Spiritual confidence

23 April 2017
Second Sunday of Easter
St Paul’s Anglican Church
Byron Bay

My usual practice is to preach on the texts of the day, and especially the Gospel passage. However, during the extended Easter season—our ‘week of weeks’ celebrating resurrection—I want to preach a series of sermons with almost no link to the readings of the week.

There is a reason for this aberration.

In late May the clergy of our diocese will gather for a spiritual retreat together. Rather than engage a retreat leader from somewhere else, the Bishop has decided to invite a number of clergy serving in the Diocese to share the teaching component of the retreat.

The theme of the retreat is to reflect together on this text from 2 Timothy 1:7:

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,
but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

I am one of the people involved in this way, and my task is to lead a session on the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities in the twenty-first century.

So I plan to road test my ideas with you in the sermons each week for the next month or so. You can be my study buddies, as we explore these ideas together. That will assist me to form the ideas clearly in my own head, and the whole process may be helpful for us here in the Bay as we reflect on the mission to which God calls us.

As it happens, there is a vague link with the Gospel this week. The well-known story of Thomas refusing to believe the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection until he could see (and indeed touch) Jesus for himself, does at least resonate with themes of spiritual confidence and collective self-doubt.

Neither arrogance nor bigotry

First of all, let’s be very clear that we are not talking about the kind of confidence that comes across as arrogant, cocky, or bigoted. There is too much of that in some expressions of Christianity, and I think it is essential to maintain the core Christian virtue of humility as one dimension of our spiritual confidence.

Being confident that I can trust my religion tradition does not mean for one moment that I need to imagine I have the best religion or the only true religion. Again, our history as Christians has too many examples of such hubris.

Let me illustrate it this way.

I have confidence in my ageing Camry to get me safely up and down the highway. That does not mean that I imagine it is the best car on the highway. It is clearly not. Nor is it the worst car on the road. It better than some, but pretty average over all. But I trust it to get me to my destination. To date my confidence in that car has been validated.

In a similar fashion, I have confidence in my circle of family and friends. They are a mixed bunch of people, not least because I am included in the mix. My friends are not better than your friends, but they are my friends and we have each other’s backs.  My family for most part was not even chosen by me, but would I ever consider switching them with someone else’s family? Of course not. A crazy idea,. These are the people who know me best and like me regardless. I trust them. I appreciate them. I depend on them. And they on me.

Challenges to confidence

Spiritual confidence is not about superiority or exclusivity, but it does mean we can stop apologising for who we are, what we believe, and how we act as Anglicans.

There are plenty of factors to shake our confidence:

  • loss of influence in society
  • shrinking numbers
  • ageing congregations
  • limited resources
  • shameful failures of care for children and vulnerable adults
  • seeming success of ‘mega-churches’

In addition to all those factors we are operating in a context that is now more complex than in the past:

  • rising levels of affluence
  • ‘time poor’ couples working to cover the mortgage and maintain their lifestyle
  • accelerating technology-driven change impacting every aspect of life
  • religious pluralism
  • rising secularism
  • advances in the natural and social sciences
  • a new concept of what it means to be alive and to be human

Some people find these new insights enriching their faith and even strengthening their spiritual confidence. Others find their faith compromised and challenged, and especially when their own faith formation has encouraged them to live within a pre-modern worldview that is no longer sustainable.

There is no future for Christianity as a religious version of the anti-vaxers or the climate change deniers. Here, in particular, as Anglicans we have a proud history of ‘eyes-wide-open’ engagement with the best of science, and a willingness to embrace evidence-based knowledge into our faithful living.

Grounds of our confidence

It is appropriate that we are having this conversation the Sunday after Easter. Easter, after all, is the ultimate ground of our confidence as Christian people.

Easter

We can understand Easter in many different ways, but its essential message is one of hope and flourishing, divine shalom. This is not simply resetting the system and returning to the status quo ante, like a cosmic reboot. Easter is about moving on to God’s new world order, into life beyond death, towards creation as God wishes it to be.

If that is the heart of our Christian faith, then we have the most substantial grounds for deep spiritual confidence.

But the grounds for our confidence are deeper and wider even than that.

God

Easter is essentially a particular instance of what God is about all the time, in every place and in every life, and always has been. Our confidence is ultimately grounded, as the theologians might say, in the Ground of All Being, in God and God’s mission.

In the end—at the End—we can have total confidence that God will succeed in bringing to perfect fulfilment God’s own dream for all creation. This will be bigger than Anglicanism, or even Christianity. It will express the generosity of the God who calls all into being and draws all things to the perfect goal that God has had in mind since before time began.

To have even a small share in that amazing cosmic project is to have a solid basis for spiritual confidence.

it is not about us. It does not depend on us. But we get to play a part in making God’s dream come true.

Church

We can also draw some confidence from the recognition that the Church represents almost 2000 years of continuous experience of profound spiritual wisdom. Beyond that lies another 1000 plus years of Jewish spiritual wisdom, which has–of course–continued to run in parallel with Christian wisdom for the past two millennia.

In its own wisdom the church recognises that it is always in need of reform. We have done so much badly, and failed spectacularly at times. The church, it seems, is at its best when it has no political power to wield.

That alone may offer us some fresh grounds for hope, as our traditional social power vanishes. Like Pope Francis, we might look forward to a poor church that has lost most of its privileges except the privilege of serving uni rage poor.

But the church is also a treasure house of holiness. There is a legacy of prayer, spirituality, mission, compassion, philosophy, and practical wisdom that we ignore to our own peril.

The church, our ancient church that seems so out of touch with the latest trends, is a mix of resilience and flexibility. That is another source of our spiritual confidence, but not one to be confused with the tribal smugness that Anglicans sometimes exhibit in our relationships with other Protestant faith communities.

Experience

In addition to these factors, we also have own own personal experience of the church as a positive spiritual community.

We know that this has not always been everyone’s experience of the church. In recent years we have faced the darkness of those people who betrayed the trust we placed in them and abused others in their care.

But despite the horrors of those cases—statistically rare but still too frequent—we also know that the church can be, and has been, a community of grace and a place where our own lives are nourished.

Jesus is supposed to have said that where two or three are gathered, he will be in their midst. Much of that time this has been our experience. In the gathered community of the church we have experienced the Risen Lord among us.

Looking ahead

This week, I encourage you to reflect on those aspects of church that give you hope. What is it about your experience of church that feeds your spiritual confidence?

In the weeks ahead I will try to tease some of them out for you. No doubt the list could be longer than what follows, but this at least is the beginning of a list as we ‘count our blessings, and name them one by one’:

  • Bible
  • Prayer Book
  • Sacraments
  • Prayer
  • Music and the Arts
  • Education
  • Health Care
  • Social Justice

We have no grounds for fantasies of religious superiority, but we do have good reasons to be spiritually confident. However, as always, those reasons must be a mixed with a generous serve of humility.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons | 3 Comments

Through resurrection eyes

16 April 2017
Easter Eucharist
St Pauls’ Church, Byron Bay

THIS past week we have walked the road to Calvary:

  • Palm Sunday
  • Maundy Thursday
  • Good Friday
  • Holy Saturday

Today we begin our Easter celebrations. They will stretch through the next 50 days. Long after the shops have removed the hot cross buns—along with the ANZAC biscuits and the Mother’s Day cards—the church will still be celebrating Easter. Our paschal candle will burn brightly at every service from today until Pentecost: the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

This ‘week of weeks’ is a symbol of prophetic fulfilment and cosmic abundance, with roots going deep back in time to the annual grain harvest in Palestine.

Across Jerusalem and throughout Palestine this morning, the faithful are greeting one another with the Easter proclamation:

almaseeh qaam / haqaan qaam
Christ is risen / Risen indeed

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Here in the Antipodes, far from the empty tomb, we join the worldwide celebrations.

Through resurrection eyes

Let’s take this opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Easter, to look at life through resurrection eyes.

What difference does Easter make: for Jesus? for the world? for the churches here in the Bay?

In very broad terms, let me suggest that in the events of Easter we glimpse God’s hopes and dreams for the future of the world, indeed for the entire universe.

What God did for Jesus, God does for us. What God did for Jesus, God wishes to do for everyone. What God did for Jesus, is what God intends to achieve for all creation, and nothing will stop God’s love from achieving that outcome.

This is the good news that lies at the heart of our Holy Saturday celebrations last night.

When Jesus walked out of Hell on Easter morning, no-one was left behind.

To summarise the message from last night, let me repeat just a few lines from that sermon:

In the end, when God’s love has penetrated even the darkest recess of Hell, no-one will be left behind. God’s love will bring everyone with Jesus into the future God has prepared for his creation.

No-one is left behind.

The risen Lord

At Easter Jesus passed through and beyond death. There was no detour for him, just as there will be no detour around death for us. To experience what lies beyond death Jesus had to pass through death.

But his cry of dereliction on the cross—”My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?”—was met and matched by God’s eternal vindication.

The fear and hatred directed at Jesus did not have the final word.

In the end, love won. It always does.

The ancient Christian hymn already known by Paul and the Christians at Philippi, includes these lines:

… and being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name … (Philippians 2:7–9 NRSV)

Some scholars have tried to express the difference Easter made to Jesus by speaking of “Jesus before Easter” and the “post-Easter Christ”.

Jesus before Easter speaks of God’s kingdom, which is in deep opposition to Empire (about which I shall say more in a moment). After Easter, we recognise the risen Lord as not just the prophet of the kingdom but also, in some sense, the one who gives us access to the reign of God, the empire of love.

At Christmas we traditionally think of Jesus as IMMANUEL, God with us. But the Immanuel dynamic of the incarnation is matched and fulfilled by the Immanuel dynamic of Easter. God was in Christ, and that is the great Immanuel insight at the heart of our faith as Christians.

Here I think we can learn something very important from the Eastern Christians. For them, salvation is best expressed not as life beyond death, but as the divinization of humankind. God becomes human in Christ, so that all of us can become divine in Christ. Immanuel.

That changes everything, and not just for Jesus.

A world beyond empire

Empire killed Jesus.

It was nothing personal. Empire kills anyone it cannot control. Jesus would not march to the beat of empire’s drum, so Jesus had to die.

By empire we mean that system of power which allows a privileged elite to exploit and control others for the advantage of the elite. Empire is about domination and privilege. It exploits the poor and the powerless, and distracts us with bread and circus.

These days the ‘bread and circus’ that keep us quiet in the face of such injustice may take the form of superannuation and sport, or maybe it is Facebook. Whatever its form, it works well to keep us acquiescent—until Jesus opens our eyes.

Easter demonstrates that the Empire is broken.

Empire’s awesome projection of absolute power over us is flawed. The golden statue has earthen feet. Easter has exposed the ultimate inability of Empire to define us or our future.

Jesus was right to proclaim the kingdom of God, the basileia tou theou. We can choose whether to remain enthralled by Empire, or to embrace the reign of God, the commonwealth of love.

We can opt out of Empire.

Empire remains powerful. It killed Jesus and may kill us. It is not just a metaphor, as the victims in Syria have again reminded us so tragically in the past few days.

In the end, Empire need not define us.

In the end, Love wins.

If that is true—and Jesus staked his life on it being true—then the world would be a different kind of place, if only we took it seriously.

Empire will seek to stop us. Empire will seek to intimidate us. Empire will seek to silence us.

But Jesus has defeated Empire. Jesus has broken the power of death. Jesus has set us free to imagine a new kind of world.

Gospel communities

Let make all this lofty rhetoric local. How might Easter make a difference to the way that the Christian churches operate here in the Bay?

For starters, we would stop worrying about survival, since we would realise deep within our bones that God has the future under control. In the end love wins. We are on the winning side of history. It does not all depend on us. Recall the Immanuel principle. God is among us and working to achieve God’s own dream for the universe. In the end love wins.

What if we transferred our best emerges from fear to hope? What might be some of the core attributes of a church—regardless of its tradition—that took Easter seriously?

We would focus on building and sustaining communities of faith where ordinary people are valued, respected and loved. We would be safe communities: communities where it is safe to be vulnerable, and communities where no one is ever abused. Ever.

We would be forming communities of radical hospitality where acceptance is not mortgaged to conformity. Our churches will be places where everyone is welcome, and they do not have to dress like us, think like us, or love like us, in order to feel welcome and at home among us. The diversity of the people in our pews would reflect the diversity of the people in our streets.

We would become centres of resistance to Empire as we focus on what matters to God, and not what matters to the powerful and the wealthy. We would be communities that are passionate about social justice, about refugees, about world peace, and about community well-being. We might even find ourselves in trouble with the authorities because of our courageous action to make the world a better place.

We would reclaim our original vocation as stewards of creation. In the ancient creation stories in Genesis, humans are fashioned out of the earth and our primary task is to care for the garden. The integrity of creation matters to God, and churches that take Easter seriously will be communities that care deeply about the environment. Here in this beautiful part of Australia, our passion for creation may mean that we find ourselves in coalition with people of very different beliefs, but with a common concern for the world that we believe is also a beneficiary of God’s game changer at Easter.

Each of these kingdom of God communities will be an oasis of authentic spirituality. We will be a community of practice that moves beyond affirmation to action, helping each other to shape lives that are ‘holy’ and ‘true’. We will work alongside people of different faiths, and Christians from different traditions, confident that—in the end—love wins.

What a blessing we would be to the local community here in the Bay, if we redirected our best energies from institutional survival to a passion for human flourishing.

Imagine a church like that.

Imagine a world blessed by such an expression of Easter faith.

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None left behind

15 April 2017
Easter Eve Vigil Eucharist
St Oswald’s Church, Broken Head

TONIGHT we begin our Easter celebrations. they will stretch through the next 50 days. This ‘week of weeks’ is a symbol of prophetic fulfilment and cosmic abundance, with roots going deep back in time to the annual grain harvest in Palestine.

As a vigil service, this liturgy invites us to reflect on the role of ritual in our faith, but also in our personal lives. Ritual enhances, deepens and magnifies the inner reality that we are observing.

A candlelit dinner is not about a suitable lumen count. It is a ritual that suggests intimacy and love.

On this night we dig deep into the church’s treasure chest to choose some rituals that we hope are especially apt for the occasion.

A Vigil

In the Jewish calendar the new day begins on the previous sunset, so in biblical time we are already in the early hours of Sunday, the first day of the week. We observe such “eves” in the liturgical life of the church, but they mostly pass unnoticed. Christmas Eve is well known, but the Eve of All Hallows (All Saints), is not so easily recognised in its contemporary guise as Halloween.

Sunday

Despite our digital calendars that prioritise the weekend, Sunday is actually the first day of the week. In the Bible it is also the first day of creation, as well as the eighth day in Jewish thinking about the end of time! As the eighth day, Sunday hints at resurrection and cosmic fulfilment.

Fire

Without iPhones and electric lights, nights were long and dark in the ancient past. Fires were lit to keep the darkness at bay, and to warm the cool evening. The community gathered around the fire, to share stories, and to deepen their life together. The light of the fire shattered the darkness, perhaps evoking memories of a burning bush or a pillar of fire.

Saving Adam
In the Orthodox tradition Adam plays a bigger role at Easter than in our Western traditions.

7e4abaf7963d58fd69543bdcf0de3076Golgotha, the ‘place of the skull’, is understood to be the place of Adam’s burial. You will see his skull below the cross in most Orthodox icons of the crucifixion. As Jesus, the second Adam, dies on the cross, his blood brings new life to old Adam.

We also see this expressed beautifully in the icons of the Anastasis, the Resurrection, as the triumphant Christ raises Adam and Eve from their grave as he himself rises from the dead.8-Orthodox

These are poetic ways of doing theology, but if we have ‘eyes to see’ then we can discern the deep truths in these ancient symbols. As the Second Adam, Christ brings new life to Adam and Eve, and to us all as their children.

Harrowing of hell

There is another Easter tradition that is especially relevant to today, Holy Saturday.

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We find this tradition preserved in 1 Peter 3:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark … (1 Peter 3:18–20 NRSV)

It is also preserved in the Apostles’ Creed, as well as in a number of ancient extra-canonical Christian texts.

This idea has largely dropped out of favour in the West, but it preserves another way of thinking about Easter. In this tradition, Jesus uses the time between Good Friday and Easter Day to visit Hell, and while there he destroys the place. On Easter Day, Christ marches out of Hell followed by a great procession of people from all times and places who he has set free from death.

No-one is left behind.

What a powerful antidote to the religion that exploits fear of being ‘left behind’ to pressure people into particular expressions of Christianity.

In the end, when God’s love has penetrated even the darkest recess of Hell, no-one will be left behind. God’s love will bring everyone with Jesus into the future God has prepared for his creation.

No-one is left behind.

Of course, none of these rituals and poetic myths are essential. Knowing them does not make one a better person, and observing them does not make one a better Christian. But they enrich our lives and enhance our faith. They may even touch us in ways that words fail to do.

Rather than asking how much of this stuff we really need to observe, we are better to respond with grateful hearts. We can choose to put aside a compliance mentality that seeks the minimum required to gain a passing grade. We can choose instead to embrace the rituals that speak to us, those that touch us—and transform us—most deeply.

What matters most is not that we get the ritual right this evening, but that we have the life of the risen Christ within us.

Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed.

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Christ has died

Good Friday
14 April 2017
Byron Bay

 

Today we gather to commemorate the death of Jesus: most likely on Friday, 7 April 0030.

We are not re-enacting the crucifixion, but we are remembering that tragic event and reflecting on its significance.

 

Christ has died

We are familiar with this affirmation that occurs in almost every Eucharist.

Christ has died.

This is one of the few ‘brute facts’ about Jesus where most people agree.

Jesus was killed in Jerusalem on April 7 in the year 30 CE. Although we call this day ‘Good Friday’, the death of Jesus was a tragedy. Not a unique tragedy. He was neither the first nor the last to be killed by empire. His death was not more painful than some others have experienced. But it was a tragedy for him, for his family, and for his followers.

The fact that this tragedy on Easter morning was reversed does not detract from its tragic character.

We may be tempted to focus on the second and third lines of the Eucharistic affirmation:

Christ is risen
Christ will come again

But first we need to confront the reality of the first line: Christ has died.

The stark reality of that statement is something we need to acknowledge and embrace.

We cannot get to the resurrection without first facing the fact that Jesus died. He was killed.

This is not just a question of temporal sequence. While it is logically correct that there could be no Easter without Good Friday, that is not the point. Something deeper is happening here.

We catch a glimpse of what is at stake if we try some alternative scenarios.

“Jesus almost died in Jerusalem” does not work in the same way as “Christ has died”. “That visit to Jerusalem for Passover almost cost Jesus his own life,” simply does not do it.

“Christ has died” is a stark statement of the brute fact at the heart of our faith.

God let Jesus die.

There was no divine rescue squad. No legions of angels intervened to prevent this tragic turn of events. There was no last minute reprieve no ram in the bush.

Jesus is not James Bond achieving a remarkable turn around just before the movie ends. This was not a movie. It was real life. He died. God was silent, if not absent.

Just as often happens in our world, Jesus died and there was no miracle to stop it from happening.

Just as was the case for the 44 Christians killed in Egypt last Sunday.

Just as was the case for the children gassed in Syria few days earlier.

Just as remains the case for the children of Gaza under Israeli siege.

Like Jesus we cry out, Where are you, God?

That was the lived reality for Jesus.

That is the lived reality for us.

That is the lived reality for most people most of the time.

 

Christ crucified

Jesus died a particular kind of death: crucifixion.

Imperial punishment – by Rome but only for non-Romans

Political victim – reserved for bandits, outlaws and rebels

Cruel and inhumane – a slow and painful death

Shameful death – victim stripped of dignity and honour

Social outcast – victim isolated from family and community

Religious penalty – OT says anyone hung on a tree is cursed

 

Don’t blame the Jews!

This seems obvious, since only Rome could order a crucifixion. But for most of the last 2000 years Christians have blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus, and played down the responsibility of the Roman imperial authorities for the execution of Jesus.

What happened to Jesus is an example of empire doing what empire does. Empire treats people as disposable assets. Empire crushes any resistance. Empire cannot imagine a world shaped by love rather than fear. Empire eliminates emerging leaders of dissent.

 

God was in Christ

The remarkable thing is not that the Roman empire took Jesus out, but that his followers came to see his crucifixion as the decisive moment of his life.

Listen to these amazing words penned by Paul, a Roman citizen, about 25 years after Easter:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:16–21 NRSV]

In the totally bleak and hostile event they discerned the presence of God, quietly working for the reconciliation of the whole world.

God was in Christ …

  • not just in his incarnation
  • not just in his wisdom
  • not just in his healings
  • not just in his compassionate welcome of outsiders

… but in his cruel and lonely death by crucifixion.

Even there God was present. Even on the cross we discover IMMANUEL, God with us.

So we dare to believe that God is in our darkest moments. Not preventing them, but sharing them. Not turning the darkness into sunlight, but absorbing the darkness, the despair and the fear.

Good Friday proclaims not a prosperity gospel, but a gospel of divine presence.

The Romans thought they had crucified Jesus, but God was in Christ … so everything is different.

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Breaking bread, sharing a cup

Maundy Thursday
13 April 2017
Byron Bay

A small group of people are gathered in an upstairs room in a modest house on the Western Hill of Jerusalem. It is Passover time in Jerusalem and the Holy City is full of pilgrims.

When

In the local imperial calendar it was the sixteenth year of Emperor Augustus.

Writing about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he was baptised by John around a year earlier, Luke offers us a set of overlapping chronologies that help us determine the date for both the commencement and the end of Jesus‘ mission:

… when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was ruler of Galilee,
and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,  
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas … [Luke 3:1–2]

In the Jewish calendar this meal was late on the fourteenth day of Nisan—already Nisan 15 in Jewish ritual since the new day begins at sunset—in the year 3,790 from creation.

In our terms, it was April 6 in the year of our Lord 30 (or, as we say these days, year 30 in the Common Era).

Who

The small group gathered in this borrowed room are also pilgrims visiting the Holy City for Passover.

They are from the Galilee and have made the 100km walk over several days.

Who was in the room?

Well, we have Jesus and 12 male disciples. But there were others in the group around Jesus, including men not counted among the Twelve, as well as several women. The most notable of the women was Mary Magdalene, along with Mary the mother of Jesus. They were hardly going to be left out of the event!

The Gospel writers focus on the men, as have the church artists over the years. But there is no reason to think the meal was limited to just the 13 males. Everything we know about Jesus suggests that the group would have been more diverse than that.

Why

These are Jews gathered to observe Passover, their most important religious ritual.

Passover celebrates liberation and hope.

Salvation in the distant past.
Salvation here and now.
Salvation in the distant future.

Jesus has come to Jerusalem with his closest followers. They have gathered in this upper room. They are keeping the ancient rituals, and creating some new ones.

On this night

Almost 2000 years later we gather to remember and repeat that ancient ritual meal.

On this night, we give thanks for the institution of the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Supper of the Lord. In this Eucharist—as in every Eucharist—we gather at the Table of the Lord, and we believe that Jesus is amongst us.

This week our liturgical colour has been red for the passion of Christ, but tonight we have white vestments as we celebrate the origins of our Eucharistic rituals.

The roots of our ritual reach deep back into Jewish tradition. All the way back to that first Passover when God liberated the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. We are not Jews, but Jesus was, so their God is our God. They blessed bread and wine to invoke God’s favour, and we do the same.

But for us the bread and wine become the real presence of Christ among us, the one in whom God comes among us to answer our prayers and set us free.

Jesus is not only to be found in the bread and wine.

He is also to be found in the person beside us, in homeless, in the refugees, in the flood victims, in the sad, and in the happy.

The stranger we welcome is Christ in our midst.

The person whose foot we wash is Christ in our midst.

The person we ignore is Christ in our midst.

The face we see in the mirror is Christ in our midst.

Conscious of Christ in our midst …

  • we hear again the new commandment:
    love one another as I have loved you
  • we participate in the ceremony of foot washing:
    brother/sister, let me serve you
  • we reflect on the betrayal and arrest of Jesus:
    those who live by the sword, die by the sword
  • we recall the flight of fearful disciples:
    before the cock crows you will deny me three times

Eucharist as pattern for holy living

Before we move to the more solemn aspects of this evening, let’s reflect on some ways in which the Eucharist offers a pattern for faithful living.

The Eucharist is our primary ritual as Christians. It defines us and sustains us.

As we have already noted, its roots go deep back into the Jewish scriptures. But Eucharist also grows out of the daily experience of Jesus and his disciples as they share informal meals by the side of the road.

A Eucharist can be grand or simple, but it is a ritual for a pilgrim people. It is the ultimate portable ritual that requires no special holy place, because any place is holy when we break the bread together.

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Whether a High Mass in the Cathedral or a simple celebration in a nursing home, there is a pattern to the Eucharist that reflects, informs, and strengthens the pattern of our own lives.

We do not have time to tease all these elements out, but notice how our order of service reflects the shape of our life as disciples:

  1. Gathering as people called together by God
  2. Reconciliation and forgiveness
  3. Listening for the word of the Lord
  4. Affirming our faith within the life of the church
  5. Prayers for others and for ourselves
  6. Offering our gifts, ourselves, our all
  7. Giving thanks for God’s blessings
  8. Feeding on Christ, the source of our life
  9. Sent out on mission

May the pattern of our ritual tonight also be the pattern of living, day by day.

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Different drum beats

Palm Sunday (Year A)
St Paul’s Anglican Church, Byron Bay
9 April 2017

Well, here we are …

With Christians around the world, we mark the beginning of Holy Week with the beautiful liturgy of the palms and at least a short procession.

This is a different kind of service. It can be a bit chaotic at times. It is certainly longer than a ‘normal  Sunday’. But this is no normal day. This is the first day of Holy Week.

The events of this week shape our identity as Christians.

The events of this week are the very centre of our faith.

For that reason, around the world today millions of Christians will join us in the observance of Palm Sunday.

Because this is a year when the Eastern and Western calendars are in sync, there will be huge crowds in the Holy Land. To make this an even bigger week tomorrow is the eve of Passover, the night when the ancient paschal Seder will be observed by Jeweish households all around the world.

Yes, this is a big week, but it is also a reminder that the people of God are divided and fearful. Instead of serving as a beacon of hope to the world, we hide our light under the bushel of religious tribalism.

 

Flashback

Around this time almost 2,000 years ago there was the original Palm Sunday procession.

Jewish pilgrims were converging on the Jerusalem from near and far. Three times a year they were encouraged to be in the Holy City for the high Jewish festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. But Passover was the big one. It celebrated the exodus from Egypt, liberation from slavery, and their unique calling to be the people of God.

Among the Jewish pilgrims heading to Jerusalem was a group of Galileans led by Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was bringing his prophetic message of the ‘kingdom (empire) of God’ from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the edges to the very centre of privilege and power.

Jesus was living out—and inviting others also to live out—a new vision of God, a fresh glimpse of reality.

This was the vision that would take him to the cross.

This was the vision that sparked the birth of Christianity.

This was a vision that the church too easily and too often forgets.

Around the same time, even if not exactly the same day, another very different procession was making its way into Jerusalem on the western side of the city, the side nearest the Mediterranean Sea.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator for Judea and Samaria, was making his way to Jerusalem for Passover. He was not coming as a pilgrim, but as the Roman official responsible to keep all the pilgrims in order.

There will be no liberation of the oppressed this Passover. Pilate is here to ensure that.

The power of Rome has Jerusalem in its grip, and the ancient Jewish aspirations for liberation will be empty words again this Passover. Pilate is here to ensure that.

Beyond the scope of their vision, the men at the head of these two processions were destined to meet within a few days time.

One seemed very powerful.

The other seemed very weak.

The smart money was on the Empire. It always is.

But God was with the little guy. God always is. That is the message of Passover.

To help us tease out the significance of Jesus being in Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, let’s watch a brief video clip from Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA:

2017 Easter Message from Michael Curry

 

The beat of a different drum

In that video clip, Michael Curry speaks of the ‘Jesus movement’. It is one of his favourite ways of speaking about the church.

We are not best described as a multi-national institution operating for almost 2000 years and with vast resources. At our best, when we have not lost sight of the vision that Jesus embodied, we are the Jesus movement.

The Jesus movement began with an alternative view of reality.

Jesus saw the world differently. Jesus was counter-cultural. Jesus was out of step with his contemporaries.

Palm Sunday invites us to be out of step. Palm Sunday calls us to walk against the grain, and not simply to go with the flow. Palm Sunday urges us to march to the beat of a different drum.

Be warned.

This is scary stuff.

Holy Week was no Sunday School picnic.

But Jesus calls us to see the world differently and then to act accordingly.

In that choice to participate in the Jesus movement is the future of the church, and the future of the world.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons | 3 Comments

Turning towards the cross

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A)
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay
St Oswald’s Church, Ewingsdale

Today we enter the holiest period of the Christian year.

In a week’s time we begin Holy Week, but today—a week out from Palm Sunday—we turn ourselves towards the cross. As Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), so the church invites us to turn our hearts towards the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In traditional church terms, we are entering Passiontide. More about that shortly.

 

Three High & Holy Festivals

We have many holy days and festivals in the life of the church, but there are three that tower above all the others. They stand out from the pack, as it were.

Christmas

This is the first of the three, and it retains a strong grip on public consciousness as well. Even people with a minimal connection to the life of the church are aware that we are celebrating the incarnation, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.

At the very heart of the Christmas celebrations is the sense of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Not just with us humans, but with all creation; since to become a human is also to become a child of the earth, and be part of the universal web of life.

Not only are we formed from the star dust created at the Big Bang, but so was Jesus.

God, Emmanuel, chooses to be immersed in the stuff of creation.

Christmas not only invites us to see God in the Christ Child, but also to discern God all around us, between us, within us. This is an insight at the heart of Celtic Christianity, and we see it expressed so clearly in the great Celtic hymn, St Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort
and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of
all that love me,
Christ in mouth of
friend and stranger.

We are not alone in a universe with neither centre nor perimeter.

Indeed, we are learning to appreciate the universe as in some sense the body of God, and God herself to be the beating, passionate heart at the centre of all that is. Emmanuel. God with us.

This is one of the great theological insights of the Christian tradition.

Easter

This is the second of the three great Christian festivals, and it lasts several days.

If Christmas offers us meaning, as children of a universe shaped and permeated by Emmanuel, then Easter offers us hope. More on that later, and throughout our Easter services.

In brief, as Paul would say near the end of Romans 8: Nothing can separate us from God’s love …

Pentecost

The third of the three great Christian celebrations is Pentecost, or Whitsunday in traditional English language. We shall celebrate that festival around the time that my role here concludes, so let me just suggest at this stage that Pentecost celebrates the powerful presence of God’s Spirit in the world, in the church, and in our own lives.

 

Passiontide

From today onwards we can sense the approach of Easter.

Our readings begin to focus on themes relating to death and new life.

In many churches purple cloths will cover ornamentation considered too upbeat for such a solemn period of the year.

Palms are cut and crosses are woven in preparation for Palm Sunday.

We prepare to walk deeply into the mystery of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.

This is not just an idea, it is something we do—and do together—as a community of faith.

For clergy and lay ministers it includes the Chrism Eucharist in the Cathedral as we renew our commitment to ministry in service of the Christ, his people, and the world.

 

Holy Week

From Palm Sunday to Easter Day we mark the journey with special opportunities to gather for prayer and reflection. We do not just want to think about those final days before Jesus was killed, but—to the extent that we can—we want to enter deeply into the great story that lies at the heart of our faith (and our identity) as Christians.

Palm Sunday – a celebration rich with colour and story

Weekdays in Holy Week – daily Eucharists to engage deeply with the Gospel traditions

Maundy Thursday – recalling the Last Supper, the feet washing, the lonely vigil, the arrest, the flight of the disciples

Good Friday – choosing to stand at the foot of the cross

Holy Saturday – gathering at Broken Head to light the holy fire and make the Easter Proclamation, Christ is risen!

Easter Day – joining our worship with Christians around the world in this year when Eastern and Western Christians share the same date for Easter.

The Valley of Dry Bones

Our first reading from Ezekiel is the prophetic vision of a valley littered with dry bones.

Such a scene suggests disaster, total disaster. In a culture where the dead are buried as soon as possible after death, a scene such as this suggests either a catastrophic military defeat or a major natural disaster. There have been no survivors. No-one remains to bury the dead.

God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

It is a hopeless case. The obvious answer is, “No.”

But God commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones, and a miracle occurs. It is a vision, not a description of an actual event. But it offered hope to the people of ancient Israel and Judah, that their nation would recover from the disasters that had befallen them.

As we enter Passiontide, these ancient words invite us to see that even the Cross will not be the end of the story.

Of course, coming at the end of a week when a cyclone has brought destruction and flooding in vast areas of our own country, this ancient vision rings with a sense of hope ass people begin to rebuild their lives.

 

Lazarus

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for 4 days is unique to the Gospel of John. Matthew. Mark and Luke all seem unaware of this episode, which is remarkable in itself.

In the local church at Jerusalem, this story begins the celebration of Holy Week and Easter.

For people of faith, the death and raising of Lazarus points to the death and rising of Jesus.

The great Palm Sunday processions begins from the village of Bethany, which in Arabic is known as al-Eizariyya (the place of Lazarus). For Muslims and Christians alike, the name of this village is forever changed by the story of what happened there.

Pray this week for the people of Bethany, al-Eizariyya.

Their village is now cut off from Jerusalem by a 10m concrete wall, erected by Israel to impose its definition of Jerusalem as a Jewish city on their Palestinian neighbours. As has happened now for several years, the ecumenical Palm Sunday procession next Sunday will not be able to start at Bethany, but will begin instead from Bethphage, which happens to be inside the Israeli wall of fear.

Pray for a raising of people oppressed by military occupation for 50 years.

Pray for the liberation of the occupiers whose hearts are turned to stone by fear.

It has been too long. What can possibly change now?

This too will pass. The dry bones will rise again, and a nation will find a fresh lease on life.

 

People of Hope

Today, and during the next two weeks, we are going to be reminded repeatedly that we are people of hope.

We are sustained by hope even in the darkest days, because we believe that God turns death into life, reconciles those who are estranged, and vindicates the little people who seem to have little influence over the world in which we live.

Further north we have watched in shock as Cyclone Debbie tore up communities and disrupted the lives of thousands of people.

Closer to home we have seen homes, fields, roads and workplaces swallowed by raging flood waters during the past week as the remnants of that cyclone have brought massive rains to our own region.

So this morning we pray for a blend of hope, courage and strength as people deal with continuing floods, clean up the mess, pick up the pieces of their lives, and rebuild.

May the worst of times bring out the best from people, and may we discover yet again the power of God to sustain and revive us. That is, after all, our hope.

Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

None so blind …

St Paul’s Anglican Church, Byron Bay
St Oswald’s Church, Broken Head
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
26 March 2017

Introduction

Well, that was a long reading: all 41 verses of John chapter 9!

It is part of a series of readings from John during these central weeks of Lent. All of them are lengthy readings, and there will be another long one next week:

  • Lent 2 – Nicodemus comes to speak with Jesus under cover of darkness
  • Lent 3 – the Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at Jacob’s well
  • Lent 4 – Jesus heals a man born blind
  • Lent 5 – Jesus raises Lazarus to life

In these readings, we see John’s art as a storyteller on display. He begins with a simple event: a late-night visitor, a chance encounter at a village well, healing of a blind beggar, the death of a close friend.  John then describes some form of confusion or misunderstanding which Jesus seeks to resolve by further explanation, often in the form of a lengthy speech. In this case, we do not have the lengthy speech, but we do have a very elaborate account of the conflict that followed Jesus healing the man born blind.

At first sight this is a very simple story. But—as we discovered when we teased it out during the Bible study on Wednesday morning—it is a rather more complex story that can be quite challenging when we pay close attention.

John offers us a story that invites us to ask the question: Who is the blind person here? Who are the ones lacking the capacity to see what God is doing right in front of them?

THE STORY

Let’s review the story and then reflect on the sacred wisdom that God is offering us today.

The story begins with a chance encounter of Jesus and his disciples with a blind beggar. Nothing unusual about that. Beggars were a common sight in the streets of first-century Palestine.

The disciples travelling with Jesus demonstrate their profound lack of spiritual wisdom when they respond to the sight of the blind beggar. They ask,”Who sinned, this man or his parents, to cause this blindness?” That is very bad theology, and Jesus simply brushes it aside. The victims are not to be blamed. He was born blind. Our obligation is to do God’s work, not to add to their pain by heartless speculation about them being to blame for their predicament.

Jesus heals the blind man.

Well we expected that! This is, after all, the New Testament. But notice how Jesus went about this healing.

In the other Gospels, Jesus often prefers for his miracles not to be widely reported. At times the beneficiary is sent home and told to remain silent.

Not so in this story.

Jesus goes out of his way to ensure his actions are noticed and that conflict with the local religious authorities (represented in this story by the Pharisees) is provoked.

  • No private healing out of the public eye.
  • A paste made of saliva and dirt is applied to the man’s eyes.
  • He is sent to the Pool of Siloam, a very conspicuous location.
  • All this happens on Shabbat.

As the story unfolds the Pharisees react to this provocation. The extended middle section of chapter 9 is a series of interrogations as the healed man and his parents experience the hostility of Jesus’ opponents.

  • The healed man is interrogated.
  • His parents are summoned but refuse to cooperate.
  • The man is subjected to further questioning and then expelled from the Jewish community.

Finally, as the story concludes, Jesus catches up with the guy he had healed earlier in the day. Their conversation brings the story to a close, and it ends with a remarkable—and highly confronting—statement by Jesus:

I came so those who are blind may see,
and so those who do see may become blind.

What is John up to here? Why has he chosen to finish this healing story with such a statement?

If we can engage with that question we may well stumble on the wisdom this text has to offer.

SELECTIVE BLINDNESS

As I reflected on this passage during the past week, I found myself thinking of the ancient English aphorism:

There is none so blind
as those who will not see.

When I was searching for the history of this saying, one web website suggested that the lines were first used by the American singer, Ray Stevens in his 1970 song, ‘Everything is beautiful’.

But in searching further I found that these words have a much longer pedigree, with the  earliest known version of this saying found in the writings of John Heywood in 1546:

Who is so deafe, or so blynde, as is hee,
That wilfully will nother here nor see.

In John 9 there are none so blind as the Pharisees who simply do not wish to see what has happened in the experience of this man born blind. They are masters of the tradition, and this event lies outside their sacred knowledge.

The temptation for us is to sit back with a sense of spiritual complacency.

We are not like them. We can discern God at work in our midst. We can see clearly what is happening in our own lives.

Unlike ‘them’ we do not suffer from selective, self-serving and so-very-convenient blindness.

If only that were so.

If only we were indeed free from spiritual myopia.

WISDOM FOR TODAY

How does this ancient story connect with us here in the Bay?

Right now this parish community is at a critical moment in its history. The three or four months that I shall be serving here as your locum priest provide a window during which time we have some serious work to do.

We need to glimpse a new future.

That will be real challenge for us. It always is. But before we can call a new priest to serve here, this community needs to discern what is the work to which God is calling us, and not just the new priest.

If we are able to glimpse a new future, even that will not be enough.

We shall then need to find the courage to embrace the new and different future that we have glimpsed. That may be even more challenging than discerning what to do. But even that is not the end.

We—and that really means, ‘you’—will also need the commitment required to pursue the new vision that we glimpse.

That will be a long journey into an uncertain future.

But it will begin with a new vision, the capacity to see into the future.

So the question for us this morning is whether can see? Do we have a blind spot? Are we living with a collective case of spiritual myopia?

Do we want to glimpse a different future for the Anglican Church in this community?

Do we dare to look?

That might be the blessing we seek from God as we come to the Table of Jesus for Holy Communion this morning. Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see clearly. And give us the courage to embrace that future. Not for our sake, but the sake of those people in this community—whether locals or visitors—who need us to see and embrace a different way of being church here in the Bay.

I do not yet know what that future will look like, but I am certain we shall never glimpse it unless we are willing to see what God has to show us.

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Sermon at the Well

Second Sunday of Lent, Year A (19 March 2017)
St Paul’s Anglican Church, Byron Bay

It is not often we can identify the actual location of a Gospel episode, but today’s Gospel reading may be one of those rare times.

Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman in John 4 takes place at Jacob’s Well, the ancient water source for a series of Canaanite and Israelite villages now preserved under the archaeological site of Balata.

The well still exists and has been venerated in a series of Christian churches, built one on top of the other. These days the web is located in a crypt below a large Orthodox Church build only in the last few decades.

Jacob's Well web

The well itself is very ancient, although the structures have been rebuilt and repaired after different phases of destruction over the years. As mentioned, the well is integrated with the nearby archaeological site of Balata, and that gives us increased confidence in the historicity of the well’s location.

In today’s Gospel, the focus is not so much the antiquity of the well as the conversation between Jesus and the anonymous local woman that he meets at the well.

160116 Jacobs Well Icon

In the biblical tradition, significant encounters often take place at wells. So anyone listening to this story in the ancient world will know immediately that they should expect something special to happen here.

Let’s engage with the story and see what wisdom we may be able to draw from the ancient well of Scripture this morning.

ENGAGING WITH THE TEXT

Where is this story happening?

The story is set in Samaria, a region with a troubled relationship with Jerusalem after centuries of deep religious rivalry between these two factions in the biblical community.  The Jewish Jesus in Samaria is rather like a Catholic priest in Ulster.

The location is quite specific, as already mentioned. At the ancient well outside the village of Sychar.

The well is a short distance outside the village, and the women will have come early in the day or late in the afternoon to draw water for their families.

It is around noon.

Only an outsider will come to draw water at that hour.

Who is in this story?

The lead character, of course, is Jesus. He is exhausted by his travels, but that is not the point of the story. Like many a male hero from the biblical narratives, he stops at the well and rests from his journey.

The disciples play a minor role in this story, as Jesus has sent them away to the nearby village looking for supplies. By the time they return, the action is over.

Then there is a woman with a complex personal history. She is a seeker, although not exactly a puritan. She has had a colourful history, but comes across as a feisty woman. This anonymous Samaritan woman is the central figure in our story.

As an aside, let me mention that the later tradition could not leave this amazing woman nameless. She had seen the light, so to speak. She was given the name Photine (or sometimes Photina), which means “the luminous one”, as it is derived from the Greek word for ‘light’, φως (phos).

What is happening in this story?

At the heart of this story we see Jesus crossing boundaries:

  • The ethnic/nationalist hostility between Jews and Samaritans.
  • The gender divide between male and female in the Jewish world.
  • The additional gap between a holy man and a woman with a colourful sexual history.

This story is about scandal, but we have so domesticated it that it now mostly functions as a pale echo of the original dramatic story. The disciples were rightly shocked to find Jesus speaking to such a woman when they returned from the village. We have been taught to think they were lacking in spiritual perception, but perhaps we are the ones who have not been able to see what is happening here.

So let’s now stand back from the story and think about what is happening!

REFLECTIONS

None of this was in the mission plan for Jesus and his disciples as they made their way to Jerusalem. This was not how they usually did things in the Jesus group. Jesus was going off script. His handlers were getting anxious.

  • Do we think we are Jesus’ handlers?
  • Do we have a monopoly on the Jesus franchise in this place?
  • Do we have the only well from which people can draw the living water?

Where are the places in the Bay where we may encounter people who will never be found inside these walls?

  • Are we willing to go off script?
  • Can we look beyond lifestyle to see the person?
  • Can we discern the fragment of the God story in their lives?
  • Can we call them on to the better rather than berate them for the past?
  • Can we be a safe place for people to explore the future into which God is calling them?
Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The ‘First Peoples’ of Palestine

In a recent op ed piece for the Australian Financial Review, Nyunggai Warren Mundine has suggested that the Jewish people are the only surviving descendants of the ‘first peoples’ of Palestine, and as such enjoy an exclusive claim to the land of Palestine.

Mundine is an experienced public figure, a former president of the Australian Labor Party, and an Australian indigenous leader. He was writing at least partly in response to recent statements by former ALP Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, calling for immediate recognition of the State of Palestine by Australia. As such his comments should be read in the context of an internal ALP debate as well as a growing national debate about the desirability of Australia recognising the State of Palestine. This is all healthy debate in an open society.

Mundine’s AFR article has drawn criticism from a number of angles, including this critique by Bishop George Browning.

Like Bishop Browning, I am appalled at the way Mundine trashes his own legacy as an indigenous human rights activist to support the policies and actions of the government led by Benjamin Natanyahu. There are many ways to support Israel without descending to that political gutter.

In this essay, I want to offer a different perspective on the question of the ‘first peoples’ of Palestine.

Before doing that, I note that even Mundine finds it necessary to speak about the Palestinians as real people living in the land of Palestine and of the desirability of them having their own state. Whether such a Palestine ‘state’ would be anything more than an ethnic homeland designed to exclude Palestinians from full democratic participation in the Israeli political system is another matter, and not one that I plan to address here. However, it does get me wondering whether that is the kind of model Mundine now proposes for the indigenous people of Australia?

At the outset, let me make it very clear that I support the right of the Jewish population within Palestine to create a separate and independent national state rather than live in a bi-national state alongside non-Jewish citizens. I may think such a choice was a mistake, as many Jews around the world did in 1948, but in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Nazi death camps that was the choice of most Jews inside Palestine and many more who came to join the Zionist project after 1948.

The existence of Israel as a successful and vibrant national society is beyond question, and the achievements of the citizens of Israel—both Jewish and Palestinian—since 1948 are remarkable.

Much remains to be achieved, but that is no criticism of Israel.

Our own record of treating the indigenous peoples of this land—as we benefit from the settler society created by British colonists—should caution us against cheap criticism of the settler society created in Palestine by Jewish colonists. Indeed, our national stories have eerie parallels during these past 200 years, and we may have much to learn from each other: not in tactics for controlling the indigenous people, but in strategies for reconciliation and doing justice.

Here Mundine could be a serious contributor to the task of community building and intra-national reconciliation. Sadly, he has chosen to be a protagonist for colonial oppression of the indigenous majority of  Palestine by settlers of mostly European origins.

Let me now turn to the question of the first peoples of Palestine, and specifically Mundine’s claims  (1) that the Jewish people are the only surviving descendants of those first peoples, and (2) that this gives them an exclusive right to enjoy the land of Palestine today.

This is bad history, bad theology, and bad politics.

Let me address each of these in turn.

Bad History

Like many pro-Israeli activists, Mundine mistakenly accepts the claim that the Jewish people controlled ancient Palestine, whether by conquest or some other social transformation, for a considerable period of time in the ancient world. This historical Jewish national presence was ‘interrupted’ between 70CE and 1948CE, but has now been restored.

So goes the Zionist propaganda. But it is bad history and, as we shall see, bad theology which—when combined—create even worse politics.

The historical account is much  more complex than either the contemporary spin doctors or the ancient authors of the biblical texts would have us believe.

Contemporary historians of the ancient Levant as well as critical biblical scholars have established beyond reasonable debate that the biblical narratives do not reflect historical reality, but rather express the political and national aspirations of a small Jewish community whose elite promoted the Jerusalem temple as the unique place for encounter with YHWH, the national god of ancient Israel.

Even the terms “Israel” and “Jewish” are problematic in the biblical context.

‘Israel’ tends to refer to the larger and more powerful political entity whose capital was located—ironically—in the West Bank. This Israel opposed the religio-political aspirations of the more backward society centered around Jerusalem, and indeed for much of the time the southern kingdom (Judah) was a client state of the northern kingdom. The term ‘Jew” is derived from Judah, and does not include the bulk of the ancient Israelites from the biblical period.

Those ‘Israelites’—a term which can include the people of Judah—emerged in ancient Canaanite society around 1200BCE, at the beginning of the Iron Age in the southern Levant. They shared Palestine with many other ethnic groups, as one would expect given the geopolitical location of Palestine between the great empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Out of this ancient melting pot emerged a distinctive people, who described themselves as ‘Israel’. At first these people are indistinguishable from the non-Israelite population of ancient Palestine on the basis of their archaeological legacy. Over time they develop some distinctive features, including the worship of YHWH to the exclusion of all other gods. Even that, however, is not clearly established until well into the Hellenistic period which is probably also the time period during which the biblical texts common to Jews and Christians took their current form.

By the time of Rome’s crushing defeat of the Jewish rebellion in 70CE, the peoples of Palestine tended to describe themselves as either Greeks, Jews, or Samaritans. These are not racial categories, but ethnic identities largely shaped by culture, including language and legion. Hold that idea in mind since it applies equally after the Islamic invasions in the mid-600s CE.

What happened to these ancient ethnic communities of first-century Palestine during the 600 years between the capture of Jerusalem by Roman forces and the capture of Jerusalem  by the Arab forces?

The simple answer is that most of the people became Christians. A few remained Jewish. A larger minority continued to identity as Samaritans.

Today, Palestine has Jewish communities with ancient roots stretching back hundreds of years (if not longer), as well as a very small Samaritan community (mostly centred in Nablus), a substantial Christian community who also traces its roots back to the first century, and a large Muslim community. All of these people trace their roots in the land back centuries, if not millennia.

DNA analysis confirms this, with the closest match between any groups being the match between Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians. That, of course, is equally unwelcome news in Jerusalem as it is in Damascus or Ramallah.

What happened in the 7th century was not a colonisation of Palestine by Arabs, but a conquest of Palestine—along with Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, Syria, etc—by Arab forces united by their new Islamic religion. The indigenous people of Palestine were no more eradicated by this conquest, than the indigenous peoples of Egypt or Syria. We might compare this with the British conquest of India, where the indigenous people remained a vast majority that would eventually reassert its independence.

The Arab conquerors formed a ruling elite, but the great mass of the peasants were the local people. In the beginning they were almost entirely Christians, and they were not required to convert to Islam. Some did in the first few decades, and over time almost everyone converted. A significant minority of Christians, representing around 10% of the population, did not convert. Similarly, a very small community of Samaritans continued to maintain their identity and their culture.

What did happen was that the Christian majority in the early decades of the Islamic conquest decided to switch from Aramaic to Arabic, and to adopt the identity of the rulers. Everyone in the Islamic empire found it convenient to claim Arab identity: Palestinian Christians became ‘Arab’ Christians, Palestinian Jews became ‘Arab’ Jews, and so on.

The direct descendants of the ancient people of Palestine are still with us. A small percentage of them are to be found among the Diaspora Jews who retained their Jewish identity, but the vast majority of them are to be found among the Palestinians of various religious communities still living in their ancestral lands. They never left. They are still present in the land of their ancestors. They have adapted to other conquests in the past. and will adapt to this latest conquest by Zionist Jews. They are all one people, but have developed different identities during the last 2,000 years of history.

Bad Theology

Many Jewish Zionists (but not all Jews) and many Christian Evangelicals (but not all Christians) combine the bad history seen in Mundine’s essay with equally bad theology. Indeed, the theology may be worse than the bad history since it shapes how people act and excuses crimes against humanity as religious observance. We have seen too much of that in the Middle East these past few decades.

Many Zionists, whether Jewish or Christian, promote a theology which affirms that God gave the land of Palestine to the descendants of Abraham as an eternal gift for their exclusive enjoyment.

Already the problems with this tribal religion masquerading as biblical theology are very apparent.

  1. History does not support such a self-serving claim by the Hellenistic Jews who created the biblical texts that promote this toxic idea.
  2. The ‘descendants of Abraham’ are not limited to the Diaspora Jews arriving in Palestine between the late 1800s and the present time. All the Palestinians can claim the land under such narrative theology.
  3. Even the Bible preserves a ‘minority report’ that understood the relationship between land, people and covenant very differently.

The Bible suggests that the ancestors of the Israelites were from ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, the area we now call Iraq. In this narrative they mostly settled peacefully among the indigenous people, despite the occasional disagreement over pastoral rights, etc.

There is  no tradition of conquest here. That will come with the exodus traditions and in the great—and very late—nationalistic epic stretching from Joshua to 2 Kings. Here there is no driving out of the indigenous people. No ethnic cleansing. No separate national states with exclusive economic benefits for its people at the expense of those excluded.

Indeed, in Genesis 12:1–3 Abraham and his extended family are led to Palestine by YHWH, who directs them to settle in the land, to live among the indigenous peoples, and to conduct themselves in such a way that the local people will consider themselves blessed to have Abraham and his descendants living with them.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country (eretz) and your kindred and your father’s house to the country (eretz) that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the land (‘adamah) shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1–3 NRSV modified)

In verse 3, ‘adamah is most often translated as ‘earth’. Imperial theology such as we find dominant in Western Christianity prefers to read this as global evangelisation, but that can hardly have been the intent of the author. In context it can equally be understood as the peoples (families) of the land of Palestine. Abraham and his family now share this land (‘adamah) with the indigenous peoples, to the acknowledged benefit of the first peoples.

Tribal religion based on self-serving fictional narratives of the past encourages imperial theology. This is toxic religion. This is bad theology.

Such theology encourages the powerful to oppress and exploit the poor, among whom we most often find the indigenous peoples in a world of empire.

Bad Politics

When a flawed historical narrative is combined with a tribal theology that justifies military force to achieve the ambitions of one ethnic group over other ethnic groups, we have a ‘perfect storm’ of bad history, bad theology, and bad politics.

The prophetic legacy of the Jewish Scriptures, which Christians find embodied in the person of Jesus (himself a Palestinian Jew in a world of empire) and enacted in his mission, calls empire to account and affirms the universal sovereignty of the God revealed in the biblical narratives, as well as in other sacred traditions.

We need a theology that promotes justice, gives hope, and constrains the predilections of the powerful. We need good news. We need Gospel.

We desperately need a political program that engages critically with the best of our historical and biblical scholarship, rather than one that pampers to popular prejudice in order to secure a tainted victory in a dysfunctional electoral system. Sadly, what we see in many Western societies at the moment is a flight from good history and gospel theology into political programs that enrich the few and enslave the many.

Jesus of Nazareth joins with the prophets of ancient Israel in warning us that such systems of oppression and exploitation will fall under the judgment of God. Bad politics will not stand the test of time. In the end, God’s vision for a just society in which all creation finds blessing is not only better theology, but also good politics and that will create a better history.

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