Preaching at Evensong tonight at St Mary’s Priory Church, Br Josh reflected on what the Book of Numbers and St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says about obedience to God.
‘At the command of the Lord they would camp, and at the command of the Lord they would set out.’Numbers 9:23
Br Josh said:
It is very good to be back with you here and with the Holywell Community. I have been moved by the welcome I’ve received from you all and am very thankful for it.
For those who don’t know: I’ve recently returned from a somewhat unanticipated trip to my home country of New Zealand, which was required in order to apply for another visa to continue as a lay member of the Holywell Community.
When I came to look at tonight’s readings, I found that they were helpful for making sense of my recent experiences. I will focus on two ideas. First, obedience to God’s commands and, second, the importance of times of both movement and rest for discerning God’s commands and acting on them.
2) Obedience to God’s Command
The theme of obedience to God’s commands runs through all of the scripture we have heard tonight.
The book of Numbers tells the story of the journey of the Israelites through desert wilderness to the promised land having escaped from slavery in Egypt. In the passage we have just heard, they are just setting out and things are going smoothly; they are following God’s commands.
Things will go less smoothly for them soon and they will become rebellious. But tonight we are interested in this snapshot of a people who are obedient to God. A people who listen to God, encamp, move, and camp again when they are told.
It is all very well for us to be told that we ought to follow their example. Since I’m in the preacher’s position tonight, I’ll say it myself: you ought to obey God’s commands. But this does not tell us how to discern what God commands are in our particular situations.
In Numbers, God regularly talks to the Israelites, and especially to Moses. Much of the book is devoted to regulations which are given from on high. These are explicit instructions about all manner of things, including, for instance, how to set up and pack down their camp and what to do in cases of illness.
But in the section of Numbers that we have heard, God’s commands are made clear by a cloud which appears as a fire at night. The fire and cloud indicate when the Israelites should camp, when they should move, and which way they should go.
The cloud was associated with a special tent called the Tabernacle, which was set at the centre of the camp. God dwelt in a unique way in the Tabernacle. It was a holy place, set aside for special treatment.
We hear that as soon as the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud hovered over it. The cloud thus indicates the presence of God. The movements of this sign of the presence of God then convey commands.
It is important to note that the cloud is not just a miraculous sat-nav: its movements are significant because the cloud represents the presence of God and God’s commands are, I hope you agree, of more importance than the commands of your sat-nav. God’s commands have an authority that the commands of your sat-nav do not have.
So the Israelites of our reading, whose obedience we are to copy, learnt the commands of God by virtue of a clear and visible sign of the presence of God. This can seem a bit unhelpful for us. While we frequently sing the words of William Williams ‘let the fire and cloudy pillar, lead me all my journey through’, this fire and cloudy pillar is, for us, only a metaphor.
In our second reading, St Paul tells the church in Corinth that ‘circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything’ (v. 19). We are being told again: Obey God’s commands.
Here we can ask a familiar question: how are the people in Corinth to know God’s commands? One answer is that the Corinthians have an authoritative voice in St Paul. Much of his letter is devoted to answering specific practical concerns that have arisen for the Christians in Corinth. Just as Moses did for the Israelites, Paul conveys commands which, he explicitly states, come from God. In some cases he distinguishes these commands from his own opinions, which he also offers.
The voices of St Paul and of Moses continue to have authority for us today, as conveyed through the scriptures. The Church also continues to have authoritative voices in the form of bishops, who are successors of the apostles. But the Bible does not give us a straightforward answer to every practical question we ask it. Nor do we expect bishops to be free from error in their judgements. Even if we did, it would hardly be appropriate to bother them with every tricky issue that arises for us!
More progress can be made by considering the ‘conditions’ which St Paul claims are unimportant.
Some members of the church at Corinth were circumcised, some were uncircumcised (that is, roughly: Jewish or Gentile). Some were slaves and some were free. Members of the church clearly put a lot of energy into debating the relative status of these conditions.
But Paul tells them that these distinctions mean nothing compared to following God’s commands. This implies that God’s commands can be followed in any of these conditions. If not, if, say, it was impossible to follow God’s commands as a slave, then Paul would have to tell slaves to try to become free. He doesn’t.
Why can God’s commands be lived out in all of these conditions? The answer in our reading seems to be the following: The Gospel message; the message of God’s coming to earth as a human, suffering the worst that the world could offer, going still further by descending into hell (as we have just said together during the Apostles’ Creed), and rising again and taking our human nature back into the life of God; requires us to radically rearrange our priorities and values. In light of these new priorities and values such differences in our earthly condition and status becomes secondary.
This is, in turn, because the Gospel command is to imitate Christ. In doing this, in attempting to perfectly love God and perfectly love our neighbour, we will be slaves in so far as we are bound by His example and not by our own selfish desires or projects. And by being slaves of Christ we will also be free, in so far as we are not beholden to human masters (if we really manage it, we won’t even fear death – and what could make you more free than that?). In other words, we will be slaves by emptying ourselves with Jesus and free by rising with Him into new life and eventual reunion with God.
The Corinthians, then, are pointed to a different sign of the presence of God: God incarnate in Jesus Christ. They are to follow God’s commands by following the example of Christ.
This is a very different picture from one natural-seeming but incorrect reading of the passage. Paul talks about God ‘assigning’ or ‘calling’ us to a condition. We might look at this, and Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to stay in whatever condition they find themselves in, and conclude that God commands slaves to be slaves forever. Indeed, defenders of slavery have in the past appealed to verses like the ones we have just heard.
Paul clearly does advise the Corinthians that they should not bother too much about changing their condition but, rather, should focus on imitating Christ within their condition. But he does not say that these various conditions are fixed in nature and irreformable.
The picture of the natural and social world as fixed and unchanging that I am warning against can be encouraged by the words of our Psalm: ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth […] For he spake and it was done, he commanded and it stood fast’ (Ps33:6, 9). The incorrect interpretation says that everything that exists is commanded by God in a way that implies that any attempt to change anything is rebellion against God. Surely we don’t want to be quite that conservative.
3) Movement and Rest
The second idea which I want to emphasise tonight is the importance of movement and rest. This idea helps us to both to see what is wrong with the fixed picture of society and the world and to discern what the command of God is in our own situations.
In Numbers, we see God determining appropriate times for the Israelites to move and appropriate times for them to encamp. This continues to be true for us both collectively and individually. That is. there are times for change and times for rest.
Please excuse me for getting a bit metaphysical for a moment. I can’t help it. Christians acknowledge God as creator. We believe that everything depends on God for its existence. God’s way of being is thus distinct from, and superior to, the being of any created thing. This is a great theme of Psalm 33. Paul is also drawing on it when suggesting we are ‘called’ or ‘assigned’ to a place: our being and all of the circumstances we find ourselves in depend on God.
Now, as the Ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides would tell you, there’s something about the very idea of movement that suggests imperfection. Movement is change and if everything is already perfect, then why would you bother changing? You could only get worse!
And yet, mysteriously, God doesn’t just create a world of pure bliss without change or the possibility of decay. God creates a world which develops over time, absolutely depending on God for its existence, but with a level of freedom to do its own thing. We ourselves are created by God and have a role (which we are free to reject) in bringing about God’s purposes.
This does not provide any kind of straight forward answer to why bad things happen. The world is not just a little imperfect: it contains true horrors. This is important to say on Holocaust Remembrance Sunday. When things go wrong, they can go very very wrong and we have to avoid glibly saying that the horrors of the world are made OK by being part of a process towards which achieves a higher good. Nevertheless, we do have free will and God does work through us and through the imperfect world which we inhabit.
Returning to our scriptures, the Israelites are not just sent straight to the promised land in an instant, they must grow and develop in their time in the wilderness. God leads, but they must participate.
Similarly, the early Christians of Corinth could not simply magic away the society which they existed within. As the historian and theologian N. T. Wright puts it, ‘inveighing against slavery per se would have been totally ineffective: one might as well, in modern Western society, protest against the mortgage system.’ But, Wright continues, Paul could plant a seed which would develop over time. That seed is, of course, the Gospel itself which played a major role in the eventual abolition of slavery. And which, we hope, will further transform the world and end injustices. [The quotes for this passage were taken from this useful blog post.]
God has created a dynamic world, in which our actions are part of the transformation of the world. Movement is important! God has also given us an example in Jesus Christ against which our own lives and our societies can be judged, and which we can attempt to imitate. A culture with slavery, all things being equal, is less Christ-like than one without it. The same might be said about pay-day loans or radical levels of economic inequality.
Earlier, I said that the Ancient Israelites were lucky compared to us in so far as they had, in the fire and cloud, a sign of the presence of God which could unambiguously direct their actions. I said that, for us, the ‘fire and pillar’ is at most a metaphor. But, in fact, we are better off because we have Christ to direct our actions. And Jesus isn’t simply an inspirational historical person. We Christians believe that Jesus lives and that this is not just a metaphor.
Of course, our original problem comes back, how do we discern what the Christ-like action or society is? Here we shift from movement to rest.
In order to listen, you need to stop moving every now and then. And in order to obey, you need to listen. This is a connection that the Benedictine tradition insists upon.
The Holywell Community, like all Benedictine communities, take vows of obedience. I have now stood in front of you and vowed obedience twice. Once with Br Seb in August and once when I returned. You will not be surprised to learn, given these vows, that Benedictines have put a lot of thought into what obedience means and what it doesn’t.
The Holywell Community Constitution says that ‘Obedience includes listening to God, and hearing what he has in mind for the Community’. This connection between obedience and listening is clear, as our prior and sub-prior often remind us, in the etymology of the world ‘obedience’ from the Latin ‘obedire’ meaning ‘to listen’.
The kind of listening St Benedict has in mind for his monks is not merely the kind of listening required to follow orders. Rather, it is a kind of listening that changes you internally as well as externally. We are called to listen to Christ and to be transformed in both our internal motivations and thoughts and, consequently, in our external actions. Our imitation of Christ must be both internal and external.
At one of the recent services for the week of prayer for Christian unity, someone said to me: ‘It’s good to see young people being holy.’ But we’re not especially holy and these ideas aren’t just for Benedictines of whatever flavour. All Christians need to find time to rest with God and to listen.
There are countless methods for listening to God and I’m sure you already have some that work for you. One practice that I have found particularly rewarding, and which I have missed while away from St Mary’s, is Holy Hour. It goes like this: after a brief hymn, we kneel or sit in silence. Our attention is focused on a consecrated host placed on the altar. The Eucharist is, of course, a means by which Jesus Christ is present with us. By meditating on the host we are drawn deeper into this mystery. Some people read passages from the Bible or other spiritual writing through which they hope to hear what God is saying. Others simply sit in silence. The service ends with a blessing and some more short hymns.
I cannot recommend the practice enough. Like the Ancient Israelites, we have a sign of the presence of God (and not merely a metaphorical one) in the consecrated host. We even have a pillar of cloud in the form of incense at the side of the altar!
If you are interested, please do join us at 4pm on Fridays in the Benedict Chapel. If a whole hour doesn’t sound appealing to you, you might want to quietly duck in and out for a shorter time. Please feel free to ask any of us any questions you might have about it.
Whether or not the idea of Holy Hour is appealing to you (and my advertisement is over now): it is important to find a way to rest with, and listen to, God that works for you and brings you into closer alignment with Christ.
4) My Recent Movements
I began tonight by saying that these readings had spoken to my recent experience, but you’ll have noticed I haven’t said anything much about that yet. I’ll now offer some thoughts on the topic to conclude.
I’ve been standing up here encouraging you to listen to God as though I’m some kind of expert on the matter. This is a bit silly given that I’m much newer to the faith than most of you. But, even moreso, I am terrible at listening to God. I am not the kind of person who is comfortable saying God says this or God says that and am always ready to explain away any sense of God’s saying something. My sceptical mind often goes back to an acquaintance at high school who told his girlfriend at the time that God said they’d be together forever… Of course, she broke up with him the next day.
But sometimes in prayer, ideas fix themselves in your mind with a kind of external force. One such thought that would recur to me in prayer was ‘Go Home’, my response was always. ‘Yes, eventually’ or to explain it away by saying to myself ‘ah, I see I must be a bit homesick.’ But sometimes God forces our hand. It turned out I was going to have to go home.
This hiccup has all, from my perspective anyway, turned out for the best. I now have a home church in New Zealand, which I have not had for a long time and I’ve had a much needed chance to reconnect with family and friends. I’ve also come back more secure in myself and more ready to throw myself into the work of the community. I am very much looking forward to the coming year.
This isn’t exactly a case like the Ancient Israelites, who moved and encamped following the command of the Lord. I was less following the cloud than being pushed by a wind from behind. Perhaps things would have been easier if I had followed the command when I heard it… Who knows?
In any case, I thank you all for your patience in dealing with a lay brother who was here one minute and gone the next and I hope that you will continue to pray for me and for the whole Holywell Community that we will, as the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict says, ‘listen with the ear[s] of [our] heart[s]’ to what God is saying to us.