"A religious person is the one who holds God and fellow human being in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."

Abraham J. Heschel

 
Holy Scriptures - our views

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness and gloom...But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God...
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe for indeed our God is a consuming fire...
                                                                                   Hebrews 12.18-29
 
It is quite clear from this passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews that the Christian author, whoever he was, aimed to explain spiritual rather than the material value of Christian faith. That new faith is not related to a building, even as magnificent as Jerusalem Temple, but is based on the quality of the relationship between Christians. This new Christian outlook includes a proper understanding of the past, our own biography and history. It also illuminates the present moment with strong hope and faith. Ultimately, it convinces us about our daily life in the light of the consuming fire – God himself.
 
Having said that, how can we illustrate this transformation of understanding, which lifts up our eyes towards the spiritual realm and God? Recently I have witnessed an important aspect of that experience which brought my friends closer to the past and revealed the value of the present moment, strength of our community and faith in God who is like consuming, all-transforming fire....
 
During last weekend’s trip to Krakow, some of us decided to visit, or rather make pilgrimage to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentrations camps. It was not an easy decision. We stepped in through the famous gate as we were, Christians, members of all three our churches in Richmond; with our faith in God, but also with our experience of suffering. In that beautiful sunny day we stepped in a space, which for many people embodies one of the most horrific atrocities in human history.
 
Being guided through both camp by the Polish guide, the grandson of one of the survivors, provided us not only with a narrative full of numbers, dates and details. It offered us an emotional testimony of a young Polish man. His final words were ‘thank you for coming to this place’. The day when we stepped inside of the camp marked deeply our hearts, challenged our faith and stirred our emotions, including anger that the world allowed ‘Auschwitz to happen’.
 
That morning some of us made more than just a visit to museum of martyrdom. That morning we descended towards the deepest abyss of our human heart and had tears in our eyes. Watching the old, black and white photos presenting the perpetrators of the evil in Nazi uniforms, and looking carefully at the faces of the victims, men, women and children, we could easily notice that those people, both good and evil, are not so different from us. Recognising this similarity it was not very hard to come to a conclusion that in each one of us there is a hidden potential to release either angels or demons in our thoughts, intentions and then actions. Each one of us could have been part of that, or similar dramatic circumstances when we announce our judgment on other people, or withdraw from action and we do not resist evil, when we either step into the role of somebody who is above the rest and has the right to judge, or somebody who is too focused on his, her own survival to look after others.
 
Auschwitz is often seen as one of the darkest places on earth, a black hole in the universe. But there is also another way of experiencing its significance. Our pilgrimage to Auschwitz helped us to notice not only the slaughter of the innocent men and women, but also to see in the same place some gestures of love, care and holiness. In the darkest night of many years of starvation, humiliation and brutal repression, some prisoners expressed their belief that the concentration camp was the city of the Living God, not forgotten by Him, but that God even here was not absent. How was it possible? Elie Wiesel in his book ‘Night’ describes the hanging of a child in Auschwitz:
 
It took the child half an hour to die, while the prisoners were forced to look him in the face. The same man asked again: “Where is God now?” And Wiesel heard a voice within him make this answer: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.
 
Those of us, who touched the gallows gradually begun to think that God himself walked here, suffered there and never left his children, not just Christians, but the Jews, the Gypsies, the Soviet prisoners of war, gay people and all other condemned to die. Suddenly in this darkest place a light of new understanding emerged as the meaning of our pilgrimage to this place. It called us to never be indifferent to the misfortune of other people, even the person standing next to me. Approaching God is not entering to yet another material building, temple or church. The author of the Epistle to Hebrews knew it very well:
 
You have not come to something that can be touched...
 
But the heavenly Jerusalem, even if it is suffering on this earth, is ultimately a relationship with other people, allowing the hidden angel of your own heart to be free, to ascend and by this example, to initiate resurrection of the angels in our neighbours.  The whole transformation from death to life, transformation from our cocoons to spiritual maturity takes place in real space and time and includes experiences very painful and tragic, division, separations, illness, sometimes humiliating dependence on others, but this transformation leads us ultimately to reverence and awe while we face the fire. Because the true nature of God is a consuming fire, who embraces all our life, purifies and transforms into something significant and eternal. Our pilgrimage reminded us that our life has to be offered to God, whatever the current circumstances are, then only God, even if we think that this is against our logic and common sense, may transform joy and pain into something that will remain longer and never be destroyed.
 
Revd Dr Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski
St John the Divine, Richmond

 
The Lord brought Abraham outside and said,
‘Look towards heaven and count the stars,
If you are able to count them.’
The he said to him,
‘So shall your descendents be’
Gen 15.6
 
There is something romantic, emotional and poetic in this Biblical story about an elderly man gazing at the sky full of stars in the middle of the night. There is something bizarre, strange and naive in presenting a childless old man who ‘hears voices’ as the father of a great nation. Which image do you prefer?
 
Richard Dawkins’ bestseller The God Delusion which sold in more than 2 million copies, argues that God of Abraham almost certainly does not exist. Dawkins also argue that the belief in a God as a person denotes delusion, which is defined as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence’. According to Dawkins’ book Abraham was a dreamer, a mystic who miscomprehend himself. There is nothing radically new in Dawkins’ criticism. Ancient and modern critics of Judaism and Christianity have claimed that these religions look at the empty sky, like a big clean screen, and project onto it the noblest desires such as being loved by a divine being. In brief, this kind of critique convinces us that instead of wasting our time on religious activities, acts of worship and contemplation of the sky, we should focus our energy on liberating ourselves from religion. It is better to work harder to, for instance, enhance our humanity and well-being of others.
 
Was Abraham deluded? The history of his offspring, children of many Jewish generations, real people good and bad, heroic prophets and apostates, holy women and devout men, that complex history shows that, against Dawkins’ theory of religion, Abraham heard a voice. But Abraham’s experience offers us yet more important guidance into our relationship with the same God who spoke to him. Abraham was a man able to experience awe. Sometime ago, another descendent of Abraham, a Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote these words in the true Abrahamic’ spirit:
 
Awe is an intuition for the creaturely dignity of all things and their preciousness to God; a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something absolute. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to Him who is beyond all things. It is an insight better conveyed in attitudes than in words. [...] Awe enables us to perceive in the world imitations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. [...] Knowledge is fostered by curiosity, wisdom is fostered by awe...
 
If we listen to these words and again look at Abraham standing in the night and contemplating the sky we may recognise that both, the image and the word give testimony of the same. The core of the relationship with God, the Creator comes from awe. You see the numberless stars, you hear the silence of the sky and you are able to see more and hear more. Like in the mirror, you are able to discover some part of your own picture and biography. Awe is in the heart of true religion. It points to God beyond our concepts and scenarios. God almighty and powerful, but close and caring, liberates and guides us through life. Experience of God in the context of that awe totally changes life, as we may see from Abraham’s own case. But it is the most refreshing, fruitful and welcome encounter. Abraham was no longer the same person before that night vision, he was changed. In the same way, a prayer has to change our hearts, open our horizons, stirs our thoughts, mark our memory.  Like Abraham, we gain a new self-understanding. This is living spirituality, communion with God and fellowship with other people. This is the moment when Christians, Muslims and Jews can prayer together and talk together about the same Creator. Today we are encourage by Abraham’s story to leave our cosy houses at night and go out to face the sky. It is a risk to approach the Unknown but a risk worth taking. Only a relationship with God reviewed every day and every night can provide us with enough strength to defend our faith against the accusation of delusion. Otherwise, while sleeping in our comfortable beds and leaving Abraham on his own with God, we risk sleeping through that opportunity and presenting our dreams about our Creator as a response to our critics.
 
Let’s pray for God’s help and grace to face the reality of our life with awe.
 
Revd Dr Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski
Richmond, Surrey, UK
 
As today we celebrate the feast of James the Apostle, let’s remind ourselves first about our patron, then let’s reflect briefly on the importance of his legacy to us, modern Christians.

James, son of Zebedee was the brother of John the Apostle . He is also called James the Greater to distinguish him from James, son of Alphaeus, who is known as James the Less. James is described as one of the first disciples who followed Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels state that James and John were with their father by the seashore when Jesus called them to follow him (Mat 4.21-22; Mk 1.19-20) According to the Gospel of Mark, James and John were called the “Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3:17). James was one of only three apostles whom Jesus selected to bear witness to his Transfiguration. The Acts of the Apostles records that Agrippa I executed James by sword (Acts 12.1-2). In addition, in the canon of the New Testament, we have the Letter of James attributed if not to James, certainly to his tradition. James was a leader of the church in Jerusalem and his letter provides his followers and disciples with a number of practical instructions. It is clear from this letter that James represented a rather different view to Paul the Apostle.  For example, while Paul praises first and foremost faith in Jesus as the Saviour, and claims ‘justification’ by faith, James defends the value of works, as ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’ (2.17). Later in history, Martin Luther was not greatly impressed with James’ theology, while building his theology on faith alone (sola fide). On the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church promoted a sanctuary in Spain, Santiago de Compostella, where supposedly James preached the Gospel before returning to Jerusalem. Santiago de Compostella is one of the greatest Catholic shrines in the world. As you may see, theology and politics, or struggle for power, often go together.

How can we, modern and critical Christians approach James’ legacy? First, his type of Christianity lost the confrontation with Paul’s ideal of a new faith. Followers of James, whom we may call ‘Jewish-Christians’, observed a number of Laws and rituals from the Torah, still proclaiming that Jesus was the Saviour. Today, this type of Christianity does not exist, nobody, even the most fundamental of Christians, will claim that we should circumcise new born boys or that we should gather in our churches on Saturday.  This type of Christianity is lost, for good and bad, in the past. But still liturgy reminds us every year on the 25th of July about James, the Apostle.

I believe that we should still commemorate James and reflect on his or his followers, Epistle as it reminds us about a very important feature of early Christian communities, their diversity, which was a challenge and brought serious problems to the early Church. Among early Christians, there were those men and women, very dedicated to their faith, who like James wished to remain faithful to the tradition of their forefathers while proclaiming Jesus as the Saviour. But also in the same Christianity there was a room for Paul, who unlike James, never saw the historical Jesus, but still claimed that he knew who Jesus really was. While James and his followers aimed to look at their religious Jewish tradition in the light of Jesus’ teaching, Paul was rather interested in forming new ideas about Christian life and devotion. Paul was passionate about the life according to Spirit, a Christian life dedicated to spiritual values, he wanted to attract new believers from the ‘outside’ world. James, meanwhile, wanted to reorganize and reaffirm the values of his religion in order that the old and new faith could together still nourish people’s imaginations, and stimulate acts and deeds of true religiosity.

If I may use bold lines to show the difference, Paul encouraged his followers to see Christianity not as a cult, religion and worship focused on scarifies in the Jerusalem temple. Paul encouraged his disciples to view their relationship with God as a intimate dependence on the might of the Spirit. Yet, Paul’s Christian opponents saw his effort as extreme, as a betrayal of ‘the traditional order’.

Where is my place in this confrontation? Some of us are inclined to be closer to the Pauline tradition other may wish to follow James’ steps. Of course, this does not require that we reintroduce, for example, old rituals to our worship or change the day of the main service, but moving a font from one place to another can sound as a revolution, a step too far, as excess of liberty.

Today’s feast encourages us to think of our own religious identity. But if after your reflection you come to the conclusion, that neither Paul, nor James match your own stance; then do not be worried. There are still Apostles such as John and Thomas, Mark, Matthew and Luke, there is Mary Magdalene, even Nicodemous to inspire our faith. When you are still not satisfied with the offer, then maybe you may join me with my personal admiration to a woman portrayed by John’s Gospel, who never was called an Apostle, or Saint and does not have her day as a liturgical feast. It is the anonymous Samaritan woman.  Her faith in Jesus, her life of transformation, her witness to her encounter with the Saviour influenced many people from her village and even more readers of the Gospel. On this day of St James, the Apostle, let’s give thanks to God for the diversity of the early Church and let’s learn to respect diversity in our own Christian community.

 

Revd Dr Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski
St John the Divine, Richmond, Surrey, UK        
 

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation...
Col. 1.15

Paul’s brief confession about Jesus of Nazareth as the image or icon of the Indivisible, Holy God sounds very provocative and controversial. Early Christianity, as a religious movement which took on many elements of the earlier Hebrew legacy, was very suspicious about any iconographic representations of God. John’s Gospel, just to use one example, does not begin with the proclamation: In the beginning was the image and the image was with God and the image was God, but in a very Hebrew spirit, says: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It is not surprising that earlier, in the 20 chapter of the Book of Exodus the second commandment clearly disallows the making of any image of what is in heaven above, or what is in earth beneath – no representation of angels, or humans, as these images may to lead to idolatry. None of the early Christian theologians or artists portrayed Jesus of Nazareth. The first symbol of Christ was a graffito with fish, because the Greek letters which make the word fish are the same as the first letters of the title ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God - Saviour’. None of the authors of the Gospels, nor even Paul himself made any sketch of Jesus’ physical appearance. They did not even provided us with information about the way Jesus looked – for instance, was he tall or short, slim or overweight, hairless or hairy? Early Christians were inspired by Jesus’ words and acts, not by his appearance. Paul, however, boldly claims that Jesus was the image of God. How can we understand his confession, if we do not see that image?

Paul’s short confession leads us towards the most personal way of being a Christian. In Paul’s school of religious Christian education, true Christianity is not about aesthetical inspiration by, for example, Jesus’ personal beauty. It is not about only emotional attachment to Jesus’ personal warmth. In Paul’s school we learn about Jesus’ perfect likeness to God not by seeing him, but rather through personal experience of the power of Jesus’ message. First, in the context of Paul’s testimony, in baptism we are submerged in the invisible water which cleans us from the ways of thinking of the present world. As Christians we are not a political party, social club, or religious cult with esoteric message. There is no membership fee for being a Christian. Therefore our Christianity is not yet another ideology, political and social viewpoint, yet another quest for divine. Christianity is about seeing that through Jesus each one of us is adopted by God as God’s child. Jesus, in Paul’s view, is the perfect mirror of God in which we can see the true image of ourselves as God’s children. Paul would argue that the world around us is like a hall of mirrors: each one of them offers an image of our body, which is funny but disfigured. Paul would say that only Jesus is the true and clean mirror in the light of whose life, words and actions you may see your true self.

Paul, however, says something more, Jesus is not the perfect image of our humanity and our humanity is not perfectly reflected in Jesus. Paul claims, as a Jew or a convert from Hebrew religious tradition and strict monotheism, that Jesus is the image of God. How can we understand this radical claim? Does not the beauty of this visible world reflect God’s beauty? Does not harmony in music perfectly echo to the harmony in the celestial, divine realm? What is so special about Jesus, in comparison with Moses or Buddha, which makes him the unique image of God? Here, the answer can come only from an individual, the most personal and honest experience. Each one of us, not at the same time as a choir, but individually, has to face this question and give our answer. Paul gave his, as for him Jesus was the only Saviour of the world, while Moses was the greatest prophet and signpost leading towards God. Paul’s answer came from his life, conversion, then suffering for Jesus and was confirmed by his martyrdom. What about our answers? I would like to encourage each one of us, in a moment of silent reflection, to search for the beginning of our answer to these crucial questions. They are at the centre of our religious life.

Amen.

Revd Dr Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski
Richmond, St John the Divine
 

 
What is your name? He said ‘Legion’, for many demons had entered him...


Today’s Gospel presents one of the most spectacular miracles performed by Jesus. The whole episode is so dramatic, vivid and powerful that it may stay in our imagination even after the Service. We are astonished by many details of the episode and its supernatural atmosphere. Some questions came to our mind spontaneously. For example, why are swine singled out by the narrative as the proper ‘vessel’ for the evil spirits? Didn’t God create pigs as good animals? Why did Jesus accept the request from the demons and send them to the pigs, instead of destroying the evil spirits? How did the man become possessed by the dark powers? Maybe the poor man was just mentally ill? Our curiosity may draw our attention to some details of the folklore of this story, while the crucial message can be easily missed.

The miracle that we witness today happens after the moving story about Jesus’ act of forgiveness to an anonymous sinful woman, which we read last week (Luke 7.36-8.3). In both cases - the woman corrupted by sins and the man possessed by evil spirits - Jesus’ powerful acts renewed what was good at the beginning and then destroyed by evil. Jesus saw in the crying, repenting prostitute God’s daughter, a woman in God’s image, although covered by dust of her immorality. Similarly in the case of the man tormented by evil spirits, Jesus saw God’s son lost and perplexed by powers over which the man had no control. While the prostitute was ‘a tool’ in hands of Simon the Pharisee to check out Jesus’ prophetic credentials, the possessed man was a tool in the hands of evil spirits to demonstrates their presence in this world. Both kinds of possessions are challenged by Jesus, both characters are liberated by his authority. The Jewish woman and the pagan man are rescued by Jesus and return to their original life, country and home. What can we learn from both stories? I believe that both stories remind us about a proper way of proclaiming the Good News. We are called to believe that even in the human soul or life most ruined by sin and addiction, there is an original goodness and potential to be renewed by God’s might. It is not easy to convince ourselves that evil-doers are human beings like us, but at least we should not allow ourselves to treat them with disdain. 


There is also more profound level of today’s Gospel. Jesus asks a question to the possessed man:  


What is your name? He said ‘Legion’, for many demons had entered him...


The man possessed by the evil spirits was internally broken into many pieces. His emotions, imagination, will, reason and memory were in chaos; his possibly shaking body exemplified that inner disorder of cohabitation of many demons. What can we learn from his condition? The way which ascends towards God leads to integrity of body, mind and spirit. The way which descends towards perditions introduces chaos, moral cacophony and a multitude of images, thoughts and intentions, which alienate the individual from the reality, inclines him of her to believe in fantasies, hear multiple voices and whispers. The symptoms of spiritual illness are not, as in Hollywood movies, speaking in foreign languages or swearing at the priest-exorcists. The first symptoms of spiritual illness is a lack of sensitivity to goodness and evil, boredom, lack of interest in compassion, lack of solidarity with those who suffer, a superficial reading of the events of this world and inability to discern the moments and places when God is making an effort to change people’s lives. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish commentator and philosopher in her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem published in 1963 presented the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. Modern men and women possessed by evil spirits do not appear on the TV screens naked, do not leave in tombs and do not raise their voices to shout. Still, their actions lead to enormous destruction, suffering and injustice. 


We have to ask ourselves very often the question from the Gospel: ‘what is my name?’ and then listen carefully to the answer. Today’s visionary episode does not place us as an audience on the margin of the story providing us with confirmable seats and calling for our applause of Jesus’ miracle. It rather leaves each one of us with the central and penetrating question: ‘what is my name?’ - and then gives us time to answer.  


Revd Dr Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski
Team Vicar, St John the Divine, Richmond/Surrey
 
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