘church leaders’ I am thinking of people like Irenaeus who was a pupil of Polycarp, who was a pupil of John, who was a disciple of Jesus. Irenaeus, through the chain of orthodox teachers going back to Jesus, was articulating the views of those teachers, back to Jesus himself.

In the 2nd century these leaders were confronted with strongly differing, in fact, antithetical views. Marcion rejected the Creator God of the Old Testament and reduced his canon mainly to an expurgated version of Luke and some of the letters of Paul. The Gnostics from Egypt created extra gospels (mainly gnosticised adaptations of Jesus’ teachings with little narrative), for example the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas. Scholars are broadly agreed that these are derived from the canonical gospels.

So the big issue for the true followers of Jesus in the century after the apostles was to establish which gospels were genuine and which were not. A succession of 2nd century leaders asserted the fourfold gospel. Irenaeus insisted that the gospel was ‘quadriform’, not less that four and not more than four. Likewise the Muratorian Canon and Tatian’s Diatessaron (= ‘one through four’) each insisted that there were four gospels.  The codex P46 dated to the end of the 2nd century has in it the four Gospels plus the book of Acts. The four superscriptions that date from the early second century – ‘according to Matthew’, ‘according to Mark’, ‘according to Luke’, ‘according to John’ – assert there is ‘one gospel’, but each ‘according to’ the four named gospel-writers.

Accordingly, it is clear that those who were disciples of the disciples of Jesus in response to Marcion, on the one hand, and to Valentinus, on the other, insisted on a closed canon of four gospels.

Following the first Easter the original followers of Jesus formulated creeds and confessions, for example, as quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that affirms the death for sins, the burial, the resurrection and the numerous sightings of the risen Christ.  This and other creed-like statements eventually became expanded as baptismal creeds in the second century (e.g., by Ignatius), which then became the great creeds of Christendom to expose heresies like Gnosticism (the Apostles Creed) and Arianism (the Nicene Creed).

These creed-like statements within the New Testament insisted on the facts of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and permeate the literature of the New Testament.

The Gnostics altered the sayings of Jesus in the genuine Gospels as vehicles for their alternative doctrines. Those doctrines reacted against the historical and geographical facts about Jesus and formulated a religion that was essentially non-historical, mystical and meditative. They reacted strongly against the Old Testament.  It was all about being absorbed upwards out of this material world into the pure world of deity. It skilfully used New Testament terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘salvation’ which it employed in diametrically opposite ways to the New Testament.

Should these texts be published? Definitely. It would be helpful to have these texts and others like them available in good translations, with critical manuscript apparatus and scholarly commentary, but not published in the same book as the twenty-seven genuine texts. Otherwise it would imply that the canon is indeed open-ended and that the genuine and that the non-genuine are reducible to the same level.

John Dominic Crossan, a leading member of the Jesus Seminar, was part of the panel of nineteen. This sends a pretty clear message that the publishing group is somehow connected with the Jesus Seminar, a body of scholars dedicated to questioning the integrity of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. Marcus Borg, another member of the Jesus Seminar, has written a glowing review the book as part of its advertising campaign. In other words, this panel is not a broad-based body of scholars (for example, the Society of Biblical Literature) but an association committed to questioning the integrity of historic Christianity and promoting instead its own alternative version of Christianity.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter is about OUR resurrection, too!

Most people in our culture know that Easter is when Christians celebrate the rising of Jesus from the dead. However, many of our friends outside the regular life of the Church don’t realise that it's also when we celebrate OUR rising from the dead. I’m not talking so much about the resurrection of our bodies at the second coming of Christ (although that’s part of it). I’m talking about the reality St Paul writes about in Romans 6:3-4:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” 

By faith and baptism we were plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus. We were joined to his death and rose from the watery grave sharing the dynamic of his risen life.

As St Paul said in Romans 8:11:

“ . . . the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you . . .”

In Philippians 3:10 the same apostle says that part of his determined purpose in this life is 

“to know . . . the power of his (i.e. Jesus’) resurrection . . .”

That’s why, all over the world, at Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses, large numbers of children and adults are baptised. That’s why at those same Masses we who are already baptised renew our baptismal promises, and - as a sign of that renewal - are sprinkled with the blessed baptismal water from the font. By his dying and rising, the Lord has lovingly and powerfully released his supernatural risen life into the cosmos, and into our lives through our baptismal identification with him.

So, at Easter we celebrate JESUS’ resurrection as well as OUR resurrection.

With that in mind, I share with you today two beautiful passages. The first is from Gordon Fee’s remarkable commentary: Paul’s Letter To The Philippians, p. 50-51:

"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

With the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has already set the future inexorably in motion. The fact that the future has already begun with the coming of God himself (through Christ and the Spirit) means two crucial things for Paul: that the consummation is absolutely guaranteed, and that present existence is therefore altogether determined by this reality. That is, one’s life in the present is not conditioned or determined by present exigencies, but by the singular reality that God’s people belong to the future that has already come present. Marked by Christ’s death and resurrection and identified as God’s people by the gift of the Spirit, they live the life of the future in the present, determined by its values and perspective, no matter what their present circumstances.

The second passage is by Abu Daoud, an Anglican missionary to the Middle East, and was published in St Francis Magazine Vol 8, No 2 April 2012:

“Christianity is built on the conviction that out of the most radical and disastrous despair, God turned the tables on the Empire and the Temple that killed his Son, and his resurrection was nothing less than the victory of God. The power of life in that resurrection flowed out into a community called out by God, the Church. That community was called to be a sacrament of secret life and an imperfect but real embassy of God’s reign, which, like yeast in dough, spreads and leavens.”