Everyone who attends funerals, has frequently found himself singing these words, ‘change and decay in all around I see’. God is then described as one ‘who changes not’. He, unlike the creation, is beyond change and decay. One way of understanding these words is to conclude that humanity, like the rest of creation, is ultimately destined for destruction and final extinction.
The theological teaching which is implied in the hymn ‘Abide with me’ is questionable as well as fairly gloomy. It helps to instil, at a popular level, theological ideas which need to be challenged if we are to do justice to the actual claims about God taught by the New Testament. The teaching of Jesus tries to communicate, not a distance between God and his creation, but a coming together, an at-one-ment, to use the technical expression. While the teachings of Jesus and indeed Paul both presuppose a movement towards a merging of the created order and the divine, the Greek-speaking world that surrounded them wanted to keep the two firmly separate. In an earlier blog post I used the word ‘binary’ to describe a way of thinking that wants to divide experience into two, the black and white, the true and the false. I said then that this kind of thinking was unhelpful and misleading. Binary is also an adjective that can describe the division of everything into spiritual and material. Once again it is a false dichotomy and certainly it is not supported by a perceptive reading of Scripture.
Let us go back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus called his disciples, what was he calling them to? We have been blinded by the accounts of Christianity that see everything promised to the followers of Jesus in terms of ‘salvation’. For many modern Christians, this salvation means eternal life with God in heaven – a reward for virtuous living. In thinking only in this way, we have closed our minds to an imaginative understanding of what Jesus was offering his disciples when he called them. One thing that Jesus was not offering his disciples was some new-fangled version of ‘truth’ based on the latest and most fashionable reading of the Old Testament scriptures. He was in the first place dealing with a bunch of ordinary men, some of whom may not have been even literate. I also don’t think we are to imagine him preaching a sermon while eager followers looked up each scriptural quote to check that he was using it in a proper fashion. Literacy, words and text seem to have played little or no part in what Jesus had to offer in his first encounter with those who were to be his disciples. For background the disciples had a broad experience of living according to the Jewish Law, but this experience would have been as much a matter of lived out convention rather than anything that went deeply into the hearts and minds.
To return to the question as to what Jesus had to present to the disciples. The important clause is the one that says in the first chapter of Mark ‘the kingdom of God has come close’. This is a statement by Jesus that invites his disciples, not to learn something new, not to get their heads around a new idea, but to experience something. We can imagine that if there had been an intellectual Greek present when Jesus mentioned the kingdom for the first time, he might have asked Jesus to explain what he meant. Jesus’ reply might well have been. ‘This is not a matter for explanations. This kingdom is for you to recognise as a reality within your heart and to enter in.’ In short what Jesus meant by the ‘Kingdom of God” was a lived reality of God coming close. It was in no way an intellectual concept to be grasped by the mind.
There are two words that capture the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about the at-one-ment between God and everyday reality. The first of these is ‘participation’. Jesus’ focus is on calling humankind to participate in the new reality, the kingdom of God reaching out to embrace the world in acts of love, forgiveness and generosity. Being a Jew, Jesus would not have understood the Greek preoccupation with contrasting the world of spirit and of matter. He would have thought in categories that we would call now ‘holistic.’ The world and the God who created it are at root integrated together, even though the activity of human kind, we call sin, has thrust them apart. Sin creates a dis-integration, a disharmony between the creator and the created world but the link between the two is never totally destroyed. Human beings are being called by Jesus to face up to this alienation that we call sin, and help them move back towards the source of grace, love and forgiveness. That seems to be what Jesus was doing in calling his disciples. He was inviting them to participate in something new, something transforming, something that would decisively change them and their attitudes for ever. God was reaching out to them so that, by knowing Jesus, they would know and participate in the source of the final reality in the universe.
The second word that I want to mention is ‘transformation’. A Christian is an individual who has entered into this process of seeing through Jesus how the world and God are ultimately one. The Christian has recognised the call to make this a reality, by participating in an opening up of the individual personality to God. This is done by acts of self-examination and the giving and receiving of forgiveness and love. The more the individual participates in this process, the more that person is transformed. The process will never be complete. At the same time the transformation will never be some sort of vertical process, a becoming more ‘spiritual’. It will involve a recognition of all the ways in which integration is that which binds us, not just to God but also to other people. Forgiveness, love and integration are, in short, not just categories that describe how human beings should relate to the divine but also to each other. The same dynamic will also bind him/her to a new relating to the created world.
To return to the hymn at the beginning of the piece. The Christian is invited to reject the notion that ‘change and decay (is) in all around I see’. We are to participate in a process of gradual transformation of humanity and the world as we allow the divine gradually to change us and our relationships to this world to resemble those of Jesus. May the Kingdom of God be a reality in us as we learn to love and be loved and to forgive and be forgiven.