Thursday, 24 January 2013

The body of Christ - Reversals of Culture?

Peter Lockhart

The body of Christ
 “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

The image of the church as a body, or more specifically as the body of Christ is a well known one for any of us who have grown up in the church. So much so that it might be easy to have the mistaken idea that the image of a group of people being a body is a uniquely Christian one.

If we look back though, into the time leading up to Paul’s letter and contemporary with it, we find that Marcus Agrippa had already made a correlation between the state and the body, even before Christ’s birth. Whilst a contemporary of Paul’s, Plutarch, uses the body imagery to speak to the plebians, the lower echelons within society, to remind them of their place as lesser members of the body as lesser than the Patricians.

What is striking, as the biblical commentator Ben Witherington III points out, is that Paul uses the same imagery though in a reverse direction. Paul uses the body imagery to remind those at the top of the hierarchial pile that the lesser members of the body have a unique and important place as well and should be valued for their place within the body.

By reversing the use of the image Paul is challenging the cultural presuppositions through which hierarchy and authority were being reinforced to present an alternate image of life lived in community with God and one another. I want you to keep that thought of reversal on your mind as we consider 2 perspectives in relationship to the body imagery.

The first is to look at the body imagery that Paul uses within a congregation and more specifically within this congregation here at St Lucia.

At the heart of Paul’s message is that everyone who is here is connected to one another and that what each one of us has to offer matters. Whilst we might value certain gifts more highly than others Paul is concerned to emphasise that the gifts we have are not our own but are given to us and therefore they are not there for our self aggrandizement but for the building up of the whole.

When it comes down to it ‘church’ is not a place we come on Sunday but is something that we are as we live using our gifts for the building up of the whole as God intends us. And, whatever it is that we offer or we think another person in the congregation may or may not offer, all of the members of the body are to be held in respect and esteem.

To be able to be the church as we are called to I believes take the time to get to know one another more deeply than our hour on Sunday allows for and invites us beyond the secure boundaries that our culture has set for us.

Which brings me back to the idea that the imagery of the body as Paul uses it is still about reversal, this still holds true. In our Western, modern world we have been encouraged to see life and the gifts that we are given are for ourselves and for our own benefit. This might be reflected in the fact that one of the most popular songs chosen at funerals is “I did it my way” – which implies an individualism which stands in opposition to God’s love and being the body together.

The other reversal which the body imagery challenges us with is to see beyond our faith as a privatised matter. Many of you may have heard the saying that we should not talk about politics, sex or religion – a statement which not only leads to boring conversation but a subjugation of faith and thought in general.

The cultural indoctrination towards individualism and the privatisation of our faith has been exacerbated by a certain Protestant trend to view faith as a personal relationship between me and God, centred on a person’s salvation.

Yet, if we are to be a church, a community in which we value each other and each other’s gifts, then speaking openly about our faith, and even our doubts within that faith, and about the gifts we offer is part and parcel of what we should be doing as people living the faith.

To draw this into the context of our Church Open Day next week, if visitors do come along who are not regular church goers and interested in why we are here and what we do thinking about how we might answer the question of why we come here is important. If someone were to ask that question and your answer was, “because I always have” you have really told them very little about your faith, God, Jesus, love or hope. But maybe if you answered ‘because I feel a sense of God’s presence in worship’ or ‘I come to grow in faith and be encouraged in my life’ or ‘I have discovered a sense of community and welcome among the people here’ then you are opening the door to something deeper.

In giving answers such as these you may be both revealing your place within the body and affirming the reality of God for the person to whom you are speaking. This is a reversal of the individualised and privatised view of religion so strongly held within our contemporary society which has infiltrated the church as well. In our current culture not only do we need to learn how to speak intelligibly about God, Jesus and our faith we also need to jump of the hurdle of giving ourselves permission to do so.

This leads me to the second reflection I want to make about the body imagery in the context of the broader church.

It may have been that when Paul listed the gifts found within the body he may have expected each house church to find those gifts located within the one community. However, what appears more likely is that Paul’s letter was addressed to a group of Christian communities within Corinth. It is entirely possible that Paul understood that the gifts would be present across the communities not in every single one.

This is an important thing to reflect on as we consider our contemporary situation in which there are many different churches and in which we as a small congregation find that we can offer only just so much.

Just as within the congregation we offer different gifts so too as a congregation we offer who we are and the gifts we have to broader witness of the church to God’s love for the world.

To put it another way ‘we are who we are, we can be no other’. Some congregations offer big gatherings, some have contemporary bands and smoke machines; some are strongly committed to social justice, others to evangelism. Whilst it is important to not have too narrow a focus in who we are, accepting what we offer as a valid and meaningful expression of God’s love is an important step along the way to living a healthy faith as a congregation.

Once again to drag our thinking into the Open Day when we speak about who we are with others we should do that, not speak about what we are not and apologise for those things. We are a small, vibrant and diverse community of faith who have committed to the idea and challenge “living the faith” more meaningfully in 2013.

If our opening is always to lament about what we do not have, for example saying sorry there are not many young people or sorry there are not many families, we are failing to value our place within the body and possible more importantly we are not inviting people to see who we are and what we offer, which is ultimately not ourselves and the quality of our community but the hope we have in God found in Jesus Christ.

In this I think there is a reversal of the consumerist approach to our culture which constantly weighs life up but what we do not have rather than what we already have.

So the body imagery continues to reverse our thinking and challenge us be faithful to what God has done in drawing us to be one in the Spirit, to be the church.

This leads me to make a final comment about being the body of Christ, a church, in our Australian context. Ultimately we are drawn into the body so that God’s love might be known not only by each other but by the whole world. The gifts we are given are for the building up of the whole, that is to say the entire world.

Now yesterday was Australia Day which I think is a day which presents us with difficult messages and reflections about who we are as people. Australia is a great place to live and despite having one of the highest costs of living we also have one of the highest living standards.

But as Australians we like to propagate the myth of being an egalitarian culture, that we are all equal; that we give a fair go to all. Yet we must remember that despite the distance since the First Fleet arrived for indigenous people we are foreigners who stole their lands from them. Most of us are people whose roots go back to the occupation of Australia on one way or another.

Last week I read an article how about the widening gap between rich and poor in Australia.

Recently we have seen ethnic and racial tensions spill onto suburban streets in Brisbane.

And as we meet our country holds refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention centres.

Whilst I can be as parochial as the next Aussie about the cricket or rugby or whatever ultimately the body which we are called to be a part of transcends our national identity. We are Christ’s first and Australians later.

Yet as Christ’s body in this context of Australia we are called to reflect on how the gifts we bring to this country might be used for the building up of the whole, as a witness to the promise of the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

The words of Paul proclaim good news: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Our life in this body is a gift, what we offer to one another comes to us as gift, and what we offer to the culture and world around us is bigger than who we are because it is the very grace of God revealed in Jesus and through the Spirit that is working in and through us.

Take a moment to reflect on God’s word to you this day.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Gap between Expectation and Experience

Peter Lockhart

“The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John.”

Expectations can drive us as people in our emotions and thoughts and the people who had gathered around John had placed their hopes and expectations in him. Was he the Messiah that they had long waited for?

John’s answer indicates that there is gap between the expectations of the people and their experience of the truth.

This raises questions for me about our own expectations and the gaps that lie in between what we expect and what we actually experience.

Let me my just ask some questions about what you were expecting this morning and whether there is a gap between your expectations and your experience?

Did you come this morning expecting that we would go through the motions of worship – play the organ, sing a hymn, say pray, stay awake through the sermon, or be given an activity to distract me from the sermon?

Did you come expecting to see me wearing robes or a T-shirt or a suit? What makes a minister a minister? How do I fit your expectations?

Did you come this morning here in the place expecting to encounter God, to experience something otherworldly or divine? How is that working out for you?

Or maybe you came simply wanting to be part of this community? As I walk down the aisle and you turn to watch me, who do you see across the pews? What are expecting of each other as a community of faith? Do you want to love one another – or is that simply not a part of what you expect?

Maybe you came expecting to get out of here by 10 so you can get on with real life in the real world?

What are your expectations and what is the gap in your experience? Where do you discuss it? How do you reflect on it? How do you live and grow in your faith?

The questions that we have, the expectations and the gap between them and our experiences is an important matter for us in our development as a community of faith.

Returning to the scene of the people 2000 years back and the gap between their experience and expectations what can we learn?

Looking at John’s response John paints a picture of the one whom we was preceding as being more powerful than he. John speaks of him baptising with Spirit and fire and then describes the scene on the threshing floor where the chaff is separated from the grain and burnt in an unquenchable fire.

John’s words may seem echo down to us as a dire warning of judgement. Is the Messiah going to bring division and purifying fire?

The imagery of fire is most tangible for us this week as Australians as we think of our fellow Australians in Tasmania, Victoria, NSW, and South Australia.

For is a destructive force, a terrifying power. Is this the Messiah for you and I?

I must admit that there are times I am uncomfortable with the images of a God who would judge so harshly and burn the chaff away and I believe such images are more often than not misused.

On the other side of this coin though is the deep suffering and pain in the world that people cause one another, deliberately and inadvertently, collectively and individually.

There is not a period in history; there is not a place in the world that we look that our hearts would not find reason to grieve.

If our hearts break at the suffering in the world then no les s should we think that God’s heart breaks and longs for a world in which the things which are not of God and God’s love and grace. We have just come off Christmas where the angels declared a hope for peace on earth and goodwill to all people, but what happens with the gap in that expectation?

With all in this mind we jump from John’s comments to the reality of Jesus.

Jesus baptism is described in an unusual way in Luke. The lectionary today has left a significant gap in the story which tells us the John is arrested and imprisoned by Herod for his words and actions.

This leaves an ambiguity about who actually baptised Jesus but the description of the event echoes the other gospel writers – a dove descends which is the Holy Spirit.

Luke’s description of the Holy Spirit as an actual dove is a bit perplexing and I must admit I am not sure how to swallow the embodiment of the Holy Spirit in a bird which hovers or possibly even lands on Jesus.

Nonetheless the power of the symbol is strong and somewhat contradictory to what we have just heard.

John’s description of the Holy Spirit is matched by fire contrasts with the image of the Holy Spirit as the dove: a gap between expectation and experience?

The dove for us is a symbol of peace, in Jesus time doves were also use as sacrifices.

The imagery points us to God’s intention that Jesus as the expression and reality of God in our midst is a man of peace. Through his earthly ministry he brought healing and reconciliation into the lives of many.

In his confrontation with the authorities his choice was not violence but love and ultimately he gives himself freely into those who sacrifice him for the pursuit of their own power.

The Jesus we meet in the scriptures, on whom the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, is a man who responds to the fires of this world with words of truth and love and hope as he takes within his own existence the gap in reality between how we were made to live and how we actually live.

In his baptism celebrated on this day we are reminded that he chose to take within himself our decision o be turned away from God and each other and by carrying this through his life establishes the pathway in relationship to God that God wills for us – one grounded in peace.

Is this the God we expected to meet today? A God who reaches out to draw us home, to draw all people home! A God who promise is a renewal of the whole creation in the face of the deep problems we are facing as a human race. A God who loves us beyond our faults and failures and carries us within himself!

The people were filled with expectation, there was a gap in the truth of what they expected and experienced. John’s description of Jesus as judge contrasted with the image of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. There are gaps between what we expect out of life and our faith and what we see and hear and do but the good news is this God’s love was big enough to come among us in human form to bring us home.

The words ring true:

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus God’s Son by bearing us and who we are in his life has made us heirs of that same truth; we are children of God, we are beloved.

I want to conclude this morning with a prayer written by Michael Leunig (When I Talk to You) which reflects the gap between expectations and experiences and challenges us this day with what our prayers maybe should be:

God give us rain when we expect sun.
God give us music when we expect trouble.
God give us tears when we expect breakfast.
God give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around


Thursday, 3 January 2013

Where is the child?

by Peter Lockhart

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

Even on my lips asking this question sounds a bit odd. I live in a culture that does not believe people are born into a destiny but rather that we shape our own. I live in a culture which prefers democracy over monarchy. I live in a culture which is largely secular not religious and many of the Jewish people I know understand themselves as Jews by race not religion.

The story of our faith is one which comes from another time and place and sounds strange to ears and looks odd even to our eyes, let alone those who do not know these stories of the scriptures.

The strangeness of the question of the Magi who came seeking to pay homage to the child born king of the Jews is matched by the strangeness of the story itself.

Astrologers from the East, possible Zoroastrians, follow a star that they have seen rising and come seeking a new king. The presence of these learned men of another religion and worldview in the story of the birth of Jesus should not be underrated.

Guided by the star they come and offer homage to Jesus, driven by a purpose and meaning that is beyond our comprehension, God includes them in the story of salvation. They are an affirmation of the child Jesus’ identity as God’s anointed one, the coming king.

Their presence: the presence of these foreign, probably even considered pagan wise men also affirms that the limits of God’s actions and activity is beyond any limits we might want to construct ourselves. God uses outsiders to affirm Jesus presence as God’s ultimate insider in the world. This is good news for all peoples everywhere – God’s love transcends the boundaries even of our faith.

Following the light of the star the story of the wise men helps bring the truth of God’s love for the world to light. Across the world today Christians are celebrating the showing forth of God’s light in the world known as Epiphany. Yet how well is the light shining, is the light of the star that lead the Magi still bright?

The strangeness of the story, the clash cultures between the wise men and Herod, are for me a confronting reminder of the current clash of cultures in which we find ourselves as a Christian community and raise that very question of how God’s light might be continually shone into this dark world.

Too easily we can think only to the limits of what we know and how we have boxed our God and God’s activity in the world. Too easily can we assume that the world around us is, well, just like us!

But the evidence is ever before us that the world is in a state of flux. Beliefs and understandings are like the shifting sands, even within the Christian community.

Let me share an example. During the week after Christmas a colleague posted the following message on the Bremer Brisbane Facebook page:

Had an interesting experience at our Christmas Day Churches Working Together lunch. Organised a few carols and a Car Park Parables Christmas video! All the kids ignored almost the whole lot until we got to "We wish you a merry Christmas" which they sang with gusto. The rest, like "Away in a manger" were completely foreign to them. It's certainly got me thinking about how we might present the Christmas story next year. Any suggestions?
The world around us has moved on from the stories and songs that many of us hold dear. Little kids often don’t know the song “Away in a Manger” or “Jesus loves me”. Many don’t know the hope of holding a belief in God, or knowing the joy of a life lived in the Spirit, or the feeling of love from a giving and forgiving son who lived among us.

The stories of our life and faith are not owned by those around us and more often than any of us would like to admit are ridiculed and disparaged. We speak of Jesus as the light of the world and we hear the promise of John that the darkness did not overcome it, but in a culture in which our story has been relegated to the sidelines how do we understand our place sharing the light, telling people the good news of Jesus Christ.

This year we have challenged ourselves as a congregation with the theme “Living the Faith”. These are simple yet challenging words in the culture in which we find ourselves.

Despite our perceived security in all that we have known I feel as if we need to be prepared to be like the Magi – to risk a journey out into the world, following a star, paying homage to the Christ Child and offering our gifts in a foreign culture.

Yet, also to be prepared to welcome the Magi into our midst: welcoming people from different places, ethnically and spiritually, into our midst so that they too might experience the good news of Jesus Christ.

This two way movement takes us beyond the security blanket of the sentimentalised manger and into celebrating the risk taking adventure of God who lived among us as Jesus.

If we are to engage in these two way movement journeying out and welcoming then we no doubt will have some lessons to learn.

In setting out on their journey the Magi took the risk of cross boundaries. They travelled into another culture, into another land, into God’s presence. Will we be willing to make such journeys ourselves in the year to come?

When the Magi approached Herod, whom they assumed sat on the seat of power his response to their presence is fear. The good news of Jesus presence in the world does not always sound as good news to all. Jesus questions those with privilege and authority and so can invoke a fear.

We should not be naive and think that just because we have encountered Jesus as good news all people will understand God’s love just as we do and receive it and us with open arms.

In their encounter with Mary & Joseph & the child Jesus the Magi were overcome with joy and offered their treasures in homage to Jesus.

As people seeking also to encounter Jesus presence in the world around us and here let us also prepare our hearts for joy. I think sometimes we Protestants have become a little too controlled in our emotions and some even have a reputation as Christians for being dour. But when the Magi encounter Jesus there is joy – let us be prepared to be overwhelmed by that same joy and so share our encounters with God as good news.

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

A strange question indeed but a question within a story which leads us to the good news of God’s presence in the world affirmed by strangers and celebrated by angels. Let us embrace this strange story we are part of and pray for help to find words of life and hope which share the light of God’s love in this strange world in which we live.