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THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
I Corinthians 1:10-17
“For Christ …sent me to proclaim the gospel…not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
Last Friday afternoon Anthony Hamilton Russel, our neighbouring wine farmer, took Graham Ward, Isobel and myself up to a rocky outcrop high on his farm overlooking Hermanus and Walker Bay, to see a cross carved into a rock by Portuguese sailors probably around 1490. It is amazing to think that five hundred years ago sailors from Portugal, shipwrecked in Walker Bay or stopping to find provisions on their way up the eastern coast of Africa, climbed the mountain behind our then non-existent town to carve this beautiful Maltese cross. Presumably they were thanking God for their safe arrival in an alien land after the dangerous journey thousands of miles from home, as well as asking for God’s continued protection as they sailed further up our treacherous coast. When you stand where they carved their cross you can imagine them looking down on the Hemel en Aarde Valley and descending to drink from the Onrus river that runs through Volmoed. So from the rising of the sun in the east over that Portuguese cross to the sun’s setting over the cross on Kleinbergie to our west, and with the Southern Cross above us in the night sky, Volmoed is surrounded by the sign of the cross, the symbol of God’s redemptive and healing love.
During our Youth Leadership Training Programme one of the participants was concerned about the danger of idols in churches, referring specifically to icons and crosses. This reflects an ancient debate in the Church, for images can become a source of superstition and idolatry when misused, even or perhaps especially sacred images and icons. But there is a difference between false images, like the Golden Calf in the OT, that are destructive idols for they misrepresent God, and true images that witness to God’s liberating power and redemptive love in Christ. Icons and crosses are not idols we worship but reminders of the story of God’s love for the world.
In 313 the Emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross before going into battle, and heard a voice saying: “In this sign conquer!” Constantine won the battle and ever then the cross has become a symbol for many crusades and conquests by so-called Christian emperors and nations. The words “In this sign conquer” were even written on the insignia of army chaplains in the old SADF, making the cross a symbol to justify military power rather than love, forgiveness and reconciliation. And ironically, during of the Reformation in England, the Puritans in the Church of England took down all crosses and crucifixes and replaced them with the Coat of Arms of the King! That, too, was idolatry, symbolizing the claim of the king to be head of the church in England in the struggle for power against Pope and Emperor.
Protestants sometimes forget that the great Reformer, Martin Luther, insisted that crucifixes remain in the churches of the Reformation and recommended that Christians make the sign of the cross before they pray, a practice that Dietrich Bonhoeffer also followed. In fact, making the sign of the cross goes back to the early days of Christianity, and was notably encouraged by St. Augustine whose theology so influenced the Protestant Reformers. Today, thanks to the ecumenical movement and the work of places like the Centre for Christian Spirituality whose 30th birthday we celebrate today, all of us have benefitted from the rich spiritual traditions of Churches different from our own. Gone are the days when only Catholics appreciated the significance of a crucifix, Eastern Orthodox Christians contemplated before an icon, Quakers sat in silence to listen to the Spirit, Pentecostals spoke in tongues, or monks chanted psalms or Taizé songs. We can all draw deeply from many wells on our journey in faith. And surely, if some footballers today make the sign of the cross when they score a goal, as they often do, then it can’t be wrong for us to the sign of the cross if we believe God loves us!
There is undoubtedly a difference between superstition and faith, between turning the cross into a golden fashion trinket, and believing in the cross as the power of God’s love in Christ crucified. St. Paul was aware of this danger when he wrote to the Corinthians and said that Christ had sent him to proclaim the gospel, but not in eloquent words of worldly wisdom for that emptied the cross of Christ of its power. He knew there was a danger of subverting the message of the cross by trying to be too clever. His aim was not to convince his hearers of the truth of the gospel by sophisticated argument, but to let the message of the cross speak for itself. Which reminds me of the Scottish Presbyterian theologian and eloquent preacher of an earlier generation, James Denny, who once said that he envied the Roman Catholic priest who could hold up a crucifix before his congregation and simply say “God loves you like that!” That is the message of the cross. It does not require eloquence or long sermons to convince us of its truth. That is the whole point of having a cross in the sanctuary or, for those who do, making the sign of the cross when they pray or receive communion. They are saying: God loves us like this! We don’t know whether the Portuguese sailors also had this in mind when they carved the sign of the cross on stone, but it is testimony to our belief that “God so loved the world that he gave us his only son.”
I am glad that some hymns that we used to sing with gusto in church have been confined to the closet or waste paper bin, but I am saddened that we seldom sing others like those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, which so wondrously express the message of the cross in song. I can’t remember when last I sang Watt’s great hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” but its words come to mind as I think about that cross carved by sailors long ago on the nearby mountain top and somewhat uncharacteristically, I too will make the sign of the cross to express my faith in God’s redemptive love for the world.
When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life my all.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed July 27, 2017
The Lord spoke with a loud voice…out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness.”Deuteronomy 5:22-24
“Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.”John 12:35-36
In winter time when the sun dips over the mountain early in the afternoon and Volmoed is overtaken by darkness, we wish summer would come early. We long for warmth and light. But we know that darkness is necessary in the rhythm of life. For it in the darkness of the earth that plants take root, just as it is in the dark night of the soul, those times when we feel most depressed. when we grieve, when we feel overcome and fearful, that God often speaks most clearly to us. So it is that the author of the Cloud of Unknowing counsels us: “Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel God or to see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”
Yet darkness remains a metaphor for all that is evil, chaotic, destructive. Do we not rightly fear the dark because of the unknown lurking there, as we fear dying because it is a journey into darkness? Yes, of course, that is so. That is why we understand the poet Dylan Thomas, when, as he sits beside his dying father, he cries out in protest:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage. rage against the dying of the light.
We do right to rage against the “dying of the light” for the light speaks to us of hope, joy and resurrection. We rightly protest against the darkness that envelopes friends dying of cancer, the darkness of the oceans depths that claimed the life of a young girl swept away by the waves in Betty’s Bay, and the darkness of death and destruction in the bombed out caverns of Mosul. And yet, do we not yearn for darkness when bright lights keep us from sleeping? Do we not shield our eyes from the overpowering rays of the mid-day sun, drawing down the blinds? Do we not welcome winter when it arrives, when the shadows lengthen and the fire glows in the hearth? Do we not dim the lights and light the candles when we seek intimacy with friends and lovers? Do we not even welcome death when it brings terrible pain to an end? And is not experiencing the “dark night of the soul” part of our journey into the light of God’s presence? For it is out of the darkness, the Bible tells us, that God speaks and the light breaks into our lives, it is when everything is shrouded in darkness that God says “let there be light” and is it not so that Easter light only dawns after the world is covered in darkness.
For the past months we have been praying for a number of people who have cancer. Among them is our friend Suellen Shay. It was Suellen who suggested that we light a candle of hope in the chapel every day to remember of all those suffering from cancer. This week Isobel and I received a letter from Suellen in which she wrote:
Over these past six months my journey of understanding and experiencing hope has become more layered. It started with a focus on light – hence the candle of hope. But more recently the focus has shifted to darkness. Darkness has so many negative associated emotions especially when linked to illness, depression, loss. These are real and I have experienced them as many of you have. But I have been encouraged to push through these negative associations (not around them) to find the gifts of the darkness. This requires a different perspective on darkness – not as the opposite of light but darkness that illuminates light.
Suellen goes on to explain the difference between darkness as something bad, evil, and fearful, and darkness as something helpful, something that illuminates the light.
Stars that are always there can only be seen in deep darkness…. Many mystics point to additional senses that are developed when you ‘learn to walk in the darkness’. So if we are to be people of hope … we cannot escape from the darkness – it is an inevitable part of our personal, social and political life. The challenge is to work with it, to mine its depths, to develop those senses that enable us to rise above cynicism and defeatism.
We cannot escape the darkness of depression, sickness, loss and death, but maybe we can discover light in our darkness, maybe instead of darkness being our enemy it can become our friend? As Suellen reminds us, it is only on the darkest night that we can see the stars in all their glory, and witness the comets streaking across the horizon. So with her and countless others across the centuries, perhaps we need to listen again to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing : “Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary…For if you are to feel God or to see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.” Or listen to the words of the Bible when its reminds us: “The Lord spoke with a loud voice…out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness.
But above all, listen to the words of Jesus to his disciples as they journeyed to Jerusalem, as they walked deeper with him into the darkness of his approaching suffering and death, until darkness covered the face of the earth. It is then that Jesus says to them: “Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.” To know God in the darkness we have to learn to walk in the light of God’s presence when the sun is shining, when life is good, when our limbs are strong, when the future seems bright, when we still experience the presence of Christ as we journey along the road before the descent into the encroaching darkness of Calvary. To hear God speak to us in the dark times of our lives we have to learn to walk in the light before the darkness deepens, before hopes are dashed and illness strikes, before we despair and are angry with God, so that while, the darkness may threaten us it will not overcome us. So we take heart from the words of the Taizé song: “Within our darkest night, God kindles the fire that never dies away.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 6July 2017
“Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.”
Last week I attended the annual conference of the Theological Society of South Africa in Stellenbosch. One of the lectures, given my colleague, Professor Robert Vosloo, was entitled “Justification and Mutual Recognition in the Age of Migration.” I won’t try and summarize what he said, but I was struck by the way in which he unpacked the word “recognition.” Recognition is more than seeing another person. It can mean acknowledging someone for what they have done as when we say John Smith was recognised for his achievements; or it can mean recognizing someone in a crowd who you know; or it can mean acknowledging the worth of someone who is generally overlooked. To recognise someone is more than simply seeing them.
There are many stories in the Bible where recognition as more than seeing is demonstrated. Included among them is the well-known story of Joseph and his brothers. We know how much they dislike him because he is his father Jacob’s favourite, and how, eventually, they beat him up out of jealousy and sell him into slavery. But we also know that Joseph eventually became a powerful member of Pharaoh’s court, and it was in that capacity that years later, during a famine, his brothers came to ask him for help. But even though they saw him face to face, they did not recognize him as their brother, even though Joseph immediately recognized them. We also know how the story unfolds through several phases until Joseph can no longer keep his secret, and so makes himself known to his brothers. At first they were not only surprised but also fearful, after all they had sold him into slavery. But in the end, as the tears of recognition flowed, they were reconciled as brothers. It had been a hard lesson for his brothers to learn. They had treated him so badly, but he had treated them so generously; they had turned him into a slave, but he had saved them from starvation. And throughout, he had always recognised them as brothers even when they did not recognise him as their brother else they would not have sold him into slavery in the first place.
Isn’t this so true to life? We treat others badly, we deny them their rights as human beings, we do not recognize them as fellow human beings. And then, if and when the tables are turned, and they make themselves known to us as fellow human beings, we are fearful of them expecting revenge, and not quite sure how to relate to them. Isn’t that the greatness of a Nelson Mandela and of others like him? Incarcerated for 27 years on Robben Island he became invisible to South Africans. The apartheid government even banned photographs of him, so much so that when he was finally released everyone was waiting to see what he really looked like! But then, we not only saw his face but began to recognise him for who he really was, not just in appearance but also in character, not portrayed in propaganda as a terrorist but in reality, we were all surprised by his generosity of spirit to his former enemies, recognizing even those who supported apartheid as fellow human beings and citizens.
Is this not something that continually repeats itself. We vilify people who are different from us, turning them into enemies, instead of recognizing them as human beings, as brothers and sisters. We bomb and destroy their houses, reducing them to statistics and their homes to rubble, instead of recognizing them as created in the image of God. Black lives don’t matter racists say, because they think blacks are inferior to whites, not fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in the community of faith, or fellow citizens in the land.
But this is not the way of Jesus. Zacchaeus, the tax gatherer was excluded from society, pushed onto its margins, forced to climb a tree if he was to see Jesus. He was an invisible nobody. But not to Jesus. When Jesus sees him up that tree as he passes by, Jesus immediately he recognises him as a person — not an unclean tax-gatherer. He calls him by name even though they had never been introduced. He goes home with him. He restores his dignity and transforms his life. Zacchaeus was not just an invisible nobody, but a person a person longing for love, a person who Jesus recognised, affirmed and changed.
How often we pass by on the other side, as did those travellers on the road to Jericho in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. They saw a man lying there in the dust, battered and robbed, but they did not recognise him as a fellow human being, a brother and sister in need. But the Good Samaritan stops, stoops down, lifts him up and takes care of him. He recognizes his kinship with the man in need. Which brings us to another great parable of recognition, the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25: “Then the righteous will answer: “Lord when was it we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” Of course they saw all these people in need, but they did not recognise their God-given humanity, they did not recognise the Christ in them.
The two disciples n the Emmaus Road obviously saw, did not recognise Jesus for who he was, when he joined them on their journey. He was simply a fellow traveller; his true identity hidden from them, invisible. It was only when Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them at supper that their eyes were open and they recognised who he truly was and that changed their lives. Yes, when we come week by week to the Eucharist, we come to meet with the risen Christ, but we only recognise him for who he is if we see him in the broken bread, the bread of life given for the sake of the world, given to enable us to share his love with others, especially those who are invisible, those whom the world passes by, the despised, the rejected, the sorrowful — that is what it means to recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread. To recognise him in all lives which are being broken, all bodies that are suffering from injustice and hunger. To have our eyes opened by the Spirit does not simply mean that we can see others, but that we recognise them for who they really are.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 29 June 2017
II Corinthians 3:17-18
“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (icon).”
Last week there was an Icon Writing course on Volmoed. The first such course was held ten years ago, also led by our friend and highly regarded icon writing teacher Ana-Marie Bands. Icons, the Greek NT word for images, are an integral part of the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but have become widely appreciated by many other Christians as an aid to contemplative prayer, even among some Dutch Reformed and Pentecostal congregations in South Africa, due to the teaching of Ana-Marie.
Icons are neither idols nor works of art, they are another way of writing the gospel, which is why some call them the “fifth gospel,” calling to mind the words of the first letter of John that “what we have heard” we have also “seen with our eyes” concerning the word of life. “(I John 1:1-4) Or Paul’s words in Colossians that Christ “is the icon of the invisible God,” (1:15), or in his second letter to the Corinthians, that God’s light “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor.4:6) Jesus is the “human face of God,” the one in whom we have seen God’s grace, beauty and truth revealed.
Fans of Richard Rohr, the well-known Catholic teacher on matters spiritual, and the author of many books, recently wrote one called “The Divine Dance”. On its cover is a copy of Andre Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, the same icon that stands in front of us today. Significantly the subtitle of the book is “the trinity and your transformation.” I am not an avid fan of Rohr’s writings, though he says many good things, but I am enthusiastic about “The Divine Dance” because in his chatty kind of way he helps us understand why the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity is so fundamental to Christianity, and so important for our daily lives as a transforming symbol.
Rublev wrote his icon of the Holy Trinity in fifteenth century Russia when the country was being torn apart by war and violence, not unlike our world today, and he did so in order to provide a focus for prayers and conversations for peace and reconciliation. That is, to facilitate transformation in society. The icon is based on the OT story of the three strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah in Mamre, and to whom they give hospitality.(Gen. 18:1-8) Afterwards the strangers announce that the aged Sarah will give birth to a son in fulfilment of God’s promise. But Rublev also had in that intriguing verse in the letter to the Hebrews where we are told to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so we may well entertain angels unaware! (13: 2) And finally, the story becomes a symbol of the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Spirit. It is not we who offer hospitality to strangers or entertain angels unaware, but God who shows us hospitality by welcoming us into communion with him, and embracing us in the transforming love that unites the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by the “divine dance,” a dance of transforming love, which is an ancient Christian metaphor for our participation in the dynamic life of God.
Icons are often referred to as windows. They help us see beyond ourselves in order to see reality differently and so be drawn into the mystery of the love of God. Like stained glass windows in churches they enable us to see the light filtered through the story of the gospel, bringing us as it were face to face with the crucified and risen Christ. I have studied Rublev’s icon for a long time, but Rohr has told me something I never knew before. If “you look on the front of the table,” he says, “there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there” which you can hardly notice. So many people, Rohr says, “just pass right over it, but art historians say that …there was perhaps once a mirror glued onto the front of the table!” If so, then maybe Rublev had in mind the words of St. Paul: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (icon).” Those who looked at the icon when it was first written would have seen themselves reflected in the icon. They would not just be looking at an icon, or looking beyond it as through a window, but they would see themselves being invited to join those already gathered around the table. It was an invitation to a dance, a dance of transforming love.
Imagine a group of people from warring factions, or an estranged husband and wife, or anyone people who in need of being reconciled, standing before this icon. Imagine them sitting at the negotiating table or the kitchen table trying to overcome their enmity and find a solution to their strife. Imagine them now looking at this icon and seeing themselves in the mirror. Suddenly the table around which they are sitting becomes an altar, God’s table of reconciliation, and they are being invited to join God together at God’s table, no longer trying to try and overcome their problems on their own, but by participating with God in his dance of reconciling love.
When we come to this table we first share the peace with each other. This is not just a moment in the eucharist when we catch up on each other’s news, it is a moment when we join the divine dance around the altar in order to be reconciled to each other through participating in God’s reconciling love. In this way, this table becomes the place where broken relationships are healed within the embrace of God’s love, the love of the Father for Son in the unity of the Spirit. To participate in the divine dance around the altar is to participate in the transforming love of God revealed in the face of Christ and experienced in the fellowship of the Spirit. In doing so we discover one another no longer as enemies but as brothers and sisters, participants together in the life and love of God and, in the process being transformed..
“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, 15 June 2017
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves…”Romans 8:18-27
Last Friday I woke up with a miserable head cold made worse by the insane decision of Donald Trump to renege on the Paris Environmental Accord. The words that came to mind were “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” Then I opened up Facebook and discovered that many others, including leading politicians in the United States, also thought Trump’s decision was insane. I also read on Facebook, that Trump said that planet earth was a loser, a real loser, and that there were many better planets around the universe. To which Angela Merkel apparently responded that she could not wait for Trump to go to one of them. Maybe that is fake news. but it reminds me that there are many Christians who think the earth is in such a mess that they can’t wait to get to heaven. Earth is not our home, they declare. But that is not what the Bible says. The earth is created by God to be our home, and we need to care for the earth as its stewards.
This has been the theme that we have been exploring this past week in the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme, but the message is reinforced by the devastating storms we have had during the past 24 hours, and the even more devastating fire that has ravished much of Knysna. Earth is our home. But fierce winds, hailstorms, earthquakes, fire and flood, remind us that the earth is not always human friendly. Yet without rain we have no water, without fire we have no warmth — nature’s fierce side is necessary for life to exist. Death, as some say, may take us to a better place, but during our life-span we have nowhere else to go, and even if we did we might find that President Trump has already got there. That is why we have to learn to love and cherish this earth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:
The earth remains our mother just as God remains our father, and only those who are true to the mother are placed by her into the father’s arms. Earth and its distress — that is the Christian’s Song of Songs.
The distress of the earth to which Bonhoeffer refers is the painful longing of a lover for her beloved. The desire of the earth to be loved and nurtured, by us. To take care of the earth as God’s garden, and to protect the birds of the air and the beasts of the field is central to being human. So for us to abuse the earth and its creatures is a sign that we do not love God.
Last week I referred to the language of nature, the language of the wind, of birds and animals, of the sea. But the language of nature in response to human arrogance is a painful groan and sometimes the sound of angry tsunami or howling gale. St. Paul spoke to this in his letter to the Romans. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now…” The earth longs to bring forth new life as a woman in labour, but is continually abused by human stupidity. The Paris Accord is not perfect, but it is a sign that we are globally responding to the earth’s cry of distress, and affirmingits ability to bring forth life not death. The problem is that there are still too many people who believe that humans have a right to exploit the earth for their own selfish gain, and too many Christians who believe that God’s command in Genesis “to fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…over every living thing” is a licence for us to do what we like to the earth instead of being its stewards.
What gives us hope is the fact that there has been such a universal rejection of Trump’s decision, such a widespread anger within the United States and the global community at such madness. Trump and his supporters have, in fact, been isolated by virtually all world leaders and countries, and also by many of the cities and federal states in America. All of which indicates that the environmental cause has gained considerable traction around the world, even though there is still an enormous amount to be done to save planet earth. And that is surely part of our Christian witness and responsibility.
Mother Earth, I recently read, “is being crucified and has to experience resurrection.” (Rom 8:22). Which helps us understand what Paul means when he says that creation is “groaning in labour pains until now?” That is, the coming of Christ has given new hope not just to us humans but also to the world as a whole, for Christ did not simply come to save the human race, but to redeem creation and set it free from its bondage to human abuse. If this is so, then those who have the Spirit of Christ should not only care for creation, but also be the agents of creation’s liberation, renewal and redemption. In other words, caring for the earth is not just good environmental policy, it is central to Christian existence and witness. Jesus does not tell us that we should neglect the earth and long for heaven, but to pray and work so that God’s kingdom will “come on earth as it is in heaven.” That is what it means to love the earth as our Mother, for as long as we live it is the only home we have.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8 June 2017
I Corinthians 12:27-13:7
If I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
While travelling in England I read a remarkable book by Robert Macfarlane titled Landmarks. It is about the language spoken by nature, a language not usually recognised by most of us even though we speak about the whistling of the wind, the roar of the ocean, the honk of a pig, the humming of a bee, or the raucous cry of the hadida. Anyone who has read The Elephant Whisperer in which Lawrence Anthony tells the story of his learning to communicate with elephants, will know what I am talking about. This is the language of nature. The problem is that most of us have lost the ability to understand this language just as many of us find it difficult to learn the languages of other people on our own door step.
Symptomatic of this loss, so Macfarlane tells us, is that the new Oxford Junior Dictionary has excluded a large number of words that have to do nature in favour of technological terms and computer language. There is no longer any mention of heather or kingfishers, but lots about blog, broadband and voice-mail. It is not a question of whether technological terms should be excluded says Macfarlane, but it is a sad day when the compilers of a children’s dictionary don’t think they should know about acorns, berries or trees. Soon we will have a generation that is incapable of relating to the natural world, and therefore unable to care for it. If we don’t and understand the language. we cannot relate to nature any more than we can relate to people who speak a different language to us. If only we could all communicate to each other in each other’s mother tongue.
But at Pentecost, which we celebrate this coming Sunday, God speaks to us through the Wind which is a metaphor for the Spirit, we are reminded of Bob Dylan’s folk song
… how many times must the cannon balls fly, Before they’re forever banned? … how many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free? …how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? … how many deaths will it take till he knows, That too many people have died? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
At Pentecost language of nature, of the Wind, and the language of grace, the Holy Spirit, become one language, that enables each of us not only to understand the good news about Jesus in our own language, but also about how to relate to others. If the story of the Tower of Babel is about the failure of human beings to understand each other, the story of Pentecost is about a new language, the language of grace, which enables us to understand one another in the Spirit. This is what so amazed those who witnessed that first Pentecost. They not only heard the mighty sound of the Wind but they could all speak the language of God’s grace.
To celebrate Africa Day last week, a young Congolese poet. Philomène Luyindula Lasoen,who lives in Cape Town, wrote a poem on Facebook which speaks directly to this Pentecostal miracle:
Grace is sometimes found in tongues
When our words fail but we sing the same songs
My Swahili meets your Bemba
The Luba echoes the Shona
IsiXhosa beautifies Chichewa
And Igbo is the Chorus
It is call and answer
Ancient tradition of matching lines
Working synchronicity of past and present
Clapping our spirits rising
We pause the tribes and hues
Arrest external markers
We lose ourselves in spoken word
In the sounds that end all strife.
Ever since that first day of Pentecost there has been much debate about the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” something that St. Paul wrote about in his first letter to the Corinthians. He did not disparage the gift of tongues , but he was scathing in his criticism of its abuse when it created division instead of building community and overcoming strife and enmity . He put this in memorable words: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Pentecost is about God’s language of grace that enables us to sing from the same song sheet irrespective of our language, and so, as Philomène puts it, discover each other “in the sounds that end all strife.”
We speak many languages, and our mother-tongue is important for each of us. But given the fact that we simply cannot learn every language we encounter, we have to find ways to relate to and communicate with others that are universal. That is why the Pentecostal solution to the problem is so important. For even if we can speak in different tongues, Zulu or German, Chinese or Afrikaans, but do not love each other, it is, says Paul, no more than the sound of clanging gongs. After all, not all people who speak the same language really understand each other even if they understand the words. For there is more to relating to other people, more to communicating with others, than the words we utter. Communication is as much about body language as it is about words spoken; it is as much about our actions as it is about our speech. We can speak the truth in clear tones, but if we do not speak the truth in love, then it can be destructive and unhelpful. For the language of love is not a matter of words; it is a matter of deeds, of attitude, of embrace, of respect, of compassion and caring. Love, says Paul, has to do with patience and kindness, with fairness and justice. Everybody understands this language, for it is the language of the Spirit, the language of grace.
Everybody understands this language irrespective of the tongue we speak, for it communicates love not hatred, respect not disrespect, inclusion not exclusion. It is the language that transcends boundaries, overcomes enmity and builds community, it is the language that heals memories, it is the language that brings down injustice and gives hope to those who are downtrodden or in despair. No matter where you travel in this world, this language is universal because it is Pentecostal, the language of the Spirit. It is also the language of nature, the God-given sounds that surround us on Volmoed, which help us to understand and care for the world God has given us to enjoy. Listen to the wind, for God’s love is blowing in the wind, my friend, it’s blowing in the wind..
John de Gruchy,
4 June 2017
I Corinthians 15:3-8; John 20:11-18
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
About twenty years ago I was a guest professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasedena, California, where I taught a course on doing theology in context. The term assignment I gave the students was to take an issue that concerned them, reflect theologically upon it, and decide on what action they should take in response. One woman student was perplexed. “I want to research the place of women in the ministry” she said, but in my denomination women are not ordained, they must remain silent in church. She belonged, she told me, to “The Four Square Gospel Church,” one of the first Pentecostal Churches to be established in America. So I suggested that she researched the origins of her church, how it started, and who were its leaders. A week later she came to see me. She was excited. “I discovered,” she said “that my church was founded by a woman! Aimee Semple McPherson!” She then went on to complain, “Why was I never told this?”
The reason was obvious; it was because the voice of women had been silenced, not just in her denomination after its foundation, but from early on in the history of the church as a whole. This is very strange, because women were prominent among Jesus’ disciples from the beginning to the end of his ministry. Moreover, they stood by him at the cross when all the male disciples fled, and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. In fact, St. Paul made it very clear that in Christ and therefore in the church, there was no distinction between men and women, and there is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that there were women preachers and prophets in the early church, some of whom took a leading role in nurturing house churches. Indeed, so much was this the case, that some early critics of Christianity argued that by making men and women equal in the church the stability of society was undermined, and they also claimed that the story of the resurrection was false because it was based on the testimony of hysterical women, Eventually the church capitulated to the criticism of culture. And then,during the second century Pope Clement decreed that women and men should be segregated in church as they were in the synagogue, and that the priesthood was for men only on the pretext that Jesus was a man, as were all the apostles, or so it was assumed.
But who were the apostles and were they all men? Were they only the twelve we normally think of when we hear the word? According to early Christina tradition, an apostle was someone who had witnessed the resurrection and been sent by Christ to proclaim the good news, the word apostle meaning “one who is sent.”. If that is so then the first apostle was Mary Magdalene, the person to whom the risen Christ first appeared and whom he sent to tell the good news. But Mary Magdalene was, we might say, an unlikely apostle. We don’t know for certain, but some have said she was a prostitute. She certainly came from Magdala, a port town of ill-repute, she does not seem to have had a husband or any family, but she did have some wealth which she used to support Jesus and the other disciples. She travelled freely around Galilee with a bunch of men, and was clearly the leader of the group of women who followed and served Jesus throughout his ministry. And she was as close to him as any of the other disciples. Jesus had, in fact, radically turned her life around. She was someone who loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven so much.
So it is not surprising that, on the first Easter morning, she was the first disciples to run to the Tomb and the first to whom the risen Christ appeared. He then told Mary to go and tell his “brothers”, as the gospels put it, that he is risen. So Mary goes and tells him “I have seen the Lord!” They did not believe her at first, but it is precisely her testimony of faith and her being sent by Jesus that marks out Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, “the apostle to the apostles.” This being so, we can say that the Christian Church was founded as much on the testimony of a woman as on the confession of Peter. A fact that was pushed under the carpet and virtually forgotten for most of the subsequent history of the Church, just as for centuries women were prevented from being ordained.
I am reminding you of this sorry saga not just to exalt the status of Mary Magdalene or stress the point that the leadership of women in the church goes back to the origins of Christianity, but to remind us that Christianity stands or falls on the witness of people whose lives have been changed by Jesus the risen Christ. Yes, there are good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but in the end faith in the risen Christ is based on the testimony of those who witnessed his resurrection, something St. Paul stresses in his first letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15). Paul does not mention Mary Magdalene, or only the twelve we normally think of as “the apostles”, he also mentions the “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” to whom Christ appeared, and then, significantly he says that Christ also appeared to him “as one untimely born.” Something that happened to him on the Damascus Road. What is significant in all this, as it was in the case of Paul, is that seeing the risen Christ fundamentally changed the lives of people, and they in turn laid the foundation of the apostolic church.
Our faith is founded on such testimony to the risen Christ. Originally on the testimony of those who, like Mary, were first encountered by Christ. But also by many others who have influenced our lives, people for whom Jesus is not a dead man in a Tomb but present to us as the risen Christ who, through the Spirit. gives us life, joy, hope, peace, and the strength to love and serve him in loving and serving others. The story began that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene ran to the disciples and said “I have seen the Lord!” continues anew every day through the testimony of people who, like us, have experienced the transforming presence of the risen Christ. The witness of Scripture is obviously the basis for such testimony and such faith, but if it were not for people who, over the centuries, have experienced its truth in their lives, faith in the risen Christ would have lost its power long ago.
Wherever there is new life in Christ; wherever there is evidence of the fruit of his Spirit — love, joy, peace and hope; wherever there are people who love and serve Christ in the world through acts of compassion and justice, there is the risen Christ. That, too, is our testimony of faith, a testimony that began when Mary of Magdala ran and told the other disciples who, fearfully, were in hiding, “I have seen the Lord!”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 20 April 2017