Tuesday, October 09, 2007

LUBH 11 - The New Covenant

Not an especially long one - I essentially argue that the eucharist is the essential foundation for renewing the creation.


LUBH 11 - The New Covenant

Today I want to be exploring the new covenant, or to be more precise, one aspect of it. But before we get onto that, a little review of where we have got to because we are coming into the closing sequence and to put what's going to be said this morning into context it might help to review the last dozen sessions or so. Begin with a premise that Western society is about to drive headlong into a wall - talking about peak oil, talking about the wider accumulating crises of environmental degradation and over-population and so forth. And my argument is that a theological analysis has rather a lot of important things to say about this and so bringing in three theological tools for looking at it, most important looking at idolatry, which is a distortion of the understanding, it is giving too much priority to that which doesn't deserve it and not enough priority to that which does deserve it - in other words the right worship of God, the consequence of idolatry being wrath and the antidote to wrath being living in the Kingdom, living in the light of the end. OK so those are the three theological tools which I am bringing in and then I applied those three tools to four areas, questions of ecology and the environmental crisis, questions of poverty and right relationships amongst people, foreign affairs, in particular looking at the Islamist threat and last week my rant about the church getting things wrong, not teaching properly about idolatry and so on.

Now two substantial sessions left and really these are the answers to the issues which have been raised. Now this week I am going to be looking, if you like, at the internal, the more obviously and overtly spiritual side of things, and next session which is in a fortnight's time, I am going to be looking at the external practices and virtues. So these are if you like the two substantial solution sections, and then the last section is simply going to be a summary gathering together all the different threads and so on. So that's to bring us up to date.

Now the covenant is a rather important theme in the Bible, there are several covenants, with Noah, with Abraham, Moses and David and also one which I will talk about which is the high priestly one. But it is always God's initiative, God seeking our flourishing and God entering into a compact with humanity, with the chosen people to ensure their flourishing, and the heart of it is if we keep the covenant, if we are righteous in that sense then we will flourish, God will pour down blessings upon the land. But of course we fail and this isn't a new thing. This is a perpetual facet of human nature, that we fail to live righteously and so what do we do about it, what did the ancient Hebrews do about it?
Well let's come at this by asking the question, who was Jesus? You know some obvious answers but the sort of language that is used in the New Testament, calling Jesus Lord, calling Jesus the Son of the Most High God, "He is a High Priest after the order of Melchezidek" and all these are titles to the High Priests in the first temple. These weren't created from scratch when Jesus came along. There was an existing theological vocabulary which was then applied to Christ and this language which is describing the High Priest, and here [image] Jesus is clothed in the High Priestly garments, the role of the High Priest was to carry out the rite of atonement in the first temple. And this is what Jesus is carrying through, Jesus is accomplishing atonement, so I am going to say a little bit about that. But one key thing to bear in mind is that atonement, we often think of it as something that covers over sin or puts away our sin with regard to God. That's not the way in which it was understood in the first temple period. Atonement was more where you mended something that was broken, or you repaired something that was torn, so it's not something which is just being covered over and ignored, OK, or put away, it's something being fixed, and that sense of atonement, the at-one-ment, things being harmonised once more, that's the key thing to remember.

Now you may remember when I was talking about wrath I said a little bit about the temple and what the High Priests did in the temple. Well I will just run through that again for you briefly. This is Solomon's temple and in the rite of atonement the High Priest comes in and he sacrifices a bull to make himself clean, he goes up to the Holy of Holies with two goats, one representing the demons basically and one representing God and to go into the Holy of Holies he puts on a white robe and he adopts the identity, the persona of God.

So having sacrificed and made himself clean he then takes on, he's acting out the part of God in the rite and the goat representing God is then sacrificed in the Holy of Holies, and he comes out and he sprinkles the blood as the act of cleansing. And as he comes out through the curtain, which is the curtain which gets torn into at the crucifixion, he then puts on another vestment over his white robes which is of the same material and quality as that curtain, representing God coming into the world. OK, and he then scatters the blood representing the cleansing of the sin and then the second goat, representing Azazael, the demons, which we could think of as Lucifer or the angels rebelling, that's what it is, is then sent out as the scapegoat. The High Priest then lays his hands on him, representing all the sins of the people, the scapegoat then gets sent off into the wilderness and hurled over a cliff.

OK, that's the rite of atonement and what I was talking about when we were talking about wrath is the fact that this is God's initiative, God takes the initiative to heal the breach, to bring humanity back into the right relationship with God and the right relationship with the world. Do you remember this, when I was talking about this before?

Well, one thing to bear in mind, can you see the dot? [image] The way that the temple is structured corresponds to the order of creation, so the temple represents creation, OK, and in terms of the sequence of days and the order of creation, day one is here, Holy of Holies, and day two is here and it sort of extends outwards into the world. I'm just going to concentrate really on these two bits, because the Holy of Holies represents the place beyond time where God is in himself, and of course he is not apart from creation he is embedded in the centre of creation. And so what happens when the Priest goes into the Holy of Holies to take on and act out the persona of God, is it's God renewing the creation.

So this process of atonement is all about renewing the creation. Think about the ways in which, so often we have in the Bible, we even have a lesson this morning from 2 Chronicles saying just this, that if we keep to God's commands then he will allow the land to flourish. The basic idea, and I will come back to this, is that God structures the world and it has certain characteristics and principles reflecting his creating of it and if we keep to those principles, if we abide by those strictures and rules and so forth then we will be in harmony with God's creation, we will be in harmony with the creator and there will be righteousness and peace. There will be Shalom, Shalom comes from being in right relationship with God, and that gives right relationships with the world and the world flourishes. Shalom isn't simply the absence of people fighting it is a much broader, richer sense, it's the whole creation flourishing. OK? So this is what's going on. We are in a place of disorder, discord, idolatry and the High Priest goes in and comes out acting as God to cleanse the creation and it sets things right. So this is what goes on in the temple, the first temple.

Well what was Jesus doing? God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This imagery, this language which was current and used and understood at the time, in the Jewish community of Jesus's time, was applied to Jesus and was very much tied up with how he understood what he was doing. That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that God made him who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God, in other words, that Jesus is the one enacting the atonement, this reconciliation between humanity and God. That's what Jesus is doing, that's what he is accomplishing. This is very straightforward. Make sense? It's not an unfamiliar idea for Christians...

And so it's about healing the creation, it's about bringing an environment, a society which is in disorder, which is corrupted by idolatry back into the right relationship with God. So you could say that this is the answer to idolatry. I know you laughed when I said I'm going to be giving you the solution this morning, if a priest can't stand up before the people in his congregation and say "Christianity is a solution", maybe I need to change people's expectations. Anyway, I really do believe in this stuff.

Christianity, Jesus is the image of the invisible God, so in him we see what these orders and strictures and laws and rules and so forth are all about, they are all tending and pointing towards Jesus, they are all teaching us about what it is to be human. In other words, this is what life is focused on, all things were created through him, so there is nothing in creation where Jesus is not present, where Jesus is not that which will heal and put creation right.

So this language I used last week, Jesus saves, is one way of talking about it, but what more substantially does this mean? Well, I have this hymn running through my mind all week, because I have been thinking about this, Genesis 2, the whole story of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from the Garden is, if you like, the founding story telling about how humans get things wrong, OK. And they have this bite of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and it is sort of a knowledge which is set apart from God, it's if you can think of it as being secular knowledge, I refer back to my talk on science. But the key thing is in being expelled from the Garden things are disordered and so Adam is cursed and he has to extract his living from the soil and Eve suffers great pain in childbirth and all this sort of stuff, but this is a description of the world being disordered. It's a profound environmental parable if nothing else.

And of course that's right at the beginning of the Bible and at the end of the Bible in Revelation you have a restoration of Eden. And you have the access to the Tree of Life which is given for the healing of the nations. So what you have got in terms of the imagery, the Kingdom coming in is precisely a restoration of what goes wrong in Adam. And of course this idea that Jesus is the second Adam, runs throughout Paul's writings, it's very much his way of understanding Jesus' activity. That in Adam humanity goes off the right path and disorder follows, and that in Christ, humanity is put back on the right path, so as far as we share in and participate in Christ's life, then we are on the right path, and we are taking part in the restoration of the world. What goes wrong is put right and this is simple, for as in Adam all die so in Christ shall all be made alive.

So what is this New Covenant. Well, all that's promised in the prophets is: it is written on people's hearts, it's not simply about a passive obedience, it is actually about being wholly committed to it. God will take away the hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. So - it's about what animates us, that we are committed to obedience, rather than simply grovelling obedience, it is not something which is about our humiliation. It's about something we can participate in joyfully. And it is very much concerned with right relations. I keep repeating it but the whole message of the prophets very much centres on two crucial bits - right worship and right relations with others, which especially means poverty, social justice.

So this is the New Covenant - when those two things are understood and followed. The right relationship with God, the right relationship with each other. And if we pursue the New Covenant, if we share the New Covenant then we have right relationships with the world, so the creation is put right. Now this is a quotation from Proverbs, and it's about wisdom, which is very much one of the strong strands coming into Christian thinking, the whole idea of Jesus as the word of God the Logos, this is one of the things leading into it, and it says, "Come eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed, leave your simple ways and you will live, walk in the way of understanding."

One of the things, the real emphasis of last week is that in the way that the churches have lost sight of the most important teaching, that is where the rot sets in, that's because a people without knowledge shall perish. This is the theme, and wisdom is the knowledge, it's not an abstract, mental thing, it's a living wisdom, this is wisdom that leads to life.

This is the New Covenant in my blood - the Eucharist. Now do I need to go into how body and blood corresponds to what is going on in the temple, first temple, that Jesus is the one who goes up, he is sacrificed on our behalf and we share in this process through sharing in the bread and wine? A quick summary - if there is another Learning Church session in the summer it will probably be four or five sequences, expanding just on this. Looking at the Eucharist and how it has been understood through the centuries. But I think we can take the language which Jesus uses, the language which is used in the Letter to the Hebrews in particular, which is all about this, that this is the New Covenant. The language of replacing the temple which he uses. You know, tear this down and in three days I will replace it. The new temple is Christ's body and the activity of atonement which takes place in the new temple is the Eucharist, this is the way in which the Christian community is reconciled with God and reconciled with each other, reconciled with the world. So you could say it is in the Eucharist that Christian's learn how to heal the world. Alright, this is the heart of it today.
This is the New Covenant. This is the New Covenant in his blood and this replaces the temple. Instead of the rite with goats and the High Priest going up through the curtain and so forth, the curtain has been torn apart. If we go back to that image of the temple, the separated bit at the centre, the Holy of Holies representing God and the bit beyond outside the curtain representing the world, the curtain has been torn apart and there is now, if you like, constant access available through this new form of atonement, this New Covenant, this new sacrifice, and there is much, much more I can say about that but, is that enough to be going on with?

It makes sense - this sacrifice on the cross replaces the temple. The way in which the first temple period understood God's activity, God's love, God's initiative to bring humanity back into right relationship with him and right relationship with the world, this is now taken forward when we share the bread and the wine.

Now the core of the Eucharist is about being united with Christ, this new temple. And it's an active process, that's why it begins with the peace. You know the liturgy of the sacrament begins with the peace. Before you offer your sacrifice be reconciled with your brother. It's that understanding. But at the heart of it really is this Pauline and also Johannine understanding, that when we are taking part in this process our own desires get reformed and reshaped, we are renewed and so Christ lives in us. You know this is very much a mystical, this is very much the inner side of the question, this is the more explicitly spiritual or mystical side of things, that in this process we are united with God, united with Christ and then we become ourselves the Body.

I have spoken before about there being two senses of the Body of Christ - one which is spiritual/mystical and one which is very physical and concrete. Well the Eucharist in terms of the liturgy of the service is the mystical one, this is the process where in prayer we are taken up and united with God with the angels singing Holy, Holy, Holy. Whereas the concrete sense of the Body of Christ as the Church is you and I, it's the people going out living in this newly restored form of righteousness, OK, we actually go out and behave as Christ in the world. And what feeds us and what forms us is this process of sharing the bread and the wine. May we who eat his body live his risen life. We who drink this cup bring life to others. We whom the Spirit lights give light to the world. This is the prayer that we say, you know it all makes sense, it all hangs together, it's meaningful.

May we who eat his body - it's about us embodying what Jesus was doing, it's an act, it's not just a mental process of agreeing to something, you are actually acting it out, it's a ritual in just the same way as in the first temple, these things were acted out, OK? So it's an embodied process which incorporates us into the Body of Christ so that we can then act it out in the world. We, this is the high priesthood of all believers, that just as Christ is the one reconciling the world, so in a cosmic sense, the role of the Christian is to act out that process in their lives, but each Christian becomes one who, if you like brings out the atonement wherever they live, who acts to reconcile the world to God, reconcile neighbour to neighbour, that's what the high priesthood of all believers means, and all Christians are called to it, that's the ministry that all Christians are called to.

And so we get into the language of the Body of Christ or the children of God, this is again language which predates Christianity in the Hebrew faith, but to be the children of God in the world is precisely to be the ones who live righteously, the ones who act according to God's intentions, who are in tune with God's desires. And so we have all this language of being born again, or being salt in the world, or the yeast in the dough, which is transforming the wider world. That this is the task of the faithful, and it's not in the first temple - the actual carrying out of the rite of atonement achieved it completely. In Christian thinking it's something rather different - it's a process which is being accomplished and which will find its fulfilment in the Kingdom at the end of time and it is our role, our task to take part in that process which is building to completion. And of course the vision at the end which John has, I mean it's using lots and lots of this high temple imagery and liturgy. And the imagery at the end is of this great feast, and so when we are sharing the bread and the wine we are sharing in that feast of the Kingdom, that's if you like the source of what's going on. We are getting our little taste of heaven. That's what the theology of it is.

Now another Pauline expression: we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, the language which Jesus uses about eyes to see and ears to hear. Remember what I was saying about the churc - what went wrong with the church is really the root of most of our present difficulties when obviously human sin had something to do with it, but the task of the religious teachers and authorities is to teach right behaviour, it's to teach wisdom in the Biblical sense, not to teach academic knowledge but to teach wisdom, to teach the right ways of living, and it is because the church has failed to do that that Western society has ended up in the mess it is in.

Now this is precisely what's going on with this ritual, that in doing it, that in understanding it, in taking part in it, our minds are changed, we are taught to see differently. I think that is one of the wonderful things about the Eucharist, that it can't actually be fully rationally justified. And it is a scandal to the world. We get accused of being cannibals even now. But it is not something that allows the rational intellect to become dominant. This is a process, this is a ritual, which we have received, and we carry it on by command - do this is in remembrance of me, and that phrase could actually be translated - do this to invoke me. Do this in order that I might be present with you and renew you, and it's a way of changing the way that we think. And this is why the Eucharist is so essential - when generally speaking in almost all churches it is seen as essential. This is right at the heart of what we do. And of course it is sharing in the risen life of Christ. The Eucharist would make no sense without the Resurrection. The Eucharist is proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. The three days, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the Eucharist is actually tying all those things together - it is the locus for Christian proclamation. This is when we are most ourselves, this is when the church is most itself, when it is breaking bread and wine in remembrance of Christ.

And of course, the whole point is it's a feast. It should be fun, it should be a celebration. Now sometimes, there's this wonderful .. has anyone ever heard of Don Gregory Dix? He was an Anglican monk really and he wrote this very influential book called 'The Shape of the Liturgy', which was part of the twentieth century renewal of understanding of worship, going back to the early church fathers and so on. And he talks about the way in which the Eucharist was shaped and this is actually one of the main things influencing the change of shape from the Book of Common Prayer to first the ASB and Common Worship. That really what's going on is that the shape, the order of events is going back to what the early Church had, particularly someone called Hippolytus. But we won't go into that. But he has this wonderful paragraph right at the end where he talks about ways in which the Eucharist has been celebrated, by the bedside of someone dying, at the coronation of a King, before soldiers before going into battle and so forth. It just runs through all of human life and talks about the way in which the Eucharist has been celebrated in all these different places, in all these different ways as an expression of Christian faith and devotion.

The outer reflects the inner, this is why we begin with getting it right with God, OK, and why next week I will be talking about the external virtues and disciplines. But this is the centre of Christian faith, this is the new covenant and the reason why we have a New Testament, testament is just another word for Covenant. This is the heart and soul of it, this is where it all hangs together. And if we get the worship right we will be led to live and behave externally in the world in the right way, so this is where the healing, the atonement where we get caught up into it.

Now I mentioned Shalom, one of the things about natural theology, remember I said about wrath, that wrath is really the consequences of our actions when God doesn't act with grace to prevent us experiencing the consequences of our actions. If we put our hand in the fire it will be burnt, so we can understand God's wrath as the consequences of going against the way that the world is ordered. And of course God has ordered the world in such a way that it's about tuning in to God's intentions for us, aligning ourselves with God's intentions for us in order that we might flourish and that the world might flourish. Again in St Paul, "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God," this is what he is talking about the ways in which as we cleave to Christ, as we allow Christ to live in us and form our understandings, then the whole creation will be healed, and this is the process which has begun and which will be brought to completion. This is the spiritual side of it. So in sum, our task as Christians is to share in the renewing of the world through this new temple, this new covenant, so spiritually this is the heart of the answer.
I'll stop there.

[Q]I was going to do something about choice because it came up last week but at twenty past we might just touch on that again if people want to. Any questions about this morning? Anything new, anything that was surprising? I mean really it is just restating a lot of really basic Christian stuff, so I wouldn't have thought you would have too many objections.
I'm sure it's teaching grandmothers to suck eggs but in terms of the argument it is actually placing what's most important in the most important place, so perhaps it is just revision. That we need to be right with God before anything else can happen and this is for Christians the way in which we have been given to be right with God and right with each other.

So do you want to talk about choice then? Well it came up at the end of last week and I thought it might be worth just saying a little bit more about, not so much of this language of Jesus saves, but the idea about truth and that truth is not something which is subject to our preference, which is something I am really quite committed to. And I think really the issue is to distinguish between there being something separate from our preferences which is the truth, within which we have to live and which shapes our lives in a very concrete way. I'm going back to the thing about God creates the world and gives it a certain structure and there are certain ways of living within the world which are right and other ways which are wrong, and which lead to destruction. But there is that sense of talking about the truth and something which is external to our own choices, our own preferences. It is not up to us if we put our hands in the fire, we can't choose not to be burnt. If we jump off a cliff we can't choose to fly. There are certain givens about living in the world and when I assert very strongly that the truth is not up to us, it's not our choice, that's really what I'm talking about. And that is what I think ultimately Jesus is showing us. When he talks about I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, that is the sort of truth I think is at issue.

Now going beyond that there is a different sense of truth and it is very much one which is shaped by modern philosophy since really the seventeenth century. And it is the idea that truth can be captured in a phrase, or a particular form of language, and most importantly, this phrase or proposition doesn't have any necessary linkage with the shape of a life. So the idea that a certain form of language, a certain set of vocabulary is.. the truth is a different claim, because what that leads to is a group of people saying "We've got the right words, you haven't got the right words, and therefore you are all doomed and we're all saved." Now I think that's an error. Only because God can't be captured in words and if you look at what Jesus said and taught, He doesn't think that the words are what's crucial and the core passage is "Not everyone who calls me Lord, will enter the Kingdom, but those who do the will of my Father."
Now doing the will of my Father is conforming our lives to the truth in the first sense I was talking about and it is conforming to who Jesus was and how he lived, OK? But to say that that can be captured in a particular phrase whether of English language or Greek or Hebrew is I think to start to be misled. And so although I actually quite like the language of heresy and use it a lot, especially when I am ranting, I don't think that we can - when I am talking about heresy I'm really talking about forms of life and behaviour and understanding which aren't in tune with the first sense of truth. I'm not concerned about the second sense of truth about "Hang on your language is contradicting this language which I approve of," it's a deeper sense of truth. Because the things about heresies and why as the Church grew it decided that certain forms of expression because it was in a Greek culture, it went down that route, certain forms of expression were heresy were precisely because they went against the in-built order of the world and they led to destruction of life. It wasn't simply about power and control and saying our way of language is right, it was talking about the deeper, more profound sense of truth.

So when I use this language of heresy it's because what I think is at stake is precisely the flourishing of human life. I don't see it as being about - "Ooh we have got to keep our order and control in place." Does that make sense? That distinction, does that make sense? And that's what I think the Christian claim is. The Christian claim is that Jesus shows us the truth in that first very real foundational sense. It is not a question of making sure no-one rocks the boat of the Church, because ultimately that's not that important from our point of view. You know, Christ establishes the Church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it, you know what we do isn't that important. But holding on to what actually leads to the flourishing of life, that which the Church in my view has manifestly failed to do in western society which is why we are in this mess, that's what I want to hang on to. Is that more of an explanation that we managed to do last week?

[Q about communion] I am thinking of a four or five week set of talks going through the understanding of the Eucharist so one week looking at what's in the New Testament about it, one week looking at the early Church, one week looking at the medieval period, when I think everything went wrong and I will explain why, and that, any of you who actually came to my first ever Study Day on Mystery and Magic it's all basically covering that again, and then probably one session looking at the reformation and the different arguments and then finally one session look at the Ecumenical consensus today, because there is actually a huge amount of consensus, so a sequence of five talks really going through the history of the Eucharist and how it has been understood. That's what I'm thinking about as my next set, but whether it is in the summer or in September, depends on many other things. And that's of interest to people?

There will be one talk in a fortnight which is really the summing up, the putting of these things into practice and so actually how we learn to live as Christians, to live in tune with the Way, the Truth and the Life. So talking about virtue in particular, and I shall be quoting once more from my favourite book on the subject, called After Virtue, which has been referenced many times, and then the last session which will be two weeks after that will really just be summarising everything, you know, gathering the threads together and coming to some conclusions. So the last session won't really have anything new in it, the session in two weeks time will have some new bits, some new material.

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