|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Some years ago, I took a varied ecumenical group of young people to the Taizé Community’s International Gathering in the Philippines. For the first week, our group visited communities further north on Luzon island, including indigenous people displaced from their land. We were then billeted with local families in a poor neighbourhood of Quezon City in Metro Manila. I remember vividly how, after a typically wonderfully warm Filipino welcome, the first thing our hosts did was to point out the water marks high up on the walls of local streets: ‘that was from the last flood a month ago, they said, ‘sadly we are used to that kind of thing’. The impact of such experiences is powerfully transmitted in our contemporary reading today. It is echoed in so many places across the world, not least among the poor. It asks: ‘where is the God of Moses when you need them today?’...
So, angels are coming. How will we greet them? At once, perhaps we start to ponder: but what are we greeting? And are there such things as angels anyway? Modernity’s functional materialism has so much to answer for! From a Reformed Christian perspective today it is also sometimes hard to engage. For whilst the classic Reformed theologians were quite clear that angels are to be taken very seriously, as they appear in so many places in the Bible. Yet later thinkers have found less value. In some quarters of liberal and progressive Protestantism they almost became erased: rejected with supposedly passé doctrines like the virgin birth, miracles and even major articles of the historic creeds. Ironically, as liberal Protestantism declined, other faith constructions began to thrive, not least New Age spiritualities with their extraordinary mix of angelic and other speculations. Did demythologising thereby open the door to old heresies? - as well as to a loss of divine wonder in the secular world? Certainly, as Les Murray pondered in his poem ‘The Barranong Angel Case’, which we heard read earlier, do we have the capacity to see and receive the angels of Christian tradition today?
Listening to one or two people speak during last weekend’s Synod events, I was struck again by the tricky challenges of how we use both Scripture and history to illuminate our faith and lives. For both Scripture and history can be sources and mediums of Christian assurance and hope. Yet they can also be means of unhealthy myth-making and even misdirection. In secular politics, we frequently experience the same thing: when, for example, this or that dictator is ssid to be ‘just like Hitler’, or when events are said to be repeating themselves. There are sometimes varying degrees of truth in such statements. However, the reality is that noone is ever ‘just like’ someone else, never mind like Hitler. Events do not simply repeat themselves. Even Herod, in our Gospel reading, realised that: hence his perplexity about who Jesus was. Whether we use Scripture and/or historical allusions, we have to be discerning and judicious. There is much to be drawn for example from allusions, similarities, and questions, which arise from our knowledge of the early Church and the European Reformations. That is why we study them, and why, in teaching them, I actively encourage such reflection. For, in that sense, though different, like Scripture, history is not a mere record of what has been. It is an invitation to understanding ourselves, our world, and God, afresh. It is about dynamic encounter. As with some mentioned in our Gospel reading today, is inevitable that some will seek to re-run the past or think it is simply coming alive again. Yet drawing straight lines from one era to another is not only intellectually problematic but spiritually dangerous. Christians, for example, will never, ever, quite live again in the early Church or Reformation, or any other era. Our contexts and horizons will always be significantly different, not least because we are products of that history not mere participants in its re-running. All of which brings us to the challenges and wisdom of Haggai…