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The Goodness of the Lord

Posted: September 21, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

A couple of weeks ago we used the Evening Prayer of the Northumbria Community as part of our worship. I’ve used this liturgy many times before, but for the first time I almost choked up as I said the words “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”. Something in them struck me quite powerfully, and so I wanted to reflect on that.

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I think my initial reaction was that there is hope for the future in them, as they express a belief that there is goodness to be revealed, that death and darkness will not be the final word. But then I saw a determination about the present in them, a commitment to watch for goodness here, a desire to seek the Lord now.

This only becomes clearer when you see these words in their context. Like most of the lines from the canticle, they come from Psalm 27, in which the psalmist both seeks the temple of the Lord and declares that the Lord shall save him from his circumstances.

Seeing the goodness of the Lord is not just a passive waiting but an active seeking. And it is not reserved for the heavenly courts but is worked out in earthly situations.

I also love the way the psalmist moves from acknowledging the trials of life to declaring “I still believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord”. This is an act of defiance against all the things that threaten that faith, a claiming of the truth that enables them to keep going through everything.

There’s almost something of a mantra about these words. I think I would do well to memorise them and repeat them on my most difficult days.

Even though I am scared to read the news because it only seems to go from bad to worse, still I remain confident that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Even when I feel overwhelmed by exhaustion and anxiety, still I believe that there is joy and peace to be found in all of this. Even if the darkness falls, still I will look for the light.

Even…still…

Even…still…

Even…still…

And so I will hold fast to hope and open my eyes to goodness. Because I know I shall see it in this land that I live in.

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Why Old Testament?

Posted: September 14, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Some time in the spring, we started to ask some big questions of the Bible. We considered how it had come to be, what kind of literature it contained, and how we might come to read it, especially in the the light of Jesus. If you want to catch up with any of the material we covered, you can look back through the archive on this blog.

Before the summer, we said that one of the issues we would tackle in the autumn would be the violence in the Bible, particularly although not exclusively in the Old Testament. It’s something that has come up in a number of other discussions, and it got a significant response when we talked about which questions we most wanted to address.

It seemed a bit heavy to jump straight into the more brutal episodes of the Bible in our first teaching session of the term, so on Sunday we took a slightly sideways approach, by spending some time thinking about why we still read and need the Old Testament, or to put it another way, why we are bothering with this question at all.

For some Christians, there can be a temptation to say that the Old Testament has been superseded by the Gospel, and so if we don’t like it we can junk it. It’s not a new idea, but an ancient heresy, and one that only solves the problem by creating new ones, so that it’s not really a solution at all.

There are many good reasons why the early church decided to make the Hebrew scriptures part of the Christian canon, and many good reasons why we should still hold onto those texts now. On Sunday night, we considered three of them. I can’t hope to recapture the richness of our discussion, but here at least are the arguments I presented.

 

It is part of our history and our response to it matters

The Old Testament is part of our history as Christians, because it forms a significant chunk of the scriptures that we have gathered around for nearly two millennia, but it is also part of our history as humans, because it records the deeds and misdeeds of those with whom we share the image of God.

We have talked before about the historicity of the Bible, but whatever the factual accuracy of the Old Testament narratives, either they happened or things like them happened or things like them were wished to have happened, and all of those possibilities say something about humanity. The violent actions and hateful words and destructive impulses behind the darker stories won’t go away if we close our eyes to them. Ignoring them does not change the past, accepting them does not improve the present, and celebrating them certainly doesn’t give much hope for the future.

The challenge and importance of appropriately responding to the legacy of history has been seen in America recently, in the controversy over the fate of statues of confederate generals. One side claims they are simply part of history, while the other side fears that they are being used to bring that past into the present. As somebody on Twitter noted, Hitler is a pretty big part of European history, but you won’t find any statues of him in public parks. That doesn’t mean the German people are trying to bury their history, it means they have found better ways to respond to it.

Because our response does matter. In Texts of Terror, the feminist theologian Phyllis Trible examines four narratives of violence against women, and considers the responses in and to the text. You can sense her fury at what happens to these women, but she allows that “sad stories may yield new beginnings” if we read and respond to them well. As an example of this, she notes that the truly horrendous story that unfolds in Judges 19-21 is followed either by the story of Ruth or by the story of Hannah that opens 1 Samuel, depending on the version of the Hebrew Bible you are looking at. Unlike the unnamed concubine whose rape and murder lead to more rape and murder, these women are given the dignity of a name and a voice and a happy ending. Their stories don’t blot out the former, but they may offer what Trible calls “words of healing”.

We may offer similar words of healing if we respond to violence and hatred with a commitment to love and peace. We can’t change the narratives we have been handed down, but we can use them to change the narratives we are living out. Perhaps we need to be confronted with violence in the text in order to confront violence in the world.

 

We need to speak the whole language of the Bible

In The Old Testament is Dying, Brent Strawn argues that the Old Testament is like a language, and that just as languages die out when they are no longer spoken, so the Old Testament is dying out because it is no longer known. That may sound very dramatic, but he backs this up with some alarming statistics that show very poor biblical literacy even among Christians, and decreasing use of Old Testament Texts in worship and preaching.

The real impulse behind the book is a conviction that we need to speak the whole language of the Bible if it’s going to make sense, and that means learning to speak Old Testament, getting to grips with all of the idiosyncrasies and irregularities of an ancient language, becoming familiar with the myriad ways it talks about God and structures its thoughts. That will take time and effort, but our faith cannot be fluent without it.

Strawn talks quite a lot about the development of pidgins (simplified versions of languages used to communicate between people who do not otherwise have a common tongue) and creoles (expanded pidgins which become fully formed languages but with much simpler structures than the older languages they originally developed from). I appreciate that may be more about linguistics than you need to know on a Thursday, but bear with me because he uses all of this to make some interesting points.

He suggests that the Old Testament the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins use is something like a pidgin. They build their condemnation of religion on a handful of passages taken out of their context, like speaking a version of English comprised entirely of swear words and then calling it crude and ugly. There can be no beauty and no poetry in this form of the Old Testament because there aren’t enough words.

He also compares the gospel of ‘prosperity preachers’ such as Joel Osteen to a creole. They have taken the lexicon of blessing and curse and built an entire language from it, but it is a language that is missing the complexity and contradiction of the original. The prosperity gospel is completely undone by Job, but its grammar won’t allow for irregular verbs so he is simply ignored.

The pidgin of the New Atheists and the creole of the ‘happiologists’ (as Strawn calls the prosperity preachers) are poor substitutes for the full language of the Bible. They ignore the fact that the vocabulary of the Old Testament is wide, and the grammar is that of a conversation. They are clumsy and limited and they cannot allow for a full expression of faith.

To look at this another way, we need the full language of the Old Testament, because without it we can’t understand the New Testament. ‘Love your neighbour’ means one thing on its own, but it means something else as well when we know that it comes from the Torah, and it means something else again when we realise that Jesus decided to quote that over something else. It is in those layers of meaning that the richness of the gospel is found.

 

There is more to the Old Testament than the bad words

To continue from the previous point, the reason we need to speak the full language of the Bible is because there is so much more to it than the swear words Richard Dawkins decides to focus on. We might need it for the truth it reveals about humanity and the context it offers for the gospel, but we should also want it for its beauty and love it for its poetry.

Whether we believe the Old Testament is the word of God or words about God, it is one of the best insights we have into the nature of our Creator. We have said before that the fullest revelation of God is Christ, but even if Jesus is the oil painting, that doesn’t mean we have to discard the sketches that led up to it, because they are great treasures in themselves.

Strawn points out that the genocidal violence of the Old Testament is restricted to the period of conquest. God is not always leading the Israelites into battle. What is not restricted is the dialogue between creator and created. God is always speaking and engaging with those who will respond. The key motif of the Old Testament is not victory in battle but rescue from slavery. And the prophets and poets repeatedly declare that “the Lord is gracious and compassionate”. These softer sketches do not cancel out the harsher ones, but they are important, not least because they bear the closest resemblance to the final picture.

There is also great worth in the Old Testament language of lament. We do find lament in the New Testament, most powerfully in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is the Old Testament that really gives free reign to the need to cry out to and against God. Job, Psalms, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes…they all give us the language and the permission to speak from the depths of our hearts, as well as the assurance and the hope that we are heard and will be answered.

And to risk jumping on one of my own hobby horses, I think the Hebrew scriptures can be a valuable a corrective to certain tendencies. Christianity has always been influenced by the cultures around it, and often that is to the good, as we are reminded that we cannot possess the entire truth within the pages of a book or the walls of a church, but not always. The idea that God must be omni-everything owes far more to philosophy than to scripture, and I fear it has robbed our creator of character, but the Old Testament picture is rich and compelling, and I want to be drawn back to that and into God. The modern need to constantly produce and consume also means that we are losing any concept of rest, and I think we need to reclaim the principles (if not all the laws!) of the Sabbath tradition. But like I said, that’s one of my hobby horses.

 

There’s a bit to get your teeth into there, but I hope it has been interesting, and I hope it fires you up for our journey into the Old Testament. We’ll be intentionally tackling the bits we struggle with, so it may feel like hard work at times, but I pray that we will go into this with open hearts and open hands, prepared to be challenged and surprised by what we find.

 

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Imaginative Contemplation: The Bleeding Woman

Posted: August 25, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

We have spoken before about the importance of reading scripture with open hands, and imaginative contemplation is one way of doing that. The reader places themselves in the story and engages their sense and emotions, in order to bring the action to life and create a space in which they are open to new insight and revelation. It can be as simple as reading a passage and then let the imagination take over, but a little bit of guidance can be helpful, especially if this is a new practice, so while we are on our summer break I will be offering a few written contemplations for you to use. Obviously this is a less analytical approach to the Bible than we have been taking over the past few months, but I hope it will provide some balance and refreshment.

This imagination contemplation is adapted from one written by my sister Emma, who joined us to lead the youth work at our last weekend away, and will be joining us again this year.

 

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Take some deep breaths and enjoy the space you are in. Be still in the presence of God.

Imagine a scene. You are standing on a shore. What can you see and hear and smell? Who are you with?

A man approaches the shore and steps out of his boat with a group of friends who follow him. You look around you and see you are one of many gathered there to greet this man. You realise this is Jesus, the one people are talking about. What are you thinking? How do you feel?

You are jostled by the crowd to follow this man and his friends. What can you see around you? What are you expecting?

Suddenly a man bursts forth from the crowd and falls at the feet of Jesus. You hear him ask Jesus for help. His daughter is sick and he knows Jesus can heal her. Jesus starts to follow the man and you move after him. Why are you following? What are you thinking?

The crowd comes to a standstill. You crane to see what’s happening. Jesus has stopped moving. He is looking around for something or someone. A woman emerges from the crowd. Who is she? Why has she come forward?

You move forward in the crowd to see more of what is going on, pushing past people as you go. Why are you so drawn to the action? What are you feeling?

You hear Jesus say “your faith has healed you.” What does that mean? Who do you think this man really is?

You hear whispers in the crowd that this woman has been ill for twelve years. No physician has been able to help and no doctor has cured her but this man has the power to heal. There is a buzz in the crowd. Is she really healed? Is this man everything he says he is?

You look around and realise the crowd has gone. You look ahead and see only Jesus. You want to ask him something. What are you thinking? What are you feeling?

You walk toward Jesus and stare into his eyes. What does he look like up close? How does he make you feel?

You build up the courage to ask him a question. What is on your heart? What do you ask him?

Jesus looks at you and begins to speak. Really listen to him. What is he saying to you? What do you need to do about it?

In your own time, end this contemplation.

Imaginative Contemplation: The Woman at the Well

Posted: August 2, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

We have spoken before about the importance of reading scripture with open hands, and imaginative contemplation is one way of doing that. The reader places themselves in the story and engages their sense and emotions, in order to bring the action to life and create a space in which they are open to new insight and revelation. It can be as simple as reading a passage and then let the imagination take over, but a little bit of guidance can be helpful, especially if this is a new practice, so while we are on our summer break I will be offering a few written contemplations for you to use. Obviously this is a less analytical approach to the Bible than we have been taking over the past few months, but I hope it will provide some balance and refreshment.

 

SamaritanWomanAtTheWell-HeQi

 

You leave your house and walk into the centre of town. It’s the middle of the day and it’s hot. The air is still and almost shimmering in the heat. Take a moment to place yourself in the scene and imagine what you can see…hear…smell. 

You head for the cool of a tree and feel yourself relax as you reach the shade. You’re out of the sun and the scrutiny of your neighbours. Stay in this place a while and rest in the peaceful atmosphere of a cool place in the heat of the day. 

After you’ve rested for a moment, you’re startled by a voice asking for a drink. You turn around and see a man sitting just a few feet away. He is a stranger here and yet he feels almost familiar. How do you feel as you look at him? 

Again he asks for a drink. Something in you resists the request. What may be stopping you from responding to his call? 

The man gets up and walks towards you. He looks at you with kindness and understanding. After a moment he speaks again. “If you knew the gift of God and who is asking you for a drink, you would ask me and I would give you living water.” You look around but the man has nothing with him. He has no water to give. It doesn’t make sense. What else feels confusing or impossible to you now? 

The man doesn’t give up and walk away. Instead he says “No one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again. The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life.” What does it feel like to hear those words? 

You hear yourself asking for some of that water. What is it that makes you long for it? 

You are half expecting him to produce a flask from somewhere, but the man simply smiles and sends you on an errand. Your heart sinks as you realise you can’t do what he asks. He obviously doesn’t know the truth and you must come clean. What is it that you need to tell him about? 

You could fall down as he tells you he already knows and praises you for your honesty. How does it feel to realise this man knows you so intimately? 

There’s clearly something important on his mind because suddenly he tells you, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.” What does this mean and how are you called to respond? 

You know that this man is very special, but still you are amazed when he tells you he is the one you have been waiting for. How does it feel to be in the presence of the one who calls you back to God? 

You run to tell everyone you know about this man you have met, and your enthusiasm is clearly catching because they want to meet him too. When the crowds have quietened down you go back to find him. What do you say to him now?

Take this time to talk with Christ or simply sit in his presence. You may like to return to any thoughts or feeling raised by this contemplation or bring him something else that is on your heart.  

I now invite you to bring this time of contemplative prayer to a close. As you do, be aware that you remain in the presence of God, and ask the Spirit to continue to speak to you through this experience of Christ. 

Imaginative Contemplation: The Rich Young Ruler

Posted: July 26, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

We have spoken before about the importance of reading scripture with open hands, and imaginative contemplation is one way of doing that. The reader places themselves in the story and engages their sense and emotions, in order to bring the action to life and create a space in which they are open to new insight and revelation. It can be as simple as reading a passage and then let the imagination take over, but a little bit of guidance can be helpful, especially if this is a new practice, so while we are on our summer break I will be offering a few written contemplations for you to use. Obviously this is a less analytical approach to the Bible than we have been taking over the past few months, but I hope it will provide some balance and refreshment.

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Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-23)

Imagine the scene. It is a hot and dusty day, and you are on the road out of town. The road is busy at this time, with people heading home from the market with arms full of cloths and spices, and others pushing the other way, hoping to find a last minute bargain.

The group you are with is animated, but more interested in picking over the finer details of the day’s teaching than comparing notes on merchants or indulging in gossip. Suddenly your chatter is interrupted by the sound of someone calling Jesus’ name. A young man runs past you and throws himself onto the ground at Jesus’s feet.

You notice the dust spoiling the hem of his fine robe, and the sweat staining his expensive shawl where he has used it to wipe his face. He doesn’t seem to care though, as his eyes are fixed on Jesus. You smile at his enthusiasm, and then you begin to wonder. Do you feel so passionately about approaching Jesus?

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asks. You think you know where this is going so you are surprised when Jesus replies “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus has never asked that question before but it gets you thinking. Do you call Jesus good? 

Jesus continues “You know the commandments”, and the young man declares “I have kept all these since my youth.” When he says that, Jesus gives him a curious look, a look so full of love that it must fill his soul. You start to think back over your time with Jesus. How does it feel to know that Jesus looks at you like that too?

Jesus tells the young man “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me.” You feel a shockwave go through the crowd. It’s such a big thing to ask and it makes you nervous. What one thing are you lacking?

The young man leaves and you can see that he is struggling. He clearly has much to sell and it will be hard for him. You wonder what he will do now, if he will do as Jesus has commanded and how long it may take him. Are you ready to do as Jesus calls and follow him?

As you think about this, you lose the thread of the conversation, but then you hear Jesus say “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”. It makes you gasp. You are not as rich as the young man appeared to be, but you have a house and food and clothes to fill it. And you have other riches too, things that can’t be measured but are certainly valued. You wonder if Jesus is talking to you.

The others seem to have the same idea, as they ask “Who then can be saved?” Jesus smiles gently and says “For God all things are possible.” In that moment, you know that what he asks of you will not always be easy, and that there will be things you will have to give up in order to follow him, but you also know that you will not have to struggle through on your own, and that there will be far greater rewards.

The group start to move on, and as people discuss what has just happened, you seek out Jesus, knowing that you must learn something of his heart for you, just as the young man did. What is that you need to ask him and what is it that he says in response?

Someone else needs to speak to Jesus, and so you step away for the moment, falling back into the crowd to reflect on all that has happened.

On Being and Doing

Posted: July 21, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

I had hoped to leave you with a beautifully poignant reflection about the last year before heading off on holiday, then I got sick and Eddie got fussy and that idea went out of the window, and instead I find myself sitting in front of the computer screen at 4am because I’ve randomly woken up and so I might as well do something useful with the time.

That in itself is probably a fairly accurate reflection on how the last year has gone. Thankfully 4am wake ups are unusual now, but it would be honest to say that things have been even less likely to go to plan since we became a family of three, and I’ve had to learn to roll with the punches and do what I can when I can.

It’s been a struggle for the part of me that instinctively likes order and pattern. I always knew that ministry would spill over any fences I tried to put around it, and I was prepared to welcome a little holy chaos into my life, but I had at least hoped that the more predictable elements would be able to find a more predictable routine. Recently though I have started to look at things a little differently…

I have been thinking for a little while now about the debate over whether ministry is ontological (to do with who you are) or functional (emphasising what you do). Personally I think it’s a bit of both, because I believe that the ministry we are all called to as believers is primarily about the character that is formed within us, and the ministry I am called to as a minister is about the particular role I take on within the community.

Seeing my position as functional reminds me that I am called to serve those who have commissioned me to this role, and to encourage them to find the roles they in turn have been commissioned to. But understanding that there is an underlying ontological dimension reminds me that I am called above all else to be the best version of myself, and that means that who I am in every aspect of my character and my relationships is of vital importance to what I do as a minister, and so I need to spend time being as well as doing.

That is an important corrective to the anxieties that creep in when my focus becomes entirely about my to do list and then life gets in the way of it. I want to find and model healthy rhythms of work and rest, for me and for my family and for my community, but the ministry I am called to is a whole of life commission, and that is always going to resist routine.

So far this has been something of a stream of consciousness, and you might be wondering why I really need to share any of this, but there are two reasons why I’ve not hit delete and kept this as a private reflection. The first is that I take my commitment to my community seriously, and I believe that commitment includes a degree of accountability. The second is that it’s easy for any of us to slip into purely functional mode, but the truth is that we all have whole of life commissions, and what any of us do can only come out of who we are.

And so my prayer for the community I have come to love so dearly, as many of us prepare to have our usual routines upended by the summer holidays, is that we will all find the freedom to simply be so that we can more joyfully do.

 

A Little Gardening Practice

Posted: July 14, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Sunday was our last teaching session before the summer, so I wanted to draw together everything we’ve looked at so far in our exploration of the Bible, and hopefully leave us with something which felt refreshing as well as challenging.

Simon T said two weeks ago that study can enrich our reading of scripture even if most of the time it doesn’t change the essence of our faith, and Giselle spoke some time ago about reading the Bible with open hands, so I wanted to use our study to deepen our engagement with a piece of scripture, then give us some space to sit and hear what God might want to say through it in that moment. We managed more of the former than the latter, but I hope that you will be able to create some space to sit with God after reading this.

The passage we focused on was John 14, although a slight brain blip on my part meant I interpolated part of John 15. It’s all good stuff, so I will treat the two as a single passage, and I would thoroughly recommend reading both chapters before continuing with this blog.

I’m afraid as my brain starts to wind down for the summer, I can’t think of a more creative way of recreating our discussion than simply presenting my notes, so I hope you will forgive the lack of imagination. I have however managed to find a still of the frame from the QI credit sequence which has John 14:8-9, so you can start with a nice picture and proof that I wasn’t just making things up to play for time.

 

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We started by looking at how the Bible came to be, which included questions of ‘when’, ‘who’, and ‘why’.

In terms of the ‘when’ of the passage, John is understood to be the latest of the four gospels as it contains more developed ideas – see for example the high understanding of the nature of Christ in John 1, where he is portrayed as the Word made flesh. Oral tradition at the time was strong, so there is no reason to believe that the stories and teachings recorded are not genuine, but it does mean we are reading theological reflection as well as history.

Moving on to the ‘who’, the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John and the Revelation of John are traditionally attributed to the disciple named John. That might seem obvious, but the naming came from the tradition and there is no firm evidence to support it. However common themes and language link the gospel and the letters, so scholars speak of them coming from same community if not the same person. The gospel attributes itself to the ‘beloved disciple’, so there is an idea that the community was centred around him, and whether or not he was called John is perhaps less important.

And finally turning to the ‘why’, the gospel itself says that it was written that ‘you’ might believe Jesus is Christ and have life in his name. That suggests it was never intended to be an objective reporting of the facts, but it was written from a place of conviction not manipulation, and I think that speaks for its importance not against its value.

 

Next we looked at genre, that is what type of writing we are looking at and how that effects our expectations and interpretation.

This passage is part of a gospel, which is a fairly unique literary genre, with crossover from both history and prophecy, as it is part biography and part collection of teachings. The gospels were written to testify to Jesus, who came to reveal God and set in motion the coming of the kingdom, and so our focus when reading them must always be on what they teach us about him, and what that means for the way we live in relationship with God and the world.

Thinking more specifically, this particular passage is part of the ‘farewell discourse’, the final teaching Jesus shared with his disciples before he was arrested and crucified. It is part programmatic summary and part pep talk, in readiness for the time when Jesus would no longer be physically present. John is very clear that Jesus knew what was about to happen to him, and so this may well have been a prepared speech rather than a spontaneous firing of thoughts.

A few chapters later, Jesus prays not only for the disciples but for those who will believe because of them, and if that wider view is reflected backwards, then this may be read not just as a record of what was said to those meeting over supper that night, but also as a direct word to us. And the worship of  the first Christians is often seen as paradigmatic for the church, so this gathering to hear from God and pray for one another in the context of fellowship may also be seen as a pattern, although not necessarily a formula.

Towards the end of our conversations about genre, we debated the value of seeing the Bible as myth. I suggested it as a way of talking about the fact that the Bible contains deep truths that are more important than simple facts, but there were very understandable concerns that the word myth comes with other associations that are less helpful. Simon T suggested on Sunday that we may borrow the language that Jesus himself uses in the Gospel of John and speak of the Bible as a sign, because it points beyond itself to God, which very neatly said what I had been fumbling around. If this passage is a sign, it is because it speaks of relationship with God, which is the truth that the whole Bible is trying to express.

 

After that, we looked at how Jesus used the scriptures, suggested that he stripped the violence out of the Old Testament passages he quoted.

There are no direct quotes from the Hebrew scriptures here, but peace is something of a buzzword, so this at least accords with the idea that Jesus was bringing a radical new way of non-violence.

It is also interesting to compare John 14:8-9 and Exodus 33:18-23. In the Exodus passage, Moses asks to see God and is only allowed to see his back, but in the John passage, Philip asks to see God and is told he has already seen him in the flesh. As Dan so rightly pointed out, there are other Old Testament passages that seem to suggest that Moses did see God face to face, but there is a similarity in the request-response pattern of John 14:8-9 and Exodus 33:18-23 that makes me wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to highlight just how much greater our experience of God has become because of Christ.

 

Continuing with a Christ-centred reading of scripture, we looked at how we might read the Bible in the light of Jesus’ teaching, focusing on the Sermon on the Mount.

It might seem odd to do that here as this is Jesus’ teaching, but comparing gospels, and even different passages within gospels, can be valuable in identifying key themes and tensions, so we looked at the passage against a few points from the Sermon on the Mount.

The Beatitudes suggest that everything we think we know is turned on its head in the kingdom of God, but the promise of the Spirit and the giving of the love commandment are the renewing of old words rather than the reversing of old expectations. Both challenge the status quo by suggesting that things are not yet as they are meant to be, but there is revival as well as upheaval in the kingdom.

The Lord’s Prayer makes our relationship with God central, and this passage from John puts some meat on those bones by saying that this relationship is about mutual indwelling, with some rather complicated relationships finally imagined as a vine and its branches.

The Sermon on the Mount is shot through with the idea that it is attitude and not just action that is important, and that tells us a little about what the love for one another that Jesus commands should look like. Of course love must be active, but it must ultimately come from the heart and not simply out of duty. Sometimes we will need that sense of duty to keep us going, but we ought always to seek to love others as God loves them.

 

We then looked at the idea that the Bible contains different circles of narrative, which which function in slightly different ways.

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman talks about the saving action of God as the primal narrative, which widens out to the expanded narrative and then to the narratives of instruction and vocation, like ripples from a stone dropped in a lake.

This passage would be part of the expanded narrative as it provides part of the context for the primal narrative of  Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is also part of the instruction and vocation of the community as it contains the crucial love commandment and the promise of the Spirit. Ripples don’t overlap so the image doesn’t quite work, but it is important to remember that this passage sits in that crossover. It can be so easy to add lots of stuff to our instruction and vocation, and that’s not always a bad thing, but it’s those things that are rooted in Christ that keep us rooted in him.

 

And finally we looked at the importance of reading in context, knowing the cultural background instead of making assumptions based on our own experience.

I looked a little into the historical background that was relevant to this passage, and I came across a suggestion that the peace that the world gives may be identified with the Pax Romana. That would meant that this is not just a nice promise of a better quality of calm, but a political statement which criticises the Roman way of enforcing peace through force, and which says that Jesus has come with a radical alternative not a competing system. The article I was reading also suggest that this verse may now speak against a kind of Pax Americana, and we may equally speak of a Pax Britannia, so this is still a political statement today.

I have always struggled with the idea that believers get what they ask for, as this is demonstrably untrue. We talked on Sunday about the significance of the condition that prayers are made ‘in my name’, and the importance of recognising that we do not always understand the will of God, but the context adds an interesting note. It was held that some rabbis could receive whatever they wanted from God, and so this passage extends and equalises that promise, and that assertion that all believers are equal before God may be a crucial part of what Jesus was saying here.

And getting down to the nitty gritty of the language, another translation of ‘counsellor’ is ‘advocate’, literally ‘one who walks alongside’. We tend to make Satan a proper noun, but ‘the Satan’ was ‘the accuser’, so this naming of the Spirit is perhaps intended to balance that, drawing on the image of a courtroom. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will be made subject to a heavenly trial in the style of A Matter of Life and Death, but it does say that if there are powers against us, there are also powers for us.

 

We have come to the end of this exploration of a chunk of gospel, using some of the tools we have picked up over the past few months.

This was never intended to be an exhaustive guide to the passage, but I hope it has shown how the different approaches we have taken to the Bible might be worked out in practice, and how they can spark all sorts of insights and revelations.

Most of all, I hope it has felt like an encouragement to roll your sleeves up and dig into and around the Bible, because great things can grow from those efforts. (Does the title finally make sense now?!)

 

And so I would really encourage you to take the time to sit with open hands and listen for God speaking through this passage, perhaps by practicing Lection Divina.

Lectio – Reading Savour the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am for you today.” Do not expect lightning or ecstasies. In Lectio Divina, God is teaching us to listen to him, to seek him in silence. He does not reach out and grab us; rather, he gently invites us ever more deeply into his presence.

Meditatio – Meditation Take the word or phrase into yourself. Memorize it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories, and ideas. Do not be afraid of distractions. Memories or thoughts are simply parts of yourself that, when they rise up during Lectio Divina, are asking to be given to God along with the rest of your inner self. Allow this inner pondering, this rumination, to invite you into dialogue with God.

Oratio – Speaking Speak to God. Whether you use words, ideas, or images–or all three–is not important. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. And give to him what you have discovered during your experience of meditation. Experience God by using the word or phrase he has given you as a means of blessing and of transforming the ideas and memories that your reflection on his word has awakened. Give to God what you have found within your heart.

Contemplatio – Contemplation Rest in God’s embrace. And when he invites you to return to your contemplation of his word or to your inner dialogue with him, do so. Learn to use words when words are helpful, and to let go of words when they no longer are necessary. Rejoice in the knowledge that God is with you in both words and silence, in spiritual activity and inner receptivity.