|Pen and Ink Reflections||
What value does the book of Revelation have for us, especially in the face of ecological crises? My guess is that most of us have not spent too much time on the Bible’s last book. Some people of course have, including those looking for a special secret code to life and history, and those puzzling out different timetables for Christ’s second coming. Such interpreters however typically have little concern for ecology, and some even welcome signs of environmental apocalypse. Faced by the strangeness of John the Divine’s visions, we may therefore be tempted to dispense with the book altogether. Yet that would be a mistake. For, as this morning’s reading (ch.12 vv. 1-9 & 13-17a) illustrates, truth and light can be received in the strangest places…
Does doctrine divide? I sometimes hear that these days. Indeed, I have even heard people say they do not believe in doctrine at all. That, if you think about it, is quite a contradiction in terms. For anything you believe in, or do not believe in, is itself a doctrine. Doctrine, after all, really just means teaching. So, if someone says they do not believe in doctrine, are they really saying they do not want teaching in our world? Are all viewpoints, from flat earthers to conspiracy theorists, really equal? I suspect that what people really mean is that they do not believe in dogma: understood as authoritatively claimed beliefs which are essentially simply imposed, and resistant to questioning, reason and experience. Modern law and science are not, in that sense, dogma, but they are forms of doctrine: guidelines or teaching which enable us to live, and, hopefully, grow together. The same can be said of doctrines of faith. Like law and science, they can be used to divide. However, if they are open to development, they can be vital as a means to enable us to live, and grow. This is core to our Gospel passage this morning (from Matthew 16.13-20), which both contains powerful and particular expressions of faith in Christ and also an abiding invitational question; ‘but who do you say I am?’ It is, I believe, in that creative doctrinal tension, that Christians best live and thrive…
‘Is your Church involved in a rally or political or symbolic action every week?’
One of my daughters asked me this, shortly after our Earthweb-led involvement in the recent ‘Sound the Alarm’ Green Faith events, followed shortly by the presence of some of us on the March4Justice and planning for today’s Palm Sunday Refugee rally. I had to be honest: ‘well’, I said, ‘pretty much every week we, or some of us at least, are involved in something.’
And why wouldn’t we be?
Today’s Gospel reading after all (Mark 11.1-10) is a reminder of what I would call the ‘prophetic performance art’ which reappears again and again in the Biblical stories. The so-called ‘entry into Jerusalem’ by Jesus is but one example of this - admittedly particularly significant. For it does not stand alone, nor was it originally intended to be simply repeated or venerated. Rather, in embodying Jesus’ own call to transformation, it seeks to inspire us to our own prophetic performance art. In this we are not exactly social influencers like today’s social media stars, but we are like divine influencers in reshaping our world. All of which can sound, or become, quite pretentious. So maybe a better, arguably more biblical, way of putting it is that we are called to become the wonky donkey…
How do you picture peace? I wonder if your vision is quite the same as that of the prophet Isaiah in the John the Baptist story in our Gospel reading today? Isaiah says this: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Well, that definitely doesn’t work for me if it were taken at all literally. For I was born in the North Pennine hill country of England, which owes so much of its life, history, wildness and picturesque beauty to the variety of its landscape, its hills and valleys. I certainly know that the folk of the Durham Dales would do all they possibly could to avoid every valley being filled, every hill being made low, and the winding paths and rough ways being made smooth. I suspect too that few people in Toowoomba would take kindly to such an environmental transformation of our own Range, valleys, hills and landscape. No. On this second Sunday in Advent, as we centre on the theme of peace, we need to look deeper if we are to find fuller meaning in today’s Gospel reading. Perhaps we are helped by re-casting Isaiah’s words a little. To that end, I offer some words of the great El Salvadorean archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero: words which I believe catch up the spirit of the Advent prophets, that “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty.” Let me return to that, and to John the Baptist in our Gospel, again, in a moment…