Bible · Church · community · faith · Following Jesus

It Never Struck Me Before

So. I’ve been listening to an interview with Alexander John Shaia. Fascinating. I had not heard of him before. He’s interviewed here on the Nomad podcast, and also in Rob Bell’s Robcast.
There are a load of things to talk about, but just an aside to start with – he talks about the Passover meal, and the central theme being slavery and freedom. It never occurred to me before that they wouldn’t all have gone with Moses!! Some would have followed him, for sure, but there would have been those who thought that they were better off staying in Egypt. They made that choice.

Now why didn’t I realise that ? I just assumed they all went. But of course some would have found the idea of such a radical move to be too difficult.

So on to where this is going to lead – to four questions that map the road of transformation.
I’m just going to try and summarise what Alexander was saying, but I hope you might go and listen to the interview, because I found it mind blowing.

We need to begin with a Jewish Passover:
According to the Ashkenazi tradition, the order of the Four Questions at the Passover meal is as followed:
Question 1: Why on all other nights do we eat either leavened bread or matza, but on this night only matza?
Question 2: Why on all other nights do we eat different types of vegetables, but on this night only bitter herbs?
Question 3: Why on all other nights do we not dip our food once, but on this night we dip it twice?
Question 4: Why on all nights do we eat either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we recline?

These questions traditionally bring to mind:
Question 1: Eating matza commemorates how the Jews were in such a hurry to leave Egypt they could not wait for their bread to rise.
Question 2: Eating bitter herbs represents the bitter difficulties of life as a slave in Egypt.
Queston 3: Dipping food was a luxury reserved only for the aristocracy and upperclass in ancient times, so the practice of dipping is meant to reflect freedom.
Question 4: Reclining while dining was also a luxurious behavior historically, which stresses the privilege of freedom.

But Alexander Shaia refers to an older practice in Judaism at the time of Jesus that has four similar, but different questions, that might be paraphrased as:
Question 1: Thinking about the Exodus, when God’s people were set free from salvery in Egypt … Where in your life are you lost in a place of emotional paralysis, a state of being unfree, enslaved ?
Question 2: Thinking about the forty years when God’s people wandered in the wilderness … Where are you in a death experience ?
Queston 3: Thinking about the time when God’s people crossed over Jordan into the promised land … Where do you hear God’s new promise for you ?
Question 4: Thinking about life in that land of promise … What new action is God asking of you, for your life, the life of your community ?

So … in summary, the four questions relate to
1. The path of transformation includes times to consider making a change. How are are you going to respond ? Choice
2. The path of transformation will involve tension, and trials. Suffering
3. The path of transformation will include the offer of newness in some way. Gift
4. The path of transformation will challenge you to think about acts of service you are being called to give. Service

Interestingly, these four aspects of the life of faith were a central part of the practice of the early church in preparing candidates for baptism. Not surpisingly really, the church drew on the heritage of Jewish practice in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Now here’s the thing … the early church also, according to Alexander Shia and others, linked these four aspects of discipleship to the four Gospels.
Matthew – addressed to the Jewish community – Choice.
Who will you choose ? Will you choose this new way in following Jesus ?
Mark – addressed to the Christian community in Rome, suffering persecution under Nero.
Stay strong as you seek to make Jesus the Lord of your life, even in the midst of persecution. Suffering.
John – addressed to the diverse Christian community in Ephesus, which was beginning to revisit old divisions
Even though you come from different backgrounds. Receive the gift of unity. Gift
Luke – addressed to the Christian community in Antioch.
Remember that you are called to serve. Service

So, when you think of the Gospels, think rather of one Gospel. The Gospel that is shown to us in four different ways, to help us understand the fourfold path of transformation.

I found these insights really helpful, and will be praying that I will be aware when I am being asked to make a choice about something –
The challenge of moving on to something new, and leaving other things behind.
The challenge of hanging in there when it gets tough
The challenge of seeing how I am being called to serve.

Grace and peace.

Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Worship

The End Of A Year

I’ve been thinking about annual cycles of religious festivals – For Christians, the church year goes like this: Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – Lent – Easter – Pentecost – All Saints – and back to Advent again. Most of the festivals are focussed on Jesus – his life, death and resurrection.

This Sunday, 22nd November is the final Sunday in this church year. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new church year. This last Sunday is called ‘Christ The King.’ The idea is that the culmination of the year should focus on the completed work of Jesus before the story starts all over again.

In the Jewish faith, there is something very similar that must be the inspiration for the Christian tradition. In Judaism however, the cycle is all about the reading of Torah. Torah is The Law of Moses – the first five books of what Jews call ‘The Bible.’ and what Christians call ‘The Old Testament’ or ‘The Jewish Scriptures.’

This cycle of readings is completed in a year, and as in the Christian tradition, there is a special day that marks the end of the year, and starts the new year. In Judaism this is linked to the feast of Sukkot, which is a kind of harvest festival, and takes place around October.

There is a wonderful description of this festival – Simchat Torah – in the book I wrote about in my last post. The book ‘In the Beginning’ by Chaim Potok. Here’s the quote.

I remember the night in the second week of October when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning.

The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember the white-bearded Torah reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and uncle danced for what seemed to me to be an interminable length of time, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing upon one another, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my Torah to someone in the crowd, then stood around and watched the dancing. It grew warm inside the small room and I went through the crowd and out the rear door to the back porch. I stood in the darkness and let the air cool my face. I could feel the floor of the porch vibrating to the dancing inside the synagogue. It was a winy fall night, the air clean, the sky vast and filled with stars. [. . .]

The noise inside the synagogue poured out into the night, an undulating, swelling and receding and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with the Torah, holding it close to you, the words of God to Moses at Sinai. I wondered if the gentiles ever danced with their Bible. “Hey, Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible?”

I had actually spoken the question. I heard the words in the cool dark air. I had not thought to do that. I had not even thought of Tony–yes, I remembered his name: Tony Savanola. I had not thought of him in years. Where was he now? Fighting in the war probably. Or studying for the priesthood and deferred from the draft as I was. Hey, Tony. Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?

Wow ! I could almost feel the sense of celebration. Joy and awe all mixed up and expressed in the dance. An exuberant, intense display of fervour and devotion.

And I asked myself the question that in the novel David asks of the Roman Catholic neighbour of his childhood – Do I ever dance with my Bible ? Or to put it another way – does our celebration of Christ The King have this same sense of being alive in our faith. Maybe it’s the fact that we English / Church of England are so reserved and unemotional that stops us ? Or maybe we just don’t have the same passion about our faith ?

There will be no dancing this year, as our chuches are closed for public worship due to Covid, but maybe next year ….

Grace and peace.

Bible · faith · Following Jesus · God · Jesus · Worship

All You Who Are Thirsty

Alongside my daily reading of the psalms and the Gospel of John, I have been reading Isaiah. Today I got to chapter 55. More about that shortly.

But first, I must mention the novel that I’ve just finished. ‘In the Beginning’ by Chaim Potok. The story concerns David, who is only a small boy at the start of the novel. His family, orthodox Jews, have arrived in New York in the 1920’s from Poland. Like other novels by Potok, you get an insight into the daily life and religious observance of orthodox Jews, which I found fascinating. It impressed on me how little I know of Judaism, past and present, and prompted me to read some Jewish commentaries on the Bible (Old Testament).

In Synagogue worship, the reading of Torah – The Law of Moses – (The first five books of the Bible) is central, and in the course of a year, the whole of the Torah will be read in the Sabbath morning worship. (In some traditions there is a three year cycle of Torah readings). The reading of Torah is followed by a Havtarah, a reading from another part of the Old Testament that is thematically linked to the Torah reading for the day. The Havtarah reading completes the Bible readings for that day.

So to Isaiah 55. The following verses are part of the Havtarah reading on the Sabbath called Noach, when the story of Noah is read as the Torah reading.

1 “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!
You without money, come, buy, and eat!
Yes, come! Buy wine and milk
without money — it’s free!
Why spend money for what isn’t food,
your wages for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and you will eat well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land.
Open your ears, and come to me;
listen well, and you will live —
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
the grace I assured David.

These verses are an invitation to come to God, the source of all that is good, and lifegiving. The significance of water is clearly to do with the necessity of water for life. This is understood also to tell us of the necessity of God’s law for us to live fully. So water is a symbol of Torah, and like water, we need Torah’s influence in our lives continually.

In the account of the Israelites’ journey after the Exodus, it tells us that they travelled for three days in the desert without finding any water. After three days, they found water, but it was bitter. When the people complained and asked, “Moses, what are we going to drink?” Moses asked the Lord for help and the Lord told him to throw a piece of wood into the water. Moses did so, and the water became fit to drink.

So as the people could not go more than three days without water, and water is a symbol of Torah, we must not go more than three days without a public reading of Torah. It became the custom not to let more than three days pass without a public reading of Torah. So readings from the Torah are read on Monday and Thursday, as well as on the Sabbath.

And for me as a believer in Jesus as the Messiah, I see these verses from Isaiah as an invitation to come to Jesus, God’s promised one. In John’s Gospel chapter 4, Jesus has an encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and in the course of the conversation, Jesus says these words “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

For me, the whole of Torah is fulfilled in Jesus, who came to do God’s perfect will, and to lead us to the Father.

Grace and Peace.