Turning towards the cross

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

Today we enter the holiest period of the Christian year.

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

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

 

Three High & Holy Festivals

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

Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter

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

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

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

Pentecost

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

 

Passiontide

From today onwards we can sense the approach of Easter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Holy Week

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

Palm Sunday – a celebration rich with colour and story

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

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

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

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

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

The Valley of Dry Bones

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

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

God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

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

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

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

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

 

Lazarus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

People of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

None so blind …

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE STORY

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

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

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

Jesus heals the blind man.

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

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

Not so in this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SELECTIVE BLINDNESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only that were so.

If only we were indeed free from spiritual myopia.

WISDOM FOR TODAY

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

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

We need to glimpse a new future.

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

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

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

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

That will be a long journey into an uncertain future.

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

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

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

Do we dare to look?

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

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

Posted in Byron Bay, Sermons, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Sermon at the Well

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

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

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

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

Jacob's Well web

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

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

160116 Jacobs Well Icon

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

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

ENGAGING WITH THE TEXT

Where is this story happening?

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

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

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

It is around noon.

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

Who is in this story?

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

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

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

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

What is happening in this story?

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

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

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

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

REFLECTIONS

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

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

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

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

The ‘First Peoples’ of Palestine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me address each of these in turn.

Bad History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Politics

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Bible, Palestine | 7 Comments

Romulus and Remus coin

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

Here is what the coin looks like:

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

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

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

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

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

There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid … the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him. [Plutarch, ca 75 CE]

More on the Romulus and Remus legend here.

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

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

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

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

150620 Banias

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

Dates: 18 June – July 7, 2017

Study Tour Leader: Dr Greg Jenks

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

Closing Date: Friday, 10 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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A sermon for St Andrew’s Day

Andrew of Bethsaida, the ‘first-called’

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

sats-greg-day2

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew of Bethsaida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew was proactive in the face of adversity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s tease this out a little further,

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

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

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

We would love to know more.

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

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

And that journey was political as well as religious.

To associate with John was to oppose Antipas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

What wisdom for our journey of faith?

What insights for our mission?

Andrew was grounded in his own faith tradition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saying YES to God

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


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

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

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

Luke is celebrating the strange workings of God among us.

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

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

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

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

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

Luke begins with a story of two births.

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

Two miraculous births.

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

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

God invites our YES.

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

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

God waits for us.

God invites our response.

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

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

And to what might we be saying YES?

We will be saying YES to hope

We will be saying YES to trust

We will be saying YES to life

We will be saying YES to justice

We will be saying YES to compassion

We will be saying YES to freedom

We will be saying YES to joy

We will be saying YES to love

The world needs people who say YES to these things.

The world needs people who say YES to God.

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

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

The Eternal Dance of Love and Fear

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

Our paschal liturgies have commenced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eternal dance of love and fear

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

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

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

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

Love and Fear Then 

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

Do we even need to ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Fear Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is fear that turns away refugees seeking asylum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is fear that divides, hates, and kills.

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

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

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

Where is the love?

 

Fear has No Future

Fear seems so much stronger because it is so destructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his famous hymn to love, St Paul writes:

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:4–8)

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

With Mary we affirm:

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

And with the author of 1 John we proclaim:

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

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The God who Reconciles

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

Today we enter the second half of our Lenten journey.

Behind us lie the first three Sundays of Lent:

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

Those are all fairly grim texts.

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

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

Today we have something of a respite.

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation as the Mission of God in our Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prodigal and the loving father (Luke 15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To us.

Of all people, to us.

Here.

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

Not only here.

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

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

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