Friday, August 10, 2012

Pentecost +11B

Like all the Monty Python movies, 'The Meaning of Life' more or less takes the mickey out of everything connected with trying to work out just what life's about.  Every religion, every philosophy, every way of life and every attempt to make sense of it all is systematically poked and prodded until it all seems just a bit silly.  Don't get me wrong – I actually find Monty Python's approach really fun, really life-affirming and – in a whacky sort of way – quite reverent.  Anyway, towards the end of the movie, after we've had a laugh at all our most serious attempts at working out what life's about, the scene cuts to a little man, a French waiter who beckons us over and says – 'so you want to know what it's all about?' – and by then, we really do – so we follow him – or rather, the camera does – all the while beckoning over his shoulder mysteriously - across the road and over the park and up the street – and he finally turns around and says 'well, this is my philosophy – you don't have to accept it, but here it is - tell the truth, be kind to everyone you meet, and be good to your mother'. 

And there's this moment of silence while he looks a bit embarrassed, and then gets angry at us:  'Well, alright – it's not much of a philosophy, I know, but it's mine …'  We wanted something deeper, something more … philosophical.  And so the movie ends without answering its own main question – what is the meaning of life?

The trouble is, whenever we try to really spell it out we seem to end up like that.  Making lists.  At first glance, that's what we seem to be getting today from Ephesians – a short-list of do's and don'ts – some essential rules for living.  Trouble is, in his letter to the Roman Church, St Paul makes such a big thing of arguing how it's not about rules any more, it's about a new quality of life that he calls being 'in Christ'.  So, how come the rules?  Aren't we back where we started – tell the truth, don't steal – be nice to your mum?

Except there's a bit more to it than that.  Remember when I spoke about chapter two, about the breaking down of the wall and the connection between being right with God and being right with other people, reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, or maybe in terms more relevant to us, between this Church faction and that one – or, ultimately, between people who think the same way I do, and … well, the rest of you.  That what Jesus accomplishes is the breaking down of walls.  Ephesians is about relationships – horizontal ones as well as vertical ones – and now we're getting down to the nitty gritty – there's a connection between having new life 'in Christ' and how we live from day to day.  And in particular – how we live in Christian community.  We're meant to notice how these two things go together – if there's no practical grounding, or no requirement to live out the consequences of our faith, then Christian spirituality becomes self-indulgent, a sort of withdrawal from reality – on the other hand, the sort of Christianity that just focuses on the rules without attending to spirituality turns into joyless moralising.  Ephesians is about noticing the connection, and above all, about noticing that our Christianity gets worked out in the context of our relationships.

Get angry, but don't sin!  I really think that Christians get confused about anger.  On the one hand we have Jesus telling us in Matthew chapter 5 that anger is like committing murder – in other places we read about Jesus getting angry himself.  Anger itself, of course, is just an emotion.  We're hard-wired for it as a built-in emotional response for example to pain or frustration.  It's morally neutral.  Generally we feel anger not even as a first response but as a second response, a split second later when we've had a chance to react – and it's a natural, an unavoidable part of living in families and communities – even in churches – it's natural to feel anger and acknowledging and accepting your anger is a good sign that you're emotionally healthy.  What isn't healthy is when we suppress it, when we pretend we're not angry, or when we hold onto it after its 'use by date'.  When we bottle it up, force it underground and maybe even forget what we were originally angry about, then either it eventually builds up so much that it comes out in an inappropriate way, or else it gets turned inwards against ourselves and it becomes a recipe for depression.  Or we can hold on to anger so long that it becomes poisonous, we become poisonous to ourselves and to other people.  I think a real problem with Christian communities is when people mistake Jesus' instruction to love other people with the idea that we should never be angry, that we should never have any conflicts, or that we should always be 'nice'.  Not letting the sun go down on your anger might actually be more about being honest, about taking responsibility for our own feelings and dealing with conflict in a way that's respectful both of ourselves and of other people. 

And then, says Ephesians? Be kind to one another, and forgive one another.  You might think, well, we're Christians, we know about forgiveness – except it's a lot easier to talk about it than to do it, isn't it? I've thought about this a fair bit, because – well, I'm pretty sure I might have made somebody angry once. Or twice.  Conflict happens wherever there are people, and perhaps especially wherever there are people who care passionately about what they are doing, and yes, to some extent if your parish priest doesn't make you angry every now and then that might mean she or he isn't doing their job.  More often maybe it is because he or she has overlooked something, or given offence in the way that busy and distracted people all too often do.  A lot of the time it is simply because, heck, the parish priest is the one person who is here most of the time, and that's bound to be annoying. So as a rule, priests count on this one, that God's people are prepared to forgive.  But the best way to practise forgiveness is to be assertive, which means to come to the person who has offended you in private and tell them.  With gentleness and respect.  Right now, I'm angry at you.  Why did you do this? Why did you say that?  Why didn't you notice?  Why weren't you there? This is what Jesus tells us to do, in Matthew chapter 18.  This is also about doing a reality check.  Maybe the fault was with the other person.  Maybe it was with me.  Maybe we both need to forgive each other.  But certainly, when the practise of forgiveness is generous and active, relationships are strengthened.

Then Ephesians says, 'don't steal'.  You might think this one's a bit easier.  Not too many house-breakers or pickpockets come to St Michaels.  Except, see how the verse goes on to connect the idea of not stealing with the requirement to be generous towards people in need?  There's no middle ground, no sit-on-the-fence position where you can just look after your own business and let the rest of the world look after itself.  It's one or the other, Ephesians is saying there's either compassion or there's theft.  If you're not living generously, then you're living selfishly.  There's nothing private about Christian spirituality, it's not a mountain-top religion – what St Paul calls living 'in Christ' doesn't just mean warm fuzzy feelings, it means participating in some way with Jesus' uncompromising program of love and compassion – it means modelling our own lives on what we see God doing for us in and through Jesus – allowing God to draw us out of our own self-preoccupation so that we notice the needs of the have-nots and the disadvantaged and the ungrateful.  What Ephesians is telling us here is that when we cop out of that deal, when we stop noticing the need of others, then we are stealing something that belongs to God.  When we keep God's gifts locked up inside ourselves rather than using them to enrich the lives of those around us, then we're stealing something that belongs to God.  I don't know about you, but I find it uncomfortable to hear that. 

And then Ephesians tells us to watch our language.  The way we communicate has to mirror God's grace and God's compassion towards us.  It's a tall order, isn't it?  God's Spirit is what is animating you, it's what gives you life in the first place, and it's what gives you the new kind of life that Paul calls living 'in Christ'.  But it's not 'set and forget'.  You need to live cooperatively with the Spirit, you need to be flowing in the same direction as the Spirit – when we fail to notice which direction the Spirit is moving in us and we start swimming against the tide, then we block the flow.  I think the whole idea of the Holy Spirit is that God intends us for flourishing and for wholeness – but we have to work with that intention, giving of ourselves, not holding onto our hurts or our limitations, meeting other people more than halfway because God meets us more than halfway.

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus is still talking about bread.  About himself being the bread come down from heaven to be the life of the world.  Jesus sees himself as that which is broken and shared out, as food for a hungry world.  The One who is sent into the world by God, and the One who sends us into the world.  There's something in this image that tells us about the nature of God's own life – never static, always on the move outwards from the centre like ripples when you throw a stone into a puddle.  The nature of God, that we see in Jesus Christ, is to be poured out so as to fill up our emptiness.

It's a restless image, isn't it?  Love that's so all-consuming that it keeps looking for new horizons of self-giving.  And then Ephesians wraps up the list of do's and don't's by telling us we've got to imitate that.  That's what all this has been heading towards.  You can't love Jesus without imitating Jesus, without imitating the character of God which is to be poured out in love.  It means the focus keeps widening.  Not just focused on ourselves, not just focused on the inward spiritual Jesus, but working out the meaning of who we are in the challenge of living with others and for others.