Sunday, February 24, 2013

JUST GIVING UP? Thoughts for Lent

Lent is traditionally a time for giving something up, and most of the things people abstain from at this time of year are themselves quite traditional: Alcohol... smoking... chocolate... sweets... even meat... all these have been regarded in some quarters as rather self-indulgent – perhaps even as vices – and when someone is considering what to give up for Lent these are tend to be the first things that come to mind.

But some of the things people give up for Lent are less obvious. There are people who cook normally at home but give up restaurants and takeaways. I know someone who has given up computer games for Lent. I’ve heard of people putting their mobile phones away for 6 weeks, unplugging the TV and the stereo, or disconnecting the internet. I’ve even heard of giving up fashionable clothing for Lent.

These approaches may seem odd to anyone who has grown up with a traditional idea of Lent, and to society at large the idea of abstaining from anything without an ulterior motive is somewhat bizarre. Dieting and quitting tobacco are fashionable enough, of course, but for every voice encouraging self-control we hear a hundred urging us to pamper ourselves, to give in to temptation, to gratify our desires. And in this context, it’s not what we give up Lent that matters, but how we choose it.

Of course, Lent was originally a time for giving up food - hence the point of Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day): to use up yummy, filling foods like flour, eggs and fat, so that they wouldn’t go off over the 6 weeks of Lent and wouldn’t be lying around the home to tempt people. But it is temptation that is the real focus of Lent – and learning to fight that temptation. 
And the fact is, we have so many more temptations to deal with than our forebears did. They didn’t have chocolate and sweets and ice cream and banoffee pie and so on to tempt them, as we do every time they turn on the TV or go into the supermarket. They didn’t have TV and recorded music and the internet and computer games to distract them from their walk with God. For them, clothing was about keeping warm rather than making a fashion statement. 

So it is right and proper, if we are gong to observe Lent, not to do it by numbers, not to copy others, not to give up things that we feel we ought to give up anyway. Rather, it’s a time to reflect on what it is that really tempts each one of us. I’d like us each to think for a moment: Is there one thing that really does suck you in? Something that whenever you see it, you want it? Something that you think about when it’s not there?..... A type of food or drink? A habit? A pastime? A website? I’m not asking you to admit it to anyone, unless you really feel led to. But, if something did come into your mind when I asked the question a moment ago, and if you are going to give something up for Lent (and it’s not to late to do so) then maybe that is the thing you could consider giving up between now and Easter - and perhaps longer. 

And while Lent traditionally focuses on giving things up, it’s not just about giving things up. In fact, I want to suggest that it’s just as much about two other things: taking something on,  and receiving something from God.

Firstly, Lent is a time for taking something on. I think it’s remarkable how many people do simply and faithfully give something up at Lent, year after year, without taking on anything new. I mean to say, I am really impressed by their determination. Because giving up without taking on is not unlike handing over your money in a shop and walking away without the goods. 

The point of Lent is to transform our approach to the rest of the Christian year, to strengthen us, to empower us, to help us get more out of our fellowship with God and with one another. And the best way to do that is to balance the negative (giving up) with a positive (taking on).

Let me mention just briefly some of the things people often take up at this time of year: A more regular discipline of prayer, either privately or with others... more Bible reading... perhaps a more conscious study, such as a Lent Course... joining a house group... helping out with something in the church or wider community... and above all, Lent is a time for asking asking questions about what we could or should be doing with the rest of our lives... The possibilities are almost unlimited, but they all have three things in common. They all involve a sacrifice of some sort, even if only of our free time. They all enrich our lives. And they all (whether directly or indirectly) benefit other people around us. And this points forward to the final point about Lent that I mentioned in passing earlier.

Lent is a time for receiving something from God. The experience of Christians down the centuries is that doing Lent with a bit of determination reliably turns into a major blessing from God. Some talk about going into the summer with a new sense of cleanness after dealing conclusively with something in their past. Others talk about a new strength to resist temptation. Some talk about a renewed sense of God’s presence in their lives, or a new vision for the future, or a fresh commitment to living life God’s way, or a resilient new sense of joy and peace even in difficult times.

Easter is a time when we reflect on all that God has done for us in Christ. But it is equally about what he can do for us in the future, and what we can do for him. No one can predict how this Eastertide will change you, if at all. But by giving things up and taking things on during the preparatory season of Lent, we offer ourselves to God to be changed and renewed, and line ourselves up to receive a blessing from him that will transform the year ahead and possibly the rest of our lives.

Monday, February 4, 2013

DESTROY THIS TEMPLE - A Reflection for Candlemas

(John 2:13-22)

I wonder what Jesus would think – the historical Jesus of Nazareth, that is – if he walked into Canterbury Cathedral today, or the Vatican City. As he watched the goings on in the headquarters of the Christian faith, what would he think? What would he approve of? What would he disapprove of? And above all, how would he react?

I’m not going to even try to answer that question, but it’s a good starting point for our reflection. Because the Bible tells us that when Jesus walked into the Temple in Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Jewish faith, he trashed it. According to John’s Gospel, the supposedly meek and mild Jesus made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

It's ironic that Jesus should have entered the Temple – the place supremely dedicated to his own Father – and violently rejected what it had come to stand for. To many Christians the meaning is obvious: this story has been the inspiration for countless rants against the church and it’s attitude to money. And indeed, there must be a number of tables in this and any other church that Jesus would like to overturn, and perhaps a few people he would drive out if he walked in today.

However, that’s not what the story is really about. It’s actually making a much deeper point – a point we can easily miss because we’re so well primed as Christians to look for present day meaning in every Bible story. But this story is not about religious buildings in general; rather, it’s anchored in the Temple itself and what it represented to the Jewish people. What Jesus is giving here is a lesson about the Temple – what it was and what it is. And although the building has been gone for nearly 2,000 years, the teaching is of as much relevance today as it has ever been.

Let’s think for a moment about the history of the Temple. It started out as the Tabernacle – the tent which the Hebrews carried with them during their nomadic existence and erected in each place they stopped. As they left their nomadic way of life behind and settled in cities they built a series of stone temples, but the basic basic concept and purpose remained the same: In a world divided into ‘them and us’, the Temple was what made ‘us’. Does that make sense? Put another way, the Temple was what sanctified the people of God and set them apart from the other peoples around them. In their eyes, it was the place in which the transcendant God of eternity (who was their God and not the God of the other tribes around them) broke through into our physical universe. And thus tt was the one and only place in which they could come into God’s presence.

But just as a tent had outlived its usefulness when the people settled in one place, so a single stone building was no use if the knowledge of God was to break out of its geographical straitjacket and spread throughout the world. And Herod’s Temple in particular, the one Jesus disrupted, had become an instrument of oppression that ruthlessly excluded the struggling masses even within the nation of Israel. In fact in Jesus’ eyes, and in the eyes of the New Testament authors, the Temple hadn’t merely outlived its usefulness; it had become a real obstacle to faith and belonging for the majority of people.

And Jesus could see an even greater catastrophe looming, one that threatened the very survival of a community devoted to the service of Yahweh. He clearly foresaw that the Temple itself was doomed; in fact less than 40 years after his ascension to Heaven it was burned out and razed to the ground. If it had remained the central symbol and home of faith in Yahweh, the heart would have been ripped out of the people’s faith.

What was needed was a new way of understanding God’s presence among his people. And when Jesus says to the authorities, ‘destroy this Temple and I will raise it again in three days’, he is pointing to that new reality. In short, Jesus is consciously supplanting the Temple with a new vessel of God’s presence in the world – his own body.[1]  God continues to be among his people, but no longer in the dark Holy of Holies, where just one man is allowed to come into the divine presence for a few minutes each year. God’s presence among his people is now manifested in the person of Jesus, to be encountered not just by a solitary priest, but by all the masses of people Jesus meets in his travels.

Even that is not the end of the Temple’s evolution, because Jesus’s body was not going to be on earth for much longer. But when he ascends to his Father, he sends the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit lives in the hearts of all believers, directly interacting not with one priest, not with thousands of one-to-one encounters, but simultaneously with the billions of Christians throughout time and space. Everyone who is in relationship with God is now a Temple; why else would St. Paul write, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Co 6:19)

And thus the Temple has evolved, becoming at each stage the point of contact with God for a wider cross-section of humanity. It has gone from tent to stone building, from one body (Jesus’) to billions of bodies – everyone who has a relationship with the risen Christ. God has always been everywhere, even when his people saw him as occupying a specific physical space. But now, because of what Jesus has done, we are a nation of priests, all of us living in the Holy of Holies at every second of every day. It should be both a source of comfort and a challenge to our lifestyles, knowing that we are constantly in his presence. 

Where does that leave the church today? Many of us find a sacred space reassuring – a place of peace and quiet without distractions, and a visible, tactile symbol of God’s presence. I do myself. Many find that singing worship songs together, or joining in a  liturgy, creates a sacred space wherever we happen to be. I know I do. But we don’t need sacred space. We don't need worship songs. We don't need liturgy. God is, in a telling phrase from the Qur’an, closer to us than our own jugular vein.

While we are here, let us enjoy one another’s fellowship and the beauty of our surroundings. Let us revel in the sense of God’s presence as we lift our voices in song and come together in the Eucharist. But later, as we step outside into the dark, let us remember that we are not leaving the sacred space behind; we are taking it with us.

[1] In the same way, at the Last Supper, he supplants remembrance of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt – the foundational event in the story of Israel – with the remembrance of his body and blood.