Beware the Empire…

In the year 312 a young Roman soldier was made Caesar of the Western half of the divided Roman Empire. The Caesar was 2nd in charge (‘heir apparent’) to the Augustus or Emperor. There were 2 Emperor’s – one for the Eastern Empire and one for the Western Empire. Each Emperor had a Caesar under him. Young Constantine was assigned to the farthest reaches of the Western Empire and based in the English city of York. It was from here that he began his campaign south and east to make a bid for power. Constantine and his soldiers marched towards their destiny. As he arrived at the Milvian Bridge that crosses the Tiber River in Northern Italy, Constantine had a dream or vision. In this dream/vision he is supposed to have seen the sign of the cross against the sun. He heard a voice proclaim: ‘You are to conquer in this sign!’ He assumed it to be the voice of the Christian God and applied Christian symbols to his soldier’s shields. Constantine led his army into battle against Maxentius and he was victorious.

In February 313 Constantine announced the Edict of Milan that ensured official tolerance towards Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the first step towards Christianity becoming the adopted religion of the Roman Empire.

After Constantine became the sole Emperor of the Roman Empire and re-unified the eastern and western halves, the celebrations of re-unification were Christian in form and style. Although there are questions as to the extent or even reality of Constantine’s conversion, there is no doubt that this was a massive turning point in the history of Christianity and the practice of Christian faith. Constantine seems to have maintained a somewhat eclectic spirituality, embracing elements of Christianity along with various pagan spiritualties, most notably worship of Apollo, the Sun-god. Was Constantine actually converted or was he a brilliant politician who embraced a powerful and expanding minority religion within the Empire? The truth is probably somewhere in between.

For many, this was a triumph of Christian faith, where a small sect in backwater Jerusalem came to dominate Rome and Western Europe. The Christian Church went from experiencing major persecution to full acceptance in a period of 25 years! In a few decades Christianity gained a creed, a Bible and the Empire! Within a generation of Constantine, Christianity took on all the trappings and structure of a powerful, organised religion.

Was this a triumph of faith or something else? What might have been had Constantine not embraced Christianity fully into his program of Empire? What might the church have become outside the Empire? There are glimpses of this in the monastic movement of the 4-5th centuries that arose as a backlash to the massive changes as the church embraced the comfortable power of being aligned with Empire.

Why do I tell this simplified history of the conversion of Constantine and the alliance of Christian faith and Roman Empire? Our Gospel reading this week (Luke 13:31-35) begins: ‘Some members of the Pharisee party came to Jesus and said, “Clear off. Don’t show your face around here again or you’ll be killed. Herod wants your blood.”’ Herod was an official under the Roman Emperor – he represented the power and might, the culture and values of Rome. He was opposed to Jesus and Jesus’ way opposed Roman power, oppression, violence and injustice. There was no way for the Way of Jesus, of God, to compromise with the way of Rome. Ultimately Jesus was crucified as a political prisoner under Roman orders. He was a threat to the order and way of Rome.

The next part of our reading says: ‘Jesus replied: “You can go and give that vicious dog this message from me: ‘Whether you like it or not, I’m going to keep on booting out the demonic forces and healing the sick — today, tomorrow and the third day, until I’m finished.”’

These words of Jesus seem a long way from where his followers ended up as part of Roman Empire. The early church was a radical, subversive and even treasonous group of people who embraced those who were marginalised and excluded and brought them into an egalitarian community where possessions and money were shared amongst everyone. The power present was the power of love as expressed in God’s love for all people. This was a non-violent community who opposed injustice and often suffered for their faithfulness to God and the Way of Jesus.

1700 years ago (this month!) everything changed dramatically and the church was seduced by the power and glamour of the Empire. It must have been heady stuff! In 325 the Bishops were invited/summoned to Nicea for an all-expenses paid conference to make determinations on various points of Christian faith. For the first time, the Emperor was in the room and this undoubtedly altered the course of Christian history.

In the ensuing centuries Christian faith under the Empire embraced the power and violence of Rome and every subsequent Empire. Christian faith became the face of Empire and the form of Empire influenced the church. We think of the Crusades, inquisitions, holy wars – all conducted in the name of God although the clear image of God in Jesus is non-violent, loving, gracious and embraces all people. The church also embraced wealth and glory, things that Jesus shunned and the early church could never imagine.

For much of the last 1700 years we have shared the place of privilege and power. Over the last few hundred years science has gradually dominated and the alliance between Christianity and Empire has faded. The time, the age, of Christendom has ended and we are faced with the challenge of rediscovering what it means to be ‘Church’ in the Way of Jesus. This is an enormous challenge and a risky, dangerous journey. It is also an exciting challenge as we cast off the captivity to ‘Rome’ (wealth, power, glory and privilege) and follow the Way of Jesus. This is the way of God and the Spirit of God will lead us. It is a way that is about loving, including, opposing injustice and being a radical, subversive, even treasonous community under God, who alone rules – in love and justice, grace and peace – for all!

Finding Space Amidst the Noise…

Words, words, words. Our society is full of words: on billboards, on television screens, in newspapers and books. Words whispered, shouted, and sung. Words that move, dance, and change in size and colour. Words that say, “Taste me, smell me, eat me, drink me, sleep with me,” but most of all, “buy me.”

These words from Henri Nouwen spoke to me this week. Every time I started these reflection notes it seemed that ‘words’ interrupted me. There were words from phone calls, computer screens, radio, TV, people talking to me… Words bombarded me as I drove, trying to quietly think. Words all around and I often find myself very frustrated with the words I hear. I am fed up with the incessant advertising that wants me to gamble on anything and everything. I would ban all advertisements from the various betting agencies that interrupt sporting commentary, news and other areas of life.

I am fed up with being told I need to buy something, experience something or for a small fee can have the experience, feeling or possession that my heart truly desires. I don’t want to buy all this stuff and I know I won’t be happier or my life more meaningful with a new shirt or shoes, a new car or bigger house, a faster computer (well perhaps sometimes??), an iPhone, iPod or iPad, a Big Mac or whatever fast food options they want to sell me.

Mostly, though, all the words make me tired. I don’t want so many words that are meaningless noise coming at me so often, so forcefully, so consistently. I know that sometimes these words, this noise, is a distraction that helps me avoid that with which I don’t want to deal or do. Incessant noise and endless words can distract me or take me on another path or even disorient me totally. I lose my way when all there is around me are words pressing in and inviting me, badgering me,  persuading me, challenging me and tempting me. When the words pile up and fill my world how can I hear anything else? Where can I escape in order to find a balance to what I am hearing? When I hear is a negative message about this or that or even about who I am, where do I hear the balance that will free me?

Over the course of the next few months we will be bombarded with words about the political parties. We will hear it filtered through reporters, editors, researchers and of course the spin doctors who tell our politicians what to say and how to say it. Will we ever really hear or understand the truth? How? Where?

If your life is filled with words and you are feeling the stress and tension of all these words then perhaps you would be better to stop here and turn everything (including the all-important phone) off. You can sit in silence and take a few breaths. Perhaps you might go for a walk around the neighbourhood or in the garden – without ipods or phones. Just walk or wander and breath, listen and ponder life. If this is your need – go for it!

 

This week’s reading is from Luke 4:1-11 and is a familiar story of Jesus facing temptation in the wilderness of Judea. He fasts for 40 days and is tempted by the Tempter. As Henri Nouwen says:

Jesus entered solitude in the wilderness  and was tempted with the 3 compulsions of the world:

  1. 1.       To be relevant – turn stones into loaves,
  2. 2.       To be spectacular – throw yourself down,
  3. 3.       To be powerful – I will give you all of these kingdoms.

 

These are the kinds of things that the multitude of words in our lives impel us towards. It is easy to be thrust into feeling the need to respond and grasp at these kinds of temptations – especially when we are bombarded with the messages that these are our needs! The church often struggles to be relevant – whatever that really means? We need to make our message relevant or change its form to compete with the multitude of ‘relevant’ messages coming from every other direction. We would like to be spectacular! After all spectacular is a hit and people are in awe of a good spectacle. But what if the spectacular has no depth? I have seen many spectacular things but few stick with me! Power and might are worshipped in our society and the church as the religion of the Empire shared power, might and wealth. But political power, oppressive power, power over and against is not the sort of power that endures and transforms. It becomes abusive and violent. It makes people do things they don’t necessarily want to do but does not change them.

Jesus was tempted. I imagine him wandering in the wilderness wrestling with all the daemons of life – his own, his community’s and those of his world. The questions, puzzles, struggles and ideologies that dominated him and his world. I can imagine him weighed down and wrestling with what to do, who to follow and how to do it. I can imagine him seeking words from God but having other words fill his mind – such as these words from the Tempter that offer all manner of possibilities and distractions.

As he weakened physically and as his mind went through the natural course of cleansing and quietening that involves the onslaught of thoughts and ideas and a mind racing in circles, hallucinations and bizarre ideas would have circled him and challenged him. This is the way. Henri Nouwen describes this retreating into a silent solitude as being like walking through a bunch of banana trees with monkeys fighting in them – and that’s what your head is like. The compulsions, distractions and drives of this life are pushed aside in order to listen to the still small voice of love, of God.

Nouwen says: The solitude of which we speak here is not to be equated with the notion of finding some space for ourselves in the busyness of our lives; space to think or rest. It is not privacy or the place to do our own thing. It is not only a place where we can recharge our batteries and gather new strength to continue on our way in life. The solitude of Jesus and the other great saints is bigger than this. It is the place of conversion where the old self dies and the new self is born. It is the place where we become the person we were created to be.

This week marks the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and transformation. Take some time to enter solitude and silence, to listen to the voice of God.

Beyond the Material…

I stood on the beach, a short stretch of sand at the edge of the island. I looked out at the water, a little choppy and dark blue. That glimpse did not reveal what I was about to experience – it never does!

I struggled into my flippers and dunked my head under water before fitting the goggle and snorkel. I then launched into the deeper water and immediately encountered a school of white, almost invisible fish. Dozens swam before me as I headed into deeper waters. Gradually an underwater panorama opened before me. Brilliantly coloured fish swam freely below and around me unfazed by my presence. In-between rocks and crevices these fish glided gracefully seeking out food. Other fish swam in and out of anemones, coral and vegetation. It was a stunning experience of beauty and wonder, an underwater world that materialised out of nothing, a world invisible to the eye when viewed from above the water.

Two worlds co-existed in close proximity but were not visible to each other. We who lived in the world beyond the sea were oblivious to the beauty, wonder and diversity below the surface of the water. There was a thin veil that separated them, a thin veil of watery medium that made it all but invisible to our human eyes.

I also remember, with some awe and wonder, my experience of learning about the human body and how it functions at the level of organs, cells and sub-cellular mechanisms. It was quite amazing to discover the biochemistry of cells and how they function. Each type of cell is different and unique in its interactions within the body. I well remember my dabbling in immunology and the profound complexity of this microscopic world within, a world that protected my body from foreign invaders – viruses, bacteria and foreign objects. This system was on constant vigilance against anything that might compromise my body.

I marvelled at this world within, a world that is part of me and functions every moment of my life but for the most part I am oblivious to it!

There are many worlds around (and in) me. Some I am conscious of and others I barely see superficially, if at all. Often a thin veil separates my conscious awareness of these worlds from their reality. My ignorance, lack of education or insight, the distractions that cloud my awareness and so on all act to stop me seeing or experiencing something of the vast worlds within and beyond this world.

As one who conducts a number of funerals I am aware that it is at the moment of the experience of death that most of us are caught between two particular worlds. Whilst death signifies an ending of the mortal life of a person, it also asks or invites questions of us. To the materialist mind a dead body represents all that remains beyond memory (and perhaps genetic information passed onto children). The mortal remains of a person, though, have nothing of the reality of that living being. The soul, spirit, personality, or whatever we might call it, is no longer there. What we have experienced in a person has gone and we try to make sense of it. It doesn’t seem real that this being simply ceases to exist, although the materialist may well say this is so.

Most people want to explore and understand something more. Perhaps we want reassurance that there is something more. Perhaps we don’t want to believe that there is simply nothing else. The thing is that most cultures explore and answer this question in seemingly similar ways. The Abrahamic faith, which is the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, takes particular views that have evolved from the common origins and then in particular ways within each tradition. Within Christianity there are various cultural and philosophical influences as well as the reality of personal experience.

The ancient world (along with some cultures in our modern world) had the strong sense of the world of spirits that co-existed with the material world. There was an overlap, a movement between the two and there were ‘thin places’ where the world of the spiritual broke through into human experience. These thin places are experienced in a variety of ways by people. For example, much has been written about near death experiences and the world beyond that awaits us. Many people have spoken to me about their spiritual experiences of a person who has died. Such post-death experiences have opened them to the reality of a world beyond the world of the material.

There are many ways we encounter the reality of something beyond what we know, can see, feel and deal with in a material, physical sense. There is much we do not understand and our rational minds struggle to recognise or negotiate our way around a realm beyond our seeing.

Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom or realm of God points to a world view that doesn’t easily fit into a rational materialist mind. It is here but not in the way we can easily grasp or rationalise. God is present in and around us but not in a manner we can control or define. The Spirit of God moves where it will and God transcends the created Realm of the material, the rational, the chronological; the world of contemporary western scientific rationalism. That isn’t to say that God and the way of God ought to be irrational but that when we enter into the deeper mysteries of life, science may not always be the best medium for understanding. Perhaps art, poetry, story, music; those modes that takes us into image and metaphor will help us negotiate the mysteries of God more fully.

This week we hear again the story of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43). It is mysterious story that speaks of visions in which Jesus, Moses and Elijah appear before disciples. There is a voice from heaven, a cloud and Jesus appearance transformed before them. There are overtones of Old Testament stories and the confluence of realms – the material and spiritual (or whatever you want to call it), and the past, present and future. It is a thin place that is revealing of something deeper and more profound about Jesus, about God and about life. It invites us into a deeper awareness of what it means to be human and live with one another before this mysterious God of love. It invites us to be open to the reality that there is more to life than what we may see or know. It invites us to be open to the thin places of life where the sacred and holy break into our experience and become very real in our experience.

Discomfort, Anger and Jesus!

It was at a youth camp in the Southern Highlands – I can’t remember the exact year. There was a guest speaker whom the minister invited, much to the chagrin of several of the young people. This speaker was a bit in your face (although having encountered this person years later I realise that youth camp was relatively mild!). This speaker egged us on, provoked us and raised issues that were squarely not on our agenda of important issues of faith. In fact some of what was raised ought not have been on anyone’s agenda of faith – so most of us thought.

We were confronted with social justice writ large and to top it off the speaker quoted the Bible to back it up! We were traumatised as issues of justice were thrown in our face. We became angry as biblical texts were used to confront our lifestyles! Can you believe that there was some suggestion that the rich were expected to give up their wealth to help the poor! That one went over really well with a few people, those who weren’t too badly off.

By the end of the long weekend, there was a revolt happening. Some went away disgusted, ropable and ready lynch the speaker – metaphorically speaking. We returned home relieved that we could return to normal and cast aside this erroneous heresy.

The trouble was, for me at least and I suspect a few others, something happened that weekend that I couldn’t ignore. I got a taste of God’s justice and not only was it uncomfortable, I recognised it as having more than a grain of truth to it. I knew, as soon as I heard it, that there was something in what the speaker said. Try as we might we couldn’t remove it from the pages of the Bible, the Old Testament prophets, Jesus or even Paul!

Somehow everywhere I now looked there was some example of what the speaker had said. It became impossible to ignore things that previously I was oblivious to. I saw poor people abused, used and cast aside. I saw marginalised people pushed farther to the edges. I saw unfairness in the very systems I had trusted. I even saw how we were consuming resources far too rapidly and the earth was losing the fight to maintain equilibrium. Injustice was all around!

Sometimes it is like this – we need to be belted over the head until we are angry and stirred up before we change. Sometimes we need to be confronted until we react, resist, challenge, fight… before we are ready to hear something new.

It doesn’t always work. There are some politicians, for example, that do nothing for me except to drive me crazy with their monotonous and mindless rants. They might be in my face but I wish they would be quiet and do something constructive. It isn’t only politicians but they’re the ones on the news at the moment!

It really depends on the subject matter. If it engages me and challenges some strongly held belief or understanding and pushes me to think; if it is offered passionately and with integrity it becomes hard to fend off. That weekend ultimately moved me to a new place. Such change is not easy or comfortable because it takes us to new, unfamiliar places in our lives. The status quo of belief and understanding that have formed foundations for our living and acting are shaken and we feel uncertain, fearful and react angrily. It is part of the process of growth and moving to a new world view.

This, in essence, is what happened to people in Nazareth when the local boy, Jesus, returned to preach – Luke 4:21-30 (it continues on from what we read last week – Luke 4:14-21). At first they’re impressed. This is the local boy, one of us, isn’t he good… It’s real Kath and Kim stuff – ‘Isn’t he noice? Like his hair. Always thought Joe’s boy had something.’ They are happy with his reading of the Scriptures and opening words. A nice day at the synagogue!

Then, Jesus ruins it all. He failed public speaking 101 that insists we should gain trust and bring the people along gently and gradually open the argument… He effectively throws their Bible at them, all the harsh bits, and warns them of how God favoured some of their enemies over the good old Jewish people because they didn’t listen and their hearts were hard and messed up. On he went piling on the harsh words until they went berserk and laid into him. They wanted to throw him off a cliff!

Did Jesus learn from this? It depends on your perspective. If you mean did he realise his approach distanced people and he ought be a bit more gentle, then no he didn’t. He went onto other towns and raised holy chaos there as well. Ultimately he did this everywhere – he spoke about what God wanted: Justice, inclusion, love, compassionate relationships between all people… Jesus spoke about faith as an expression of God’s love for all and everyone having enough to live and a place within society.

This message rankled many people and incensed them. It’s a bit like making the claim that many Australians are racist or our economy is built on abusing the earth or we should do more to help the poor of the world. These and other things that come essentially from Jesus own message cause untold anger and passion.

Martin Luther King jr pushed the citizens of the US and moved some of  them to violent responses. When the status quo is challenged and disrupted because it is unfair and unjust, those who benefit from the way things are resist and resist with anger.

I encourage you to ponder your own life and the ways that various messages and ideas have caused you to become angry because they have challenged your long-standing views. How have you responded when people have offered something that is different from your accepted truth – whether in religious areas, politics, economics, society…? Can you remember being angry and resisting angrily? When you have become engaged in a process whereby there is a change in your thinking and belief system, have you experienced anger and confusion? Can you see how this ties into the pattern of how such change invokes deep emotions, discomfort and confusion?

The speaker egged us on, provoked us and didn’t allow us to be comfortable. The speaker knew they had a small window and if we were to grow, then discomfort was necessary. Did it work? Yes and no. Some of us were change and others became more rigid. How do you respond to Jesus’ message?