Making meaning out of the cross

My 2018 Good Friday sermon seems to have attracted rather more attention, and to have triggered much more conversation, than any other recent sermon. The overwhelming tone of the communications that I have received have been appreciative, positive and supportive. However, I also know that in certain theological corners my views have caused dismay and shock.

The fact that my sermon could have triggered such a disparity of responses, suggests that some of the response are actually driven by pre-existing attitudes towards me and my work, whether positive or negative. That is natural and of no concern to me, whether those people are friends or critics. C’est la vie.

The fact that so many of my critics—even those with a theological qualification—are shocked and dismayed by what I said, is a sad reflection on the narrowness of their own theological formation and their blissful blindness to the rich diversity that exists in Christian theology.

My Good Friday sermon focused on some of the historical aspects of the crucifixion, and I suggested my audience put aside three common but faulty (‘bad’) ideas about the cross, while also suggesting one other way to think about the cross which they might have found helpful to consider.

In brief, the three common but faulty ideas were:

1. The cross as an act of divine wrath or sacred violence;
2. The suffering experienced by Jesus as the reason that the cross matters; and
3. Our personal sins as the cause of Jesus being crucified.

The suggested alternative way to think about the death of Jesus that I offered was to think of it as an act of faithfulness by Jesus, who was willing to go anywhere and suffer anything for the sake of the reign of God, an idea that lay at the heart of his own mission and ministry. I grounded that suggestion—that it is the faithfulness of Jesus (η πιστις του Ιησου) that should be central to our thinking about the cross—in the teachings of St Paul in Romans 4.

Despite this careful work of deconstruction and reconstruction, which was actually well received by the congregation for whom it was prepared and to whom it was delivered, my sermon has been misunderstood—and in some cases, I suggest, deliberately misrepresented—as an attack on and a denial of particular beliefs about the atonement which some people at least consider to be the very core of Christian faith.

That assessment is doubly misguided and in its own way rather sad. I neither denied such beliefs nor are they central to the Gospel, even if they are so viewed by some people with a very particular and extremely narrow view of theology.

In offering—in this essay—a more extended discussion of the theological meaning of the death of Jesus than was possible in the context of a sermon, let me make some initial observations before moving to more specific comments.

First of all, as the title of this essay suggests, any Christian reflection on the cross is a recovery project. We are seeking to salvage something good out of a tragedy. We are seeking to make meaning out of a mistake. The execution of Jesus by the Roman administration in Judaea and Samaria was a miscarriage of justice, but hardly a unique event in that respect; either in those days or our own. It was also a mistake in a more ironic sense, in that if the execution was intended to put a stop to the revolutionary God-talk promoted by Jesus then it demonstrably failed and within 300 years the Emperor of Rome would not only have become a devotee of Jesus but would also chair the Council of Nicaea. In purely historical terms, the cross was a major mistake by the powers that were.

Secondly, in seeking to fashion a wholesome meaning (and that adjective is deliberate as I do believe that most Christian theological interpretation of the cross has not been wholesome) from the execution of Jesus, we need to be as ‘wise as serpents and as gentle as doves’, as Jesus once said. In other words, this is complicated and requires sophisticated thinking and the cognitive capacity to practice nuance in our project. Those skills seem demonstrably lacking in most of the negative responses to my Good Friday sermon as well as in some of the positive responses. In popular terms, we need to avoid throwing out the baby when emptying the bath water.

In this case, we need to be able to distinguish between intention and effect. Were I to be on trial for causing the death of another person, a critical matter to be determined by the judge or jury—apart from the historicity of the core events—would be my intention at the time that I caused the death of the other party. The result of my actions would not be in doubt, but the nature of what happened would depend very much on what my intention was thought to have been.

For the biblical authors—all of them Jewish and all them people whose mental and verbal discourse was framed within an Aramaic context, which itself had affinities with Biblical Hebrew—it was difficult to distinguish between intent and consequence. We see this very clearly in the gospels where some ancient words from Isaiah are quoted approvingly:

And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” [Mark 4:11-12]

No competent biblical scholar would interpret those words to mean that Jesus used parables, or that Isaiah fashioned his prophetic oracles, in order to confuse people and avoid them ever comprehending the message. Rather, we observe that these verses speak about the outcome of the parables (lack of insight) rather than the intention of the prophet. Within the Hebrew and Aramaic linguistic worlds it was very difficult to distinguish clearly intention from effect.

Similarly, when seeking to make meaning out of the cross, we need first of all to distinguish between the effect of Jesus’ death and the historical causes of his execution, and then we need also to avoid retrospectively converting our (later) understanding of the ‘benefits of the passion’ into a statement of the reasons why Jesus died.

That is indeed a narrow path, but it is the path that leads to wisdom even if many people of simple faith are not able to walk such a fine line.

The third preliminary observation I need to make concerns my reliance on Paul’s letter to the Romans rather than a mishmash of Pauline ideas aggregated from across the seven (probably) authentic letters of Paul, or even the canonical collection of 13 ‘pauline’ letters. This is really quite a simple point, even though it has clearly gone unnoticed by some of my informed but narrow-minded critics.

The letter to the Romans was probably the last of Paul’s authentic letters. Unlike most of his earlier letters, it was crafted as an intentional statement of his core theological ideas rather than fashioned in response to a pastoral crisis in a particular congregation. It does have many similarities with Galatians, and there too we find Paul speaking about the ‘faithfulness of Jesus’, but Romans is an expanded and revised form of Paul’s earlier ideas and so far as we can tell it was his final theological testament. (I acknowledge that many of my critics want to claim all 13 letters as authentic, but they are whistling in the dark so far as mainstream critical NT scholarship is concerned.)

For these reasons, I am happy to take the theology of the cross in Romans as the most developed and final version of Paul’s thinking on the topic, and I do not accept suggestions that our interpretation of Romans should be held hostage to Paul’s earlier pastoral correspondence. We can certainly learn something about the development of Paul’s ideas when we study all of his writings, but I am interested in his mature thoughts rather than his earlier thinking.

Finally, by way of preliminary observations, let me note that the gospels themselves do not provide us with a transcript of what Jesus said, but with various inter-dependent theological presentations about Jesus. While the Gospel of Mark may have been written in the late 80s or early 90s of the first century, its revised and enlarged edition—known to us as the Gospel of Matthew—most probably dates from around 110 C.E. The Gospel of John was probably composed around 100 C.E., while the Gospel of Luke may not have been written until around 125 C.E. Each of the gospels has roots going back into the oral and literary traditions of earliest Christianity, but none of them is an eyewitness account and all of them are highly constructed theological documents.

This is familiar information to anyone with a basic degree in Theology, even though there may be some room to quibble over the dates that I propose; but is resisted and denied by more recalcitrant conservative souls. It does mean that we must read these documents theologically and not mistake them as verbatim accounts of what Jesus may once have said. Again, nuance is a key element of biblical literacy and spiritual wisdom.

It will be no surprise that the New Testament offers us multiple, contradictory and overlapping ways of making meaning out of the death of Jesus. Without seeking to be comprehensive, these include at least the following theological interpretations of the cross:

• Jesus as the lamb of God
• Jesus dying as a ransom for others
• Jesus as the suffering servant
• Jesus’ death as being ‘according to the scriptures’
• Jesus as the innocent victim, or suffering righteous one
• Jesus as our Passover lamb
• Jesus as a sin offering
• Jesus as the divine Lord emptying himself even to death on a cross
• Jesus as ‘God in Christ reconciling the world …’
• Jesus as the Second Adam whose death brings life for all
• Jesus’ death as a propitiatory sacrifice
• Jesus as the truly faithful person parallel to Abraham
• Jesus as a second Isaac, the only beloved son offered by the father
• Jesus as an eternal High Priest offering the once-only sacrifice of his own life/blood
• Jesus as the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world
• Jesus as the eternal Son willingly laying down and taking up again his own life
• Jesus as the one raised up like the serpent in the wilderness and drawing all to himself
• Jesus as the grain of wheat that falls into the ground

It is already clear from this preliminary inventory of NT interpretations of the cross that there is no single big idea that dominates the early Christian responses to the cross, and also that these ideas, for the most part, deploy metaphor rather than literal language.

In my Good Friday sermon this year, I was clearly suggesting that people engage with the developed Pauline concept of Jesus as a ‘second Abraham’, whose faithfulness to God on the cross was a greater parallel to Abraham’s faithfulness (possibly at the offering of Isaac in Genesis 22?) and with wider benefits, since all humanity is blessed because of the faithfulness of Jesus whereas only ‘Israel’ was blessed because of the faithfulness of Abraham.

Interestingly, the ecumenical councils that have authority in the broad catholic church have never attempted to define one single doctrine of the atonement. This is surprising on at least two counts. First, because this would seem to be such a central theological issue for Christians, although its significance for those faith communities that formed at the time of the European Reformation may not reflect the importance of this belief in the Patristic and Medieval periods. Secondly, given that so much else is defined in the creeds, it is odd that this key area of Christian faith has never been defined in a singular form that requires our assent.

Within the life of the Anglican Communion, there are two ways that Anglicans affirm one or more of these biblical metaphors: in our authorised liturgies, and in the so-called Thirty-Nine Articles.

Anglican theology is fashioned, communicated and reinforced especially through our liturgies, including our hymnody. In the case of our theology of the cross, this is especially expressed in the various approved prayers for the Great Thanksgiving at the Eucharist. These prayers clearly focus on just a small subset of the metaphors provided for us in the New Testament, and it might be desirable if the set of authorised eucharistic prayers offered a wider range of biblical metaphors for the cross. At this stage, they do not, and in that sense our common worship still reflects—and largely stays within—the medieval theological mindset of the pre-Reformation western church. There is yet more truth to break forth from God’s word, but our agreed liturgical texts will take a long time to reflect those new insights.

In the case of the Thirty-Nine Articles, I would offer two observations.

First of all—and most significantly, I suggest—the doctrine of the atonement was not an issue of such controversy or prominence in the minds of those who drafted successive versions of the Articles of Religion to be addressed specifically. The only time we find an explicit reference to the atonement is at Article 31.

XXXI. OF THE ONE OBLATION OF CHRIST FINISHED UPON THE CROSS

THE Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.

Secondly, when the Articles do make specific reference to one interpretation of the death of Jesus it is in passing, and actually comes in an article that is addressing another matter. Article 31 is addressing—and condemning—an understanding of the Eucharist as a repeated offering of the sacrifice of Jesus. The argument against that traditional Roman understanding of the cross is that Jesus died ‘once for all’ and his sacrifice is not something that can be repeated.

Article 31 presumes an understanding of the death of Jesus as—in some unspecified sense—providing a ‘perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction for all the sins of the world …’ Just how the death of Jesus does that is not explained or further elaborated. While not a formal teaching statement by the Anglican Church, and indeed a statement that has no standing at all in some provinces of the Anglican Communion (where the Articles of Religion from the Church of England have no jurisdiction), Article 31 is indicative of one of the ways in which faithful Anglicans might understand the meaning of the death of Jesus.

While considering what the Articles might have to say about the death of Jesus, we should perhaps also note Article 15:

XV. OF CHRIST ALONE WITHOUT SIN

CHRIST in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us

Again, while this article references the death of Jesus, and particularly his sinlessness, it does not provide a specific interpretation of the death of Jesus or explain how his death on the cross has the effect of “taking away the sins of the world”. Once again we have an oblique reference to the cross which is indicative of ways in which faithful Anglicans might understand the meaning of the death of Jesus.

Within the general theological framework—provided by Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, our authorised prayer books across the whole life of the Anglican Communion, and as reflected in the Articles of Religion of 1562—I seek to form an understanding of the death of Jesus as a critical moment in the economy of salvation.

While being careful not to confuse historical causes with subsequent theological interpretations, I find some of the biblical metaphors more persuasive than others.

As I have indicated on other occasions and in various publications, I am especially attracted to the life-affirming interpretation of the cross which is offered by the contemporary Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSC in her essay, “The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us. Jesus Research and Christian Faith.” in Doris Donnelly (ed), Jesus. A Colloquium in the Holy Land. New York: Continuum, 2001. Pages 146-166.

I summarise and cite some of her key ideas here.

The [biblical] metaphor’s narrative focus on the cross, moreover, leads to the idea that death was the very purpose of Jesus’ life. He came to die; the script was already written before he stepped onto the world stage. This not only robs Jesus of his human freedom, but it sacralizes suffering more than joy as an avenue to God. It tends to glorify violent death as somehow of value. (page 156)

Johnson argues that contemporary Jesus research contributes to redressing that imbalance in Western theology because it “assigns value to the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry, not just his final hours; and it identifies the resurrection as the definitive action of God” in not allowing death to have the last word.

Herein lies the saving power of this event: death does not have the last word. The crucified one is not annihilated but brought to new life in the embrace of God, who remains faithful in surprising ways. (page 157)

Johnson describes Jesus’ death as what happened to the prophet sent by God when historical human actors make free decisions in particular contingent circumstances:

To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (page 158)

As Johnson expresses it, our view of salvation then moves its focus on to God rather than Jesus:

… the view of salvation fed by Jesus research shifts theological emphasis from a sole, violent act of atonement for sin before an offended God to an act of suffering solidarity that brings the compassionate presence of God into intimate contact with human misery, pain, and hopelessness. (page 158)

Johnson continues:

Part of the difficulty with the atonement/satisfaction metaphor, especially as it has played out in a juridical context, lies in the way it valorized suffering. Rather than being something to be resisted or remedied in light of God’s will for human well-being, suffering is seen as a good in itself or even an end necessary for God’s honor. Not only has this led to masochistic tendencies in piety … but … it has promoted acceptance of suffering resulting from injustice rather than energizing resistance. (page 159)

For Elizabeth Johnson we now have a richer vocabulary of salvation:

… rather than being an act willed by a loving God, [the cross] is a strikingly clear index of sin in the world, a wrongful act committed by human beings. What may be considered salvific in such a situation is not the suffering endured but only the love poured out. The saving kernel in the midst of such negativity is not the pain and death as such but the mutually faithful love of Jesus Jesus and his God, not immediately evident. (page 159)

Finally, the view of salvation fed by Jesus research allows the rich tapestry of metaphors found throughout the New Testament to be brought back into play. No one image and its accompanying theology can exhaust the experience and meaning of salvation through Christ. Taken together these metaphors correct distortions that rise when one alone is over emphasized … (page 160)

 

As already indicated, I find these suggestions by Elizabeth Johnson to be evocative of a new and better way of understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Without denying or repudiating traditional but non-binding formulations of the atonement, I find this a positive and life-giving way of making meaning out of the death of Jesus on the cross.

© 2018 Gregory C. Jenks

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Early Christianity, Theology | 3 Comments

Life embedded in love

Easter 5(B)
Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
29 April 2018
[video]

As best I can recall, my very first Sunday reflection was on the Gospel passage we have just heard: John 15, the vine, the vinegrower and the branches.

I was around sixteen at the time and had not yet commenced any formal theological studies. Coming to faith in a supportive and affirming community at Camp Hill Church of Christ in Brisbane about 50 years ago, I was soon encouraged to preside at the Lord’s Supper and also to begin preaching.

Of course, I no longer have a copy of that sermon—if there ever was one. I was encouraged to prepare well, write a few points on small pieces of paper, and basically speak without notes.

It is probably a good thing that no written notes from that first sermon have survived, as I would doubtless no longer agree with almost anything I can now imagine myself having said about this text 50 years ago.

Much has changed during those 50 years, and for 40 of them I have been ordained within the Anglican Church.

But let’s revisit that passage, as I suspect I have not preached on it in the meantime.

 

The Gospel of John and the resurrection mystery

Last week there was a ‘change of gear’ in the readings set for these Sundays during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. We missed that change as we were observing Earth Sunday, and were not using the readings set in the lectionary.

We started a series of Sundays when the Gospel reading will be drawn from the Gospel of John, and that series will take us right up to the last of these Sundays during Easter.

During the first half of Easter, the Gospel readings focus on stories of Easter appearances, but that series is now finished. In this second half of Easter, we move beyond stories of Easter appearances and focus on the deeper significance of the Easter mystery.

During this series of 4 Sundays in the second half of Easter, we are invited by the lectionary to explore various aspects of resurrection life. The focus here is not so much the resurrection life of the risen Lord, but our own resurrection life; right now.

We do that during these final four Sundays of Easter by listening to the Gospel of John.

 

The Johannine voice

The Gospel of John offers a distinctive ‘voice’ among the NT gospels, and indeed among all the 30 something ancient gospels that have survived from antiquity.

This gospel offers us a different and distinctive perspective on Jesus.

Where the so-called ‘synoptic gospels’ of Matthew, Mark and Luke tend to focus on the historical activity of the Jewish prophet from Nazareth, the Gospel of John tends to focus on the spiritual significance of Jesus as the eternal Son of the Father.

The Synoptics tend to have Jesus speaking counter-cultural wisdom in aphorisms and parables. The Gospel of John tends to have Jesus speaking in lengthy monologues.

The Synoptics tend to have Jesus talking about the kingdom of God. The Gospel of John portrays Jesus as speaking mostly about himself.

The Synoptics tend to have Jesus exercising spiritual power (dynameis in Greek) as he heals, casts out demons and performs other miracles. The Gospel of John has Jesus revealing his eternal glory through a series of seven signs (semeia in Greek).

The Synoptics tend to have Jesus active in the north and making just one single fateful journey to Jerusalem. The Gospel of John has Jesus often in the south of the country and making repeated trips to Jerusalem.

These two ways of speaking about Jesus are impossible to reconcile and there is no good reason for us even to try to do that.

We do not have to choose between John and the Synoptics.

The New Testament holds them alongside one another in the same Bible so we can hold them together as well, without feeling any need to blend them into a consistent but tasteless spiritual goo.

We can appreciate each for what they have to offer.

 

Vine and branch

Vine and vineyard were important cultural elements in everyday life in biblical times. It is no surprise to see the Gospel of John using that familiar image to tease out the meaning of Easter faith for everyday life.

Of course, here—and throughout the Gospel of John—we are not hearing the voice of Jesus, but rather the voice of the Johannine community.

This was a distinctive stream of discipleship within earliest Christianity, even though their voice has often been drowned out by the louder Pauline voice that dominates the pages of the New Testament. We might explore their perspective on faith in a Dean’s Forum at some stage, but it is not something we need delay over this morning.

Throughout the gospel and especially in the chapters between the last supper and the arrest in Gethsemane, the Johannine pastor is teaching his people about the significance of Jesus for them. And for us.

For them—and for us—Jesus is the vine.

We are the branches.

Just as the vine does not exist separately from its branches, neither can the branches exist in isolation from the vine. Faith is a collective thing. We need the community of faith. Christianity is not just about individual personal beliefs.

We are church and outside of church there is no living faith.

For the Johannine community, the heart of Christianity is to live lives that are deeply embedded in Jesus; and to have the life of Jesus deeply embedded within us.

To live in God, and to have God living in us, is resurrection.

And as the writer of the First Letter of John reminds us:

God is love,
and those who live in love
live in God
and God lives in them [1 John 4:16]

This metaphor of Christian life—resurrection life—as life embedded in love is an immense source of spiritual hope.

This is indeed deep spiritual wisdom to live by.

This image takes us to the heart of Easter.

The deep Good News—not the headline story, but the deep news—is not that God raised Jesus from the dead 2000 years ago, but that in Christ we participate right now in the life of God: God in us, we in God.

We embrace a life transformed by the presence of God within us, a life in which others may catch a glimpse of God among them, a life that embodies the deep truth that God is love.

In the end, this surely is our mission as a Cathedral: to be deeply integrated with God-in-Christ, to form communities of invitation—not communities of condemnation, and not communities of self-righteousness, but communities of invitation: Come to the Table! Taste and see, that the Lord is good!—and to live lives that are authentic and therefore holy.

May the vinegrower tend that life which is love within us.

 

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Earthlings first and last

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Earth Sunday 2018
22 April 2018
[video]

Today we have an opportunity to reflect on the significance of Earth for us as people of faith, and to reflect on the significance of faith—specifically Easter faith—for Earth.

This is a huge topic and one with immense significance.

I propose simply to offer you some lines of thought that may be worth further exploration, and then to invite you into that exploration in the months and years ahead.

 

Eden

I begin with the ancient Jewish creation myth now found in Genesis 2 and 3.

We heard the opening paragraph of that story as our first reading today, and it is a familiar story for most of us.

You may well be aware that this is the second creation story in the Bible and, very appropriately, it is more ‘down to Earth’ than the poetic version found in Genesis 1.

It is also a story that is more familiar to us because it culminates with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they eat the forbidden fruit.

We are, of course, not dealing with history here.

Rather, we have a beautiful story of a God who rolls up her sleeves and get her hands dirty as she fashions a living being from Earth.

I remind you that this is not something that ever happened, but it is a story that is fundamentally true.

In this ancient story, the garden comes first. Earth comes before earthlings. We come to be as creatures in context, and the context is Earth whose well-being we are intended to serve.

I could stop there, but I won’t!

But please note how even that simple statement already invites us to rethink our usual focus on humanity as the apex of creation, and our individual convenience as of greater value than the health of the planet.

Let’s dig deeper.

At the heart of the opening scene of this ancient myth is a word play.

The word we usually translate as Adam (or even ‘man’) is simply ‘adam (אדם) in the Hebrew text, and this adam creature is fashioned by God out of the ‘adamah (אדמה), soil or ground.

In this word play we see a profound truth that is obscured by the usual translations, so I invite you to hear this as “the Lord God created an Earthling out of the Earth.”

The first Earthling is neither male nor female. Gender does not yet exist. Shortly the Earthling will be divided into two separate and gendered persons, but—in this story—when humanity first appears we are neither male nor female.

This is actually one of the most significant differences between the two creation stories. We do not solve the puzzle by over writing one account with the content from the other. Rather, as the Bible itself does, we let the two contradictory accounts stand side by side and look to discern the deep truth that each offers us.

Not only does gender not yet exist, but God presumes that our fundamental relationship with other Earth creatures will be sufficient for the well-being of the Earthling. As God discovers, in her own journey of learning and insight, that Earthlings need companionship with other creatures of identical character and equal worth, then the Earthling will be divided into male and female.

For now, let’s just take on board the significance of our identity as Earthlings, irrespective of gender and before any gender identification exists.

The first Earthling is us. All of us. Together. As one.

 

Calvary

The gruesome landscape of the crucifixion may seem an unlikely pair for the mythical Garden of Eden, but in the Gospel of John the location is described as a garden:

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. —John 19:41–42

Indeed, in John’s Gospel, as Mary Magdalene lingers in the garden and encounters the risen Lord, she mistakes him for the gardener (John 20:15)!

Who is this second gardener, tending the the overlooked garden of Golgotha?

Paul seeks of Jesus as the ‘second Adam’, so I want to lay that suggestion alongside the idea that the first person is best described as the original Earthling.

Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.—1Corinthians 15:45–49

That is a rich and evocative passage in its own right, but for now I simply want to take permission from Paul to imagine Jesus as the ‘Second Adam’, or perhaps as the ‘Last Earthling’.

The Church is well versed in speaking about Jesus as divine, and our creeds were fashioned in the fire of fierce controversy about the best set of words to express the eternal divinity of God the Son.

We also (mostly) find it fairly easy to speak of Jesus’ humanity.

But Paul is inviting us to think of Jesus as the New Earthling. Not just humanity 2.0, but Earthling 2.0!

In the creation myth, the first Earthling incarnates God’s hopes and dreams for Earth to give rise to conscious life, life that understands its role as being to tend and nurture the well-being of Earth.

In Paul’s theology of resurrection, the second Earthling incarnates God’s hopes and dreams for a renewed humanity: humans who engage in the divine project that was at the heart of Jesus’ own mission and message, the kingdom of God.

 

God becomes Earthling

It is sound Christian theology to affirm that God took human flesh and not simply human form. The Christ among us is not a phantom, but God as a real authentic human person.

Jesus is not a divine smoke and mirrors trick, but God enfleshed in humanity.

We can therefore affirm that God herself becomes—and remains for all eternity as—Earthling.

Perhaps not ‘an Earthling’ but possibly ‘the ultimate Earthling’: the Second Adam.

We are children of Earth, fashioned from the Earth by the creative invitation of God.

More than that, God has assumed Earthliness through the incarnation.

If we affirm that God was present in Jesus, then we must also affirm that God has entered into Earth, and not simply into humanity.

Some of our most creative theologians in the past few decades have encouraged us to think of Earth as the Body of God.

We easily speak of the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

As Earthlings all of us, we can also affirm that in Earth we encounter a continuing (eternal) expression of Emmanuel, God with us; indeed, God as one of us.

God as Earthling.

 

Let me reiterate that these are thoughts to explore, not doctrines to embrace.

On this Earth Sunday, I invite you to rethink the place of Earth in our faith, and also the significance of our Easter faith for Earth.

If you are willing and able to do that, I dare say that your view of God will be transformed, as will your view of Earth—and of your own self.

I finish with these evocative words from Saint Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.—Romans 8:19–23

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 2 Comments

A letter to my critics

It seems that my 2018 Good Friday sermon has attracted more interest among a wider circle of people than I mostly manage to achieve. This includes negative reactions—some of them quite exaggerated—among conservative Evangelicals for whom there is only one way to understand the theological significance of the cross.

During the past week or so I have been misrepresented and potentially slandered online. I have been besieged with extremely rude messages on my YouTube channel. Formal complaints seeking my discipline and/or dismissal have been sent to the Diocesan Administrator. There have been threats of intervention from ‘higher authorities’. Now the emails are starting to arrive. Perhaps soon the letters will come in the post.

I have been described as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and an “enemy of Christianity”. I have been handed over to Satan. And more of the same.

What follows below is the text of a response I have sent this morning to one person who contacted me overnight by email to take me to task for my sermon. Anything which might identify my correspondent has been deleted from the text.

Thank you for taking the time to contact me with your concerns about my recent Good Friday sermon.
I am pleased that you took the time to read my sermon rather than simply react to the exaggerated descriptions that have been circulating in particular circles in the past week or so.
Naturally I do not accept your evaluation of my sermon, as I would not have preached it had I thought any of those criticisms were true. All the same, I do appreciate the underlying irenical tone of your letter and hope that we might some day have a grace-filled discussion of our different approaches to faith, including the role of Scripture and critical thinking.
In case it helps you to appreciate where I was coming from in delivering that sermon, let me observe that my overall goal was to promote a deep appreciation of the death of Jesus as the critical element in our reconciliation with God. However, in making my way towards that goal I also identified and dismissed three common misconceptions about the death of Jesus. It is the third of those misconceptions that seems to have caused concern to you and, from what I hear indirectly via the grapevine, to some other Evangelical clergy in the Diocese of Grafton.
Let me simply make the point that I was addressing the historical circumstances around the crucifixion of Jesus. I was not seeking to promote or critique any particular doctrine of the atonement. My sermon was designed more as a reflection on the death of Jesus on that most solemn of holy days, Good Friday. I chose to focus on the faith/faithfulness (pistis) of Jesus, as Paul does in Romans 4.
I stand by every comment made in that sermon and do not resile from anything I said.
As I mentioned more than once when delivering that sermon, it canvassed a number of substantial theological issues that I anticipate we might explore in more detail in future sessions of the Dean’s Forum.
As for people finding spiritual nourishment in that sermon, you will be delighted to know that people far and wide have expressed their appreciation for the sermon and testified to the spiritual blessings they received through it.
May God bless you richly today and always.
Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Theology | 12 Comments

Better than silver or gold

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Third Sunday of Easter
15 April 2018

[video]

During these great fifty days after Easter the first reading in Church most Sundays comes from the Book of Acts rather than the Old Testament.

Normally we take time to check in with the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors (and indeed our spiritual cousins still) in the Jewish faith, but during Easter we are invited to listen to episodes from the account of the early church that we find in the Acts of the Apostles.

We can talk more about Acts some day in one of the Dean’s Forum sessions, but it is a fascinating book and the only one of its kind in the New Testament. It does not offer us stories about Jesus, but stories about his first followers in Jerusalem, then stories about other early leaders, and especially stories about St Paul.

One of my favourite stories from Acts is the passage just heard read this morning. Let’s start by unpacking it a little bit.

Peter and John at the Temple

Peter and John were from a couple of guys from two small villages on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, about 100km north of Jerusalem.

We do not know how many times they had ever been to Jerusalem, but they have been here for a couple of week according the the Gospels and Acts.

Every time these two fishermen from Bethsaida and Capernaum walk into the temple they were supposed to be in awe of the scale and beauty of the place. It was many many times bigger than this Cathedral.

So imagine them in this story, entering into the vast Temple plaza via the highly decorated Beautiful Gate (aka Golden Gate).

Just like the holy places in Palestine today, there were beggars lying around the entrance hoping for a gift to help them meet their living expenses.

One of the beggars catches Peter’s eye, and Peter (that’s a nickname meaning, Rocky), says to him: “Hey, look over here!”

The beggar does not need a second invitation. He is hoping for a nice big bag of coins. But then Rocky says, “I have no silver or gold , but I do have something for you!”

In the story, Rocky (Peter) heals the lame man who then goes into the temple with them: “walking, and leaping and praising God.”

 

Look at us … what are you seeking?

I want to hit the pause button on the story, and use that line from Peter as the anchor for our reflections today.

What are we looking for when we come to church?

What are we looking for when we bring a baby for Baptism?

What is Willy looking for when he pesters his parents to get Baptised?

Despite the fact that some churches promise it, we are not offering prosperity, happy marriages, or good health. I wish were able to do that. Imagine how we would pack them in every Sunday! Imagine how much happier our community would be.

Sometimes our prayers are answered in the way we want, and the simple fact that I am here—alive and in such good health—may be a sign of that. So, sincerely on my part, thank you for all those prayers and all that love that has washed around me these past six months.

But other times those prayers are not answered. The money problems persist. The family breaks up. The disease gets worse and the person dies.

So I need to say, along with Peter and John, we are not promising you silver and good. We are not even promising you an easy life, good health or a happy family.

So what is it that we offer?

Have we got something as good as silver and gold, or maybe even better than silver and gold?

I think we have, and that is why we are baptising Sienna and Willy this morning.

 

So what can be better than silver and gold?

Let me try a 3 minute promo for the Good News that Jesus brought, and the Good News that involves Jesus.

Hey, Willy, why not come down here and help men with the next bit?

OK Willy, here is why I am going to be baptising you here in this Cathedral in a few minutes time. Are you ready? No need to take notes because it is the job of your mum and dad and your godparents to remember all this and help it come true for you. No pressure, folks.

I am going to give you three words (that’s not too hard, eh?) and a sentence or two to go with each of them:

 

FAITH

We have learned about about God from our own lives, from the Bible, and from thousands of years of lived experience by people of faith. We want to share that stuff with you, because knowing it helps you make sense of life. We want to share our faith with you, so you can make it your own as you get older and keep on learning about God.

 

HOPE

Sometimes the world can be a scary and sad place. But our faith gives us hope. Not a pretend happy face even when bad stuff is happening, but a deep confidence (hope) that even when the bad stuff is happening it is OK because God will make it all work out just fine. When we stop and think about it, that is one of the ways to think about Easter. Things looked bad for Jesus on Good Friday and really no better the next day, but by Easter Day God had turned everything around: for Jesus and for us.

 

LOVE

The last of our special three words is love. I am not talking about how you feel about someone else, but how you treat them. When we have faith and hope, then we can be there for others and create the kind of world God wants this place to be. We cannot do that without faith and hope, but with God we can help make the world a better place.

 

So that, young man, is why I am going to baptise you now. And each time you come to visit us here in Grafton you can have a quick word with me to ket me know how that project is going.

Sometimes it will be easy to have faith and sometimes it will be hard. Sometimes it will be easy to be hopeful, and other times everything will feel hopeless. Sometimes it will be easy to care about others and to care about the world. and sometimes … well, sometimes we all need the encouragement of other people’s faith and other people’s hope to keep us on the track.

And that is why we come to church.

Not for the silver and gold, but to find other people who can help us have faith, hope and love so we can all help each other make the world. a better place. People like that are better than silver or gold, and you find them in church.

So, if you are ready for the adventure to begin, let’s go and get the water ready …

 

 

 

 

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Witnesses to transformation

Easter Day
Christ Church Cathedral
1 April 2018

[video]

Our second reading for this liturgy is from Paul’s first letter to the troublesome Christian community at Corinth.

They were a tough parish for Paul to serve as their pastor, but we can be grateful for that since their issues repeatedly drove to Paul to put in writing information that he had previously told them orally, but which otherwise we may never have known about.

That is certainly the case with the list of resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 1 to 11.

Paul is probably writing this letter in the year 53/54 CE.

That makes this letter one of the earliest Christian documents to survive, and it is within 25 years of Easter. I hope that little fact gives you goose bumps.

The information Paul is repeating in the letter was previously given to the Corinthians, according to Paul, as part of his oral instruction when they were first converted. This was material from their Baptism preparation program!

Since Paul explicitly says that he passed on to them what others had passed on to him, we can assume that this list of Easter appearances goes back even earlier: most likely to the vibrant Christian community in the strategic city of Antioch, where Paul had strong pastoral connections.

We cannot be sure of the dates, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that Paul learned this information at Antioch about 10 years before his letter to the Corinthians.

So now we can date the list to 15 years after Easter, and probably a few years earlier.

That makes this list one of the oldest Christian documents that we have. More goose bumps!

This list mattered to the first generation of Christians because only those on the list were considered to have authority as leaders.

That, by the way, is Paul’s problem: he was not on the list!

Notice how he deals with that awkward problem.

Paul does not argue about the list. He repeats it, exactly as he had received it from the tradition before him, and then he adds his own name like a kind of postscript:

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (1 Cor 15:8–11 NRSV)

The list of appearances

he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,
most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.

Most of the appearances in that list are not known to us, while it seems that most of the appearances in the Gospels are not included in the list that Paul inherited from Antioch.

When we put the two sets of traditions together, three names stand out:

Peter
Mary Magdalene
Paul

Let’s take each of them in turn, even if very briefly.

 

Peter

This one is very easy, since we have no description of the appearance to Peter by the risen Jesus. It is mentioned in Luke 24, but not described. We have no idea what it involved, although there is a later tradition of Jesus speaking with Peter by the Sea of Galilee and restoring him to his leadership role after his triple denial of Jesus.

 

Mary Magdalene

All of the Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion and was one of the women who went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus for burial. In fact, Mary is the only women mentioned in all 4 Gospels, and she is always listed first.

The Gospel of John preserved a beautiful story of an encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen but unrecognised Jesus in the garden close by his tomb. According to the Gospels, Mary is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection.

She is sometimes called the ‘apostle to the apostles’ because of her role as the first witness to the resurrection.

But the list that Paul got from Antioch fails to mention Mary Magdalene.

She has been cut from the list by the male gatekeepers. And this within the first 10-15 years! How quickly we abandoned the way of Jesus.

Happily, we can now restore her to her proper place as the first witness to the resurrection.

 

Paul

With Paul we are on firmer ground, but his encounter with the risen Lord was not in Jerusalem and had nothing to do with an empty tomb.

In an even earlier letter than 1 Corinthians, Paul describes very briefly his encounter with the risen Jesus:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. … But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:11–12, 15–17 NRSV)

Paul refers to—but does not describe—a moment when God revealed the reality of the risen Christ to him, and he claims that as being the same kind of experience as the apostles, and this something that gave him the same authority as them.

 

The Easter transformation

If these are the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, what is it that they proclaim?

Here we really are reliant on Mary Magdalene and Paul, since we have no description of the appearance that Jesus is said to have made to Peter: nor to “the twelve”, nor to the “more than 500”, nor to James the brother of Jesus, nor to “all the apostles”.

As an aside, let me just observe that if I were seeking to create a fake story about the resurrection I would be sure to have a better set of eyewitnesses. The fact that our chain of witnesses is so flimsy may actually be something that counts in favour of the historicity of this tradition.

Despite the gaps and inconsistences in their stories our witnesses agree on a simple, yet amazing discovery: Jesus is alive.

Neither Mary Magdalene or Paul of Tarsus expected to discover that.

Mary had come to the tomb of Jesus to finish the burial preparations for her beloved prophet. She is so immersed in her grief, and so disinclined to discover a living Jesus, that she does not even recognise him when she encounters him in the garden.

Paul, on the other hand, knows all about the rumours of Jesus having been raised to life and is determined to stamp out this nonsense, and arrest anyone who believes it. By his own account in 1 Corinthians 15 and Galatians 1, Paul was trying to eradicate this nonsense from the face of the earth.

Even now, some  2,000 years later, we are still coming to terms with the implications of the amazing truth they each discovered, and which lies at the heart of our Easter celebrations.

That is our essential work as people of faith: making sense of Easter, and working it out in our own everyday lives.

Death was not the end of Jesus.

God raised Jesus up and took him deep into God’s own life.

And that same transformation is available to us, right now, even before we die.

I cannot prove that to anyone, but this is what we celebrate today, and that is the message of the church across the millennia—and here in Grafton right now.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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Rethinking the cross of Jesus

Good Friday
Christ Church Cathedral
30 March 2018

[video | Letter to my critics | Making meaning out of the cross]

This morning I want to speak briefly about the death of Jesus, about the cross.

It is a most familiar topic, as our churches are littered with crosses. From the roof top to the decorations carved into our woodwork, we have crosses everywhere. We wear them around our neck, put them on the wall above our bed, and we make the sign of a cross at sacred moments.

The cross is everywhere.

But most of what people will be told about the cross today in churches around the world and across our Diocese and around this city is nonsense at best, and truly bad theology at worst.

So today I want to talk briefly concerning three really bad ideas that people have about the crucifixion, and I want to suggest one really good way to understand what the cross was all about.

 

As the ideas were taking shape in my mind, I went back to read again what I said on Good Friday at Byron Bay last April. I did that for a few different reasons.

First of all, because it helps me to clarify my thoughts now if I review what I have said about the same topic at an earlier time.

I also wanted to make sure that I was not just going to repeat unwittingly material from last year.

And I needed to check if I had anything new to say today. And I think I do!

Generally speaking I do not like to read what I said in a sermon a year or more ago. I rarely agree with myself!

As I have reflected on that I realise that this may because I am no longer the same person who gave that sermon. At the time it may have been the right thing for the person I was then to say in that context. But time has passed. Other stuff has happened in my life and yours since this time last year. I am a different person, and I am speaking to a different community of faith. Even if I was still in Byron Bay, we would all have moved on—I hope—in the meantime, and each of us will be at least a little bit different than we were twelve months ago.

It makes me wonder what we shall all be like in twelve months’ time from now!

What will God have been doing in and through us during the year ahead, and how shall we have changed —individually and collectively — in that time?

So back to the task before us here this morning …

 

Bad Idea #1

Crucifixion was a violent and cruel way to kill someone.

The story of the cross is a story of extreme violence.

Worse still, it is a story of sacred violence and it reinforces all those times when we have experienced or observed violence and hatred being inflicted on others in the name of religion.

This is a dark thread that runs through the Bible and through the wider spiritual tradition of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Instead of our faith giving us the wisdom and courage to address religious violence, sacred violence has repeatedly been excused, validated and justified by religion.

Some parts of the Bible are frankly unable to be used in public worship or in a religious education curriculum at our local Anglican school because of the violence and hatred that those texts celebrate and reinforce.

We may make this issue a topic for as Dean’s Forum in the next few months, as it is a very nasty element of our faith which we rarely address and which we rarely admit.

It is therefore very important—despite all the sermons and all the Sunday School lessons you may have heard to the contrary—that we reject any notion that God wanted Jesus to die as a human sacrifice.

The cross is not about divine wrath or sacred violence.

It was violent, but God was the victim of the violence and not the perpetrator.

How could we ever have gotten that so wrong?

This is a really bad idea, and I hope you never again allow a priest or any other person tell you that God approves of violence for the sake of dealing with evil or sin.

That is simply not true.

Worse still, it is a tragic betrayal of the true nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

 

Bad Idea #2

The second bad idea that you will find lots of Christian people spruiking, and especially their pastors, is that the suffering of Jesus was so deep that it is without parallel in human history.

This is a variant of the God likes violence theme, but sounds more like: God can be moved to action if the suffering is especially intense.

Fortunately this second bad idea can be disposed of very easily.

The simple fact is that the suffering experienced by Jesus was neither remarkable nor unique.

Many people have suffered as badly as Jesus did, including the several thousand Jewish rebels crucified by Roman forces during the siege of Jerusalem about 40 years after Easter.

Countless human beings have experienced torture and cruel deaths with levels of suffering much worse than Jesus would have experienced.

Christian women living with violent husbands who abuse their spouses and claim it is their prerogative as the spiritual head of the woman are probably suffering worse than Jesus did, because their suffering goes on week after week with no sign of ending.

Assylum seekers consigned to cruel and inhumane conditions by our own Government are probably suffering more than Jesus ever did.

I could go on, but all such calculations miss the point.

It is not how much Jesus suffered that matters, but who he was and how he acted. More on that shortly when we get to a good idea for thinking about the cross.

 

Bad idea #3

The last of these really bad ideas about the Cross that I want to mention is one that is especially popular among people planning—or attending—Good Friday services.

This is the idea that my sins—or yours, or both yours and mine together—are what caused Jesus to die.

This is an idea that is especially common in Christian hymns.

It is nonsense.

We know what caused Jesus to be crucified, and it was not your sins or my sins, or the sins of anyone else we know.

All such twisted theology does is generate guilt. It makes us feel bad, and encourages us to be compliant participants in a church forgiveness racket. It is misdirected.

Jesus was killed because the powerful elites of his day wanted to eliminate him since he was a serious threat to their power and their privilege.

And they were right.

They were not right to kill Jesus, but they were right to discern that if his way of thinking about God took hold in the minds of the people over whom they ruled, the people they exploited, then their own days were numbered.

This is not about my sins or your sins.

It is about a clash between Jesus the prophet of the empire of God, and the elites in Jerusalem who prospered under the empire of Caesar and could not tolerate someone like Jesus.

They knew that when he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God”, Jesus was not describing an even split of our loyalties. Rather, Jesus was inviting people to give Caesar what he deserves (nothing) and to give God what God deserves (our all).

People who talk like that, who act like that, and who encourage other people to think like that will always be taken out by the powers that be.

 

A better idea

As I have already hinted, what matters about the crucifixion is not that it was a violent death or that Jesus himself suffered great distress, shame and pain. For sure it was violent, and involved suffering of many different kinds for Jesus.

But that is not why his death matters to God or to us.

Nor did his death have anything to do with us or our sins. It was all about the power games of the rich and powerful in first-century Jerusalem.

Instead of thinking about what happened to Jesus, how bad it was, and who is to blame; we can approach this from another direction.

We can focus on Jesus himself.

The redemptive element of the crucifixion is the faithfulness of Jesus himself, who never let go of his vision of God as the only power deserving of his loyalty.

Jesus was a martyr, not a sacrifice.

Paul teases this out in the early chapters of Romans when he compares the faithfulness of Abraham—who trusted God even when asked (in the story if not in real life) to sacrifice his only son—with the faithfulness of Jesus, who was willing to put his own life on the line because of his deep trust in God.

This is what the early church meant when it spoke of being saved by the faith of Jesus: not that we have faith in Jesus, but that Jesus was faithful to God, even to the point of death.

The faithfulness Jesus by which lived and died is the basis for our reconciliation with God.

Our sins did not cause the death of Jesus, but his faithfulness to God eliminates the impact of our sins on our own relationship with God.

Again this is something we may want to tease out in a Dean’s Forum some day. It is too big an idea to unpack in a single sermon on Good Friday, but it is essentially a simple idea:

What matters about the cross is that Jesus trusted God.

What matters about the cross is that Jesus was faithful to God.

What matters about the cross is that God honoured the faith of Jesus, and God did not allow violent political forces to stamp out his life even though they had killed him.

More on that when we get to Easter Day!

 

What we celebrate today, and in every Eucharist, is the offer of life, eternal life:

Our liturgy today is not excusing violence, or valorising suffering.

Our liturgy today is not asking us to accept the blame for Jesus having to die.

Our liturgy today is celebrating the faithfulness of Jesus, even to death, death on a cross.

Our liturgy today is inviting us to embrace that same faithfulness to God.

Our liturgy today is offering us the grace we need to be faithful people, just like Jesus.

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When words fail …

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Lent 5 (B)
18 March 2018

[video]

This week the Sunday lectionary offers us three serves of text, each of which centres around a particular—but different—metaphor.

At first glance I wondered what exactly I would do with those texts for the sermon this morning, but on reflection I want to suggest that the readings invite us to embrace metaphor as the most valid way of speaking about God and faith.

All of our speaking about God is necessarily poetic and metaphorical. After all, human language developed for communication between persons about events, places, relationships and feelings in our world and in our lives.

When we attempt to speak about God using human language it is as if we are pushing our human language up to the red line, and even beyond the red line. We should not be surprised if words fail us when we seek to speak about realities which are beyond everyday human experience.

So let’s get into the metaphors!

 

Melchizedek

My first reaction during the week, when I saw that Hebrews 5 was providing our second reading this morning, was to comment to Roger about the occurrence of the word Melchizedek in that passage.

It is an odd word to our ears, and for many people to our tongues, but to Jewish ears it is not such a strange word at all.

This ancient Hebrew word is built from two other words: the word for king (melek) and the word for righteousness (zedek). When put together these two terms create a name which simply means king of righteousness.

Until a few decades ago we had no idea why this mysterious character with the odd name was so significant the author of Hebrews. But with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we now know that Melchizedek was one of two symbolic characters with great significance in those ancient scrolls.

The opposite character to Melchizedek was an evil and dark character with the delightful name Melchiresha, which means king of evil. So Melchizedek and Melchiresha were to Jews in the time of Jesus, what Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are to fans of the Star Wars series today.

These two poetic and symbolic characters reflect the deep underlying tensions in human experience: we know ourselves to be called to the light, but we find ourselves drawn to the darkness.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.

 

New heart, new covenant

Our first reading from the book of the Jewish prophet Jeremiah has its origins in the years just after 600 BCE. Jerusalem was surrounded by the armies of Babylon who were about to capture and destroy the city. That much was politics and history, and archeologists have even picked up the arrowheads on the grounds outside the ancient city walls to verify the reality of those hard times.

But Jeremiah seeks a deeper truth for people in dark times, and he imagines a new covenant, a new relationship between God and the people of Jerusalem. He imagines a new covenant written not on blocks of stone, but etched on the human heart.

This is a powerful invitation for us as we prepare the rituals of Holy Week and Easter, to remember what matters most is what is happening in our hearts and not the ceremonies the rituals we may be performing.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.

 

A grain of wheat

The gospel of John offers us a third poetic image, and this is one of my personal favourites: the grain of wheat which falls into the earth and seems to have died, but in fact gives rise to an abundance of new life.

This metaphor penetrates deeply into the mystery of life and faith and it is especially relevant in these final two weeks of Lent.

This is the wisdom by which Jesus lived.

This is the wisdom we are invited to embrace.

This is the wisdom into which we will baptise Lachlan later this morning.

This is the spiritual wisdom our city and our nation needs to hear.

This is the wisdom of life that we need to share with our children and grandchildren.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.

 

Metaphors abound

Life is full of metaphor—and so is the church and especially our rituals.

The life of faith is a life informed by the wisdom we discern in metaphor, poetry and symbol.

We miss the point – and we totally miss the deep spiritual wisdom available to us — if we argue about the historicity of the metaphor. This is an essential lesson as we approach Easter.

Instead, today and during these next two weeks as we turn towards the cross, we are invited to embrace the deep wisdom that is available to us if only we will open our hearts to poetic truth in metaphor and symbol.

 

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The cleansing of the church

Lent 3 (B)
Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
4 March 2018
[video]

The lectionary today switches us across to a series of readings from the Gospel of John. For the next three Sundays our gospel readings will come from John even though we are in the year of Mark.

The Gospel of John offers us a different take on Jesus.

John sees Jesus very differently from the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

One of the differences concerns the identity of Jesus’ opponents.

In the synoptic gospels the opponents are various political and religious groups within Second Temple Judaism: Herodians, Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. But in the Gospel of John the opponents of Jesus are routinely described as “the Jews”.

We see that very easily in today’s gospel message, which begins with the statement that “the Passover of the Jews” was happening followed by repeated references to the Jews as the opponents of Jesus.

Quite apart from this explicit labelling of the opponents of Jesus as being the Jews, a story such as this week’s text represents Jesus in profound conflict with the Temple hierarchy, and thus in conflict with the central institution of Jewish life at the time.

This is exacerbated by the way the story is moved from later in the life of Jesus and placed by John directly after the miracle of the water being turned into wine at Kfar Kana, Cana.

It is of the very essence of that story—as told by the gospel of John—that the ‘water’ of the Jewish religion is being replaced by the ‘wine’ the Jesus religion.

This is a clear and unambiguous anti-Semitic statement.

 

Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is one of the worst stains on the conscience of Christianity. It ranks right up there with child abuse and cover-up, but is even worse; hard though it is these days to imagine anything worse child abuse and cover-up.

Anti-Semitism has been a feature of Christian life from the time that Christians first gained political power after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. However, its roots run much deeper into the text of the New Testament itself as we can clearly see in the Gospel of John.

In case we missed his point, John moves the episode of Jesus creating a scene in the temple from the end of the story back to the beginning of his account of Jesus’ public activity.

For the author of John’s gospel, this scene sets the tone for the ministry of Jesus. For John, that tone is deeply anti-Semitic.

It would have been comfortable for me this morning to focus on the first reading from the book of Exodus or even second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, but it is impossible to remain silent when such an anti-Semitic text read out loud in the Cathedral.

Silence suggests consent.

Worse still, silence allows hateful attitudes towards Jews to become embedded in our spiritual DNA as Christians.

This animus is even found in First Corinthians 1, although it is not quite as virulent as we see in John’s gospel. Paul is writing to the Corinthians and “the Jews” are listed as one of the groups of opponents of the gospel who persist in asking wrong questions because they do not wish to believe.

Although Paul — like all the early Christian leaders — was Jewish, his letter betrays a profound level of antagonism between his mission and the religious leadership of Jewish society.

 

The Decalogue

Such a nasty turn in the rhetoric between the followers of Jesus and the adherents of Moses is all the more remarkable today when our first reading is from the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments.

These ancient laws are Jewish laws.

They summarise our fundamental duties in human life:

duties to God
duties to parents/family
duties to other people

 These laws derive from the heart of the foundational Jewish story: the account of the exodus as God rescues the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. This is not a marginal Jewish tradition, but something which is very close to the very heart of Jewish identity.

 

Wisdom for faithful living

This insidious poison of Christian anti-Semitism which we find in the new Testament and throughout church history, must be opposed and denounced at every turn.

This is also true of its modern twin Islamophobia.

Fear of the other has no place in the Christian faith.

Hatred towards those who are different has no place in the Christian faith.

Arrogance which assumes we are better than others has no place in the Christian faith.

So where is the heart of the gospel in all this and what are we to make of the memory of that scene in the Temple all these years ago?

It seems best to understand the incident in the Temple as a symbolic prophetic act by Jesus.

He was not seeking to storm the Temple or to make it the base for a revolt. That would happen around 40 years later, but had nothing to do with Jesus.

Rather, acting in typical Jewish fashion—and in perfect consistency with the examples of the Jewish prophets in the Scriptures that we still share with Judaism—Jesus was making a vivid prophetic denunciation of the way that the Temple was serving the interests of the rich and powerful.

This is not an anti-Semitic act.

Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and so was this act.

He was calling the Temple hierarchy to account for their failure to live by the covenant for which the Ten Commandments constitute a summary of basic principles.

We should recall that Jesus himself summarised the law in a similar way to other Jewish teachers in his own time: love God, and love your neighbour.

This is the heart of the covenant with God: for Jews, and Christians, and Muslims.

On this spiritual wisdom we all agree.

As Jesus saw it, the corruption at the Temple was failing to honour God and was also exploiting the poor.

No love of God here, and no compassion for other people.

By the time the Gospel of John is composed, a bitter divide has happened between followers of Jesus and their Torah-observant Jewish peers.

The vitriol was extreme, as we see consistently through the Gospel of John.

John and his first readers had no extremist agenda to attack Jews. But his language would feed later generations of anti-Semitic thinking and actions within the Church at times when Christians had both the capacity and the desire to harm Jews.

For this we hang our heads in shame.

What must we give up this Lent?

Anti-Semitism for sure!

So we stand alongside Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Galilee as we call on our religious institutions to walk the talk, to serve always the mission of God in the world (rather than their own self-preservation), and to protect the vulnerable and the weak.

In this Cathedral there can be no anti-Semitism. Ever.

Passionate as I am about Palestinian rights to justice and self-determination, there is no excuse for anti-Semitism as we stand in solidarity with people who have lost land, family, homes and hope.

Similarly, there is no place for Islamophobia here.

This Cathedral—like the Temple in Jerusalem—is a house of prayer for all God’s children, and we welcome our Jewish and Muslim friends to find here a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

If you love God, you are welcome here.

If you love your neighbour, you are welcome here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amazing grace

Ordination of Chad Rynehart
Lindisfarne Anglican Grammar School Chapel
24  February 2018

 

May these words be spoken
and heard
in the power of love. Amen.

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We are gathered here in this school chapel for the ordination of Chad Rynehart.

It has been my privilege to serve as Chad’s spiritual companion during the past three days as he prepared for this service. That precious time which we have shared will inform what I have to say, although nothing that we discussed will be shared with you today.

Were this an ordination service with several candidates, I would be expected to speak in fairly general terms about the importance of the ordained ministry within the life and mission of the church, and especially the role of Priests.

But we have just a single candidate for this service, so the focus falls on one guy—and my comments will also be rather more individualised than might otherwise have been the case.

 

Amazing Grace

We all know the popular hymn, Amazing Grace. It was written by—of all things—by someone who had been the captain of slave ships, taking captured Africans to America to be sold into slavery, and had himself been the slave of an African princess. Even after retiring from the slave trade and becoming an Anglican priest, John Newton continued to invest in the slave trade for many years.

The words of that hymn came to mind as I reflected on the conversations I have shared with Chad these past few days.

A constant thread in those conversations was grace: recognising—even if only with the benefit of hindsight—the loving presence of God in different circumstances and situations.

It is that idea of grace that I want to explore a little further with you today.

Maybe we can move from hindsight to foresight, and develop the spiritual skills to recognise and respond to God’s grace in real time, rather than only with hindsight.

 

Charis: beautiful, gift

Grace is a word that has two major sets of meaning, even in English,

In the conversations that I shared with Chad these past few days, I think we were mostly thinking of grace in the sense of: undeserved gift.

We were recognising various ways in which God has been present in our lives, often unrecognised and always undeserved. The miracle of sacred presence. The miracle of loving presence.

That is an idea I will return to shortly.

The other meaning of grace, is beauty.

When we comment on the grace with which someone acts, we are responding to something very beautiful about them. The dance, they speak, they act … with grace. It is a joy to watch them. They are authentic and beautiful because of the grace with which they act.

I shall also return briefly to that idea at the end of this reflection.

 

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

In John 1, as the poetic prologue ends, the writer adds these words:

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

During the past few days as Chad and I have engaged in conversation, prayer and solitude this has been a truth that we have each recognised: out of God’s eternal fullness we have both received—and you have all received—grace upon grace.

Grace upon grace.

What an inviting concept.

One good thing on top of another good thing, and more good things on top of those good things.

Grace upon grace.

How good is our life as people of faith, and even as people of little faith.

 

LIFE

The first and most profound grace that we have received is life itself.

We do not have to exist, and we cannot cause ourselves to exist. Life is a gift. A grace. A gift that we do not earn, and yet also a gift from God’s own self. We exist because God exists, and because God generates life.

It is grace. Thanks be to God.

 

COMMUNITY

We exist within community, even when we choose to be alone.

Around us, before us and after us is a rich community of humanity, and indeed all creation. As we are coming to realise more and more, we are connected within an immense web of life.

For much of the time that web of life may be invisible to us, but it sustains us and we contribute to that web by our actions and our thoughts, our hopes and our fears, our successes and our failures.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.

 

KINSHIP

Within that immense web of life there is a circle of people with whom we are most at home: our families, our lovers, our intimate friends. These are the keepers of our secrets. They know us better than anyone else, and love us regardless.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.

 

CHURCH

Connecting with a different set of people across cultures, nationality, place and time is the mysterious reality of the church. Here we glimpse God’s dream for the universe and find the spiritual wisdom needed to live lives that are holy and authentic. Here—when church is at its best—we find a safe space to explore the meaning of life, and to experiment with our own response to the God who call us.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.

 

MINISTRY / SERVICE

Neither of these terms is quite the word I want, as they speak mostly to activity within the church or in the name of the church. The Greek term leitourgia would be better, but is mostly misunderstood as liturgy. In the ancient Greek world, leitourgia was an act of public service, something done by an individual for the sake of the community.

In our daily work and in the ways we spend our discretionary time, we are called to serve others. As we serve others, and as others serve us, the fabric of our society is created, enhanced and protected.

For some that will be ministry as a deacon, priest or bishop.

For others it will be ministry as a teacher, technician or gardener.

For others it will be ministry as a parent, as a carer, as … (insert your role here).

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.

 

Grace upon grace

Grace indeed takes many forms, and will be present even if we do not recognise it.

But here in this service we do recognise grace.

We celebrate grace.

We honour grace.

And we seek more expressions of grace in the years to come.

This school community is a community of grace. May it ever be so.

This ordinand, Chad, is a person of grace. In both senses of the word. May he ever be so.

 

Chad, we affirm today that we embrace you as a person of grace. You are a blessing to us and especially to this school community. And you are someone in whom we see the beauty of God at work as you gracefully go about your ministry within this community.

Grace upon grace.

We affirm and celebrate the grace of God within you, and we stand alongside you as you say yes to the God who calls you into new expressions of grace as a Priest in this school community, as a Priest in the local church, and as a Priest in the life of our Diocese.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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