Thursday, 26 May 2016

Meditation: THE CHURCH AS WORK IN PROGRESS by John de Gruchy


I Peter 2:1-5
John 17:25-26
" living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house."
"I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me maybe in them, and I in them."

How often I have heard people say, "I don't have a problem with Jesus but I do have a problem with the church!"  Yes, for many people, the church is a stumbling block to faith, an obstacle on the path to believing in God and discovering human wholeness.  It is by no means the only stumbling-block, but it is one of them.  In fact, if we had to judge by church attendance in Europe and Britain today we might conclude that the church is dying, despite evidence of vibrant life in many places.  Yet, ironically, at the same time churches are full to capacity throughout Trump territory, not known for its Christian compassion, and on the African continent and in Latin America, well known for ongoing conflict and corruption.  All of which begs the question, well what is the church?

If we were asked  to define the church,  many of us would be hard pressed to do so.  Is it a building, an institution, a bunch of clergy, a denomination?  Deciding what the church is seems to be as problematic as answering the question "is there a God?' or "who is Jesus Christ?"  And yet, every week, millions of Christians around the world declare that they not only believe in God, but also in "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" even though it is divided into many denominations, not particularly holy, and we are not quite sure what it means for it to be catholic and apostolic!  So what goes through your mind  if and when you say the Creed  or when you hear the word "church"? 

I know this all sounds Greek to you, but the word "church" or "kerk," "Kirk" or "Kirche," comes from the Greek word kuriakon which means "belonging to the Lord." It was originally used to describe a church building so you won't find the word in the NT.  In those days there were none.  Christians met together in each other's houses.  Only much later were some buildings dedicated to the Lord and called churches.  But we all know that the church is more than a building and, clearly, it existed before there were any church buildings.  The NT uses a different word to describe this church without walls: not kuriakon but ekklesia.            Ekklesia means an assembly of people, in this case a community of believers. If kuriakon refers to the church made of bricks and mortar, ekklesia refers, as the first letter of Peter puts it, to  the church built of "living stones," that is, a "spiritual house."   This does not mean that it is invisible as some have said, or that it does not need buildings in which to gather,  or that it does not require institutional structures to sustain and guide its life and work; but it means that before and above all else it is a living community of those committed to Christ.

There are many metaphors and analogies used in the NT to describe this Christian community.  St. Paul's favourite description is "the body of Christ" which is made up of many members each of whom needs the others.  A community united in the Eucharist because, as we say with Paul, we all partake of the same bread, the body of Christ broken for us. On this understanding of the church, it is not a bunch of likeminded individuals, like a photographic or bridge club but, as  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the church is "Christ existing as a community of persons," or the church is "Christ taking form in a band of people."  So where Christ is, we could say as some early theologians did,  there too is the church, recalling Jesus' words: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20)   

But the church is more than a gathering together of Christians, it is also God's experiment in creating a new humanity that transcends race and nationality, religion and gender,  a new humanity in which, as Paul puts it, the divisions that normally separate people are transcended.  As such, the church is a work in progress.  It is not yet one or holy, fully catholic or faithfully apostolic.  It is a community of people on a journey.  Some people today even speak of the "emerging church,"  that is the church that is emerging within and beyond denominations and finding its identity as a community committed to God's mission of reconciliation and justice, to God's will for human flourishing and wholeness, to God's will to care for the environment and to share the earth's resources.  As such the church is both an end in itself, and also a means to an end. It is not just a bunch of individuals who like to sing hymns , pray and then go and have coffee,  but an assembly of people embarked on an audacious God-inspired experiment to build what Martin Luther King jnr. referred to as "the beloved community." 

King's description of the church is based on Jesus' "high priestly prayer" in John's Gospel chapter 17 in which Jesus prays that his community of disciples may be one and that they may be filled with the same love of God for the world that was embodied in him. This is the "new humanity" that God is seeking to bring into being.  a "beloved community" of peace and compassion, reconciliation and justice.  A community striving to be one, holy, inclusive and engaged in serving the world.  This is Christ existing as church-community. 

Yes, the church is a work in progress, an emerging church, building on all the resources that we have received from the past, but journeying into the future with fresh vision and commitment inspired by the Spirit of Pentecost.  "Our goal," as Martin Luther King said, " is to create a beloved community."  But he went on to say: "this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives."  In other words, the church cannot be the church unless we who claim to belong are daily being transformed more fully into the likeness of Christ.  The church is only the church as we together are  being transformed and participating in God's purpose of making all things new.  Yes, despite all its faults and failures, which is true of any experiment, I believe in the church as God's work in progress to make the world more just, more compassionate, and so reconcile all things in Christ.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  26 May 2016

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Meditation: THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM by John de Gruchy


Acts 2:14-21

"I will pour our my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy.
young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophecy."

Some of you may know that the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme (VYLTP) which begins next week is based on and earlier model, the National Youth Leadership Training Programme (NYLTP), which was initiated by the Methodist Church in the late 1960's.  That programme lasted for 20 years and trained many young people who, since then, have become leaders in the churches and wider community.  Among them was Edwin Arrison who heads up the VYLTP, and it was because of the impact of that earlier programme that Edwin dreamt up and proposed that we had our own.  I purposely say "dreamt up" because I remember that Alex Boraine, who initiated the NYLTP, had a poster in his office in Durban which read "Dream the Impossible Dream."  The poster pictured Don Quixote, the famous eccentric character in Spanish literature who dressed as a knight in shining armour, rode a decrepit  donkey, and set off on a crusade to change the world.  Nothing was more unlikely than that this rather comic even pathetic figure had any chance to make the world a better place.  But he set off with determination to do so and, as the song from the movie  The Man from La Manche went, he "dreamt the impossible dream!"

Sceptics will tell anyone trying to change the world, to make it a better place in which to live, not to be so glassy-eyed and stupid.  "You are living in a dream world!" they say.  "Wake up to reality!" "You will fail, big time!"  And, yes, that is how we all generally feel as, I am sure, statesmen feel  when trying to solve the problems in the Middle East, or committed teachers feel working in dysfunctional schools.  "Stop dreaming," we cry out.  Working for justice and peace in the world, working to improve social conditions or whatever you are trying to do to make a difference,  too often seems like an impossible task, something we may dream about but can never achieve.  And yet nothing significant happens in the world, no advances are made, no good is achieved, without some people dreaming about a better country, a better society, a better life.  Without dreams about achieving the impossible nothing will happen. 

Volmoed would not have been established 30 years unless a few young Christians had had such dreams.  I am sure there were those who felt at the time that they were embarking on an impossible mission.  But here we are.  The dream has become reality.  And I guess that Edwin's dream of a youth leadership training programme that will make a difference in the lives of young people and through them a difference to the world, also seems like an impossible dream.  But impossible dreams inspired by the Spirit have a way of becoming reality. 

This conviction is at the heart of the message of Pentecost which we celebrated last Sunday.  Pentecost was the fulfilment of what the prophet Joel said would happen with the coming of the Messiah.  God's Spirit would be poured out so that  young men would see visions, old men dream dreams, and even slaves, both men and women, would prophecy.  In other words, those willed with the Spirit would discern God's will for the world in a new way, young people would have a new vision, old people who might have once dreamt the impossible dream in their youth, would dream again of new possibilities, and even those who were enslaved and oppressed would dream of a new world of freedom and justice for all.  The coming of the Spirit created new possibilities, brought fresh hopes, and awakened great expectations of what God would do. And people filled with the Spirit were empowered in order that the impossible dreams God had given them would become a reality.  In celebrating Pentecost we claim that promise of hope and new possibilities for our own lives, our families, our churches, our community, our country, and for Volmoed and the VYLTP. 
We believe that the VYLTP is God's gift to us for the future, part of the ongoing vision that gave birth to Volmoed, part of the impossible dream for a new and better world that was promised at Pentecost.  We believe that Volmoed is being called by God to host, help nurture and train a new generation of leaders over the years to come.  We also believe that in the process Volmoed will take on a new lease of life that will help shape its own future.  It is not that older folk are no longer important.  We too still dream dreams, we still look ahead and hope for the better world.  But we need young people of vision, young people with energy to begin to shape the future.  Without such vision we will all perish. 
The VYLTP may be only a small contribution to what needs to be done given the immense challenges facing our country, but it is an important one, and it is vital for the ongoing life and ministry of Volmoed as God's place for healing and transformation.  So we commit ourselves to support and pray for what will be happening here over the next nine weeks.  This is not just a programme being held at Volmoed, this is Volmoed once again discerning God's will, catching the vision and living expectantly that our impossible dreams may become reality.  Pentecost calls us to dream the impossible dream and allow the Spirit to work in and through us to make it possible.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 19 May 2016

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Meditation: LOVE IS THE BEGINNING AND END by John de Gruchy

I dedicate this meditation to Ruth Robertson (neĆ© Shoch) who died this week aged 87.  Ruth was working for the South African Council of Churches (1968-72) as personal assistant to Bishop Bill Burnett when I joined the staff in 1968.  She was the first woman to study theology at Rhodes University.  A committed ecumenist and worker for justice, in later years, after marrying John Robertson, Ruth with John were deeply involved in the life of Volmoed.  Ruth was one of the most loving and generous people I know which is part of the reason for the choice of my theme.


I John 4:16b-21
John 17:17-25
"God is love."
"You loved me before the foundation of the world."

We were just three old friends sitting and having coffee while we gazed out over Walker Bay from the terrace of Burgundy restaurant.  We were hoping to see whales , but only saw a school of Dolphins in the distance.  Did I say "only" as if that was second best to whales?  Of course, not.  Dolphins are amazing, graceful creatures, every bit as wonderful to see as a Southern Right with its calf swimming beside her.  While we gazed into the distance, my friend, a trained theologian, asked whether I believed in a personal God, not just a mysterious force that might pervade the universe and give birth to the beauty we perceived.  It is not difficult when you see dolphins at play to believe that there is a mysterious force at work in the universe.  But is that force Someone with whom you can have a relationship? Someone to whom you can pray, Someone you can love and be loved in return?  Someone we call God, and relate to as to a Father or Mother?

I know that people living in poverty don't contemplate the majesty of the universe while leisurely drinking coffee and discussing theology, and yet many of them ardently believe in God who enables them to cope with life.  I also know that many people don't believe in God because the world as they experience it is ugly and full of suffering and violence.  How can you believe in God in a world plagued by disease and war, they ask us.   My friend who was probing the meaning of mystery with me over coffee was fully aware of all of the arguments against faith in God.  But  this did not detract from our shared awareness, as we sat and chatted together, that we were surrounded by a great mystery, a mystery we glimpsed as we looked out into the vast expanse of Walker Bay and watched the dolphins at play.  But the question persisted, was this mystery "in whom we live, move and have our being" personal?  Can we relate to this transcendent mystery as children relate to their parents, or lovers to each other?  And therein lies the clue.  I believe that the mystery we call God is personal because I believe God is love.  That God loves the world and loves us.  This is the good news of Jesus the Christ.

One of the doctrines of Christian faith about which you seldom hear these days is what is called the "pre-existence of Christ."  That is, the notion that the Word who became flesh in Jesus was with God from the beginning.    "You loved me before the foundation of the world," Jesus says in his high priestly prayer as told by St John in the gospel passage we read this morning.  In other words,  God's love for the world that was revealed in Jesus did not only start when Jesus was born.  God's love for the world was there from the beginning.  God's love for the world was not an after-thought which God had when the world went skew and needed redemption.  It was God's love that gave birth to the universe.  It is God's love that sustains the world.  Love is the foundation of everything else.

When we say that "God is love" we are not describing an attribute of God, we are describing the essence of God, what makes God God.  If God is not love, God is not the God revealed in Jesus, the God Jesus called "Father."  Of course, we are not thinking here of love as something sentimental, like the so-called love that oozes out of too many magazines, movies and the like.  The love  we name God is holy love, it is the love that expresses itself in mercy and compassion, and justice for the oppressed.  It is self-giving costly love, redemptive love, the love that heals and makes whole.  It is beautiful, creative  love, the love we see as we gaze out on the ocean or welcome a new born baby into the world. Love is the power that brings new life and beauty to birth; love is the power that heals and restores. This love is the beginning and the end of the story of Christ and of the universe.

Listen again to the majestic words in the first letter of John.  "God is love and those who love abide in God, and God abides in them... We love because he first loved us."    The only way in which we relate to the God is through the love which God evokes in us, something so evident in the life of our friend Ruth.  "Those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen." To believe in the God who is love is  to love God what God loves -- justice and mercy, the creation given into our care, the families and friends who surround us, and the strangers who meet us along the way.  Julian of Norwich, Isobel's favourite "saint," understood this profoundly:

   keeps us in faith and hope;
            and faith and hope lead to love.
            And at the end all shall be love.

            I had three kinds of understandings on this light of love;
                        the first is love uncreated;
                        the second is love created;
                        the third is love given.
            Love uncreated is God;
            love created is our soul in God;
            love given is virtue --
                        and that is the grace-filled-gift of action,
                        in which we love God for Himself,
                        and ourselves in God,
                        and all that God loves,
                        for God's sake.  (From A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of                                                       Norwich, ed. John-Julian,  London 1988, 211)

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 12 May 2016

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Meditation: THE TRIUMPHALIST HERESY by John de Gruchy


Acts 1:6-11
Matthew 7:21-23

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

I was taught, as a young enthusiastic Christian, that "if I confessed with my lips that Jesus is Lord and believed in my heart that God raised him from the dead, I would be saved."  The words are from St. Paul's letter to the Romans. (10:9)  But even back then it sounded a little too easy.  Could it really be true that all I had to do to escape hell and damnation was to say "Jesus is Lord"?  What about Jesus' own words: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."  That was more difficult to put into practice, but it made more sense. 

Then I also learnt that when Paul said we must confess Jesus as Lord with our lips he was not being trite at all.  He was referring to followers of Jesus who were being persecuted and put to death because they confessed that Jesus, not Caesar ,was Lord.   In those days it was like confessing Christ today in ISIS controlled territory in Syria or Iraq, not proudly singing "Jesus is Lord" to reinforce the idea that Christians are superior folk to Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and the rest.  That is what I call the "triumphalist heresy," a heresy that pervades so much contemporary Christianity, and something that has become particularly obnoxious in the Republican presidential campaign in the United States.  A heresy we need to think carefully about this Ascension Day, because it is especially on this day that Christians celebrate the triumph of Jesus and confess him as Lord of all.  Yet, we too often do so without thinking about what this really means.  We fail to see the heresy lurking behind the songs we sing and the banners we unfurl which proudly declare Christ is Lord of all. The message of the Ascension s not some fantastical doctrine about Jesus rocketing into outer space in which we believe in order to be saved, but a call to costly discipleship.

Let me explain what I mean by triumphalism.  When the armies of the Roman Empire returned to Rome after a great victory they entered the city  through a triumphal arch and paraded before the Emperor and cheering crowds, much like victorious armies still do today. Nations like to celebrate their triumphs; it makes the citizenry proudly patriotic, and reinforces the image of power of those who rule over them.  But triumphal marches have their dark side. The triumphal march through ancient Rome invariably included  hundreds of captives taken into slavery.  Imperial triumph was achieved through the defeat of other people, oppressing them and taking control over their land and its resources.  Now imagine in that context and amid that outpouring of national pride and euphoria someone had the courage to stand up and shout "Caesar is not Lord!  Christ is Lord!"  It would not be long before they would be fed to the lions or at least sent to Robben Island or some such place.  To declare "Christ is Lord" is, in such contexts, a very radical statement.  It challenges national triumphalism at its core. 

This is the background to the "triumphalist heresy" in Christianity, a heresy that has plagued the church through the centuries ever since Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire.   It is the belief that because "Christ is Lord" the church has the spiritual authority to rule over others, convert them by force if necessary, and more generally owed a privileged place within the empire or nation as a God-given right.  And, of course, Christian triumphalism claims that because Christ is Lord, Christianity is superior to all other religions, and that the church and those of who confess Christ are somehow a cut above others and called to rule as Ted Cruz made clear.   While Christian triumphalism may not always be expressed so crudely or in the same way today as it once was,  it keeps on emerging whether in giving sanction to war, fighting elections, or simply in regarding people of other faiths as beyond the pale.  Christian triumphalism is the essence of right-wing Christianity whether in the United States, South Africa, or anywhere else.   

Now let us contrast this "triumphalist heresy" in which the church bows its knee to Caesar, with another triumphal march, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem mounted not a war-horse or chariot, but on a donkey followed by a motley collection of disciples who he called his friends.  And in doing so let us remember that this Jesus was put to death a few days later by Caesar's representative in Jerusalem at the insistence of the religious leaders of the day.  This donkey-riding Messiah we call Lord!  This is the outrageous message of Ascension Day which we celebrate today.  The one who was crucified God has made Lord, but a very different kind of Lord to Caesar or any other ruler.  "He emptied himself," Paul writes, "taking the form of a slave... he humbled himself and became obedient death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him,,, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow...and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (Philippians 2:6-11).  Jesus' triumph is one of self-giving love and service not conquest. 

In confessing Jesus as Lord, then, we are confessing that the crucified One is Lord.  That Jesus' way of the cross, his way of love, sacrifice and service is God's way, and that this is superior to hatred, violence and selfish greed.  In confessing Jesus as Lord we are not exalting ourselves or our religion to some kind of privileged place.  We are committing ourselves to the power of love not the love of power.  We are refusing to blindly follow any political party leader or manifesto that contradicts what we have learnt from Jesus.  In confessing Jesus not Caesar as Lord, we affirm that forgiveness and restitution. not vengeance, is the true path to a just society; that peace-making  not war and violence is the method that heralds the coming of God's kingdom. In confessing Christ as Lord we do not exclude others who are different from us from the human community, but embrace all whom the Son of Man came to seek and save.  In confessing Christ as Lord we stand in solidarity with all the struggling peoples of the earth.  That is why Jesus tells us  "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

John de Gruchy
Ascension Day, 5 May 2016