A Christian theology of Jewish presence

The first reading for this Second Sunday after Christmas is Jeremiah 31:7–14:

For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.”

 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.

 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”

 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.  (Jer 31:7–14 NRSV)

How is a Palestinian Christian reading that those words in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem supposed to respond to the ‘word of the Lord’?

My first reaction as someone listed to preach today at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Jerusalem was dismay. This is a problematic text for Palestinian Christians living with dispossession, ethnic cleansing, occupation, and systemic—even if sometimes unofficial—discrimination. How can such a text serve as the word of life for a Christian Arab?

This is not a new problem. Many OT texts offer exactly the same challenge, and specially those associated with the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the land by Joshua. How does an Arab Christian read these Jewish texts in Palestine today?

On the one hand, I am grateful for the discipline of the lectionary. With all its faults (and they are many), the lectionary requires us to move beyond our comfort zones and engage with portions of Scripture that we might otherwise choose to ignore.

In this case, we have a text set for the second Sunday after Christmas, which is a rare Sunday in the cycle. It only occurs in those years when two Sundays fall between December 25 and January 6. So it would be possible to attend church regularly and never encounter this part of Jeremiah 31.

Just my luck, then, to be the rostered preacher today!

My first response was to consult the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture, a module in my ever useful Accordance Bible software package. What I found was that those early Fathers who addressed this passage tended to spiritualise the meaning, and interpret the ‘remnant of Israel’ as the Christian Church. That is a hermeneutical strategy that I cannot and will not employ as it fails to take seriously the continued presence of the Jewish people as the covenant community among the nations.

Of course, I can quite properly observe that these words from Jeremiah themselves derive from a context: ancient Judah, around 580 BCE. At that time Jerusalem was in ruins following the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. Many Jews—and most of the elite—were languishing in Exile in Babylon, present day Iraq. Others had fled to Egypt as refugees. Jeremiah himself was soon to be kidnapped and taken off to Egypt with one band of refugees.

In that context, Jeremiah speaks a message of hope. This too will pass. YHWH will bring the scattered Jews home to the land of promise. They will prosper once more in their own land.

We cannot limit the spiritual significance of Jeremiah 31 to the sixth century BCE. His words were received by the ancient Jewish community and found their way into the future Jewish Bible that is itself the ground of the larger Christian Bible.

These ancient texts have an ‘afterlife’ that extends way beyond their original context. We read them today in Christian churches all around the world. And we read them this morning at the Anglican  Cathedral in Jerusalem.

So how is a Palestinian Christian supposed to ‘hear what the Spirit is saying to the church’ when this text is read in our liturgies today?

It seems to me that the Spirit is inviting us to engage with the challenge of fashioning a constructive Christian theology of the Jewish presence in Palestine.

That was not what Jeremiah had in mind when these words were first written, but we are accountable for what we make of these words here and now—in this context, right now—rather than for their significance 2,500 years ago.

How can a Palestinian Christian enunciate a theology of Jewish presence in Palestine? Why should we bother? Why not just complain of the injustice, and appeal to the international bodies to intervene on our behalf?

It is too easy to complain and protest. That also needs to happen, and especially when the injustice is so clear and so prolonged. But we must do more than complain about the injustice. We must offer a theology of hope for the future, and such a theology must include a positive and constructive proposal for the presence of the Jewish people among us in this land.

I do not claim to have such a theology prepared, and I will not keep talking this morning until I finish the task of shaping one. We may never get to have lunch!

However, I think this is the challenge that the Spirit places before us today as we reflect on this passage from Jeremiah, in the context of occupied Palestine, and in the days after Christmas. If the angels promised peace on earth to those of goodwill, perhaps we need to demonstrate our goodwill if we are to experience God’s peace.

Imagine the contribution that Christians could make to reconciliation and peace in this land if we could find a way to speak in positive terms of the proper place of the Jewish people among us in Palestine. This is their land as much as it is our land. How we can find the grace to say that, and to work for a solution to the conflict between our two peoples, who share both a common history and the same land?

I do not imagine that I have the words yet, but I do think God is calling us to the task of being peacemakers who can see Christ in the other, even in the one who steals our land and denies our own right to be here.

God give us the grace to begin that immense project.

 

 

 

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A Palestinian Jesus

A recent report in Haaretz has highlighted a controversy in Australia about the Palestinian identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

The controversy itself is spiralling into an unattractive—and mostly ill-informed—social media ‘debate’ about the existence of Palestine prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 CE, the on-going conflict over Palestine as in some sense also a Jewish homeland, and even the historicity of Jewish cultural continuity with the biblical lands. This is the stuff of media controversy that makes news editors happy at the festive season in the Western world.

The three critical players in triggering this controversy are:

Two members of APAN (Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network), who published an opinion piece in New Matilda about a recent Australian delegation to Palestine that was criticised by local officials for its alleged ignorance of Palestinian issues. The opening paragraph of that op-ed piece reads as follows:

So this is Christmas, and what has Australia done? An official delegation representing our country in Israel has added fuel to the flames of extremism abroad by applauding proven human rights violators and insulting the living descendants of Christ in his home of birth in Palestine.

That final comment was hardly the primary point of the article, but it provided the basis for a complaint by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who is the second critical player in this fake controversy. They addressed their concerns not to New Matilda, nor even to APAN, but to the President of the Uniting Church in Australia; with which APAN has a very informal connection via the local ecumenical networks.

The third player in this saga is the ill-advised President of the Uniting Church in Australia, who issued a statement that betrays a profound lack of knowledge about the historical realities in Palestine as well as the political dynamics of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The key text from his statement is as follows:

I would like to assure you and the Jewish community that the Uniting Church does not accept the view that Jesus was Palestinian. We affirm that Jesus and most of his early followers were Jewish. We note that Jesus was born neither in Israel nor in Palestine, but in the Roman-occupied province of Judea, and that it is entirely inappropriate for anybody to attempt to claim political capital from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to bolster claims of either ‘side’ of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Apart from the nonsense of claiming to speak from a non-political position in this most-politicised of all religious issues, this statement betrays a lack of knowledge of the historical connection of all Palestinians—whether Christians or Muslims—to the figure of Jesus.

It is beyond reasonable debate that Jesus was a Palestinian, but he was a Palestinian Jew (or a Jewish Palestinian, if you prefer). He was a Palestinian because he lived in Palestine, and seemingly moved between different political entities within his country—including checkpoints (toll booths) as he passed from one jurisdiction to another—in a way that resonates for many contemporary Palestinians.

For the record, it is inaccurate and misleading to describe the homeland of Jesus as “the Roman-occupied province of Judea”. Rome established political control of Palestine in 63 BCE, but chose to work through local indigenous political structures until after the Jewish rebellion in 66 CE. At first Rome worked with the Hasmonean dynasty; and later with Herod the Great, appointed ‘King of the Jews’ by Rome in 37 BCE.

If Jesus was born prior to the death of Herod in 4 BCE, then he was not born in “the Roman-occupied province of Judea” but in the puppet kingdom of Herod the Great. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem between 4 BCE and 6 CE, then he was born in the puppet kingdom of Archelaus, Ethnarch of the Jews. If Jesus was born in Nazareth any time after 4 BCE, then he was born in the puppet kingdom of Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. At no stage in these three different political arrangements was Palestine occupied by the Roman army. That happened in Judea from 6 CE, following the dismissal of Archelaus; and in the rest of the country only after 70 CE.

(This contrasts with the parallel situation in Britain at the time, where Rome did not work with local rulers, but conquered the country and maintained the Pax Romana by direct military presence.)

The ‘hot button’ issue underlying this fake controversy is not the political arrangements at the time of Jesus’ birth, but the present day conflict between Jews and Arabs for control of Palestine. Official Israeli representatives and members of the Jewish diaspora communities in Western countries, are highly sensitive to two issues caught up in this controversy.

In the first place, and quite correctly, there is deep concern at the recent tendency of Palestinian advocates to question the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Palestine. Such historical revisionism draws on critical biblical scholarship, including work by esteemed Jewish colleagues, that undermines the historicity of the Old Testament narratives. It is correct (and important) that we acknowledge the non-historical character of the biblical traditions about Abraham, the Exodus, the Conquest and even the ’empire’ of David. But this in no way undermines the authentic Jewish connection to the biblical lands.

Just as we should not countenance Zionist exploitation of the great Jewish religious texts for contemporary nationalistic purposes, nor should we allow Palestinian advocates to distort biblical and historical scholarship to deny Jewish links to Palestine. In both cases this represents an abuse of good scholarship and a betrayal of the best of our shared biblical heritage.

Secondly, and equally unacceptable, there is a tendency among Jewish advocates to deny the historical existence of the Palestinians, including their authentic connections to this Land. It is a well established fact that the Palestinian population are the direct descendants of the ancient peoples of this land, including ancient Jews. As another recent Haaretz article has reported, DNA analysis has demonstrated that the closest match for Jewish DNA is to be found in the Palestinian population, including Bedouin and Druze.

Some of the most recent research was by Ostrer and Skorecki, and was reviewed in the journal, Human Genetics in October 2012. They summarise  their findings as follows:

The closest genetic neighbors to most Jewish groups were the Palestinians, Israeli Bedouins, and Druze in addition to the Southern Europeans, including Cypriots …

The persistent Israeli refusal to recognise the ancient connection of the Palestinian population with the Jewish population in biblical times is a sad index of the nature of the conflict over Palestine. The Jewish and Arab populations have equal historical connections to the biblical lands, which is not the same as a valid claim to political sovereignty over Palestine. We are dealing with a conflict between two related population groups which, over time, have adopted different identities.

Jewish diaspora communities in the Middle East and in Europe maintained a sense of their identity, as well as their deep attachment to Jerusalem and to Eretz Israel. From time to time, and especially during the Ottoman period, significant numbers of these Jews returned to Palestine. However, they held no dreams of a Zionist state.

Over the past 2,000 years, the Jewish and non-Jewish populations that remained in Palestine adopted a series of new identities, including Byzantine Christian and—from the seventh century CE—Arabic. As they adopted Arabic language and accommodated to the new realities following the Islamic conquest of Palestine in the 600s, these ‘Arabs’ mostly forgot their own ancient identities as Jews, Canaanites, Phoenicians, etc.

For both communities the land is basic to their identity. In addition, they have a common attachment to Jerusalem.

In the late nineteenth century, European imperial interests colluded with an emerging sense of nationalism among European Jewry, to cultivate the dream of the Jewish colonisation of Palestine. All of the people of Palestine, whether they identify as Arab or Jewish, continue to suffer from the tragic consequences of European colonialism; as do their neighbours in Iraq and Syria, where international borders drawn up by imperial bureaucrats in London and Paris continue to diminish the lives of people across the Middle East.

It would truly be a Christmas gift worthy of celebration if we could avoid the fake controversy around the New Matilda article, and focus on the quest for an outcome that offers hope to millions of people in Palestine and its neighbours.

Note: For a related post from May 2014, see The Human Jesus.
©2015 Gregory C. Jenks
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Advent Sunday | Christ the King

A lecture presented in the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on Advent Sunday, 29 November 2015 by the Very Revd. Canon Dr Gregory C. Jenks, Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem.


Introduction

This is the first of four lectures to be offered at the Cathedral during Advent, and it has fallen to me to offer the inaugural address. In turn, the following presentations will be by Canon Lawrence Hilditch, Canon David Longe, and the Dean.

Last Sunday many churches in the Western Church—whether in communion with Rome, protesting their independence, or assuming to occupy the middle way—will have observed the feast of Christ the King. In at least some of those places, the festival will have been described as ‘The Reign of Christ’. In my view that is a better option than the more common ‘Christ the King’.

The very concept of monarchy—and especially absolute monarchy with no constitutional balances in place—is problematic in our world. It reflects a pre-modern world order, a world of empire, and a world where might truly is right.

We may not have moved very far away from such a world even today, as this region reminds us so emphatically. But we aspire to live in a world where individuals and their families matter, where the powers of sovereigns and corporations are limited by constitution and convention, and where the democratic ideal is preeminent.

In such a world—incomplete and flawed as it currently may be—there is simply no place for a king with absolute powers.

The incompleteness of our democratic systems and their incapacity to cope with urgent human crises—whether they be climate change, seemingly intractable conflicts in many parts of the world, or the refugees that flee either or both—points to the need for something better yet to arrive. That might almost make the current context an Advent moment, but it is unlikely that many of us will be yearning for a tyrant, however benevolent, to sort out the mess.

There is a more serious theological point in these introductory observations than the relevance of royal language in contemporary liturgies. How are we to speak of the mysteries of God when the language of faith that we have inherited from the past is so mortgaged to a worldview that no longer holds true for any of us? How are we to engage the contemporary world if we keep offering them tired metaphors at best, and oftentimes broken myths as well?

I hope then, that in some small ways, this presentation will assist us to engage with the critical missional task of singing the Lord’s song in a strange (postmodern) world.

I shall pursue that objective by proceeding in a more or less systematic way through four different set of issues, asking in each case what ‘Christ the King’ may have to say to us in each instance.

Jesus of Nazareth

The first set of issues that I would like to explore with you concerns Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Nazareth in the Galilee. What does it mean to describe him as ‘Christ the King’ in the first century and in the twenty-first century?

In first-century terms, to ascribe kingship (basileia in Greek) to Jesus was to create a rival to Caesar. Caesars had many rivals, and many of them had themselves been rivals to a former Caesar before attaining the imperium themselves. So they understood rivals, and they viewed them all with suspicion. When an inscription such as ‘Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews’ was placed above the head of a crucified man, it was not so much a royal title as a charge of treason.

Today ‘Christ the King’ may evoke the comforting words of The King of Love My Shepherd Is derived—gleaned even—from Psalm 23 and John 10, but in the first century such a claim was highly political and a direct challenge to the legitimacy and the potency of the ruling sovereign.

Had Tiberius ever heard of Jesus, he may well have asked as Stalin is said to have asked of the Pope many centuries later, “How many legions does he have?” The dialogue between Pilate and Jesus in John 18:28–19:22 is really exploring exactly these issues.

So many of the terms of religious devotion that we now apply to Jesus derive from ancient politics. This should not be a surprise, since the ancient world in which Christianity was born really only had two domains: the family, and politics. When speaking God’s word to the public sphere, it was necessary to use categories and terminology appropriate to politics, the life of the polis.

In particular, terms such as ‘Son of God’, ‘Lord’ (kyrios in Greek and dominus in Latin), and ‘Savior’ (Soter in Greek) were royal titles. Such titles were to be found in massive inscriptions above city gates and on the tiny coins in a peasant’s pocket.

When used of Jesus by his earliest followers, these were not innocent terms of devotion. They were political declarations, and the emperors understood them as such.

Today marks the beginning of the Year of Luke in our three-year lectionary cycle, so it is especially fitting to pay careful attention to the way Luke began his Gospel. Note, first of all, the careful comments that serve as a prologue to his two-volume work, known to us as The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles (‘Luke-Acts’):

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1–4 NRSV)

As Luke sets about the task of publishing his account of “the events that have been fulfilled among us”, he is very conscious that others have written on these topics before him. Those accounts—known to us as the Gospel according to Mark, the Gospel according to Matthew, and the Gospel according to John—were already in circulation by the time this opening paragraph of Luke-Acts was composed. Indeed, the Gospel according to Luke may itself be an enlarged edition of an even earlier Christian gospel known to scholars as the Q Gospel.

Be that as it may, our author knows he is not the first to attempt this task. But he considers his work to be the best available, and clearly wishes his audience not rely on the earlier examples of this genre. He will provide Theophilus—and us—with the definitive Jesus story. An ‘orderly account’. This is the version he would like us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”; as he doubtless would have said if given the opportunity to read Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

With those considerations in mind, now let’s observe how he begins his Gospel.

Luke begins with the tale of two boys, one of whom will become the Savior of World.

The two boys are close relatives (cousins), and both have mothers with unusual fertility challenges.

The first is called John, and his parents are aged and childless. Clearly one of them is sterile, but this just heightens the miraculous element. A child born to elderly parents who were unable to conceive when young and healthy is surely a child of promise. Watch this lad. He will count for something when he grows up.

The second boy is called, Jesus. His mother had a very different problem. She was not yet married. But she is also assured by an angel sent by God that she will bear a son, and the sign of the promise to her being true is that her aged and childless cousin is also pregnant.

The story of these two boys is woven into a series of seven scenes:

  • Scene 1 – John’s miraculous conception (Luke 1:5–25)
  • Scene 2 – Jesus’ miraculous conception (Luke 1:26–38)
  • Scene 3 – Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56)
  • Scene 4 – John’s birth and naming (Luke 1:57–80)
  • Scene 5 – Jesus’ birth and naming (Luke 2:1–21)
  • Scene 6 – Presentation in Temple (Luke 2:22–40)
  • Scene 7 – 12-year old Jesus in Temple (Luke 2:41–52)

The sequence of these episodes and the climatic scene in the Temple are carefully arranged to make a theological point. Perhaps several. By telling the story in this way, Luke has asserted the supremacy of Jesus over John; despite Jesus having been a disciple of John. But that was not the main point.

Luke was writing for Christians living in the Roman Empire about 100 years after the death of Jesus. They also knew a story about two boys, one of whom who found the city of Rome. Here is the account of that founding myth as told by Plutarch, ca 75 CE:

Some again say that Roma, from whom this city was so called, was daughter of Italus and Leucaria; or, by another account, of Telaphus, Hercules’s son, and that she was married to Aeneas, or, according to others again, to Ascanius, Aeneas’s son. Some tell us that Romanus, the son of Ulysses and Circe, built it; some, Romus, the son of Emathion, Diomede having sent him from Troy; and others, Romus, king of the Latins, after driving out the Tyrrhenians, who had come from Thessaly into Lydia, and from thence into Italy. Those very authors, too, who, in accordance with the safest account, make Romulus give the name of the city, yet differ concerning his birth and family. For some say, he was son to Aeneas and Dexithea, daughter of Phorbas, and was, with his brother Remus, in their infancy, carried into Italy, and being on the river when the waters came down in a flood, all the vessels were cast away except only that where the young children were, which being gently landed on a level bank of the river, they were both unexpectedly saved, and from them the place was called Rome. Some say, Roma, daughter of the Trojan lady above mentioned, was married to Latinus, Telemachus’s son, and became mother to Romulus; others that Aemilia, daughter of Aeneas and Lavinia, had him by the god Mars; and others give you mere fables of his origin. For to Tarchetius, they say, king of Alba, who was a most wicked and cruel man, there appeared in his own house a strange vision, a male figure that rose out of a hearth, and stayed there for many days. There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid. Tarchetius, hearing this, in great anger imprisoned them both, purposing to put them to death, but being deterred from murder by the goddess Vesta in a dream, enjoined them for their punishment the working a web of cloth, in their chains as they were, which when they finished, they should be suffered to marry; but whatever they worked by day, Tarchetius commanded others to unravel in the night.

In the meantime, the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him. This one Promathion says, who compiled a history of Italy.

When Luke chose to begin his account of Jesus with a story about two boys, he knew what he was doing. Not for him the Matthean infancy story with its echoes of Moses and the Exodus. He is ‘ordering’ his account so that his intended audience will get the point, right from the opening scenes.

For Luke, Jesus was the boy destined to be king. This ‘Good News’ will reach all the way to Rome, as it does by the last chapter of Acts.

The kingship of God in the Old Testament

The idea of the ‘kingdom of God’ (basileia tou theou) is deeply rooted in the Hebrew texts of the Christian Old Testament. The phrase is perhaps better translated as ‘reign of God’ since it refers to be rule of God as sovereign over creation, rather than the object of God’s authority. Indeed, in the first-century context, ‘empire of God’ would be a better translation, since basileia was the term used for the Roman Empire in the Greek-speaking East.

Even in the OT, the idea of kingship was problematic. It derives from the world of the city, not the village, and certainly not the world of the pastoral nomads such as Israel imagined her ancestors to have been. The ‘wandering Arameans’ of Deuteronomy 26 had no king, since there was almost other social domain apart from the family. Within the family, the patriarch was the supreme authority. Conflict tended to be between patriarchs, and between aspiring patriarchs.

When kings first appear in the OT story they are the riles of cities in Canaan and—more particularly—the Pharaohs of Egypt. Such rulers are not agents of grace or foretastes of the messianic age. Yet in 1 Samuel 8 the people demand that they have a king to rule over them, because they wished to be like the other nations.

Such a request was a category error.

The covenant people are not to be like the other nations. The very essence of election, promise, and covenant is to be a special people, not a clone of the neighbors.

In time—despite the profound theological critique of kingship offered by 1 Samuel 8 & 12—kingship became the norm for both the northern kingdom and its more rustic southern cousin. Indeed, in the south the concept of kingship was embraced with even more vigor. The Davidic dynasty secured a theological mortgage on the throne, whereas at least in the north the Yahwistic tradition retained the divine prerogative to dismiss a king and choose a new dynasty.

Royal models for leadership within the covenant people remained unpopular in some 0f the circles from which we receive these sacred texts. The prophets were critical of the kings and their cadre of officials. Anti-royal sentiments are clearly preserved and promoted in some parts of Samuel and Kings. The Deuteronomist only wants a king who keeps a copy of the law beside his throne, and takes instruction from a Levitical priest. Ezekiel’s vision of the restored Israel has a prince, but no king.

Despite these reservations, or maybe because of them, the idea of divine kingship became both central to the worship life of the community and also nuanced in some interesting ways. The centrality of the kingship of God is expressed in the many Psalms that proclaim, YHWH melek (The LORD is king). The sovereignty of God over the nations and over creation is especially clear in prophetic texts such as Isaiah.

At the same time, we find that God’s kingship is described in more pastoral terms, even if the warrior God makes a re-appearance in the apocalyptic traditions that dominate the Jewish mindset in the late Second Temple period.

In Ezekiel 34 we find God portrayed as the good shepherd, in contrast to the unfaithful and self-serving clergy of the Temple:

The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. (Ezek 34:1–24 NRSV)

For Christian readers of these ancient Jewish texts, this resonates with the depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, in John 10:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father. (John 10:11–18 NRSV)

When all the data for divine kingship in the OT is taken into account, we can see a nuancing of the concept from one of awesome power to one of divine care. The pastoral images of the Twenty-Third Psalm displace the warrior God of tribal religion.

The end result is an invitation to imagine power and leadership in very different terms than ‘kingship’ might suggest. If we imagine God to exercise divine power in ways that are primarily about bringing forth life and serving the vulnerable, then we may also discern an invitation to think differently—and act differently—when exercising power or leadership within the church, within the family, or within the wider society,

The View from Below

Having explored some of the issues relating to Jesus and God, it may be timely to think about the significant of this divine kingship language for our understanding of ourselves and our perspective(s) on reality.

I begin with the question of how we see Jesus. What kind of a ‘king’ do we imagine Jesus to be? If nothing else, the affirmation of ‘Christ the king’ invites us to understand the significance of Jesus in God’s cosmic purposes. But we need not trap Jesus or ourselves in a Byzantine imperial worldview.

‘Christ the king’ is also a statement about us, about humanity. It invites us to see that the Human One, the Son of Adam, can be the human face of God. While that may be especially true of Jesus, it is also true for each of us. We can be—and perhaps must be—the human face of God to our family, our neighbors, and even our enemies.

There is a parallel here to the role of Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God. Mary of Nazareth was uniquely the bearer of the Christ Child. But each of us has that calling as well. Similarly, we may see in Jesus the unique historical revelation of God, but each of us may find that we serve as icons of God for those around us.

The kingship that Christ embodies is compassionate and life-giving. It is our calling to embody that selfless love seen first in Jesus, as we make the words of 1 Corinthians 13 our personal charter:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:4–8 NRSV)

In all of this, Christ the king is our model and our pioneer. No longer a source of fear, this ‘king’ encourages us to be all that God knows we can be.

Reflecting on the deeper significance of Christ the King can also invite us to see God differently. As Christ the King, Jesus is not a distant authority figure, but the God who is with us and among us; indeed, one of us: Emmanuel.

Another metaphor that I find attractive as I re-imagine the traditional concept of Christ the King, is the suggestion by Bishop John Taylor that we see God as the Go-Between God. This was the title of a book in which he explored the nature and activity of the Holy Spirit, but it comes to mind when I think about the kind of God revealed in Jesus, the one we celebrate now as Christ the King. In many ways, Jesus was the quintessential Spirit-person, and that shapes and reshapes my understanding of ‘Christ the King.

As Christ the King, Jesus has not peaked. He is not resting on his laurels and enjoying his cosmic retirement after a grueling term of service on the earth. The Spirit of Lord continues to be present and active in the life of the Church, and that is surely an important element of our affirmation that ‘Jesus is Lord’.

In the end, our reflection on Christ the King must also impact how we see ourselves. What does it mean to be a human being, if Jesus of Nazareth is somehow also the ultimate expression of God’s truth in the cosmos?

If the Human One can be proclaimed as Christ the King, then that is one big leap for human awareness. The Orthodox speak of divinization as the inner reality of salvation. That may be another way to approach this same mystery. God becomes a human, so that humans can become divine. Emmanuel is more radical and inclusive than perhaps we realized.

What does it mean for us to be alive and self-aware in this kind of world, where our God becomes one of us and one of us becomes ‘Christ the King’? What value do we place on human life, and always within the context of our own location within the web of creation?

Is being alive and ever engaged in a process of loving transformation into the character of Christ really what matters most to us? More than success? Than wealth? Than power? Than popularity?

Can we fashion lives, families, churches, and societies that practice that truth?

And how would this pan out in the harsh realities of Palestine and Israel now? Where is the kingship of Christ in the streets of the Old City this Advent?

In conclusion …

Finally, let me try to bring all this together with some brief reflections on the significance of ‘Christ the King’ for our world.

In the last week or so, there has been a controversy in the UK about some movie theatres banning the Lord’s Prayer as it was seen to be too ‘political’. This strikes me as an excellent example of how someone can be entirely correct and totally wrong all at the same time.

The movie chains may have misread the ever-shifting cultural dynamics, but I suspect they did not. Given the growing lack of religious literacy in Western societies, a majority of younger people probably have no real sense of the cultural significance of the Lord’s Prayer in British life. But then they probably do not ‘get’ Shakespeare either. And it may be that the Authorized Version of the Bible—which has already lost its correct name to the more American ‘King James Bible’—is now past of our cultural past, rather than having any current cultural significance beyond the ever diminishing circle of practicing Christians. Among the discarded remnants of yesteryear’s religion, we shall find the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.

On the other hand, and for reasons they may never understand, the movie chains probably got this absolutely correct.

The Lord’s Prayer is a political document. So is the Magnificat that we just sang during Evensong. These are subversive texts. They undermine the cultural assumptions of our pleasure-oriented society. If people took these ancient religious texts seriously they might change the way they vote, and choose to spend their disposable income in different ways. That would be bad for business. But good for the world.

In a sense, no-one who is doing well from the present world order should allow us to teach people the Lord’s Prayer or chant the Magnificat in our cathedrals. If Christ really is the ‘king’, then things had better change around here.

Christians—like our Jewish and Muslim cousins—have a higher loyalty than any corporation or any nation. The Roman emperors were on the money when they sensed that the devotees of Jesus were an existential threat to the Empire; to all empire and every empire. Then and now.

We are advance agents of eternity. We embody the truth that the kingdom of God is drawing nigh, and in some sense is already here among us. We are not content to sell fire insurance for the afterlife, or ring-side seats to Armageddon. We want to change the world now. We want to mortgage the present to God’s future which we glimpse in the affirmation that Christ is king.

This is exactly what those familiar words in the Lord’s Prayer invite us to imagine:

… your kingdom come
your will be done on earth
as in heaven …

©2015 Gregory C. Jenks
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Re-imagining Luke

A sermon for the feast of St Luke at St Mary’s in Exile, South Brisbane (18 October 2015).

Special readings chosen for the liturgy:

First reading: Luke 1:1-4
Psalm: Magnificat
Second Reading: Acts 2:38-39,41-47
Gospel: Luke 4:14-19

The gathering prayer:

God beyond all names,
we have heard the story of our ancestors journey of grace,
and we catch glimpses of that grace in our own lives.
Grant us eyes to see clearly,
hearts filled with compassion,
and strong hands to work for your justice;
in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The blessing prayer:

May our eyes see clearly,
our hearts overflow with compassion,
and our hands be strong to work for justice
this week and all weeks.

Introduction

In traditional liturgical communities across the city and around the world people will be observing today as the feast of St Luke. That is not a custom that has survived in our exile from the church up the road, but today I invite you to join with me in giving attention to this special day.

On this day one can expect to hear sermons about the legacy of Luke. We owe to his literary imagination the cycle of the Church Year.

Some preachers and pew sheet editors will venture to tell people that Luke was a gentile medical doctor from Antioch in Syria and a companion of Saint Paul.

Others will extol his value as the primary historian of early Christianity, while others may talk about his excellent Greek language skills. He had the best Greek of any of the people who contributed to the New Testament.

In some places the preacher will focus on theological themes in the double volume of Luke and Acts which we attribute to this otherwise unknown author. Worshippers will hear about Luke’s interest in the Spirit, his respect for women, his concern for the poor, his preservation of major parables, and his interest in the wealthy.

Others will reflect on the significance of Luke’s Gospel being followed by a second volume, known to us as the Acts of the Apostles.

Again, for some people, the big news is that Luke was (supposedly) a companion of Paul and in some ways his biographer.

We are not going to do any of those things here today.

Reimagining Luke

We know nothing about the person who composed the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, except for what we can glean by close attention to these two books.

Together they comprise almost 25% of the New Testament.

With another 25% of the NT coming from the Pauline letters, and since “Luke” (as we call this anonymous author) was a serious fan of Paul, we can see that the Pauline faction in early Christian dominates the New Testament.

Paul’s legacy was not always so esteemed in earliest Christianity, and his heavy imprint on the New Testament may be largely due to the work of people such as Luke.

For most of the last 2000 years Luke has been seen as a companion of Paul, but that is no longer a viable option. More likely, Luke comes from the generation after Paul; or even the generation after that.

The opening paragraph of Luke’s Gospel (1:1–4) which we heard as the first reading is one of the few places where Luke speaks in his own voice. He tells us that he has a purpose in writing. He has a method. And he has sources, because he can access the earlier written works created by those who went before him.

That pushes Luke back to a period after 100 CE, and perhaps as late as the middle decades of the second century.

A sermon is not the time or place for a lecture on the dating of Luke’s two great literary works, but I invite you to think about the significance of Luke writing to meet the needs of the church in his own time about one hundred years after Easter.

The diverse and still marginal Christian communities at that time faced two major challenges.

The external challenge was the power of the Roman empire and especially the ongoing tensions between Rome and the Jews, with rebellions and uprising in the late 60s, the 80s, 115–117 and 132–135 CE. The Christians were caught between a desire to operate under the legal protection of being a Jewish sect, and the need to demonstrate to Rome that they were not a strange bunch of Jewish rebels. Having a leader who had been executed as a rebel was not really a good marketing strategy for that time and place.

The internal challenge was a rising tide of Christian anti-Semitism, especially associated with a church leader called Marcion. Marcion proposed that Christians jettison all vestiges of their Jewish legacy. He rejected the violent and tribal God of the Old Testament, and he proposed a new Bible that comprised simply The Gospel (traditions about Jesus) and The Apostle (the letters of Paul).

Marion’s ugly ideas found a ready hearing in a context where it was good politics to demonstrate loyalty to the Empire by denouncing Jews. Had his ideas won the day, Christianity would have been even more anti-Semitic than it would soon become, as it often has been, and in some expressions remains to this day.

Luke and Marcion were both fans of Paul.

They probably both misunderstood and misrepresented Paul.

But Luke rescued Paul from Marcion and promoted a vision of Christianity that valued its Jewish past while claiming a place in the social order of the Roman empire.

Luke valued the past, understood the present, and forged a path into the future.

His legacy has shaped Christianity for much of the last 2000 years.

Luke’s legacy

I want to suggest that Luke’s offers an attractive template for us a community in transition.

To unpack that idea I need to divert to Matthew ever so briefly. Bear with me.

In Matthew 13:52 we find this short but powerful parable:

“… every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (NRSV)

While Luke did not know, or at least did not preserve, this parable of the scholar prepared for God’s kingdom, he certainly seems to fit the description very well.

Luke was a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.

Luke delved into his sources to find just what was needed for his own time.

Luke valued the past but critiqued the traditions. He thought he could present a more accurate account than any of those who had gone before him; including, I suggest, Matthew, Mark and John.

Luke was not afraid of creating new traditions, and refashioning older traditions, to serve his purposes and to meet the needs of the church in his time.

Luke invites us to assess the traditions we have inherited and start all over afresh.

Luke does not ask us to discard everything from the past, but he does invite us to catch a fresh glimpse of the God who feeds the hungry and overthrows the powerful.

Luke was convinced that God is at work in the world for good, and he invites us to see where God is at work now and join that that project ourselves.

For all these reasons we can celebrate Luke today. Amen.

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Baptism Homily at Qasr al Yahud

A brief sermon at Qasr al-Yahud, the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus, on the occasion of the baptism of two study tour participants on Friday, 12 June 2015.

The text was Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John (Mark 1:4–11).

As Rodney has already mentioned, this community has already been on a journey. In the process of sharing that journey, a band of strangers has become a company of friends. People on a quest. People on a journey. Today we are sharing a very special moment in the lives of two of our community, Coral and Rudi.

It’s not so much about the water. And it’s not so much about the place, although we can talk about the significance of the Jordan, and the symbolism and the significance of the place. But rather, it’s about intentions, it’s about hopes, and it’s about orientation.

For our two friends, the two candidates for baptism, it’s not primarily about beliefs. And it’s certainly not a claim that they’ve got it all figured out. They’ve got ‘A’ Grades in theology. They have their doctrines all clear and everything set. But it is about identifying with the community which is gathered around the work of God in Jesus Christ.

So it’s about a committed and intentional participation in the community of faith that flows like a river, whose source is Jesus. That community draws on his wisdom, and is inspired by his practice. And so at the heart of our community, at the heart of a community which our two friends are choosing to join today, stands the character, the figure, of Jesus.

It’s also about the community, us as a community, and us as a fragment of the larger Christian community. Around that ancient Jew from Nazareth, there formed a community. And today, two more people, from a land that Jesus had never heard of or dreamt of, choose to join that community and stand in the company of Jesus. And today that community, who we represent, in a sense, sacramentally, embraces these new followers of Jesus. We accept them into the community of Christ. We join the journey with them and we invite them to continue their journey with us.

Today this sacrament is also of course about God. God beyond all names. God beyond all tribes. God beyond all religions. The God whom we believe we glimpse in the person of Jesus Christ. The God who’s ever present in these ancient rocks and who has always been present in the lives of Rudi and Coral. The God who is present in our lives, even if unnamed and unknown. The God who is present in the life of our community, even our short-term travelling community. The God who’s present in the world. The God who’s present in this land and its troubled communities.

In the tradition of the gospel that I just read, at the end of his baptism, Jesus hears the bat kol, which is Hebrew for the voice of heaven, the daughter of heaven … the holy voice. The voice says, You are my son. You are my child. You are my servant. You are my beloved. I’m really happy with you. With you I am well pleased.

Coral, Rudi, may you both hear that voice today in your hearts. And may we all sense it, as well, as we share this moment with them and reflect on our own baptisms and our own calling to be followers of Christ. We are all God’s beloved. We are all the sons and daughters of God. God is well pleased with us. Just as we are. Amen.

[This text was transcribed by Julianne Hughes. It has been slightly edited to change some punctuation as well as a few other minor changes for clarity of expression.]
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Chosen? Reading the Bible in the context of Israel-Palestine

ChosenThis evening I settled down to read this short book, really more of an essay, by the esteemed biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann.

Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Louisville, KJ: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015
ISBN 9780664261542

The endorsements and excerpts promised a thought-provoking new reading of the Bible in light of the conflict around the creation of Israel on land taken from the Palestinians in 1948 and then extended with the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights after 1967, not to mention the persistent occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing siege of Gaza. Perhaps this would be not only a re-reading of the Bible in the light of that conflict, but also a ‘re-reading’ of the conflict in light of the Bible.

As a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, more or less the same as the ‘Old Testament’ in many Christian Bibles, I anticipated Brueggemann would draw on his deep knowledge of those texts sacred to Jews and Christians to offer a critique of concepts such as covenant, chosenness, and the gift of the land. In many respects this is exactly what Brueggemann does, and he does it in classical Brueggemann style.

The book itself turns out to be a set of group study materials, with four short essays followed by a brief transcript of a Q&A session, and then a suggested format for a series of group discussions centred on the material in the essays.

The first two essays and discussion sessions address questions around how we might best read the Bible in the context of this particular conflict, centred as it is in the lands that are ‘ground zero’ for the Bible, and given the self-serving interpretations of the Bible by some Jews and their Christian Zionist allies. Brueggemann correctly highlights the diversity within the Bible itself over the nature of ancient Israel’s relationship to Palestine, and he makes much of the conditional aspect of that relationship. He repeatedly observes that the enjoyment of the land was conditional, and evidently ‘losable’ (his term).

Brueggemann also offers a perceptive analysis of the problem of ‘the other’ when the blessing of chosenness is understood in exclusive terms. The ‘other’ may be a Canaanite, or a Gentile from outside the land, or a slave, or a woman, or someone from another ethnicity, or with a different sexual orientation, or a Palestinian. While we may be tempted to define our chosenness in ways that exclude others and protect our privileged access to divine blessing, the best theological instincts of Jews and Christians over the past 3,000 years have called us to enlarge the definition of chosenness to include all of humanity, and indeed all of creation.

The third essay, along with its companion discussion session, deals with the theme of the land, and especially the idea that this land was given to the Jews by God for their exclusive enjoyment for all time. Brueggemann pursues three major themes in this discussion. First of all, he notes the conditional aspect of the covenant in Deuteronomy, reflecting a time when ancient Judah was already in exile or facing the grim prospect of exile. He also notes that classical Judaism has been developed and mostly practised outside the land, suggesting that occupation of the biblical lands is not central to the covenant traditions at the heart of Judaism. Finally, he challenges any suggestion that the modern nation state of Israel is connected with the biblical societies of ancient Israel and Judah.

While these points are well made and well taken, I was disappointed to see how even Brueggemann continues to reinscribe the traditional and literalistic readings of the Old Testament through his references to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, etc. His case would have been strengthened by a more direct description of current biblical scholarship on the literary—and non-historical—character of these traditions. I believe he was selling himself and his readers short at this point.

Finally, Brueggemann considers Zionism and the creation of ‘Israel’ as a modern nation state following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the intervention of Christian Zionists with positions of influence in the British Government at the time. While not repeated in this chapter or its discussion notes, Brueggemann makes it clear in the Introduction that his own views on Israel have changed, and that he has revised his previously published views on the theological significance of the land for Judaism. This change has been partly driven by the emergence of Israel as a major military power, and partly due to the abuse of the civil and human rights of the Palestinians by Israel. In light of his own change of heart on these matters, Brueggemann urges both Evangelical and liberal Christians to rethink their own views towards Israel and Palestine, and not simply to stay with previously formulated viewpoints.

This is well-informed and compassionate set of essays, with helpful suggestions for group discussion. No doubt many readers and discussion participants will then want to read the revised edition of Brueggemann’s earlier book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Overtures to Biblical Theology, 2002).

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Seeking Holy Wisdom

A sermon preached in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at St Francis Theological College, Brisbane on Friday, 4 September 2015.

Introduction

I especially appreciate the opportunity to preside and preach at this service today. My last regular service was Thursday, 6 August, when we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration—and reflected on the anniversary of the first nuclear bomb. Thankfully there have only been two such nuclear attacks, and we pray that number will never grow.

It was a poignant day for me to preside, but most of the people present were not aware of its significance as my final rostered liturgy in this chapel.

My first service in this chapel was 40 years ago. During the commencement service for the 1975 academic year, I was received into Anglican Church and confirmed by Archbishop Felix Arnott. It happened right here on the same step where I now stand to preach.

Things were a tad more hierarchical then. Despite my lack of familiarity with Anglican liturgies, as a first year student I was assigned to the front row. Behind us first year students sat the second year students, and behind them the (very few) third year students. The Principal had assured me that I would be placed further back in the chapel, but the Sacristan (who ruled the chapel) had other ideas. So there I was in the front row, just here, but with no idea when to kneel, sit or cross myself.

We said Compline every week night at around 9.30pm, even on Fridays. Indeed we had guest preachers at Friday Compline. On special days we sang the service. We used some very old service cards. Some months passed before I found they were folded, and that there were actually two inner pages which I had been missing. No wonder there seemed to be a gap in the service!

I survived, even thrived. In fact, most of my adult life has been connected to this College and to this chapel. SFC has been for me a lifelong community of formation. A community of formation. Shaping holy lives.

A community of formation

A ‘community of formation’ is one way to think about the OT covenant community. Ancient Israel is often imagined as a tribal/national society commissioned by God to conquer and control, to expel the natives of the land, and to claim other people’s land as God’s gift to Israel. But I wonder whether it was perhaps intended as a community of formation? An experiment in holy living?

That seems to have been what Micah had in mind with his classic prophetic speech:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but
to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8 NRSV)

A community of formation also seems a good way to imagine the disciples gathered around Jesus, just as we see in today’s Gospel reading. They were not attending a church growth seminar. They were being drawn into a new way of seeing God, and themselves, and others. It even seems that they sensed a different formation agenda when gathered around Jesus than the formation program followed in the Baptist’s circle.

Being a community of formation is certainly one of the hallmarks of SFC. Yes, we are an academic community. We strive for good scholarship and pursue research relevant to the needs of the church and the wider community. But first of all we are a community of formation.

This is not limited to those who are candidates for Holy Orders. We are also a community of formation for disciples and ministers, for learners and teachers. All of us are people in formation.

In its better moments—and sometimes in its worst moments—this place can be (and often is) a community of formation.

The quest for holy wisdom

The quest for holy wisdom lies at the heart of this community of formation. Wisdom is so far more important than information, and much more necessary than methodology. It is better even than correct citations!

Holy Wisdom, Sacred Sophia, is both the destination and the journey. Wisdom is not a formula to be mastered and learned by rote. Wisdom is not something to be practised repeatedly until we acquire the skills. Wisdom is evasive and subtle and unpredictable. Whereas we are often all too predictable.

Today’s Gospel makes that delightfully clear.

Metaphor is piled upon metaphor:

  • the friends of the groom are in party mode (but it will not last)
  • new patches on old cloths do not last
  • new wine in old wineskins explode the containers
  • old wine is always better than new wine
  • and the old is always better than the new (really?)

No neat package of answers is offered by Jesus. Rather, the disciples are given a set of puzzles. These seem designed to tease us into the quest, rather than fast-tracking us to the destination.

To be a community of formation is:

  • to embrace the questions
  • to live faithfully with uncertainty, even with doubt
  • to care for one another
  • to be drawn into God’s mission in the world, and often outside the church

Yes, the followers of John may have had a great program, but wisdom’s children will focus on Jesus, Sophia’s child. As followers of Jesus we can get by without the answers to life’s questions, and flourish in a world—and a church—where answers seem rare, and certainty even more so. But we cannot get far without holy Wisdom.

Conclusion

Wisdom has set a table, and she calls us to the feast.

Here is one ancient description of that sacred wisdom to be found at heart of our tradition:

There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1 NRSV)

That may all sound a bit like the first reading? I certainly hope it does!

For us, Jesus is the child of Sophia, the Wisdom of God in human form.

For us, the task of formation is to become more like Jesus, more like God in human form, so that others may recognise us as children of wisdom herself.

For us, this college is a place where the quest for holy Wisdom is the main agenda, indeed the only assignment that matters in the End.

©2015 Gregory C. Jenks
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