So that no one may boast

This is the text of a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Ephesians 2:1-10.  

One of the nice things about being a curate is the support and focus on ongoing professional development which is built into the role. I received a particularly timely example of that this week; the diocese sent out to all of us curates a “log book” of competencies which we should be developing, to be completed in consultation with our supervising vicars. It runs to sixty-five pages and includes such detailed thoughtful questions as whether I include copyright information on orders of service, and whether I’m aware of the parish demographics. (You can quiz me later).

The reason I’m calling it timely is that it came as I was pondering our epistle reading this morning, and Paul’s statement that we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. I am fairly confident, even after a quick glance through this enormous log book, that each curate is going to feel that indeed, no one may boast!

So taking this kind of inventory is – for me, at least – a useful exercise in humility. But it left me wondering where, for this parish as a whole, we tend to sit on the spectrum from humble to boastful.

We are not, it must be said, particularly loud in trumpeting our strengths. That would be, after all, a bit crass. But it seems to me that we are, as a group, fairly confident about our own quality. We do liturgy well, the choir are a treat to listen to, we’re friendly over a superb morning tea, and we have the kind of ethos which inspires a quiet confidence that we are the “right” kind of Christians; open-minded, liberal, intelligent, well-resourced.

It left me wondering whether we actually feel we need God for very much? Or do we, perhaps, subconsciously expect that we are doing God a favour by inviting Him to join us?

Forgive me for asking hard questions. It is Lent, after all; the season for hard questions and careful answers.

It is a normal human longing to want to be appreciated, valued and recognized for our potential. And humility does not mean thinking demeaning and low thoughts about ourselves. It’s not denying the truth of our achievements or thinking less of ourselves. Humility stems from an honest understanding of who we are. Coming back to Paul’s comment about boasting, humility comes from remembering our total dependence on God; that we stand before his throne no better than any other in that great crowd, and each receiving even life itself as a gift from His hand.

Longings to be appreciated and valued can motivate us to establish our identity in secondary things – things we are proud of but can lose. But those who follow Jesus are chosen, loved, appreciated and important to the creator of the universe. We are the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. We are free to be who we are, no more and no less, in an unforced way which has nothing to prove, at home with God and in our own skin, and not looking to others against whom we can measure our quality.

So if there is amongst us any temptation away from humility, how can we respond to it? I think the absolute foundation has to be time with God. As we keep company with Jesus, more and more we will see ourselves in the light of his grace; and our identity will be shaped not by secondary, external things, but by our relationship with Him. There’s no quick fix to this, no short cut. It takes giving real time to it. But, on the other hand, there’s no wasted time either. If you can start by only finding a little time, God will be at work in you even in that little time. (Although now seems a good time to suggest that the quiet afternoon next week is an excellent opportunity to set aside some solid time, and to encourage you to consider coming along).

Another suggestion I came across is the idea of writing a resume, not of your expertise, but of your character. To take an inventory of your integrity, your willingness to help others, your generosity, your compassion, and so on, and to notice where you might have some growing to do. Because you see, so much of a Christ-like character rests on humility as a foundation; you can’t be willing to help others when you’re afraid they’ll then be better than you. You can’t be compassionate when you’re more concerned with your own standing. Taking such an inventory can show you your blind spots. I’m not saying it’s easy; just that it can be worthwhile. And it is Lent, after all; the season for things which are not easy, but worthwhile.

And all of this focus on humility does have a purpose. Paul finished this section of his argument by pointing out that we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Just as curates are assessed on their competency so that we can eventually emerge from this time ready for the good works which lie ahead of us, time for reflection on our weaknesses and working to strengthen them – which is really a form of repentance – is all part of getting ready for what comes next.

We might be a community which does many things well, but of this I am sure – new things to do well await us, prepared by God to be our new, improved, way of life. We only need to be willing to look for them and take them up; to catch enough of the vision ahead to be eager and enthusiastic about what God is making us.

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Not a lolly bar

(I should note that this blog post was spurred by discussion on another blog post, here.  I was asked there about why I believe that the creation account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, but the resurrection of Christ is.  That’s not something susceptible to sound bite answers, so I am providing the beginning of a response here and inviting further discussion to develop).

One of the criticisms often levelled at Christians – particularly those of us not at the extremely conservative end of the church – is that we “pick and choose” what to believe.  That we decide to take literally the bits of the Bible and Christian teaching that we like, and redefine or explain away those which are distasteful, challenging or incompatible with a well-informed contemporary world view.

It seems to me that this accusation rests on a couple of premises; first, that constructing a sense of the shape and content of Christian faith is an individual, rather than communal, exercise.  And second, that the understanding of much of Scripture as conveying theological (but not necessarily scientific or historical) truth is a new thing, a retreat from the progress of science and a way of attempting to preserve some credibility for a discredited faith.

Neither of those premises is, to my way of thinking, sound.  My aim in this post is to set out some explanation of how Christians go about building a way of understanding the Bible which is in keeping with a basic “rule of faith,” and some of the principles by which Christians decide how to read particular parts of Scripture literally, or to draw meaning out of the text in various other ways.  I do not have the time to set forward a full introduction to hermeneutics (theory of text interpretation); Christian hermeneutics is a rich discipline in its own right, with roots both in classical philosophy and Jewish rabbinic scholarship.  I intend to only put forward a few basic ideas and invite discussion on them.

So.  First let me address the idea that Christian faith is an exercise in picking out the bits that I, personally, like and find easy to integrate into my world view and lifestyle.  Undoubtedly, there are people who take this “lolly bar” approach, taking on board the chocolate-coated ideas about God and love and rejecting the aniseed-flavoured bits about genocide and death penalties, without a criterion much more robust than what tastes (or feels) “good.”  Some of these people end up as syncretists, some as heretics, some muddle along basically orthodox but without realising it or giving it much thought.  These, however, are not the people with whom I think my discussion is concerned, because these people are not really thinking about their faith claims (or the claims faith might make on them) in a very critical way.

For those of us, though, who do engage in critical thought about our faith, we very quickly encounter a basic reality; we do not do so alone.  We belong to a community which has had since close to its beginning agreement about the essential content of our faith.  Whatever else we have argued about (which is just about everything), the Apostles’ and (a bit later) the Nicene Creeds have been the litmus test of orthodoxy in the east and west, for Catholics and Protestants.  Churches with a liturgical tradition have kept these creeds at the heart of baptism services and as an integral part of regular public worship, because they are a guard against the picking and choosing which we might otherwise be tempted to do.  These creeds provide the “rule of faith” against which our own personal readings must be measured.  They do not seek to define every doctrine or answer every question, but they seek to set forth the essential matters against which we can measure our own ideas and readings of Scripture to see if they are in accord with what Christians have affirmed in every time and place.  This discipline – whatever other criticisms you might make of it – is the exact opposite of picking and choosing.  Here are the non-negotiables, and whoever claims to know and turn to Christ must work to accept them (you will note that the resurrection and ascension feature in both of these creeds).

So much for the essentials.  But there’s a great deal of Scripture beyond what defines the essentials, all of it (Christians believe) God-breathed and useful for teaching etc.  But clearly, not all of it can be read directly as if it is dictated by God, to be understood literally and accepted unquestioningly.  (And if you want to argue about that, have a look at Psalm 137:9 and its celebration of the violent death of infants; and get back to me about how you understand that).  So how does one decide how to understand a given text?  (Note: for this part of the discussion as well, the answer is always – partly – not alone; we are in a community of faith; we read, study, reflect, live and grow together and our understanding can never be idiosyncratic).

– Genre, genre, genre.  What type of text is it?  Is it a song, a poem, a letter, a historical record, a satire?  What are the conventions for that genre of text?  For example, the conventions for poetic expression are very different than for a military report.  “The Bible” is in fact a collection of many works (many of them composites of older texts), written at different times, in different cultural settings and languages, and these works are in a large range of genres and conform to very different conventions of expression.  Identifying the genre of a text and the conventions that pertain to that genre helps the reader to “decode” the meaning of the writer.

– Context, both of the writer and his/her concerns, and of the events recorded in the text (sometimes described as its Sitz im Leben).  For example, the Sitz im Leben reflected in much of the book of Job is that of a legal dispute; the imagery and conventions of speech used place Job as the accuser in an ancient trial, in which he calls on God to answer as defendant.  This presentation of the question of suffering as an ancient courtroom drama is an interpretive key for the reader.

– How does a particular text relate to the “big picture” of the essentials of Christian faith?  If we take a verse about killing infants, do we give that higher interpretive priority than the verse that says that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance?  All Scripture might be God-breathed, but each Scripture needs to find its place within a clear theological framework.

– Other relevant information.  Are there textual variants, and if so, what do they suggest about how the text might be read?  What do other literary or historical sources tell us about a text?  Do they shed light on its sources, its composition, its dating?  Do they confirm or challenge its account of various matters?   How does all of this affect how we make sense of what the text has to say about God?  (This is also where – for example – scientific considerations might come into play.  The “two books” principle – that God authored two books, that of nature, and that of Scripture, and that, since God does not lie, if interpreted correctly they cannot disagree – is a useful starting point for reflection on these matters).

– Reception of the text.  Why was this text included in the canon of sacred Scripture?  What did the earliest Jewish and Christian communities value it for?  How have scholars in various traditions understood the text?  Has it been read universally as a literal account, or has it been read typologically, anagogically, tropologically or in other non-literal ways?  What reasons have scholars given for their readings of it, and how do their readings accord with all of the above considerations?

And so on.  That’s really just a very quick run down, off the top of my head, of some considerations in a very complex area.  I hope that what it demonstrates is that a robust Christian faith is a disciplined intellectual endeavour.  It takes hard thinking, it takes education, it takes dialogue, it takes costly integrity, it takes humility and the willingness to be wrong and the openness to being corrected.  What it is not, is a sojourn at the spiritual lolly bar, picking and choosing on a whim.