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Father, Son, and Disciples (II): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7B)

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a familiar phrase within the Christian Church. (“Holy Ghost” is used in more antiquated contexts.) The triune formula is uttered frequently, consistently, in all manner of church contexts (liturgical, catechetical, instructional, devotional), by all manner of church people (ordained and lay, stipended or voluntary, intensely devout or loosely affiliated).

In a previous blog, I began an analysis of the content of a section of the book of signs—which we know as the Gospel according to John—which is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 17:6–19). This is part of what is often called the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus ;17:1–26).

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/10/father-son-and-disciples-i-the-real-trinity-in-johns-gospel-john-17-easter-7b/

This prayer is reported only in this Gospel, in a style that is distinctive to this Gospel. In this work, it represents the final climactic prayer of Jesus for those who are following him. The prayer, I contend, sets before us a different trinity. Not the trinity of orthodox doctrine and liturgy. Rather, it is quite another trinity!

My argument has three main parts to it—not surprisingly, because it is, after all, about a three-part entity! Parts I and II were set forth in that earlier blog.

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

References to the Spirit are few and far between in this Gospel. When Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Advocate (parakletos) (14:15–17, 26; 15:26: 16:12–15), it is clear that the Advocate steps into the place that will be left empty after the departure of Jesus. The Advocate replaces Jesus, rather than being one of the three personae in interrelationship within the triune Godhead.

II The relationship between the Father and the Son

There are ten ways in which this relationship is described. The central affirmation about Jesus in this Gospel is claiming the unity of the Son with the Father: “we are one” (17:22), “you, Father, are in me and I am an in you” (17:21; “you in me” is repeated in 17:23). Second, the Father knows the Son, just as the Son knows the Father. “The world does not know you; but I know you”, Jesus prays (17:25); “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).

Third, the Father loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father (17:23, 24, 26). Fourth, the Father gifts the Son with a number of different gifts: “authority over all people” (17:2), work to do (17:4), words to speak (17:8, 14), and glory (17:22, 24). Fifth, the Father sends the Son into the world (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25).

Sixth, the Son makes known the Father to the world (17:7–8). Seventh, the Father has sanctified the Son; while he was “in the world” (17:11), the Son prays to the Father that he has “made your name known” to those he has gathered (17:6), by giving the words that are from God (17:8,14). Through this process, the Son is sanctified (17:19).

Eighth, the Father glorifies the Son, just as the Son glorifies the Father (17:1, 4, 5). Ninth, the prayer indicates that the Son returns to the Father (17:10, 13), and tenth, it is clear that the Son is now with the Father (17:5, 11, 14, 16, 22).

Each of these lines of connection between the Father and the Son are clearly expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Each of them is signalled at various points earlier in the narrative. And many of them are found within the prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospel, as characterising the relationship between the Son and the Disciples.

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III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

So the next step in my argument is to propose that the third element in this Johannine trinity is, not the Spirit, but rather—the Disciples. The Disciples relate to the Son as the Son relates to the Father. Seven of the ten ways by which the Father and the Son relate to one another are mirrored in the way that the Son relates to the Disciples.

The first way is that the Son and the Disciples are unified as one: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (17:22–23). This unity is expressed also in that the Son abides in the Disciples, and the Disciples abide in the Son (17:21). This intimate interrelationship leads Jesus to pray “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one” (17:23). The unity of Father and Son is exactly paralleled in the perfect unity of Son and Disciples.

The language of “abide” has earlier been used by Jesus to refer to his relationship with his disciples as he expanded the imagery of the vine and the branches (15:6, 7, 10). “I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you”, he has also declared (14:20)—a striking expression of trinitarian interrelationship!

The second connection is that the Disciples know who the Son is (17:21, 23, 25). “If you know me”, Jesus has earlier taught the Disciples, “you will know my Father also” (14:7). The way by which the Disciples then demonstrate what they know about the Son is through their deeds: “if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13:17).

Third, the unity of Son and Disciples results in knowledge about the Son spreading amongst others: “I in me and you in me … so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you love me” (17:23). This, then, mirrors what we identified as the sixth way of connecting, as the Son makes known the Father; now, Jesus affirms, the Disciples make known the Son.

The fourth way that there is connection is that the Son loves the Disciples and thus the Disciples can love the Son (17:23). The love of the Son for the Disciples is articulated in a very strong statement that introduces the second half of the gospel (chs. 13–21), namely, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1).

Jesus references his love for the Disciples as well as their love for him again at 13:34; 14:21; 15:9–10. He also affirms that “those who love me will be loved by my Father” (14:21) and “the Father himself loves you because you have loved me” (16:27). The three-way interconnectedness of mutual love strengthens the notion of a trinity of relationship involving Father, Son, and Disciples.

The fifth manner of relationship is that the Son gives gifts to the Disciples. These gifts are identified as words (17:8, 14), glory (17:22), and love (17:26). Earlier narratives in this Gospel have likewise noted that the Son gives the Disciples “power to become children of God” (1:12), “the food of eternal life” (6:12), eternal life (10:28), peace (14:27), and “another Advocate” (as already noted, 14:16). This mirrors the fourth element in the relationship between the Father and the Son.

The sixth way is that the Son sends the disciples into the world (17:18), in the same way that the Father has sent the Son into the world (see the many references cited above). The parallelism is also evident in the word that “whoever receives anyone I send, receives me” (13:20), and in the command of the risen Jesus, “as the Father sent me, so I send you” (20:21). As with the Father sending the Son (the fifth way of connecting), so the Son sends the Disciples.

The seventh way of relating is that the Son is glorified in the Disciples (17:10). This, too, parallels one of the ways by which the Father relates to the Son (listed above as the eighth way). “The glory that you have given me, I have given them”, says Jesus (17:22). And more than this, in the story of the vine and the branches, Jesus affirms that “in this, my Father is glorified; that you bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples” (15:8). Once again, the three elements of the Johannine trinity are drawn into intimate relationship.

The final, eighth, line of connection is that the Son sanctifies the Disciples. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (17:17-19). This mirrors what we identified as the eight way of connection between Father and Son.

These eight lines of connection between the Son and the Disciples directly parallel the way that the Father relates to the Son. Only the final two means of connection between Father and Son are absent from the way the Son relates to the Disciples; and there are clear reasons for this, since they relate to the post-ascension state of Jesus, who has returned to the Father and is now with the Father.

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So, in this wonderful prayer, the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, we have the foundational elements set out for this somewhat distinctive trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Disciples, bound together in intimate unity, inter-relating, distinct and yet overlapping.

The prayer draws together many elements in the way that the relationship between the Father and the Son is expressed in this Gospel. The prayer also incorporates many of the ways by which the Son is connected with the Disciples. In fact, the interconnected nature of this threeway relationships actually appears to be highly developed, well thought through, and clearly articulated in this Gospel.

As Father and Son are one, so Son and Disciples are one. As the Father is glorified in the Son, so the Disciples are glorified in the Son. As the Father sanctifies the Son, so the Son sanctifies the Disciples. As the Father sends the Son, so the Son sends the Disciples. As the Son makes the Father known, so the Disciples make known the Son. As the Father abides in the Son, and the Son in the Father, so the Son abides in the Disciples, and the Disciples abide in the Son.

Father, Son, and Disciples. This is what I call, the real Johannine Trinity.

Now, let the accusations of heresy begin ………

For other considerations relating to the Trinity, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/10/do-you-believe-in-the-triune-god/

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Father, Son, and Disciples (I): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7B)

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a familiar phrase within the Christian Church. (“Holy Ghost” is used in more antiquated contexts.) The triune formula is uttered frequently, consistently, in all manner of church contexts (liturgical, catechetical, instructional, devotional), by all manner of church people (ordained and lay, stipended or voluntary, intensely devout or loosely affiliated).

The reading from the book of signs—which we know as the Gospel according to John—that is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 17:6–19), is part of what is often called the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus ;17:1–26). It is a prayer reported only in this Gospel, in a style that is distinctive to this Gospel. In this work, it represents the final climactic prayer of Jesus for those who are following him.

This prayer, I contend, sets before us a different trinity. Not the trinity of orthodox doctrine and liturgy. Rather, it is quite another trinity!

Let me explain. My argument has three main parts to it—not surprisingly, because it is, after all, about a three-part entity!

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

First, let us note that references to the Spirit are few and far between in this Gospel. The Spirit is noted in John’s testimony about the baptism of Jesus (1:32–34) and then is referred to in passing in later statements by Jesus (3:34; 6:63; 7:39; 20:22), but no more expansive exposition of the role or significance of the Spirit is offered in this Gospel.

In three brief discussions during his farewell discourse with the disciples, Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Advocate (parakletos) (14:15–17, 26; 15:26: 16:12–15). In each instance, it is clear that the Advocate steps into the place that will be left empty after the departure of Jesus.

The role of the Advocate is a replacement role, rather than being one of the three personae in interrelationship within the triune Godhead. Other than these brief references, there is no indication of the Spirit as a personal entity in relationship with God or Jesus in this Gospel.

(For more on this figure in this Gospel, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/)

So the third person in the trinity in John’s Gospel: who is it?

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II The relationship between the Father and the Son

To get to that point, first, we need to observe the way that this Gospel sets out the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son. There are ten ways by which this relationship is described in this prayer; and indications of these ten ways of connecting can be found scatted throughout the long narrative about Jesus constructed by the author.

The central affirmation about Jesus in this Gospel is claiming the unity of the Son with the Father. “The Father and I are one”, Jesus has dramatically, and provocatively declared (10:30). (These words provoked “the Jews” to pick up stones to stone Jesus, 10:31.)

This affirmation is reiterated as Jesus prays to God: “we are one” (17:22). It is also expressed in the language of intimate and mutual interrelationship: “you, Father, are in me and I am an in you” (17:21; “you in me” is repeated in 17:23).

The intimate relationship of the Father and the Son has been noted already in the chapter where Jesus speaks about the vine and the branches, when he declares that “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). The language of abiding recurs in the first letter attributed to John—although most likely from a different author (see 1 John 2:24, 28; 3:6, 24; 4:13–16).

The second way in which the Father and the Son are related is that the Father knows the Son, just as the Son knows the Father. “The world does not know you; but I know you”, Jesus prays (17:25). This mutual knowledge of one another has been affirmed earlier in controversies in Jerusalem (7:29; 8:55). Jesus is perfectly clear: “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).

Third, the Father loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father. This is expressed three times in this prayer (17:23, 24, 26). This again is a motif that has been expressed earlier, when Jesus affirms that “the Son loves the Father” (14:31) and that “the Son loves the Father” (15:9).

Fourth, there is a persistent theme running through the prayer, that the Father gifts the Son with a number of different gifts. These gifts include “authority over all people” (17:2), work to do (17:4), words to speak (17:8, 14), and glory (17:22, 24). The prayer also twice references “your name that you have given me” (17:11, 12). God’s gifts in the earlier chapters have included, most famously, “his only Son” (3:16), as well as “living water” (4:10), “bread in the wilderness” (6:31), the “true bread from heaven” (6:32), another Helper” (14:16), and “whatever you ask from God” (11:22; 15:16; 16:23)—although these are all directed towards believing humanity, rather than directly to the Son.

Fifth, the Father sends the Son into the world. This is another strong thread running through this prayer (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). The motif of sending is equally strong in this Gospel; “him who sent me” is a description of the Father that frequently recurs (1:33; 4:34; 5:23, 30, 36–38; 6:38, 44; 7:16, 28–29; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5). The famous verse about God sending the Son (3:16–17) is later alluded to in one of the final words of the risen Jesus: “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).

Sixth, the Son makes known the Father to the world (17:7–8). This function of revealing, or making known, is integral to the role that Jesus has throughout the book of signs. This function is introduced in the majestic opening prologue: “the Father’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18).

This theme continues in affirmations that Jesus healed the man born blond “so that the works of God might be manifest in him” (9:3); to those who love the Son “I will love him and manifest myself to him” (14:21); and in the affirmation that those formerly called servants are now called friends, “for a servant does not know what the master is doing” (15:15).

The root word underlying the verb “to make known” (gnōridzō) is the noun gnōsis, which in itself does not appear in the book of signs; however, many interpreters regard this book as being heavily influenced by the emerging movement we label as Gnosticism. In this movement, salvation is attainable not by trusting in a sacrificial action, but rather by gaining knowledge (gnosis). The insight and knowledge that is conveyed by Jesus as he teaches (6:59; 7:28, 35; 8:2, 20, 34; 18:20) is the key for those who follow him.

Seventh, the Father indicates to the Son that he has sanctified the Son him by sending him “into the world” (10:36). Whilst he was “in the world” (17:11), the Son prays to the Father that he has “made your name known” to those he has gathered (17:6), by giving to the Word (1:1-3) the words that are from God (17:8,14). Through this process, the Son is sanctified (17:19).

Eighth, the Father glorifies the Son, just as the Son glorifies the Father (17:1, 4, 5). This has been declared earlier by Jesus, that “my Father is glorified by this” (15:8), and prayed for when Jesus cries out “Father, glorify your name”, to which a voice from heaven responds, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify him at once” (12:28).

Still earlier in the Gospel, Jesus notes that “it is my Father who glorifies me” (8:54). This motif has also been signalled very early on, in the poetic prologue, in which the author claims that “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son” (1:14). The signs that Jesus performed “revealed his glory” (2:11; 11:4, 40).

The moment in which the full realisation of the glory of Jesus actually manifests in its fullness in the cluster of events that take place in his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (12:23–24; see also 13:31–32).

Ninth, the prayer indicates that the Son returns to the Father (17:10, 13). Jesus had foretold this quite directly to his followers (14:18–19, 28). This leads to the tenth, final, line of connection and relationship between the Father and the Son: that the Son is now with the Father (17:5, 11, 14, 16, 22), bringing fulfilment to the words uttered earlier by Jesus (14:10–11, 20).

Each of these lines of connection between the Father and the Son are clearly expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Each of them is signalled at various points earlier in the narrative. And many of them are found within the prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospel, as characterising the relationship between the Son and the Disciples.

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III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

I will offer my considerations of this third part in a subsequent blog …

Father, Son, and Disciples (II): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7B)

For other considerations relating to the Trinity, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/10/do-you-believe-in-the-triune-god/

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An Affirmation for Our Times

In recent weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary has offered passages from Acts which narrate the expansion of the early movement of followers of Jesus. The author of Acts provides a clear schematic account of how the good news spread out from the centre of the Jewish nation, Jerusalem, to the edges of Samaria and beyond (starting with a court official from Ethiopia), and into the widespread Gentile world (starting with a Roman soldier based in Caesarea).

In a couple of weeks, we will read the story of Pentecost, with Mews gathered in Jerusalem from many of the surrounding regions and nations. Encountering God in a dramatic new way, they return to their homes with good news bubbling over in joyful ways.

The Iona Community has a fine Affirmation which fits well within the context of these readings, reflecting God’s openness to the outsider, welcoming the diversity of humanity, affirming grace at work . Here it is:

Affirming the Global Church

We believe in God,

who befriended a wandering people,

calling them from slavery into freedom,

yet who in Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba,

Cyrus, Darius and many others,

called outsiders to be agents of God’s purpose.

We believe in Jesus,

who was revered by Persian sages,

sought and found asylum in Egypt,

preached the love of God to Syrians,

attracted Greeks to his cause,

found his first evangelist in a Samaritan,

saw incomparable faith in a Roman,

had his cross shouldered by a Libyan,

and ascended to his native land

that he might be present in all places.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

who at Pentecost proved

that heaven has no mother tongue;

who, in the baptism of an Ethiopian,

denied racism a foothold in faith;

and who, in the ancient and modern worlds,

founded churches in different cultures.

We believe that God is supremely known in Jesus,

yet we affirm that the love of God is beyond our understanding.

Therefore we celebrate

that God’s ways are not our ways,

that God knows whom God chooses,

and reserves the right to surpass all human expectation.

From A Wee Worship Book, 2015, from Wild Goose Publications (page 105)

On the Acts passages, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/04/27/edging-away-from-the-centre-easter-5-acts-8/

What happened after Philip met the Ethiopian? (Acts 8; Easter 5B)

Even to the Gentiles! (Acts 10; Easter 6B)

On creeds, see also https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/30/affirming-the-teachings-of-jesus/

Interpreting the creeds “in a later age”

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“The one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5; Easter 6B)

The book we know as 1 John is unlikely, as we have seen, to have been a letter. It is more likely that it came into being as a sermon, which was later collected alongside some other works attributed to John, which were actual letters (2 John and 3 John), themselves placed alongside letters by other leaders (Peter, James, Jude—and, of course, Paul).

This sermon-letter is intended to encourage believers, who are to live in light, not in darkness, to love, and not to hate (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21), and to strive to ensure that their love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in their lives.

Set in stark contrast to these believers is “the world”, which is full of desire (2:16); those in “the world” do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate the believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

A striking feature of this sermon-letter occurs towards its end, in a compact sentence (5:13) which contains both a description of the recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”) and a declaration of the purpose of the letter (“so that you may know that you have eternal life”). The key terms in this sentence are immediately reminiscent of a similar declaration of purpose towards the end of John’s Gospel (John 20:31).

Each work is “written” concerning “eternal life”, granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the sermon-letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.

One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the sermon-letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this later work. Other points of differentiation are noted below.

There are many signs of the common theological standpoint shared by letter and Gospel. The opening of the sermon-letter is reminiscent of the grand poem which begins John’s Gospel, and three important themes of this Gospel are flagged in both prologues. Central to each is the revelation of God (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:14, 18) which occurs through speaking (1 Jn 1:1, 3; compare “the Word” of John 1:1, 14) and conveys the message of eternal life (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:4).

Another important motif in the prologue to the sermon-letter is the believer’s fellowship with God and Jesus (1 Jn 1:3), which may be compared with the Gospel terminology of “abiding in” (John 14:17; 15:1–11). The sense of testimony which permeates 1 Jn 1:1–4 resonates with the frequent emphasis on testimony, or witness, in the Gospel (John 1:6–8, 15, 19, 32– 34; 3:31–34; 5:31–32, 36–39; 8:17–19; 10:25–27; 19:35). The note of joy which ends the prologue (1 Jn 1:4) reflects similar expressions in the Gospel (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13).

Beyond the sermon-letter’s prologue, other themes also point towards the Gospel of John, with some observable differences. The language of light and darkness (1 John 1:5–7; 2:8–10) is a reminder of the Gospel’s use of similar imagery (John 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 12:46), although there is a change in attribution, from Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), to the affirmation that “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5).

The author of 1 John asserts that “we are from the truth” (3:19) and “we know the spirit of truth” (4:6); this is reminiscent of the claim of the Johannine Jesus that “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and his promise that “if you continue in my word…you will know the truth” (John 8:32).

Indeed, a consistent emphasis on adherence to the truth runs through the sermon-letter (1 John 1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 21, 27; 3:18–19; 4:6; 5:6, 20) as through the Gospel (John 1:9, 14, 16; 3:21; 4:23–24; 6:55; 7:18; 8:32; 14:6, 17; 16:13; 17:17–19; 19:37–38).

We have already noted the occurrence of the phrase eternal life in the sermon-letter’s prologue (1 John 1:2); it occurs elsewhere in ensuing chapters (2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20). This is a recurrent theme in the Gospel, for it characterises the offer which Jesus makes to his followers (John 3:15–16, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 12:25, 50; 17:1–3).

Again, as we have seen, the attribute of love is highly prized within 1 John; the command to love, which issues from God (1 John 2:7–8; 3:23– 24; 4:21; 5:1–5), looks back to the Johannine Jesus, who is twice reported as delivering this commandment (John 13:34–35; 15:12–17) and whose death exemplifies such love (John 15:13; see also 10:11–18; 12:23–26).

However, the notion that love can be perfectly expressed (1 John 4:17) and the opposition between love and fear (1 John 4:18) go beyond the Gospel’s exposition of love, as does the claim that God is love (1 John 4:8).

Knowledge is a key concern of this sermon-letter (1 John 2:4, 13–14, 21; 3:1, 19; 4:2, 6–8, 16; 5:13); likewise, in the Johannine account of the life of Jesus, knowing Jesus is crucial (John 10:4–5, 14–15, 27; 14:1–7; 16:29–30; 17:3, 7, 25–26). The assertion to the sermon-letter’s recipients that “all of you have knowledge” (1 John 2:20) reflects the Gospel’s concern for people to know Jesus; this is especially important in the early chapters (John 1:10, 18, 26, 31, 33, 48; 3:2, 11; 4:22, 25, 42).

The emphasis on knowledge in this sermon-letter has led interpreters to the view that the writer is combating a Gnostic development in the Jesus movement, which places great weight on knowing in contrast to believing. (The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis.) We can see a similar debate taking place in Corinth (1 Cor 2:6–3:4). The letter-writer assures the recipients that the anointing they have received provides them with knowledge about all things (1 John 2:20, 27).

The substance of this knowledge, in the Gospel, is that Father and Son are one (John 10:30; related expressions are found at 14:7 and 16:32); a similar discussion in the sermon-letter treats Father and Son as a unity (1 John 2:22– 24). The characteristic Johannine language of Father and Son, in intimate and reciprocal relationship with one another (given fullest expression in John 17), also runs throughout this work (1 John 1:3, 7; 2:22–24; 3:8, 23; 4:9–10, 14–15; 5:9–12, 13, 20).

The Spirit is given by the Father (1 John 3:24; 4:13) and is described as the spirit of truth (1 John 4:6), reflecting the most frequent Gospel portrayal of the Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit is not yet a personal entity, as envisaged in the doctrine of the Trinity, but plays a role as a witness (1 John 5:6–9), as is noted of the Spirit in the Gospel (John 15:26; 16:13).

The negative attitude towards the world in this sermon-letter is consistent with the polemics of the Gospel (John 1:10; 7:7; 8:23; 15:18–19; 17:14–19). Jesus has distinguished himself as being “from above…not of this world” (John 18:23) and stated that his kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36); as a result, he observes, the world hates him and his followers (John 15:18– 19).

The same antagonism is clearly evident, as we have noted, in the sermon-letter; the world hates believers (1 John 3:13) and is “under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:20). The role of the devil in this struggle is clear, both in the letter (1 John 3:8–10) and in the Gospel (John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2).

The sermon-letter articulates an apocalyptic view that “it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), but anticipates a moment of full revelation in the future (1 Jn 2:28– 3:3). Presumably this is equivalent to “the last day” which is anticipated at points in the Gospel (John 6:39–40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:47–49), although much of the Gospel does convey the sense that this day has already arrived.

Jesus asserts, “now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31); “from now on, you know him [the Father] and have seen him” (John 14:7). This perspective is often labelled realised eschatology; it is a clear point of difference between sermon-letter and Gospel.

However, the connections between sermon-letter and Gospel are more complex than can be indicated simply by a comparison of the occurrence of key words.

There is a high degree of what is now called intertextuality exhibited by these two books. This term refers to the level of cross-referencing which can be seen when the two books are read together; such cross-referencing may be intentional, by means of direct word-for- word citation and clear allusions to dominant ideas or motifs, or it may take place through more tangential and suggestive means. There is a synergy which arises when the interaction of the two books is allowed to “speak”, as it were, in its own right.

Many parts of 1 John contain words or ideas which sound very much like the Gospel, but which have their own enhancement or development, so that there is both similarity and difference. The same kind of relationship, incidentally, can be seen when other New Testament books are read with a view to their relationship with passages from Hebrew Scripture. There is both direct citation and specific allusion, as well as more general intimations of scriptural thinking.

Some parts of the Gospel have been the focus of such creative rewriting by the author of 1 John; the prologue (John 1:1–18) and the final chapter (John 20:1–31) are two clear examples.

This sermon-letter, then, reflects the ongoing development of thinking within the Jesus movement. Stories of Jesus and reflections on his significance give rise, over time, to creative and insightful reworkings of these stories, applied to new situations, resulting in an expanding discernment about the importance of Jesus and of following his way. In this respect, the first letter of John provides a model for thoughtfully contextual, faithful discipleship along the way of Jesus.

This blog draws on material in IN THE NAME OF … an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

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The command to love and the ethics of Jesus (John 15; Easter 6B)

The Gospel passage set for the coming Sunday offers us a short and succinct summation of the ethics of Jesus: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12–13).

Nevertheless, we should note that there is little more I n the way of explicit ethical instruction in John’s Gospel. In keeping with the emphasis on the presentation of Jesus as the authoritative teacher, revealing God to those who have already been chosen, the basic position with regard to ethics is that those who know Jesus, will do as God wills; they will love, as he has loved. As for those who do not know him, they are condemned to the darkness.

As a result, there is no urgency about instructing believers how to behave; for they will know what to do. Rather than providing believers with guidelines and resources for living faithfully in the world, the Johannine Jesus assures his followers, “I have chosen you out of the world” (16:19). Following Jesus is not a pathway to faithful living in the world, but rather a journey towards the cosmic Christ, who leads believers into mystical unity with God.

Nevertheless there are some pointers, in this Gospel, to what is required of believers. The Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform various actions, including those which subsequently became sacramental (communion, Luke 22:19; baptism, Matt 28:19).

In John’s Gospel, at his last meal, Jesus commands his disciples to wash one another’s feet, following his own example (John 13:14–15). The ethics of the Johannine Jesus are summed up in similar fashion: “just as I have loved you, so you should love one another” (13:34b).

This commandment is repeated in this Sunday’s passage (15:12). This “new commandment” sits at the centre of this Gospel (13:34–35; 15:12–17) and will inspire subsequent literature in the Johannine tradition (1 Jn 2:7–11; 3:11, 23; 4:7–11, 16–21; 5:3; 2 Jn 5–6).

Yet in contrast to the scriptural commands to love God and neighbour, cited by the Synoptic Jesus (Mark 12:28–31) and Paul (Rom 13:8–10), the command of the Johannine Jesus focuses on love of God and love of “one another”. It is limited to those within the faith community, and does not include “neighbours” (let alone love of “enemies”, as in Luke 6:27).

Another Synoptic instruction which is echoed in this Gospel is the command to serve, but once again with a narrower scope. Jesus instructs his disciples to follow his example and serve one another (Mark 10:42–45; Luke 22:24–27), but the Johannine Jesus exhorts them simply to serve him (John 12:26). Later, he informs them that they are no longer to be called servants, but friends, for they know all that God intends them to know (15:15). Even this ethical category is now obsolete.

In John’s Gospel, there appears to be little need for specific instruction about particular ethical situations, such as we find in the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and the teachings of the Synoptic Jesus (Matt 5–7; Luke 6; and so on). Rather, belief in Jesus brings with it an inherent sense of what must be done for the good.

This is expounded, not through ethical instructions, but by means of images which offer glimpses into how the central quality of love is made possible. In the image of the vine and the branches (15:1–11), Jesus portrays the foundations of ethical awareness (as we saw in last week’s Gospel passage).

Because believers abide in the Son, he is then able to bear fruit in their lives and “become my disciples” (15:8). So, love is made possible for those who believe, because they abide in the love of Jesus (15:10).

Employing another image, Jesus declares that he comes as “the light of the world” (9:5), inviting those who believe in him to follow the light (8:12), walk in the light (11:9–10), and thus become “children of light” (12:36).

A third image with potential for much ethical exposition is the statement by Jesus that “I am the way” (14:5). This image has been developed in other New Testament books, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in this direction. However, the Johannine Jesus appears to see “the way” simply as the way to intimacy with God (14:6–7).

For more on “the way” in John’s Gospel, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/06/i-am-the-way-john-14-from-elitist-exclusivism-to-gracious-friendship/

Each of these images provides a sense of certainty for the believer—who abides in Jesus, who walks in his light, who follows his way—without having to spell out particular attitudes or behaviours which must be followed. In the end, the Jesus of this Gospel invites his followers to walk into unity with him, and thus unity with the Father. Right behaviour, it is assumed, will simply follow on.

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

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The identity of the Uniting Church

The Uniting Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church – we see ourselves as just one part of a much larger whole. We do the things that other denominations within the church do: we gather for worship, preach the Gospel, care for the needy, witness to our faith, and connect with communities.

We have many organisations that cater specifically for pre-schoolers, school students, people with disabilities, theological students, adult learners, Indigenous people and aged and infirm people. We have chaplains in hospitals, schools, industry, and the defence forces. And we have congregations in many places across the continent.

When we worship, we feel connected with the people of God of all denominations across the globe. When we witness, we bear testimony to the faith shared by Christians of many varieties. When we reach out in service, we act in solidarity with people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of goodwill of any stripe, in our communities and across the globe.

We share in the call to be missional, universal, set apart, and unified, as God’s people together. Or in more traditional theological language, we are part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church.

But we believe that we have some distinctive elements to contribute to that larger whole. Our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia is marked by ten distinctive features.

I In Ecumenical Relationship

When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.

Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our identity as a Uniting Church. We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.

Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. Some Congregations share buildings with other denominations; some worship and serve together, especially in rural towns.

We are an ecumenical church.

II In Covenant with First Peoples

A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel. This gives expression to our commitment to shape a destiny together.

In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. In 2018, we agreed to support a Makarrata process to give a clear national voice to First Peoples, and to support a national Treaty. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians. The Assembly fosters ongoing work in this area through the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle.

We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.

III A Multicultural Church 

In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.

The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are at least 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.

Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 languages from cultures beyond Australia, as well as many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church. We have learnt the importance of moving from “enjoying each other’s foods”, to conversing at a deep level about the hopes and expectations we bring from different cultural experiences. We have learnt that we need to be intercultural in our relationships.

Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and the Seeking Common Ground Circle, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We have had a long and fruitful Dialogue with the Jewish Community, and participate in a number of other interfaith Dialogue conversations. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.

We continue to develop as a church in deepening relationships with many cultures and faiths.

IV  All the people of God

The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.

Throughout the life of the Uniting Church, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins. We have introduced the Ministry of Pastor to recognise the giftedness of lay people, and that sits alongside the Ministry of Lay Preacher (which we have had since 1977), and the more recent accreditation of Lay Presiders in many locations.

We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.

We are a church which values the ministry of all the people of God.

V  Women and Men

The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry. This is a very strong distinctive, especially in the Australian scene.

Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers, Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women in each and every way that we seek to “be church”—as we gather to worship, as we witness to our faith, as we serve the wider community.

Women in leadership: Presidents Jill Tabart (1994–1997) and Deidre Palmer (2018–2021); Deidre Palmer and President-Elect Sharon Hollis (2021–2024);
Assembly General Secretary Colleen Geyer (2016– );
and Moderators Sue Ellis (SA), Sharon Hollis (VicTas),
Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT) and Thresi Mauboy (Northern Synod).

Both lay and ordained women have served in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church, from Church Council Chairpersons to Presbytery Chairpersons, to Synod Moderators and Secretaries, to the Assembly General Secretary and President. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our identity.

We are committed to mutuality and gender equality in every part of the church.

VI Discernment

Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God. We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.

The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.

We are a church which deliberately seeks to discern the movement of the Spirit in our midst.

VII Professional Standards

Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.

Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and Pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.

Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that our churches are Safe Places, valuing everybody, honouring integrity, avoiding negative and hurtful behaviours.

We are a church which values integrity and clarity about our ethical standards.

VIII  Open to explore difficult issues

Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.

In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.

Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. We have worked through difficult decisions about sexuality and leadership, and then about sexuality, gender, and marriage. We continue to learn, explore, and adapt.

In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making.

We seek to be a church that engages in the difficult discussions with honesty, transparency, and hopefulness.

IX  Advocating for Justice

The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.

The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. The Assembly Working for Justice Circle, brings together people who are strongly committed to this avenue of ministry.

A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all. Each federal election, we are provided with resources that encourage us, as people of faith, to consider the implications of our votes in the life of the nation.

We are a church which is strongly committed to justice for all.

Environmental Sustainability

In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle. Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the identity of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.

Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat. Each year, we experience catastrophic consequences from more regular and more intensified “natural disasters”—fires, floods, drought, cyclones. Just as we provide pastoral support in these situations through Disaster Response Chaplains, so too we maintain advocacy with governments, urging them to set policies which will turn us away from the trajectory of yet more environmental disasters.

Locally, many Congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.

We are a church that lives, acts, and advocates for a sustainable environmental future.

*****

You may have some thoughts about what I have articulated above. You may have thought, “what about …?” – something that I have overlooked, that you see as important. You may have some questions about how I have described some of these elements. I encourage you to talk with others about how you respond. Together, we are the Uniting Church!

This discussion of identity is the first in a series of articles on this question on the Assembly website, at DNA of the UCA – Uniting Church Australia

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“In this is love: that God sent his son” (1 John 4; Easter 5B)

The book we know as 1 John is unlikely, as we have seen, to have been a letter. It is more likely that it came into being as a sermon, which was later collected alongside some other works attributed to John, which were actual letters (2 John and 3 John), themselves placed alongside letters by other leaders (Peter, James, Jude—and, of course, Paul).

This sermon-letter is intended to encourage believers, who are to live in light, not in darkness, to love, and not to hate (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21), and to strive to ensure that their love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in their lives.

Set in stark contrast to these believers is “the world”, which is full of desire (2:16); those in “the world” do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

The concluding words of the book, asserting that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (5:20), suggest high tension, even outright conflict, between the people addressed in this letter, and some indeterminate “opponents”.

The work is attributed to the apostle John, and that invites comparisons with the Gospel which also, by tradition, carries the name of John as its author. The sectarian tendencies, already seen in John’s Gospel, appear to have intensified in the situation addressed in this letter. Yet, in the end, “the world” is only temporary (2:17); victory over the world is assured, for it has already come (4:4; 5:3–5). Indeed, God’s intention is to save the whole world (2:1–2; 4:9, 14).

Who are the opponents? A dispute regarding the nature of Jesus is hinted at; this may point towards a doctrinal basis for the conflict. A central assertion, for the author of this sermon-letter, is that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2).

This claim appears to have been made in opposition to another view (that Jesus only appeared to be “in the flesh”, it is often assumed). Likewise, it is twice asserted that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (2:2; 4:10; this is the NRSV translation of the complex Greek word used, hilasmos). We encounter this technical word in the affirmation of 4:10, in the Epistle passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday.

These credal claims have led some interpreters to claim that the “opponents” reflected in this sermon-letter were Docetists, who claimed that Jesus only appeared to be of human flesh. (The term “Docetist” comes from the Greek word dokeo, meaning to appear or to seem.)

Various claims made concerning Jesus reflect the developing Christology that we can see in other New Testament documents: Jesus is “Son of God” (4:15; 5:5, 10), “Messiah” (2:22; 3:23; 5:1), the one who is “righteous” (2:2, 29). The author of this sermon-letter thus takes his place alongside other “apostolic” authors who together will provide the data for the developing “apostolic faith” of the second century onwards.

There is a particular emphasis in this sermon-letter on the claim that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). This appears to argue against a view that Jesus came “by water” only—that is to say, a view that minimises or rejects the saving significance of the death of Jesus. For the author, a central assertion is that “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7).

The conflict between the author and his opponents had become tense and even malicious, as we might deduce from the references to “deceivers” (2:26; 5:7), “false prophets” (4:1), “liars” and their “lies” (2:4, 22, 27; 4:20; 5:10), and the “spirit of error” (4:6). These condemnatory terms climax in the reference to, not one, but many “antichrists” (2:18–25; 4:2– 6).

The connection of such derogatory labels with the credal assertions of the author (especially at 2:22 and 5:10) suggests that sectarianism has fuelled this conflict. A further piece of evidence in support of this is the use of the term “anointing” (2:20, 27) to describe the status of the recipients. This word, in Greek, is related to “Christ”, the title reserved for Jesus. Those anointed by God claim a special status as Christ’s people—a claim that fits well within the polemical context of increasing sectarianism.

*****

A striking feature of the letter occurs towards its end, in a compact sentence (5:13) which contains both a description of the recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”) and a declaration of the purpose of the letter (“so that you may know that you have eternal life”). The key terms in this sentence are immediately reminiscent of a similar declaration of purpose towards the end of John’s Gospel (John 20:31).

Table A: Purpose Statements in John and 1 John
John 20:31
But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
1 John 5:13
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Each work is “written” concerning “eternal life”, granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.

One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this letter. Other points of differentiation are noted below.

There are many signs of the common theological standpoint shared by letter and Gospel. The opening of the letter is reminiscent of the grand poem which begins John’s Gospel, and three important themes of this Gospel are flagged in both prologues. Central to each is the revelation of God (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:14, 18) which occurs through speaking (1 Jn 1:1, 3; compare “the Word” of John 1:1, 14) and conveys the message of eternal life (1 Jn 1:2; John 1:4).

Another important motif in the prologue to the letter is the believer’s fellowship with God and Jesus (1 Jn 1:3), which may be compared with the Gospel terminology of “abiding in” (John 14:17; 15:1–11). The sense lof testimony which permeates 1 Jn 1:1–4 resonates with the frequent emphasis on testimony, or witness, in the Gospel (John 1:6–8, 15, 19, 32– 34; 3:31–34; 5:31–32, 36–39; 8:17–19; 10:25–27; 19:35). The note of joy which ends the prologue (1 Jn 1:4) reflects similar expressions in the Gospel (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13).

Beyond the letter’s prologue, other themes also point towards the Gospel of John, with some observable differences. The language of light and darkness (1 John 1:5–7; 2:8–10) is a reminder of the Gospel’s use of similar imagery (John 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 12:46), although there is a change in attribution, from Jesus as “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), to the affirmation that “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5).

The letter writer asserts that “we are from the truth” (3:19) and “we know the spirit of truth” (4:6); this is reminiscent of the claim of the Johannine Jesus that “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and his promise that “if you continue in my word…you will know the truth” (John 8:32).

Indeed, a consistent emphasis on adherence to the truth runs through the letter (1 John 1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 21, 27; 3:18–19; 4:6; 5:6, 20) as through the Gospel (John 1:9, 14, 16; 3:21; 4:23–24; 6:55; 7:18; 8:32; 14:6, 17; 16:13; 17:17–19; 19:37–38).

We have already noted the occurrence of the phrase eternal life in the letter’s prologue (1 Jn 1:2); it occurs elsewhere in the letter (2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20). This is a recurrent theme in the Gospel, for it characterises the offer which Jesus makes to his followers (John 3:15–16, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 12:25, 50; 17:1–3).

Again, as we have seen, the attribute of love is highly prized by the letter writer; the command to love, which issues from God (1 John 2:7–8; 3:23– 24; 4:21; 5:1–5), looks back to the Johannine Jesus, who is twice reported as delivering this commandment (John 13:34–35; 15:12–17) and whose death exemplifies such love (John 15:13; see also 10:11–18; 12:23–26). However, the notion that love can be perfectly expressed (1 Jn 4:17) and the opposition between love and fear (1 Jn 4:18) go beyond the Gospel’s exposition of love, as does the claim that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

Knowledge is a key concern of this letter (1 John 2:4, 13–14, 21; 3:1, 19; 4:2, 6–8, 16; 5:13); likewise, in the Johannine account of the life of Jesus, knowing Jesus is crucial (John 10:4–5, 14–15, 27; 14:1–7; 16:29–30; 17:3, 7, 25–26). The assertion to the letter’s recipients that “all of you have knowledge” (1 John 2:20) reflects the Gospel’s concern for people to know Jesus; this is especially important in the early chapters (John 1:10, 18, 26, 31, 33, 48; 3:2, 11; 4:22, 25, 42).

The emphasis on knowledge in this letter has led interpreters to the view that the writer is combating a Gnostic development in the Jesus movement, which places great weight on knowing in contrast to believing. (The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis.) We have seen a similar debate in 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:4. The letter-writer assures the recipients that the anointing they have received provides them with knowledge about all things (1 Jn 2:20, 27).

The substance of this knowledge, in the Gospel, is that Father and Son are one (John 10:30; related expressions are found at 14:7 and 16:32); a similar discussion in the letter treats Father and Son as a unity (1 Jn 2:22– 24). The characteristic Johannine language of Father and Son, in intimate and reciprocal relationship with one another (given fullest expression in John 17), also runs throughout this letter (1 Jn 1:3, 7; 2:22–24; 3:8, 23; 4:9–10, 14–15; 5:9–12, 13, 20).

The Spirit is given by the Father (1 Jn 3:24; 4:13) and is described as “the spirit of truth” (1 Jn 4:6), reflecting the most frequent Gospel portrayal of the Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit is not yet a personal entity, as envisaged in the doctrine of the Trinity, but plays a role as a witness (1 Jn 5:6–9), as is noted of the Spirit in the Gospel (John 15:26; 16:13).

The negative attitude towards the world in this letter is consistent with the polemics of the Gospel (John 1:10; 7:7; 8:23; 15:18–19; 17:14–19). Jesus has distinguished himself as being “from above…not of this world” (John 18:23) and stated that his kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36); as a result, he observes, the world hates him and his followers (John 15:18– 19).

The same antagonism is clearly evident, as we have noted, in the letter; the world hates believers (1 Jn 3:13) and is “under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:20). The role of “the devil” in this struggle is clear, both in the letter (1 Jn 3:8–10) and in the Gospel (John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2).

The letter articulates an apocalyptic view that “it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), but anticipates a moment of full revelation in the future (1 Jn 2:28– 3:3). Presumably this is equivalent to “the last day” which is anticipated at points in the Gospel (John 6:39–40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:47–49), although much of the Gospel does convey the sense that this day has already arrived.

Jesus asserts, “now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31); “from now on, you know him [the Father] and have seen him” (John 14:7). This perspective is often labelled “realised eschatology”; it is a clear point of difference between letter and Gospel.

However, the connections between letter and Gospel are more complex than can be indicated simply by a comparison of the occurrence of key words.

There is a high degree of what is now called intertextuality exhibited by these two books. This term refers to the level of cross- referencing which can be seen when the two books are read together; such cross-referencing may be intentional, by means of direct word-for- word citation and clear allusions to dominant ideas or motifs, or it may take place through more tangential and suggestive means. There is a synergy which arises when the interaction of the two books is allowed to “speak”, as it were, in its own right.

Many parts of 1 John contain words or ideas which sound very much like the Gospel, but which have their own enhancement or development, so that there is both similarity and difference. (The same kind of relationship, incidentally, can be seen when other New Testament books are read with a view to their relationship with passages from Hebrew Scripture. There is both direct citation and specific allusion, as well as more general intimations of scriptural thinking.)

Some parts of the Gospel have been the focus of such creative rewriting by the author of 1 John; the prologue (John 1:1–18) and the final chapter (John 20:1–31) are two clear examples.

This letter, then, reflects the ongoing development of thinking within the Jesus movement. Stories of Jesus and reflections on his significance give rise, over time, to creative and insightful reworkings of these stories, applied to new situations, resulting in an expanding discernment about the importance of Jesus and of following his way. In this respect, the first letter of John provides a model for thoughtful, faithful discipleship along the way of Jesus.

This blog is based on draws on material in IN THE NAME OF: an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

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“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3; Easter 4B)

The most well-known verse in the Bible is surely John 3:16—“for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Actually, there is ANOTHER John 3:16 in the Bible. This “other” John 3:16 is actually in the first letter of John: “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).

There is an other verse in the Bible, also written by the author of John’s Gospel, which is being referenced in this “other” John 3:16—“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

In a neat conjunction, these readings, set in the lectionary for the fourth Sunday in the season of Easter, are what is being read and heard in churches around Australia on this Sunday which, in 2021, is also ANZAC Day.

ANZAC Day is a day when we think about the laying down of lives. We remember, and pledge that we will not cease remembering, those who engaged in military service, including those who laid down their lives in that service, in wars from years past: at Lone Pine and Villers-Bretonneux, on the Somme and the Mekong, on the track to Kokoda and at Hellfire Pass, in multiple places in Asia (Borneo, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia), in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and peacekeeping forces working in co-operation with other United Nations forces in trouble spots near to and far from our continent.

There are so many places to remember, so many people in service and supporting them to remember, and so many who laid down their lives to remember.

To lay down your life for others is an action that those of us who have not had to face this prospect, cannot fully comprehend. To remember those who have been confronted by this reality, we can listen attentively to the stories from those who served, as they faced that prospect on a daily basis.

To remember those who laid down their lives, we can read the accounts of bravery in action, of soldiers and sailors persisting doggedly in the face of strategic errors committed by their officers. We can listen to accounts of personal hopes dashed by injuries sustained in battle.

We can pause and reflect on far too many instances of grief and sadness permeating the decades after the loved one failed to return home after serving in war. And as events this past week have reminded us, as a new Royal Commission was announced, we must work to ensure that returned veterans receive support, that they are not left to ruminate, grow in anxiety, deepen in depression, and, tragically, take their own lives in suicide.

To lay down your life takes us to the heart of being human; it reflects the essence of relationship, giving away of ourselves for the sake of another. To live our lives in such a way that the other person, the other people, are accorded greater importance than our own lives—this is admirable, this is something to be emulated, and this is something that is so difficult to achieve.

But to lay down our lives for others is to show what it is to be human; not necessarily to be prepared to die, but rather to be considerate of others, to place the needs of others ahead of our own. That’s what parents are required to do as they raise their children. That’s what couples are required to do when entering into faithful lifelong relationships. That’s what life in community means; to seek the good of the other, first and foremost.

And this takes us also to the centre of faith, for it shows how God became human amongst us: at the very core of the divine becoming human is the giving up of self for the sake of the other. Traditional Christian doctrine teaches that when God took on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God laid aside the glory and honour that was seen as being the essence of the holy, transcendent God.

God came into our midst, to be as one of us, even humbling himself to be crucified, to actually lay down the totality of his human life, as a demonstration of divine love for all humanity. As the letter writer states, “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us”. That is at the heart of the faith we share, and celebrate, today.

ANZAC Day is the most intense religious moment in the life of our nation; and on this day of remembrance, stories of bravery, courage, and sacrifice, bleed into the Gospel narrative of humility, commitment, and sacrifice. The national story hums in tune with the Gospel story. Together, they sound in harmony.

1 John 3:16 and John 10:11 evoke the centre of the Gospel, as they refer to this key dynamic, “to lay down one’s life”, and today the foundational elements of ANZAC Day resonate with the very heart of the Gospel. Laying down our life, for the sake of the other: that is how we know the love of God.

Service of others, putting others first ahead of ourselves—we say these words, we repeat these formulas, year in and year out, in our services of worship.

We say these words, and we seek to put them into practice in our personal lives, by caring for others, going out of our way to care for the sick, visiting those in need, feeding the hungry, providing clothing to the poor at reasonable prices through Op Shops, ensuring that we are a warm and welcoming community when we gather.

In this way, we follow the guidance we have heard in the letter from John: “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18).

Through our words and our actions, we follow the command, following the way of Jesus, that “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (3:16).

In this, we follow the example of Jesus that we have heard in the Gospel: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11).

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/11/blessed-are-the-peacemakers/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/09/pondering-peace-worrying-about-war/

https://unitingforpeacewa.org/2018/11/28/perth-peacemaking-conference-statement/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/22/being-peacemakers/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/06/hiroshima-and-nagasaki-1945-and-the-commitment-to-seek-peace-2020/

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Earth Day 2021

In 2009, the United Nations designated 22 April as “Mother Earth Day”, and encouraged all member nations to observe this and advocate for sustainable ways of living, to show our care and respect for the earth on which we live.

The term “Mother Earth” was adopted, recognising that this was a common expression for the planet earth in a number of countries and regions. The term intends to reflect the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet we all inhabit.

Over the years, the day has become better known by the shorter title, “Earth Day”. This year, the theme for Earth Day 2021 is Restore Our Earth™. The theme focuses our attention on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems.

The theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change. It is up to each and every one of us to Restore Our Earth, not just because we care about the natural world, but because we live on it. We all need a healthy Earth to support our jobs, livelihoods, health and survival, and happiness. A healthy planet is not an option — it is a necessity.

More than 1 billion people in 192 countries now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world. So this week, why not be a part of Earth Day and help further climate action across the globe? There are plenty of suggestions at https://www.earthday.org/toolkit-earth-day-2021-restore-our-earth/

The Uniting Church has had a long commitment to living in a way that is sustainable, respectful to the environment, minimising our carbon footprint on the earth. More than forty years ago, a Statement to the Nation was promulgated by the first National Assembly of the Uniting Church. This statement recognised the importance of the kind of lifestyles that we lead, and the impact that they are having on the environment of which we are an integral part.

With growing awareness of this matter over the ensuing decades, we can clearly recognise, today, the imperative of the words from 1977, urging us to ensure the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources. These matters were evident then; they are pressing and urgent today.

Environmental responsibility sits at the heart of the story of God’s dealings with people, as it is recounted in the biblical texts. From the myth of origins of the creation, as recounted in Genesis, to the vision of a renewed heaven and earth, as portrayed in Revelation, the concern of the divine is for the goodness of creation.

Human beings of faith have an integral and important role to play in seeing that this remains a reality for people in our own time. The Statement was provocative and prescient in this short paragraph. I have reflected more broadly on this Statement at https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

Since then, a whole series of statements and policies relating to the environment have been produced by the Uniting Church, at national, regional, and local levels. The national statements and policies are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment. Many local churches have participated in projects promoted by the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, which has its own website at https://fiveleafecoawards.org

These churches have taken all sorts of actions for the environment, including crosses made of solar panels, restoring and replanting watercourses next to their church, leading mud brick shed building workshops, setting up community gardens, installing water tanks, developing a peace garden of native plants. Others have collected signatures for petitions, planted trees, rung their church bells for climate change, held talks and discussions of environmental issues, and held worship around environmental themes.

So recognising and participating in Earth Day is an important part of our faithful discipleship—and living each and every day in accord with these principles is even more important.

See https://uniting.church/earth-day-2021-restoreourearth/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-one/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-two/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-three/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

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“See what love the Father has given us”: the nature of 1 John (1 John 3; Easter 3B)

The lectionary is currently offering a series of passages from the book we know as 1 John. They run from Easter 2 (last week) to Easter 7 (in mid May).

1 John is a book that’s about love: “I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning … we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another … let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action … this is his commandment, that we should love one another, just as he has commanded us … let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Although, it’s about more than love, too—as we shall see.

Although it is usually described as a letter, the work is actually more in the form of a sermon. It does not begin with the kind of opening address expected in a letter, nor is there any form of expected epistolary conclusion at its end.

The opening verses of this sermon-letter, instead of providing information about the context in which the document came into being, launch straight into an urgent rhetorical statement (1:1–4) about the important generic message which will follow. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5). It is an unusual way to begin a “letter”.

The sermon-letter ends quite abruptly, with a stark admonition: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). There is no context given for this instruction; and no discussion of travel plans or the sending of an emissary, no greetings, no final blessing. It is a strange way to end a “letter”.

Is it a letter, a book, a sermon–or what?

The book clearly has the ethos of a letter, as found in the first person plural of the opening verses (“we declare…we declare…we are writing…”, 1:1–4), the direct address to “little children” (2:1; 3:18; 5:21) and “beloved” (2:7; 4:1, 7), and the repeated assertion that “I write these things” (2:1, 7, 12–14, 26; 5:13).

Moral exhortation and doctrinal teaching, elements regarded as being classic component parts of early Christian letters, are interwoven throughout the book without clear distinction.

Yet there appears to be no marshalling of a case and no logical development of thought, such as is found in the carefully-shaped rhetoric of the letters of Paul. At first reading, the letter’s structure is somewhat circular and repetitive, more an extended meditation on “love” (the term appears around fifty times) than a tightly-argued instruction. The tone is often reflective—although there are moments of contention and dispute. More like a sermon, perhaps?

The author of the sermon-letter is never named, but the opening verse (that we heard in the lectionary reading last week) makes the claim that the letter comes from one who has “heard…seen…looked at and touched” for himself, the very “word of life” (1:1).

The inference is that the author has had personal contact with Jesus himself; in the third century, Irenaeus made the definitive claim that the letter was written by “John, the disciple of the Lord” (Against Heresies 3.16.5). And that tradition has stuck ever since.

This claim goes beyond any direct assertion within the sermon-letter itself; although such a claim might be reinforced by the author’s reiteration of his privileged status as eyewitness (and earwitness): “we have seen it” (1:2), “what we have seen and heard” (1:3), “the message we have heard from him” (1:5), as well as a later reminder: “just as he has commanded us” (3:23).

The frequent use of “from the beginning” (1:1; 2:7, 13, 14, 24; 3:11) might also be taken as a reference back to the teachings of Jesus, mediated through the writing of this author.

Likewise, from the text of this sermon-letter itself, its recipients cannot be specifically identified in any meaningful way. There are references to “little children … fathers … young people” (2:12–14) which are formulaic and generalised. They already know the message about Jesus, for they “know him who is from the beginning” (2:13, 14) and have already heard his commandment to “love one another” (2:7; 3:11).

Their situation involves a controversy about how to live in obedience to Jesus; the contrast between darkness and light, love and hate is marked throughout the work (1:5–10; 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:20–21). A key idea in this regard is the way that love reaches “perfection” (2:5; 4:12, 17–18) in the lives of believers. This is what the recipients of the letter are to set as their aim.

Set in stark contrast to the believers is “the world”, which is both personified and portrayed as a negative character. The world is full of desire (2:16); those in it do not help a person who is in need (3:17); they hate believers (3:13) and do not know God (3:1; 4:3–6).

The sermon-letter ends with the strong assertion that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (5:20). This suggests high tension, even outright conflict, between the people addressed in this document, and some indeterminate “opponents”.

What can we know about this opposition that is reflected in this sermon-letter? And what kind of theology emerges from this conflict? That’s the focus of my next blog on 1 John.

This blog draws on material in IN THE NAME OF … an exploration of writings attributed to the apostles, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

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From BC (Before COVID) to AD (After the Disruption)

When we look back over history, and explore it in the traditional framework that we use to mark the periods of history, people of the Christian faith see a large watershed around the time of Jesus.

Traditionally, we have marked this watershed by using the letters BC and AD—Before Christ, and Anno Domino (“in the year of our Lord”). Those letters stand us in good stead, however, when we reflect on the past year. The years prior to 2020 are BC years; we consider them to be “Before COVID”.

But then, from early in 2020, and spreading rapidly across the globe through the months of that year, we experienced a major disruption. COVID interrupted familiar patterns, forcing everyone to refrain from gathering together, pressing upon us all the imperative of using technology to connect, inviting us to provide pastoral care, worship, learning opportunities, and social gatherings in the virtual space online.

The disruptions of this time were extensive, reaching widely and deeply into our familiar patterns. From late 2020, then, we have been living in the years we can mark as AD: After the Disruption. Things are different. Events have made things different. Society has learnt to function in different ways—use the check-in app, sanitise, maintain social distancing, count numbers on the space, practice good personal hygiene, stay at home if you are unwell, or vulnerable.

People in the church have also learnt to function in different ways. We check in when we arrive for worship. We gather to worship and do not sing or hug. We support the church financially by online giving, not by “passing the plate”. We participate in regular learning opportunities online, and engage with people who are geographically quite distant from one another. We continue to offer worship in hybrid ways, both in person and online.

We continue the provision of worship resources in hard copy or via email to people who are vulnerable or frail. We have adapted to having morning tea after worship, served by people wearing masks and gloves, with individually-packaged food. We may not like all of these changes, but we recognise how important they are to ensure the safety of all our people.

When the Canberra Region Presbytery met on 20 March, we heard from the Secretary of Synod, the Rev. Jane Fry, who urged us to consider the new things that are emerging out of this change. “COVID erupted into society, and the church, bringing chaos”, Jane observed, “and we know, from scripture and history, that God works best through chaos.”

So what has been taking place in this time of chaos, as we move from BC (Before COVID) to AD (Anno Domino)? What changes have we recognised to be important? What new things is God doing in our midst, as a result of the chaotic disruptions of COVID. We explored various ideas during the Presbytery meeting conversation with Jane Fry.

Traditionally, we have ensured that stipended ministry is offered in places that can afford them; the challenge, now, is for us to move to a model that places community chaplaincy in an area with significant need. Work is underway on this exact matter, as Presbytery considers how to provide grater ministry resourcing in the South Coast regions which have been impacted so greatly by the bushfires.

We noted the importance of continuing our pastoral care of ageing people who have been faithful over many decades. The Synod Secretary affirmed that, and invited such groups to consider, “what is our legacy for the future?” Rather than “keeping the lights burning until we all done”, how might ageing congregations best envisage “how do we serve as midwives to the future?”

Relating to people outside the church is another challenge, and opportunity, facing us as the Uniting Church. The dominant voice for “Christianity” in the public arena has, for some time, expressed very different perspectives on many matters, when compared with the way the Uniting Church operates in society and what we value in our communities. How do we strategise to provide a stronger voice, in our distinctive tones, into those public conversations?

How do we leverage off the many assets that we have, as church, to ensure that mission and ministry are resourced and developed? What place does the “rationalisation of property” play in this process? Whilst church properties in the ACT have, in effect, a “zero dollar value”, nevertheless we are stewards of many properties—how do they figure in the ways that we foster our core activities as the people of God?

So, lots of important and helpful questions have been raised. How do we respond to them and work through them, is the challenge for the coming time.

As we head into the future After the Disruption, I personally yearn for a church where active discipleship is the key marker of membership; grace is the benchmark of who we are when we gather in community; the heart of the Gospel is known to be justice for all, where we work towards that goal for all people; and we take seriously those fearsome words that we pray all-too-easily, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

*****

Footnote: many people will know that I have long operated with the scholarly convention to refer to “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “Common Era” (CE), as this offers clearer respect to our Jewish brothers and sisters and avoids the sense of Christian supercessionism in our language. But, for the purposes of this reflection, I have reverted to the old BC—AD language. It seems to fit.

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Holy Week 5: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 131-134)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we stood at the foot of the holy place, the Temple first built by Solomon, then rededicated and rebuilt in the time of Herod; the Temple where the Lord God dwelt, where he dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

So we prayed, and sang, once more, with hope: I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore. (131)  
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 131

It was here, surely, that we would meet God; For, as we sang, The LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: “This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.” (132)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 132

So we gathered around the table, friends and family, a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine, some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together. And we celebrated in song: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (133)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 133

And again, in song, we sought to bless each other: Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the LORD. May the LORD, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion. (134)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 134

So our songs of ascent had come to an end. We were in the holy city, near to the holy place, gathered once again for a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine, some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together; but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial.

It had begun in celebration. For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries, on this very night, we would gather, joined as family, to remember, to rejoice, to recall the act of liberation.

It was on that night that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/30/holy-week-3-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-125-127/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/31/holy-week-4-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-128-130/

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Holy Week 4: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 128-130)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival. We climbed, higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we stood at the foot of the holy place, the Temple first built by Solomon, then rededicated and rebuilt in the time of Herod; the Temple where the Lord God dwelt, where he dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

And we prayed for one another, and we sang: The LORD bless you from Zion.
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem  all the days of your life. (128) 
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 128

Yet when we came inside, into the court of the temple, there was no peace, no joyful singing, no celebration, no preparation for worship.

Instead: a whip of cords, a shout of anger, words of vengeance, judgement, rejection; tables overturned and coins scattered. A whip of cords, a shout of anger, tables overturned and coins scattered.

It was not a moment of peaceful reflection; it was a moment of fearsome agitation. So we sang, in fear: The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked. (129)    In the silence, reflect on Psalm 129

and again, we sang, this time in hope: O Israel, hope in the LORD! for with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities. (130)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 130

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city,

climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. We climbed, higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/30/holy-week-3-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-125-127/

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Holy Week 3: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 125-127)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we sang, together: Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion,

which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore. (125)  
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 125

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (126)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 126

And then, we were at the foot of the holy place, the Temple first built by Solomon, then rededicated and rebuilt in the time of Herod; the Temple where the Lord God dwelt, where he dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

So we sang: Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. (127)  
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 127

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/

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Reflecting on faith amidst the flooding

Water is on our mind, on the east coast of Australia, at the moment. Widespread flooding has occurred. Houses and businesses in many seaside locations, as well as in inland flood plains beside rivers, have been inundated by rising waters. People have been evacuated, some were stuck away from home, some now have no home to return to amd live in.

The power of water has been on display all around us. Constant sheets of wind-driven rain have fallen across hundreds of kilometres on the eastern coast of Australia. Surges of creek and river waters created currents that moved vehicles—even houses—and spread across flood plains, invading domestic and industrial spaces in towns and suburbs. Crashing ocean waves menaced beaches and cliff-faces, and currents swirled fiercely in the ocean.

We stand in awe and trepidation before the power of water—just as, a little over a year ago, we stood in awe and trepidation as roaring fires swept through bushland, invaded towns and suburbs, and wrought widespread and long-lasting damage. Then, we pondered, as now, we reflect on what this manifestation of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” means for us, as people of faith. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/12/reflecting-on-faith-amidst-the-firestorms/)

Is this a demonstration of divine power in the pouring rain and rising floodwaters? Is this, somehow (as some would maintain), God declaring judgement on human beings, for our sinful state and rebellious nature?

I have been looking at a range of public commentary on the floods. One church website (not Uniting Church) includes these statements: “[These] devastating floods are not to be considered as an act of judgement upon our world, but instead, a warning to repent. Whether it’s drought, bushfire, flood or pandemic, these disasters are an important time for us all to consider Christ in the crisis. As we pray for the recovery of our land from these devastating floods, let us also pray that through this disaster might be a fresh opportunity for people to find eternal comfort and security in Christ Jesus.”

This appears to understand the floods as God seeking to make human beings respond with an act of faith in Jesus. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. It’s much more than just “flood—warning—repentance—faith”. We need to reflect more deeply.

*****

Water, of course, is an essential of life. It covers 70% of the surface of planet Earth. We need water. Without access to water, humans and other creatures will dehydrate, weaken, and die. Scientific analysis indicates that 60% of the human adult body is water; the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, muscles are 79% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. (See https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/water-you-water-and-human-body?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects)

Water in our bodies helps us to form saliva, regulate body temperature through sweating, contribute to the brain’s manufacturing of hormones and neurotransmitters, lubricate our joints, and enable oxygen to be distributed throughout the body. Water facilitates the digestion of food, and the waste that is produced in our bodily systems is regularly flushed out as we pass urine. And we use water every day, to wash away solid bodily waste, to clean our hair and skin, to wash our clothes and keep our kitchen utensils clean.

Water is also a source of enjoyment: sitting on the beach, watching the powerful rhythmic surge of wave after wave; sitting beside the babbling brook, appreciating the gentle murmuring of running water; sitting beside the pool, listening the the squeals of delight as children jump into the water, splashing and playing with unrestrained glee.

The power of the ocean, of course, has often drawn the attention of human beings. We are reminded of this when swimmers are caught in rips and transported rapidly out into the ocean, or towards the jagged rocks at the edge of the beach. Sadly, the son of a friend was caught in a rip one day a few years ago. His two companions were rescued; the body of our friend’s son has never been found. The power of the ocean, whipped up by the wind, can be intense and unforgiving.

*****

Water makes regular appearances in the Bible. It is a key symbol throughout scripture. It appears in the very first scene, when the priestly writer tells how, “in the beginning … the earth was without form and void … and a wind from God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).

It also appears near the very end of the last book of scripture, where the exiled prophet reports that “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev 22:17).

Water flows throughout the scripture as a central image, appearing another 720 times in the intervening pages of scripture. Water enables healings to occur, for instance (Namaan, commander of the army of the king of Aram, in 2 Kings 5; the man by the pool at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, in John 5).

To the people of Israel, as they retold their foundational myth of the Exodus and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the gift of water was a sustaining grace. Parched by desert thirst, the Israelites cried out for water, Moses struck the rock, and water flowed (Exod 17:1–7; Num 20:2-13). Rivers flowing with water then provided food for the people living in the land—the fish of the waters (Deut 14:9; Lev 11:9), alongside the beasts of the land and the birds of the air (Ezek 29:3-5; Deut 14:3–20; Lev 11:1–45).

Flowing water—“living water”—is one of the images adopted in John’s account of Jesus, to explain his role within the society of his day: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37–38).

The precise scriptural quote is unclear—commentators suggest that the reference may be to Prov 18:4 (“the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook”), or Zech 14:8 (“living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem”), or Psalm 78:16 (“[God] made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers”), or Rev 22:1–2 (“the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city”). The uncertainty as to the precise reference alerts us, however, to the many instances where “living water” is mentioned.

The imagery of water was used, in addition, in earlier stories in this Gospel. To the request of the woman of Samaria at the well, “give me some water”, Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:7–10).

To the crowd beside the Sea of Galilee, who asked, “Sir, give us this bread always”, Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34–35). Water is powerfully creative, restorative, empowering.

*****

Water also threatens destruction: witness the paradigmatic stories of the Flood (Gen 6:1–9:17) and the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 14:1–15:21, retold in Psalms 78 and 105). The destructive power of massive flows of water is evident in both of these stories: water falling from the heavens (Gen 7:4, 12) in one version of The Flood story, water rising from The Deep in an alternate version (Gen 7:11, 8:2).

Although (as we noted above), the gift of water was a sustaining grace to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, from the time of settlement in the land of Canaan, the Great Sea to the west of their lands (what we know as the Mediterranean Sea) was seen as a threat. In the sea, Leviathan and other monsters dwelt (Ps 74:13-14; 104:25–26; Isa 27:1).

The Exodus was made possible because the waters of the Red Sea had caught and drowned the Egyptian army (Exod 14:23–28); this unleashing of destructive divine power was celebrated by the escaping Israelites in victory songs (Exod 15:2–10, 19–21), in credal remembrance (Deut 11:2–4; Josh 24:6–7), and in poetic allusions in psalms (Ps 18:13–18; 66:6; 77:18–20; 78:13, 53; 106:8–12; 136:10–16).

In like manner, the waters in The Flood caused almost compete annihilation of living creatures on the earth (Gen 6:12–13, 17); only the family of Noah and the animals they put onto the Ark were saved from the destructive waters (Gen 6:19–21 indicates “two of every sort”, whilst Gen 7:2–3 refers to “seven pairs of all clean animals … and a pair of the animals that are not clean”).

*****

Both the creative power of water, and destructive capabilities of water, led the people of Israel to ascribe power to God over the seas and the rivers. The Psalmist affirms of God that “the sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (Ps 95:5).

Accordingly, the Lord God, who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them (Ps 146:6), was seen as able to “rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Ps 89:9). God’s power over creation is also expressed through flooding: “The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD!” (Ps 93:4).

In our current context, such words are deeply troubling. Can it be that God is exercising divine judgement through the increased rainfall and rising floodwaters currently being experienced? There are two problems with this point of view, both with an inherently theological note to be sounded.

The first relates to the nature of God, and how God interacts with the created world. The ancients had a view that God was an interventionist God, directly engaging with the created world. When something happened “in nature” (like a birth, a death, a flood, a fire, and earthquake, etc), it was seen to be directly attributable to God. It simply happened “to” human beings.

Contemporary scientific and sociological views, however, would provide much more room for human agency. When things happen, what contribution does the human being (or an animal of some kind) have in the process? We would want to say that events that take place do not “just happen”; they are shaped by the actions of human beings in history, by our intention and interaction.

So, the second element I see as integral to understanding the current situation, theologically, is the contribution that human beings have made to the current environmental situation. Why are floods occurring more regularly, and with more intensity, in recent times? The answer is, simply, that we are seeing the effects of climate change right around the earth.

And the human contribution to climate change cannot be argued away. Climate change is real. (See this excellent website from NASA, at https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/)

The rate of change to various climatic elements has increased noticeably in the last two and a half centuries, since the Industrial Revolution, and at an exponential rate since the 1960s, when we expanded the use of fossil fuel right across the globe. (See this article on the so-called “hockey stick graph”, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/the-hockey-stick-the-most-controversial-chart-in-science-explained/275753/)

We human beings know this. We have known it for some decades, now. Yet policy makers bow to the pressures and enticements they receive from vested interests in business, pressing and bribing to ensure that their businesses can continue—even though it contributes the greatest proportion to the rise in temperature.

For every one degree Celsius that temperature rises, the atmosphere holds 7% more water. Given the right atmospheric conditions (such as we have seen develop in the last week), that water will get dumped somewhere—in recent times, that has been over much of the east coast of Australia, in massive amounts.

And it is obvious to thinking human beings, that how we have lived, how we have developed industries, how we have expanded international travel, how we have expanded the transportation of food and other goods around the globe, how we have mined deeper and wider to find fossil fuels to sustain this incessant development, has all contributed to that rise in temperature.

*****

Certainly, a fundamental human response to the tragedies we have seen unfolding around us through the rainfall and flooding, is one of compassion. Compassion for the individuals who have borne the brunt of the damage that has occurred.

Compassion and thankfulness for the emergency services personnel and others who have spent countless hours in assisting those caught by the floods. Compassion and careful listening provided by Disaster Recovery Chaplains in many evacuation centres.

Compassion, practical support, and prayerful support for all who have been affected by these events, is fundamental.

Yet whilst the massive rainfall and the high floods are the processes of nature at work around us, we know that we have intensified and exacerbated them. And we see tragic results in the rivers that have surged and flooded in recent days—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, created more intense and more frequent fires, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and caused other observable events around the world.

This past week, there have been two opportunities for us to remember what we are doing to the planet—opportunities to commit to a different way of living in the future. The first was Australia’s Overshoot Day, on 22 March. This is the day that Australia has used up its yearly allocation of the earth’s resources. What should have taken 365 days has taken Australians 81 days. You can read about this at https://www.insights.uca.org.au/overshoot-day-and-a-theology-of-creation/

The second opportunity was Earth Hour 2021, on 27 March. This hour was an invitation to turn off electricity and rely on natural sources of energy, for just one hour— and then to use this as the basis for living more sustainably in the future. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/27/switchfornature-earth-hour-2021/

So, in the midst of the increased and more intense cyclones, and more regular meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, and flooding of plains, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways.

So let’s not blame God for dumping all that water and flooding all those homes and businesses. Let’s look closer to home, and consider how, in the years ahead, we can adjust our lifestyle, reduce our carbon footprint, live more sustainably, and treat God’s creation with respect and care.

*****

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

And God saw it was good…

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

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Holy Week 2: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 122-124)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. We stepped inside the gates; our songs grew stronger.

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you. (122)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 122

Inside the city, the city of shalom, Jeru-shalom, we seek this shalom, this peace, in our lives.

And our prayers intensify:
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us. (123)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 123

And we continued in prayer:
Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (124)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 124

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/

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Holy Week 1: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 120-121)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up again after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we sang, together: In my distress I cry to the LORD,
that he may answer me: “Deliver me, O LORD”. (120)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 120

That is how it started, far from the city. A prayer seeking deliverance; a cry reaching out for saving mercies. Then, as we turned the corner, we saw the hill, far away, yet drawing close.

I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (121)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 121

And we held out our hands as we sent forth our prayers. The Lord, our God, would be our help. The Lord would save us. Yes, he would save us.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer, closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/

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Lent

A guest blog … a poem for the season, by the Rev. Jean Shannon, Uniting Church Minister serving on the Sapphire Coast in southern NSW.

(The scene from my front door in Canberra)

The sun warms my knees
while puffs of cool air 
tell me winter is
waiting in the wings. 
Holding her breath: 
a sharp intake of awe 
to the turning leaves – foreign but loving…
and the eucalypt speak suddenly silver or 
more blue than green.

The trees whisper softly of what will come. 
There is a smell that is cleanly autumn: 
of soil and nutmeg and some grounded spice. 
The air moves differently and tells a story – 
that leaves will fall and icy wind invade. 
Earth’s almanac predicting death and resurrection. 

How much life must die, 
turn cold
and pull the earth over them like linen.
Who will love them deep in their graves
and who will wait for emergence…so very far away? 
The earth cries for our patience. 
God’s time is so different from mine. 

But how I love the autumn with its golden light
slanted across long afternoons,
scented in the air,
expectant of the night. 
These days betray nature’s secret
a ritual of discovery and revival.  

Would I change a thing?

Jean Shannon, Lent 2021

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#SwitchForNature: Earth Hour 2021

Every year hundreds of millions of people around the world in more than 7,000 cities in over 190 countries take part by switching off power for 60 minutes as a symbolic gesture of solidarity to show they care about our planet’s future.

This year, Earth Hour is at 8.30pm local time Saturday 27 March. Around the continent, Australians will gather without electricity, to make the #SwitchforNature. Thousands of people will demonstrate their support for the switch to a renewables-based economy for Australia.

Individual actions can benefit our planet, while symbolically demonstrating support for a renewable future for our country, and for the world.

See https://www.earthhour.org

Earth Hour started in Sydney in 2007, and has since spread around the globe. Central to Earth Hour is advocacy for increasing renewable sources of energy. There are many advantages to using renewable energy sources.

Renewables (solar, wind and hydro) now comprise a quarter of the mix in the National Electricity Market. In 2023, it is likely that renewables will pass black coal to become the largest electricity source.

Solar and wind energy are already huge industries globally, and employ 27,000 people in Australia. This reflects a doubling in just three years. And solar and wind electricity in Australia already costs less than electricity from new coal and gas plants.

A recent study has demonstrated that solar and wind plants built between 2018 and 2025 would add 70,000 gigawatt hours of new electricity supply – equivalent to more than a third of what is currently used across the national grid each year.

This would mean that five of Australia’s remaining 16 coal power plants could be financially unviable by 2025. The study estimates that renewable energy could make up 40% to 50% of electricity by 2025. It would force output from coal and gas-fired power stations to fall by an amount between 28% and 78% respectively over the seven years.

Closing these plants would make a good contribution to reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions. It would also be likely to push down the average wholesale electricity price to 2015 levels. Revenue at coal and gas-fired plants would be hit on two fronts: they would not be able to sell as much electricity, and the price of the electricity would be lower.

The raw materials needed for renewable energy are abundant and won’t run out. A solar panel needs silicon, a glass cover, plastic, an aluminium panel frame, copper and aluminium electrical conductors and small amounts of other common materials. These materials are what our world is made of. Recycling panel materials at the end of their life adds only slightly to larger existing recycling streams.

And nearly three-quarters of the global population lives in the planet’s sunbelt (lower than 35 degrees of latitude). This includes most developing countries, where most of the growth in energy consumption and greenhouse emissions is located.

Finally, renewables are much safer. Solar panel accidents pale in comparison to spilled radioactive material (like Fukushima or Chernobyl), an oil disaster (like BP’s Deepwater Horizon), or a coal mine fire (like Hazelwood in Victoria). Wind and solar electricity eliminates oil imports, oil-related warfare, fracking for gas, strip mining for coal, smokestacks, car exhausts and smog.

So let’s make the #SwitchForNature, and let’s make it start now!

See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/24/renewable-energy-could-render-five-of-australias-remaining-coal-plants-unviable-by-2025

and https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/really-australia-its-not-that-hard-10-reasons-why-renewable-energy-is-the-future-130459

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Reading the crucifixion as a scene of public shaming

“Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith … endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb 12:2).

As we draw near to the annual recollection of the death of Jesus on the cross, in our worship on Passion Sunday and Good Friday, and in our devotional attention to that story at this time, we would do well to pay attention to what the anonymous author of this lengthy “word of exhortation” says, about the cross. It was a moment of shame.

The notion of shame is integral to the honour–shame culture which runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15).

Just as God can honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19), so, conversely, God can shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth, writing that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27).

However, honour was spread across other cultures. It was praised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3). Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Abraham 264).

Honour was acquired and increased through the public actions undertaken in interactions between two parties—two male individuals, or two all-male groups. Actions that occurred would signal that honour was upheld by one party; the other party lost honour, and was thus shamed. Words especially were the mechanism by which honour was redistributed. The victor in a verbal interchange had his honour restored, or increased. The loser experienced public shaming.

The typical process of crucifixion involved moment after moment of humiliation, undermining any sense of honour that the victim had, increasing the sense of public shame that they were experiencing. We see many of these elements reflected in the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels.

*****

First of all, we should note that in the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, Jewish War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, Jewish War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.295). These were people whose situations or actions had generated shame.

In the case of Jesus, he is accused of treason through the inference that he is King of the Jews—a claim that was anathema to the Romans (John 19:12)—and he is crucified in the company of political rebels (Mark 15:27; Matt 27:38; the term used, lēstēs, is the one most often found in the writings of Josephus to denote a political rebel).

A public trial, followed by a public execution on the cross, was a ritual in which the accused person was shamed, through a public ritual of status degradation. Cicero, in speaking as the counsel of Rabinio, a man accused of treason, asserted that “the ignominy of a public trial is a miserable thing” and described a public execution as “the assembly being polluted by the contagion of an executioner … [exhibiting] traces of nefarious wickedness” (Pro Rabinio 11, 16).

In their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh describe the passion narratives as reporting a “status degradation ritual”. By the sequence of events that are reported, “Jesus’ lofty status in the eyes of the people begins to crumble … these events [are] a public ritual of humiliation aimed at destroying the status that until now had given Jesus credibility in the eyes of the public” (p.160).

Christi crucificado (Diego Velazquez, 1632)

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As well as the actual crucifixion itself, many of the key practices typically involved in crucifixions inflicted shame on the criminals: flogging, torture, the blinding of eyes, the scourging of the body, and the shedding of blood. We can find these practices reported by numerous writers, such as the Jewish historian Josephus, the politician and philosopher Seneca, the Roman historian Livy, the Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, and even the venerable Greek philosopher Plato.

(These references, and many of the other references to ancient authors below, have been drawn from the detailed work of Jeyrome Neyrey, in “‘Despising the Shame of the Cross’: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative”, https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html, accessed on 15 March 2021.)

One section of the Jewish writings, the Mishnah (Makkot 3.12) reports how a public scourging should take place: “How do they flog him? He ties the two hands of the person being flogged on this side and that side of a post, and the attendant of the congregation takes hold of his garments to remove them.”

The Mishnah continues, “The attendant of the congregation stands on it [a raised stone] with a strap in his hand. It is a strap of calf hide, and is doubled, one into two, and two into four, and two straps of donkey hide go up and down the doubled strap of calf hide.” There is further discussion of the dimensions of the instrument used in this scourging and the scripture verses to be recited as the scourging takes place.

One rabbi explicitly relates this activity to the honour-shame code: “If the one being flogged involuntarily sullies himself, due to fear or pain, whether with excrement or with urine, he is exempt from further lashes. Rabbi Yehuda says that the threshold of shame for men and women is different: The man is exempted if he sullies himself with excrement, and the woman is exempted even with urine.”

The scourging of Jesus is noted in three of the four Gospel accounts (Mark 15:15; Matt 27:26; John 19:1).

The Flagellation of Christ (Caravaggio, 1607)

Historian Didorus Siculus reported that the clothing and property of victims was confiscated in crucifixion (Universal History 33.15.1), an action that we see inflicted on Jesus as reported by the fourth evangelist (John 19:23). Without clothing, the victim is nude—another shaming element in the process.

The second century biographer Plutarch notes that the victim was required to carry the cross beam (Delay 554B). We see this shaming action varied in the account of the crucifixion of Jesus; as Jesus is unable to carry his cross beam, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service (Mark 15:21; Matt 27:32; Luke 23:26). Luke adds a note about the mourners following the crucifixion procession at this point, adding to the sense of shame and impending doom (Luke 23:27-31).

******

Crucifixions served as a form of entertainment for the masses, with the public spectacle heightened by some victims being fixed to the cross in odd ways, including impalement. The process of dying as a crucified person was a slow process; it could take days before a victim was deceased. In the process, the bodies of victims could distort and control z as over bodily functions could be lost. These elements also added to the shame of the event.

Death itself was caused by suffocation, as the person nailed to the cross was not able to raise himself to inhale air. The loss of agency, by having hands and feet nailed to the cross, symbolised the loss of power and thus of honour, as Philo notes, describing “those who are fixed to a cross [as] nailed as it were to the tree of hopeless and helpless ignorance” (On Dreams 2.213; and see also On the Posterity of Cain 61).

*****

Crucifixion was a graphic public demonstration of the loss of honour, an intensified shaming of the person being crucified. Many of the typical actions in crucifixion carried, as we have seen, a sense of public shaming. This shaming could also be expressed through verbal means, such as mocking and taunting. The passion narrative includes this element at many places.

Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers (Edouard Manet, 1865)

The Roman soldiers taunt and mock Jesus (Mark 15:16-20; Matt 27:27-31; Luke 23:36-37), as do Herod with his soldiers (Luke 23:11). The chief priests and scribes also mock Jesus (Mark 15:31-32; Matt 27:41-43; Luke 23:35), as does a police officer, earlier, at the trial before the Sanhedrin (John 18:22). Those crucified with him also taunt him (Mark 15:32; Matt 27:44).

Herod and his soldiers treat Jesus with contempt (Luke 23:11), although a more accurate translation of this phrase would be, “treated as though he were nothing”.

As the Roman soldiers mock Jesus, they strike his face (Mark 14:65, 15:9; John 19:2-3) or his body (Luke 22:63-65). People passing by shake their heads at him as they deride him, intensifying the element of shaming (Mark 15:29-30; Matt 27:29-30). The verbal and physical indications of shaming are many.

In the third of the three passion predictions reported in the middle section of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8-10), Jesus says that the Gentiles “will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10:34). That is duly reported in Mark’s later narrative, at the end of the scene where Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin. “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’” (Mark 14:65).

In the ancient Near East, spitting was one of the most humiliating of disgraces, long considered a suitable response to reprehensible behavior. We see this in the scene when Aaron and Miriam speak against Moses, and Miriam is made leprous (Num 12:1-16). In the course of this scene, God declares to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? (Num 12:14).

The action of spitting on Jesus is thus yet another act of public shaming. (See also Deut 25:5-10; Job 17:6, 30:10). The link between insulting and spitting, and being put to shame, is made clear in the third Servant Song (Isa 50:6-8a).

Finally, the bodies of crucified victims were most often not accorded an honourable burial. Corpses were regularly left hanging, whilst carrion birds and scavenger animals devoured the body, as Pliny describes in his Natural History (36.107-108).

The remains of these bodies were then thrown unceremoniously—shamefully—into a common grave, although in the case of Jesus, we are told by all four evangelists that his body was retrieved and placed in the grave of a wealthy supporter (Mark 15:42-46; Matt 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42).

*****

Thus, we can conclude that, in the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate).

Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, striped naked, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously; then as he hung dying, he was wracked with pain before he eventually succumbed to death. This was a shameful spectacle by any reckoning.

Jerome Neyrey, however, offers the suggestion that, “despite all the shameful treatment of Jesus, he is portrayed, not only as maintaining his honor, but even gaining glory and prestige. Far from being a status degradation ritual, his passion is seen as a status elevation ritual.” (https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html)

This is certainly consistent with the way that Jesus spoke earlier in his ministry of the inversion of shame and honour through the cross. When he makes his own identification with the cross (Mark 8:34), he does not consider this to be a cause of shame, but rather a sign of honour.

It would be seen by other humans as being shameful. However, that is not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.

The movement that is articulated by Paul, in his citation of am early hymn in his letter to Philippi, marks out the progression from shaming by human beings (“emptied himself … humbled himself … to death on a cross”, Phil 2:7–8) to being honoured by God (“highly exalted him … bestowed on him the name above all names … so that every knee should bow”, Phil 2:9-11). The progression takes Jesus, once equal with God (Phil 2:6), to the shame of the cross, and then to the glory of universal recognition “to the glory of God” (Phil 2:11).

So the declaration of shame that Jesus makes in his teaching to his disciples (Mark 8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. Here is the paradox: to gain honour, Jesus had to be subjected to the shame of the cross. Likewise, to gain honour as a disciple following Jesus, a person must take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

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The Passover Seder: a Jewish religious festival which Christians should not appropriate at Easter

As we approach Easter, we note it is also the time of Passover for Jews. This year, the final few days of the eight days of the Jewish Passover (27 March to 4 April) overlap with the Christian Easter Triduum (the three days of Easter, 2 to 4 April). There is a handy reckoner of how the dates of Passover and Easter intersect or overlap at http://jewishaustralia.com/JWL/easter-dates.asp

Integral to the way that Jews today (and indeed through much of history) celebrate the Passover, is that they hold a Seder meal to mark the beginning of the Passover festival season. The Passover commemorates the time when Israel escaped from Egypt, when God “passed over” the houses whose doors had been marked with blood to signal that they were Hebrew houses (Exodus 14).

The word Seder simply means “order” or “arrangement”. It signals the fact that there is a well-established order of events that are to take place within the Seder meal—an order that evolved and developed over time (over many centuries, in fact!). The modern Seder contains fifteen distinct elements, which take the participants right through the whole story of Passover.

A Seder begins with the Kadesh (the blessing over the first cup of wine), and moves through the various symbolic actions, the retelling of the story through the asking of four questions, blessings over a further three cups of wine and the food, the eating of the meal, and then the concluding recitation of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) with the final traditional saying, “next year in Jerusalem!”

See https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/2877666/jewish/The-Order-Of-The-Pesach-Seder.htm

It is important for Christians that we respect the integrity of the Jewish faith, and do not engage in “Passover Seder” meals on our Maundy Thursday. This is simply another form of Christian supersessionism.

Supersessionism is a term used to describe the way that the Church, through the centuries, has simply taken over Jewish elements (such as scripture, the covenant, the Ten Commandments, Pentecost, and the Passover Seder). We have “baptised” them so that believers have the view that these are Christian elements, without any sense of their Jewish origins—and their continuing place in contemporary Jewish life.

The Assembly of the Uniting Church issued a statement in 2009 regarding our relationship with Jews and Judaism. It affirmed the integrity of Judaism as a living faith, and made a commitment to engage in constructive relationships with Jews.

In particular, the Assembly Statement affirmed that “the Uniting Church Encourages its Members and Councils to respect the integrity of Jewish festivals, e.g. refraining from use of a Passover Seder in Holy Week worship” (para. 22).

The full Statement is at https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581

We should not therefore be offering or promoting such opportunities. They are disrespectful to Jewish practice and beliefs, and in contravention of our strong commitment as a church to work constructively with our Jewish sisters and brothers.

The Working Group on Jewish-Christian Relations in the VicTas Synod has been clear about this, stating that:

1. The Passover Seder meal is not scriptural in itself. It was developed as a universal means whereby the Jewish people could celebrate God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. In the absence of the Temple and its sacrificial system, the Passover Seder could be celebrated in Jewish homes anywhere in the world.

2. This development took place long after the death of Jesus, who lived during the time of the Temple. Jesus never celebrated a Passover Seder. He and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal – with a lamb sacrificed in the Temple.

This last point is a very important point. When Christians enact a Seder meal and represent as “what happened when Jesus had his last meal with his disciples at Passover”, they actually take a large collection of later medieval elements and read them back into the first century meal. That’s not taking seriously the actual story of the meal that Jesus shared with his followers. And, of course, it is completely disrespectful to Jews today, asserting that their rituals have a place in Christian worship.

You can read more at

https://www.wgcjr.com.au/passover-seder—a-warning.html

and

https://www.wgcjr.com.au/the-passover-seder.html

Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin provides a very detailed technical discussion of the origins and development of the Seder at

https://schechter.edu/the-origins-of-the-seder/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/25/the-passover-seder-a-jewish-religious-festival-which-christians-should-not-appropriate-at-easter/

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Sensitivity to “the Jews” as we celebrate Easter

As we draw near to the annual celebration of Easter, we find that we have a story that is driven by antagonism and conflict, with scenes of aggression and violence. We need to think carefully about how we tell the story found in the Gospels, and reflect prayerfully about how we preach the good news from these narratives.

We know the main characters in the story: Jesus and his followers, and the key authority figures of his day, lined up against him: the Jewish Sanhedrin; Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea; and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.

The way that the story unfolds, invites those who hear it—and those who preach on it—to make one party into “the villain”, even as others in the story receive (implicit) excusing. We side with Jesus, and that makes us view the other characters as “the baddies”.

So the danger sits before us, at Easter most especially: we might be tempted to target “the Jews”, to make negative or derogatory comments about Judaism and Jewish people, even (although I would hope not) to blame “the Jews” for the death of the Messiah. How close does this come to anti-Judaism, or even antisemitism?

We can be helped in our task by careful reflection on the nature of the texts, which we read, hear, explain, and reflect on, as we approach Easter, and especially as we move through Holy Week, from Passion Sunday to Good Friday.

Of the three key characters—the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Governor Pilate, and the tetrarch Herod Antipas—Herod has a somewhat tangential role: he appears only in Luke’s story (Luke 23:6-12) and simply rubber-stamps the decision of Pilate. Despite what Luke claims, there is no historical evidence that provides any reason why Jesus had to be presented to Herod, so the historicity of this scene is highly dubious.

‘Christ before Pilate’, by Hungarian painter Mihály Munkácsy (1881)

The Roman Governor, Pontus Pilate, is given a very big “exemption pass” in the Gospel narratives. In the earliest account, he questions the crowd as to whether he should sentence Jesus (Mark 15:5, 14). The same question is noted in Matt 27:23. By the time of Luke’s Gospel, there is a clear threefold affirmation of the innocence of Jesus (Luke 23:4, 13-16, 22).

By the fourth Gospel, the scene where Jesus is brought to Pilate is changed from a trial to a philosophical discussion (John 18:29-31, 38). He and (quite uncharacteristically) backs down in the face of a baying crowd (Mark 15:6-15, and parallels). In Matthew’s account, Pilate enacts the potent symbol of washing his hands of the whole affair (Matt 27:24).

The Jewish Sanhedrin, by contrast, is placed firmly in the firing line. All four Gospels tell the story in the same way: the central factor that leads to Jesus being condemned to death is the decision of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Mark 14:63-64, and parallels), and their agitation amongst the crowd (Mark 15:11; Matt 27:20; Luke 23:13-16; John 18:38b-40).

Jesus about to be struck in front of former High Priest Annas
(Madrazo, 1803)

Matthew intensifies this by reporting that “the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’l (Matt 27:25). John’s Gospel reports that “the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’” (John 19:12), reinforced by the later statement by the chief priests, “we have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15).

This telling of the story is, in my view, a rhetorical strategy which is employed by all four evangelists. It may well have been a common stance across the early church. The central problematic for the earliest followers of Jesus must have been that their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, was crucified by the Romans, who held great power at the time.

Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, and Jesus was crucified as a political rebel, on the basis of the notion that he was claiming to be “King of the Jews”. The phrase recurs as a regular refrain throughout all four accounts of the crucifixion (Mark 15:2,9,12,18,26; Matt 27:11,28-29,37,42; Luke 23:2-3,37-38; John 18:33,37,39; 19:3,12,14,15,19-22).

To identify as a follower of Jesus would be to stand in solidarity with him as a rebel, an unwanted criminal who was rightly (in Roman eyes) punished with death. That would be a very dangerous (and foolish!) place to want to stand. So a different strategy was required.

At the same time as the early church was considering how to continue living without being seen as a rebellious movement in the Roman Empire, a slow and growing struggle for this movement was taking place—first in some places, then spreading to many other places. The struggle was with the leadership of the local synagogue.

The Pharisees, in the decades after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, had been gaining a dominant position amongst Jews of the time. The tensions between the followers of Jesus and the Pharisees grew and developed over time. The way the Gospels report on the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees reflects the intensification of this relationship.

So, the Pharisees placed demands on the followers of Jesus, especially when made claims that Jesus was the Messiah. The earliest followers were all Jews, and they remained the dominant group in the movement for some decades. The followers of Jesus became increasingly discontented with their lives in the Jewish community, under the rule of the Pharisees. Accusations grew; tensions increased; conflict burst out into the open.

So, in retelling the story of how Jesus met his end, the followers of Jesus began, not only to downplay the role played by the Roman Governor (a very practical strategy, to be sure!), but also to increase the culpability of the Jewish authorities. And so grew the narrative of the last days, the arrest, trial, and sentencing of Jesus, that we are familiar with from the Gospels in the Bible.

The trap we must avoid, then, is this: do not read the Gospel narratives as straightforward, unadorned historical narratives. Do not accept “at face value” all that is recorded in those chapters. Apply careful, reasoned criticism as you approach the text. Consider the narrative of the passion, not only in its literary context, but in the context of the religious, social and political streams that were swirling in the later first century.

And invite those who reflect with you, or listen to your words, or read the stories in the text, to do the same—not to blame “the Jews” for what happened to Jesus; but rather, to consider how the story may well have been shaped, over the decades, in the face of the pressures and stresses of life for the early followers of Jesus, in the Roman Empire, with growing antagonism from (and towards) the Jewish authorities.

This is certainly quite consistent with the policy adopted by the Uniting Church National Assembly in 2009, which declares that “The Uniting Church acknowledges with repentance a history of interpretation of New Testament texts which has often failed to appreciate the context from which these texts emerged, viz. the growing separation of Christianity and Judaism with attendant bitterness and antagonism, resulting in deeply rooted anti-Jewish misunderstandings” (para. 9).

The Statement on Jews and Judaism also affirms that “The Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism” (para. 16). We need to hold to this in what we preach at Easter.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/download/1022_7d707d6a8cd8a2fe2188af65d6f04548

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/25/the-passover-seder-a-jewish-religious-festival-which-christians-should-not-appropriate-at-easter/

For other blogs which canvass aspects of what is explored above, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/18/easter-in-christian-tradition-and-its-relation-to-jewish-tradition/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/03/raise-up-a-new-temple-jesus-and-the-jews-in-the-fourth-gospel-john-2-lent-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/04/a-deeper-understanding-of-god-through-dialogue-with-the-other-romans-10/

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4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

To conclude this series of blogs about the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, the narrative which we know as the Gospel according to Mark, let us review the structure of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/, https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/, and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/

Here, we will note that the Passion Narrative is not only about who Jesus was; it is also about the way of Jesus, how those who follow Jesus are to live their lives in the light of Jesus’ example and pattern. This is conveyed through the narrative structure.

There is a careful symmetry in the structure of the Passion Narrative. Almost every scene is balanced by another scene.

The two scenes of the Prelude balance the two scenes of the Postlude. In each case, Jesus is attended by his faithful followers, both men and women. The scenes in Gethsemane and Golgotha also balance each other. Memories of the “great distress and trouble” of Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane (14:33) are evoked by the “loud voice” (15:34) and “great cry” (15:37) of Jesus as he dies at Golgotha.

The core of this narrative revolves around the distress and agony of Jesus—an emphatically human depiction of Jesus—with the cry, “why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) at the very heart of Mark’s depiction of Jesus.

The balancing of scenes continues in the two trial scenes. At the centre of both narratives stands the central issue of the identity of Jesus.

To the question of the High Priest, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61), Jesus replies quite directly, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man…coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). To Pilate’s enquiry, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2a), Jesus responds, somewhat enigmatically, “You have said so” (15:2b).

Both trials also include direct agitation against Jesus: the Council hears false witnesses concerning the destruction of Temple (14:56) whilst the chief priests agitate the crowd to call for Pilate to release Barabbas rather than Jesus (15:11).

Both trials show the leader of the trial moving outside the regular processes: at 14:63, the High Priest says “why do we still need witnesses?”, contrary to the requirements of Jewish justice (Deut 19:15); whilst at 15:15, Pilate bends in order to “satisfy the crowd”, which is not in accord with Roman justice!

Both trials end with a clear call for death of Jesus: “they all condemned him as deserving death” (14:64) and “crucify him” (15:13,14). Each is followed by acts in which Jesus is tormented (14:65; 15:19) as well as by words in which Jesus is mocked for his impotency: “prophesy” (14:65), and “Hail, King of the Jews” (as Jesus is dressed in mock regalia; 15:18).

In between these two trials scenes, there stands the centrepiece of the whole Passion Narrative: the account of Peter’s denial (14:66–72). This is the only scene that is not balanced against another scene. The story of Peter’s denial is a powerful story which stands alone as the heart of the narrative. It takes us to the very centre of the way of Jesus.

In this scene, Peter exemplifies the disciples’ consistent failure to understand Jesus. Mark has pointed to this failure on many occasions. Even after Jesus’ had twice fed large crowds of people (6:30–44; 8:1–10), the disciples doubt his capacity to provide food (8:17–21). After Jesus first speaks of the fate in store for the Son of Man in Jerusalem (8:1–10), Peter fails to understanding what Jesus means (8:32–33).

After the second such prediction (9:30–31), all the disciples demonstrate their lack of understand (9:32). After the third and most extensive prediction of the sufferings due to the Son of Man (10:32–34), James and John show their selfish ignorance when they seek heavenly power for themselves (10:35–40).

Once in Jerusalem, there is a series of further misunderstandings by the disciples: the false bravado of Peter and “all of them” (14:29,31), the failure of three disciples to watch and pray (14:37), and then the ultimate act of desertion by all the disciples (14:50). Peter’s increasingly vehement denials (14:68,70,71) thus climax the sequence in a devastatingly dramatic manner!

This is the story which sits at the very heart of the account of Jesus’ betrayal, trials, crucifixion and death. The story sets the failure of Peter into stark contrast with the faithfulness of Jesus. The model for believers is to be Jesus, the righteous sufferer, rather than Peter, the evasive denier.

What Peter did, by denying Jesus, was what other followers of Jesus are not to do. Instead, they are to walk the way of Jesus, following him as he endures suffering. This is the potent message of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Gospel according to Mark, written for those struggling under Roman occupation and yearning for the release of God’s rule.

The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship.

This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

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3 Mark: placing suffering and death at the heart of the Gospel

The earliest (and shortest) Gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus, makes a strong and enduring contribution to telling the story of Jesus. See my earlier posts at https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

This is the claim that the suffering and death of Jesus was the very essence of his task. The whole narrative of Mark’s Gospel is shaped to direct attention to the events that take place in Jerusalem at Passover. The death of Jesus assumes central importance.

Shaping the story to focus on the passion

Of course, some decades before this Gospel took shape as a written work, the preaching of the early followers of Jesus — all Jews — had drawn on Hebrew Scripture. If the accounts in Acts offer any reliable insight into that preaching, then telling the story of a Jesus and explicitly referring to his death in early sermons was par for the course. (But we have all of this mediated through the author of this Gospel, so we cannot be certain about this claim.)

Some letters of some of those early followers survive, and these letters provide clear and direct evidence for what was the practice of believers in the 40s and 50s. Some of the authentic letters of Paul give indications that even before him, there were simple credal-like statements which focussed on an understanding of the sacrificial nature of the death of Jesus (Gal 2:20; 1 Thess 4:14, 5:9-10; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Rom 3:24-25, 5:8).

In the last three chapters of Mark (where the final sequence of events for Jesus in Jerusalem are recounted), we can see further pointers to this central theme.

The prelude to the Passion Narrative recounts two significant meals (14:1–31): one, when a woman anointed Jesus in anticipation of his burial (14:8), the other, the last meal of Jesus when he foreshadowed his death. After the first meal, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas is foreshadowed (14:10–11); after the second meal, the denial of Jesus by Peter is predicted (14:26–31).

The Narrative itself has three main sections, each with two parts. Section One (14:32–52) is based in Gethsemane, where Jesus prays before he is arrested. Section Two (14:53–15:20) revolves around the trials of Jesus, first before the High Priest and the whole Council and then before Pilate, the Roman Governor. In between these trials, Peter denies any knowledge of Jesus. Section Three (15:21–41) is based at Golgotha, where Jesus is crucified and dies.

As a postlude to these scenes, Mark recounts the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb on the third day (15:42–16:8). The whole narrative contains a slowly building sense of the inevitable which climaxes in the death of Jesus. All has pointed to this moment; and at the climactic moment, the centurion declares the essential nature of Jesus (15:39).

Table: The Passion Narrative in The Gospel of Mark

Prelude (14:1–31) Two meals: at Bethany, at Jerusalem

Section One (14:32–52) Jesus in Gethsemane

Section Two (14:53–15:20) Jesus on Trial

Section Three (15:21–41)      Jesus at Golgotha

Postlude (15:42–16:8) The Tomb: burial, discovery

How are we to make sense of this death? The Passion Narrative of Mark (as, indeed, in all four canonical gospels) relates it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. He takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.

Jesus, the righteous sufferer

In this Passion Narrative, the author of the beginning of the good news recounts the death of Jesus by relating it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. The author of this Gospel takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.

The Gethsemane scene draws on imagery from Hebrew Scripture to underline this. The narrative evokes the suffering of the faithful righteous person, a figure found especially in the Psalms.

Like the righteous sufferer, Jesus laments that he is “deeply grieved” in the face of his death (14:34), using the same language as the psalmist (Psalms 42:5,11; 43:5; also 42:6; 55:4; 61:2; 102:9–10; 116:3; and most graphically, 22:14–15).

Jesus continues in prayer, using the language of the prophets who pointed to the divine judgment which Israel would suffer (“remove this cup” evokes the cup of divine judgment; see Psalm 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15–16; Ezek 23:31–34; Hab 2:16–17; Lam 4:21). Thus the prophets are used to interpret the suffering which Jesus faced.

Yet this image is transformed from vindictive revenge, to vicarious suffering, in the context of Mark’s Gospel—”the cup” has already been identified with the passion of Jesus at Mark 10:38–39.

The Golgotha scene also contains this orientation. What takes place is interpreted with reference to scripture; here, the allusions are both subtle, and more direct. The cry which Jesus utters at the ninth hour, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (15:34), is a clear reference to Psalm 22, by quoting its first verse.

As Jesus approaches his death, the psalm focuses attention on the stark moment of utter dereliction. Here, Jesus identifies with the righteous sufferer, who hopes for salvation but still experiences utter desolation. (It may also be important to observe that the psalm moves from the despair of lament (22:1–21) to the hope of thanksgiving (22:22–31). Is this what was intended by the author of the Gospel?)

Indeed, the Golgotha narrative draws extensively on Psalm 22 to express what Jesus experienced on the cross. The dividing of garments and casting of lots (15:24) alludes to the same actions endured by the righteous sufferer at Psalm 22:18 (this is made explicit at John 19:23–24).

Those passing by mock Jesus, wagging their heads at him (15:29), in the fashion of Psalm 22:7, “all who see me mock me”. The taunt, “let him save himself” (15:31–32) reflects the prayer of the righteous sufferer (Psalm 22:8, “he committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him”).

The offer of wine mingled with myrrh (15:23) evokes Psalm 69:21, which once more is made explicit at John 19:28–30a (this is explicitly “to fulfil the scripture”).

Later reflection, within the early church, recognized that what took place at Golgotha could be understood in the light of the understanding of suffering in the Hebrew Scripture; what happened to Jesus was recognized as fulfilling scripture, as the later addition of 15:28 (added in some ancient version of Mark’s Gospel) indicates (referring to Isa 53:12).

The scenes at Gethsemane and Golgotha are thus steeped in the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is through this Jewish heritage that understanding of this death can be found.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/23/4-the-structure-of-the-passion-narrative-in-mark/

This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

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2 Mark: collector of stories, author of the passion narrative

This blog follows on from my earlier reflections on the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we know as the gospel according to Mark. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/

The stories which were originally told about Jesus were individual stories. Over time, however, some of the story tellers began to make collections of similar or related stories. Instead of just one story of a miracle, a particular story teller might have a repertoire of four or five such stories. Rather than speaking a random assortment of individual wise sayings which seemed to have little relation to one another, another story teller might collect a number of sayings which relate to a common topic, or have certain words or ideas in common. Such collections were undoubtedly made at the oral stage—that is, by those who were well-practised at telling stories in the market place, in a courtyard, at the synagogue or at a gathering in a large house.

So it is quite likely that various collections of stories about Jesus made their way around the scattered groups of Jesus followers, still by word of mouth, before they were eventually written down. It is also quite likely that oral collections were known and used by the writers of the Gospels found within the New Testament. There are various signs of such oral collections of stories in each of the canonical Gospels—not the least in Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four Gospels.

Stories in Mark’s Gospel

In the first half of Mark’s Gospel, many stories of healing and exorcism can be found. A careful look at the structure of Mark 1–8 reveals two obvious clusters of miracle stories. Mark 1:21–2:12 is a collection of miraculous deeds performed by Jesus in Galilee, beginning and ending in Capernaum (see 1:21 and 2:1). Mark 4:35–5:43 links a pair of intertwined miracles in Galilee (5:21–43) with another pair of miracles performed across the Sea of Galilee in Gentile territory (4:35–5:20).

Immediately before this second collection of miracles stories, there is almost a full chapter devoted to the parables of Jesus (Mark 4:1–34). Another later chapter contains a collection of sayings which each relate to the coming apocalyptic era, when the kingdom will be ushered in (Mark 13:1–37). Whilst there are both parables and apocalyptic sayings elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, these particular sections appear to hold together very strongly, suggesting that they came to the author of Mark’s Gospel already in this interrelated form.

Just before this apocalyptic chapter, there is a string of incidents which reveal how Jesus engaged in honour-shame contests; that is, verbal combat with a number of opponents. Mark 11:27–12:41 contains stories which tell how Jesus was able to better his opponents on a number of matters. It is highly likely that this also was an oral collection of ‘conflict stories’ gathered around the theme of conflict between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem.

Mark 9:33–50 is yet another section of the Gospel which contains a collection of individual stories that seem to have little in common with one another. Indeed, verses 40–50 are simply short sayings of Jesus linked together rather abruptly. This might be an example of the tendency to gather together many small, isolated sayings of Jesus to form a larger collection which can be told by the story teller.

The narrative of the passion of Jesus

It is highly likely that, alongside these collections, there was another collection of materials made about Jesus, before the Gospels we know were actually written: the story of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem: his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial.

This collection was probably made in the early decades after Jesus had been crucified, so that later followers of Jesus could know what took place years before in the last days of Jesus’ life. It reads as a flowing whole, rather than as a collection of isolated stories thrown together for convenience. It follows Jesus through a series of interrelated events.

This part of the Gospel story (chapters 14–15 in Mark) is known as the passion narrative, as it tells about what Jesus suffered in his final days. (“Passion” comes from the Latin word passio, meaning suffering.)

The writer of Mark’s Gospel seems to have been the first person (as far as we know from the evidence) who drew together a number of expressions about the way of Jesus, and worked them into a single, cohesive whole, in a continuous narrative style. The distinctive contribution of the author of this work is that all of these stories are incorporated into the larger story which Mark tells—the story of how it was that Jesus came to be arrested, tried, crucified and buried.

Mark’s Gospel is structured with two main parts: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16). The second part forms the climax to the whole work. Indeed, the author of Mark has shaped his account so that the passion narrative, placed in the concluding section of his work (telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem), forms the climax to the whole work.

Likewise, the author of Mark has shaped the first part of his account (telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem) so that there are many short, but significant, pointers to the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem. So important is the role of the passion narrative as the focal point for the whole work, that the Gospel of Mark has been described as “a passion narrative with an extended introduction”.

It is this pattern—collections of stories about Jesus in Galilee followed by a journey to Jerusalem and the account of the passion of Jesus—which was adopted (but also adapted) by the authors of the the book of origins (the Gospel of Matthew) and the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us (the Gospel of Luke). Along with the belief that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, there is a widespread belief amongst scholars that a version of Mark’s Gospel was actually used as a written source by the authors of these other two Gospels.

These three Gospels are known as the Synoptic Gospels, from the Greek word syn-opsis, meaning “looking together”. They have this name because it is possible to lay them out, side by side, and look at the same time at the same story in all three Gospels. These Gospels (along with John’s Gospel) are also called Passion Gospels, because they all come to a conclusion with the passion of Jesus.

So the author of Mark’s Gospel makes some important contributions to Christian literature—writing the earliest Gospel and influencing the authors of the other early Gospels. He also places his mark on Christian history by shaping the way that the story of Jesus would be remembered throughout Christian history.

Outline of the storyline of The Gospel of Mark
Jesus is baptised by John (1.1–11)
and tested in the desert in Judea. (1.12–13)
He then moves to Galilee, (1.14–15)
where he preaches, teaches, heals and exorcises. (1.16–9.50)
When Jesus returns to Judea, (10.1–52)
he comes to Jerusalem and enters the Temple, (11.1–25)
engages in controversy with the authorities (11.27–12.44)
and instructs his disciples. (13.1–37)
After sharing a last supper with his disciples, (14.1–25)
Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified. (14.26–15.41)
Then he is buried in a tomb (15.42–47)
which is subsequently found empty. (16.1–8)

See further https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/23/4-the-structure-of-the-passion-narrative-in-mark/

This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

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1: Where has Mark gone ?

This year in the calendar of the church is what is called Year B. That means that, for the most part, the Gospel reading will be drawn from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus that we have in our Bibles: the work that starts, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we call, by tradition, the Gospel according to Mark. (In Year A, we have passages from Matthew; in Year C, selections from Luke.)

Except that, with one notable exception, Sunday readings from some weeks ago, right through until Pentecost (this year, falling on 23 May) are not drawn from Mark! Where has Mark gone?

We are in the midst of readings, during Lent, from John (7—28 March); then there will be readings, during Holy Week, once again from John (29 March to 2 April). We will hear an excerpt from Matthew on Holy Saturday (3 April); stories from John and Luke on Easter Sunday (4 April); and then another string of passages from John during the season of Easter (11 April to 16 May).

Pentecost Sunday designates part of John 15, and then Trinity Sunday offers John 3. Stories from Mark are nowhere to be seen. Where has Mark gone?

(To be fair: the lectionary has to do this, if it is to provide a good selection from the Gospel according to John, as that Gospel doesn’t have it’s own year. So its passages are spliced throughout Lent and Easter in all three years.)

The one exception to this Mark-drought is Sunday 28 March. If you celebrate this as Palm Sunday, then a passage from Mark is offered (Mark 11:1-11)—although an alternative from John is provided! If you celebrate this as Passion Sunday, then the whole passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel is offered (Mark 14:1—15:47)—with an alternative being a shorter excerpt from that extended narrative (Mark 15:1-39, with 40-47 as an option).

So it will not be until June before we return to the weekly diet of stories from the beginning of the good news—6 June, to be precise, where we pick up the narrative with Jesus in his home town, surrounded (as is usual in this Gospel) by a crowd, being criticised by his family and accused by some Jerusalem scribes (Mark 3:20-35). Hardly a propitious place to rejoin this early Gospel story.

(And even then, there is a five-week interruption in August, when we hear all bar a handful of the 71 verses in John 6 !)

So: I plan on offering a series of blogs leading up to Passion Sunday (28 March) which deals with elements in the story that Mark first told—at least in written form—about what transpired in Jerusalem, at Passover, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

But first, some general comments about this earliest and shortest Gospel.

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We know that Jesus did not write an account of his life; in fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader. Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.

The story of Jesus is told, first, in the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one, the shortest account. We know this, because of Church tradition, as the gospel according to Mark. This work, it is clear, forms the primary source for two subsequent accounts of Jesus: the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one (the gospel according to Matthew) and an orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us (the gospel according to Luke).

In this earliest written account of Jesus, we find stories told by Jesus, and stories told about Jesus, which had already been circulating in oral form for some decades. It is likely that some of these stories had already come together in short collections.

The distinctive contribution of this collated story was twofold. First, it places side-by-side a number of different traditions, or collections of stories, about Jesus. Second, these stories are arranged in a dramatic way, beginning with the stories about Jesus in his native area of Galilee, and culminating in the account of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.

This work thus provides a much fuller ‘story of Jesus’ than any of the individual oral stories about him. Isolated incidents are placed within a larger context. Individual sayings and deeds of Jesus are grouped together with similar sayings or deeds. Episodes are linked together to form a coherent account of who Jesus was and what it meant to follow his way.

There are two main parts this account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and then telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16).

But this account of Jesus is more than just a compilation of existing stories. It is infused with vigour and intensity. The story moves from one incident to the next; yet the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. A sense of drama runs through the Gospel. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie script!

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Central to this narrative is a story of conflict. Jesus is set into conflict with the authorities from early on. It is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy (2:7), and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated (3:6). The shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity.

The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. His own family called him crazy (3:21), the people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching (6:3), and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).

The popularity of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem was fleeting, even though he acquitted himself so well in arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem (11:27–12:40). His actions in the Temple forecourt were controversial (11:15-17) and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level (11:18). The final teachings he gave his disciples begin with a prediction of the destruction of the Temple before recounting the apocalyptic woes that are in store (13:3–37).

The plot hatched by the authorities (12:12; 14:1-2) led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers (14:10, 43-46), all knowledge of him was denied by another (14:30; 14:66-72), and all abandoned him at his point of need (14:50). The tragic climax of Jesus’ death is a scene of utter abandonment: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Only some—a group of faithful women—watched from afar (15:40) before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured (16:1)—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them (16:2-7).

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Yet the account found in the beginning of the good news is still more than a dramatic account of a tragic death; for this work appears to be a kind of political manifesto, advocating the way of Jesus in a situation of deep tension and widespread conflict. The whole Gospel conveys the significance of Jesus and his message about the kingdom: “the time is near!” (1:15).

This story reveals the key fact that faithful discipleship will mean enduring suffering, as Jesus did. He writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up the cross (8:34). These were potent words in the Roman Empire; death by crucifixion was the fate in store for criminals, especially those engaged in any political activities which the Roman authorities perceived to be a threat to the peace of the Empire.

Jesus’ injunction to “take up your cross” was advice which was loaded with danger. Was he advocating resistance against an oppressive Roman rule? The story which is told in this Gospel addresses issues which were pressing on the lives of those who told it, read it, and heard it.

Almost all of this work, the beginning of the good news, appears in basically the same order, in the two following accounts—the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us and the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one. (We know these works as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to Matthew.)

Both of these accounts expand the story, incorporating additional material—some is found in both accounts, other stories are recounted in one or the other of the orderly account and the book of origins. So the contribution made by the beginning of the good news is significant, and enduring.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

3 Mark: placing suffering and death at the heart of the Gospel

4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

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The hour has come: glorify your Son (John 12; Lent 5B)

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). So Jesus says to Andrew and Philip, who come with a request from “some Greeks” who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover (12:20; see 12:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/15/we-wish-to-see-jesus-john-12-lent-5/

Two terms in this declaration by Jesus require exploration; two terms which are key ideas in this Gospel, the book of signs.

The story which John’s Gospel reports contains a contrast between the largely public activities of Jesus, and a secret element, described as “the hour”, which does not come until the climax of the story is reached. There are pointers to this contrast from the very first sign, at a wedding in Cana, when Jesus declares, “my hour has not yet come” (2:4).

What is this hour? The first part of the Gospel leaves it as a mystery, for the time being (see 7:30 and 8:20). Then, after the seventh sign, events in Jerusalem show that the hour has come (12:23, 27); the narrator explains that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world” (13:1).

Thus, at the beginning and at the end of the public activities of Jesus in this Gospel narrative, the focus is firmly on “the hour”.

Then, some time later on, at the end of his last meal with his followers, Jesus finally prays: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son” (17:1). In what will take place after this prayer—the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (John 18–21)—this “hour” is realised.

The Johannine Jesus describes these events, the fulfilment of “the hour”, as the means by which God is glorified (11:16, 23–33; 13:31–32; 17:4).

The word “glory”, in Hebrew Scriptures, signals the divine presence (Exod 16:1–12; 24:15–18; 40:34–39; Lev 9:22–24; Num 14:10–12; 16:19; Deut 5:22–27; 1 Sam 4:19–22). In the book of signs, it is God’s glory which is now made manifest in Jesus (John 1:14; 2:11; 12:27–28; 17:5).

The language of “hour” and “glory” thus provides a framework for interpreting the events in chapters 2–12 as steps on the way towards a full understanding of Jesus, and the events of chapters 13–21 as the realisation of God’s presence in the world in all its fullness. This is the heart of the incarnational theology that is advocated by the writer of this Gospel.

The story of the Gospel fills out the details as to how it is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, which means that for human beings, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The passage offered in this Sunday’s lectionary readings provide part of the Johannine account of the final public moments of Jesus before his arrest (12:20–50). Here, Jesus speaks of this imminent glory (12:20–26), an angel testifies to God’s glory in the death of Jesus (12:27–33), Jesus explains that he comes as light into the world (12:34–36), the scriptures join as witnesses (12:37–43) and Jesus asserts that he speaks God’s commandment of eternal life (12:44–50).

This scene sums up what has come before and opens the door to the events which follow, culminating in the cry of the crucified Jesus, “it is fulfilled” (19:30; the NRSV translation, “it is finished”, downplays the sense of fulfilment in the verb used, teleō). The author of this Gospel thereby indicates that the deepest fulfilment of the hour of Jesus comes on the cross, as the glory of God is revealed in its entirety.

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Enough is Enough!

Enough is Enough. Yes, indeed: Enough IS Enough!!

The words echoed down Federation Mall in Canberra, as thousands of people–many, many women, as well as many men–gathered outside the Australian Parliament House to express their anger and hurt about recent very public revelations about the toxic work environment in the parliament and the alleged criminal behaviour of a prominent federal leader.

I was present at this event in Canberra–one of 42 places across Australia where marches were held–along with the ministers of the Gungahlin, Kippax, and Tuggeranong congregations, as well as the Congregational Chairperson, the Church Council Chairperson, and other members of the Tuggeranong Uniting Church.

As one of the men at the March, I was present to express my solidarity with women in this current circumstance.

Women are rightly angry. Far too many women have been hurt–shamed and sacked, experiencing discrimination, abuse and even rape. Their anger is rightly warranted.

So many women bear deep scars from abuse they have experienced at the hands of men. They are disturbed and damaged. Some women have been driven to suicide by the pressures they have felt from toxic masculinity. This is deeply tragic, and completely unacceptable.

Things cannot continue as they have been–not in the Federal Parliament House, not in the various State and Territory parliaments, not in the many workplaces around the country where sexual abuse is rife. The call for Justice, clearly articulated by speaker after speaker at the Canberra rally, is one that must be heard, and responded to, by people in leadership in the federal Parliament, and in businesses and other workplaces across the country.

The call for Justice is grounded in our scriptures, and derived from the fundamental view of the world that is expressed there.

Right at the start of scripture, the very first word about God is that God created (Gen 1:1). The very first word about humanity is that we were created “in the image of God—male and female” (Gen 1:27).

Those first words then shape and drive an understanding of humanity that values the equality of all people, that honours women as equally gifted, equally capable, equally responsible, and equally important, as men.

Hebrew Scripture includes narratives of strong, capable, women: Hagar and Sarah the matriarchs, Miriam the prophet, Zipporah the saviour of Moses, Deborah the judge, Huldah the prophet, the divining woman of Endor, Abigail the advocate of her husband Nabal, Athaliah the Queen of Judah, the unnamed hospitable woman of Shunnem, Ruth the Moabite, Esther the queen, and so many more …..

Jesus lives out this vision in what he says and does: valuing woman as much as men, calling women as well as men, teaching women as well as men. Think of Martha and Mary, Joanna and Susanna, Mary from Magdala–and, of course, his own mother, the fiery feminist icon who sang the Magnificat and stayed strong through to the cross. Strong women, contributing equally to the vitality and growth of the early movement.

The early church continued this way of operating, with leadership being given by Priscilla and Phoebe, Junia the apostle, Mary of Jerusalem, Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi, Tryphosa, Julia and Olympus of Rome, and many more unnamed. The prominence of women leadership in the ongoing church (much to the consternation of some prominent male leaders!) attests to the valuing of female leadership in the movement that became Christianity.

And in subsequent centuries, we can think of Hilda of Whitby, Clare of Assisi, Heloise the philosopher, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Brigid of Ireland (said to be a bishop), Catherine of Siena, and more … right through to Mary McKillop and Teresa of Calcutta in recent times.

Women continue to serve and lead in so many ways–witness the recent sight of a nun on her knees, pleading with Myanmar military to shoot her, not children. All of this is integral to our faith heritage.

Hebrew scripture also attests to the long and enduring witness of prophetic voices, reminding the people of Israel of their covenant with God and the responsibilities this brought for living justly. Jesus continues this prophetic vocation as he calls his followers to “seek the kingdom of God and God’s righteous ways”. We stand in this stream, called to live out our faith in daily life, commissioned to stand for Justice in our society.

Standing against injustices committed by men against women should simply be second nature for people who are followers of Jesus, disciples within the church, people of Christian faith. Behaviour that is bullying or discriminatory, actions of sexual misconduct and rape, are all completely unacceptable.

Brittany Higgins, speaking at the Canberra March4Justice, said, “The system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place, injustices continue to occur.” Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, told the March in Hobart that “Silence allows evil to thrive.” We cannot allow that silence to continue. We must work to fix the system.

Today in Australia, we look for leadership that is willing to address the many injustices, to give voice to those who have been silenced for so long, and to work hard to ensure safe places of work, healthy structures and processes, viable pathways to accept and support those women who have been victims.

As people of faith, we rightly belong in the movement that is advocating and agitating, marching and calling for change, to remove ingrained injustices and show that we value women equally in every way. As we do this, we are bearing witness to the Gospel and live out its values in our lives.

Yes: Enough is Enough!

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We wish to see Jesus (John 12; Lent 5B)

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’” (John 12:20-21).

The fourth Gospel, the book of signs, is distinctive in many ways. One way that it is different from the other three canonical Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels), is that it is the only work that refers specifically to Greeks coming into contact with Jesus.

Mark refers to Jesus coming into contact with a Gentile woman (Mark 7:26). Matthew reports Jesus pointing to the scripture that exclaims about the servant of the Lord, “in his name the Gentiles will hope”(Matt 12:21)—although this account includes the firm instructions of Jesus to “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5), and delays right until the penultimate verse of the book any command to “make disciples of all Gentiles” (28:19).

Luke, of course, signals from the very start of the story that Jesus brings “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), and from early days the crowds that gather to hear Jesus include people from the gentile regions (6:17). It is clear from the following volume that the intention was always for the good news to be shared with the Gentiles (Acts 10:45; 11:1,18; 13:46; 18:6; 28:28).

But Gentiles encompass far more than Greeks. And only the book of signs specifically names that Jesus comes into close contact with Greeks. Although, it could be argued that the way the text describes things, we are never told that the Greeks who have come to Jerusalem for the festival actually engage directly with Jesus. It is only through the intermediaries, Philip and Andrew, that communication with Jesus takes place.

Nevertheless, this (near) encounter appears to provide a resolution of a sort, to the question asked earlier on by the Pharisees: “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (7:35). Although Jesus does not “go to the Dispersion”, he is engaged (at one remove) with people from the Dispersion who have come to Jerusalem.

At the minimum, this scene in Jerusalem indicates that the significance of Jesus spreads more widely than just amongst Jews. In fact this Gospel includes a number of pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas.

Now, all four Gospel accounts clearly locate Jesus as a Jew living in Israel. He is immersed in the context of Jewish society, culture, and religion. The book of signs makes this abundantly clear, over and over. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

However, the early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, each point to a wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within “formative Judaism”.

Formative Judaism is one way to refer to the version of Judaism that developed in the decades and centuries after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This was the historical precursor of current Rabbinic forms of Judaism. The separation of Christianity from that trajectory within Judaism goes back to the early followers of Jesus, interpreting his words and actions in a certain way.

The book of signs contains many indications of the growing tension between the Pharisees, the dominant party after 70:CE (when the book was written), and the developing Christian communities. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/03/raise-up-a-new-temple-jesus-and-the-jews-in-the-fourth-gospel-john-2-lent-3/

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John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11).

It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42). John, in this gospel, does not call for repentance; rather, he bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), testifying that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of “heterodox Judaism” on this Gospel.

*****

Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel. This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident.

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions.

Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). They are not utterly different groups.

Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode. Ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

*****

The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/31/in-the-beginning-the-prologue-and-the-book-of-signs-john-1/

We know that Judaism had long been influenced by the Greek–speaking world. Hellenistic culture is reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.

The issue is explicitly raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” The signs we have noted above point to this influence at various points throughout the gospel.

These elements need not necessarily be reflecting events in the ministry of Jesus himself, but more likely point to the context in which the Gospel was shaped, and the factors that influenced the way the story of Jesus was presented.

The community which received this Gospel indicates that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel was not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It had become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/16/the-hour-has-come-glorify-your-son-john-12-lent-5/

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

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The complex and rich world of scriptural imagery in ‘the book of signs’ (John 3; Lent 4B)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the Gospel according to John, that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The brief allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”. It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels. In the book of signs, this interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison drawn between Jesus and Moses: “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).

It is stated explicitly in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).

There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a “fulfilment formula” is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).

However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. Chapter 6, a long chapter on the theme of “the living bread”, functions like an extended midrashic exploration of this important scriptural theme.

These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.

In like fashion, a series of Jewish titles is embedded in the narrative as confessions by key characters of the significance of Jesus. In the extended preface of 1:19–51, Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). These claims about Jesus, drawn from Jewish traditions, are all made also within the Synoptic traditions.

The Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference. That’s another clear Jewish term drawn from scripture (Dan 7:13; Ezek 2:1,3,6,8, 3:1,3,10, etc).

In later scenes, Jesus is also called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). The ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18). (Lord, of course, was one of the Jewish terms for addressing God.)

For the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the confession by Thomas (20:28) can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenistic Jewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”).

And there is much more to be said about the I Am sayings, unique to the book of signs, for each of them draws deeply from the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. But that’s another blog sometime.

So the allusion in John 3:14 offers a doorway into a complex and rich world of scriptural imagery, story, and language—the very world in which the author of this Gospel lived for many decades.

Thinking about this way of writing reminded me of one of my teachers during the years that I was undertaking doctoral studies at Yale University in the USA—Professor Hans Frei. I took a semester-long seminar with him on hermeneutics, wrote a long essay on how his work shaped the “New Yale Theology”, and had him as one of my assessment panel when I submitted my doctoral thesis proposal. He had an utterly incisive mind along with a gentle eirenic nature.

Prof. Frei used to say “we should not read the Bible in such a way as to make it make sense on our lives; we need to live our lives in the text of the Bible and that way we find its deepest truths”. Or something like that—it is 35 years since I took that seminar with him!!

Here are two of his quotable quotes about this, that I have found online:

“For many centuries before the modern age, most Christian theologians had read the Bible primarily as a kind of realistic narrative. It told the overarching story of the world, from creation to last judgment. Moreover, the particular coherence of this story made “figural” interpretation possible: some events in the biblical stories, as well as some nonbiblical events, prefigured or reflected the central biblical events. Indeed, Christians made sense of their own lives by locating their stories within the context of that larger story.” He argued, in his writings and in his teaching, that we needed to recover something of that way of reading the Bible—living in its world, rather than dragging it into our world.

Another rich quote is:

“A Christian theology that respects the meaning of the biblical narratives must begin simply by retelling those stories, without any systematic effort at apologetics, without any determined effort to begin with questions arising from our experience. The stories portray a person — a God who acts in the history of Israel and engages in self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. They help us learn about that person in the way that a great novelist describes a character or that a telling anecdote captures someone’s personality. They provide insights that we lose if we try to summarize the narrative in a nonnarrative form. No abstract account of God’s faithfulness adequately summarizes Exodus. The Gospels surpass any abstract account of God’s love.”

And he quotes Erich Auerbach, a literary critic whom Frei much admired, as he wrote of the Bible:

“Far from seeking . . . merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. Christians who tell these stories, stories that are rich, enigmatic, sometimes puzzling and ambiguous, can find that their lives fit into the world they describe — indeed, that our stories suddenly seem to make more sense when seen in that context.”

(You can read more of Frei’s writing at https://www.religion-online.org/article/hans-frei-and-the-meaning-of-biblical-narrative/)

It seems to me that the ethos of the book of signs and the writings of Hans Frei, separated in time by two full millennia, nevertheless share this common feature, of immersing themselves into the ancient scripture so that it shapes the way they live in the world of their own time.

*****

The earlier part of this blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

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The serpent in the wilderness (John 3, Num 21; Lent 4B)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the section from the Gospel of John that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The Brazen Serpent Monument
on Mount Nebo in Jordan

Of particular note in the Numbers passage, before we head into the Gospel passage that alludes to it, is the fact that there is a crucially important Hebrew word which appears in Num 21 and which in most current English translation, is not accurately rendered. (This is a favourite of my wife, Elizabeth—she often refers to the translation issues inherent at this point.)

In Num 21:6, the Lord sends creatures often described as “fiery serpents” or “poisonous serpents” amongst the people, who are grumbling about the food and water available to them in the wilderness. In Num 21:8, the Lord commands Moses to put a “fiery serpent” or a “poisonous serpent” on a pole. In both verses, the crucial word is saraph — a word that appears just seven times in the Hebrew Bible.

On three occasions (twice here, and again at Deut 8:15), saraph is translated as “fiery serpent”. In two instances, it is rendered as “flying serpents” (Isa 14:29 and 30:6). But in one very well-known story (the call of Isaiah), the word appears in its plural form, seraphim—and here, it is usually transliterated, letter for letter, as “seraphim” (Isaiah 6:2, 6).

The seraphim, of course, were one of three forms of angels known to the ancient Hebrews—the malachim, or messengers (from which Malachi gets his name), the cherubim (depicted on the ark, according to Exodus 25:18-22), and the seraphim (six-winged creatures who are the heavenly attendants of God).

And as Isaiah indicates, these seraphim were certainly able to fly (Isa 6:2), and they clearly dealt with fire, taking a coal from altar with a pair of tongs and delivering that to the prophet (Isa 6:6-7). In fact, the word saraph derives from a word that literally means “burning”.

Alongside this word, the more usual Hebrew word for serpent, nehash, is found in the Numbers story. It occurs once in what the narrator reports in Num 21:6, where the word stands right alongside seraphim; here the double barrelled hanehashim haseraphim appears to designate the serpents that bit the Israelites as “fiery serpent-like seraphim”, or even “flying serpent-like fiery-seraphim”.

Then the simple nehash appears once in what the people say (21:7), asking Moses to “take away the serpents from us”; and then twice in the actions of Moses (21:9). What Moses makes is a nehas nehoset, “a bronze serpent”; and what Moses places on the pole is a nehas hanehoset, “the bronze serpent”—that is, a serpent figure forged from bronze metal (21:9). But what God had commanded him to place on the pole was a saraph, a “fiery serpent” (21:8).

So there is a curious element in the Numbers story—did Moses use an image of a serpent, or an image of a seraph, to ward off the seraph-serpents who bit the people? (Num 21:9). The Hebrew actually refers to the image on the pole using both terms!

This brief (and complex) allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”, but in many more ways as well.

It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels; but it has a distinctive shape in the book of signs. I think that topic warrants its own blog ….. https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/10/the-complex-and-rich-world-of-scriptural-imagery-in-the-book-of-signs-john-3-lent-4/

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Raise up a (new) temple: Jesus and “the Jews” in the fourth Gospel (John 2; Lent 3B)

The Johannine account of the incident in the Temple (John 2:13-22), which appears in the lectionary as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday, concludes by indicating that Jesus, the northerner from Nazareth in the Galilee, is intent on confronting the southern Judeans and their degrading of the Temple.

(I’ve done an earlier blog on the incident itself, at https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/01/righteous-anger-and-zealous-piety-the-incident-in-the-temple-john-2-lent-3/)

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, Jesus had said to his disciples (2:19); and the author concludes, “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).

Indeed, the previous story in this Gospel, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine whilst at a wedding in Cana of Galilee (2:1-11), also flags this confrontational aspect. It infers that the water of the Jewish purification system (2:6) is inferior to the “good wine” which Jesus offers (2:10).

Wedding at Cana by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311)

The dynamic of confrontation continues in the scene in which a zealous Jesus, whip in hand, speaking with righteous anger, expels traders from the temple courtyard, quoting the prophets to support his actions (2:13–17).

The programmatic purpose of these two passages, placed at the very start of the long narrative section about the public activities of Jesus (2:1-12:50), is that they introduce this dynamic of conflict and opposition. This is a motif that runs throughout the whole of the book of origins.

The supremacy of Jesus

In the first Jerusalem controversy (5:16–47), Jesus makes a grand claim for himself in relation to Jewish history: by healing on the Sabbath, he continues to do “the works which the Father has granted me” (5:36). This controversy reaches its culmination with Jesus’ claim that no less an authority than Moses supports his understanding of his role (5:45–47); for indeed, “he [Moses] wrote of me” (5:46).

The issues in this first controversy are resumed throughout 7:10–10:39, and the claims of Jesus come to a further climax when he claims support from no less a figure than Abraham (8:53–58); indeed, “your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day” (8:56).

Then, a similar claim is made by the narrator concerning the prophet Isaiah at the very end of the first half of the Gospel, in the aftermath of the raising of Lazarus (12:36b–43). The response of many people to Jesus was one of disbelief, in direct fulfilment of the words of Isaiah, who “saw his glory and spoke of him [Jesus]” (12:41).

Thus, three venerable witnesses from Hebrew scripture (Moses, Abraham and Isaiah) give personal testimony to the supremacy of the words and deeds of Jesus.

Criticisms of Jesus

The situation which lies behind the recounting of these words, and the retelling of controversy narratives, is one of high tension between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities. The cry of the crowd, that Jesus has “a demon” (7:20; 10:20), is repeated by the Jews at 8:48–52, with the added insult that he is “a Samaritan” (8:48). A demon-possessed Samaritan could not be more of an outsider!

A third criticism levelled against Jesus is that he was born illegitimate (8:41). The words of the Jews represent a tense argument which was taking place within the Judaism of the first century, as Jewish followers of Jesus debated with the authorities in their synagogues about the status of Jesus of Nazareth.

The threat of persecution

This tension is increased by the ever–present threat of persecution which runs throughout this Gospel. Jesus highlights this in his discourse on the sheep and the shepherd, with references to the threat posed to the sheep by thieves and bandits (10:1, 8, 10), strangers (10:5), the hired hand (10:12–13), and wolves (10:12).  The menace posed by these figures leads Jesus to infer that some of his sheep will be “snatched” out of his hand (10:28–29).

A fuller and more explicit exposition of this theme is given in the second farewell discourse, under the rubric of “the world hates you” (15:18–25). Jesus here predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20).

At this, the Jews prepare to stone Jesus for the second time (10:31; the earlier instance was at 8:59). This enacts the revelation made by Jesus in an earlier discourse, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7); and already in the Prologue the narrator has spoken of the rejection of the Word (1:10–11).

The Passion Narrative details the course of this rejection: betrayal (18:1–9), denial (18:15–18, 25–27), abandonment by his own people (18:38b–40, 19:7–8), and crucifixion (19:16–30). The ultimate fate of martyrdom, suffered by Jesus, is quite explicitly the same fate in store for those who follow Jesus: “They will put you out of the synagogues … whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (16:2–3). This, presumably, is what was meant by the allusion to their being “snatched out of the Father’s hand” (10:28–29).

Fear of “the Jews”

Who is it that perpetrates this persecution? Running throughout the storyline of this Gospel is a refrain concerning “the fear of the Jews”. This note is first sounded after Jesus’ second visit to Jerusalem (5:1). Upon returning to Galilee, Jesus refuses to return to Judea (7:1); but when his brothers travel there, he follows “not publicly but in private” (7:10). Obviously his presence in Jerusalem is known, as there is a divided opinion about Jesus – again, in private, for “no one spoke openly of him for fear of the Jews” (7:13).

Later in this same visit to Jerusalem, after Jesus has enabled the man born blind to see once more, the parents of this man distance themselves from their cured son, claiming not to know of the details of the healing, “because they feared the Jews” (9:22).

Likewise, after the crucifixion of Jesus, his body is requested of Pilate by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is described as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38). Finally, when the disciples gather after the crucifixion, not yet aware that the tomb is empty, they meet with “the doors locked, for fear of the Jews” (20:19). In each case, fear of the Jews leads to deeds and words which take place in secret; any desired confession of allegiance to Jesus is muted and repressed, because of this fear.

Even Pilate, in the Johannine account of the trial of Jesus, trembles before the Jews; “he was more afraid than ever” (19:8). This would seem to be a highly implausible historical possibility, given what is known of the rigour of Pilate’s rule. It seems reasonable to conclude that the theme of the fear of the Jews is functioning as a significant Johannine motif at the level of the readers of the narrative.

Who are “the Jews” ?

The opposition to Jesus which runs throughout the first half of this Gospel often comes from the group described, indiscriminately, as “the Jews” (2:18–20; 5:16–18; 6:41, 52; 7:1; 8:31, 48; 9:18, 22; 10:19, 24, 31). Who are these people who evoke such fear?

The Greek word used (Ioudaioi) can point to a geographic entity (the Judeans, from the southern kingdom), or a religious entity (Jews, as opposed to Samaritans or Gentiles). The identity of the Ioudaioi in this Gospel is a critical matter. They appear to be clearly identified with the Judaeans at 7:1; but not every usage of the term must necessarily bear this geographical meaning.

Some scholars see this term as a typically Johannine symbolic cipher—a code word for “the world”, since “the world” parallels “his own people” at 1:10–11, and the actions of “the Jews” is consistent with what is said of “the world” at 15:18–16:4.  

More plausible is the view that “the Jews” are simply to be equated with the Judaean leaders. Midway through the Gospel, the specific opponents of Jesus are identified as “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (11:57). Soon, this grouping broadens its opposition to Jesus, to include Lazarus (12:9–11).

Yet a clear contrast is drawn between the “great crowd of the Jews” who had come to see Jesus and Lazarus (12:9), and the “many Jews” who believe in Jesus (12:10), on the one hand; and the leadership of the Jews, who were planning the persecution: the chief priests who plot his death (12:10), and the Pharisees, who initially appear unable to act (12:19), but who ultimately join with the priestly group to effect the arrest of Jesus (18:3). The opponents of Jesus are here described quite specifically from the moment that Lazarus is raised from the dead.

Thus, it is clear that “the Jews” is a shorthand way of referring to the religious authorities in Jerusalem who are hostile towards Jesus. See more at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The Synoptic Gospels indicate that throughout his public activities, Jesus had engaged in controversy with the Pharisees (Mark 2:16, 24; 3:6; 7:1, 5; 8:11, 15; 10:2; 12:13 and parallels; Matt 5:20; 12:24, 38; Luke 7:30; 11:37–44, 53; 12:1; 15:2; 16:14). It was only from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that there was any priestly opposition (Mark 11:18 and parallels).

In John’s Gospel, the position is somewhat different. Opposition to Jesus from the time of his last visit to Jerusalem comes not only from the Pharisees, in particular (4:1; 7:47; 8:13; 9:13, 40), but also from the chief priests and the Pharisees (7:32, 45; 11:47, 57).

Expulsion from the synagogue

In the Synoptic accounts, the Pharisees fade from view once Jesus enters Jerusalem, whereas in this Gospel, when Jesus is arrested, it is at the hands of the military police from the chief priests and the Pharisees (18:3), in conjunction with the Roman soldiers.  The role of the Pharisees, as opponents to Jesus, is thus expanded in this Gospel. More than any other identified group, it is the Pharisees who become the focus of the opposition and persecution of Jesus.

J. Louis Martyn has argued that the Pharisees stand as representatives of the Jewish leadership in the situation after 70 CE, when the final form of this Gospel took shape. This was different from the situation at the time of Jesus’ earthly life. Scholars now refer to this period as the time of formative Judaism—a period when Pharisaic leadership began to form the kind of Judaism which could survive the destruction of the Temple.

This period was marked by sectarian dispute and division—including the development of the Jesus movement away from Judaism, towards its eventual identity as a predominantly Gentile religion. A vacuum had been opened up by the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, and this meant that the Pharisees were struggling to assert their dominance in a new, unsettled, and unfamiliar context.

The book of origins contains three references to the expulsion from the synagogue of the followers of Jesus (9:22; 12:42–43; 16:2–3). This is one point at which the “partings of the ways” begin, for believers within this stream of the Jesus movement became completely alienated from their Jewish religion.

Martyn argues that the experience of the man born blind reflects the situation of those Jews of some decades later on, who had come to faith in Jesus (9:38), in that when they attempted to declare that he was the Messiah, they were expelled from the synagogues (9:22). This expulsion was enforced by the Pharisees (12:42), who instigated persecutions of Jews (16:2) when they refused to adhere to the position which they were putting.

Thus, the beginnings of the development of a sectarian community can be seen; when Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah were expelled from the synagogue, they formed their own community with their own developing beliefs. Into that context, decades after Jesus, the account of the book of signs is crystallised into a full Gospel.

Placing blame on “the Jews”

The Johannine passion narrative (18:1–19:42) contains further indicators of the sectarian nature of the community. Although Jesus dies by crucifixion, under Roman jurisdiction, the blame for his death is placed amongst the Jerusalem leadership, through a sequence of events uniquely highlighted in this Gospel.

First, the plotting of the priestly leaders, reported immediately after the raising of Lazarus (11:49–53), is briefly rehearsed (18:14).

Then the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem declare Jesus to be a criminal (18:30) and hand him over to the Roman procurator, Pilate (18:34), who is reluctant to accept the case (18:31). Yet Roman justice is not permitted to run its course; indeed, had this been so, Pilate would certainly have released Jesus (18:38; 19:6, 12).

The Synoptic version of the trial scene notes the interference of the priestly rulers in the “Barabbas” incident (Mark 14:8–15 and parallels). The Johannine version intensifies the role of the Jews by their persistence in calling for the death of Jesus (19:7, 12, 15).

It is only when Jesus hangs on the cross that Pilate is able to stand up to the priests—on a matter of negligible consequence (the wording of the inscription, 19:21).

Thus, the apologetic against the Jews is heightened in the Johannine passion narrative, giving clear reasons for the disciples’ later decision to meet behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (20:19).

And so, the book of origins provides fertile grounds for later developments that pitted Christians against Jews with such ferocity—and that led to medieval pogroms, then the development of ghettos, then the systematic persecutions leading to the horrors of the Shoah under the Nazis.

The thread of antagonism and conflict, present at the start of the book of signs (2:1-22), has grown and developed throughout the Gospel (and beyond). We must take great care in how we use and interpret this text.

*****

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

On the importance of avoiding antisemitism, and negative attitudes and behaviours towards Jews and Judaism, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581

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Righteous anger and zealous piety: the incident in the Temple (John 2; Lent 3B)

How might we characterise what Jesus wants all of his followers to exhibit? Loving kindness, gracious acceptance, patient servanthood, self-effacing humility? If we take seriously the disturbing teachings we heard last week (Mark 8:34-38), these will be the central characteristics we will exhibit. And such characteristics are, as we noted last week, disruptive and destabilising!

However, in yet another instance of such disruptive instability, the lectionary this week offers a story about a time in the life of Jesus when he was anything but humble, gracious, and self-effacing. The infamous story of “Jesus cleansing the Temple”, set for Lent 2, is found in all four canonical Gospels. It occurs at the very end of the public activity of Jesus in the three Synoptic Gospels, where it provides the catalyst for the arrest and trial of Jesus.

By contrast, and quite strikingly, in the fourth Gospel, the book of signs, it is recounted very early on, immediately after the very first miracle that Jesus performed (2:1-11). It stands as a kind of “programmatic statement” which declares what Jesus is on about in the whole of his ministry (in much the same way that Luke 4:16-30 provides a “manifesto for mission” in the Lukan presentation of the story of Jesus).

And the Jesus who is portrayed in this striking account demonstrates very little gracious, self-effacing humility. Rather, he acts out his righteous anger, embodies zealous piety, and provides an intensity of focus on the role to which (according to this author) he has been called: “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19).

I. Righteous anger. First, this story depicts Jesus as manifesting “righteous anger”, both in his actions (2:15) and in his words (2:16).

The actions of Jesus include overturning the tables of the money changers (as noted when this story is reported in Mark 11:15 and Matt 21:12) and driving them out of the temple area (as is also noted in Mark 11:15, Matt 21:12, and Luke 19:45).

They also include tipping out the coins of those money changers (not reported in other accounts), and knitting together cords to form a whip, by which he carried out these actions (also absent from the Synoptic accounts of this scene). The fact that this would take some time to do indicates that, at least in John’s eyes, Jesus was entering the area with intention and purpose.

James McGrath notes that “both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions” (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers). What Jesus does is therefore not an incidental act of anger; it is part of a deliberate plan of action.

McGrath suggests that the reference to the Temple as a marketplace might be an allusion to the eschatological prophecy of Zechariah, that “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech 14:21). Is Jesus enacting this prophecy through his actions in the Temple forecourt?

Certainly, the words of Jesus (2:16) are sharp and accusatory. There is both the sharp command to take the elements of money changing out of the precinct, as well as the accusation that what the traders are doing is “making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus commands them directly to “stop”.

This is similar to, but not the same as, the Synoptic accusation that the money changers are making the temple “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17, Matt 21:13, and Luke 19:46). That most likely references the rhetorical question of the prophet Jeremiah: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jer 7:11).

Gail O’Day considers that “by going to the Jerusalem temple and disrupting the practices that were necessary for the celebration of Passover, Jesus places himself in a long line of Israel’s prophets who go to Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power, and announce and enact the word of God.” (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/cleansing-or-cursing)

In this dramatic prophetic action, Jesus acts and speaks carefully, deliberately, with “righteous anger”. This concept is explicitly is named in an earlier Jewish text, telling of the moment when Mattathias exploded in anger at the desecration of the land that he was witnessing by the foreign powers that held Israel under their power.

Mattathias the Maccabee:
bronze head (1894) by Boris Schatz

Mattathias watches a Jew come forward to make a sacrifice on the pagan altar erected in Modein, in accordance with the command issued by Antiochus. It is said that Mattathias “burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar” (1 Macc 2:24).

Does Jesus stand in this tradition, when he enters the Temple, is disturbed by what he sees there, and acts to purge the forecourt of the activities taking place there? Is this an expression of righteous anger? (Not to the extent of killing a person; but still, enacting vigorous actions and speaking striking words.)

Of course, anger—presumably, justified, or righteous, expression of anger—is a characteristic of God throughout Hebrew Scriptures. Moses experienced the anger of the Lord (Exodus 4:14), as did all of Israel in the wilderness (Num 11:1,33, 12:9, 25:1-5, 32:9-15; Deut 6:15, 11:17, 29:19-28, 31:17, 29, 32:22), and then this divine anger is present as a regular and consistent element through the narratives of the ongoing story of Israel.

Certainly, there are places in Hebrew Scripture which repeat the formulaic claim that God is “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:8). Nevertheless, scripture contains invocations to God to put aside his anger, such as that by Moses (Deut 9:19) and the prayer of Daniel, “O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain” (Dan 9:16). God’s anger was well known.

So in this incident in the temple, Jesus is manifesting, not just the righteous anger of the revolutionary Mattathias, but the anger of the righteous one himself, the Lord God. And this anger is directed at those who debase the Temple, the house of God, through their actions.

II. Zealous piety. Second, the incident is interpreted as a manifestation of zealous piety from Jesus. Interestingly, it is not Jesus himself who directly expresses this; rather, the author indicates that this interpretation was made after the event by the followers of Jesus. They understand the actions of Jesus in the terms of a verse from the Psalms, “zeal for your house will consume me” (Ps 69:9, quoted in John 2:17).

The expression of zeal is linked with anger in the same extract from 1 Maccabees that we saw above: “Mattathias burned with zeal … and gave vent to righteous anger” (1 Matt 2:24). There are further examples of intense zeal amongst the people of Israel–most notably Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, of whom God said: “he has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites” (Num 25:11). That shows the power of zeal, to restrain God’s wrath!

A depiction of Phinehas

Zeal for the Lord is expressed by Jehu the king: “Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD” (2 Kings 10:16). Later, in the time of return and restoration in the land, Ezra notes, “Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, or wrath will come upon the realm of the king and his heirs” (Ezra 7:23)

Like righteous anger, intense zeal is attributed to God at a number of places in scripture. For instance, “the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (2 Kings 19:30-31)

That refrain recurs elsewhere. Most famously, as the prophet Isaiah says of the one promised by God, “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:7).

And again, later in Isaiah: “from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 37:32).

In the period of the Maccabees, zeal for the law was highly valued. The instruction found at 1 Macc 2:50, “now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors”, led directly to the movement which became known as the Zealots—revolutionaries who would go to any length to stand up for the Law. Josephus later describes this “fourth philosophy” (alongside Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes) as being characterised by precisely this characteristic—a zeal for the Law—to the extent that Zealots were willing to put their lives on the line in defence of their traditions and customs.

A later Jewish document describes such people (Jewish political rebels) in this manner: “a common zeal for nobility strengthened their goodwill toward one another, and their concord, because they could make their brotherly love more fervent with the aid of their religion” (4 Macc 13:25-26). And the key figure from earlier Jewish stories, for these zealous rebels, is Phinehas, whom we noted above (Num 25:11) as exhibiting zeal that changed the mind of God.

Jesus, entering the Temple precincts, seeing what is taking place in the outer courtyard, is filled with the zeal of the Lord and expresses the righteous anger of the Lord, as he confronts the money changers.

Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple
oil painting by Quinten Massijs (1514)
(Museum: Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)

The conclusion of the Johannine account of this incident makes it clear that Jesus, the northerner from Nazareth in the Galilee, is intent on confronting the southern Judeans and their degrading of the Temple. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, Jesus had said to his disciples (2:19); and so, “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).

This distinctive Johannine interpretation of the incident in the Temple points to a major theme that runs through the book of signs: the conflict between Jesus and “the Jews”. Which needs a blog in its own right …..

https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/03/raise-up-a-new-temple-jesus-and-the-jews-in-the-fourth-gospel-john-2-lent-3/

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

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Disturbance, disruption, and destabilising words (Mark 8; Lent 2B)

The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise.

Disturbance. The disturbing element comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.

There is a curious end to the words Jesus spoke: “after three days, rise again”. How did the disciples understand this? Why did they not show any understanding of this, when Jesus was crucified and buried?

In my reading, this prophecy placed on the lips of Jesus is the work of the author who crafted this Gospel narrative. The author knows the end of the story. He seeds these words into the narrative to give greater authority to Jesus, portraying him as a person in tune with the way of God, knowing in advance the fate in store for him.

But the fact that when these things happen, the disciples fail to remember, let alone comprehend, what Jesus had said, makes me suspicious. Death by crucifixion was a fate reserved by the Romans for political rebels and criminals. How could the disciples not remember that Jesus was identifying himself with this marginalised, despised group?

Immediately after this passage, Mark narrates the Transfiguration (which was offered by the lectionary two weeks ago, on the Sunday at the end of Epiphany, the season of light). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/08/transfigured-lives-in-the-here-and-now-mark-9-and-1-kings-2/

And after that revelatory mountaintop event, the same prophecy of Jesus that he uttered (according to Mark) prior to the Transfiguration, is repeated and expanded, on two further occasions, in the narrative that follows. Mark asserts that Jesus persists with his prophecy.

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35).

This is followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

These three predictions, followed immediately by challenging teachings, form a central pivot point in the overall storyline of this Gospel. They pivot from the activities of Jesus in Galilee (chapters 1-8) and the fateful events that take place in Jerusalem (chapters 11-16). The pivot is emphasised by the bracketing, around this whole section, that is provided by two accounts of Jesus healing blind men: first in Bethsaida (8:22-26), then later in Jericho (10:46-52). These bracketing scenes cry out: do the followers of Jesus not see what he is saying?

This is a literary device, intentionally planted here by the author, to sharpen the focus on to the central characteristic of following Jesus. And that is what Jesus then elucidates, with piercing insight, for the first time, after the prophetic words of 8:31.

Disruption. The teaching which Jesus provides is destabilising for his followers. Jesus leads into this destabilising teaching with a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33).

Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?

However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7).

Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words.

Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death. (The Greek uses the tiny word dei, signalling the inevitable fate, the inescapable future: the Son of Man must suffer.

This pathway is set to follow the way of the Servant of Israel, set out in the series of great poems reflecting on the fate of the servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:13). For in each of these songs, the servant faces opposition, harassment, violence–and then, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”, he encounters his fate: “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed … by a perversion of justice he was taken away … he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 52:3-5, 8).

That Jesus saw the relevance of these songs to his mission is signalled in various places in Mark’s narrative–see, for instance, his words at 10:43-45, on being a servant, and especially 10:45 (“giving his life as a random for many”).

The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.

Destabilising words. So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. (This might be behind the accusation raised against followers of Jesus in Thessaloniki, where they were known as people who have been “turning the world upside down”, Acts 17:6).

Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels.

In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295).

In the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate). Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously.

This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life.

Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity–precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)

Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person.

The honour—shame culture runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15). The same idea is expressed in the version of Isa 28:16 which is cited at 1 Pet 2:6, which modifies the ending to provide explicit reference to the claim that God will not shame believers.

God can thus honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19)–and conversely, God could shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth (1 Cor 1:27).

Honour was likewise praised by Greek philosophers as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3).

Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Life of Abraham 264).

Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful.

However, that’s not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.

So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

And that’s the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.

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Forty days, led by the Spirit: Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1; Lent 1B)

This week we once more read and hear from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark. We hear specifically this Sunday from the very beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the very early stages of the public activity of Jesus.

We have already read about John the baptiser during Advent (Advent 2), and heard Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1). Now, in this week’s Gospel reading (Lent 1), Jesus is baptised, plunged deep into the water, from which he emerges changed (1:9-11).

This scene is sometimes regarded as Jesus attesting in public to a deeply personal religious experience that he had in his encounter with John, who had been preaching his message of repentance with some vigour (1:4-11). His encounter with John deepens his faith and sharpens his commitment.

The relationship between Jesus and John is interesting. In the orderly account of things being fulfilled, which we attribute to Luke, it is clear from the start that John is related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). By tradition, they are considered to be cousins–although the biblical text does not anywhere expressly state this.

It seems also that some of the early followers of Jesus had previously been followers of John himself. This is evidenced in the book of signs, which we attribute to the evangelist John. Andrew, later to be listed among the earliest group of followers of Jesus, appears initially as one of two followers of John (John 1:35-40). They express interest in what John is teaching (John 1:39).

Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter, later acknowledged as the leader of the disciples of Jesus. He tells his brother about Jesus. It is Peter who comes to a clear and definitive understanding of the significance of Jesus, even at this very early stage: “we have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Andrew and John are thenceforth committed disciples of Jesus.

Was Jesus engaging in “sheep-stealing”? Certainly, the dynamic in the narrative is of a movement shifting away from John the baptiser towards Jesus the Messiah; the juxtaposition of these two religious figures can be seen at a number of points (John 1:20, 29-34, 35-36; see also 3:22-30).

See further thoughts on John the baptiser in John’s Gospel at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/07/the-witness-of-john/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

None of this is in view in the account we read in this Sunday’s Gospel. The rapid-fire movement in this opening chapter simply takes us from John, baptising in the Jordan, to Jesus at the Jordan and then in the wilderness, and on into Galilee, beside the lake and in Capernaum (Mark 1:1-45).

See my comments on the character of Mark 1 at https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

Mark has no concern with exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. He wishes only to indicate that, at the critical moment of the beginning of the public activity of Jesus, it was through contact with John, his message and his actions, that Jesus was impelled into his mission.

*****

The Gospel account moves quickly on from the baptism, to a very different scene, set in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested, challenged about his call (1:12-15). The wilderness was the location of testing for Israel (Exod 17:1-7; Num 11:1-15; Deut 8:2). By the same token, the wilderness was also the place where “Israel tested God” (Num 14:20-23), when Israel grumbled and complained to God (see Exod 14-17, Num 11 and 14). Wilderness and testing go hand-in-hand.

The reference to Jesus being forty days in the wilderness evokes both the “forty years” of wilderness wandering for the people of Israel (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7, 8:2, 29:5; Neh 9:21; Amos 2:10, 5:25), as well as the “forty days” that Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9-11,18,25; 10:10).

Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.

We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).

David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable!

Other instances of forty point to the same generalised sense of an extended time. Elijah journeyed from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:8), whilst the prophet Ezekiel’s announcement of punishments lasting forty years (Ezekiel 29:10-13) is intended to indicate “for a long time”, not for a precise chronological period. Jonah’s prophecy that there will be forty days until Nineveh is overthrown (Jonah 3:4) has the same force.

So the story of the testing of Jesus for “forty days in the wilderness” is not a precise accounting of exact days, but draws on a scriptural symbol for an extended, challenging period of time.

Details about the conversation that took place whilst Jesus was being tested in the wilderness are provided in the accounts in the Gospels attributed to Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). This is not the case in Mark, where the much shorter account (1:12-13) focusses attention on the key elements of this experience: the wilderness, testing, wild beasts, angels–and the activity of the Spirit.

For more on Jesus in the wilderness, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/08/sacred-place-and-sacred-scripture-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/

*****

The Markan account of this period of testing is typically concise and focussed. The constituent elements in the story continue the symbolic character of the narrative.

The note that “he was with the wild beasts” sounds like the wilderness experience was a rugged time of conflict and tension for Jesus. However, commentators note that the particular Greek construction employed here is found elsewhere in this Gospel to describe companionship and friendly association: Jesus appointed twelve apostles “to be with him” (3:14); the disciples “took him [Jesus] with them onto the boat” (4:36); the man previously possessed by demons begged Jesus “that he might be with him” (5:14); and a servant girl declares to Peter that she saw “you also were with Jesus” (14:67).

If this Greek construction bears any weight, then it is pointing to the companionable, friendly association of the wild beasts with Jesus—a prefiguring of the eschatological harmony envisaged at the end of time, when animals and humans all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Hosea 2:18). The wilderness scene has a symbolic resonance, then, with this vision.

Alongside the wild beasts, angels are present—and their function is quite specifically identified as “waiting on him” (1:13). The Greek word used here is most certainly significant. The word diakonein has the basic level of “waiting at table”, but in Markan usage it is connected with service, as we see in the descriptions of Peter’s healed mother-in-law (1:31), the women who followed Jesus as disciples from Galilee to the cross (15:41), and most clearly in the saying of Jesus that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). The service of the angels symbolises the ultimate role that Jesus will undertake.

Finally, we note that the whole scene of the testing of Jesus takes place under the impetus of the Spirit, which “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). This was the place that Jesus just had to be; the action of the Spirit, so soon after descending on him like a dove (1:11), reinforces the importance and essential nature of the testing that was to take place in the wilderness.

And the action of driving out is expressed in a single word which contains strong elements of force—the word is used to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38) and is also used with great force at 11:15. The testing in the wilderness becomes a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. The more developed dialogues in Matthew and Luke expand on this understanding of the encounter.

*****

Both of the key elements in this reading (baptism and testing) serve a key theological purpose in Mark’s narrative. They shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. The two elements open the door to the activities of Jesus that follow in the ensuing 13 chapters, right up to the time when the long-planned plot against Jesus, initiated at 3:6, is put into action (14:1-2).

Of course, this story is offered in the lectionary each year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It serves as an introduction to the whole season. Jesus being tested in the wilderness points forward, to the series of events taking place in Jerusalem, that culminate in his crucifixion, death, and burial.

The narrative arc of Mark’s Gospel runs from the baptism and wilderness testing, through to death at Golgotha and burial in a tomb. The weekly pattern of Gospel readings during Lent follows a parallel path, from the wilderness testing of Lent 1, to the entry into Jerusalem on Lent 6, the farewell meal on Maundy Thursday, and the death and burial on Good Friday.

That is the path that Jesus trod. That is the way that he calls us to walk.

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Celebrations in Canberra (in the Uniting Church Presbytery)

Before I moved to Canberra, people told me about the north/south divide: people north of the lake rarely venture south of the lake, and vice versa). As I was moving from Perth (where people north of the river rarely venture over the river, and vice versa), this was not a new experience for me.

This past weekend, in Canberra, there were joyous celebrations taking place on both sides of the lake. And some people even crossed over the lake to take part in those celebrations!

North of the lake, the Gungahlin Congregation was celebrating 25 years of ministry and mission in the northern-most region of our capital city. The Congregation started as a church plant, beginning from almost nothing—Mark Greenlees arrived in January 1996 to a rented house, one couple willing to work with them, and three partly-completed new housing estates with a population of 12,000, surrounded by paddocks and hillsides.

Over a decade, Mark and his wife Robyn worked with a growing group of dedicated disciples, building a faith community that was in a position then to call a new minister, plan and build a purpose-built church and community complex (opened in 2010), and develop a distinctive identity as an inclusive, community-oriented gathering of people.

Mark Faulkner came to ministry at Gungahlin in 2007. He reflected on this group as “a genuine Christian community, where people of all ages, relationships, cultures and theologies sat side by side, where people were welcoming to the stranger, the hungry, the troubled, the refugee … a community who shared leadership, encouraged ideas, took risks and sought to live out their faith”.

Darren Wright is now in placement with a strong group of lay leaders, sharing the site with a Korean UCA Congregation, looking to harness the energy of the people into engagement with the neighbours that now surround them—households with two working parents, refugees moving into the region, with places of worship for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Bahai, Buddhists, and other faiths.

A group of people which which filled the worship space and foyer (with the requisite social distancing) heard stories from each era in the Congregation’s life, tapped and clapped as the band played and sang worship songs, shared in prayer for the local community and for people beyond, and then shared in fellowship for an extended time after the worship had ended.

It was worth the trip all the way from the southern-most suburb of Canberra, to this northern urban region, for this joyful celebration!

Meanwhile, south of the lake, another celebration was taking place, as the Woden Valley Congregation formally came into existence. Ross Kingham, Co-Chair of the Canberra Region Presbytery, presided as the members of two existing southern Canberra Congregations joyfully and wholeheartedly pledged their commitment to working together as a unified Congregation, seeking to express itself in worship and service in the Woden Valley in ways that are appropriate and relevant for the context.

Two parallel processes had led to this conjunction of Congregations. As Chris Lockley neared his retirement, throughout 2019 and 2020 he worked with the St James Curtin Congregation to explore possibilities for their ministry and mission in that part of Canberra’s inner south in future years.

Janet Kay, Chair of the St James Congregation, notes that “we started meaningful planning conversations early in 2018, after a significant number of people from St James had attended the Pathways conversations and had come back with ideas about what makes a healthy church.” Over time, explorations of these ideas were undertaken with every church in the southern region of Canberra.

At the same time, the South Woden Congregation, which was sharing the ministry leadership of Gary Holdsworth with the Weston Creek Congregation, was exploring their future. Chair of Church Council, Stephen Brand, explains that they wanted to “take a new and dynamic approach to our place in the community and also to seek out a like-minded congregation with which to consider working closely or merging.”

In the best of timing, the two processes converged about a year ago, and—working through all the challenges that COVOD-19 restrictions imposed—the two Congregations each came to a consensus decision about their future together.

Janet Kay observes, “our combined enthusiasm, talents and skills are now available to make something greater than the sum of the two parts.”

Stephen Brand notes, “we were considering a future horizon of 5 to 10 years and not reflecting an immediate terminal ‘decline’. In fact, the congregations [each] remain strong communities of faith with energy and purpose.” So, this is a merger made at a moment of strength, with a clear mutual commitment to a shared future—a most hopeful sign!

Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minster for Congregation Futures, notes that “after vows by the members of the new Congregation and a welcome by Presbytery, there was a gathering coloured pieces of wax from all those present to form a community candle. The worship music filled us with hope of new light streaming in this place as God gathered us in, and we were sent out trusting in God who gives us a future, daring us to go.”

Canberra Region Presbytery is also celebrating the commencement of new ministry leadership in three Congregations—Apelu Tielu at Queanbeyan, Geoff Dornan at Wesley Forrest, and Andrew Jago at North Belconnen. It is exciting to be in the middle of multiple communities of faith where hope for the future and commitment to the present are expressed so strongly!

Congregations in the Canberra Region Presbytery
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Coping in the aftermath of COVID-19: a global perspective, a local response

Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.

We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.

One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.

For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.

We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.

So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.

These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.

As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.

The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.

Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)

Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)

Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)

Ratio of doctors to population (per 1,000)

Gender-based violence. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the stresses introduced by the pandemic. Women are always the vast majority of victims in such situations. (See the discussion by UN Women at https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures)

Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.

If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.

We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.

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Transfigured lives—in the here and now (Mark 9 and 1 Kings 2; Epiphany 6B)

Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.

Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.

Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).

Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.

Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?

In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.

Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.

But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?

The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.

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The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).

Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).

But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?

Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.

Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?

Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?

Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.

Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.

Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)

Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).

However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.

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Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.

The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.

For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.

As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.

As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.

Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/02/26/bringing-his-exodos-to-fulfilment/

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The whole city? (Mark 1; Year B). Let’s take that with a grain of salt

Should we take everything we read in the Bible as clear, unquestionable fact? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that we toss everything out. We need to be critically discerning.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a case in point (Mark 1:29-38). There’s a brief reference to a crowd scene, outside the house of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, in Capernaum. After the healing that took place inside, word spreads, and people begin to gather outside. That then provides the basis for the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus (1:29-34).

How big was the crowd that gathered outside the house? Mark makes the claim that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). Now that is some crowd: the whole population, outside one house in the town!

It is thought that the population of a town like Capernaum in the first century would have been about 1,500 people. So that’s quite a crowd squeezed into the street next to this little house!

For myself, I take such a claim with a pinch of salt. (That’s a saying that is thought to have originated with Pliny the Elder, who included a recipe for an antidote to poison, in his Natural History, that included “a grain of salt”.)

In other words, whilst there is some truth to what is said, let’s not take it uncritically, unthinkingly, literally. There were lots of people there; but not every one, not every single inhabitant of Capernaum. Mark most likely is here exaggerating.

He has already indicated that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). After his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), he becomes renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33).

Then he is told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and so he sets off, touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). Much later in the story, Mark declares that in Jerusalem, “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).

Lots of exaggerations there!

We find the same in Luke’s writings. For instance, after they were arrested in Philippi and incarcerated in prison, Paul and Silas are praying. Suddenly, we read that “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration. Everyone was set free? Really?

This is characteristic of the Lukan narrative—notice how many times “all” the people say, or do something (Luke 3:21, 4:14, 20, 22, 28, 36, 40, 5:26, 6:17, 19, 7:16, 17, 29, 8:37, 40, 52, 9:43, 13:17, 18:43, 19:7, 48, 21:38, 23:5, 48, 49; Acts 3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). That’s a lot of “all the people” doing things and saying things in complete unison! I take this as a sign of his literary licence. He’s a garrulous story-teller, not a clinical historian.

And Matthew is not immune from the same tendency. Some of the sayings of Jesus that are reported in this Gospel reveal the same tendency to extremism, hyperbole, exaggeration. For instance, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29). Who obeys that command?

And similarly, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A splinter, maybe— but not a log. And when Jesus condemned the Pharisees , he berated them as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh. That has to be excessive exaggeration, told for dramatic impact, and not an actual documentary description.

So let’s not get hung up on rigid literalistic readings of scripture. Let’s allow for the artistic input of each evangelist—and, indeed, for the creative impact of Jesus himself, as he exaggerates and overdraws his words for the sake of making an impact. And let’s read with careful attention to the symbolic sense of the story, rather than focussing on the words as the literal truth.

And have that pinch of salt at the ready!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

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A vision, a Congress, and a struggle for justice

Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice (William W. Emilsen, 2019, MediaCom)

In August 1983, a National Conference within the Uniting Church was held from 22-26 August at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, in the Northern Territory. The Conference inaugurated the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress within the UCA. It built on the work that had taken place in 1982, as a series of meetings brought together Aboriginal and Islander members of the Church and other interested people in a conference at Crystal Creek, near Townsville.

The UAICC, or “Congress”, as it is more commonly called, has remained a significant feature of the UCA nationally, as well as in a number of Synods. Two Synods have contained Presbyteries composed entirely of Congress Congregations.

The Northern Regional Council of Congress (NRCC) functions as one of two Presbyteries in the Northern Synod. Representatives of more than 28 Aboriginal congregations from East Arnhem Land, West Arnhem Land, the West Kimberley region of Western Australia, Alice Springs, Aputula and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, make up the Council.

For many decades, Calvary Presbytery served as the regional Queensland body of Congress, a Presbytery in the Synod of Queensland. It oversees Indigenous congregations in the Cape York and Gulf region (Mapoon, Napranum, Aurukun and Mornington Island), as well as Congress congregations at Gordonvale (south of Cairns), Townsville, and Zillmere (in northern Brisbane). Since 2016, Calvary Presbytery and North Queensland Presbytery have worked together as Carpentaria Presbytery, one of seven Presbyteries in the Queensland Synod.

This unique ecclesial arrangement, of a Congress body functioning within the denominational structures of the UCA, but having the authority to make decisions in all matters relating to ministry with Aboriginal and Islander peoples, had been the vision of the Rev. Charles Harris, an Aboriginal community worker and pastor who was ordained a UCA minister in November 1980.

Charles was the first President of the national body of Congress when it was formed in 1985. This was a role that, over the ensuing decades, has come to be seen as equal and complementary to the position of President of the national Assembly.

Charles Harris would later describe the 1983 conference as a time “of discovery, of one another, of culture, and of common faithfulness. It was a conference dedicated to searching for the will and purpose of God.”

The passion and vision birthed at these historic meetings for First Nations Peoples has not subsided in hearts and minds of members of the UAICC.

William Emilsen has written much on the work of Charles Harris; after a series of articles published over some decades, he has now published a book-length account of the whole of the life and work of Harris, entitled Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3060-a-destiny-is-born-uaicc-beginnings. The book is available from MediaCom at https://www.mediacomeshop.org.au/test/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=426

At the end of his life, the activist and public servant Charles Perkins, a long-time friend, described Harris as one who helped set ‘the moral and ethical standards for relationships between Aboriginal, Islander and white Australians. A man of principle, whose impact will never be forgotten’ (Foster 1993, 5, quoted in https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-charles-enoch-18183)

The book by Emilsen provides multiple examples of how Harris lived and worked by his ethical principles, grounded in the understanding that God’s justice is the heart of the Gospel, and our discipleship is to be focussed on seeking that justice in all of life.

The vision of an Aboriginal Congress was central to Charles Harris’ church ministry and community leadership. He toured the country, encouraging, urging, negotiating, to bring this vision to reality. In 1985 the National Assembly welcomed the formation of Congress, and in 1994 the Uniting Church in Australia formally entered into a Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to work together for a more just church and nation.

See https://uniting.church/covenanting-resources/

That work arose out of his work with local Aboriginal communities in Queensland, where Charles offered an integrated ministry that attended to material and spiritual needs, whilst building networks and undertaking advocacy for his people.

And the creation of the Congress formed the springboard for the work that Charles Harris undertook among nest Aboriginal communities across Australia, preparing the converge on Sydney in January 1988 for the BiCentenary celebrations. Charles was the driving force behind the creation of the Day of Mourning, with a march through Sydney and a rally at Hyde Park, which attended by 40,000 people, on 26 January.

See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

The Bicentenary protest was carried out in the spirit of the earlier Day of Mourning protest, also organised by indigenous leaders, led by William Cooper. This took place in 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first fleet. See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/Day_of_Mourning_protests_held_in_Sydney

It is a legacy continues in the current marches and protests organised each January to fight for rights and justice for Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

In telling the story of the role that Charles Harris played in 1988, and in other key events in his life and ministry, William Emilsen had access to the history that Harris himself had begun to sketch, before his health issues predominated, and which led to his early death in 1991.

However, Emilsen has gained access to a wide range of sources–not only published accounts and transcripts of speeches and meetings, but also letters and recollections of events by the colleagues and friends of Charles Harris. He has interviewed and corresponded with key people, including the late widow of Charles Harris, the much-respected Aunty Dorrie (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3221-pastoral-letter-rev-dorothy-harris-gordon-1941-2020)

This makes for a rich account, with a proliferation of material enabling the reader to enter into a deep appreciation of the values and commitments of Charles Harris: pastor, community worker, evangelist, student, orator, organiser, visionary, and prophet. It’s a work that is well worth reading.

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This whispering in our hearts: potent stories from Henry Reynolds

I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)

The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.

The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.

Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.

However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.

The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.

“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.

Mary Bennett, pioneering feminist and advocate for Indigenous Australians

The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).

Pictured: Lancelot Threlkeld (top);
G. A. Robinson and Louis Giustiniani (middle);
Robert Lyon, John B. Gribble, and Ernest Gribble (bottom).

The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).

The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847),
journalist, barrister and politician

That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.

The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …

*****

From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton
(portrait with his family by Jeremiah Davison, 1740)

Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).

The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.

The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).

Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.

Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.

The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).

Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.

Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).

However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Featured

Honours. Honestly?

Every year, for as long as I can remember, around this time of the year, there are media stories that report the honours that are being bestowed upon citizens in our society.

Every Australia Day in January (as well as every Queen’s Birthday in June), a long list of names is published, honouring lots of people. The awards are categorised under various levels in the Order of Australia: Companions (AC), Officers (AO), Members (AM), as well as a list of people awarded a Medal (OAM). There are both Civil and Military sections in each of these levels.

The reasons identified for the various honours given are identified by various activities undertaken by the recipients. This can include “service to the community” in philanthropic and other worthwhile ventures, often in voluntary capacities with charities, religious groups, community organisations, and the like. These awards say something like “we appreciate that you gave your time, energy, expertise” to this good cause, usually over an extended period of many years, even decades.

I’ve got no complaint about such recognitions being made. Indeed, this seems to fit very well with the stated aim of the awards system, to honour “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement” (see https://www.gg.gov.au/australian-honours-and-awards/order-australia)

There is also “service to the community” through the various professional sectors of society—basically, awards which say “you did a good job in the work that you were paid to do over these many years”. That’s a different kind of recognition. Surely, if a person is paid to do their job, and they do it well, even very well, then their employer should recognise and celebrate this—and perhaps even hold an event to make this acknowledgement more public than just within the in-house of employment?

It is instructive to read the reasons for the upper levels of awards given. Here’s a sampling from the AC and AO awards issued in June 2020. First, there is “For eminent service to the people and Parliament of Australia, particularly as Prime Minister, and through significant contributions to trade, border control, and to the Indigenous community” (yes, that was Tony Abbott); “For distinguished service to the people and Parliament of New South Wales, particularly as Premier, and to the community” (Mike Baird, in NSW); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of New South Wales, and to women in politics” (Bronwyn Bishop, NSW Senator); “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, to the people of Queensland, and to fisheries research and development” (Ron Boswell, Qld Senator). Enough said.

After all these political personages, there follows awards for “distinguished service to business in the energy, gas and oil production and infrastructure sectors … to aerospace and mechanical engineering, to education and research … to business, particularly through a range of travel industries, to professional tourism organisations … to public administration, and to international legal practice, through senior counsel and advisory roles … to higher education, particularly in the field of economics and public policy, and to professional societies.”

So that’s one way to analyse the awards. The higher awards go to politicians and people at the peak of their respective professional fields. All for doing their jobs well. Occasionally the phrase “and for community service” sneaks in, but not often. So it’s really about awarding the privileged and powerful who have “made it”.

They have “made it” by the hard slog of winning lots of elections, or by the hard slog of doing their demanding job really well. We could well debate whether we need this whole complex system to pat on the back those who’ve already received accolades, the trappings of office, the height of their professional work, for this hard slog.

There’s another way to looks at all of this. That’s an analysis that our own Governor General, David Hurley (pictured below), has offered this year.

As the person responsible for overseeing this whole process, he has noted some very striking biases. Such as:

The higher awards – the Companion of the Order of Australia and the Officer of the Order of Australia – tend to go to the rich, male and powerful. About 130 directors of boards of ASX 300 companies are members of the Order of Australia, and the suburbs in which AC and AO members are most likely to live are Toorak in Melbourne and Mosman in Sydney, followed by Melbourne’s South Yarra and Kew, and Sydney’s exclusive Vaucluse.

No one in the “Multicultural” or “Disabled” fields of endeavour have been made members of the AC, but the “Parliament and Politics” category has 42 ACs, while “Business and Commerce” leaders have 48 of them.

And indigenous Australians are completely under-represented in the honours system. In fact, there has not even been an indigenous member of the Council for the Order of Australia for almost a decade, now.

That’s an extraordinary admission by the very person charged with overseeing the system—a clear, public recognition that (as he wrote recently to the various peak bodies who need to bring recommendations), “quite candidly, ‘I don’t think you’re doing well enough.’ ”

It’s a system for rich, white, privileged blokes — rich, white, privileged blokes, who reward other rich, white, privileged blokes — and who sometimes let others squeak in, just a little, but not at the upper level, no thank you, just at the lower levels of recognition.

It’s a system that is completely inappropriate for the current context. It’s a system that needs to end. And there is already one extremely high-profile award in this year’s Australia Day honours that has highlighted, once again, the embedded inequities, biases, and discrimination that is at the heart of a system that rewards a person for things that are so far removed from recognising “Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement”.

So here’s the deal: what if all those “little people” who are nominated for an award, actually say, “thank you, but no thanks”. What if all the folks who genuinely merit such recognition — women, Aborigines, faithful community group leaders, devoted church and charity people, and even philanthropists, and the like — what if they turn it down, and leave only those rich, white, privileged blokes as the recipients?

And wouldn’t it be great if this mass rejection movement was led by all those folks (good, honourable, decent devoted) who are people of faith? After all, the central ethos of following Jesus calls for a focus on servanthood, placing others before self, and not doing things for show.

So wouldn’t it be a wonderful testimony to our faith, if the move not to accept an honours nomination would be led by those who live by the guide, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44)?

Who adhere to the instruction, “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others … when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret” (Matt 6:2-4)?

Who pattern their whole lives on the word that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24)?

Such a wholesale mass repudiation of the honours system would expose that system for what it is. And would hopefully drive us closer to closing down this biased, anachronistic, self-congratulatory system once and for all.

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/order-of-australia-biased-against-women-admits-governor-general-20201222

*****

Update on 27 Jan 2021: see https://www.theage.com.au/national/faith-rattled-in-australia-day-honours-20210127-p56x9m.html?fbclid=IwAR30XdhVn9MeWGuj3eSxwZC1LcaZB2Uv7ooKFhjLc0e73XGVi1Mm_V3l2rs

What can love hope for? A review.

Bill Loader is widely-known, much-consulted, and greatly loved across the Uniting Church. He has had a fine career as a leading biblical scholar, teaching for decades at Murdoch University and publishing prolifically with prestigious international publishers.

This academic career has sat alongside an active involvement in the Uniting Church, preaching in local Congregations, teaching regular sessions with lay leaders, and forming ministers and deacons for their ministries. His website with its scholarly yet accessible discussions of lectionary texts (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/home.html) attracts regular readership, not only from Uniting Church people, but from preachers right around the world

Out of this wealth of experience comes this slim but rich offering: ten succinct chapters (most only ten to twelve pages long) on topics of key theological import: the significance of Jesus, the good news for the poor, how to understand the cross, the place of other faiths, God’s wrath and God’s justice, the place of the Law, miracles and faith, God and love–and, of course, marriage and sexuality. All in 110 pages.

Each chapter ends with a focused “question for reflection”, to encourage ongoing consideration of the topic at hand. The book itself ends with a bonus afterword, setting out Bill’s personal journey “from fundamentalism to fundamentals”. The afterword concludes, “we all walk with some grit in our shoes in religious and cultural contexts where its awareness is possible even if, by and large, its removal is not” (p.130).

Loader seeks to work with the irritants provided by this “grit” in a constructive and hope-filled way, to indicate how, in the midst of contentious discussions, people of faith are able to discern “what brings life and health”. In Chapter 5, whose title also provides the title of the book, he concludes that we ought “to be a just and caring society that is inclusive and to care for the world and its future inhabitants” (p.46).

It’s no surprise that the enduringly contentious issue of marriage and sexuality is addressed (in chapter 10, the longest chapter). Bill Loader has made many contributions to the long-running discussions of these matters–leading workshops and producing resources pitched at a popular level, undergirded especially by the academic research and writing undertaken during his five years as a professorial fellow with Australian Research Council funding.

This chapter makes clear the two key pillars of his well-considered views: one, that Paul reflects the common first century belief that “all people are heterosexual”, so anyone identifying as homosexual is “in an unnatural state of being as a result of sin” (p.111); and two, that in some circumstances “it is not appropriate, indeed it is irresponsible, to apply what Paul says” to contemporary situations (also p.111).

Thus, Loader affirms that “the Bible does not tell it all on these matters any more than it did on matters of women and divorce” (p.112). Such honesty about matters hermeneutical is to be commended. As is the case in each chapter, the reader is invited to give serious personal consideration to how biblical passages are to be brought into engagement with contemporary situations and considerations.

But the book is not just about marriage and sexuality. There is much more that is explored in its pages.

Chapter 5 (whose title, as we have noted, provides the title for the whole book) begins with a further observation about the process of interpretation: “There is a 2,000-year gap between believers in today’s twenty-first-century world and those of the first century”, such that “to engage the writings of the New Testament is to engage in a cross-cultural encounter with all the respect and opportunity for learning and enrichment which that entails” (p.35).

Starting with the fact that New Testament texts expect a return of Jesus within the lifetime of those then alive, the chapter canvasses the eschatological vision of the kingdom, various parables of Jesus, the function of the risen Jesus, and the resurrection body, leading to the conclusion that we, today, are to “reconfigure our approach to hope, retaining the central [first century] substance, but not their notions of timing and manner of its achievement” (p.45).

In this way, Loader models the task of the interpreter, be they preacher, Bible study leader, scholar, or individual disciple. Immersion into the culture, customs, languages, perspectives of the ancient texts is as important as thoughtful, reflective consideration of what is heard and seen in the text, in the light of contemporary understandings, insights, and perspectives. (Somewhat like what paragraphs 5 and 11 of the UCA Basis of Union affirms.)

There is much more to be said about this delightful book; but only one comment needs to be made here. This is a book worth buying, reading, studying (alone or with others), and engaging with wholeheartedly.