What about Communion?

In this time of quarantine an issue the church must decide is what to do about Communion. Some churches have chosen to celebrate the Lord’s Supper using a form of electronic communication. Others have decided that this sacrament should not be celebrated until the whole worshipping community can be together again. 

In this blog I wish to outline:

  1. Some of the theological dimensions of Communion from a Baptist perspective.
  2. Some examples of historical necessity that have shaped the church’s practice of the sacraments.
  3. Options that we at Box Hill Baptist Church might embrace in our practice of Communion in this time of quarantine.
  1. Theological Dimensions of Communion in Baptist perspective

Despite the differences in modern denominational practice, we must always remember that until the middle of the eleventh century the churches shared a common heritage and our sacramental practice, while sometimes having varied local expression, shares a common foundation of theory and authority.

The language used among modern denominations when discussing Communion varies. Some traditions use the word sacrament to include a range of Christian practices. Others, including Baptists, use the word ordinances. While some people think that the word ‘sacrament’ reflects more Catholic and ‘ordinance’ a more Protestant view, I prefer to use the word sacrament, without implying a high or Catholic sacramental theology. When it comes to this particular sacrament, we find it variously described as the Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper or other names. I prefer to use the simple word Communion. My reasons are several, but include the obvious and deeply significant connections between the words Communion, community and communication.

Baptists hold as foundational to their faith the freedom of the individual believer to discern the mind of Christ. Any discussion of ‘a Baptist perspective’ occurs within the variety and richness of belief and conviction that such freedom delivers in every worshipping Baptist community. In other words – these are my views, not those of our local church or the Baptist tradition as a whole.

The Principles and Ideals of the Baptist Faith found in the Constitution of the Baptist Union of Victoria have the following statements about Communion:

The Fellowship of the Lord’s Supper.

a. To Baptists, the Church is not so much an organization as a fellowship; effective only as there is spiritual association with the Head of the Church.

b. The Lord’s Supper is a service of spiritual fellowship whereby, through remembrance of His Life and Death believers may experience in supreme degree the reality and influence of His Presence.

c. It is an opportunity of entering into close fellowship with the Lord in the Holy of Holies, where there is a re-kindling of love and a reconsecration of life to His service.

There is much packed into these statements. First, Communion is not something that belongs to the church as an organisation.  Communion is not authorised by the church nor managed and controlled by it. The whole life of the church is effective only as there is a spiritual connection with Jesus Christ. Communion is not our possession with which we may do as we wish. It is the work and prerogative of the risen Lord.

Secondly, Communion as a ‘service of spiritual fellowship’ is about ‘experience in supreme degree’ of ‘the reality and influence of His Presence’. This names one of the central controversies and issues in Communion: ‘His Presence’ (note the capitalisation). Catholic tradition has elaborated the doctrine of transubstantiation – that the actual body and blood of Christ were present in the bread and wine. This was done using a sophisticated philosophy about the nature of ‘reality’, where the real essence of things (their ‘substance’) was hidden within the structure of their present appearance (the ‘accidents’ of their current form).

The Reformation reacted against this Catholic position, but then struggled to express just how Christ was present in Communion. Was Christ present in a spiritual way in the bread and wine? Was Christ present in the community gathered around the bread and wine? Were the bread and wine just reminders of Jesus and his death? Was Christ present in Communion, and in what sense was that presence ‘real?

In the BUV statement the mechanics of this presence are not discussed, but a high view of Christ’s presence is certainly declared: Presence is capitalised, it is experienced ‘in supreme degree’ with regard to its ‘realityand ‘influence’. As far as Protestant statements about communion go, this is a very ‘high’ view, without going into the puzzling details. 

The third BUV statement describes the outcomes of Communion in the life of the believer: close fellowship with the Lord in the Holy of Holies, where there is a re-kindling of love and a reconsecration of life to His service.  Without reflecting on how this occurs, this statement makes clear that the experience of Communion is both exalted (the Holy of Holies) and powerfully regenerative (rekindling of love / reconsecration of life).

Now, within this theological discussion there are two recurring and related issues that frame the various church positions: 1. how do we experience presence? and 2. What is ‘really real’? These issues become acute in our present context. When we contemplate a move from a physical ‘presence’ with each other in Communion, into some form of communication technology, are we still present to each other, and is Christ present? When we interact through screens and voice technology, what is ‘really real’?

For an excellent discussion of these issues by Trevor Hart (writing from an Anglican perspective) and a conclusion against some form of ‘virtual communion’ see:- 

https://jasongoroncy.com/2020/04/13/eucharist-and-the-stuff-that-matters/

For a carefully considered article with many links to other useful resources see:-

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/jason-goroncy-holy-communion-and-covid-19/12129848

2. How historical necessity has shaped the church’s practice of sacraments

While sacramental practice is governed by theological principles, often these principles themselves have been shaped by the necessity of a particular historical epoch. I give two examples.

The first arises from the practice of baptism –a sacrament where churches still have different practices. An early question arose from situations of extreme privation where parties of Christians might be travelling in desert regions where water was very scarce. When every drop was needed for drinking, and one of the party was in danger of death and unbaptised, could a baptism be made and be effective by trickling sand rather than water over the head of the candidate while the appropriate words were pronounced? Such an event was held to be a valid sacrament, made in response to necessitous circumstances.

The second example came from a period of the church’s life when persecution was intense and directed especially at church leaders. Under persecution or torture some bishops or other church leaders recanted their faith, surrendered the holy books to the authorities and generally resigned their leadership.  Amongst the hard-line believers (especially those who may have suffered themselves) two questions arose: a) should such traitors be allowed back into the church if they turned again to Christ after the persecution died down, and b) were the sacraments (especially baptism) previously conducted by those failed leaders still effective or should the persons they baptised be rebaptised by ‘faithful’ leaders?

At issue here was whether the effectiveness of a sacrament was grounded in the holiness of the person leading it. When it came to re-admitting those who had turned from faith, there were a variety of positions adopted at the local church level. With regard to the status of sacraments previously led by such leaders, the church concluded that sacraments derived their effectiveness from the event being conducted properly in accordance with the church’s doctrine, not through the personality, holiness or qualifications (other than being duly ordained) of the person leading it. 

This of course came from a time when only an ordained priest could consecrate the elements. Within the free churches (including the Baptists) there is agreement that only persons duly authorised ‘preside at the table’ in Communion, but this is not strictly limited to ordained clergy. Within the Churches of Christ tradition lay people usually preside at Communion in celebration of this freedom.

It is interesting that these two historical examples come from contexts of distress, privation or persecution. In circumstances like these – and our own! – the church has shown creativity, courage and compassion in how the sacraments were to be understood and administered.

3. Options for Communion for Box Hill Baptist Church

I want to outline some options for Communion that BHBC might adopt in this time of pandemic. I believe the eventual decision is a matter for the church to decide through some process of participatory decision making. I see five basic options (each with possibility of tailoring or adapting the details). For simplicity of discussion I will number them.

  1. To refrain from Communion until we can meet together in one place.
  2. To conduct Communion in small gatherings within the government health rules for group limits applying at the time.
  3. To conduct Communion through a video-conference platform (such as Zoom) where there is interaction between people gathered at the same time in different locations.
  4. To live-stream through Facebook a Communion service in real time that people can view, doing whatever practices they choose in their homes at the same time the service is happening.
  5. To podcast a communion service that can be downloaded and witnessed by anyone at a time of their choosing.

These options are arranged from the most ‘closed’ or exclusive option to the most ‘open’ or inclusive option. Personally, I am most comfortable with options 1) or 2) for reasons I will explain below.

I cannot put the case for options 1) and 2) better than in the article by Trevor Hart cited above. I recommend that article to you. The questions raised there go way beyond Communion – they are the great questions of the digital age. What is really real? Are we in danger of losing the embodied life of the church, grounded in the incarnation of Jesus, in some spiritualised, digitised version of life?  To what extent have television, movies, computers, iPhones and ‘screen-life’ in general colonised our lives and come between us as human beings, and between us as believers and the risen Christ? In opting for some ‘screened representation’ of Communion, are we selling our birth-right for a mess of pottage?  (It is worth noting that part of the extended work of the Reformation was the dismantling of rood-screens in churches that hid the operations of the clergy (the ‘real’ work of Communion) from the laity – and here we are, interposing screens again between clergy and laity, and between individual members of the laity.)

A very high view of presence lies behind this approach to communion: it is important that we are present to each other physically, and that in that presence to each other we experience the presence of Christ. It holds that living ‘on-screen’ presents deep dangers to the church. It also wants to guard a sense of what is ‘really real’. The more I explore these issues the more I find myself drawn into deep questions about the nature of reality and whether our video/screen/movie/social-media culture is deeply at odds with the spiritual life. How is Christ present to us in daily experience, in prayer, in Communion? All these involve engaging with transcendence, otherness, and absence – in the midst of which we encounter and are ‘held by’ communion, engagement and mystery. 

But computers and technology and movies and TV make everything ‘immanent’, reducing mystery and depth and longing. The Scripture affirms that ‘Christ is the mediator of a new covenant’ (Heb 9.15). If we trust in electronic media and mediation as the substance and channel of our ‘communion’, do we obscure or even supplant the risen Christ? 

Just as the Reformers rejected the Catholic view of a mysterious reality that was somehow ‘underneath’ the reality we taste, touch and see, so a scepticism about ‘virtual reality’ replacing what we can touch, taste and see is true to our Reformed roots.  This is not just a matter of Communion: it is a deep commitment to protecting and keeping separate the essence of lived, bodily life from all the carefully produced, air-brushed fantasies that pour upon us from the myriad screens and glossy pages that surround us.

For a moving and persuasive contrary view to this position see: 

https://wp.stolaf.edu/lutherancenter/2020/03/christ-is-really-present-virtually-a-proposal-for-virtual-communion/?fbclid=IwAR0w2nEKq_f2yGtb-BZkLoL1XHvE6JVuvG5RHoIfLA5NhZ7HKqAY52R0hcY

Option 2) is to celebrate Communion in small groups that meet together within the government regulations for group size, either in the church or in homes. The minister can be available to support and lead and we would not use electronic communication apart from an invitation which advertises when the services are to be held

Option 3) is to celebrate Communion in small groups, in multiple places, in common time, through a video-conferencing system like Zoom. Someone (presumably a minister or church leader) would ‘preside’, offering words of institution, and a prayer of thanksgiving. In each of the varied locations people would have brought elements of ‘bread’ and wine’ (according to their local diet and custom). The consecration and breaking of the breaking of bread, and the sharing of the wine, would occur in each of the distributed locations.  The balance of how much of the service occurred from the central ‘hosting’ site and how much occurred in the participating sites is open to discussion.

Essentially, this would be a ‘shared presidency’ model where the breaking of bread is distributed across the whole community. What distinguishes it from options 4) and 5) is that it happens in common time, and with mutual recognition and shared awareness of what is happening in each of the various sites.

Option 4) is a live-streamed service where the event happens in common time, but there could be little or even no recognition of what is happening in the various distributed sites. This is almost reverting to a kind of ‘Communion as performance’ conducted by a priest that characterised an earlier epoch of Christian history. The advantages are that more people can ‘receive’ the event because the technology required is simpler (no camera, microphone or upload bandwidth required to view the event).

Option 5) is very similar to Option 4) except that the requirement of live-streaming is taken away, so the event has neither the (electronic) reciprocity/community of option 3), nor even a common anchoring framework of shared time (as in option 4). Here ‘performance’ predominates, with an end ‘product’ anchored neither in time, nor in shared space. It becomes a kind of disembodied, digitised event, endlessly replicable, almost like those small side chapels in the great cathedrals of centuries past where clergy repeatedly ‘said the Mass’ by themselves. However, this option is more accessible and inclusive than any of the others. 

Driving our engagement with these questions are the great questions of this age: how are we to live in a virtual, digital world, especially when embodied life in the presence of others is potentially a matter of life and death? How do we protect our common, shared life from being subsumed in a global network of screens and appearances? If we settle for video communication, what happens to our sense of Communion, not only with each other, but also with the risen Lord?

I offer these reflections and thoughts for your consideration and your prayerful meditation. In coming weeks we will have opportunity to discuss these matters in emails and telephone conversations, in Zoom video conferences and hopefully in some deliberative process that will enable us to discern the mind of Christ for us.

Jim Barr

Presence and Exile

Christ is Risen!  With this joyful affirmation the Church around the world welcomes the season of Easter. Easter is not a day or a weekend or even a Holy week: it is a season that extends until the fiftieth day after Easter – the day of Pentecost. Easter extends for 7 weeks and a day. The work of Easter is exploring just what that joyful affirmation ‘Christ is risen!’ means. The mystery of resurrection is not quickly resolved or understood in a day or a week or even fifty days. 

Resurrection means some kind of present reality of the risen Christ, but what is the mode of Christ’s presence? Towards the end of those fifty days there is a celebration of the Ascension – of Christ’s departure to be with the Father. Pentecost itself is a celebration of the ‘coming’ of the Holy Spirit (already understood in the Hebrew Scriptures as one mode of God’s presence with humankind). In view of these doctrines, what does resurrection tell us about presence – the presence of life in the experience of death, and the continuing presence of Jesus with his followers, including us?

This searching question comes to us in a time where we are largely absent from one another and from many of those we love. The need for ‘social distancing’, quarantine, lockdown – whatever you call it – has confined many of us to our homes, limited our travel and outlawed many of our social interactions. We live with the discomforts of isolation and loneliness, the disruption of home-working and limited travel, and the danger of sickness and death.

One of the themes of the Bible is the reality of living outside one’s normal place, one’s usual world. There were two great periods in Bible history where this experience was the lot of the people of God, and those times were times of creativity, hope and dynamism – mingled with suffering, loss and grief. They were the times of slavery in Egypt (that led to the Exodus) and the Exile to Babylon after the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th Century BCE. Exodus and Exile were times of lament and suffering, but also of profound change, empowering hope and spiritual dynamism.

Presence and Exile are great themes of the Bible, but they are also part of common human experience. Who has not known the joy of being in the presence of someone you love -and the anguish of the absence of that same beloved? Exile is the common experience of migrants, refugees, fly-in workers and even pilgrims (one simple definition of a pilgrim that I treasure is someone who is away from the place where they belong). These are spiritual themes. Exploring and reflecting on them both theologically and prayerfully are part of Christian life.

In this season of emergency measures, issues of presence and exile also are a dimension of our shared experience. The teenage grandchild of one of our church members titled her essay on the experience of social-distancing and quarantine This Foreign Place. For her, the current time is nothing less than an experience of Exile, of being banished from home. For so many who cannot meet, who rely on a voice on the telephone or a face on the screen for contact with those they love, the matter of what it means to be present to someone is not just a philosophical question, but an existential issue. It helps us to remember that these are not just challenges for this little moment of history, but enduring questions and experiences that every human being at different times will go through and must reflect on.

The first followers of Jesus were astounded to find that the man they loved and had lost to death came back. They had never experienced anything like this. The one they had watched die and had buried, was still present. How could this be?

Now, the mode of that presence was quite different to what they had known before. The risen Jesus was not always immediately recognised, and sometimes it was only after they had dialogued, or something dramatic like a huge haul of fish had occurred, that they recognised that the one in their presence was Jesus. He was ‘physically’ present to them in offering his wounds to their touch, or sharing a meal, or blowing his breath on them – and yet he could disappear in an instant, or mysteriously enter a room when the door was locked. What kind of physical existence was this?

Yet present he clearly was, in ways that transformed their understanding of what it was to die, and deepened their experience of what it meant to live. As they experienced prison and privation, as they were mocked and whipped, as they travelled on their preaching journeys, Jesus was always present with them and they felt that they had become part of him, part of his ‘body’.

This was never just a metaphor, a way of speaking. As Trevor Hart, Rector of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in St Andrew’s, Scotland writes in his reflection of embodied life in a time of social distancing, 

“One of the things that sets Christianity apart from most other religious traditions is the centrality and the value it places on the body. Not anybody’s body in particular, but the flesh and blood reality of what it means to be a human being in a world created by God with all sorts of thoroughly ‘material’ aspects.” https://jasongoroncy.com/2020/04/13/eucharist-and-the-stuff-that-matters/

Having shared so intimately in the bodily, ‘physical’ life of Jesus – in wandering, in fasting and feasting, in controversy and miracle and healing – it is not surprising that their experience of Jesus’ bodily presence after the resurrection became foundational to their faith and their practice in his name. As Trevor Hart explains to his congregation in Scotland, the centrality of the body to Christian experience and worship is so important that as a congregation they cannot share in the Eucharist until they are able to be bodily present with one another. Hart considers alternate forms of ‘presence’ – especially some of the technological tools that now make digital forms of connection possible. His conclusion is that to abandon an embodied celebration of Eucharist and to engage with a ‘virtual’ communion would be to “encourag[e] the largely un-Christian notion that disembodied, non-material, so-called ‘spiritual’ (or in its more secular version ‘digital’) realities are not only perfectly satisfactory but may even be what really matters most.

I commend Hart’s pastoral letter to you (click the link above) as it raises vital questions around worship, and around what it means to be present to each other and to God. There will be a range of views about this. Some members of our church would appreciate some kind of virtual Communion. Other pastors I know and respect have conducted such services in recent weeks. Baptist views about lay presidency make it acceptable for those present in households to ‘preside’ over Communion and our lack of ritual requirements for sacramental validity give us great freedom in how to conduct services.

But if we were to live-stream a minister saying words of consecration and having people in their homes performing the actions of communion, have we slipped into a de-facto understanding of Communion as a clerical performance more ‘high church’ than Baptist? Have we minimalised the place of the gathered community as the proper setting of this central ordinance of the Lord?

These questions are but one manifestation of the great issue of what it means to be present. The great affirmation of Easter is that Christ continues to be present with us! The Scriptures assure us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.39). At a time when we cannot be present with each other, the presence of Jesus Christ with each one of us is something to celebrate and to be thankful for.

The question of how we are present to each other, and how we will celebrate that in worship, service and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, are matters for the community to address and decide. We were to have had a Church Conversation (that is a Church meeting) on Sunday 19th April. That is another form of presence that is currently denied us. The Ministry Reference Group is currently reviewing just how we might be able to ‘meet’ in coming weeks. One of the issues we might engage together is the question of worship, and especially Communion. I commend the issue to your reflection and your prayer.

Jim Barr

Desert life

Desert Island Discs was first broadcast by the BBC on 29th January, 1942. Guests were called ‘castaways’ and were interviewed about which eight recordings, which book (besides the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible or other religious text) and what single luxury they would choose to take with them if they were to be isolated on a desert island. It has been popular for nearly 80 years and over 3,000 programmes have been produced with local variations on the theme in different parts of the world. In 2019 a panel of broadcasting industry experts named it the greatest radio programme of all time.

Has it helped prepare us for the ‘desert island’ existence of self-isolation that is the daily, weekly and perhaps months-long experience of hundreds of millions of people around the world? The framing of DID imposed some discipline: eight recordings only, one book and one luxury. Arising in Britain during the privations of the second world war, these restrictions perhaps reflected the limitations of the time. We poor 21st century castaways have washed up on the beach with our laptops, tablets and smart phones – all dragging the connecting fronds and tendrils of the world.wide.web. There is no friendly presenter prompting us to decide which music and literature and single luxury we will hold close during our time of quarantine. We have a seemingly endless choice of streaming movies, downloadable books and the twittering, snapchatty instagramiverse of celebrity to divert us.

It’s a strange contrast with the hypothetical desert island. There we would be cut off from the world with only the thoughtfully selected 8 pieces of music, single book and sole luxury to frame our lives. Now it is almost as if we inhabit the opposite reality: all the music, opinion and movies of the world flooding in upon us, but no-one to share it with! For many people, finding some way to frame and guide their own thinking and emotions is emerging as a key challenge for living in lockdown.

One way might be to embrace the discipline of Desert Island Discs and start to make some decisions about what you listen to, see and read. This is the long and gentle work of forming a canon, a collection of ‘texts’ (be they written, musical, painted, sculpted, celluloid or digital) that will be respected, even authoritative, in your life. Prior to this most participatory of ages the settling of a canon was done for us by churches, galleries, libraries, schools, editors, museums and censors. The democratisation of ‘culture’ through the internet, where we see what we choose to see in a search and click environment, threatens every form of canon. A canon requires discipline, attention, critique, discernment, and respect. A click requires nothing but curiosity and a connection. T.S. Eliot wrote of a life ‘measured out with coffee spoons’: there is a terrible risk that the days of our confinement will be measured out by neither the clink of coffee spoons, nor the ticking of a clock, but the click-click-clicking of a mouse, faithfully recorded somewhere in the vast meta-data reserves of the Cloud.

There is in Christian tradition yet another form of Desert life. The fourth century was a time of great development within the Jesus movement. Early in that century the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christ. Within a decade or three Christianity had become the religion of Empire, with power in the Imperial palace, and growing acceptance by the rich and cultured. One reaction to this was the movement that we know as the Desert Fathers – and Desert Mothers – men and women who withdrew from the comfortable urban centres of the Roman Empire to live in self-denial and contemplation in the desert regions of Egypt. They practised asceticism (sometimes extreme). The earliest monks lived alone as hermits, taking to their own cells as the environment in which their disciplined attention to God and self-discovery could flourish. It was an isolated and poor life. They had simple, and sometimes colourful, names (e.g. Paul the Simple, John the Dwarf) but their life was structured and disciplined.

Through the simplicity and lonliness of their existence grew a wisdom and insight that others began to appreciate. Pilgrims and disciples would visit and the sayings of these monks became a fount of teaching that was to shape their societies even from the remote deserts of Egypt. Their pithy sayings were taken away and reflected upon:
A monk lives his life one day at a time. (Antony)
Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you all. (Abba Moses)
If a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die. (the Blessed Macarius)

One of their preoccupations was the demonic. They battled against what they saw as demons and struggled to find purity of soul and release from greed, fear, lust and compulsion. Sometimes the battle was with inner demons – the twisted and death-dealing aspects of their own souls. Sometimes the demons were apparitions and ‘presences’ that assailed them from without. We tend to smile at their perceptions of the demonic realm, but I wonder whether we are again not too far from their world? Who can tell where the twisted and death-dealing elements of one’s own inner psychology end, and the strange apparitions and ‘influencers’ that assail us from our screens begin?

Their lasting impact has been the shaping of forms of both inner life and community organisation in the centuries since then. It was after the Desert Fathers that Augustine was able to write his Confessions – seen as the first autobiography in the Western tradition. One of the Fathers, Pachomius, devised the principles for organised community life that are the foundation of all monastic orders that followed. Their flight from cities and villages into wilderness and desert, and their asceticism, have modelled paths of self-discovery that are emulated in secular settings today (think of Bear Grylls and a range of Survivor genre reality shows).

This form of Desert life (the Desert Fathers – not Bear Grylls!) has much to teach us today. As we withdraw into our cells, what will our cells teach us? As our human, face-to-face contacts become occasional (in the several, rich senses of that word), what sayings of wisdom and encouragement will we offer each other? Will we commit to disciplined contemplation, and what will be the fruit of such contemplation?

Above all, what will be the legacy of our time in the Desert for the future of our society and the world? Will we emerge from our cells as wiser, better humans? Will some us choose to remain in the cell, and extend our life of contemplation and spiritual growth? Will what we have learnt of God and humankind reshape the world into forms we cannot even begin now to imagine?

Jim Barr

Daily Devotions for the 5th week of Lent

Monday, March 30, 2020Psalm 143; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Acts 20:7-12

Psalm 143 is a personal prayer by an individual persecuted by nameless ‘enemies’ (vss. 3, 12). Vss 1-2 frame the address to God, and vss 3-6 describe the suffering of the one praying. Does vs 3 hint at having been imprisoned (‘…making me sit in darkness…’)?

Despite the distress, bordering on despair, experienced by the Psalmist, vs 5 declares the encouraging role of memory (‘I remember the days of old’) and the sustaining power of ‘meditating on the works of your hands’.

Vss 7-12 list the petitions, what the pray-er is asking for: answers and encouragement (vss 7-8a), teaching and guidance (vss 8b, 10), refuge and deliverance (vss 9, 11, 12).

This is a Psalm that shapes well our prayers in this time of pestilence, where the ‘enemy’ is not human, but a pandemic disease. While the original setting of the Psalm may have been a prison, it lends itself to framing our experience of self-quarantine and the importance of encouragement ‘in the morning’ and some framework of wisdom and encouragement to structure the passing days.

The OT and NT readings deal with the untimely deaths of two youths, one through disease (that robbed him of his breath! – 1 Kings 17.17) and one through an overly-long sermon (Acts 20)! It invites comparison of the health risks of respiratory disease (short-windedness) and overly enthusiastic preaching (long-windedness). In each story the intervention of the prophet (Elijah) and the apostle (Paul) leave both youths alive and well (and with memorable stories to tell in later life). 

In our context, one matter for thanksgiving and celebration is that, unlike the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, young people do not seem to be at particular risk from Covid-19 (although the disease can still be very serious). Those of us who are parents and grandparents will be grateful for this, even though we ourselves may be at increased risk.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020Psalm 143; 2 Kings 4:18-37; Ephesians 2:1-10

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The other readings for the day both deal with the transition from death to life, the reverse of the usual journey of human experience. The Shunammite woman is a significant figure from the Hebrew Bible, wealthy and powerful in her own right. Although she is married, her husband is nowhere named and she is never identified as ‘his wife’. She takes the initiative in becoming a patron of the prophet. Her interactions with Gehazi and Elisha after her son dies, show intelligence and faith (read vss 26, 28, 30).

The Ephesians passage reflects the language of the spiritual powers that breathes through the epistle (‘the ruler of the power of the air’ – vs 2, ‘children of wrath’- vs 3, ‘the heavenly places’ – vs 6). The idea of the ‘ruler of the power of the air’ refers to a pervasive spiritual force that is omnipresent in the earth. This worldview does not see ‘the air’ as benign or pleasurable, but as an inherent spiritual threat. While our current fear of invisible contagion through close sharing of ‘air’ with others is entirely medical and physical, it does give us an insight into a spiritual worldview that sees evil at work in all of the environment around us. Just how we might integrate such a view of pervasive and inimical spiritual power with an appreciation of the beauty and goodness of creation is a matter for careful reflection and prayerful wisdom.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020Psalm 143; Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41; Matthew 22:23-33

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Jeremiah 32 describes one of the truly great prophetic acts of the whole of the Bible. For many years Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be besieged and destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar (as he is named in this text). This story is doubly dated (vs 1) to the reigns of both Zedekiah of Judah and Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. The setting here is that the fall of Jerusalem (‘… by sword, by famine and by pestilence’ – vs 36) is imminent. Those who had mocked, harassed and imprisoned Jeremiah for years were starting to realise he had been right and they and their city were doomed. At the moment of personal triumph, when all around him were cashing out their assets and buying jewellery and gold for the hard times ahead (just as we are seeing with the stock markets and the gold price today), Jeremiah is told by God to buy a field. It is an act of hope, a sign that on the other side of the disaster there will be sowing and harvest, weddings and children, building of houses and singing of songs! Jeremiah has been libelled as a ‘prophet of doom’: yes, he saw clearly, and prophesied faithfully, the shape of the coming disaster; but even more faithfully, he prophesied the goodness of God and pointed to the restoration of the nation on the other side of the terrible circumstances of today.

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees (who did not believe in the future Resurrection of any human being) tried to corner Jesus with a trick question, using the legal principle of levirate marriage. Jesus answers that the heavenly experience is of greater blessedness (an angel-like state) that exceeds human categories such as marriage. As Jesus draws near to his own death and Resurrection in Matthew’s telling of the story, this is part of his teaching that prepares the disciples for the surprise and challenge of the empty tomb.

Thursday, April 2, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; 1 Samuel 16:11-13; Philippians 1:1-11

The Lenten Psalms are quite fitting for our current circumstances. Psalm 31 brings together petitions, descriptions of distress and statements of trust. The passage for today is the middle section of the Psalm but it can stand alone in its literary integrity and spiritual meaning. The whole Psalm describes the suffering of an individual but ends confidently with an address of encouragement to the worshipping group (vss 23-24). Vss 9-12 suggest the cause of distress is some form of illness, but vss 13, 15 introduce the theme of enemies conspiring against the singer’s life. Vss 14-16 are an expression of trust in God and an affirmation of God’s goodness.

The 1 Samuel passage is a section of the narrative of the anointing of a new king to succeed Saul. Omitted is the long description of the succession of sons that Jesse presents for Samuel’s approval.  The act of anointing is a deeply subversive act, a symbolic blow against the existing order and a de-legitimation of the king in the name of God. Samuel was deeply aware of this. He protested to the Lord that if he did as he was commanded Saul would kill him (1 Sam 16.2). That Samuel’s mission was perceived more widely as rebellious and dangerous can also be seen in the fear shown by the elders of Bethlehem when he arrived (1 Sam 16.4). While it would be many years before David ascended the throne, this act of anointing effected a transformation in David – the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward (vs 13). Social change often begins with small symbolic acts that plant the seeds of future action. What ‘anointings’ that will shape the future are occurring in our own time?

The personal and tender introduction to Paul’s letter to the Philippians reveals an intimate and loving relationship with the church. That the church is well established can be seen in the reference to bishops and deacons (or overseers and helpers) in vs 1. What is lovely is the textual ambiguity of vs 7: does Paul feel close to them ‘because you hold me in your heart’ or ‘because I hold you in my heart’? The text does not make it clear, and the manuscript tradition reflects both readings. This delightful ambiguity is found in other NT letters (e.g. 2 Cor 3.2). Far from being a weakness, this reflects the double principle that churches should love their leaders, and leaders should love their churches!

Friday, April 3, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; Job 13:13-19; Philippians 1:21-30

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

The book of Job is a profound exploration of human suffering and divine justice. Against all the advice of his pious friends that suffering is the result of sin and Job should repent, Job asserts his innocence and demands an answer from God. These verses follow the first cycle of ‘advice’ offered by Job’s friends. Here Job expresses his determination to present his case to God, whatever the risks. The language is startling (‘I take my flesh in my teeth’ vs 14). His call for silence in vs 13 is almost “Silence in court!” as he prepares to offer his defence. Note the variant reading of vs 15a ‘Though he kill me, yet I will trust in him’ which is more in keeping with Job’s confidence in God.

Just as Job is prepared to run the risk of death in his desire to engage with God, so Paul in the Philippians passage muses about whether it is better to live or die. To Paul, both living and dying have advantages and he is happy with either. Because his continuing to live would be to the benefit of his readers, Paul believes that is what will happen.

The second part of the Philippians reading teaches that we must live in a way worthy of the gospel. Vs 28 indicates that the church is engaged in conflict ([you] ‘are in no way intimidated by your opponents’) and shares ‘the same struggle that you saw I had’ (vs 30).

Saturday, April 4, 2020Psalm 31:9-16; Lamentations 3:55-66; Mark 10:32-34

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Lament (a passionate expression of grief or sorrow) is a form of literature that has not found a ready place in our religious expression or in our culture (with the possible exception of the musical tradition of ‘the blues’). Lamentations 3.55-66 follows a long list of sufferings and disasters, and affirms that God listens, God acts and has taken up the writer’s cause. The passage ends with a call for God to give ‘pay back’ and asks God to curse the writer’s enemies (vss 64-66). There is a genre of Psalms (imprecatory Psalms) that call for the punishment, destruction or cursing of one’s enemies. Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, around 20 are imprecatory or cursing psalms. If a culture of ‘optimism and positivity’ has inhibited our engagement with lament, has a culture of ‘niceness’ stopped us from engaging with those Psalms that express anger and a passionate thirst for, if not revenge, than at least a sense of personal vindication?

The gospel reading (Mark 10.32-34) is a high point of Mark’s gospel and the beginning of the transition into the Passion. Mark has structured the central part of his gospel around three predictions of his death and resurrection (8.31-38, 9.30-32 and here). The tension in the disciples and crowd is palpable (‘they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid – vs 32). The third prediction is the most detailed.  This text is followed by the selfish request of James and John for the places of honour in the coming Kingdom and then the miraculous healing of blind Bartimaeus, followed immediately by Jesus’ triumphal (?) entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Virtual/Virtuous Church

The corona virus seems to have achieved what Jesus said the gates of Hell could not: it has prevailed upon churches across the land to close their doors! Many communities (like Box Hill Baptist) are moving to different ways of engaging with each other and with the essence of their life and ministry. Streaming content online, meeting in video conferences, party-line phone calls of several friends at once, drive-in church, picnic church – all these are some of the new modes of ‘presence’ that the people of God are exploring.

The reason for this dramatic move on the part of churches has been well expressed by the Baptist Union of Victoria who wrote to all the churches of the Union: “Given the pattern of COVID19 in other countries ahead of us in terms of infection rates, the more we can do, as soon as possible, to reduce the occurrence of transfer in the community, the better.  Transfer happens most when people are in proximity to one another.  Therefore, out of love for our communities, there is good reason to suspend large gatherings and non-essential activities now.” (emphasis added)

We have closed our church buildings out of love for our communities. It is not a sign of failure or fear, but rather of hope and care. Is it a positive expression of love. It is a virtuous decision – something that embodies virtue.

I have long been intrigued by the use of the adjective ‘virtual‘ to describe in a generalised way the content of the world wide web. The narrower definition of virtual means almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition. A subsidiary definition is not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so. A third definition that tries to integrate both these senses is that it describes something that exists in essence but not in actuality. To my mind this latter definition raises some thorny philosophical issues around essence and actuality!

The roots of the English word virtual reach back to the Latin word virtus, which came through the medieval Latin virtualis to the modern virtual. By comparison, virtuous (meaning having good moral values and behaviour) comes from the same ancient Latin root virtus, but by a different linguistic pathway: through the late Latin virtuosus to the Old French vertuous to the Middle English virtuous.

Two words from a common root – but with widely different senses in the 21st century. Can the virtual world also be a virtuous world? What principles and behaviours would make it so? Can a virtual world ‘exist in essence‘ but not in ‘actuality‘ – or does the virtual require some actualisation in real people – in human actions, thoughts and emotions – before it can be truly virtuous?

This trajectory from the Latin roots to modern virtual reality has been well documented by David Porush in a fascinating blog post (https://davidporush.com/2017/08/18/what-the-word-virtual-says-about-the-future-of-vr/). Given our setting – an engagement with ‘virtual church’ because of a viral pandemic – it is interesting that Porush also makes an aside about another word springing from the ancient Latin vir– root: virus!

The months ahead present us with an opportunity to explore whether a virtual church can also be a virtuous church, whether we will demonstrate and live out ‘good moral values and behaviour’ supported only by connections through the internet, phone calls, video-conferencing and other creative forms of linkage. It will be an exciting time, but also a very challenging one.

I believe that Jesus was actually right. The pandemic might have closed our doors, but the church might yet prove to be virtuous as well as virtual, and may even – irony of ironies – go viral!

Jasmine Chapman’s Prayer

Our young people led a moving service which included inter-generational dialogue. One of the unexpected insights from the dialogue was just how different life had been for those who are now older when they were young. Perhaps in the future life will again be much simpler, more austere, but the recollections of the past made it easier to see how fulfilling and rich that might be.

One of the highlights of the service was a prayer written by Jasmine Chapman. Here is what she wrote and so movingly read during the service.

I’ve always known that this world seems to suffer,

But it was small, irrelevant when I was younger. 

But as I grew older the threats became clear.

The climate’s heating up, distilling fear.

Fires roam where rain used to rule,

To humans this earth’s no more than a tool.

Ice turns to water at an increasing pace,

These problems are something we all must face.

For now, I fear the future, a dystopian sight.

If my children will live during a losing fight.

We can’t limit the future because we failed to save

God’s precious earth, which to us he gave.

We cannot let this world we have slip away

Or it’s a price that we all must pay.

So Lord, I pray, that action takes place

So the future isn’t something that we erase.

Because I’ll fight, until my dying days

Hoping this isn’t earth’s final phrase. 

Jasmine Chapman

Counting the Cost

At Box Hill Baptist we are exploring the Season of Creation. On September 8th it is our young people who are leading the service. We invited them to lead us early in the series because it is they who will live with the consequences of the environmental crisis that is climate change. We need to hear from them, and dialogue with them. The teenage activist Greta Thunberg has been a catalyst for people of all ages to mobilise around climate change, but young people especially have responded to her message.

Whenever I talk with younger people about climate and environment I feel guilty – guilty because I know I will probably not live to see the consequences of how my generation, and earlier generations, have lived – but they will. Perhaps that is why the one Bible reading they selected from the smorgasbord of the lectionary for the service they are leading is Luke 14.25-33, where Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, and how sensible people count the cost of what they are doing, whether in building or in battle, if they are going to succeed. When it comes to the consequences of our opulent lifestyles and technical mastery of the world, have we really ‘done the math’?

For those who trust David Attenborough, that avuncular but doughty prophet, you might like to look at his documentary The Facts. For those with a brave spirit and a taste for more punchy academic approaches, you might try the work of Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria. Jem’s blog is a fascinating resource that will introduce you to his work. His latest focus is the concept of Deep Adaption: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Deep Adaptation presumes that we are facing “an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change” (cheery news!) and seeks to prepare us for the kinds of adaptations and responses we will be called upon to make. He also engages with the kinds of social and psychological defenses (‘systems of denial’) that stop us from thinking through such challenging scenarios (which defenses then compound the crisis and make everything worse).

For those of us familiar with the Bible however, the category of ‘inevitable near-term social collapse’ is pretty much stock-in-trade. Think about the Exodus and all that desert wandering, homelessness and near starvation. What about David and his paid soldiering and hiding, and wars and adventures before he got to be king with all those wives and concubines? The Prophets and their warnings of desolated cities and barren landscapes. Esther and Daniel and all that genocidal plotting against the people of Israel. Not to mention all of Revelation and some of the ‘reality therapy’ handed out to struggling Christians in a few of the letters in the New Testament. We are comfortable western Christians who have been rather well insulated (until now) from the effects of climate change, but if we have been reading our Bibles we know the world is not always like that. And we also know that even in the most dire and dangerous situation, there is hope!

Bendell in his Deep Adaptation model, asks us to engage with three positive responses to what he calls the climate tragedy. They are resilience, relinquishment and restoration.

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress, involving the creative reinterpretation of identity and priorities.

Relinquishment is people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse.

Restoration is people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. This includes re-wilding landscapes, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play and increased community-level productivity and support.

(the above summary is from Barbara Lepani, Wild Mountain Collective Blog)

While Jem Bendell’s work is very challenging, I see it as an extended riff on Jesus’ teaching about counting the cost, complete with the warning that Jesus ended his speech with – that we are all going to be a lot poorer! But in other ways we may be richer, better off, happier, more engaged with each other. While looking squarely at the magnitude of the problem, and perhaps the inevitability of catastrophe, is very difficult to do, it is the only way to find hope on the other side of whatever is coming.

Jeremiah prophesied the end of his city (Jerusalem) and his society for decades before anyone took notice. They lived in denial and false hope. And then, when the inevitability of the disaster could no longer be avoided, and everyone was liquidating their assets and hunkering down, Jeremiah bought land and had the transaction publicly witnessed, and the deeds sealed and buried, as a sign that there was a future and generations beyond the present would someday build on what he had done. (What is it with prophets and their names – Jem/Jeremiah?)

We are in much deeper trouble than Jeremiah and his people, but Jesus urges us to ‘do the math’, accept the facts, look it square in the face and pray for the resilience to live through it, the courage to let go what must be abandoned, and the skill and hope to work for restoration into the future.

Jim Barr 8/9/2019

Language and Violence

I went to see the latest Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Tarantino’s work I sometimes find confronting and a little intellectually overpowering, but this one I really liked. It’s his use of violence I find confronting. While Tarantino himself says he deplores real violence he certainly seems to glorify it (or should that be ‘gorify’ it?) on film. While the director himself may make fine distinctions, I wonder other his viewers are always able to pick up the subtleties he is seeking to communicate.

I googled ‘language’ and ‘violence’ to see whether there is a body of thought around how one might use violence as a cinematic language. What the search yielded was a lot of discussion as to whether ‘language’ can be ‘violence’ (mainly focussed on hate speech, white supremacy, vilification etc) but very little on whether ‘violence’ can be ‘language’. There were some articles on ‘Aestheticization of violence’ but very little on violence as a language.

This I found interesting as I am preaching this week on Hebrews 12 which mentions that ‘you have come’ (presumably in the worship of the church) ‘to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (Heb 12.24). Here the metaphor of ‘blood that speaks’ certainly implies that violence is language. The violence implicit in the ‘sprinkled blood’ of Jesus speaks a more powerful and better (perhaps in the sense of goodness) word than the blood of Abel, which has been crying out to God from the ground ever since Genesis 4.

Does the language we use about the violence inflicted on Jesus ‘speak a better word’ than other blood that ‘cries from the ground’? The textual confusion over one word in Revelation 1.5 (lusanti/freed us from our sins cf. lousanti/washed us from our sins) led to several generations of earnest Christians who metaphorically bathed in blood and looked to the ‘fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins’. A narrow proclamation of substitutionary atonement lays the ultimate responsibility for the violence suffered by Jesus at the feet of God the Father. When I was the head of Spiritual Care in an Australian welfare organisation for several years I came across a number of social workers and other human services professionals who found ‘Jesus as sacrificial victim’ a message that disempowered their clients (many of whom have been severely victimised) and compounded the social blame for their own marginalisation that they experienced. For many, this language about blood does NOT ‘speak a better word’.

Another generation of Jesus’ followers saw the violence Jesus suffered as a form of victory, not victimhood. Christus Victor is an early, and enduring, view of Atonement (that is, what was achieved through the Cross) that sees the violence Jesus willingly suffered as a form of both triumph and transformation. There are a number of ways that Christians speak about the Cross, and ways of understanding how the Cross speaks to humans, that focus on love, surrender and victory. In this speech the sprinkled blood does indeed speak a better word than the blood of Abel.

Which kind of brings me back to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. The title does hint that this is all a fairy tale, and quite a dark one at that. In my reading of the story there is a contrast between the cinematic ‘good’ violence handed out by the heroes (Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, and his sidekick Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt) which is always more powerful and effective than ‘real’ violence – whether it be the violence of the Charles Manson family, the violence of a succession of movie ‘bad’ guys and even the violence of a ‘real’ Kung Fu practitioner – Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh). Once Upon a Time is true to the movie trope that the ‘good’ guys will always beat the ‘bad’ guys. The kicker is that the violence of the movies spills over into real life and the ‘virtual reality’ of cinematic violence overwhelms the historical reality of how life plays out.

For me this is confirmed bythe dialogue in the film between the Manson family members on their way to kill Sharon Tate and friends. One of the girls talks about how ‘we’ are the generation raised on television, and TV is all about killing. So now ‘we’ are going to kill all those people who taught ‘us’ how to kill. In this logic there might be a sense of balance, or a feedback loop, or even a morality tale, but the surprise ending is dark indeed, and ‘virtual’ violence proves far from imaginary and even more deadly than real violence. To my ear, the blood that Tarantino sprinkles (or should that be ‘splatters’?) over his closing scene speaks a worse and more troubling word than all the centuries of real blood that cry to God from the ground.

Jim Barr 24th August 2019