Stumbling Blocks

    Several Sundays ago we heard the sternest of warnings from Jesus about those who place a ‘stone of stumbling,’ in Greek a skandalon, for the innocent believer to trip over: ‘better that a millstone were tied around their neck….’ This meaning of moral outrage is the sense that the word ‘scandal’ has taken on in English. It is clear that such a source of stumbling is of the highest importance and unequivocally bad.

     But the word has other meanings, which are worth attending to, since they have a direct bearing on how we understand our ministry. The original reference, I believe, is Psalm 118, where ‘the same tone which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone,’ (v.22). Both Jesus and Paul speak of the Gospel itself as a source of stumbling insofar as it makes a surprising and difficult claim: this rabbi from the Galilee is God’s Son! Paul says it is a ‘stumbling block to the Jews’ just as it is folly to Greeks,’ (I Corinthians 1:23). In other words, not with respect to morals and leadership, but with respect to the content, the Gospel is bound to be ‘scandalous.’

   I think there is one more angle we need to consider. It may be that in our presentation of the Gospel we make it harder for people to understand it. The presentation may be opaque to the hearer, so that it is not really the Gospel they are hearing. In this third sense, ‘scandal’ is again to be avoided. In other words, we have to communicate well, so that people find the Gospel offensive in the sense it was meant to be, but this can only be done when false ‘scandals,’ moral or intellectual, are cleared away. Of course it can be a tricky business to distinguish faulty communication from challenging content, and this discernment is what lies that the heart of both theology and mission studies.

     Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in our Church in revising the Prayer Book. This is a larger question I will leave to another day. But one element of this has been the notion that the Nicene Creed is problematic and so presents a ‘scandal’ to those drawn to the faith.    Given what we have just said, the question we need to ask is clear: in what sense is this claim made? If the point is that we have not always done a good job explaining what the Creed really means and what is at stake in it, then, fair enough: we ought to do better!   But we are reminded that we clear false stumbling blocks away so that the true stumbling block remains: Jesus, God’s Son, bearer of our sins, raised from the dead. In fact the Creed presses this point: He is “God of God, Light of Light…”

     Let me add as a postscript that the Creed, the shortest and oldest of summaries of what we believe, has traditionally been a shorthand guide to the reading of the whole Bible, which we hear, bite-size, Sunday by Sunday in Church. As such it is very valuable, especially in an era that is challenged to know its Bible better. Furthermore, we Anglicans have often turned to it as the point of consensus, in what it says and what it implies, over against things over which we can rightly differ. This role for us makes its retention, and its explanation, all the more crucial. As we do this we labor to remove false, and to highlight true, ‘scandal,’ to our eternal benefit.

Peace, GRS+

New Causes -- Not So New

     When I first arrived at Wycliffe College, I received an invitation from the head of the Niagara Mothers’ Union. The phone invitation went like this: “It is our anniversary and we would like a Sumner to speak, and you were all we could find!” With that ringing endorsement, I said ‘OK.’ You see, Mothers’ Union was founded in the mid -19th Century by the wife of an English bishop named Mary Sumner. I was no stranger to its ministry. It is of course central to the life of the African Church where I was ordained, though she was known in Swahili as ‘Mama Samna.’  My assignment to preach required that I research what one might expect to be a dowdy and archaic figure.

       What I found was very different. The Victorian Church loved to form societies, special groups for specific needs. And in the case of Mary Sumner, one of those needs was that of girls who found their way to places like London, and in great poverty, also found their way into prostitution. Those Victorian Anglican women were, in turns out, some of the first advocates for women in the face of sex trafficking and slavery. They ruffled not a few political feathers by making leaders of the time look at the more brutal aspects of their economy and social life.

       Now most of the association of the Mothers’ Union is with the evangelical branch of the Anglican tradition, and in particular the Church Missionary Society. Their great growth was in the CMS areas of Africa, and the Union was one of the great instruments of that growth. But this was inseparable from interest in the status of women. In east Africa by the mid-20th century the Revival, whose roots are similar to the Union, challenged and transformed relations between husbands and wives. Even the opposition to drinking was rooted in part in the degradation of women in the customs around pombe, the brewing of homemade beer.

     My points are simple ones: sometimes new causes aren’t so new after all. And movements we thought we understood, such as evangelicalism, were more multi-dimensional than we gave them credit. And, in the missionary movement’s history at least, the most powerful changes and contributions were often made by women who were obviously, at that time, lay people. Though her husband was a bishop, it was Mama Samna, rightly, who had a more lasting legacy.    

   What resulted was a ministry of the Church, but not one in the usual ‘matrix’ of the diocese, parish, and clergy. It was a voluntary society, lay-operated, with a specific mission. We have around us many fruits of such efforts - Daughters of the King, Brotherhood of St. Andrew, Cursillo, etc. They are the woof to the warp of Church structure. They are often the catalyst to renewal in Church history. They make up, together, what we call ‘Church.’ They need and deserve our attention and effort, adapted to our own time and circumstance.




Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.