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A Day of Mourning

Every year the Uniting Church marks a Day of Mourning to reflect on the dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples and the ongoing injustices faced by First Nations people in this land.

For the millions of Second Peoples in this country—those whose ancestors arrived on this continent from 1788 onwards—it is a day to lament that we were and remain complicit with the invasion and colonisation of the country, with the massacres of First Peoples that took place in so many locations across the continent, and with the continuing marginalisation and oppression of First Peoples in so many communities.

The observance of a Day of Mourning was endorsed in 2018 by the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church, arising from a request of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). At that same Assembly, an affirmation of the sovereignty of the First Peoples was also made.

As an expression of the Uniting Church’s commitment to justice and truth-telling, we keep the Sunday before Australia Day as a Day of Mourning. Today across Australia, people in many Uniting Church Congregations are reflecting on the effects of invasion and colonisation on First Peoples.

In the resources prepared for this day, the President of the Assembly, Rev. Sharon Hollis, and the Interim National Chair Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the Rev. Mark Kickett, state: “In marking a day of mourning, we hear the call of Jesus to a love one another. We live into our covenant relationship to stand together with, and listen to the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice. We affirm the sovereignty of First Peoples and honour their culture and their connection to country.”

See https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Day-of-Mourning-2022-FINAL_2_web.pdf

The President and National Chair continue, “We reaffirm our understanding that First Peoples encountered the Creator God long before colonisation. We confess and seek forgiveness for the dispossession and violence against First Peoples, we lament our part, and we recommit to justice and truth-telling.” This echoes the words now embedded within the Constitution of the church, in a Revised Preamble which was adopted at the Church’s 12th Assembly in 2009 and subsequently endorsed by the Synods and Presbyteries throughout 2010.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/covenanting/PreamblePoster-web.pdf

The resources prepared for worship on this day include an expanded Acknowledgement which also draws on words in the Revised Preamble: We acknowledge that the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. We acknowledge that the same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways; and so we rejoice in the reconciling purposes of God found in the good news about Jesus Christ.

In a section known as “Truth-Telling and an Invitation”, the Congregation is invited to reflect: “In a nation, now called Australia, where is truth-telling not always told? To know mourning is to truly know injustice—a struggle for justice. We seek guidance from ancient wisdom of past and present, to hold this mourning in our hearts and minds, to honour, to pay respect, to know, to appreciate and to act on injustice. Layers of mourning unfold in the stories not told.”

At the conclusion of the service, again drawing on the Covenant relationship that the Uniting Church has with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the resources offer this word of mission to conclude worship, and to shape the witness and service of those who have shared in these services:

People of God, go from here to live out the covenant into which we, the First and Second Peoples of this land, have entered with one another. Confront and challenge injustice wherever you see it. Act justly yourselves and insist that others do the same. Rejoice in the richness of our diverse cultures and learn from them. Celebrate and demonstrate the unity we share in Jesus our Lord. Commit to worship, witness and serve as one people under God, until God’s promised reconciliation of all creation is complete.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

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Some carols for Epiphany

Some carols from Aotearoa-New Zealand and Australia, as we head towards Epiphany, orienting us to the journey motif in the story.

God, help the weary travelers (Daniel Charles Damon)

1. God, help the weary travelers who follow their star,
seeking a refuge, so near, yet so far,
seeking a place of shelter from hatred and war,
seeking the safety of some distant shore.

Refrain: God, help the weary travelers, the lost and the found,
all of us travelers on this holy ground.
God, help the weary travelers, those just passing through,
all of us travelers with love’s work to do.

2. God, help the gifted people who come seeking gold,
far from their homelands, their lives bought and sold.
God, free us from the judgments that turn us to stone,
show us the river that flows from your throne.

3. God, lift new generations from muck and from mire,
baptized with water and Spirit and fire.
God, raise new generations with hearts set ablaze,
singing and dancing their Maker’s high praise.

Suggested Hymn Tune: PRAYER FOR TRAVELERS – Damon, Daniel Charles
Poetic Meter: 12.10.12.10. Ref.

*****

Wise men came journeying (Shirley Erena Murray)

Wise men came journeying, once, long ago,
camel hooves swirling the sand dune and snow,
gold in the saddlebag, myrrh in the jar,
incense to honor the Child of the star.

Wise are the travelers led to move on
following signs where the Christ light has shone,
facing the deserts and crossing the lines,
heeding no limits that culture defines.

Wise are each one of us looking for change,
stargazer people, respecting the strange,
inner and outer worlds open to light,
centered on seeing the real and the right.

Wise ones keep journeying all through their days
bringing their gifts to the source of their praise,
risking the Promise with all they hold dear,
seeking God’s peace at the door of the year.

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=2956

*****

The star and hope for our times (Shirley Erena Murray)

Shirley Erena Murray writes of looking to peace and justice in our world, with particular reference to the three Abrahamic faiths.

Now the star of Christmas shines into our day,
points a new direction: change is on the way –
there’s another landscape to be travelled through,
there’s a new-born spirit broadening our view.

When the Christ of Christmas speaks to heart and mind,
clears the clouded vision hurting humankind,
kindred spirits gather, drawn toward the light,
sharing revelation, joyful at the sight.

If we choose to follow, we may yet be wise:
where the three kings travel, three great faiths arise:
Christ within the Christian, Jesus in the Jew,
Prophet for the Muslim, each tradition true.

Where the star enlightens, light is shared around.
God has drawn no borders, faith sees common ground:
Peace the hopeful journey, justice without bar,
God’s illumination from the Christmas star.

Suggested Hymn Tune: NOEL NOUVELET –
Poetic Meter: 6.5.6.5.D.

*****

Be the light (Craig Mitchell and David MacGregor)

Be the light that shrouds the twilight
Be the might that holds our fears
Be the home that yearns our dwelling
Be the stone that takes our tears

Refrain: Christ be our light, Whom shall we fear?
Deep in the night, Spirit, draw near.

Be the cry that whispers mercy
Be the seeker when we hide
Be the taker and the giver
Be the pathway and the guide

Be the sacrifice that breaks us
Be the shelter in the flood
Be the promise that remakes us
Be the parent who is good

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We Three Kings: exegeted, explained, and exposed

A carol-commentary for the Festival of Epiphany
(a little weird, a little forced, perhaps a little sin-ical ?)

WE: the first person plural subject of the song, suggesting this comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak

THREE: or perhaps four, or maybe seven, or even twelve, or some other indeterminate number, since the initial story does not specify the precise number of subjects in the story

KINGS: or some say wise men, or others say sages, which they offer as an interpretation of the term magus, used in the initial narrative … so perhaps the subjects of the song are Zoroastrians, for whom star-watching was a highly-developed skill.

OF ORIENT: or, lands east of Israel, so perhaps Babylon, or even further to the east, in Parthia, where the Zoroastrian faith was dominant

ARE: the main verb, denoting the existential state of being of the subjects

BEARING: adverbial participle, descriptive of the activity of the aforesaid subjects of the song

GIFTS: by tradition, three of them [see below], which goes to explain why you might think there are three of the subjects [see above] … and providing grist for the mill for the idea that these subjects were kings, since Psalm 72:10-11 speaks about kings bringing gifts to the King of Israel

WE TRAVERSE AFAR: presumably on camels, the deluxe form of transportation of the time … although ………

FIELD AND FOUNTAIN, MOOR AND MOUNTAIN: a little bit of poetic excursus, a selective account of the natural phenomena encountered on the journey, arranged in alliterative couplets (it feeds the creative imagination of the listener/singer, you see)

FOLLOWING: another adverbial participle, providing a second description of the activity of the subjects

YONDER STAR: a bright celestial phenomenon, shining in the eastern sky but apparently moving or pointing in the direction of Israel, which was dutifully followed by the subjects

star on a dark background

O Star of wonder, star of night / Star with royal beauty bright /
Westward leading, still proceeding / Guide us to thy Perfect Light:
more poetic extrapolation, as befits the season

*****

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain / GOLD I bring to crown Him again /
King forever, ceasing never / Over us all to reign:
which explains the claim that the subjects of the song are kings, as the gift of gold was what the kings of the nations bring to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6–bearing in mind the injunction of Exodus 20:23, that this gift of gold not be in the form of any idol

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

FRANKINCENSE to offer have I / Incense owns a Deity nigh /
Prayer and praising, all men [oops!] raising / Worship Him, God most high:
in relation to the gift of frankincense, as already noted above, the kings of the nations bring this to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6 … and, ahhh, presumably there has been a divine change of mind since Isaiah 1:13, where the Lord God declared that “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” ?

***

MYRRH is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes of life of gathering gloom /
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying /Sealed in the stone-cold tomb:
curiously, there is no scriptural tradition about kings bringing myrrh to the Lord

Nevertheless, myrrh certainly featured as a gift in the religious practices of Israel, according to Exodus 30:23–27 (The LORD spoke to Moses: “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil’ — an oil to anoint “the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand”)

As the song signifies, it points forward to a moment in the passion of Jesus as narrated at Mark 15:23, where it is mixed with wine [but in that case, the gift was not accepted] and to the burial scene as reported at John 19:39, where it is mixed with aloes.

And let’s not make any link to the scene in Revelation 18:11-13, where the merchants of the world lament the fact that nobody is purchasing their goods any longer … goods which include, amongst many options, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh …

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

Glorious now behold Him arise / King and God and Sacrifice /
Alleluia, Alleluia / Earth to heav’n replies:
adhering to the Golden Evangelical Rule of always taking the opportunity to smuggle Easter and the Cross and the Sacrifice of Jesus into any song or sermon or worship service or, even, Christmas/Epiphany Carol!

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

So: Merry EndofChristmas and HappyEpiphany!!!

And for more exotica on the Magi, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/04/tales-from-the-magi-the-revelation-of-the-magi/

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On the move: a central feature of the Christmas story

At Christmas, we recall a familiar story. Central to the story is the baby born in a manger, because “there was no room in the inn”. This element is, of course, told and retold countless times in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and in churches in every country around the world, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

That part of the story gets disseminated widely. That part of the story contributes strongly to the warm, fuzzy vibe that Christmas brings to many people. Less well shared, however, is that part of the story which reports that this family were soon under threat, and they hurriedly fled to another country, seeking the safety of refuge, until the threat was over.

Christmas cards, and Christmas carols, have tended to encourage us to romanticise and sentimentalise the first part of the story—the babe in the manger in Bethlehem. We sing so easily about the scene that Luke recounts in his Gospel, imagining it in the picture perfect way of so many cards and carols: the baby lying peacefully asleep in the manger, the adoring mother and doting father, the shepherds who come from the fields to worship. It all sounds so peaceful, so relaxed, so comfortable, so ideal.

As we sing all of this, I suspect that we forget that the newborn infant was born in the area that was shared with the animals, because there was no room, not in “the inn”, but rather in the guest room of the house where they were (according to the story) staying that night. So at the time when Mary gave birth, there were no homely comforts, but there would have been the sights and sounds and smells of the animals, all around.

We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child (Luke 2:8–16) would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considers impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!

We forget, also, that Luke’s account of this birth places it in Bethlehem, which is not the place where the newly-formed family lived. They had been forced to travel there, according to Luke’s account, because of a nation-wide census that was required by the Romans (Luke 2:1-7).

Giving birth to the child in that town, in that room, in that manger, was not the plan that his parents initially had; this was a temporary, unforeseen situation, basic and crude. This part of the story is not at all the comfortable and soothing scene that cards and carols regularly depict. The birth takes place after a forced journey, in an less than desirable setting.

*****

The second part of the story, that found in the Gospel of Matthew, also has an unexpected and forced journey involved. This part of the story relates to the rapid flight that the family took after the child was born, heading away from Herod, fleeing into the safety of Egypt, a foreign country (Matt 2:13-15). Matthew’s contribution to the story rarely fosters those warm, fuzzy vibes that many associate with Christmas.

And often, in church, this part of the story is left for the time after Christmas Day—which is logical, since this is where it comes in the flow of the story; but which means that, downunder at least, it is featured during the Great Summer Holiday which comes immediately after the feasting and festivities of Christmas Day (and Boxing Day, if there are still plentiful left overs!)

Matthew’s account sets out very clearly that this journey was not part of the original plan, worked out methodically in advance. Rather, this was a rapid response to an emergency situation, a hurried seeking of refuge. It was a temporary measure, undertaken under great duress.

The ruler who gives the order which provokes the family to undertake this journey is the man whom Jesus once called “that fox”: Herod. Ruling over Judea as a client king of the Romans, Herod was a half-Jewish man who had risen to the top of Jewish society through political cunning and strategic marriages. He had a reputation for violent brutality.

Matthew’s story recounts that Herod ordered that all male children under two years of age should be killed, to ensure that this potential rival to his rule would be safely despatched (Matt 2:1-3, 16-18). Jesus survived this because his parents were advised of the imminent pogrom by visitors “from the east” who had come via the court of Herod (Matt 2:13-15). This part of the story also does not sound relaxed, sweet, and comfortable!

And then, as the story in Matthew’s account continues, there is yet another journey, returning from Egypt, back into Israelis–but not Judea, for fear of the ruler who followed Herod, his son Archelaus; rather, to Galilee, where the family,settled in Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23). Another episode of dislocation and disruption, that rarely features in the classic carols and Christmas cards.

*****

It is because of these disruptive and confronting elements in the story that, in my mind, Christmas challenges us to think about those who have no shelter. It especially invites us to think about those who have nowhere safe to shelter because their homes are beset by warfare, their lives are constrained by oppression, their families have been decimated by murders, their houses have been bombed or shelled.

While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, UNHCR data shows that arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were sharply down in most regions – about 1.5 million fewer people than would have been expected in non-COVID circumstances, and reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded.

Despite COVID-related movement restrictions and pleas from the international community for a ceasefire that would facilitate the COVID-19 response, displacement continued to occur – and to grow. As a result, above one per cent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.

Most recent statistics from the UNHCR,
as of mid-2021

In that spirit, as we celebrate Christmas, let us also commit to working to ensure safety and security for those who are imperilled, homeless, stateless, and on the move. There are so many such people in our world today. There are so many ways we can live out the Christmas story as we reach out to them.

*****

The image is La Sagrada Familia by Kelly Latimore https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/img_2361/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/25/acting-for-peace-through-the-christmas-bowl/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

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Saint Basil: scholar and gift-giver

Today (1 January) is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great in the Eastern churches. Basil wrote many theological works and is remembered (along with the two Gregorys, of Nyssa and Nazianzus—pictured below) as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, who played an influential role in the development of patristic thinking about the triune God.

It is said that Basil was tall, thin, partly bald, with a long beard. (He is the one on the left in the icon above.) He ate no more than was absolutely necessary for his survival; he never ate meat. It is said that he had only one worn undergarment and one overgarment.

Basil said that prayer was the seasoning for our daily work, as we season food with salt; that sacred and holy songs can only inspire us and give us joy and not grief. His philosophy fits well into the Christmas Season, when we season our lives with carols!

At the age of 28, Basil “left the world” and became a monk; at 35 a priest, then at 41, the Bishop of Caesarea. It is said that Basil, being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor, the underprivileged, those in need, and children.

For Greeks and others in the Orthodox tradition, St Basil is the saint associated with Santa Claus. In Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children every January 1 (St Basil’s Day). It is traditional on St Basil’s Day to serve vasilopita, a rich bread baked with a coin inside.

It is also customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing carols for the New Year, and to set an extra place at the table for Basil.

The celebration of St Basil on 1 January marks the day of his death. In the Western Church, because 1 January commemorates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Basil shares his saintly commemoration on the next day, 2 January, with Gregory of Nazianzus.

St Basil’s Hymn is one of many traditional Greek carols (often referred to as calanda) that are still sung by children on St Basil’s feast day (New Year’s Day). In the tradition still practiced to some extent in modern times, Greek children roam the neighborhoods from house-to-house on St Basil’s Day, playing instruments and singing songs, bidding New Year’s tidings to everyone, and receiving gifts of sweets and pastries from householders.

Here is the hymn (in a quirky and rather stilted translation):

It’s the beginning of the month
beginning of the year
High incense tree
Beginning of my good year
Church with the Holy Seat
It’s the beginning of our Christ
Saint and spiritual
He got out to walk on earth
And to welcome us
St. Basil is coming from Caesarea
And doesn’t want to deal with us
May you long live, my lady
He holds an icon and a piece of paper
With the picture of Christ our Saviour
A piece of paper and a quill
Please look at me, the young man

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Realism at Christmas

The combined collection of traditional carols that we sing each Christmas demonstrate a very strange dichotomy.

On the one hand, there are those carols, or verses in carols, which go goo-gah at ten news of the cute little bay by, ruddy-cheeked and gurgling enticingly (or sleeping silently, making not a hint of baby noise).

On the other hand, there are those carols that really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, bring peace and joy, salvation and redemption, to the whole world. They move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time, into an ethereal heavenly realm.

Aotearoa/New Zealand hymn writer Colin Gibson has written a fine hymn, We who love Jesus, that offers a realistic take on what Christmas might/should/must mean for people of faith:

We who love Jesus asleep in the hay,
for all those children who wander today,
homeless and hungry and driven, we pray.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.*

We who see Jesus on Mary’s sweet breast
pray for the children who are nobody’s guest,
walking to nowhere, with nowhere to rest.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

We who praise Jesus, the gentle and kind,
pray for all children unseen, out of mind,
beaten, abused or in conflict entwined.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

We who in Jesus know God come to earth
pray for all children, wherever their birth;
may they find shelter, beloved, given worth.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

*New Zealand Maori for ‘Lord, hear our prayer’;
it is pronounced ay tay areekee, fockarongo kee a ma-toe.

*****

Another much more realistic offering comes in one of my favourites, to the tune of Away in a Manger, in which Rebecca Dudley (of Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid, UK) has reworked the unrealistic saccharine lyrics of the traditional Carol into a reflection on the story in a far more realistic mode:

How ancient and lovely this news of a star,
a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.
Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay
and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here
to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?
What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there
for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;
for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,
for life in its fullness that you promise today,
and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

*****

There are some other reworkings of Away in a manger that I have collected at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/18/no-crying-he-makes-get-real-puhhh-leeeease/

*****

British lyricist Andrew Pratt has written What makes Christmas real? — a whole Carol devoted to being more realistic!

Christmas is real when the cost that we measure
reaches the manger and touches the skies,
shop fronts give way to divine revelation,
God is among us and selfishness dies.

Christmas is real when the gifts that are given
mirror the love of this God upon earth,
God who is known in self-giving and loving
crowning our poverty, coming to birth.

Christmas still echoed when screams of the children,
slaughtered by Herod inflamed people’s fear.
Christmas remains when the trees and the tinsel
make way for news that we’d rather not hear.

Christmas is real when we enter the squalor
mirrored in Bethlehem so long ago;
off’ring the love that was seen in the God-head,
total self-giving not baubles and show.

Copyright Andrew Pratt (andrewpratt@btconnect.com)

Tune: Epiphany Hymn

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John: fisherman and follower, eyewitness and evangelist, apostle and saint

Today is the feast day of John, remembered in the Catholic tradition as Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, and included in the Uniting Church’s list of commemorations as John, Witness to Jesus.

The fourth Gospel in the New Testament has long been accredited to the disciple named in the three Synoptic Gospels as the fisherman who was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest called to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19: 3:17; Matt 4:21; 10:2; Luke 5:10; 6:14). Ironically, however, this disciple is not specifically named in the fourth Gospel. (Apart from John the baptiser, the other John noted in this Gospel is the father of Simon Peter; John 1:52; 21:15–17).

In the early fourth century CE, Eusebius wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (6.14.7) that Clement of Alexandria had described this Gospel as the “spiritual” Gospel, written to complement the “physical” depictions of Jesus found in the other three Gospels. (Clement was Bishop of Alexandria at the end of the second century CE.)

This view has exercised a widespread influence throughout Christian history; in the twenty–first century, John’s Gospel is often cited as the easiest way for new converts to understand the “spiritual truths” of the Christian faith. It is frequently said that it contains the most direct expression of the simple Gospel message: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16).

More recent scholarly study of this Gospel, however, has indicated that it is a complex and intricate piece of literature. The literary style of this Gospel is distinctive amongst the Gospels found in the New Testament. Jesus speaks at far greater length than the succinct sayings and compressed argumentation reported of the Synoptic Jesus. Some of the key images included in these speeches are ripe with symbolic significance.

There are multiple layers of meaning to be explored in the fourth Gospel. A number of key words contain ironic references or wry puns. Some scenes tell of misunderstandings which arise because of the different meanings built into the text. A hint of secrecy runs through the narrative—secrecy regarding the deeper, hidden meaning of Jesus and his story. The work is a complex literary creation.

An anonymous figure among the disciples—“the disciple whom Jesus loved”—lays claim to be the author of this work (John 21:20, 24). Who is this figure? Over time, the evangelist came to be equated with the disciple John, son of Zebedee, brother of James. Nothing in the text itself explicitly supports this, however.

Over the past few decades, a different understanding about the origins of this work have developed from scholars who have explored the authorship of this Gospel and the context in which it was written. There is widespread agreement that this work was not written, in the form that we have it, by this John who was one of the earliest followers of Jesus.

Some scholars developed the notion that this figure of “the beloved disciple” was a symbol embedded within the narrative, representing an earlier authority for the evolving traditions about Jesus. The Gospel itself, they consider, came to be written down many decades after this authority figure had first begun to recount the story of Jesus. The shape of the Gospel was heavily influenced by the nature of the community of faith through which these stories were passed, over a number of decades.

This has led to a detailed hypothesis concerning the origins and development of the community of believers which gave birth to this Gospel in written form. (The North American scholars most often associated with this line of interpretation are Raymond Brown and J. Louis Martyn.) This hypothesis makes two central claims.

The first claim is that, in its earliest stages, the community which produced this Gospel had been essentially Jewish. That community received and retold stories which may well have come from the John who was a follower of Jesus. The second claim is that, by the time the body of the Gospel was written in the form that we know it, this community found itself in an antagonistic relationship to the dominant form of Judaism. This opened the way for Gentile ideas, so that they are found mixed with Jewish ideas in the final form of the Gospel.

So if this Gospel was indeed stimulated by the teachings of one of the first followers of Jesus, a Jewish man in Galilee, known as John, it reflects a remarkable trajectory in the first century of the movement initiated by Jesus, tracing its development from a Jewish renewal movement towards a global religion. The stories from the Apostle have presumably been reworked and reshaped over decades as that trajectory develops.

The “disciple whom Jesus loved” certainly occupies a prominent place in the narrative of the fourth Gospel. He reclines on the breast of Jesus at the final meal in Jerusalem (John 13:23) and stands at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus (19:26–27).

After Mary Magdalene announced that the stone at the entrance of the tomb where the crucified Jesus had been laid had been removed (20:1–2), he runs to the tomb, with Simon Peter (20:3), arrives first, and sees that the tomb is empty (20:4–5)—but leaves it to Peter to see the inside first (20:6–7), before himself entering and attesting to the empty tomb with his own eyes (20:8).

Later, when seven of the disciples are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, this same beloved disciple is the first to recognise Jesus standing on the beach next to their fire; this time, he announces the identity of Jesus to Peter (21:7). A little later, Peter draws from Jesus the words about this disciple remaining with him (21:20–23). Finally, the same beloved disciple has the last word in the later-added Appendix to the Gospel, affirming his role as eyewitness and evangelist (21:24).

This is the figure that, in the tradition, is linked with John, the fisherman brother of James, the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, accorded a place as one of The Twelve Apostles.

In the book of Acts, the disciple John visits Samaria with Peter, in order to authorise and sanction what Philip had been teaching and doing in that region (Acts 8:14–17). That episode indicates the respect and authority that John was held to have as the movement developed—although the author of Luke and Acts writes some decades after the events he describes, at the end of the first century, and his material is filtered through various intermediaries (see Luke 1:2).

“Apostles Peter and John Blessing the People of Samaria,”
by Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, Italian.

However, in one of his early letters from the 50s, Paul himself acknowledges this important position of John, along with James (brother of Jesus) and Peter, the “acknowledged pillars” of the church. Paul relates how he went, with Barnabas and Titus, to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1), in order to receive the approval from the mother church for his activity amongst the Gentiles. Accordingly, “James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2:9).

This corroborates the view we find in Acts, that John had a position of importance in the early church. It doesn’t demonstrate, however, that this John wrote the book of signs, the work we know as the Gospel of John.

The scholar Jerome, born in Dalmatia (now Albania), lived for some time in Palestine in the late 300s. Jerome recounts an anecdote still being told at that time about John the Evangelist. When John was old and feeble and no longer able to walk or preach, he would be carried among the faithful in church and would repeat only one thing over and over again: “My little children, love one another.”

This, of course, is the central mantra in the first of the three letters that bear the name of John (see 1 John 3:11-17; 3:23; 4:7–12; also 2 John 5; 3 John 6). The legend explains how these anonymous letters were attributed to the apostle John.

Polycarp, through Saint Irenaeus, tells us that the Apostle John lived a long life, which ended peacefully in Ephesus around the year 100 CE. If that was so, then John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr. That may then equate him with the John who claims authorship of the book of Revelation, exiled on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). However, the style and language of this last book of the New Testament differs significantly from the style of the Johannine gospel and letters.

The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that two rival sites at Ephesus initially claimed the honour of being the grave of John. One eventually achieved official church recognition, becoming a shrine in the 4th century. By the 6th century the healing power of dust from John’s tomb was famous, and the church of Ephesus claimed to possess the autograph of the Fourth Gospel. We don’t have that manuscript today, however.

John was said to have written the Acts of John, a domestic work that was known in the second century; but it was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE. And so the traditions about John continued to grow.

Indeed, in some Medieval and Renaissance works of painting, sculpture and literature, John is often presented in an androgynous or feminized manner, perhaps reflecting the ambiguous identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

St. John the Apostle by Jacques Bellange, artist
and printmaker from the Duchy of Lorraine, c.1600

All of which demonstrates the maxim that I hold for early Christian writings: the further away from the first century we get, the more information is known about the writers of the Gospels!!

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It was not a silent night (for Christmas)

It was not a silent night. The stables were full with extra animals from the visitors. All the animals were restless, sounding their calls with a sense of unease. They could sniff the stress of their human masters. Extra bodies meant extra chores, so there was extra stress all round.

It was not a silent night. The visitors in town made settling down well nigh impossible. Family reunions, catching up on gossip, calling around to see friends from long ago; the streets were abuzz with good-natured banter. None of the humans were silent for very long.

It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground; you could hear the young woman streets away, her cry stabbing into the night, as the new baby made his way into the world of his family.

It was not a silent night.

Still, in our time, it is not a silent night. Yes, babies are rocked to sleep, and tired visitors bunk down to rest … but still, the sighs and groans of people in distress fill our nights, invade our minds, unsettle our lives.

It is not a silent night, for the woman battered by her partner.

It is not a silent night, for the old man grieving his loss.

It is not a silent night, for the young woman and her starving children, fleeing violence, seeking safety, hoping for a second chance.

It is not a silent night, for the indigenous young man in the lockup.

If we listen with care, we will realise: it is not a silent night.

It is not a silent night in our time … and yet, still, the baby makes his way into our lives. Not to whisk us away from all the noise and distress; but to be with us, to sit with us, to grow with us, to feel with us, and to share with us.

The baby becomes the man, the one who offers acceptance to everyone; the one who reassures us we are loved; the one who holds out the gift of grace and yearns to share all of life with us.

It is not a silent night. And we are grateful.

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“Personal responsibility”

A couple of days ago, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has defended his refusal to reinstate COVID-19 health restrictions ahead of Christmas, saying it’s a matter of “personal responsibility”.

“When it comes to face masks”, he said, “we recommend face masks in areas where you can’t socially distance. It is the time for personal responsibility for our state. We are treating the people of our state like adults. If we need to tailor our responses from time to time, we will.”

The next day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “Australia must embrace a ‘culture of responsibility’ that places the onus on individuals to take protective actions against COVID-19 rather than a ‘culture of control and mandates’ by government.”

“Personal responsibility” is the latest mantra, to be placed alongside the repeated admonition that “we need to live with the virus”.

Is this a reasonable position to advocate?

We have lived through the first and second waves of the pandemic throughout 2020, and learnt much about how to handle the pandemic. We have demonstrated during those months that we could, indeed, pivot and change, as a society.

Then, the third wave in mid-2021 hit hard, as Delta ran riot through the community; but we made our way through that surge, as well, and rejoiced as we saw case numbers decline, hospital staff breath a little more freely, and ICU units step back from high, high stress moments.

And now, we are on the edge of a “fourth wave”—the Omicron wave. It is a wave that threatens to wreak more damage than the previous three have done. The numbers that are being projected by responsible medical researchers and national medical associations are deeply troubling.

We know the potential for, not just scores or hundreds of people to become ill, but thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps even more than this to become ill, and for a significant number of them to die. The deepening grief that is being spread by this virus is a third pandemic, alongside that of deaths and the second pandemic of mental ill-health.

The political leadership of our day is now standing outside the praetorium, side by side with Pontius Pilate, dipping their hands into that same bowl of water, washing their hands as they declare in lip-synch with him: “we are innocent of these consequences … it is a matter of personal responsibility”.

We, in the church, say often, that the zeitgeist of our time is one of rampant individualism – an individualism that has given up on the age-old tradition of corporate responsibility, communal care, extended-family responsibility for the wellbeing of each and every one of us.

The political mantra of “individual responsibility” is a crystal-clear manifestation of that abdication of communal responsibility for one another. It is the starkest instance, in our modern times, of the ancient problem that plagued Israel in its formational period: when every person did what was right in their own eyes. The utterly fraught nature of that period is attested in scripture, even in the airbrushed and polished accounts we have inherited in Judges.

So the place that I see for the church, now, at this time, is this: we are called to stand against the dominant culture of rampant individualism. We are called to bear witness to our concern that we have for the whole of society, not just for our own individual and localised part of that society.

We are called to work for the welfare of the city [and the whole state, or territory], not just to ensure that our local manifestation of the body of Church is able to continue with ‘business as usual’ whilst infections spread, hospitals once again overflow, ICU staff become hyper-stressed, people die, families grieve, and communities fracture under this heavy weight.

We are called to live out that love for the world which so fundamentally encapsulates who God is, how God acts, who were are as God’s people, what we are called to do in our daily lives. Love our neighbours. Love those around us. Love those far from us. Act in love.

Paul wrote wisely that if one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it. That is surely a mantra for our current time. There is suffering, and the potential for greater and more widespread suffering. The call we have is to stand with those who suffer; to act in ways that ensure that we do not occasion any further suffering; to behave responsibly so that we minimise the spread of COVID, to act in ways that demonstrate, not just “individual responsibility”, but communal care, corporate responsibility, in appropriate ways.

We know that the most vulnerable are most exposed to the risks that COVID infections bring—serious illness, ongoing ‘Long COVID’, and death. We know, also, that we are in pastoral relationship with, and bear pastoral responsibility for, many such vulnerable people. How do we best care for them?

Wearing a mask indoors (and outdoors in crowds), using the QR check-in code, sanitising, maintaining social distancing, bumping elbows rather than shaking hands—all of this is now commonplace, and ought to be the usual practice for all of us. We can take personal responsibility for this, indeed.

It seems to me that there is a more important step that we can take, by encouraging our Congregations to move back to online worship. To make the bold declaration that, simply wearing a mask and being careful about not hugging or shaking hands, is not an adequate response in the situation that we find ourselves. Not being together in person—especially not being together indoors (even if we open all the windows and turn up all the fans)—this is what is most responsible at this time. To make this decision irrespective of any official government advice is an important step to take.

Yes, individuals taking responsibility is important. But collective responsibility, acting corporately, with a care for all of us, is very important, at this time.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/28/values-and-principles-in-the-context-of-a-pandemic-revisited/

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“Living with COVID”—the shameful cry of our “leaders”

We are at a critical moment in Australia, as we watch the beginnings of the Omicron phase of the global pandemic here. And we are being told to

Prime Minister Morrison says that we need to “keep our nerve, keep calm and carry on”, and that “we want to stay safely open so the economy can continue to grow and people can get jobs”. NSW Premier Perrottet advises that we must “move away from fear” and “take on more hope and confidence”. Again and again, day after day, we hear advice that we must now “learn to live with COVID”.

“Living with COVID” is a sly, misleading, devious slogan. It belies the fact that whilst many are “living with COVID”, there is a regular stream of deaths each day, as the chart below shows (Victoria on the left, NSW on the right). Think about those 74 deaths from COVID in NSW and Victoria that are tabled on that chart, from the last 12 days.

Think about those 2,146 deaths across the country that have been attributed to COVID since March 2020.

How many grieving spouses does this represent? How many children, siblings, parents, cousins are mourning? How many neighbours, lifetime friends, extended family members will be amongst those impacted? And how many medical and hospital staff are being hit emotionally by the persistent recurring patients deaths that they experience?

Many are living with COVID, but also many are dying from COVID or grieving because of COVID.

“Living with COVID” reminds me of the slogan that the prophet Jeremiah punctured: “peace, peace”. He says, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush … We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but there is terror instead” (Jer 8:11-12, 15).

Those words can apply to the Prime Minister, the Premiers, the “leaders” that bleat that this is just “personal responsibility”, the “leaders” that abdicate their responsibility to lead, to mandate sensible restrictions, to model good practice, to advocate for the most vulnerable and exposed in the communities they allegedly “serve”.

We can deal with the current situation in a much better way than abdicating everything to “personal responsibility”.

“See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the Lord” (Jer 8:17). As it was then, so it is now.

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2021 in review: celebrations, learnings, and hopes in Canberra Region Presbytery

Throughout the year that is now drawing to a close, the Canberra Region Presbytery Co-Chairs and Presbytery Ministers have joined with leaders from Synod and the 12 other Presbyteries in our Synod, for a regular monthly online meeting.

These monthly meetings have been held since early in 2021 (in 2020, we were meeting weekly, then fortnightly, to deal with the unprecedented stress of COVID-19 and the restrictions that were brought in). These meetings have been invaluable for maintaining contact and support across the leadership of all Presbyteries during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.


We were asked to comment on three questions—and we thought we would share our responses with people across the Canberra Region Presbytery, as our final message for 2021. The three questions are: What are some things that have been celebrated in 2021? What are some things that have been learned in 2021? And What are some things that we are hopeful for 2022?

Here’s what we shared.

Some things we celebrated: We celebrated milestones in the lives of a number of Congregations: Goulburn 150 years, Weston Creek 50 years, Kippax 50 years, and Gungahlin 25 years; and we celebrated the establishment of two new congregations, Parkesbourne—Merrilla, and Woden Valley.

We celebrated the fact that Presbytery is drawing alongside Rise Ministries to support a fresh expression of church in a disused church building at St Aidan’s Narrabundah (now called Rise Sanctuary)
In other words, we celebrated faithful worship, witness and service in a number of locations, each quite different, across the Presbytery.

Some things we learned: We had two online presbytery meetings that were theme-focussed—one on advocacy, one on chaplaincy—and one in-person meeting with consideration of mission. These meetings provided stimulus and resourced the thinking of Presbytery members, and we hope that this will flow on into the discipleship of individuals and the mission of Congregations.

We also learned about ways we included folk who are spread over a wide distance in ministry training, Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct workshops, Sacraments Refresher sessions, Bible studies, Presbytery meetings, and other sessions, via ZOOM. The changed circumstances with restrictions on moving around or even gathering have opened up such opportunities, making these offerings more accessible across a wider audience.

See https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-spring-2021/ and https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-summer-2021/

Some things we are hopeful for in 2022: We are hopeful about the mission planning process for the Presbytery that will take place in 2022. We are also hopeful about what might emerge as we develop our work on how we use property to resource mission.

We are hopeful for growing interconnection, mutual support, sharing of resources and talents. We are hopeful for the future because of a more educated laity taking on leadership and seeing new ways of doing and being. We also sense that there is a changing feeling about letting go; more of us are willing to let go and embrace change in what is coming in the future.

We are thankful that through the concerns and challenges of 2021, we have seen the continuing faithfulness and grace of God amongst us. We are thankful for all those in ministry and congregations who have expressed their discipleship in acts of encouragement, kindness, generosity and care for others.

As we move into the time of the year when things become hectic, pressures rise, and events multiply (as they do each and every year—not just during COVID!), may we know the abiding presence of the Spirit, the peace of the one whom God sent to proclaim peace, and the joy of the news that God is active and at work in our world!

Ross, Judy, Andrew, and John
Canberra Region Presbytery

December 2021

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West Papua, 60 years on (remembering 1 December 1961)

The Indigenous people of West Papua have been struggling for independence from Indonesia since Indonesia’s invasion of the territory in 1962. Since that time, Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua has resulted in ongoing human rights abuses from Indonesian security forces, massive deforestation and destruction of the land for resource extraction, racial discrimination against Indigenous Papuans, mass displacement of Papuans from their Indigenous lands as refugees and internally displaced persons, and the systematic destruction of a Papuan identity.

2021 is a significant year as it marks the 60th anniversary of the first raising of West Papua’s symbol of independence, the Morning Star Flag. Sixty years ago the Nieuw Guinea Raad (New Guinea Council) raised the Morning Star flag alongside the Dutch flag across West Papua for the first time, on 1 December 1961.

The event was a milestone in West Papua’s ongoing path to national self-determination, which had begun when the Netherlands registered West Papua with the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory in December 1950. The self-determination project was short-lived, however, with West Papua being invaded through Operation Trikora by Australian-backed Indonesian forces.

The Morning Star Flag continues to be a powerful unifying symbol for West Papua’s struggle for economic, social and political self-determination. Raising the flag in Indonesia carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. West Papuans, as Melanesian people of the Pacific, continue to stand defiant against Indonesia’s fictitious claims to their land and identity.

(The flag is used by the Free Papua Organization and other independence supporters. It consists of a red vertical band along the hoist side, with a white five-pointed star in the center, and thirteen horizontal stripes, alternating blue and white, with seven blue stripes and six white ones. The seven blue stripes represents seven customary territories in the region.)

The Pacific Conference of Churches, with the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches, has strongly condemned the institutional racism against the indigenous npeople of West (Tanah) Papua and the increase of Indonesian militarisation in Papua that comes with this. PCC General Secretary, Rev. James Bhagwan and PNGCC General Secretary, Rev. Roger Joseph, have stated that the oppression of Papuan people underlines the need for an urgent investigation of ongoing abuse of

Human Rights, the Economic, Social and Cultural and Political rights of West Papuans, by the United Nations.

In 2019, the WCC Executive Committee released a statement of concern and solidarity for West Papua, a supporting the church leaders’ joint appeal for a comprehensive political dialogue, and calling on the Government of Indonesia to allow access to human rights organisations and journalists. The statement also invited all WCC member churches “to pray and act in support of the witness of the churches in West Papua – and that of PGI, PCC, and CCA – for justice and peace in the region.”

(The Uniting Church in Australia is a member of the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches.)

Map courtesy of the ABC

Sadly, the Australian Government has been notably silent on the issue of violence and human rights abuses in West Papua, being bound by the controversial 2006 Lombok Treaty to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”.

The theme of this year’s flag raising is Youth Rize for Land Rights. In the words of West Papuan activist Cyndi Makabory: “What resonates for me with the theme is young people are the leaders of today not ‘tomorrow’, what I’m seeing in West Papua and outside of West Papua is that youths are mobilising and propelling movements”.

There are a number of West Papuans who are active in the Canberra City Congregation—they play together in worship, as some were members of the popular Black Brothers band (see https://asiapacificreport.nz/2016/09/20/west-papuas-black-brothers-message-to-png-musicians-stay-committed/). Elizabeth “discovered” them when she was ministering in the Canberra City Congregation in 2017. They include Benny Bettay and Willem Ayamiseba.

You can read the remarkable story of courage and tenacity of one of the West Papuan leaders, Benny Wenda, at https://www.freewestpapua.org/info/benny-wendas-story/

For people of faith in Australia, the continuing injustices seen in this near neighbour merit attention and prayer. We yearn for justice, we seek to see oppression end in West Papua.

*****

I have prepared this post in conjunction with Jack Johnson, regional organiser of the Free West Papua Youth—Australia Team, and a member of the St Columba’s Uniting Church, Braddon, in the ACT.

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Compassionate carer, non-anxious presence, listening ear, relationship-building companion: the ministry of the Chaplain

The November 2021 meeting of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia met on 20 November. We had identified that the focus for the meeting would be Chaplaincy. Across the Presbytery, there are nineteen people (stipended, salaried, or volunteers) in ministry in hospitals, prisons, universities, and aged care centres, as well as community chaplaincy, disaster chaplains (on standby), and defence force chaplains.

Jean Shannon, the minister in placement with the Sapphire Coast congregation, began the meeting with a very pertinent devotion. Jean has previously served as a chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals, and as an ordained Deacon, has a strong commitment to ministry beyond the gathered community of faith, in the wide community.

In opening the meeting with a devotional reflection, Jean offered some thoughts about her understanding and practice of chaplaincy. She noted that chaplains “hear the small voices and see the invisible ones”. She went on to claim that the fundamental element in the act of listening, for a chaplain, is not so much to hear the voice of the person speaking, but “to listen for God—to listen for your God”.

Andrew Mead is the chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals; he was invited to offer a keynote address on Chaplaincy to the meeting. Andrew made reference to the contributions on their particular form of chaplaincy that many of the chaplains in the Presbytery have made, in their articles that have been collected in the most recent issue of Viewpoint, the Presbytery magazine.

See https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-summer-2021/

In speaking about chaplaincy, Andrew identified that it has both a pioneering role, moving beyond the space occupied by the congregation; and a representative role, firmly connected to the life of the church, not independent of it.

Andrew noted that chaplaincy exists simply to offer an experience of the good news of Jesus Christ through relationships with people. It is a calling to be a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice (drawing, here, on words from the UCA’s Basis of Union).

Chaplains, said Andrew, do not change the world; rather, they make an impact on people, one by one, through their caring, listening, and relationship building. The hope is that such relationships make a difference in ways that matter, as individual transformations build into communal change.

Andrew noted that organisations which have chaplains expect well trained, credentialed ministers, consistent with the expectations of other positions, who are also well-attuned to the spiritual dimensions of life. Thus, chaplains need to be both formed for ministry by the church and equipped for work within the formal structures of their employing organisation.

Andrew offered the picture of a chaplain as an icon: a visible representation of the spiritual dimension of human life, literally embodied in the being of the chaplain. When a chaplain is present with a person, there is the possibility that such a deeper insight might emerge for the people that are being engaged by the chaplain.

Within the Presbytery, work has been underway to provide a longer-term, substantial response to the impact of the bushfires of 2019–2020 in the south coast region that is served by the Presbytery. A position description has been approved for a South Coast Community Chaplaincy role, hopefully to commence in early 2022. Funding for this position has come from the Moderator’s Appeal fund, as well as the Mount Dromedary Parish, two other Congregations within the Presbytery, the Presbytery itself, and some individuals wishing to support this ministry.

Andrew noted that governments now recognise the value that is provided by “non-clinical mental health support”, and so this opens the way for such a form of community chaplaincy as is being proposed. It is a good recognition of the value of “religious services” or “spiritual resources” in a society that some say is becoming more secular and opposed to religion. In this instance, the opening for ministry is significant.

What does a chaplain offer? The art of being present, in peace and steadiness, is a gift to people in need; the chaplain offers an anchor in the midst of all that is going on. Calming the mind and spirit, fostering a quiet which can end the inner clamour, and offering a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxiety, are all deeper dimensions that chaplaincy can offer.

Chaplains seek to listen deeply, to hear the sources of resilience and wellbeing within the other person, accepting them just as they are, allowing these elements of the person’s inner strength to emerge in their own time. Chaplains seek to enliven the biblical stories as myth and symbol, to resonate with our spirituality. As relationships are built, a ripple effect can be seen from the work of the chaplain outwards to others.

During COVID, Andrew noted that some chaplains were refused entry to their institutions, and told to go home. For others, they were part of a small group of people permitted entry to offer care. In hospitals, the sense of suffering has been amplified and magnified for patients and their families. The impact on staff has been huge; there has been a slow erosion of the resilience of staff, eating away over 20 months of intense crisis. Andrew recounted a recent time which was, for him, the most critical experience of crisis that he has had in years of chaplaincy.

In such contexts, chaplains connect with human need in unexpected ways, maintaining the affirmation of the Gospel, as expressed in John 1: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

Presbytery Co-chairperson, Ross Kingham, then invited people in the session to a time of prayer, noting the intense cost of pain bearing, as carers carry much in them selves as they relate to those they encounter.

Members of the Presbytery were given time in small groups; each one was focussed on a different form of chaplaincy: hospital, prisons and indigenous, university, aged care, community and disaster response, and defence force chaplaincies. Reports back from these groups showed a strong commitment to ensuring the presence of the church, and of spirituality, in each of these contexts.

Chaplains engage with the emotional needs of hospital patients and visitors—and staff. They bear the pain of people and offer the hope of the Gospel. They relate to people undergoing major and significant life changes in aged care, and walk with them on that journey. They provide friendship to students in a new and unfamiliar university environment, as well as engaging with the intellectual curiosity of students as they explore religious issues.

Chaplains in defence settings encounter trauma and moral injury. Chaplains in prisons sit with people in major crisis moments, in what may be an alien environment, facing huge personal challenges. And as chaplains in community and disaster response settings enter into relationships, they both respond to immediate presenting needs, often in time-critical ways, as well as ensuring that they are attuned to deeper issues which may manifest as the relationship develops.

The connection (or sense of disconnection) that chaplains may feel in relation to the church as a whole, was one issue that was identified for careful attention.

For myself, as I listened to the devotions, the keynote address, and the reporting-back from the discussion groups, a question formed in my mind. What if all disciples,,whether ordained or lay, saw the importance of exercising a chaplaincy-like “ministry of presence” in their daily lives?

The Uniting Church has established two forms of ordained ministry: Ministers of the Word, called to minister with the gathered community (preaching the Word, presiding at sacraments, and offering pastoral care), and Deacons, called to minister with the scattered community (being the presence of Christ in the places of everyday life).

By analogy, we might press the challenge to those faithful people who “belong to church” and faithfully participate in worship on a regular basis. When they come into the gathered community (Sunday worship, Bible Study or fellowship groups), they participate in the ministry of the Word. But that is a relatively small percentage of time for their whole week. Perhaps one hour, perhaps four or five, maybe even ten or so hours—out of 168 hours in every week.

What of the other time during the week? All those people are “in the community”, amongst the scattered community, day by day, in their regular lives. What if each and every disciple of Jesus sought to be that compassionate carer, that non-anxious presence, that listening ear, that relationship-building companion, in ways that invited those people with whom they encounter to see them as “a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice” in the ways that they speak, act, and relate to those people.

And—lo and behold—one comment towards the end of the report-back session made exactly that same point! As disciples, we are called to be chaplains—to live the love of God, to enact the justice of God, each and every day.

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If the kingdom of God is ever going to happen on earth … (John 18; Christ the King Year B)

A dialogue sermon written by Elizabeth Raine and delivered online by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires at Tuggeranong Uniting Church and at Canberra Aboriginal Church on Sunday 21 November, the Festival of Christ the King.

*****

Today is known in the lectionary as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a relative newcomer to the liturgical calendar, arriving only in the early twentieth century. Apparently this was because at that time, many Christians in Mexico were suffering religious persecution from their anti-religious government, and secularism was rapidly gaining the upper hand both there and in Europe.

In 1925, to counteract this, the Roman Catholic Church declared this day as a worldwide celebration of the kingship of Christ over every earthly power. Its timing at the conclusion of the Season after Pentecost was fixed both by Vatican II and the subsequent Protestant developments of the lectionary, including our own UC in Uniting in Worship.

With the rise of secular atheism, people are more likely nowadays to pledge allegiance to political and consumerist organisations than they do to kings or the politics of God as revealed in Scripture. These Scriptures make clear, as does the ministry of Jesus, that God’s politics are not identifiable with those of democracies or typical kings.

In this scene from John, we hear Pilate asking Jesus the question “So you are a king?” I wonder: what does this mean about Jesus? What sort of a king could he be?

A: I know what sort of king he is! Remember when we were children, we imagined whatkings would look like, from all the stories we heard as children. A king or queen sits on a throne, has very fine robes and a crown made of gold and precious jewels. People bow down before the feet of the king in these stories. And look at how people act around the Queen! In her presence, they bow and curtsey.

B: Well, I don’t think Jesus is that sort of king at all. Where in the bible does it talk about Jesus having a throne, or jewels, or fine robes, or a golden crown? Falling at the feet of Jesus is a very different encounter. His feet are dirty and bloody, his body broken and beaten, his head bowed beneath the a crown of thorns. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was saved for the worst criminals and political rebels. Jesus at the end looked broken and defeated, and is definitely not what we might imagine as a king.

I think this scene is deeper than that. Pilate wants to know if Jesus sees himself as king of the Jews. PiIate might be thinking of thrones and crowns, but Jesus isn’t. He is thinking of something quite different, I am sure. I can see it now: Pilate, the messenger of the earthly kingdom of Rome facing off with Jesus, the messenger of God’s unearthly kingdom.

A: I hear what you are saying, but are you sure about the unearthly bit? After all, Jesus was pretty intentional about challenging the earthly empire and the corruption in authority. Look at him when the widow gave everything, he was exposing systems that were oppressive; and what about when he turned over the tables at the temple? That would have infuriated the temple priests, men who were in the pay of, and appointed by Rome itself, at the time.

B: He did say his kingdom wasn’t an earthly one.

A: On thinking about it, maybe being king of an unearthly kingdom means you act differently when you ARE on earth. Look at Jesus when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, allowing the crowd to shout out Hosanna (which means save us), and acclaim him as a king. His allowing the crowd to shout seditious things at him, would have made him a target not only of the temple priests, but of their Roman masters. Jesus must have known such actions would lead to him being arrested.

B: Hmmm, I see what you are saying. That is a very interesting idea. It is unfortunate that over the centuries, the subversive message of this unlikely king has been somewhat lost. So on the one hand, we have Jesus, the king who: * refused to allow fighting * would not grant prime posts to cronies * would not live in a fine house * refused to hate enemies or plot their downfall * mixed with the common crowds without any sense of royal dignity * refused to play political games to increase his power * did not dress in fine robes, or wear a jewelled crown.

A: But in reality, one the other hand, Jesus is pictured as a heavenly King with a worldly majesty: * who was painted in crowns and fine robes * who was given features similar to earthly monarchs * in whose church was created courtiers and princely representatives * in whose name people blessed their armies as they attacked the cities of their enemies * and of whom the church taught that the next time he came things would be very different as he would subdue the earth and put all opposition under his boot.

B: Well, that does raise some tricky issues. Today on the festival of Christ the King, I think it is important that we think about this. Which kind of King do we want to be worshipping? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

 A: I have been reading about this actually.

B: You? Reading?

A: Yes, me. Now stop with the smart answers. I have been reading Bruce Prewer, who suggests that we grow like the thing we worship. So who do we want to resemble? The king of power, commanding armies, destroying enemies, with fine robes as depicted by artists at the church’s instigation throughout the centuries? Or the king who mixes with common folk, who says put away your sword, who works to free the oppressed, who welcomes the stranger, who eats with sinners, who overturns the tables of the money changers, and who forgives the people responsible for his death?

B: Wow, that is a great way of looking at it. Do we want to be at the edge of our communities our in the middle of power? We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but surely the kingdom of God shouldn’t have fear or hate or oppression in it.

A: That’s right. If the kingdom of God as Jesus saw it is ever going to happen on earth, then every interaction, every decision, every moment and every place we find ourselves in must be seen as an opportunity to experience God’s reign in our lives, and to share the blessing of God’s reign with others. We need to turn our faith into a life-transforming practice, rather than just an intellectual assent to some ideas about God.

B: For Christ to truly be King in our world, Christ must be King in every individual lives in such a way that God’s peace and justice, God’s love and grace, will constantly flow through us, God’s people, into the world – one moment, one interaction and one transformative step at a time.

A: Surely Christ is the King who turns all of our human notions and illusions of power squarely on their heads. What the world defines as weakness and failure, Jesus shows is the real power rooted in love, bathed in grace, and covered with mercy. He is the one who redeems that which seems unredeemable and the one who loves those who appear unlovable.

By his death, we are offered a way to wholeness and the kingdom of God, a kingdom where love is so powerful that forgiveness is offered to all; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the poor and the sick are cared for. In standing with this kingly Jesus today, we can fight racism, classism, homophobia, poverty, discrimination, and homelessness.

B: Yes! We can start to work to make the systems of injustice just, and work to overturn the powers of corruption and darkness. We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but the kingdom of God doesn’t include fear, hate, or shutting down.

We must answer the call of Jesus which hasn’t changed in 2000 years—“Follow me to a kingdom where domination and oppression have been overcome, where the basic human needs are met, where all dwell in harmony with God and each other.”

A: Now that sounds like a king and a kingdom worth working for.

B: Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

A: Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

*****

B: Loving God of power and justice and peace, in our broken world we seek a new order where there is courage to speak truth to power;

A: we seek a new order where there is mutual support in church and community;

B: we seek a new order where there is abundant time for healing;

A: we seek a new order where there is peace and freedom for all. Amen.

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Renaming Ben Boyd National Park

The Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia covers country, capital, and coastal regions, as our logo tells. In the coastal area, it stretches southwards, right to the border of NSW and Victoria, where the congregations of Sapphire Coast (Merimbula) and St George’s (Eden) are serving the community of the far south coast. Stretching from Lake Pambula to Twofold Bay, and then onwards south from Boydtown to the state border, along about 50km of rocky coastline and sheltered inlets, is a wonderful natural area, designated as a national park. The area has been under the stewardship of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service since 1971.

The park is known as Ben Boyd National Park, remembering a Scottish entrepreneur of the middle decades of the 19th century, who squatted on quite a number of sites in the south east of the continent, obtaining four landholdings in the Port Phillip district and another fourteen in the Monaro plateau, south of Cooma.

Boyd was an extravagant entrepreneur. He floated a bank in 1839, raising an amount of £200,000; but then, quite unscrupulously, he used those funds to finance his pastoral, shipping and whaling activities. The bank was liquidated in 1846 with heavy losses. Georgina McCrae, who once entertained Boyd at dinner, wrote of him in her diary, “he had the sanguine temperament, exuberant vitality and daring enterprise of the typical adventurer; according to his friend Brierly, he was ‘always devising some plan of pleasure or business’.” (Quoted in the article on Boyd by G.P. Walsh in the Australian Dictionary of Biography; see https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boyd-benjamin-ben-1815)

This portrait of Ben Boyd is held by the Mitchell Library,
State Library of New South Wales. The artist is unknown.

Boyd had squatted on land surrounding Nalluccer, the original Aboriginal name for Twofold Bay, at the southern end of the land cared for by the Yuin people. He invested heavily in the establishment of a port at the location we know as Boydtown, just south of Eden, to provide a base for the whaling industry that he established.

Over the course of seven months during 1847, Boyd brought three shiploads of Melanesian men (with 65, 70, and 57 men respectively on each ship) to provide him with labour for his extensive landholdings. Boyd’s care for those men was poor; alongside the fact that they were brought to the colony as slaves, a number of them escaped their properties and were found destitute, living in poverty on the streets of Sydney.

This was the first time that men from the Pacific Islands had been imported into Australia as labourers, although some individuals had earlier arrived in Sydney as crews for ships. So concerned was the New South Wales Legislative Council about what was taking place, that it amended the Masters and Servants Act to ban importation of “the Natives of any Savage or uncivilized tribe inhabiting any Island or Country in the Pacific”.

This drawing of Ben Boyd is held in the State Library of Victoria.
No artist is attributed.

Boyd himself left the colony in 1849, to search for gold in California, and then returned to the Solomon Islands, where he lobbied local leaders to form a “Papuan Confederation”. It is thought that Boyd was actually looking to get his hands on local resources to boost his finances. Relationships with indigenous locals were fraught.

In October 1851, whilst on a game shooting expedition on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islanders, Boyd went missing. A search party later found Boyd’s boat and belt, and an expended firearm cartridge. Some years later, a later British expedition found that Boyd’s head had been cut off and his skull kept in a ceremonial house. The skull was purchased and taken to Sydney. (The Sydney Morning Herald reported this on page 5 of its issue dated 4 December 1854; see https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/12963055)

Recent perspectives on Boyd have identified that his unethical practices involved “blackbirding”–that is, using coercion and deception to kidnap people known as “South Sea Islanders”, so that they could provide “cheap labour” for landowners in the colony. See https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/sugar-slaves-australias-history-of-blackbirding/

A drawing of the practice of “blackbirding”

Recently, a decision has been made to rename Ben Boyd National Park, following requests from Aboriginal communities in the region. National Parks and Wildlife Service has advised that “the new name for the park will reflect traditional language and be decided through discussions with local Elders, Aboriginal community representatives, Australian South Sea Islander representatives and Bega Valley Shire Council”. See

This re-assessment of Boyd, and the decision to remove his name from the national park because of the unacceptable ethics of his business practices, resonates well with the Uniting Church’s commitment to justice. Continuing to commemorate a figure who appears to have been unscrupulous, self-serving, and thoroughly racist, is not a good thing to do. Out of respect to those men who were unjustly enslaved in the “blackbirding” process, the name needs to be changed.

Added to that, we have widespread recognition in Australian society that imposing the names of British colonisers on the natural features of this continent, is also disrespectful—in this instance, to the First Peoples of this land, who have cared for country since time immemorial. Adopting indigenous names from the traditions of the local people is an important element in how we give recognition to these First Peoples.

Referring to Gulaga rather than Mount Dromedary, for instance, or Jungagita in place of Little Dromedary, are examples from the south coast, in the land of the Yuin.

For more on the Yuin people, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/

Or in Canberra, recognising that the name of the city derives from the Ngunnawal name for “meeting place”—for long before politicians flew in to gather at Parliament House, the peoples of Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Ngarigo, and Wiradjuri nations would gather each year, meeting to yarn, to eat, to celebrate, and to trade. Certainly, removing the names of foreign colonisers with unjust practices is another way we can acknowledge the longstanding custodianship of the First Peoples of our land.

A map showing core Ngambri (Kamberri) country with surrounding frontiers of the 1820s-1880s. Symbols show shared country. It was compiled by Ann Jackson-Nakano from contemporary historical resources and reproduced here from The Kamberri, by Ann Jackson-Nakano, 2001.
http://www.ngambri.org/about.html

*****

Clive Moore, of the University of Queensland, writes about the initial group of Islanders whom Boyd brought to the colony:

“Clearly they had no idea of what they were doing in Australia, and the local magistrate refused to counter-sign the documents. Regardless, some of Boyd’s employees began to take the party inland on foot. Some of them bolted and made their way back to Eden. The first one died on 2 May and as winter approached more became ill.

“Sixteen Lifu Islanders refused to work and began to try to walk back to Lifu along the coast. Some managed to reach Sydney and seven or eight entered a shop from the rear and began to help themselves to food. Those that remained at work were shepherds on far off Boyd stations on the Edward and Murray Rivers.”

Moore continues, “Boyd refused to admit that the trail shipment was a failure, sending for more Islanders. By this time colonial society was beginning to realise what he had done and was feeling uneasy. The Legislative Council amended the Masters and Servants Act to ban importation of “the Natives of any Savage or uncivilized tribe inhabiting any Island or Country in the Pacific”. When Boyd’s next group of 54 men and 3 women arrived in Sydney on 17 October, they could not be indentured and once Boyd found this out he refused to take any further responsibility.

“The same conditions also applied to Boyd’s Islander labourers from the first trip and they left the stations and set off to walk to Sydney to find alternative work and to find a way home to the islands. The foreman tried to stop them but the local magistrate ruled that no one had the right to detain them. Their progress from the Riverina was followed by the press as they began their long march to Sydney. The press described them as cannibals on their way to eat Boyd, and the issue as depicted in the media was extremely racist.

“The whole matter was raised again in the Legislative Council and Boyd showed no remorse or sense of responsibility. Boyd justified himself with reference to the African slave trade and there was much discussion in the colony about the issue to introducing slaves from the Pacific Islands. The recruiters were accused of kidnapping, a charge with they denied.”

See http://www.assipj.com.au/southsea/wp-content/uploads/docs/10_benjamin_boyd_importation_of_ssi_into_nsw.pdf

*****

The Uniting Church is committed to telling truth about our society. This truth is confronting and challenging. In the revised Preamble which was adopted a decade ago by the Uniting Church, we sought to tell the truth.

Drawing on the voices of Indigenous Peoples, we have named 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.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Likewise, at the 14th Assembly, meeting in Perth in 2015, we decided 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. This has been part of our commitment to tell the truth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

As a result of this, the Uniting Church is committed to talking treaty. We are supportive of 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 https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/ and https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

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Faithfulness in the turmoil of the time: the historical context of Mark 13 (Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!

This final speech of Jesus confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of his teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.

For the way that this language developed over centuries in ancient Israel, and became a mainstay of prophetic language, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/09/the-beginnings-of-the-birth-pangs-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity. But how do we make sense of this dramatic language in the context of the post-Enlightenment scientifically-aware world of the 21st century? How do visions of turmoil and warfare, oracles about fiery destruction and fierce retribution, relate to our contemporary world?

One way of understanding this kind of language and these kinds of speeches, whether by Jesus or any number of the prophets, is to claim that these words were spirit-inspired predictions, from long ago, of the turmoil and conflict that was to take place in the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century in the case of this Gospel passage. Other interpreters claim that such speeches are pointing forward in time, to events that will take place well beyond the time of the reader, even into our own times (that is, the 21st century).

Like the final book in the New Testament, Revelation, this speech of Jesus in Mark 13 has been interpreted of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand. Repentance, now, is the bottom line; repentance, before the end comes, and it is too late.

Another line of interpretation holds that this kind of language needs to be understood as inspired scripture, which provides us with clear doctrinal statements about what is called eschatology (the study of the end times, the last days). In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”, instructing us so that we are aware and informed, and thus able to undertake interpretation of events that are currently taking place.

It may not be that we are right in the midst of those “last days”, but we are equipped with the capacity to interpret and understand what is happening—to know exactly where we are, now, in the alleged timetable of events leading up to “the last days”.

However, there are difficulties with both lines of interpretation. Neither understanding actually reflects the nature of the literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for Mark 13.

(For some further consideration of ways of interpreting apocalyptic literature, in relation specifically to the book of Revelation, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/04/revelation-a-complex-and-intricate-world-of-heavenly-beings-and-exotic-creatures/)

But first, we need to be clear about the Historical Context within high this Gospel was written.

Jewish people of the first century lived in one of two ways. Some were members of the nation of Israel which was occupied by a foreign military force, the Romans. (The Romans called this region Palestine). Others were members of a minority group of Jews who were permitted to exist in another nation. (These are known as Jews of the Dispersion). Life in such situations demanded compromise.

For Jews living in the Dispersion, the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation. Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.

From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, there was tension. It would wax and wane according to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the political imperatives at work through the Roman governors. In the year 66, the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74 CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.

In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished. Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day.

Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way? Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus.

The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which we know as the Gospel according to Mark)—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus. It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (1:14–15) to his parting description of apocalyptic terrors (13:3–37).

This work does not provide a clear declaration against military involvement; but this implication can be drawn from its pages. This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.

Mark tells the story of Jesus—a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. That is the focus of the story that he tells—what does it mean for us to follow Jesus in our own context? The work does not set out to answer the question, “is the end at hand?”, and not even to set out a timetable of events leading to that end. It simply asks, how best do I follow Jesus?

The last set of instructions which Jesus leaves for his disciples, delivered as he sits opposite the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (13:1), sets out the task which lies ahead for the disciples. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus speaks explicitly about their future commission (13:9–13). The situation will be one of persecution: “you will be beaten” (13:9), and “they [will] bring you to trial” (13:11); there will be betrayal and death (13:12), and “you will be hated by all” (13:13). False preachers will arise (13:5–6) and fraudulent claims will be made (13:21– 22).

In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “you will stand … as a testimony” (13:9), “the good news must first be proclaimed” (13:10), what you are to say will be given by the Holy Spirit (13:11). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:13). The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “beware, keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” (13:33, 35, 37).

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The political function of the apocalyptic speech of Jesus in Mark 13 (Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!

There are some important questions to be asked about apocalyptic texts such as Mark 13. We need to locate such texts in their historical context—something I have done in https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

We also need to consider the nature of such literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for the apocalyptic speech of Jesus reported in Mark 13.

“Death on the Pale Horse” (1796)
by the American artist Benjamin West

The typical literary characteristics of apocalyptic texts are well-documented. There are a number of features which are found consistently throughout such texts, features which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films.

An apocalyptic text is typically composed in a narrative style, relaying a divine revelation which has been given to a human figure in a visionThat human figure is often someone from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The claim that this figure dictated the revelation is a literary device, designed to claim authority for the work; linguistic and historical analysis inevitably demonstrates that the figure claimed as author could not actually have written the work.

Often an angel will interpret the vision (or visionary journey) that has been revealed to this figure. We can see this, for instance, in Rev 1:1–2. In the case of Mark 13, however, such a revelation comes directly from Jesus, without any angelic mediation.

When relating the events of the end times, apocalyptic literature may include a chronology of events that are to occur; frequently these events are placed in the near future, giving sense of urgency to the message being proclaimed. So Jesus outlines a sequence of events that are yet to take place (13:8, 10, 14, 21).

The present time is painted in bleak tones in apocalyptic texts (13:11–13, 17–19, 24–25); by contrast, the visions of the future are bright, positive, and hopeful (13:26–31). God will ensure that the final conflict results in victory; the world as is currently known will be replaced by a glorious period. Often the visions of these end times mirror the language and ideas of creation stories, telling of how God triumphs over the primordial forces of chaos. The darkness that enshrouds the earth (13:24–25) will be replaced by glorious divine light (13:26).

In such revelations, some human beings belong to a group that will assuredly be saved—thus, Jesus refers to “the elect” (13:27); by contrast, the rest of humanity will face utter destruction. In the speech by Jesus, this fate can be inferred from the insistent repetition of “keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” in 13:33–37.

Many apocalyptic works will describe this fate in gruesome detail, often in surreal or fantastic terminology, through grand visionary accounts.

Whilst inferred in Mark’s account of the speech by Jesus, the gruesome details are added in Matthew’s version; the master will “cut the slave in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51; this is repeated at 25:30, and reinforced at 25:46).

Alongside this, the fate of “ the elect” is celebrated: in the story of the bridesmaids, “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut”, leaving the unprepared locked outside (25:10). In the parable of the talents, those affirmed are told, “I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’” (25:21, 23). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous are invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34) and “enter into eternal life” (25:46). The dichotomy is clear.

So Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3). An in making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context.

Apocalyptic is doing theology, in a particular way. It can best be regarded as political theology—that is, it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.

Paul D. Hanson developed a strong case for understanding the apocalyptic literature of the second century BCE and the following centuries as being the result of “a long development reaching back to pre-exilic times and beyond, and not the new baby of second century foreign parents”, as some other scholars have maintained. See https://www.readings.com.au/products/6590310/the-dawn-of-apocalyptic-the-historical-and-sociological-roots-of-jewish-apocalyptic-eschatology

The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, before the crushing power of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and his successors.

Detail from a mosaic at Pompei,
showing Alexander the Great in battle

This pattern of an unbroken development from preexilic and exilic prophecy through to the inter testamental period and on into the time of Jesus and the early church, and the ensuing centuries. (We traced some dimensions of that in the earlier post exploring “ the end”, ***

John J. Collins writes that “Apocalyptic literature evokes an imaginative world that is set in deliberate counterpoint to the experiential world of the present. Apocalypticism thrives especially in times of crisis, and it functions by offering a resolution of the relevant crisis, not in practical terms but in terms of imagination and faith.” See https://readingreligion.org/books/apocalyptic-imagination

We might well say, from this, that the function of apocalyptic is like that if a fairy story, or a fable-or a longer book or play or film, in which the reader or viewer is invited to “willingly suspend disbelief” and enter into the story that is being offered.

Tellers of apocalyptic tales invite their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.

Apocalyptic texts are written in the midst of despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.

In the midst of all of this, readers and listeners of apocalyptic texts are invited to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.

There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which works of apocalyptic are written–from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.

All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Mark 13, point to the reality that God is now acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.

And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. The birth pangs that are just beginning (13:8) herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (13:26) as “the Son if Man … will gather his elect” (13:27), a time when “summer is near” (13:28). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (4:20, 28), much growth occurs (4:32), new life will emerge (8:31; 9:31; 10:34); 12:27), righteous-justice is enacted by God (12:9-11) and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (12:32-34). Indeed, Jesus says that “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near”, in the parallel (and expanded) account in Luke (see Luke 21:31).

Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.

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The beginnings of the birth pangs (Mark 13; Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) offers an excerpt from longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery. As Jesus’ last long speech in this Gospel, it certainly makes a mark!

The speech is delivered beside the towering Temple, built under Solomon, rebuilt under Nehemiah (13:1, 3). That temple was a striking symbol for the people of Israel—it represented their heritage, their traditions, their culture. The Temple was the place where the Lord God dwelt, in the Holy of Holies; where priests received sacrifices, designed to enable God to atone for sins, and offerings, intended to express the people’s gratitude to God; where musicians led the people in singing of psalms and songs that exulted God, that petitioned God for help, that sought divine benevolence for the faithful covenant people

Or so the story goes; so the scriptures said; so the priests proclaimed. The holiest place in the land that was holy, set apart and dedicated to God. Yet what does Jesus say about this magnificent construction? “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:2). Jesus envisages the destruction of the Temple. Not only this; he locates that destruction within the context of widespread turmoil and disruption: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (13:8). And then, to seal this all, Jesus refers directly to the fact that “the end is still to come” (13:7).

The End. Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).

That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).

Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).

Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).

Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).

Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).

Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).

And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).

Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).

*****

The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).

And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).

Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).

Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.

Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.

The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.

An engraving by David Martin (1639-1721) which depicts
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucid Empire (r. 175-164 BCE),
desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem.

Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).

This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.

***

Could these visions of “the end” be what Jesus was referring to, as he sat with his followers on the Mount of Olives, opposite the towering Temple? Later in the same discussion with his disciples, he indicates that “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24). This picks up the language we have noted consistently throughout the prophetic declarations, in Amos, Joel, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

The judgement of God, says Jesus, with the “gathering up the elect from the four words, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:27), will be executed by “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:25)—language which draws directly from the vision of Daniel concerning “one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13).

So the resonances are strong, the allusions are clear. Jesus is invoking the prophetic visions of The Day, The End; the judgement of God, falling upon the wicked of the earth. And he deliberately applies these vivid and fearsome prophetic and apocalyptic traditions to what he says about the Temple. By linking his teaching directly to the question of four of his disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mark 13:3), enquiring about the Temple, Jesus appears to be locating the end of the Temple—its sacrifices and offerings, its psalms and rituals, its wealth and glory … and perhaps also its priestly class—in the midst of the terrible, violent retributive judgements of the Lord God during the days of the end.

The language also resonates with the end section of 2 Esdras, in which God informs “my elect ones” that “the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them”. Those who fear God will prevail, whilst “those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities” are compared with “a field choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns” and condemned “to be consumed by fire” (2 Esdras 16:74–78). (This book claims to be words of Ezra, the scribe and priest who was prominent in the return to Jerusalem in the 5th century BCE, but scholarly opinion is that it was written after the Gospels, perhaps well into the 2nd century CE.)

All of the happenings that are described by Jesus in his teachings whilst seated with his followers outside the Temple (Mark 13:3) can be encapsulated in this potent image: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). This is imagery which reaches right back to the foundational mythology of Israel, which tells of the pains of childbirth (Gen 3:16). It is language used by prophets (Jer 4:3; 22:23; 49:2; 49:24; Hos 13:13; Isa 21:3; 66:7–8; Micah 4:9; 5:3).

This chapter in Mark’s Gospel, along with the parallel accounts in Luke (chapter 21) and Matthew (chapter 24), are regarded as instances of apocalyptic material. The meaning of apocalyptic is straightforward: it refers to the “unveiling” or “revealing” of information about the end time, the heavenly realm, the actions of God.

Such a focus does not come as a surprise to the careful reader, or hearer, of this Gospel. This style of teaching is consistent with, and explanatory of, the message which the Gospels identify as being the centre of the message proclaimed by Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14); “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17); “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Each of these distillations of the message is apocalyptic—revealing the workings of God as the way is prepared for the coming of the sovereign rule of God.

Apocalyptic is the essential nature of Jesus’ teachings about “the kingdom of God”. This final speech confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of Jesus’ teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.

Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity.

Of course, that still leaves the basic interpretive question: how do we make sense of this apocalyptic fervour in today’s world??? So to grapple with that, there’s more posts coming …..

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/the-political-function-of-the-apocalyptic-speech-of-jesus-in-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/towards-the-coming-the-first-sunday-in-advent-mark-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/04/revelation-a-complex-and-intricate-world-of-heavenly-beings-and-exotic-creatures/

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New outcomes, never imagined at the start (Ruth 3–4; Pentecost 24B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 7 November 2021

*****

We rejoin Ruth and Naomi in chapter 3, where Naomi takes the initiative to securethe future for herself and Ruth, a future that centres around Boaz as a potential husband for Ruth. Naomi issues detailed instructions to Ruth in regard to staging an encounter with Boaz at the threshing floor, a place with a poor reputation in Hebrew scritpure, where Boaz is working late.

Ruth is instructed to bathe, put onher best clothes, and apply perfume, all which signifies romantic intent. Despite the risk, Ruth dutifully obeys, informing Boaz when she accosts him on the threshing floor that she is “Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” ‘Spread your cloak’ is a Hebrew euhphenism for sexual intercourse, and Ruth is not only signifying her availability for marriage but her desire that Boaz carry out his duty as next of kin according to the Levirite law.

This law required the next of kin of a deceased husband to father a child for the deadman so that his lineage could continue. Boaz takes the hint, and tells Ruth that though there is a nearer next of kin, he will sort this out tomorrow with that closer family member.

In chapter 2 we noted a number of contrasts: male and female, foreigner and Israelite rich and poor, etc. In this chapter we also find contrasts. Boaz and Ruth had met during the day, in a public place, where the social custom for such encounters were maintained. Here they meet in private under the cover of darkness, and unrestrained by custom, their interaction is quite different. We are now in the private domain of women, signified by the night. Boaz’s prominence, riches and public profile are not as important here. It is both a time of danger and a time of potential promise and blessing.

Despite Ruth’s bold initiative, she and Naomi still live in a world that does not value its widowed women, and their fate rests in the hands of a man with wealth and status. Boaz needs now to fulfill his part of the plan in the public, male sphere of lifein chapter 4.

We now return to daylight and the male) domain. The focus shifts from Ruth to Boaz, and from the private to public sphere. Boaz is here to wait for the nearer next of kin, or goel. It is Boaz’s interests that dictate how the exchange between the two men will go, and we can tell this because the Hebrew passage here begins and ends with Boaz’s name. Further, despite the bible translation of ‘friend’, the other goel is called peloni almoni, Hebrew rhyming slang that basically means “old what’s his name”, or “Mr such and such”. Again we see the sense of humour of the author of this book at work.

Boaz is shown to have authority in this society as “Mr what’s his name” and the ten elders do what he tells them to. None of the men he addresses challenges his authority or his right to order them around.

In the ancient Hebrew world, decisions about law, property and finances were made at the town gates, where the men and elders would gather to discuss aspects of law and to enact judgment.

Boaz constructs an elaborate legal argument around an alleged piece of land we haven’t heard of before that Naomi apparently wants to sell. Her nearest kinsman has first right of refusal under Hebrew law. This begs the question: why did Naomi need Ruth to glean if she had land to redeem? Is Boaz resorting to an imaginery piece of land to cover his real aim – which is to acquire Ruth as a wife? It would certainly give him the legal cover he needs for such a proceeding – for even in this rather enlightened book, for someone of Boaz’s social standing to enter into marriage with a Moabite, a foreigner, would be risky if no legal duty is involved.

So while Boaz is apparently concerned with the noble duty of redeeming his kinswoman Naomi’s land, he can just slip in that Ruth is part of the deal as well. Mr “what’s his name” decide that the risk of redeeming the alleged land is too great to him, as if Ruth were to have a child that child could legally claim the land in the future, even if he had paid for it now. So he refuses, and Boaz is free to marry Ruth.

The outcome of this chapter presents a very different family picture from that in the first chapter. Life has replaced death, abundance has replaced famine, fullness of life and fertility has replaced emptiness and barrenness. Amidst the rejoicing of the community, God finally appears as an active character, causing Ruth to conceive a son to Boaz.

Despite this intervention of God, the story is not about divine manipulation or a system where God directly rewards and punishes. The important thing in this story is the role of human action and intervention. God’s grace is bestowed only when such action is taken by the people concerned, and when it concerns all people.

Ruth’s story ultimately has a happy ending because the community decide to accept and welcome her despite being a foreigner.

The book of Ruth challenges us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community. Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife.

It is clear that true community in our world is broken. Gleaning has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor. If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to transform the brokeness into a society where all are equally valued.

The little genealogy at the end probably strikes the modern reader as a rather oddaddition, but it has a special function. If further proof is needed by the reader of Ruth that God favours the inclusion of the foreigner, this is it. The gift of children was regarded as a sure sign that God’s blessing was resting upon a person. Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, the most famous of Israel’s kings in the biblical record. The genealogy shows that by accepting the foreigner, Israel goes on to beextraordinarily blessed.

Many generations later, some people in Israel became followers of the one whom they believed had been chosen by God to be the Messiah. They claimed that this man from Nazareth was a descendant of the great King David; this claim would be crucial to establishing his credentials amongst his Jewish contemporaries. And since the man from Nazareth was descended from David, he was also descended from Ruth, the Moabite and foreigner. Without this story of the refugee and the foreigner, who married across ethnic boundaries and became part of a new family, there would be no David – and thus, no Jesus.

From the simple act of welcoming and giving hospitality to the stranger and foreigner, and building a new life with new relationships and new hopes, new outcomes and consequences can happen that were never imagined at the outset.

 

 

Lead us, O God, 
in the way of Christ, the servant,
who opened his arms to the poor and the foreigner.

Lead us, O God, in the way of welcoming the stranger
caring for the neglected, feeding the hungry,
housing the homeless, and challenging the powerful,

Lead us, O God, 
in the foolish way of the Gospel,
which turns the world upside down to bring salvation to all.

Amen.

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Jesus, the widow, and the two small coins (Mark 12; Pentecost 24B)

This week, we draw near to the end of the stories told about Jesus which we have encountered most Sundays during the year past. Since early December last year, we have been in Year B, and the book we know as the Gospel according to Mark has provided the majority of the Gospel passages for reading and reflection each week.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which is how this work styles itself—see Mark 1:1) does not pull any punches. It begins with the rough and ready character of John, who was dunking people in the river to signify that they had repented of their sins (1:2–8). It ends with the sombre scene of two men laying the crucified body of their leader in a tomb (15:42–47), soon after he had cried in despair that his God had abandoned him (15:34).

In the intervening period of time (unspecified in this account—although by tradition we talk about “the three years of Jesus’s ministry”) we have seen Jesus encounter people in need and people who had a vendetta against him. We have heard him debating the details of Torah requirements with other scripture interpreters, and berating them for their hardness of heart and their wilful ignoring of the commands of God. We have heard him condemn his own followers as having little faith, of being incapable of understanding him, of not comprehending even when he performs miracles in front of them.

We have heard, perhaps with horror, his interaction with a foreign woman from Syrophoenicia, in which he called her a dog, and then listened on as he went for the jugular with one of his closet followers, Peter, calling him “Satan”. We have listened to harsh words of condemnation, when he told another follower, John, that it would be better if he were thrown into the ocean than get in the way of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools gladly—in fact, he does not suffer them at all! At so many points, it seems that he just doesn’t have time for people who don’t get what he is on about. It is a wonder, is it not, that he managed to maintain a loyal following for the amount of time that he did!

And yet, woven throughout those same stories in this very work, there are moments of tender compassion and unlimited grace, incidents which show that Jesus had deep insight into the situation of others and that he was willing to go the second mile—and more—in order to attend to people in need.

He confronted evil spirits and cast them out of people who were possessed. He healed multitudes of people who were ill. He taught, patiently, provocatively, with insight into the ways of God. He provided dramatic pictures in word-form (parables, he called them) which drew simple comparisons to demonstrate the nature of the realm of God. He provided for those who were hungering, both physically and spiritually. He spent himself in word and deed, sought his God in prayer, continued incessantly on his journeying, and in the end, set his face towards the fate that he somehow seemed to sense was sliding its tentacles around his very being.

It is this Jesus, complex and multi-faceted, whom we encounter in the reading from Mark’s account, this Sunday (12:38–44). Jesus is in Jerusalem, the place where fate awaits him. He has been debating one opponent after another in the outer courtyard of the Temple: chief priests, scribes and elders; Pharisees and Herodians; Sadducees; and then another group of scribes (11:27–12:34).

Jesus bests many of these opponents; he ends this sequence of encounters with a typically harsh denunciation of the last group he was debating. “Beware of the scribes”, he is reported as saying; their pretentiousness and pomposity is evident, their condemnation awaits (12:38–40). The vulnerability of widows in the face of the power exuded by the scribes is evident, and Jesus calls them out for this,.

We hear these striking words in the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday. They come as a climactic concluding moment in the long stream of adversarial encounters, debates, disputes, and arguments that have taken place along the way, from his public announcement beside the Jordan, through the towns and villages of Galilee, on the road towards Jerusalem, in the city beside the Temple. A fitting finale, perhaps.

Yet this is not the final word. That final word, before we leave this Gospel for this year, belongs to another scene. A short, succinct, enigmatic scene. A scene in which Jesus utters no words of condemnation; by contrast, he offers affirmation, encouragement, and support for a poor widow (12:41–44).

It is a simple observation, a short reflection; not complex, not confronting, but a gently irenic end to a long sequence of interactions involving Jesus: healings and exorcisms, teaching by speaking sayings and telling stories in parables, engaging in public discussion and debate, as well as times of prayer and rest.

The widow was in the Temple; most likely in the Women’s Court of the Temple, just inside the structure, past the outdoors Court of the Gentiles. The widow was not in the Court of the Priests, where the actual liturgical processes of the Temple took place, for no females were allowed into that space. The “treasury” into which people were placing their money (12:41) refers most likely to the horn-shaped offering boxes in that courtyard.

By highlighting the widow, Jesus refers to the well-established strand within the legal and prophetic and strands of Hebrew Scriptures which underlined the importance of caring for widows, amongst others. According to Torah, the widow and the fatherless child were to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel—when tithing (Deut 14:28–29), at the Feast of Weeks (16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (16:13–15), when gleaning (24:19–22), and when tithing once more (26:12–13).

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). The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows (Deut 24:18–21). 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.

The vulnerability of widows and the I,portable of providing for them is evident in many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. 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. Jesus knows this commitment amongst his people, and holds firm to it.

Here in the Temple, observing the action of the widow, Jesus reinforces this central aspect of covenant life. It has been a strong thread, running through the narrative from earlier chapters. Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He has told his disciples to give up their lives (Mark 8:35) and to welcome children (9:37; 10:14–15).

He instructs men that it is wrong to abandon their wives onto the community to care for (10:5–9) and informs those in power that they ought not to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless (10:42–45). He criticises those who distort the functions of the Temple (11:15–17) and advises continuing adherence to the two central commandments of Torah (12:28–31).

Immediately before affirming the action of the widow, he condemns the scribes who seek public honour and yet act to “devour widow’s houses” (12:38–40)—a clear demonstration of the kind of hypocrisy that he previously criticised so vehemently (7:6; 12:5; and see the succinct saying of Matt 7:5 and Luke 6:52, and the long diatribe of Matt 23:13-31). It is a potent counterpoint: glory-seeking scribes and humbly serving widows; the one falling from a great height, the other being raised up in the estimation of Jesus.

In this scene, Jesus condemns those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. His words remind those in authority that their power comes with an obligation to use it for good. He provides the widow as a clear example of the kind of care that is needed. It is a message that contemporary society would do well to heed.

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An island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence (Ruth 1–2; Pentecost 23B)

A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 31 October 2021.

*****

The book of Ruth stands as an island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence, as characterised by the preceeding book of Judges, and the following books of Kings and Samuel which follow.

The central characters appear to care for each other, the community generally acts well towards each other, and God’s providence is made available to the most vulnerable in society. It tells the story of a remarkable woman, a foreigner who gave up everything to devote herself to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi.

The author also has a good sense of humour. The names of Mahlon and Chilion, the two sons that die, which in the Hebrew mean “sickness” and “consumption” respectively. Naomi’s home city, Bethlehem, literally means “house of bread”. So we find at the start that Bethlehem, the “house of bread” was in the grip of a famine, and that Naomi’s husband has to go to Moab, a land where the people are specifically excluded from the congregation of Israel because they refused to give bread to the Israelites fleeing Egpyt.

So Bethlehem, the house of bread, is starving its people, and the land of Moab where food was withheld from the Israelites, now has plenty to share with them. This reversal of the expected puts the reader on notice that this is no ordinary book and no straightforward story.

Although the story is set “in the days when the judges ruled” (ca. 1200-1025 BCE), the date of Ruth’s composition is probably much later. The story’s frequent reminders that its heroine is not an Israelite provides the best clue, and the storyteller is suggesting that Boaz’s gracious treatment of a Moabite woman in this way is unusual. This insistence on an inclusive attitude toward foreigners suggests a composition date in the fifth century BCE, when the issue of intermarriage between the Israelites and non-Israelites had become extremely controversial.

This short story therefore is composed to remind a nationalistic and post-exilic people who are keen on eliminating “foreigners” and people of mixed heritage that their most fondly remembered king, David, was the great-grandson of a Moabite woman.

Ruth 1

In the first speech of the book, Naomi counts herself as among the dead – her husband and sons are dead and she may as well be dead herself. She now sees her worth measured solely by the ability to produce sons. With some irony on the part of the author, Naomi recommends that her 2 daughters in law find security in a husband’s house, apparently forgetting that the house of a husband to date has provided neither safety or security for any of them.

Ruth counters with a speech that is brief and to the point, and pledges a commitment and loyalty far beyond what is required. Few of us today can really appreciate how great this commitment really is. To abandon one’s ancestral homeland, family and gods in favour of those of a foreigner was an enormous risk, and acceptance by the new community was by no means assured. It meant learning new customs, preparing new foods, a new language and a new folklore. That Ruth is constantly referred to as a ‘Moabite’ suggests that she (and the narrator)  are aware that her ethnicity is an immense barrier to her full inclusion in the new community.

When we read this story, we forget that racism and nationalism were as rampant in ancient times as they are now. We may unconsciously view Judaism as the ‘right’ religion, and thus a natural and desirable course of action for Ruth. The truth is that inter-ethnic relationships were complex and often viewed very unfavourably by the ruling elite of Israel, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah make very clear. For example, in chapter 9 of Ezra, the officials refer to the “abomination” of inter marriage with Moabites and other races, and state that this “pollutes” the holy seed of Israel. Integration was not easy; acceptance not guaranteed.

Naomi does not seem convinced by Ruth’s speech, but allows her to continue with her whilst the more obedient Orpah returns to her homeland. For Naomi to be burdened with even one Moabite woman in her homeland of Israel may have lowered her status as a poor widow further and stretched her already meagre means. In other words, where we are easily impressed with Ruth’s speech of devotion, it is questionable if Naomi was. The narrator merely states that seeing “how determined” Ruth was, Naomi “stopped speaking to her”. The rest of the journey is not mentioned, and no further conversation recorded.

Naomi’s final lament that she wants to be known as “Mara”, meaning bitterness, rather than Naomi, meaning sweetness, suggests that she is not yet grateful for Ruth’s exceptional gesture of solidarity and loyalty with her. She laments that she returns empty, her daughter in law’s devotion is ignored. 

It is also worthy of note that while Naomi is recognised by the women of Bethlehem, Ruth has been rendered invisible. Neither the townsfolk nor Naomi refer to her presence. The narrator alone makes reference to her, reminding us that not only is she Ruth the Moabite, but also Naomi’s daughter in law. 

Ruth 2

The first chapter of Ruth was intended to challenge the reader’s or hearer’s stereotypes about women, loyalties, and national origin by the use of humour and irony. The relationship of Naomi and Ruth is meant confront hearers about what they thought they knew and invites them to ask new questions that help them begin to rethink their view of “the world as it should be.” 

By this strategy and others that keep the hearer/reader guessing throughout the chapter, the book of Ruth has begun by turning expectations upside down and subverting the dominant world vision. 

Chapter 2 picks up the story of Ruth and Naomi as they settle into life at Bethlehem. Though the famine which drove Naomi and her family from Israel has ended, action is required so that food might be put on the table. Ruth therefore proposes that she go and glean in the fields. As a poor foreign widow, this is Ruth’s only means of survival, as gleaning was the main means of support for the poor in Israelite law. Up to this point, the story has been about two widowed women supporting each other.

Ruth’s industrious activities draw the attention of Boaz, the owner of the field in which she gleans. Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth finds favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Jewish. By strange coincidence, Boaz is the kinsman of Naomi. A good translation of his Hebrew name is ‘pillar of the community’.

On Boaz’ appearance, the Hebrew reader is likely to be asking some serious questions. Why isn’t he helping Naomi as Israelite familial duty would dictatehe should – especially seeing he is so upright in the community and so obviously rich? Why has she been left to fend for herself, facing deprivation and possible starvation? Why does Boaz only take an interest in Naomi’s fate after he sightedRuth?

The chapter has a lot of complex interplays going on, between foreigner and Israelite, male and female; old and young; rich and poor; powerful and powerless. The author subverts most of the prevailing stereotypes as the story progresses.

Ruth stated at the beginning of the chapter to Naomi that she hoped to ‘find favour’in someone’s eyes. “Finding favour” in the Hebrew Bible generally means that a woman is desirable in the eyes of men. Coupled with the pervasive Israelite belief that Moabite women were sexually immoral (Gen 19 and Numbers 25 allude to this), the author is stressing both Ruth’s vulnerability – and her desirability.

We turn now to Boaz. His first question is “To whom does this young woman belong?”, a most irrelevant question as far as his interests as a landowner are concerned. The author is communicating Boaz’s very keen interest in Ruth.

The foreman identifies Ruth as the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi. There is a conversation between Ruth, and Boaz. She has fallen prostrate at his feet. Such deference is usually reserved for God. Ruth twice uses the phrase “found favour in your sight”, the phrase that indicates a love interest. Boaz evokes the name of the Lord. Apart from her speech in chapter one, Ruth shows no interest in the Lord, the God of Israel. Instead she makes it clear her fate is going to lie with Boaz, not the God of Israel.

This is emphasised by her saying that Boaz has ‘spoken to her heart’ (mistranslated as ‘spoken kindly’ by the NRSV), another phrase frequently used in the Hebrew bible to indicate a love interest. Ruth is signalling her availability and interest in Boaz, but she has also shown she will not be bullied into an inequitable relationship.

Back at home, Naomi undergoes quite a transformation in relation to Ruth when she sees the amount of grain Ruth has gleaned. Naomi is no fool either, andknows by the cooked food Ruth has given her, and by the huge amount of barley, that something unusual is afoot and that there is a man involved. Hence her first questions “Where did you glean today?” Where did you work?” are quickly followed by “Blessed be the man who took notice of you”. One does not come across large portions of cooked food or ephahs of grain in the normal course of gleaning.

Naomi’s response is to initially call down a blessing on Boaz, in a reference to herself and her late husband. Again, the discerning Hebrew reader must be wondering here why Boaz has failed to act for Naomi before this time. For the first time Naomi reveals the familial connection to Boaz, and calls him goel, or redeemer. This term indicates a close family member with an assigned role in family legal matters, usually financial. To date Boaz has proved a rather unreliable goel, and Naomi is quick to capitalise on his apparent interest in Ruth by warning her against gleaning in another field “lest she be bothered”. 

Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth has reversed the normal social order to find favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Israelite. The harvest scenes evoke themes of life and fertility that point towards blessings to come. But for the moment, life is still difficult, and the women’s future needs to be secured.

Despite Ruth’s resourcefulness, she and Naomi are still in a category of people whose well-being depends on the actions of others. The shortcomings of Israelite society that the book highlights challenge us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community.

Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife. It is clear that true community in our world is broken. While gleaning may be unknown to us, it has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor.

If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to a society where all are equally valued.

The author of Ruth is a political commentator of the times. He or she disagrees with the extreme nationalistic sentiments of Ezra and Nehemiah, and wants to offer another point of view, a point of view where personal qualities of faith, love and loyalty are placed ahead of race and country of origin. So be with us next week, as we see how this unfolds in the remaining two chapters.

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What does it mean to be Protestant in the Contemporary World?

A guest post from Geoff Dornan, for Reformation Sunday (31 October)

*****

I want to do three things in this article. I want to ask three questions. First, what is the essence of Protestantism? Second, what is the connection between Protestantism’s essence and what is often understood to be itsbedrock doctrine: justification by grace through faith? Third, what does it mean to be Protestant in our contemporary world, entrenched as it currently is, in arbitrary unreason?

The essence of Protestantism and the Protestant Principle

I would make a bet that most Protestant Christians when asked what being Protestant is about, would answer, “not Catholic”. That was my experience as a child, when I saw that being Protestant carried an essentially negative identity: something that you were not. Creatures of history, we Anglo-Celtic Australiansin particular, read Protestant identity through a sectarian lens, in large part because of the Anglo-Irish conflict of our ancestors. But we need to be able to understand Protestant identity positively, for what it offers in modern times.

And so, to the first question: what is the essence of Protestantism? The answer is both simple and complex.The simple answer is this: protest. That should be no surprise. The word protest sits within the very term Protestant. For those who have a smattering of knowledge about the Reformation of the 16th century, you would know that this ethos of protest was triggered by the practice of indulgences in the then sole western Church, the Catholic Church.

Indulgences were an expression of late medieval piety and ‘coincidentally’, a “nice little earner” for the Church, not to mention a few colourful personalities among the leadership. For example, in 1517, an indulgence to fund the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – one that promised lavish spiritual benefits for the subscribers – was marketed especially successfully in Saxony by papal “pardoners”.

Not to be outdone, Archbishop Albert of Mainz also promoted the same indulgence and demonstrated his ample entrepreneurial skills, skimming off his own cut.

The mechanics of the indulgence were quite simple. In return for good works such as going on pilgrimage or making charitable donations, indulgences (from the Latin, indulgentia – permit) were believed to set asidethe “temporal punishment” that was due, because of God’s just character, after sin itself had been forgiven.

These transactions were also transferrable to the dead, shortening the suffering of souls in purgatory. It was like a metaphysical tax for sin, which released you from having to pay the consequences – time in purgatory – for that lover, addiction to alcohol, or dodgy financial transaction you may have had.

But there is more to it than this since the protest about indulgences was not just a one-off thing, but rather reflects the very soul of what Protestantism really represents; its DNA.

Paul Tillich
(1886–1965)

Paul Tillich, the German clergyman who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and ended up in North America, becoming a leading theologian, wrote in 1931 an article called the “Protestant Principle and the Proletarian Situation” (Tillich, The Protestant Era; London, Nisbet & Co Ltd, 1951, pp.237–259). In that article, Tillich made the point that while institutional Protestantism may have a “use-by date”, the ethos that it represents, the ethos of protest, may outlast it.

Tillich proceeds to analyse what this ethos of protest is about. In a nutshell, he says, it includes two points: the first, the Protestant obligation to build justice and love in a resistant world, to build the kingdom of God in a world that denies it.

The second aspect is more subtle, and because of its subtlety, more difficult: the Protestant reservation. What he means by this, isscepticism or doubt about human beings and the cultural, political, and of course religious structures which we build around us.

And the reservation is this: that we claim too much for ourselves, that we over-reach ourselves, that we pretend to represent absolute truth in our world, whichcan always be only ambiguous, always be just relative, always be contingent. In Tillich’s thought, there is targeted in the crosshairs, fundamentalist and authoritarian movements – political and religious – that claim absolute mastery, unqualified power, because they and they alone, apparently ‘possess the truth’.

What is it about the human condition, Tillich asks, that predisposes us to need to claim a monopoly on the truth? Tillich understands that we humans long for the final word, from someone, from anyone; we long for the definitive truth. People hang, literally hang on the words of politicians, scientists, and pastors, slavishly repeating their latest thoughts.

Tillich tells us that the Protestant Principle, pushes back at that, the Protestant reservation asserts that the only absolute truth is this: human beings can never attain absolute truth, that “the final word” is always with God and only with God, and will only be revealed to us at what Catholic theology refers to as the “beatific vision”: when we directly see and relate to God after death or at the end of history.

Tillich argues that claims to understand, to represent the entirety of truth, are delusional and dangerous, that such claims are disastrously tied up with the will to power. And so, he writes, “The Protestant Principle is the prophetic judgement against religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance and secular self-sufficiency”.

Justification by faith through grace

The second question I want to ask is how does this ethos of protest fit with what the apostle Paul’s idea concerning justification by grace through faith? (Romans 3:19-28)? The answer is not difficult. You may recall that Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, was an Augustinian friar. What marked his personal journey was a gnawing insecurity and anxiety about his unacceptability to God: a common question for philosophical and theological thought of the time.

Statue of Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Luther’s reading of the book of Romans fell like a thunderclap, awakening him to the realization that he was made acceptable to God by the work of Christ alone. In short, it dawned upon him, that he was already justified before God, by God.

This insight about our acceptability to God, because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, achieves two things. The first, is that it serves as the great leveller, it exposes, uncovers the bloated claims we make for ourselves, the intumescent platforms upon which we stand. Put another way, it goes to the very heart of the problem of the human condition.

Driven by anxiety – a universal human experience – the insight that we are acceptable to God and accepted by God, potentially does for people what it did for Luther: frees us from the pathological need to prove ourselves, the neurotic drive to dominate, the narcissistic behaviour that uses others for our purposes.

The teaching of justification by grace, assures us that “it is not all about us”, that we can get over ourselves and the anxieties that we carry. Justification by grace is the antidote to the human behaviour of over-reach. The second, is that we are not only freed from our individual and collective anxieties, but equally and most importantly, free to really live.

The eminent German theologian, Ernst Käsemann put it this way: “Where we no longer have to strive for our salvation, and no longer need to fear external powers, we become free for other people, for whom we otherwise at most, only find time and attention as allies or opponents.” He adds, “the one who is liberated from himself…perceives his neighbour”. (Käsemann, “On Paul’s Anthropology”, Perspectives on Paul; London, SCM Press, 1971, p.30)

What is then the connection between Tillich’s Protestant Principle and Paul’s idea of justification by grace through faith? They both encourage a genuine and realistic sense of ourselves, a deep humility about our identity. The Protestant Principle warns against the will to power and the doctrine of justification by grace, relieves us of the need to aspire to such power.

Rethinking Ourselves

And so, to the final issue: what does it mean to be Protestant in the contemporary world, a world marked by the peril of unreason?

In my lifetime, I have experienced what I refer to as the increasing dogmatization of Protestantism. This is due to at least two factors: the decreasing literacy of Protestant Christians about their own identity, but additionally in these dogmatic times, reason is failing across the board, and people submit to superficial, perfunctory explanations for complex changing realities.

During my 5 years in the United States (1999-2004), that which concerned me most was the distortion, subversion of evangelical Protestantism, as it rapidly became the religious tail of a conservative Republican Party worldview.

More recently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has shown itself to be headed in the same direction for different reasons, truncating the breadth of Catholic Social Teachings to emotive narrow issues, in particular opposition to Roe v. Wade (1973), a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a woman’s right to abortion.

In Australia, organizations like the Australian Christian Lobby, an evangelical body whose very name misleadingly suggests it speaks for the broad church, pursues a not dissimilar but marginally more moderate agenda.

In this new disturbing situation, Luther’s insight into Paul’s justification by grace through faith, and Tillich’s Protestant Principle, ask us to be cautious about faith’s creeping dogmatization and predisposition to authoritarianism.

The danger is two-fold: first that we fail to acknowledge the limitedness of our faith interpretations, we claim too much for ourselves, we overreach ourselves. But secondly, we idolatrize Scripture and Doctrine with a quasi-sacramental weight, forgetting that truth transcends all human fixation, even the letters of a sacred book.

Protestantism then, is not just about “not being Roman Catholic”. It is, positively speaking, about challenging all fundamentalist claims to absoluteness, in a world where social, economic, political and religious power increasingly do just that. The deep, deep insight of Protestantism is as Martin Luther put it in one of his better moments: “Christian theology, like everything else, is only ever partial. Total faith and total theology are impossible because we are only human.”

*****

The Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan is minister in placement at Wesley Forrest Uniting Church in Canberra. This article was originally written in Spanish and published in Revista Latinoamericana de Teologia through the Central American University in El Salvador.

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Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery, October 2021

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:25). That’s a verse that has often been quoted when discussing the importance of worship—and, in the past 20 months, when thinking about whether we can worship together in the church building.

As we consider a return to in-person worship and fellowship, let us hold the exhortation to “encourage one another” alongside of the importance of “meeting together”. There are a few guiding principles that would be good for us to hold in mind.

1. We have all experienced stress and anxiety for the past few months—indeed, for the past 20 months. Let us be gentle with each other. Let us remember, in each interaction that we have, that we are all bruised. Some might feel close to being broken. Some might feel traumatised by news from the past period of time. Some might feel that they have been very lonely for some time now. Some might have been ill, or known people that became very ill, during the lockdown. Some might be grieving or remembering past losses.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation that we have with others, as we seek to encourage one another.

2. Each person returns to in-person worship and fellowship with different expectations. Some might be incredibly excited. Some might be cautious and hopeful. Some might be wary, very worried about being back in a larger group of people. Some might be resenting the decision to return while there is still significant community transmission of the virus. Some might be angry about not having been able to see their friends for the past few months.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation we have, with each step that we take to ensure that we can worship together safely.

3. Not everybody will be returning to in-person worship and fellowship. Just as we have found ways to remain connected online while in lockdown, so we need to remember such people and continue practices that ensure that they know that they are still an integral part of the community of faith within your Congregation.

Let’s make sure that in leading worship, people online are acknowledged and encouraged as well as people gathering in the building.

4. If you have a Minister or a Pastor who leads your community, please remember that they have been working incredibly hard in the most recent lockdown, and indeed over the whole of the past 20 months. Holding a community together, providing clear-headed leadership, offering inspiration and encouragement in the regular weekly sermons, all in a different situation that none of us have experienced before—this is testing, draining, exhausting.

Let’s be patient with our ministry leaders, pray for them, care for them, and hold them in supportive ways.

5. For each person who serves on Church Council—and especially for the Chairperson and Secretary of your Church Council and the Chairperson, Secretary, and Treasurer of your Congregation—this has been an equally difficult and challenging period. Making decisions about when to regather in person, completing the COVID Safety Plans, explaining the decisions to members of the Congregation, all of this is difficult.

Let’s continue to hold our lay leaders and office bearers in prayer, and let’s remember to thank them for all the difficult discussions they have had and all the hard decisions that they have made during this pandemic. They, too, need encouragement.

6. Remember that your community of faith is more than just the people that you would see, most weeks, on a Sunday morning. There are people “on the fringes” and people “in the community” who look to your Congregation and identify that as the church for them. You may not have seen them for many months. They are most likely still around.

Let’s remember such people and work on rekindling contact with them, developing deeper relationships with them, showing them that the way that we “love each other” is exactly how we really do “love them” as well.

7. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, or saying, something like, “it’s great to be back to normal now”. For a start, we can never “go back”; we always are “moving on”. And then, we have adapted our routines and adopted new practices over the past 20 months, and we shouldn’t—and cannot—simply drop all of them, all of a sudden.

We have taken up some new things that will stand us in good stead into the future. We don’t yet know that the pandemic is over; we may well have more lockdowns, there may well be drastic rises in infections and hospitalisations, and even deaths. We all hope not. But we do not know.

So let us hold on to hope for the future, without throwing away the lessons and learnings of the recent past. That’s the encouragement we need to give each other.

Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairs; Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

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Love with all that you are—heart and soul, completely and entirely (Deut 6 in Mark 12; Pentecost 23B)

In this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus engages with a teacher of the Law, discussing the priorities amongst the many laws that are to be found in the Torah scrolls (Mark 12:38–34). The discussion moves quickly to the words of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4–5, as the first commandment to be identified as worthy of priority.

(There is a second commandment, from Leviticus 19, which isn’t in view in this post. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/26/love-god-love-neighbour-prioritising-the-law-mark-12-pentecost-23b/)

The exact wording used is interesting. The commandment is to love, with God as the one to be loved. In Deuteronomy, that love is to be manifest from the whole of the person. Most English translations render this commandment as “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5).

The Hebrew word translated as heart is לֵבָב, lebab. It’s a common word in Hebrew Scripture, and is understood to refer to the mind, will, or heart of a person—words which seek to describe the essence of the person. It is sometimes described as referring to “the inner person”. The word appears 248 times in the scriptures, of which well over half (185) are translated as “heart”.

Many of those occurrences are in verses which contrast heart with flesh—that is, “the inner person” alongside “the outer person”. For example, the psalmists declare that “my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26), and “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2b), whilst the prophet Ezekiel refers to “foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh” (Ezek 44:7,9). When used together, these two terms (heart and flesh) thus often refer to the whole person, the complete being.

The Hebrew word lebab, heart, is rendered by the Greek word, kardia, in Mark 12:30. That word can refer directly to the organ which circulates blood through the body; but it also has a sense of the central part of a being—which is variously rendered as will, character, understanding, mind, and even soul. These English translations are attempting to grasp the fundamental and all-encompassing. It seems that this correlates well with the Hebrew word lebab, which indicates the seat of all emotions for the person.

The second Hebrew word in the commandment articulated in Deut 6:4 is נֶפֶשׁ, nephesh. This is another common Hebrew word, appearing 688 times in Hebrew Scripture, of which the most common translation (238 times) is “soul”; the next most common translation is “life” (180 times). The word is thus a common descriptor for a human being, as a whole.

However, to use the English word “soul” to translate nephesh does it a disservice. We have become acclimatised to regarding the soul as but one part of the whole human being—that is the influence of dualistic Platonic thinking, where “body and soul” refer to the two complementary parts of a human being. In Hebrew, nephesh has a unified, whole-of-person reference, quite separate from the dualism that dominates a Greek way of thinking.

Nephesh appears a number of times in the first creation story in Hebrew scripture, where it refers to “living creatures” in the seas (Gen 1:20, 21), on the earth (Gen 1:24), and to “every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 1:30). It is found also in the second creation story, where it likewise describes how God formed a man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him, and “the man became a living being (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 2:7). The claim that each living creature is a nephesh is reiterated in the Holiness Code (Lev 11:10, 46; 17:11).

The two words, nephesh and lebab, appear linked together many times. One psalmist exults, “my ‘heart’ is glad, and my ‘soul’ rejoices” (Ps 16:9a), whilst another psalmist laments, “how long must I bear pain in my ‘soul’, and have sorrow in my ‘heart’ all day long?” (Ps 13:2). Proverbs places these words in parallel in sayings such as “wisdom will come into your ‘heart’, and knowledge will be pleasant to your ‘soul’” (Prov 2:10), and “does not he who weighs the ‘heart’ perceive it? does not he who keeps watch over your ‘soul’ know it?” (Prov 24:12). In Deuteronomy itself, the combination of “heart and soul” appears a number of times (Deut 4:29; 10:12; 11:13, 18; 13:3; 26:16; 30:2, 6, 10), where it references the whole human being.

In each of these instances, rather than taking a dualistic Greek approach (seeing “heart” and “soul” as two separate components of a human being), we should adopt the integrated Hebraic understanding. Both “heart” and “soul” refer to the totality of a human being. The repetition is a typical Hebraic style, using two different words to refer to the same entity (the whole human being). The repetition underlines and emphasises the sense of totality of being.

The third Hebrew word to note in Deut 6:5 is מְאֹד, meod, which is usually translated as “might” or “strength”. Its basic sense in Hebrew is abundance or magnitude; it is often rendered as an adverb, as “very”, “greatly”, “exceedingly”, or as an adjective, “great”, “more”, “much”. The function of this word, “might” or “strength”, in Deut 6:5 is to reinforce the totality of being that is required to love God.

In light of this, we could, perhaps, paraphrase the command of Deuteronomy as love God with all that you are—heart and soul, completely and entirely. Love God with “your everythingness” (to coin a word). There’s a cumulative sense that builds as the commandment unfurls—love God with all your emotions, all your being, all of this, your entire being.

We find the same threefold pattern in the description of King Josiah, who reigned in the eighth century (640–609 BCE): “before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). Most often, however, it is used as an intensifier, attached directly to another term, providing what we today would do in our computer typing by underlining, italicising, and bolding a key word or phrase.

Rendering this Hebrew word in Greek—as the translators of the Septuagint did—means making a choice as to what Greek word best explicated the intensifying sense of the Hebrew word, meod. The LXX settled on the word δύναμις, usually translated as power (the word from which we get, in English, dynamic, and dynamite). Dynamis often has a sense of physical strength and capacity, and that resonates well with the sense of the Hebrew term as it is used in Deut 6:5. So the LXX has dynamis as the third element in the Shema commandment.

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What happens when we turn to the New Testament? Jesus refers to this commandment in his dialogue with the teacher of the Law. That conversation is reported in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. Comparing the wording of the commandment across those three synoptic accounts is illuminating.

Matthew seems to retain the greatest fidelity to the Jewish text, with a threefold formula, citing “heart, soul, and mind” (Matt 22:37). By contrast, Mark, the earlier Gospel, has chosen two words to render meod (dynamis), expanding the threefold formula to include a fourth element, “heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:29). Luke, using Mark as one of his sources, reorders the final two elements to “heart, soul, strength, and mind” (Luke 10:27).

Curiously, none of the Gospels use the Septuagint’s choice (dynamis) for translating the Hebrew word meod into Greek. Perhaps this might be because, elsewhere in the texts of the New Testament, this word is reserved for describing a quality of God: “the power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35), “the power of the Lord” (Luke 5:17), “the great power of God” (Acts 8:10), the good news which is “the power of God” (Rom 1:16), the message of the cross which is “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18), that divine power which is extolled in heavenly hymns (Rev 7:12; 12:10; 19:1).

In place of dynamis, Mark’s version offers two different words, when compared with the Septuagint—ἰσχύος, and διανοίᾳ. The use of ischuos (usually translated as power or strength) seems closest to the intention of the LXX (dynamis), although the primary reference of ischuos is to brute physical strength. That relates to, but does not exactly correlate with, the sense of power in dynamis.

The second word chosen by Mark to render meod, the Greek term dianoia, appears also in Matthew’s account of the conversation. This is a word that refers to the mind. It is one of a number of Greek terms that refer to the rational element of the human being. Earlier dialects of Greek (prior to the Koine Greek of the first century CE) had two stem words to refer to mind: φρήν, plural φρένες, and νοῦς, from which the compound dianoia is formed.

According to Pythagoras, phrēn was a mental activity that he considered to be one of the intellectual capacities that constitute the soul (psychē), along with nous (mind) and thumos (passion). Nous was the overarching organising principle of the mind; it came to refer to the full range of rational functions—perceiving, understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. The addition of the prefix dia-, to form dianoia, intensifies the sense of understanding in an intellectual way.

So it is striking to note this Greek influence, focussing on the importance of the mind, the reasoning component of humanity—even at the very early stages of the formation of the traditions about Jesus, even prior to these two early written accounts. The author of the earliest Gospel (unknown to us; designated as Mark in the developing patristic traditions) writes an account about the Jewish man, Jesus, and his Jewish followers, that is already oriented towards Gentiles. His way of reporting the words of the man from Nazareth is already influenced by Greek notions (dianoia in place of dynamis).

But then, in Mark’s account—and only in Mark’s account—the scribe responds, affirming what Jesus has said (Mark 12:32) and paraphrasing him back (12:33)—although he reverts to a threefold formula, repeating kardia and ischuos, omitting psychē, and replacing dianoia with another Greek word for the activity of the mind, σύνεσιν (synesin). What is the force of this substitution? This would seem to underline the focus that is evident, already, in Mark’s use of the term dianoia. Both words (dianoia and synesin) emphasise the activity of the mind in the process of the loving that is commanded.

Mark’s decision to orient the commandment towards the actions of the mind (using synesin) is followed by Matthew, writing not much after Mark’s account had begun to be circulated. And Matthew’s reversion to three terms, instead of Mark’s expanded fourfold statement, reflects stronger awareness of the Deuteronomy text.

Paradoxically, Mark’s account of the response to Jesus offered by the thoroughly Jewish scribe, teacher of Torah, intensifies the Greek influence (synesin in place of psychē and dianoia). We have a pointer to the growing attraction towards the Jesus movement amongst Gentiles, even in this early, pre-written stage of the Gospel tradition. His Jewish words, and the Jewish words of his scribal conversation partner, are already being transferred into Greek conceptual terms by the time the earliest two Gospels are written.

By contrast, the later Jewish text, the Targum Jonathan on Deuteronomy (written in Aramaic) renders the command of Deut 6:5 as “Mosheh the prophet said to the people of the house of Israel, Follow after the true worship of your fathers, that you may love the Lord your God with each disposition of your hearts, and also that He may accept your souls, and the (dedicated) service of all your wealth”.

Wealth! That is a surprise! This version heads in yet another direction, taking meod as a reference to the capacity that a person has in life by virtue of the possessions and physical resources that they have at their disposal. An interesting direction to take!

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In preparing this blog, I have made use of a number of resources: the Greek New Testament UBS 4th edition; Rahlfs’ Septuaginta; Strong’s Concordance; the Hebrew Bible Interlinear; Aland’s Synopsis Quattro Evangeliorum; Targum Jonathan; and Brown, Driver, and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Thanks also to Elizabeth, Elise, and Andrew, for a stimulating discussion on this topic.

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Clobbering the clobber passages

There are a number of passages in scripture which appear to address the matter of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. They have often been (mis)used to “clobber” LGBTIQA+ people by Christians.

This small handful of scripture passages have exercised an inordinately huge influence on the church—and, indeed, on society as a whole—in relation to various matters associated with same-gender relationships and the range of gender identities which exist amongst humanity.

Over the past 25 years, Elizabeth and I have regularly taught about these passages, providing a constructive way of understanding each of them. In keeping with the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia, the way we approach these biblical texts is to draw on the insights of critical scholarship in order to develop a clear understanding of what is, and what is not, referred to in these passages.

This is consistent with the commitment of the church to “sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought”, through drawing on “the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries”, which leads to the articulation of “an informed faith” (para 15). There are many insights about gender identity and sexual relationships that have been gained over the past decades, from work undertaken in medical, psychological, sociological, and biological arenas.

In surveying these passages, it is to be noted that none of them must, by necessity, be seen as weapons to be used to “clobber” LGBTIQ people. Each passage needs to be understood within its context. Careful scholarly work has been undertaken to indicate just how this interpretative process illuminates these texts, and does not provide any warrant for their earlier negative, hurtful, and harmful use, by the church, against LGBIQ people.

Language. The first thing to note is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek languages, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. A key observation is that many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.

Culture. A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it. Scripture does not show awareness of the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. There is a clear cultural difference between the world of the texts of scripture, and the 21st century world.

Leviticus 18 and 20: Neither the oft-quoted verse about same-gender sex (Leviticus 18:22), nor a similar statement two chapters later (Leviticus 20:13), are dealing primarily with same gender relationships, but about cultural shaming practices, using power to create inequality in relationship. This text occurs in a section of Leviticus called “The Holiness Code” which has as its main purpose to set out laws to keep Israel different from the surrounding cultures.

The rules in this section of Leviticus were meant to set the Israelites apart from the Canaanites and Egyptians, who at that time participated in fertility rites in their temples that involved different forms of sex, including homosexual sex. Male-to-male sex was seen to mix the roles of man and woman and such “mixing of kinds” during ancient times was defined as an “abomination,” in the same way that mixing different kinds of seeds in a field was an abomination.

These verses critique the practice in which a stronger male seeks to subordinate and demean a weaker male, through sexual activity. This is what is declared to be an “abomination”. This abusive and shaming action is not what we are talking about when we refer to same gender relationships today: committed, loving, long-term relationships between two equal people.

Genesis 19:1–29: The same applies to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (told in Genesis 19). This story is an example of what happens when God’s people do not live up to God’s expectations. It provides a lesson about the importance of hospitality to the stranger—a key value in ancient Israelite society. The cruel men of the town were planning to rape the visitors and were definitely not homosexuals. The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the spirit (Ezekiel 16:49-50), declares that this is not about sexual sin, but about the sin of not providing hospitality.

Judges 19:1–30: The terrible story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) also deals with hospitality. It is clear that hostile men used a breach of hospitality protocols as a weapon against other men, seeking to shame the strangers in this way. Like the story of Sodom (Gen 19), this account shows the extremely inhospitable behaviour of the town. Some mistakenly interpret the townsmen’s behaviour to be somehow related to homosexuality, but this was an example of the brutality of one group of men toward a group of visitors. This, again, is not about a same-gender relationship where equality and mutuality are paramount. It is about violating a cultural norm in an abusive and violent manner.

Genesis 1:1–2:4a: This passage is not part of the “clobber passages”, but is included because it provides a clear affirmation that God made a good creation, and encouraged human beings to enter into positive relationships with each other within that good creation (Genesis 1–2). Our human expression of sexuality is one way of expressing the goodness of that creation. We ought not to exclude people who are attracted to people of the same gender from this understanding.

Romans 1:18–27: The behaviour which Paul was addressing here is explicitly associated with idol worship (probably temple prostitution). It is directed towards heterosexual people who searched for pleasure and broke away from their natural sexual orientation or their natural ways of having sex (both male and female) and participated in promiscuous sex with anyone available or used methods not culturally accepted.

In the surrounding culture, it was common for men of a higher status to take sexual advantage of male slaves or male prostitutes. Here Paul is instructing his readers to keep pure and honour God. Paul is talking about the use and misuse of power and authority and how that impacts one’s relationship with God. Paul didn’t have in mind specifically prohibiting consensual same-sex relationships, because they were never considered in his cultural context.

1 Corinthians 6:9–10: In Paul’s vice-list he identifies a list of sinners whom he declares will not be granted entry into the kingdom of God. Amongst the thieves and robbers, drunkards and “revilers” we find a number of sexual transgressions mentioned. This includes two critical words: malakoi and arsenokoites.

The term malakoi means “soft” and is also interpreted as male prostitutes. The word arsenokoites is difficult to translate, but it probably refers to a male using his superiority to take sexual advantage of another male. Paul is right to condemn these sexual activities, but this has nothing to do with a consensual homosexual relationship.

References to sexual sins in Paul’s letters (in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) sit alongside a range of other sins, which are equally condemned, and equally challenging to our discipleship. It is quite legitimate to ask, why single one particular sin out?

Paul related all of these sins to idolatry, which, for him, was the fundamental sin. A loving relationship between people of the same gender is not idolatrous, but rather it can strengthen a sense of the value of human life which God desires for us. Paul was writing about the abuse of relationships, which is quite different from the expression of a loving, faithful relationship.

1 Timothy 1:8–11: This passage is similar to 1 Cor 6, above. This time it is a list of sins (as opposed to sinners) and includes the words pornos, arsenokoites and andrapodistes. Each term needs to be clearly understood. The word pornos most likely refers to a male having sex outside of marriage, presumably with a female (but also, feasibly, with a male); the second term, arsenokoites (found also in 1 Cor 6) can probably be defined as male same-sex relationships that involved some level of exploitation, inequality or abuse. Finally, andrapodistes can be translated as “slave traders.”

Scholars believe that the three terms were used together in that slave dealers (andrapodistes) would be acting as pimps for captured boys (pornos) who would be taken advantage of by powerful men (arsenokoites). These are sins that certainly need to be addressed, but this particular passage does not relate to homosexuals in a committed relationship.

Jesus: In all four Gospels, Jesus rarely discusses sexuality; when he does, there is very little detail. This topic rates as of only tiny significance for him, alongside the greatest focus which Jesus had—on wealth and poverty, and the importance of serving those on the edge, those who are in need. There is no saying or parable of Jesus that directly addresses the situation of LGBTIQ people in particular—apart from the fact that such people are part of the whole of humanity who are addresses in the same way by Jesus in all of his teachings.

From this very brief survey of key passages, we are able to affirm that the most important conclusion to draw from the scholarly explorations of relevant biblical texts, is this: what God wants from human beings, is a commitment to loving, respectful relationships, a commitment to long-term, hopefully lifelong, relationships. In short, the specific genders of people in relationships is less important than the quality of relationship shown between individuals in relationship with each other.

In the Church, we affirm that God is faithful—that those who diligently seek to know the will of God, will be upheld and loved by God. God is not disturbed by differences of opinion; God made a diverse creation, and God honours our search for truth within that creation.

In Jesus, we see the key attributes of God, lived out in a human life. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union declares that “in his life and in his death, he made a response of humility, obedience and trust” (para 3). These are the key qualities of a faithful life. These qualities are the controlling lenses through which we should read the biblical texts, and develop our understanding of sexuality and marriage.

A heterosexual relationship, at its best, will exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. So too can a same genderrelationship. Medical, psychological, and social explorations show that a relationship between two people of the same gender, can itself exhibit the best of human qualities, and demonstrate the finest moral values in human relationship. It can certainly exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. 

Reinterpretation for the present age. Throughout the New Testament, we can see places where NT writers offer radical reinterpretations of the norms of their cultural and religious practices. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus tell us of Jesus’ affirmation of women, his willingness to break religious law by healing on the Sabbath, and his redefining of aspects of Jewish law in the light of his message of the coming kingdom.

The accounts of the early Church include instances where redefinition and breakthrough took place: most strikingly, in Acts 10, as we have already noted. This chapter tells the story of Peter, who was a faithful adherent to a long-established pattern of eating in the manner that was set forth in the laws of Leviticus. He was told that what he did not eat—because it was “unclean”—he was now free to eat—because God had declared such food “clean”.

This opened the way, in the early church, to a new way of inclusive table fellowship where Jews and Gentiles are welcome to eat and share together. Who is to say that the spirit, which once moved in this way, is now not able to move in a similar way, and to declare what some consider “unclean” to be “clean”—and that we can rejoice in this!

In Ephesians, a standard Hellenistic pattern (a “household table”) is adapted to instruct husbands and wives. Eph 5:21–33, while appearing on the surface to reinforce patriarchal norms of wives submitting to husbands, actually instructs husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificing love (“as Christ gave himself for the Church”) and encompasses all marriage relationships under the heading, “submit yourselves to one another”. This was a radical reinterpretation of the marriage relationship itself, even within the first few decades of the life of the church.

The biblical account shows that the spirit comes to faithful people, offers a vision of a new way, and opens hearts and minds to a greater vision which broadens the impact of the good news and reinvigorates missional activity. In the Uniting Church, we seek to walk in that new way, faithful to the witness of scripture, and open to the guidance of the Spirit, accepting of new insights and welcoming to all.

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This post formed the basis for a presentation by Elizabeth and myself at the Rainbow Christian Alliance on 8 August 2021. A follow-up presentation on passages from scripture that support an inclusive and affirming attitude on 14 November 2021; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/30/affirming-and-inclusive-passages-from-scripture/