Romulus and Remus coin

A coin which Ibrahim Abu Rakbeh (from St George’s Bazaar across from the College in Nablus Road) recently asked me to read for him has proved to be rather interesting.

Here is what the coin looks like:

 The official description of the coin, which was issued by Constantine I in 330–333 CE to commemorate the founding of his new capital, Constantinople, reads as follows:

18 x 19 mm. 3.0gm. OBV: VRBS-ROMA [City of Rome] Roma, helmeted, wearing imperial cloak. REV: She-wolf with circle on shoulder standing left with twins (Romulus and Remus); above, two stars. In ex. SMTSE (Signata Moneta, Thessalonica, 5th factory) [RIC VII Thessalonica 187]

In case it is easier for you to view, here is an example of an identical coin from the same mint:vrbs-roma-thessalonica-187

It is interesting to note that 5 years after the Council of Nicea, Constantine is still issuing a coin that celebrates the myth of Rome’s founding by one of the two boys that had been abandoned in the forest but survived when suckled by a she-wolf.

The myth exists in several versions, including this one from Plutarch ca. 75 CE:

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 … 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. [Plutarch, ca 75 CE]

More on the Romulus and Remus legend here.

This myth clearly had currency well into the beginning of the Byzantine period, and it may have been in Luke’s mind as he prepared his “orderly account” of the birth of Jesus for his high-placed Roman addressee, Theophilus.

As Luke tells the story, there are two boys who share similar miraculous signs: John and Jesus. In the biblical account they are cousins rather than siblings, but the Lukan infancy narrative may still have evoked the legend of the founding of Rome. When Luke addressed his elite Roman Christian audience represented by the ‘most excellent Theophilus’ (Luke 1:4), he was not so much seeking to describe the birth of Jesus as to celebrate the significance of the Christ Child.

One of these two boys—and Luke clearly indicates that it is Jesus, not John— is destined to establish the empire of God (basileia tou theou in Greek), to bring peace, and to be the Savior of the world. Again, this evokes the traditional imperial claims to be a son of God (F DIV on Roman coins), the Saviour (SERVATOS in Latin, soter in Greek) and the guarantor of peace (PAX). Luke is proclaiming the divinity of the Christ Child, as well as his destiny as the ruler of the empire of God. This is powerful ‘public theology’ that engages with and challenges the assumptions of privilege and power.

Note: This story was first published the St George’s College Jerusalem web site on 9 July 2016. I acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Peter Lewis in Australia in confirming my interpretation of this coin and also advising of the identity of the mint where it was issued.
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2017 Bible and Archaeology Study Tour

150620 Banias

For those interested in a three week study tour with a focus on the Bible and archaeology, here are some details of the 2017 Bible and Archaeology program to be offered at St George’s College, Jerusalem in June/July this year.

Dates: 18 June – July 7, 2017

Study Tour Leader: Dr Greg Jenks

Costs: The College fee for this three week program is US$5,000 per person. This includes all accommodation, meals and land travel in Israel/Jordan, as well as entry to national parks and museums. It excludes air travel, travel insurance, drinks and tips. The College will collect US$100 from each participants to cover gratuities to all staff as well as drivers, porters, etc.

Closing Date: Friday, 10 March 2017

Academic Credit: For eligible students, academic credit may be given for THL361 Theology International Study Experience at CSU School of Theology. Financial assistance for the cost of the program may also be available. Full details at the CSU Global web site.

Description: The program is designed to include two weeks working on the archaeology dig at Bethsaida, but that aspect of the program may need to be changed.

In brief, we are in transition from the project being hosted by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to a new hosting arrangement with Drew University. It is possible that there may not be a season at Bethsaida in 2017, or that we may be digging at Magdala instead of Bethsaida. As a result, I have prepared an alternative three week program without any actual time on a dig, just in case that is necessary.

Copies of the draft schedule, including the alternative option that includes no time working as a volunteer on a dig site, are available on request. Simply drop me an email and I shall be happy to send the draft schedules to you.

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A sermon for St Andrew’s Day

Andrew of Bethsaida, the ‘first-called’

 A sermon preached at St Andrew’s Theological Seminary, Manila on St Andrew’s Day, 2016.



It is an immense honor for me to stand here among you on this feast day of St Andrew, and it is with a deep sense of privilege that I bring you greetings from the Christian community in the Holy Land, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, and in Nazareth.

Greetings in the name of Jesus our Lord from your sisters and brothers in Palestine, and Israel, and Jordan, and Lebanon.

Greetings, in particular, from Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem.

The land of the Holy One, the land that Jesus knew, is now divided among four nations.

It is the one land, with two peoples, and three faiths.

The Christians of that land give thanks to God for you, and they ask you to remember them in your prayers.

They do not ask you to take side in their national, political, and social conflicts, but they do ask for your solidarity in Christ as they seek to be faithful people of God in their land at this time.

And they make the same prayer for you here in this land at this time.

Andrew of Bethsaida

It is sad but true that Andrew’s connections with Bethsaida are not often considered. Sadly this is true even for someone such as myself who is one of the co-directors for the Bethsaida archaeology project.

We tend to focus on Bethsaida as the city of Simon Peter and the city of Philip, but not to give much thought to Bethsaida as the city of Andrew.

That is an oversight I regret, and the invitation to be here with you today offers me an opportunity to make amends!

After 30 years of excavations at Bethsaida we have a pretty good idea of what Andrew’s town was like.

It was located at twelve o’clock on the Sea of Galilee, right next to the point where the rapidly running waters of the Jordan River flow into the still waters of the lake. After dropping 3000m from the Lebanese mountains to the lake, the water is moving at a pace and carrying lots of silt. As it meets the lake it loses its momentum and drops its load of soil and nutrients at the northwestern edge of the lake.

Over time the silt accumulates. The water slowly becomes shallow. It is warm. It is rich in nutrients. It creates the fish breeding grounds of the Kinneret then and now. This slow physical process created Bethsaida, and its was to destroy it as well.

Andrew lived in Bethsaida at a time when its natural advantages as a fishing village had expired. As the delta in the NW corner of the lake grew in size, Bethsaida found itself cut off from the lake. A fishing village without access to the lake is a village without a future.

Maybe that is why Andrew and Peter were to encounter Jesus in the nearby village of Nahum, better known to us as Kefar Naoum, Capernaum? There the fishers had good access to the rich fish breeding grounds in the NW corner of the lake,

Andrew was proactive in the face of adversity.

Together with his brother, Simon—and perhaps other fishing colleagues from Bethsaida—Andrew relocated to Capernaum. It was not a long journey, But it was on the other side of a deep political divide. That is a story to which we shall need to turn shortly.

First, let me observe that Andrew was known by his Greek name, as was his neighbour, Philip. This is in contrast to Jesus and his family, all of whom—according to the tradition preserved in Mark 6—had Jewish names with good biblical pedigrees:

Mary/Miriam – sister of Moses
Joseph – the dreamer, one the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel
James/Jacob – the ancestor of the 12 tribes
Jeshua/Jesus – Joshua
Joses/Joseph – perhaps named for their father
Simon – another of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel
Jude – yet another of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel

Andrew’s name reflects the character of Bethsaida as we have come to know it from its material culture that we have unearthed in our excavations.

Once the capital of the Aramean kingdom of Tsur during the Iron Age, this village had never been an Israelite town. It was always a border town, in the foothills of the Golan.

We can trace the contours of its culture and its political fortunes as we sift through the layers of Iron Age city and then the new village that was established by settlers from Tyre and Sidon in the Hellenistic period. For a hundred years and more after the conquests of Alexander the Great, this was a frontier village on the northwest boundary of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It then came within the Seleucid Empire, and we can trace the change of administration in the coins at Bethsaida that now celebrated Antiochus rather than Ptolemy. Finally, not long before the time of Jesus, it became a Jewish outpost as Herod the Great completed the unsuccessful attempt by the Hasmonean to impose Jerusalem control on this northern edge of the biblical lands.

The village had become Jewish, as we can see from the Herodian oil lamps, the limestone vessels, the Herodian coins, and from the deliberate desecration of a small pagan temple from the second or third century BCE. But the town retained some vestiges of its non-Jewish past.

Following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, the north east corner of his kingdom was assigned to one of his three surviving sons: Philip the Tetrarch. Another son, Antipas, was assigned the fertile country between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean as well as the territory of Perea on the eastern side of the Jordan River (opposite Jericho).

The two sons engaged in a long running competition for Roman endorsement as their father’s heir, and each aspired to the title, “King of the Jews”. Bethsaida was destined to play a role in that conflict, even though it was too little too late for Philip. And this takes us back to the political divide between Bethsaida and Capernaum that I mentioned earlier.

Non-Jewish traditions flourished in Philip’s jurisdiction, as we see from his coins which feature the head of the Roman emperor and (just once) his own image. Neither Herod nor Antipas ever issued coins with such images, which were deeply offensive to pious Jews. In the far north of his territory Philip was delighted to have inherited the Augusteum, a temple in honor of the divine Emperor. This building at Caesarea Philippi, the city Philip built for Caesar, featured on most of his coins. and it celebrated pagan traditions connected with the emperor cult.

A year after the execution of Jesus (on the first anniversary of the death of Julia, mother of Tiberias), Philip transformed Bethsaida into a Greek city with the name, Julias. He most likely rededicated the Hellenistic pagan temple as a shrine in honour of the divine Julia. Sacred images of Julia have been recovered from the site in our excavations.

So Andrew of Bethsaida is not just a fisherman from a small village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He carried a Greek name and will have lived through times of significant social change in his home village.

But there is more to Andrew than an interesting multicultural zip code.

At this point we shift our focus from Philip the Tetrarch to his brother, Herod Antipas.

Antipas was in many ways a worthy candidate for his father’s throne. He was ambitious and calculating. Jesus called him “that fox” (Luke 13:32).

After initially rebuilding Sepphoris to be the capital city of his new jurisdiction, by 18 CE he has moved to a new project. With the succession of Tiberius as emperor after Augustus, Antipas decided to found a new city on the western side of the lake. He named it Tiberias and the centre of gravity for his administration shifted from Sepphoris to the lake.

He taxed the fishing industry hard, as it was one of the few natural resources at his disposal.

Tiberias lay then (as now) at the southern end of the fish breeding grounds in the NW corner of the lake. Capernaum and Migdal to the north were key centres for the fishing industry.

Despite the burden of these heavy taxes, Andrew relocates to Capernaum. Along with Peter—and perhaps also James and John, the sons of Zebedee—Andrew chooses to live in the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas.

But there is more to the story of Andrew and Antipas.

Andrew was also a follower of John the Baptist, and John was critic of Antipas. His criticism of Antipas for divorcing his own wife to marry the wife of his brother, Philip, was to cost John his life.

So let’s tease this out a little further,

Andrew has relocated from Bethsaida to Capernaum, but in John 1 we find Andrew among the disciples of John the Baptism in the southern area of Antipas, at Bethany-beyond-Jordan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (John 1:35–42 NRSV)

This suggests that Andrew had been drawn into the prophetic renewal movement associated with John the Baptiser. Andrew—along with his brother, Peter, and at least one other person from Bethsaida, Philip—had travelled down to the southern end of the Jordan Valley to participate in John’s mission.

We would love to know more.

One thing we can be sure of: this was not a fishing expedition!

Like Jesus himself, Andrew and his close associates from Bethsaida had been drawn into the crowds responding to John’s preaching in the wilderness. He was already on a spiritual journey before he encountered Jesus.

And that journey was political as well as religious.

To associate with John was to oppose Antipas.

Then we see Andrew among the first to shift his allegiance from John to Jesus.

After that, Andrew tells Peter that he has found the Messiah. In the classic turn of phrase, “he brought Simon to Jesus.” Not a bad achievement for the first convert of the ‘first-called’.

Later in John’s Gospel, Andrew will bring to Jesus the small boy with the five barley loaves and two small fish (John 6:6–10), and then he and Philip will go to tell Jesus that some ‘Greeks’ are wanting to meet him (John 12:20–24).

Apart from being consistently named among the Twelve, there are two other traditions about Andrew in New Testament.

In Mark 1, Andrew is described as jointly owning with Peter the house in Capernaum that we tend to call “Peter’s house”. This house became a place of hospitality and healing, a place of teaching and wisdom, and the place that Jesus himself would call home.

Finally, in Mark’s version of the apocalyptic discourse (Mark 13:3), Andrew is named among the inner circle of disciples who ask Jesus to explain his teaching on the end of the world.


Andrew of Bethsaida then disappears from our sight, and is never included among the “so-called pillars” of the church in Paul’s correspondence. We have no reliable information about him after Easter, although that has not prevented Christians in various parts of the world claiming him as their patron saint.

What thumbnail sketch of Andrew emerges from this survey of archaeology and text?

What wisdom for our journey of faith?

What insights for our mission?

Andrew was grounded in his own faith tradition.

He also lived in a pluralistic community where his tradition was not the only option.

Andrew of Bethsaida lived in a mixed community with Jews and pagans, and his own name reflects the cultural and religious diversity of Bethsaida.

He lived at time when ecological changes in the local environment made traditional life difficult, and required him to relocate to a more sustainable location.

Andrew never forgot his roots even when creating a new future for himself and his family.

He lived in a time of political tension as the surviving sons of Herod the Great pursued their personal political ambitions with no regard for the people under their rule.

Andrew was drawn into the Jewish renewal movement led by John the Baptist, and traveled to the southern end of the Jordan valley to explore what this might mean for him and for his family.

He was not content just to be a passive participant in the crowds that came to hear John, but we find him spending time in John’s company and seeking to go deeper.

Andrew was with John when Jesus walks by and decides to go after this stranger of whom John spoke so highly.

With the patience of an experienced fisherman, Andrew spends a whole day with Jesus: observing, listening, asking questions.

Andrew becomes the first-called, the first person we know who was called to follow Jesus.

He embraced the call to be a disciple, and he invited others to do the same.

This is the person we celebrate today, and this is the legacy we claim as our own. The Jesus who called Andrew, calls us.

May our response be as strong as Andrew’s, and as true to our own context in this place at this time.

Posted in Sermons, St George's College Jerusalem, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Saying YES to God

A sermon for the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on Monday, 4 April 2016.

Today we celebrate the courage of a young woman who said YES to God.

Luke the master storyteller has crafted a beautiful story about the birth of Jesus.

He has woven together elements from Jewish tradition as well as the Roman world in which he lived. The world of his principal addressee, Theophilus.

Luke is celebrating the strange workings of God among us.

The strange workings of a God who calls Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees.

The strange workings of a God who speaks to Musa from the burning bush.

The strange workings of a God who calls the people of Israel into being in this land of promise.

The strange workings of a God who comes among us in the person of Jesus.

The strange workings of a God who calls the Jewish people back from Diaspora to renew their ancient connections with this land.

Luke begins with a story of two births.

Two women who find themselves pregnant in unusual circumstances. An elderly woman who has not conceived despite several decades of married life. And a maiden not yet married.

Two miraculous births.

At the heart of the story is a young Palestine Jewish woman from Nazareth who says YES to God.

This evening we are invited to imitate Mary by making our own YES to God.

God invites our YES.

That is amazing. Think about it. God waits for us to respond before acting. In creation we are called to collaborate with God, but in salvation God chooses to wait for us.

God comes to us. In the reading from Isaiah 52 just now, God says, “Here am I.” The words later found on the lips of Mary in Luke 1, and on the lips of Jesus in Hebrews 2, are also found on the lips of God. “Here am I.”

God waits for us.

God invites our response.

God chooses not to act until we are ready to say YES.

How shall we respond to the God who invites our response?

And to what might we be saying YES?

We will be saying YES to hope

We will be saying YES to trust

We will be saying YES to life

We will be saying YES to justice

We will be saying YES to compassion

We will be saying YES to freedom

We will be saying YES to joy

We will be saying YES to love

The world needs people who say YES to these things.

The world needs people who say YES to God.

We need to be people who say YES to the God who invites us to work with God to heal and save a broken world. AMEN

Posted in Sermons, St George's College Jerusalem, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Eternal Dance of Love and Fear

A sermon at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on Maundy Thursday, 24 March 2016.

Our paschal liturgies have commenced.

It is Maundy Thursday, and we stand at the beginning of the three holiest days in the year for Christians.

In the next few hours and during the next two days we shall follow the ancient observances of the paschal liturgies:

Tonight we join Jesus and the disciples in the upper room as they share a final meal, and as Jesus offers them a master class in spiritual leadership.

Later we shall walk to Gethsemane, as Jesus and those first disciples did here in this city on that first Maundy Thursday night so long ago.

Unlike them, we know the outcome of the story. We walk to the garden knowing about the betrayal and the imminent arrest. And we shall walk away from the garden with hearts that are not weighed down with confusion, fear and grief as theirs were on that first Maundy Thursday.

Tomorrow morning, we shall gather in the narrow streets of the Old City to walk and pray the traditional route of the Via dolorosa, the way of the cross.

The indifferent stares of the residents as yet another bunch of Christian pilgrims treads the flagstones of this ancient city will be but a pale echo of the rejection experienced by Jesus as he walked those streets on his way to Calvary.

At noon we shall gather here again for the solemn liturgy of Good Friday.

Our sadness at the cruel and undeserved death does not even begin to touch the depth of the grief of those who watched helpless from the sidelines as Jesus was executed under the noonday sun.

The silence of the following day will eventually surrender to the shouts of joy as the news of Easter spreads like a ripple in a sceptical and distracted world. Who cares what happened to this man? What difference does it make anyway?

Perhaps it makes all the difference in the world. At least, that is our faith!

That is the pathway that stretches out before us tonight, and now we begin that journey.

The eternal dance of love and fear

As I have reflected on these events and liturgies the past few days, I have found myself noting the interplay of love and fear.

Michael Leunig, an Australian cartoonist, poet and cultural commentator has observed as follows in his poem Love and Fear:

There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.

That poem offers a way to reflect on the significance of the events back then as well as the dynamics around us here and now.

Love and Fear Then 

Was the death of Jesus an act of love, or the expression of a deep and deadly Fear?

Do we even need to ask?

Jesus was drawn to Jerusalem, and thus to his death, by love. His love of God. His love for the city of God, over which he wept as he considered what lay ahead. And his love for the people who gathered around him as disciples and fellow pilgrims.

It was love that made the preparations for the last supper in a borrowed upper room.

It was love that put Jesus on his knees washing the feet of his disciples.

It was love that broke the bread and blessed the cup.

It was fear that drove Judas to hand Jesus over to his enemies.

It was fear that persuaded the leaders to seek a way to eliminate Jesus.

It was fear that caused the crowd to call for his crucifixion.

Love and Fear Now

Here in this city these past several months, it has been fear that drives people to stab strangers and run them down with cars.

It is fear that causes armed soldiers to shoot dead attackers who are armed only with knives and scissors.

It is fear that causes extremists to vandalise and burn churches.

It is fear that surrounds illegal settlements on stolen land with barbed wire fences.

It is fear that erects a concrete wall through the heart of the land.

It is fear that attacks civilians in Paris, in Istanbul and in Brussels.

It is fear that turns away refugees seeking asylum.

It is fear that causes children to drown in the ocean in the quest for safety.

It is fear that rains death from the sky on Raqqa, on Homs, or on Damascus.

It is fear that traps 1.8 million people inside the fences that surround Gaza.

It is fear that threatens Christian minorities across the lands held by Daesh.

It is fear that can imagine no way for two peoples to share the one land.

It is fear that prefers the status quo to a just peace.

It is fear that divides, hates, and kills.

It is fear that blinds us so that we can see no partner for peace.

It is fear that distorts our vision so that we project our worst nightmare onto our neighbor, rather than seeing him as a human being just like our selves.

This city, this land, and this world is filled with fear.

Where is the love?


Fear has No Future

Fear seems so much stronger because it is so destructive.

But in the end – in the End – fear has no future, because fear does not sustain life.

Lives, corporations, and societies grounded in fear and defended by violence never last.

As the darkest night is split by a small flicker of light, so the empire of fear is doomed once love takes root and life begins to bloom once more.

This is the message of Easter, and it is the message of this first evening of the sacred triduum.

Fear seems so powerful, and it is indeed destructive. But in the end fear destroys even itself.

Love seems so fragile, and is often the victim of fear, but in the end love wins.

In his famous hymn to love, St Paul writes:

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)

As we walk through the Paschal liturgies these next three days, let us never lose sight of the gentle power of love to overcome all obstacles, and of the ultimate impotence of fear. In the end, love prevails. Life wins.

With Mary we affirm:

[God is] casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.

And with the author of 1 John we proclaim:

There is no fear in love,
but perfect love casts out fear … (1 John 4:18)

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The God who Reconciles

A sermon delivered at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6 March 2016.

Today we enter the second half of our Lenten journey.

Behind us lie the first three Sundays of Lent:

  • Lent 1 – Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan (Luke 4:1-13)
  • Lent 2 – Jesus condemns Jerusalem for its treatment of the prophets (Luke 13:31-35)
  • Lent 3 – the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:1-9)

Those are all fairly grim texts.

Ahead of us the two Sundays that especially focus on the Passion of Christ:

  • Lent 5 – a woman anoints Jesus for burial (John 12:1–8)
  • Lent 6 – Palm Sunday (Luke 22 & 23)

Today we have something of a respite.

In some Christian traditions today is known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’ because it offers a slight relaxation of the Lenten fast, and something of a respite from the penitential focus of this season.

Sometimes rose-colored vestments are worn, instead of the traditional purple. (You may recall a similar thing happens on the Third Sunday of Advent.)

In the UK and some parts of the Anglican Communion today is also observed as Mothering Sunday.

That observance has its origins in the tradition that servants and apprentices were released from regular duties to visit the church of their baptism and also to see their mothers, perhaps even taking them a gift from the place where they served.

Here in this land, Mothers’ Day is observed on March 21, so we can focus on today as the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Reconciliation as the Mission of God in our Time

Given the themes of the NT readings for this Sunday, we could consider designating today as ‘Reconciliation Sunday’. That is not its official title, but it would certainly fit with the readings.

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself … (2 Cor 5:19)

This is a powerful piece of very early Christology. The letters to the Corinthians preserve pastoral communications between Paul and the emerging Christian community in Corinth. They date from a time in the 50s, around 20 years after Easter.

In these letters, which predate the Gospels by several decades and perhaps 100 years in the case of Luke, we get the first evidence of how the followers of Jesus were already making sense of his death as something God did for our benefit.

Everybody in Corinth realised that crucifixion was something awful. It was the worst form of capital punishment used in the Roman Empire. It reflected final condemnation and exclusion from society. There was no honour attached to such a death. Nothing could be rescued from such a disaster.

But the followers of Jesus came to see the cross as an action in which God reconciled the world to himself.

It is a far richer concept than the medieval idea that someone had to pay for sin, so Jesus suffered in order to preserve the patriarchal honor of God.

Instead, here we have God taking the worst that Rome could inflict on Jesus, and making that very act the occasion for reconciliation.

Not merely the forgiveness of sins, but the reconciliation of a world gone awry.

The prodigal and the loving father (Luke 15)

The lectionary matches that Pauline text with one of the most confronting parables of Jesus, the so-called Prodigal Son.

Here we see reconciliation at work, and also its limits.

We all know the story. It has three main characters, as in many oral stories:

  • the ungrateful son
  • the generous father
  • the grumpy older brother

These are exaggerated caricatures, and that exaggeration invites us to reflect on those times when we are one or more of these characters.

The wealth of the father is matched by the selfishness of the younger son, which is in turn matched by the self-less love of the father, which itself is trumped by the self-righteous indignation of ‘Mr Perfect’, the elder brother.

Reconciliation is hard work, and not everyone will agree to be reconciled.

Yet it remains our work, because it is the mission of God.

… and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor 5:19)

The divine mission of turning hatred, death and rejection into an act of cosmic reconciliation has been entrusted to us.

To us.

Of all people, to us.


Of all places, here in this conflicted city and divided land.

Not only here.

But especially here, because this is where the cross become Ground Zero for the divine mission of reconciliation.

As we come to the Table of the Lord this morning and stretch out our hands to receive the Body of Christ, we ask for grace to be ambassadors for Christ, spending our lives in the mission of reconciliation.

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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.




Posted in Palestine, Sermons, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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
Posted in Palestine, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

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.


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.


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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