Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Weight of Glory

Sometimes you get a recommendation for some reading so fervent that you just know that the work will impact you. While discussing C.S. Lewis' works with friends last week, I was exhorted to read his sermon "The Weight of Glory" and was so caught by it that I have been turning it over most of this week in my mind, and have already passed the recommendation on to others.

It is a sermon full of hope for a future where what is now imperfect will be made glorious, where we will stand (or maybe dance!) before our loving Father, totally stripped of all that now bears us down and free to rejoice before our Creator, pleasing the one we were created to please. I can't really imagine now what that will be like, but the moments when I glimpse even the tiniest speck of what awaits us, are enough to fan the flame of eternal hope, that one day I will know it truly. Lewis suggests that a glimpse or scent of heaven may be all that this world can ever offer us, after all, we have only earthly imagery with which to consider heaven, and so even the scriptural picture is  symbolical - it cannot convey the full weight of the reality, but only suggest it in small and insufficient ways. In some ways I find this shocking - surely Scripture should make clear to us what is promised? But Lewis says that this insufficiency, this lack of immediate attractiveness is

"... just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I must expect it to be less immediately attractive than 'my own stuff'."

My first thought on reading this section was that there are some aspects of the Christian faith that it is very hard to see as attractive at all, or if we do see them as attractive it's because we haven't fully understood them. I was reflecting on this in relation to the story of the disciples James and John, and the request they make of Jesus: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." James and John want something that is in the world's eyes very attractive, to sit on either side of the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth, to be the closest ones to the seat of power and glory. What they are actually offered, the way that Jesus calls them to follow, is to drink the cup that he will drink - the cup of suffering - the cup that Jesus asks the Father to take from him in the garden. The road that Jesus walks, and the one that he invites James and John to follow him on, is the road to the cross. There is nothing immediately attractive about this offer. Jesus doesn't even soften the blow by saying "once you have drunk from this cup you will sit with me in glory". No, the joy that awaits is hidden here, it is what Lewis describes as "the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both." 

The cup that is offered to James and John, foreshadows another cup, the one that we drink round the table, that brings Life to the Church. I wonder also whether there is also an echo of the cup that we will share with Christ in glory, feasting round the table of heaven - for Christ does promise that he will drink the fruit of the vine again with us in his Father's kingdom, when we shall see him face to face - what joy awaits us there! So although we know that the cup offered to James and John, and indeed to each one of us as we seek to follow Christ, is one of pain and suffering, still are we able to declare with David "My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." The cup that we share together contains the taste of heaven.

The image of the cup is at first sight not attractive, for it is the cup of Jesus' blood, shed on the cross. It points to the agonising death of a good man. But it contains joy unimaginable, for Jesus poured out his Life that we may have life in its fulness. Jesus' death opened the gates of heaven, so that what we see now only dimly and taste only briefly, will one day become our reality, and we will see him face to face, and rejoice that we are his and he is delighted in us.

The Weight of Glory, full text:

Monday, 10 February 2014

"Blessed are the poor (in spirit) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"

In Matthew's gospel at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), and in Luke's as part of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) we find a set of short sayings, each of which begins with the phrase "Blessed are...". These sayings, particularly those in Matthew's Gospel are commonly referred to as "The Beattitudes".

I remember looking at the Beattitudes on a camp when I was 14 or so, I believe I still have the hoodie somewhere... If you asked me I would say that I know them; they are familiar to me, after all I have heard them many times. I would probably also say that they have at least a little influence over my life, after all they're part of Jesus' teachings. However, a couple of hours of pondering and a little bit of reading this afternoon has made me wonder if I've ever really given them more than a passing glance, more particularly I'm not sure how I've never noticed how hard I find it to apply them to my day to day life. I will offer my reflections below...

A little bit of context... The Beattitudes are spoken to the disciples, seemingly at a distance from 'the crowd', and they have just answered Jesus' call to follow Him. These men have just left everything they have ever known; their families, their homes, their daily routine. They had probably also left any influence they might have had at a political level - would you listen to someone who had just turned their life upside down because someone asked you to, who had given up the business of making money and putting food on the table? They have begun a life that could well be characterised by poverty, grief, hunger, thirst and persecution. This is the new way into which Jesus speaks, these are the people to whom he announces the greatest of blessings.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" The disciples have no spiritual power, no knowledge of what lies before them, no voice that would be heard by the authorities of the time, and no way of influencing their path other than by following in Jesus' footsteps. They are also materially poor. It is easy to forget that in Luke this Beattitude does not contain 'in spirit' reminding us that the disciples poverty is wholistic. There are no rich disciples.

Now, I am not poor. I would even go so far as to say that I am rich. I can afford holidays; more clothes than I need; meals out; flights round the world to see family; a phone contract; I could afford a car if I wanted to; trips to the cinema; many, many books, the list goes on. Yet, I know for certain that none of this brings me any closer to the kingdom of heaven. My wealth, in a sense, 'fills' my life. But it is not a satisfactory Fullness.

When Jesus calls the disciples he empties their life of their wealth, and the only thing they can fill it with is Him. There are times when I envy the monastic calling, I think I'd be pretty poorly suited to it, but there are times I wish that there was nothing in my life to distract me, to leave me with no choice but to fill my time with God. Not that the disciples did only fill themselves, their heads and hearts, with Jesus. They were concerned about more worldly matters too; how to feed a hungry crowd; how to survive in a storm tossed sea; how to save their saviour from the men who came to arrest him (there's a whole other blog in that thought...); how to save themselves when they believed he had been taken from them. The disciples were people like us too, people concerned with the day to day, forgetting who they were called by, needing reminding where true wealth lay.

The kingdom of heaven is characterised by a pouring out, an overflowing cup. Jesus gives food to the hungry - food that satisfies; he offers water that will quench the thirst for eternity; he brings his majesty to calm the storm; he brings his mercy to those who oppose him; he brings himself to those who have lost him. We can only truly receive God, if our hands are not full of other things, if we, like the first disciples, have first left behind the things we think we need.

Only the poor can truly receive the Kingdom, can truly appreciate it's power to satisfy. God demands everything I have and everything I am. I will not only use it to serve him, I must give it up for him. God pours his blessings upon us so that we too might become overflowing cups. The first disciples receive the kingdom of heaven, but it doesn't stop with them, they bring it to others. As they are filled, God fills them to overflowing, the Kingdom doesn't just satisfy the disciples it pours out to all others whose hands are empty, empty and ready to receive.