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Mark: a Gospel full of questions (Mark 4; Pentecost 4B)

The short story provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 4:35–41) is just seven verses long, but it contains four potent questions.

Jesus and his disciples find themselves in a boat that was sinking into the lake. This upheaval has been caused by a “great windstorm” (4:37). Jesus, however, is asleep. The ensuing dialogue is instructive. During this dialogue, the four questions are posed.

First, the disciples wake Jesus and ask him, somewhat accusingly, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Having been woken up, Jesus commands the storm to be still (4:39), but then he poses two short and incisive questions, in return, to the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40).

The episode ends with yet another question. The disciples, “filled with great awe” at what had happened, mused to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). And that’s where the story ends.

Four questions. Four different requests to consider. That’s how the incident progresses. And through those questions, that’s how we think more about Jesus.

It is questions that are in focus, today, in considering this passage, and indeed, this Gospel—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Indeed, many interpreters argue that Mark’s Gospel can best be characterised by the central question of Jesus: “who do you say that I am?” (8:29). The identity of Jesus is, indeed, central to this Gospel (as it is, also, in the other canonical Gospels).

A passage earlier in the Gospel, Mark 1:21–28, contains another confronting question, which a demon-possessed man asked of Jesus in the early stages of his public ministry: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24). Now this is a question worth pondering.

In Mark’s Gospel as a whole, there are (according to the NRSV) no less than 118 questions. Since there are 668 verses in total in Mark’s Gospel, this means that the reader (or hearer) of this Gospel is confronted with a question, on average, every 5.66 verses! (Why not try reading a couple of chapters through, looking out especially for the questions?)

Some of these questions are simple conversational enquiries—the kind of questions that we ask one another every day. “should we go there? should I do this? do you have any? can I get you something?” and so on. Some questions are genuine requests for information, and reflect people who really want to learn from Jesus—“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17), or “which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28), or “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). Jesus, good teacher that he is, responds with information and insight; he takes the opportunity to convert the question into a step forward in the life of discipleship.

Indeed, Jesus himself follows the rabbinic practice of teaching by questioning—he often poses a question which leads the disciples, or the crowd, into further discussion and debate (see, for instance, 3:33; 4:30; 10:3; 10:51). It is interesting to note that this is often how Jesus uses scripture; he does not simply quote it, but he says, “have you not read that…?” or, “do you not known the scripture which says…?”. (Look at 11:17; 12:10; and 12:26.) This style invites conversation and leads to deepened understanding. Scripture is not being used to squash debate, but to open up insights about God. Now that is an insight worth recalling and preserving in our current context!

As Mark tells his story, some people pose questions to Jesus which are quite sharp—and may be designed to create controversy or to challenge the authority of Jesus. For instance: “why does this fellow speak in this way? it is blasphemy! who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7); “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16); “why do your disciples do not fast?” (2:18); “by what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28); “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (12:14). Jesus did not shy away from the challenge to his honour and authority that such questions posed. According to Mark, he was a public debater of the first order.

Indeed, Jesus poses pointed questions of his own for his disciples and the crowds who follow him. Think about the provocations and challenges in these phrases of Jesus: “why are you afraid? have you still no faith?” (4:40); “do you also fail to understand?” (7:18); “do you still not perceive or understand? are your hearts hardened? do you have eyes, and fail to see? do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (8:17–18); “you faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? how much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). There is certainly no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in this Gospel!!

The teachings of Jesus are demanding: to his disciples, he asks, “for what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (9:36); or, with eyes fixed towards the cross, he prods them further: “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (10:38). For their part, the disciples are not afraid to confront their leader when required, as we have seen: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Discipleship means entering into the rough-and-tumble of these difficult questions.

Theologically, perhaps the most challenging question in the Gospel is when Jesus quotes the Psalmist: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Is this an expression of the deepest despair of a human being who feels alienated, abandoned, utterly alone? Mark gives a great gift to followers of Jesus in all generations, when he takes us to the heart of the struggle which Jesus faced on the cross. This question shows us the human dimension of Jesus, as he was confronted by the starkness of life and death.

Of course, the identity of Jesus remains the central motif of this Gospel. It is the focus of the very first verse (“Jesus, Messiah, Son of God”, 1:1) and is reiterated in a variety of ways in statements made at crucial moments in the story (see 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:45; 14:62; 15:39). But it also forms a recurring question, asked by many characters throughout the story.

We can’t read Mark’s Gospel without being confronted, again and again, by this question, in whatever guise it comes:  “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24, from a possessed man); “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the Gadarene demoniac); “where did this man get all this? what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (6:2, from his extended family in Nazareth).

Once he is in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the same question from the High Priest: “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61); and from the Roman governor: “are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2). So, the key question remains for us: “who do people say that I am?” (8:27, asked by Jesus)—a question which he immediately sharpens into “who do you say that I am?” (8:28).

This year, as we meditate on Mark’s Gospel in our personal devotions, as we hear it read in worship, as we prepare sermons to preach from it, or however it is that we encounter it—may the questions it poses strengthen our discipleship, expand our understanding and deepen our faith.

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The Murugappans of Biloela

Let’s not get carried away with today’s news about the Murugappan family, held for so long in detention on Christmas Island, but soon, apparently, to be reunited in community detention in Perth, whilst the two daughters receive medical attention.

And let’s use their names—Priya and Nadesalingam Murugappan, who have been in Australia for almost a decade, and Kopika and Tharunicaa, who were both born in Australia. They are not just “the Biloela family”, even though they did settle into that community in Queensland some years ago, nor are they just “the Tamil family” being held in offshore detention. They have names.

See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-30/who-are-tamil-family-from-biloela-why-are-they-being-deported/11463276

So let’s not get carried away with today’s news that the Murugappan family will be reunited in Perth. First, the timing of the announcement today is deviously designed to draw attention away from the revelations made last night by Four Corners on ABC-TV, that the PM had been influenced by a close friend, a devotee of QAnon, to include the signal phrase “ritual abuse” in the Apology to victims of sexual abuse in institutions that he delivered in October 2018. Strike One for devious strategy. See

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-14/qanon-follower-old-friend-scott-morrison-stewart-family-speaks/100125156

Second, the Murugappan family will continue to be held in community detention in Perth. They are not being permitted to return, ultimately, to the life that they had made in the Biloela community—where they were well-accepted and greatly loved. They are still to be held in limbo, not yet permitted to be considered as legitimate refugees within Australian society, not yet permitted to make application for permanent residency, not yet permitted to plan for a longterm future in this country. The heartless policy of this government remains clear and obvious.

See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-15/tamil-family-murugappan-christmas-island/100215160

Third, this is just one small sampling of people who for years have been held—in direct contradiction to international law—in offshore detention. ThenRefugee Council of Australia reports that there are currently 1,483 people in closed detention (367 of whom came by boat, seeking asylum), while there are another 537 being held in community detention. That’s over 2,000 people being held in limbo—some of them for many years—while an unresponsive and heartless system defers any real action in responding to the situation of these people.

See https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/detention-australia-statistics/

Fourth, and most troubling, let’s not forget that our government policy of detention and restriction (including minimal access to health services) has seen no less than twelve refugees and asylum seekers die whilst in detention under the care of Australia. And whilst there has been community response in each case, the government policy has remained steadfastly heartless and unresponsive. And the whole Australian community has been complicit in allowing this terrible situation to continue.

See https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2018/jun/20/deaths-in-offshore-detention-the-faces-of-the-people-who-have-died-in-australias-care?

Finally, the situation with the Murugappan family exposes the lie that Australia is built on, and operates by, a “Judea-Christian ethic”. Our two decades of heartless refugee and asylum seeker policy have been in breach of international law and contrary to the principles articulated in scripture by prophet, sage, evangelist, and apostle. Welcome the stranger, care for the outcast, offer hospitality to the visitor, provide water to the thirsty and food to the hungry: commands that were central to the ancient Israelite ethos, that continued to be advocated in the teaching of Jesus, and that are central to the ethic of faithful Jews and Christians today.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/16/a-final-parable-from-the-book-of-origins-on-sheep-and-goats-on-judgement-and-righteous-justice-matt-25/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/06/an-affirmation-for-our-times/

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The kingdom, God’s justice, an invitation to all (Mark 4; Pentecost 3B)

In following the Revised Common Lectionary, we’ve just returned to passages from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, after many months away in other gospel accounts of Jesus and his activity. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/

The work we know as “the Gospel according to Mark” is the shortest and earliest of the extant accounts that we have. It is a story-telling narrative, moving from one incident to the next in short order. It’s a dramatic and vivid account. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

It’s fitting, therefore, that we hear today two of the really short stories that Jesus told. We know these short stories as parables. There is the parable of seed, scattered in the ground, that grows of its own accord (Mark 4:26–29). Then there’s the parable of the smallest seed that grows to a large shrub (4:30–32). These two short stories each reveal something about the way that God wants things to be, the kingdom of God. Such parables were typical of the way that Jesus taught his followers (4:33–34).

Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice. Children were taught by word of mouth. Adults also learned by listening, discussing, debating.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted in Jewish society, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world.

Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears! See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/15/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-new-testament-gospels-2/

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

Both the parable of the seed growing in secret (4:26–29) and the parable of the mustard seed (4:30–32) are examples of a simple parable with a short plot development. The first parable moves quickly to the key point, when the farmer “goes in with the sickle, for the harvest has come”.

Judgement is integral to the message that Jesus preached. His vision of the kingdom involves standards that God imposes and that God judges. The seeds growing in secret will face this reckoning at the harvest. Our lives of discipleship will be measured by the righteous-justice of God that Jesus proclaimed. The harvest was an image of divine judgement for some of the prophets (Hosea 6:1–11, 8:1–10; Joel 3:9–16; and see Ps 126:1–6; Prov 22:8).

The second parable has a similar focus on the climax: “it becomes the greatest of shrubs”. The mustard seed grown into a shrub with branches in which the birds nest, indicates the inclusivity that is offered in the kingdom. It seems that Jesus May have been referencing the oracle of Ezekiel, about a sprig of cedar that grows so big that “under the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (Ezek 17:22–24).

Measured by the standards of the righteous-justice of God, the kingdom is open to those who adhere to this measure, regardless of their status or origins. This was the message of Jesus, offering hope to all who followed in his way.

This pair of parables contain two key elements of the message of Jesus: justice, and inclusivity. We find these themes in the stories told and the guidance taught by Jesus throughout his ministry. The parables convey these messages in short, sharp, dramatic style.

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A new creation: the promise articulated by Paul (2 Cor 5; Pentecost 6B)

This Sunday, the epistle reading comes from 2 Corinthians. As indicated last week, this is actually Paul’s fourth letter to the believers in Corinth, even though we label it as 2 Corinthians (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/05/we-do-not-lose-hope-2-corinthians-pentecost-3b-6b/)

The passage offered by the lectionary contains one of Paul’s best-loved and well-known sayings: “so whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). In this blog, I want to set that verse in its context within the flow of the letter.

The first section of 2 Corinthians (1:1–7:16) is really a letter in its own right. In this letter, Paul offers the believers in Corinth consolation through a message of hope. Instead of a thanksgiving section, this letter opens with a traditional Jewish-style blessing, in which God is praised for being “the God of all consolation” (1:3). In the five verses of this blessing, the terms “consolation” or “console” appear ten times, whilst “suffering” and “affliction” combined appear seven times.

The same terms cluster towards the end of this section of 2 Corinthians: in 7:2–16, we find “consolation” or “console” seven times (including twice in 7:13), “affliction” twice, and the term “grief” is also used seven times. The orientation of the letter is very clear; Paul’s hope for the Corinthians is that they might attain consolation (1:3–7; 7:2–4).

At the start of the letter, then, Paul has provided a strong identification between himself and the Corinthians; rather than calling the Corinthians to imitate him (as in 1 Corinthians), in this letter Paul wishes to empathise with them in order to strengthen their sense of identity with him. He affirms that “the one who raised the Lord Jesus…will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake” (4:14–15) and concludes, “you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (7:3). 

The central similarity between his situation and that of the Corinthians is that they suffer, like he suffers (1:6). And this suffering, in turn, he relates to the passion of Christ (1:5; 4:10–12). So the theological insights which Paul offers in this section of the letter emerge out of the tension, struggle, and difficulty of his own situation, as well as his awareness of the pain being experienced by the Corinthians. (This has always been the way that good theology is developed—thrashing out the issues in honest, robust debate ensures that the heart of God is unveiled in the process.)

A tense interpersonal encounter is then noted, which Paul characterises as a “painful visit” (2:1) which appears to lie behind this letter. He writes, not to intensify this pain (2:3–4), but to test the obedience of the Corinthians (2:9). However, he advances his argument always with reference to his own actions in relation to the Corinthians.

Fundamental to his argument throughout this section of the letter is Paul’s attempt to validate his activity as a “minister of a new covenant” (3:6). He describes his activity as being a “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18), which is characterised by numerous afflictions and sufferings (4:7–10; 6:4–10) in order to bring consolation and hope to others. This is the process by which the signs of the “new creation” (5:17) emerge.

Paul also argues that his own life demonstrates how God has been able to work through suffering to bring hope (4:7–12). The afflictions and persecutions which Paul has experienced manifest the death of Jesus in his (Paul’s) own body, “so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (4:11). What Paul writes both emerges out of his personal experience, and is consistent with his developed self-understanding as an apostle, called by God, commissioned to serve.

In the course of presenting his self-validation (“are we beginning to commend ourselves again?”, 3:1), Paul launches into a somewhat tortured criticism of his Jewish heritage (3:1–4:15). Can it be that the judaising opponents of chapters 10–13 are already somewhat active in Corinth? As he does in Gal 3:1–5:1, when he wishes to engage seriously with a so-called judaising point of view, he undertakes his own interpretation of Hebrew scripture texts in order to support his more inclusive viewpoint.

Referring to the biblical account of Exodus 34, Paul infers that the letters written on “tablets of stone” (the Law) lead to a “ministry of death” (3:7). He depicts Moses as having undertaken a “ministry of condemnation” (3:9) and declares that he was veiled in order to keep God’s glory from the people of Israel (3:13). Of that people, he says “their minds were hardened” (3:14), “to this very day…that same veil lies over their minds” (3:15), and “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (4:3).

This is difficult language; it is strikingly different from the way that he speaks of his hopes and prayers for Israel in Rom 9:1–11:32, a passage which culminates with the assertion that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) and the declaration that God will be “merciful to all” (Rom 11:32). Had he perhaps been more afflicted in his sufferings than he wanted to admit?

The vehemence of his language in 2 Cor 3–4 sits oddly in his overarching purpose, to bring consolation and hope to the Corinthians. The subtle interplay of suffering and hope which he poses in much of this letter appear to have deserted him at this point; the rhetorical structure of this part of the argument juxtaposition of two apparently opposed entities. So tablets of stone are contrasted with tablets of human hearts; while the letter kills, the Spirit gives life. Moses’ ministry of death and condemnation is contrasted with the ministry of the Spirit and of justification; the veil which lies over the minds of his people can now be removed.

Most strikingly, Paul juxtaposes these two acts: “whenever Moses is read” there is a veiling of understanding; “when one turns to the Lord” (3:15), there is an unveiling. The central problem in this argument is that Paul, a Jew, is contrasting Moses with the Lord, since the widespread Jewish understanding would have been that the Lord (that is, Yahweh) would be present and revealed when the Law of Moses was read. The polemical intention is thus clear.

We can see this rhetorical structure in 1 Cor 1–2 and 1 Cor 15; it was a technique familiar to Paul from his Pharisaic training. Here, the rhetorical structure of contrasting entities appears to be made for the ultimate purpose of drawing a clear distinction between the freedom which he asserts comes through the Spirit (3:17), and the condemnation and death which is a result of the Law of Moses. Can it be that Paul’s rhetorical purpose has led him far from his initial Pharisaic understanding of scripture? Certainly, this scriptural interpretation shows no nuances in the manner that Paul elsewhere conveys.

Within a few verses, he has recaptured his fundamental theological intention, which is to relate present afflictions to the promise of resurrection hope (4:7–12; see also 4:17–18; 5:4; 5:14–15). This hope is most clearly seen in “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6), and is to be lived out by the followers of Jesus through their offering of the ministry of reconciliation (5:16–21). It is this promise, this hope, which is fully manifest in “the new creation” in which “the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (5:17).

Although Paul concludes his argument in this letter with an even longer list of his tribulations as a “servant of God” (6:4–10), some additional emotive pleas to the Corinthians (6:11–13; 7:2–4) and a recapitulation of the basic theme of consolation (7:5–16), he finally closes this letter on a note of joy (7:13) and confidence: “I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you” (7:16). In Corinth, he believes, there are those who have become that “new creation” in Christ.

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The above blog was adapted from my contribution to Witness the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, a Festschrift in honour of Dean Drayton (edited by Christopher C. Walker; Mediacom, SA, 2014), pages 112-122).

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“We do not lose hope” (2 Corinthians; Pentecost 3B—6B)

At the moment, the lectionary is offering us selections from the second of two letters included in the New Testament, written from Paul to the believers in Corinth. This week, we have an excerpt that affirms, “we do not lose hope” (2 Cor 4:16), and encourages the Corinthians, “we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor 5:1). Next week, we encounter the affirmation, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).

These words are positive and affirming. Paul is in a good frame of mind about the Corinthians. He offers them phrases which build them up in faith, consistent with his words in his first letter to these believers about what should be done as a community (1 Cor 14:4, 12, 26; and see also Rom 15:2; 1 Thess 5:11).

Paul’s first letter indicates that he concentrated his mission in Corinth on Gentiles, non-Jews (1 Cor 12:2; 16:15–18), and it would seem that he had significant success there (see also Acts 18:1–18). He stayed in Corinth for some time, earning his own living and working with other people in the early Christian movement, such as Peter, Apollos, and the tentmakers, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, two of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in a general expulsion a few years earlier.

Paul was successful in establishing a new Christian community in Corinth. This undoubtedly caused tension with the local synagogue, as Paul was preaching that Jesus was the Messiah, whom Jews were expecting to come (Acts 18:4). This success may have led to his being dragged before Gallio, the Roman proconsul, by the local Jews, charged with heresy.

Gallio dismissed the charge as a matter of concern to the Jews alone; it was not a matter for the Roman authorities to be involved with (Acts 18:12–17). Gallio was proconsul in Corinth in the years 50–51, so this provides the date for Paul’s visit there. Soon afterwards, Paul left Corinth, accompanied by Aquila and Pricilla, bound for Antioch, but on the way they stopped over in Ephesus (Acts 18:18–21).

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After Paul left Corinth, he remained in contact with the community of believers there, as the two letters of Paul to the Corinthians attest. He indicates that he wrote the first one whilst in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8). Yet in that letter, Paul refers to his “previous letter” to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9); so it seems that 1 Corinthians was probably the second of his letters to Corinth, and what we know as 2 Corinthians might actually be 3 Corinthians!

But then, our letter of 2 Corinthians refers to a second visit which Paul made to Corinth—the “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1)—followed by another letter from Paul to the Corinthians—the “tearful letter” (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8). So what we know as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians!

Indeed, the integrity of 2 Corinthians as we know it has been questioned, and scholarly scrutiny of the form and contents of the letter even suggests that it may be a composite of two, three, or even four letters which were originally separate communications. So Paul’s fourth letter to Corinth, which we call 2 Corinthians, is comprised of a number of main sections, each of which has its own distinctive focus.

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In the first section of the letter (1:1–7:16), Paul writes to offer consolation and hope to his converts in Corinth. It is clear that members of the community have undergone some difficult times; Paul empathises with them, drawing on his own experiences, as a way of offering a message of hope to the believers in Corinth. The excerpts we heard in worship last Sunday (Pentecost 3), and will hear this Sunday (Pentecost 4), come from this part of the letter—warm, encouraging, affirming.

This first section contains a brief excursus (6:14–7:1), which is of a markedly different character—leading many scholars to the conclusion that Paul himself did not write these verses. (How they came to be included in the final letter, then, poses something of a mystery requiring more detailed attention than we can give it here.)

In a second main section (8:1–9:15), Paul addresses a very practical matter—the collection of money which he was making amongst the churches of Achaia and Macedonia, which he was planning to take to Jerusalem for the benefit of the believers there who had been experiencing difficulties. In this section, Paul focuses on the need for unity among the churches, both Gentile and Jewish, which lies at the heart of this enterprise. The lectionary selects one paragraph from this section for Pentecost 5.

In the third main section (10:1–13:13), Paul’s tone is markedly apologetic, as he writes in severe tones to defend himself in the face of criticisms which have been levelled against him in Corinth. Here, the issue is how to discern true and false teachers amongst the leadership active within the churches. That’s the section that provides one of the readings for Pentecost 6, which ends with Paul’s famous declaration, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

A page from Papyrus 46 (P46) with the text of 1 Cor 12:10–18

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As was the case in a number of churches where Paul was active, a group of traditional Jewish believers had become active and were persuading the Corinthians to adopt beliefs and practices different from those advocated by Paul. The task which Paul undertakes in these chapters is to validate his own authority over and against this other group, and encourage the Corinthians to remain faithful to the good news which he first brought to them.

Paul’s theology of the cross, clearly articulated in 1 Cor 1–4, provides the basis for the approach that he takes in 2 Cor 10–13. He emphasises his frailty (10:10) and reiterates the catalogue of sufferings that he has experienced (11:23–29; 12:10; cf. 6:4–10) but argues that this is the sign of his true calling as an apostle, for “power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).

So Paul asserts that his authority comes not from self-validation, but because he bears the Lord’s commendation (10:18), and his sufferings demonstrate that “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10), in accordance with the pattern established in the crucifixion of Jesus himself (13:3–4).

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In his house, out of his mind (Mark 3; Pentecost 2B)

This Sunday, we rejoin the earliest and shortest account of the story of Jesus, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, which we know as the Gospel according to Mark. Early in the year, we read passages from chapters 1 and 8. This week, we pick up in the middle of chapter 3, as Jesus “went home” (as the NRSV reports).

In fact, the Greek simply notes that Jesus went “into a house” (εἰς οἶκον, 3:20). Is this the same house that was referred to, in Capernaum, at 2:1? The notion that it was his family home comes from the fact that his family came out of the house to meet him (3:21), and then his mother and brothers are noted once more, later in the scene (3:31).

Jesus, of course, is known as coming from Nazareth (Mark 1:9, 24; 10:47; 16:6; Matt 21:11; 26:71; Luke 4:16, 34; 18:37; 24:19; John 1:45–46; 18:5, 7; 19:19), but Matthew’s account explicitly states that he moved from Nazareth to Capernaum (Matt 4:13). Yet the occasion when Jesus returned to his hometown is inevitably located at Nazareth (Mark 6:1–6 and the parallel, Matt 13:55-58).

If this is the family home, in Capernaum, it is an interesting location; there is very little in the Gospels, apart from this scene, that brings the adult Jesus into direct contact with his family. So this is a distinctive scene.

However, it is also a typical, somewhat unremarkable scene, in that Jesus is found in a house. He has previously been in the house of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum (1:29) and then of Levi the tax collector (2:15). Later, he is found at the house of a synagogue ruler (5:38), a house of an unidentified resident (7:17), a house in the region of Tyre (7:24), the house of an epileptic child (9:28), another house in Capernaum (9:33), a house in Judea (10:10), and the house of Simon the leper in Bethany (14:3). Indeed, Jesus instructs his disciples that, when they go out to proclaim the kingdom of God, they are to enter houses (6:10).

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is regularly to be found in houses. Yes, he taught in the open spaces in public (2:13; 2:23; 4:1; 10:1), and engaged with people whom he encountered as he was walking along the road (3:7–12; 5:1–2; 5:21, 35; 6:53–56; 7:1–2; 8:22–26; 8:34; 9:14–15; 10:13, 32–34, 46). Jesus was to be found at times in synagogues (1:21–28; 1:39; 3:1–6; 6:1–6) and, once in Jerusalem, in the Temple precincts (11:11, 15, 27, on through to 13:1).

However, whilst travelling around Galilee, Jesus consistently undertook his ministry in houses. That, say some interpreters of this Gospel, most likely reflects the reality that the followers of Jesus, in the decades following, were gathered most often in houses—not in the Temple (except for the idealised account that Luke offers in the early chapters of Acts), not even in the synagogues (although some would have been there), but in houses.

These houses were the sites for hospitality, which was so important in the cultural practices of the day (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/hospitality-in-the-new-testament) One scholar describes the house as “the dominant architectural marker” in Mark’s Gospel (https://open.library.ubc.ca/media/download/pdf/24/1.0070991/2 — this is a whole thesis on the topic!)

The work of Carolyn Osiek on the importance of the house for the early church is most significant in this regard (see her overview from a 1995 address at http://www1.lasalle.edu/~dolan/2003/Osiek.pdf). “The local house church or apartment church”, she writes, “provided, among other things, a sense of communal life and individual commitment, theological pluralism, a base for mission, and a model of the universal church.” (See p.21 of this article).

The prominence of the house is certainly reflected in the letters of Paul, who refers often to “the church in the house of …” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 11:22, 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; and 1 Tim 5:13). The early Jesus movement was a house church movement! The standard work in this area has long been the book by Australian scholar Robert Banks, on Paul’s idea of community (http://www.lifeandleadership.com/book-summaries/banks-pauls-idea-of-community.html).

*****

When Jesus comes out of his house in Capernaum, some onlookers describe him as being “out of his mind” (ἐξέστη, 3:21). This is a term that literally means that he was “standing outside of himself”, as if in a kind of dissociative state. It may be that this was the reason that Jesus was returning to his family?

The encounter doesn’t go well, however. Scribes have come from Jerusalem. They have already been antagonistic towards Jesus, questioning whether Jesus was blaspheming (2:6–7), and casting doubts on his choice of dinner guests (“why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners.”, 2:16). There will be further disputation with scribes (7:1–5; 9:14; 12:28, 38–41) and they will be implicated in the plot to arrest Jesus (11:18, 27; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1) and in his death (8:31; 10:33).

These scribes—hardly friends—articulate what others present may well have been thinking: “he has Beelzebul” (3:23). The charge of demon possession correlates with the accusation levelled at John 10:20. This sits as the fundamental reason for perceiving Jesus as being “out of his mind”.

Beelzebul (Βεελζεβοὺλ), “the ruler of the demons”, is known from earlier scriptural references to Baal-zebub in 1 Kings 1:2–6, 16, where he is described as “the god of Ekron”, a Philistine deity. There is scholarly speculation that Beelzebul may have meant “lord of the temple” or “lord of the dwelling”, from the Hebrew term for dwelling or temple (as found at Isa 63.15 and 1 Kings 8.13); or perhaps it was connected with the Ugaritic word zbl, meaning prince, ruler.

Jesus refutes the charge in typical form, by telling a parable (3:23–27) that ends with the punchline about “binding the strong man” (τὸν ἰσχυρὸν δήσῃ). This potent phrase encapsulates something that sits right at the heart of the activities of Jesus in Galilee—when he encounters people who are possessed by demons, and when he casts out those demons, he is, in effect “binding the strong man”.

The notion that a demon would bind the person that they inhabited is found at Luke 13:16, and in the book of Jubilees (5:6; 10:7-11). The book of the same title by Ched Myers provides a fine guide to reading the whole of Mark’s Gospel through this lens (see https://chedmyers.org/2013/12/05/blog-2013-12-05-binding-strong-man-25-years-old-month/)

The accusation that refers to “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (3:29) may well reflect this claim that Jesus was demon-possessed (3:30). That is a claim that cannot be allowed to stand, that cannot be justified in any way—and thus, that cannot be forgiven or set aside. This is a critical dimension for the Jesus who is active in Mark’s Gospel.

We may think of Jesus as a preacher, a story teller, delivering parables and aphorisms. Much of Mark’s account, however, is focussed on the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus.

Some of the most striking stories told of Jesus were those relating the miraculous deeds he performed: curing lepers, healing the sick, casting out demons, controlling the forces of nature, even raising the dead. Jesus, it was recounted, was able to cure illnesses such as a fever (1:30–31), leprosy (1:40–42), paralysis (2:1–12), haemorrhaging (5:25–29), deafness (7:31–37), and blindness (8:22–26).

He is said to have engaged in conversations with demons which were possessing individuals, and he was able to command the demons to leave those individuals (1:23–26; 5:1–15; 7:24–30). In some cases, demonic possession was manifested in the body in medical ways: epilepsy (9:19–29), or an inability to speak (9:32–33), coupled with blindness (12:22).

The action of “casting out” or “driving out” a demon (3:22, 23) is expressed in a word which contains strong elements of force. The phrase is ἐκβάλλει τὰ δαιμόνια. The verb is used regularly to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38). It first appears in the account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness—here, however, it is the Spirit who casts Jesus out into the wilderness. The story reflects a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. (The more developed dialogues in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 expand on this understanding of the encounter.)

On the first occasion when Jesus has gathered all twelve apostles together, he gives them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). As the Gospel then proceeds to report how Jesus speaks and acts, the meaning of this discipleship is spelled out. The apostles—and other followers—have the opportunity to learn from his teachings and to witness his actions while they are with Jesus, and then to replicate these teachings and actions through their presence in other places.

“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus are characterised (1:39). These same activities form the basis for the mission of the twelve as it is reported at 6:7–13. They model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

Their mission is to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) and a focussed mode of proceeding (6:10–11). Their attention is to be directed entirely to the task at hand. In this way they are to follow the example and pattern of Jesus, confronting the powers and casting them out of their strongholds. This is what is at stake in the scene we read this Sunday (3:20–35).

The final section of this scene (3:31–35) depicts the breach between Jesus and his family—those who had earlier come to greet him and care for him in his state of being “out of his mind” (3:20–21). No longer are they to function as his family; those who are closest to him, “whoever does the will of God”, now serves as his brother, sister, mother. The work of challenging and exorcising “the ruler of demons” is deeply costly. The challenge to follow him is likewise incredibly costly.

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The beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one

This week, after the long haul of Lent–Easter–Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary resumes a weekly offering from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus. We are offered Mark 3:20–35 as the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday.

We know this work as the Gospel according to Mark. The manuscript this text contains an opening verse which may well have served as the title for the work: the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one (Mark 1:1).

As we resume weekly excerpts from this Gospel, it is good to remember how this work came into being.

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!

The conflict between Jesus and the authorities is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated; 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. The people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching 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 and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level. 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 led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers, all knowledge of him was denied by another, and all abandoned him at his point of need. 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 before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them.

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.

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What’s in a name? Reconciliation ruminations

Today we are in the middle of National Reconciliation Week. The week runs from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which recognised the indigenous peoples of Australia and gave them the right to vote, through until 3 June, the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

Today, in the middle of this week, is Reconciliation Day in the Australian Capital Territory. Reconciliation Week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, “to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation”. Reconciliation Day was only gazetted for the ACT in 2018. It’s another public holiday for Canberrans—but the ACT government reminds us that it provides “a time for all Canberrans to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia”.

This year, as I reflect on the importance of reconciliation for the people of this nation, I am struck by the names we use, and their significance. I am thinking particularly of place names. There are many, many locations around the continent which bear names that have been imposed on those locations by invading colonisers without any regard for what names were already used by the people living there before the British began their colony at Port Jackson.

The suburb where I live, Gordon, bears the name of a man who was born in England but came to Australia where he was a jockey and police officer, and for a short while also a politician—Adam Lindsay Gordon. (Who knows why??) The suburb where I grew up as a child, Seaforth, bears the name of a loch in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (perhaps, bizarrely, because it reminded someone of that locality?).

There are other locations which bear names that refer to local indigenous people, or to specific incidents that took place in past years, involving indigenous people. You may have driven past Blackfella’s Gully, or Slaughterhouse Creek, or Nigger Creek, or similar names. They sound innocuous. They may not necessarily have been so.

Some sites identify specific massacres during the Frontier Wars. There is The Leap, in northern Queensland, where an Aboriginal woman leapt with her child, choosing suicide to avoid capture or killing by European vigilantes and Native Police. There is Red Rock, in NSW, where the name recalls the Aboriginal blood shed in a conflict there. There is Battle Hole, and Skull Hole, and no less than eighteen Skeleton Creeks, named for obvious reasons. (See https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p286811/html/ch08.xhtml?referer=&page=11)

There are other locations—quite a significant number of locations—that bear the name that has long been given to that location by the indigenous people of the area. The region where I live, Tuggeranong, bears a name which is said to be derived from a Ngunnawal expression meaning cold place. And at the moment, that feels like an entirely appropriate name!

From the earliest colonial times, the plain extending south into the centre of the present-day territory was referred to as Tuggeranong. The indigenous name was kept. I understand there is a rock shelter just a few kilometres from where I live, which dates Ngunnawal activity here at 20,000 years ago into the last Ice Age. They may have lived here much longer than that, possibly 60,000 or more years.

From the front of my house, I look out across to the Brindabella ranges—a formation bearing a name which is said to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning two kangaroo rats. However, another account claims that brindy brindy was a local term meaning water running over rocks, to which “bella” was presumably added by the Europeans as in “bella vista”. The British who invaded and colonised the area did such a comprehensive job of removing the indigenous locals from the area, that knowledge of the precise origin of the name has been lost.

The local nation, the Ngunnawal, shared the region we know as Canberra with a number of neighbouring nations, gathering during late spring for the arrival of the bogong moths. It was a time of feasting and ceremonies for those who joined with the Ngunnawal people.

The Ngambri came from the Limestone Plains (the area on which central Canberra sits today), although they are seen by some as a clan within Ngunnawal. The Namadgi people was a group inhabiting the high country to the west of modern-day Canberra (the area is gazetted as the Namadgi National Park). The Ngarigo people inhabited areas in the north and to the east of Canberra. There are also suggestions that some from the Wiradjuri people from the Central West participated in these regional gatherings.

These nations gathered at the place that today we call Canberra. The region is generally understood to have been a meeting place for different Aboriginal clans, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply. The name is believed to have been derived from a local Indigenous word Kamberri, which identifies the location as a meeting place of these many nations, for a gathering focussed around the bogong moth. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/30/learning-of-the-land-3-tuggeranong-queanbeyan-and-other-canberra-place-names/

So names are important. Names reveal much about those who bequeath the name. And names that have existed for millennia—indigenous names, the spirit names for the places—need to be honoured and remembers—and used! May that be one of the ways that we work towards reconciliation, this week, and long into the future.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/welcome-back-the-recovery-of-australia-s-indigenous-languages-20201120-p56gfp.html

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With Love to the World

Some news that readers of the blog may find interesting: I have been appointed as the new Editor of With Love to the World, commencing from 1 July 2021. https://www.insights.uca.org.au/john-squires-named-as-new-with-love-to-the-world-editor/

With Love to the World is a daily Bible reading guide based on the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used in Sunday worship in many churches. Each week, four of the readings are from the lectionary and the others provide context and background.

With Love to the World prepares its readers for Sunday worship, nurtures their faith, and strengthens them to live faithfully amidst the hopes and hurts of everyday life. It is also a valuable resource for those who lead worship or a small group.

The previous editor was Dr Peter Butler, who is retiring after 16 years in that role. https://www.insights.uca.org.au/peter-butler-retires-as-with-love-to-the-world-editor/

With Love to the World was launched as a joint project of the Strathfield-Homebush Parish of the Uniting Church, and United Theological College, the training college of the Uniting Church. It is ecumenical in perspective, and has been published continuously since 1976.

The publication has a circulation of 10,000 copies per issue. The With Love to the World app launched in 2020.

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The missional opportunity of Trinity Sunday

The Sunday after Pentecost Sunday is identified as Trinity Sunday. It is the only festive Sunday in the church calendar which is based on a theological doctrine, rather than a biblical narrative.

Our church year is structured around happenings—events from the stories recorded in the Bible, events like the day of Pentecost (last Sunday), the resurrection of Jesus (Easter Sunday), the death of Jesus (Good Friday), the temptation of Jesus (first Sunday in Lent), the baptism of Jesus, and the birth of Jesus (Christmas).

Christmas and Easter, and the seasons of preparation leading up to them, are grounded in biblical stories. Epiphany, after Christmas, and and the long line of Sundays after Pentecost, offer a focus on a string of biblical narratives, drawn from the Gospels, the Letters, and Hebrew Scripture books.

Trinity Sunday is resolutely doctrinal, dogmatic, oriented towards the construct of a belief system rather than the story of a flowing narrative. It stands out as remarkably different from the overall flow of the seasons of the church year.

Certainly, the Trinity is an organising principle for our beliefs, and for how we talk about God–but it is not the only one.

There are various passages in scripture, for instance, where God is described in ways that are outside the categories of the “doctrine of the Trinity”. Scripture is a wonderfully diverse collection of documents, with a wonderfully wide range of images, titles, and ideas describing God. A “triune God” is one, but by no means the only, deduction to be drawn from scripture.

God is our creator, our helper, the one who redeems, the one who nurtures. God is imaged as a warrior, and as a nursing mother; as a caring shepherd, and a tower of strength. God is judge and God is victim, the Passover lamb and the advocate sent by the Son. There are many names of God, many images of God, in scripture. Father, Son, and Spirit, is just one way that God is envisaged.

So, whilst Trinity Sunday should be celebrated, each year, as an invitation to ponder the mysteries of the nature of God, there is more to be said. Rather than this Sunday being an invitation to step back into a past era and hold fast to rigid philosophical categories of another era, can we see the Trinity as an excellent example of the church’s contextual theology and missional engagement with the wider community?

In the fourth to sixth centuries of the Common Era, what better way to articulate the Gospel in that time, than to locate it within the intellectual context of the late Roman Empire, when Greek philosophical thinking was in a resurgence and neoPlatonic concepts provided the dominant framework for rigorous thinking?

Three persons, consubstantial, of the same nature, co-eternal, co-inheriting, all makes sense in terms of the philosophical context of the day. That was how they thought and wrote, so analysing and describing God in terms of ‘persons’, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, was utilising the tools of the time.

Viewed contextually, then, in their own time within history, the affirmations about God as “triune” make good sense. I value the concept of the Trinity as a fine example of good, honest, contextual theology.

Trinity Sunday provides us with a new missional opportunity for our own context. The missional task that we face as we reflect on the Trinity, is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of of doctrine by the church fathers.

So, this Trinity Sunday, I would hope we might be inspired to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening. (That’s certainly what I will be speaking about on Sunday.)

If we want to talk about the divine delight in deep relationships and God’s desire to relate fully to our world, then concepts of incarnation, God coming “down” to earth from his heavenly home far away, hypostatic equality, co-inherence and perichoresis, just won’t cut through in the contemporary era.

We need to move beyond this way of understanding God, from so many centuries ago, and begin to create our own language and our own ideas for bearing witness to what we know in God. All of those terms made sense, way back in the past. They don’t speak in the same way to people today. Merely repeating ancient speculation and debate will not suffice.

The Gospel is surely that God’s generous self-outpouring is evident in a range of actions which foster justice and in a variety of deeds which demonstrate compassion; in loving relationships and in living the values of the kingdom. We need to express this in a diversity of ways.

For that, we can be thankful, and affirm, that this is the God in whom we place our trust.

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How can we preach on passages in the Bible that are myths?

In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we spent some sessions dealing with texts that we characterised as myths. These are narrative sections of the Bible that look, on the surface, to be historical reports—but, in fact, we have come to the conclusion that there is little, or no, evidence from outside the Bible to support our reading them as history.

In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. Some of the passages that we saw as fitting into this category were the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.

What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.

Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith.

We do this every time we reread a children’s story to our children, or grandchildren, or tell a story as the “children’s address” in worship. We do this whenever we go to the theatre and watch a play, created by a playwright, set in an imaginary location at another time. We do this when we listen to music that enriches our spirits, that takes us “out of ourselves” into a different place. The saints of the Celtic church talk about “thin places” where the environment can invite us to pause, reflect, imagine, and as we move out of ourselves and gain a deeper sense of God, present with us.

So we know the dynamic of stepping out of the concrete, specific, material, historical realm, and entering into a deeper, expanded, transcendent dimension. We can do that in the ways noted above (and more); why not also in the times that we read scripture? We can perhaps do this when we listen to one of the parables of Jesus, knowing that they are stories, not historical accounts. Can the same be done for other, longer, narrative sections of scripture?

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer writes about “a fusion of horizons” that can take place when we step out of our familiar world, into the world of the story, the myth, which has its own dynamics and patterns. The basic premise of this understanding is that the familiar world that we inhabit in daily life has its own horizon; we see all of life encompassed within the overarching framework that is provided by the furthest horizon of our culture. We instinctively operate within that horizon. We have our own understanding of the world; we operate within our own experiences, our own received traditions, our own expectations and patterns of living.

Myth that is offered in a biblical text has another horizon, a different horizon. The patterns of behaving, the structures of relationships, the ethos of the culture, are each set in a different way by the different horizon of that text. Stories that are myths offer us alternative experiences and patterns of living, and different traditions and customs. These patterns and experiences shape a different horizon within the story. Recognising the extent of that horizon—how it is broader, or how it is closer, than our familiar everyday horizon—is a part of the process of interpretation.

When we provide an interpretation—when we start to think and talk about how “that text” relates to “our context”—we are fusing the horizon of the text with the horizon of our life. Our everyday horizon incorporates what we have been taught, what we have experienced for ourselves, and thus what resonates in the depths of our soul. These are the prejudices (the pre-judgments) that we bring into the process of interpretation. Those prejudices need to be named and acknowledged. They are not barriers to interpretation; they are factors that facilitate our interpretation.

The horizon of the text may introduce new factors, bring different awareness, invite fresh experiences. Those new and different factors need to be integrated into our familiar horizon. That process is the pathway of fusion, as the two horizons are brought into relationship with each other. The creativity and imagining that a myth offers, invites us to reshape our familiar patterns of interpretation as we enter into a framework with a different horizon of understanding. That is a great gift offered to us through this particular genre.

*****

Hans Georg Gadamer defines a horizon as follows:

Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. … A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have an horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it. … [W]orking out the hermeneutical situation means acquiring the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2013). Truth and Method. Translated by Weinsheimer, Joel; Marshall, Donald G. (revised 2nd ed.). London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-7809-3624-6.

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For earlier posts, see:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

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How should we read the Old Testament? Considering Genres.

Reading the Bible and reflecting on its message for us, is a fundamental activity for people of faith. Understanding the Biblical message and its application in our lives is the purpose of private meditation or devotion times, group studies, and preaching in worship. So thinking about how we undertake that process of interpretation is good to do, from time to time.

One of the issues that is raised, when we think about interpretation, relates to what we understand the biblical texts are. We need to appreciate the nature of the text we are reading; let it speak in its own right; let the kind of text that it is guide the way we go about reading it.

In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we identified a number of different literary genres that are found within the Old Testament: narratives, laws, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic. We also noted that we think about the nature of these texts, that will shape and inform the way that we interpret and apply them.

(1) When we read passages that comprise lists of Laws, we probably begin to think about how these laws were relevant to the ancient society, where people had different customs and practices. Are they still relevant today? Do we still keep slaves or stone sinners or slaughter animals for sacrifice? Such matters have shifted over time, so we automatically start to sift and sort amongst the laws.

Some laws, we will want to keep, because they seem to apply across time and space, or because they contain fundamental principles (“love your neighbour as yourself”, for instance). Other laws, we will classify as no longer relevant. Some will sit in between and we need to think further about them. We happily engage in this process of sorting and sifting when we read Laws in the books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy).

(2) Other parts of the Pentateuch contain extended Narratives, telling stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs (in Genesis) and of the origins of Israel as the people left Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and entered into the land of Canaan (Exodus and Numbers, Joshua and Judges, and Ruth). Then follows a series of narrative books telling of the kings and the prophets (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) and then, later, of the return to the land (Ezra and Nehemiah).

These Narratives have the appearance of historical accounts—they are organised chronologically, the have a series of key characters, and they focus on developments, challenges, and changes in society. Indeed, we label the main stream of these books with the term The Deuteronomic History, laying claim to their character as history.

Nevertheless, careful study of these books indicates that this is not always history as we know it in the contemporary world. We have other expectations and patterns in our modern histories. And we certainly should not consider these to be “objective history”; they are not, as the biases and prejudices of the authors are evident. (And, besides, is there actually any such thing as “objective history”? Are not all accounts told from a particular perspective with a specific agenda in kind?) These narratives are history-like, but not exactly history per se.

So as we read these history-like texts, we can have a number of questions in mind, that help us to enter into the story, understand the dynamics at work, and identify with or against the various key characters. As we do this, we may well develop an understanding of how God is portrayed as being active in the story as we have it.

(3) In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like Myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. The passages that we saw as fitting into this category are the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.

What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.

Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith. Seeing certain narrative texts as myths may well open up new insights when we allow the text to engage us in a quite different way.

(4) When we come to Poetry, we bring with us an assumption that we will be reading words that have been carefully chosen, artistically arranged, and designed to create specific feelings in us as readers. We don’t come expecting the poetry to apply directly in the way that some of the Laws apply. Nor do we expect that poetry needs to be read as objective factual accounts of things that happened. Rather, we accept that the creativity of the author is designed to inspire our own imaginations.

So we bring a different method of interpretation to this kind of literature. We appreciate the structure of the songs in the book of Psalms, or of the oracles of various Prophets, enjoying the skill of the wordplays and imagery employed for their own sake, as well as for what insights they offer into the human condition and how we relate to God. The love poetry of the Song of Songs and the wistful poems of The Preacher in Ecclesiastes

(5) Wisdom sayings such as we find in Proverbs are different again, and we read them with a different set of expectations in mind, asking a different set of questions, with another bunch of conclusions emerging from our consideration of them. By their nature, proverbs are quoted without any specific context—they look just like “general sayings”—and are strung together to form longer sections of text which actually have no sense of plot, character, development, and so on.

We can perhaps happily extract individual proverbs from their biblical context and talk about how they apply to us today, with apparent relative ease. Perhaps there is a place for this, although gaining understanding of the social and historical contexts in which the proverbs were created and passed on, can offer different insights and deeper understandings 9f what is being said in such texts.

(6) Prophetic words are found largely in the books named after individual prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve grouped together as “minor prophets” (Amos, Joel, Hosea, Jonah, etc …). Some prophetic words are embedded in the history-like narratives noted above; this relates to figures such as Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha.

The classic way to approach prophetic texts has been to scout these books looking for “words that have been fulfilled by Jesus”. That is a very narrow way to approach such texts. For one thing, it actually discounts many of the verses in each of these books. For another, it discounts the political, cultural, social and religious contexts in which the prophetic oracles were delivered.

Prophecy, in its fundamental character, is not fore-telling, oriented to the future. Rather, it is more naturally understood as forth-telling, proclaiming a word of the Lord into the current circumstances of the prophet. So understanding the original context assumes a greater significance in the way we approach prophetic writings. Likewise, exploring both the impact of the poetic language and the reasons for the literary ordering and shaping of the oracles merit careful attention.

(7) In some of the books of the prophets, we find sections that are characterised as Apocalyptic (Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, Joel, Zechariah, and Daniel). These are passages which paint a picture of a time and a place that is differs from the time and place of the author. They are texts which claim to reveal how God is going to act in the future, to judge the wickedness that exists and bring about the kingdom of justice and peace on the earth.

The word Apocalyptic is a transliteration of a Greek word that means “unveil” or “revealing”. An Apocalypse is usually presented as a message that has come through a dream or a vision, in which a messenger from God speaks about what is yet to come. It most often contains vivid, dramatic scenes that we cannot interpret as literal scenes; Apocalyptic is thoroughly symbolic.

Apocalyptic literature was written in situations where the people of Israel felt oppressed, dominated by a foreign power, forced into compromises in their religious and cultural practices. The vision or dream portrayed life in a positive, hopeful manner. It was offered as an encouragement to people of faith to hold fast to their faith and look to the promised future, when God would act in their favour.

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In each of these genres, the questions we have in mind, the presuppositions we bring, the reading tools that we have honed and developed, will inform amd guide how we interpret each form of literature. There is no general, overarching, blanket set of rules. Each text needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/how-can-we-preach-on-passages-in-the-bible-that-are-myths/

and see earlier posts at

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

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Reading Old and New Testaments together (3): Redemption and Hope

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have already suggested that the church, as a whole, needs these books, and values these scriptures; that they shape, inform, and enrich our lives as Christians. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

There are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

Thus far, we have explored themes of the people of God, in covenant with God, who offers love and mercy, through the gift of the Law, as well as the worship offered to God and the justice demanded by God. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

In this post, we continue with to further themes: redemption, and hope.

In the story about Israel that was told and retold by the people over centuries, the theme of Redemption holds centre stage. God is the one who Redeems Israel (Exod 6:6; 2 Sam 7:22–24; Ps 19:14, 78:35; Job 19:25; Isa 41:14, 43:14, 44:6, 24, etc) and who brings salvation to Israel (Exod 14:13–14, 15:1–2; 1 Sam 2:1–2; 1 Chr 16:8–36; Isa 12:2–3; 33:22, 35:4, 63:1; Jer 30:8–11, 42:11; and in many psalms).

The story of the Passover (Exod 14) and the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15) becomes the central and all-informing narrative for the people of Israel, regularly repeated in brief assertions (Exod 19:4, 20:2; Lev 11:45, 25:38; 26:13; Num 15:41; Deut 5:6; Judg 2:1, 6:8; 1 Sam 8:8, 10:18) and extended credal affirmations (Deut 26:5–9; Josh 24:2–8), as well as sung in psalms (Ps 78:9–72; 80:8–14, 136:10–22; and see Hosea 11:1–4).

Indeed, it was the experience of Exile from the land, and the yearning to return to the land of Israel, that brought the story of the Exodus from Egypt to the centre of the identity of the people of Israel. Much of Hebrew Scripture was collated and constructed as a literary whole during this period of return to the land, with the rebuilding of the city and the restoration of the worship life of Israel in Jerusalem.

The Passover was retold and remembered, not only in the annual festival, but also in the psalms and stories of the people. Looking back, from the perspective of being once more back in the land, meant that the power of this story of leaving behind and moving ahead, took a stronger grip on the collective psyche of the people.

This Passover focus then shapes the story of Jesus and defines the central purpose of Christian faith. Jesus is described as the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), the Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7). It is Jesus who effects salvation (Luke 2:29–32, 3:3–6, 19:9–10; Acts 4:8–12, 13:26–31, 28:28; Rom 1:16–17; 1 Thess 5:9; Eph 1:11–14). It is Jesus who brings redemption (Luke 2:38, 21:28, 24:21; Rom 3:21–26; Gal 4:4–7; Eph 1:7–10; Titus 2:11–14; Heb 9:11–14) for the people of God.

Finally, the theme of Hope is articulated in the Old Testament. The theme can be found in the stories of Israel wandering in the desert, searching hopefully for the promised land. Hope is articulated most clearly in the prophetic stream of writings. The prophets decry the infidelity of Israel and proclaim God’s judgement. They proclaim that judgement will fall on the people on the Day of the Lord (Isa 2:12–22, 13:6–16; Jer 46:10; Joel 2:1–11; Amos 5:18–24; Zeph 1:7–18; Mal 4:1–5). Yet they also look with hope to a time when peace will reign and justice will be done (Isa 2:1–4, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 28:16–17, 42:1–9, 52:9–10, 66:12; Ezek 34:25; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12).

Under the weight of oppression by foreign powers—initially Assyria and Babylon, and then after the Macedonian expansion under Alexander the Great—this prophetic Hope transforms into apocalyptic literature (Isa 24–27, 33-35; Ezek 38–39; Dan 7–12; Zech 12–14). Given the grim circumstances of daily life, the vision of a new era continues to motivate and inspire the people with hope grounded in a deep trust that God would overcome evil and institute a new era. Writers beyond the Old Testament continue to articulate this hope (1 Enoch; Testament of Moses; 2 Baruch; 4 Ezra; and a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The theme of Hope also informs Christian faith. Jesus offers a vision of the Kingdom of God which has been influenced by Jewish ideas (Mark 1:14–15; Matt 4:17–20, 5:3–10; Luke 4:43, 17:20–21; John 3:1–8). So many of the parables of Jesus focus on this kingdom (Mark 4:10–34; Matt 13:24–52, 25:1–46). This vision of Jesus had clearly been sharpened by the yearnings for freedom that had percolated within Israel over centuries under the extended rule of foreign powers (the Seleucids and then the Romans).

Paul articulates a sense that “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor 7:29). He writes “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13), affirming that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2), that is, it will be very soon that the kingdom will come. The groaning of this creation yearn for that time to come soon (Rom 8:18–25).

The very last book of the New Testament, the Revelation attributed to John, portrays the dramatic events which lead to the ultimate instituting of “a new heaven and a new earth”, here on this earth (Rev 21:1–4). In the final chapter of this book, Jesus declares, “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12), and invites believers to respond, simply, “come” (Rev 22:17). So it is that Hope, a central Old Testament theme, continues unabated right throughout the New Testament.

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We have thus reviewed a number of key themes, which indicate how the Old Testament connects with the New Testament, informing the faith of Jesus and his followers, shaping the beliefs of the emerging movement and the way that communities of faith lived out their discipleship. As a major influence for those times, so the Old Testament continues to provide guidance, nourishment, challenge, and inspiration, for faithful followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

So that’s why we should read, study, and preach from the Old Testament!!

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Reading Old and New Testaments together (2): Worship and Justice.

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have suggested that there are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church that is told in the New Testament.

We explored a cluster of these themes in the previous post: the people of God, in covenant with God, who offers love and mercy, through the gift of the Law. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

In this post, we continue with two more themes: worship, and justice.

Worship sits at the heart of the people in the Old Testament, and this theme continues through into the New Testament. Alongside the focus on the giving of the Law (Exodus 24) as the people were travelling through the wilderness (Exod 15:22 to Num 33:49), there are detailed instructions about building the Tabernacle (Exod 26–31) and about the liturgical functionings associated with it (Leviticus, and Num 3–11). Later, the building of the Temple becomes prominent (1 Kings 5–8) and the collection of Psalms is made as a rich resource for this liturgical life.

All of these passages, quite clearly, relate directly to the customs and practices of another time and place, far removed from current times, and also distant from the times in which many of the New Testament documents were written. Nevertheless, the Psalms continued to inform the spiritual life of Jesus and his followers (to the point of his death, Mark 15:34 quoting Ps 22:1), and the language of temple is taken up in a spiritualised form (1 Cor 3:16–17, 6:19; Eph 2:19–22; and see the cultic language of Phil 4:18).

Likewise, the death of Jesus is understood to be a spiritualised sacrifice (Gal 1:4; Eph 5:2; 1 Tim 2:6; Titus 2:14; and much of Hebrews), and his followers are encouraged to offer “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1-2) even whilst they sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

However, within the books of the Old Testament, there are many passages critical of the worship practices of the people of Israel. Although the intricate details of prayers, sacrifices and offerings were commanded by the Lord (Lev 1–7; Num 15; Deut 12), many of the prophets are critical of the excessive focus on sacrifices and prayers.

Speaking on behalf of God, Amos thunders a clear denunciation of worship gatherings: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21–27). Isaiah berates the people with God’s diatribe, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams … I do not delight in the blood of bulls or lambs or goats” (Isa 1:10–17), reinforced by Jeremiah (Jer 6:20) and the Psalmists (Ps 40:6).

Various passages juxtapose the rituals of sacrifice with the divine demand for ethical behaviour. Justice and righteousness is preferred to burnt offerings and noisy songs, says the prophet (Amos 5:21–43) and the sage (Prov 21:3). Another prophet declares that God “desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6).

A contrite heart, doing the will of God, is preferred to sacrifice and offering, says the Psalmist (Ps 40:6–8, 51:16–17). “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools”, says the Preacher (Eccles 5:1). The sacrifice of thanksgiving is what God really requires (Ps 54:6, 116:17). And so the critical dialectic is prosecuted.

A central focus in the Hebrew Scriptures is the commitment to Justice, articulated (as we have seen) by Amos. This is the key quality of the prophetic messages given to Israel over a number of centuries. Moses and the elders he appointed had a responsibility to judge the people (Exod 18:13–27). This was continued by men and women designated as judges in the book of Judges.

Over time, the role of the prophet arose, as judges gave way to kings; the prophet was called to hold the king to account (for instance, Nathan at 2 Sam 12). This then expands so that the prophetic voice speaks truth to all the people, persistently calling out for justice (Amos 5:18–24; Micah 6:6–8; Isa 1:10–17, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 42:1–4; Jer 21:12, 22:3, 33:15; Ezek 18:5–9, 34:11–16; Zeph 3:5).

This prophetic cry continues into the New Testament, as justice is placed at the centre. Jesus calls for justice (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42, 18:1–8)—at times, we find it rendered as “righteousness” in his sayings (Matt 5:1-12, 20; 6:33, 21:28–32). This, of course, is the way that it appears in the letters of Paul, where the righteousness of God is the action that we experience when God implements justice in our lives (Rom 3:21–26, 4:1–25; 2 Cor 5:16–21).

Both the manifesto for mission that Luke highlights at the start of the public activity of Jesus (Luke 4:18–21) and the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats that Matthew places at the end of the public teaching of Jesus (Matt 25:31–46) draw strongly from Old Testament insights. Both demonstrate the priority that Jesus gave to practical actions of support, care, and advocacy within ordinary life—precisely what justice is!

Jesus highlights the judgement executed by God (Matt 8:10–12; Luke 13:28–30) and told a number of parables of judgement—particularly those collected in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 13:36–43, 47–50, 22:1–14, 24:44–25:46). These stories use the threat of divine judgement as a warning against sinful injustice and as a spur to righteous living. Underlying these warnings is the fundamental principle that God’s justice undergirds all (Matt 12:17–20; Luke 18:1–8).

So in the ways that worship is described and criticised, and in the ways that justice is advocated, we see clear lines of continuity and connection between Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament texts.

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Reconciliation: a theme for Trinity Sunday

Today (26 May) is National Sorry Day. It sits at the head of Reconciliation Week 2021, which runs from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, until 3 June, the day in 1992 that Eddie (Koiki) Mabo won and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

In 2014, Elizabeth and I wrote this sermon for the Wauchope Congregation for Reconciliation Week. There, we had an active youth group that comprised about 90% Indigenous young peoples. We were able to develop a very good relationship with Biripi elders there.

We preached the sermon in May 2014, and Elizabeth adapted the sermon for the Star Street Congregation (in Perth) in May 2018, then we repeated the sermon in Queanbeyan in May 2019.

The sermon, which connects themes between Trinity Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday, greatly spoke to Covenanting and International Mission Officer Tarlee Leondaris in the South Australian Synod of the Uniting Church. She adapted the sermon for the annual Reconciliation Week resources, fitting it with the 2021 lectionary, and linked it as well with the theme for the 2021 National Reconciliation Week—in doing so, reflecting on current covenanting relationships.

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Today, we also celebrate both Trinity Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday. Trinity Sunday is a celebration of who God is for us: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Reconciliation is an important issue in the Australian context. The Uniting Church in Australia remains on a journey of reconciliation with First Peoples.

So, because the Trinity evokes the theme of community and relationships and restoring human relationships as a part of God’s reconciling mission in our world, the two do belong together. And through forgiveness, God’s grace works to provide all with hope and a new way of living.

One God, yet a community of persons. The Trinitarian doctrine insists that the nature of God is closer to a loving community than to a lofty individual. The trinity expresses the notion that the highest form of existence is communal. God is communal, so therefore we should find the true meaning of being as a person in fellowship with other people.

Because of this, the church community should reflect God far better than a lone person, no matter how gifted that person may happen to be. By insisting on being individuals over being community, we limit and diminish ourselves. Growth in faith really only takes place when we give to others and receive from others; when we know we need them and they need us.

What kind of wonderful creatures might we become if, in the fellowship of the church, we begin to model ourselves not on individualism but on God’s community, as symbolised by the Trinity?

David Unaiapon, a Ngarrindjeri man and preacher and the man on our $50 note, recognised this many years prior to Union. He said:

“We, as Aboriginal people, need you and you, as non-Aboriginal people, need us. You, as non-Aboriginal people who have come to Australia, have played a large part in making this society what it is, so you can’t just leave us Aboriginal people and expect us to fend for ourselves. You can’t leave us now because it’s like us taking you out in the bush and leaving you there. Most of you wouldn’t survive in the wilderness on your own.

“For many Aboriginal people, white society is like a wilderness. We need to be shown the way through what is, for many of us, very much uncharted waters; an unknown territory. However, it is inappropriate for you to insist that we become like you in order to succeed in society. This is what has happened so often in the past and Aboriginal people have been disempowered by this approach.

“Our society can encompass people who are quite different, and so can the Church. We can work together to fulfil God’s purpose for us all. Your relationship with God as expressed through the Trinity is the key to building loving relationships with those who are different. The love we are able share comes from God’s love for us and we have Christ’s example to follow, but we need the Spirit to guide us on our way.

“Loving one another means forgiving, trusting and sacrificing. It means opening our hearts to others; it means transforming your attitudes toward others.”

David Unaiapon raised important points here about culture, community and the work of Holy Spirit in our lives. In a very familiar Gospel reading (John 3:1-17), Nicodemus came to Jesus personally. He wanted to examine Jesus for himself and separate fact from rumour.

The passage reads that Nicodemus came at night or after dark. Possibly this was because he was worried about what his peers, the Pharisees would say about his visit to Jesus. Nicodemus himself was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling high council or Sanhedrin.

During Jesus’s time, the Pharisees were a group of religious leaders. Jesus and John the Baptist often criticised the Pharisees for being hypocrites. Many Pharisees were resentful of Jesus because he undermined their authority and challenged their perspectives.

Contrarily, Nicodemus was inquisitive and he believed Jesus had some answers. An educator himself, Nicodemus came on this occasion to learn from Jesus. It is a reminder to each of us no matter how well educated we are, we must come to Jesus with an open mind and heart to be lifelong learners.

Jesus revealed to Nicodemus that the kingdom would come to the whole world, not just to the Jews, and that to be part of the kingdom we must be born again. This was a radical concept: Jesus’ kingdom is personal not pertaining to a particular race, and entrance requirements are repentance and spiritual rebirth.

David Unaiapon spoke to this point well by stating, “The love we are able share comes from God’s love for us and we have Christ’s example to follow, but we need the Spirit to guide us on our way.”

It is this same understanding of God’s love and presence of the Holy Spirit that bonds the Uniting Church in Australia into a covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. On Sunday 10 July 1994 the then President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Dr Jill Tabart,mread the Covenanting Statement. In doing so, the church was lamenting historical wrongs and systemic failings—whilst at the same time committing the Uniting Church in Australia and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to journey together in the true spirit of Christ.

Further, Dr Tabart stated: “We acknowledge that no matter how great our intentions, however, we will not succeed in our efforts for reconciliation without Christ’s redeeming grace and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit at work in both your people and ours.”

Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus informs the Covenanting Statement. That spiritual renewal transcends race and that no one is beyond the touch of God’s Spirit. Towards the end of today’s Scripture reading in John 3:16 the entire gospel comes into focus. God’s love is not stationary or self-centred. It reaches out and draws others in. Here God sets out the pattern of true love, the basis of reconciliation for all relationships. Our challenge as Christians is to adhere to the words of the Covenanting Statement. By journeying together in the spirit of Christ and discover what it means to be bound as First and Second Peoples in a covenant. 

On that same day in 1994, the Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Pastor Bill Hollingsworth responded to the Covenanting Statement. He set out a roadmap to practical reconciliation. Pastor Hollingsworth stated:

“Your commitment to be practical in seeking to be united in this relationship will be assessed by your decisions to resource the Congress ministry and to be actively involved in ministry alongside and with Aboriginal and Islander people to change the present disadvantage … We pray that God will guide you together with us in developing a covenant to walk together practically so that the words of your statement may become a tangible expression of His justice and love for all creation. We ask you to remember this covenant by remembering that our land is now also sustaining your people by God’s grace.”

Nearly 27 years have passed since the formalisation of the Covenant. During this time, there have been many wonderful achievements in covenanting and reconciliation. Yet this year’s National Reconciliation Week theme ‘More than a word. Reconciliation takes action’, urges the reconciliation movement towards braver and more impactful action.

Although 27 years later, this year’s theme is reminiscent of Pastor Hollingsworth’s response. That commitment to covenanting must be practical. It is in this moment that we should truly take a moment to assess our practical commitments towards covenanting.

To reflect upon our own individual commitment but more importantly our collective commitment as a community of called by Christ. In this moment, it is right to ask ourselves as a Christian community, is this where wewant to be on our covenanting journey? Are we satisfied with reconciliation between First and Second Peoples within the life of our congregation?

This Reconciliation Sunday, can we as Christians take the risk like Nicodemus and bring our questions to the Lord? By asking where, might the Trinity Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer be calling us into commitment to covenanting? How can our Christian community continue or start to make our contributions to covenanting be more than words and put into action?

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National Reconciliation Week (NRW) started as the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation in 1993 (the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples) and was supported by Australia’s major faith communities. In 1996, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation launched Australia’s first National Reconciliation Week. The theme for 2021 is ‘More than a Word – Reconciliation takes Action’.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

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Reading Old and New Testaments together (1): People, Covenant, Law

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have already suggested that the church, as a whole, needs these books, and values these scriptures. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

Now, I want to explain in some detail exactly how the 39 books of the Old Testament shape, inform, and enrich our lives as Christians.

There are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

An understanding of the People of God is the first key theme of the Old Testament. The whole saga that is told in the historical narratives derives from the promise of God to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), to make of him a people, to gift him with many descendants, and to give them a land (from which we get the phrase “the promised land”).

The people remain as a focus right through the long-running saga that is told in the sequence of narrative books, from Genesis through to Ezra—Nehemiah. Israel is assured that the whole nation is a “chosen people” (Deut 7:6–8, 14:2; Ps 33:12; Isa 41:8–10, 65:9), set apart as “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exod 19:4–6), called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:6).

The notion of Christians as “the people of God” is picked up in the New Testament (Rom 9:25–26; 1 Pet 2:9–10; Heb 4:9, 11:25; Rev 21:3). In particular, Paul grapples with this matter in three long chapters in his letter to the Romans (chs. 9–11), concluding that Jews are joined by the Gentiles, “grafted on” to the existing branches (Rom 11:11–24) to form the continuation of “the people of God”.

The language of being “God’s people” and “a holy nation” is mirrored in 1 Peter 2:9–10, whilst the imagery of the “light to the nations” resonates in Acts (13:47, 26:23; and see Luke 2:32). The sense of being God’s people continues in “the people of the way” (Acts 18:25, 19:23, 24:22) and in various letters (Rom 9:25–26; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 1:13–14; Heb 4:9–10, 8:10; and Rev 22:1–4).

The people of God enter into relationship with God through the Covenant that is offered to them. This is the second key theme of the Old Testament books: a commitment to Covenant. The Covenant provides an understanding of the deep and abiding relationship between God and God’s people. The Covenant is offered initially to Noah, and to all living creatures (Gen 9), before it is subsequently renewed (and reshaped) by being offered to Abraham (Gen 15, 17), to Jacob (Israel) (Gen 35), to Moses and the whole people (Exod 19), and later to the people again through Jeremiah (Jer 31).

Renewing the Covenant, of course, is the way that various New Testament writers understand the purpose of Jesus’ life and death (Mark 14:24; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:1–6; Heb 7:22, 8:10–13, 12:24). And the very title ‘New Testament’ is itself a variant of ‘New Covenant’ (the same Greek word can be translated as covenant or testament).

Underlying the Covenant is the clear understanding that God is a loving God, filled with steadfast love. A regular refrain in the Hebrew Scriptures is this clear affirmation: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6–8; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; see also 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).

The Lord affirms to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exod 33:19), and Moses offers Aaron and his sons the prayer, “the Lord bless you and keep you … and be gracious to you” (Num 6:22–27)—a ancient prayer which lives on in Christian spirituality and liturgy! The Psalmist knows that graciousness is a key characteristic of God, for there are regular calls throughout this book for God to demonstrate divine graciousness (Ps 4:1, 6:2, 9:13, 25:16, 31:9, 41:10, 56:1, 67:1, and many more times).

However, the juxtaposition of punishment and steadfast love is clearly stated (Exod 20:5–6), signalling that the complexity of God’s nature is clearly understood. The offer of divine graciousness and the demands of divine justice co-exist within the Lord God. And that will be the focus in the next blog post.

Flowing out as a consequence of the Covenant is a further key theme, that of the Law. For Israel, the Law provides clear practical guidance to faithful people, setting out the various ways they are to maintain their obedience to God and thereby uphold the Covenant. The Covenant is not an idealised or abstract idea; it is known and expressed in each of the 613 laws contained within the Hebrew Scriptures. So the Law was considered to be a gift to the people, to be celebrated and valued as much as to be kept (Ps 19:7–11, 40:8, 119:97–104, 169–176).

Paul reveals great angst about the Law in Rom 7, and his words in Rom 10:4 are cited as a proof—texting argument that the Law was rendered obsolete. However, he ultimately can’t let go of the Law. He continues to claim that Israel is part of God’s people (Rom 9–11), and he maintains that “love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Rom 13:10). Christians have all too often seized on the passages which provide a negative perspective on the Law, but the actual situation in scripture is more complex and nuanced.

The mission of Jesus was to fulfil the Law (Matt 5:17–20), to reach into the very heart of the Law and apply it in a completely radical way (Matt 5:21–48), to focus primarily on renewing Israel (Matt 10:5–6, 15:24). With that fundamental commitment, Jesus often disputes vigorously with those who interpreted and applied the Law in ways that he saw as contrary to God’s intentions (Matt 23:1–10; Mark 2:23–28, 7:1–23).

The bottom line for Jesus, however, is that the Law sits as the bedrock of his ethical outlook. His central commandment of love–to “love one another” (John 13:34), to “love your neighbour” (Matt 19:19), even to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:43; Luke 6:27)–rests firmly on “the two greatest commandments” from the Law. With this clarity drawn from his Jewish faith, he urges his followers to “love God” (Deut 6:4–5) and to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18).

So, in the ways that the people of God is described, in God’s covenant relationship with that people, and in the ways that God’s graciousness is offered in the gift of the Law, we see clear lines of continuity and connection between Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament texts.

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Why read, study, or preach from the Old Testament?

Over the last few months, Elizabeth and I have, once again, been teaching a course on “Exploring the Old Testament”. We have connected online each week with two cohorts of keen, active lay leaders in the church, drawn from across our own region in the ACT and southern NSW, as well as the southwestern region and some urban locations of NSW.

It has been a stimulating time. We have spent fourteen sessions with each group, investigating the various books of the Hebrew Scriptures, following the key themes, asking questions about the meaning of various passages, and pondering how we might preach on texts from these books within the worship of the Christian church.

The Old Testament has quite a chequered history in the church. In the early centuries of the church, there was a strong movement that advocated having nothing at all to do with any of the books in the Old Testament. This view was particularly prosecuted by Marcion of Sinope (a seaport on the southern coast of the Black Sea, northern Turkey), a teacher in the second century.

(For an introduction to the ideas and importance of Marcion, see https://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/marcion-forgotten-father-inventor-new-testament/)

Marcion even prepared a version of the New Testament in which he excised all the Jewish references. He removed three of the Gospels, retained a heavily-edited version of Luke, and created a compilation of Paul’s letters, focussing on the places where he attacked those in the early churches who advocated for the Jewish Law (the so-called “Judaisers”). Not only did his Bible have no Old Testament, but also no Jewish elements in the New Testament!

In more recent times, the Old Testament has been criticised as being irrelevant, containing a host of laws that come from an ancient and very different society, bearing no relevance to contemporary life. The God of the Old Testament is often criticised as being a thoroughly vengeful creature, who is quite different from the loving God we encounter in the New Testament, and thus not worthy to be part of Christian faith. That claim, I believe, is most unfair; there are expressions of God’s love in both testaments, just as there is violence and retribution portrayed in each testament.

Another criticism often voiced is that all of the cultic (worship) provisions set out in the Old Testament are totally irrelevant to worship in the Christian church; only the moral prescriptions (the Ten Commandments and other select laws) remain relevant. Inevitably, this involves a large amount of cherry-picking, to select those passages that reinforce an already-existing point of view. It’s not really a very fair way to operate.

Underlying these criticisms is, undoubtedly, a supercessionist attitude towards Jews and the sacred texts of Judaism. There are signs of this attitude developing throughout the Middle Ages, and it certainly was fostered by key figures in the Reformation. Supercessionism came to its fullest flowering in the blatant antisemitism found most starkly in the brutal policies implemented by the Nazi regime in the middle of the 20th century, leading to the genocide of 6 million Jews in the tragedy of the Holocaust (the Shoah).

Supercessionism (a form of replacement theology) claims that Christianity has replaced Judaism; that Jesus Christ has abolished the Law; that the new covenant of Jesus replaces the old covenant of Moses; and that the chosen people of God are no longer the Jews, but Christians. It is a view that is no longer accepted within Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism and all mainstream Protestant denominations—although many of the “people in the pew” still articulate points of view that are fuelled by supercessionist ideas.

My own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, made a clear denunciation of antisemitism and supercessionism in a Statement on Jews and Judaism, adopted by the National Assembly in 2009, which can be read at https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/2658-jews-and-judaism. (To explore a longer theological analysis of supercessionism, see https://www.thescribesportion.com/dangerous-heresy-replacement-theology/)

Yet, alongside this negative and destructive attitude within the church, there are a number of striking facts to observe. First, the 39 books of the Old Testament remain an integral part of the sacred scriptures of the church. They are still in our Bibles! (Indeed, there are additional books contained with the Roman Catholic Old Testament.)

Second, the Psalms, which are part of the Old Testament, hold a central and beloved place within within the communal worship life and the personal devotional life of Christians all around the world. Any thought of banishing these poems from our spiritual life would be anathema to millions upon millions of faithful people!

Third, the Revised Common Lectionary which is widely used amongst many denominations of the Christian church (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and many Protestant churches) explicitly provides two readings from the Old Testament alongside two readings from the New Testament, for use in communal worship. There is a Psalm for each Sunday, and another reading drawn from other parts of the Old Testament each Sunday. These texts are intended to nourish the religious life of the faithful as equally and as constructively as the Gospels and Epistles.

Fourth, when we read and reflect on the New Testament, it should be clear that every one of those 27 books is, in some way, dependent on the Old Testament. Jesus quotes many passages from Hebrew Scripture; his distillation of “the two greatest commandments” draws directly from scripture, as he urges his followers to “love God” (Deut 6:4–5) and to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18).

Paul infuses most of his letters with scriptural citations; his theological legacy, set out in his letter to the Romans, is based on a single scripture text (Hab 2:4b, quoted at Rom 1:16-17), and a plethora of scripture texts are cited during the argument advanced in Rom 9–11, for instance. We can’t pretend to understand the New Testament if we ignore and sideline the Old Testament.

Finally, we need to note that there are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

I’ll offer further posts that provide more detailed consideration of these key themes. Suffice it to say, at the moment, that if we eliminate all concern for the Old Testament, we will have an impoverished understanding of the New Testament, a flawed perception of spiritual realities, and an inadequate expression of faithful discipleship as a follower of Jesus. That’s a big claim; I hope to substantiate it in the series of posts that follow.

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

https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/16/a-final-parable-from-the-book-of-origins-on-sheep-and-goats-on-judgement-and-righteous-justice-matt-25/

For subsequent posts, see

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/how-should-we-read-the-old-testament-considering-genres/

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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.

*****

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)

*****

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).