Dear brothers and sisters I want you to know that the good news that I proclaimed did not come from others; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I even taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
They are words that we could easily brush over, but I believe they stand at the very heart of what we call Christian faith. It is easy in a society like ours that values education so highly Well, a certain type of education, the one that leads to employment and a good job. But of course that can miss the point that the most important learning we will ever do is not the remembering of information, but what is often called "the learning of the heart."
The Apostle Paul did not have very good academic credentials to be a leader of the emerging religious movement. As the reading I spoke about goes on to say, he was a chief persecutor and upholder of the true traditions of his religion. But it wasnt that simple: something happened in his life that changed him forever. Something happened in his mind that he had to spend many years thinking about, but most importantly, something happened in his heart in his soul the centre of his being. To pick up from Bishop Gene last week, he didnt become an admirer of Jesus, he became a follower, a disciple of the one who had begun the transformation in his life and the one who continued to haunt his daily living.
There has been a conversation raging though emails this week among progressive Christians about who Jesus really was and what is our relationship to him or with him. Oh dear, I thought we had gotten past that debate years ago. We know that the historical Jesus is almost impossible to recover from the Gospel records; what I am interested in is how we access the same spirit of love, hope, compassion and inclusiveness that Jesus had access to and thats where I think the apostle Paul is helpful. He is in the same position we are in. He never met Jesus and had to rely upon an oral tradition that differed between communities.
But he also had something that we have today and that is what is at times called revelation, sometimes inspiration and at other times the inner voice of the heart. Perhaps the difference between this earlier follower of the Spirit of Christ and us is that we are much more resistant to the spirit, to revelation, to inspiration than he was. And thats the connection with the email conversation I have been tuned into this week. For me there just isnt enough of the heart.
The Apostle Paul posits a radical proposition when he suggests that his insights and understandings and commitments to his newborn faith did not come from the other apostles but rather came from that inner calling, that inner voice of the Spirit of Christ. Now that is not an easy concept to understand. But I want to postulate that it is, as Marcus Borg suggests, the heart of Christianity.
The story is told of a young man who is learning the rabbinical tradition and is perplexed by the passage in scripture that says "God lays his word on your heart." The young man asks the senior Rabbi why is the word of God laid on our hearts and not placed in our hearts? The older Rabbi answers, "God lays his words upon our hearts, so that when our hearts are broken open the words might fall in, but until they are broken open, the words remain idle on the surface of our lives." There is little purpose in hearing or even repeating sacred or divine words unless they take root in our lives. As Paula DArcy once said, "God comes to you disguised as your life."
Let me make a confession (I think I made two last month.) Part of the disillusionment that I experienced as the Senior Chaplain of Carey Grammar School was that I came to see that we were giving these beautiful open-minded and open-hearted students just enough religion to inoculate them against the real thing if it ever came along. And here is a statement that I must say carefully. I see it in the funerals I take here at TUC. For many people it is more important to sing the words of the hymn they sang at their high school; to have the same version of the Bible that they heard read at school, than it is to hear the murmurings and whispers of the Spirit of Christ in the midst of their grief and suffering.
Tradition can give stability to ones life. Traditionalism can calcify the free flowing movement of the Spirit.
The Apostle who does not Listen to Others:
I am intrigued by the Apostle Paul. While he is not the founder of Christianity he is perhaps the founder of Christian theology and yet his "theology", his study of God, doesnt happen in the classroom. He does not consult the early disciples of Jesus to find out what he should or should not believe, he goes away and in one sense works it out for himself. He leaves everyone. He travels into the desert, some traditions say. Some say he spends 14 years reflecting on this experience of the Spirit of Christ. And then he emerges as an apostle with he argues the same authority as the 12 disciples who spent years with Jesus.
For me this makes it very clear that Christian faith is not an experience of history. Its not about what happened or didnt happen; its not about who said what and to whom. (Well, in part it is, but it is not central.) After presenting his credentials as an orthodox religionist Paul says: "But in my heart I knew that God had set me apart even before I was born and through his grace had called me and revealed his first-born to me."
I finish with a story I read many years ago which I think illustrates Pauls experience. It is called The Rabbi's Gift and comes from Scott Pecks book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace:
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again", they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years", the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"
"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help", the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant centre of light and spirituality in the realm.