Thursday, 14 July 2016

Meditation: THE GIFT OF PEACE by John de Gruchy


 John 14:25-27
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

Early last Sunday morning I sat down to write my meditation aware that there would  be little  time to do so after arriving back at Volmoed.  I was sitting in our hotel room in Basel, Switzerland, where Isobel and I attended the 12th International Bonhoeffer Congress,  an event held every four  years.  The next one, I can now report, will be held in Stellenbosch in January 2020 in case you want to make a note in your diary!  But that was not in my mind as I sat thinking about this meditation after almost three weeks of travel shared with Anton and Esther. But now, as the Congress came to an end, I reflected on our trip and some global events that had happened since we were last together here in the chapel sharing the peace of Christ with each other.  Christ's gift of shalom or wholeness, in a world torn apart by racism and violence, greed and war.  Even in beautiful Collioure in the south of France where peace seemed to envelope us as each new day dawned,  we could not escape the grim news of more gun violence on the streets of  the United States,, terrorist bombings in Bangladesh, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere, and political strife back in South Africa. 

So there I was sitting in our hotel  room starting to work on this meditation.  The window was wide open, the sun was shining brightly, and the birds in the garden were singing.  It was Sunday, it was quiet, it was peaceful.  It was like it so often  is here on Volmoed and how it was later that morning as we listened to the splendid music and sermon in St. Peter's  church where our mutual Volmoed friend Benedict Shubert is pastor. No wonder my thoughts turned to Jesus words: "My peace I give to you!"  I did not have to make this peace, it was a gift to receive, appreciate and share.

But when Jesus spoke these word, unlike me, he was not sitting comfortably in a Swiss hotel listening to the coo of pigeons nor was he in the temple listening to glorious music.   He was on the harsh road to the cross.  His words of peace, of shalom and wholeness, were uttered in the face of violence, at a time when the mood against him in Jerusalem had turned ugly, a time  when hatred of the Roman occupation was at a height and the authorities were struggling to keep control.  It was in such a context, so like our own, that Jesus said: "My peace I give to you."  It was not the uneasy peace which the authorities struggled to provide, imprisoning and crucifying rebels who threatened the established order, Jesus among them.  Jesus' gift of peace to his disciples was not the peace that the world either then or now tries to give its citizens.  It was something far more, God's shalom, a peace which passed human understanding in the worst of times. Therefore Jesus tells them that they should neither let their hearts be troubled, nor be afraid.

It is difficult to grasp hold of this gift of peace and not be troubled or afraid in a world of terror and violence.  It has always been so.  No sooner has one war ended, than another breaks out.  No sooner has one agent of terror been eliminated than another arises.  No sooner has one dreaded disease been conquered than another erupts.  No sooner have our lives recovered from despair and grief, than we have to cope with further trouble and loss.  The peaceful calm of a hotel room in Switzerland or of Volmoed on a Thursday morning is more often than not the exception rather than the rule.  We give thanks for such times of peace, but it is in the midst of trouble and fear that Jesus' utters his word of peace.  For God's shalom is not the same as security in a safe haven; it is not discovered by withdrawing from the world into some kind of religious sanctuary or ghetto, or avoiding the harsh reality of cancer or the loss of those we love.  Jesus gives us peace on the road to the cross, in the midst of our struggle for justice or suffering.  We receive Christ's gift of peace, of shalom wholeness, anew each day as we seek to follow him faithfully amid of the troubles and problems we face, and especially when life seems to fall apart.  That is why it passes all understanding.  It is a gift beyond words, a gift without logical explanation.  But those who accept it know that it is real.

Yet we do not receive Christ's gift of peace in isolation from others, as though it is our gift to keep to ourselves rather than a gift to share with others.  Christ's peace is not a warm feeling that we treasure in isolation for fear of losing it; Christ's peace is only received in sharing it with others.  In order to know the peace of Christ we have to live in that peace with others, forgiving and loving them, enabling them to journey with us into wholeness.  After all, it is not our peace, but Christ's gift to us.  So it is that we receive the peace of Christ as we commit to working together to oppose violence in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.  We receive the peace of Christ when we in turn become peacemakers, opposing the forces of evil that lead to hatred, violence and war.  We receive Christ's peace when we sit beside those who suffer pain and loss, helping them to know Christ's peace.  And we receive this peace when, week by week, we share the peace of Christ with each other at the Eucharist.  To embrace and to be embraced in giving the peace is an affirmation of the gift which Christ offers us each day, a gift beyond understanding which the world cannot give.  So let not your hearts be troubled or afraid.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 14 July 2016

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Meditation: FREEDOM FROM FEAR OF THE "OTHER" by John de Gruchy


Galatians 5:1, 12-15
John 8:31-36
"For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore and do not submit
again to the yoke of slavery."
"If you continue in my will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

Paul's letter to the Galatians is often called his "epistle of Christian freedom."  There were undoubtedly some freed slaves in the Galatian churches, but Paul had chiefly in mind those Jewish converts to Christ who had been liberated from slavery to religious legalism and intolerance.  Paul himself knew all about this slavery because as a strict Pharisee he had persecuted Jewish Christians and even put some to death because they no longer kept all the ritual and dietary requirements of the law.  But now, as a follower of Jesus, he had learnt to embrace those who were different from himself and regard them as brothers and sisters,  For had not Jesus embraced publicans and sinners, prostitutes and Samaritans, and even had meals with them?  So, too, as followers of Jesus, the Galatian Christians had been liberated from slavery to those laws that kept them separate from Gentile believers, laws of social exclusion and ritual purity which also made women inferior.  But now, having been set free in Christ,  some were squandering their freedom in an attempt to keep themselves pure and righteous in the sight of God.  Women, Gentiles and slaves were all being shunned as inferior, unclean and at best, second class citizens in God's kingdom.  So Paul writes to remind them that as followers of Jesus they been set free from slavery to such legalism in order to love others and should not "submit again to the yoke of slavery."  

As a former Pharisee of the strictest kind, Paul knew how precious this freedom was.  But he also knew that such freedom did not mean doing what he liked irrespective of others,  as though the law did not matter.  Legalism as well as the irresponsible use of freedom had the same outcome.  The freedom Jesus gave him was the freedom to embrace others as brothers and sisters, rather than exclude them as unclean sinners and enemies. Like Jesus and the prophets before him, Paul knew that whole law was summed up in love for others as well as God..  In Christ, he told the Galatians,  "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave nor free person, for we are all one."  It was therefore the responsibility of every Christian to protect and nourish their freedom responsibly in love and not abuse it for selfish interests and gain.  Freedom from legalism was not licence to do as you please but freedom to love and allow by fear or hatred of the other to determine our relationships. 

The attack on the gay night club in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP were two awful consequences of hate speech and homophobia in countries where civil liberties are traditionally cherished, but in which uncivil vices are becoming far too prevalent.  When the self-proclaimed "land of the free," becomes the land of the greedy, religious intolerance and hate speech,  it is no longer free,  no longer the "leader of the free world," but a land in the grip of fear.  When people like Jo Cox's who live to serve others, speak up for those who are despised and oppressed,  oppose unjust policies, are murdered for doing so, something seriously wrong in the state of England.  But, of course, such deeds of fear and hatred are happening across the globe with frightening regularity, and  we in South Africa are by no means immune to the hate speech and greed that fosters violence as current events painfully demonstrate.

In the midst of this bad news we have been celebrating  snippets of good news which gives us hope.  When our national cricket team, the Proteas, beat the West Indies decisively last week, the stars of the game were two South African Muslims, Hashim Amla and Imram Tahir.  This was something unthinkable not so long ago in apartheid and so-called Christian South Africa.  In a world where the fear of Islam has become a political tool in the hands of trumpeting politicians, and where religious intolerance and jingoistic nationalism are on the upturn, this  is significant even if only on a small scale.  On a larger scale has been the outpouring of support for the LGBT community across the world for those affected by the Orlando massacre and Jo Cox's murder.  People  have come to see that homophobia breeds hatred, hatred breeds fear, and fear breeds violence, though too many politicians, preachers and their followers have yet to get the message,

And here on Volmoed last Thursday, June 16, we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, an event which, back then, stoked white fears even as it awoke black hopes.  Respect and embrace not hatred and exclusion were the order of the day as we celebrated in the chapel and formally launched the VYLTP programme.  It was a wonderful time of song, conversation and challenge, of making friends and having fun, of rejecting fear and expressing hope.  It was also an expression of confidence in the next generation, the "born frees," who are learning the true meaning of following Jesus and the importance of the ongoing struggle to ensure that the freedom we have to embrace the other is never surrendered.  We still have a very long way to go as a nation as the Tswane riots demonstrated, but we have also come a long way. 

As Christians and citizens  we have been set free from the bondage that kept us separate on the basis of race and religion, and  we should not allow ourselves to be dragged back into the slavery of that fear that feeds hatred. That is why we have to resist and reject racism and xenophobia at every turn whether in the church or the state.   So let us take to heart what Jesus said. "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  Fear is nurtured by lies; freedom thrives on truth, and for us that truth is embodied in Jesus.  That is why we have to continually listen to Jesus' words.  And that is precisely what Paul was telling the Galatians. For only when we truly follow Jesus will we know what is true, and only then will we be free -- free from fear, free to seek justice, free to be compassionate,  free to love one another.

"For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore and do not submit
again to the yoke of slavery."

John de Gruchy

Volmoed   23 June 2016

Monday, 6 June 2016

Meditation: THE CREATIVE BEING by John de Gruchy


Genesis 1:26-31
Romans 8:18-25
"Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'"

Someone asked me the other day why I took up woodworking as a hobby.  My answer, a little facetious I admit, was that I did so because I try to follow Jesus, and he was, as far as we know, a carpenter.  But, then, we might ask, why don't all Christians become woodworkers? Or do you have to be a woodworker to be a follower of Jesus?  So there must be a better answer to the question why did I take up woodworking..  I suggest it has to do with the biblical claim that human beings are made in the "image of God." A statement that comes as the climax to the first story about creation in Genesis. "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'"  The meaning of these words has been discussed and debated many times over the centuries, and there are several plausible understandings of what they mean.  One is that human beings have a self-conscious relationship with their Creator.  But another has to do with the creativity of God, to God as artist,.  For if the creation story says anything about the mystery we name God, it says that the creation is an inspired work of a creative and even playful mind.  Therefore being in the "image of God" we are created to be stewards of creation and co-creators in the unfolding drama of the earth. 

In the beginning before the universe was born, there was nothing, emptiness, a void, a blank canvas if you like.  All was dark, there was no light, no beauty, no colour, no movement.  But gradually the canvas was filled in as the Spirit of creativity got to work inspiring each step towards the emerging, evolving masterpiece full of wonderful forms and shapes, full of life, colour and movement.  All of this revealed the splendour of God, for "the world was alive with the glory of God" as Gerald Manley Hopkins so aptly said.  And yet, as God stepped back from the canvas to take a look, there was something missing, a final but significant addition was needed to make the painting complete.  It was, of course, God's personal signature. "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'"  Like many a great painting, the artist includes a resemblance of himself or herself.  There in the corner, we say, is surely a self-portrait or selfie if you like, of Rembrandt or Michelangelo.  That signature is us!  As the Psalmist puts it:

You have made human beings just a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
Today we have welcomed the first cohort of the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme to our weekly Eucharist.  And because VLYTP is such a mouthful, we have baptised the group as  the "voeltjies" or "little birds."  So if you hear many fresh and vibrant sounds breaking the Volmoed silence over the next nine weeks, it is the song of the "voeltjies" adding sound and colour to creation.  What led to this naming was that someone misspelt Volmoed recently, writing instead "Voelmoed!"  So "voeltjies"  it is.   And, what is more, the "voeltjies" will sing each Thursday here at the Eucharist!  This is not singing for their last supper. but singing with joy and thanksgiving for the gift of life and the wonder of creation.

Each week the "voeltjies" focus on a different theme related to those in the Volmoed Prayer Book.  Last week it was on building community, next week on healing and wholeness, the fourth on justice and peace, and the fifth week on reconciliation.  Then the cycle repeats itself.  But this week it has been on creation.  We have not spent precious time on the silly debate about whether the creation narratives in the Bible are literally true, or whether believing in creation contradicts evolution.  That debate misses the point of the story.  The creation narrative not history or science, but "myth" which simply means a story that is profoundly true.   

To believe that God created the universe does not mean that evolution is wrong, but that there is meaning and purpose to the universe.  It is an affirmation that we "live, move and have our being" in the mystery we name God.  The Creation story probes what that meaning is all about and where we humans fit into the picture s painted in the opening chapters of the Bible.  What emerges is that we are part of the animal kingdom interconnected with all other forms of life, and yet we have a special place within this remarkably diverse creation that is still in process.  We are the gardeners, we are the workers, we are the sculptors and actors.  For creation does not end on the sixth day in reality.  God may take a break to step back and admire what he has created, but come the eighth day and God is back at work.  Creation is a work in progress.  And we human beings have  the awesome responsibility to  care for and nurture what has come into being.  In other words, we are called to be creative artisans, adding to the canvas of which we are a part.  Imagining fresh possibilities, inventing new artefacts, building bridges of reconciliation and making peace when conflicts arise. 

St. Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning as it awaits to be set free from its own travail by those who have already come to know the redemption of God, those who have recovered their humanity as being "in the image of God" and therefore stewards and co-creators.  That is why we have to imagine fresh possibilities in anticipation of the birth of a renewed earth in which everyone will find a home, have sufficient for their needs, and make peace instead of war. As Archbishop Tutu said to the "voĆ«ltjies" when he met them in Cape Town last week, "make the world beautiful, especially for the poor."

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  2 June 2016

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