Friday, 15 May 2015

Meditation: FOR CHRIST's SAKE by John de Gruchy


Colossians 1:15-20
Acts 1:1-11
"Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight?"

The phrase "for Christ's sake" trips off the tongue of Western secular society with such regularity in conversation, movies or on TV,  that it must now be one of the most often used expletives in the English-speaking world.  I googled the phrase to check it out and discovered some interesting information, including a movie entitled "For Christ's Sake" and something called "For Christ's Sake Torrent." which I decided did not warrant further investigation.  Otherwise there was not much more beyond the obvious and the pious.  Together with "for God's sake" or "for goodness sake," "for Christ sake" has long been used to express annoyance and frustration, but now it seems it is the trendy thing to say in certain circles.  Some might regard this as blasphemy, which it undoubtedly is, but I think it has just become another one of those expressions people unthinkingly use to express their gut feelings about such things as the outcome of the British election or the inept playing of the Sharks Rugby team.  In any case, most Christians have long acknowledged that you do not react of blasphemy by beheading or imprisoning those guilty of it; it is both unnecessary -- for Christ does not need our defence -- and counter-productive, because he taught us to love our enemies, even those who speak ill of him.

Two weeks ago I referred to the comment made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that the problem with the church is that Jesus too often disappears from sight.  Jesus is lost in the institution or dogma so instead of the world seeing him at work in the world through the life of his followers, he is hidden from view. They might even say "for Christ's sake, why don't you Christians truly follow Jesus?!"  And they would be making a good point in saying so.  Like the Greeks who came to Jesus' disciples long ago and asked to see him, there are people today who might follow Jesus if it were not for the fact that Christianity and the church seem to get in the way, or so they say. For there is certainly another side to the story.

Today is Ascension Day, so those  familiar with the story as told at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles might well ask "is this not what happened precisely that first Ascension Day?  Do we not read in the opening chapter of Acts that while his disciples were watching, "Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight?"  Yes, you could say the Ascension is all about Jesus disappearing from sight! But it is really about Jesus entering into a new dimension of reality, no less real than when he was with his disciples during his earthly life.  Only now he is Jesus the Christ of faith. But who is this Christ in whom we believe?

"Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah" which means "the Lord's anointed."  It was a word used to refer to kings like David in ancient Israel whom God anointed to lead and guide his people.  It was even used to describe the pagan ruler Cyrus who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon.  And it was used by the prophets in anticipating the one who would come to redeem Israel from all its enemies and bring in the reign of justice and peace.  After the resurrection of Jesus his followers came to believe that he was truly this promised Messiah or Christ, the promised anointed one through whose death and resurrection God would established his reign of righteousness on earth.  This was the good news they were now commissioned to preach to the world.

So Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, begins by telling us that in the gospel he previously wrote he recorded " all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven."  In his second volume we call the Acts of the Apostles, he continues the story of Jesus, but now it is about  all that Jesus did through his followers after his Ascension and the gift of his Spirit at Pentecost.  In other words, Acts is the continuation of Jesus' story, but in a new mode of being in the world.  Instead of Jesus being confined to the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem,  he is universally present in every time and place through his Spirit.   

But the word "Christ" now has meanings it did not have before.  First of all, the Christ is the One who was humiliated and who suffered to redeem the world.   In other words the meaning of the word Christ is now defined by the life and passion of Jesus.  To understand the Christ we have to remember the story of Jesus, all that he said and did.  But then there is another shift in the understanding of who Christ truly is as depicted in the writings of Paul and John in the New Testament and soon in the icons of the Church.   Paul speaks of the cosmic Christ in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell," in fact, the one through whom "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things."  This is breathtaking stuff.  The Jesus of Nazareth with whom the disciples had walked and talked, the Jewish Messiah, is now understood as the Lord of life, "the image of the invisible whom all things hold together."  He is, according to John's Gospel, "the living Word" through whom the world was made, the Word who is the light of the world.

Many thinking people have a problem with this astounding claim because they think it means that Christianity is therefore the only true religion. But that is to miss the point.  In the light of the Ascension, Christianity does not have a special claim on Jesus and therefore on God.  Jesus the Christ does not  belong to his disciples. Jesus as the Christ is not ours, not the possession of the church.  Jesus as the cosmic Christ transcends Christianity and all other religions.  Through his Spirit he is at work everywhere healing and making whole, serving the poor and setting the oppressed free,  working for justice, peace and reconciliation. Wherever there is hope and love, there is the cosmic Christ, the fullness of God, present through the Spirit even though he may be known by other names.  Yes, there are many people who are not Christian who are doing the things Jesus even if not in his name.  And they are doing so because the cosmic Christ is universally at work reconciling the world to God through his Spirit. 

So on Ascension Day we declare that Jesus the Christ is the cosmic Lord and giver of life, not that he is the founder of Christianity.  He is the one in and through whom we are reconciled to each other and to God, the One in and through whom we are made whole.  This is the good news we proclaim for the sake of the whole world.  Through his Spirit we witness through our lives and deed to what the cosmic Christ is doing in the world, and we do so "for Christ's sake."

John de Gruchy

14 May 2015 Ascension Day

Friday, 1 May 2015



John 12:20-26
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus!"

Our daughter Jeanelle recently drew our attention to an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian" (25 April) titled "Why I answered the call of convent life" in which it was reported that an increasing number of young women in England and Wales are becoming nuns.  This is a surprising turn of events for not so long ago the number was rapidly shrinking.  But during the past two years the number of Catholic women entering convents was seventy-four, that is a 25-year high compared to only seven who joined ten years ago.    And already this year 420 people have registered an interest in becoming monks or nuns in the Church of England Community of St. Anselm in London.  In trying to explain this growing number of applications, the prior of the Community simply says that "they want to be all out for Jesus" in the life of the world.  They choose their vocation not to escape the world, but because they want to devote their lives more fully to serving the needs of others. 

There is so much in the history of Christianity that fills us with both sadness, despondency and even anger.  I need not list all the horrors associated with Christianity from crusades and inquisitions to colonial conquest.  We all know the story, one which, tragically continues today when Christianity becomes confused with the interests of empires and nations, or identified with religious intolerance of others and narrow bigotry.  All of which is a contradiction of what Jesus taught, the life he lived, and his death of the cross. So it comes as a welcome breath of fresh air to read about this new generation of monks and nuns in Britain who "want to be all out for Jesus" in a way that seeks to serve the real needs of the world.  And they are not alone.  There are many more younger people like them who are doing the same in different ways across the globe without becoming monks and nuns.  It is this rejuvenation of commitment to serve Jesus by serving others that keeps Christianity Christian.

According to the gospel reading today, some Greeks came to the festival in Jerusalem to worship in the Temple during the week that Jesus was crucified.  They had heard about this Jesus of Nazareth who had raised Lazarus from the dead, they had seen him in the distance, but they really wanted to meet and get to know him.  So they came to the disciples and said "We wish to see Jesus!"  So the disciples introduced them to Jesus, and he in turn told them about the meaning of what was happening to him and what it meant for them to follow him. 

This cameo of a story is a wonderful description of the task of the church.  Like those first disciples, it is enable others to "see Jesus" so that they can discover for themselves who he is.  For it is only as people discover Jesus for themselves and follow him that Christianity remains Christian.  Yes, of course, like all religious movements, Christianity needs institutions and traditions to ensure that the story of Jesus is passed on from one generation to the next, but too often in the process Jesus disappears from sight.  Outsiders cannot see Jesus; all they can see is the trappings of another religion which hides Jesus from view. 

It is just like sport.  You cannot keep cricket alive without cricket clubs, coaches, match fixtures and making cricket balls and bats, just as a nation cannot function without those institutions of state that enable it to do so.  But it is not the sports clubs or the parliaments that keep the spirit of sport or of a nation alive and well.  Often they become corrupt and serve their own interests instead of the spirit of sport or the needs of society.  It is the passion and commitment of sports men and women that keep the game alive; just as it is people committed to the common good that keep a country on track.   In the same way, Christianity needs its institutions and traditions, but it fails to be Christian if Jesus disappears from sight.   What keeps Christianity Christian is people who follow Jesus.

On several occasions in his letters St. Paul describes the church as the "body of Christ."  This has often been misunderstood, especially when the church as an institution claims an authority and acts in a triumphalistic way in the name of Christ as though it were the Lord rather Jesus,  the servant of others.  What Paul means is that through the work of the Spirit of Jesus, the church becomes the real presence of the risen Christ in the world.  It is the Spirit of Jesus that makes and keeps the church the body of the risen Christ.

We misunderstand the resurrection of Christ if we simply think of it as something that happened two thousand years ago to Jesus of Nazareth.   Yes, something did happen that first Easter morning.  I believe, with the first witnesses,  that when Mary and Peter and the others came to tomb it was empty.  Even so this cannot be proved simply by historical analysis; it is an event shrouded in mystery as is evident in the various stories in the gospels which tell of Jesus' appearance to his disciples.  Jesus is real, but his reality is different to what it was previously.  They recognise him as the Master with whom they had walked and talked together, but he is now in a different dimension.  A spiritual dimension which which certainly touches their lives, but he is beyond their grasp and only known to faith.  Through the resurrection, the Spirit of Jesus has been let loose in the world. 

There is, in other words, an inseparable connection between the Easter message and Pentecost when the Holy Spirit takes hold of people and they begin to witness to Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus as the Christ is the releasing of the Spirit of Jesus in the life of the world in an act of new creation that continues to have a transforming impact on the world.  So the proof of the resurrection is is seen in the lives of ordinary people who are transformed by the Spirit of Jesus and bear witness to all that he said and did.  And it is precisely this that keeps Christianity Christian.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  30 April 2015

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Meditation: WE NEED EASTER by John de Gruchy


Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude...crying out

Many years ago Isobel and I spent a year at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I taught some courses, and on one occasion was invited to preach in the seminary chapel.  One of my students came to me prior to the service and asked whether he could shout out "Hallelujah" from time to time during my sermon for that was, he said, the custom in his church.  When the congregation enthusiastically agreed with the preacher, he said, people spontaneously cried out "Hallelujah," the Hebrew word for "Praise the Lord!"  Now I was accustomed to this because in my younger days I had attended worship services where this was normal practice.  But it was, at least at that time, something seldom done, if done at all, in the more sober and conservative Presbyterian environment of the Princeton seminary chapel.  I told him I had no objection and thought no more about it.  That is, until I was preaching, when all of a sudden I heard a loud "Hallelujah" shouted out from somewhere near the back of the chapel.  This was repeated several times during my sermon to the consternation of some in the congregation. But I was also a little taken aback, not because he shouted out "Hallelujah!" but because he seemed to be doing so at inappropriate times.  For example, if I said something like ":the world is in a very sorry mess," or "tragedy strikes people when they least expect it," he would shout "Hallelujah!"  But that was surely not something to praise the Lord about.

During Lent, as you well know, we refrain from crying out "Hallelujah" at the end of our service.  There are two main reasons for this.  The first is because our focus during Lent is on the cost of discipleship, on the journey to the cross.  Traditionally it is the season for repentance.  Nothing to cheer about.  But every reason to shout out "Aha!" as we remember that we are called to serve others and acknowledge that we often fail to do so. "Aha" is, if you like, a call to change our way of living in relation to those who are poor. A good and necessary discipline during Lent, and, of course, throughout the year.  

The second reason is that shouting out Hallelujah can just become a meaningless formality if we keep on saying it without thinking about what we are doing.  It becomes inappropriate.  It is like shouting out the word, as my student did, at the inappropriate time.  Of course, we can shout our "Hallelujah!" throughout the year, during Lent as well if we want to.  We do not stop praising the Lord in Lent.  But by refraining to do so for a period we come to appreciate its meaning again.  When Easter comes there is something very special to cheer about.  "Hallelujah" becomes the appropriate response to the good news that "Christ is risen!"  Then the Hallelujah chorus demands to be sung.  The time comes when, without forgetting "Aha!" we need to cry out "Hallelujah!" once again.   We need to affirm that we are Easter people, people who live in the light and the hope of the Easter message.  "Christ is risen! Hallelujah!"  Yes, we need Easter as Isobel wrote in a poem some years ago:

Lord, I see the beauty of your world,
the sparkling turquoise of the sea,
the solid mass of the mountains,
the fragile loveliness of a flower,
and I can praise you.

But there is that other ugly world
that frightens me -
it overwhelms me, renders me helpless:
that world where people are prisoners to poverty,
violence and misery mark the measure of their lives,
they trudge an endless treadmill
without a break – to stop is to fall off
into worse - a dark and bottomless pit.

I can’t bear to hear about it, to think about it.
I don’t know how – do I even care enough? -  to act.
Lord, it is Good Friday – bad Friday - writ large,
Bad Friday, Black Saturday, repeated
endlessly, like the treadmill.

We need Easter, Lord,
send Easter! – to the city’s slums
to the shacks, to the shebeens,
to the country’s desolation,
to the hearts and minds and wills of all.
Break upon our world with Easter.
Break open our world with Easter.

Yes, we need Easter.  We need good news amidst all the bad news that bombards us every day.  We can barely cope sometimes with all the problems we have to deal with day by day, at work or at home, without even thinking about the problems facing us in our society and the world at large.  We need something to shout "Hallelujah" about in dark times when daily there are news reports of mass murders and plane crashes, of friends who are dying of cancer, and corruption in high places, of Christians being slaughtered for their faith.  We need light in the midst of darkness.  We need hope in times when we are driven to despair.

The message of Easter is the good news that death and despair, destruction and darkness, do not have the final say, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that there is something to cheer about.  This is not easy to believe or do given the circumstances in which many people often find themselves.  Like Thomas we sometimes or even often doubt whether it can be true.  But it is the very foundation on which our Christian faith is based; it is our core belief.  Without Easter there would not, could not be, Christianity.  That is why on Easter day we cry out "Hallelujah" not once but many times, and why every Sunday, indeed, every day from here on through the year we cry our "Hallelujah!" not because it is liturgically correct, but because we need Easter, we need a reason to hope, to believe, to love. 

And so John, at a time when the world was falling apart, when the iron rod of imperial Rome was oppressing the nations, and  when Christians in the Middle East were being persecuted for the first time, had his amazing vision which he describes in the book of Revelation.  When all is said and done, when the victory over evil is finally won, there is, as he sees and describes,, a great multitude crying out "Hallelujah!  For the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult, and give him the glory."

We need Easter, Lord,
send Easter! – to the city’s slums
to the shacks, to the shebeens,
to the country’s desolation,
to the hearts and minds and wills of all.
Break upon our world with Easter.
Break open our world with Easter.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  9 April 2015

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Meditation: THE JUDAS ENIGMA by John de Gruchy


Matthew 26:17-25
"Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me...Surely not I Lord?"

Jesus' journey to Jerusalem has come to an end.  As we read the story of the Passover spent with his disciples in the Upper Room we know that by tomorrow evening Jesus will be dead.  But Jesus' disciples did not know that,  even if they had premonitions of impending doom.  They still hoped that Jesus would save Israel from despotic Roman rule and those religious authorities who connived with Rome to oppress the people.  But one of Jesus' disciples sharing that Last Supper had already decided that Jesus' was a failure.  He should never have followed Jesus in the first place.  His name was Judas, a central character in the unfolding drama.  For it was on the night in which he was betrayed, that Jesus took bread, blessed it and gave it to his disciples.  Judas' proverbial  kiss of betrayal stands in stark contrast to that of Mary Magdalene who kissed Jesus' feet a few days earlier and wiped them with her hair.  Unlike the twelve male disciples, she intuitively knew that Jesus had to suffer and die in order to complete his mission.

In his Inferno Dante condemns Judas to the deepest place in Hell for all eternity.  Yet if you read the many accounts that have tried to explain what Judas betrayal of Jesus, you will know that it is not as straightforward as we might think.  In fact, no one amongst the disciples has caused more controversy than Judas; no disciple has been scrutinized by scholars more than him.  The story of his betrayal of Jesus is, in short, a disturbing one.  After all, why did one of Jesus' own disciples turn out to be a traitor?  Surely Jesus would have been more careful in choosing his inner circle of followers.  Or did Jesus choose Judas knowing full well that he would betray him, hand him over to the authorities to be put to death, and then commit suicide?  That certainly seems the case if you take the gospel texts literally.  "One of you will betray me..." and "woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed."

In any case, why was it necessary for Judas to betray Jesus?  Was not Jesus going to be arrested anyway?  Was Judas simply doing what God had long planned?  If so, he could not have done otherwise. He was only doing God's will and surely cannot be blamed for doing so.  He was a pawn in the hand of God,  which makes God was responsible for Jesus' death, God using Judas to betray and kill his son.  What a frightful understanding of God.  But such a view also undermines human freedom and responsibility because Judas could not have chosen any other path.   It's like saying that the Germanwings plane crash was God's will irrespective of what the pilot did, irrespective of his mental state or his decision to commit suicide and mass murder. 

Or is there another possibility that helps us understand the Judas enigma?  I think there is, and that the clue lies in the Matthew's comment that this happened "so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled."  The problem is that there are no texts in the Old Testament that foretell Jesus' betrayal.   So what did Matthew mean?  I am not sure.  But I think he could be referring to the fact that the prophets who proclaim God's kingdom of justice and peace are invariably rejected, persecuted and sometimes murdered by the rulers of Israel. This was something that Jesus himself declared.  We recall his words on the day he arrived in Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who stones the prophets and kills those sent to you!" 

Prophets come proclaiming God's justice and peace, as they have done in South Africa and in many places over the years, but those in power generally refuse to listen to them.  In fact if you want to know why there is so much intrigue, nastiness, corruption and betrayal in politics, you do not have to look further than the events of Holy Week and the Crucifixion.  Just as in Jesus' day the crowds could cry Hosanna one moment and Crucify the next, so today the crowds can cry "we will kill for Zuma" one day and then do everything to destroy him the next.  If necessary bribery, betrayal, and corruption are all acceptable in gaining and keeping power.  It's the prophets who see through all this political backstabbing and thuggery; it's the prophets who are concerned about justice and peace, not those who win elections on dubious promises or by violent means.  If you don't believe me just think about what is happening in Egypt, across north Africa, in Israel-Palestine, in fact throughout the world.  Peacemakers are crucified by those who wish to keep power.  So back to Judas.

Judas was an idealistic young revolutionary in search of an authentic leader when Jesus called him.  He really believed that Jesus would lead a successful revolt against Rome.  He really believed that utopia was around the corner and that the Kingdom of God could be brought into being through Jesus, by force if necessary.  Judas was committed to getting rid of the corrupt political and religious establishment of the day, and by whatever means possible. And Jesus seemed to be the one who would make this come true, But as Jesus' ministry unfolded, as Jesus spoke about the need for his disciples to be agents of God's justice and peace, about suffering love and service, and as he finally rode into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a warhorse,  it dawned on Judas that Jesus' way of going about things would not work, it could not achieve the goal to which he, Judas, was passionately committed.  And in his disillusionment Judas was seduced by the voices of those who wanted to get rid of this would-be Messiah.  Judas became the victim of failed expectations.  He was not a pawn in the hands of God, but a dispensable pawn in the hands of corrupt and violent rulers.

But Jesus' fate was sealed long before Judas decided to betray him.  From the moment he began his ministry proclaiming God's kingdom of liberation for the poor and the oppressed, from the moment he challenged the abuse of religion and power until he finally drove out the money lenders from the Temple.  Jesus' death on the cross was not a religious event, it was a political act.  He was put to death because he challenged  the sins of the world that dehumanize people, the sins of violence and war, the sins that lead to poverty, the sins of greed and corruption, of falsehood and hatred, and the sins of those who used religion to justify all this -- these are the sins that crucified Jesus, and continue to do so. And we betray Jesus not when we miss going to church or fail to say our prayers and read the Bible, but when we act in ways contrary to the way of Jesus.  And God alone knows how often the church and Christians have done that in the course of history.  We have all been caught up in the betrayal of Judas. 

But the good news of Good Friday is that Jesus' way is God's way of salvation, liberation, justice and reconciliation.  The message of the cross may seem to be foolish and weak, but in fact it is the wisdom and power of God that stands in vivid contrast and contradiction to the way of the world.  Mary Magdalene was right.  Jesus had to suffer, but that was not because he had failed as Judas thought, it was because he was faithful to his mission to redeem the world. 

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  2 April 2015