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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A Pastoral Resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
Trinity Sunday - Year B
Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
'Awakening The Young Lions'
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba, Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. In medieval Japan, it is said, there were clocks that told time by releasing smells: every two hours a different odor wafted through the air, so that on waking in the dark you could literally sense what time it was. "What a strange idea!" most of us would say; because for us nighttime is mostly all the same. In our blind-drawn rooms, we know or care little what time it is unless it is somehow related to our day-world duties. We go to bed for oblivion, not for worry, to forget, not to confront. Night is a time for catching up on sleep, recharging one's batteries for tomorrow, a time to avoid those avengers and pursuers of our dreams; and the health-care profession eagerly supplies us with drugs to keep those demons away. But what if the Japanese were right? What if it is important to know what time of night it is? In the old world of the Mediterranean, that crowd of spirits we call worry, self-castigation, anxiety, remorse, death terror and erotic longing were called the children of Nyx, the ancient Greek goddess of Night. Awakening to the night meant opening a dark eye to the invisible world of cautions, insights and promptings that only seem to come to us at night, disturbing our sleep in order to be heard. Maybe Nyx and her brood only come to us at night because that is the only time they can be heard over the din of our waking lives! And what if character, what if attaining those qualities of a truly human life becomes available to us only when we awaken, not just in the night, but to the night? + It is that kind of awakening to which the apostle Paul is referring in this week's epistle to the Romans. ... for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. In this season of Spirit, Paul turns our attention to that uniquely human response to the life and ministry of Jesus, sometimes referred to as "new birth". Not to respond to what God had done in Christ would have been unthinkable for Paul. The power that God unleashed into the world in Christ's resurrection - Spirit - was essentially a life-giving force empowering all who called upon it in the same way it empowered Jesus. By recalling the Aramaic language of prayer Jesus used in Gethsemane, Paul is reminding us not just that we have been made members of Christ's own family but that we have become heirs of that same power that enabled Jesus to endure his own suffering and death. When we cry "Abba, Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. When faced with his own death, Jesus prayed in confidence as a true and obedient Son. Similarly, when we face our own moments of destiny, when we awaken to the night and those powers that call into question our very existence, it is God's and perhaps even Christ's, own Spirit who jointly confirms what our own spirit knows - that we are becoming genuinely human, as Christ was genuinely human. It only happens when our courage is called forth. The framers of the Lectionary understand this connection. The transformation in us that Paul is talking about is demonstrated in that story from Isaiah. Young Isaiah becomes transformed by the Spirit of God from a naive, religious observer into a fearless prophet. Not only does Isaiah hear the challenge to proclaim a very unpopular message to a nation in religious and moral decay; he actually volunteers for the job! "Here am I; send me!" - Is. 6.9 However, it is this same transformation that causes such a knowledgeable man like Nicodemus so much perplexity. "How can these things be?" he asks Jesus. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Nicodemus hesitancy to believe Jesus had merely to do with an inability to understand. It might well be that Nicodemus understood only too well what following Jesus would entail and that it was not intellectual doubt that froze him on the spot but gut-wrenching fear. Being a child of God means one can no longer take the world at face value. One becomes at odds with those powers, attitudes, behaviours, principalities that set human beings against one another the same way Jesus was at odds with them throughout his life. Fear becomes the enemy par excellence with which we must contend if we are serious about following Jesus; for it was fear against which Jesus preached primarily. It was fear that pursued him. It was fear that killed him; but it was fear that was conquered on the cross. And the Spirit that God unleashed into the world on Easter is precisely that Spirit that enables us to conquer our own fears and to make our own radically human witness in the world. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption. And whether or not it was Paul who wrote in the second letter to Timothy ...for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline . . . you will notice the extraordinary similarity of thought. Apparently, early Christian people knew all about the all too human inclination to feel overwhelmed. It's true, isn't it? There are always plenty of reasons for our inner defeats. At the same time, both of these texts ruthlessly insist that what is understandable is also inexcusable. We need not be defeated and we won't be if, instead of colluding with our fears, we have the courage of our conviction that God has more love for us than we will ever have hearts to receive. And that's the choice - every day, almost every hour, and in almost every decision. Will we collude with our fears that tell us to keep our heads down and our opinions to ourselves, or with our conviction that tells us that God loves us with an absolutely overwhelming love? + According to Physiologus (the traditional lore of animal psychology), lion cubs are stillborn. They must be awakened into life by a roar. That is why the lion has such a roar: to awaken the young lions asleep - just as they sleep in the human heart. It is a good image for people like you and me, who live in the desert of modernity, a place where the heart seems to have no reaction to what it faces, thereby turning the variegated sensuous face of the world into monotony, sameness and oneness. The good news is that the desert is not heartless. It is where the lion lives; and if we want to find our heart again, if we want to re-experience what it means to be people of "power and of love and of self-discipline", we must go where heart seems to be least present. Whether in or out of the church, we live in a world, you and I, where the lion cubs are stillborn. Most of us, whether we be preachers or investment analysts, have grown accustomed to colluding with our fears. We'll do anything to avoid rocking the corporate boat. After all, our pension funds could be at stake! It is that passive, immobile compliant attitude before the glut of modern bureaucracy, the ugly urbanism, academic triviality and professional, religious soul-lessness that creates the desert in which we live. Writes James Hillman, We fear that rage. We dare not roar. With Auschwitz behind us and the bomb over the horizon, we let the little lions sleep in front of the television, the heart, stuffed full of its own coagulated sulfur, now become a beast in a lair readying its attack, the infarct. The psychoanalytic profession has convinced us to subdue our rage, to "control our anger" and to "manage the conflict" because they think we can find a way beyond aggression. But, what if the rise of the military-industrial complex, terrorism and domestic violence are symptoms, not just of aggression gone amuck, but of moral courage that has never found its voice? What if the hope of a world filled with heart, soul depends upon young lions that are awakened to life? Once in Galilee there was a lion who roared to life those who were yet stillborn; and they became sons and daughters of God, heirs of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. + Isaiah 6.1-13 - The place is the temple in the year that King Uzziah died. It is 742 B.C. and the country is in mourning for a strong, successful but proud King (26.1-21). The young Isaiahhas a vision of the heavenly court and his first words are words of anguish, mirroring the accepted Old Testament attitude toward encounters with God: "Can one see Yahweh and live?" Isaiah considers himself an unworthy man and part of a community that is unworthy of God's presence. Isaiah overhears the call of God, which seems to be directed at a community - to anyone or everyone who might be willing to listen. It is to this call that Isaiah responds. But this story does not end here (verse 8). Those who listen and respond to the call to be a prophetic voice are often, like Isaiah called to deliver a harsh message (9-13). 1. Compare Isaiah's call with that of other Old Testament figures (Exodus 3.1-4;17, Judges 6.11-24, Jeremiah 1.4-10, Ezekiel 1-3). What are the similarities? 2. What happens to Isaiah between his first response to the vision and his decision to offer himself for duty? 3. Why is the authority of such calls, like Isaiah's, often questioned by institutional religion? Romans 8.12-17 - Although Paul does not operate with a clearly differentiated view of the Trinity as has been the case by later Christian theologians, today's text attests to the vitality of Paul's understanding of the Spirit. There is a direct connection between the Spirit and the resurrection: the power unleashed by God in Christ's resurrection has been unleashed in this age. This power is essentially life-giving and provides a clear alternative to what Paul means by walking "according to the flesh" (v. 12). The Spirit empowers us to respond in obedience to God as Jesus was obedient; but such "adoption" as children of God also entails suffering just as Jesus suffered. 1. Against what internal, church attitudes could you imagine Paul aiming these words? 2. In what ways is Paul's message a prophetic challenge to Christians today? John 3.1-17 - It is a passage with two different textures, like two different fabrics. On the one hand Nicodemus represents an attitude that seeks sufficient proofs, historical and logical in order to arrive at a faith, which is safe and solid. On the other hand, Jesus insists on a life, given by God, which is uncontrollable and mysterious, like the whence and whither of the wind. The word for "night" in Greek refers to a kind of time, not a point or duration of time; and in verse 7, the conversation is enlarged into a sermon addressed, not to Nicodemus, but to the plural "you". In other words, we are dealing with a post-Easter sermon to the church. 1. With which attitude - Nicodemus' or Jesus' - would you compare the longing for "spirituality" in today's church and surrounding culture? 2. In what ways does "succeeding religiously" miss the point of Jesus message and ministry? 3. What makes you hesitate to respond to the call of Jesus? What stirs you to life? HYMN: We have This Ministry (Voices United 510)
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