Monday, January 30, 2023

Sacramental Actions?

 A few weeks ago, in a long stream of comments (here), some of which were about sacraments (and if you did not follow that discussion it is worth a look for several deep dive contributions into sacraments in Roman, Protestant/Anglican and Eastern Orthodox theologies), Mark raised the following questions with me after I had observed that in ACANZP we (officially) talk about two sacraments and certain other actions being "sacramental actions" (even though it is easy to hear Anglicans talking about "seven sacraments"):

"And, Peter, how come we need to invent other categories - "sacramental actions" - for rites that all my Anglican vicars so far have persisted in simply calling "sacraments". It's rather confusing and unnecessary, isn't it? A hangover of anti-Romanist identity formation?


The Anglican Church of North America (I think) delineates "Sacraments of the Gospel" from "Sacraments of the Church". If we want to emphasize which sacraments Jesus directly created (rather than simply participated in or inspired), that's a simpler, more sensible language than "sacramental actions", isn't it?

Wouldn't it improve our ecumenical relationships with the Catholics and Orthodox overnight if we made this simple acknowledgement?"

In response:

1. To get one issue out of the way: if the last remaining obstacle to unity with Catholics and/or Orthodox was that we Anglicans "conceded" on two becoming seven sacraments, then I wouldn't stand in the way ... save that, a lot of theology changes at that point, and my "concession" might be accompanied be deep reluctance etc! Conversely, I cannot recall ever hearing that it is Anglican stubbornness on the sacraments that is a vital blockage to unity.

2. The notion of seven sacraments is attractive numerically: seven is a perfect number, number of completion etc. But it obscures a simple fact in the development of these sacraments: there is no revelation in the early church's life that there are, or should be seven sacraments. Development was slow. I recall an eminent Catholic theologian, Denys Turner (in a lecture which I heard when in Cambridge in 2015, still noted at a link here) observing that marriage as a sacrament was finally agreed to by the church c. 1000 AD. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the notion that God willed marriage to be a sacrament whether from the beginning of creation or from the time of our Lord.

3. Thus there is a certain attractive honesty in the position of ACNA, two sacraments of the gospel and five sacraments of the church. But this approach begs two rather large questions. 

3.1. If a sacrament is an action of God, invisible grace through visible materials/actions, either a sacrament is a sacrament of the gospel (which is the announcement of God's grace towards humanity made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ) or it is effectively a speculative guess of the church re when God acts (i.e. acts sacamentally, in some sense akin to baptism and eucharist) and when God does not. 

3.2. Why stop at seven when no revelation of God has specified seven as a limiting number? Why not, for instance, make the dedicating and consecrating of church buildings an eighth sacrament, noting that we envisage all kinds of gracious actions of God taking place in such buildings rather than elsewhere? Should Foot-washing be a ninth sacrament?

4. It is not "anti-Romanist" to question today whether there are in fact seven sacramental actions worthy of being deemed "sacraments." Sure, in the 16th century the power of the then understood sacraments was being abused and the Reformation was a reaction against that misuse of power, but the same reaction asked theological, not just ecclesio-political questions about the sacraments, and those theological questions (as I am noting above and below) remain lively rather than nostalgic. In the cold light of the gospel, what are sacraments which flow from the teaching of Jesus Christ? Answer, in summary: two, not seven.

5. Why then talk, in ACANZP at least, about "sacramental actions" (e.g. in the agreed catechism of our church, p. 934: Reconciliation of a Penitent, Anointing, Christian Marriage, Confirmation, Ordination)? I assume that this phrase arises because in a diverse church, at the time of settling the wording of the catechism found in NZPB, there will have been anglo-catholics arguing for seven "sacraments" and evangelicals arguing for two "dominical sacraments" and thus "sacramental actions" is a compromise which respects the historical and spiritual significance of the five actions in the list above but does not shift the historic, theological position of the Anglican church on the matter.

A potential strength of this position is that it leaves open possibilities for discussion about other actions which have sacramental aspects without needing to argue whether they are worthy of becoming (so to speak) the eighth, ninth and ... fifteenth sacraments. (My suspicion is that having reached the number of perfection, seven, there is little appetite for those who do hold that there are seven sacraments to add to their number).

6. If the strength of the phrase "sacramental action" is that it offers some sense of an action having sacramental character (and thus offers a compromise for Anglicans, as noted above), then the weakness is that it begs the question why an action with sacramental character is not, in fact, a sacrament! I am afraid shortage of time this week means I am not going to pursue this question in depth or detail.

7. That is, I think I am pretty happy with the concept of baptism and eucharist being dominical sacraments and then leaving open the possibility that there are more than five other ways and means through which God's grace comes to God's people (whether we wish to call these sacramental actions or sacraments). 

8. There are mysteries here (to deliberately invoke an Eastern Orthodox approach to what the West call "sacraments")) and debate about them can distract. Might we not better focus on the greatest sacrament of all, Jesus Christ, the visible embodiment of God's invisible grace? What of our written Scriptures, bound together as the Bible: is this not also a visible embodiment of God's invisible grace because through this physical book spiritual transformation is achieved? (One might think of Augustine's famous conversion ...)



Monday, January 23, 2023

2023: what a year, and it's only 23 January!

The giddy breathlessness of events of this 2023 year has not ceased in the last seven days!

On the domestic, NZ front, our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern resigned on Thursday, and with a smooth internal election of Chris Hipkins to be the new Leader of the Labour Party and thus new Prime Minister, I think it is by the end of today that we will have a new Prime Minister.

I admire Jacinda immensely for a variety of reasons but none more so that that she has looked at her personal reality - she said her tank is empty - and made an appropriate decision as a leader. Great leaders know when it is time to go.

I don't have much admiration for all the harping critics of the last few days: not for the ones who have not wasted a nano second of social media time to tell us about all her (alleged) shortcomings and not for the ones who think she should have pressed on and not "given up" because it go a bit "hard." What is it about personal burnout which these critics do not want to empathise with? What is it about pushing "Pause" before rushing to judgment when a momentous decision has been made such as Jacinda has made?

I also admire the Labour Party for making the right decision in choosing Chris Hipkins as their next leader. Any party in such a situation needs to be listening to the nation as much as looking around their caucus room. Chris Hipkins, among other plausible candidates, stands out as someone the nation can warm to, listen to and appreciate. (That a political party might not achieve this simple feat in political wisdom was amply illustrated last year when the British Conservative Party chose Liz Truss to be its leader.)

The lovely thing about the decision re our new Prime Minister is, with an election looming later this year, we ministers of relgion who traditionally give no hints as to how we think people should vote could wear badges saying "Let's vote Chris for PM"! 

[Note for those not in NZ: the next Prime Minister will be the Leader of the Labour Party, Chris Hipkins, or the Leader of the National Party, Chris(topher) Luxon, whatever permutations our MMP voting system throws up.]

Meanwhile, in Anglicanland, the CofE House of Bishops has published its decision about the blessing (or, it appears, more strictly speaking "praying for") same sex partnerships/marriages (but no actual same sex marriages in CofE churches), to something of an uproar, at least on Anglican social media, with those who think there should be no change lambasting the decision and those who think the change should go further ... lambasting the decision. And there is more (e.g. weighing in against the ABC) but I won't detail it here - you may or may not want to follow links on the sidebar here, especially on Thinking Anglicans and Psephizo.

My commentary is both general and focused:

My general comment is that the decision is similar to (but not exactly the same as) the decision ACANZP made in 2018. The comfort in that observation is, I suggest, that in a divided church there are not too many options if the status quo is to change - if the seemingly interminable debates are to give way to a decision for some change and thus ACANZP did not head down an eccentric pathway in 2018. It will now be interesting to see where Australia goes on the matter.

My focused comment is on a common charge, from the right and the left, seen numerous times on social media in the past few daysm that the CofE HOB decision is "incoherent." (E.g. because it purports to not change the doctrine of marriage while offering some recognition of marriage which is not between a man and a woman.)

"Incoherent" sounds pretty terrible, doesn't it? But might we give "incoherent" a little bit of empathetic reflection?

Think about what marriage means as a "doctrine", per the past two thousand years: a man and a woman marry [diversity, two into one], for life [permanent], faithful to each other [no adultery], promising to love one another through thick and thin [covenanted love, companionship], and open to procreation [kind of basic to the continuation of the human race!]. That's coherent in the sense that most of us on the day we marry agree with it and intend to live it out, in the sense that it conforms to the story of creation and various aspects of marriage worked into that narrative, and in the sense that it conforms to the Law of Moses and to Jesus' renewal of that law according to the gospels.

Of course, marriage doesn't always work out according to such intentions: adultery occurs, relationships break down for reasons other than adultery, divorce takes place, a new marriage is sought, one spouse dies, a new marriage later in life may not plausibly be able to entertain the possibility of procreation occurring, and, even where there is openness to children being procreated there can be desire to limit the openness of each act of sexual intercourse to being procreative. The church has really struggled to offer a "coherent" account of what happens when marriages fall short or fail "intentions" for marriage according to the Bible. The most obvious incoherency is in the approach we take to divorce occurring and a new marriage being entered into: the universal church on earth does not have an agreed set of grounds for divorce to be accepted, let alone for a new marriage to be entered into with divine approval. Neither does the universal church have an agreed set of grounds for limiting the openness of the act of sexual intercourse to procreation occurring as a result.

Now, the point of suggesting "incoherency" on marriage already exists in the life of the church at large, to say nothing of individual denominations, is not to then determine that "incoherency" doesn't matter and that any old incoherency is fine. The point is, merely saying "incoherency" does not get us very far in assessing a decision to make change, such as the CofE HOB has done.

Might it be better to ask whether the decision made is a reasonable one?

Reasonable, that is, taking account of a variety of significant factors, the most obvious of which is assessing what the people of God within the CofE might live with?

Ultimately, of course, it will be for the people of God within the CofE to determine whether the decision made is liveable incoherency and reasonably liveable!

Then there is the question of how the Communion responds ...

Finally, thankfully, this past week has been an opportunity for me to attend two Christian funerals, to visit one of our parishes, Westland, which lives its mission out far from the well-resourced, well-populated centre of our Diocese and to participate in the induction of a new vicar. In each instance it has been uplifting to see and experience the the power of God's love working through his ministers, ordained and lay, and to have underlined the difference faith in Christ makes to life. The faithfulness of God's people, and the faithfulness of God towards his people, experienced through these past seven days, is at odds with some of the wilder claims made about the diminishment of the church because it decided X rather than Y or Z.

Monday, January 16, 2023

2023: what a year, and it's only 16 January!

2023 is off to a tumultuous start. American democracy barely functioning. Constitutional monarchy under threat in UK (by the unsparing revelations of the 5th in line to the throne, no less). Brazil experiencing a Trump-like attempt to overthrow an electoral result. Benedict XVI has died. Cardinal Pell has died. Some terrible storms disrupting life in NZ - we thought it was the summer holiday season. The CofE under convulsions again re That Topic. And also having conniptions, again, over +Philip North, who won't ordain women, becoming a diocesan bishop. 

Ever willing to assist, here is a picture I took, while on holiday, of splendid calm and peacefulness:


This is a plantation of Californian Redwoods, normally a coastal dwelling tree, in the sub-alpine district of Hanmer Springs, South Island, NZ. They were planted in 1930 and may live for 1000 years, so just babies, but calm, peaceful infants. Think what crises and calamities the world has lived through since 1930. These trees have grown as God would have us grow in Christ: faithful, maturing, fruitful, lasting (e.g. Ephesians 4:13-16; Colossian 1:19-29).

If a/the major question of this blog is, How might we become what Christ intends us to be, a unified people of God? , then a close second question is, What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ today?

How might we be faithful, maturing, fruitful, lasting disciples of Christ in 2023?

The answer, obviously, is to ... change "of" to "in" [smile].

How might we be faithful, maturing, fruitful, lasting disciples "in Christ" in 2023? 

Clearly, to the extent that we can be responsible human decision makers in respect of the course of our lives, we need to walk as closely with [note, another important preposition, see Mark 3:14] Christ as possible: through daily Scripture reading and prayer, through reception of and participation in the sacrament of communion, through openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, through various other spiritual disciplines.

But, we may also look to and give thanks for God's promise to us in Christ: that Christ will live in us and we will live in Christ (essentially, the whole of John's Gospel, much of the Pauline writings). To go back to the forest in Hanmer: those splendid Redwoods have grown by God's grace as God has gifted them rain, sunshine, carbon dioxide, etc. To become what God wants us to be is foremost a matter of God's grace, the Giver of life will gift life to us.

Yet, and yet, and yet: as we see, even in the first couple of weeks of this year, various people, otherwise at least baptised, possibly claiming to be some kind of ecclesio-political warrior for God, maybe holding powerful office with the support of church leaders, even holding high office in the church of God, proposing courses of action and/or propagandizing perspectives seemingly at variance with objective truth, or, just being foolish. The grace of God in growing us in Christ may be thwarted, tripped up or just thrown aside.

Although we can see this in certain people, living and departed, who currently exist in the laser light of news headlines, do we not see it in ourselves? 

Outside of the headlines, do not we ordinary mortals ourselves thwart the grace of God as we make choices that then lead - hopefully - to confession of our sins, to acknowledgement with sorrow of our capacity to not grow in grace, to stunt our maturing, to be unfruitful and to look like we will not be found to last the distance with God?

Epilogue

While not completely aligned with the topic above, I do not want to miss the opportunity to copy and paste a citation made in a commnet by Mark to the previous post:

Michael Sean Winters, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, on George Pell and his warrior approach to secular modernity:


"There are times when the church needs lions, protectors, prelates and others willing to man the barricades, at least in times of persecution. But the late 20th and early 21st century witnessed something different from persecution.

True, the acids of modernity, as political commentator Walter Lippmann once called them, were eating away not only at the faith but at the disposition to believe. The culture was becoming secular, but not the way late 18th-century French culture had become secular. People were not so much hostile as busy. They lost interest in the faith, failed to see that it related to their daily lives, and moved on.

Lions like Pell treated these developments as modern-day reign of terror and thought they could hasten the Thermidorian reaction, but they misdiagnosed the situation. Modernity was not producing anti-clericals in the mold of Robespierre but rather people who were alienated, drowning in materialism and plenty, needy.

The times called for pastors, not prophets, for accompaniment not thunderbolts, for missionaries and evangelizers not apologists, for lambs not lions."

https://www.ncronline.org/opinion/ncr-voices/legacy-cardinal-george-pell-it-what-church-needs-now

Friday, December 30, 2022

Last Post for 2022

Nearly time for the annual blog holiday (hope to resume on Monday 16 January 2023) so one last post in 2022 to ruminate a little on a things Anglican and otherwise. A pot pouri not an essay.

Different perspectives within the same history

Having posted recently about differing perspectives in the gospel birth-infancy narratives, it has been an interesting Christmas for me and my family. We've had a very pleasant Christmas, with lots of good family time, amazing food, and, in an inclement summer, some gorgeous weather on Christmas Day itself. That's one perspective. In another perspective, particularly if I was of a gloomy cast of mind, I could focus on a telling in which I emphasised that the run up to Christmas was more stressful than usual, one family member had to isolate because of Covid, another has been in hospital, and nearly every day I have thought about a swim at the beach, the weather has been unsuitably cold ... and thus make our Christmas narrative sound very dark and depressing! Life is a mixture, a series of complications, of challenges and inspirations, of difficulties to overcome which are also opportunities to demonstrate love and compassion.

Why are fundamentalist followers of religions so mean and nasty (at least on Twitter)?

My rumination here builds on a foundation of seeing numerous instances on Twitter where, say, on "Catholic Twitter", a Catholic tweets something favourable about the Pope [let me repeat, the Pope, who is, after all, Catholic) and then the thread of comments following is a pile on against the tweeter and/or the Pope, lamenting the reality of Vatican 2, bewailing papal persecution of [ultra] conservative Catholics, alleging this heresy and that apostasy (of current Catholic leaders). And so on.

Protestant Twitter is equally problematic. Just the other day popular singer Amy Grant announced that she was hosting her niece's same-sex wedding on her ranch. A pile on of tweets and comments ensued. Mostly along the lines of "She's no longer a Christian." No less a figure than Franklin Graham publicly bewailed her iniquity.

Intriguingly, around Christmas Day, I saw a tweet by a senior Islamic figure in the UK, wishing the church leaders such as ++Welby and Cardinal Nichols a happy Christmas. The pile on of comments to this pleasant tweet came straight from the (ultra) conservative Catholic and/or Protestant playbook!! How could this man not know that the Qu'ran specifically forbade wishing the infidel greetings on their festivals etc.

Commonly, across such threads of bile, is a fundamentalism of the form, "Since our sacred text(s) say ABC, your proposing DEF is wrong and thus you (and/or the person you defend) are apostate/unfaithful/infidel."

This approach to defending the faith is just mean and nasty. 

The  greater difficulty is that in a world tired of religion and its tropes, the God behind such adherence to fundamentals comes across as a being not particularly kind or cheerful enought to spend eternity with!

How resilient is Anglicanism?

There is an argument that the genius of Anglicanism lies in its ability to accommodate. An outbreak of evangelical revival? No problem. A series of tracts which gain traction towards a retrieval of things Catholic from before the English Reformation: there is room in the inn! A bishop exploring the edges of theological sanity with wonderings as to the physical nature of the resurrection? Let's see where this goes (while keeping fingers crossed that just one or two bishops will be so minded as to publicly share their musings). We're good, in other words, at finding ways to keep people in, rather than drive them out. (Yes, I know what you know, that there have been exceptions to this rule, notably our failure to accommodate Wesleyanism.)

Another way of thinking about what it means to accommodate differences within the Anglican house is that we have an ability (with limits) to adapt what we do to flow with needs of the hour, changes in local communities, and developments in socialization (i.e. the ways we prefer to gather as social beings). Thus, in this parish, an 8 am service is different to a 10 am service is different to a 4 pm Messy Church on a Saturday, and many difference groups within the parish are catered for re tastes in styles of worship. Or, in that parish, a penchant for social justice activism or for charismatic prayer and praise or for silent contemplation is catered for by adapting current small groups meeting on weekday nights. Then, beyond the territorial confines of parish boundaries, the bishop permits gatherings variously styled as "Fresh Expression" or "Pioneer church" or Something Catchy, meeting in a pub or a library or a surf club, as possible ways and means of connecting the gospel with people unlikely to ever cross the threshold of a classic church building. 

It is not difficult, surveying Anglicanism around the globe, to see that a lot of accommodation of adaptation is going on (as well as corollaries, such as intense debate in the CofE about "the future of the parish"). In a time of ebbing numbers for Western Anglican churches, we simply have to try new things in a fast changing set of societies united by a rapidly evolving culture.

I suggest this is Anglicanism also showing another characteristic: resilience.

The way 2023 is shaping up (e.g. numbers at classic or traditional Sunday worship services generally lower after the ravages of Covid lockdowns) we will need to be resilient as never we have had to be for a long time before.

Looking back on Lambeth 2022

That was a really good time!

Happy New Year for 2023 :)

Monday, December 19, 2022

Matthew, Luke but not Q on the first Christmas [Updated]

Prompted by a nifty Venn diagram I saw on Twitter, I thought about composing a Venn diagram to illustrate this post. But they turn out to be a bit time consuming to draw and to type text into, so I will stick to text only!

So, here's a thing about the canonical gospels, they are very interesting on the origin of Jesus Christ.

Mark simply introduces Jesus as a fully adult person.

Matthew begins with a genealogy (which (likely) later Luke will only partially replicate when he gives his own genealogy) and that genealogy goes all the way back to Abraham.

Luke begins with the story of the conception of John the Baptist, as a preluded to the story of the conception of Jesus. Only later, chapter 3, does his genealogy appear, and that goes all the way back to Adam.

The origin of Jesus is pushed even further back in John's Gospel, to the time before time (1:1-3). John shows no interest in telling the story of Jesus birth as an historical, personal, familial stort. Nevertheless, John shows great interest in the theology of the birth: the Word became flesh (1:14).

So, noting these major differences across the four accounts, we are left with observations about the minor differences and similarities between Matthew and Luke's accounts of the birth of Jesus.

One way to set down our observations, prompted by the Venn diagram I saw, is this:

What do Matthew, Luke and the cultural Christmas of the West have in common?

Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem

What do Matthew and the cultural Christmas of the West have in common?

Sages from the East, a guiding star, gifts.

What do Luke and the cultural Christmas of the West have in common?

Inn [not actually an inn, but a lodging, possibly with relative], stable [not actually mentioned in Luke], manger, shepherds from nearby fields, angels.

What does the cultural Christmas of the West have which Luke does not have?

Innkeeper [so, update, add here "inn" and "stable"]

What do John and the cultural Christmas of the West have in common?

Nothing. Not even the innkeeper :)

What do Matthew and Luke have in common?

Jesus, Mary as his mother who conceives him through the power of God and not through male sperm, Joseph as her husband or husband to be but is not Jesus' biological father, Bethlehem as place of birth, Nazareth as place of upbringing.

What are key differences between Matthew and Luke?

History

Matthew locates the birth historically in the reign of King Herod over Palestine (a province of Rome).

Luke locates the birth historically in the reign of Caesar Augustus over the whole Roman empire.

Perspective and divine communication

Matthew tells the story from Joseph's point of view, and God communicates with Joseph through dreams.

Luke tells the story from Mary's point of view, and God communicates with Mary (and other figures in the story) through angels.

Visitation 

 Matthew tells us that the chief act of visitation of the newborn baby is a group of Eastern sages who are guided astrologically to the birthplace. Symbolically, this group represent the world beyond the Jews, an expanded world which Jesus has come to save.

Luke tells us that the chief act of visitation of the newborn baby is a group of shepherds, from nearby, aroused from slumber and alerted to the birth by an angelic choir. Symbolically, this group represents the harmony and normality of the world Jesus enters. While Jesus will disrupt the world somewhat, essentially his coming as "Saviour, Messiah and Lord" (2:11) is not a threat to the peace of the Roman empire (and nor is the movement he inspires).

Presentation

Matthew has no account of Jesus being presented in the Temple in Jerusalem as a baby, or making a pilgrimage there as a near pubescent boy.

Luke accounts for both visits (2:22-51).

Geography: resolution of a conundrum

Matthew and Luke agree on two geographical facts of Jesus' life: he is born in Bethlehem, he grows up in Nazareth. How to account for being in one place and then in another?

Matthew explains the relationship of Nazareth to Bethlehem in terms of a need to flee to Egypt, and, on return to Palestine, a need to be in a different town to Bethlehem, so Nazareth is where the Holy Family settles.

Luke explains the relationship of Nazareth to Bethlehem in terms of Nazareth as home to Joseph and Mary but a journey to Bethlehem is required by virtue of a census. There is no need to flee Herod's troops in Luke's telling so, instead of Matthew's urgent escape to Egypt, the Holy Family return in quietness to Nazareth.

Now there are many intriguing things here in this verbalised Venn diagram of overlaps and differences, and I am not going to cover them all!

One is that, when New Testament scholars talk abou a document called Q (short for Quelle, or "source"), they refer to a hypothetical document which included all the common material between Matthew and Luke which is not also found in Mark's Gospel; except, if you look up what scholars propose as the contents of Q, you will rarely, if ever, find the Lukan-Matthean common elements in the birth story of Jesus listed or cited.

There is no Christmas in Q but there ought to be.

Another intriguing element is whether Luke knew Matthew or Matthew knew Luke or each is independent of one another.

In favout of independence are the significant variations in the stories each tells. It certainly looks like, with both knowing bare facts such as Mary, Joseph, Mary a virgin, birth in Bethlehem, upbringing in Nazareth, each tells a story of the birth of Jesus and immediate and subsequent events independently of each other. One would have to favour the hypothesis of independence.

Yet, and yet ... (here only discussing the possibility of Luke knowing Matthew's Gospel), is it possible that the differences arise precisely because Luke both knows Matthew and for apologetic and theological reasons wants to tell the story differently?

Consider, for example, the "coincidence" that Matthew and Luke both have a significant visitation to the baby. Sages are different to shepherds but both turn up prompted by communication from beyond themselves. There are theological reasons (alluded to above) for one telling of sages and the other of shepherds.

Consider also the "coincidence" that both Matthew and Luke have to work hard to explain the discrepancy between Bethlehem as the place of birth and Nazareth as the place of upbringing. Matthew gets the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Nazareth both plausibly (to avoid Herodian danger that won't go away) and circuitously (via Egypt, but in accordance with prophecy). 

If Luke knows Matthew, and does not want to bother with the Herodian threats to Jesus' in his early life, then his story tackles the geographical discrepancy from a reverse perspective. Joseph and Mary are residents of Nazareth so there is a need to explain how they ended up in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. 

So Luke tells of a census and its requirements for Joseph to register in Bethlehem - but look up any decent sized commentary on the early verses of Luke 2 and you will see considerable stretching and straining to align what Luke says (e.g. about Quirinius) with what we think we know about censuses and Syrian governors  and registration requirements around the 4 BC (+/-) time of Jesus' birth.

Does Luke know Matthew's story of the birth of Jesus and choose to tell it differently rather than independently?

Likely we will never know this side of glory!

Postscript: if Matthew and Luke are different, are they also contradictory? Obviously there is a long answer to this question which discusses each and every detail of difference and then draws a conclusion. A short answer is "not necessarily" because we could posit that Luke tells a story in Luke 2:1-40 which takes place before the sages visit (and omits any reference to the trip to Egypt which is consequential on their encounter with Herod) and Matthew 2 on the sages and the trip to Egypt, despite being the next verses after the birth at the end of Matthew 1, is a later set of events rather than something that takes place in the first weeks after the birth.


Monday, December 12, 2022

Enlightenment - the meaning of Christmas? And, what about water?

What is the meaning of Christmas?

A classic question posed by many preachers and asked, I suggest, by every Christian when confronted by reindeer and santas, mistletoe and green trees, to say nothing of Christmas movies in which the plot is "by one means or another I am going to get home for Christmas".

When feeling sympathetic about the (now quite) secular (whatever Christian past they had) symbols of Christmas, our answers about the meaning of Christmas may include finding common cause between the Matthean or Lukan stories and the paraphanalia of contemporary Christmases. Reindeer and santas speak to us of gifts: at Christmas God gave us the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. Getting home for Christmas speaks to us of the depth of human love: measured by our aspiration to reunite as family; but an even greater love is the love of God which seeks to bring all of us home to God, through the sacrificial love of Jesus.

Of course we may not feel sympathetic and thus we may be tempted to rail against the "commercialization" of Christmas or against its deep cleavage from its roots as a festival of the birth of Christ. With a side swipe at all people who talk at this time about "Happy Holidays" rather than "Happy Christmas" (the former being something, interestingly, I am noticing this year, and not previously, here in NZ.)

Noting that it is not a competition to see which is the truest, bestest meaning of Christmas - a multitude of wonderful sermons will be preached this Christmas - I want to mention something simple, often overlooked and deeply profound which John says about the meaning of Christmas in his justly famous and proclaimed-each-Christmas Prologue (John 1:1-14 or 1:1-18).

"The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." (verse 9)

Isn't this a fascinating claim, especially given that the next few verses declare that when Jesus came into the world, he was not known and not accepted by all? Is this a theoretical claim: the light has come, all could benefit from it, but not all want to see this light? Or, is the light which comes into the world going to, in the end, enlighten everyone, even if there is initial rejection?

Certainly, with a book such as Tom Holland's Dominion in mind, we can look back on two thousand years of human history and see many ways in which the coming of Jesus Christ into the world has enlightened the world - opened up new and lasting understandings, for example, of the worth of individual people.

Of course, verse 9 is a restatement of something already said in verse 4:

"in him was life, and the life was the light of all people."

Whether Jesus is rejected or not by those he comes to give life and to enlighten, he is available for all people, for Jews and Greeks, for the whole of humanity.

Further, as the enlightenment of the world, Jesus will never be diminished or destroyed. Thus, verse 5:

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Walter Moberly, in a book on the theology of Genesis, has a footnote about John 1:5 which bears citation:

"The Gospel of John, in its profound reworking of Genesis 1 in light of Jesus Christ, reflects on the fact that although darkness is not abolished by light, and thus endures, it does not have the ability to abolish the light. [then quotes John 1:5]. The way in which light overcomes the darkness is then expanded in the rest of the gospel as a whole." (p. 45 n10, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge, UK; New York, USA: CUP, 2009).

Jesus is the light of the world who enlightens everyone, but darkness - in the human heart, shadows cast over human society by tragedy and by tyrrany - endures. Disciples of Jesus continue the work of enlightenment. 

Or, should do! 

As Jesus was sent by the Father, so are those who read the Johannine Gospel and share the ideal discipleship of the Johannine community. Some of us will be Mary Magdalenes, others Andrews or Simon Peters or Thomases or Beloved Disciples. In our diversity we enlighten when we demonstrate unity (John 17).

The great gift of Christmas, then, in Johannine theology, is that the light of the world has come into the world and we all benefit from this enlightenment even if currently we live in darkness.

What about water?

Changing themes, I was struck recently by reading Isaiah 35, which figures prominently in the lectionary around about now. The prophet looks ahead to the coming of the Messiah and forecasts the eyes of the blind being opened and so forth (verses 5-6a), a passage which is embedded in assuaging John the Baptist's doubts about Jesus' messianic qualities in Matthew 11:2-11 (yesterday's Advent 3 Year A gospel reading). But Matthew's account of this conversation between John and Jesus pays no attention to a significant aspect of Isaiah's prophecy:

"For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water." (Isaiah 35:6)

Now, John does pay attention to various healings (roughly similar to those found in the Synoptics) but (if we allow that he might know the Synoptics), does he forage in Isaiah 35:6 for something missed by his gospel colleagues? 

That something being less able to be illustrated by a specific miracle story such as a blind person being healed, but nevertheless is about real transformation of human lives: that the dry deserts of human life might be watered and from thirsty souls might come forth life giving water for others to drink.

Consider John's Jesus on water in language invoking springs and rivers: 

"Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life'." (John 4:13-14)

"... he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.' (John 7:-37-38)

Yes, other Scriptures than Isaiah 35:6 can be said to influence what is said in these statements. My point is not that John is only drawing on Isaiah 35:6, but that John (assuming some knowledge of the Synoptics and some intention to probe more deeply into the meaning of the (hi)story of Jesus) takes a second look at a text such as Isaiah 35 in relation to Jesus. 

More simply: John the Evangelist asks, "Where is the transforming water of Isaiah 35?" and Jesus in John's Gospel answers "Here it is. I have the water. I give it to those who believe and they become the springs and rivers of Isaiah's prophecy."

Times are tough this year, speaking economically. A bottle of water or a candle could be a wonderful, symbolically potent gift!

Monday, December 5, 2022

Tough Anglican times England, Oz, NZ

With apologies to North American readers - your statistics are important too in the story of global Anglicanism, but the past week or so has highlighted the statistical realities of England and Australia ...

Continuing on from last week's post, but this time with an eye on statistics rather than on an argument re loss of influence, and focusing on Anglican churches in England, Australia and here in the Blessed Isles, there is sobering news to continue to ponder.

Australia

@austanglican whom I follow on Twitter, and who mostly keeps TwAnglicans up to date on anniversaries of bishops and deans, has done some statistical analysis and published the table below on his@austanglican thread


The point of the table being that every one of the Australia's 23 dioceses have lost Anglicans through the past few censuses, and Anglicans in every diocese are a smaller percentage of the general population of thir diocesan area. 

New Zealand

There is no reason to think NZ Anglicans are any different.

England

England has been in the news because recently published census data shows that for the first time, census-identifying Christians are a minority and not a majority of the population.

"On census day, 21 March 2021, 46.2% of people identified themselves as Christians, compared with 59.3% of the population in the 2011 census, a 13-percentage point drop in a decade.

A key finding from the census helps to explain this: the significant rise in people identifying as of no particular faith at all."

Cue much hand-wringing re CofE bishops remaining in the House of Lords and much delight in dusting off the longest word in the English language from the shelf of unused dictionaries: antidisestablishmentarianism. Of course, the word being used by the pundits gleeful at the demise of English Christianity generally and of the CofE particularly is "disestablishment"! This issue is not the concern of Anglican Down Under.

But, also, cue some hand-wringing on social media about "if only" the CofE had in 19XY changed its mind about Z then "things would've been different"!

Maybe, maybe not.

The Guardian published an interesting article in which several people said why they had lost their faith. I suggest it is far too simple to say that "if only" the church had done this or done that then things would have been different. Life is complex. Bad things happen, for instance, to people who have faith and doubts about the love of God understandably rise up and overwhelm faith. Alternative explanations for life and its meaning become more plausible as culture changes. Even when a brilliant book such as Tom Holland's Dominion shows that much of what non-Christians treasure in Western culture is deeply Christian, that doesn't mean that "nones" scurry back to such theological roots and declare a new found Christian allegiance in census box ticks.

Actual Church Life

Of course there is another story to tell in Australia, England and New Zealand. That is the story of actual church attendance, of children and adults' participation in the life of faith communities. There will be in the other two countries, as also here, a mixed bag of growing and declining church congregations, of shifts in allegiance from Anglican churches to, say, Pentecostal churches, and back again. As the general population grows in a district, region or country, Anglican allegiance may decline percentage wise but be relatively stable numbers-in-pews-on-Sundays wise.

But, let's not fool ourselves, even within this "other story" of actual church life, there are perceptible signs of the decline of general Christianity (e.g. church buildings being sold and becoming restaurants or being demolished and houses built on the land) and signs that we are in tough Anglican times because, despite many encouragements, and lovely stories of new people joining congregations, some even because they do so as a result of brand new faith in Christ, there is diminishment in the overall attendance numbers.

It is not rocket science that if I am the vicar of a parish which this year has counted 15 new people into the regular congregational life and I have taken 20 funerals of regular attendees, then the sober reality is that decline has occurred, despite the joy of welcoming those 15 newcomers.

Comments to last week's post made some good points, which are worth keeping in mind at all times, though tough Anglican times sharpen our minds. 

Two stand out for me. 

One is that we should keep questioning what we believe, asking whether a belief (an example was penal substitutionary atonement) is fit for purpose in the times we live in. 

Two is that we should keep focused on Jesus and the basics of his gospel message in word and in deed.

Tough times call for faithfulness rather than fear.

As we head towards the end of this year, I want to celebrate the faithfulness of Christians, and of Anglican Christians in particular. Wonderfully, we have many faithful believers in the Diocese of Christchurch. In the middle of this year, when Teresa and I travelled to and from the Lambeth Conference, along the way, and, of course, at the conference itself, we met many faithful believers from other countries.

Who knows where our times are heading. One startling aspect of the statistical decline of Christianity in Western countries is that it is not giving way to another (more vibrant, more exciting, more plausible, more ...) religion. Going on the English stats, it is giving way to people making their way through life preferring to avoid any explicit religious commitment, to live with either uncertainty about the reality of God or with certainty that there is no God.

There is room in the course of this century for a new wave of believers, converts who turn from being "nones" to being convinced that in Christ all fulfilment of life is found.