Forcing scripture to support doctrine: texts for Trinity Sunday (Gen 1, Psalm 8; Trinity A)

This coming Sunday is one of those extremely rare moments in the course of the church year. It’s a Sunday that raises some difficulties for me. First, it’s one of the very few times in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story (Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and the like). And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.

Indeed, we might well argue that the texts which are selected for this coming Sunday (Genesis 1, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13, and Matthew 28) are actually being asked to undertake work that they weren’t intended to do, and that they can’t actually do without significant violence being done to them. None of them were created with a view to being foundations for a doctrine that was developed some centuries later (in the case of the New Testament texts) or, indeed, a millennium or more later (in the case of the Hebrew Scripture passages).

And further, the two passages from Hebrew Scripture were actually written well before the time of Jesus, long before the Church came into being, centuries before Christian doctrine was developed in the height of the neo-Platonic speculative theology of the late Roman Empire. They were not shaped with such doctrinal expressions in mind; in fact, they were, and are, sacred texts in another religious expression, Judaism—which, although we Christians claim it as the context from which our faith evolved, nevertheless is a distinct and separate faith tradition.

Setting these two passages of scripture in the lectionary for a Sunday when the focus is on a Christian doctrine is anachronistic and invites us, unless we think carefully, to do violence to the text in our interpretation of them within that doctrinal context. In the normal,course of events, placing a narrative or piece of poetry from ancient Israelite religion alongside texts from the New Testament makes some sense, insofar as our understanding of such passages must always be informed by the heritage bequeathed by Hebrew Scripture texts. But setting such ancient texts as resources to interpret the fourth- and fifth-century doctrinal perspective is quite unhelpful.

Perhaps we should have readings from Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine, for Trinity Sunday? But the fact is, that we have texts from Genesis, the Psalms, Paul, and a Gospel, for this Sunday. What do we make of them?

Genesis 1, the story of the creation of the world, is most likely offered for Trinity Sunday in Year A because the opening verses refer, in turn, to God, a wind, or breath, from God sweeping over the waters, and the activity of God speaking in order to bring forth elements of that creation (Gen 1:1–3). It is not too difficult to read that with Christian spectacles on, and see the presence of God the Creator, the Word of God, and the wind, or breath, as God’s spirit. So numerous Christian interpreters have pressed upon their people, for centuries.

However, arguing that this provides the foundation for the full Christian doctrine of the Triune God does severe damage to the intentions of the passage, at least as we may understand them if we read the text carefully. There is no suggestion that these three elements are persons who are interrelated into one being. There is no indication that they are related, other than the fact that the breath and the speaking are activities of God. That is in no way unusual or extraordinary.

Indeed, if we think some more about the God who is described in these opening few verses, we would recognise that there are a number of other activities undertaken by God, or manifestations of God’s being, that are reported in the various scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures. As well as the voice (speaking) and the wind (breathing), there are other aspects of the person of God which are said to be active: the mouth, the hands, the fingers of God. Such quasi-independent activity is not limited to two entities alone. The notion of a three-in-one person is nowhere to be found in these scripture passages.

So we need to read Genesis 1 in that much broader context. In addition, we need to be aware of the other “personifications” of the deity that appear in Hebrew Scripture. The ruach—the spirit of God—is, of course, active in calling prophets (1 Sam 10:6, 16; Isa 42:1; 61:1; Ezek 2:2; Dan 5:14; Joel 2:28–29; Mic 3:8; Zech 7:12).

Alongside the spirit, Wisdom, Hochmah, takes on her own persona and role in the wisdom literature; she is the “master worker” who works with God to create the universe (Prov 8:22–31), so that “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew” (Prov 4:19). It is wisdom who “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice”, teaching God’s ways to the people (Prov 1:20–23; also 8:1–9). The psalmist affirms that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10). Wisdom is God at work in creating and in teaching.

In the narratives telling of the years wandering in the wilderness, the Glory of God, the kabod, appears regularly. When the people arrived at the edge of the wilderness, “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night; neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Exod 13:21–22). This manifestation is identified as “the glory of the Lord” (Exod 16:10).

On arrival at Mount Sinai, “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days … the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israeli” (Exod 24:16–17). In rabbinic literature, this phenomenon is given the name shekinah—a further way of describing the manifestation of divine activity. The Shekinah is yet another manifestation of the divine which becomes personified over time in Jewish traditions; not a separate person, rather an expression of God’s being.

Yet another rabbinic term for divine manifestation is the Bat Qol, the voice of God. This takes the many statements in scripture about God speaking, and attributes quasi-personal firm to the voice of. God. The term Bat Qol literally means “the daughter of the voice”, as if simply by speaking, God generates a personality or a being from that process.

There is much discussion in rabbinic literature about the role and function of the Bat Qol. It was thought that the Bat Qol had been active in biblical times, even though there is no explicit statement of her activity in Hebrew Scripture. A common view in rabbinic literature is that the BatbQol became the way that God communicated with humanity after the end of the prophetic era.

Also in later rabbinic discussions, even Torah itself—the teaching, or instruction, of God which was given in “the Law”—is personified and seen to be active in and of itself. So along with word and breath (or spirit), there is Wisdom (Hochmah), Glory (Shekinah), Bat Qol, and Torah, who are active expressions of God in the developing Jewish tradition.

Psalm 8 is also offered by the lectionary for Trinity Sunday in Year A; and it is also offered by the lectionary on this day in Year C, as well as for New Years Day in each of the three years. It is a logical companion piece with the Genesis story of creation, which is reflected in verses 1–2 and 7–9. In the middle of the psalm, the place of humanity is in focus; here the emphasis is on the relationship that humanity has with the deity (“a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honour”, v.5) and the responsibility of “dominion” that is given to humans over animals, birds, and fish (vv.7–8).

Perhaps the connection for this Sunday is with the element in the doctrine that lays claim to Jesus as not only human, but also divine; the connection point between the divine realm and the human world? But there is no specific pointer towards Jesus, naturally, in this psalm, and no indication that there was any need for any enhancement, so to speak, of the way that humans related to the divine, beyond that which is set out in this psalm. So it really doesn’t provide a biblical pointer towards understanding the doctrine of the Trinity.


to be continued in a further post …


Celebrating Pentecost 2023

For many years, people have come to church for key festive days of celebration. You may know the old saying about people who are “C-and-E Christians”—that is, they come to church at Christmas and Easter. And churches welcome this influx of irregular visitors—it is good to celebrate the key moments of our faith with those who choose to join in on those days.

In more recent years, a third festive day has emerged as a time when churches are filled with people joining in the celebrations. The Day of Pentecost is taking its place alongside Christmas and Easter as a key festive day in the church’s calendar. Pentecost, of course, is fifty days after Easter (the name itself signals that fifty-day marker). This year, it took place last Sunday, 28 May.

Tuggeranong Uniting Church (ACT, Australia)
prepared for worship on Pentecost Sunday

Pentecost offers a wonderful opportunity for celebrating what is best about our faith. Remembering the coming of the Holy Sprit amongst the early followers of Jesus means that we can celebrate the openness to change, the joy of new developments, that we see around us in the church today. As the Spirit swooped with power amongst those early followers, so too the Spirit is energising the church today to new ways of serving.

Red is the colour for the day, signalling the flames of fire by which the Holy Spirit rested on each of the believers who were gathered in the story told by Luke. At Tuggeranong Uniting Church, Pentecost Sunday has become one of the days when the Tuggeranong 15th Girls Brigade shares in leadership of the service. Girls Brigade Captain Elizabeth Moglia and a crew of enthusiastic helpers decorated the church with striking red-orange-yellow streamers and banners; the scene was set for a fine time of worship!

As the Rev. Elizabeth Raine gathered the congregation with an Acknowledgement of Country, members of the Girls Brigade led in prayer and presented a dramatic “radio news” account of the day of Pentecost. The regular group of five musicians led the congregation for the singing of joyful Pentecost songs, and one member of the congregation offered the Prayers of the People, praying for people in need locally and around the world.

The church was set up for people to sit at table groups, and as the service progressed, each person present was invited to draw their face and pin that face, along with some fiery flames and doves, onto the side wall under a sign inviting “Come, Holy Spirit”. This symbolised the empowering of each member of the congregation for mission in their lives.

Present for this worship service was a strong contingent of younger members who brought energy and enthusiasm to the worship, inspiring all to join in enthusiastically. There was even a line of “cheer squad leaders” waving bright red-orange-and-yellow streamers during the joyful songs!

Elizabeth invited the congregation to consider: “does the Spirit still sweep through the church today, in the same way she did on that first Pentecost”? People responded by saying together an affirmation of the Spirit: “We believe in the spirit. She is extraordinary and wonderful; unknown and mysterious. She is always whirling, always animated; powerful and intense. She is magnificent and amazing; the fantastic, happy, joyful, golden, expression of God” (affirmation from Spill the Beans).

And, because it was the birthday of the church, there was a birthday cake to share at morning tea (and some smaller cupcakes for those with lactose or gluten intolerances); and a box with “gifts of the Spirit” for the young people present—gifts of joy, love, patience, courage, compassion, and more.

What a wonderful celebration! What a fine way to remember a central aspect of our Christian faith! What a great way to be motivated to live our neighbour, share our compassion, and serve those in need in our communities!


Saying Sorry—beginning the process of Telling Truth

Today is National Sorry Day. It begins National Reconciliation Week, which runs from 27 May to 3 June each year. This 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.

The dates of National Reconciliation Week hold special historical significance. On 26 May 1997, the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament. This report addressed them impacts of the fact that in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, Australian government policies resulted in many Stolen Generations, in which thousands of Indigenous children were separated, often forcibly, from their families, with the aim of removing them from their culture and turning them into “white Australians”.

Because of this, the date 26 May carries great significance for the Stolen Generations, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and its supporters among non-indigenous Australians. The word sorry is used in First Nations cultures in relation to the rituals surrounding death—the process of grieving is often call Sorry Business. So sorry indicates an acknowledgement of loss and offers empathic understanding to those who grieve.

Sorry Day is an annual event that has been held around the continent on 26 May since 1998, to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

Mick Dodson and Ronald Wilson,
Commissioners of the Bringing Them Home Report
at its launch date on 26 May 1997

27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum in Australia, which gave the vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while 3 June marks the anniversary of the 1992 judgement by the High Court on the Mabo v Queensland case.

Sorry Day (26 May) and the National Apology (made in Federal Parliament on 13 February 2008), the 1967 referendum, the 1992 Mabo decision, along with the Wik decision on native title (delivered by the High Court on 23 December 1996), are considered to be key events in addressing the historic mistreatment of indigenous Australians, and in taking steps towards reconciliation and restorative justice.

But these were only steps. The path still lies ahead. We need to take more steps, walking together, to foster deeper relationships, advocate for a more embedded restoration of justice, work for wider and more lasting reconciliation within our communities. The current discussion is focussed on a process that will lead to a referendum on the proposal that the Australian Constitution recognise the First Peoples as custodians of the land from millennia before the British Invasion and colonisation of 1788, and the establishment of a permanent Voice to the federal parliament.

This step is but one on a pathway that stretches ahead of us, well into the succeeding generations still to come in Australia. We need to hear and understand the Truth that was set forth in the 1997 Report, and indeed to listen to the Truth that is being stated by First Peoples leaders in our own time, and be willing to respond with sorry and with actions that lead to justice for the First Peoples of this continent and it’s surrounding islands.

The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2023 is Be A Voice for Generations. It is a timely reminder of the importance of allowing the First Peoples of this nation to speak—and for all of us to listen, pay attention, and listen to their Voice. This is a task for everyone in Australia. To seek reconciliation, we need to speak together, commit together, and act together. We are all in this together. May we tread that pathway with compassion and intent.

See https://www.reconciliation.org.au/national-reconciliation-week/

Click to access 150520-Sorry-Day.pdf



The picture montage shows a Sorry Day poster, celebrations after the 1967 referendum, Eddie Mabo who brought the High Court case that was resolved in 1992, Gladys Tybingoompa dancing outside the high court in Canberra on 23 December 1996 following the Wik people’s native title win, and the front page of a national newspaper reporting the National Apology in 2008.


Preparing for Pentecost

The Spirit is an important figure in Christian experience and in Christian theology. The festival of Pentecost, which is celebrated this coming Sunday, is an opportunity to focus on the Spirit in the worship life of the Church. Every year, at Pentecost, the story of “the first Pentecost” is proceed by the lectionary as the reading: an account of how the Spirit was experienced by believers gathered in Jerusalem, 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Acts 2 forms a pivotal turning point in the story that Luke tells throughout his two-volume work, which we know as two separate books, The Gospel according to Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. The Spirit plays a crucial role in both volumes, beginning before Jesus and his cousin John are born, and continuing right through until the final thing that Paul says, when he meets with the Jewish leadership in Rome while under house arrest.

Over the last few years, I have written quite a number of posts for this week, as we approach Pentecost. I’ve listed them below, as you may wish to dip into some of them in the lead up to Pentecost.


The spirit of glory is resting on you (1 Peter 4–5; Easter 7A)

We have been hearing a sequence of passages from 1 Peter which the lectionary offers during this Easter season. This week the passages selected from the latter part of the letter contain a series of verses that provide assorted exhortations and instructions to those who first received this letter (1 Pet 4:12–14; 5:6–11). The first of these two passages contains a wealth of riches; in this blog I will focus only on those three verses.

This section of the letter begins with encouragement (v.12), moves to offer an affirmation (v.13), returns to a word of encouragement (v.14a) and then offers a blessing to those who have received this letter (v.14b). Those recipients, as we have earlier seen, were “exiles of the Dispersion” in the five Roman provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1:1), so the presence of scriptural quotations and allusions in this letter is no surprise.

However, a number of verses indicate that there would also have been Gentiles in their midst (2:12; and see my earlier posts on the “household table” of 2:18–3:7). Accordingly, the exhortations and instructions draw on both Israelite and Greco-Roman ethics. My focus in this blog is on the scriptural resonances in what is here written.

This short passage (4:12–14) is introduced by the words, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you” (4:12), before moving to an affirmation, “be glad and shout for joy” (4:13) and a blessing, “if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed” (4:14).

The “fiery ordeal” in that initial exhortation reflects the common prophetic depiction of divine judgement which would be experienced as a searing fire. Isaiah warns that the Lord executed judgement in his time by fire: “wickedness burned like a fire, consuming briers and thorns; it kindled the thickets of the forest, and they swirled upward in a column of smoke; through the wrath of the Lord of hosts the land was burned, and the people became like fuel for the fire; no one spared another” (Isa 9:18–19).

This fiery image was provided by the very actions of the invaders: “your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners” (Isa 1:7). Accordingly, the godless ask, “who among us can live with the devouring fire? who among us can live with everlasting flames?” (Isa 33:14), whilst the prophet pleads, “let the fire for your adversaries consume them” (Isa 26:11).

Jeremiah describes how the Lord God called him: “I have made you a tester and a refiner among my people so that you may know and test their ways … the bellows blow fiercely, the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed” (Jer 6:28–29). This description was also shaped, no doubt, by the actions of the invaders: “the Chaldeans who are fighting against this city shall come, set it on fire, and burn it, with the houses on whose roofs offerings have been made to Baal and libations have been poured out to other gods, to provoke me to anger” (Jer 32:29).

Ezekiel also predicts fiery carnage: “you shall take some, throw them into the fire and burn them up; from there a fire will come out against all the house of Israel” (Ezek 5:4; also 15:1–8; 19:12–14). God warns Israel, “you shall be fuel for the fire, your blood shall enter the earth” (Ezek 21:32); in a dramatic oracle, the prophet describes the gruesome fate of the people: “Woe to the bloody city! I will even make the pile great. Heap up the logs, kindle the fire; boil the meat well, mix in the spices, let the bones be burned. Stand it empty upon the coals, so that it may become hot, its copper glow, its filth melt in it, its rust be consumed. In vain I have wearied myself; its thick rust does not depart. To the fire with its rust!” (Ezek 24:9–12).

The author of Lamentations describes how God “has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has withdrawn his right hand from them in the face of the enemy; he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around” (Lam 2:3). Other prophetic references to the fire of judgement include Hos 8:14; Joel 1:19–20; 2:3–5; Amos 1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14; 2:2, 5; 5:6; Obad 1:18; Mic 1:2–7; Nah 1:6; 3:15; Zeph 1:18; Zech 2:5; 9:4. Most famously, in the predictive oracle of Malachi, the prophet looks to the coming day of the Lord’s messenger: “he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Mal 3:1–3).

It is no surprise, then, that many psalms reflect on the use of fire to signal divine displeasure: “the voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7), “on the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur” (Ps 11:6), “as as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God” (Ps 68:2). Fire is listed along with hail, snow, frost, and stormy wind as “fulfilling [God’s] command” (Ps 148:8) and the psalmist affirms that “you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers” (Ps 104:4).

The vengeance of God is indeed a fearful sight. “Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him … he made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water; out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire” (Ps 18:8–12). The psalmist pleads, seemingly in vain, “How long, O Lord? will you be angry forever? will your jealous wrath burn like fire?” (Ps 79:5; also 89:46).

This rhetoric of the “fiery ordeal” in 1 Pet 4:12 is potent language, reminding the Jews of the Diaspora of the power that God has exercised in the past, and presumably is once again manifesting in the troubling experiences of their present. That ordeal has certainly brought suffering to the people; the suffering which was being experienced by believers is a constant refrain in this letter. It is noted briefly in the opening blessing (1:6–7) and described in more detail on a number of other occasions.


So, in the midst of this “fiery ordeal”, the author encourages those hearing this letter to “endure pain while suffering unjustly” (2:19–20) and says to them that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (3:13–17); “whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin” (4:1–2); “let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good” (4:12–19); and “you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering” (5:6–11).

In addressing this suffering, as we have noted, the writer offers an affirmation (4:13) and a blessing (4:14). Both affirmation and blessing sound very much like sayings of Jesus which form part of his famous Beatitudes, at Matt 5:11–12 and its parallel in Luke 6:22–23. In these sayings, Jesus refers to shouting for joy in the midst of sufferings, which resonates with the message that is set out throughout this letter.

Joy and suffering are linked in the affirmation, “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (4:13). Being blessed is connected with being reviled in the blessing, “if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed” (4:14). They both evoke the words of Jesus, “blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man; rejoice in that day and leap for joy” (Luke 6:22–23).

The letter continues with the statement that “the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you” (4:14). This reflects the prophetic understanding of the spirit resting on people: “the shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” ( Isa 11:1–2); or “the spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” (Isa 61:1).

This dynamic is also reflected in passages about leaders in Israel, recounted in narrative books, as the Spirit comes upon the seventy elders (Num 11:25), Balaam (Num 24:2), the judges Othniel (Judg 3:10) and Jephthah (Judg 11:29), the kings Saul (1 Sam 11:6) and David (1 Sam 16:13), and the chosen Servant (Isa 42:1). The Spirit came onto the messengers of Saul and led them into a prophetic frenzy (1 Sam 19:20).

Others who experienced the alighting of the Spirit included the little-known Amasai (1 Chron 12:18), Azariah son of Oded (2 Chron 15:1), and Jahaziel son of Zechariah (2 Chron 20:14), each of whom are reported as having spoken words from the Lord after that experience.

During the trials and difficulties of the Exile, the Spirit inspired the words of the priest Ezekiel, son of Buzi (Ezek 3:14; 11:5) and later inspired the unnamed post-exilic prophet to speak the oracles collected in Isa 56—66 (see Isa 59:21; 61:1). The prophets look for the outpouring of the Spirit to come upon “the house of Israel” (Ezek 39:29), upon the descendants of the house of Jacob (Isa 44:1–3), to enable them to live faithfully once more in the land (Ezek 36:26–28; and then in the famous vision of dry bones, Ezek 37:12–14).

This mirrors the experience of the people of Israel as they wandered for forty tears in the wilderness, for the Lord God “gave your good spirit to instruct them, and did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and gave them water for their thirst” whilst the people of Israel were in the wilderness (Neh 9:20; see also Isa 63:13–14).

Indeed, the retreat from Judah of the aggressors sent by King Sennacherib of Assyria was due to the fact that the Lord “put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:5–7).

So to say that “the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you” (1 Pet 4:14) is a very strong statement of affirmation for the recipients of this letter!


IDAHOBIT 2023: Together Always, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia

May 17 is IDAHOBIT, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. IDAHOBIT is a day to draw attention to the discrimination experienced by LGBTQI+ people internationally.

The day is marked worldwide in over 130 countries, including 37 countries where same-sex acts are still illegal. The first day was held in 2004 to raise awareness of the violence and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including all people who have diverse gender identities or sexual expressions.

The date of 17 May was chosen for IDAHOBIT as this was the date in 1990 when the World Health Organisation finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Despite this, LGBTIQA+ people across the world continue to face hate, discrimination and violence.

The theme for IDAHoBiT 2023, adopted after consultation with LGBTQI+ organisations worldwide, is Together Always: United in Diversity. The website for this day at https://may17.org states that the theme undergirds the advocacy of many organisations around the world which are working to support LGBTIQA+ people “in a time where the progress made by our LGBTQIA+ communities worldwide is increasingly at risk”.

The website notes that “it is crucial to recognise the power of solidarity, community, and allyship across different identities, movements, and borders. When we unite, in all our beautiful diversity, we can really bring about change!”

For myself, I do not identify with any of the letters in the LGBTIQA+ acronym. I have lived my life as a male who is heterosexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender) and cis-gender (the gender assigned to me at my birth correlates with my sense of personal identity and gender)—in short, I am what is referred to as heteronormative. And, as a white male in the Western world, my life experience has certainly been privileged and sheltered from internal or external disturbances and challenges related to my sexuality or gender identity.

So I have no personal experience of the gender dysmorphia that others experience in their lives; nor have I had any experience of the prejudice or persecution experienced by people identifying as a member of the LGBTIQA+ community. My understanding of what such people have experienced has come through relationships, conversations, readings, and personal thinking through of the issues. It has required empathy and understanding, and I think that it’s clear that I haven’t done this perfectly; but hopefully I have done so at least adequately.

I’m also a person of faith, and thus embedded within a community that, sadly, has demonstrated a collection of failures in the way that sexually and gender diverse people have been seen and treated. The Christian Church has shown a persistent lack of understanding, a continual marginalising (or “othering”), an aggressive assertion about the sinfulness of the particular identity or lifestyle, and undertaking attempts to “change the protestation” or “reverse the gender” of some people. All of these attitudes and actions have been unloving, uncaring, and indeed (in my view) unChristian.

Thankfully, my own church (the Uniting Church in Australia), as well as many other enlightened faith communities around the world, have taken steps towards the acceptance, valuing, and inclusion of LGBTIQA+ people in every part of their lives. There are still important and major steps to be taken, but the direction is clear and the commitment to that pathway is resolute.

I asked last year (and so repeat this year) for IDAHOBIT Day: How are privileged, cis-gender heterosexual people like myself to respond to a day like IDAHoBiT?

I think we need to cultivate empathy and develop understanding. I think we need to seek out and develop respectful relationships in which we can hear stories, learn of experiences, articulate our own inadequacies and sorrow for how we have acted or interacted with people in the past. Most importantly, I believe we need to learn ways by which we can support survivors of gender identity change efforts and help prevent harm from the ideology and practices of such gender identity change efforts.

Underlying this is my own firm commitment to an understanding of human beings as intentionally created by God, exactly as we are, to be exactly who we are, without qualification or change. The “doctrine of sin” that the church has promulgated has impressed on us that we are all “fall short of the glory of God”, that we all do wrong things—and who would argue with that?

But this doctrine has also been used to identify and persecute specific sinfulness on the part of identifiable minority groups—gays, lesbians, bisexuals, intersex, and transgender people in particular—not recognising the nuances of differences that actually do exist across the spectrum of humanity. That’s a misuse of the doctrine, in my opinion. It should not be used to persecute someone on the basis of differences that are perceived.

What gender a person believes that they are, and what attraction an individual has to other people, is built into the very DNA of them as a person, wanting to force change in either of those matters is, to my mind, one of the greatest sins. I think it’s important for “allies” such as myself to remind others of this truth, and to stand in solidarity with “rainbow people” each and every day.

On this International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, let us ensure that each and every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual, or otherwise identifying people knows that we accept them, value them, and love them, exactly as they are!

And let us be strong in calling out any sign of homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia, when we hear it expressed or see it enacted.

For information about IDAHOBIT in Australia, go to https://www.idahobit.org.au/


Constantly devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1; Easter 7A)

During the season of Easter, we have been hearing stories from the book of Acts, with highlights this year with Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7), and then Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This coming Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the opening chapter of Acts (1:6-14), most likely in order to prepare for the reading that we will have the following week, on Pentecost Sunday (2:1-21). Here we encounter a community that was, as the NRSV translates, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”.

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, for the First Reading the lectionary offers us a passage from Acts (1:6–14) which includes the story of the ascension of Jesus (1:6–11) and an insight into that early community, gathered in Jerusalem (1:12–14). This sets the scene for recounting various scenes from the life of the community in Jerusalem, where the earliest followers of Jesus establish a pattern of faithful living through their common life, their public witness, and their persistent adherence to their Jewish traditions. The whole section is located entirely within Jerusalem (1:4,8,12; 2:5; 4:5; 5:16; 6:7; 8:1).

Ten days separate the ascension of Jesus (forty days after Passover, 1:3) from the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (2:1, fifty days after Passover). Only two things are told of these ten days; already the process of selectivity which shaped Luke’s Gospel can be seen in his second volume.

In the previous blog, I noted that the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left. In this blog, my focus is on how that community of followers begins to prepare for that enterprise.

Thus, we learn only that the community had gathered on the day of ascension (1:12–14) and that at some stage in these days a replacement was found for Judas Iscariot (1:15–26). The material relating to Judas is omitted from the lectionary offering this year (it appears in Year B); you can read my take on this passage at

The list of those meeting in the upper room of the house in Jerusalem includes both eleven of the twelve already identified (Luke 6:14–16) as well as “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). That is consistent with the notes of women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:27, 49) as well as the presence of his brothers (Luke 8:19–21). The community which met together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” was a gender-inclusive group.

Luke uses a hugely significant Greek word here; the word homothumadon. This is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with most of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. It is most often translated as “all together”.

Luke initially tells of how “they were all together in the upper room” (1:12), forty days after the resurrection of Jesus—the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, they were all together once again, in the precincts of the Temple (2:1), along with devout Jews from all the nations surrounding Israel (2:9–11).

Then in the days following, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42), they continued to be all together; “they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (2:46).

And still later, the community of believers came together to welcome Peter and John, after their hearing before the authorities, and “they raised their voice to God all together in prayer” (4:24). And then again, some days later, “they were all together in Solomon’s porch” in the Temple precinct (5:12). Gathering together, meeting in unity, was a key characteristic of the early community of Jesus followers.

As the story continues, Phillip travelled north out of Judea into the region of Samaria, where he was preaching to the Samaritans. Here, Luke comments: “the people were all together listening to those things which Philip spoke” (8:6).

Then, some time later, after Saul had his Damascus Road experience and Peter had his vision of all foods being declared clean, after Paul and Silas and Barnabas had been travelling amongst the Gentiles sharing the good news, we read that there was a gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem, who conferred together, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, being assembled together as one, decided to choose … representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (15:22,25).

So the point is, with each step along the way, this little community of assorted disciples, was all together … or, of one accord, in another translation.

In the early chapters of Acts, as we have noted, we are at a very significant point of transition. Luke is clearly marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church.

Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos meaning “temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought.” One scholar writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor. The role of the conductor is to ensure that flutes and cellos, drums and violas, trumpets and clarinets, are all making their distinctive contribution to the end result—the piece of music being performed for the audience to enjoy.

Perhaps another appropriate image, today, might be of the way that the artist sets out a palette of colours to be used in painting, and as the creative activity gets underway, those various shades and hues and colours are mixed together in such a way as to produce an intricate, complex, and aesthetically pleasing end result: a work of art.

That is how Christian community is to function. That is what we are to be, as the people of God in the place where we gather. Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who have the same passion, who share the one persuasion, who are of the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose.

Homothumadon suggests both a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.

The word first appears in Greek literature from 500 years before the time of Jesus (in the plays of the dramatist Aristophanes, the treatises of the philosopher Plato, the oratory of the general Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group which drew together when facing a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.

In a sermon I gave on this passage, I noted that believers today stand with Peter and the disciples and the women and the brothers of Jesus in a liminal place, a place on the edge. We are leaving behind the old, reaching out to the new. The dramatic events of Pentecost, that we will recall in a week’s time, invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.

These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to be all together, to ‘act of one spirit’, to unite for the common good. May we be up to the challenge!


See also


You will be my witnesses (Acts 1; Easter 7A)

During the season of Easter, we have been hearing stories from the book of Acts, with highlights this year with Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7), and then Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This coming Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the opening chapter of Acts (1:6-14), most likely in order to prepare for the reading that we will have the following week, on Pentecost Sunday (2:1-21). Here we encounter the words of Jesus that charge this faithful group to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, for the First Reading the lectionary offers us a passage from Acts (1:6–14) which includes the story of the ascension of Jesus (1:6–11) and an insight into that early community, gathered in Jerusalem (1:12–14). This sets the scene for recounting various scenes from the life of the community in Jerusalem, where the earliest followers of Jesus establish a pattern of faithful living through their common life, their public witness, and their persistent adherence to their Jewish traditions. The whole section is located entirely within Jerusalem (1:4,8,12; 2:5; 4:5; 5:16; 6:7; 8:1).

The narrative of Acts has begun with a recapitulatory preface (1:1-5) which summarises the Gospel and begins to prepare for the ensuing narrative about the community in Jerusalem. First, Luke explicitly acknowledges that what follows is a sequel to an earlier volume, addressed to the same recipient, Theophilus (1:1). We know this as the Gospel of Luke; here, however, the content of this Gospel is epitomised as simply “the things which Jesus began to do and to teach” up until his ascension (1:1-2). This recapitulation makes valid the claim that the preface to Luke’s Gospel also applies to his second volume, Acts.

Then follows a summation of the various manifestations of Jesus throughout the ensuing forty days (1:3), during which he speaks of “things concerning the sovereignty of God” (basileia tou theou, 1:3), a theme which had been the focus of Jesus’ message throughout Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:20; 8:1,10; 11:2,20; 13:18,20,28,29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20,21; 18:16; 19:12; 21:31; 22:16,18).

This preface continues with a bridging section (1:4-5) which foreshadows the events of the next chapter of the narrative. Jesus instructs the apostles not to depart from Jerusalem (1:4). This instruction keeps Luke’s geographic focus on Jerusalem, in contrast to other traditions concerning the post-resurrection departure of the apostles to Galilee which are inferred (Mark 14:28; 16:7; Matt 26:32) or explicitly told (Matt 28:7,10; John 21). Remaining in Jerusalem is required so that the apos­tles might receive the promise (1:4), which is immediately explained as being the holy spirit spoken of by John (1:5; evoking Luke 3:16). The fulfilment of this promise is narrated in detail in Acts 2.

Our reading for this Sunday follows, with an expanded retelling of the ascension (1:6–11), an event already reported in brief at Luke 24:50–53. The ascension forms the pivotal moment in Luke’s narrative; it is the hinge between volume 1 (Luke) and volume 2 (Acts), and attention is drawn to the ascension and exaltation of Jesus at a number of points elsewhere (Luke 9:51; 22:69; Acts 2:33; 3:21; 5:31; 7:56). Luke expands this second narrative account of the ascension through the explicit recording of words spoken on that occasion: the last words of Jesus to his followers, and the words of the two angel-like men to the followers of Jesus after his ascension.

The dialogue between Jesus and his disciples raises the central issue of sovereignty. The disciples ask “Lord, (may we ask) if you will at this time restore sovereignty to Israel?” (1:6)—quite rightly, for the issue of sovereignty was central to Jesus’ preaching (1:3). Here, however, the orientation of the question is con­cerned with the sovereignty of Israel. Jesus replies with a sequence of three c­lauses which stand as his last words before he ascends into heaven.

The first clause of Jesus’s words in 1:8 turns the question away from Israel, back to the primary theme of God’s sovereignty, with the clear declaration that the times and seasons are under the sovereignty of God who has “set them by his own authority” (1:7). Rather than the political independence of Israel, it is God’s unfettered freedom to act in history which is crucial to his enterprise.

The next clause, “you will receive power when the holy spirit has come upon you” (1:8), is a promise which reinforces the key role of the spirit, as divine agent, throughout this volume (beginning with the events of 2:1–4). The third clause introduces the important motif of witness (1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39,41,43; 13:31; 22:15,18,20; 23:11; 26:11,22) and provides a condensed geographical summation of the course of the ensuing events: “in Jerusalem [1:12–8:3] and in all Judaea and Samaria [8:4–12:25] and to the end of the earth [13:1 onwards]”.

The precise referrent of “the end of the earth” is debated. Although Psalms of Solomon 8:15 may suggest that it refers to Rome, it is preferable to see the reference as drawn from Isa 49:6, a verse cited at Luke 2:32 and Acts 13:47. It is thus a poetic statement about the extensive scope of the ensuing events. These departing words of the Lukan Jesus neatly conjoin the geographical pattern and theological foundation of Acts: from Jerusalem outwards, the divine spirit will enable followers of Jesus to bear witness to the sovereignty of God.

The description of two men in white robes (1:10) evokes the epiphanic occurrences of earlier chapters: the two men in the tomb (Luke 24:4), the transfigured Jesus in the company of two scriptural figures (Luke 9:29–31). The prominence they have at this point establishes the important role of such epiphanies through­out Acts. The words spoken to the followers of Jesus who witness his ascension stress that his return will be in the same portentous manner as his departure (1:11), although no detailed description is provided (cf. 1 Thess 4:16; Mark 13:27; Matt 24:31).

As Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:9–11), the story pivots from the earthly period of Jesus into the time when the movement of those who followed Jesus in that time will begin to form the customs and practices that led to the creation of the church. Luke presents the whole sequence of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as both the climax to his earthly life and the foundation for the time of the church.

This is the issue in focus here: the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left.


Ten days separate the ascension (forty days after Passover, 1:3) from the day of Pentecost (2:1, fifty days after Passover). Only two things are told of these ten days; already the process of selectivity which shaped Luke’s Gospel can be seen in his second volume. Thus, we learn only that the community had gathered on the day of ascension (1:12–14) and that at some stage in these days a replacement was found for Judas Iscariot (1:15–26). The material relating to Judas is omitted from the lectionary offering this year (it appears in Year B); you can read my take on this passage at

The list of those meeting in the upper room of the house in Jerusalem includes both eleven of the twelve already identified (Luke 6:14–16) as well as “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). That is consistent with the notes of women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:27, 49) as well as the presence of his brothers (Luke 8:19–21). The community which met together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” was a gender-inclusive group.

Luke uses a hugely significant Greek word here; the word homothumadon. This is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with most of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. It is most often translated as “all together”.

Luke initially tells of how “they were all together in the upper room” (1:12), forty days after the resurrection of Jesus—the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, they were all together once again, in the precincts of the Temple (2:1), along with devout Jews from all the nations surrounding Israel (2:9–11).

Then in the days following, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42), they continued to be all together; “they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (2:46).

And still later, the community of believers came together to welcome Peter and John, after their hearing before the authorities, and “they raised their voice to God all together in prayer” (4:24). And then again, some days later, “they were all together in Solomon’s porch” in the Temple precinct (5:12). Gathering together, meeting in unity, was a key characteristic of the early community of Jesus followers.

As the story continues, Phillip travelled north out of Judea into the region of Samaria, where he was preaching to the Samaritans. Here, Luke comments: “the people were all together listening to those things which Philip spoke” (8:6).

Then, some time later, after Saul had his Damascus Road experience and Peter had his vision of all foods being declared clean, after Paul and Silas and Barnabas had been travelling amongst the Gentiles sharing the good news, we read that there was a gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem, who conferred together, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, being assembled together as one, decided to choose … representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (15:22,25).

So the point is, with each step along the way, this little community of assorted disciples, was all together … or, of one accord, in another translation.

In the early chapters of Acts, as we have noted, we are at a very significant point of transition. Luke is clearly marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church.

Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos meaning “temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought.” One scholar writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor. The role of the conductor is to ensure that flutes and cellos, drums and violas, trumpets and clarinets, are all making their distinctive contribution to the end result—the piece of music being performed for the audience to enjoy.

Perhaps another appropriate image, today, might be of the way that the artist sets out a palette of colours to be used in painting, and as the creative activity gets underway, those various shades and hues and colours are mixed together in such a way as to produce an intricate, complex, and aesthetically pleasing end result: a work of art.

That is how Christian community is to function. That is what we are to be, as the people of God in the place where we gather. Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who have the same passion, who share the one persuasion, who are of the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose.

Homothumadon suggests both a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.

The word first appears in Greek literature from 500 years before the time of Jesus (in the plays of the dramatist Aristophanes, the treatises of the philosopher Plato, the oratory of the general Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group which drew together when facing a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.

In a sermon I gave on this passage, I noted that believers today stand with Peter and the disciples and the women and the brothers of Jesus in a liminal place, a place on the edge. We are leaving behind the old, reaching out to the new. The dramatic events of Pentecost, that we will recall in a week’s time, invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.

These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to be all together, to ‘act of one spirit’, to unite for the common good. May we be up to the challenge!


See also


Father of orphans and protector of widows (Psalm 68; Easter 7A)

The psalm that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, is a song in which the psalmist prays for the enemies of Israel to be scattered (v.1) and the wicked to perish (v.2), celebrating that God has restored the languishing heritage of the people (v.9) and praying for God to give “power and strength to his people” (v.35).

It is a psalm most clearly marked by celebration and praise, with exhortations to “be joyful … exult before God … be jubilant with joy … sing praises to God’s name, and lift up a song to the Lord (verses 3–4, 32). It would seem that it comes from a time and a place of stability and prosperity for Israel.

Of particular importance are two verses which set out some central tenets of Israelite faith for the society of the day. Just as God takes care of orphans and protects widows (v.5), so are people of faith to do likewise. Just as God gives the desolate a home to live in (v.6a), so in Israelite society those on the edge are to be cared for. And just as God releases prisoners into prosperity (v.6b), so the Jubilee release was meant to be practised in society, as a time every fifty years during which debts are to be remitted (Lev 25:8–17; see esp. v.13).

The practice of the Jubilee is, however, dubious. The levitical prescriptions appear to be the ideal that the priests hoped for; actual evidence that this was ever implemented in Israelite society is lacking. Indeed, it is suggested that while the people were in Exile, the land of Israel would “lie desolate”, and “enjoy its sabbath years” (Lev 26:34), providing recompense for all those years when “it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living in it” (Lev 26:35).

A similar claim concludes the work of the Chronicler; the land was to keep sabbath, to “make up for its sabbaths”, in order “to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah“ (2 Chron 36:20–21). After the return to the land, under Nehemiah, the law of sabbath rest was to be followed, it was decreed (Neh 10:31); whether this was the case is not clear from this or any other biblical text.

Likewise, the only evidence before the Exile for the release of slaves, as the levitical text prescribed, comes in the time of Zedekiah, spurred on by a prophetic word from Jeremiah (Jer 34:8–9). After initial compliance, the officials reneged and “took back the make and female slaves they had set free, and brought them again into subjection as slaves” (Jer 34:10–11).

Jeremiah accordingly predicts, in very graphic terms, the disaster that will ensure. “I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth”, he declares; the bodies of those handed over to the enemy “shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth” and the Babylonian forces will capture and burn Jerusalem and make the towns of Judah “a desolation without inhabitant” (Jer 34:12–22).

On the other hand, the statement regarding widows and orphans does reflect an ethos which was both advocated and implemented in society. The evidence for this claim is prolific.

Widows in ancient Hebrew society were in a perilous position. In a strongly patriarchal society, the patronage of a man was vital: a man as husband and provider, a man as father and protector, a man as the household head. Children without fathers—orphans—as well as women without husbands—widows—were in equally perilous situations. They were vulnerable people, often at risk of being mistreated and exploited, of being pushed to the edge of society and being forgotten. They could well be the desolate who needed housing (Ps 68:6).

In our time, we require those in leadership in the church to have obtained a Working With Vulnerable People card, to signal that they are aware of the power imbalances present in situations where they minister. In the ancient world, no such system existed; but we do find in the Hebrew Scriptures that there are regular exhortations and instructions to the people to take care of widows and orphans, the key classes of vulnerable people in that society.

In the Torah, we find the command, “you shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Exod 22:22) and the instruction to gather a tithe of produce and invite “the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow to come and eat and be filled” (Deut 14:28–29). Even in ancient society, vulnerable people needed protection.

More that this, the Torah provides that the widow and the fatherless child were to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel, at the Feast of Weeks (Deut 16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (Deut 16:13–15). This was also to be the practice when the men were in the field harvesting; they were to leave some for gleaning by ”the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deut 24:19–22); and similar prescriptions govern the time when tithing (Deut 26:12–13; also 14:28–29).

A widower’s brother was expected to marry a widow (Deut 25:5–10), for it was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. If it was not possible for a widow to remarry, it was the duty of the community to care for her (Exod 22:22–23; Deut 10:18; 24:17; Isa 1:17). Beyond the biblical period, in the Diaspora, a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues was be given to the widows and poor, on the analogy of the gleaning provision whilst living in the land.

Not everyone adhered to these prescriptions. Among the prophets, Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people”, including the way that they exploit the fatherless and widows (Isa 10:1–2). Likewise, Ezekiel includes those who “have made many widows” in Israel amongst those who will experience the full force of God’s vengeance (Ezek 22, see verse 25). He observes that “the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7).

Jeremiah assures the people of Edom, to the south of Israel, of God’s care for them: “leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me” (Jer 49:11). He encourages the people of Jerusalem with a promise that God will allow them to continue to dwell in their land if they “do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … or go after other gods” (Jer 7:5–7).

In a later chapter, Jeremiah is instructed to tell the King of Judah, “do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:1–3). The prophet Zechariah speaks similarly: “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10).

Accordingly, the people of Israel would regularly have sung, in the words of the psalmist, “the Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Care for widows was central to the life of holiness required amongst the covenant people. This psalm reminds them of that claim on their lives.

This reflected the standard set by God; “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps 68:5); this God is the one who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 10:18). At the very heart of the holiness of God, the holy people are to exhibit this just and compassionate care for the vulnerable.

So the curses of Deuteronomy 27 include the declaration, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut 27:19). The book of Psalms includes a prayer for God to rise up against the wicked, who “kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless” (Ps 94:6). That psalm ends with an assurance that “the Lord … wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out” (Ps 94:23).

The prophet Malachi includes this in his vision of the coming day of the Lord: “I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness … against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (Mal 3:4).

What is wished for the wicked who persecute the faithful is expressed with vitriol in Psalm 109: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Ps 109:9). Another psalm expresses similar hopes, but in a less aggressive manner: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Who would be so foolish as to act differently? Yet people did; and prophets called, again and again, for justice.

And so we read that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). This is what the brother of Jesus, James, affirms in the letter attributed to him, summing up a strong thread running through Israelite religion and on into Second Temple Judaism.

It is no wonder that Jesus himself had positive words to say about widows (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 18:1–8) and children (Mark 10:13–16), and that the early church cared for widows (Acts 6:1–6) and honoured those who were of this status (1 Tim 5:3–16). This is, after all, the way of God, “father of orphans and protector of widows”, who houses the desolate and releases the prisoners (Ps 68:5–6).


Paul, Demetrius and Damaris: an encounter in Athens (Acts 17:16-17,22–34)

The following dialogue was written by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires,and delivers as the sermon for the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 14 May 2023.


While Paul was waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy, he was greatly upset when he noticed how full of idols the city was. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the gentiles who worshipped God, and in the public square every day with the people who happened to come by.

Then Paul was brought before the city council, which met at the Areopagus in Athens. Today, as we listen to what Paul said to the council, we are also going to listen in to what might have been going through the minds of two people in his audience: a learned Greek man called Demetrius, and a woman of deep faith, known as Damaris.

Paul stood up in front of the meeting of the Areopagus and said, “People of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious.”

Demetrius: Yes, this is correct. We are very proud of our religions here in Athens. As religious people, we worship lots of gods. Just look around you, and you will see altars and temples of every size, shape, and description. Over there, is the fine temple to Zeus. And beside it, the shrine to Apollo; it, too, is a remarkable holy building. It is not for nothing that we in Athens have the reputation of great piety.

And, of course, when you turn your eyes to the top of the hill, you will see the pride and joy of our city: the magnificent temple of Artemis, where our ancestors have long worshipped the greatest of all goddesses. This temple is world famous. It is respected — even envied, dare I say — by peoples of all other nations.

And Athens has also been blessed by many famous teachers of philosophy. Plato and Socrates, Aristotle and Pythagoras, Epicurus and many more. Why, even today, I believe that you could find no better array of teachers in any other city!

Yes, all of this shows you just how religious we are. This Paul is so right when he describes us in such generous terms.

Damaris: Indeed, it is true that we do have a lot of temples in our city. And we certainly have many fine teachers, as you say. Lots of people say that we are the most religious city in the world.

But something is missing, I think. There is so much ritual and pomp and ceremony that goes on; sometimes, I think that this can get in the way of worshipping the gods, rather than helping us to worship them.

And there are so many teachers who speak truths that are complex;  sometimes it hurts my head just to listen to them all! And all those poor animals that are sacrificed to all of these gods and goddesses. I wonder whether this really is such a good idea.

I have heard it said that Paul believes in a god that cannot be depicted on stone. It’s a curious idea to us Athenians; but some of my friends have told me about the group that believes this idea. A god that exists, but that we can’t see, or know much about at all is an odd idea.

23Paul continued, “For as I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found also an altar on which is written, ‘To an Unknown God.’ That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in temples made by humans. Nor does God need anything that people can supply by working for him, since it is God himself who gives life and breath and everything else to all people. From the one person God created all human beings, and he made them live over the whole earth. God himself fixed beforehand the exact times and the limits of the places where they would live.”

Demetrius: Mmm, yes. Good point. I agree. Paul has said some important things about this God. When you boil it all down, there is a force in human history that looks over all things. Providence, or Fate, we call it.

And despite all of these shrines and images of the gods, there is a quality about the divine that is rather unknown to us. In the end, we would have to say that the gods are beyond our understanding. This is what our revered teacher, Plato, said about them. The gods transcend this earthly life and really have no need of our human worship.

Many of the priests in our city would be horrified by this, as they insist that we get access to the gods by offering sacrifices. But this kind of other-worldly god is very attractive. I like what Paul has to say.

Damaris: Yes, I too find Paul’s words attractive, Demetrius. And it is reassuring to know that all the things that happen in life are ultimately under the control of Divine Providence. But I am a little bit worried about what Paul seems to be saying. The god he is talking about seems to be rather removed from us all. I wonder how Paul thinks this god of his could be accessible to us? How could we relate to this god, if we can’t see his image?

Paul went on to say, “God did this so that they would look for him, and perhaps find him as they felt around for him. Yet God is actually not far from any one of us; as someone has said, ‘In him we live and move and exist.’ It is as some of your poets have said, ‘We too are his children.’”

Demetrius: Well, this is a surprising turn. From a god who is so far away from us, to a god who is near to us. Come to think of it, Paul is on to something here. In fact, he is quoting from our own Greek traditions here. I recognise those words he said — Aratus, I think it was, the poet, who said of god “in him we live and move and exist”. And “we are god’s children” — I know that, too. Well, that is very good, a Jew like Paul, showing that he knows our poetry and philosophical writings.

Damaris: I quite like the idea of a god who is with me all the time. All of these holy places and holy rituals can get too much, and tend to place too many things in between the gods and ourselves. Sometimes I’d just like to be able to relate to a god in an intimate, and personal way. So a god who is with me all the time — not just when I visit his shrine or place a sacrifice on his altar — is an appealing concept. “We are God’s children” — God as the one who gives birth to us, who nurtures us, who disciplines us, and who loves us. This sounds really good.

Demetrius: Yes, this is great. A god who is always with us. Why don’t we build an altar to him! I’ll get in touch with my friend Stephanas, he has a very good stone mason as one of his slaves, and we’ll see what we can come up with. I can just see it now; “To the god in whom we live and move and exist: this statue was erected by Demetrius and Stephanas” — no, “this statue was erected by Demetrius, with help from Stephanas”. Oh, why not just, “erected by Demetrius, a leading citizen of the city”. In large letters. Yes, that will look fine. And we’ll use the best stone; and have it trimmed in gold, with bright colours, so that it stands out, and….

“No!”, said Paul. “Since we are God’s children, we should not suppose that his nature is anything like an image of gold or silver or stone, shaped by the art and skill of a human being.”

Demetrius: No?

Damaris: I think I see the point. If this god is always near to us, then it would be silly to build an altar or erect a temple for him. After all, the temple is where the god or goddess lives, so that we know where to go to visit them. But if the god is always with us, then we don’t need to build him or her a home. So, if we aren’t going to build an altar or put up a statue, how are we going to worship this god?

Then Paul explained, “God has overlooked the times when people did not know, but now he commands all people everywhere to turn away from their evil ways. For God has fixed a day in which he will judge the whole world with justice, by means of a man he has chosen. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising that man from death!”

Demetrius: Oh, now he has spoilt it. What! How can a person be raised from the dead? Everyone knows that once we die, we go down into the underworld and live as shadows. Once you cross the river Styx, your previous life is left far behind. Who would want to go back into the earthly body once again?

No, this claim by Paul raises too many questions that are just not able to be answered satisfactorily. Any talk about raising the dead and bringing back their bodies is stupid.

Damaris: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve always been worried by this idea. The thought of being a shadow after I die doesn’t really hold any attraction for me. I am much more interested in the story of a god who is able to transform death. What a powerful and caring god this must be! After all, death is what we all must face, and what we all fear so much.

And further, I am starting to see something quite special in what Paul is talking about. He has mentioned a special man, a chosen human being, who will be the one to carry out God’s justice in all the world. This idea is what really grabs me. To think that a god can not only be with us, but that this god can be a human being, just one of us, is really very special.

Now that I think about, this message reminds me of a letter that I received from my sister in Corinth just recently. As I recall now, she spoke about this man named Paul, who had visited the city, and had preached about a man from Nazareth, in the province of Galilee. Paul said that this man, Jesus, was not only a great prophet, but that he had been raised from the dead, and that he is the one who will bring God’s justice into the world. Perhaps this Paul that we are listening to today is the same person that she was talking about?

As Paul puts it, this God has a presence and a power that touches human life in profound and moving ways. This kind of power is lacking in the stone images that I see around me. Paul is leading me right into the heart of this God. So I think I will take his advice, and turn away from the gods I used to worship, and wait for the coming of divine justice through this man who is raised from the dead.

When the people heard Paul speak about a raising from death, some of them made fun of him, but others said, “We want to hear you speak about this again.”

Demetrius: Well, I have to say that this Paul is a bit of a surprise. I admit that he has said one or two foolish things — but not quite as many as I thought he would when he started. But this business of being raised from death is just not on. Yet some of the things that he has said are worth pondering. He is quite a philosopher, isn’t he? I can’t make up my mind about him, and about the god that he has proclaimed to us, and the religion that he has told us about. I’ll need some time to reflect on what he has said.

Perhaps he will be back in the public square tomorrow; I hope so. Maybe I will go there with my kitchen slaves in the morning, when they go to buy our household food for the midday dinner.

Then Paul left their meeting. Some men joined him and believed; among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and some others.


As we return to the 21st century, it is worthwhile pondering Paul’s words and actions, and the response that both Damaris and Demetrius had to these words.

The words of Luke suggests that perhaps Paul was “off duty”, as his prime reason for being in Athens was to wait for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him there. Unable to do nothing or ignore the temples of idols around him, Paul’s idea of “off duty” appears to be to argue with everyone he meets in the town square. However this may have been perceived, Paul’s message of “the God you are looking for, the God you don’t even have a name for, the God who is in danger of getting lost in the plethora of all the other idols you are worshipping – let me tell you about that God…” is the God that we surely could take with us into our own town squares – maybe represented today by our cathedrals of consumerism in the large shopping malls, clubs and coffee shops we frequent today.

Paul presents his “new teaching” and “strange ideas” by meeting the Athenians on their own ground, by quoting two of the Greek poets: the Cretan Epimenides (600 BCE), that “in him we live and move and have our being,” and then the opening lines of the Phaenomena by Aratus (315-240 BCE), a Greek poet and Stoic of Cilicia, that “we are his children.”

It is also worth noting that Paul does not condemn them as unredeemed pagans on a one-way trip to hell, he tells them that both he and they worship the same God. Paul plainly saw God at work in the world through all people, and we would do well to remember this as well. Paul viewed the venerable Areopagus as just another place where the Lord of all creation had gone before him and was already present; indeed, as Paul said to the Athenians, “He is not far from each one of us.”

We Christians need to be aware of isolating and insulating ourselves from our culture’s mainstream. We must avoid being inward-looking, self-absorbed, and judgmental, instead of engaging people in our contemporary Areopagus. Instead, we need to follow Paul’s example of living, learning and sharing the gospel in the marketplace of ideas, engaging real people where they live, work, and think, in order to gain a hearing for our “strange ideas” about God, grace, and the resurrection.


See also


Bless our God; truly God has listened (Psalm 66; Easter 6A)

“Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard” (v.8). That’s the opening line of the section of Psalm 66 which offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Easter (Ps 66:8–20). In these words, the call is made for people to bless and praise God because he is the one “who has kept us among the living” (v.9). This makes this psalm a most suitable song for the season of Easter, when the church celebrates the new life offered to believers through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Blessing God is a favourite Jewish activity—indeed, so many prayers still used by Jews today begin with a phrase of blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God …”. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth is prayed before a meal. Blessed are You, o Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine is prayed before drinking wine.

And a favourite blessing which I learnt from Jews is Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment. It’s a prayer to mark momentous occasions in life. All of these prayers of blessing begin with the Hebrew words, Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melekh ha’olam, the same formula of approaching, acknowledging, and blessing God.

We can see that formula used in blessings spoken by David, who exhorts the people to “bless the Lord your God” (1 Chron 29:19), and the psalmist, who prays, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes” (Ps 119:12), as well as in later Jewish texts such as Tobit 3:11; 8:5, 15–17; Judith 13:17; 14:7; the Prayer of Azariah (six times), and 1 Maccabees 4:20. It appears also in New Testament texts such as Luke 1:68; Rom 9:5; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; and 1 Pet 1:3.

More familiar, perhaps, is when Jesus uses a prayer of blessing, but speaks it to human beings; “blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” (Matt 16:17), or “blessed are the eyes that see what you see”, to his disciples (Luke 10:23), or “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29), and most famously of all, in a set of blessings spoken to a crowd on a level place (Luke 6:20–22) or to his disciples on a mountain top (Matt 5:3–12). Jesus blessed people. But blessing God is something that is not unknown within Judaism.

The primary reason to bless God, then, is that we are “kept among the living” (v.9). What follows from that affirmation is the statement, “You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried” (v.10). We know that life entails testing; no human being has avoided those moments in their lives when trials and testings are presented, seeking to entice us to think or act in unhelpful ways.

Scripture reflects this reality, that life entails testing, at many places. The fundamental paradigm is set out in the paradigmatic story of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22:1–19), and then in narratives about Joseph (Ps 105:16–19), the years when the people wandered in the wilderness (Deut 8:2), the incident at Rephidim (Exod 17:1–7; Deut 6:16; 33:8; Ps 81:7), and then whilst the people were living alongside hostile nations when in the land (Judg 3:1–6). And, of course, there is the similar paradigmatic testing story in the life of Jesus (Mark 1:12-13 and parallels).

The Psalmist notes that “the Lord tests the righteous and the wicked” (Ps 11:5) and the prophet declares the word of the Lord, that “I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity” (Isa 48:10; so also Zech 13:7–9). In the words of the sage, then, “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals” (Eccles 3:18) and, using the same imagery as Ps 66, notes that “the crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Prov 17:3).

After listing various ways in which the people have been tested—“you brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water” (vv.10–11), the psalmist declares, “you have brought us out to a spacious place” (v.12 in the NRSV translation), or “a place of great abundance” (in the NIV).

The unusual Hebrew word which is translated as “spacious place”, la-yerawah, appears also in Psalm 23 in the affirmation, “my cup overflows” (Ps 23:5); the root word, ravah, has a sense of saturation, abundance, or being filled to overflowing (according to the Brown—Driver—Briggs Lexicon). The end result of testing is a place of fulfilment and satisfaction.

In response, the psalmist states, “I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows” (v.13). Prescriptions for burnt offerings, to be offered at the altar of burnt offerings (Deut 12:27; Exod 20:24), are detailed in Lev 1:1–17 and 6:8–13. They are integral to the rituals of the Temple and have a firm place in the piety of faithful people in ancient Israel.

Also integral to the temple liturgy are the vows which are to be paid to God. The psalmist elsewhere affirms, “I will pay my vows” (Ps 22:25; 50:14; 61:8; 65:1; 66:13; 76:11; 116:14, 18). The words of the psalmist are echoed by Eliphaz in one of his speeches to Job: “you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God; you will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows” (Job 22:26–27).

So the psalm continues, “I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats” (v.15). This correlates with the levitical provisions, as already noted. The psalmists inevitably write from within the religious system of the time—which makes sense, since the psalms were composed for singing within the Temple liturgy.

This contrasts with many of the words of the prophets, who in a sense stand on the edge of the religious life of the nation, and offer their criticisms of the excesses and injustices that were part of life at that time (as, indeed, they continue to be, sadly, today). We might think, for instance, of how the prophets criticised the people for their offerings and sacrifices whilst tolerating such injustice in their communal life (Isa 1:11–14; Jer 6:20; Ezek 20:27–28; Hos 8:13; 9:4; Mal 1:14).

So the prophetic critique of Temple practices (which Jesus picks up at Matt 9:13; 12:7, quoting Hos 6:6) needs to be held in tension with the psalmists’ affirmations of those practices when they are performed faithfully. Although Jesus, following Hosea, appears to place mercy (hesed) in opposition to sacrifice, both mercy and sacrifice are integral to Israelite religion.

To end this song, the psalmist offers an exhortation followed by an affirmation. The exhortation is to “come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me” (v.16). “Those who fear God” is a typical characterisation of faithful people who trust in God and adhere to God’s ways of justice and righteousness, including Abraham (Gen 22:12), Joseph (Gen 42:18), leaders appointed by Moses (Exod 18:21), and indeed all who are faithful amongst the people (Lev 19:14, 32; 25:17, 36, 43; Deut 4:10; 6:2, 13, 24; etc; 1 Sam 12:14, 24; 1 Ki 8:40–43).

As Moses declares, “O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God” (Deut 10:12).

“What God has done” is an occasional biblical phrase, appearing in assorted places (Num 23:23; Deut 3:21; Josh 23:3; Ps 64:9; Eccles 3:11; Jer 5:19; Dan 9:14). In the New Testament, it is picked up in what Jesus says to a healed demoniac (Luke 8:39) and then in writings of his disciples (Rom 3:24–26; 8:3; Acts 2:22, 36; 14:27; 15:12; 21:19; John 3:16–17). It affirms the continuing and ongoing actions of God—what a former generation of scholars called “salvation history”—which is known through the stories of Israel and then through the life of Jesus and his followers.

The affirmation which closes this psalm is offered in typical Hebraic style, with parallel phrases that repeat and develop the central idea. In verse 19, the first statement, “truly God has listened”, is mirrored in the next phrase, “he has given heed to the words of my prayer”. In verse 20, “he has not rejected my prayer” is then expressed in a varied manner in the closing phrase, “[he has not] removed his steadfast love (hesed) from me”.

From Exodus to Nehemiah, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (hesed) is praised, in a refrain which recurs in many places (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9). Here, the psalmist uses this central insight into the nature of God to conclude the song, in which human trust in God and fidelity to God’s way have been well-expressed throughout.

The final words of the psalm form a blessing (linking back to verse 8) which emphasises the hesed of God (variously translated as mercy, or steadfast love). The psalm as a whole thus ties together the religious practices of the people (vows and sacrifices) and the understanding of God’s essential being (merciful and loving). It is a reminder that we need to hold the whole of the biblical witness together as revelatory of God; not select one aspect, not preference one over another, but hold all together. For in that, we draw near to the fullness of God.


On suffering as a virtue (1 Peter 3; Easter 6A)

Continuing our reading from 1 Peter during this Easter season, the lectionary this week offers a section dealing with suffering (1 Pet 3:13–22). The reality of the suffering which is being experienced by believers is a constant refrain in this letter. It is noted briefly in the opening blessing (1:6–7) and described in more detail in this section, as well as four other occasions (2:19–20; 3:13–17; 4:1–2; 4:12–19; 5:6–11).

There is never any suggestion that this suffering involved the physical persecution or even death of the believers; the “abuse” referred to comprised verbal criticism of believers (2:23; 3:16), as the lengthy scriptural citation indicates (3:9–12). Relationships with the Roman state appear to be favourable (2:13–17); there is no sign of systematic persecution.

In all but one of these discussions, suffering is interpreted with reference to the sufferings of Jesus (2:21–25; 3:18; 4:1; 4:13). The Spirit testified to the sufferings of Jesus through the words of the prophets (1:11). Jesus provides an example of how to deal with suffering; slaves in particular are instructed to “follow in his steps” (2:21), for the way of Jesus involves endurance in suffering (2:19–20) and adopting a joyful approach to life (1:8; 4:13) even in the midst of sufferings.

Suffering is known and addressed in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The archetype of suffering in those books is, of course, Job, who although “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1), was nevertheless struck by a series of events that left his without property, without family, without animals, without servants (1:13–19).

The extended series of speeches in Job 3—42 address this situation of unjust, unmerited suffering, with a variety of points of view put forward. Although Job initially laments his fate, tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling prostrate on the ground (1:20), he maintains his faith, acknowledging that “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). Yet in subsequent chapters, whilst his friends seek to persuade him to accept his fate as God’s will, Job himself despairs at his condition: “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest” (3:26),

Job rails at God: “the terrors of God are arrayed against me” (6:4), “when disaster brings sudden death, [God] mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (9:23), “why did you bring me forth from the womb? would that I had died before any eye had seen me” (10:18), God “uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light” (12:22), “you write bitter things against me” (13:26), “God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked … I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy; he pours out my gall on the ground (16:11–13).

Mocking the words of the psalmist, “if I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there; if I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Ps 139:8–10), Job instead insists, “if I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8).

Although the psalmist insists, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12), Job persists that God “uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light” (Job 12:22), for “when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came” (Job 30:26). Job can see no joy in accepting his fate; he continues in perpetual lament and anger because of his suffering.

The other well-known passage in Hebrew Scripture which relates to suffering is the fourth and last of the “Servant Songs” found in Second Isaiah (Isa 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). In this long song, the “man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity” is portrayed as despised, rejected, stricken, and afflicted (53:3–4); wounded, bruised, and crushed (53:5); crushed with pain (53:10) and caught up in anguish (53:11). There can be no doubt that this figure—whether the corporate people of Israel, as in Jewish interpretation, or an individual chosen for this role, as many Christian interpreters prefer—is well acquainted with suffering.

Yet in the words of the song, the suffering of this servant is redemptive; although “we held him of no account” (53:3), yet “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (53:4), “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (53:5).

Since “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6), he was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (53:8), his life was made “an offering for sin” (53:10) who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). The redemptive suffering of this servant “shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (53:11).

Such suffering is not in vain; and when later Christian writers drew from the rich theology of this song, they attributed to Jesus the same dynamic of redemptive suffering. This is clearly the case in this week’s epistle, where we hear, “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18). The words provide a strong and clear echo of the fourth Servant Song. There is hope to be found in the midst of this suffering.

This motif of hope runs throughout this letter (1:3, 13, 21; 3:15; 4:13). What follows after suffering, the author writes with assurance, is God’s “eternal glory in Christ” (5:10); this is “the true grace of God” (5:12). Elders within the community of faith are to exercise their leadership with humility, and thereby provide “examples to the flock” (5:1–5). In this way, they will “win the crown of glory that never fades away” (5:4).

This, then, is the “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” which was promised in the initial thanksgiving (1:4). This hope is what undergirds the distinctive identity of believers seeking to remain faithful to the way of Jesus in their society.


You in me and I in you: the Johannine interrelationship of Father, Son, and disciples (John 14; Easter 6A)

The fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel contains some lines spoken by Jesus that are widely known in today’s society—courtesy of the fact that they appear in many of the funeral services that are conducted each week. For people with a distant relationship with the Christian faith (as in, “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church”), this chapter is often the go-to when faced with the option of having a reading from the Bible in the funeral service of a recently-deceased relative.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2, in last week’s lectionary Gospel passage for the Fifth Sunday in Easter) often appears, as this is a comforting statement for people worrying about what the afterlife will be like. Or “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (14:18, in this week’s lectionary Gospel offering for the Sixth Sunday in Easter), as a further note of reassurance about what lies ahead.

Or, indeed, “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (14:27, in the lectionary Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Easter in Year C), as a comforting affirmation for mourners to hear at the time of parting. All quite appropriate and pastorally helpful.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday, however, contains more than this note of reassurance. It also offers one of the rare references, in this fourth Gospel, to the Holy Spirit, here identified as “another Advocate … the Spirit of truth” (14:16–17). The word translated by the NRSV as Advocate appears here, and at John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7—but nowhere else in this Gospel, nor indeed does it feature in any other canonical Gospel.

The word used is a Greek word that is capable of various English translations: Advocate, Counsellor, Helper, Comforter, or Friend; or it can simply be transliterated, as the New Jerusalem Bible does, as Paraclete. See my explorations of this word at

As well as this relatively rare Johannine reference to the Spirit, this Gospel passage has Jesus speak words that are characteristic of how the unknown author of the book of signs understands the relationship of Jesus, the Son, to the Father: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20). These words express the mystical relationship of mutual in dwelling that characterises the way that this Gospel depicts the Father—Son relationship: I in him, you in me, I in you.

“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father”, says Jesus, during an extended debate in Jerusalem (10:37–38), provoking the Jewish authorities to attempt to arrest him.

In the conflict that is reported throughout chapters 8–11, Jesus debates these Jewish authorities with quite some vehemence. At the end of his disputation, he makes a bold assertion: “The Father and I are one” (10:30). The mutual indwelling of Father and Son has merged into an essential unity of being, a complete coherence of identity—at least, in the words of the Jesus we encounter in this Gospel. (It is quite different in the Synoptic Gospels.)

Wayne Meeks (in his classic article, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972) 44–72) notes that the claims made about Jesus in the fourth Gospel function as reinforcements of the sectarian identity of the community. As this community had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus. What is said about Jesus can also be said about his followers.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community, over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. See

Some time after the conflict that took place in Jerusalem, Jesus responds to a request from Philip to “show us the Father” (14:8), saying, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10–11).

This mutual indwelling is reaffirmed in the words that Jesus prays before his arrest: “you, Father are in me and I am in you” (17:21). In that prayer, he goes on to extend the scope of his mutual in dwelling; he dwells, not only in the Father, but also in his disciples, and they dwell in him. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me … [may they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (17:21–23).

The mutual indwelling of the Son with the disciples is developed particularly in the teachings that Jesus gives concerning the vine: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” (15:4–5).

The vine, of course, was a standard image for Israel (Ps 80:8–10; Jos 10:1) featuring in this way in assorted prophetic parables (Isa 5:1–7; Jer 2:21; 8:13; Ezek 15:1–8; 17:3–19; 18:10–14). In developing this parabolic image, Jesus applies it to his followers: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:5–7).

The sense of “abiding in” is a mysterious inner connection that binds followers to their master; but because that master has likewise been bound with the Father, the intimacy of connection between Father, Son, and disciples is clear. Thus, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20), as we hear this coming Sunday. Those who are linked inextricably with the Son are linked through his intimate connection with the Father. Father, Son, and Disciples: the Johannine version of the trinity!

On my view of the way that this three-part unity is developed in John’s Gospel, see more detail at


Swearing allegiance or reaffirming reality? (2)

When Charles III is crowned as King Charles III, people across the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries across the world will be invited to cry out and swear their allegiance to the new King.

I won’t be doing that. There are two key reasons for this. The first relates to the relationship between Australia and the UK. I wrote about that in my previous blog. The second arises from my understanding of Christian faith and theology, which I will address in this blog.

This area of concern that informs my decision emerges from my own faith, and my understanding of “kingship” in the heritage and traditions of that faith. In Hebrew Scripture, the king of Israel was expected to “trust in the Lord” (Ps 21:7), “rejoice in God” (Ps 63:11), and “judge [the] people with righteousness, and [the] poor with justice” which have been granted by God (Ps 72:1–2). That was the ideal. The reality was different.

We know, of course, from the narratives that tell the story of Israel over many generations (1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles), that many kings failed in this requirement, and “did evil in the sight of the Lord”, fulfilling the predictive prophecy of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 8:10–18). Nevertheless, the idealised view of kingship, which Samuel dutifully set out in writing for the people (1 Sam 10:26), held sway through the ensuing centuries.

This idealised view was particularly developed in the portrayal of Solomon, who was seen to be filled with “wisdom and knowledge”, and granted “riches, possessions, and honour, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:7–12, especially verses 10 and 12).

Indeed, King Solomon is said to have “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of [those kings] brought silver and gold, so much, year by year.” (2 Chron 9:22–24).

This wonderfully wise, insightful, discerning man, Solomon—bearing a name derived from the Hebrew for peace, “shalom”—became a powerhouse in the ancient world. But he did not always live as a man of peace. Indeed, he used his 4,000 horses and chariots and 12,000 horsemen to good effect; we read that “he ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt.” (2 Chron 9:26).

Solomon was remembered as king over the greatest expanse of land claimed by Israel in all of history. Solomon was a warrior. And warrior-kings were powerful, tyrannical in their exercise of power, ruthless in the way that they disposed of rivals for the throne and enemies on the battlefield alike. Think Alexander the Great. Think Charlemagne. Think Genghis Khan. Think William the Conqueror.

Solomon reigned for 40 years—a long, wealthy, successful time. That is the model of kingship which survives through into the modern era. We expect kings to rule. We expect them to invade and enforce and dominate, for that is the heritage passed on. (And I won’t comment on Solomon’s marital relationships; I will leave 1 Kings 11:3 to,speak for itself!)

In a fascinating article about the coronation, British biblical scholar Margaret Barker notes that the story of Solomon, anointed by the priest Zadok and the prophet Samuel (1 Kings 1:34, 39), is central to the symbolism and mythology that informs the service of the coronation. She explains how a number of the symbols in Westminster Cathedral, the setting for this ceremony, hearken back to the glories of Solomon. The coronation taking place this week references and relies upon the story of Solomon. See https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2023/28-april/features/features/zadok-and-melchizedek-and-their-place-in-coronation

Indeed, at the moment of anointing of the King, a prayer is to be offered that draws this direct connection: “thy prophets of old anointed kings and priests to serve in thy name”, and as the anointing is carried out (in private, behind a screen, the anthem by Handel is sung, “ZADOK the Priest”, while the Archbishop declares, “as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so may you be anointed, blessed, and consecrated King over the peoples”. The connection is crystal clear.

And even the weird line that the people are invited to say, “May the King live forever”—not just “Long live King Charles”, but the impossible “May the King live forever”—is because of the story of Solomon, mediated through Handel, as my colleague Avril Hannah-Jones notes; see https://revdocgeek.com/2023/05/05/zadok-the-priest/#more-4465


Beyond the symbolism, however, the reality of the British monarchy emulates the way that Solomon exercised his rule, as a fierce expansionary leader. The promise to Abraham, that he would be given land by God (Gen 12:1), was set out in full detail in words given to Moses (as it was thought), where God promises the people that “I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates” (Exod 23:31).

That great extent of territory was nowhere near what Joshua or the Judges, or David or Saul ruled over; but by the time of Solomon, it is said that “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt” (1 Ki 4:21). He had expanded his empire to the fullest extent. And the land was captured by force—pure, simple, aggressive military conquest.

The story of the British Empire is one of relentless expansion, built on the back of trading, invasion, colonisation, slavery, and systematic oppression. The British Empire stretched right around the globe; that gave rise to the saying, “the sun never sets on the British Empire”.

So the power of the King (or Queen) was felt in multitudes of countries, where local wealth was plundered and alien systems of government were imposed: India, Kenya, Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Malaya, Aden, Ireland, Palestine, South Africa—and Australia, as I canvassed in my previous blog.

On the cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the British, see https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-18/queen-elizabeth-ii-empire-colonialism-history/101430296 and https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/04/04/the-british-empire-was-much-worse-than-you-realize-caroline-elkinss-legacy-of-violence

On “stuff the British stole”—artefacts that were taken from the colonies to be displayed in the homes and museums of the Mother Country, see https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/nov/01/stuff-the-british-stole-australia-abc-tv-series-marc-fennell-colonial-history

It is only in recent years that some statements of regret and apologies have been issued by the Queen, or other key members of the royal family, relating to specific colonial situations; and that some artefacts have been returned to their countries of origin after spending decades in UK museums. That is a start towards backing away from past injustices—but much more can, and should, be done.


More than this: “Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord, succeeding his father David as king; he prospered, and all Israel obeyed him” (1 Chron 29:23). He was considered to be the specific personal representation of the divine in Israelite society. That is directly mirrored in the way that King Charles III will be declared to be “Defender of the Faith” and also in the fact that he has the role of Head of the Church of England.

“Defender of the Faith” was conferred on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521, and every monarch since then has carried this title. The title of Head of the Church of England was adopted by Henry VIII in 1536, when he seized assets of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and declared the Church of England to be the established church.

The intertwining and enmeshing of state and religion is clear in these two titles—again, directly echoing the situation with Solomon and Israel. Although there is a stream within ancient Israelite religion which yearns and prays for the king to demonstrate the justice and righteousness that God desired for the nation. “By justice a king gives stability to the land”, says the sage, “but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it” (Prov 29:4).

Before being overrun by the Babylonians, one prophet in Israel declared that “the king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (Isa 32:1); another prophet, years later during the Exile, declared that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5).

That hope, in Christian theology, was taken up in Jesus, who was claimed to be the righteous branch, the one ruling with justice (Matt 12:15–21). Jesus spoke clearly about the need for justice in our lives (Matt 23:23; Luke 7:29). He provided a clear countercultural vision for his followers, and called them into a radically different way of living. Yet the church went a different pathway, thanks to the influence of Constantine and then the theologians and popes that followed after him.

And in recent centuries, the church in the UK has gleefully merged this fervent prophetic hope with the dominance of the monarchy, and blunted any of the sharpness of the message of Jesus. They have continued to support a system in which the British monarch is regarded as their spiritual leader and yet injustice continues to be perpetrated in their society, and in their Empire and then Commonwealth.

Canon Glenn Loughrey has recently reflected on this situation, writing that “the participation of church UK in the blessing of the continuation of the system which decimated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and others across the globe is both a denial of and a continuation of the church in all its forms in colonial genocide”. To continue to support the system which caused such damage is unjust and unethical.

Now, it is true that the King will be greeted on arrival at the Abbey by a young Chapel Royal Chorister, “in the name of the King of Kings”, to which the King responds, “in his name, and after his example, I come not to be served, but to serve”. And, indeed, when the Archbishop of Canterbury asks King Charles III, “will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”, he will reply, “I will”; and later, he will pray, “God of compassion and mercy, whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom, and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth”.

See https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-04/23-24132%20Coronation%20Liturgy.pdf

Well, we shall see. Will the time under this monarch simply continue the imperial power that was exercised by his predecessors? It is hard to see any different happening. The system will continue, relentless and pervasive, continuing the privileges and power established in medieval times, regardless of the personal views of the incumbent monarch. And whilst it is true that the system has adapted and changed in minor ways into the present age, the crushing authority of the system, developed by monarchs in the past, is still perpetuated by governments in the present. There have been no apologies, no reparations, no acknowledgement of past failures.

Our Prime Minister has met with the new King ahead of the coronation. “He has a long record of interest in issues such as climate change, on issues relating to Australia’s Indigenous people, on issues across the full range, particularly of the environment, and that remains the case, ” Mr Albanese said after that meeting. It would be really good to see King Charles III express regret at the actions of the invading British colonies of 1788 onwards, clearly state an apology to the First Peoples of Australia for what their ancestors experienced, and urge the Federal Government to move towards The Republic of Australia, with an Indigenous President, as soon as possible. This is what leaders of various Commonwealth countries have called for. See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/may/04/commonwealth-indigenous-leaders-demand-apology-from-the-king-for-effects-of-colonisation

But I very much doubt that this will happen.

And so, I won’t be crying out my allegiance to the newly-crowned King when invited to do so during his coronation; rather, I will be quietly reaffirming the reality of Australia at this point in time. That reality, as I have stated, is well-encapsulated by the three words, Voice—Treaty—Truth. That commitment is what we need for the present times—not allegiance to an inherited powerful foreign ruler.


See also


Swearing allegiance or reaffirming reality? (1)

When Charles III is crowned as King Charles III, people across the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries across the world will be invited to cry out and swear their allegiance to the new King.

I won’t be doing that. There are two key reasons for this. The first relates to the relationship between Australia and the UK. The second arises from my own faith commitments. In this blog, I will address the first issue.

In the funeral of Elizabeth II last year, prayers were offered for the new King, with the person who holds the office of Garter Principal King of Arms praying to God, “we humbly beseech Almighty God to bless with long life, health and honour, and all worldly happiness the Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Monarch, our Sovereign Lord, Charles III, now, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter”.

Charles has many other titles, as well as that of King. In Scotland, Charles continues to be known also as “His Royal Highness The Duke of Rothesay”. In England, he likewise continues as “His Royal Highness The Duke of Cornwall”. The hegemony of the royals must continue to be buttressed by the arcane titles, it seems. In Wales, whilst he used to be “His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales”, as the heir apparent to the throne, that title moved from him on the death of his mother, to rest on his eldest son, William Prince of Wales. All of this titular profligacy relates to the history of the peoples of the UK over the past millennia. That’s their business, and they need to deal with all of that.

In Australia, on the death of his mother, the former Prince of Wales became “His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, King of Australia and His other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth”. That claim, King of Australia, is based on the claims for the land made long before in the “secret instructions” given to James Cook in 1768, before he set off for his trip to the south that included a time of sailing along the eastern coastline of the continent we now call Australia.


Those instructions specified that Lieutenant Cook, in the event that he found the Continent, should chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name. Cook went one step further: on behalf of the King (an ancestor of Charles III), he laid claim to the lands he had sighted as a British possession.

Cook had navigated along the coast of New Zealand, before he turned west, reaching the southern coast of New South Wales on 20 April 1770.—the day that now is remembered each year as “when Captain Cook discovered Australia”—a statement that contains two central historical inaccuracies! Cook was then only a Lieutenant; he was promoted to Captain at a later date.

See https://www.smh.com.au/national/we-are-all-at-sea-describing-captain-cook-with-a-rank-he-never-had-20180920-p5053j.html#

Further, James Cook did not “discover” the land—other European sailors had charted the western coast in years before, and the continent itself had been home to Indigenous peoples for millennia before then.

Lieutenant Cook sailed north, landing at Botany Bay one week later, before continuing to chart the Australian coast all the way north to the tip of Queensland. There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, he declared the land to be a British possession:

“Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast . . . by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.”

Cook had recorded signs that the coast was inhabited during the voyage north, had met a number of the Aboriginal inhabitants, and here he noted as he returned to the ship the great number of fires on all the land and islands about them, “a certain sign they are Inhabited”. But he still pressed ahead with his report that he had claimed all the lands for the British Crown. This was done, despite the fact that he knew there were inhabitants in the land.

Cook planted the British flag on the continent of Australia. He demonstrated how the imperial colonising power operated: the land, and the people, were to be subsumed under imperial rule, simply because the imperial power wished that to be so. The people already living in those places were simply to bend in obedience to this greater power. And, as we know, if they resisted, they would be met with force, violence, and murder.

See more at


All of this was enforcing the pattern that had been proposed centuries earlier by a papal decree that established the Doctrine of Discovery—something that all the Christian nations in Europe had willingly followed. There was a long-standing understanding amongst these European trading powers, that they had every right—indeed, a divine right—to explore, invade, colonise, and convert the “natives” of distant lands.

On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/how-was-aboriginal-land-ownership-lost-to-invaders and my reflections at

The imposition of British rule was not without cost for the people who were already inhabiting the land when the colonisers arrived in 1788. A recent venture based in the University of Newcastle has been charting the many massacres that took place across the continent, from the early years of the British Invasion, through into the early 20th century.

University of Newcastle map of sites where massacres
of Indigenous Peoples took place since 1788

We perpetuate the hurt by continuing with 26 January as our “national day”, as well as by continuing with a system of constitutional government that places the UK monarch at the top of the hierarchy, as the Head of State of Australia. A foreign hereditary ruler as the Head of State in Australia? That is an absurd arrangement for our times.

So I won’t be crying out my allegiance to the newly-crowned King; rather, I will be quietly reaffirming the reality of Australia at this point in time. That reality is well-encapsulated by the three words, Voice—Treaty—Truth.

Drawing on the experience of First Peoples, we need to tell the Truth and name the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth. This truth is that the 18th century British crown oversaw and approved of that terrible genocidal colonising invasion. See

Alongside that, I think we need to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that medieval theological foundation upon which the worldwide invasion and colonisation of lands was based—including the invasion and colonisation of Terra Australis. King George III, who was the monarch of the day, was following the Doctrine of Discovery by sending Cook to the southern seas. Repudiating this doctrine is part of our commitment to tell the truth. My own church, the Uniting Church in Australia, agreed to repudiate that doctrine in 2015. See

Furthermore, we need to be committed to talking Treaty. We need to see the formalisation of treaties with the various nations of Peoples who have inhabited, nurtured and cared for this land since time immemorial. This commitment is based on a recognition of the Sovereignty of each of those nations, sovereignty over the land that the people have inhabited, nurtured, and cared for over those many millennia.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart/

Sovereignty, as articulated in the Statement from the Heart of 2017, is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples. See

Finally—and most topical of all—we need to support the Voice that will be the subject of a referendum later this year. The Voice to Parliament will ensure that the needs and concerns of First Peoples are always given due consideration in the policy-making processes of our federal government. See

Voice, Treaty, Truth—that’s the threefold commitment that I consider to be important on this coronation weekend. Not swearing allegiance to a highly-privileged hereditary foreigner, but reaffirming the reality of what we need to do to honour the First People of this land.


See also


A living stone, for a spiritual house (1 Peter 2; Easter 5A)

For the last few weeks, we have been reading through the letter known as 1 Peter during the Easter season. We have read parts of chapters 1 and 2 so far. This Sunday, however, the lectionary does something strange: it takes us back before the passage we heard last week, to a section of chapter 2 that focusses on the way that holiness is to be understood.

The theme of holiness has already been sounded earlier in the letter. The people who are receiving this letter are “the exiles of the Dispersion” (v.1), people of Israel living in other nations. For such people, holiness was an important idea. The fundamental charge of this letter was sounded earlier: “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (v.15). This is supported by a quotation from scripture (Lev 11:44), which was a foundational text for the people of Israel.

Holiness characterized Israel; those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and their regular activities in the Temple (Exod 28-29; Lev 8-9). The priests oversaw the implementation of the Holiness Code, a large section of Leviticus (chapters 17–26), which explained the various applications of the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7,26).

Holiness was also a concern of the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees devoted their lives to teaching and explaining each of the 613 commandments and ordinances that were included within the books of Torah (the books of the Law—the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures), and showing the common people how they could live in holiness, as they followed each of those commandments. Holiness was at the heart of the Law, so adhering to each commandment ensured holiness.

And holiness characterised the followers of Jesus, for he was leader of a holiness movement in a holiness society. Jesus debated often with the scribes and Pharisees. He seems to share much in common with them. They were all committed to living in accordance with the commandments of Torah, although they had differing interpretations of how to do this. Jesus advocated for the living out of holiness in daily life, as did the scribes and Pharisees. His teachings also focussed on adhering to God’s will, maintaining the justice-righteousness that God required, in all of life. He teaches his followers to adhere to that way in order the take part in the kingdom that God has planned for all.

Holiness, to all of these groups, meant being consecrated, dedicated, set apart for a designated purpose. It is often (mis)understood as signalling a superior status, an exalted place—”up there” above the unholy ones, just as God is “up there” above the earth. Of course, that old worldview is now obsolete. And the sense of elitism in “holiness” is also obsolete.

Further, whilst a holy person is to be an ethical person, overtones of morality are not the first and last aspect of holiness. To be holy is to be dedicated to the task, following Jesus with the whole of our lives, sensing the eternal in the moments of the present, experiencing the divine in the midst of human life. Excitedly, joyously (v.6), all this is to be shared with others who have not yet “caught the vision”.

There are many references to, and quotations from, the scriptures of the Hebrew people in chapter 2 of this letter. That makes sense, for—as we have seen—it was sent to “the exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1). These were their familiar scriptures. To live according to holiness (Lev 11:44) is the key principle (1 Pet 1:15).

In 2:4–10, part of the lectionary passage for this Sunday, we learn what that means, as the writer plays with a series of texts from the psalms and Isaiah. Each text contains a reference to “stone”, and relates an understanding of holiness to those hearing the letter.

The first reference point for “stone” is to Jesus, the “living stone” who is the cornerstone of the whole building. That slips quickly into applying “stones” to the people of faith who are hearing this letter: as “living stones” they are to be built into the structure as integral parts of the whole. Then, to reinforce that affirmation, a verse from Hosea 2 is quoted to emphasize how intimately and enduringly the people are connected with God.

Echoing still more scriptural terms, they are described as “chosen” (Deut 7:6), “a royal priesthood” (Exod 19:6), “holy” (Lev 20:7), and God’s own people (Hos 2:23) who are “a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6). Many passages are rolled into one sentence!

Later sections of the letter provide specific guidance as to how we are to live in that condition of holiness; what behaviours and actions are appropriate for being “living stones” in a “spiritual house”. The challenge for us, this week, as we hear and preach on this particular passage, is to help people to grasp the relevance of these important theological terms for ourselves today.


See also


Informed, Collaborative, Diverse: With Love to the World

The next issue of With Love to the World, which I edit, is currently being distributed. The issue covers half of the season of Pentecost, from mid-May through until mid-August. There are commentaries on biblical passages for each day (with the four “lectionary passages” included), along with a prayer, a song, a psalm, and a discussion question for each passage.

The resource is published by the Uniting Church in Australia, but is used by people of many denominations in a number of countries. As always, the resource exhibits a core commitment of the Uniting Church: to present “an informed faith”. This commitment was articulated in the Basis of Union for the UCA. Each contributor offers a reflection on the daily passage which is informed by their theological training as well as their engagement in pastoral ministry. The resource seeks to assist worshippers to come to Sunday worship with an awareness of the Bible passages they will hear read and proclaimed.

With Love to the World also seeks to be faithful to the UCA commitment to shape “a destiny together” with the First Nations Peoples of Australia. The period covered in this issue includes Reconciliation Week (in late May) and NAIDOC Week (in late June—early July), so the commentaries for those weeks are by a number of First Nations People, reflecting on the interplay between their cultural heritage and the Christian faith.

The striking cover of the issue is from a painting by one of those contributors, Kirsty Burgu, from Mowanjum in WA, who offers an interpretation of the artwork in her commentaries. There is also a powerful reflection on Mother Earth, from a First Peoples’ perspective, by Alison Overeem, from Muwinina country in Tasmania.

The other commentaries in this issue of the resource are provided largely by Australian Uniting Church people with Asian heritage, who know at first hand the complexities of living as a Christian in Australia with awareness of their own heritage. There are Korean, Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, and Malaysian Chinese voices which can be heard and considered in this issue. This reflects the commitment made by the Uniting Church in 1985, to be “a multicultural church”.

In the following issue, which will have a Creation focus, each week will begin with a psalm which brings a creation focus. The writers in this issue will largely be Australians with a Pasifika heritage, including contributors from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, and Tuvalu. As with the Asian-focussed issue, they have each been asked to invite readers into an exploration of the biblical passages from their distinctive cultural perspectives. We can expect many new insights to be offered!

Finally, the contributors to this issue—as, now, with each issue—include equal numbers of male and female writers, reflecting also the UCA ethos that the Spirit has gifted all people and that women and men equally take their place in ministry and leadership within the church.

With Love to the World can be ordered as a printed resource for just $28 for a year’s subscription (see http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Ordering-and-paying-for-Website-7.vii_.2020.pdf). It can also be accessed on phones and iPads via an App, for a subscription of $24.49 per year (go to the App Store or Google Play).

If you are not a subscriber and would like to sample the resource, I can send you a copy of this issue; contact me at editorwlw@bigpond.com or text me on 0408 024 642, providing your postal address.


I am the gate for the sheep (John 10; Easter 4A)

Each year, in the Sundays which are early in the season of Easter, a similar pattern occurs in the lectionary. On the evening of Easter Sunday each year, the lectionary presents us with the well-known and much beloved Emmaus Road story (Luke 24:13–49). In this story, two followers of Jesus walk towards the village of Emmaus in conversation with a stranger, discussing the events of recent days. The identity of the stranger is revealed to them only when they share a meal at table—and immediately Jesus disappears from their midst!


For the Second Sunday in Easter each year, the lectionary offers the same scene, of the time when Jesus appears to his followers in Jerusalem, meeting behind closed doors “for fear of the Jewish authorities” (John 20:19–31). Although the narrator reports that Jesus appeared to “the disciples”, we subsequently learn that Thomas had not been present, so a second scene, a week later, is reported.

This second scene in Jerusalem is when Thomas expresses his doubt about the appearance of Jesus, and to his astonishment, Jesus appears again, to show him his wounds. Thomas then expresses his firm belief: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). The importance of this scene, as with the Emmaus Road scene, is indicated by its appearance in each of the three years of the lectionary.


On the Third Sunday in Easter, three different scenes are offered across the three year cycle of the lectionary; each scene reports on a situation when the risen Jesus appeared to his followers. The appearance to two disciples on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24) is offered again in year A, the final Lukan scene of appearance and departure (Luke 24) in year B, and the scene beside the Sea of Tiberias, which includes the restoration of Peter (John 21), in year C. Each of these scenes extends the resurrection narrative into the life of the early church.


That brings us to the Fourth Sunday in Easter—this coming Sunday. The lectionary offers much of John 10, where Jesus speaks at length about “the good shepherd”, spread over the three years: John 10:1–10 in year A, 10:11–18 in year B, and 10:22–30 in year C. It omits those parts of this chapter where the antagonism against Jesus is explicit (10:19–21 and 10:31–39), as well as the concluding observation that “many believed in him” (10:40–42). After this Sunday, parts of the farewell discourses of Jesus reported in John 13–16 occur in following weeks over all three years.

The overall construction of the season of Easter across all three years can be seen with this overview, but the pattern is not evident in the week-by-week progression of each Easter season. Nor is it evident that the full teaching of Jesus about “the good shepherd” is offered over the three years of the cycle.

John’s Gospel is known for its series of I AM statements. In the first offering from John 10 (verses 1–10), we encounter one such claim by Jesus—but it is not quite what we expect. We expect him to say “I am the good shepherd”; and he does (but in v.11, which we will hear at this time next year!). Instead, he says, “I am the gate” (v.9)—the avenue for entry into the sheepfold, which was a place of care and protection for the sheep.

But “I am the gate” makes sense only because of what goes before it; the shepherd of the sheep is the one who knows the sheep, calls them by name, and guides them in the paths that they should follow.

In Hebrew Scripture, of course, God is identified as a shepherd; the best-known such reference is the opening phrase of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”. As he was dying, with his sons gathered around him, Jacob spoke to his son Joseph, praying, “the God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day … bless the boys [Ephraim and Manasseh]” (Gen 48:15–16), amd later indicated that Joseph’s strength came “by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, by the God of your father, who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you” (Gen 49:24–25).

When David was anointed as king, however, Samuel said to him “it is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel” (2 Sam 5:2; 1 Chron 11:2). Subsequent rulers in Israel were accorded this title; yet key prophets during the exile lamented that there had been “stupid shepherds” with “no understanding” (Jer 10:21; Isa 56:11) and had done evil (Jer 12:10–13; 23:1–2; 50:6–7; Ezek 34:1–10).

Second Isaiah declared that Cyrus, king of Persia, would be anointed as God’s shepherd, to carry out God’s purpose (Isa 44:28–45:1). Jeremiah looked to the time when God would restore “shepherds after my own heart” in their midst (Jer 3:15) and Ezekiel prophesied God’s intentions: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezek 34:12).

The famous statement by Jesus, “I am the good shepherd” does not appear in the section of John 10 offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (10:1–10). It occurs twice in the second section (10:11–18) at verses 11 and 14, and Jesus refers to the “one shepherd” at 10:16. He refers to “the sheep” 13 times throughout the chapter. In the first section, by contrast, we find the striking statement that Jesus is “the gate for the sheep” (10:7). Sheep, of course, was a common description of the people of Israel as a whole in a number of psalms (see Ps 44:11, 22; 74:1; 78:52; 95:7; 100:3).

The implication of Jesus’s words in John 10:7 is that when Jesus refers to himself as “the gate for the sheep”, he has in mind the role of protecting the flock of sheep from those who would harm the sheep—thieves and wolves. If we interpret the sheep as being the disciples of Jesus (as in v.14), then they would have been in danger from persecuting Romans, hostile Pharisees, and bandits and robbers.

Gates were the means of protection for people within towns and cities, keeping at bay those who might attempt to attack from the outside (Deut 3:5; Ps 146:12–14); they were also the route by which faithful people could access the holy place of the Temple (Ps 24:9; 87:2; 100:4; 118:19; 122:2.

Certainly, there is a strand of antagonism coming towards Jesus (and his followers) from the Jewish authorities throughout the first half of the Gospel; in his farewell discourse, he warns his followers that “you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19), and that “they will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2).


Jesus performs the function of the good shepherds that were promised; by guarding the gate, he offers security, for he saves the sheep; indeed, he offers “life in abundance” (John 10:10) to those who follow him. As we follow Jesus today, we might well reflect, what does it mean to be offered ‘life in abundance’? What does it mean to be ‘saved’ by the good shepherd?


Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example (1 Peter 2; Easter 4A)

Another excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 2:19–25). This letter as a whole envisages the community of faith in terms drawn from the household, and this particular passage sits within a section of the letter which is known as a “household table” (2:18–3:7).

Believers within the communities of faith which are addressed are said to comprise a “spiritual house” (2:5), the “household of God” (4:17), a “family of believers” (2:17) who are intimately related to their “brothers and sisters in all the world” (5:9). Hospitality is important (4:9), as was the case in all ancient societies. Both husbands and wives are “heirs of the gracious gift of life” (2:7); they are called to “inherit a blessing” (3:9) and have already been born into their inheritance (1:4).

As befits life in the patriarchal society of the day, there is also an emphasis on matters of honour and shame. Whilst honour is viewed as an eschatological goal, to be expected “when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7), it remains the benchmark for daily living, as the firm exhortations of 2:12 and 2:17, just before our chosen passage, clearly indicate. Shame is alien to the life of the believer (2:6) and even a husband must show honour to his wife (3:7)

These two features—the language of the household and the concepts of honour and shame— coalesce in the use that is made in this letter of the familiar household table, a form of ethical instruction which we have seen used in some of the debated letters of Paul. Here, the table is introduced with a programmatic statement about honour (2:12) and a series of general injunctions (2:13–17) which urge subordination to authority and the honouring of leaders.

The address then turns to slaves, but not masters (2:18–25), and then wives as well as husbands (3:1–7); however, it stops short of dealing with children and parents (which regularly figured in the typical household table form—see Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:21–6:9). The stance is clear: slaves are to “accept the authority of your masters” (2:18), just as wives likewise are to “accept the authority of your husbands” (3:1). Obedience is undoubtedly a quality to be emulated, both within the community of faith (5:5) as well as within society (2:13).

The people of Israel had maintained the daily offering of a lamb without blemish for centuries; each day, a lamb in the morning, another lamb in the evening (Exod 29:38–41). It sounds to us moderns like a terrible waste of good stock; to the ancients, however, it confirmed the covenant between the nation, Israel, and their God, the Lord (Exod 39:43–46). The writer of this letter can see Jesus taking the place of that daily sacrificial lamb, quoting from a well-known song (Isa 53:9) about his sinless nature.

For more on the way that the New Testament interprets the sacrificial death of Jesus as a means of atonement with God, see

In the Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus speaks about the shepherd (John 10:1–10). In the excerpt from this letter which is offered on this coming Sunday (1 Pet 2:19–25), Jesus takes on the role of the lamb, offered up as a sacrificial victim: “he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Pet 2:24).

The language and concepts used here relate to ancient practices of sacrifice. They also undergird later Christian understandings of the significance of Jesus and the process of atonement that, it is believed, he effected through his death.

The humility of submission to the violence of sacrificial slaughter is central to the story of the death of Jesus. The lamb is unable to fight back. Chosen for this role, as one who was perfect, without blemish, the lamb can do no other than submit. That humble submission, evident in the lamb, is the vehicle for effecting atonement of sins and a life in righteousness, when found in Jesus—this is the understanding of the cross that has held fast through centuries of theological debate about the death of Jesus. It is an ancient custom, addressing a contemporary need, speaking to current concerns about the proliferation of violence in our world.

So slaves are offered the positive example of Jesus as the model for their submission (2:21–25), in a manner which picks up the cultural and religious Jewish practices of the day and adapts them into the developing Christian context. It demonstrates an awareness of how traditions can be adopted and adapted into new understandings.

By contrast, the instructions to wives are grounded in a reading of scripture which is thoroughly traditional and patriarchal (3:1– 6). In reality, the instructions to wives are based on the expectations of Hellenistic society: reverence, modesty, a quiet spirit, subdued external adornment. They are declared to be “the weaker sex” (3:7) and twice commanded to “accept the authority of their husbands” (3:1, 5).

In fact, the ethics of this letter frequently draw from many elements familiar to Gentiles in the Hellenistic society. Despite the rhetoric of holiness already noted, the believers are not encouraged to live a completely separate life, isolated from wider society. Continued interaction with Gentiles is envisaged at 2:12; believers are to “be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (3:15). The behaviour of believers should be honourable, and not draw shame upon them; on the contrary, appropriate behaviour will result in the aggressive non-believers being shamed (3:15–16).

In contrast to the letter of James, the brother of Jesus, the specific teachings of Jesus are rarely in view in this letter attributed to Peter, a disciple of Jesus. For James, Jesus taught the righteousness of God and the need for the followers of Jesus to live in a distinctive manner; “true religion” required them “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

Rather, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect an ethos of temperate behaviour, moderated in a manner which is appropriate to the wider society: “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (2:7). Although there is a polemic against the base ways of the gentiles, a number of the positive characteristics which were valued within gentile society are also praised in this letter: discipline (1:13; 4:7; 5:7), obedience (1:14, 22; 2:8, 13–14; 3:1, 6) and reverence (3:2, 16).

In short, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect a process of adaptation, in which the Gospel has been accommodated to the cultural patterns of the Hellenistic world. It offers a useful insight into this process, which occurs in all places and all times, as received traditions are incorporated into the life of believers in varied cultural contexts. It is not something to be afraid of; it is something to be acknowledged, understood, and appreciated.

See also


‘Christ died for us’: reflections on sacrifice and atonement

Dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. Many books within the New Testament indicate that their authors are grappling with how best to express the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus enables those who follow him to enter into a renewed relationship with God. The letter for this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Easter, does just this (1 Pet 1:19–25).

However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth a fully-developed, single-focussed theory of atonement. There are a range of metaphors used to describe the process, in various places, by various authors: sacrifice, atonement, ransom, expiation/propitiation, liberation/salvation, reconciliation, disarming the powers, and modelling humility, for instance.

In true systematic theology style, over the centuries, various theological writers have plucked verses from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts. That’s the first thing that I distance myself from.

Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).

This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.

This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?

One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.

Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.

In my mind, there are a number of points at which this kind of statement about the death of Jesus (often referred to as Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA), narrows the understanding of faith far too much.

For a start, it focuses intensely on a personal dimension, to the detriment of the wider relational, societal, and political dimensions. Easter faith, to me, is broader, more expansive, more encompassing, than just the focus on my personal eternal destiny. I find this communal orientation expressed very strongly in scripture, both in relation to the atonement as well as in many other broader ways. The narrow expression of atonement is based on an understanding of God who is a wrath-filled, vengeance-seeking God, seeking to impact individual lives in a highly judgemental way. I don’t find that perspective in scripture.

Then, the narrow understanding of atonement plays off the will of God over against the actions of a devil figure. This is a problematic element because it contradicts the idea of an all-loving, all-just God. Is all evil in the world to be attributed to a personified devil? What has the allegedly all-powerful and all-loving God done about this?

Such simplistic dualism is problematic, if we just leave it at this. Hebrew scripture steadfastly resists any temptation to sit in a dualistic worldview, and the New Testament continues in that vein, despite pressures from the Hellenistic worldview, as direct heir of the Platonic dualistic schema.

Appreciating the sacrificial dimension of the story of Jesus dying on the cross is important. Jesus went willingly to his death. He did, in the end, offer his life as a sacrifice. The key verse often cited for this understanding is Mark 10:45 (“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many). Other verses that relate include Rom 3:25-26, Eph 5:2,1 John 2:1-2, 4:10, as well as the whole argument of Hebrews (see especially Heb 2:17, 9:23-28, 10:12, 13:12).

Understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrifice remains at the heart of our Christian faith. The option of taking up a violent path was rejected by Jesus. He did not stir up an uprising against the imperialist Roman overlords, despite opportunities to do so (on Palm Sunday, for instance). He did knowingly offer his life as a sacrifice. After an inner struggle about this matter (Mark 14:32-35 and parallels in the Synoptics), it appears that Jesus went willingly to his death (Mark 14:36, and reflected in the whole prayer that the evangelist crafts in John 17).

The preaching of Jesus in the period prior to his arrest offered a vision of a kingdom in which righteous-justice is dominant and peace is evident (Matt 6:33, 7:21, 21:43, 25:34-36; Mark 12:32-34; Luke 4:16-19, 6:20-21, 12:31-34, 18:24-25). In this preaching, he signalled his key commitments, which are instructive as we consider what he thought he was doing, when he submitted to death. We need to consider these words as we think about the significance of Jesus for our faith, and for how the sinfulness of humanity is dealt with.

The way that Jesus calls us into faithful discipleship is central to this approach. To enter the kingdom means to live in accord with the righteous-justice that Jesus advocates. The greater picture beyond the events of the cross is hugely significant. The cross, the event of the death of Jesus, points beyond to this greater vision. It is the whole life of Jesus, along with his death, which is crucial as we grapple with how Jesus transforms us from “sinful humanity” to “justified and saved” (to use the biblical terms that have become the catchcries in this debate).

His manner of death was consistent with this vision; the complete commitment of Jesus to this vision meant that his death, unjust and violent as it was, provides a glimpse into the way of faithfulness for each of us in our lives. Following the way of Jesus is treading this path of nonviolent affirmation of the greater vision.


See more discussion of specific texts at

and a general overview at


I will offer a sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116; Easter 3A)

This coming Sunday, the third Sunday in the season of Easter, the lectionary offers a series of verses from psalm 116 (1–4, 12–19). This psalm is one of six psalms, numbered from 113 to 118, which are known as Hallel psalms—from the Hebrew term hallelu-jah, meaning “praise the Lord”. That phrase starts psalm 113 and ends psalms 115, 116, and 117. These psalms were, and are, used in Jewish communities at times of festive celebration; so they are also most suitable in the current Christian season of Easter.

The opening section of this psalm celebrates a rescue from near death (v.8) and continuing in life (v.9), which is a relevant motif for the season of Easter—it evokes the story of Jesus we heard over the Easter weekend, recently. In verse 5, the psalmist identifies some central characteristics of God. That God is merciful and gracious is a recurring Israelite theme (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9).

That God is righteous is likewise declared in scripture (Deut 32:4; Ps 145:7; Job 34:17). The psalmists regularly thank God for God’s righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:17; 9:8; 33:5; 35:24, 28; 36:6; 50:6; etc) and note the importance of humans living in that way for righteousness (Ps 18:20, 24; 85:10–13; 106:3, 31; 112:1–3, 9). The book of Proverbs advises that the wisdom it offers is “for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov 1:3) and the prophets consistently advocated for Israel to live in accordance with righteousness (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4).

These recurring notes of the nature of God then form the basis for a Christian understanding of Jesus, who affirms mercy (Matt 23:23), teaches righteousness (Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33), and exudes grace (John 1:14–18). This is an ancient Jewish psalm that we Christians can joyfully sing and affirm!

The second part of the psalm focusses on appropriate ways for the psalmist to respond to the experience of escaping death (see v.8). The psalmist affirms, “I will pay my vows”—not once (v.14), but twice (v.18). Other palms refer to paying vows before God (Ps 22:25; 50:14; 61:8; 65:1; 66:13; 76:11). The words of the psalmist are echoed by Eliphaz in one of his speeches to Job: “you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God; you will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows” (Job 22:26–27).

Paying a vow is a public act, most likely undertaken in the Temple precincts, as v.19 indicates. The psalmist indicates two such public actions to “pay my vows”. First, the cup of salvation is to be lifted up (v.13). Perhaps this was the drink offering that was to be presented each year at the Festival of First Fruits (Lev 23:13), an expression of deep gratitude for God’s continuing care.

Then, because of the predominance of sacrifices within Israelite religion, offering “a thanksgiving sacrifice” is also an appropriate response (v.17). The regulations for this sacrifice (found in Lev 7:11–15; see also Ps 50:14) indicate that it can be made at any time during the year, as a regular expression of that gratitude for God’s care.

Jews today do not bring specific physical sacrifices, but understand the scriptural language about sacrifice to refer to a way of living. It is said that, on one occasion, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his disciple Rabbi Yehoshua were leaving Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the ruins of the destroyed Temple and despaired, “Woe to us! The place where Israel obtained atonement for sins is in ruins!” Rabbi Yochanan said to him, “My son, be not distressed. We still have an atonement equally efficacious, and that is the practice of benevolence” (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 4).

So this is how this ancient psalm functions in Judaism today: as a call to a way of life that is offered fully to God. This parallels the way that Christian writers developed a spiritualised understanding of sacrifices—both of the sacrifice of Jesus, and of the sacrifices to be offered by followers of Jesus.

The offering of his life on the cross by Jesus is understood by early Christian writers within the framework of the ancient Jewish system of sacrifices and offerings: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2); “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

In John’s Gospel, the time when Jesus dies is not the day after Passover (as in the Synoptics), but on “the Day of Preparation for the Passover” (John 19:14), as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered and prepared for the meal that evening. The symbolism is potent; Paul adopts this symbolic and spiritual understanding as he notes, “our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).

Those who follow Jesus are called to live in the same sacrificial mode, offering their lives to God. Paul refers to the gifts sent by the Philippians (most likely financial support for his mission) as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).

Most famously, he appeals to the Romans “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), and reinterprets the Exodus story as spiritualised symbolism, telling the Corinthians that “all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:2–4).

Other letter-writers whose works were collected into the New Testament speak of “a spiritual circumcision … putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11) and encourage believers to “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:25).

So this psalm, and others like it, continue to hold a valued place in Christian spirituality, because of this process of reinterpretation that has taken place in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, and in the early stages of the Jesus movement. The reference to the vows to be paid and the thanksgiving sacrifice to be offered can be understood as metaphors for the way that we are to live our lives as the offering of ourselves to God in obedience and gratitude.

The psalm ends with a joyful exclamation which picks up the key theme: hallelu-jah! praise the Lord! This encapsulates the joyful appreciation for God and God’s way that encompasses all of these psalms of Hallel. It is a fitting psalm for the Easter season.


The living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1; Easter 3A)

A second excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 1:17–23). We explored the letter as a whole through the first lectionary offering in this blog:

The recipients of this letter that is attributed to Peter appeared to reside in no less than five Roman provinces (1 Pet 1:1), indicating that the letter must have been composed as a general letter for a wide audience. It is not sent to a specific local community (as with Paul’s authentic letters) but is written for a generalised audience of believers (as with James, and probably also Ephesians).

The recipients are initially identified as “the exiles of the dispersion” (1:1) and later as “aliens and exiles” (2:11). “Dispersion” is a term drawn from Hebrew scripture (Ps 106:27; Isa 11:12; Jer 25:34; Ezek 12:15; 20:23; 22:15; 29:12; 30:23, 26; 36:19; Tob 4:4), as is the phrase “aliens and exiles” (Gen 23:4; each noun appears individually many times in scripture). This language has a primary reference to Jews living as non-citizens in a foreign land; there were many such individuals in many nations of the eastern Mediterranean in the first century.

Other terms used reflect the common Jewish discourse shared by author and recipients, such as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9), and “living stones…a spiritual house…a holy priesthood” who offer “spiritual sacrifices” (2:5). Holiness, sacrifice, priesthood, royalty, and a spiritual house are all ideas found often in Hebrew Scripture. The description of the community of believers as “living stones” is supported by a string of scripture citations (Isa 28:16; Ps 117:22; Isa 8:14; quoted at 2:6–8), whilst the appellation of “God’s own people” is explained by a poetic allusion to the prophet Hosea (Hos 1:6, 9; 2:25; at 1 Pet 2:10).

This Jewish scriptural focus is a prominent feature of this letter, which indicates a reverence for “the living and enduring word of God” (1:23). For the nominal author, Peter (and possibly also for his colleague, Silvanus; see 5:12), this must refer to the Hebrew Scriptures. The letter includes other scripture citations and scriptural imagery. The early focus of the letter on holy living, for instance, is supported by reference to Lev 11:44–45; 19:2 (quoted at 1:16). The role of “the word of God” is indicated by Isa 40:6–8 (quoted at 1:24–25).

The sacrificial suffering of Jesus is interpreted with reference to the fourth servant hymn of Isaiah 53. The direct citation of Isa 53:9 at 1 Pet 2:22 introduces a series of intertextual connections weaving together the death of Jesus with the servant song (2:23–25 refers to Isa 53:4, 5, 6 and 12).

The contrast between good and evil is expounded at one point by a long Psalm citation (Ps 34:13–17, quoted at 3:10–12) and later by drawing on a proverb (Prov 11:31, quoted at 4:18). Likewise, a proverb contrasting the proud and the humble is quoted as a justification for the exhortation, “humble yourselves” (5:5–6, citing Prov 3:34).

Other scriptural elements include an allusion to the “day of visitation” (2:12, referring to Isa 10:3); a proverbial phrase (4:8 quotes some words from Prov 10:12); a reference to the spirit of God (4:14 alludes to Isa 11:2); and a Christologically-expanded interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood (3:18–20, in reference to Gen 7). As this letter regularly intertwines Hebrew scripture with guidance about the way of Jesus, it surely reflects a continuing Jewish presence in the Jesus movement.

However, the key words “aliens and exiles” (2:11) also carry symbolic significance. They both derive from scriptural usage in the scrolls of Hebrew Scripture, collected into the books of the Old Testament. The purpose of the letter is to reinforce the identity of the community of believers as “aliens and exiles”, an especially important process because of the pressures which are being experienced by those members from the society in which they lived.

The language which is applied to them ought not to be taken purely at the literal level, for it is often metaphorical. This is obvious with regard to references to “newborn infants” and “spiritual milk” (2:2), “living stones” and the “spiritual house” (2:5), and being “born anew” (1:23). It applies also to the references to “aliens and exiles”; we cannot assume that all believers addressed were literally living in a foreign country. Rather, the force of the image is to describe the alienation that has taken place between the wider society and the group of believers who follow the way of Jesus.

Indeed, there are various indications that the recipients of the letter had previously been Gentiles living in sinful and idolatrous ways, but now were striving to live by standards which set them apart from others, and may at times have caused them intense difficulties. The author hints that they were “going astray like sheep” (2:25) and followed “futile ways” (1:18) which were characterised by “desires that you formerly had in ignorance” (1:14). These are spelled out as “malice…guile, insincerity, envy…slander” (2:1) and “living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry” (4:3).

Coming to faith in Jesus was like being called out of darkness (2:9), being raised from the dead (1:21), being born anew (1:23). Such believers are to stand in a different relationship to the customs and practices in which they were raised: “now that you have purified your souls” (1:22), “do not be conformed” (1:14), “abstain from the desires of the flesh” (2:11), “live no longer by human desires” (4:2). People addressed in these terms by a Jew (such as Peter, the nominal author of the letter) could not have been Jews; they must have been Gentiles. Perhaps some of them were Godfearers, such as are identified in Acts?

At any rate, the language and ideas of Hebrew Scripture permeates this letter and undergirds its key ideas, whether the recipients were Jews, Godfearers, Gentiles, or a combination of all three. It is an enticing mixture, to be sure.


See also


A new birth into a living hope (1 Peter 1; Easter 2A)

Excerpts from the letter which we know as 1 Peter are being offered in the coming Sundays throughout this season of Easter. The letter has a focus on joy in the midst of suffering, which might thus suit it well as an Easter series. For this coming Sunday, we will hear 1:3–9, an extended blessing offered to God, who “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3)—a most suitable acclamation for the Easter season!

The letter has opened (in verses omitted by the lectionary) with the standard opening address of an ancient letter form: “Peter … to the exiles of the dispersion … grace and peace” (1:1–2). Instead of a thanksgiving, which usually opened an ancient Greek letter, in this case the letter launches into this blessing (1:3–12), which was a common Jewish feature (found also in 2 Cor 1:3–7 and Eph 1:3–14).

Unfortunately, the lectionary offers only verses 3 to 9, so we are somewhat shortchanged by this truncated passage. Ending the lectionary selection with “… you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (v.9) does conclude a thought-sequence; but the next three verses (vv.10–12) expound the meaning of that salvation, as already having been revealed through the prophets. The author of this letter is thoroughly grounded in scripture; regular reference to the sacred texts of Israelite faith occur throughout this letter.

The main theme of the letter is declared after the blessing, in an initial exhortation (one of many in the letter) to “prepare your minds for action … do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance … be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1:13–15). Curiously, the lectionary also overlooks this passage; the passage offered on Sunday week (Easter 3) starts at verse 17, “if you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds …”.

Once again, in true Jewish style, this exhortation is grounded in a central scriptural text, the Levitical call to holiness (Lev 11:44; 19:2). The emphasis throughout the letter is on living faithfully as God’s chosen people. A closing comment reinforces that the purpose of the letter is “to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God” (5:12). Then follow some closing greetings and a short benediction (5:12–14). Unusually amongst the New Testament books not by Paul which are usually identified as letters (those attributed to James, Peter, John, and Jude, and the anonymous work to the Hebrews), this document is indeed a true letter.

The author is announced simply as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This would suggest a letter from a writer with close personal links with Jesus. The substance of the letter sits uneasily with this claim. The letter’s refined style of language, and especially the use of a number of classical Greek words, is rather unexpected for a Galilean fisherman.

There are a number of references to the suffering of Jesus (1:11; 2:4, 21, 24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1), but no other indication that the author knew anything of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Instead, the letter reflects the Christology of the developing movement, interpreting the death of Jesus in sacrificial terms (1:18–19; 2:24; 3:18) and attesting to him as the one who is risen (1:3; 3:21), a mediator with God (2:5), to be acknowledged as Lord (3:15), now dwelling with God in glory (3:22; 5:10), whose future return is awaited (1:7–8, 13; 4:13; 5:4).

The author claims to have been “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1)—a curious claim to be made by Peter, if the accounts of his denial and desertion of Jesus, found in the canonical gospels, are to be believed! He also describes himself as an “elder” (5:1), which we would not expect to be a term to be adopted by Peter. The word indicates the author’s leadership role within the developing community of faith.

The identification of this community as being “in Babylon” (5:13) is frequently interpreted as being code for Rome, drawing on the same tradition found in Revelation 17:1–18:24. The link with Mark (5:13) has been taken as a further indication of Roman origins, as Mark was alleged to have been in Rome with Peter. However, these connections are faint, revealing nothing of substance about the nature or purpose of the letter.

The close of the letter indicates that it has been written “through Silvanus” (5:12), leading some interpreters to suggest that Silvanus, as secretary, placed a more educated and polished mark on the letter as he transcribed the author’s thoughts. But an alternative translation of this verse is possible, by which Silvanus is designated as the one who delivers the letter, rather than being involved in its writing.

This Silvanus may well be a different person from the Silvanus who is known as a fellow-worker with Paul (2 Cor 1:19; Acts 15:40) and is called the co-author, with Paul, of both letters to Thessalonica. As he was a member of the Pauline group, we would expect more Pauline influence to be evident in 1 Peter if he was involved in its creation.

In fact, this letter shows more similarity to the “pastoral” letters attributed to Paul—which have some similarities with Paul’s thinking, but demonstrate a clear development in ideas, language, and theology, most likely reflecting a different (layer) context. Like them, it is more feasible that this letter was written after the death of the apostle, in his name, in order to encourage and guide believers in what appears to have been a time of increased suffering. Jesus is invoked as the guide and example for believers in this situation.

See also


In defence of Thomas: a doubting sceptic? or a passionate firebrand? (John 20; Easter 2A)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday provides the name by which this Sunday is often known in church tradition: it is Thomas Sunday. (The reading is John 20:19-31.)

We all know about Thomas: he had to have proof … had to see with his own eyes … had to touch to know it was real … did not have faith without tangible proof. Thomas often gets a bad rap: oh he of little faith! … why did he not believe straight away, like the others who followed Jesus? … why was he in the thrall of doubt at precisely the time that faith was called for?

Thomas wants to pin the matter down, to have the evidence produced, to know without question what has taken place. We remember him from this story, as the doubting sceptic.

Let us reflect a little on this: Thomas was not alone. All the other early witnesses, followers, and writers, in the movement of people clustered around Jesus, had the same need to pin the matter down. There were many sceptics in this movement. They needed some form of proof. They looked for evidence. They sought signs that would validate the new way that Jesus was in their midst.

The endings of the Gospels testify to this. The earliest Gospel ended with an open narrative, hanging on those words: the tomb is empty — he is not here! (See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/the-tomb-is-empty-he-is-not-here-he-is-risen/)

Subsequent compilers of the narrative about Jesus could not live with the uncertainty of an open-ended story, with an absent Jesus who would appear only in a distant, remote, unimportant location (Galilee). No; they had to have him come to the women, the travellers, even the inner core of disciples, in or near to Jerusalem. Indeed, Luke explicitly reports that the risen Jesus provided them with “many convincing proofs” after his resurrection (Acts 1:3).

Thomas, of course, is the disciple whom we most closely associate with doubt, not with faith, derived from this very report of his encounter with the risen Jesus. “Unless I see, I will not believe”, the sceptic Thomas says, in John 20. “Unless I can put my finger in the mark in the side of my master, I will not believe that he has risen”, declares Thomas.

And in the modern scientific era, where we operate by testing, questioning, doubting, and seeking to prove hypotheses, this kind of approach has a certain attractiveness. For some Christians in the present time, in the period of probing scientific hypotheses and seeking historical certainties, Thomas has become a kind of patron saint—a saint of doubting, questioning, and proving. “Unless I see, I will not believe” is the mantra of such a saint.

But Thomas appears in two other places in John’s Gospel. One is at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers, when Thomas asks Jesus a question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This question provokes one of the most well-known sayings of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7). It is thanks to Thomas that we have this saying of Jesus!

The other time that Thomas is mentioned in this Gospel provides us with another insight into the character of Thomas. He appears early on, in the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, as told in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. In that story, we encounter a rather different Thomas. In that incident, Thomas was a man on a mission who was filled with faith. He spoke with Jesus with the intensity of a fervent believer. He declared that he was prepared to follow Jesus, whatever it cost him.

Faced with a request to travel to Bethany, near Jerusalem, because of the death of Lazarus, Jesus and his followers discuss whether they should make this trip. John’s Gospel tells us that the message of Jesus was so provocative to the southerners in Judea, that they had already mounted a number of attempts to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31).

So the disciples were convinced that if Jesus travelled close to Jerusalem, he would be walking to his death. What to do, they wonder, when this urgent message comes from friends in Bethany: “Lazarus is dead; please come; we need you here!” (John 11:1-8).

At that moment, Thomas springs into action. There is no doubt about it, he declares:  Jesus needs to go there; and the disciples need to go with him. “We need to get moving! Come on, why are we waiting?” And from the mouth of Thomas come these incredible words: “We should go too, and die with him” (John 11:16).

Thomas utters the excitable words of a zealous follower of Jesus; he gives a fervent declaration of commitment and trust in the one who had been his guide for many months now. Thomas was not paralysed by fear, not distressed by doubt; here, Thomas was fired up by faith, and committed to a journey that could well lead to death. If Jesus, our master, is going to die—then we, too, should be prepared to die with him! (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/23/yes-lord-i-believe-even-in-the-midst-of-all-of-this-john-11/)

This portrayal of Thomas as a committed follower, as a passionate firebrand, is not how we normally remember him, because the story from chapter 20 of the Gospel holds sway. Yet in this earlier story in chapter 11 of the Gospel, it is clear that Thomas has faith, even if it is somewhat unusual, and it is abundantly clear that he is prepared to put his life on the line for what he believes.

So, perhaps we should place this Thomas, the passionate firebrand of John 11, alongside the hesitating, doubting figure that we imagine him to be like, courtesy of John 20. Where are the signs of this passionate, committed, fervent, zealous man of faith, in this encounter? Where was the fiery partisan Thomas living out his faith in the risen Jesus?

I like to imagine (and it is only an imagination … a speculation … as the biblical txt is silent on this point) … I like to imagine that, as the disciples gather behind locked doors, paralysed by their fear, Thomas was not to be found in their midst, because he was back into his regular life, living out his faith in the public arena.

Even after Jesus had been raised from the dead, the transformation of Easter, as we know it, had not really kicked in for the disciples. They were locked into their fear. Where were the disciples living out their faith? It seems they took the line of least resistance, and shared their faith only in the safety of their own group, hidden away, safe in the seclusion of a private home.

And where was Thomas? He was not there. He was out beyond the locked doors, out in the community, in the full gaze of the antagonistic authorities. What was he doing? We are not told; we have to imagine.

Is it feasible to imagine that Thomas was back into his regular routine, going about his business, attending to his daily tasks? That he was seeking to live out his faith, not cowed by the threat of persecution, but firmly holding fast to his belief in Jesus in public? That he was continuing to live as that fiery, fanatical believer who was still willing to put his faith on the line? It is a tempting, enticing way to imagine him.

If Thomas was really the passionately committed believer whom we met in the Lazarus story, then it is quite plausible that this is why he was not with the other disciples, behind locked doors, hiding out of fear.

Perhaps Thomas was wanting to demonstrate his faith to those who did not yet believe. Something had happened to Jesus—the tomb was empty, believers were testifying that he was risen—so he was wanting to show others that his faith had not been shattered.

Where was Thomas living out his faith? In his everyday life, amidst acquaintances and friends—and even enemies. Now that is a model that we would do well to ponder, and imitate, in our lives!

(The image is of Saint Thomas, by Georges de La Tour, a French painter of the 17th century.)

See also


The resurrection calls us to pay attention to this life (Easter Sunday)

On Easter Sunday, all attention is rightly on Jesus, risen from the dead. “Christ is risen”, we greet each other, with the expected reply, “he is risen indeed”. Risen, to new life; risen, as a sign of the future life we are promised; risen, soon to ascend, to be “seated at the right hand of the Father” in heaven. Alleluias are rightly sung on this Easter day, and in this Easter season!

So our attention is, in effect, directed away from here, on earth, towards the heavenly realm. Indeed, the Gospel for Easter Sunday this year appears to point us in that direction, as Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene in the garden: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”(John 20:17).

The same orientation is found in the story of the walk to Emmaus, where Jesus says to those walking on the road with him, “was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). “Going to glory”, of course, is a popular euphemism for dying—going to heaven; even in biblical usage, entering into glory is to be in the direct presence of God (Exod 40:35; 2 Chron 7:2; Isa 2:10, 19–21; 1 Cor 15:42–43; 2 Cor 3:7–18). And that is where Jesus goes.

A popular (mis)understanding of Christianity is that it is about using this life as preparation for the life to come in the future. Faith, in this view, is about repentance now and obedience in all we do on this earth, so that when we die, our souls will rise to heaven, we will be commended as a “good and faithful servant”, and invited to “enter the kingdom of God”—or, in the common popular perception, step through the pearly gates into a heaven filled with angels, playing their harps and singing their songs of eternal praise and adoration.

That’s the popular view; and some small part of this rests on some verses found in scripture. But most of it is romanticised populist thinking, far away from Christian doctrine. Sure, there are the apocalyptic sections in the Bible that look to the coming of a new creation—but if you understand them in the way that I believe they were intended, they are actually providing encouragement to believers about the present, rather than predicting what the future will be. And they are not about the new heavens and new earth of the future, up in the sky somewhere, but rather about “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”, onto earth (see Rev 21:2).

See my discussion of the function of biblical apocalyptic passages at

So the question stands, during this Easter moment—and throughout the Easter season that stretches ahead of us: where do we focus our attention? Three Gospels provide a very clear answer as they recount the appearances of the risen Jesus. In Luke’s story about the appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem, he says to them, “look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself; touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). The physicality of Jesus is to the fore.

In John’s account of that scene, there is also a physicality in the encounter—with an emphasis on the fact that Jesus shows them “the mark of the nails in his hands and … the mark of the nails … in his side” (John 20:25). Not only the physicality, but the carrying of the wounds of the cross into the next phase of life, is to the fore for John.

And then, when Matthew recounts the first appearance of Jesus, to the women fleeing the tomb in the early morning (and this encounter is told only in Matthew’s Gospel), he makes a point of noting that the (presumably prostrate) women “took hold of his feet and worshipped him” (Matt 28:9). All three Gospels focus on the material present rather than an imagined heavenly future.

Not only that, but each of the three Gospels that narrate appearances of the risen Jesus orient the stories to the future in the known realm of the earth, rather than the future in some heavenly realm. In John’s Gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples, gathered in the room behind locked doors, for the task of bearing witness to him: “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:2). This is language that is used often in this Gospel for the mission that Jesus is undertaking: he is sent by the Father, God is “the one who sent me” (4:34; 5:24, 30, 37; 6:38–39, 44; 7:33; 8:16–18, 26, 29; 9:4; 12:44–45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5); and so he now sends his followers in similar fashion. This is language that is very focussed on this earth, this life.

That task of witnessing is also articulated in the clear declaration placed on the lips of the risen Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). This turns into a fully-fledged evangelistic manifesto when the scene is recounted again in Acts: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Both Luke and John connect this charge to the disciples with the giving of the Spirit: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8); “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). There is no mention of Spirit in the final scene reported in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 28:16–20); however, there is a clear commission in this narrative—the famous “Great Commission”. The emphasis here, as in the other two Gospels, is on the work to be done by the followers of Jesus in the period after he has left them. It is a this-worldly emphasis in these narratives.

The words used in the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel (28:19–20) need to be read carefully. There are four key verbs (doing words) in these two verses: go, teach, baptise, teach. In strict syntactical analysis, the main verb is the one in the imperative (expressing a command): “make disciples”. Subsidiary to that are the other three verbs, each of which is in a participial form (indicating an action that is related to, or consequent from, that main verb). So making disciples is the key factor in this commission.

Matt 28:19–20a
(my translation and formatting)

The act of making disciples is directed towards “the nations”—that is, to anyone with whom the followers of Jesus come into contact. It is to be expressed through two activities: baptising, and teaching. The act of making disciples is also to take place “as you are going”, that is, as followers of Jesus are making their way through the world in the days ahead.

Teaching orients the focus of the disciples back to the time that they spent with Jesus; they are to teach the people of the nations “to obey everything that I have commanded you”. As Matthew has taken great care to compile and collate the teachings of Jesus into five clear sections of his Gospel (chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25), the guidelines provided by Jesus are evident. What he has taught in his time with the disciples is to be passed on (in good rabbinic style) to those whom they then instruct. Teaching is an activity for life in this world, very clearly.

Baptising orients the focus of the disciples to the life of the church in the future. Belonging to Jesus involves submitting to the ritual of immersion into water, signalling the new life that is taken on through faith. The formula used in Matt 28:19 is, in fact, something that emerges only later in the life of the church (probably not until the time of Constantine, as far as we can tell from other Christian literature). Once again, life in community on this earth is the focus. There is no sense of being baptised (“christened” in the old language) in order to “get into heaven”.

So the accounts of Jesus departing from his disciples offer no sense of, “I am going away, you will join me soon, we shall see each other in heaven”. Rather, the focus is on what the disciples need to do in the earthly life that stretches ahead of them: bear witness, make disciples, teach and baptise, continue out amongst “the nations” the mission that Jesus has been undertaking amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

(The resurrection appearances at the end of Mark’s Gospel are in endings that were added centuries after the original was written, to bring it into consistency with the others, so they don’t figure in my discussion at this point.)

Two other factors point in the same direction, oriented to life on this earth, and not to a heavenly realm beyond. First, the Revised Common Lectionary (admittedly a creation from many centuries after Jesus!) offers stories from the life of those early followers—the church in Jerusalem and beyond—in passages from Acts during the season of Easter. That is to say, the structure of the lectionary reminds us that, after the resurrection of Jesus, the life of faithful followers is lived and worked out in amongst the other people of this earth. It is a grounded discipleship that is to the fore.

Finally, going right back to the lips of Jesus himself in the first century, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we are instructed to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” (Matt 6:10). That final phrase is central to all that Jesus proclaimed in his teachings and parables: what God is willing “in heaven” is to be made manifest here in our midst, “on earth”.


That is the immanent, present, realised, immediate vision that Jesus has for his followers; and that is what the resurrection narratives point us to, time and again. The resurrection calls us to pay attention to this life.


Do not hold on to me: Mary’s early-morning encounter (John 20; Easter Sunday Year A)

A sermon written by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine for the celebration of Easter Sunday, 9 April 2023, at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church


All four Gospels tell of women, coming to the tomb where Jesus had been lain, early in the morning. In this more intimate narrative of John’s Gospel (John 20:1–18), Mary Magdalene comes alone to the tomb in the dark, not bearing myrrh, not expecting anything. The presence she encounters in the garden is not what she has previously experienced or understood.

When Mary realises that it is Jesus she sees in the garden, she instinctively reaches out to him, only to be rebuffed by the words ‘Do not hold on to me’. 

It is both a tender and painful moment that sits between intimacy and distance, love and loss. It reminds us of how it was at the beginning of the pandemic, where the normal, natural instinct to reach out to touch and hold one another became a potential source of danger.

But there was no pandemic in Jerusalem when Mary heard her name being spoken in the unmistakable tones of her beloved teacher and friend, whom she had thought was lost to her forever. Mary’s seeking to touch Jesus would have been the most natural form of greeting in any circumstances, never mind in this extraordinary moment. So why does Jesus respond with what must have felt like a hurtful rejection?

We have the sense that the Gospel is picking up that Mary had a hard time letting go of the physical Jesus. It is no wonder. We all feel like this in our grief. Yet, Jesus is pointing to the broader context of God’s liberating power at work in the Easter story.

John is making the point that the risen Jesus is not a return to the ‘old normal’ but the start of something new. Life is not going to continue as before, whatever Mary’s initial hopes may have been.

The ‘new normal’, which John’s readers were already having to live, did not include Jesus’ physical presence in a recognisable, huggable human body. For a short time, resurrection appearances would convince the disciples that he was, indeed, alive, but the message was that they must not become dependent on him.


“Do not hold onto to me”. Like much of John’s gospel, there is a deeper meaning to the words. John is advising us. Do not cling to the holy as you once knew the holy. The time is here for you to learn, see, hear and perceive anew. Open your consciousness and awake to the dawn of something entirely transformed and transforming.  

We can also pick out the events of Simon Peter’s dash towards the tomb with the ‘other disciple’, and the events that unfolded there, as worthy of thinking about. When they entered the space, only the linen was there. We are told that the other disciple “saw and believed”. This is an interesting comment. What did he believe? What exactly did he see that turned his heart from despair to hope? What belief exactly did he come to?

We are told that the disciples still did not understand the scriptures in relation to Jesus’resurrection, yet something clearly happened in their understanding as they left transformed by the encounter.

Surely transformation sits at the core of the mystery of resurrection. It is not a magical replacement of the old with something new, but an innovating change from deep within. We are reminded in this story of the first Easter that God’s action often takes place in the liminal spaces—on the edges of things, at the boundary points between ‘this and that’: despair and hope, hate and love, death and life.

William Brodrick, in a thoughtful reflection used by the Northumbria community, notes that the faithful have to be like candles, “burning between hope and despair, faith and doubt, life and death” and that this is the “disquieting place where people must always find us.”

We need people like Mary who will blunder through the garden blinded by tears but also with a willingness to be curious and open to the impossible. We need people like the male disciples to wonder out loud, stay present in the moment and take risks rather than living life in fear. We need people who somehow generate more hope than we believed could be possible.

While Easter morning brings joy and hope, and a fresh start after grief and brokenness, it also encourages us to be those candles shining brightly between hope and despair in our world. It encourages us to transform and to recognise that the world cannot be the same either in a post-covid era or indeed, a post-resurrection one.

May we not cling on to things that we imagine will keep us safe: may we learn instead to let go in order to findour true selves; and die in order to rise to newness of life.


The desert waits … the city beckons (Lent Year A)

The period of Lent is forty days—although it actually takes 46 days to get from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. The reason for this is that Lent is reckoned by omitting the six Sundays in this period, since Sundays are not counted in the season of Lent itself. An explanation for this was given in a statement from the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), reflecting on ancient practice: “The Lord’s Day is the original feast day.… Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance shall not take precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 106).

As the forty days draw to a close, I am reflecting on how the experience has been this year. There is always a lot of focus at the end of Lent, for it is then that we move into the high season of Easter, filled with the emotions of Good Friday, the liminal space of Holy Saturday, and the joyful celebrations of Easter Sunday. There is also a focus, somewhat less, at the start of Lent, with Shrove Tuesday—the original Mardi Gras (meaning “Fat Tuesday”) followed by the solemn Ash Wednesday rituals.

These reflections explain how Lent has been held within the Congregation where I am a member: Tuggeranong Uniting Church, in the southern suburbs of Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory. Each weekday during Lent, first thing in the morning and then again at the end of the working day, before evening sets in, a group of people from the Congregation, and some beyond, gather online for a brief (8–12 minutes) of prayer and reflection. It is a way of marking the season in a distinctive fashion.

At each gathering, there is an opening prayer, taken from a prayer by Ruth Burgess, published in the Iona liturgical resources: the desert waits. It is a theme that invites us to pause, slow down, listen, and pray. So we hear a short scripture reading, a brief reflection in response, and then listen to a psalm. (There are many wonderful videos of psalms being sung by contemporary artists—the Sons of Korah, Francesca LaRosa, Poor Bishop Hooper, The Psalms Project, Jason Silver, and more). The session ends with a closing prayer and blessing.

The desert waits is also a theme that resonates with a key New Testament story—that of Jesus, in the wilderness for forty days, tested by the devil and sustained by angels. By tradition, it is the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent every year (this year, we heard Matt 4:1–11).

That story, of course, draws deeper from the wells of Hebrew Scripture, where many stories include the time frame of forty days, or forty years. Rain fell during the flood for “forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:4); then Noah waited for forty days after the tops of mountains were seen after the flood, before releasing a raven (Gen 8:6–7). The people wandered in the wilderness for forty years, to “suffer for their faithlessness” (Num 14:33) at the decree of the Lord, “until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord had disappeared” (Num 32:13). The spies which Moses sent into the land returned to report to Moses after forty days (Num 13:25).

Moses was said to have spent three consecutive periods of “forty days and forty nights” on Mount Sinai; first, to receive the Torah (Deut 9:9–11), then to beg forgiveness on behalf of the people (Deut 9:25–29), and for a third time seek again God’s forgiveness (Deut 10:10–11). A number of leaders in Israel were said to have reigned for forty years: Eli (1 Sam 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Sam 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42). The prophet Elijah walked for forty days to Mount Horeb, where he meets God “in the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12).

All of this indicates that the period of forty days or years was a rounded-out way of describing “a long period of time”—not an accurate reporting of precise days or years, but an indication that whatever was being described was an extended, lengthy period of time. It was a story-teller’s phrase, not an historian’s precise chronicling.

During the extended period of this current Lent, in the online daily prayers each morning being hosted by Tuggeranong Uniting Church, we have traced the theme of wilderness, through a series of readings that commenced in the stories of the ancestors: Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16:7), Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:14, 20–21); and Moses on Mount Horeb where he saw the burning bush (Exod 3:1–7).

After that, we spent a week hearing of the travails of the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 13–17) and then passages which indicated the extent of the land that was promised to them (Exod 23:31–32; Deut 32:8–10; Joshua 5:6–9; and Joshua 20:7–9) before ending the week with a song about the power of God, seen in creation (Psalm 29:5–11). These stories each morning were coupled each evening with a psalm which was read and then sung, during which our personal reflections were voted.

Following that, the focus of morning prayers was on hearing the names of the people who already lived in the land that had been promised to Israel from the time of Abraham onwards: “the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.

We heard the genealogical list of the descendants of Canaan, the grandson of Noah (Gen 10:1–20), then the promise to Abraham (Gen 18:1, 18–20) and then to Moses (Exod 3:7–10), the instructions given through Moses to “make no covenant with them and show them no mercy” (Deut 20:1–5), and the list of “the kings of the land whom Joshua and the Israelites defeated” (Joshua 12:7–8). Each time, a list of these original peoples was given. Again, a psalm for reflection was matched with these passages.

This list of people already inhabiting the land, but confronted by—and in some cases annihilated by—the invading Israelites, is sobering. For each day during this week, we viewed, firstly, the map of peoples in Canaan, and then the map of peoples on the continent of Australia that we know were here before the British invasion and colonisation of 1788 onwards.

There were many more nations in Australia than there were in Canaan, which is of course understandable since the land mass of the continent is far, far larger than that of Canaan. However, there are very strong resonances between the fate of the First Peoples of Australia and the fate of many of the peoples of Canaan. (The graphic description provided in the battle scenes of Joshua and Judges were not read during the daily prayers; these are available in our Bibles for people to read and reflect on individually.)

So alongside the map of those First Nations, we began to reflect on the experience of those peoples. We heard how the Uniting Church has described this period of history in the opening clauses of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the UCA (adopted in 2009 by the National Assembly). We listened, each day, to Aboriginal singers, singing both in their own languages as well as in English: the late Dr. G. Yunupingu (known as Gurrumul), Frank Yamma, Archie Roach, the group Wildflower, and then Yothu Yindi, singing their key song, “Treaty”. And we heard sentences from the 2017 Statement to the Nation read each day.

After this week of listening to the voices of the indigenous people in the morning prayers, the following week offered a series of reflections with a different psalm sung each day, drawn from the quieter, reflective psalms in which the psalmist reaches out to God to seek support and healing. It is as if these psalms might be sung by the First Peoples, in the light of their experiences of invasion and colonisation, the many massacres that took place, and the intergenerational trauma that resulted.

As we heard these psalms sung, we began also to listen to the series of psalms known as the “Psalms of Ascent”. They are so called because it is believed they were sung by faithful Israelites as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem on one of the three annual festivals—the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles (as listed in Deut 16:16). They begin “in my distress I cry to the Lord” (Ps 120:1), moving on to “I lift up my eyes to the hills” (Ps 121:1), as the outline of the city on Mount Zion appears in the far distance.

We can imagine the pilgrims drawing closer to the walls of the city as the psalmist sings, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’l (Ps 122:1), then offers an expression of trust in God (Ps 124:8; 125:1–2) and confidence in God’s house (Ps 127:1). I imagine that, entering the city, the psalmist offers to a heartfelt cry to God from “out of the depths” (Ps 130:1), and as the Temple comes into view, sings, “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool” (Ps 132:7).

Psalm 134 in Hebrew

As our daily prayers continue, we hear the shortest of all the Psalms of Ascent, with the pilgrims “stand[ing] by night in the house of the Lord”, concluding with the prayer, “may the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion” (Ps 134:3). As the season of Lent had begun with the theme “the desert waits”, so as we draw near to the end of the season, “the city beckons”. It is in the city that the pilgrims of long ago offered their sacrifices and praised their God. It is in the city that the story of Jesus, recalled especially in the days of Holy Week, reaches its climax.

This brings us to readings which recollect the entry of Jesus himself into the city of Jerusalem (Matt 21:1–11), the week of scenes in the Temple precincts (Matt 21:12—23:39) and nearby (Matt 24:1—26:2), and the hatching of the plot to arrest him (Matt 26:3–5) which would lead to his death, which is recalled as Good Friday ends the period of Lent.

We end daily prayers during Holy Week, on the morning of Maundy Thursday, with a section of Psalm 22. We know this psalm best from the fact that Jesus was said to have begun to say it, as he hung on the cross (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46). Whether he intended only to speak the first verse, or whether his waning strength meant he could get no further than this, we do not know.

We cannot know whether Jesus intended to end with the words of praise from the later part of the psalm (vv.21b to 31), with an exultant “praise in the great congregation”, proclaiming “his deliverance to a people yet unborn”, as some scholars speculate. More likely, in my thinking, he was content to stay in the despair and agony of the opening section (vv.1–21a), feeling forsaken, his prayers going unanswered, one scorned and mocked, “poured out like water, all of my bones out of joint, my heart like wax, melted within my breast “ (v.14).

The psalm portrays a man, completely human, utterly defeated, with no hope, crushed by events. Both Mark and Matthew report that this is how he ended his life. The end of our Lenten journey takes us to this place of abandonment. It will be the work of Easter to process the powerful emotions generated by this devastating state of being, and move through the testimony offered about the ensuing moments, to come through the tunnel of darkness, into “deliverance [for] a people yet unborn” (v.31). Those days are still ahead.


This is the day: let us be glad and rejoice! (Psalm 118; Easter Sunday A)

Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel Psalms—six psalms (113 to 118) which are sung or recited on high festival days, such as Passover (Pesach), the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Festival of Booths (Sukkot), as well as Hanukkah and the beginning of each new month. This final Hallel Psalm, like the other five, is intended to be an uplifting, celebratory song, suitable for the congregation to hear and to sing as a way to inspire and rejoice.

It is no surprise that this psalm is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Easter Sunday (Ps 118:1–2, 14–24), for this is a day which celebrates with joy the raising of Jesus from the dead (Matt 28:1–10). This psalm is very suited to the celebrations that take place in churches on this high holy day.

The psalm begins with a call to “give thanks” and an affirmation of the “steadfast love” of the Lord (vv.1-2). The next two verses, following the same pattern are omitted by the lectionary. However, I am thinking that the pattern of the first four verses, calling people to join in the affirmation, “his steadfast love endures forever”, could well be extended from “Israel … the house of Aaron … those who fear the Lord”, to include “let those who know the risen Lord Jesus say, “his steadfast love endures forever”.

God’s steadfast love is a recurrent theme throughout Hebrew Scripture, which often sings praises for “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9).

Affirmations of “[God’s] steadfast love” (v.2) are found in psalms (Ps 5:7; 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6–7; 25:10; 26:3; and another 100 times) and various narratives (Gen 24:12–14, 27; 32:10; 39:21; Exod 15:13; 20:6; 34:6–7; Num 4:18–19; Deut 5:10; 2 Sam 2:6; 7:15; 15:20; 22:51; 1 Ki 3:6; 8:23; 1 Chron 16:34, 41; 17:13; 2 Chron 1:8; 5:13; 6:14; 6:42; 7:3, 6; Ezra 3:11; 7:28; 9:9; Neh 1:5; 9:17, 32; 13:22).

Many prophets speak about God’s “steadfast love” (Isa 16:5; 54:10; 55:3; 63:7; Jer 9:24; 16:5; 32:18; 33:11; Lam 3:22, 33; Dan 9:4; Hos 2:19; 6:6; 10:12; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Micah 7:18), and Job also refers to it (Job 10:12).

The pervasive presence of this theme indicates just how central it was to ancient Israelite thought and how integral it was to how God was understood. The idea carries on into New Testament writings through the love that God expresses in Jesus (John 15:9; Rom 8:39; Eph 2:4–7; 1 John 3:1; 4:9) and is manifest through the Spirit (Rom 5:5; Gal 5:22).

However, we should never imagine that the God of love is simply “a New Testament idea”, in contrast to a perceived (completely inaccurate) view of “the God of wrath” in the Old Testament. The idea of divine love is shared in equal measure amongst both testaments. (So, too, we find the idea of divine judgement in both testaments—but that is another story!)


In the selection of verses offered by the lectionary (vv.1–2, 14–24), we encounter some other well-known concepts. The reference to “the chief cornerstone” (v.22) appears also in an oracle of Isaiah, “see, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Isa 28:16), which continues, “I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet” (Isa 28:17).

It is found also in Zechariah’s strident oracle against the shepherds, of whom the prophet says, “of them shall come the cornerstone, out of them the tent peg, out of them the battle bow, out of them every commander. Together they shall be like warriors in battle, trampling the foe in the mud of the streets; they shall fight, for the Lord is with them, and they shall put to shame the riders on horses” (Zech 10:4–5). Clearly, the “cornerstone” (along with “the tent peg” and “the battle bow”) offers a somewhat cryptic reference to an anticipated future leader in Israel.

The “cornerstone” has then been picked up in the New Testament, where it is interpreted as referring to Jesus; in a speech attributed to Peter when he and John were before the Council in Jerusalem because of a “good deed done to someone who was sick” (Acts 4:9), namely, the healing of a man lame from birth (Acts 3:1–10). “This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead”, Peter is reported as saying; “this Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11). This is a critical theological statement placed on the lips of Peter.

In like manner—although less directly, in a more allusive fashion—Jesus equates himself with this “cornerstone” when draws to a close his parable about the vineyard and the tenants who killed all who were sent to them by the master, culminating in the master’s son; at that point in the parable, Jesus curtly concludes, “have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:10–11; Matt 21:42; Luke 20:17). In this citation of the psalm, Jesus has extended to include the following verse, about “the Lord’s doing”, which is a cause for amazement.

We hear that affirmation on Easter Sunday, in the psalm: “this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes” (Ps 118:23). When included in a Christian liturgy, these words seem very readily to reflect the experience of the first Easter—a marvellous deed, indeed.

The psalm then continues in an upbeat manner, with “this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24), echoing once more an oracle of Isaiah, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us; this is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa 25:9). That oracle includes three elements included in this section of the psalm: joy, at the chosen time, with knowledge of salvation.

The linking of “be glad” with “rejoice” is also common throughout Hebrew Scriptures (1 Chron 16:31; Ps 14:7; 32:11; 40:16; 48:11; 53:6; 70:4; 90:14; 96:11; 97:1; 149:2; Prov 23:24–25; 24:17; Isa 35:1; 65:18; 66:10; Lam 4:21; Joel 2:21, 23; Zech 10:7). The people of Israel were called to joyous praise quite often.

The celebration of the means of salvation is certainly a theme that is relevant to Easter Sunday, when this psalm is offered in the lectionary. It is worth singing and celebrating on this day!


On Hallel psalms, see


It’s Holy Week again: a week set apart, in a time set apart

Today we begin Holy Week. This is the final part of a longer period leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of Christian faith.

Holy Week culminates the season of Lent, which is an ancient practice for a Christian people. It lasts for 40 days, serving as a time of preparation for Easter. But whereas Lent is an ancient tradition, Holy Week is a more recent development. Designating the week leading up to Easter as Holy Week most probably comes from the narration of chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus is understood as being in Jerusalem from a Sunday until his last meal on a Thursday.

We can see those time markers embedded in Mark’s account of Jesus’ final days:
Sunday – “when they were approaching Jerusalem …” [Mark 11:1]
Monday – “on the following day …” [Mark 11:12]
Tuesday – “In the morning …” [Mark 11:20]
Wednesday – “It was two days before Passover …” [Mark 14:1]
Thursday – “On the first day of Unleavened Bread …” [Mark 14:12]
Friday – “As soon as it was morning …” [Mark 15:1]
Saturday – “When the Sabbath was over …” [Mark 16:1]
Sunday – “Early on the first day of the week …” [Mark 16:2]”
(Thanks to Greg Jenks for setting this out so clearly in his blog.)

The week starts with Palm Sunday, when Christians remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and the crowds waving palm leaves as he enters the city. Jesus stays near to the city for the remainder of the week. On this day, we remember that event with festive processions and cheerful hymns.

Each day during Holy Week, from Monday to Thursday, many churches hold daily prayers that are pertinent to the week.

On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. His words are recorded in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This gives rise to the name for the day. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum—hence the name of the day, Maundy.

Some people believe that Lent officially ends at sundown on Maundy Thursday, so they celebrate that with Holy Communion, or with a meal known as an agapé or a “love feast”. It is a remembrance of the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers. Others maintain that Lent continues through into Easter Saturday, until the end of the day just before the empty tomb is discovered.

After Maundy Thursday comes Good Friday, remembering when Jesus was crucified. Why is this day called Good? It comes from the theological evaluation that, on this Friday, Jesus died on the cross “for our sins”, thereby securing our redemption. This is the basis for the “good news” which the Church has proclaimed for centuries.

Churches all around the world normally hold various rituals for people to attend. Roman Catholics have the Adoration of the Cross, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, the Stations of the Cross, and Evening Prayers. Anglicans have a three-hour service with reflections on the Last Words of Christ. Many people come for these times of gathering together.

The Stations of the Cross are focused around the events of Good Friday, recalling the various events which took place as Jesus made his way from his trial to his death on the cross. These Stations have been appropriated, in art or through personal creative responses, as ways of moving attention from the story as a singular ‘history’, to the significance of the story and the resonance of the events with universal human experiences.

Next comes Holy Saturday or Easter Eve—a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, and looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge from those event.

After Holy Saturday, the celebration of Easter Sunday bursts through the gloom and despair with a vibrant message: Jesus is risen, Jesus has conquered death. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. So the traditional affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. This leads into an expression of joy, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.

For the next period of time, the Church moves into a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues. And so the cycle continues, death turning into life, despair breaking out into hope, frustration moving into promise.

Easter itself emerged out of the Jewish festival of Passover, for this is the setting of the story about the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus that is reported in the Gospels (Mark 14:1–25; John 13:1; 18:28; 19:14).

There is a meme that circulates every year at this time, claiming that Waster was originally a pagan celebration, focussed on the fertility goddess Eostre—but this has no basis in fact. It derives from what seemed, to him, to be an educated guess made by the 8th century scholar, Bede, but this is completely incorrect.

See https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2009/april/was-easter-borrowed-from-pagan-holiday.html


Save us, we beseech you: singing a Hallel psalm (Psalm 118; Lent 6A, Palm Sunday)

“Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” This is the cry we hear in the psalm which is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday, the Sunday in Lent. Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel Psalms—six psalms (113 to 118) which are sung or recited on high festival days, such as Passover (Pesach), the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Festival of Booths (Sukkot), as well as Hanukkah and the beginning of each new month. This final Hallel Psalm, like the other five, is intended to be an uplifting, celebratory song, suitable for the congregation to hear and to sing as a way to inspire and rejoice.


It is no surprise that this psalm is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday—because the Gospel story for this day, of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd (Matt 21:1–11), is certainly one of celebration and joy. It is also, equally unsurprisingly, offered as the psalm for a week later, on Easter Sunday, which celebrates something much greater and more enduring: the raising of Jesus from the dead (Matt 28:1–10).

But clearly the psalm has a good fit with the Palm Sunday story that we will hear on Sunday; indeed, the Gospel writers report that the crowd cheering Jesus was singing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”—which is, of course, a verse from the final Hallel Psalm (Ps 118:26).

Blessing God is a favourite Jewish activity—indeed, so many prayers still used by Jews today begin with a phrase of blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God …”. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth is prayed before a meal. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine is prayed before drinking wine. And a favourite blessing which I learnt from Jews is Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment. It’s a prayer to mark momentous occasions in life.

All of these prayers of blessing begin with the Hebrew words, Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melekh ha’olam, the same formula of approaching, acknowledging, and blessing God.

We can see that formula used in blessings spoken by David (1 Chron 29:19 and the psalmist (Ps 119:12), as well as in later Jewish texts such as Tobit 3:11; 8:5, 15–17; Judith 13:17; 14:7; the Prayer of Azariah (six times), and 1 Maccabees 4:20. It appears also in New Testament texts such as Luke 1:68; Rom 9:5; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; and 1 Pet 1:3.

More familiar, perhaps, is when Jesus uses a prayer of blessing, but speaks it to human beings; “blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” (Matt 16:17), or “blessed are the eyes that see what you see”, to his disciples (Luke 10:23), or “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29), and most famously of all, in a set of blessings spoken to a crowd on a level place (Luke 6:20–22) or to his disciples on a mountain top (Matt 5:3–12).

So the cry of the crowd as Jesus enters Jerusalem, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118:26) is a typical Jewish exclamation at a moment of joyful celebration.


A further reason for linking this psalm with the Gospel narrative might well be that the cry of the crowd, “Hosanna!” (Mark 11:9–10; Matt 21:9; John 12:13). The word transliterated as “Hosanna” might actually be better translated as “save us”—another quote from the previous verse in that same psalm (Ps 118:25). The Hebrew comprises two words: hosha, which is from the verb “to save”, and then the word na, meaning “us”. Hosanna is not, in the first instance, a cry of celebration; rather, it is a cry of help, reaching out to God, pleading for assistance—and yet with the underlying confidence that God will, indeed, save, for “his steadfast love endures forever” (vv.1, 29).


Whilst the psalm, overall, sounds thanks for a victory that has been achieved, the petition, “save us” (v. 25) lies behind the first substantial section of this psalm (vv.5–14), which is largely omitted by the lectionary offering for this coming Sunday (which is Ps 118:1–2, 14–24). That section begins “out of my distress I called on the Lord” (v.5), claims that “the Lord is on my side to help me” (v.7), and concludes with rejoicing, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me; the Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (vv.13–14).

Save us” is a prayer offered in other psalms (Ps 54:1; 80:2; 106:47); the petition appears more often in the singular, “save me” (Ps 7:1; 22:21; 31:16; 54:1; 55:16; 59:2; 69:1; 71:2; 109:26; 119:94, 146; 142:6; 143:9). “Save us” when faced with danger is the prayer of the elders of Israel as they faced the Philistine army (1 Sam 4:3) and the all the people a little later (1 Sam 7:8), David when the ark was put in place in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:35), Hezekiah when Judah was being threatened by the Assyrians (2 Ki 19:19), as well as the prophet Isaiah at the same time (Isa 25:9; 33:22; 37:20).

This prayer in the context of festive celebrations—the context for which Psalm 118 appears to have been written—expresses the firm confidence of the people, trusting in the power of their God. That viewpoint is perfectly applicable to the Palm Sunday story (and even more so to the Easter Sunday narrative!).

But this psalm is not only a prayer of celebration; it is also a strong statement about the resilience and trust of the people, expressing their belief that God will give them redemption, even in the face of their Roman overlords, who had held political and military power for many decades. If this is what the crowd intended with their cry as Jesus enters the city—and I have no reason to see otherwise—then this is a striking, courageous political cry embedded in the story! It is a cry that affirms that salvation is at hand.


Salvation is what is in the mind of the people as they cry, “save us” (v.25) and the earlier affirmation, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (v.21). As we have noted, “save us” was a recurring cry amongst the Israelites. In the song sung after the Exodus, the people acclaim God, singing “the Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (Exod 15:2). In his song of thanksgiving after battles with the Philistines, David praises God as “my rock, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Sam 22:3; also vv.36, 47, 51; and 1 Chron 16:23, 35).

The same language, of salvation, appears in the psalms (Ps 13:5; 18:2, 35, 46; 24:5; 25:5; and another 40 times) and the prophets (Isa 12:2–3; 25:9; 33:2, 6; 45:8, 17; 46:13; 51:5–6; 52:7, 10; 56:1; 59:11; 61:10; 62:11; Mer 3:23; Mic 7:7; Hab 3:18). From the psalms, we remember “the Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps 27:1); from Isaiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6).

There are a dozen occasions in Hebrew Scripture when God is identified as Saviour (2 Sam 22:3; Ps 17:7; 106:21; Isa 43:3, 11; 45:15, 21; 49:26; 60:16; 63:8; Jer 14:8); as the Lord God declares through Hosea, “I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no Saviour” (Hos 14:4).

Salvation is linked with righteousness; “the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord … he rescues them from the wicked and saves them” (Ps 37:39–40). Being righteous is a quality of the Lord God (Ps 11:7; 35:28; 50:6; 71:16; 85:10; 89:16; 97:2, 6; 103:17; 111:3; 116:5; 119:137, 152; 129:4; Isa 45:21; Jer 23:6; 33:16; Dan 9:16; Zeph 3:5) which is thus desired of those in covenant with God (Gen 18:19; 1 Sam 26:23; 2 Sam 22:21, 25; 1 Ki 10:9; 2 Chron 9:8; Job 29:14; Ps 5:8; 9:8; 11:7; 33:5; Prov 1:3; Isa 1:27; 5:7; 28:17; 42:6; 61:11; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:5–9; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Zeph 2:3; Mal 3:3).

It is no surprise, then, that this psalm celebrates that “[God] has become my salvation” (Ps 118:21) by holding a “festal procession with branches” (v.27), entering through “the gates of righteousness” (v.19) and proceeding all the way “up to the horns of the altar” (v.27), singing “save us, Lord” (v.25) and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26). This is a high celebratory moment!

So the closing verses take us back to the opening refrain, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (v.29; see also vv.1–4). The celebration is lifted to the highest level, with praise and thanksgiving abounding. And that makes this a perfect psalm for Palm Sunday!


On the indications of the political nature of the Palm Sunday scene, see


The end of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations and, hopefully, their aggressive apologetic antagonism

Another step in the story of evangelical fundamentalism in the Uniting Church has come to a close. The Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) has recently decided to close. It brings to an end a long process of various evangelical organisations within the life of the Uniting Church which have attempted to “correct” the theology and practice of the Uniting Church, since it was established in 1977. They said they were evangelical; I heard little of the Gospel in their words and saw only dogmatic fundamentalism in what they did.

The ACC has existed as an entity within the UCA since 2006. It took its name from the Confessing Church that formed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s—a name that has also been adopted by other conservative groups around the world, staking their claim for “the true Gospel”. Of course, looking back to the 1930s and 1940s, we can see that the German Confessing Church in Hitler’s Germany did, indeed, hold fast to the principles of the Gospel. For other movements that later took that name, making their stand over other issues does not appear to be as clear cut. At least, that is my take on them.

The ACC is the child of the Reforming Alliance (RA), which had been formed in 2003—the RA was a relatively short-lived entity, as it soon morphed into the ACC in 2006. RA itself was a child of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU), making the ACC the grandchild of EMU. EMU had been formed early in the life of the Uniting Church.

Each of these conservative splinter groups sought to enforce their narrow and retrograde understanding of matters pertaining particularly to sexuality on the whole UCA—with persistent, and increasing, failure. They each, in turn, failed in that enterprise.

The proponents of the conservative theological perspective articulated by these splinter organisations buttressed their claims with a particular way of reading scripture, and with a particular mode of theological argumentation that slots well into the field called Apologetics. That’s the name given to a way of arguing that sets out a collection of beliefs that are held by a certain group and advocates that this cluster of beliefs represents “right doctrine”, “the true faith”, “what Bible-believing Christians hold to”, or some other catchphrase that revolves around being right.

Apologetics at its best the craft of arguing your case, putting forward your point of view, in a way that engages constructively with the listener. It can be done in an irenic and reasoned way. But the way the ACC and its precursors argued was anything but irenic and reasoned. The implication from much of what they said has been that those who hold different viewpoints to the one they are proposing are just plain wrong. It’s a style of speaking and writing that often, in these kinds of situations, takes on a hard edge—moving from assertions about beliefs, to a much more aggressive manner of apologetic argumentation. We can see that throughout the years that these groups were in existence.


Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church started as Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, formed in South Australia out of a concern about the so-called “liberal” tendencies dominant in the newly-formed Uniting Church. Over time, the SA group grew with branches formed in other Synods, and then a national organisation emerged.

In the early years of the church, various evangelical members and ministers had opposed the church’s commitment to equality and mutuality, specifically arguing against female ministers. In my first parish, for instance, in 1981–1983, I worked hard to engage with members of my own parish, as well as members of other nearby UCA congregations, who held to that retrograde view and argued that the UCA was doing the wrong thing by ordaining women. They argued apologetically against me, and others. I think their apologetics were misguided.

I was a member of a Synod working group later in the 1980s that produced resources addressing the issue of mutuality in ministry, and the ordination of women, in direct response to evangelical members pushing the counter position. I know that women in ministry in the UCA have continued to experience discrimination and marginalisation into the 21st century. I have both heard from others, and witnessed for myself, some horror stories, unfortunately.

EMU was strongly focused on the issue of biblical authority. (This stance has been used to undergird the claim that the Bible does not support the ordination of women). The doctrinal statement crafted by EMU had strong resonances with the general conservative evangelical assertion that the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and completely authoritative, even though the founding documents of the UCA had explicitly not included such terminology. It’s almost fundamentalist, I think.

For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by EMU, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/emusite/All%20About%20emu/Doctrinal%20Statement.pdf


Already in the 1980s the Assembly had established a Task Group on Sexuality, exploring the issues raised by EMU and then RA. There is a good summary of the work of this group, and the ensuing two decades of discussion of sexuality, at https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/PDF/SexualityandLeadership_DocumentingtheHistory.pdf

The Reforming Alliance was established in response to the 10th Assembly’s decision in 2003, not to make a statement opposing the ordination of people who are in a same-gender relationship.

RA had fought against the reasoned articulation of “an informed faith” in relation to scripture and sexuality. Its apologetic line was to advocate a conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist, approach to scripture, which although it had been the dominant paradigm in some denominations, had never been the way that the UCA had approached biblical interpretation.

The push by RA to have a ban placed on ordaining candidates who expressed an attraction to people of the same gender, whether or not they were in an active relationship of not, has failed spectacularly—there are now scores of ordained people who live in same gender relationships and, since 2019, have been married to a person of the same gender.

For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by the Reforming Alliance, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/resources/reforming-alliance/

After the decision of the Assembly in 2003, there was a resurgence in rhetoric warning that the church would die, that this latest decision would mark the end of the Uniting Church. The rhetoric was steadily inflated. The apologetic took on an angry, aggressive tone. The strategy seemed to be to induce guilt about the future of the church, with the hope that this would result in an overturning of the decision. It did not. Some people left the UCA. Some congregations split. Ministry and Mission continued apace. The UCA continued on.


After the 11th Assembly in 2006, a special summit of the remnants of EMU and the relatively new Reforming Alliance met, to establish a new organisation, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) within the Uniting Church. The marriage was purely on the basis of sex—or, at least, on a common negative view of sexuality and a shared desire to combat anything that was perceived to be accepting of same-gender attracted people in ministry, and accepting also of same-gender relationships.

The battle waged by the ACC has continued into the present time. The appologetic rhetoric has continued, and intensified, as the obvious lack of impact in the strategy became more evident. The focus became narrower and narrower; more discriminatory, more homophobic. The furious attempts to generate guilt and build opposition was magnified, but to no avail. The move,ent began to dwindle. Meanwhile, the Uniting Church has continued on the path it has set years ago: a path of welcome and inclusion, and the valuing of all people.

So, what we have seen in recent years is playing out the four decades of the UCA where disenchanted conservative evangelical pietistic fundamentalists have resisted the moves towards “an informed faith” which thinking Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians all saw as a key commitment within the Uniting Church. The ACC has been waging an ongoing battle against this position for 15 years, but the majority of the UCA has always been engaged with the processes of critical thinking and fresh words and deeds which the Basis of Union holds as a key value.

In the last few years, the ACC has swerved even more to the hard right; it spoke in tones even harsher and unflinching, compared to RA and EMU. The extremes of the theological position of the ACC can be seen on their webpage at


and also in a statement expressing its hard line about sexuality, at



It has only been in recent days that the ACC has “seen the light” and realised that continuing this battle is futile. An attempt earlier this year (2023) to negotiate a way for ACC congregations to leave the Uniting Church, but maintain the use of the property they inhabited and continue to use the funds they had accumulated, got nowhere.

Because the Uniting Church was set up with a structure in which the property is legally owned by the legal entity, the UCA Property Trust, established by law in each state and territory, no local congregation has legal ownership of their property. Each congregation enjoys “beneficial stewardship” of the property—they can use it, and look after it, but they do not own it in the strict legal sense. That has been the case for all of the 46 years during which the Uniting Church has been in existence.

So, after the ACC pitch for an amenable parting of the ways got nowhere—and after some key leaders of the ACC had their recognition as Uniting Church Ministers removed—the ACC national executive saw the writing on the wall, prepared a proposal to close the organisation, and then last week the national membership of the ACC voted to close.

A recent group of ACC leaders

It has been a sad and sorry saga; not because we have come to a sad end result (on the contrary!), but because of the turmoil caused and the damage inflicted by rabid members of the ACC and their predecessors over the last four decades. The constant badgering of councils of the church to address matters which they saw as of primary importance—but which did not figure in most people’s view as warranting that amount of attention—has been frustrating, annoying, and counter-productive. The Gospel has actually been hindered by these tactics.

The regular antagonism, the growing negativity in rhetoric, and the incidences of specific vitriolic attacks on individuals within the church—undertaken by members of the ACC and their predecessors, and targeted largely at gay, lesbian, and transgender people—has been utterly shameful. I don’t know how many times I have heard people from within the LGBTIQA+ community recount how terribly they have been treated within church circles—including, but not limited to, the Uniting Church. And as far as I can tell, any ACC leader who was called to account for such behaviour failed to acknowledge any remorse, or show any compassion over such behaviour.

The regular response I have heard and read is that they are “standing up for the Gospel”, “declaring the truth to an apostate church”, and suchlike. There is no compassion, no empathy, no understanding—simply an aggressive prosecution of a rigid dogmatic line. I know this to be the case across the board; I know it especially since Elizabeth and I have each been targeted by a rogue ACC member, who is completely without understanding and completely without compassion in the way he goes about things. I don’t think he is an exception; I have heard and seen other instances of the same behaviour.

It is a well-known fact that members of the LGBTIQA+ community are much more likely to have suicidal ideation and at times to act on that, and also to develop other negative coping mechanisms that impinge upon their mental and physical health—simply because of the way that they are treated, the terrible negative comments and brutal attacks that they have to endure, simply because of who they are. That is completely unacceptable. The words and deeds of the ACC have fed into this dynamic; ACC leaders have fostered this negativity, persecution, and even irrational hatred. It is completely unChristian.

So that is why this has been a sad and sorry saga. I rejoice at the conclusion of the ACC. I lament that it did not come years early. I am sad that there was ever felt a need to create EMU, or RA, or ACC. I rejoice that the Uniting Church is committed to providing safe spaces for members of the LGBTIQA+ community, just as much as for straight people. We are all welcome, all included, all valued, and all honoured for being faithful followers of Jesus, across a wonderfully varied spectrum of identities.


Today is a good day to reflect on these matters. Today is the Trans Day of Visibility—an annual international celebration of trans pride and awareness, recognising trans- and gender-diverse experiences and achievements. Gender diverse people right around Australia gather on this day to share stories, engaged in conversations, and attend trans-focusses events.

Trans Day of Visibility was started by activist Rachel Crandall in 2009 as a reaction to the lack of recognition of trans people, noting that the only well known gender-diversity centered day at that time was the Trans Day of Mourning, a day of mourning, on 20 November. So the j was created as a counterpoint to this; a day to acknowledge and celebrate living members of the transgender community. International Transgender Day of Visibility has been held on March 31 ever since.

In our current context in society, when trans people are the object of vitriolic verbal abuse as well as physical assault—simply for identifying as transgender—it is important for people of goodwill to speak out in support of trans people. Undergoing that journey in your life is a significant and challenging process; adding verbal and physical negativity on top of the challenges of the process is most unfair.

I have been blessed in recent years to get to know a number of trans people personally. In each case, they are people of integrity, who have quite a story to tell, who are committed to expressing in public “who they feel they really are, deep down”. It’s a journey and a commitment that I feel I have no right to criticise—I feel I should only be honouring them for their chosen pathway in life. Indeed, being true to yourself has been a virtue since the classical period of Greece and Rome, millennia ago.

We should honour and value those people in our midst who, facing a large challenge, knowing that they are walking into the active dislike and fear that other people have, still choose to walk the way of absolute inner integrity and complete honesty. That’s what this day offers us: we see trans people, we hear them, we honour them. They are valued.


My previous posts on the various evangelical/fundamentalist groups in the UCA are at

See also my post on the United Methodist Church at

For the various affirmations that the Assembly has made that led the church to agree to the marriage of people of the same gender, see

See also


Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey (Zech 9; Matt 21; Lent 6A, Palm Sunday)

“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” So reports the Gospel of Matthew, in the Gospel offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Matt 21:1–11). The same story is told at Mark 11 and Luke 19.

John’s account is much more succinct; that Gospel simply notes, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12:14), before explaining that this fulfils what was written in a scripture passage, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zech 9:9).

The narrator in Matthew’s Gospel explains that “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Matt 21:15). The prophet who is referred to in both John and Matthew is Zechariah, a post-exilic figure whose work is found as the eleventh of the twelve Minor Prophets in Hebrew Scripture.

Zechariah was active in the period when the exiles in Babylon were returned to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by a decree of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Second Isaiah described as God’s “Messiah”; see Isa 45:1). We are told that in his decree, Cyrus acknowledges “the Lord, the God of heaven” and states that “any of those among you who are of his people … are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:2–4).

Under Nehemiah as Governor, worship had been reinstituted in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1–7), the walls around the city of Jerusalem were rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), and the Temple was rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 5–6). After this, the Law was read in the city under the guidance of Ezra, a priest who is also described as a scribe (Neh 8) and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 9–10).

Initially, there was opposition to the rebuilding works from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1–16), and with intervention from King Artaxerxes, work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:17–24). The narrative in Ezra reports that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1), and then work on restoring the temple recommenced (Ezra 5:2).

Further opposition emerged (Ezra 5:3–17), resulting in intervention from King Darius that decreed “let the house be rebuilt … let the Governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site … let it be done with all diligence” (Ezra 6:1–12).

The end result is that the prophets of the Lord and the rulers of the Persian Empire collaborated together to ensure that the temple would be restored: “So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia” (Ezra 6:14).


Zechariah dates his opening prophecy to “the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (Zech 1:1), which places him as a contemporary of Haggai and perhaps around the same time that the anonymous prophet whose words are known as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56—66). Zechariah begins witha familiar prophetic refrain: “return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (1:3), noting that when this message was presented to earlier Israelites, “they repented and said, ‘the Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do’” (1:6).

What follows this opening salvo is a report of eight visions (1:7—6:8). They are dated to “the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (2:7), two months after the final prophecy of Haggai. The visions combine glimpses of hope with reminders of the need to remain faithful to the covenant: “if you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (3:7). The fourth vision (3:1–10) includes the figure of “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew) standing at the right hand of Joshua, to accuse him (3:1).

At the conclusion of the eighth vision there follows words of condemnation (7:1–7) and punishment (7:8–14), citing classic prophetic notes: “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9–10).

Then come words of promise (8:1–23): “I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (8:3). Once again, prophetic injections are offered: “speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16–17).

An oracle pronouncing judgement on other nations then follows (9:1–8), followed by a joyful celebration of the restoration of Judah (9:9–11:3), introduced by a rousing shout of joy: “rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). This verse is well-known, of course, from its quotation in the story of Jesus’s entry into the city of Jerusalem, which we will hear this Sunday (Matt 21:5).

A quirky feature is that some interpreters have taken the words of Zechariah so literally, that they imagine Jesus actually had two animals with him as he entered the city. Of course, the original oracle was formed in typical Hebraic parallelism, a pattern whereby an idea is expressed one way, then immediately repeated using other words. Thus, “riding on a donkey” was the first expression of the idea, followed immediately by “on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. One animal, two ways of expressing that.

The remaining chapters of Zechariah continue the note of exultation about the future, reworking the motif of “the day of the Lord” so that it signals joy for Jerusalem and terror for other nations (12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2, 4; 14:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21). A triumphant note of universalism is sounded: “on that day “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (14:9) and “all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (14:16).

The quotation from Zechariah in the story is a reminder that there is always hope; in the difficult situation of rebuilding the beloved ruins, reconstituting the fractured society, reconstituting the religious practices and customs that had lapsed, hope remains strong. Little did those travelling with Jesus into the city know what lay ahead of him, and them, in the coming days. Their hopes were high, very high, on this day. Joy came easily to them.

It was a day for celebration. This could well be the time when “the Lord will become king over all the earth”—even over the mighty Romans, they may well have felt. Joy was the dominant emotion, as the singing, waving of branches, and celebration demonstrated.


On why Jesus was riding a donkey, and not a horse (definitely NOT a horse!), see https://johntsquires.com/2023/03/27/why-jesus-never-did-and-never-would-ride-a-horse-for-palm-sunday-lent-6/


From the Statement from the Heart to the Voice to advise Parliament and Government

At a meeting of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church, held at North Belconnen Uniting Church on Saturday 25 March 2023, Nathan Tyson was invited to address the Presbytery on issues relating to the upcoming referendum proposal to establish a Voice to advise the Federal Parliament and the Executive Government. There was a full house as Nathan spoke and then responded to questions from those present.

The Rev. Ivan Roberts introduced Nathan Tyson. Ivan has worked with Nathan in Synod roles since 2017. Nathan is currently the Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement with the Uniting Church in Australia’s Synod of NSW and the ACT. He is an Aboriginal man of Anaiwon/Gomeroi descent, who has lived most of his life in Sydney.

Nathan Tyson addressing the Presbytery

Nathan is a lawyer and long time advocate for the rights of Aboriginal peoples, having worked for organisations such as the NSW Ombudsman, the ICAC, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Western Sydney University, and Uniting, before commencing his role with the Synod in May this year. Nathan is currently undertaking a Graduate Diploma in Theology.

Nathan spoke to the Presbytery about the Statement from the Heart, and matters promoted in that Statement, namely, Truth, Treaty, and Voice.

The Statement from the Heart, 2017

The Statement emerged after twelve regional dialogues, relating particularly to constitutional recognition, had occurred. The process drew together many conversations that had taken place amongst First Peoples in the previous decade. The Statement was crafted during a gathering at Yulara, close to Uluṟu in the heart of the continent of Australia. There was a diversity of views at the gathering, including a group that left the gathering before the Statement was finalised. This diversity reflects the reality of society in Australia, and of Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

Truth, Treaty, Voice

The Statement calls for a Makarrata Commission, following a model used in Canada. There needs to be a recognition of the terrible things that did take place in Australia in the past; Truth means acknowledging that history, and the impact that it has had on our society. There is no need for personal guilt amongst those of us living today; rather, it is simply acknowledging the Truth about that history.

The Statement asks for the Commission to oversee a process of forming Treaties with the First Peoples. (There would need to be multiple treaties, as there are multiple First Nations in Australia.) Such treaties exist in all the other Commonwealth countries; Australia is the only nation without such a Treaty. Having a Treaty—or Treaties—in place would enable constructive ways of addressing the past and its impacts into the present.

The Synod has supported Truth, Treaty, and Voice. (See the link below.) All three are equally important; they each need to be implemented, they each need to be in place. (The Assembly is likewise strongly supportive, have agreed to the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in 2015 and recognised the prior sovereignty of First Nations in 2018. Again, see the links below.)

The Presbytery discussing the presentation by Nathan Tyson

The Voice

The question for the referendum has been made public. It is a straightforward proposition. There are key principles underpinning the proposal. There are also key criticisms that have been made in recent times.

Opponents to “Voice before Treaty” claim that this will cede the sovereignty of First Peoples. This is not the case. As a lawyer, Nathan recognises that any ceding of sovereignty would need to involve the free, prior, and informed consent of the First Nations people. Sovereignty will be addressed through the process relating to Treaty.

A second criticism relates to the order of things. “Treaty should come before Voice” is the claim. Applying the doctrine of terra nullius in 1788 meant that a Treaty was not required. Now that the Mabo decision has declared terra nullius null and void, a Treaty process is required. Nathan compared the situation in Australia with what is the case in New Zealand. There was never, here, any opportunity to cede sovereignty, as there has been in New Zealand.

A third area of criticism is, quite simply, “we don’t trust government”. The Stolen Generations feeds this, and there are legitimate concerns here. However, the present government does want to move things forward. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is an opening we need to take. If not now, how long will we have to wait?

Solidarity through tshirts!!

The process is a legislative process—the politicians will be responsible for creating the detail of this matter as it is prepared, debated, and decided upon in the Federal Parliament. To say “we don’t have enough detail” is disingenuous, as those critics will be sitting in Parliament, deciding those details!

Nathan quoted from the documents already released which explain how The Voice will work. It will make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government; it can research, propose, and advocate through these representations. Membership will be by elected members, representative, and with fixed term limitations. Membership will rely on the three-part test that has been applied since 1983 (a person identifies as Aboriginal, is recognised by their community, and is Aboriginal by descent). It will have gender, age, and geographical diversity. Members will reflect the wishes of their communities.

A key task for the Voice will be to address the current situation of inequity experienced in Aboriginal communities, with direct access to advise and advocate. It will be accountable and transparent, subject to the usual processes of all governmental bodies. It will work alongside existing First Peoples organisations. It will not deliver services; it is only advisory. It will not be a third body in the parliamentary structures, despite what a former Prime Minister (mistakenly) claimed.

What is the point of a body that does not make decisions? Is that not creating a body with no power? Article 19 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides that Indigenous peoples have the right not to consent to decisions that may impact on them. That is not reflected in the Voice. However, the advice provided to the Voice will be made public, for all to see. If the advice is counter to proposed legislation, that will be public. There is a level of public accountability, and the Voice will certainly have power within the current system. It will not be a powerless body.

Nathan suggested that it may be helpful to see the new Voice as an Indigenous lobby group, akin to the ACTU, the Business Council of Australia, the Farmers Federation, and other lobby groups. He then responded to a series of questions which sought further clarifications, and comments which expressed support for the case he had put.

In making a proposal to thank Nathan Tyson for his presentation, Presbytery Secretary Robbie Tulip noted that the UCA Assembly and the UAICC National body has supported a YES vote, as has the Board of Uniting and five of the six Synods of the UCA.

In response to the substantive matters in Robbie’s proposal, the Presbytery agreed by consensus that it would support advocacy for a YES vote in the referendum in the coming months; encourage Church Councils to consider the issues involved in the Voice and to facilitate local conversations about this issue; and to encourage all members of the church to give serious consideration to the way that they vote in that referendum.

(In the Uniting Church way of doing things, a consensus decision means that all who took part in the deliberation and decision process agreed to the proposal, and nobody participating in that indicated that they were unsure of, or opposed to, the decision.)


For resources relating to First Nations people that Nathan Tyson has collected and developed, go to https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

For Uniting Church decisions, see my reflections at

On relevant themes in recent years, see


Reading scripture with attention to its context (John 11, Year A)

The lectionary has offered us a series of readings during Lent which show Jesus encountering and conversing with others (John 3, 4, 9, and 11). The anonymous author of the Gospel of John had high-level literary and dramatic skills. The lectionary has very clearly demonstrated this in the series of readings offered in weeks 2–5 of Lent.

The Pharisee in Jerusalem (Ch.3) is really a foil who asks leading questions which offer Jesus the opportunity to speak forth at some length for the first time in the Gospel (3:11–21). The woman in Samaria is a genuine dialogue partner for Jesus who learns through the back-and-forth of their conversation about a number of matters (4:7–26). The story of the man born blind (9:1–41) is presented as a seven-part comedic drama, illustrating the “light of the world” claim of Jesus (8:12; 9:5) and showing how people respond in varied ways to that.

Then, the story of Lazarus (11:1–45) is a complex dramatic moment, a story with its own integrity and form, with a range of characters and varied dramatic moments. This story also serves as the seventh and final sign in the Gospel; these signs commenced at 2:1–11 and are interspersed throughout the ensuing narrative (4:46–54; 5:1–9; 6:1–15; 6:16–21; 9:1–7; and 11:38–44). This sign, like others before, has lead many to believe (11:45), but it serves also to confirm the plot of the Sanhedrin leaders to arrest and kill Jesus: the reason for the crucifixion, in this author’s eyes (11:46–53; 11:57; 18:1–12).

All of this is a masterly dramatic development through the first half of this “book of signs”. These stories are certainly worth hearing in full every three years!

These encounters, however, are told in the context of an emerging story which places Jesus into a position of antagonist, arguing and dissenting, disputing and disagreeing, with some regularity. This thread comes to a head in the story of Martha and Mary, their recently-deceased brother Lazarus, and Jesus (John 11:1–45).

The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb marks a climactic moment, for the family in Bethany and many of their neighbours (11:44–45), but also for the chief priests and Pharisees, who together determine to put Jesus to death (11:53). The seventh sign recounted in this Gospel is the most significant miracle of Jesus, but also the deed that determines the fate of Jesus, for it leads immediately to the plot to arrest Jesus (11:53) and then inevitably to his death at the hands of the Romans (19:30).

Soon after he has raised Lazarus back to life in Bethany, Jesus says, “I have come to this hour” (12:27), the hour when “I am lifted up from the earth, [when I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32), the hour when the Father will “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). The death of Jesus is to be, paradoxically, the complete fulfilment of his mission (19:30). Its inevitability has been flagged since early in the Gospel narrative.

Antagonism begins early in that narrative. It is initially signalled by “the incident in the Temple” (John 2:13–22). In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus tells the Pharisee, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (3:11–12). The plural form of the Greek word translated “you” makes it clear that the “you” being addressed is at least the collective Sanhedrin Council, if not the whole population of Judea. It is an oppositional, confrontational encounter at this point.

In talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus reflects the historical antagonism between the Judeans of the south and those of the north. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”, the woman says to Jesus (4:20). Jesus replies, pugnacious oh, “you worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). The use of the plural “you” once again in these verses makes clear the antagonism between the peoples, especially if we translate that final phrase, “salvation is from the Judeans”.

When Jesus heals a man born blind, the Jewish authorities function as the chorus reflecting on, and reacting to, the events taking place in Jerusalem. First, some Pharisees declare, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” (9:16). Then, they declare to the healed man, “we know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (9:29).

Their view of Jesus is quite negative— in an earlier debate with him, they had called him “a Samaritan and have a demon” (8:48), and that encounter ends, “they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59). Mind you, Jesus had said to them, “you are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (8:44), so it was a vigorous two-way argument!

So Jesus responds to the negativity of the Jewish authorities who questioned his credentials after learning of the healing of the man born blind, with a statement, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39), followed by, “if you were blind, you would not have sin; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41). This encounter ends, yet again, on a negative note.

Then, after Jesus has raised Lazarus back to life, the Jewish authorities decide to make their move. Worried that, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48), Caiaphas leads with these prophetic words: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so, “from that day on they planned to put him to death” (11:53).

Jesus is clearly aware of this antagonism; he later warns his disciples, “the world hates you” (15:19), and then, “they will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (16:2). And of course, the narrative of the Gospel ends with Jesus handed over to die by crucifixion (18:28). We need to think carefully about how we interpret this antagonism.


Was the world an evil place, in the sway of the devil, which would inevitably turn against Jesus? But what, then, of the claim that God sent Jesus because he “so loved the world” (3:16)? How are we to see the relationship between Jesus and “the world”?

Of course, it needs to be said that none of these scenes offered by the lectionary—nor any of the intervening scenes in this Gospel—come as eyewitness (or rather, earwitness) accounts of what actually happened in a real, historical encounter. Of none of the scenes can we say with certainty that they actually occurred, let alone that the dialogue recorded by the author of the book of signs was what was actually said. These scenes are all literary creations, perhaps based on a report of an encounter that took place, but most certainly elaborated and developed over a period of time, worked into a narrative that catches attention, invites reflection, and has a life all of its own.

“John” wrote his book of signs some 50 to 80 years after the lifetime of Jesus. The account of each of these conversations—at night with Nicodemus, at noon with the woman, in Jerusalem with the authorities, and then the encounter in Bethany and the council meeting in Jerusalem—are thus far removed from each of these events. (How could we possibly claim to know verbatim what was said in a Sanhedrin meeting in the early 30s CE? — especially since the High Priest articulates a central tenet of later Christian doctrine!).

I recently read a comment that said, “The television show MASH was set during the Korean War but was about the Vietnan War. While the framework was faithful to the earlier conflict with regard to combatants, equipment, etc., the issues selected reflected Vietnam: distrust of authority, questioning blind patriotism, the need to get around the rules, the effort to ‘get out of this place’, the cynicism-based humor.”

Similarly, John tells a story set in the the time of Jesus; but this period is seen through the lens of the division of Christians and Jews that has eventuated and the heartache that comes when there’s a separation. I think that’s a helpful analogy. The later situation, when the work is created, is reflected in so many ways, even though the story is set decades earlier. As with MASH, so with John’s Gospel.

The depictions of these encounter scenes in the first half of John’s Gospel are shaped by the events that have taken place over those intervening decades—particularly, the rising antagonism between “messianic Jews” following Jesus, and “rabbinic Jews” adhering to the teachings of their teachers. The antagonism reflects the situation.

John’s Gospel indicates, three times, that followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:1–2). That’s quite a schism! So any negative comments or portrayals of people from years back may well have as much to do with what has transpired in those intervening years, as with the actual event—probably, I think, much more to do with those intervening years than with the conversations and encounters as reported in the book of signs. All of this is basic Gospel interpretation.

The church to which I belong, the Uniting Church in Australia, adopted a Statement on Jews and Judaism in 2009 (I was on the working group that developed initial material for this) which offered guidance about our theology, exegesis, and preaching. It is in the same vein as many other statements issued by various enlightened denominations around the world, ever since the lead was taken by the Roman Catholic Church in promulgating Nostra Aetate in 1965.

(I published an analysis of these statements as “Christians relating to Jews: key issues in public statements”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44/2, 2009, 180–202.)

Nostra Aetate covered important new ground: it repudiated the centuries-old “deicide” charge against all Jews, stressed the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirmed the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel, and dismissed church interest in trying to baptize Jews. It called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and biblical and theological discussions to better understand each other’s faith. Many other Christian denominations have followed suit in the decades since.

The 2009 Uniting Church Statement 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).

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism

That’s a key guiding principle for me, as I read and interpret the Gospels—particularly those attributed to John and Matthew, for these books contain texts which have been grossly and inventively distorted and misused by the Church over many centuries, to fuel the false doctrine of supersessionism and thus the hatred of antisemitism. They do provide evidence for the growing separation between Judaism and Christianity, but they should not be used in a supersessionist way or to fuel antisemitism.

The Uniting Church Statement offers concise definitions of supersessionism (“the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God”) and antisemitism (“a term coined in imperial Germany during the 1870s by propagandists who did not wish Jews to enjoy equal rights with Christians. Its true political meaning is ‘I am against the Jews’.”). We should take care not to reflect either of these in our interpretation of scripture. Passages from John’s Gospel, especially, present us with the temptation to be negative about “the Jews”. We need to resist these temptations with all our heart!


See also


Flesh and bones, spirit and life (Ezek 37, Psalm 130, Rom 8, John 11, Lent 5A)

On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the scripture passages offered by the lectionary revolve around a central theme: life in contrast to death. It’s not every Sunday that all four passages line up to provide a clear and obvious focus on a single theme. For more than half of the Sundays in the year, the Hebrew Scripture, Epistle, and Gospel each follow their own course, and any overlap of theme is accidental, not planned. For Sundays in Advent, Christmas, and Lent, as well as key days like Pentecost, Trinity, and the Reign of Christ, the thematic overlap is intentional. This week we have just such a Sunday!

Death is at the heart of the story of Lazarus that forms the Gospel passage for Sunday (John 11:1–45). Initially, Jesus is told “he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3), but when he arrives in Bethany, Martha accosts him with “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21)—an accusation repeated by her sister Mary (11:31); and then comes a graphic description provided by Martha as they draw near to the tomb: “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:39).

The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb marks a climactic moment, for the family in Bethany and many of their neighbours (11:44–45), but also for the chief priests and Pharisees, who together determine to put Jesus to death (11:53). The seventh sign recounted in this Gospel is the most significant miracle of Jesus, but also the deed that determines the fate of Jesus. Soon after this event in Bethany, he says, “I have come to this hour” (12:27), the hour when “I am lifted up from the earth, [when I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32), the hour when the Father will “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). The death of Jesus is to be, paradoxically, the complete fulfilment of his mission (19:30)—the pathway into life eternal (3:16; 10:28; 17:3).

This climactic movement, of death moving to life in Bethany, resonates with the words of the prophet Ezekiel and also the writings of the apostle Paul that are offered for this coming Sunday. Ezekiel confronts the signs of death: “The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry” (Ezek 37:1–2). Paul considers the state of humanity: “to set the mind on the flesh is death … the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:6–8).

So, death is in view in these three readings. It is no wonder that the psalm we are offered alongside them speaks a cry of deep despair: “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Ps 130:1). The depths of the earth were the place where sinful people went (Ps 63:9; Isa 14:15), following the lead of the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites and “went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod 5:4–5; Neh 9:11; Isa 63:11–13). There, in the depths, God’s anger burned (Deut 32:22).

However, those banished to the depths were able to be brought back from the depths by God’s decree (Ps 68:22; 71:20; 86:13), so the cry of the psalmist from the depths is followed by the plea, “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Ps 103:2). As the prophet Micah affirms, God’s steadfast love will rescue those who “lick dust like a snake,

like the crawling things of the earth”, and will indeed “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:17, 19). So the psalmist affirms, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Ps 103:5).

Just as Lazarus emerges from the tomb where his dead body was laid, so Ezekiel foresees a wondrous revival amongst the dead bones of the people of Israel: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord” (Ezek 37:11). The vision he sees emac s that dramatically. Likewise, Paul glimpses that same hope: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).

Both prophet and apostle hold to the hope enacted in the Gospel and articulated by the psalmist: “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” (Ps 103:7–8).


Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest (Ezek 1:3). He had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.

A dramatic vision opens the book, in which “the glory of God” appears in the form of a fiery, flaming chariot (1:4–28). Priestly attention to detail marks the account of this vision, whilst contains multiple allusions to other scriptural stories. The bright cloud and flashing fire evokes the scene on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Law (Exod 19:16–19); the “burning coals of fire” (1:13) remind us of the burning coals in the scene of the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:6); and “the bow in the cloud on a rainy day” evokes the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen 9:12–17). In seeing this vision, Ezekiel has had a life-transforming experience!

Ezekiel is impelled to play his role as a prophet by “the hand of the Lord” (1:3; 3:22; 8:1; etc); indeed, he says, “the spirit lifted me up” (3:12). That same spirit continues to lift him up with regularity (8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) to show him vision after vision. More than this, Ezekiel declares that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29).

This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle. What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10).

The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; indeed, its appearance on the Fifth Sunday in Lent means that it complements, and indeed illuminates, the dramatic story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, as he approaches the tomb, and cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:38–44).

For Ezekiel, however, this vision is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling). Indeed, the very next section of this chapter reports a proclamation of Ezekiel which is quite directly forthtelling. The two sticks that he takes (37:16) stand for Judah and Israel; as he joins the sticks, so he points to the return of these peoples from their exile, their return “to their own land”, and a cleansing which will mean “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (37:21–23, 27).

That final phrase is a common covenantal affirmation made by God (Lev 26:12; Ruth 1:16; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; Zech 2:11; and Hos 1:10–11, overturning Hos 1:9). The reunited people shall have one king (37:24) and they will observe “an everlasting covenant” (37:26).

So the dramatic story that the prophet Ezekiel reports from his vision set in the middle of a valley full of dry bones is intended to speak directly into the life of the covenant people of God, the people of Israel, offering them hope despite their current circumstances.


Paul also was commissioned for his task through a vision—reported in graphic terms by Luke, who makes the moment into a grand call-and-commissioning scene (Acts 9:3–8; 22:6–11; 26:12–18), but mentioned only briefly, in general terms, in passing by Paul himself (1 Cor 9:1; and perhaps Gal 1:1, 12). Of course, Luke was not present for this event, so he shaped in along the lines of classic call-and-commissioning narratives that existed in earlier Jewish writings. (I have explored this in detail in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003).

That vision turned Paul from persecutor of the followers of Jesus to an apostle fervently declaring “the good news of Jesus Christ” as far as possible, “from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum” (Rom 15:19). (Illyricum was a Roman province that covered the coastal area of the Balkans, northwest of Macedonia stretching towards Italy.) Paul delivers this good news in person to many communities, but he sets it out at length in his letter to believers in Rome, which he had not yet visited.

Paul is embued with the same hope that the psalmist and the prophet demonstrate. He rejoices with the Thessalonians that they share with him in “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:3), tells the Galatians that “through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly waits for the hope of righteousness” (Gal 5:5), and reminds the Corinthians that “faith, hope and love abide” (1 Cor 13:13). In a subsequent letter to believers in Corinth, he asserts that “he who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to secure us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again” (2 Cor 1:10)

Paul reports to the Romans that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 4:2) and that it is “in hope that we were saved” (Rom 8:24). He affirms that it is “by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope” (Rom 15:4), notes that scripture promises that “the root of Jesses shall come … in him the Gentiles shall hope” (Rom 15:12), and so characterises God as “the God of hope” (Rom 15:13). He shares in that strong hope which is sung by the psalmist and spoken by the prophet, and which is acted out in the Gospel reading for this Sunday.


Perception is everything: a sermon on John 9 (Lent 4A)

This sermon was written and preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 19 March (the Fourth Sunday in Lent).


The story in John this week reminded me of the play, The One Day of the Year. I don’t know if you know it, but it is about different perceptions of Anzac Day. For Hughie Cook, the son, Anzac Day appeared to be just an excuse for “one long grog-up”. For his father Alf, an ex-servicemen, it was a day to be with your mates. For Wacka, his mate, it was a day when we as a nation reflected on those who had paid with the sacrifice of their lives.

At one point during a heated debate between father and son, Alf points out that Wacka was there at Gallipoli and knew what Anzac was all about. Hughie puts the counter argument that soldiers who took part in the campaign at Gallipoli couldn’t know the full story of the disaster that was Anzac Cove because they only saw part of the whole picture, the part they were involved in. He sees himself as having a full overview, having studied history.

But Hughie’s view that Anzac Day was just “one long grog-up” is also flawed, as this is the only part of the picture Hughie can currently see. He doesn’t see the mateship, or the skill and resourcefulness, or the sense of pride that Alf and Wacka see in the ex-servicemen who ‘hung in there’ on Anzac Cove. And Hughie fails to recognise that the freedom that gives him the right to speak his opinion was a freedom in part won by soldiers like his father, fighting in the jungles of Asia.

These different viewpoints in the play all contributed to the whole picture of what Anzac day is, but none of the parts on their own are the full story. The story today of the healing of the blind man is very similar in its construction.

How often do we fail to grasp the whole picture? Let us do a simple exercise. Look around you. What do you see? Now, look around again, more carefully. What do you now see that you didn’t notice the first time? If I asked to describe the church, the answer would vary depending on whether you were looking at the front or the back, or even relying on your memory. The whole picture can be hard to take in.

We view the world through the lens of our own experience and perceptions. Like Alf and Hughie in the play, we concentrate on some things and take them in, but filter out others that we deem as unimportant or that perhaps we don’t understand or don’t like. We regularly interpret the information we receive, and we each choose different ways to respond to it. The writer Anais Nin was right when she said, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” In effect, often we see only what we choose to see.

We see this happening in the gospel story. As the disciples walk down a village street with Jesus, they saw what they had been taught to see – a man who was being punished by God. They knew something of his story. He had always been blind. Which raised a tough question for them. Did the birth defect mean that he had somehow sinned in the womb, or was he the victim of his parents’ transgression? For the disciples, this was simply an interesting theological question to raise with their teacher, Jesus, but for the man concerned it was a painful reality that he lived every day, and that, it seems, had left him destitute.

We know that his parents were still alive because later in the story they get called in by the religious authorities to testify at the investigation into his healing. But, probably out of fear, they refuse to be drawn in, and simply point out their son is now a grown adult and can answer for himself.

Their presence at this point in the story raises some questions though. If they were alive, and close enough to be called in for questioning, why was this man a beggar? why was he left pleading for the pity of strangers in order to survive? why was he not cared for by his parents?


How then did this man see himself? After a life of being outcast, perhaps from his parents, from his neighbours, from the Temple, how could he have felt anything but shame and despair? how could he possibly even think that he might see something different in himself from what everyone else saw? how could he not accept the wisdom of the crowds and judge himself accordingly?

And he remains this way until someone came along who could see the whole situation, and see it differently. Jesus did not accept the dominant paradigm of his times, that illness and disability was a punishment from God. Perhaps for the first time, the blind man felt the gaze of someone who did not pity him or wonder what sin he had committed. For the first time the blind man knew what it was to be valued, to be accepted and to be made whole.

And then, as if this wasn’t enough, he discovered what it was like to really see, to accept light into his eyes and have it transformed into colours and textures, depth and movement. But if he thought this healing would make everything right he was mistaken. He may have had his eyes opened, but there were other, more powerful people who were not interested in having theirs opened. They were convinced that they knew how the world worked, and they weren’t about to change their perceptions.


It can’t have been easy for the Pharisees in this story, for Jesus had a tendency to complicate things. When religious custom dictates that blindness is God’s judgement for sin, it’s easy to know what to do and what to think. But, when blind people get miraculously healed in God’s name, it all gets messy. If sin didn’t cause the problem, then where did it come from? And what about all those other beggars? Would they now be expected to be treated as equals? And if a healing really had happened, then they had another problem. None of them had done it, Jesus had done it. For them, it was best not to see the whole picture and just stick with what they knew.

What to do? The Pharisees try and extract a confession from the blind man. Perhaps he wasn’t really blind – it had been a lifelong hoax and the community had fallen for it. Or maybe he’d found a body-double who was now pretending to be healed to get him a few minutes of fame. Then they resorted to questioning his parents. Again, the result was unsatisfactory.


Finally, there was no other option but to throw him out of the synagogue. Though the blind man could see, the Pharisees refused to see. The religious leaders had decided that Jesus was a fraud, so that’s all they could see. They decided the blind man was a sinner, so that’s all they could see. And they had decided that God could no more use Jesus to heal than that God would heal a person God had afflicted with blindness in the first place. Because that’s what they believed, that’s what they saw.

Perception is everything. It’s not just what we see or don’t see, but how we interpret what we see that determines our actions, our responses and our beliefs. We can look at the poor and see unfortunate victims of circumstance, or lazy people who refuse to work, or dignified human beings making the most of a tough situation. We can look at climate science and see a natural cycle which has just happened to hit us now, or human actions putting our planet under pressure.

Ultimately, how we determine what we see and what it means must flow from Jesus’ example. How did Jesus address poverty? How did Jesus view the natural world, power, violence, sickness, and human dignity? If we are to follow Jesus into a world of justice, we will have to wrestle with these questions and not see them as outside of the realm of faith. And once we have seen the problems, we also have the task of helping others – our leaders, our neighbours, our children – to see as well.

In our daily lives we all make choices (consciously or subconsciously) about what we will see and what we won’t. It’s tempting to choose not to see the suffering and injustice in our world – to switch off the news, and to ignore reports of grief, warand trauma. It’s tempting to avoid seeing certain people and to allow them to just blend in with the landscape, removing their need and struggle from our vision.

It’s tempting to avoid seeing God’s truth and grace in those with whom we disagree, and whom we would rather see as “all bad”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the brokenness in those we support and with whom we agree and to see them as “all good”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the resources, the opportunities and the capacity we have for making a difference, and to believe we can do nothing.

But, if we have really seen Jesus, and if we have truly seen God’s reign proclaimed and manifest in him, then we have to confront how we see things, and allow God’s grace and mercy, God’s truth and justice to change our seeing and shed light on our world, our relationships and our neighbourhoods.

And, once again, our seeing must be informed by God’s different perspective where the greatest are the least, and where everyone – even a young shepherd boy, or a carpenter from the countryside – can make significant differences in the world.


“If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14”

It’s a familiar mantra that we hear on TV news bulletins and read at the end of online news items: “If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14”. And this month marks sixty years since Lifeline began.

Lifeline describes itself as “Australia’s leading suicide prevention service”, which is “a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support”. It began as a small-scale local enterprise in Sydney, and now has branches right across Australia, where 1,000 staff and 10,000 volunteers work together to provide a caring, compassionate response to people who are in crisis.

In the early 1960s, the Rev Alan Walker took a phone call from a distressed man who was very distressed. The Rev Walker was the Superintendent Minister of the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney, a part of the then Methodist Church. The CMM, as it was known, had a long and valued ministry to vulnerable people in the inner city of Sydney—including a number of hostels and day programmes for such people. The ministers and staff of the Mission had regular contact with a wide range of people in distressing and difficult circumstances.

The Rev Alan Walker during his time as the Superintendent Minister
of the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney

Three days after taking that phone call, the Rev Walker learned that the man had taken his own life. Determined that he would do something to assist other people who were lonely, anxious, depressed, or suicidal, the Rev Walker instigated a planning process that eventually led to the establishment of Lifeline, on 16 March 1963, as a crisis line operated by people associated with the CMM.

The website of Lifeline Australia states that “Lifeline Sydney was two years in planning and preparation, with 150 people attending a nine-month training course to work at the centre. A century old, dilapidated building owned by the Mission, on the fringes of downtown Sydney was renovated for the purposes of this new support centre. A staff of full-time employees was appointed to direct the work of these new telephone crisis support ‘workers’. The Director General of Post and Telephone Services authorised that this crisis support service should be listed on the Emergency Page of the Telephone Directory and the phones were installed.”

You can read more at https://www.lifeline.org.au/

In 1994, Lifeline transitioned the 24-hour telephone crisis support line, with local counsellor dealing with local phone calls in each location, to a single national priority 13 number (13 11 14). Then in 2007, Lifeline introduced national call flow to the 24-hour service, which allowed Lifeline to begin flowing calls nationally over a wide area network, to be answered by the next available telephone support volunteer, anywhere in the country. It has been a wonderful development that has taken place over these six decades.

My own connection with Lifeline took place in 1975. I was working at the Central Methodist Mission as the Youth Director (a grand title for what was actually a very lowly job). I ran a variety of weekly programmes that brought me into contact with younger people that were vulnerably housed, or living below the poverty line; people who faced mental health challenges, but who found comfort in the community of the church on Pitt St in Sydney.

Looking to develop my own (meagre and basic) skills in relating to such people, I did the Telephone Counsellor Training Course that Lifeline offered—three hours, once a week, for six months, with practical sessions as a trainee counsellor, taking phone calls and learning how to deal with people in crisis. (The limited success, or rather the ultimate failure, of my attempts to develop good skills in listening, intervening, and referring, I leave to the judgement of those who know me now!) I served in that role for a couple of years, by which time I was a candidate for ministry, undertaking other training to prepare me for my lifetime in ministry.

The Rev Dr Sir Alan Walker, as he became, is rightly remembered and honoured for the creative and practical way that he responded to what was becoming, even in the 1960s, a widespread and difficult societal problem. Well known for his strong public stands against gambling and alcohol, and for his opposition to the Vietnam War, the Rev Walker’s initiative to establish Lifeline points to the way that he lives, and preaches, and acted, in response to the Gospel: both pastoral and prophetic responses were required.

The Rev Walker shows that the Gospel is as much about a person’s individual life and their relationship with God, as it is about how society was structured and how it provided equity and justice for all. I have always appreciated my opportunity to learn this at close quarters, from the 13 months that I spent working at the CMM. (The CMM is now Wesley Mission, one of Australia’s largest benevolent organisations, as well as one of the largest Uniting Church organisations.)

In substantiating their claim that “Lifeline is Australia’s largest suicide prevention service provider”, the website of Lifeline Australia reports:

• Each year, over 1 million Australians reach out to Lifeline for support.

• Lifeline’s 13 11 14 crisis support line receives a call every 30 seconds.

• Lifeline’s network of 41 centres, 10,000 volunteers, and 1,000 employees provide a lifesaving national infrastructure for those experiencing immense pain and anguish.

• There are 3,500 Crisis Supporters working with Lifeline so that no person in Australia has to face their darkest moments alone.

It is sobering to read the breakdown of suicides reported in Australia. The following statistics, reported by Lifeline Australia, are taken from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/causes-death/causes-death-australia/latest-release#intentional-self-harm-deaths-suicide-in-australia)

• 8.6 Australians die every day by suicide; that’s more than double the road toll

• 75% of those who take their own life are male

• An unknown number of Australians attempt suicide every year, with some estimates suggesting this figure may be over 65,000

• Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44

• The suicide rate in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is twice that of their non-Indigenous counterparts

• People in rural populations are 2 times more likely to take their life by suicide by suicide

In addition, they report that LGBTIQ+ community members report having attempted suicide in the past 12 months at a rate 10 times higher than the general Australian population. Despite the advances made in recent years relation to this sector of society, they still experience much stress and live in high risk environments.

All of this remains a cause for deep concern. It is a fine thing that people in Australian society do have the support of Lifeline Australia—and, indeed, other organisations such as Beyond Blue, the Black Dog Institute, both Headspace and Reachout for young people, Open Arms for veterans and their families, and 13Yarn for First Nations people; and more. See https://mhaustralia.org/need-help

I am grateful today for the energy, initiative, and compassion of Alan Walker, six decades ago, in seeing a need and working to implement a practical response. I am also grateful to the many staff and especially the thousands of volunteers, on the phone and behind the scenes, that enable this service to operate right around the clock, every day of the year—no annual breaks, no public holidays, no time out at all (collectively).

“If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14”.


We do not know how it is that he now sees (John 9; Lent 4A)

The lectionary offers us stories, during Lent, of encounters that Jesus had with a range of people. We have already heard of his conversation with a Pharisee in Jerusalem and a woman beside a well in Samaria. This week, he is in Jerusalem, where one of the people he encounters is a man who was born blind (John 9:1–41).

Of course, each of these scenes is a narrative which has been shaped and formed by the author, more in the nature of a developed literary creation than a verbatim account of an historical event. It may be that each extended scene is based on a report of an encounter that took place decades before the Gospel was written, but most certainly it has been elaborated and developed over a period of time, worked into a narrative that catches attention, invites reflection, and has a life all of its own.

“John” wrote his Gospel some 50 to 80 years after the lifetime of Jesus. The account of each of these conversations—at night with Nicodemus, at noon with the woman, in Jerusalem with the authorities, and then the encounter in Bethany and the council meeting in Jerusalem—are thus far removed from each of these events. (And how could we possibly claim to know verbatim what was said in a Sanhedrin meeting in the early 30s CE? — especially since the High Priest articulates a central tenet of later Christian doctrine! ).

But removing certainty with regard to the historical accuracy of the encounter does not in any way impair the power of the story to connect with us as we read and hear it, many centuries later, in a very different context—we still have stories from the 1st century, valued and passed on and collected in scripture, that speak to our own journeys of faith development in the 21st century.

The scene—or rather, the series of scenes—that we are offers this coming Sunday occur within a context that has set up antagonism and tension in the relationship that Jesus has with the authorities in Jerusalem. In John’s narrative, he has set things off in an interesting way: violence in the courtyard of the Temple (2:13–22) is his first action in the capital city.

Then follows the secret meeting with Nicodemus, “a leader of the Jews” in which Jesus appears to accuse Nicodemus and his ilk of misunderstanding what Jesus teaches about “heavenly things” (3:11–12), and the public noontime meeting with a Samaritan woman by the well, in which he contests the northern penchant for worship “on this mountain” (4:19–24).

However, the antagonism in these encounters pales into insignificance when compared with what follows. After he has healed an official’s son in Galilee (4:46–54) and a man challenged by his poor mobility (5:2–9), Jesus enters into debate with “the Judeans”—most likely the scribal and priestly authorities in Jerusalem—which has already stirred them up, as “they were seeking all the more to kill him” (5:18).

For my views on why references to “the Jews” in this Gospel should be translated as “the Judean authorities”, see

Then a long session of exposition with his disciples by the lake in Galilee (6:22–71) sees not only Judeans stirred by his words (6:52), but his own disciples resistant (6:60) and some, indeed, leaving his company of followers (6:66). We don’t hear much, usually, about Jesus’ failures!!

After a debate about whether Jesus and his followers should go south to Jerusalem (7:1–9), Jesus went, “not publicly but as it were in secret” (7:10), engaging in yet more discussion with “the Judeans” (7:15–62), in the course of which, the accusation is shouted by the crowd, “you have a demon!” (7:20). That languages comes back in the subsequent scene, an extended section in which Jesus remains in Jerusalem (8:12–10:21).

The claim that Jesus makes, “I am the light of the world” (8:12), introduces a section where accusation and counter-accusation intensify. “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires”, Jesus declares, continuing with the accusation that “he was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (8:44). In response, “the Judeans” ask, “are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (8:48), and then “they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59). Jesus escapes by leaving the temple.

This polemic continues in chapter 10, when many of “the Judeans” were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” (10:20), whilst others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (10:21). The long scene ends with the narrator reporting, “they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands” (10:39).

The antagonism will continue, nevertheless, for after Jesus has moved to Bethany, encountered a grieving family, and raised Lazarus back to life (11:1–44), the Jewish authorities decide to make their move. Worried that, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48), Caiaphas leads with these prophetic words: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so, “from that day on they planned to put him to death” (11:53).


The extended narrative revolving around the man born blind, whom Jesus heals, and the associated controversy, is thus set at the heart of this extended sequence of conflict scenes. It is different, in character, from the earlier scenes of encounter, where the focus is on Jesus and the person with whom he is talking—Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman in particular. This particular scene of encounter has quite a cast of characters—Jesus, his disciples, the blind man, his parents, the Pharisees, and a crowd of people in Jerusalem.

In fact, this encounter leads to a sequence that feels more like a dramatic portrayal of a court scenario, than a religious story. There are seven scenes in all. The first scene is narrated in the opening verses (9:1–7), telling of Jesus healing the man. The question from the disciples (9:2) allows Jesus to give an explanation about the purpose of “his work” (9:3–5) which culminates in a reprise of his earlier claim, “I am the light of the world” (9:5; see 8:12, as well as the initial reference at 1:5).

Jesus heals the man by forming mud with his own saliva (9:6)—something jarring to modern sensibilities, but a common practice amongst ancient miracle-workers and healers. For my reflections on the distinctive way that Jesus heals this blind man, see

The second scene involves the neighbours of the healed man debating with him about what has happened (9:8–12); “how were your eyes opened?”, they ask him (9:10), incredulous at the change that has taken place. This scene is something of “set-up”, to lead into the third scene, in which the complexities of the situation begin to be unravelled.

The third scene sees the healed man brought before the Pharisees (9:13–17); what ensues feels like it is setting up to be a cross-examination, since the healing took place on a sabbath (9:14) and thus the event comes under Torah prescriptions (cf. Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6; and John 7:19–24). In fact, the Pharisees accuse Jesus, “this man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” (9:16), while the healed man, pressed hard, declares, “he is a prophet” (9:17).

A prophet: is the same affirmation made by the Samaritan woman (4:19), a crowd in Galilee after a miracle (6:14), and a crowd in Jerusalem (7:40)—and, by implication, perhaps some in the Sanhedrin, led by Nicodemus, say that also (7:52)?

Does the author want his hearers and readers to understand each of these affirmations in terms of the central one: “this is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14), presumably along the lines of the earlier statement of Moses, “the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet … I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (Deut 18:15, 18). Certainly, this is the text on the basis of which Samaritans were anticipating the return of Moses as their Taheb, their Restorer.

We resume the extended narrative of John 9 with the fourth scene, involving the parents of the man, whom the Pharisees summonses and proceed to question (9:18–23). They ask, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” (9:19). The key element in this scene is the narrative comment—reflecting the experience of the followers of Jesus many decades after the setting of this scene, in Jerusalem in the early 30s—that “the [Judean authorities] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (9:22).

John’s Gospel indicates, three times, that followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:1–2). That’s quite a schism! This indicates that the negative portrayals of people from years back may well have as much to do with what has transpired in those intervening years, as with the actual event—probably, I think, much more to do with those intervening years than with the conversations and encounters as reported in the book of signs.

The whole Gospel reflects a situation much developed from the time in which the story is set, when Jesus was a Galilean man preaching and teaching in Israel in the 30s CE. American scholar Raymond Brown developed a complex hypothesis about multiple stages of development of this Gospel, with the figure of the Beloved Disciple providing a focal point of leadership and identity—and perhaps also serving as the earliest source for the distinctive Johannine traditions?

Brown developed this hypothesis as he worked on a marvellous two-volume commentary on John’s Gospel (Anchor Bible, Yale Uni Press, 1966) and then published a clear analysis of this in his book The Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist Press, 1978).

Much had transpired in the decades between the time of Jesus and the finalisation of the Gospel—including an intensification of the antagonism between the followers of Jesus and the rabbinic leadership of Judaism. This antagonism is “written back” into the time of the story of Jesus through the verbal polemics that take place in chapters 5–12, between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem.

My own teacher, Wayne Meeks (in his classic article, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972) 44–72), noted that the claims made about Jesus in the fourth Gospel function as reinforcements of the sectarian identity of the community. As this community had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus. The account of the interaction between Jesus, the man born blind, now healed, and the Pharisees and leadership in Jerusalem, reflects elements of that sectarian mindset.

This becomes clear in the fifth scene, in which the Pharisees recall the healed man to question him further (9:24–34). The Pharisees set the key issue: “as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (9:29). The experience of the healed man, “you do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes”, leads him to testify, “never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:30–33). That clear affirmation of faith in Jesus, and recognition of his status, from one “on the inside”, brings the cross-examination to an abrupt close; incredulous, the Pharisees ask, “are you trying to teach us?”, and then drive him out from their gathering (9:34).

The issue at stake is the identity of Jesus and his status as prophet, teacher, “from God”. Of course, hearers and readers of the Gospel have known from the beginning that Jesus, the Word, “was with God, and … was God” (1:1), that this Word “became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14), and that this Word was “the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). We have been let into the insiders’ world, with access to full knowledge. This is where the healed man is to be found; he recognises Jesus, not only as miracle worker, but as “from God” (9:33).

So the sixth scene (9:35–38) depicts Jesus interacting directly with the healed man once more—the last time he saw him was back in scene one, when he had spat onto the ground to make mud, rubbed it on the man’s eyes, and told him to “wash in the pool of Siloam” (9:6–7). Now, Jesus asks the leading question, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” (9:35), evoking the clear affirmation, “Lord, I believe” (9:38). That is the same affirmation of faith made by Simon Peter (6:69), Martha (11:27), and, by inference, Thomas (20:24–28). The identity of Jesus—Holy One of God, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord and God—is the critical issue which delineates insiders from outsiders.

For my reflections on the significance of this man’s confession of faith in the context of the book of signs as a whole, see

The seventh scene brings Jesus directly into contact with the Pharisees (9:39–41). Compared to the earlier extended debate of 8:31–59 and the less extensive debate which follows at 10:22–39, this is brief, succinct, and focussed on the theological issues of blindness and seeing, and sin. This links back to the opening question of the disciples about blindness and sin (9:2) and the consequent statement of Jesus, “as long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:5). This statement, of course, repeats the earlier declaration of Jesus (8:12) which has introduced the whole narrative context in which this encounter sits (8:12–10:21).


So the whole scene (like the whole Gospel) is about the situation of a group of followers of Jesus towards the end of the first century CE, inheriting the richness of the Jewish faith, convinced that they have found The Teacher of the way that God requires, in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, they have encountered opposition, argumentation, and expulsion from their familiar faith community, and through this they have engaged in verbal warfare with those who have pushed them out.

Retelling the story of that man in a way that validates their perspective as what God intends and desires, is what has led an unknown member of their community to construct this narrative, in which he reinforces the views that have been developed by the members of his community, even as he hopes that others might “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [they] may have life in his name” (20:31).


Speaking out for equality: a sermon for Lent 3A

A sermon preached on Sunday 12 March 2023 (the third Sunday in Lent) in the Tuggeranong Uniting Church, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine.

Last Thursday was International Women’s Day, and we are at the end of the week which has both celebrated women and called for true equality. We learnt that women still earn a million dollars less than men over their lifetime and retire with $136,000 less superannuation, according to research from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.

This research also noted that men still have higher average salaries than women in 95% of all occupations, even in female-dominated ones such as midwifery. Women also suffer more from gendered violence, with around 30% of women worldwide subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

All religions tend to subjugate women and view them as lesser mortals. Many forbid women to become leaders or to preach, and see women’s religious duties as almost domestic. This includes Christianity, with many denominations and churches not allowing women’s ordination or meaningful leadership. Look, they say as they point to 1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

This verse has taken on an authority and power that apparently trumps many a story of women leading, teaching, ministering and preaching in the Old and New Testaments. It has coloured the view of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and many an evangelical church. And not only have women been seen as lesser in these traditions, they have also acquired reputations as sinners, temptresses and Jezebels, to be feared and not trusted.

In today’s bible reading, we meet such a woman. She has been frequently cast as an outsider, a prostitute, an adulteress, despite the text neither saying or even inferring she is any of these things. I find myself getting increasing annoyed at this view of the unnamed Samaritan woman. Many of these accepted views of her originate with male biblical scholars.

I think these views are usually quite moralistic and border on misogyny. They are also applied to other New Testament women, leaders of the early church who have been besmirched and relegated to an inferior status.

I invite you to join me in the redemption of the Samaritan and other NT women, and to explore their stories from a different perspective. I hope this will lead you to different conclusions.


The Samaritan woman is the antithesis of Nicodemus, who we met last week seeking Jesus under the cover of night in a private location. She is not skulking about in the dark, she talks to Jesus in the full light of noon, in a public place. Further, her journey to belief doesn’t take the whole gospel as Nicodemus’ did, it takes one chapter, and she is well on the way in this encounter – so much so, that she convinces the people of her town to come and meet with Jesus as a potential messiah. Due to her missionary efforts, everyone ends up believing Jesus is the Saviour of the world.

This woman has frequently been called an outcast and a adulteress and occasionally a prostitute, due to her coming to the well at noon (an unusual time of the day) and the fact she has had 5 husbands and is currently with a 6th man who is not her husband. It is highly unlikely a serial adulteress would still be alive and not stoned, let alone find 5 men to marry her. Nor are 5 men likely to marry a prostitute. The 6th man may well be her protector or goel (a word we met in Ruth) as women could not manage alone in the ancient world. Whoever he is, Jesus offers no condemnation on the arrangement.

Further, an outcast would not have been listened to by the village folk in the way she is listened to and believed. Lastly, this is the gospel of John, where light and dark and day and night are highly symbolic. The author is deliberately contrasting her with Nicodemus and she is the one represented as grasping the truth and passing it on – in broad daylight.


I also want to mention some other women who led in the bible, who have either been tarnished by the moral brush of sexist scholars or had their roles downplayed. To begin, the feminine is undergirded by the Old Testament view that all the characteristics of God are feminine – the Spirit, ruach, present at creation and in all creation, Wisdom, hochma, also present at creation and something to be highly desired, the shekinah, the glory of God, and finally, the voice of God, the bat kol. These feminine characteristics permeate the work of God and the very essence of God, undermining the idea that the being of God is male.

Next, we have the wonderful women of the Old Testament. Deborah the judge, leading Israel to victory in battle. Prophets Miriam and Huldah, the latter confirming that the book that had been found was indeed God’s law. Tamar, Sarah, Ruth and Naomi and the woman of Endor, all who changed their’s and Israel’s destiny by their resourcefulness and courage.

In the New Testament, we find Mary Magdelene (another women accused of being a prostitute without a shred of textual evidence), devoted follower of Jesus; Phoebe, a deacon highly commended by Paul; Priscilla, a co-worker of Paul and a teacher so famous she is mentioned in no less than four different books in the NT; and Lydia, a merchant in her own right who ran the house church in Philippi.

An important figure is Junia, imprisoned alongside Paul and called prominent among theapostles. Junia actually had her sex changed to male by later scribes who couldn’t countenance a female apostle. We also have Tabitha, called a disciple as she ministers to poor widows in Acts; and Martha, sister of Lazarus and faithful follower of Jesus, who like the Samaritan woman, confessed him as Messiah.

There are many others, including the women who ministered to Jesus and the disciples and who supported Jesus’ ministry with their resources, including Mary of Bethany who sat at Jesus’ feet as a male disciple would to learn from him. All were highly esteemed by Jesus, their peers, Paul and the writers of the gospels. All have been relegated to lesser roles by later male Christians, with a number standing accused of immoral behaviour or having their status relegated to cooks and assistants.

It is this sort of relegation that has led to the subjugation and poor treatment of women in many countries. Christianity has a lot to answer for in terms of its missionary and cultural heritage that taught girls were to be domesticated and boys educated. The notion that woman must subjugate herself to a husbandand unquestioningly obey a male leader has led to much violence and abuse, even in churches.

Recent research in Australia by Julia Baird found that domestic abuse in churches that taught male headship was prevalent in Australia churches and it is now widely accepted that gender inequality is a contributing factor to violence against women.


The Australian Institute of Family Studies in a study concluded that in terms of violence against women “the vital element to consider is the gender norms and beliefs surrounding male dominance and male superiority, created by power hierarchies that accord men greater status.”

This is confirmed by global research. A study published in the Lancet in 2015 analysed data from 66 surveys across 44 countries, covered the experiences of almost half a million women. It found that the greatest predictor of partner violence was “environments that support male control”, especially “norms related to male authority over female behaviour”. Many of these unequal environments are supported by religions, including Christianity.

It does say something about such teachings and beliefs that the plight of abused women was acknowledged literally decades after many countries had established laws to prohibit the abuse of animals.


In contrast to this narrow role-related view of women, we find that Jesus clearly elevated women to a position of equality with men in a way that must of astounded his audiences.

Jesus defied Jewish custom and spoke to women directly and in public, as we see in our story today. The Samaritan woman is the first person he reveals his messiahship too. He disclosed to her deep truths about his role in human history and salvation. She was not just a passive recipient of what Jesus offers to her. While aware of the potential barriers and boundaries created by her society, all of which make sure that she stays in her place, this does not stop her challenging Jesus’ authority and tradition: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:12).

The concept of “living water” becomes intertwined with what Jesus knows about her; she herself becomes a vessel of living water because of the relationship she has formed with Jesus, and his insight into her identity gives her insight into his. As a result of this, she leaves behind her water jar, going into the city, and invites the people to encounter Jesus for themselves.

As her enthusiasm spills out, she enacts what Jesus says later in this Gospel, where he speaks about an overflowing of enthusiasm as he quotes Hebrew scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38). This living water is not simply a gift which Jesus offers to the woman; it became a gift to others who she encounters in her village. This first missionary is dynamic. Could a man have done a better job? I doubt it.


This story, and indeed all the pages of Scripture, reveal women being used by God in practically every imaginable way – prophets, judges, negotiators,leaders, teachers and disciples. 

Phyllis and James Alsdurf in their paper, The Church and the Abuse of Women (from the Journal, The Priscilla Papers) say, “For Christians, the liberating message of the Gospel is that a redeemed social order is possible because in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). The good news the church is called to proclaim is that Christ’s transforming power ends injustice and oppression, and that within the Body of Christ discrimination and abuse based on sex, race, or class is no longer permitted.”



So let us pray that we continue to remember the women of silenced generations, whose names have been lost to time, and whose roles were lost to power.

Let us remember those who led churches, healed the sick and opened up their houses to the faithful, but who have been downgraded to helpers in historical patriarchal oppression.

Let us also speak out, leaving a legacy of equality for our grandchildren.

We will be the waves at their back, their encouragement and voices crying for true fairness. We will not lose hope.

May we support each other in our resilience, our strength, and our resistance.

May we recognize that we are all uniquely beautiful and powerful. May we honour each other, and challenge each other. Then together, we will recover the bones of justice from the archaeology of inequity.

Go forth, women of worth, and be your ancestors’ wildest dreams. Amen.


The featured image is a depiction of Jesus and the Samaritan woman painted by Mackey Dickerson for the cover of What Jesus Learned from Women, by James McGrath (Cascade, 2021)





Righteous by faith and at peace with God (Rom 5; Lent 3A)

We are being offered a veritable feast by the lectionary during the season of Lent, through Hebrew Scripture passages which recall key moments in the story of Israel (Abraham, Moses, David, return after exile) as well as in Gospel narratives telling of the transformative encounters which Jesus had with a range of people (a Pharisee and a Samaritan woman, a man born blind and two sisters of a dead man).

Alongside this, the lectionary offers us a set of readings from Paul’s longest and most richly-developed theological letter, that which he wrote to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). After exploring the rationale for human sinfulness (Rom 5:12–19, Lent 1A), we have read of Paul’s use of Abraham as a model to explain how God “reckons us to be righteous” (Rom 4:1–5, 13–17, Lent 2A).

Today we are offered another passage replete with fundamental theological affirmations (Rom 5:1–11, Lent 3A) and in two more weeks we will hear yet another “purple passage” from Romans (Rom 8:6–11, Lent 5A). In the intervening week we are diverted in Ephesians, most likely because the passage illuminates the Gospel story of Jesus enabling the man born blind to see (John 9).

Whilst Romans 4 exhibits many signs of the diatribe style, as we have noted, Paul seems to set this to one side for a time. He will pick up the pattern of apostrophe (posing questions to a hypothetical listener) and speech-in-character (providing answers to those questions from an imaginary person) in the next chapter: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom 6:1–3).

He will extend that through the agonising of the following chapter: “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” (Rom 7:7). He will pick this up again at the end of his lengthy argument begun in 5:1 when he exclaims: “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Rom 8:31–34).

Paul uses these techniques because he is, in the depths of his being, what we would call a “pastoral practitioner”. He is a good theological thinker, but he is oriented at every point to the pastoral engagement that he has with people in the churches which (mostly) he has founded—the church in Rome being a key exception to this, since he writes to a community that he has not yet visited.

Paul tells the Thessalonians that he seeks to operate “like a father with his children” (1 Thess 2:11), “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (1 Thess 2:7). He tells the Philippians “how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:8), and the Corinthians that “I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor 2:4). And he assures the Romans that he prays that “by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Rom 15:32).

Amidst all the harsh rhetoric, direct intervention, and controlling instructions that pepper all the letters of Paul, this kind, compassionate, caring heart can be glimpsed. Paul does what he does for the sake of the people whom he serves. Rabbinic midrash and rhetorical diatribe a pre pressed into the service of compassionate care for his people.

The opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans,
from an early fourth century papyrus (p10)


But for the passage from Romans which we are offered this coming Sunday (Rom 5:1–11), the style changes. Rather than the diatribe style of question—response, shaped by the Pharisaic midrashic pattern of exploring key scripture passages, Paul seems to switch, to become a doctrinal pedagogue much as we find in later patriotic, medieval, and reformed writers.

In just eleven verses, Paul identifies and names a sequence of ten key theological claims—perhaps the closest he ever gets to becoming what we know as a “systematic theologian”. Paul mentions, in turn, justification by faith, peace with God, access to God’s grace, the glory of God, the place of sufferings, endurance, and hope, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the function of the death of Christ and the process of being justified by his blood, salvation from God’s wrath, and finally, reconciliation with God. They are each worth pondering.

Being justified by faith—or, in another English translation, being made righteous by faith—is the first concept which has pride of place in this passage—and, indeed, forms the basis for the theological argument that is developed throughout this Gospel. Paul’s opening statement is that, in the Gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith”, quoting a scripture passage to provide the basis for his assertion (Rom 1:17); that righteousness is explained at length through the ensuing chapters, canvassing a range of matters in the process.

Righteousness, of course, has its origins deep in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abram had been given promises by God but he expresses doubt that these promises would come to pass (15:2-3). God provides further reassurance; the multitude of stars in the sky is testimony to that (15:5). Abraham’s resulting affirmation of faith leads to the famous phrase, so central to Paul’s later argument about righteousness: “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6; see Rom 4:3,9,22).

The psalmists regularly thank God for God’s righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:17; 9:8; 33:5; 35:24, 28; 36:6; 50:6; etc) and note the importance of humans living in that way for righteousness (Ps 18:20, 24; 85:10–13; 106:3, 31; 112:1–3, 9), whilst the book of Proverbs advises that the wisdom it offers is “for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov 1:3) and the prophets consistently advocated for Israel to live in accordance with righteousness (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4).

So “being made righteous with God” (Rom 5:1) is both a central element of Paul’s theology, and a strong thread running from Hebrew scriptural texts into the life of the early church.

Peace with God is the second element in this section. Paul regularly commences his letters with the formulaic “grace and peace to you” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; Phlm 3), but the peace spoken of at 5:1 goes deeper than this formula. God is “the God of peace” (1 Thess 5:23) who offers peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7). “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33) so believers are urged to live in peace (2 Cor 13:11). The Galatians are told that of the fruits of the Spirit is peace (Gal 5:22); the Philippians are informed that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).

Such peace is grounded in the understanding of God expressed in Hebrew Scriptures. The Psalmist prays, “may the Lord bless his people with peace” (Ps 29:11), celebrates that God “will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts”, such that “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Ps 84:8, 10), and gives thanks that God “grants peace within [Jerusalem’s] borders” (Ps 147:4).

The vision of peaceful co-existence amongst all creatures is declared. by various prophets (Isa 2:2–5; Mic 4:1–5; Isa 52:7; 57:19; 60:17; 65:25) and amongst the names of the one whom Isaiah foresees as the hope for Israel’s future is “Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:2). Both Ezekiel (Ezek 13:8–16) and Jeremiah (Jer 14:13–22) decry those who cry out “peace when there is no peace”. Ezekiel states that God promises, “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them” (Ezek 37:26; also 34:25, and Zech 8:12).


This being-made-righteous and the consequent gift of peace comes, according to Paul’s comments later in this passage, through the death of Jesus on the cross. He uses a number of phrases to describe this death, and its “benefits” for believers. In verse 6, he notes that “Christ died for the ungodly”, and in verse 8, “while we still were sinners, Christ died for us”.

“Christ died for us” is a common phrase in Paul’s letters—so much so that it is regarded as a formulaic statement (an early credal affirmation?) which appears in various forms (Rom 6:10; 8:34; 14:9; 1 Cor 8:11; 2 Cor 5:14–15; 1 Thess 5:9–10; see also Gal 1:4; 2:20; Rom 7:4; 1 Thess 4:14; and the later formula of 1 Tim 2:5–6). Specifically relating the death of Christ to dealing with sin is also addressed by Paul in some detail earlier in this letter (Rom 3:9–26; 5:15–21; 6:5–14) as well more briefly as in other letters (1 Cor 15:56–57; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:22).

To explain how this death deals with our sins, Paul here specifies that “we have been made righteous by his blood” (Rom 5:9). This clearly relates to the practice of faithful Jews, who for centuries brought their sacrifice to the Temple, so that the priests could kill the animals brought as offerings to God. Shedding blood was integral to this process.

The Torah specifies that the priests should receive “a bull of the herd” as a sin offering, and “the bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of the meeting … and dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord” (Lev 4:3–6). Some of the blood is also placed on the horns of the altar and the rest “he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering” (Lev 4:7).

Likewise, the priest was to “slaughter the guilt offering, and its blood shall be dashed against all sides of the altar” (Lev 7:2); to purify a leper, two lambs are offered, and the priest “shall slaughter the lamb … and take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed [the leper] and on the thumb of the right hand and on the big toe of the right foot” (Lev 14:13–14; so also 14:25).

So likewise for the bull on the Day of Atonement: “Aaron … shall slaughter bull as a sin offering for himself … and sprinkle the blood with his finger on the front of the mercy seat … seven times” (Lev 16:11, 14), and then do the same with “the goat of the sin offering” (Lev 16:15–19), before then releasing a live goat (the “scapegoat”) or “bear all their iniquities to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness” (Lev 16:22).

The significance of the shedding of blood is clearly and strikingly articulated in the Torah: “the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Lev 7:11). When the blood of the animal is shed, that life is given as an offering to effect atonement. So, too, when the blood of Jesus was shed, his life functioned as an atoning offering for human beings.

The slaughter of animals and the sprinkling of blood thus signifies the sacrificial offering of a gift to God, seeking cleansing or forgiveness. Applying this common practice to Jesus makes sense in the context of the time—but it is an image which is far more difficult for us to accept and appreciate in the modern world, where we might feel that we have moved beyond such “primitive practices”, as some callously call those ancient practices.

What we can take from this language, perhaps, is the observation that sacrifice for sin, seeking to remove the tarnish of that sinfulness and find restoration and wholeness, was a dynamic signalled elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture—most clearly in that famous fourth Servant Song in Second Isaiah, which refers to the servant as the one who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:4–5). As “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, so “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain [to] make his life an offering for sin” (Isa 53:6, 10).

That same dynamic is at work every year in Australia, as those military people who have died in battle over the past century are remembered each ANZAC Day for their sacrifice and thanked for what they have bequeathed to our society. It is the same dynamic of sacrifices offered by some to ensure the safety of the many.

So, Paul is able to affirm that when Jesus died, it was to assure us of forgiveness, to deal with our sinfulness, and to restore us to the original state of goodness (Gen 1:26–31) that was God’s gift and intention for humankind.

See more on this at


This passage is so beloved within the church, and was so highly regarded by the creators of the lectionary, that it appears again, slightly reduced in length, in the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, later in this year (5:1–8), as well as in an even shorter form in the readings for Trinity Sunday in Year C (5:1–5). So I am going to reserve my comments on the remainder of the elements I have identified in this passage until it returns, later this year, in the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost! I will leave you, simply, with Paul’s clear affirmation that, “since we are made righteous through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).

See also


A well, two mountains, and five husbands (John 4; Lent 3A)

This is a post about a well, two mountains, and five husbands. We learn about each of these elements in a story told in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. The story tells of an encounter between a teacher from Galilee and a woman from Samaria. That story is offered as the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the Third Sunday in Lent (John 4:5–42).

The well is Jacob’s well (John 4:6). It is the location for the meeting of the teacher and the woman. This site is not explicitly named in Hebrew Scriptures, but it is thought that the account of Jacob buying land in Shechem in Gen 33 records the site, which Jacob, it is said, calls El-Elohe-Israel (Gen 33:18–20). The name signifies “the God of Israel”, which is the name that Jacob had adopted just before this, after wrestling all night with a man at Peniel (Gen 32:22–32).

In fact the narrative has earlier given a long account of how Jacob married the two daughters of Laban—Leah and Rachel—after he had met the younger daughter, Rachel, at a well in the land of (Gen 29:1–35). Laban lived in Paddan-aram, a tableland area in northern Mesopotamia (28:5); the well in this region was where Jacob first sighted Rachel (29:4–12).

Wells, of course, were vital parts of the infrastructure of ancient societies—as indeed they continue to be so for many people today. As well as water for washing, drinking, and cooking, people needed wells to provide water for their animals. We are told that the oldest servant of Abraham, whilst journeying to Nahor, a city in Paddan-aram, “made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water” (24:11).

Not only was the well used to collect water for animals, however; it was a place where men could go to meet women—which is what the servant did, meeting Rebekah, Abraham’s niece by marriage (24:15–21), who would become the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac (24:67). So it was no surprise that Jesus would meet a woman beside the well identified as Jacob’s well.

What is a surprise is that he met her at noon (John 4:6). The clearest explanation for this is that it provides a striking juxtaposition to the story just told, of Nicodemus, who “came to Jesus by night” (3:2). It is one of the many literary devices so favoured by the author of the book of signs. We should not take this time reference as a direct historical fact in a story which the author of this Gospel has developed.


The two mountains in this story (John 4:21) are Gerizim and Zion. We know about Mount Zion because the long historical narrative of Israel that exists in the Bible (from Deuteronomy through Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah) was compiled by southern kingdom writers, using sources from both the north and the south. Zion was captured from the Jebusites by David’s army (2 Sam 5:6–10) and was honoured as the location for the Temple built under Solomon (1 Ki 8:1–13).

It was on Zion that the Lord God dwelt (Ps 9:11)—at least for southerners—and Zion was praised as “beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth” (Ps 48:2). Jesus reflects the southern view of life when he asserts to the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Judeans” (John 4:22).

Centuries before, people in the northern kingdom had built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, one of the ancient holy sites in the northern kingdom (Deut 27:12; Josh 8:33–34; Judg 9:7). That temple survived beyond the invasion and resettlement of the north, continuing on until it was destroyed in 107BCE, when John Hyrcanus razed the temple and the capital city of Samaria.

The city of Samaria gave its name to the whole region, and the people were known as Samaritans. Southerners looked down on them as being the descendants of the people who committed idolatry after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5–6) and resettled the northern region with people from other locations in their empire (2 Kings 17:24), from “every nation [who] still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived” (2 Kings 17:29).

Flavius Josephus, a late 1st century CE historian, retells the sequence of events we read in 2 Kings, indicating that the Samaritans descended from this hybrid, unfaithful group of people (Antiquities 11.297–347). He also recounts an incident which entrenched the antagonism of southern Judeans towards the northern Samaritans (Antiquities 11.297–347).

The Samaritans attempted to undermine the returning exiled Judeans with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Ezra 4:6–24). Josephus notes disagreement about which site should be the location for the temple (Josephus, Antiquities 12.9–10). This is the same issue that is reflected in words attributed to Jesus at John 4:20–22.

Josephus also recounts a later time when some Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the in portico of the Jerusalem Temple, thus rendering it unclean (Antiquities 18.29–30), and he gives a graphic description of the time when Cumanus (governor of Judea 48–52 CE) was bribed by some Samaritans, leading some Judean brigands to mount an uprising. Cumanus ordered the Romans to join with the Samaritans in battling the Judeans; many were killed, many more taken captive (Antiquities 20.118–123).

References to the Samaritans in the 3rd century CE Mishnah may reflect views current at the time of Jesus: “Rabbi Eliezer used to say, ‘He that eats of the bread of Samaritans is as one who eats the flesh of swine’” (m. Seb. 8.10); “the daughters of Cutheans [Samaritans] are menstruants from their cradle” (m. Nid. 4.1). That undergirds the author’s comment in the Johannine narrative, that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” John 4:9). Jesus was stepping across the prescribed boundaries by asking for a drink from the woman (John 4:7–9).


The five husbands have occasioned much debate amongst interpreters. One entirely predictable and utterly incorrect interpretation is that the woman was an outcast amongst her people, because she had been married five times. Adultery and promiscuity are assumed by the—always male—interpreters.

This line of interpretation has no justification at all in the text. No reason is given for the five husbands—neither adultery nor promiscuity are mentioned in John’s narrative. Perhaps it could have been an application of the Levirate law of marriage to the brother of a deceased husband (see Deut 25:5–10; also Ruth 3:1–4:13; Mark 12:18–23)?

And if the woman had been such an outcast amongst the people of her own village, why would they have listened to what she had to say about Jesus (John 4:39)? Although Jesus comments that “the man you have now is not your husband” (4:18), this does not indicate sexual irregularity; this man could well have been the protector of the woman, the man who heads the household in which she has been given shelter.

Certainly, the main rationale for this particular interpretation can only be the patriarchal bias of the interpreters. The fact that it is so often cited does not lend weight to it; it simply reflects the ubiquity of sexist patriarchal interpreters!

James McGrath has a chapter on what Jesus learnt from the woman of Samaria in his 2022 book, What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade)

Other interpreters regard the “five husbands” as symbols for the five groups of people who were imported into the northern kingdom after it was conquered by the Assyrians. 2 Kings 17 does give an account of “the origins of the Samaritans”, in which it provides the claim that the Assyrians deported the Israelites living in the northern kingdom and imported people from five areas (people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim; see 2 Ki 17:24) into the region.

This accurately reflects what we know of the practice of the Assyrians—deporting locals and importing vassals from other conquered territories from elsewhere in their kingdom. This was a clever power play; there was not much chance of local resistance, once the men were deported elsewhere, and a strong chance that those imported from elsewhere into the territory would maintain the status quo and ensure “peace” in the newly-conquered territory.

However, we need to bear in mind that 2 Kings and other historical narratives (1–2 Samuel, 1 Kings, Ezra—Nehemiah) are compiled and written by people in the southern kingdom, some time after the events reported—indeed, quite some time later, centuries later. The southern author(s) seem to have had a consistent programme to depict the northern kingdom as resolutely and persistently evil.

Just look at how so many of the northern kings are described in this formulaic manner: Jeroboam, son of Solomon, at 1 Ki 14:1–20 (and have a look at verse 11 for a gory fate!), the first king of the northern kingdom; and then Nadab at 1 Ki 15:25–26; Baasha at 1 Ki 15:33–34; Zimri at 1 Ki 16:15–20; Omri at 1 Ki 16:25–28; Ahab at 1 Ki 16:29–30, 22:37–40; Ahaz at 1 Ki 22:51–53; Jehoram at 2 Ki 3:1–2; Ahaziah at 2 Ki 8:26–27; Jehoash at 2 Ki 13:10–13; Jeroboam II at 2 Ki 14:23–29; Zechariah at 2 Ki 15:8–12; Menahem at 2 Ki 15:17–22; Pekahaiah at 2 Ki 15:23–26; Pekah at 2 Ki 15:27–31; and Hoshea at 2 Ki 17:1–4. In other words, almost all of the kings of Israel!!!

So what we have in 1–2 Kings is southern propaganda about those evil northerners, right from the time of Solomon’s death, on through the centuries, until the fall of the north under Assyria—who then imported pagan foreigners, had them “pretend” to follow the Lord God; but they brought their own various pagan religious practices, even whilst giving a show of worshipping the Lord God as the ancestral god of the land (2 Ki 17:7–18). So they defiled the land even further!!

We can see how the rhetoric in 2 Kings piles up against the northerners, courtesy of the southerners, writing at a time when great antagonism had built up about them. So I take the claim that this narrative was “history” with a big, big pile of salt.

And then we still have the question, how do we say that the text of John 4 is pointing to the story (the propaganda) told in 2 Kings 17? I can’t see anything in the John text that does so, other than the (typically southern) criticism of the northerners’ worship “on this mountain” (John 4:20–22) that is placed on the lips of Jesus—who, curiously, was a northerner from Galilee, not a southerner from Bethlehem. So the reference must maintain something of a mystery.


The understanding of John 4 that I have outlined above has been developed through many fruitful conversations over the years with my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine. My exploration of the “five husbands” has most recently been prompted by a question from Alison Campbell, a faithful reader of this blog.