The book that disrupts

woman-with-an-issue-of-blood-howard-lyon
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
1 July 2018

[video]

We are now about halfway through our series of Marking Jesus, as we pay attention to the way that the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as a figure of controversy.

Like Jesus, the Bible itself often confronts us with a fresh perspective on our long-held assumptions, as it invites us—perhaps even demands—that we move beyond our comfort zones into the new space to which God is calling us.

My preparation for this sermon started well over a week ago as I needed to draft the text for the front page of the bulletin before Roger went on sick leave. Even then this simple Sunday School story of Jesus being kind to two people—an older woman and a young girl— was drawing me into a different space, as I heard those stories in the context of violence against women.

Then a friend asked my advice about the nature of the love between David and Jonathan that we read about in the first reading today.

Bit by bit I was being drawn into deeper theological reflections about issues that really matter to everyday people in our city. I was being pushed beyond the Sunday School stories to reflect on the deeper significance of these stories for us here and now.

As my thoughts took shape I published them so others could reflect on these issues, if they wished to do that.

More on each of those stories shortly, but first a brief reflection on the ways that we use Scripture in the life of the church.

 

Using the Bible faithfully

All Christians use the Bible, although some think that calling themselves a ‘Bible-based’ church or describing their beliefs as ‘biblically based’ somehow makes them different to and better from other groups of Christians. I am sure God is tired of these games that some Christians like to play. I certainly am!

Every Christian takes the Bible seriously, even if it is good to remember that there are several different definitions of what constitutes the Bible. An Anglican Bible is not the same as a Baptist Bible, for example. We might look at that issue in a Dean’s Forum later this year.

Despite some differences about what books to include in the Bible, all Christian communities take the Bible very seriously. It shapes our lives and provides us with the language we need to explore and express our faith.

It may be helpful if I outline briefly my personal way of making faithful use of the Bible, and especially in the context of our worship.

First of all, I try always to follow the lectionary. This means that I am choosing to follow the mind of the great church rather than choose texts that reflect and reinforce my personal preferences. The lectionary is an ecumenical project, so that means the texts we are dealing with are also being read in other local church communities at the same time: Catholic, Lutheran, Uniting, etc.

Secondly, I try to focus on the forest and not count the trees. Good Bible teaching is not about amassing huge amounts of Bible trivia, but about learning to read Scripture soundly in the search for spiritual insight. We are seeking wisdom for holy living.

Thirdly, I pay attention to our own context as readers. As a historian, I could keep you entertained for hours with (hopefully) fascinating information about the biblical world, but my calling is to connect the sacred texts with our everyday lives here and now. I need constantly to be asking myself: What counts as good news for my community—and for me—in these ancient words?

Finally, I expect the Bible to disturb our usual way of thinking. This is a prophetic text, after all, and the prophets—like Jesus hismelf—confronted, challenged and disturbed their listeners. The Bible does not simply reinforce our settled opinions, not even those found in the creeds and confessions of the churches. Rather, the Bible is a sacrament of continual reformation as the Church listens afresh to hear what the Spirit has to teach us. When we domesticate the Bible and limit its meaning to what we already believe and know, then we fail to use the Bible faithfully.

 

Disturbing readings

As already hinted, the readings this week seem such nice tales and yet they invite us to think afresh about important aspects of everyday life.

These readings invite us to notice how gender shapes our lives, and at times becomes the basis for violence and discrimination.

Due to time constraints, let me focus on the Gospel passage.

As I said in my notes on the front page of the bulletin, most of us are not surprised that Jesus would respond to a request that he visit a sick girl, or that he would heal an older woman on his way to see the girl. We are not even surprised that he kept going to see the little girl even after he got word that she had already died.

We respond to these stories from our cultural context where women are (mostly) assumed to be equal with men, and from our post-Easter faith perspective.

For the contemporaries of Jesus and for the readers of Mark’s Gospel, things were very different. As they still are for Orthodox Jews today, who refuse to sit next to a woman: whether that be on a park bench or in an aeroplane.

Jewish gender boundaries were clear and rigid in the time of Jesus.

Jesus broke the rules.

Jesus included women and girls in the community that gathered around him, and he was accompanied by at least a few women as he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem. How the tongues must have wagged.

For a woman whose periods lasted 12 years and not just a few days each month, to be welcomed into the circle around Jesus was an act of amazing grace indeed. Think of all the places and groups from which she would have been excluded during those twelve years. No wonder she just crept up and ‘touched the hem’ of Jesus’ robe! Even to be there in the street was breaking the rules.

How does the good news of Jesus transgress gender boundaries in our own day?

When a young woman is raped and murdered on her way home from work in Melbourne, and another is raped and assaulted while being driven between here and Armidale, while a young girl is kidnapped at knife point and sexually assaulted in Newcastle … when a 16 year old girl near Brisbane  is killed and her body placed in a drum … what does the Gospel mean to these women and their families?

We have come a long way in tearing down the boundaries that people have erected on the basis of gender, but there remains significant work to be completed.

As church we need to be a safe and nurturing place for women and girls.

As church we need to be active in our community so that Grafton is a safe place for women.

God’s love knows no bounds, and neither can our commitment to justice and equality.

There is much more to say about our texts today, but maybe this is the heart of what the Spirit is saying to the church—to our church—in these familiar stories?

 

 

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The Song of the Bow

In many Christian communities around the world this coming weekend, the first reading will include this ancient Hebrew lament, The Song of the Bow (2 Sam 1:17–27 NRSV.)

David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said:

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.   

You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.   

From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
nor the sword of Saul return empty.   

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.   

O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.   

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! 

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.   

How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

David’s deep sense of loss after the death of Jonathan celebrates the love they shared as exceeding the love of women, meaning—one presumes—heterosexual love between men and women.

It has long been noted that David’s words seem to be an affirmation of homoerotic sexual attraction since the explicit contrast is with heterosexual love between men and women. The words seem to put the love of David and Jonathan in a similar category to the love which we commonly observe between different genders.

The related traditions of genuine affection between Jonathan and David, despite their social location as rivals for the royal succession, need to be kept in mind as we seek to make sense of this text.

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.

Saul spoke with his son Jonathan and with all his servants about killing David. But Saul’s son Jonathan took great delight in David. Jonathan told David, “My father Saul is trying to kill you; therefore be on guard tomorrow morning; stay in a secret place and hide yourself.

Thus Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD seek out the enemies of David.”Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.

David rose … and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’” He got up and left; and Jonathan went into the city. (1Sam 18:1–4; 19:1–2; 20:16–17,41–42 NRSV)

Earlier today, a friend asked me whether we would be safe in assuming their ‘love’ was more than just friendship? Was it probably also intimate and sexual?

As I reflect on this question, I think the most we can say with any certainty is that the passage celebrates male/male affection as something deep, passionate and enduring.

Of course, as a ‘progressive’ Christian I would like to read this text as an affirmation of homoerotic attraction, but I just do not think we can defend such a reading of the text.

It is fascinating that the David character affirms that the love he and Jonathan enjoyed was better than the love of women, but the narrative is describing two elite military males here. Those two contexts (elite, military) are critical elements of the enduring relationship between David and Jonathan.

In paying attention to my own dynamics as a reader, I recognise that I am also a privileged member of a cultural elite in our own day. I am also someone who happens to be heterosexual, with no significant same-sex attraction. Consequently, the words of David do not resonate with me in the way they might resonate for friends who identify as LGBTI.

At the very least, this text invites us to look beyond rigid gender stereotypes based on physical sexual characteristics. We are slowly realising that our reality as humans is somewhat more complicated than these traditional stereotypes suggest.

As a preacher next Sunday, I find myself asking what is the good news for various people, queer and straight, in these texts?

I also note that Jesus crosses gender boundaries in the Gospel this Sunday, as he heals a woman with a persistent vaginal haemorrhage and then raises a dead girl to life.

Most of us are not surprised that Jesus would respond to a request that he visit a sick girl, or that he would heal an older woman on his way to see the girl. We are not even surprised that he kept going to see the little girl even after he got word that she had already died.

We respond to these stories from our cultural context where women are (mostly) assumed to be equal with men, and from our post-Easter faith perspective.

For the contemporaries of Jesus and for the readers of Mark’s Gospel, things were very different. As they still are for Orthodox Jews today, who refuse to sit next to a woman: whether that be on a park bench or in an aeroplane.

Jewish gender boundaries were clear and rigid in the time of Jesus.

Jesus broke the rules.

Jesus included women and girls in the community that gathered around him, and he was accompanied by at least a few women as he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem. How the tongues must have wagged.

How does the good news of Jesus transgress gender boundaries in our own day?

When a young woman is raped and murdered on her way home from work in Melbourne, and another is raped and assaulted while being driven between here and Armidale, while a young girl is kidnapped at knife point and sexually assaulted in Newcastle … what does the Gospel mean to these women and their families?

We have come a long way in tearing down the boundaries that people have erected on the basis of gender.

As church we need to be a safe and nurturing place for women and girls.

As church we need to be active in our community so that Grafton is a safe place for women.

God’s love knows no bounds, and neither can our commitment to justice and equality.

 

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Marking Jesus: True kinship

Pentecost 3B
Christ Church Cathedral
10 June 2018

[video]

mentalillness

Have you ever imagined what it might have been like to have known Jesus during his life among us? To have walked the hills of Palestine with him, listened as he shared the deep spiritual wisdom we now find in parables and aphorisms, and seen firsthand the healings and exorcisms described in the Gospels?

I know that I have sometimes thought I would have enjoyed that opportunity, and had a much clearer understanding of the faith.

But now I am not so sure …

 

Jesus according to Mark

Over a series of several weeks commencing last Sunday and extending through to the end of next month, we have a rare opportunity to engage deeply with the earliest account of Jesus’ mission and ministry.

During those 8 weeks we delve into episodes from the early chapters of the Gospel of Mark:

180603—Mark 2:23–3:6
180610—Mark 3:20–35
180617—Mark 4:26–34
180624—Mark 4:35–41
180701—Mark 5:21–43
180708—Mart 6:1–13
180715—Mark 6:14–29
180722—Mark 6:30–34,53–56

So far as we can tell, this Gospel was the first to be written. It was later expanded into a second edition that we know as the Gospel of Matthew, while the Gospel of Luke also seems to have built on the foundations laid by Mark, albeit with much more freedom than Matthew exercised. On the other hand, the Gospel of John shows very little evidence of sharing the way that Mark describes Jesus.

In the Year B of our three-year cycle of Gospel readings for the Sunday services, we pay special attention to Mark.

During the Great Fifty Days of Easter we have focused especially on the Gospel of John.

As we now return to Mark—which is our set Gospel for this year—we begin a series of readings that represent Jesus in conflict with people around him: his family, his hometown of Nazareth, and the Pharisees.

At the same time, Mark portrays Jesus as a man of powerful actions (healing the sick, casting out demons, even controlling the weather) and challenging spiritual wisdom (seen especially in his parables).

By the time we reach the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel in chapter 8, we shall find Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. Before we get to consider our response to that key question, we shall have several weeks of Mark raising the tension around Jesus who sometimes seems like a new Moses and at other times seems like another Elijah.

Through the chapters that set up the Jesus story for Mark’s readers, we find Jesus as a man of action, a spiritual teacher, and a healer. He is surrounded by controversy. people are divided by his actions and his words. There is conflict. As we see today, even his own family thinks he has gone too far and needs some ‘time out’.

Maybe, rather than finding all my questions answered, were I able to travel back in time to Galilee circa 28 CE, I might be more confused than ever.

 

Last week

We missed a chance to reflect on the passage last week as we were observing Reconciliation Sunday. To hear Lenore Parker speak was a real treat, but let me just offer a super brief summary of the confronting episode from last week.

The last paragraph of Mark 2 and the first paragraph of Mark 3 offer two stories about Jesus breaking the strict Sabbath rules that Jewish people then and now hold so sacred.

As a Jew, Jesus knew the Sabbath rules but we have these twin stories where Jesus first allows his followers to pick grains as they walk through a field on Sabbath, and then breaks the Sabbath himself by choosing to heal a person with a withered hand.

We do not ‘see’ the problem because we are used to ignoring the Sabbath. As Christians, we observe Sunday rather than Saturday as our holy day. Indeed, we are not even all that good at keeping Sunday as a day of rest. But for religious Jews this is a serious issue.

Jesus’ clever little sound bite will not have soothed their feelings one bit:

The sabbath was made for humankind,
and not humankind for the sabbath;
so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.
(Mark 2:27–28 NRSV)

With comments like that Jesus was bound to be controversial.

What God seeks from us is compassion, not compliance.

The rules are there to serve us,
we are not here to serve the rules.

If we followed Jesus with attitudes like that we might indeed find ourselves embroiled in controversy.

We tend not to do that, so we fade away into irrelevance. Anglicans will more likely disappear due to apathy than opposition or vilification.

Jesus broke the rules, and he challenges us to do the same.

But it is not very Anglican, eh?

 

Madness and Family Shame

Let’s now briefly note this week’s contribution to the clouds of controversy gathering around Jesus in these opening chapters of Mark.

His family thinks he has had a breakdown and they come to take him away for a rest.

His opponents think he has been possessed by an especially nasty evil spirit: Beelzebul.

Either way, Jesus has upset people.

His family thinks he has gone mad, while the religious experts think he has gone over to the Devil.

Jesus’ response is hardly reassuring, and it leaves us to wrestle with some deep personal challenges.

He begins by telling his opponents that they have just committed the unforgivable sin, and they can never be forgiven for what they have said. That seems a bit extreme. Can we imagine any thought or any words or any action that place us beyond the reach of God’s love?

His response to his family is just as extreme.

When told that his mother—and his brothers as well as his sisters—are outside and want to see him, Jesus refuses even to speak with them.

Who are my mother and my brothers?
Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is
my brother and sister and mother.
(Mark 3:33–35 NRSV)

In his culture—as in Arab and Jewish culture to this day—no-one talks about their family like that. The family is the core reality around which every other aspect of life revolves. Yet Jesus is turning his back on his own kin and embracing a new kind of family, a family created by obedience to God rather than marriage and childbirth.

It is one thing to violate the Sabbath, but this time Jesus undermines the fabric of his own society. And ours.

 

The Radical Jesus

A friend of mine in the USA likes to refer to Jesus as ‘Radical J”, and I think she is onto something profound here.

The Jesus portrayed by this section of Mark’s Gospel is radical, confronting, and disturbing.

Someone like that is more suited to a mental health institution than a synagogue or Cathedral.

But Mark is celebrating this aspect of Jesus. It is not something he covers up or tries to explain away. The radical edge to Jesus is part of the mystique.

So how do we deal with this radical and erratic Jesus?

How much can we domesticate him before we have lost touch with the real Jesus?

Francis of Assisi shared something of this radical and anti-social character.

Are our hearts big enough for a Jesus who turns everything we cherish upside down?

I cannot answer that question, but I invite you to reflect on it this coming week!

 

 

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Harvest of divine love

Pentecost Sunday
Christ Church Cathedral
20 May 2018

 

Today we are in an interesting space, a liminal space of sorts.

Christians are observing Pentecost Sunday, a holy day that we share with our Jewish friends. But during this past week we have also seen the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest time of the year for our Muslim friends and neighbours.

Shavuot … Pentecost … Ramadan

This is quite a convergence of sacred times in three of the world’s great religions. It is a convergence that invites us to reflect on the real world outcomes of religious life.

 

Bringing in the harvest

Pentecost is a holy day with ancient roots that run deep into the spiritual soil of our religion, while offering us a fresh vision for what life and faith might mean now and in the future. In ancient times this feast coincided with the spring harvest festival, and it was a time to gather in the crops before the hot dry summer burnt the fields brown.

By this stage seven weeks had passed since Passover, another great Jewish festival. Those 49 days—7 weeks each of 7 days—gave rise to the idea that day #50 was worth celebrating. A week of weeks had passed, and indeed that is what this holy day is called in the Jewish religion: Shavuot, The Festival of Weeks.

For us as Christians, the Great Fifty Day of Easter finish today.

In the shops Easter has long since been forgotten. The hot cross buns have disappeared from the shelves and the chocolate bunnies have vanished.

But in the church we have been busy teasing out just what kind of difference Easter makes in our lives here and now.

 

The ‘secret’ meaning of Easter

After 50 days—a week of weeks—it is time to check what difference (if any) Easter makes to our lives as people of faith.

For many Christians, Easter is all about the bones of Jesus.

Where are they? What kind of ‘event’ was the resurrection? If we had a camera at the tomb on Easter Day could we have taken a photo of Jesus emerging from the tomb? Was it a ‘bodily resurrection’—seemingly the new test for orthodoxy in certain circles? Was it something else?

Most of those questions are meaningless in the world that we now know that we live in.

None of us imagine that after our own deaths we shall have a physical body, so why would we imagine Jesus having a physical body after Easter?

None of us think we live in a three-tier universe, with God ‘upstairs’ and the devil ‘under the floor’. So why would we imagine that Jesus ascended from ‘down here’ to ‘up there’?

We know that we live in a universe that is at least 15 billion years old, constantly expanding, and with no known boundary.

Jesus did not ascend into a heaven ‘up there’ and he did not need a physical body after Easter.

Such questions reflect our own failure to keep up with the God who dances beyond our best ideas, and always calls us forward into the adventure of discovering new truth.

This is the great adventure—aka, “life”—into which we baptise Lottie Mae this morning.

In one of his several letters to the fledgling Christian community in Corinth, St Paul wrote a very long discussion on the nature and the meaning of resurrection. Towards the end of the discussion, which we call chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, Paul makes this remarkable declaration:

“… the second Adam became a life-giving spirit …”

That is the secret meaning of Easter, and it is the great big truth about God that we celebrate today.

 

Pentecost

At Easter, God said NO to fear, hate and death.

At Easter God said YES to hope, love and life.

Today as we conclude the fifty days of Easter we pause to think about how our lives, our community and our world might be transformed for the better if we took seriously how God responded to the death of Jesus.

God took everyone by surprise at Easter time. Nobody saw this coming.

At Pentecost we celebrate another time when God took everyone by surprise.

Today we celebrate the presence of God among us, within us and between as the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit.

This is not about religious party tricks.

It is not about the bones of Jesus, for which—by the way—he had no further use.

It is about the love that throbs at the very centre of the universe being active in our own lives. Every day. Every moment. In good times and in bad times.

That is the ultimate meaning of Easter, and that is the big, exciting and transformative truth into which we baptise Lottie this morning.

It is the big truth that God invites us to embrace today, and which turns our lives upside down.

Are we game to say YES to God?

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Easter—day #50

Reflections for Pentecost Sunday’s bulletin …

Today we are observing Pentecost Sunday.

This is a holy day with ancient roots that run deep into the spiritual soil of our religion, while offering us a fresh vision for what life and faith might mean now and in the future.

Pentecost is a holy day that we share with our Jewish friends.

In ancient times this feast coincided with the spring harvest festival, and it was a time to gather in the crops before the hot dry summer burnt the fields brown.

By this stage seven weeks had passed since Passover, another great Jewish festival. Those 49 days—7 weeks each of 7 days—gave rise to the idea that day #50 was worth celebrating. A week of weeks had passed, and indeed that is what this holy day is called in the Jewish religion: Shavuot, The Festival of Weeks.

For us as Christians, the Great Fifty Day of Easter finish today.

In the shops Easter has long since been forgotten. The hot cross buns have disappeared from the shelves and the chocolate bunnies have vanished.

But in the church we have been busy teasing out just what kind of difference Easter makes in our lives here and now.

At Easter, God said NO to fear, hate and death.
At Easter God said YES to hope, love and life.

Today as we conclude the fifty days of Easter we pause to think about how our lives, our community and our world might be transformed for the better if we took seriously how God responded to the death of Jesus.

God took everyone by surprise at Easter time. Nobody saw this coming.

At Pentecost we celebrate another time when God took everyone by surprise.

Today we celebrate the presence of God among us, within us and between as the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit.

This is not about religious party tricks.

It is about the love that throbs at the very centre of the universe being active in our own lives. Every day. Every moment. In good times and in bad times.

That is the ultimate meaning of Easter, and that is the big, exciting and transformative truth into which we baptise Lottie this morning.

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Ecumenism: journey​, pilgrimage and challenge

Easter 7(B)
13 May 2018
Christ Church Cathedral

 

 

The ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday are marked within the Australian churches as a week of special prayer for Christian unity.

As we reflect on the challenges faced by all Christian communities in contemporary Australian society, it may be worth reflecting on our complex history of relationships between the churches. The good relations which we enjoy and appreciate these days have not always been the norm, and indeed it may be worth asking just how serious we are about Christian unity.

We can perhaps trace the history of our ecumenical relationships through a series of four or five stages. The fifth and final stage—unity—is yet to be achieved, but the other four have been part of our shared journey.

 

Breaking down the wall of hostility …

REJECTION: During this phase of our ecumenical relationships, each major Christian church liked to pretend that it was the only valid church. Catholics dismissed Anglicans as not a valid church, while Anglican dismissed Presbyterians or Methodists as not a proper church, and so on. Marriage across denominational lines was almost impossible, and considerable suffering was experienced by people whose families happened to include people from more than one Christian tradition.

COMPETITION: Once it became impossible to maintain the fiction that only the church to which we belonged was an authentic church, then we moved into a stage of competition. In this phase we each sought to consolidate our historical privileges and attract new adherents from other traditions or from the wider community.

COLLABORATION: Since the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948 there has been a move towards formal collaboration, at least between certain subsets of the churches. The conciliar movement gives de facto recognition to the validity of different expressions of Christianity, whether they are due to cultural and ethnic factors or variations in beliefs and practices. Some church groups found even that level of recognition too much to embrace, with the result that rival councils of churches now exist with the Australian religious scene.

COALITION: In response to various forms of humanitarian and social need even churches that disagree on key beliefs and practices have sometimes found that we can form a coalition to address issues like alcohol abuse, gambling, refugees, and so on. But around issues such as marriage equality there was no grand Christian coalition, since the churches adopted opposing views on the question or chose to leave people to follow their own consciences. In such cases the differences within the one religious community can be greater than those between different communities.

UNITY: There remains the hope of structural and visible unity among the churches, but it seems to be a fading dream. The test for our commitment to genuine ecumenical progress may be how we respond to this challenge from the late Bishop Michael Putney, formerly a colleague of mine in the Brisbane College of Theology. Bishop Michael argued fervently that we should “only do separately those things which we cannot in good conscience do together”.

 

Here and now

We have some real challenges here in this city when it comes to ecumenism.

For the most part we pretend that all is rosy, but in fact that far from the case.

Every time a new Christian community starts up, it is an act of schism and a new rip in the fabric of the faith.

At the heart of these new fellowships or missions is a belief that none of the existing churches provided an acceptable way for that group of people to serve God’s mission in this city. The others are so wrong about so many serious points of belief or practice that true fellowship is impossible to maintain and yet another new church needs to be created.

And the city looks at us with disdain, while the Lord weeps.

The Christian witness is fragmented and our resources are diverted into buying new properties, erecting new buildings, and engaging new clergy.

Is the Christian church actually any smaller in Grafton than it was 25 or 50 years ago, or are we just so fragmented that almost all of use are smaller inside our half-empty new churches?

But let’s look closer to home. Even within our own Anglican Church we are divided in ways that detract from the mission God has called us to do. We cannot even work together we each other on opposite sides of the river for fear that we might lose something that matters more to us—it seems—that providing a strong Anglican voice in the city of Grafton.

I do wonder how the respect for the Christian churches in Grafton might be improved if our neighbours saw us acting out of such a spirit of mutual acceptance rather than competing for some marginal advantage to the perceived benefit of our own institutions.

Let’s pray that God will make us—Yes, us!—so uncomfortable about the lack of unity within our own church and between the various church communities of this city, that we actually do something to make a change.

As a start, I suggest we embrace the word of Bishop Michael Putney and resolve “only [to] do separately those things which we cannot in good conscience do together”.

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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