Gospel, Italian style

On the Sunday before I left for a family vacation to Italy, you encouraged me to — “know your history”. I think that message came to me mostly during the children’s chat when we talked about the Canadian flag on my backpack, and why Canadians had been so well appreciated and admired in western Europe, especially, over the past several decades.

The conversations then, as well as following the service over coffee, reinforced to me the value you place upon ‘history’ in general. 

Well, Italy is not exactly the hotbed of Reformation, Protestant Christian history as such. At the same time, the buildings there stand clearly as testimony to the dedication of Christians in certain times and places in history.

It was the first day we walked in the older section of Naples — a sprawling metropolis at the base of Mount Vesuvius on the Mediterranean coast — when I began to feel this history pressing in the air all around me.

I say sprawling because Naples is today the most densely populated urban centre in all of Europe; some 8,500 people inhabiting one square kilometre in a metropolis of nearly four million people — making it the third largest city in Italy, and the ninth most populous urban area in the entire European Union.


The noise was overwhelming: the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, car horns beeping, motorcycles and mopeds buzzing, shouting street vendors, impassioned conversations, two-toned emergency sirens, barking street dogs, screeching tires.

In conrast, the neo-Gothic styled ‘duomo’ in Naples offered a welcome break to this outside clamour. 

The expansive interior spaces of this main cathedral embraced silence and only hushed speech. You could occasionally hear the squeak of rubber-soled shoes and someone dropping a book on the stone and marbled flooring as people sat and wandered solemnly throughout the holy spaces.

Perhaps the most significant feature of this cathedral is the baptistery, which is the oldest baptistery in the world, built in the fifth century, C.E. It is remarkable to connect with such an ancient symbol in a material form. 

When the baptized emerged from the water, looking upward at the ceiling, they would be encouraged in their faith; the first images they saw after being baptized were scenes from the Gospel expressed in Byzantine, mosaic art: Jesus saving Peter from drowning, the women at the empty tomb, the miracles of the multiplied fish, an image of Saint Paul, the Apostle, etc.

Seeing with my own eyes and touching with my own hands this font that was built by human hands only a few hundred years after Jesus, affirmed my conviction in the longevity and validity of the sacrament which has endured as profoundly meaningful for Christians throughout the millennia. 

I felt that faith is not just about the good old days when I was young, but the good old days when the Christian faith was younger. We are part of something much larger than our immediate reality. And, when we connect with that broader history, we realize it wasn’t always peaches ‘n cream and rose-coloured a history.

If you are movie watcher, you might recognize another cathedral we visited — the Duomo in the Umbrian, medieval town of Orvieto. 


This cathedral was featured in the opening scenes of Under the Tuscan Sun. This cathedral’s highlight is the Chapel of San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli’s brilliantly lit frescoes of the Day of Judgment and Life after Death. 

Although the frescoes refer to themes of resurrection and salvation, they do so through images not from the bible (that is, stories from the Gospels or Old Testament) but from the turbulent political and religious atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s. Signorelli told the story of faith through his contemporary human events, rather than the traditional symbols (such as Jesus, God, the Trinity, the Apostles, disciples and other biblical characters) that we see in most other places.

Those frescos in the Orvieto cathedral chapel were snapshots of an historical era particular to a specific time and geo-political reality (i.e. 15th century Italy). And the impression of faith put ‘on it.’ Historical to us. Yet current to those who built that Cathedral in the Midlle Ages.

Faith is more than merely appealing to our past. Coming to worship today is not just about being reminded of something or someone from a long time ago. What we do here today is not just an exercise in recalling historical facts. As if decisions we make today are really not about faith. When we talk about our building renovations, worship practice and art, musical choices, communion, budgets, outreach initiatives  — these issues are very mcuh about the Christian faith ‘in the real world’, so to speak. All of these real things do reveal what we believe in, our values, what is important to us, who we are. How do these ‘mundane’ decisions reflect the Christian Gospel, faith, kindgom values in this time and place?

Lutherans make a similar mistake, I believe, when we define ‘Lutheranism’ as a belief/doctrinal system that is limited to the words and conceptual formulations of sixteenth century Germans. When we say that to be Lutheran is merely to ‘turn the clock back’ to 1537 when the Book of Concord was finally assembled including Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession, and the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

I prefer a view that is reflected in the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland’s (EKD) logo for 2017, “Celebrating 500 years of Reformation”. Five hundred years of Reformation. In other words, Reformation started happening — in our tradition — with Martin Luther, yes. 

But, Reformation continued through the 500 years following, and continues to this day and beyond. We are always reforming the forms and means by which we express our evangelical, Gospel-centred faith. Always finding new and creative ways to tell the story of God.

What can we say, then, about Christian history? If we can apply a macro view over the ages, we can say that the history of the Christian faith is about a God who loves us. Christian history is about a God whose compassion never fails, who “will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9) — even though the people of God continue to keep “sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (v.2).

The history of the Christian faith is about our lives being “hidden with Christ in God”, being “revealed with Christ in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4), dying daily to ways of sin and being renewed daily in Christ who “is all and in all!” — even though we are imperfect and sin as long as we hold breath. Christ is all and in all — despite us!

The history of the Christian faith is about how each moment of history — including this one right now — reflected Jesus’ love in the fifth century, the fourteenth century, the 21st century in Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Canada, etc. God for all times and places!

We validate the Christian faith by our lives today, now. This is where the rubber hits the road. This in-the-moment approach fuelled the generosity of medieval Catholicism represented in the magnificent building projects for worship as much as it did the passion and commitment of European Christians during the Reformation era.

We do not leave the practice of faith for some distant, utopic and dreamy future. Neither do we rest on the laurels of the tremendous sacrifices made by our forebears in Canada. 

Now is the time. Now is the time to live out of the conviction of God’s grace and love, despite the many and various ways Christians have messed up in history, and continue to do so today. Now is the time to live out of the faith that is full of hope, that despite our waywardness and unfaithfulness, God is faithful. Now is the time to claim God loves us, not because we are good, but because God is good. God is so good!

You know Jesus’ familiar exhortation, most often translated as “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Christians have often interpreted this word ‘perfection’ as being made whole. 

A much better translation might be: “be merciful.” Because this verse comes right at the end of a passage calling Christians to “love your enemies” (v. 43-48). Only God is perfect. But we can participate in God’s perfect mercy, God’s all-inclusive and impartial love.

Echoing Saint Paul’s words from the Epistle today (Colossians 3:11 — “Christ is all and in all”) St. Bonaventure later said, “Christ is the one whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [1] 

Christ’s mercy is everywhere evident in history. This is the Wholeness, the forgiveness, the grace, that holds you forever and everywhere. You can’t figure this Wholeness out rationally, nor can you control it. All you can do is fall into this Wholeness that holds you when you stop excluding, even the dark parts of yourself. [2] And that, my friends, is the Gospel — good news — for all times and places.

Thanks be to God!

1- Alan of Lille, ‘Regulae Theologicae’, Reg. 7 as quoted by Bonaventure, translated by Ewert Cousins, “The Soul’s Journey into God”, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1978), p.100

2- Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation on the Spirituality of Imperfection” Week 2 – Perfection of Wholeness, Thursday, July 28, 2016

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.

The roominess of God

Perhaps even more so that the images of the gate, sheep pens and pastures green, the metaphor of a room speaks more relevantly to us, today. Jesus says that he goes ahead to his “Father’s house” to prepare a room for each one of us (John 14:1-3).

Given the average rental costs of a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa today is close to $1000/month; given that real estate values in Canada today are scrutinized by some economists as being over-priced, where the average single-dwelling house is almost $400,000 — the physical space we call home and the rooms we inhabit are, to say the least, costly.

We place a high value on our housing. And therefore our ears are piqued to hear a comforting word of promise from the lips of Jesus: at the end of the journey, each of us has a place in God’s house.

I remember my first trans-Atlantic plane-ride as a 10-year old when my family travelled to visit family in Germany. It was a long day and short night complete with sounds and sights and senses I had never yet experienced. Sensory overload!

When we arrived at my aunt’s house in Germany, exhausted yet exhilarated, she immediately showed us to our rooms. And even though it was the start of a new day, I appreciated the chance to be all by myself, in my own room prepared just for me, on the ground, still and silent. The peace and comfort of my room was a welcomed contrast to the hyper-stimulation of the long journey there.

One of the things I learned from the experience of long-distance travelling is that time gets all mixed up. My sense of the passage of time gets either accelerated or elongated when crossing multiple time zones in a day. And that can be disconcerting to the body. We call it jet lag. And there’s nothing like a place we can put down our suitcase and put up our feet to cope with the dis-orienting trouble of travel.

Jesus promises his disciples who face the trouble of loss — the loss of his physical, bodily presence with them — he promises them that God the Father has room for them. Indeed, God is ‘roomy’.

But, as some thinkers emphasize, God’s roominess has more to do with the time God has for us (Robert Jensen in Colin Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation”, 1997, p.24). Time can be defined as: room in God’s own life. God is roomy, in that God’s eternity is not separated from our time on earth and its boundary of death; rather, God’s roominess is God having all the time he needs. The Psalmist expressed this concept of time, poetically: “For a thousand years in your sight, O God, are like yesterday when it is past” (90:4).

What troubles Jesus’ disciples is the very real sense that their time with Jesus has come to an end. Indeed we have the same trouble vis-a-vis our loved ones. Time, we perceive, is brief. Its brevity robs us of those we love.

The plots of most of the stories we enjoy reading and watching on the big screen today excite us because they are charged with the scarcity of time. The main characters are up against a deadline. If time runs out before they complete their quest, then all is lost forever. The dramatic thriller normally has a climax where the proverbial ticking time-bomb must be deactivated before total devastation.

The scarcity of time stokes our fear, and guides our decisions. We hear this a lot in our daily conversations. Marketing gurus capitalize on our fear of running out of time: “This special offer ends today!” “Get yours before time runs out!” We also hear this line of argument expressed in popular religion — “Before time runs out on your life, accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour — or else!” The result of living this kind of approach is fear-based.

It also assumes, in the end, when time runs out, it’s all up to us. We forget in all the fear and anxiety, that Jesus had all the time in the world for his disciples. Remember, Philip was one of the first of all of his disciples to follow Jesus (John 1:43). And yet here we see Philip, who had spent three years with Jesus, not getting it. Philip still does not really know Jesus, who tells him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9)

And it’s to those very disciples, like Philip, Thomas and Peter who doubt, who deny, who sometimes express their belief boldly, and sometimes don’t — it’s to those very disciples Jesus promises nonetheless: God has a room for you in his house. Jesus, despite their unbelief, comforts them in their grief at his leaving them, and promises them God’s eternal presence.

Who among us knows Jesus? Does knowing Jesus coincide with an inward assent to church doctrine or written creed? Or, is it more than that? Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” What John is getting at in his Gospel is that believing is expressed more as an outward and active commitment to a person, the person being Jesus (Cynthia Jarvis in Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 2, p.467).

We know God by God’s initiative in Jesus Christ. We are not the actors; God is not known to us because Jesus is dependent on the exercise of our cognitive abilities. No one has ever seen God; we know God only by Jesus’ self-revelation to us in love and grace.

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther, in response to the First Commandment — “I am The Lord your God, you shall have no other God’s before me” — Luther poses the question: What does it mean to have a God? He answers that God is what you hang your heart upon.

Hang your heart upon Jesus. When the journey of life goes haywire and you are disoriented by grief, loss or great personal challenge.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, when time appears to be running out.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, trusting that his presence is in you when you reach out into the homeless world to house those who do not have a room.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, being the hands and feet of Christ, sharing his love for those in want.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, who leads the way, and is in us through life and death.

Because God has a room for you. And God has all the time in the world, for you.