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“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'”Genesis 1:26-31
Someone asked me the other day why I took up woodworking as a hobby. My answer, a little facetious I admit, was that I did so because I try to follow Jesus, and he was, as far as we know, a carpenter. But, then, we might ask, why don’t all Christians become woodworkers? Or do you have to be a woodworker to be a follower of Jesus? So there must be a better answer to the question why did I take up woodworking.. I suggest it has to do with the biblical claim that human beings are made in the “image of God.” A statement that comes as the climax to the first story about creation in Genesis. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” The meaning of these words has been discussed and debated many times over the centuries, and there are several plausible understandings of what they mean. One is that human beings have a self-conscious relationship with their Creator. But another has to do with the creativity of God, to God as artist,. For if the creation story says anything about the mystery we name God, it says that the creation is an inspired work of a creative and even playful mind. Therefore being in the “image of God” we are created to be stewards of creation and co-creators in the unfolding drama of the earth.
In the beginning before the universe was born, there was nothing, emptiness, a void, a blank canvas if you like. All was dark, there was no light, no beauty, no colour, no movement. But gradually the canvas was filled in as the Spirit of creativity got to work inspiring each step towards the emerging, evolving masterpiece full of wonderful forms and shapes, full of life, colour and movement. All of this revealed the splendour of God, for “the world was alive with the glory of God” as Gerald Manley Hopkins so aptly said. And yet, as God stepped back from the canvas to take a look, there was something missing, a final but significant addition was needed to make the painting complete. It was, of course, God’s personal signature. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” Like many a great painting, the artist includes a resemblance of himself or herself. There in the corner, we say, is surely a self-portrait or selfie if you like, of Rembrandt or Michelangelo. That signature is us! As the Psalmist puts it: “You have made human beings just a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.”
Today we have welcomed the first cohort of the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme to our weekly Eucharist. And because VLYTP is such a mouthful, we have baptised the group as the “voeltjies” or “little birds.” So if you hear many fresh and vibrant sounds breaking the Volmoed silence over the next nine weeks, it is the song of the “voeltjies” adding sound and colour to creation. What led to this naming was that someone misspelt Volmoed recently, writing instead “Voelmoed!” So “voeltjies” it is. And, what is more, the “voeltjies” will sing each Thursday here at the Eucharist! This is not singing for their last supper. but singing with joy and thanksgiving for the gift of life and the wonder of creation.
Each week the “voeltjies” focus on a different theme related to those in the Volmoed Prayer Book. Last week it was on building community, next week on healing and wholeness, the fourth on justice and peace, and the fifth week on reconciliation. Then the cycle repeats itself. But this week it has been on creation. We have not spent precious time on the silly debate about whether the creation narratives in the Bible are literally true, or whether believing in creation contradicts evolution. That debate misses the point of the story. The creation narrative not history or science, but “myth” which simply means a story that is profoundly true.
To believe that God created the universe does not mean that evolution is wrong, but that there is meaning and purpose to the universe. It is an affirmation that we “live, move and have our being” in the mystery we name God. The Creation story probes what that meaning is all about and where we humans fit into the picture s painted in the opening chapters of the Bible. What emerges is that we are part of the animal kingdom interconnected with all other forms of life, and yet we have a special place within this remarkably diverse creation that is still in process. We are the gardeners, we are the workers, we are the sculptors and actors. For creation does not end on the sixth day in reality. God may take a break to step back and admire what he has created, but come the eighth day and God is back at work. Creation is a work in progress. And we human beings have the awesome responsibility to care for and nurture what has come into being. In other words, we are called to be creative artisans, adding to the canvas of which we are a part. Imagining fresh possibilities, inventing new artefacts, building bridges of reconciliation and making peace when conflicts arise.
St. Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning as it awaits to be set free from its own travail by those who have already come to know the redemption of God, those who have recovered their humanity as being “in the image of God” and therefore stewards and co-creators. That is why we have to imagine fresh possibilities in anticipation of the birth of a renewed earth in which everyone will find a home, have sufficient for their needs, and make peace instead of war. As Archbishop Tutu said to the “voëltjies” when he met them in Cape Town last week, “make the world beautiful, especially for the poor.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 2 June 2016
“…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”I Peter 2:1-5
“I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me maybe in them, and I in them.”John 17:25-26
How often I have heard people say, “I don’t have a problem with Jesus but I do have a problem with the church!” Yes, for many people, the church is a stumbling block to faith, an obstacle on the path to believing in God and discovering human wholeness. It is by no means the only stumbling-block, but it is one of them. In fact, if we had to judge by church attendance in Europe and Britain today we might conclude that the church is dying, despite evidence of vibrant life in many places. Yet, ironically, at the same time churches are full to capacity throughout Trump territory, not known for its Christian compassion, and on the African continent and in Latin America, well known for ongoing conflict and corruption. All of which begs the question, well what is the church?
If we were asked to define the church, many of us would be hard pressed to do so. Is it a building, an institution, a bunch of clergy, a denomination? Deciding what the church is seems to be as problematic as answering the question “is there a God?’ or “who is Jesus Christ?” And yet, every week, millions of Christians around the world declare that they not only believe in God, but also in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” even though it is divided into many denominations, not particularly holy, and we are not quite sure what it means for it to be catholic and apostolic! So what goes through your mind if and when you say the Creed or when you hear the word “church”?
I know this all sounds Greek to you, but the word “church” or “kerk,” “Kirk” or “Kirche,” comes from the Greek word kuriakon which means “belonging to the Lord.” It was originally used to describe a church building so you won’t find the word in the NT. In those days there were none. Christians met together in each other’s houses. Only much later were some buildings dedicated to the Lord and called churches. But we all know that the church is more than a building and, clearly, it existed before there were any church buildings. The NT uses a different word to describe this church without walls: not kuriakon but ekklesia. Ekklesia means an assembly of people, in this case a community of believers. If kuriakon refers to the church made of bricks and mortar, ekklesia refers, as the first letter of Peter puts it, to the church built of “living stones,” that is, a “spiritual house.” This does not mean that it is invisible as some have said, or that it does not need buildings in which to gather, or that it does not require institutional structures to sustain and guide its life and work; but it means that before and above all else it is a living community of those committed to Christ.
There are many metaphors and analogies used in the NT to describe this Christian community. St. Paul’s favourite description is “the body of Christ” which is made up of many members each of whom needs the others. A community united in the Eucharist because, as we say with Paul, we all partake of the same bread, the body of Christ broken for us. On this understanding of the church, it is not a bunch of likeminded individuals, like a photographic or bridge club but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the church is “Christ existing as a community of persons,” or the church is “Christ taking form in a band of people.” So where Christ is, we could say as some early theologians did, there too is the church, recalling Jesus’ words: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
But the church is more than a gathering together of Christians, it is also God’s experiment in creating a new humanity that transcends race and nationality, religion and gender, a new humanity in which, as Paul puts it, the divisions that normally separate people are transcended. As such, the church is a work in progress. It is not yet one or holy, fully catholic or faithfully apostolic. It is a community of people on a journey. Some people today even speak of the “emerging church,” that is the church that is emerging within and beyond denominations and finding its identity as a community committed to God’s mission of reconciliation and justice, to God’s will for human flourishing and wholeness, to God’s will to care for the environment and to share the earth’s resources. As such the church is both an end in itself, and also a means to an end. It is not just a bunch of individuals who like to sing hymns , pray and then go and have coffee, but an assembly of people embarked on an audacious God-inspired experiment to build what Martin Luther King jnr. referred to as “the beloved community.”
King’s description of the church is based on Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John’s Gospel chapter 17 in which Jesus prays that his community of disciples may be one and that they may be filled with the same love of God for the world that was embodied in him. This is the “new humanity” that God is seeking to bring into being. a “beloved community” of peace and compassion, reconciliation and justice. A community striving to be one, holy, inclusive and engaged in serving the world. This is Christ existing as church-community.
Yes, the church is a work in progress, an emerging church, building on all the resources that we have received from the past, but journeying into the future with fresh vision and commitment inspired by the Spirit of Pentecost. “Our goal,” as Martin Luther King said, ” is to create a beloved community.” But he went on to say: “this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” In other words, the church cannot be the church unless we who claim to belong are daily being transformed more fully into the likeness of Christ. The church is only the church as we together are being transformed and participating in God’s purpose of making all things new. Yes, despite all its faults and failures, which is true of anym experiment, I believe in the church as God’s work in progress to make the world more just, more compassionate, and so reconcile all things in Christ.
hn de Gruchy
Volmoed 26 May 2016
I dedicate this meditation to Ruth Robertson (neé Shoch) who died this week aged 87. Ruth was working for the South African Council of Churches (1968-72) as personal assistant to Bishop Bill Burnett when I joined the staff in 1968. She was the first woman to study theology at Rhodes University. A committed ecumenist and worker for justice, in later years, after marrying John Robertson, Ruth with John were deeply involved in the life of Volmoed. Ruth was one of the most loving and generous people I know which is part of the reason for the choice of my theme.
“God is love.”I John 4:16b-21
“You loved me before the foundation of the world.”John 17:17-25
We were just three old friends sitting and having coffee while we gazed out over Walker Bay from the terrace of Burgundy restaurant. We were hoping to see whales , but only saw a school of Dolphins in the distance. Did I say “only” as if that was second best to whales? Of course, not. Dolphins are amazing, graceful creatures, every bit as wonderful to see as a Southern Right with its calf swimming beside her. While we gazed into the distance, my friend, a trained theologian, asked whether I believed in a personal God, not just a mysterious force that might pervade the universe and give birth to the beauty we perceived. It is not difficult when you see dolphins at play to believe that there is a mysterious force at work in the universe. But is that force Someone with whom you can have a relationship? Someone to whom you can pray, Someone you can love and be loved in return? Someone we call God, and relate to as to a Father or Mother?
I know that people living in poverty don’t contemplate the majesty of the universe while leisurely drinking coffee and discussing theology, and yet many of them ardently believe in God who enables them to cope with life. I also know that many people don’t believe in God because the world as they experience it is ugly and full of suffering and violence. How can you believe in God in a world plagued by disease and war, they ask us. My friend who was probing the meaning of mystery with me over coffee was fully aware of all of the arguments against faith in God. But this did not detract from our shared awareness, as we sat and chatted together, that we were surrounded by a great mystery, a mystery we glimpsed as we looked out into the vast expanse of Walker Bay and watched the dolphins at play. But the question persisted, was this mystery “in whom we live, move and have our being” personal? Can we relate to this transcendent mystery as children relate to their parents, or lovers to each other? And therein lies the clue. I believe that the mystery we call God is personal because I believe God is love. That God loves the world and loves us. This is the good news of Jesus the Christ.
One of the doctrines of Christian faith about which you seldom hear these days is what is called the “pre-existence of Christ.” That is, the notion that the Word who became flesh in Jesus was with God from the beginning. “You loved me before the foundation of the world,” Jesus says in his high priestly prayer as told by St John in the gospel passage we read this morning. In other words, God’s love for the world that was revealed in Jesus did not only start when Jesus was born. God’s love for the world was there from the beginning. God’s love for the world was not an after-thought which God had when the world went skew and needed redemption. It was God’s love that gave birth to the universe. It is God’s love that sustains the world. Love is the foundation of everything else.
When we say that “God is love” we are not describing an attribute of God, we are describing the essence of God, what makes God God. If God is not love, God is not the God revealed in Jesus, the God Jesus called “Father.” Of course, we are not thinking here of love as something sentimental, like the so-called love that oozes out of too many magazines, movies and the like. The love we name God is holy love, it is the love that expresses itself in mercy and compassion, and justice for the oppressed. It is self-giving costly love, redemptive love, the love that heals and makes whole. It is beautiful, creative love, the love we see as we gaze out on the ocean or welcome a new born baby into the world. Love is the power that brings new life and beauty to birth; love is the power that heals and restores. This love is the beginning and the end of the story of Christ and of the universe.
Listen again to the majestic words in the first letter of John. “God is love and those who love abide in God, and God abides in them… We love because he first loved us.” The only way in which we relate to the God is through the love which God evokes in us, something so evident in the life of our friend Ruth. “Those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” To believe in the God who is love is to love God what God loves — justice and mercy, the creation given into our care, the families and friends who surround us, and the strangers who meet us along the way. Julian of Norwich, Isobel’s favourite “saint,” understood this profoundly:
…love keeps us in faith and hope;
and faith and hope lead to love.
And at the end all shall be love.
I had three kinds of understandings on this light of love;
the first is love uncreated;
the second is love created;
the third is love given.
Love uncreated is God;
love created is our soul in God;
love given is virtue —
and that is the grace-filled-gift of action,
in which we love God for Himself,
and ourselves in God,
and all that God loves,
for God’s sake. (From A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich, ed. John-Julian, London 1988, 211)
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 May 2016
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 7:21-23
I was taught, as a young enthusiastic Christian, that “if I confessed with my lips that Jesus is Lord and believed in my heart that God raised him from the dead, I would be saved.” The words are from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. (10:9) But even back then it sounded a little too easy. Could it really be true that all I had to do to escape hell and damnation was to say “Jesus is Lord”? What about Jesus’ own words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” That was more difficult to put into practice, but it made more sense.
Then I also learnt that when Paul said we must confess Jesus as Lord with our lips he was not being trite at all. He was referring to followers of Jesus who were being persecuted and put to death because they confessed that Jesus, not Caesar ,was Lord. In those days it was like confessing Christ today in ISIS controlled territory in Syria or Iraq, not proudly singing “Jesus is Lord” to reinforce the idea that Christians are superior folk to Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and the rest. That is what I call the “triumphalist heresy,” a heresy that pervades so much contemporary Christianity, and something that has become particularly obnoxious in the Republican presidential campaign in the United States. A heresy we need to think carefully about this Ascension Day, because it is especially on this day that Christians celebrate the triumph of Jesus and confess him as Lord of all. Yet, we too often do so without thinking about what this really means. We fail to see the heresy lurking behind the songs we sing and the banners we unfurl which proudly declare Christ is Lord of all. The message of the Ascension s not some fantastical doctrine about Jesus rocketing into outer space in which we believe in order to be saved, but a call to costly discipleship.
Let me explain what I mean by triumphalism. When the armies of the Roman Empire returned to Rome after a great victory they entered the city through a triumphal arch and paraded before the Emperor and cheering crowds, much like victorious armies still do today. Nations like to celebrate their triumphs; it makes the citizenry proudly patriotic, and reinforces the image of power of those who rule over them. But triumphal marches have their dark side. The triumphal march through ancient Rome invariably included hundreds of captives taken into slavery. Imperial triumph was achieved through the defeat of other people, oppressing them and taking control over their land and its resources. Now imagine in that context and amid that outpouring of national pride and euphoria someone had the courage to stand up and shout “Caesar is not Lord! Christ is Lord!” It would not be long before they would be fed to the lions or at least sent to Robben Island or some such place. To declare “Christ is Lord” is, in such contexts, a very radical statement. It challenges national triumphalism at its core.
This is the background to the “triumphalist heresy” in Christianity, a heresy that has plagued the church through the centuries ever since Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire. It is the belief that because “Christ is Lord” the church has the spiritual authority to rule over others, convert them by force if necessary, and more generally owed a privileged place within the empire or nation as a God-given right. And, of course, Christian triumphalism claims that because Christ is Lord, Christianity is superior to all other religions, and that the church and those of who confess Christ are somehow a cut above others and called to rule as Ted Cruz made clear. While Christian triumphalism may not always be expressed so crudely or in the same way today as it once was, it keeps on emerging whether in giving sanction to war, fighting elections, or simply in regarding people of other faiths as beyond the pale. Christian triumphalism is the essence of right-wing Christianity whether in the United States, South Africa, or anywhere else.
Now let us contrast this “triumphalist heresy” in which the church bows its knee to Caesar, with another triumphal march, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem mounted not a war-horse or chariot, but on a donkey followed by a motley collection of disciples who he called his friends. And in doing so let us remember that this Jesus was put to death a few days later by Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem at the insistence of the religious leaders of the day. This donkey-riding Messiah we call Lord! This is the outrageous message of Ascension Day which we celebrate today. The one who was crucified God has made Lord, but a very different kind of Lord to Caesar or any other ruler. “He emptied himself,” Paul writes, “taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient …to death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him,,, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:6-11). Jesus’ triumph is one of self-giving love and service not conquest.
In confessing Jesus as Lord, then, we are confessing that the crucified One is Lord. That Jesus’ way of the cross, his way of love, sacrifice and service is God’s way, and that this is superior to hatred, violence and selfish greed. In confessing Jesus as Lord we are not exalting ourselves or our religion to some kind of privileged place. We are committing ourselves to the power of love not the love of power. We are refusing to blindly follow any political party leader or manifesto that contradicts what we have learnt from Jesus. In confessing Jesus not Caesar as Lord, we affirm that forgiveness and restitution. not vengeance, is the true path to a just society; that peace-making not war and violence is the method that heralds the coming of God’s kingdom. In confessing Christ as Lord we do not exclude others who are different from us from the human community, but embrace all whom the Son of Man came to seek and save. In confessing Christ as Lord we stand in solidarity with all the struggling peoples of the earth. That is why Jesus tells us “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, Ascension Day, 5 May 2016
“Be still and know that I am God!” Psalm 46:1-3,8-11
“The kingdom of God is already among you.”Luke 17:20-21
When she recently visited Volmoed, our American friend Sandi Levi gave me a book by a well known travel writer, Pico Iyer, entitled The Art of Stillness. I took the slim volume with me on our recent travels to Italy, intrigued by its sub-title, Adventures in Going Nowhere. What could that possibly mean, I thought, as we embarked on the plane with a very long journey and many adventures ahead of us. We were not going nowhere; we were definitely going somewhere and, moreover, with the help of Google, we could already visualize the towns we would visit and the apartments we had booked. But there I was, taking my seat on the airplane and settling down to read about Adventures in Going Nowhere.
Within a page or two I had got the message. “Going nowhere,” Pico Iyer told me, “isn’t about turning your back on the world; its about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” It is an adventurous journey into stillness even in the midst of busyness or a hectic travel schedule, in order to gain fresh perspective on life and what it means to love. A journey inward that enables us to perceive reality differently whether we are on a jet plane to Europe, a ship in the Antarctic, a car ride into the Karoo, or simply staying at home. Nowhere is everywhere and anywhere we find ourselves. And “adventuring into nowhere” is not turning our backs on the world but learning to see the world more clearly and loving it more deeply. As such, it is not an escape from reality but an adventure in living and loving, an adventure as great if not greater than setting off for distant lands on a jet aircraft.
Pico Iyer does not write as a Christian, but his words brought to mind two passages in Scripture. In Psalm 46, written and sung during a time of turmoil in Israel, the psalmist exhorts his people to “be still” in order to discern the presence of God n the midst of what was happening all around them. This was not an invitation to navel gaze or escape from the world into some pious ghetto, but an invitation to embark on a journey into the mystery we call God in order to see the bigger picture and live accordingly. “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist’s invitation remains pertinent for us. We desperately need to be still in order to discern the reality of God’s purpose and activity in a world in crisis, as well as in the many situations that cause us sorrow and grief, hurt and harm. To be still and know that “God is our refuge and strength…a very present help in trouble” does not eradicate the threats we experience, but it provides us with the resources to respond to them with courage and hope. To be still and know God is an adventure in faith into that dimension within reality we call the kingdom or reign of God.
This brings us to the other passage of scripture that comes to mind, the story we read from Luke’s gospel. Some Pharisees put Jesus to the test. When would the kingdom of God come, they demanded. Jesus replied: “The kingdom of God does not come by counting the days on the calendar. Nor when someone says ‘Look here!’ or “There it is!’ Because the kingdom is already among you.” These words of Jesus have been variously translated. I have used Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message. Most people will be more familiar with the KJV translation “the kingdom of God is within you.” But this is misleading for it suggests that the kingdom of God is confined to personal piety separate from what is going on around us in the world. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ is simple: you do not need to look to the future or seek God’s kingdom somewhere inside you, for God’s kingdom is staring us in the face if only we would open our eyes to see the signs of what God is doing to bring healing and wholeness to people and the world. But this requires practicing the “art of stillness” whether we are engaged in the struggle for justice and peace, simply trying to cope with everyday life, or going through the dark night of grief, sorrow and pain. It is all about the adventure of faith discovering the treasure of God’s grace for our lives which as Jesus said, is often hidden in our own backyard (Matthew 13:44).
The adventurous “journey going nowhere” then, is not a journey into empty space or nothingness, but a journey into the presence of the mystery we call God, the God we have come to know in Jesus. And as we embark on this adventure we discover that this mystery is none other than the One “in whom we live, move and have our being,” the mystery that fills all space and time, the mystery that enfolds us in love. So let us for a moment journey into stillness with the help of the Psalmist who discovered that wherever he journeyed God was already there:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)
John de Gruchy Volmoed 28 April 2016
A preliminary note: in this meditation I do not attempt to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus. I have discussed that question at length in my book Led into Mystery (London: SCM 2013). Instead, I reflect on two Easter stories in the gospel of Luke (24:33-38) that speak to those who say they believe. Do we, indeed?
“ Why are we so frightened, and why do doubts keep arising in our hearts? That is the question the risen Christ keeps asking us as he asked the disciples in Jerusalem that first Easter evening. In reflecting on the question I am conflating two stories that Luke connects. The story of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus who encountered Jesus over their evening meal and hastened back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples: “the Lord has risen indeed” they exclaim! Is he indeed? those other disciples might have responded with skepticism in their voices, as do many of us to this day. Then Jesus appears again to them all. They are understandably startled and terrified, which prompts Jesus to ask them “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” They had great difficulty in accepting the testimony of the two from Emmaus; they wanted more proof. Like them, we who have heard and believed the good news, and even exclaimed with great enthusiasm “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”, are not always so sure. Risen? Indeed? Is that why we too are often frightened as doubts arise in our hearts? Is it because for us he remains in the tomb rather than journeying with us on the road?
There is much to be fearful about, not least the terror that strikes without warning, and there are so many reasons to doubt the loving power of God. We might have been spared terrorist attacks in South Africa thus far, but we have our share of fears about the future and our own personal fate. This has always been the case. It is built into the rhythm of life. We know that life is a risk, for we are acutely aware of our own mortality and the mortality of those we love. Even as we celebrate Easter and heartily sing that death has lost its sting, or acclaim “Christ is risen!”, even as we celebrate the joys of life, even as we taste the sweetness of love, we know that being human requires that we accept our mortality. Even great saints go through dark nights of doubt.
So the one who travels with us along our journey, the one who has suffered greatly, been betrayed, denied and forsaken, is the one who asks us why we are frightened and why we doubt. He is not judging us for our fear and doubt, in fact he knows why we are frightened and why we doubt because he has himself been to hell and back. And just as some cholesterol is good and necessary for us and some bad and potentially deadly, so like a good physician Jesus knows that not all fear or doubt is bad. Good fear helps us avoid danger, genuine doubt helps us discover new knowledge and may even strengthen our faith. But whether our fear and doubt is good or bad, you cannot live life to the full if you are fearful of venturing along the road, unable to trust the testimony of others or God. So Jesus understands and respects our fears, he does not manipulate them like some politicians, preachers and other fear-mongers who use our fears to their advantage, making us doubt what is right and good and true. That is why Jesus keeps asking us at every turn, up every cul-de-sac, and at every fork that we face: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
I have been reading the life story of Brother Roger the founder and abbot of the Taizé Community in France whose songs we now often sing. The autobiography, called Choose to Love, is a beautiful account of a remarkable life. In it Brother Roger tells us about the founding of the Community during the terrible days of the Second World War ,and how he feared for his life as he provided a place of refuge for Jews on the run from the Gestapo. In later chapters he recounts his visits to many parts of the world where there is great suffering and hardship, and where, for weeks on end he lived among the poorest of the poor. He also tells about visits to countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and how difficult it was for Christians there even to openly meet with him for fear of arrest of punishment. On one occasion in Budapest there was a youth service to welcome him, but it was under strict security surveillance. After the distribution of communion, Brother Roger writes, “I go from one person to another to say in Hungarian “Christ is risen!” That is all he can say. That is all he needs to say. That evening he goes to another church, it is full to capacity with young people, many of them dealing with doubt and fearing the surveillance of the police, and once more he says: “Christ is risen”: “these are the only words that I say, hundreds of times,” and each time they evoke an expression of hope on the faces of people, for Brother Roger has spoken directly to their fears and doubts far more than any sermon or lecture could ever have done.
The Easter message “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” resounds through history to help us overcome fear and doubt. But it is not a carefully reasoned statement that will magically turn the fearful into the faithful or doubters into believers. Such reasoned arguments are necessary. After all Jesus reasoned with the two travellers as they discussed Scripture during the meal they shared together. But the acclamation “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” is the shout of those who have already met the stranger on the road and discovered as they have travelled with the risen Christ who enables them to overcome fear and doubt despite those that continue to beset them and niggle their minds.
Those who shared in our Easter service here last Monday when we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Volmoed Community will know that we did not have to prove that Christ is risen, we acclaimed him, and we did so because those who came to celebrate, many of them having struggled and suffered over the years, knew that the risen Christ had joined them on the road along the journey of their lives.
When you are in the midst of poverty or grief, when you face tragedy, or are living in fear of arrest, you do not take time out to engage in academic debate about the resurrection or to discuss and analyse the crises facing our world. What you hunger for is a word of assurance that gives hope and awakens faith, a word that liberates you from your captivity in the cold tombs of death and leads us through an open door out of its darkness into the light. As Pope Francis declared in his Easter Vigil homily: “Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control our hearts. Today is the celebration of our hope.” The Easter message, he went on to say, “awakens and resurrects hope in our hearts burdened by sadness.” In another Easter meditation posted on Facebook this week I came across this appeal:
May you leave behind you a string of empty tombs! That is the challenge of Easter. To resurrect daily, to leave behind us a string of empty tombs, to let our crucified hopes and dreams be resurrected so that like Christ, our lives will radiate the truth that in the end, everything is good, reality can be trusted.’
So as we celebrate this meal like the two travelers who invited Jesus to share at their table on the road to Emmaus, we too discover Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” and can shout with them and multitudes across the world even in the midst of our fears and doubts: “Christ is risen! Alleluia!”.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 31 March 2016
“The one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.”
“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?”
Isobel and I have been fortunate to obtain tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper in the church of St. Maria delle Grazie in Milan in two weeks time. We have only been given 15 minutes to contemplate the masterpiece, so in preparation we have read the account of another visitor, H.V. Morton, a travel writer from our parents’ generation, which he describes in his book In Search of Italy. One of his comments especially struck me:
No notebook or technical achievement can explain that moment when Leonardo rejected as the theme of his painting the institution of the Eucharist but selected instead the terrible moment when Jesus said: “But, behold, the hand of him that betrays me is with me on the table.”
The painting takes up the whole of one wall in what used to be the dining room of a Franciscan monastery. Every day the friars would enter the room to sit at table and have their meals. In doing so they would they undoubtedly at times felt they were part of the Last Supper. They were at table with Jesus and his disciples. And they would not have been able to escape the dramatic moment Leonardo wanted them see: the one who shall betray me is right here with us at table.
The message is unnerving, for while the focus of attention is on Judas, everyone at the table asks “is it me, Lord?” It could be any of them; it could be any of the friars, and given the state of the church at that time, it could have been the church as a whole that had betrayed Jesus. The friars might well have thought that because their movement, started by St. Francis of Assisi, was an attempt to revive a moribund and corrupt church. And over the years even they had sometimes betrayed St. Francis’ vision. They had lost sight of the fact that before the Last Supper began Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, including those of Judas, and said to them that the greatest are not those who sit at table with him but those who serve.
While many people go to Milan to see Leonardo’s Last Supper not many will know about the Edict of Milan which changed the course of history and especially of Christianity. It was a decree issued by emperor Constantine in 313 which prepared the way for Christianity to become the established imperial religion, binding church and state together. As a result, by the end of the fourth century Christianity had become the only legitimate religion of the Empire. The full might of the state was now used to protect and further the church’s interests, and the church gave its support to the state. Not all Christians thought this a good idea, and some went into the desert to establish small communities of disciples which, later became the first monasteries. But for the main, the way was prepared for crusades and inquisitions and much else that has brought Christianity into disrepute over the centuries, and well into our own time. Still today Christianity is identified by many with the interests of Western nations who claim to embody Christian civilization, but continually betray that inheritance by their actions and attitudes. Instead of Christianity being a religion of peace and justice. of compassion, service and love, it has too often been used to justify war and injustice, slavery, imperialism, racism and apartheid, patriarchy and homophobia. Too often the church has betrayed Jesus. Yes, we have to ask ourselves as the rest of the disciples did that sombre night: “Is it us Lord?” Surely not us?
So on this Maundy Thursday as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist we gather at table to share this meal mindful of what took place that fateful evening in an upper room in Jerusalem. But we might well be too familiar with what we are hearing or seeing that we miss what Leonardo wants us to see — for him this was not just religious ceremony, the beginning of a ritual that would be repeated through the centuries. No, this was a tragic moment when Jesus was betrayed by one whose hand was on the table , and when those who had been closest to him missed the whole point of his life and ministry. For even while they were still at table, even after Judas had left, Luke tells us: “a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” Can you believe it? On that holy night after Jesus had washed their feet and had shared his last supper with them, the disciples argued about who was the greatest! So Jesus had to rebuke them all: “who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” They had still not got the message. Peter was about to deny Jesus and the next day they would all run away.
No, not all, for Mary and her women companions who were not at the table that night stayed with Jesus to the end. They stood beneath the cross and wept as they watched, and in doing so entered into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering. Is that not a sobering fact? They had not sat with the disciples at the table the night before because women were excluded from such meals, just as gay people or strangers or people of other cultures are excluded even in our own day. But they were always there in the background, watching, serving, and caring for Jesus. We also recall, as Mark’s gospel tells us, that a day or two before, an unknown woman had washed Jesus’ feet and anointed him with costly ointment as he and the disciples sat at table in Bethany, only to be scolded for doing so by Judas and the other disciples. But Jesus rebuked them: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Yes, indeed, as we break bread today in remembrance of Christ, we also remember this unknown woman as Jesus said we should. For she is a sign of the true church, the servant church..
The true church through the ages has served Jesus, has stood with the women beneath the cross, and remained faithful to him. This is the church we are called to be and become. It is the church that has understood that before Jesus shared his last supper with them he washed their feet, even the feet of Judas knowing full well that he was the one who would betray him! (John 13) The moment the church stops serving Jesus through serving the needs of of those in need, or excludes from the table those it deems unworthy, it starts to betray him. That is why each time we share this meal in remembrance of Jesus death, we should remember that he washed his betrayer’s feet, and also remember the woman who washed his feet in love and gratitude but whom Judas and the others rebuked. For the greatest in God’s kingdom are not those who sit at table with Jesus but those who serve him by serving those in need.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 March 2016