Not of This World

What is truth? … Truth and power are on trial these days. Each seem to get more corrupted by the minute. Kings and presidents, religious and secular leaders,  have their truth and power scrutinized and tested, judged and betrayed, condemned even. Fake news and cover-ups are swirling around us like uncontrollable tempests and hurricanes, messing with our head. Nothing seems certain anymore, nothing seems truly true, even on the religious front. Nothing seems spared this dizzying unravelling of securities, of stability, and of clarity.

In the midst of this confusing ethical, cultural and moral tsunami comes today’s account of Jesus before Pilate. Two kings, two rulers, in a showdown of power and truth. Jesus’ truth and power was completely other. And deep down Pilate sensed it. Pilate so sensed how completely different Jesus’ power and truth were, that his nerves … trembled … Even Pilate’s arrogance couldn’t hide his inner shaking. “Are you the King of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not of this world …”

In the wake of fake news, in the wake of never-ending revelations of failures and sins by leaders in all spheres of life – politicians, teachers, principals, religious leaders, business giants – we celebrate today’s Feast of Christ the King. We, foolish followers of a King, dare to claim that in this King lies salvation, in this King lies the way to fullness of life even in death. What a ludicrous claim in the face of today’s world!

How do we respond as followers of Christ, this new King? Our response truly sounds ludicrous. Our response is a king hung on a cross. A king on a cross … not a popular answer right now. Yet that’s our answer, the only answer … A king – himself a victim of the atrocities we inflict on one another, no matter whether committed in secret behind closed doors in family homes and workplaces or on a world stage in government offices and churches.

Pilate agonized, pacing back and forth as he questioned Jesus. He agonized, because here before him was a man who puzzled, scared and intrigued Pilate. Pilate is aware on a subconscious level that his power and authority is really just an illusion. That illusion gets challenged by this weird prisoner. And that makes Pilate very nervous. And so he should be. Because the power and authority of Christ the King, what makes Christ King is indeed a power “not of this world” meaning, completely counter-intuitive for us humans.

What makes it so? Because unlike the increased show of force called for by world powers today, and the cacaphony of voices claiming truth, for the very first time in human history, and so far the only time in human history, someone DARED to refuse to project and pass on the violence and pain inflicted on him. Someone, with a power not of this world said: the buck stops here. In this determined non-violent response, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ. That’s …. what gives Jesus the crown of glory.

Richard Rohr describes it as follows:
God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things—exactly where we do not want to look for God. The crucifixion is at the same moment the worst and best thing in human history. The cross reveals a cruciform pattern to reality. Reality is not meaningless and absurd, but neither is it perfect and consistent. Reality, life, is filled with contradictions. Jesus was killed in the collision of opposites, conflicting interests, and half-truths. This King of Glory hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured.

The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus broke down the barriers of hostility by creating one humanity where formerly there had been two – and he did it this “by reconciling both [sides] in one body through his cross, which put that enmity to death.” (Ephesians 2, 16)

How? How does the cross of Christ kill death itself? Ron Rolheiser, theologian and author, replies as follows:
Jesus on the cross took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back … graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back … blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back … big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back … forgiveness.

Jesus revealed the deep secret, the key to salvation. And that is to absorb and hold within ourselves all that divides, all that brings strife, all that sows hatred, to hold it long enough so that it gets transformed. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison relationships, that destroy communion, both in the human family and in the natural world, and give back only graciousness and openness, give back only compassion and care, to everyone and everything. It’s the only key to overcoming division.

We live in bitterly divisive times, paralyzing every sphere of life with half-truths and fake power, polarized on virtually every sensitive issue of politics, economics, morality, and religion. That stalemate will remain until one by one, we each transform rather than fuel and re-transmit the hatred that divides us.

We see in the person of Jesus a strange power at work, a power clearly not of this world … the power of God’s unmerited and merciful love. We claim Jesus as King of Glory, and that he is. But besides claiming this and adoring him, we are also called to imitate him. While fear can choke our compassion and generous loving, our world is famished, starved, for peace and reconciliation, for inclusion and equality, for love and grace and mercy.

So how serious are we about embracing this kingdom of Jesus not of this world? Living by Kingdom ways still comes at great risk, just as Jesus learnt from his experience on the cross. Can we, will we, like Jesus, become signs of dangerous hope for God’s world, possessed by a power not of this world? I think it would surprise and scare and intrigue the world, just as it did Pilate, when he faced that unusual character. We can only profess Christ as our King if we allow God to change us, from the inside out, so that we become the water filter sifting out human impurities, toxins and poisons. As God’s water filter we are transformed into beacons of hope and grace, of love and mercy – all those things for which our world is starving.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace; in his flesh he made us into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … He created in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, reconciling us to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility, division, strife, jealousy, and enmity. (Ephesians 2:13—16)

Homily preached on the Feast of Christ the King, November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Ephesians 2:11—22; John 18:33-38
* I am not real happy with this sermon. Not that anyone criticized it, but as I preached I felt it — it was too wordy, too repetitive and lacked story. Just goes to show I can’t always be at my best.

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Examining Difference

We have 80% agreement, the article states, between the two churches that both claim a Catholic identity. Anglicans and Roman Catholics are indeed so very close in liturgy and prayer, Scripture and Gospel discipleship, sacramental practice and spirituality, the historic three-fold order of bishop–priest–deacon, Mary and the Saints. Truly close siblings holding each other in deep affectionate regard. Then comes Bishop Linda Nicholls’ question: “If we’ve come to so much agreement … why is it we’ve arrived in such different places?” Why indeed … ???

In this question lies the enigma that is the Anglican Church to Roman Catholics. Now that I am swimming in Anglican ecclesial waters, some answers to Bishop Nicholls’ question are slowly floating to the surface. In his book The Anglican Moral Choice Paul Elmen formulates the difference as follows: The Roman Catholic view in general seems to be that a principle must be affirmed without exception; and that thereafter exceptions can be dealt with, without modifying the principle. The view natural to the (Anglican) mind is rather that a principle must be framed in such a way as to include all allowable exceptions. It follows inevitably that the Roman (Catholic) Church must profess to be fixed, while the Anglican Church must profess to take account of changed conditions. The (Roman Catholic) Church thereby conceives of and treats human nature in vastly different ways than the Anglican tradition, and that difference goes deep. (pg. 118, 1983)

In other words, the Roman Catholic point of departure leans more towards a legal authority model that allows exceptions in pastoral situations. The Anglicans acknowledge the grey and ambiguous spheres of life upfront, motivated by a deep concern to make room for every possible situation people of good will with a sincere desire for God may find themselves.

I appreciate the RC Church position. We need clear moral and spiritual markers to help develop our conscience and guide our life choices.  Like a good mother, Rome indeed strives to guide her children in upright and moral goodness. But I also appreciate the Anglican instinct of radical hospitality, the kind Jesus extended so freely in ways that scandalized the religious establishment of his day.

There is a real danger in an overly firm grip on the legal side of things. Once we become grown adults in faith, with capable and critical minds, life itself teaches us that we cannot always apply neat legal categories of right and wrong. The more we live, the more grey appears (despite our colourful experiences). This is where Anglican discipleship shows greater hospitality. While the Anglican approach can be criticized for its apparent inconsistencies, the Roman Church gets criticized for its inability to accommodate those same inconsistent and grey areas of life.

The Comments section of a recent NCR article included the following by a Catholic reader: To be fair, as much as I admire Anglicanism, the subject of homosexuality has long vexed the world-wide Anglican Communion, with some member bodies supportive of LGTB people and others, like the church in Africa, being solidly against. But that’s what I admire about Anglicanism: it’s messiness. They at least are willing to air out arguments in the light of day with considerable lay input. Within Catholicism it’s trickle-down all the way, and nothing ever sees the light of day.

While criticism can be swift over the Anglican storm around homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Catholicism has its own challenges when it comes to moral teaching and practice. The Church’s official teaching against artificial birth control has failed to persuade many married Catholics. As much as it tries to remedy and show contrition, the clergy sexual abuse continues to deliver serious blows to Roman Catholic moral credibility. Moreover, the Catholic Church is struggling mightily with how to welcome its gay and lesbian members.

Both moral approaches come with merits and risks. While the Anglican position risks allowing too much latitude (fueled by a radical trust that God will sort it all out in the end), the Roman position risks stifling pastoral accommodation, thereby alienating those whose lives do not neatly fit the legal ecclesial boxes. A superficial understanding of the Anglican position can lead to the notion that it stands for nothing, thereby completely missing its profound and robust relational and incarnational ethos. Roman Catholics can be criticized for trying to squeeze life’s ambiguities into a greater rigidity than life itself can tolerate, thereby ignoring its noble commitment to moral guidance.

Anglican ecclesiology and polity can look incredibly attractive, fueled by the Christian ideal of communion. But I do wonder if this makes Anglican spirituality and praxis an adult-church, “X-rated” so to speak. In other words, the Anglican tradition is not for children or the faint-hearted. A mature faith is required, an ability to engage in thoughtful dialogue without fear, reserving rash judgments and legalistic categories. However, I don’t think it was an Anglican who said recently: “Who am I to judge?

In one of his columns, Ron Rolheiser wrote: “What’s needed today is not less freedom but more maturity. We don’t need to roll back freedom in the name of God and morality: we need to raise the level of our maturity to match the level of our freedom. Simply put, we are often too immature to carry properly the great gift of freedom that God has given us. The answer to that is not to denigrate freedom in the name of God and morality, but to invite a deeper maturity so as to more properly honour the great gift that we have been given.” (May 21, 2006)

In light of Rolheiser’s words, it seems that both traditions need to be accountable to the other. Only in this tension of mutual accountability can the fruits of our witness mature in our common pilgrim journey in Gospel faithfulness.

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Reckless Mercy

I never tire of pondering Luke 15:1–32. The story keeps feeding and challenging my spirit, both at the same time.

The opening verses of this chapter in Luke’s Gospel are telling: tax collectors and sinners “come near to listen to him.” Pharisees and scribes are griping and grumbling that “he eats with sinners.” So in response to this griping, Jesus tells parables. First, a couple of short ones, about a lost sheep and a lost coin, then the “pièce de résistance,” the biggest part of the fifteenth chapter.

This parable is so well-known that we risk being numb to its shock-effects still today. Re-contextualizing and deep pondering is needed to restore those shock-effects. The story is situated in a society where everyone had a fixed place in the social and cultural class structures. Inheritance was extremely important. It was governed by a legal code and maintained by strict rules. The father’s role was to protect both the family honour and the inheritance. The inheritance could be divided prior to the father’s death, but in that case it was the sons’ duty to set aside adequate funds to take care of the father in his old age.

The story opens with the outrageous conduct of the younger son, demanding his share ahead of schedule. Once he gets it, he takes off for the “good life.” We learn of his progressive degradation and the famine. To avoid starvation, he takes a job caring for pigs, an occupation considered an apostasy in the Jewish religion. Eating pork was forbidden, let alone looking after pigs about to be slaughtered. You can’t stoop much lower on the social ladder.

The poverty of the son is described as a desperate lack of food. Now nourishment in this society was the mother’s responsibility. But …. no mother in the story. Maybe that was his problem – no mom. He is hungry and recalls how well-fed the servants are in his father’s house. And so comes the thought, “I’ll go back, and I won’t even ask to be a son anymore. If I can be one of the hired hands, I’ll have something to eat.”

So he trudges back in his rags, smelling to high heaven of pigs. He has jeopardized the family’s economic standing and put his father at risk by squandering that part of the inheritance intended for his father’s caring in old age. So besides gross ingratitude, the younger son added the sin of injustice. It cannot get much worse.

What about Dad in the meantime? One eye on the road at all time, he spots the son from afar.

Overwhelmed with joy, he dashes out, and acts in ways most unbecoming a father in this patriarchal culture – he runs, he hugs and he kisses! This is a father who is outrageously excessive/prodigal in the disregard of his own honour, the inheritance, and the patriarchal standards, and acts more like a smothering mother.

When the son confesses his sin, the father doesn’t even listen. No time for confessions, no need for penance. Instead he calls for the best robe – probably one of his own. He orders the servants – quick, put sandals on his feet, a symbol of full restoration of honour in the family. Not the slightest questioning of sincerity. The father calls for the fatted calf, and the music and dancing begin.

Jesus could have easily ended there. But the elder son now appears. He has faithfully served his father on the land and worked diligently for his share of the inheritance. His brother’s disappearance put the elder son’s own share in jeopardy because now he has to provide for his father’s old age entirely out of his own resources. So he has good reason to be resentful towards his younger brother whom he disowns. Instead of brother, the elder son spitefully refers to the vagabond as “that son of yours.”

Moreover, by refusing to join the party, the elder son violates the fourth commandment – honour your father and mother. When his father graciously invites him to come, the elder son berates the old man, “you have rewarded this son of yours who has not only wasted his share of the family fortune, but by living with prostitutes has risked the family blood line.” Using offensive language, the elder son dishonours both his father and brother, thus breaking the legal code as much as the younger son did.

Instead of chiding the elder son for his disrespect, the father affirms, “You are with me always. Everything I have is yours.” The elder son too is a recipient of the father’s foolish and generous forgiveness. Just as the younger son is received back, so the elder son, who broke the fourth commandment, is restored to favour. The father thus disregards the offences of both sons. Disinterested in the immorality of the younger son and in the self-righteousness of the elder, the father puts aside his personal honour and the legal code.

From this parable it would seem that the “kingdom of God” is not primarily concerned with human-made standards and norms, according to which the father acts like a very bad father. However, he turns out to be a very good mother — just let the boy come home! Clearly this father unites in himself the qualities of both father and mother.

Jesus’ passion for inclusion, especially in Luke’s Gospel, always trumps concern for worthiness. He eats with sinners without setting any prior moral conditions. His disciples forever tried to keep supposedly unworthy people away from him. Jesus, however, didn’t want that kind of protection. I can’t help but see images of the security people trying hard to protect Pope Francis while he keeps lunging towards the crowds! Jesus’ call still resounds today: Let them come, all of them! As Ron Rolheiser gleans from this parable, God forgives the missteps of our immaturity (the younger son) as well as the bitterness and resentment within our maturity (the elder son).

The father’s ultimate concern is to unite his two sons, bringing them together in love. Both are guilty of serious offences, both are forgiven. The prodigal father in this parable, like God, communicates unconditional love to his two sons so that they in turn may show mercy to each other. God’s heart is wide, abundant, prodigal, and universally-embracing – that’s the shocking message the religious leaders of Jesus’ day could not stomach and so they crucified him. How about us – can we handle that?

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