May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Today’s gospel reading is an astounding bombshell of revelation in the unfolding narrative of John. It is in fact the source from which we get most of the evidence in scripture for a Trinitarian understanding of God. As such, it’s a mine-field. I don’t feel quite up to explaining the Trinity today. As our good vicar noted just yesterday morning, quoting one of her seminary professors, anyone who talks about the Trinity for more than thirty seconds has almost certainly committed a heresy. I’m not going to lay money on that, and I have seen some explanations of the Trinity that actually seem to me to make some sense without straying into doctrinal train-wrecks. One of the best of them is Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker. I recommend it — at least as much as I’ve read so far. I got started on it not too long ago, and I’m not finished with it.
But rather than risk bringing down upon my head the fuzzy fury of the Episcopal Inquisition, let me turn my attention instead only to a small part toward the end of that passage. In it, Jesus gives the apostles — and perhaps us — instruction on the matter of prayer. What he says there seems very straightforward and hard to misunderstand…but for the fact that it doesn’t seem to correspond with my experience. Does it with yours?
While not at all to be confused with holy writ, the writings of Mark Twain do contain some trenchant insights on one thing and another. Chapter III of Huckleberry Finn begins as follows:
Well, I got a good going-over in the morning from old Miss Watson on account of my clothes; but the widow she didn’t scold, but only cleaned off the grease and clay, and looked so sorry that I thought I would behave awhile if I could. Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.
Now I’m going to venture a guess that most people here have had something like Huck’s experience. You don’t have to admit it openly, but I suspect most of us have prayed for things — either physical things like Huck’s fishhooks, or other things, like the recovery of a sick friend — that haven’t actually come about. That being the case, those of us who were raised to take every point in the Bible as both literal and true might find today’s reading from the Gospel of John to be a bit of a stumbling-block. It’s certainly one of a number of things that edged me slowly but inexorably out of a more fundamentalist understanding of the scriptures myself. John tells us that whatever we pray for in his name, we’ll receive. And yet, apparently, to quote the song, it ain’t necessarily so. That’s a problem, it seems to me.
There are several ways of dealing with this discrepancy.
Miss Watson’s response to Huck Finn is in fact too often the one people resort to: it’s not an answer to the question at all, but an attack on the person who asks it: “…she said I was a fool. She never told me why…” Though this seems to be more and more the way our society deals with problematic questions, I don’t think it’s acceptable. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher. But it certainly seems to me to torpedo any very fundamentalist approach to scripture: if one is going to insist that every word of the Bible is absolutely true and also subject to an ordinary common-sense interpretation, then it ought to be true in a common-sensical way. While calling someone a fool for challenging it may be a way of deflecting an argument, it doesn’t answer it at all.
Only slightly better is the argument that Jesus makes this all dependent on the “If you believe in me” condition, and that hence, if I don’t get what I’m asking for, it’s because I wasn’t believing well enough, or praying hard enough. This is, of course, what many other people would argue. It makes it a problem about a defect in me. I have a sufficient supply of defects, of course, thank you very much, but it looks like the fine print in the contest rules that makes sure that nobody ever actually wins the prize. If God only answers the prayers of flawless people, that’s not much different from answering none of them, is it?
Moreover, it does seem to me to skate rather close to something like a doctrine of salvation by works. What is initially set out as an instance of divine grace becomes, on the strong form of these terms, merely a test of my ability to believe, where the definition of that belief is left tantalizingly but perennially just beyond my reach. I don’t know about you, but when I encounter such things in an area other than Christianity — Scientology, for example — I tend to write them off as a scam. I’m not sure I can honestly think of them differently just because they’re flying the Christian banner.
To push the case a little further, in all this world, full of the faithless, the faithful, and the ultra-faithful as it is, surely someone must be praying with a pure heart and a correct attitude (if such a thing is achievable) for the end of the current pandemic. And yet the thing goes on. It’s possible, I suppose, that of almost eight billion possible prayers, none has been offered by a genuine believer…but I have to say that if that’s the case, the odds of my being or becoming such a believer are pretty slim, and I’m not sure that this whole prospect is anything more than a bad advertising come-on. Plenty of people prayed for the end of the Black Death too, back in 1348, and it went on to kill about a third of the population of Europe.
The other possibility, of course, is that the gospel is just wrong. I wasn’t willing even to entertain that notion in my earlier years, but I’ve become more tolerant of it since, because I don’t think that an error in some part of scripture necessarily vitiates the whole of it. That’s probably a conversation for another occasion, though. All I will say about it here is that it’s a position you can hold and still be a Christian. Nevertheless, I think a more honest approach to the scriptures is not merely to dismiss them, but to try to understand what they’re saying.
So what do we do with this?
I think there are at least two explanations that at least partly dismantle the apparent contradiction between what Jesus says and our practical experience of prayer. One is the argument that this promise was given to the apostles specifically and exclusively. That is, what God gave them was unique to them, peculiar to their own place in human history, and not something guaranteed to all Christians throughout future time. If so, then, well, that’s expired, and we’re on our own.
That seems possible, and yet it’s curiously unsatisfactory to me. Certainly if it’s true, it has virtually no contemporary relevance to us or to our ways of praying. After all, unless we’re seriously off in our understanding of such things, there are no apostles currently alive. (I know of one Christian group that believes that there are, actually, but I have a great many other issues with them, and don’t think I buy that either.)
The other thing is this little phrase “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” That seems to me to require some definition. What does it mean to ask something in Jesus’ name? If you’ve been around Christians of various different persuasions for very long, you’ve surely run into some who close their prayers with a formulaic “In Jesus’ name,” as a way (apparently) of tapping into this guarantee. I’ve done it myself. Preparing this sermon, though, has caused me to rethink what I mean — or ought to mean — when I say it.
Let’s examine that. If all one needs to do is append this little phrase, doesn’t this make prayer something like an attempt to operate God, as if he were some kind of divine vending machine, or a genie in a bottle? If God is manipulable in this way — that is, if he becomes a functionary for you or me just because we’ve said a certain phrase, how is that different from getting a superpower just by saying a magic word…like maybe “Shazam”, for those of us of a certain age? And if so…does that sound like the way God works? I don’t think it is. There are, of course, traditional theories that define a whole category of magic as theurgic, which is to say, “god-compelling”. They have, however, very little traction in the orthodox Christian tradition. (They are much more common in esoteric Christian belief, which tends toward Gnosticism; there are similar connections in Kabbalistic Judaism. I don’t think we can find any evidence, however, in either the Old Testament or the New, that God submits to being used that way.
And really, if you think about it, how could it make sense for that to happen? God is God, not just an infinite extension of human power. The very fabric of reality would come unraveled if it were otherwise. After all, if Tom prays for x, and Jim prays for not-x, what’s going to happen? If both sides in a war pray (earnestly, as I believe often happens) for victory, who’s going to win? If Peter and Paul disagree and pray about it, whose position will carry the day? We know from the book of Acts that the answer is not “both of them”.
I bring these issues up not just because they’re amusing to think about — though I admit that they may be. Yes, I have a mind that wanders toward the whimsical end of the spectrum when probing questions like this. But I raise the issue here not just for the sake of humor but because a reductio ad absurdum is one of the better ways to address a problematic question. If we want to understand what praying in Jesus’ name looks like, one of the ways to narrow that down is to ascertain what it doesn’t look like. It seems quite obvious that, whatever else it may be, it’s not about magically entrapping God in a promise. There are lots of myths in the Greek tradition in which gods get trapped by their promises; especially if they swear by the river Styx, they’re stuck following through on it, whether they want to or not. They make a blank-check sort of promise, and then whoever has received it proceeds to make the gods do what they least want to do. The gods make this blunder routinely. You’d think they’d learn.
But you don’t find much of anything like that in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our understanding of God is very different, and it goes all the way back. I think instead we need to look at this as part of the wider tradition of prophecy in the Old and New Testaments. Despite popular usage, a prophet is not defined one who predicts the future. Though they do that sometimes, that’s neither neither necessary nor sufficient to qualify one as a prophet. The prophet is the one who speaks for or on behalf of God. The signature phrase of the true prophet is not “Here’s what’s going to happen tomorrow,” but “Thus saith the Lord.” The prophet speaks in the name of the Lord in that sense. It’s not actually a super-power, and it’s not something over which the prophet typically has any say. He’s told what he’s to say, and he says it, usually after a bit of grumpy negotiation to try to get out of it. (The job of prophet is not usually considered a plum position. Prophets have an unfortunate way of being killed on the job, or persecuted in a variety of unpleasant ways.)
But I think it’s under this rubric that we have to understand the idea that someone — anyone — can be praying in Jesus name. The one praying is not just using a formulaic phrase to call God to account and to get his own way. God has not pre-approved a no-limits charge account. Instead he is speaking on behalf of Jesus. That’s not something that can be achieved merely by rubber-stamping the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer. It comes because we are charged with speaking and praying in accordance with the will of Jesus — who is God — in the first place. Otherwise one isn’t really acting in Jesus’ name, or really praying in Jesus’ name: one is merely a would-be magician trying to conjure up a superpower.
We live in a culture obsessed with superheroes and superpowers, and it’s rather strange. They have come to take a very prominent place in our entertainment, even though I don’t think most of us actually believe that they are possible. I think that some Christians are still kind of clinging to that option, though, under this peculiar rubric. But really that’s not how it works. Even in the Harry Potter universe, most of us are still muggles. In fact, I think by the clear light of day, it’s pretty obvious that there are only muggles out here.
I’m not actually arguing that the supernatural is impossible. There seems to be significant evidence for it. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, after all, as Paul says, our faith is in vain. That’s not in accord with the normal operation of natural processes. But I have to think that God has not given it to you or to me, or to any other person, to decide when the laws of nature will be superseded, suspended, or set aside. That’s his decision. After all, he made the laws of nature. He and nature have a special relationship.
What this leaves me with is the intriguing challenge of trying to determine how we can actually pray in Jesus’ name, then. I’m not sure I have a tidy answer to that. I’m willing to say that I suspect some of our prayers really are framed that way, especially when we are praying for — and actively working to bring about — the glory of God and his kingdom on earth. That at least seems part of the specification we get here in John. Beyond that, I think it’s something we can explore further.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Today’s readings are all loaded with evocative imagery and topics, but the Gospel lesson really has to be one of the most complex and perplexing pieces of narrative anywhere in the New Testament. The confrontation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is a story that shows up only in the Gospel of John, and it’s loaded with so many layers of implication that it’s probably impossible to plumb it to its core.
Part of it is just because it’s really rather weird and disjointed. I know there’s a tendency to think, “Well, sure. Old text. Things have shaken a little bit loose in transmission, so not all the pieces can be expected to dovetail and make perfect sense.” There’s a tendency also to blame ourselves for our own perplexity, and to assume that none of it is going to make perfect sense, because we just don’t get it. Maybe it’s the cultural idiom; maybe it’s some native incapacity. From the point of view of twenty-first century America, though, this conversation seems more than a little bit jagged.
I have students whose approach to other ancient texts is similar: they can produce a translation of a passage — I don’t know how — without ever questioning the fact that it doesn’t really seem to make sense in context. Don’t do that. It does make sense — and you have to be more confident in your own ability to recognize what sense looks like. In the Gospel of Mark, there are certainly a few junctures that look like they’ve been put together with a staple gun and chewing gum. But the Gospel of John is quite different. If you read it extensively, all at once, it normally flows pretty smoothly. In that context, just how jarring and strange this conversation is becomes more obvious.
We’ve all heard the story before; familiarity may dull our sense for just how manic and bizarre it is. Of course the more or less obvious take-away from the story as a whole is the fact that Jesus, in the course of a fairly long conversation (as scriptural accounts of such things go) extends the offer of salvation and eternal life to a non-Jew. The Samaritans were not wholly separate from the Jews: they traced their ancestry, as the story relates, back to Jacob and Joseph; they believed in the same Lord, and observed at least some of the Law. One of the main points at issue between them was the question of where the Lord ought to be worshiped. The Samaritans kept their traditional “high places”, while the Jews held to the primacy of Jerusalem and the temple there. Like the Shiites and Sunni Muslims, they’ve split over what is in some ways a less-than-critical administrative detail, rather than any essential doctrine. But — it’s just human nature, I guess — they reserve a special contempt for each other. The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was in some ways greater than that between Jews and out-and-out pagans.
But if, rather than just trying to distill the story into a single propositional point, you take a look at the way the narrative unfolds, it’s very strange. It’s a kind of verbal sparring-match between the two, fraught with a whole range of social and cultural awkwardnesses. A certain amount of background will help, though much of it is supplied by the story. The woman herself has, in the cultural terms of the day, three strikes against her.
First of all, of course, she was a Samaritan. In the NRSV reading you heard today, John tells us that the Jews and the Samaritans don’t share things with each other. To say that they don’t “share things in common” is remarkably bland, really, and probably misses the point more than it gets it. Without an object, as it is here, the Greek verb συγχρῶνται (though it means something like “use together”) is likelier to mean something more like “associate”. John’s point is not, I think, that they don’t share eating utensils or cookware in order to preserve a strict Kosher kitchen: the force of the phrase here is more like “the Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans”. While she is still a believer in the Lord, and in fact (as we learn) is looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, the Samaritans are pariahs to the Jews. Even talking to them is enough to suggest a kind of ritual uncleanness for a strictly observant Jew. Sharing a water-jug with a Samaritan would be out of the question.
Second, she’s a woman. Even if she’d been a Jewish woman, this would have been problematic. For an unaccompanied man even to speak with an unaccompanied woman was a violation of conventional common decency. Of course nothing untoward happened between them — and there probably weren’t laws against just talking to one another. They were, after all, apparently in a public location, though we aren’t told that anyone else is around when the conversation starts; I think we have to understand a certain amount of privacy. But for Jesus to initiate a conversation with a single or unaccompanied woman was at the very least daring. It was not the done thing, and it would probably have been considered an insult to her had she been an entirely respectable woman.
Third, however, as it eventually emerges, she apparently wasn’t an entirely respectable woman. Here we need to read between the lines; the implications are not spelled out in detail. In writing about this, Frank Spina points out that she might well have been widowed five times in her life; that’s at least theoretically possible, and remarriage after being widowed was not itself frowned upon. It’s possible that one or more of her marriages ended in divorce; though Jesus speaks strongly against divorce himself, it was also at least legal under the Jewish law. Divorce, moreover, was typically initiated by the husband, so if it was a fault, it probably wouldn’t have been hers. For a woman to be divorced or widowed virtually compelled her to remarry, or, if that was not a possibility, to enter into other relationships. Marriage was largely about producing children; the abandoned woman was unlikely, after her childbearing years, ever to find another husband. Her position was economically on the edge all the time, and it was the cruel reality that many such women became prostitutes because they were just out of options. Still, by the end of this process, she is apparently living in a relationship that is not marriage. It seems unlikely that Jesus would have mentioned it, or that John would have mentioned it, or that the woman would have talked about it even obliquely to others, if it had been merely a housing arrangement. Accordingly, associating with her was dicey for Jesus. It suggested morally dubious intentions.
Despite all these things, Jesus strikes up a conversation with the woman. Its beginnings give no real indication of where it’s headed. At least it seems like a entirely pragmatic line. He’s thirsty, and he wants some water. He asks her to draw some for him. It seems obvious, and almost innocuous. After all, she has the jug; he doesn’t have one. That this is an echo of certain Old Testament betrothal narratives (hearkening back to Jacob, in fact) is an interesting byway that we don’t have time for here. But check it out if you’re interested.
The conversation unfolds from there very oddly indeed. After Jesus makes the first advance, the woman replies by falling back on conventional formalities of proper behavior. “How is it that you’re asking this of me? I’m a Samaritan and I’m a woman.” She doesn’t mention her marital status. Perhaps she wants to seem more respectable than she really is. Her response isn’t strictly an answer to his request, but it makes sense in context.
Then Jesus makes a completely unanticipated turn. He doesn’t answer her challenge at all, either, but he does something that’s even more transgressive: he turns it around on her and says, “Well, if you had any idea who I was, you’d be asking me for water.” What? How did we get there? Does he want some actual literal water or not? Then he goes on to explain that if she had asked, he would have given her living water. Exactly what qualifies as living water is not at this point entirely clear.
I don’t know about you, but if someone I’ve never met opens a conversation with a completely conventional comment or request, and then follows it up with a loopy zinger like that, I’m usually looking around for the nearest exit. I figure I’m being played by some kind of charlatan, or else just a nut case. I want to disengage.
She’s clearly flummoxed, but continues to try to control the situation, if only by imposing some kind of rationality on it. She tries to relate what he’s saying to the practical reality of the situation. He’s sitting there, having asked for water; she points out, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” In any conventional sense, it’s pretty obvious that he’s in no position to be offering her water. Living water, she doesn’t know. But the well’s right there. She’s going to try to redeem the situation without getting too rude.
Then, however, she does a kind of double-take, as if what he had said had just sunk in, a few beats too late. Her line of questioning changes: “Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?” Clearly she’s become aware that this is no longer about his ability to hoist up a bucket of regular H2O. She’s not sure what it is, but she’s reaching back to the foundations of her own faith. She’s betting on the fact that water they had gotten from their ancestor Jacob and Joseph was going to be as good as any other water he might be able to offer.
So what does Jesus do now? He starts deprecating the water he’s just asked for. What? “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Certainly he now seems a few notches shy of sane. He’s gotten her attention, though. It’s not clear whether she’s sold on the whole thing,, or whether she is merely trying to call his bluff. After all, he said that if she asked for it, he’d give it to her. So, fine. She’ll ask. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She still thinks that this is about normal water: but, whatever it is, having it will mean that she won’t have to come back to the well to draw more every day. She isn’t too clear on how this all works, but if it means she can scratch a regular and probably tiring activity off her daily schedule, that’s worth a shot, isn’t it?
At this point, though, Jesus pulls yet another change of direction. He doesn’t apparently give her anything. He tells her to go fetch her husband. Well, okay — but that doesn’t look very much like a gift of water either, does it? Why that? When she says that she doesn’t have a husband, Jesus comes out with a recital of what might be considered an account of her unchastity. And yet he doesn’t offer it as an accusation, as such. He doesn’t scold her, and he doesn’t stop talking to her. This strikes her like a thunderbolt. For her, it’s apparently less about the fact that she is or isn’t unchaste, and more about the fact that he knows it. I think it’s probably important also to add that he apparently already knew it before he struck up this conversation in the first place. He knew what kind of woman he was talking to.
This is what really boggles her, and she identifies Jesus as a prophet. She sketches the conventional difference between Jewish and Samaritan worship, making no reference to her marital status. She’s definitely hooked now: If his responses have been a little (or a lot) disjointed, well, this would explain it. Prophets are allowed to be a little weird — it kind of goes with the territory.
But it’s precisely here that he stops leaping about from pillar to post. The conversation zeroes in on what he really wants to talk to her about, but he’s also now established his credentials. What he has to say is equally astounding. All that stuff about Jerusalem and the Samaritan high places will ultimately be cancelled as irrelevant. And, in fact, “ultimately” is right now. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”
The woman replies with an appeal to the Messiah. It’s not clear why she is moved to bring him up, but I think it’s perhaps an outgrowth of what he’s said about the coming order. Certainly there’s a sense that the promised Messiah bridges the gap between the two peoples. All these petty quibbles will be set right, the truth will be known, and the differences in worship style will be resolved.
And then Jesus lands his real zinger, “That would be me. You’re talking to him.” Well. This is a remarkable statement at any time, but this is another one worth seeing in context. Claimants to the title of Messiah actually popped up fairly routinely. So it’s not a title that nobody would claim for himself. It’s just not proven to be true in most cases. Preposterous claims aren’t that uncommon. To some extent, their frequency makes even the valid one suspect. I mean, I suppose it’s possible that some wealthy Nigerian wants to send me twenty million dollars, but I honestly don’t tend to pay attention to those emails any more. But what if it were true?
The eccentric flow of the conversation, it’s worth noting, has already established Jesus’ credentials as at least a genuine prophet by the time he arrives here. The other thing that validates what he says is precisely the curious inappropriateness of the person he’s addressing. Nigerian scammers don’t selectively send their email only to destitute people living on the street. Messianic claimants who want to be taken seriously surely aren’t going to lodge their claim with those in absolutely no position to promote their cause. He’s telling a woman? A Samaritan? A possible prostitute? What in the world is he thinking?
Of course, God seems to have this regular way of working through the least probable — the weak, the marginalized, and the disinherited. At this point in his career, if our chronologies are correct, Jesus has not made this claim to any of the Jews, even his own disciples. He has mostly kept his identity under wraps up to this point. Commentators talk about the Messianic Secret in Mark. But even in John, he’s not carrying calling cards identifying him as the Messiah. Looking at the gospel narrative in dramatic terms, this is what the Hollywood types call the Big Reveal — like that point where the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro discloses who he really is. The fact that he made this revelation first to someone outside the chosen inner circle is remarkable for its brazenness; it also says a great deal about the direction he is going overall.
If that were all there was, this would be a remarkable story. But it continues. Up to this point, we’re given to understand that the conversation has been private, possibly unobserved altogether. But then the disciples show up en masse. They’re apparently kind of appalled, or at least perplexed, to find Jesus, the pillar of righteousness, carrying on an apparently intimate conversation with this questionable woman — a Samaritan, no less. John tells us that they didn’t challenge him on it, but the fact that he mentions it argues that it was going through someone’s mind. But neither does either Jesus or the woman tell them what he has told her about himself.
In due course, she also becomes something of a model of what the true convinced evangelist can be. She, whose only credentials were a sinful life and a place among a marginal tribe of dubious believers, goes out and starts getting people to come see Jesus for themselves. In a stroke of naturalistic detail, we’re told that she leaves her water-jar behind. I’m sure there’s a high-powered interpretive explanation of the significance of that: I tend personally to take it just as corroborative detail. She was pretty fired up about this.
In the midst of this narrative there is another one inserted that is almost a mirror image of Jesus’ conversation with the woman; his disciples are urging him to eat, but he tells them that he has food they don’t know about. They entirely fail to get the point.
What shall we make of all this, then? I’m not sure there’s a single overriding point to take from it. As so often in scripture and even in literature, the point is in the narrative itself, not in a distillation or a moral. What we see is Jesus’s interaction with a sinful woman — sinful as we are. His angles of approach are occasionally bewildering — and I for one am often bewildered by them too. Ultimately he touches a nerve and turns her whole universe upside down. The challenge, I think, is for us to let him do so for us too. But don’t trade the story in for these reductions. It’s worth clinging to and re-examining over and over again for what it is itself.
Fr. Steve suggested that I post this.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
So. Here we are. Tuesday night was the culmination of a national frenzy — one we go through every four years when we elect our leaders. You may have been happy about the results, or you may have been unhappy about the results; I’m not here to address that directly, but I can’t help wondering whether the makers of the lectionary had it in mind when they selected for today’s reading Psalm 146, which contains the trenchant little verse, “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.” That seemed particularly resonant to me under the circumstances. Maybe I’m just getting old, though I confess that I long ago settled into an established skepticism about the political processes of this or any other country, now or at any other time in history. Perhaps part of that’s because I was a history major in college; there’s nothing like studying history to make you aware of the fact that human institutions are remarkably mutable, typically irrational, and really quite short-lived, however unchangeable, coherent, and enduring they may seem at the time.
Our culture is not very historically conscious, overall. What’s newest and cutting-edge is the only thing that matters to many people. One of the things that’s lacking in our contemporary culture, I think, is the concomitant sense of perspective and proportion. But even where there is some sense of historical movement, we are still often afflicted with what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. Most people in the modern era — going back at least to the early nineteenth century, and perhaps further — seem to think that they are living at the culmination of history, and that everything humanity has done up to this point has been done chiefly for the purpose of getting here. As a subjective phenomenon, I suppose it’s what one might expect from the largely subjectivist worldview that has overtaken our discourse both inside and outside the church; at the same time, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to realize that nobody in the past even remotely envisioned our current society as the goal of their existence. If your memory runs back to a time fifty years ago (and many of ours do), surely you weren’t at the time thinking of today as where you were headed. By the same token, those who come fifty or a hundred years down the road probably aren’t going to be under the impression that it’s all been downhill from 2012 (at least not unless all those end-of-the-world predictions are true: if they are, all bets are off). It’s entirely possible that they will think of us as mere stepping stones to where they are themselves. If so, they won’t have learned much, but that won’t be surprising either.
What’s missing from all this, of course, is a real sense of perspective and proportion — which doesn’t so much reject the subjective for a completely cold objectivism, as balance it against all those other equally valid subjective points of view out there. Perspective is what largely seems to have gone missing through the weeks leading up to the election. Certainly the campaigns brought out egregiously disproportionate behavior and low-minded discourse from people who usually seem to know better. It sufficiently rankled me that I actually voted for one candidate I wouldn’t have otherwise, based entirely on the absurd attack ads that had been ranged against him on television. My impression was that it was worse than usual this time: how about you? Maybe it was, but maybe it’s wasn’t. I always think that the most recent election was the worst ever. Perhaps my memory is casting a rosy glow over the more distant past. If my impression is correct, though, we really are caught in a downward spiral of public discourse in general.
And so I’ve remarked to my classes all week that, irrespective of results, it was just good to have the election over, and they all seem to have agreed. Friday night, at the opening Eucharist for the diocesan convention, Bishop Rickel preached what I thought was a remarkably good sermon (arguably two or maybe two and a half sermons…but that was okay), where he took this perception a little farther. He hasn’t yet posted it online, but when he does, I hope you’ll take a look (or a listen, if he’s recorded it). One of the observations he brought from the experience — and I’m paraphrasing broadly, because I don’t have his text — is that we need to model new ways of listening to each other across these fierce dogmatic divides — of doing so with charity and humility. He’s not the only other person I’ve seen talk about this in the Christian context. I read a blog entry from another Christian voter — this time a relatively conservative one. He had been somewhat more dismayed by the outcome of the election, but also so by the degradation of our ability to listen to each other. He too suggested that if there’s one thing we can all genuinely collaborate on, despite our political affiliations or preferences, it might well be listening to one another in humility — not caving in on strongly-held points of belief, but also not letting those take over who we are essentially as people. And I think that’s something to which adherents of either party could legitimately subscribe.
Humility and perspective. That’s what today’s readings are all about. The Psalm, as noted, has something to say about not putting our trust in human resources at all, but trusting instead in the Lord. It’s good advice to follow at any time, but in particular we need to hear this when we least want to hear it. We need have the perspective to realize that even those political issues that most divide us are not, on the eternal view of things, terribly consequential, and we also need to have the humility to admit that, however well we think we’re in command of the facts, we probably don’t know them all, and probably don’t fully understand why the other guy thinks what he thinks, and the proper course there is to interpret his motives charitably. We ourselves are limited, in other words — and we need to acknowledge that.
Today’s Old Testament reading is the familiar tale of Elijah and the widow. The country is suffering a drought and famine. Elijah is hungry, so he comes to the widow asking for a meal. She’s probably more than a little bit exasperated at the request, since she’s already at the end of her tether. She tells him, “Look — you’re barking up the wrong tree here. We have almost nothing. I just have this little bit of meal in the bottom of a jar, and half an ounce of oil; my current plan is to mix it all together, bake it, and eat it. And then we’re going to lie down and die, since there is really nothing else left for us to do.” Elijah, however, is insistent in that pesky way that only prophets really can be, and he prevails upon her to share it with him.
What happens, of course, is that this little bit of meal and this little trickle of oil somehow lasts until the drought and famine are over. The widow shares her meal, and it doesn’t actually run out. The widow and her son, together with Elijah, stick around quite a while. Admittedly, a steady diet of something like Scottish oat-cakes may not be the most appealing way to stay alive, but it’s better than the alternative.
There are several ways of looking at this story. Mediaeval biblical exegetes were inclined to see it as a figure at least in part of the inexhaustible nature of divine grace, especially as manifested in the Eucharist. That’s really not such a bad way of looking at it. In that respect, it also prefigures the stories of the feeding of the five thousand (and, if you think of it as a different event, the feeding of the four thousand as well). I’m all in favor of that, since we need to remind ourselves frequently that God’s supply is not ours, and that even when we’re at our best, the way we look at things is never really God’s way.
Of more immediate concern, however, I think there’s an important moral or behavioral kernel to this story, and it’s one we ought not overlook. The widow did have Elijah’s assurances that things would turn out well for if she complied with his request; at the same time, it must have sounded a bit nutty to her. We aren’t told, unless I’ve missed it, whether or not she was fully persuaded of his prophet’s credentials. Maybe she just thought, “Well, we’re going to die anyway, so I might as well be nice. There is, I suppose the remote chance that this guy is not just a wacko. Long odds are better than no odds.” Whatever she thought, however, what she did was important. Out of the little she had, she made an offering to this person who was in need. In consequence she herself was fed. This is worth bearing in mind.
The Gospel lesson for today brings us the equally well-known story of another widow, who goes into the temple and offers two little coins. We’re told here that together they make up about a penny. That’s about right. I’ve seen an ancient coin that was identified as a widow’s mite, and it’s a wee sliver of copper not quite as big as your little fingernail, and not much thicker. Its buying power was trivial. The evangelist tells us that she tossed her coins into the box along with the large and ostentatious gifts of the very wealthy. No doubt some people regarded her offering with contempt. Jesus doesn’t change the facts of her offering, but encourages us to look at the whole matter from a different perspective — from a divine perspective — and with humility. He points out that, whereas the very wealthy were giving out of their abundance, and doubtless were keeping plenty back for themselves, this poor woman was offering all she had, much like the widow who fed Elijah. It’s not clear whether she knew that she had another meal coming, or whether, like the widow of Zarephath, she also was just expecting to lie down and die. But she made the gift nevertheless, with the end result that at least Jesus tells us that she has given more, in the sight of heaven, then all the rest of them combined. She went, in the gambler’s terminology, “all in”.
Okay. I’m sure there are some political parallels to be drawn from this. But I’m not going to make them. The problem is that such parallels tend to trip all over each other. You can use a story like this to prove almost anything, if you have an axe to grind. I will leave that as an exercise to you, if it’s one you want to pursue. If you’re as tired of politics as I am, however, feel free to ignore the whole business.
I think the bigger lesson to be drawn here is not a political one or even a social one — though issues of social justice are intertwined here — but a personal and spiritual one, which is (in a sense) about the virtue of going “all in” — committing ourselves unreservedly — with everything we’ve got. Don’t worry: this is not a stewardship sermon in disguise. I’m not advising you to drain your bank accounts to the last farthing. I don’t think that would be wise for you or for us. But I think it does tell us something about how we ourselves should respond to need. It says more about our obligations than about our entitlements, and it says virtually nothing about our apparent capacities. Note that Elijah didn’t go to people with abundant resources. There probably were a few. Instead he went to the widow. He gives her the assurance — pretty hard to believe, under the circumstances — that the food and oil would not run out, and then expects from her a leap of faith. The widow in the Temple received no such guarantee, as far as we know; but both of them gave freely of what they had without regarding the long-term benefits to themselves, or the probable costs.
As the Psalmist tells us, the princes and institutions of this world, select and fine-tune them however we like, cannot guarantee us justice, comfort, or even survival. The resources of this world are only so useful, as well. You can have a million dollars in the bank, but if the bank fails and the FDIC fails, you have nothing. You can have a thousand pounds of gold, but if nobody’s buying gold, you can starve to death surrounded by it. Your candidate may win the election — but that doesn’t really guarantee results either.
Please understand that this doesn’t free us from the obligation to try to make our choices and our institutions as just and charitable as we can. It does, however, free us from the terrible burden of being measured and justified entirely by our success. That may be the way the world judges; it’s not the way we must judge. That is to say, our obligations remain our obligations, whether they produce the desired outcome or not. Feeding the starving man may or may not save him. Giving to the widow may not be enough to help her. Providing medical care to someone who’s about to die may not be the best use of resources in the worldly calculus of such things, either — but in the sight of heaven, these are the people we’re given to feed, support, and care for. Our duty to love one another, and to reach out to those in need, is nonnegotiable, and it’s not bounded by any kind of practical boundary. This is because everyone you can minister to is dying. And those who do the ministering are dying too. We’re all heading there sooner or later. That’s okay.
In the divine economy, our spiritual wealth, so to speak, is not measured by the buying power we can bring to the table, but by the faithfulness with which we bring what we can. The Lord has given us no guarantees — effectively all ministry is extended from the dying to the dying. But I think we can say that God looks rather more kindly upon those who shoulder their obligations even in the midst of uncertainty and inevitable death than upon those who to carve a carefully adequate piece of charity out of their abundance.
In the history of this congregation, we have been advised by many voices from many different directions at several different stages that we were a dying congregation — that we were on the brink of insolvency, and that the only rational course to pursue would be to lie down and die. Well, at some level, yes. We’re a dying congregation. But here’s the secret: so are all congregations. We all have only a finite time on this earth. That goes for us individually, and it goes for our constructions and our institutions. Our tenure of humanity is not measured by how long we can stretch it out, but by what we do with it while we have it.
I’m sorry to say that some people seem to have taken the idea that we’re dying too much to heart, and have left without really considering the fact that there’s nowhere else to go, where that won’t be true. Rather than choosing to lie down and die, we’ve chosen to continue to focus largely on our outreach. I say that not to boast for myself or for us collectively, but that seems to me to be consistent with scriptural models, too. We’re feeding homeless men, we’re feeding the youth at The Landing, we’re making hats, we’re supporting the Mission to Seafarers, we’re contributing to Northwest Harvest, raising funds for breast cancer and other charitable causes, and trying to welcome people to the Lord’s table right here at All Saints. And in every one of those activities, like the widow of Zarephath, we ourselves are fed. Can it last forever? Probably not. What of it? For today, it feeds someone, keeps someone warm, helps someone battle disease. And it feeds us.
What’s almost funny, in addition, is the fact that, while I can’t absolutely guarantee that those who manage the Diocesan Investment Fund are directly inspired by God, its resemblance to the inexhaustible jar of meal and jug of oil for this congregation has been slightly uncanny. We keep taking money out of it to close the gaps in our budget, and when we return, most of what we have taken out has reappeared. Whether that will continue to be the case, of course, we don’t know. God is not allowing us room to grow smug or self-satisfied about it. Fair enough. He’s never given many worldly guarantees — he’s telling us to follow him — to go “all in”. Our job is not necessarily to know the consequences. Our job is to act in faithfulness.
If one takes a worldly perspective out far enough, all human endeavor is marked with a certain profound futility. Every institution we’ve created, with the possible exception of the Church (by which I mean the Church Universal, and not this particular arm of it) will similarly pass away. Every business, state, nation, corporation, non-profit foundation, or movement that’s appeared on the face of the earth is of finite duration. We may like that or not, but it’s the fact, so we might as well face it. People are eternal — but they also will pass away from this part of existence. Every person you save, even with the best means and the most charitable of intentions, from starvation or some other unfortunate demise, is someone who will nevertheless eventually die.
But in the meanwhile it is up to us to be faithful, and if we look beyond the dreary perspective of this world to the perspective of the eternal and unchanging God, we see that what we do here in love and faithfulness is projected onto a different future that doesn’t look so dim.
[The following is a sermon given at All Saints, Sunday, May 22, 2011, by Eric Stroo]
I overcame some adversity to prepare a sermon for this morning. In the first place, I had to overcome the buzz that spread from a radio evangelist in Oakland, California, who predicted that the world would end yesterday. It occurred to me that, if this character were right, my efforts might be pointless. But, as it happens, I don’t really put much stock in these pronouncements, although I notice how the media delights in mining them. So I didn’t hesitate to prepare for this morning; and somewhere in the back of my mind I had to acknowledge that, just in case this half-baked prediction was correct, working on a sermon would be a good way for God to find me on Judgment Day.
I also had to work my way past the reported pronouncement by eminent physicist Stephen Hawking that debunks the notion of heaven: It has no place in his view of the cosmos. Heaven, he says, is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” And our deaths can be fully understood as equivalent to a computer being turned off. As a friend of mine would say, that’s harsh.
A devout adherent to the scientific method, Hawking has devoted his life to advancing the body of scientifically derived knowledge of the universe. Although, once again, the media exploits his words for their attention-grabbing value, Hawking’s recent statement about heaven was not actually news. He has long maintained his faith in the project of science to explain the origins of the universe by scientific causation and not by relying on God’s intervention or collusion. He believes in that project. He doesn’t claim that it disproves the existence of God; it’s just that his project, the scientific project, and its findings don’t rely on the existence of God. So I wished him well and returned to my sermon preparations, being sure to keep the light on.
In Holy time, we are processing triumphantly through the season of Easter. And as we process, we are celebrating, week by week, the magnitude of Christ’s role in our salvation. Last week, we looked at that role in terms of the metaphors of shepherd and gate. And this week, the gospel provides further assurance that Christ is our way to God. All this instruction is crucial, because, up ahead, we are also approaching the day of the Ascension, when we bid farewell to the resurrected body of Jesus. In the midst of our Easter joy, we anticipate the challenge of that removal. How will we endure that separation? What will secure our faith when we no longer have unassailable proof in the resurrected body of our savior, Jesus Christ? Something to produce as evidence for the Stephen Hawkingses of the world. How shall we persist in a world that is hostile to what we experience to be true and good, that so frequently caricatures and belittles our faith and our mission?
One answer to this challenge surely lies in the story of Stephen. We heard the conclusion of that story this morning–the account of his martyrdom: his stoning and his gracious and amazingly confident response. The background to that story deserves more mention, if only for the fact that…and I say this with possible slight prejudice…the fact that Stephen was among the first seven Christians to be made a deacon. In fact, I would suggest, and believe me I do so with trepidation, that his task as a deacon is not unrelated to his untimely death.
Stephen makes his entrance, you will recall, in connection with the grumblings that arose among those earliest of the Christian faithful. A segment of the widows, who were among the most vulnerable in ancient society, was not being provided for in the daily distribution of food. It’s not clear that the widows themselves were doing the actual grumbling, but I’m not here to claim that that’s impossible either. Anyway, it seems that the widows among the Aramaic-speaking followers were attended to, but the widows among the Hellenists, the Greek-speakers, were being neglected. Apparently they were all Jewish Christians; it’s just that there were differences in background and language that favored one group over the other.
So the apostles, referred to as “the twelve,” called everyone together. They did not dispute the facts that were presented by the disgruntled, but they threw up their hands and said, Look, we’re growing in numbers, but the twelve of us have our hands full with teaching and proclaiming and getting tossed in prison and being flogged and then returning to teaching and proclaiming the gospel.
Accordingly, they proposed that seven of the faithful be appointed to attend to the hungry. The convention voted unanimously to accept the proposal and the canons were amended to provide for seven deacons. These seven candidates then came before the twelve at the Jerusalem Hilton; the apostles prayed, laid their hands on them, gave them dish towels, and behold, a new order was born. (Of course, I’m compressing the timeline a bit: I’m pretty sure there was a three-year formation period in there somewhere.) Among them was this fellow Stephen, described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” The other six are also listed by name in the book of Acts.
Whatever else one might infer from this account of the first deacons, it’s safe to say two things at least: One, a central part of their task lies in the care for those on the margins and Two, an equally important part of their task lies in the equitable sharing of resources–without prejudice. No preference was given based on non-essential differences such as who among the faithful speaks which language: Greek or Spanish or Korean or Arabic or Swahili. So it’s about remembering those who can easily be overlooked–the poor and powerless–and it’s about diversity–not diversity for its own sake, but diversity that reflects an awareness of bias or preference in the way we distribute our resources.
I suppose there are two more things that can be said about this work of a deacon. The first is that it can be dangerous. Where the authorities, at this time, refrained from punishing the twelve disciples to the point of death, they did not exercise similar restraint when it came to Stephen. As we heard this morning, they stoned him to death. But the danger that comes with doing the work boldly is related to the second point: this work can have powerful results.
The book of Acts tells us that Stephen, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Presumably he did these wonders in the course of carrying out his duties as a deacon–attending to the hungry and forgotten, and doing so in a way that emphasized the dignity of all. Apparently, when that is done well, it enacts the very heart of the gospel. When that is done well, it is inspiring and dynamic and even revolutionary. Certainly, it appeared to disconcert the status quo with a power that, when combined with proclaiming the gospel, was still more transformative than preaching alone.
Stephen’s enemies, so the story goes, conspired to plant false stories about him, depicting him as a radical and a blasphemer. And so he comes before the Sanhedrin to defend himself. Which he does by demonstrating that he knows and honors the tradition, especially the parts of the tradition where God’s people repeatedly ignored or discredited God’s own prophets, opting instead for idolatry and violence. In other words, he maintains that being opposed by the powerful is not a sign to him that he’s wrong; in fact, God very frequently speaks through the less powerful. Stephen boldly aligns himself with the prophets, who have always been willing to challenge and even to offend the status quo. “You are the ones,” Stephen tells the council, “that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
You know, there’s no way that this guy is NOT dangerous. I will give the Sanhedrin that much credit. He stands before them with the face of an angel, and proceeds to rebuke them fiercely. I would not want to be them. If we are marking off days in the Easter calendar, then the Holy Spirit won’t officially arrive until Pentecost, in another three weeks. But in the book of Acts, we’re in chapters 6 and 7 and the Holy Spirit’s been whipping through the neighborhood since chapter 2. And it’s turning things upside down. It’s a game changer. And it’s a game changer precisely because it flows where it will, outside the defined channels, and with unsanctioned vitality.
All this talk about the powerful impact and danger of Stephen’s ministry is not, I assure you, my attempt to inflate the importance of the diaconate. Or its perils. Definitely not. I may be reading a little freely to suggest that Stephen’s authority is directly related to his diaconal mission. But I don’t think I got there alone. I think 10 years with the All Saints community played a part. So don’t blame me unless you also blame yourselves. It’s been 10 years of seeing where the vitality of the church resides and how it is nurtured and respected. And I have learned so much of that by being a part of the life of this church.
I don’t expect that that will stop. Inasmuch as All Saints has built an identity by contending that the people, rather than the buildings, constitute the church, then we will not lose sight of the unity we share in building up the church together. We will be quick to recognize that we are participating in building the same church, regardless of our location or current congregation. Each of us is, as Peter suggests, a stone that builds the Real edifice of the church, the Universal and Eternal church. There we reside, with Stephen and all the saints, gazing with our angelic faces at the Son of Man, whether the place we inhabit shows up on Stephen Hawking’s map of the cosmos or not.
In a world that can be hostile to our mission, that can trivialize and caricature our faith, we are wise to remember the example of Stephen. To see with the eyes of faith no matter how that might isolate us from a wider society. And to put the gospel into action with generosity and fairness because in our inability to produce the resurrected body of Christ in evidence, that is the next best thing. And in the eyes of the faithful, fellow members of the body of Christ, it is the same thing.
As one of those who encouraged Fr. Steve to post his sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, I suppose it behooves me to follow up somewhat with some of the thoughts that led me to nudge him in that direction.
I’ve wound up preaching on two previous Low Sundays myself (2007 and 2008), and the more I come back to the story of St. Thomas, the less certain I become. What seemed clearly hortatory to me when I was a child now seems one of the great mysteries. I’m certainly no longer ready to condemn St. Thomas for his doubt. Maybe that’s how I’m supposed to take it, but I don’t: I know that doubt is there — it’s part of my own view of the world as a Christian, and if I were to shut the door on that entirely, I’m not sure I’d like where I’d find myself. More to the point, however, I don’t think my faith would be the stronger for it.
Fr. Steve’s distinction of “in-doubts” and “out-doubts” is, I’m convinced, a useful way of grouping the experiences. But it’s primarily a way of clustering them before and after you’ve made a certain commitment. What continues to elude me is the essential what-it-is of faith and doubt, and how they are related to one another. I’m putting these thoughts out here in hopes that someone will rise to the occasion and enlighten me, or that (at least) we might have an interesting discussion on the subject.
As a teacher, one of the things I am perennially telling my students is that they need to define their terms. That’s part of the need here, I think. For all that we hear “have faith” as an exhortation, few who use it seem to be very clear on what faith really is, or what having faith looks like.
Catholics talk about acceding to the magisterium of the Church. That makes a certain amount of sense to me. The Catholic hierarchy claims to be invested with authority from Christ himself through the Petrine succession, and that hierarchy carries forth the teaching authority into the world in each succeeding age. I’m not a Catholic, but this piece of Catholic dogma seems entirely consistent with the rest of it, and if I were a Catholic, I’d have no trouble accepting it.
Fundamentalists talk about having faith in the Bible. That makes a bit less sense to me — which is not to say that I’m writing off scripture, but merely that as the term emerges and is used in scripture, having faith is almost always couched in terms of having faith in someone. But we can return to this later.
What both of these positions seem to mean is that I should maintain a certain inner attitude or state of mind, which we call belief (as if we knew what that word meant), regarding some set of propositions, be they the words of the Bible (and nothing else), or the collective teaching authority of sacred tradition (which includes, but is not limited to the Bible), or the three-way distribution of authority posited in Anglican thought. Believing that they are all true statements is good; not believing that they are true is bad. Doubt is a kind of not believing, and hence that’s bad too, while believing without questioning is apparently the best state to be in. Once you allow a foot in the door for any kind of questioning the whole thing falls apart. Only for me it’s an unattainable state, and I’m no longer sure that the doubt-free existence is one that I even aspire to attain.
To some extent, I get it. Faith is a linch-pin of our relationship to God. We should have faith. Abraham had faith, we are told, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That is, it was effectively filling in for a righteousness that he didn’t, in propria persona, have. Whatever it is, then, it must be pretty profound and powerful stuff. I confess that I find that extremely resonant. It’s not merely that it seems satisfying to me, but it seems consistent with the long course of God’s actions throughout history. God loved Abraham and David and the other leading patriarchs not because of their good behavior — but most often in spite of it. Paul and the author of Hebrews hold forth eloquently on how faith bridges for us a gap that we could not otherwise cross. I get all that. I even believe it.
Whence, therefore, comes the exhortation, “Believe! Have faith!” I get that too. But when I start to look at the problem, I wonder what it is really asking of me. If it’s merely a matter of resigning myself to an absolute credulity , then two things happen. On my view, neither of them is much good.
First of all, I’m not really eliminating my doubts; I’m merely sitting on them, hiding them, and pretending that they don’t exist. If I base my service of the Lord on a lie, how far can that get? The father of the demoniac boy cries to the Lord, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). He is not concealing his doubt, but opening it to the light of day.
Second of all, if this is something I can be enjoined to do (as apparently it is), then it implicitly is advice I can take. That is, I can choose to do it or not. If it’s something I can accomplish on my own, though, how is this not a species of salvation by my own works — a work of self-persuasion (if not self-delusion)? If it’s not something I can accomplish, why should anyone enjoin me to do so? Can it possibly be that justification by faith (in which I really do believe) just boils down to a special case of justification by my own works? I don’t like it. Paul has persuaded me well enough that nothing I can do can make me deserving of salvation. I’m quite convinced that he’s right.
So the story of St. Thomas, it seems to me, puts one of the sharpest possible points on this problem. Consider the following three facts:
What all that says to me is that faith is not a simple term that we can take simply. Nor is it just a matter of credulity or of keeping one’s doubts in check. Faith is not something you can really accomplish or achieve on your own, in any case. Just slamming the door on your doubts won’t help you in the long run. It’s a good recipe for a spiritual ulcer.
It seems clear to me, though, that looking through the Greek New Testament at all the various uses of the verb that’s used here for “believe” — namely πιστεύω (pisteuo) — there’s something more going on than merely granting intellectual assent to something. That verb is really rather seldom used to mean merely “to be persuaded of the truth of a proposition”. It’s almost always used in a personal sense. This is the part of the puzzle that seems critical to me. The faith I have in my wife, my children, and my friends is not really about accepting their existence as propositions. It’s not really about any other set of facts about them; it’s not even about believing that they will never deceive me. It’s personal faith — at a completely different level.
That’s why I cannot “believe in” the Bible the way some fundamentalists want me to. It’s less a matter of whether it’s right or wrong, and more a matter of what kind of thing it is in the first place. We can believe a report, an equation, a chemical formula, or the scriptures. We can only believe in someone. Ultimately, the only valid object of that kind of belief is God; through God we can extend something similar to other people.
Theology is a wonderful study, but it will always fall short of the glory of its object. It will probably even fall short of what stirs inside us. I’m a scholar by training. I’m a big fan of intellectual precision and integrity, and in my accounts, intellectual assent is a good thing; our doubts — whether of the “in” or “out” variety — may be a good thing too. They are not the negation of faith, however, I would say, but a means or process of its validation. We are not saved by the Bible, I would argue, or by the magisterium of the Church. We are not saved, in fact, by our theology at all, but by the ever-present love and grace of the living Lord. And that’s where our faith lives.
If this all seems rather inconclusive, I guess I must allow that it is. I’m hoping someone else will come along and have something interesting or illuminating to say about what things make faith and doubt what they are. I’d like to understand them better. But I can offer as a stopgap a quotation that I’ve come back to about faith over the years — one I can understand, at least. It’s from a work of fiction, and a children’s book at that. In The Silver Chair, one of the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis, an improbable and highly pessimistic character named Puddleglum is being held captive in a cave by an enchantress who argues that that’s all there is. He is confronted with an apparently incontrovertible argument that Aslan and the rest of the world above is all a figment of his imagination. He responds with what is, to my way of thinking, one of the great confessions of faith. It’s interesting that it does not ultimately depend on a proposition at all:
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
Since I first read that, it has been increasingly important to me. Don’t get me wrong: I do factually believe that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that he is the very foundation of all being; I do believe that his son Our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried. I believe that He rose again in accordance with the scriptures. But those are facts that someone might doubt. There’s something else — quite different — in the structure of my faith that’s rooted in the sense that Jesus is my friend. It’s not made up of some list of facts about Jesus; it’s about who He is and who I am. He’s my friend because He first called me to be His. Whatever doubts encroach on my faith from day to day, that’s the center from which I define myself.
On April 3, some of the faithful of All Saints gathered to celebrate once again the Great Vigil of Easter. I wound up preaching on that occasion; here, therefore, are some of my reflections extracted from that sermon and its broader context.
For me, the Great Vigil of Easter is the central overwhelming service of the church year. It anchors the rest of the year. It represents a high-level “strategic” overview of what the Germans call Heilsgeschichte — Salvation History. It’s the “wide-angle” view of our lives as Christians — our individual lives, our lives in the community of the church, and the whole history of our life as the people of God on earth.
The liturgy of the Vigil stands at the culmination of the sacrum triduum. It’s the hinge, so to speak, of the church year, just as what it’s pointing to is the hinge — the pivotal event — of all of human history. It is, therefore, the first feast of the Resurrection of the year; but it is also the Great High Feast of Absolutely Everything. In a remarkable sequence of nine Old Testament lessons, it expresses the whole picture in an encapsulated form — the creation, the fall (implicitly), the flood, God’s covenant with Abraham, promising that it would one day extend to all nations; the Exodus, the inner transformation of the faithful, and the calling together of the scattered people of God. The epistle lesson tells us some of what it means; the lesson from the Gospel of Luke confronts us once again with the bare story of the Resurrection itself — something from which we can take many meanings and thoughts, but which we can never wholly encompass. Its shadow falls across everything that ever has been and ever will be.
Confronting the Resurrection this way, in context, calls upon us to burrow deep into who and what we are, to draw upon that central story and to know that we ourselves are not mere outsiders looking in. Yes, it’s about the particular events of a day about two thousand years ago; but it’s also about discovering anew the truth that we have always known: that God cannot be defeated or eclipsed by death or the devil or any of the petty trivialities of our lives. It assures us, as no other service of the year does, that the events in and around Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago are not just important to us as symbols or metaphors, but as the central reality of our lives. We are part of that story. We are implicit in its outcome. It is the story of all stories, and more than a story: it is our identity — it is the fact that makes us what we are.
This is not just about some abstract or vague “spiritual” meaning that one can take away from the story in a safe container. It doesn’t work that way. God is not the great “I Mean”: He is the great “I Am.” It’s not a mere platitude or pretty saying: it’s actually kind of scary. Because of those events, we live now, and we are obliged to live, as children of, heirs to, and participants in the Resurrection. To do that from one day to the next is hard work, and sometimes very confusing; but it’s both our primary task and our highest privilege. We are not equal to it on our own, but by the grace of God, it has become ours.
The Lord is Risen. Alleluia.