Room for all

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an event that has happened in one form or another for over 100 years.

The dates (January 18-25) were chosen because the 18th celebrates the Confession of Peter and the 25th the Conversion of Paul.

The Confession of Peter is the occasion when Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ and Peter said ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. According to Matthew’s Gospel, this was a world-changing moment. It was the moment when for the first time, with no prompting from Jesus himself, a human being recognised who he was. Jesus went on to say that Peter was aptly named ‘the Rock’, because the Church would be founded on him and his declaration of faith. In Catholic teaching, Peter was the first Pope, the foundation of the authority of the Church.

The Conversion of Paul is a well-known story. Saul (as he was then known) was the arch-enemy of the early Christian movement. While he was on the way to Damascus to seek out the Christians who had fled there, he was struck down on the road and the risen Christ appeared to him. He then became not only a follower of Jesus, but the most prominent missionary and the one whose interpretation of the meaning of Jesus became orthodox Christian teaching.

So Peter and Paul were in a sense the two founders of the Christian Church. Two very different characters! Peter was a rough, brash and very down-to-earth Galilean fisherman. Paul was a cultured Jew brought up in the cosmopolitan Roman city of Tarsus and educated in the Jewish Scriptures by one of the leading rabbis of the time. Peter was a family man, Paul was single. Peter was a close companion of Jesus throughout his ministry, one of the inner circle of the disciples. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but had only heard about him. Peter stuck to his traditional Jewish ways and was slow to change. Paul had the zeal of a convert and a new, universal vision. When they met, they sometimes argued and fell out with each other. According to tradition, they both died a martyr’s death and are buried close to each other in Rome.

So there is something fitting about prayer for Christian unity gathering around the memory of these two very different people. It reminds us that there is room for all of us in the family into which Jesus invites us – the rough-handed worker and the smooth-handed student, the married and the single, the traditionalist and the innovator, the blunt speaker and the clever writer, the doer and the dreamer. We need each other and we belong together.

If this vision of the Church is to become reality, the joining together of different denominations is a trivial matter by comparison with the radical vision we need. Or am I being more of a Paul than a Peter?  

Creationism Lite?

It seems to me that much of the debate about homosexuality boils down to one basic theological question: the question of creationism versus evolution.

Most Christians now accept evolution as the scientific explanation of life. They do not believe that God literally made everything in six days. God created the world, they say, but he created it through evolution. But if they use expressions like ‘the divinely ordained order of creation’, or ‘God’s plan for human life’, they are actually creationists at heart.

Evolution is not just a way of explaining how we human beings ‘came from apes’. If we take its implications seriously, it is a fundamental fact about the nature of the universe, the way things are. There is no fixed order. The whole universe evolves: it always has and it always will.

If there is a creator God, we can only say that he is an experimenter. His experiment with dinosaurs seemed to work for a few million years, but proved non-viable in the long run. He is currently experimenting with human beings of various kinds: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and lots of other variations. Experience, not abstract theory, will tell us whether the experiments work or not.

This kind of perception of God is in fact reflected in parts of the Bible. Even in Genesis we are told that when God saw the way human beings were behaving he regretted that he had created them and decided to destroy them with a flood. Just one man, Noah, seemed to be an exception to the general sinfulness of humanity, so God arranged for him and his family to survive. Then, after the flood was over, he regretted what he had done and resolved never to destroy the world with a flood again. But the subsequent story of Noah and his descendants shows that in any case sparing him and his family wasn’t such a bright idea as it had seemed! The Bible itself seems to suggest that there is no fixed ‘divine plan’: God keeps experimenting, and sometimes gets it wrong.

To base our morality on experience rather than ‘law’ or ‘revelation’ does not mean throwing all morality to the winds. Nor does it mean, as some people put it, turning our backs on God’s way and choosing our own. The God presented in the Bible may be unpredictable at times and even changeable, but through the many-sided conversation of the Bible another view emerges and comes to its full-blown expression in the message of the New Testament: a God who is pure, universal love. Guided by our faith in this kind of God we try in all the dilemmas of life to find the most loving solution. We can never be a hundred percent sure that we have found the right solution. In fact there is no ‘right’ solution, only the best solution as it appears at the time.

Science advances by experiment leading to theory and theory being tested by further experiment. If this reflects the way the universe is, then our understanding of God and of morality has to proceed in the same way.

To Earth from Heaven?

In the ancient world, history was not a meticulous science. All history and biography was written with a motive – to glorify a great leader, to shape the identity of a nation, to make people proud of who they were and where they had come from.

The history in the Hebrew Scriptures, too, was written with a purpose, but with a difference. Its heroes were depicted with their faults as well as their virtues. Noah was chosen to survive the flood because he was a devout and upright man, but he was a drunkard. Abraham was the great example of faith, but his faith wavered at times. Jacob was the father of the holy people, but he was a cheat and a thief. David was the great king who fulfilled God’s purposes, but he was an adulterer and a murderer. To the Jews, their history was meant to glorify not the human heroes but the gracious God whose faithfulness to his people persisted in spite of all their unfaithfulness to him.

One of the assumptions of ancient history writing was that a person’s character and destiny was there from the very beginning of life. Some of the key people in the story had unusual births. Isaac was miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah when they were very old. Jacob came out of the womb clutching his twin brother’s heel, a usurper from the beginning. Samuel’s mother had been assumed to be incapable of having a child. In other nations too the same kind of story was told. The founders of the nation and some of its great heroes were said to be born of a god.

It is against this cultural background that we can understand the story of Jesus being born of a virgin, It’s not necessary to believe the story literally, and in some ways it is unfortunate what Christian tradition has made of it. It has helped to reinforce a Christian bias against sex, a notion that probably owes more to the Greek Platonic philosophy than to Jewish tradition. It has also been used to undermine the central Christian belief in the Incarnation – ‘the Word became flesh’. People have taken it to mean that Jesus was born free of the taint of sin, not a real human being but a divine being who ‘came down to earth from heaven’. If we don’t take that literally today, we still tend to think of Jesus as God somehow injected into the human race, so that he is different in kind from the rest of us, the only person able to be perfect, not subject to human limitations and temptations.

I used to think of Jesus as coming into this world from outside it, but I have come to believe that the real miracle, the real good news, is that by the power of God the redemption of the human race grew out of the human race itself, and all human beings are made in the image of God with the potential to be divine.

An Adult Christmas?

This is the time of year when parents find out at what age their children stop  believing in Father Christmas. It’s a process that takes something away from the magic, but not entirely. Many of us keep up the pretence well into adulthood. My mother died when I was 41. Right up to the last year of her life I woke up on Christmas morning to find a full stocking at the foot of my bed – and so, mysteriously, did she! Whether you actually believe in him or not, Father Christmas is still part of the delight of the season.

How many of us have reached that stage with the main Christmas story? Every year we see it enacted in Nativity plays, celebrate it in carol services and hear it expounded in sermons, and everyone assumes it happened just like that. Well, at the risk of sounding like the nasty big brother who destroys his younger sibling’s belief in Santa Claus, let me encourage you to think about the story in an adult way.

Of course, most people realise that the Wise Men were not in the stable the same time as the shepherds, and that they weren’t kings, and that the Bible story says nothing about a donkey or even a stable, not to mention a little drummer boy or any of the other imaginary bits we hang around it.

When we look a bit more closely still, there are problems about the whole story. It is questionable whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem at all. There are two accounts of the birth of Jesus, one in Matthew and one in Luke, and they contradict each other.

According to Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and was still there some months later when the wise men came. When Joseph and Mary were warned of Herod’s plan to kill all the male children, they fled to Egypt, and stayed there until Herod died. They then meant to return to Bethlehem, but when they found that his son was just as ruthless as him, they travelled further north until they were outside his jurisdiction, and settled in a place called Nazareth, which hasn’t been mentioned in the story up to that point.

In Luke’s version, Joseph and Mary’s home was Nazareth, but when Mary’s baby was almost due, they had to go to Bethlehem because of a census. After Jesus was born, they stayed just long enough to observe the required rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem – which was only a few miles away – and then went back home to Nazareth.

Where did these two contradictory stories come from? The simple answer seems to be that they were both an attempt to explain how Jesus of Nazareth could be the Messiah when the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, the City of David. It’s much more likely that he was born in Nazareth.

Was Jesus literally born of a virgin? And in what sense, if any, did he ‘come down to earth from heaven’? Those questions demand another blog.

To come back to Santa Claus: although as adults we don’t believe in him literally, we still keep the story going – even in houses that don’t have a chimney, and even with grown-up children. Why? Because not only is it a charming bit of fun, but it reinforces our thankfulness for the warmth and generosity of our loved ones that is the real spirit of the season.

And we can have the same kind of adult celebration of the Nativity. Whatever literally happened or didn’t happen, we can enjoy it as a beautiful story. Above all we can hold onto its essential meaning, summed up in the lovely alliteration of a Welsh carol: ‘Daeth Duwdod mewn baban i’n byd’  – God came in a baby to our world. I even question whether it should just be in the past tense – but that too is another blog.