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John Bunyan, spiritual writer

30 Aug

John Bunyan

Today in the Anglican lectionary is the lesser festival of John Bunyan, one of my spiritual heroes in a very famous writer namely for Pilgrim’s Progress.

Along with my love of the book mentioned, Bunyan is a good preacher and spiritual. Though he was the nonconformist minister, described the Baptist Congregationalist, he preferred to be described simply as a Christian.

A deeply spiritual man, he was born into a Christian family and baptised at his local Anglican church.after growing up in adopted the trade of his father, that of a tinker (itinerant tinsmith).gets his youth was spent in the days of English Civil War so he enlisted and joined the Parliamentary army. There is a story that John was saved from death one day, when a fellow soldier volunteered to go into battle in his place and was killed while walking sentry duty. at the end of the war he returned to his former trade.

Bunyan writes in his autobiography, ‘Grace Abounding‘, that he led an abandoned life in his youth and was morally reprehensible. Convicted of his sin during a sermon denouncing the violation the Lord’s day, he went on to hear from some local women of the town of which he was in at the time the burden of sin and the freedom in Christ.

Baptised again in 1655 he went on to preach and was arrested five years later for preaching without the approval of the Anglican Church and was in jail for more than 12 years. It was whilst in jail that he wrote his most well-known work. It has been continuously in print since its first printing. Bunyan’s remarkable imagery was firmly rooted in the Reformation doctrines of man’s fallen nature, grace, imputation, justification, and the atonement–all of which Bunyan seems to have derived directly from Scripture.

Few writers in history have left such a wealth of Christ-centered writings. My spiritual hero because of his devotion to the gospel, his understanding of suffering of life and his profound humble spirituality that comes through in his writings and preaching. in my eyes, a true Protestant saint.

The Collect for the day:

God of peace,
who called your servant John Bunyan
to be valiant for truth:
grant that as strangers and pilgrims
we may at the last rejoice with all Christian people
in your heavenly city;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

 

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The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

29 Aug

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608....

 

This blog about today’s lesser festival that focuses upon the beheading of St. John the Baptist is taking a slightly different focus that normal. So instead I am posting this  short sermon I preached on today’s lectionary a year ago at All Saints Church, Clifton (Bristol).

The  beheading of John the Baptist is contained within a Markan sandwich. It is flashback into the past from the present time. This sandwiching technique (known technically as ’intercalation’) is where one story is wrapped around another. The best-known example is a combination of Jesus‘ cursing of the fig tree and his demonstration in the temple.

Mark is flashing back from them present story of the mission of the 12 to the death of John the Baptist. During their mission the disciples move forward, reproducing and extending the ministry of Jesus, which leads to Herod’s curiosity and the account of John’s death.

John’s death at the birthday feast at Herod’s palace, as all the marks of good story. You have an adulterous king, scheming woman, violent death and the young attractive dancing women. It could almost be an episode of Eastenders. Herod and his family would easily put the most dysfunctional modern family to shame, with Herod recently been defeated by the father of his rejected first wife. His first wife also committed adultery against Herod. There was also murder of family members and a little bit of incest spice things up. Happy families it was not.

But why did Mark include this story wherein Luke it is covered by a short verse or two? It is because the story is intentionally linked with the mission of the 12. Is partly to do with the reason that people thought, at this time, the Jesus was only a prophet in the same level as John. However this point could easily be made without the elaborate retelling of the story of the birthday party in the death. He could be carried out in a brief note as in Luke. So why is in hearing such expansive vivid dramatic detail?

I think this is because of two reasons. The first is the link to the message of the 12 to the death of John the Baptist, just as the initial preaching Jesus was linked to John’s arrest in chapter 1 verse 14. The second more is the parallel of John’s death sentence by Herod (a fact confirmed by Josephus – a contemporary historian) to that of Jesus is condemnation to death by Pontius Pilate in Mark 15. For John’s death foreshadows Jesus’s own death, for Jesus to his righteous and will be put to death because of political manoeuvring. Both rulers are favourably impressed by the Jewish religious figures whose lives they therefore would prefer to spare; both wish to please the crowd by gesture of magnanimity; both are manipulated to carry out the deadly hostility of the third-party; both this seemingly in charge, become unwilling actors in a drama beyond their control.

By the means of this parallel marks accounts the picks the death of John as a foreshadowing of death of Jesus, in the same way the birth of John foreshadows the birth of Christ. John is the messenger, the herald the advance guard as it were of Christ’s ministry. But the time has come, and this is what Mark showing, and Christ’s ministry must overtake that of his ambassadors in John. This is when Christ first takes a step beyond the claim of being a prophet of either equal measure to John or reincarnation of John.

The gospel pattern in which this text is a key element describes the relationship between the bearer of God’s message and the powers that be – the political powers. The relationship is a permanent relevance to us as the disciples of Jesus.

As witnesses of Christ, we should not be surprised when, despite some signs of a positive response, they are oppressed by the political or religious power structures. The gospel never promised us an easy ride and least of all the Gospel of Mark. In Mark the court of Herod, like the Sanhedrin and Pilate’s court, is viewed with a cold eye of realism. The rule is good intentions are engulfed by ambition, envy, fear and compromise. God’s faithful witness becomes the victim.

One way to read the passage then, is in terms of success versus significance. Success, as  the world measure it, is seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure – they can get what they want when they want. John the Baptist is alone his cell doomed and helps to save his life in shocking contrast the glitter of successful people’s time. Our minds are constantly focused and fascinated by wealth and power in the intrigue of Herod’s court, yet the significance of the text lies in the depth that starkly simple prophet inhabits the prison. The gospel here invites us to look closely at success and then to choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way.

The second reading from Ephesians shows us the significance and the success we can hold onto. Every spiritual blessing, but being adopted as God’s children to Jesus. We have been mid-beamed by Christ’s blood and forgiven our sins. We have the success we could need so what about our significance?

In our significance does come in following Christ in his way. As Amos says, I am no prophet… And I am no clergyman nor clergyman son. The Lord has taken me and the Lord is leading me into his significance, reliance completely upon the success of Christ on the cross.

 

Augustine, bishop & teacher of the faith.

28 Aug

Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490.

Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus) was one of the greatest theologians of Western Christianity, and today in the Anglican lectionary is his lesser festival. his writings foundational in the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy though, he also has a large impact in Eastern Christianity where he carries the additional title of Blessed.

Bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria which is where most of his writing took place. such was the forces writing at the time that his contemporary, Jerome, labeled Augustine as “established anew the ancient Faith.”

Wikipedia sums up his life best:

After his conversion to Christianity and his baptism in 387, Augustine developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and different perspectives. He believed that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom and he framed the concepts of original sin and just war.

When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God , distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.

Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of the Protestant Reformation due to his teachings on salvation and divine grace.

 

Collect for the day:

Merciful Lord,
who turned Augustine from his sins
to be a faithful bishop and teacher:
grant that we may follow him in penitence and discipline
till our restless hearts find their rest in you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo

27 Aug

Saint Augustin et Sainte MoniqueToday in the Anglican lectionary is the lesser festival of Monica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo (his own lesser festival is tomorrow, which I will also be blogging about).  Little is known about Monica’s early life other than it was difficult.

Married to Patricius, who is either described as a pagan or nominal Christian, but he was certainly dissolute and violent temper. It is also widely believed that Patricius was frequently unfaithful, though he never physically struck or ill treated Monica. Similarly, her mother-in-law (who lived with Monica) added to difficulties with their heavy drinking. However Monica overcame both of these challenges by her patient persistence leading to Patricius being baptised in 370 that we sadly died the following year.

Monica was the mother of three children: Augustine (of Hippo fame), Navigius and Perpetus. It is through Augustine and his writings in Confessions (Book IX) do we know anything about Monica and her patient treatment over Augustine over many years of anxiety that ended in Augustine’s conversion. from Monica was fundamental in creating the church father known as Augustine, for when he was young she enrolled him as catechumen. When Augustine started heading off as a problem child she turned to prayer, fasten vigils, hoping that they would succeed where argument had failed.

Eventually Augustine got fed up and went to Rome, deceiving her about the time of his departure in order to travel alone. he went on to Milan, but Monica followed him. She was highly esteemed by its Bishop, Ambrose, who also helped Augustine towards a deep moral conversion besides acceptance of the Christian faith. With this profound change of heart Augustine went away with his mother and a few chosen friends for a period of preparation for baptism.the dialogue of this little group of friends is recorded by Augustine in De Beata Vita.

After Augustine’s baptism he travelled with Monaco and his friends Africa but sadly she died on the way at Ostia. Before her death Augustine reports Monica as saying: “nothing in this world now gives me pleasure. I do not know what there is left for me to do all I am still here, will my hopes in this world are now fulfilled all I wish to live forms to see you are catholic and a child of heaven. God has granted me more than this and making you despise earthly happiness and consecrate yourself to a service.”

Monica, through her persistent patience towards her son Augustine is seen as a model of Christian mothers. Her son would go on to be a great Church fathers, establishing foundational doctrine and theology that still has massive impacts on the church today (both universal catholic and Roman Catholic). None of this would have been possible without Monica and her simple faithfulness over many years without fanfare, a profound example for us today when public success and fame at any cost is celebrated.

To end, the collect for the day:

Faithful God,
who strengthened Monica, the mother of Augustine, with wisdom,
and through her patient endurance encouraged him
to seek after you:
give us the will to persist in prayer
that those who stray from you may be brought to faith
in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

 

Festival of Bartholomew the Apostle

24 Aug
St Bartholomew

St Bartholomew (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

One of the Twelve but even so, little is known about St. Bartholonew or his life. St. Bartholonew (as he is known in the Synoptic Gospels) is usually identified with Nathanael (alternatively spelled Nathaniel), who is mentioned in John 1. If one wonders why the synoptic Gospels always call him Bartholomew, it would be because the name Nathanael in Hebrew is equivalent to that of Matthew, since both in Hebrew signify gift of God; in this way the Evangelists avoided all confusion between the two Apostles.

There are some biblical scholars who reject this interpretation but they are in the minority. Interestingly some early patristic writers suggest that Nathanael was not one of the Twelve and stands in Saint John’s Gospel as a representative of Israel coming to God.

 

Sadly in European history Saint Bartholomew’s Day (today) is remembered for the massacre of Reformed Protestants (Huguenots) that took place on this day in Paris in 1572.

 

In the Synoptic Gospels, Bartholomew is only mentioned three times and each time is in the respective account of Jesus calling His twelve Apostles. The only other biblical mention for Bartholomew is in the book of Acts (1:4, 12-13) where he is a witness to Christ’s ascension. As Nathanael he appears in the book of John twice, first time (1:45-51) as a friend of Philip, who through his friendship is introduced to Jesus. Nathanael responds positively and accepts Christ is the son of God. His innocence and simplicity of heart deserved to be celebrated with this high praise of Christ: “here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. The second time (in 21:2) is again as part of the group of apostles to whom Jesus appears after the resurrection.

 

Pantenus of Alexandria is said by Eusebius to have found in India during the second half of the second century Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew and left behind by Bartholomew. Roman Martyrology attributed to him an apostolate in India and Armenia. Tradition states after the Ascension, Bartholomew went on a missionary journey to India (with the Gospel of Matthew) whereas other traditions recording the serving as a missionary in Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia and Lycaonia. Bartholomew is also linked with the apostle dude in bringing Christianity to Armenia in the first century and as such both saints are considered the patron saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Armenia is where Bartholomew said to be marketed when he was flailed alive and crucified upside down by the jealous brother the king of Armenia, jealous because his brother became had converted to Christianity. Other traditions agree with the location of Bartholomew’s death say he was beheaded. Of these conflicting accounts of his missionary activity, Armenia has the strongest support

 

To finish, the collect for the day:

Almighty and everlasting God, who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your Word: Grant that your Church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Lesser Festival

20 Aug

St. Bernard

In 1125, Hugh, the Count of Champagne,return to Jerusalem first his third and final time. He had reputed is unfaithful wife, disinherited the son whom he believed was not his and made over his county to his nephew. Hugh now renounced all his worldly wealth and without poverty, chastity and obedience as a Templar.

This is not the most significant Count Hugh’s penitential deeds. Some 10 years before,he given attractive wild, and forested land about 40 miles east of Troyes to a group of monks led by young Burgundian nobleman, Bernard of Bernard of Fontaines-les-Dijon. This foundation at Clairvaux was an offshoot from the Abbey of Citeaux from which a new order of monks, the Cistercians, took their name. Here, the new Abbott Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary, and use as a base for the rest of his ministry.

 

It is difficult, in the 21st century, when a monk is seen as an oddity on the margins of society, to understand how so many belong to their countries elite should have chosen a life of self-abnegation. Without necessarily doubting the sincerity of each one’s conviction that he was responding to a call from God, it should be borne in mind that the choice for a scion of a noble house, or even the minor gentry, was then, and must remain for some time, between fighting and praying, warfare and ministry, the scarlet and the black.

Thus a young man with a sensitive or studio’s nature, or simply inadvertent of violence and bloodshed, might well be directed by pious and loving mother towards a religious vocation:this would seem to have been the case with Bernard and his mother, Aleth of Montbard. Those entering an easier going monastery could envisage a career as an ecclesiastical administrator or statesman, ending up, like Odo of Lagery, as Pope. Or they would be free to pursue scholarship and learning.

 

Bernard’s decision to choose the narrow escape in the steepest path to the Kingdom of Heaven demonstrates the purity of his vocation. It also betrays a measure of self-knowledge: by his own account, his passionate, even violent nature could only be tamed by the austere life followed by the Cistercians. Evidence that nature is found in his crawl over a young monk with Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny. in his letter to Peter, Bernard scornfully contrast the pleasant, easy, luxurious life at Cluny with the spare diet and harsh regime at Clairvaux. Carried away by his own rhetoric, Bernard castigates the moral degeneracy of Peter’s community. He is ardent, provocative, uncompromising, revolutionary.

Yet in the summarizing of Bernard’s life by Dom David Knowles, a Benedictine historian of our own time, is:

one of the small class of supremely great men whose gifts and opportunities have been equally matched. As a leader, as a writer, as a preacher and as a saint his personal magnetism and the spiritual power of far reaching an irresistible. Men came from the ends of Europe to Clairvaux, and were sent out all over the continent… For 40 years, Clairvauxit was the spiritual centre of Europe, and a one-time Bernard had amongst his ex-monks the Pope, the Archbishop of York and cardinals and bishops and plenty.

For Bernard in his lifetime was regarded and marked by the same sanctity wisdom held by Anselm. A important foundational force in the establishment of the Order of the Knights of the Temple (aka the Templars), controversial perhaps in today’s highs for his writings in defense of a military monastic force and the Crusades. Yet within the historical context of this time this is not an issue as demonstrated by Bernard’s unique position as the mental of popes and kings. Yet Bernard’s power did not stem simply from the influential connections: in a world where so many preached but so few practice the Christian virtues, his piety and asceticism qualified him to act as the conscience of Christendom, constantly chastising the rich and powerful and champing the poor and the weak. To some modern historians, living in a period when most are indifferent to what awaits them after death, Bernard comes across as a self-righteous celibate, someone who saw the world with the eyes of a fanatic and had a disquieting tendency to take it for granted that his contemporaries were evildoers who needed to repent. However, to Bernard, surrounded by secular brutality in clerical corruption, and utterly convinced of the reality of hell, it was impossible to do too much to save an imperiled soul.

The glamour of evil, in his perception, lay not just in the obvious the of wealth and worldly power, but in the subtler and ultimately more pernicious attraction of false ideas. Besides his party, Bernard was renowned for his outstanding intellect which he demonstrated in his sermons on Grace, free will and the book of the old Testament, the Song of songs. He was quick to recognise heretical ideas and implacable in his pursuit of those who taught them.

 

In his life Bernard was involved in establishing the Templar’s, helping to end the schism within the Catholic Church, combating heresy and preaching the Second Crusade. Yet the last years of Bernard’s life was saddened by the failure of the second Crusade, which the entire responsibility was thrown upon him. He died aged 63, 40 years spent in the cloister.

 

The Collect for the Day:

Merciful redeemer,
who, by the life and preaching of your servant Bernard,
rekindled the radiant light of your Church:
grant us, in our generation,
to be inflamed with the same spirit of discipline and love
and ever to walk before you as children of light;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Mission Reflection, of Prison Chapliancy

19 Aug

A short reflection I wrote a while ago based upon my time experiencing prison chaplaincy:

Clinging onto God has included refining my skills in discernment. Discernment over the words to say, who to say them to and awareness of the situation(s) I find myself in. It is the realisation that this ministry cannot be done under one’s own strength or even in conjunction with God; rather it is a complete reliance upon God. I used the analogy of walking around with my eyes metaphorically closed; because within Horfield Prison, it is God who has to be my eyes. God is our guide.

I also have learnt about giving the message of the Gospel. Not in a long pre-planned course or the long-term relational style; rather it is giving the Good News in 30 seconds or so. It is taking the opportunities as they are placed before me by God. And if they are placed by God, then trusting in Him for the words to say.

On a practical level, I have worked through what parts of ecclesiology are important, and what can be discarded to further ‘mission’. With this is tied in the sense of urgency and real need I felt at the prison. Being a remand prison, you encounter men who could be moved or leaving the prison before you ever get tospeak to them again. This could be the type of community the prison is, but is still very different style. There is a sense of real urgency to the work, that it is a battle. Rather than being something we ‘do’ because we are Christians, the mission in the prison is done because it makes a real difference and that was really refreshing to experience.  It is a serious spiritual battle for the souls of the prisoners.