of back stories and afterlives

St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane
Choral Evensong
20 August 2023 

Of back stories and afterlives

In a majestic edifice such as this Cathedral we are reminded that Christianity has a back story.

As we participate in the beautiful liturgy of Choral Evensong, we are experiencing a form of worship that has sustained faith for hundreds of years and indeed much longer.

The building and the prayer book draw together elements of Western civilization from at least the time of Jesus. The Scriptures go back even further and draw from wells of ancient wisdom and spiritual practice centred around the temple in Jerusalem.

Yes, the church has a back story.

Of course, that back story is not as venerable as the stories of our First Nations, but like the much more ancient stories of our Indigenous Peoples it is a story that reflects the wisdom of slow time.  

As a “slow time” narrative, our back story is not captive to a 3 or 4-year electoral cycle.

The great story of faith invites us to dream long-term while acting here and now.

As people of faith—as people with such a back story—we do not build for a single generation.We invest in outcomes that may not be seen in our own lifetimes.

This is sometimes called “cathedral thinking.” That term captures the truth that cathedrals can take decades or even centuries to complete; and are expected to last for hundreds of years.

Not many architects are invited to create a building to last 500 years.

In today’s throwaway culture we literally spend our fortune on structures that will not last; and were never designed to do so in any case.

To step inside this awesome church is to cross from everyday time into a liminal space where the distant past remains strangely present in stone and text, music and ritual. The lingering aroma of incense as we enter the Cathedral draws us into the great back story of faith. 

When we leave from this place we are imbued with the holiness celebrated here, and perhaps we take a little of that with us as we return to the everyday world. A lingering aroma of otherness. Of slowness. 

The scriptures that we have read and sung in this service are from the back story of Christianity. Indeed, they all come from a time when the term “Christian” had not yet been fashioned.

These are Jewish texts. All of them. Even the New Testament writings are Jewish texts although they were written to explore the significance of Jesus for individuals and communities during the first 100 years after Easter.

Earlier in this service we heard a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is easy to overlook the fact that Saint Paul was a Pharisee. He was a proud Jew and had such a strong sense of his identity that he claimed to be a Hebrew-speaking Israelite. 

Of course, he was also a follower of Jesus. But Paul would never accept any suggestion that this made him anything less than a totally kosher Jew.

As our sacred back story, the Scriptures come from a time when we did not yet have a name for the new religious movement that was taking shape within Judaism but would eventually become a separate religion. 

Yet there is more than a back story here in this cathedral, in our liturgies and especially in our scriptures. 

The scriptures themselves do not just speak about the past. They imagine a future, sometimes described as the kingdom or empire of God in distinction from the way things are usually done in the everyday empire of how-things-happen-around-here.

That back story disturbs what Crossan describes as the (violent) normalcy of civilization, and subverts the narrative of how-things-happen-around-here with a meta-narrative of compassion, truth-telling and reconciliation.

These sacred texts are an incubator for what is yet to be, and they fashion faith that will transform successive phases of cultural normalcy with the subversive dream of a better way.

We encounter that back story here in this place, where new light is indeed streaming; to quote some lyrics from a recent hymn. 

However, the great story of biblical religions is not just an immense back story. We can also understand those sacred texts as a cascading series of afterlives. 

The originating spark is hard to identity. Perhaps there were several independent moments of insight. But there came a time when the prophets of ancient Israel began to speak truth to power, and demand a society that expressed in its everyday arrangements the character of God spoken about in its liturgies.

Scripture was born as the first afterlives of the prophets were composed: The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, and The Book of the Twelve Prophets.

The fashioning of those written afterlives took many generations and in some cases more than a hundred year. Kind of like a cathedral, I guess.

The prophetic afterlives then generated more afterlives as the rest of Hebrew Bible took shape, and then as people such as the community at Qumran wrote commentaries, targums and midrashim on these texts which they had themselves inherited from the past. 

Indeed, we can think of Jesus as himself an afterlife of Second Temple Judaism. 

Jesus was not opposed to the afterlives of the Moses and the prophets. He was a child of their wisdom and he embodied the compassion of which they spoke. 

It was as an afterlife of Judean religion that we can speak of Jesus fulfilling what was written in the prophets. There is much more happening in that phrase than proof texts plucked from ancient scrolls as talking points for later Christian spin doctors.

Jesus was inherently and authentically Jewish. 

He was one of many afterlives that developed from the scriptures of ancient Israel. 

For us he is the quintessential afterlife of Torah. The human face of God. 

The earliest Jesus movement in all its diversity was itself an afterlife of Jesus; or a set of several afterlives, more likely.

The different forms of Christianity that developed inside the Roman Empire but also beyond its borders, constituted multiple afterlives of Jesus.

Well beyond the explicit contours of Christianity we can discern numerous afterlives of Jesus. Many of them are traced in various chapters of the three books we shall be launching here this evening.

Not every afterlife of Jesus is authentic (even if they pay the bills) and some are clearly toxic. But the spiritual DNA of Jesus can be discerned in many people and in many forms of compassionate practice across time and in very different cultures.

Why would we expect anything less?

What else might “incarnation” mean? But there is more, and it gets personal.

Each of us who takes seriously the wisdom of Jesus is creating yet another afterlife of Jesus.

The afterlives which we are fashioning will express our best understandings of Jesus. The raw material for these new afterlives will be our own lives. In our better moments—and by the grace of God—the authentic spiritual wisdom of Jesus will be seen in our attitudes, actions and words. 

We do not simply replicate Jesus. Nor do we duplicate what others have down before us, or alongside us. Rather, we allow others the space to fashion the kind of Jesus afterlife that is most authentic for them, and—we hope—they allow us that same freedom as well.

And here is some surprising good news: these imposing cathedral buildings are great places for fashioning our own afterlives of Jesus. 

They are not just monuments to the past. 

They are also places where we create the future of what Jesus began as we fashion our individual and collective afterlives of Jesus.

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  1. Thank you Greg. To situate ourselves in the back story of the tradition and to be integral to the afterlife of Jesus is to regain a deeper sense of reality as it is, not as it seems on the surface. Again thank you.

  2. Greg, Your perceptions formulated here are the most persuasive concerning the continuity of the Faith that I have read.

    They are a challenge to all of us to re-assess the ideological power of the Jesus story. It helps me to understand why the Faith endures despite the distortions it experiences in the minds of fundamentalists and outright detractors. Keep up the good work.

    Best, John Moses

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