Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Question of the Balls: When Culinary and Theological Problems Converge

I wanted to make a Simnel Cake. I'm one of those people for whom all major, and most minor festivals of family or church call for cake, so the thought of going through a Mothering Sunday to Easter period without a Simnel cake was slightly unsettling.  For one reason and another, the Simnel cake didn't actually happen until early in the morning of Easter Monday, by which time  I'd read, in between church celebrations and family celebrations on Easter Sunday, St John Chryostom's Easter Sermon in which the generous-spirited, red-hot zealot avenging-angel fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople throws open the doors to God's party as widely as possible. 'Come, you who have kept the fast, and those who have not' he calls down the ages to us; come, regardless of whether you have abstained your way through Lent and been at every Bible study your church has laid on, and come, those of you wandering emptily around on a Sunday morning, wondering what all that noise is in there. All are welcomed, all are loved. There is a place for you here.

It was in the spirit of this largess of grace on Easter Monday that I finally got around to making my Simnel cake. I make one every year, and every year ponder that culinary-theological problem: how many balls? Some years I've had eleven, some twelve. I might have had thirteen once. This year, though, as the Easter message of God's unconditional welcome of all people to his heavenly party stirred in me (and it was quite early in the morning), I deliberately decided not to count the balls at all this year, but rather to cover the cake with as many marzipan balls as I could cram onto it. 'Come, those of you who deserve to be part of this, who laid the table and put the chairs out and know what a precious party you are at,' I thought as I stuck the little balls on, 'and come, those of you who know you don't, who have no idea what's going on but are drawn in anyway. Come, those of you who've been part of this forever, and come, those of you who will come at some point, when you're ready, who know somewhere deep in your damaged souls that love is real.'

The cake was delicious. But my theologically optimistic take on the balls problem neatly solved the underlying question: what do we do with Judas? Is he persona non grata at this party table, or is he allowed back somehow, and if so, how does that work, since the Bible doesn't give us a great deal of hope for Judas's personal restitution in the same way that it does for Peter?After all, whether he commits suicide (as in Matthew's Gospel) or dies in a horrific freak accident lade with poetic justice (as in Acts), he ends up dead.  

This leads me to today, the feast of St Matthias, for which I haven't made a cake. Matthias was chosen, as Acts 1:12-26 narrates, to  'take the place', or, as some manuscripts have it, the 'share' of Judas's ministry as an apostle (Acts 1:25). Both variations suggest that Matthias takes Judas' place at the table; he sits where Judas would have sat, were it not for his fatal flaw that drove him on him to betray Jesus. After that, in the busily populated dramatis personae of Acts, Matthias is heard of no more. What happened to him? What did he do? Why does he fade into obscurity so instantly after his installation as one of the twelve?

Luke doesn't say, so we don't know. Maybe, say some readers of Acts, it is somehow imperative for the twelve to become the twelve again, so that Matthias' presence is more symbolic than effectual in any way. Maybe he's a false start, the hastily ushered-on stand-in until the real twelfth apostle, Paul, bursts on to the scene. I don't think that's true for one moment. Luke is much too crafted, much too sophisticated a novelist to blunder about with extraneous characters. Moreover, Luke's sense of the importance of the order of his story, is paramount (Lk 1:3). As he begins Part Two of his bestseller, details unfold just in beautiful plotline.

This isn't, of course, just any bestseller; this is the story of the life of Jesus himself, the God-man in whose body heaven and earth fused together. And Part One of Luke's story, his Gospel, leads us with Jesus to Jerusalem and the dramatic climax of this tale of all tales; the agony and betrayal of the cross and the glorious liberation of the rising again of Jesus from  death. Part Two (Acts) picks up more or less where Part On left off, but rather than simply going on to tell the next parts of the story, something very profound happens; the order of events starts to reverse. From the upper room in Jerusalem, the people of Jesus are compelled out in every direction, with Paul eventually heading for Rome and, by implication, his own death at the end of Acts.  (This is a highly influential, and excellent, study of how Luke-Acts hangs together as a two-part literary work). Just hear the dramatic irony in the words of the mob who are out to lynch Paul and Silas in Thessalonica; 'these people...turning the world upside down' (Acts 17:6). This isn't literary flourish; this is theological reality. Because what God has done for the world in Jesus is a complete game-changer for the world, things are turned upside down. Or maybe back-to-front. Or maybe inside-out. What was heading in one direction turns on its heels, like Paul on the road to Damascus, and starts travelling back the opposite way.

Early Christians were so keenly aware of this 'upside-downness' of the world that they coined a term for it: recapitulation. What was lost, was now found. What was dead, is now alive. This stretched back all the way through human history, engulfing and transforming the whole of everything so that Irenaeus, a bishop in the second century, talked about the obedient virgin Mary 'recapitulating' the sins of the disobedient virgin Eve (here). This isn't to say that Mary saves Eve in the same way that Jesus saves people; it's to say that because the death of Jesus the focal point of all time so that a new history is created, in which time becomes symmetrically displayed either side of the cross like a child's splodgily painted symmetrical butterfly, and what was lost on one side of the symmetrical pattern is found on the other; what was dead on one side is alive on the other.

So, Matthias says yes to Jesus, and in the carefully constructed narrative of Luke-Acts, perfectly mirrors Judas's  'no' to him. If that weren't already discernible within this world turned upside down,  Luke tells us everything we need to know about Matthias in Acts 1:25; he takes the place of Judas. His obedience recapitulates Juads' disobedience. Restitution is made real within the community of faith, admittedly not within Juads' lifetime; but then, Luke's vision of this putting right of all things spans generations and embraces all anyway, so maybe that matters not quite as much as w might think it should.

And what of us, in our lives and across our generations? If this story is true, if it is being lived out by the same community of faith today, then maybe the message of hope on St Matthias' day is that restitution, recapitulation, the putting right of wrongs,  is part of the pattern of this upside-down world of faith. It may or may not occur within the lives of those immediately affected, but from heaven's perspective, maybe that doesn't matter quite as much as we think it should, much though God cares for the weak and the vulnerable, as Luke tells us often. What really matters is that his restitution happens within the community of God's people, who themselves go on into a future in which finally, God 'will have the world judged in righteousness' (Act 17:31). many balls should I have put on, I wonder?

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Sheep, shepherds and gates: what a townie says when she has to preach about such rural things...

Have you ever broken into a building? Being the law-abiding lot that you are, I’m sure that you don’t make a habit of breaking and entering. But you can never be too sure… Take me, for example, a respectable, upstanding member of the clergy.  Back when I was a young university student, I shared a house with other students who, I discovered, liked to go to bed quite early. I discovered this one evening after sitting in a pub until closing time and then going back to a friend’s house for coffee. I eventually got back to my student digs sometime in the small hours, to find it entirely locked up from the inside, and myself with no way at all of getting in.

No way in, that is, short of sending my friend up the drainpipe and in through my bedroom window, crashing down onto the bedroom floor and down the stairs to let me in from the inside, all the while trying to stifle our giggles just enough not to wake up the housemates.  A good friend of mine has been known to use her small children to get through small windows to let everyone in when she’s forgotten her house keys. At times like this we see how important things like doors and keys are.

In the reading we’ve heard from St John’s Gospel, we heard one of seven statements which Jesus makes about himself; seven times he says ‘I am.’ I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the true vine. It’s no accident that there are seven of these statements; in the Bible, seven is the number used to denote completion or perfection, so that each one of these seven statements about Jesus helps us to understand something of who he is, and together the seven ‘I am’ statements form a complete picture of who Jesus is for John, and who he can be for us if we allow him to be.

In this reading Jesus describes himself as the gate, or the door, for the sheep. It’s most likely that this envisages a sheepfold into which the sheep would be guided to keep them safe overnight from marauders and wolves. Later on in this same chapter, Jesus will say that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, and we hear something if that in our reading in which we hear that the shepherd leads his sheep and knows them all by name. So, to go back to my university stop-out self, Jesus is a bit like both the friend who shimmies up the drainpipe, and the door which the friend opens to let me in.   

So what does it mean to say that Jesus is the gate for the sheep?  The implication is that sheep need protecting. Thieves and bandits roam the countryside, and there are certain times when the sheep are vulnerable to attack. As we think of ourselves as people being like the sheep, we might bristle a bit; often, calling someone a sheep is an insult, a way of inferring that they have no get-up-and-go, no individuality, but rather that they follow the herd mindlessly. 'Don't be a sheep' we say to our young people. In the Bible, though, it seems that the opposite is true; the problem with sheep is that they don’t stick with their herd, they wander off and get into danger.

I was in rural south-west Scotland once, driving along a single track lane when all of a sudden a sheep burst through the hedge and right into the middle of the road. He’d lost his flock, and was in a blind panic, running in this direction and that. I wasn’t much help, I’m afraid, and just sat there wondering what to do until the shepherd, a short-tempered man in  red truck, came along and literally threw the sheep in the back of the truck and muttering a few obscenities, drove off.  Maybe one of the reasons that the writes of the New Testament make so much use of the image of the shepherd and his sheep, which of course comes from the Old Testament and other writings from the ancient world, is just this; because we can be just as liable to break free of our flock and to lose our way. 

This is why our Eucharist services include our confession and the assurance of God’s absolution to us; we need to know that this is a place where the shepherd comes looking for us and welcomes us back into his flock. As for sheep not having individuality, again, if we listen carefully to John’s Gospel we hear that the shepherd knows each of them by name. Each one is distinct, each one is known and loved and cared for by him. Apparently, sheep know each other well, too; ewes distinguish between lambs’ bleats just like human mothers can pick out their baby’s cries, and it is often the ewes who will go looking for lambs that wander off.  As the flock of God here, I hope that we offer each other that kind of attention and care.

There is so much in our readings today that could, and should inspire us as we think about what it means for us to have life, and to have it abundantly. That doesn’t mean that we never face any difficulties; Jesus says, a bit later on in John’s Gospel, quite clearly ‘In this world you will have trouble.’ He then goes on to say ‘but take heart! I have overcome the world.’ I suspect that part of having life in its abundance is knowing that the Jesus who has overcome the world is with us in the midst of our troubles.

I want to finish, though, by telling you the story of another break-in. Nearly four weeks ago now, a girls’ school in Borno State, Nigeria, was broken into and at least two hundred girls, aged between sixteen and eighteen who were due to sit exams, were abducted. Around thirty managed to escape; their whereabouts, and that of the girls who were abducted, is as yet still unknown. The words from this morning’s Gospel reading take on a chilling note; ‘the thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy.’

It has taken some time for this story to be heard in our news, and the ‘Bring Back our Girls’ campaign has gathered momentum on internet social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, leading to an international response and search effort. An exhaustive, full list of the names of the missing girls cannot be published, as there is still the suspicion that not all families have come forward to report their children missing. We do not know all their names, but Jesus does; he knows each one by name. The President of the Christian Association of Nigeria said this:   “The Church in Nigeria is hereby called to a lamentation prayer. Every Christian home must raise a lamentation to heaven daily.”  

Pray for them, pray for their safe return to their families. Pray that Jesus the good shepherd will send shepherds out to find these lost sheep. And pray for the peace and stability of our troubled world in which these things happen. May we, in our prayers and by our actions, like our Saviour, be gates by which the vulnerable ones of our world find places of refuge. Amen.