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“Greet one another” (2 Cor 13). But no holy kissing. And no joyful singing.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” So the second (extant) letter to the Corinthians ends (2 Cor 13:11-12).

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” is also how Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Cor 6:20), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

What do we make of this instruction to kiss one another? Many people in churches that I know have interpreted “holy kiss” to mean “warm handshake”—so the “passing of the peace” has been shaking hands with as many people as possible in the Congregation. In some smaller gatherings, even, making sure that you shake hands with everybody present!

Well, not any longer. No more handshakes—not in church, not at the door after the service, not anywhere in society. COVID-19 has put paid to shaking hands for quite some time yet.

Other people have take a more literalist line of interpretation. A kiss means, well, a kiss! If not a lip-to-lip kiss, then, at least, a lip-to-cheek kiss. Yes, I have been in church gatherings where my hairy unshaven cheeks have been kissed. And even, when my hairy-encircled lips have planted a kiss on the cheek of another worshipper. I confess.

But not any longer. No more person-to-person contact; especially not any contact that involves the lips! COVID-19 has put paid to the socially-approved form of public kiss, for quite some time yet—if not forever.

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate the reference to a “holy kiss” in these five verses, is by referring to a “holy embrace”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of our practices during the current situation with COVID-19. The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved. The current situation proscribes any form of physical contact. It is just too risky.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

Of course, we do not put our heads in the sand. We acknowledge the sense in the guidelines being proclaimed across society. We listen to those with expertise in infectious diseases and medicine. We refrain from physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. No handshakes. We look for alternatives to signify that we are greeting one another.

We aren’t yet meeting in person for worship. It will be some time before most Congregations are able to do this. But when we eventually do begin to worship in person, and it comes time to pass the peace, we might face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.

Another option would be to clasp our hands together and place them in front of our chest, in the “praying position”, and then, as we face each other, bow in greeting.

A third option—one perhaps only utilised in a very distinctive liturgical setting—could be to “bump elbows”, using the recommended social alternative to “shaking hands”. But that option would need to be employed with care! And it may not be to everybody’s liking, to be sure.

Which brings me to singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”, the psalmist instructs us (Psalms 66:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, 6, 100:1). Sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, an early Christian writer exhorts (Col 3:16). “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, another letter writer directs (Eph 5:18-20).

So how do we interpret these passages? Do we adopt the same literalist approach—the Bible says we must worship, the Bible says we must song, so that’s what we must do! (Yes, I have heard this said, even in current times.) That is not really a satisfactory approach.

Of course, the same dilemma confronts us here. Just as direct physical contact is not advised in the current pandemic situation, so singing in a group of people is also deemed to be out of order, in the understanding of health professional and medical advisors.

Research clearly indicates that singing contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Singing spreads droplets in aerosols which are expelled from a person’s mouth as they sing. They can carry the virus a significant distance and remain suspended in the air for some time after they have been expelled from a person’s mouth. A cloth mask is unlikely to be enough to provide protection as people sing together. This article canvasses the issues:

https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/does-singing-spread-coronavirus-choir-outbreaks-raise-concerns-1.4943265

So in the case of singing, as with physical touch, we need reinterpret our scripture in keeping with what we know about the spread of infectious diseases. We might have to be content with listening to a recording or watching a video of a favourite hymn or song being sung. One suggestion I have seen is to invite people to listen, then to share with a couple of other people what you have heard, what has connected with you, as you listen.

Another suggestion is to invite people to tap into their own wells of creativity, and after listening to the song, write or draw their own response. That could be in the form of a prayer, a modern psalm, an impressionistic artwork, a poem, a sketch drawing. The possibilities are endless.

Some other ideas are canvassed in this post:

https://godspacelight.com/2020/05/23/five-ways-to-worship-with-music-beyond-singing/?fbclid=IwAR07U327jYyIu8PKq3xmBnDSE3wDD56ySbiRlRxpT1Foc42o4ucgZOnHhJg

There’s another central aspect of worship that will need significant attention and careful consideration in the time ahead. Before we actually start meeting in person for worship, a decision will need to be made, in each local community of faith, with regard to holy communion.

We know that any action that involves direct physical contact is risky. We know that multiple touching of the same object is highly risky—it provides many more opportunities for a virus (any virus, not just COVID-19) to be passed from person to person. When we regather for worship, we will not be “passing the offering plate around”; it is too risky.

In the same way, we need to,consider carefully what we do when it comes to offering the bread, passing a plate of bread, drinking from the cup, or passing the small cups.

That’s a matter for future consideration. If anyone has any clear ideas or knows of useful guidelines in this regard, I would love to hear from you!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery: June 2020

3 June 2020

Dear friends across the Presbytery,

It has been many months since we have been able to “live as normal”. For some people, the extended period of drought was already providing challenging circumstances last year. Then, for many people, the bushfires came tearing into their lives six months ago. Their lives were turned upside down and that turmoil has continued. Life has not been the same since then.

We watched as the fires spread across many of the regions in our Presbytery, and even threatened the southern suburbs of Canberra. Many, many people have been impacted—in the lives lost, in the destruction of homes and properties, in the fears and anxieties that grew as the fires spread, in the disruptions to the lives and livelihoods of many communities, and as the memories of past experiences swam back into view.

Then we all experienced the horror of watching the early reports of people around the world who were suffering, and some dying, from a new, previously unknown virus. In swift succession, we saw the WHO declare a global pandemic, the death rates in a number of countries rise exponentially, the first cases of death from COVID-19 in our own country, and then our Government issuing orders restricting gatherings.

We have not been able to live “life as normal” during these months of restrictions on gathering. It has been a time of change, and challenge. Many people have learnt new skills, as we began to realise the possibilities that ZOOM, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other online platforms can provide. Many congregations began gathering-apart through one of these means. At the same time, we have continued to worship and care for one another.

Many of us have lamented the loss of face-to-face meetings. We have not been able to have coffee and catch up with friends, or family. We have not been able to go to our favourite cafes, museums or picnic spots. We have not been able to visit those whose mobility restricts them to their homes or rooms and we have not been able to gather together on Sunday morning, to worship.

It is now clear that the early movement to impose restrictions right across society has helped Australia to have fewer deaths in the pandemic. We are certainly saddened by the deaths that have taken place, and aware of the spread of suffering that has been experienced by those who have had their health impacted significantly because of COVID-19. We are relieved that there has not been more deaths, that we did “flatten the curve”, and that we have “slowed the spread” of the virus.

It is also clear that the restrictions of past weeks have had a heavy economic impact—on individuals and small businesses which have lost their income, as well as on the overall economy of our country. It is clear that political leadership wishes to address this matter, and is doing so by easing restrictions, in a staged process. We need to be mindful of what is now permitted—and what still remains restricted.

It is also clear that this easing of restrictions has kindled flames of hope amongst many people—hope that life can “get back to normal”, hope that “life will be easier”, hope that we can “go back to church”. Every one of us shares those hopes, to a greater of lesser degree. And yet, we know, deep within our hearts, that life will not soon be “back to normal”. Things have changed, and that’s the way they will stay, for some length of time yet.

With regard to the last of these hopes—to “go back to church”—there are some important factors for us to consider. It is not just a matter of sending out the emails, ringing up the folks, opening up the doors, and welcoming people back into the church building. Before we can do that, there will be planning and preparation—and prayerful reflection—that needs to take place.

Leaders of our church, from across every Presbytery, and in the Synod, have been meeting each week for the past ten weeks. This week, the leadership group approved a set of resources which have been prepared to assist each Church Council, as they discuss, plan, and prepare to resume church activities on church property.

Those resources are detailed, comprehensive, and carefully conceived. They will help each of our Church Councils to develop a set of COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in our church. Together, these Safety Plans will provide us with a COVID Safe Roadmap to re-gathering.

There is a very helpful collection of FAQs at https://nswact.uca.org.au/covid19saferoadmap/faqs/

We encourage Church Councils to begin by reading through this webpage and discussing together the questions that are posed here. After this, Church Councils can then begin to develop specific COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in their church property.

You can find resources to assist in the preparation of these COVID Safety Plans at https://nswact.uca.org.au/COVID19SafeRoadmap

We encourage you to go to the website and read these resources. They are comprehensive, so this will take time. Church Councils will need to take that time to give careful consideration to the responsibilities that they have. We need to ensure that we do not rush back into holding activities in our church buildings, before we are certain that we have done all the planning that is required.

We also need to take care to ensure that in all our planning, we prioritise the needs of those who are vulnerable—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, those with chronic medical conditions, people with impaired immune systems, and people aged over 70. Their health and safety needs to be the first consideration in any decision to commence worship gatherings in person.

We cannot simply assume that it would be wise for all of these people (including our Ministers and Pastors) to “come to church” when we start holding worship in person once more. In fact, it most likely is wise that they do not join with those who will be gathering in the church building. We need to plan and prepare with this in mind.

As we move along the path of stages taking society forward, let us be patient and compassionate. We need to be compassionate to one another, ensuring that when we start to gather again in person, all precautions have been taken, and the risks have been minimised as much as we can.

We need, especially, to be compassionate towards those whose vulnerabilities mean that they remain at home, waiting still for that safe place for gathering in church to come. They will need our particular care and attention. This is a central calling for us, as a church, at this time. We need to attend, today and in the months to come, to the hard work that will be required, to ensure that all of our buildings and activities are safe, for everyone who attends.

Further still, we are to be mindful of those who may have begun to make connections with our Congregations through this time of meeting and worshipping differently online, or by other means. We want the arrangements to which we now move also to be inclusive of them and their needs.

And let us be patient with each other; may our frustrations fall away, our anxieties dissipate, as we wait, pray, and prepare. As Daniel Mossfield recently wrote to his Congregation:

“In a culture where people are forced to rush back to work, and potentially risk their lives due to economic hardship, we the church dare to claim there is a different way the world could be. We dare to believe that our society can and must look after all its members in the coming weeks and months, because we believe the value of each of us does not rest in how much we earn but in the fact that we are all children of God. We believe not gathering yet is the very call of God upon our lives: to witness to the patience of the Gospel.”

Please be assured of ongoing prayers from each of us, as we all work our way through the challenges and opportunities of this time, and as we pray and plan for the future that we hope for, as Congregations, as a Presbytery, and as part of the whole people of God.

Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairperson

Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson

Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minister—Congregation Futures

John Squires, Presbytery Minister—Wellbeing

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Worship like the first Christians. What will our future look like? (3)

I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?

You can read those posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?

*****

If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?

The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.

Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).

Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?

*****

The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).

I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?

We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.

So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.

*****

The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)

Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.

Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?

And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.

That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).

We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?

*****

Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.

Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.

What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.

*****

Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)

When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.

*****

It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.

Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?

This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?

For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.

This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.

Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)

(See the work of Rodney Stark, summarised in https://thejesusquestion.org/2013/01/20/the-rise-of-christianity-by-rodney-stark/; for a discussion of the contemporary relevance of this view, see https://time.com/5824128/early-christian-caritas-coronavirus/ )

So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.

So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).

To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).

And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??

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Saying sorry, seeking justice, walking together, working for reconciliation

Today is National Sorry Day. It stands at the head of National Reconciliation Week, which runs from 27 May to 3 June each year. This week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation.

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

Because of this, the date 26 May carries great significance for the Stolen Generations, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and its supporters among non-indigenous Australians. So Sorry Day is an annual event that has been held around the continent on 26 May since 1998, to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

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

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

But these were only steps. The path still lies ahead. We need to take more steps, walking together, to foster deeper relationships, advocate for a more embedded restoration of justice, work for wider and more lasting reconciliation within our communities. We are in this together. May we tread that pathway with compassion and intent.

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

Click to access 150520-Sorry-Day.pdf

https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/1967-referendum/

https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/mabo-native-title/

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

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It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (2)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. How will hope be found, in what lies ahead?

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

Now my mind is thinking about what the future might look like. People are struggling with number of matters. These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church.

As we consider these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the second in a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this. The first was focussed on “where” people are wanting to be in that future time.

This post reflects on the “when” of our hopes for the future. How often have you heard someone refer, longingly, to “the way things used to be”? How often have you heard people lament that they would really like things to be “just like they used to be”?

This is a refrain in society—let’s get back to when life was simpler, people were friendlier, choices were easier. It is also a refrain in the church—let’s get back to when buildings were filled on Sundays, Friday night youth groups were thriving, Sunday Schools were overflowing. Ah, the good old days …

It is still a struggle for some people to try to move beyond this yearning for the past. When they try to imagine what it will be like when we get back to meeting in person, such people simply have in mind that things will be “just like they used to be”. The natural human urge is for us to move out of a time of upheaval, right back into the comfort zone of what is familiar, what is predictable, what has been the comforting routine of “life as usual”.

That is no less the case in the present period of COVID-19 restrictions. Back to church worship on a Sunday morning, seeking the much-loved group of friends once again, sitting in the usual spot, singing the favourite hymns, sharing the chit-chat over morning tea—church as usual, just if nothing had happened!

We can’t, of course, go back to the old familiar patterns. COVID-19 has ensured that this will be the case. We will need to clean and disinfect buildings regularly, maintain contact lists of all people attending any event, ensure that all physical touch elements in worship are modified, and, for the moment, ensure that there is adherence to social distancing and the limits on numbers in the building. And we would be well-advised not to sing when we gather for worship, for that is a high risk activity. Things will be different.

“Behold, I am about to do a new thing”, the prophet of old long ago declared to the people of Israel (Isa 43:19). To the people of Israel who had been decades in exile in Babylon, the word of the Lord spoke of hope and promise, of a new initiative, stepping out in a new way. The people journey back across the wilderness, heading back to the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

Without the “new thing” of the Lord, the people of Israel would have remained in exile and, presumably, have diminished in their distinctiveness, threatening the existence of the people of God as a nation called to be “a holy priesthood”. Finding the “new thing” that is happening in our own time is important.

See further at https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

So the question for us could well be: what is the “new thing” that God is doing, that the Spirit is calling to us to take part in, as public society begins to reactivate, as church begins to regather, in the weeks ahead?

I have read a number of pointers about how about society will need to be structured differently after the current restrictions have been eased and then lifted. In what I have read, there are a number of things that point directly at how things will need to change when we gather as a church.

One commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Social gatherings should be avoided if a lot of people are close to each other, sing, talk a lot, or commingle. Indoor, confined areas are much worse than outdoors activities.” (See Tomas Pueyo, “Coronavirus: Prevent Seeding and Spreading”, https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-prevent-seeding-and-spreading-e84ed405e37d)

Both of those factors place church gatherings, worship services, morning teas, and other group gatherings, into the high risk category. They are usually indoors, inviting people into close personal contact with others. And singing—we always sing when we gather, for grace, for praise, for communion, for benedictions. All high risk.

The same commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Time matters. A short time is probably ok. Hours probably not.” That might please some people, if we apply it to church—short is better, no more long droning sermons!

But short worship services will be hard to monitor—even a short time for worship sees many people on site for quite some time, first while setting up, then in social mingling afterwards (and even the occasional “car park conversations” that prolong the time together even more!).

How we gather, what we do when we gather, cannot simply be stepping back into what we used to do. We are entering a time when things must be different. How will we engage with that challenge? How will we ensure that we don’t just step back into the past and settle into the well-worn routines? What will church look like, for us, in the future? That is the challenging question that sits before us, now, as we consider our future as the church in post-COVID times.

Thanks again to Elizabeth for the conversations that have shaped these ideas as we talk about future hopes for the church.

See also https://millennialpastor.ca/2020/05/24/there-is-no-going-back-to-normal-or-the-glory-days-this-is-the-beginning/

and my series of blogs on life during COVID-19:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

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It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (1)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The full set of restrictions that were put into place are beginning to be eased, with more changes still to come. Governments across the country are making announcements, indicating timetables, looking with hope to the future.

As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. Some are anxious about moving too rapidly to lift current restrictions. Some are hopeful that we can start meeting again in person very, very soon. And some are angry about the intrusion of governments into our lives, the measures in place seen as unwarranted restrictions on our freedoms.

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

I want now to offer some reflections from my own perspective on what the future might look like. I am aware of a number of matters which remain a struggle for people, and I offer these thoughts with particular reference to the struggles that people in my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) are dealing with.

These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church. From within these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the first of a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this.

First, lets think about Sundays. It is still a struggle for many people to imagine anything other than “Sunday morning” when they speak about “church”. The dominance of the Sunday morning worship service, in the minds of so many people, is abundantly clear. Ministers have known this forever—how many times have we heard the half-joking, half-serious comment, “well, you really only work for one hour on one day each week, don’t you?” Grrrrr!

Church, of course, is far more than Sunday morning worship. And people do make the connection from “church” as worship, to visiting hospitals, running a youth group, feeding the hungry, lobbying the local member, providing shelter to homeless people, or doing the shopping for the shut-in down the street. These are seen great things to do—but for many, they are viewed as a kind of optional extra beyond the Sunday morning worship gathering.

Somehow, over the centuries of history that the church has existed, the Sunday morning worship gathering has come to be seen as the very heart, the essential centre, of being church. The importance of gathering to worship has taken over all other elements in being church. In our own time, the dominance of the Sunday morning worship gathering is clear.

We talk about “going to church”—meaning worship in the church building. We ask, “what time is church?”—meaning the time for Sunday worship. We say, “see you in church”—often meaning next Sunday morning. Sunday morning worship has taken over our sense of what it means to be church.

In this view, “church” is really all about hymns and prayers, sermons and morning teas, rosters, and rosters, and more rosters! So the Sunday gathering has become an end in itself. Many people look to Sunday worship in the church building as the time and place for them to carry out their Christian duty. Church has been completely conflated to worship.

A fuller understanding of worship is required. Worship should not be the END. Worship should not be what is always in view, when we think about “church”. Worship should actually be a MEANS to fostering a sense of missional activity in which we share the good news of Jesus in order to build up the body of Christ. The end, from this perspective, is not the time of worship. The end is missional engagement in the world. One of the means to strengthen that end (and only one, amongst a number of things) is worship, as a gathered community.

We need to struggle some more with the implications of this way of seeing things. “Church” is much more than Sunday morning. But so much frenetic activity over the past two months, when gathering in person has not been possible, has been devoted to ensuring that, even if we can’t meet together in person, there is still some “church” happening on Sunday morning—online, on Facebook, on YouTube, on ZOOM. Because, you know, “church” means “worship”.

Let’s struggle to live beyond this blinkered and limited view. Let’s work to foster a strong sense of “church” being a seven-day-a-week enterprise. Let’s talk much more about being disciples, following the risky way of Jesus, and let’s be more active in the world amidst all the diversity of humanity that we encounter. Let’s talk much less about being members, settled into a comfortable club, and let’s not be bound by the traditional customs and practices of our own little clique.

Certainly, scripture contains an encouragement to meet regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), and there are passages that provide specific guidelines and instructions relating to worship in various places (1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 12-14, Col 3:16, Eph 5:18-20). But worship is not all that there is to being church.

Paul uses the language of worship when he writes to the Romans, appealing to them “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). The letter continues with a string of exhortations, injunctions, and instructions, which point very clearly to the view that “spiritual worship” entails living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way, not simply focussed on the worship gathering. That outward orientation is something that we could do well to hold to. Church is more than just Sunday worship.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

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When we come together (2) … values and principles in the midst of a pandemic

In this blog post, I am reflecting on our values and principles, as we consider the possibility of Gathering-Together, after a time of Gathering-Apart during the COVID-19 restrictions. These thoughts follow on from my earlier biblical and theological considerations in https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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Last week, the Prime Minister indicated that, because of the good response across society to observe the restrictions on social gatherings and the limitations on moving around, there is now a plan for a three-stage move away from the current restrictions, towards a society where more mobility and more interaction in person will be possible.

This has, unsurprisingly, raised expectations amongst Congregations, that various activities might recommence. These activities include small groups, business meetings, hall rentals by local business or community groups, and, of course, Sunday worship.

In response to the statement by the Prime Minister, leaders of the 14 Presbyteries in my Synod met on Monday with the Synod leadership team. As a result, this leadership group has issued a clear statement, strongly recommending that we should not be meeting in person for services of worship or face to face meeting in our churches. You can read this at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/8680/covid19-information-guide-gathering-12-may-2020v2.pdf

In the weeks to come, as the stages of easing restrictions come into play, there will undoubtedly be conversations about “can we meet together again, now?”. We will need to be prepared for such conversations.

In making decisions about these matters, we need to be sure that we are not simply rushed along with the excitement and anticipation that life will soon be “back to normal”. Life will return, step-by-step, to a situation that will be more like “normal” than the last few weeks have been. However, it is abundantly clear that life will not, indeed, be “back to normal”, as many are anticipating.

Life will change. Life will be different. Gathering-together, after a period of gathering-apart, will necessarily be different. Familiar customs and practices will not be able to be followed unthinkingly. Beloved institutions that have long been part of the Sunday worship rituals will need to be radically altered, or, indeed, put aside entirely.

There are a number of practical matters to be considered in relation to each activity that could re-commence with in-person gatherings. In my mind, these practical matters include:

* room size and spatial distancing (how do we ensure good monitoring of numbers of people in the building, and behaviours of people whilst in the building?)

* maintaining an accurate list of contacts (this is required, now, no matter what size of gathering, to facilitate tracing in the case of an infection, so—someone will need to take responsibility for this; people will need to be asked if they agree to having their contact details recorded; and will refusal to give permission mean access to the activity on the property will be refused?)

* ensuring non-contact in every activity (greetings at the door as people arrive for worship, shaking hands or hugging during the passing of the peace, the handshaking-line at the end of worship, the passing of the offering plate, the passing of the trays with individual communion glasses, and other elements—these will all need to be dropped)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to thorough disinfecting procedures (the building must be thoroughly disinfected to be prepared before every use, and thoroughly disinfected at the end of every use—an activity that will take some time, each time the building is used)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to strict food handling procedures (we need to adhere to commercial-standard protocols, and ensure that every volunteer understands exactly what they can and can’t do—and perhaps we should consider whether serving tea/coffee/nibbles after worship is to be banned?)

* the question of singing (latest research shows this is a high risk activity, especially inside, so singing the old favourite hymns or the new choruses will equally be out of bounds for some time—some experts suggest 18 months to 2 years, until a vaccine is available)

* and—pardon the gritty reality here—toilets (everyone will need to be committed to flushing with the lid closed and washing hands thoroughly after each use; we know that flushing toilets spreads aerosols which contain faecal matter—so the question to consider might well be, should toilets not be available for use? or should someone be rostered to thoroughly disinfect the toilet area after each and every individual use?)

Alongside that, there is a set of questions that we perhaps could explore in a fruitful way—questions which consider how we make decisions, how we undertake discussions, and who we are considering in the process of these discussions and decisions. And, from my perspective, reflecting on relevant biblical passages that can inform the way that we operate, can be helpful and fruitful.

Ministry leaders will be catapulted into such discussions (if we have not, already, found ourselves there). So here are some key principles, along with some associated biblical passages that, in my thinking, shape our ethos and inform how we make responsible ethical decisions about regathering as church.

1. Gathering for worship is important, but safety of people is more important

We know that, across society, there are many people who are vulnerable, who needs our particular care, support, and attention. Whilst gathering-together for worship, prayer, discussion, fellowship, and conversation, is highly valued, our highest priority must be to act in a manner that ensures the lowest risk for people in society, that offers a safe place and safe manner for people to gather-together.

We have committed to being a Safe Place some years ago, and whilst we have applied that to matters such as the safety of children and young people, the physical arrangement in our buildings, and acceptance of diversity. Can we now apply that to the matter of community health and wellbeing?

The psalmist reflects, “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long” Psalm 12:5). In another psalm, we hear the prayer, “O Lord, let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever” (Psalm 40:11). We need to echo that sentiment and follow that commitment to safety as we gather together.

2. The weakest or most vulnerable is the test for any decision we make

The people who have high risk of infection are those who have the following vulnerabilities: an impaired immune system, one of a number of chronic medical conditions, age, and people with Aboriginal and Islander descent.

Paul writes to the believers in a number of his communities, exhorting those who are “stronger” to attend to “the weak”, with the fundamental principle that “orientation to the needs of the other” undergirds everything. That orientation should govern how we think about, and how we act in, the days ahead. Those who are most vulnerable in terms of age or health should be the litmus test for anything that we consider doing when we gather-together.

Our own personal needs (or desires), the hopes and wants (or desires) of a community of faith, need to have this first consideration governing all that they decide. As Paul writes:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom 14:13)

You can read more about this way of operating in Romans 14:1-15:13. This would form an excellent focus for a Bible Study to go alongside a Church Council discussion of what steps can be taken as we consider gathering-together once more.

3. Relationships with others are our first priority. Loving our neighbour takes priority over programs and activities

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Relationships with other people are given priority in this passage, and in the teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. That’s a fairly simple observation, but it is incredibly potent in the current situation. How do we ensure that we are “loving our neighbour” in what we decide and what we do together?

Jesus places this as the second “greatest commandment”, alongside the first, of loving God. We need to hold these two aspects in tension, and ensure that we do not focus solely on “loving God” (and doing that in the old, familiar ways, unthinkingly), but we hold together “loving our neighbour” with “loving God”, and that we prioritise these over “returning to business as usual”. If business as usual is just about ourselves as a group, then our higher priority needs to be about how we operate in relation to all those around us.

4. We have a commitment to the common good—the good of all people in society

Almost a decade ago, the Uniting Church adopted a snappy slogan which expressed our commitment to “the common good”. This has been a rallying cry at many gatherings where matters of social justice are being addressed and advocated for—refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, care for the creation and environmental policies, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, for instance.

Now, in this challenging time, we need to apply that same commitment “to the common good” to the question of what the implications are when we gather-together, after a time of gathering-apart. We need to ensure that whatever steps we take do contribute to that common good, not simply to the benefit of the group gathering together—be that Congregation, Church Council, Fellowship Group, Bible Study Group, our informal lunch gathering at the church.

And let us remember that “the common good” is itself an important biblical marker:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal 6:10)

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

5. We need to ensure the safety of vulnerable people in leadership (ministry leaders, both ordained and lay)

“So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” (Num 11:16-17)

This story from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that God was concerned to take care of the leadership of the people of Israel. The seventy Elders were he people. appointed to assist Moses in his growing role as a leader of the people in a stressful and challenging time (as they journey through the wilderness, seeking a way to the promised land). The story from of old has strong resonances with our current situation!

If we accept that God demonstrated concerns for the pressures on Moses, can we see that this provides an analogy for the way that we offer care for our leaders, especially those who are vulnerable themselves, or living in a household with another vulnerable person?

Pressures on ministry leaders (both those ordained, and those lay people who are providing local leadership) to lead their people in gatherings should not be countenanced, until such time as it is clear that all the required protocols can be, and are being, adhered to, and they are not in any position of extra vulnerability because of this. That requires careful discernment and wise leadership at the local level.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

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“I am the way” (John 14): from elitist exclusivism to gracious friendship?

The reading this Sunday contains some very familiar, oft-quoted words attributed to Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). And especially oft-quoted is the next sentence that follows, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b).

That second sentence is frequently used to interpret the first sentence, to give it a sense of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence. Especially amongst more conservative theological elements in the church, this sense of “only one way”, “no other way” is regularly advocated.

But is this the only way to understand “I am the way”? Let me put the verse into context, consider a number if factors, and suggest why we may need to seek other ways of understanding this declaration about “the way”.

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The first observation to make is that this statement draws on traditional Jewish terminology used by the people in the movement which Jesus initiated. “The Way” is a term which occurs in various chapters in the second volume of the orderly account, the book of Acts (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). This, according to these references, was the earliest term used to describe these people. (The term which eventually came to dominate, “Christians”, is first referenced at Acts 11:26, and is less-used in Acts.)

Calling the early followers of Jesus “The Way” may owe its origins to scriptural usage in association with God’s activity. The term is used in this way in Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. We might also note the occurrence of the term in Isa 40:3-5, and observe that it is cited in a prominent position at Luke 3:4-6. The return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.

The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17-18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This may reflect competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. The Qumran group, of course, was strongly exclusivist (it kept strong boundaries around the membership of the community) and could also be seen as being somewhat elitist in its theological outlook (some documents reflect the worldview that can be crudely summarised as “we have the truth, everyone else is wrong”).

In subsequent usage (beyond the first century) this term, The Way, has come to be completely overshadowed by a term used less often by Luke, that of “Christian” or “messianist” (11:26; 26:28). The latter term initially referred to the fact that the followers of Jesus, from early on, claimed that he was the anointed one, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ).

So by using the term “the Way”, Luke emphasises the thoroughly Jewish nature of those communities which declared Jesus to be Messiah.

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The second observation for understanding the verse in context is that it is one of a number of “I Am” statements that are placed on the lips of Jesus in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. These sayings comprise a verb (“I am”) followed by a predicate (the entity which Jesus claims to be). The predicates in most of these sayings are drawn from traditional Jewish elements.

Jesus presents himself as “the vine” (John 15:1–11), drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).

Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), evoking the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he is clearly evoking the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.

Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).

Although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the references to the “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).

In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.

Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the Gospel according to John are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis.

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A third observation is that the book of signs was written in a context of polarised disputation and growing hostilities. There was deepening conflict between the followers of Jesus, who acclaimed him as Messiah, and the scribes and Pharisees, teaching the traditions of the ancestors in the synagogues of the post-70 period.

After the destruction of the Temple in the Roman—Jewish War of 66-74CE, as there was no need for priests, the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. Synagogues became key places for instruction in the Law, communal worship, and also community hospitality. Those claiming that the Messiah had come (as the followers of Jesus did) were problematic to the Pharisees. Tensions grew. Hostility broke out in some places.

There are three references to being expelled from the synagogue in the book of origins (John 9:22; 12:52; 16:2). These are widely understood to refer, not to the time of Jesus, but to the time when the Gospel came to take its final form—probably around the end of the first century—when the conflict between the synagogue authorities and the followers of Jesus had come to a head.

Biblical scholars have drawn on the insights of sociology in this regard. A group which acted in the way that the followers of Jesus were acting, is described as a sectarian community. Differentiating itself from the parent body by means of distinctive belief claims is typical of sectarian groups.

As it had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community. This emerges over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. The messianists are confident about their faith. And they are certain about the absolute importance of following Jesus and believing in him. He is The Way.

Each of the “I am” sayings noted above is reported in this Gospel in this context of dispute and controversy. The sayings function as markers to differentiate Jesus from his Jewish contemporaries—and, by association, the followers of Jesus from their Jewish contemporaries.

Thus, when the Johannine Jesus expresses the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, there is an obvious and (to first-century ears) very clear claim being made about how the community of Jesus’ followers saw themselves, in relation to other groups in Judaism of the day. Like others, they were making claims about their exclusivity as the faithful one, their elitist understanding of what fidelity to the Law meant—and about the singular and central place of Jesus in their faith.

This Gospel consistently sets out a clear claim for Jesus as a distinctive figure, set apart and set higher than other religious leaders. Those who follow him have “the truth”, and are very clear what exactly is “the way” to God. Following Jesus was seen as the way—the only way—to gain “life”, or access directly to God. This is a polemic claim in the context it was first made.

The community in which the Gospel of John was compiled and valued was functioning in precisely the way that sectarian communities operate, holding fast to their exclusivism and elitism.

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How do we read such a text in our contemporary situation? We live in a world where retreating into a corner, keeping separate from other people, and treating anyone different from us with suspicion (if not outright hostility) is practised by some, but it really is an untenable and unhelpful way of living.

In the Uniting Church, our Basis of Union advocates that as we live our faith, we seek to be critically informed (as we enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry), ecumenically engaged (as we relate to our partners within the world-wide fellowship of churches), contextually relevant (through contact with contemporary thought), and missionally oriented (as we engage with contemporary societies) (see paragraph 11).

Engaging with contemporary societies and participating in them such that we better come to understand our own nature and mission, is a key commitment of this church. Multicultural societies, such as Australia, offer many opportunities for such engagement and learning. Seeking to understand the cultural practices and commitments of friends and neighbours in our midst, means that we will better understand who we are as Church: what it means to be in relationship with one another, to serve one another, to proclaim the living Word afresh.

I wrote a blog about this last year (after the tragic events in the Mosque in Christchurch), which you can read at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/04/friendship-in-the-presence-of-difference-a-gospel-call-in-a-world-of-intolerance-and-hatred/

The Uniting Church Assembly has advocated, “Friendship in the presence of difference is regarded as being a central Christian attitude and value. Engagement with those of other faiths is welcomed as a pathway on which we may rediscover the heart of the Christian way while also being enriched by wisdom others have to share.” (Adopted at the Thirteenth Assembly (2012), from a statement prepared by the Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths, entitled Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multifaith Australia.)

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So: with this theological commitment to living with those different from us with an attitude of acceptance and friendship, a generous attitude of embracing diversity, an intention to hold to an informed faith, on the one hand; and a biblical text (John 14:6) that recounts how a deepened understanding of Jesus emerged through the process of antagonism, aggressive argumentation, and hostile actions—what do we need to do to hold these two together?

Should a text which originated in conflict, with the intention of carving out a space for a smaller group with a distinctive set of beliefs, still be interpreted in the same way as those first readers and hearers of the Gospel understood it?

Or do we allow the changed context in which we live, and the different perceptions that have developed in our time, to reshape our understanding, to recast our interpretation, to challenge long-held views and to invite fresh appreciations?

Is it the case that we MUST read this biblical text as requiring us to have an attitude of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence?

Or—is there another way to understand “I am the way”?

 

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

On the commitment to an informed faith in the Basis of Union, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

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The times, they are are a-changin’.

Change is happening around us. We are noticing changes taking place in society. The COVID-19 virus has forced a range of changes on us. Decades ago, Bob Dylan penned a folk song, “The times, they are a-changin’”, which has come to be seen as an anthem celebrating the changes that are always taking place in our society.

But in the present time, as we live under significant restrictions on gathering in person, as we keep our distance and stay at home for all manner of things, we sense that our times, are, indeed, a-changin’. So let’s ponder those changes.

Some of these are not good changes. Some may well be beneficial changes. We have had to let go of some valued ways of operating. We have also had to learn new skills and adopt new practices. This is what happens during a time of transition: many things can change. How we deal with these changes is important. What we choose to accept, and what we chose to reject, is up to us.

William Bridges has written an insightful book about such processes, entitled Managing Transitions (2009). Bridges talks about transitions in terms of three stages (as the graphic indicates): first, there is the letting go; then there is the neutral zone of being in-between; and finally, the connection into a new place, a new way of being.

In that neutral, in-between zone, there is a need for us to develop a capacity to live within the discomfort of ambiguity which arises during the experience of loss, as we move away from the familiar. That is the space we are in now, in the midst of restrictions on gathering, as we work to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We are experiencing, in various ways, the discomfort of ambiguity, as things shift under our feet.

In that liminal space, that unfamiliar territory, we have the time and space to reconsider, to review, to reshape, to remake ourselves. What changes will we accept? What changes will we reshape? What changes will we reject?

****

Some changes taking place in society feel difficult. Unemployment rates are rising, and many people who move out of employment will find it hard, if not impossible, to gain work after the restrictions end. Funerals are taking place with friends and most family unable to attend; weddings are occurring with even less people physically present. People who live alone are experiencing more intense feelings of loneliness and are craving real human interaction.

People who are vulnerably housed will have far fewer options for shelter at night during winter, as Safe Shelter programs will not be running because of the risks of passing on the virus. The rates of domestic violence are rising, as pressures in the home situation grow, for some, to boiling point. More people are drawing on the social services network provided by our government, but they will hit the ground with a thump after the restrictions end, when benefits will return to their “normal” level (well below the poverty line).

Some small businesses are looking at a glum future, considering the prospect of having to close for good. Tourism companies and travel agencies are particularly impacted, and their reduced business means loss of employment for significant numbers of people. Apparently more than 16,000 new coronavirus-related online domains have been registered since January 2020—many of which are believed to be set up to enable malware and hacking tools to be sold through COVID-19 “discount codes”.

But some changes are good. More than $1 billion has been saved in poker machine losses in the first five weeks of COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, according to the Alliance for Gambling Reform. There have been 25% less call outs of paramedics in the Ambulance Service in the ACT, because “people are not out and about so much, they are taking things very easy.” In the NT, the same decrease has been observed, because “there’s less traffic on the roads, so less motor vehicle accidents.”

Seeds have sold out, as people plant their own vegetables in anticipation of food shortages. Laying pullets are scarce and those for sale are selling at two or three times the normal price, as people look to guarantee their supply of eggs. Backyard gardening is making a comeback!

“We’ve been riding bikes for years, now, and we have never experienced so many people out and about walking and riding bikes on the bike trails!”, a number of our friends have commented. Meanwhile, in my region, there are no electric bikes available for sale at the moment—all stock has been sold out!

Local communities have rallied together in so many places. People are much more attuned to those folks who are shut-ins or who are self isolating because of their medical conditions or age. Phone calls and food drops at the front door have been made on a regular basis, and online coffee and chat groups are springing up to maintain connections amongst friends who cannot see each other in person.

Pollution rates have fallen across the globe at the moment; satellite observations showed that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) decreased quite significantly over China in the first month that COVID-19 infections were occurring there, February 2020. The same pattern is now taking place in other countries where restrictions on travel, because of the corona virus, means less traffic, less pollution, less NO₂.

(The NO₂ in our air is almost entirely from combustion. When coal and wood burn, nitrogen trapped in the fuel is oxidised as NO₂. Cars and trucks make NO₂ in their engines when they break down nitrogen in the air at extremely high temperatures. It makes a significant contribution to air pollution, which causes acute respiratory issues like asthma, as well as long-term diseases such as stroke, heart disease, and cancer. The World Health Organisation estimates that in recent years, seven million deaths a year have been attributable to air pollution.)

Drug arrests in Chicago have been measured at 42% lower during March, as drug dealers have no choice but to wait out the economic slump. El Salvador reported an average of two killings a day during March, down from a peak of 600 a day a few years ago. Even criminals are practising social distancing, social isolation!

And our Chief Medical Officer is now saying that we need to ensure that some changes in the way we relate to one another remain permanent, and we don’t go back to old ways—he advocates that we keep our distance from each other, continue our good hand hygiene habits, and don’t shake hands with other people. (This will lower the spread of all forms of viral infections, not just COVID-19.)

Changes are happening in society. Which of these beneficial changes will hold fast into the future? Which ones do we really want to hold on to? Which ones do we want to keep, just a little modified, in the future?

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We are also noticing changes that are happening in churches. For instance, I have been keeping a collection of comments from people in my home congregation about the positive nature of the changes they are experiencing, such as: “We can see the faces of people at worship with us, instead of the backs of their heads.” “Morning tea was more lively, I got to talk with different people, people that I normally don’t talk with.” “It was easy to go to church, I can sit in my comfortable chair and don’t have to get going early.”

And some more: “We have seen people come to online church who haven’t been able to come to church in person for months.” “We need to keep on offering services by ZOOM for those who can’t get to church in person.” “Finding happiness in the present moment and situation is such a great way to live. Not always easy to pull off, but a great goal.”

A recent conversation I heard between two people was very succinct: “I’m still learning.” “Aren’t we all!” And I have just seen online an elderly man who has never seen the need for a mobile phone, let alone a computer, who got his technologically-literate son to buy him a second-hand laptop, so he could join the Sunday morning worship. He set ZOOM himself and has been participating every week since!

Another ZOOM meeting I attended recently included people from across a number of Congregations who have been in office, in some cases, for quite some time. Someone from one of the places further away from Canberra (where Presbytery staff and most office bearers are based) said, “It’s nice to put a face to a name after all this time”. Another tick for people from dispersed locations meeting together online!

In another Synod-wide online meeting, a comment was made that “the current crisis has brought to a head some long-running issues; we now need to deal with them and get involved in a constructive way”. The situation has stimulated proactive engagement in situations where the tendency had been to hold back and “let’s hope things sorts out by themselves” (which, of course, they rarely, if ever, do!)

I have heard one person comment that they have turned to the Psalms for spiritual nurture, and they observed that, wherever the psalmist reflects desolation, that is almost always followed by a sense of consolation. Perhaps that idea can undergird our prayers and reflections on the current situation.

Another colleague has observed that new, and positive, connections are being made between previously disconnected and distanced communities and individuals, which has been good for the health of the whole body. The challenge of disruption has generated a new pattern of collaboration and hopefulness.

One regional body is taking advantage of this interruption to “business as usual” by focussing on mission planning for the future, asking, “what are we learning in this current disrupted period, that we can apply to being the church in a renewed missional way?”

And many times, now, I have heard a story that runs along the same lines: since we have been in this period of restrictions on gathering, we have been making intentional connections with people who had drifted away from our Sunday gatherings. Now we have refreshed our connections and we are feeling that many of them seem to be “part of us” once again.

Some of the changes are, to be sure, experienced as less than desireable. “How many people are clicking on to online worship more as voyeurs than as fully engaged disciples?”, asked one colleague. Another mused, “my minister seems to be spending all their time playing with technology rather than making contact with people”. These are practices that we need to find a way to balance better.

I’ve heard one person articulate the need to move away from “leading worship well” towards a way to “equip people to grow in their own discipleship”. Some colleagues are devoting significant time, not just to preparing the Sunday worship, but to collating, writing and distributing resources that are available for personal use in the home—reflective worship times, meditations on scripture, studies to deepen discipleship, questions to challenge people to seek new ways of serving in the post-COVID period.

Another church leader has identified the challenges that are immediately before us as we consider how we might serve people with particular issues: people living with disabilities, people dealing with longterm mental illness, people who are vulnerable housed and dependent on church and community provision of safe shelter (especially in winter time). For such people who depend so much on in-person connection, the online manner of connecting leaves much to be desired. (And, for some, they lack any capacity to have the capability of regular, trustworthy online connection.)

By the same token, those whose particular challenge has been that they live at a significant distance from their place of worship, and need to undertake lengthy drives each time they attend worship, fellowship, or church council meetings, have found that being able to attend online, from the comfort of their own home, has many benefits.

So I think that, overall, my take on all of this can be articulated in some short and simple comments: Community is more important than worship. Service is at the centre of the Gospel. Discipleship engages us with the whole of society, not simply the inner club. Consistent relationships with other human beings are crucial. Creativity can flourish when we are thrust into unfamiliar situations. Disruption can deepen our faith, extend our understandings, refresh our mission.

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Dr Kimberley Norris, an authority on confinement and reintegration at University of Tasmania, has undertaken a detailed study of the mental health of Australians who have overwintered in Antarctica. She found that those who have been through a period of isolation value the experience for what it has taught: They have a better idea of their personal values, and they’re more committed to acting on them. (See https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/coronavirus-covid19-isolation-third-quarter-phenomenon-has-begun/12190270)

The study indicates that the positives from this liminal period can be valued and retained, even as we shed the negatives and less desireable aspects from our time of social,distancing and self isolation.

Dr Norris believes that post-COVID, “we will see differences in the way people engage with each other, in the way people work, in the priorities given to the environment, and the way people think about travel.” And another interesting comment she has: “A lot of people expect spirituality to increase.”

That study clearly indicates that we stand in a critical period of time, during which we have the opportunity to explore our priorities—personal, as disciples, and communal, as a church—and to make commitments to refreshed and innovative ways of operating in the future. It’s an opportunity, not a threat. We ought to rejoice in, and focus on our strengths, not bemoan our situation and become fixated on the weaknesses it has exposed.

So what changes do we want to keep? What things can we change to ensure that the good things that have been happening continue? What new things do we plan to introduce as a result of the changes we have experienced in this period of time? What strategies are we developing to be well placed for the post-COVID situation?

What are your thoughts?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/pastoral-letter-to-canberra-region-presbytery-on-covid-19-pandemic/

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Not this year. So what about next year?

Crowds attending ANZAC Day events, it has reported for many years now, are growing. The further away we are from the events of Gallipoli, Lone Pine, the Kokoda Trail, and Long Tan, the more people are flocking to crowded public events: at dawn services, at Cenotaph gatherings, at local town war memorials, and in major city marches.

But not this year. No social gatherings, no travel except for essential purposes, meant no ANZAC gatherings: no large Cenotaph dawn services, no massed marches, not even any local services at the town war memorial. Instead, a grassroots movement saw thousands of people standing outside their house, at the front of their driveways, as the sun rose.

TV news reports this year showed streets with one, two or a handful of people outside each house, a string of candlelights stretching along the street, as the sun rose. Gathering apart, no close contact, no large crowds. In some enterprising streets, musicians played The Last Post on bugle, trumpet, clarinet, or saxophone.

And those official events that did take place, with just a handful of invited “dignitaries” in attendance, were seriously pared-down events: no massed singing; no droning long addresses on the valour and bravery of those who died in war; no string of people, one after another, laying wreaths in remembrance. Instead, a short statement, the traditional Last Post and Reveille, the Ode of Remembrance, just a few words to mark the occasion; perhaps the national anthems of Australia and then New Zealand.

Then, it was over. Short, succinct, sombre.

****

Central to the Christian story of Jesus is the death and burial of Jesus, followed by his being raised from the dead on the third day. Central to the Christian Church is the annual remembrance of those crucial events, over the four days of the Easter weekend.

Quietly reflective recollections of the last meal of Jesus on Thursday evening, subdued recollections of the story of his crucifixion and death on the Friday, a time of silent vigil on Friday afternoon and, for some, throughout Saturday; then, the early Sunday morning fire (in some denominations) and the grand Sunday morning celebrations, recalling our baptism, hearing the Gospel read and proclaimed, gathering at the table of the Lord. This is what Easter is. This is what the church does so well.

Indeed, every Sunday morning throughout the year, in purpose-built structures and and in rented halls, in majestic cathedrals with stained-glass windows and in modest wooden country church buildings out in the paddock, people of faith gather to be reminded of the good news, to be strengthen in their faith, to be challenged in their discipleship. The Gospel is read and interpreted, hymns of praise and reflective tunes are sung, prayers are offered, then tea and coffee are drunk as people share news and gossip.

But not this year. The doors of every church, every cathedral (and every synagogue, every mosque, every temple, every meeting house) were shut for Easter, and will remain closed, locked, not to be opened until the wave of viral infections has well and truly passed. Inside, the vacant spaces, the silenced pulpits, the empty tables, all point to the way that we are now “being church” in different ways—in ways that, not so long ago, we never imagined or expected to see.

So the worship services have been transferred to online platforms: ZOOM, YouTube, Facebook Streaming; or resources are collated and emailed to people; or printed and posted, or even hand delivered to letter boxes or front doors. We have demonstrated both great ingenuity and also focussed energy, devoted to ensuring that we maintain contact with everyone connected to our church communities.

And more than worship—now, morning teas that once took place around tables in church halls, now take place online, in chaotic but warm and friendly conversations on ZOOM. Church Council meetings that once required everyone attending in person, now also meet online by ZOOM. We have held on to our connections, and are ensuring that nobody is left out.

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Churches, of course, are more than just worship. Lots of community-oriented activities are integral to the life of the church. Op Shops with low cost clothing and kitchen items, weekly Free Meal programmes, Emergency Relief and Food Pantry programs for vulnerable people in society, book libraries at the front door of the church building with free books available for borrowing and swapping, are some examples.

Fellowship Groups for lonely people to meet and talk together on a regular basis, the availability of overnight accommodation as Safe Shelter in church halls for people who are vulnerably housed, and Community Gardens operating from the grounds of churches. All of these activities are fundamental ways that faithful followers of Jesus live out their discipleship. Caring for others, especially the lonely and the vulnerable, is at the heart of how people of faith live out the command to “love your neighbour”.

Such activities happen day in and day out, throughout the year, each year. But, for the most part, not this year. Some of these activities have had to be suspended for the duration of the period that restrictions are in place. Some of them have been able to continue, albeit with significant changes to the regular way in which they were operating.

Food pantries have adopted strict social distancing and thorough disinfecting protocols. Some meals programs continue by providing pre-cooked, individually packaged take away meals for regular clients. Many Op Shops, unable to provide space to enable appropriate social distancing, have closed for the duration.

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What will ANZAC Day look like in 2021? Assuming that restrictions are eased and “life returns to normal” by April next year, we might well expect to see the return of the massed gatherings, the carefully-choreographed dawn services and the modest meetings at thousands of small town and suburban war memorials, the long, extended city marches, followed by the inevitable breakfasts, two up games and afternoon drinking sessions. ANZAC Day will likely “return to normal”.

What will Easter look like in 2021? Again, if we assume that restrictions are lifted, most churches will undoubtedly offer their usual array of worship services across the weekend; people will gather to reflect, to grieve, to give thanks, to celebrate. And Easter egg hunts will presumably be able to be held once again!

What will church look like in 2021? Will it simply “return to normal”? Or will we take this opportunity to change things, to do church differently, to step out into a new way of gathering and serving?

Will worship go back to “Sunday morning at 9:30am, everyone in the same building”? Or will a variety of ways of gathering be offered, including options that continue online participation from those least able to be present in person?

Will food programs revert to the “business as usual” pattern of past years, or will there be important learnings about hygiene, work patterns, seating, or other matters, that will inform new practices?

Will church-based Community Gardens open up to all members of the community with “free seed collection” days, so the people can benefit from the produce in their own gardens?

What will church look like, near year? and the year after? What are your thoughts?

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“Three canoes lay upon the beach—the worst I think I ever saw.” James Cook at Botany Bay, 29 April 1770

It was 250 years ago today (Sunday 29 April 1770) that British sailor, Isaac Smith, set foot on the east coast of the continent that we know now as Australia. Smith was a sailor on board the ship HMS Endeavour, captained by Lieutenant James Cook, which was on a tour around the globe to explore the seas for what was presumed to be Terra Australis Incognita, the “unknown southern land”. It is said that Cook ordered him, “Jump out, Isaac”, as the boat came in close to shore in the large bay into which they had navigated.

Isaac Smith was not the first European person to setting foot on Australia soil—that honour goes to Dutch navigator, Willem Janszoon, in 1606, on what was was the first of 29 Dutch voyages to Australia in the 17th century. Nor was Smith the first Englishman to touch Australian soil—William Dampier had landed on the peninsula north of Broome that now bears his name, on his trip in 1688. But Smith’s captain, James Cook, and the others on his ship HMS Endeavour, play a dominant role in our Australian historical awareness.

HMS Endeavour had launched in 1764 as the Earl of Pembroke, to work as a collier, transporting coal. The Navy purchased her in 1768 for Cook’s scientific mission to the Pacific Ocean. Cook was in charge of an expedition which included observing the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769, circumnavigating both islands of New Zealand, and then mapping the eastern coastline of Australia, laying claim to the whole continent at the place he named Possession Island, before heading home via Batavia (now Jakarta) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

Cook and his men followed Smith onto land, setting foot that day on the beach now known as Silver Beach, in the bay which Cook initially called Stingrays Harbour. His log for 6 May 1770 records: “The great quantity of these sort of fish found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Stingrays Harbour”.

A later imaginative reconstruction of the landing at Stingrays Harbour (Botany Bay) by Cook, Smith, and others from the HMS Endeavour

However, in the journal prepared later from his log, Cook wrote instead: “The great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Botanist Botany Bay”. [In the transcriptions from his journal, words which lines through them have been crossed out by Cook and others put in their place. It’s a rough piece of work.]

Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were two of the three scientists who traveled on the Endeavour (the other was Herman Spöring), along with two artists and four of Banks’ servants. The scientists were to undertake scientific investigations at each place visited, the artists were to record the vistas encountered. The servants, of course, were to attend to the daily needs of these gentlemen.

Daniel Solander, John Montagu (4th Earl of Sandwich), James Cook, and John Hawkesworth, depicted in a 1771 painting by John Hamilton Mortimer.

Cape Solander Lookout (near modern-day Kurnell on the southern head of Botany Bay) and Cape Banks (the northern headland at the entry to Botany Bay) recall their roles in that expedition. And various Sydney suburbs also commemorate Joseph Banks: Banksia, Bankstown and Banksmeadow. Spöring has a statue honouring him in Sydney (although no location is named after him.) We have not forgotten these scientists.

James Cook, of course, is well-commemorated, both in eastern Australia (Cook’s River and James Cook Boys’ Technology High School in NSW, the suburb of Cook in the ACT, James Cook University and Cooktown in Queensland) as well as internationally (the Cook Islands, the Cook Strait which separates the two islands of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the Cook Inlet in Alaska—Cook visited there in 1778). He even has a whole dedicated Wikipedia page listing all the ways his name is remembered! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_places_named_after_Captain_James_Cook)

And what of Isaac Smith? With a surname like that, the possibility of being remembered in such commemorations is low. Smith was apparently a cousin of Cook’s wife, Elizabeth. He sailed on two of the three expeditions that Cook undertook to the South Sea Islands, as they were then called. And he was promoted to captain of the frigate HMS Perseverance, before retiring (and being promoted to the supernumerary position of Rear Admiral).

In his retirement, Smith shared a house for some time with Cook’s widow, his cousin, Elizabeth. It appears that he never married. In his will he had instructed that a sum of £700 was to be left to the church of St Mary the Virgin in Merton, the interest from which was to support the poor of the parish. A memorial to Smith, originally financed by Elizabeth Cook, stands in the church grounds. His assistance to the poor is testimony enough to his life.

(I found this information also on Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Smith_(Royal_Navy_officer))

*****

Botany Bay, 1788 watercolour by Charles Gore

But for me, the larger question relates to the ways in which we remember (or obliterate) the people who had already lived for millennia on the land on which Smith, Banks, Solander, Cook, and others set foot on, just 250 years ago. The land adjacent to Botany Bay was settled for many thousands of years by the Tharawal and Eora people, and the various clan groups within those nations.

What names did they use to describe this bay? Some suggest it may have been Ka-may. By what names did they refer to the south and north headlands of this bay? I have seen indications of Bunnabi for the north head. And Kurnell itself could have been known as Bunna Bunna.

(See the Australian Museum’s “Place names chart” at https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/cultures/atsi-collection/sydney/place-names-chart/)

Just a few days before setting foot on Terra Australis, on 23 April, Cook had made his first recorded direct observation of indigenous Australia. When they were near Bush Island off Bawley Point (halfway between the townships now known as Bateman’s Bay and Ulladulla), Cook had written in his journal, “[we] were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear’d to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not.”

It is striking that the first observation made by a white man about the indigenous people relates to the colour of their skin. That colour difference has fuelled so much tension, aggression, misunderstanding, fear, and hatred, and, sadly, caused far too many deaths.

(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/)

Archaeological evidence from the shores of Botany Bay has yielded evidence of indigenous settlement which can be dated to 5,000 years ago. But the stories of the people reach back countless millennia; the stories they tell are timeless. Evidence from other parts of the continent points to indigenous occupation for 40,000, 60,000, even 75,000 years or more.

During the days that his ship was moored in Ka-may (Botany Bay), Cook had various interactions with the Eora people and made many observations about them. Again and again, Cook demonstrates the essence of the colonial mindset; inevitably, he judged what he saw entirely in terms of the customs and practices of Georgian England.

On 28 April, Cook recounted as follows: “At this time we saw several people a shore four of whome where carrying a small boat or Canoe which we imagined they were going to but into the water in order to come off to us but in this we were mistaken.”

So Cook set out with Banks and Solander, and Tupaia, a Polynesian man whom Banks had convinced to come with them on this journey as a navigator. Cook had met Tupaia in July 1769, on the island of Ra’iatea, in the group we know today as the Society Islands. Sadly, Tupaia would later die en route to England, in December 1770 from a shipborne illness contracted when Endeavour was docked in Batavia. The ship was being repaired in order to be fit the return journey to England.

Cook’s journal continues, “we put off in the yawl and pull’d in for the land to a place where we saw four or five of the natives who took to the woods as we approachd the Shore which disapointed us in our the expectation we had of getting a near view of them if not to speak to them but our disapointment was heighten’d when we found that we no where could effect a landing by reason of the great surff which beat every where upon the shore.”

The aborted attempt to make landfall was not in vain, however, as Cook then writes, “we saw hauld up upon the beach 3 or 4 small Canoes which to us appear’d not much unlike the small ones of New Zeland, in the woods were several trees of the Palm kind and no under wood and this was all we were able to observe of the country from the boat after which we returnd to the Ship about 5 in the evening.”

On the day they eventually made landfall, at the place he dubbed Stingrays Bay, Sunday 29 April, Cook provided further observations: “Sunday 29th In the PM winds southerly and clear weather with which we stood into the bay and Anchor’d under the South shore about 2 Mile within the entrence in 6 fathoms water, the south point bearing SE and the north point East. Saw as we came in on both points of the bay Several of the natives and a few hutts.”

Contact was then made: “[We saw] men women and children on the south shore abreast of the Ship to which place I went in the boats in hopes of speaking with them accompaned by Mr Banks Dr Solander and Tupia – as we approached the shore they all made off except two Men who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing – as soon as I saw this I orderd the boats to lay upon their oars in order to speake to them but this was to little purpose for neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said.”

He continues, “we then threw them some nails beeds & came ashore which they took up and seem’d not ill pleased with in so much that I thout that they beckon’d to us to come ashore but in this we were mistaken for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us upon which I fired a musket between the two which had no other effect than to make them retire back where bundles of thier darts lay and one of them took up a stone and threw at us which caused my fireing a second Musquet load with small shott and altho’ some of the shott struck the man yet it had no other effect than to make him lay hold of a Shield or target to defend himself.”

Thus was set the pattern for multiple engagements between the British and the indigenous peoples—engagements usually marked by suspicion, and always skewed by the superior power held by the British, with their muskets.

An unknown artist’s impression, dated 1872,
of Cook’s landing and initial contact with the Indigenous people.
The conflicted nature of the relationship is evident
from this imaginative reconstruction,
no doubt shaped by the century of relationships
that stood in between the event and the artwork.

And then, Cook described their response to the musket fire: “emmediatly [sic] after this we landed which we had no sooner done than they throw’d two darts at us this obliged me to fire a third shott soon after which they both made off, but not in such haste but what we might have taken one, but Mr Banks being of opinion that the darts were poisoned made me cautious how I advanced into the woods.”

There would be no genial getting to know each other, no opportunity for cautious enquiry and polite interaction. Suspicion, and judgemental assessment, was in play from the start. The pattern set from this encounter, in the assessment made by Banks and the musket shots fired at the indigenous people by Cook’s soldiers, was a tragic dynamic which would play out again and again, for centuries to come.

Cook continues, “We found here a few Small hutts made of the bark of trees in one of which were four or five small children with whome we left some strings of beeds etc a quantity of darts lay about the hutts these we took away with us – three Canoes lay upon the bea[c]h the worst I think I ever saw   they were about 10 12 or 14 feet long made of one peice of the bark of a tree drawn or tied up at each end and the middle kept open by means of peices of sticks by way of Thwarts.”

The worst I think I ever saw”. Objective description and subjective evaluation and criticism were mixed together; Cook, like many others after him, was unable simply to look, listen, and learn about what was valued for the indigenous peoples. He had to assess in terms of his own criteria and his own perspective, here, and always.

The colonial mindset always saw its own worldview as the norm, and others patterns as inadequate. And what he saw this day, he believed, fell short of his standards—even if it had served the indigenous people perfectly well for thousands and thousands of years.

As a curious postscript to this part of the voyage, those days at Ka-may (Botany Bay) are remembered in another way. An artefact collected during Cook’s time here in 1770 is the bark shield of the local indigenous peoples, now known as the Gweagal Shield. It is a rare instance of such an item.

Rodney Kelly, a Dharawal and Yuin man
from the south coast of New South Wales,
holds the Gweagal Shield
at the British Museum
in London.

The shield is currently (and controversially) held by the British Museum; that itself perpetuates the inherent colonial element, as the British laid claim to the shield and simply took it from those who had valued and utilised it. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-11/british-museum-battle-for-stolen-indigenous-gweagal-shield/11085534

For more thoughts on indigenous history, see my previous blogs at:

On the Day of Mourning, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

On Arthur Philip, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/endeavour-by-every-possible-means-to-conciliate-their-affections/

On James Cook, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/we-never-saw-one-inch-of-cultivated-land-in-the-whole-country/

On William Dampier, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/they-stood-like-statues-without-motion-but-grinnd-like-so-many-monkies/

On recent books, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/24/resembling-the-park-lands-of-a-gentlemans-residence-in-england/

On Cook and Flinders, https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

On Cook and the Yuin people, 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/

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“They appear’d to be of a very dark or black colour”. Cook, HMS Endeavour, and the Yuin people and country.

On this day, 250 years ago, as the HMS Endeavour sailed up the east coast of Terra Australis Incognita, the captain of the ship, Lieutenant James Cook, wrote a significant comment in his journal. Cook was looking out across the sea to the land on which the sailors were yet to set foot—the land on which indigenous inhabitants had lived, slept, married, grown crops, caught fish, died and were buried, for centuries—for millennia. He described some people whom he saw on the land he was observing.

Cook had given a description of the land, itself, which he was able to observe from on board his ship. On 20 April, he wrote in his journal: “The weather being clear gave us an oppertunity to View the Country which had a very agreeable and promising Aspect the land is of moderate height diversified with hills, ridges, planes and Vallies with some few small lawns, but for the most part the whole was cover’d with wood, the hills and ridges rise with a gentle slope, they are not high neither are there many off them.”

[Cook’s journaling was strikingly absent of punctuation—we take it as it is, and make sense of it as we will.]

And he had also described some of the animal and bird life he was able to observe. On 18 April, he wrote, “Last night we saw a Port Egmont Hen and this morning two more, a Pintado bird several Albetrosses and black sheer-waters. The first of these birds are certain signs of the nearness of land.”

But on 23 April, he made comments specifically about the people that he was able to see on that land. He wrote, “after this we steerd along shore NNE having a gentle breeze at SW and were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear’d to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not.”

It would be almost another week before anyone from his ship actually set foot on the land that they had been sailing next to for some days. On Sunday 29 April, 1770, one of the sailors on board the HMS Endeavour, Isaac Smith, stepped off the ship and onto land beside what we now know as Botany Bay. Smith was the first British person to stand on the land of the east coast of the continent that we know now as Australia. (William Dampier, a British sailor of an earlier generation, had made landfall on the west of the continent back in 1688).

The relationships between the white explorers and the dark indigenous inhabitants would build and grow and become complex, over time—and be marked by numerous occasions of great tragedy, violence, misunderstanding, and sadness. For the moment, at this first sighting, Cook simply observes and describes.

We know the place where Smith and others made landfall as Kurnell, of Botany Bay, in New South Wales, on the continent Australia. What was it called by the indigenous inhabitants at the time when Smith, Cook, and other crew members from the HMS Endeavour, set foot there?

One hypothesis is that the name Kurnell derives from a Dharug word, variously transcribed as cunthal, kundle, or koondool, perhaps meaning “place of or where the wild carrot grows”. This was the suggestion made by W. Wentworth Bucknell, Honorary Secretary of the Royal Anthropological Society, in a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 December 1912 (see https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/15381124)

An alternative explanation is that it is a corruption of the surname of John Connell, who was granted land in the area in 1821. We cannot be certain about the precise of origin of this place’s name.

The issue of place names is a significant one. The indigenous inhabitants knew their country; their relationship with the land was, quite clearly, enmeshed with their culture, spirituality, lifestyle, and sense of identity. When white explorers sailed into their territory—and then, later on, when white settlers invaded and colonised the land, subdued and massacred the people, and established their own patterns of farming and living on the land of these indigenous inhabitants—they provided their own names, from their own culture.

Whilst many place names today can claim Aboriginal origins, still the vast majority of our places, suburbs, streets, and geographical features, bear names from the British (or Irish, or German, in some instances) who invaded, settled, and dominated the land. (The process of bestowing names goes by the term toponymy, from the two Greek terms topos, place, and onoma, name.)

Cook’s own journal provides numerous instances of his naming features that he observed from his ship, and bestowing British names on what he saw. On 19 April he called one location Point Hicks. This was the first land on mainland Australia which Cook sighted, and named.

It is said that Cook’s practice was to reward the first person to sight land with a gallon of rum, plus the distinction of having a place named after him. On this occasion, the prize fell to Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, who called out “Land ho” when he saw “land making high” in the hinterland of Australia’s south coast.

The traditional custodians of the land surrounding Point Hicks are the Bidhawal and Gunaikurnai peoples, who called the point Tolywiarar. That name is lost, now, in modern Australian toponymy.

The next day, 20 April, Cook’s journal records his comments about a place that he named Cape Howe, in honour of Admiral Earl Howe, the Treasurer of the British Navy at that time. I haven’t been able to find any reference to the indigenous name for this location. [My googling skills obviously leave something to be desired.]

On the following days, Cook noted and named many places along the south coast: Mount Dromedary and Cape Dromedary on 21 April, Batemans Bay and Pigeonhouse Mountain on 22 April, Cape St George, named for the day it was first sighted by Cook, on 23 April, and Long Nose Bay and Red Point on 25 April.

Gulaga is the place of ancestral origin within the culture and stories of the Yuin people, whose land encompasses the south coast of NSW, from Cape Howe to the Shoalhaven River. Gulaga is a large mountain inland from the current village of Tilba Tilba (between Narooma and Bermagui). In Yuin story-telling, holds particular significance for the Yuin people. The mountain and surrounding area is seen as a place of cultural origin. The mountain is regarded as a symbolic mother-figure providing the basis for the people’s spiritual identity.

In May 2006 the Gulaga National Park, incorporating the former Wallaga Lake National Park, was handed back to its traditional Aboriginal owners, the Yuin people, in a historic agreement signed by the NSW Government and the Yuin people. Gulaga, of course, was the mountain which Cook named as Mount Dromedary, as its figure reminded him of the hump of a camel.

In his journal for 22 April, Cook wrote: “At 6 o’clock we were abreast of a pretty high mountain laying near the shore which on account of its figure I named Mount Dromedary Latde 36°..18′ & Longde 209°..55′ Wt / The shore under the foot of this Mountain forms a point which I have named Cape Dromedary over which is a peaked hillick.“

The traditional custodians of the land surrounding Batemans Bay are the Walbunja clan of the Yuin people. The traditional language spoken by the Walbunja people is Dhurga. A number of sites in the region are considered culturally significant to the Aboriginal peoples.

On 22 April 1770, Cook first sighted this bay; he immediately gave it a British name. Cook gave no reason for the name, which may commemorate either Nathaniel Bateman, the captain of HMS Northumberland when Cook was serving as her master (1760-62), or John Bateman, 2nd Viscount Bateman, a former Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty in the 1750s.

Further south, there are a number of locations which are considered to be significant sites for the Yuin people: Umbarra (Merriman Island), Barungba (Montague Island), and Dithol (Pigeon House Mountain).

Pigeonhouse Mountain was first seen by Cook at 7 a.m. on 21 April, 1770. Cook later noted in his journal, “The land near the Sea coast still continues of a moderate hieght forming alternatly rocky points and Sandy beaches, but inland between Mount Dromedary and the Pigeon house are several pretty high Mountains two only of which we saw but what were coverd with trees and these lay inland behind near to the Pigeon house and are remarkably flat atop with steep rocky clifts all round them as far as we could see – the trees in this Country hath all the appearence of being stout and lofty.”

The Aboriginal name for the mountain is Didthul, Didhol, or Dithol, which means “woman’s breast”, on account of the distinctive shape of the mountain.

Cape St George was named for the day it was discovered—St George being the patron saint of England whose saints day is 23 April. On 24 April his journal includes the comments, “A point of land which I named Cape St George we having discover’d it on that Saints day, bore West distant 19 Miles and the Pigeon house So 75° West, the Latitude and Longitude of which I found to be 35°..19′ S and 209° 42′ West.” I have not been able to find any reference to the indigenous name for the area.

The next day, Cook recorded, “About 2 leagues to the northward of Cape St George the Shore seems to form a bay which appeard to be shelterd from the NE winds but as we had the wind it was not in my power to look into it… The north point of this bay on account of its figure I named Long Nose, Latitude 35 degrees 4 minutes S.3.” Long Nose Bay is obviously named for its appearance. Again, I can’t see any indication of what the indigenous name for this place was.

There are other names in the localities which Cook was observing, which today bear names derived from the local indigenous language. In what follows, I am drawing from the notes provided by the NSW Government Geographic Names Board (see https://www.gnb.nsw.gov.au/place_naming/place_name_search) as well as various local history or tourism sites, which provide insight into local understandings of the origins of the names of these places.

The list below traces indigenous names in existence today from Batemans Bay south to Eden, retracing in reverse the path of Cook’s 1770 voyage. (I have focussed on this region because it is the area of the South Coast which falls within the Presbytery in which I am currently ministering, the Canberra Region Presbytery.)

Eurobodalla is said to be named from an Aboriginal word meaning “small haven for boats” or “land between waters”. Several meanings have been put forward for the name Bodalla, including “Boat Alley”, “tossing a child up in the arms”, “haven for boats” and “several waters”.

The name Moruya is said to be derived from an Aboriginal word, (phonetically) mherroyah, meaning “home of the black swan”. Black swans can still be seen in the lakes and rivers around Moruya, and the black swan is used locally as an emblem.

In Narooma, the story is that this name comes from an Aboriginal word for ‘clear, blue water’. It was to become the name of the area after Francis Hunt sold his property known as “Wagonga” in 1839 to Thomas Forster who renamed it Noorooma. Yuin Elder Gubbo Ted Thomas advises, however, that Noorawa is the Yuin word for the bubble yellow seaweed that grows in the inlet.

Bermagui is derived from a word in the Dyirringany language (a language group within the Yuin nation), permageua, possibly meaning ‘canoe with paddles’. Tilba Tilba is the original name of the district, and is said to be a word from Tharwa (another language group within the Yuin nation) meaning “many waters”. Cobargo may have originated from a Yuin word, cubago, which some sources claim was used to describe the nearby mountain, Gulaga. Quaama is a Yuin word meaning “shallow waters”.

One claim is that the name Bega is derived from a Yuin word meaning “big camping ground”. Another claim is that it is a corruption of the word bika, meaning “beautiful”. Just outside Bega, there is a village called Tarraganda. The story locally is that a man named Joshua Higgs claims to be the one who named Tarraganda. Many years ago, Higgs told W F Braine of the Bega Gazette that “we asked the blacks what they called the spot and, in their quick way, they said what I took to be Tarraganda”. It is said to mean “a string of waterholes”.

There is considerable debate about the Aboriginal (presumably Yuin) meaning of Merimbula. Some sources claim it means “big snake”. Others claim the word means “place of two waters or lakes”. The name Pambula is derived from a Dharwa word panboola, meaning “twin waters”.

It is good that we have many names that honour the names given to these places by the indigenous peoples, who for so long have cared for these lands. It is also good that we can delve below the British names in at least some locations, to recover and recall the indigenous names for these places.

There’s lots of detail about Cook, the Endeavour, and his voyages, at https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home

For information about Yuin country, see https://livingknowledge.anu.edu.au/learningsites/kooricoast/05_map.htm

https://aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/south-coast-new-south-wales

https://earthtreasurevase.org/2018/10/south-east-coast-yuin-country-australia/

http://bermaguihistoricalsociety.org.au/djiringanj-yuin-nation/

For more thoughts on indigenous history, see my previous blogs at:

On the Day of Mourning, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

On Arthur Philip, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/endeavour-by-every-possible-means-to-conciliate-their-affections/

On James Cook, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/we-never-saw-one-inch-of-cultivated-land-in-the-whole-country/

On William Dampier, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/they-stood-like-statues-without-motion-but-grinnd-like-so-many-monkies/

On recent books, https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/24/resembling-the-park-lands-of-a-gentlemans-residence-in-england/

On Cook and Flinders, https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/

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It’s been just over a month—but there have been lots of learnings!

It’s been just over a month since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 1.5 metres between individuals, no more than two people at an outdoor gathering, no more than five people at a wedding, no more than ten people (including the minister) at a funeral, and certainly no gathering together as a congregation for worship, whether that be as twelve people, or 45 people, or 200 people in one church building.

There is no doubt that this will be an extended period while we need distancing and isolating. There will be weeks, even months, ahead of us in the same mode. We will have plenty of time to reflect on our situation, and to look forward to the time when restrictions are eased and regathering becomes possible.

But a month, give or take, is a good time to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? I want to offer some reflections from my own perspective. Here are a handful of things that I have learnt.

1 Relationships are critical.

Human beings are relational creatures. We like to, and need to, relate to other people. Spending far more time in our own homes, and far less time at work or at school, in social outings and family gatherings, is proving to be a challenge.

Social distancing and self isolation are essential to ensure that we minimise, as much as possible, the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But they are challenging to the very core of our being, as humans. Social engagement and interpersonal connections are what we need, and value, in our lives. We need one another. Relationships are critical.

2 Worship is important.

For people of faith, gathering together each Sunday (usually in the morning) is seen as the centre of what it is to be church. Worship is important, but conversation and connection is more important. My home congregation gathers-apart each Sunday, meeting up online via ZOOM, and people are clear that they appreciate the work of our minister (my wife, Elizabeth) each Sunday, in leading prayers, curating musical items, and offering reflections on scripture. Worship is important.

But the group “comes alive” in two moments: at the start, when people recognise others from the Congregation as they join the gathering, and see the faces of their friends appear on the screen; and after worship, during the virtual morning tea, when the conversations really flow. This is where the energy of the group coalesces and builds. Indeed, some congregations have pre-recorded worship which they then follow with live morning tea times, so people can interact over a cuppa. Connection is incredibly important.

3 Good communication is desirable.

We rely on good communication in everyday life. But how good it is depends on the ability to read subtle signs, to see body language and micro signals, to have conversations that ebb and flow in a natural rhythm, like breathing. Online communication diminishes our capacity for subtle communication. It is a blunt instrument.

Being able to see each other on the screen and talk with each other across the ether is very good—but it lacks some critical elements. We can rejoice that we live in an age when we can communicate online across vast distances. Nevertheless we need to recognise how that medium shapes our communications and inhibits deep connection with, and understanding of, one another.

Perhaps we can take this learning on into the post-COVID 19 situation and allow it to inform how we communicate with and relate to others? We need up-close, person-to-person engagement, for good, effective communication to occur.

4 Creativity can flourish under pressure.

I have watched in awe as my various ministerial colleagues have demonstrated great creativity, offering their preaching and praying gifts in new ways. I have read imaginative poems, heard engaging sermons, entered into deep prayer, watched striking short videos, and appreciated the fine photos that have been offered by ministers and pastors, lay preachers and other lay worship leaders, as they nurture their people by creative ways in worship.

Humans are innately creative beings, and creativity can flourish, even (perhaps especially) in pressured situations. Let us hope that this creativity can continue and indeed flourish into the future time, when gathering-together once again will be possible.

5 New skills can be acquired rapidly.

Given the will (and perhaps also the need) to learn new skills, people are capable of fast tracking the process and acquiring new skills very quickly. I have now been told of so many people of mature—very mature—ages, who have taken the challenge, downloaded ZOOM, learnt how to enter a ZOOM meeting, start their video camera, and mute and unmute their speakers—all skills that they never envisaged they could do, just a month or two ago!

What might our churches look like, if we learnt from this? If we took on the challenge to reshape our worship, start fresh expressions of church, adopt new patterns of gathering and sharing and deepening our faith? How might the current experience of individuals learning new skills provide a template for communities setting out on experimental or pioneering pathways? It’s an exciting prospect!

6 Patience is paramount.

In a stay-at-home situation, this is the case; even in a regular situation where we come and go each and every day, patience is at a premium. People who live by themselves are learning a new level of patience, as they wait for fleeting encounters with other people at their front doors, or on the phone, or on the screen.

People who live in families with energetic bundles of energy (children) on hand 24/7 are learning another level of patience, as they isolate together as a family and attempt to conduct the business required to draw a wage and feed a family, even whilst supervising learning-at-home programs. Patience is paramount, in these, and in every, situation that people find themselves at this time.

7 We are well off.

Yes, we are very well off. Indeed, we are very, very, very well off! The great toilet paper panic was an ugly and unsightly episode, but it illustrates how privileged we actually are. At least we have toilet paper to use. Many people don’t. The constant injunctions to wash our hands are important. But we have water on tap (literally) to wash our hands with. Many, many people don’t.

And we have space, the space in our houses and the space on our streets, to practice social distancing. Many, many, many people do not have such space; they live in crowded homes, in overcrowded city areas, where keeping appropriate distance is just not possible. By comparison, it is clear: we are well off.

8 Science is invaluable.

The advances in scientific understanding in recent centuries have enabled us to understand how pandemics (what used to be called plagues) spread. Microbiologists and infectious disease specialists are able to harness their specialised understandings and insights for the benefit of the common good. Medical researchers are able to focus on possible drug treatments, conduct experiments, and produce guidance as to what will assist, and what will not help, as we seek to minimise the spread of the virus.

Science and medicine reporters are doing a fabulous job on the media, providing us with technical insights into how diseases work and how our bodies respond, breaking this information down into understandable bites of information, assuring us of the steps that are being taken to find the vaccine for this virus. We can be grateful for scientific and medical insights.

9 Faith provides a bedrock foundation.

When living in troubled, challenging times, people have regularly turned to some form of faith, for comfort and assurance. We have seen that throughout history. Perhaps that may be happening, these days, when we see the upsurge of interest that has been experienced by churches offering online worship. Many report large “attendances” at online worship, larger than the in person gatherings of past months. It may be too early to tell—but could it be that people are turning to spiritual resources in this time of need?

Certainly, people of faith are active and to the fore, in regular times and now in this unusual time, in ensuring that the vulnerable people in our society are given care and support in these challenging times. I know of many people of faith who are making extra phone calls and offering a compassionate listening ear to people in need.

I know of other people of faith who make home deliveries of food packages to elderly people, or who are staffing food banks operating out of church facilities. Protocols about social distancing are being observed, and needy people are being supported. Looking to the material needs of people in society is important. And in this regard, we clearly see that faith in action undergirds our society. So many people of faith are involved in these kinds of projects. This demonstrates how true religion is (as James writes), “to care for orphans and widows in their distress”.

That’s what I have learnt, this far into the process of social distancing and self isolating. What do you reckon? What are your key learnings?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

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Liberating Life: a new way of being. Easter Sunday Reflections

Every Easter Sunday, Christian people greet each other with “The Lord is risen: He is risen indeed!”. And throughout the year, we repeat the central affirmation, that “God raised Jesus from the dead”. The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is central to our faith. According to Luke, this was central in the preaching of the apostles (Acts 2:24,32, 3:15,26, 4:10, 5:30, 10:40, 13:30,37). It is repeated in the letters by or attributed to Paul on a number of occasions (Rom 7:4, 10:9; 1 Cor 6:14, 15:15; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:20; see also 1 Pet 1:21).

The resurrection is regarded as the pointer to a new form of life, a liberating life, lived in the transformed state of resurrected being, which was first experienced by Jesus, and which is then promised to all believers. This promise is a liberating promise. The life of resurrection is a liberating life. Claims about the resurrection also bring points of contention and discussion within contemporary Christian thinking.

Contemporary debate has canvassed a number of options as to the nature of the resurrection: Must it be in a bodily form? Was Jesus raised ‘in the memory of his followers’, but not as a physical body? Is resurrection a pointer to a transcendent spiritual dimension? What was meant by the reference to an “immortal state” in 1 Cor 15:53-54?

Some believers aggressively promote the claim that we must believe in the boldly resurrection of Jesus, that we must adhere to a literal understanding of what the biblical texts report. I prefer to advocate for ways of responding to the story which are creative, imaginative, expanding our understandings and drawing us out of our comfort zones into new explorations in our lives.

The resurrection is not directed away from this world, into a heavenly or spiritual realm. The resurrection offers us both an invitation to affirm our bodily existence in this world, and to explore fresh ways of renewal and recreation in our lives, in our society. It is about liberating life for renewal in our own time and place, here in this world.

It is the apostle Paul who, most of all in the New Testament, provides evidence for the way that early believers began to think about the central aspects of the Easter story—death on the cross, newness in the risen life (Rom 6:3-4:23, 8:6,13; 1 Cor 15:21-23; 2 Cor 4:8-12; Phil 2:5-11, 3:10-11). Paul probably did not begin such ideas; indeed, in both arenas, there are clear Jewish precedents.

The sacrificial understanding of the death of Jesus draws heavily from the Jewish sacrificial cult (Heb 2:17, 7:23-28, 9:11-14). The notion of resurrection was developed first by the Pharisees, a teaching group within the Judaism of the time (Acts 23:8). From these bases, it is Paul who most clearly and most often articulates and develops these central ideas in his writings as we have them in scripture.

These ideas sit at the heart of what traditional Christianity has regarded as its distinctive theological understanding: that God became human, suffered for us, died for us, and was raised to inaugurate the new way of being that will characterise the kingdom of God. This expression of belief comes to form the core of the emerging doctrinal self-understanding of early Christianity, into the following centuries of theological debate. It is the whole life—death—resurrection of Jesus that forms this central doctrinal core.

A further observation regarding the theological significance of Easter is the way that the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus forms the end point—indeed, the climactic moment—of the story of his life, as it is reported in all four canonical Gospels. There were about 50 Gospels written in the early centuries of Christianity, and most of them do not lead to this dramatic conclusion.

The fact that the four Gospels which were chosen for inclusion in the canon of Scripture each end with the passion and resurrection narrative, indicates the way that this part of the story of Jesus came to have a central and defining purpose in the development of Christian doctrine. “Jesus, crucified and risen” became the centerpiece of Christian theology. That is at the heart of the Easter story. That is at the centre of Christian faith. And that comes clearly into focus in this current Easter season.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

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Liminal Space: waiting and not knowing. Holy Saturday Reflections

This Easter, it is Holy Saturday that holds the key.

This week, we have travelled through Holy Week; the final part of Lent, a 40-day period of preparation leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of faith.

This year, however, will be different. In the middle of a viral pandemic, with restrictions prohibiting gathering for worship, people of faith will be walking through Holy Week in their own homes, not in gatherings at church. We are not able to gather together. This year, we are gathering-apart. All the familiar patterns are changed. All the comforting rituals are altered. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/)

For that reason, this year I have been thinking much more about Holy Saturday, which is also known as Easter Eve. This day is a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, remembering the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, his burial in the tomb, and the grief of his followers. It is a time of looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge beyond those events.

In my thinking this year, Holy Saturday is the day for our current season. Services for people of faith to gather together on this day are rare; people do not expect to “go to church” on this day, even if they go on Friday or Sunday. But this year, this day takes on deeper significance. It speaks to our situation in a more compelling way.

Last year, I offered a service of reflection and prayer on Holy Saturday—and a small group of people attended, sat in silence, offered prayers for the congregation and the world, and experienced the eerie in-between, liminal, nature of this day.

Jesus, by tradition, had been laid in the tomb; on this day, according to one letter in the New Testament, he descended into Hades and “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). It is a time when there is no apparent activity evident on earth—but in the tradition, there is something significant happening “underground”.

On Holy Saturday, the tradition offers us a moment to pass, and reflect, and wonder: in this time of grief and abandonment, how is God still at work? How is faith still being made evident?

Back amongst the followers of Jesus, there was fear and grief. Jesus had been crucified and buried. He was no longer their leader. They had been left alone, suddenly, dramatically. What they had come to know and value as their normal and regular life together, had been interrupted, turned upside down.

The Gospels give us clear indications of this distress. If we enter into the stories that are offered by the evangelists, we might begin to imagine how the disciples were feeling.

On the road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus lament that their hopes were shattered (Luke 24:21). They are completely unaware of the identity of the stranger who walks with them; they are caught in their own hopelessness.

In a room in Jerusalem, followers gather behind closed doors, their fears intensified by events (John 20:19). They are not connected in any way with the news that had begun to percolate through the city. They are behind locked doors, because their fear was dominating their every thought, their every move.

Some days earlier, Thomas had uttered prophetic words, before the critical events had occurred, when he cried, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). That speaks for how the disciples were feeling, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. That speaks also for us, in our current situation.

Could this sense of fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness, be a point or connection with the story, for us for this current time? In this time of global pandemic, we are in a period of waiting, not knowing, a time of deepened fear and broken hopes. We look around and see that things are so, so different now. We are afraid for what will happen next. We do not know what is sure and certain, what is transient and passing. Life has suddenly looked so different.

Like the disciples, on that first Sabbath day after the death of Jesus, we do not know where we are going; we do not know where this global pandemic will end up. We do not know the ending—unlike the disciples after they encountered the risen Jesus, or the evangelists when they wrote their Gospels, or preachers through the centuries, who have been able to craft their sermons so that they point, inevitably, to the Good News that resolves the tension.

Like Thomas, we do not know where this is going. Like the two on the road to Emmaus, our hopes have been shattered. Like the group gathered behind locked doors, we are caught in the grip of fear. We do not know the ending.

We can have hope; we can pray, seek solace, look for comfort. But we do not know. We just do not know. And that is a very scary place to be.

Holy Saturday is where we are now, in society, in families, in the church, in our homes. Waiting with uncertainty; living with a different pattern; looking forward, hope against hope, to a different future. We are with the disciples, separated from the one they had given their all to follow, wondering what the next step might be.

The Christian festival of Holy Week moves on, beyond this day. It reaches its climax on Easter Day with celebration marking Jesus conquering death. “The Lord is risen: he is risen, indeed!” is the greeting we exchange on Easter Sunday.

The traditional Easter affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. This leads into an expression of joy, an Easter assertion, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.

For the next period of time, the Church is in a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues.

For us, and for all in society at this moment of pandemic, the time for that celebratory affirmation will come. But it will not come quickly. It will not come on the third day. It will not even come after the third month. It will require months of social isolation, before we can step out into that time of social reconnection and the resumption of a life together for society.

But until that time, we remain, sitting, isolated, uncertain, in our own Holy Saturday. Let us not run from that experience. Let us allow this time to deepen our faith and strengthen our discipleship, as we sit, silently, waiting, lamenting, praying.

Peter Lockhart offers this reflection on sitting in the silence: https://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-silence-of-god.html

Sarah Agnew has written this prayer for Holy Saturday: https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/04/a-prayer-for-holy-saturday.html

N.T. Wright offers this insight into the significance of lament in Christian tradition: https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/

Other blogs for this Easter:

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

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Sacrificial Death: to give his life. Good Friday Reflections

On Good Friday each year, we remember the death of Jesus. This event is interpreted as a fundamental theological event of significance for all Christian believers. “Christ died for us” is a key phrase found in a number of letters by Paul (Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; 1 Thess 5:10). This affirmation forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology—understanding the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers.

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

Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. Certainly, dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected.

In my mind, there are a number of points at which the kind of statement about the death of Jesus that I noted above, narrows the understanding of faith too much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

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It was on that night that everything came to a head. Maundy Thursday Reflections.

This reflection is set in the first century. The voice is that of person who was raised in the Jewish faith and who became a committed follower of Jesus. Seven candles may be lit and then extinguished one by one as the reflection proceeds.

 

Gathering

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

A gathering of friends and family;
a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,
some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;
but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

Yet it began in celebration.

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

So we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who have chosen us and made us holy.
Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine.
Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

 

SEVEN CANDLES MAY BE LIT

 

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

But first, we recall the story …
the story we remember each year on this night.

Recalling the Passover Meal

 We remember the way that God saves his people:
The lamb, the herbs, the bread without leaven;
The lamb, the blood, the Passover of God.

And we follow the instructions given to the priests:
“On the tenth of this month, the people are to take
a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.” [Exod 12:3]

THE FIRST CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

It began in celebration.
For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries,
on this very night, we would gather, joined as family,
to remember, to rejoice, to recall the great stories.

But as the meal progressed, the mood began to shift.
One by one, those gathered together began to look back,
to ponder what they had been a part of…
for the joy of recent times had a shadow side, a menacing feel.

THE SECOND CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Just a few days before the meal, they entered the city,
coming for the festival, riding on a donkey;
crowds were gathered to cheer him on,
singing psalms and waving palms.

Hopes were high that indeed he was the one—
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

But days later, as the palms still lay strewn beside the road,
the signs were ominous.
Is this the one to redeem the people?
Silence, and fear, as the tensions rose … …

On that night, we remembered the festival of the Lord,
as we have remembered it throughout the centuries.

On the table, in the centre: the matzah bread.
“Our ancestors ate this bread in the land of Egypt.
All who are hungry, come in and eat! come and celebrate Passover!”

On the table, beside the matzah bread, were the cups for the wine.
Four cups: cups of judgement, a reminder of God’s punishments.
But the same four cups are also cups of celebration.
Reminders of the gracious saving actions of God.

So the table was set, with bread and wine,
for this festival of the Lord, the celebration of Passover.

We met around the table; a family extended,
with brothers and sisters, children and friends;
aunts … uncles … cousins … disciples;
a cacophony of colleagues, family and followers.

As we met around the table, we joined ourvoices,
with a psalm of celebration; a psalm of hallelujah.

What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
[Psalm 116]

THE THIRD CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Recalling the Passover of the Lord

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

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

And so, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine.

Then he took the wine, as they had always taken the wine;
and lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.
“May the one who blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
May the one who blessed our mothers,
Bless this house, this table, and all assembled here;
And so may our loved ones share our blessing.”

And when he had given thanks,
he gave it to them, saying: “Drink this, all of you”;
and then he spoke of the fruit of the vine, of the kingdom of God.

THE FOURTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

We praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

So he took the bread, as they had always taken the bread;
And lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.

Then the shank of lamb for the Passover, in the centre of the table:
“It is the sacrifice of the Passover of the Lord, for he passed over
the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt”.          
        [Exod 12:27]

And then, the herbs of bitterness;
“for their lives were bitter, with hard labour,
and mortar, and brick, and work in the fields.
All the labour which the Egyptians had forced upon them was harsh.”      [Exod 1:14]

And when he had given thanks for the bread,
he broke it, and he gave it to them,
speaking words which bled from familiar, to disturbing:
“Take this, and eat it; this bread of the Lord, manna from heaven;
take, and eat. This is my body, given for you.
Eat this in the remembrance of me.”      So they ate.

THE FIFTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED     A period of silence is kept

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve,
went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.
When they heard it, they were greatly pleased,
and promised to give him money.
So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.        [Mark 14]

The bitter moment of betrayal. Can it ever be retrieved?

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

And tonight, this year, as in every year, we remember.

THE SIXTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Recalling the Final Supper

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD’s death until he comes. [1 Cor 11]

THE SEVENTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

A period of silence is kept

It was on that night that everything came to a head;
and the shadows gathered, looming, menacing…

A gathering of friends and family;
a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,
some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;
but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

It was on that night that everything came to a head:
a commandment to love; to love one another …
a call to discipleship; take up the cross, and follow …

It is on this night that everything comes to a head.

 

Adapted from a service devised by John Squires in 2008

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Holy Week: a week set apart, in a time set apart.

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

This year, however, will be different. In the middle of a viral pandemic, with restrictions prohibiting gathering for worship, Christian people will be walking through Holy Week in their own homes, not in gatherings at church. This is a week set apart, for people of faith, in a time set apart, for all of society.

We are not able to gather together. This year, people of faith are not gathering together. Instead, we are gathering-apart, through virtual worship, online. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/)

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

The week starts with Palm Sunday when Christians remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and the crowds waving palm leaves as he enters the city. Jesus stays near to the city for the remainder of the week. This year, we have not remembered that event with festive processions and cheerful hymns. Many of my colleagues have provided resources for Virtual Worship, Church At Home, Postcards for Reflection, and the like. People are gathering-apart.

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

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

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

Churches all around the world normally hold various rituals for people to attend. Roman Catholics have the Adoration of the Cross, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, the Stations of the Cross, and Evening Prayers. Anglicans have a three-hour service with reflections on the Last Words of Christ. Many people come for these times of gathering together. But not this year—we have to gather-apart.

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

This year, gathering together is not possible. As we gather-apart, there is the opportunity for personal reflection; perhaps, for instance, using this exhibition of contemporary art work that was specifically commissioned in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUDH-6NVr6aj6X6DAmzSKLvg

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

(I will make a post about Holy Saturday on that day.)

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

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

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

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Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Acclaiming the king, anticipating the kingdom

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, and Jesus amongst them. We hear the crowd singing Hosanna! and we see them spreading their cloaks along the way, to honour him. And we hear their cries in the ancient hymn, “Blessed is the coming king, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one bringing the peace of heaven into this city here on earth”.

So the people cry, singing words from Psalm 118 about the king who comes to implement the kingdom willed by God—a psalm which is echoed in the song of the angels from early in Luke’s Gospel, declaring that, in Jesus, God is bringing “peace on earth, among those whom he favours” (Luke 2:14)

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the thoroughly political nature of the activity of Jesus? Can you hear the thoroughly political nature of the cries of the crowd? Hosanna—Save us! Blessed is the King—not Caesar, not ruler of the Romans, but Jesus, King of the Jews, the one Chosen by God to proclaim the kingdom. Can you hear these cries?

In this story, as throughout all of the Gospel accounts, the actions of Jesus have clear and strong resonances from the scriptures that he knew so well. He does not enter Jerusalem with a fatalistic acceptance of what lies ahead; instead, they are a call to this-worldly involvement, to action in our own time, serving the people amongst whom we live.

So it is in this story of the Passover pilgrims. The cries of the crowd, the actions of the people, the anticipation of the Roman soldiers and the symbolic statement made by Jesus as he rides into the city on a donkey—all of this points to the inherently political, thoroughly this-worldly orientation of the ministry of Jesus.

The kingdom is coming, the future kingdom is here and now in our midst, and the kingdom will overturn the expectations and practices of the political powers within this world. The Romans did well to notice, and anticipate, and respond to such a message. The Jewish leaders, so it seems, were anxious, also, about what was taking place.

Matthew ends his report by noting that “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” That was the critical question, for all four authors of the Gospels in the New Testament. The stories they tell are focussed on answering that question: ‘Who is this?’ Matthew has this questioned answered immediately, as the crowds were telling one another, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” His name and reputation were known. Certainly they perceived the significance of the way that he chose to enter the capital city. He was calling people to follow him in a clear, direct, and challenging way.

On the following Friday, we will remember that Jesus, ultimately, was condemned to death with a sign that declared that he was “the King of the Jews” (John 19:19–20). We see, very clearly, in the inscription nailed to the cross, the political nature of the message of Jesus. From the perspective of the Roman rulers, articulated by Pilate, Jesus was given a drastic political punishment, death by crucifixion, for the political insurgency that he was seen as undertaking, in claiming to be the King of the Jews.

That King is the one whom we follow. This is the path that he calls us to walk. When we pray, as Jesus instructed us, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven, we are praying that what we hope for, in heaven, is to be lived out, here, on earth, every day, in our life of discipleship. Our faith calls us to be faithful disciples of Jesus. It calls us to compassionate engagement with others in our society. It is a costly call, but a compelling call.

For us, today, that is the challenge: how do we show the merciful love and righteous-justice that Jesus spoke about and lived for in his life? Jesus ultimately was crushed by Roman imperial power; as he died, however, he showed that there was another way. A way of faithfulness to God’s calling. A way that truly leads to peace, to peace with righteous-justice.

And so, as we look to that time with hope and anticipation, we pray, as we always do: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven … and we wait, patiently, and work, persistently, with that end in view.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence – Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-riding-on-a-donkey-or-two-as-the-crowd-shouts-hosanna/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/02/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-waving-branches-spreading-cloaks/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

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Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Waving branches, spreading cloaks

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago.

As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, and Jesus amongst them. We hear the crowd singing Hosanna! and we see them spreading their cloaks along the way, to honour him.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the people, waving branches? Of course, this Sunday in the church year is traditionally called Palm Sunday. However, no palms are mentioned in the reading we have heard from Matthew’s version of the story, nor in Mark or Luke. That the branches are from palm trees is noted only in John’s version. Both Mark and Matthew refer to branches that the people cut and waved, even though they don’t specify that they are palm branches. Nevertheless, we see the palm branches, because they are front and centre in the tradition of today—it is Palm Sunday, as we call it!

This waving of palm branches was an activity intimately associated with the actions of the Maccabees, who were men from a priestly family who took up arms to fight back the Seleucid overlords and reclaim the Temple. The waving of palm branches became closely associated with this event; we can read the instructions in one of the Jewish books (2 Maccabees 10), which directs the people to “carry ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and fronds of palms, and offer hymns of thanksgiving to [God] who had given success to the purifying of their own holy place”. So the palms evoke the famous military campaign of centuries earlier.

What do you see? What do you hear? Do you see the cloaks, spread on the ground, by those along the side of the road? A curious detail. What can this mean? Perhaps the more astute of the Jews along the side of the road, would have had some insight; perhaps they recalled the story of the time when a young prophet from Ramoth-gilead declared that God was anointing Jehu, the son of Jehoshaphat, as the next king of Israel.

The story is recounted in 2 Kings 9, and it contains this striking detail, as the prophet decreed, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I anoint you king over Israel’”, and so they took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps, and blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is King’” (2 Kings 9:13). Can you hear the resonances in the story of the Passover pilgrims? The cloaks on the steps, when Jehu is King … the cloaks on the wayside, when Jesus comes as King.

So Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, entered the city in the midst of the pilgrims, for the festival of Passover. Did he come as King, in the minds of the crowd? He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21).

Jesus came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark as God’s chosen King. The branches and the cloaks both point to the immediate political significance of this event.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence – Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-riding-on-a-donkey-or-two-as-the-crowd-shouts-hosanna/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

Tomorrow: Acclaiming the king, anticipating the kingdom

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Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Riding on a donkey (or two) as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel. And in their midst, can you see the figure of Jesus, surrounded by his followers, approaching the city?

Jesus, seated on the colt, riding on a donkey, was the centre of attention—at least for his own followers. Those in the crowd who knew their scriptures, would have immediately recognised the allusion. The account of this story that we find in Matthew’s Gospel and that we hear this Sunday, actually specifies the verse that interprets the significance of the donkey (Matt 21:4-5).

In Zechariah 9:9, the vision is clear: “your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey”. That is what the prophet declares; in this story of Passover pilgrims, Jesus can be seen to be bringing that vision to fruition. And that vision declares that this coming ruler “shall command peace to the nations, and his dominion will be from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth”. That is the vision that Jesus evokes as he rides into Jerusalem on this donkey.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you hear the cries of the crowd: “Hosanna, hosanna!” they cry. What were they calling out? Hosanna is a foreign term, a word from the Hebrew language, not a common word in our English usage. The best way to translate Hosanna, is “save us”. It is a cry for salvation; a yearning for deliverance. The word appears in the Psalm we have heard today, in Psalm 118:25, where they people cry out, “save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” Save us, redeem us, liberate us.

Psalm 118 was one of the Hallel Psalms, the Praise Psalms, which were associated with celebrations on each of the three great festival days—the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths; the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost; and the Feast of Passover. These psalms of praise became particularly associated with the celebrations of the rebuilding of the Temple.

Rebuilding the Temple was an inherently political action. It was the foreign invasion of Palestine by the Hellenistic Seleucids some two centuries before Jesus which had led to the destruction of the Temple. It was the political activity of the Jewish Maccabees which had led to the reclaiming of the Temple two decades later.

“Praise you, O God, for we have our Temple, rebuilt, restored, renewed”. So the prayer might well have gone. And it was the political activity of the Maccabees which had brought this about. The Hallel Psalms had become Psalms of Praise for liberating political activity. And this is what the people were singing out!

They expected Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. He entered the city in the midst of the pilgrims, for the festival of Passover. He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21). He came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence—Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

Tomorrow: Waving branches, spreading cloaks

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Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Passover and politics

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. To hear the story, we are turning back to the book of origins (better known as the Gospel according to Matthew), after a month during Lent of healing stories from the book of signs (the Gospel according to John), where there is an account of what took place as Jesus entered Jerusalem (Matt 21:1-11).

As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on these questions: What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

What do you see? What do you hear? I see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel, to the city where the Lord God, so it was believed, was residing in the Holy of Holies, the inner court of the Temple. I hear the noisy, bustling sounds of these pilgrims, excited with anticipation as they make their way along the same routes, up the same hills, year after year, at this time of the year.

It was Passover; one of the three high festivals of the year for good religious Jewish people. It was Passover, the festival of unleavened bread, which recalled the hurried departure of the people, long ago, from captivity in Egypt (Exodus 13). It was Passover, a celebration of the foundational myth at the heart of Jewish identity; the story that tells of the liberating actions of God, in the face of the military might of the Egyptians, the liberation of the people from their time of enforced slavery, as they set out, across the wilderness, to the land they had been promised (Exodus 14–17 and beyond).

Passover was a central religious celebration. But also, it was a thoroughly politicised procession of pilgrims, wending their way to the holy city, the city of peace. Passover was when bread was eaten without leaven, to signify the haste with which the departure from Egypt took place. Passover was when lambs were roasted and eaten as a sign of that liberation, when bitter herbs were sprinkled eaten as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. Passover was when the intervention of the divine into the social and political situation of those ancient Israelites was to the fore in the minds of those later pilgrims.

So, we see a scene of Passover pilgrims, celebrating this ancient political action of God which they hold before themselves as the fundamental paradigm for what their faith means for them. “Yes, God is for us! Yes, God will save us!”

The story is told in each of the three synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In each account, the disciples arrive in the city, seek out lodgings, and at the appointed time, they recline at table to eat the Passover meal, the annual family celebration when the story of that first Passover is told. A time when the actions of God in confronting and overturning the political rulers is remembered, retold, and celebrated.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the Roman soldiers, on the edges, behind the crowds, looking out from the Antonia Fortress? The Roman soldiers, strategically deployed, watching with care the every move that was taking place in the approaches to the city. They knew, from many years’ experience, that the city swelled with the influx of pilgrims each year at this time, as the Passover pilgrims made their way towards Jerusalem.

They knew, from years of monitoring the crowds, of the potential for dispute and conflict that simmered underneath the crowds. They knew that this was a high point in the Jewish year, and that any Jew with finely-attuned attention to the history of their people, would know of the charged political consequences of this festival.

Passover was a celebration of that time when God intervened, overturning the despotic ruler, liberating the faithful people. As it was long ago in Egypt … so it now could well be, in Jerusalem under Roman rule. A political celebration, wrapped around with religious significance, a celebration of political victory.

That is the context for the entry into the city of the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21). He came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

Tomorrow: riding on a donkey (or two) as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence – Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by Emilsen & J.T. Squires , ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

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Holding out for hope in the midst of turmoil (John 11)

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). That’s the question posed by people who had gathered to mourn with Martha and Mary, in the days after their brother had died.

It’s a question that, with some slight rephrasing, may well be posed in the days ahead of us, as we begin to experience the savage impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on movement, imposition of social isolation, spreading unemployment, rising numbers of infections being reported, and the early stages of what threatens to be a huge death rate, all from this powerful, invasive, invisible virus.

Frustration, anxiety, fear, and anger are within us, suppressed; and around us, beginning to be expressed. These times will be turbulent, confronting, disturbing. We draw deep into our emotional reserves in anticipation of what lies ahead.

I A message from Bethany

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Lazarus was dead, lying in the tomb (and had been there for four days, 11:17), so the reality of his death had surely been registered. But why did this have to be so? The level of grief being felt by his sisters, their household, and their friends from the village, was obviously intense.

Jesus had been reticent to travel from Galilee, back into Judea, where opposition to him had been steadily increasing (6:41; 7:1; 10:39). He initially paused, wanting not to go back to the place where, twice, threatening stones had been raised against him (8:59 and 10:31).

Jesus had been to Judea a number of times previously; in the book of signs, he is found there at 2:13, 5:1, 7:10, and 10:22—unlike the Synoptics, where his only visit as an adult is at the end of his earthly life (Mark 11:11). Jesus was reluctant to return there yet again. It was dangerous territory. He was in touch with his own deep emotions, as he considered his next move. Jesus demonstrates basic, raw humanity.

II Debating with the disciples

So Jesus delayed his travel for two days (11:6). Was he procrastinating? weighing up his options? looking to hide? making a strategic plan? The Greek word used here (meno) refers to staying still with purpose, resting, abiding. It is the word that appears quite a number of times in the “farewell discourse” as Jesus spends time with his disciples, before his arrest in Jerusalem (John 13-16).

This word occurs ten times in twelve verses in John 15, where Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches, and exhorts his followers to “remain” or “abide” (meno) in him, as he “remains” or “abides” in them. This is a deliberate, carefully thought out, plan, to hold back from travelling too quickly. Jesus had a plan in mind (as he indicates, first at 11:4, again at 11:15).

Then, when Jesus finally committed to a plan of action—“Let us go to Judea again”—we are told that Thomas the Twin expressed the great fear of his fellow disciples by saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Down south (in Judea) was dangerous territory for the radical prophet from the north (in Galilee), fuelled both by the traditional antagonism between the regions, and by the plotting against Jesus that was underway amongst the leadership in Judea (5:18; 9:16: 10:39).

I tend to think that, had I been there alongside Thomas and Jesus and the rest, my words would have been more like, “What? Are you crazy? Go back to Jerusalem? And risk being stoned to death? No way. Just no way at all!!” But I wasn’t there. And this, according to the story told in the book of signs, is how Thomas responded: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Wow!

III Meeting Martha by the tomb

Then, when Jesus arrived, he was met immediately with a very strong kickback from Martha, who went out to meet the group beside the tomb, before they arrived in the house. Martha was clear and direct; she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:22).

I would think that she was angry. We can assume that she would have known the reputation of Jesus, she would have known he was able to perform miracles (signs, as they are regularly described in the book of signs). With this knowledge, Martha would have despaired that Jesus chose not to come and perform such a sign in her village, for her family. She lashed out at Jesus. Understandably. Perhaps with good reason.

Being forced into an uncomfortable place, being railroaded into disturbing emotions and unsettling experiences, means that any human being is likely, at some point, to kick back, lash out, with unrestrained raw emotion. We need to take care of ourselves lest we offend or damage people of property in such a state.

IV Mary and others join

As the story continues, Jesus begins to mollify Martha, and then invites her sister, Mary to join with her (11:28). Jesus and his group have still not arrived at the village; they are still where Lazarus lies in the tomb. Mary brings with her a group of friends and family (11:31). As the group of mourners arrive, the tension in the air would have been palpable.

When Mary came to the tomb, where Jesus was, and saw him, she knelt at his feet. She appears to be expressing due respect and reverence, perhaps. “Lord, I am so glad you are here”, we might expect her to have said.

But no—the first words out of her mouth are the same as what her sister had said, a little earlier: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). She, too, was angry. Human emotions easily dominate. How clearly these sisters reflect the way we human beings operate!

V Jesus responds with raw human emotion

Hearing these words for a second time—“look what has happened, you could have stopped this from happening”—penetrates right to the core of Jesus. The author of the books of signs uses a number of colourful words in describing how Jesus responded. My sense is that Jesus had been stirred up, to the very depths of his being. He was profoundly moved—not with compassion, but with anger.

First (according to the NRSV), we learn that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit” (11:33). The word chosen in Greek signifies the uttering of a sound from deep in the belly; a full-blooded reaction, a sound that shocks and shatters the eardrums. The most literal way of translating this would be to say that Jesus “snorted like a horse”—that deep, guttural warning that horses utter when they are distressed, cornered, angry. The basic word used here (as in a couple of other places in stories about Jesus—Mark 1:43 and Matt 9:30; Mark 14:5) signifies deep, burning anger. Jesus was thoroughly angry.

Then, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved” (11:33, NRSV) or “troubled” (NIV). This word comes from the root word which means “to shudder”. Jesus’s reaction was so strong, so extensive, that his whole body shook and shuddered. There was a clear physical manifestation of the inner emotional turmoil raging in Jesus. He was, as we say, shaking with anger. One commentator writes, “the word implies deep disturbance”; another, that it means “an expression of rage; to become indignant, be furious”; yet another simply says, that “Jesus is angry”.

After this, as he presumably draws closer to the tomb and sees where Lazarus has been laid, we are told, “Jesus began to weep” (11:35). The Greek word used here is significant. The weeping of Mary and her companions, described just a moment earlier (11:33), is weeping that a band of mourners would do. It was the weeping and wailing, the anguished crying of those deep in grief, which was the socially-expected, customary grieving form of weeping. An expression of deep human emotions, to be sure; but channelled in the appropriate and customary manner by this group of grieving family and friends.

The weeping of Jesus is described with a different word—a word that is used only once, at this exact place, in the whole of the New Testament. The word (dakruo) has its primary reference point in the tears shed by Jesus. As we read this passage in English, where the same word is used, it looks like Mary and Jesus are both weeping in the mourning customs of the day. In Greek, where completely different words are used, the weeping is different. Mary and her friends are grieving the loss of Lazarus. Jesus is thoroughly rattled, completely shattered, by what he has experienced. And he is angry. Utterly angry. Jesus weeps tears of anger.

There have been various explorations as to why Jesus was feeling such anger. Was he angry at the lack of faith he had encountered in Mary and Martha? I think that seems reasonable, given some other comments he makes in this narrative.

Other suggestions have been made. Was he angry because he was under pressure to perform yet another miracle? (a miracle far greater than any others he had performed thus far). Was he angry that sin held such a hold on his friends? Was he angry because he was realising that his own time on earth was soon to come to an end, that he would soon be grappling with the devil in the final battle? (The latter exotic suggestion was made by John Chrysostom in the fourth century.)

I am not so much interested in WHY Jesus was angry. I am more taken by the fact THAT Jesus was angry. He was human. Fully human. He had had enough. He was at breaking point. He had a plan, a carefully thought-out intention, and he was determined to carry it through. The emotional turmoil surrounding him was distracting, getting in the way. Jesus held to his purpose with a steely resolution.

I can identify with the grieving sisters, with the crowd that met Jesus. They had been thrown into confusion. Grief does that to you. A global pandemic will do that to you, too. There are restrictions that now limit how we live our lives, our news becomes more alarming, we are becoming hard pressed. Emotions surge within us. We are at risk of lashing out. We might want to play the blame game. We are losing any sense of hope.

It is exactly at this point, according to the narrative we have in the book of signs, that some of those around Jesus respond to his intense, visceral expressions of anger, with their own angry, accusing words: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Tit for tat. Accusation and counter-accusation. Throwing it back, with interest. The scene has become ugly.

The story continues, fraught with emotion. Jesus is still “greatly disturbed” (11:38)—that is to say, still uttering that deep-seated, raw emotional outburst of anger, “snorting like a horse”. Yet, in the midst of this emotional upheaval, Jesus is able to act calmly, and speak with purpose and clarity.

VI Removing the stone, unbinding the dead man

“Take away the stone”, he commands (11:39). “Did I not tell you …”, he says to the crowd (11:40), offering a clear explanation of his intent. “Father, I thank you …”, he prays (11:41), withdrawing, gathering himself together, drawing on his inner resources. Clear, measured, purposeful.

Then, he shouts, “Lazarus, come out”, crying in a loud voice (11:43)—the verb used here has a sense of a raucous outburst. Jesus becomes, once more, highly emotional at this critical point. Yet this is a more positive emotion. A sense that things are now being set right. This is what he came to Bethany, to do. There is a purpose, amidst all the upheaval and turmoil.

And, finally, the clear instruction, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:44). The deed is done, the man emerges from the tomb, walking, no longer lying dead. There are signs of hope, right at this point: Lazarus is alive, a new reality is in place, the freedom of life restored is evident. Jesus has achieved what he had intended from the start. “This illness … is for Hod’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).

VII In a global pandemic

Where do you find yourself in this story? We might really want to be at that moment at the end, where hope bursts forth. But we are not there. Not now. Not for a while. Not, most likely, for a long time. So where do you see yourself in this story?

With Thomas, fearful of what the future will bring, and yet resolute about stepping forth with confidence? With Martha, pushing back, crying out in despair at the situation we are in? With Mary, piling on with more angst, fuelled by uncertainty, angry at what has happened?

With the grieving crowd, rushing from one thing to the next, gripped by a host of competing emotions? With the astonished crowd, watching the miracle of a man once dead, now alive?

Or with Jesus, determined to hold a steady course through the upheavals he experiences? He was clear about what he intends to achieve, steadfast in working his way through the obstacles, to the place of fruition. (If we want to emulate him, we need to be careful that we do not say “God is working through the pandemic”, or “God sent this pandemic to us for a purpose”.) Holding to a steadfast goal in the current context is a daunting challenge.

This story, set in this Sunday’s lectionary, invites us to consider who we are, as human beings; how we respond, when under pressure; what it is, that we hope for, in challenging times; how our faith guides us, in the midst of fear, anxiety, and despair.

*****

I have been greatly assisted in writing this blog by the research of my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, who has a great eye for detail when it comes to matters of translation. I have also drawn on published work by Gail R O’Day, in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary vol. IX p. 690; and the wonderful commentary by Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. I pp. 425-426.

See also my other blogs on the Book of Signs:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/23/yes-lord-i-believe-even-in-the-midst-of-all-of-this-john-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

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Yes, Lord, I believe—even in the midst of all of this! (John 11)

In the midst of a time of fear and anxiety, generated by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, holding to our faith and being nourished by that faith is important.

The story set for this coming Sunday is pertinent to this situation. How do we confess our faith in the midst of the rapid spread of the virus and news of the dramatic escalation of infections and deaths around the world?

In the midst of this story of death and grief, of life being thrown out of joint by an unexpected happening, the author of the book of signs (identified in the tradition as the apostle John), we have a story of faith. In this story, Martha expresses her trust in Jesus—even as what is happen around her fuels her unsettled state, as she grieves the death of her brother.

The book of signs has seven clearly narrated signs, or miracles, performed by Jesus. Each of them is inserted in the midst of an evolving narrative, in which followers of Jesus grow in their understanding of who he is, whilst at the same time a movement of those opposed to Jesus gains strength.

The author of this Gospel makes it clear that there were more signs performed by Jesus than what is narrated (20:30), and that the signs actually narrated are told in order to strengthen the faith of those hearing or reading them (20:31).

The first and second signs take place in Galilee (2:1-11, 4:46-54). Subsequent signs are located in Jerusalem (5:2-9), the Sea of Galilee (6:1-14), on the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum (6:16-21), back in Jerusalem (9:1-7) and then, for the seventh, and final, sign of those narrated, in Bethany, where Lazarus had recently died (11:17-44).

This final sign provides a clear climax to this collection of seven signs. This is the miracle supreme—raising a dead person back to life takes some beating! It is told at some length, with many details, leading to the climactic moment of the appearance of the once-dead man, now alive. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (11:44).

In the literary framework of the whole Gospel, however, this building to a climax through the seven signs is paralleled by a growing tension, as leaders in the Jewish community marshal forces in plotting against Jesus. Initially, there were positive responses to Jesus (2:23, 4:42, 4:45). Then, an engagement in debate and controversy with “the Jews” (5:13) quickly escalated into persecution (5:16) and indeed an attempt to kill Jesus (5:18).

This double attitude towards Jesus continues unchecked throughout the narrative. Whilst Jesus remained popular in Galilee (6:14, 34) and amongst some in Jerusalem (7:31, 40-41a, 46: 8:30; 9:17, 38; 10:21, 41) and Bethany (11:27, 45), hostility towards Jesus continued, being expressed both in verbal aggression (6:41, 52; 7:15, 20; 8:48; 9:18-19; 10:20), threats of his arrest (7:32, 44; 11:57), direct physical threats (stoning at 8:49, expulsion from the synagogue at 9:22, and stoning once more at 10:31) and threats against his life (7:1, 25, 32).

Then, at the climactic moment, after Lazarus appears, the Jewish leadership plans a strategy to put Jesus to death (11:45-53). The plot is hatched, the fate of Jesus is sealed. That section of the narrative also includes the famous, yet ironic, comment by Caiaphas: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so the inevitable process begins, moving towards the death of Jesus (11:53, 57).

In the midst of this story, about the death and burial of Lazarus—before Jesus acts in any way to bring Lazarus back from death—Martha, the brother of Lazarus, makes a striking confession of faith in Jesus.

First, however, as Jesus arrived in Bethany, Martha had initially berated him with an outpouring from the depths of her grief—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21).

One element of that confession, that Jesus is the Son of God, was articulated very early in the narrative of the Gospel, by one of the lesser-known disciples, Nathaniel (1:49). Another element, that Jesus is Messiah, had been spoken by another less prominent disciple, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter (1:41).

In my reading, this confession of faith stands at the same place, structurally, as the confession that Simon Peter made in Caesarea Philippi, as recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels: “you are the Messiah” (8:27, and parallels in Matt 16:16 and Luke 9:20). This comes at the high point in the public ministry of Jesus: just before he is transfigured, and then makes his fateful decision to turn towards Jerusalem, in the Synoptics.

In like manner, the confession by Martha comes in the midst of the climactic miracle that he performs, raising Jesus from the dead, in the book of signs.

The declaration of Jesus as Messiah, as the christological high point of the three Synoptic Gospels, is uttered by the unchallenged leader of the apostles in those accounts, Simon Peter. The equivalent christological high point in the narrative of John’s Gospel is here, in Bethany, on the lips, not of one of the favoured male leaders (Peter, or the beloved disciple, or even, in other books, James the brother of Jesus). This high claim is made by a woman, not a man.

And how significant it is, that this high point of confession is made in the midst of grief and turmoil. Similar confessions, also by women, have occurred in the book of signs, also in difficult contexts.

At the end of the Gospel, there is an important confession of faith that is made as a result of the encounter that Mary Magdalene had with Jesus, in the garden, after his resurrection.

Mary was deep in grief as she went to the garden. Her grief initially stopped her from recognising Jesus. By the end of her conversation with the person she assumed was the gardener, she realised that he was actually Jesus. She returned to the disciples and declared to them that she has seen the risen Lord (20:18). She becomes known, in later tradition, as “the apostle to the apostles”. Her confession of faith comes to fruition in the midst of her grief.

Earlier, of course, there was the woman of Samaria, back in chapter 4, who encountered Jesus, thirsting, in the heat of the day, who enables many people in her city to come to faith in Jesus.

So, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, the story of Jesus—recognised as prophet, Messiah, Son of God, Saviour of the world, the risen Lord—is entrusted to women. Not to the familiar male leaders. But to women. Thanks be to God!

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

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

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

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In the most unlikely way … touching the untouchable (John 9)

“Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. (John 9:38)

So said the man born blind, whom Jesus encountered, and healed, in Jerusalem (John 9:1-41).

What causes this man to make his bold public confession of faith in Jesus? The book of signs recounts the way that his turnaround took place, when he encountered Jesus. The disciples of Jesus want to quibble about the cause of his blindness: was he a sinner? was he being punished for the sin of his parents? (9:2).

Jesus, however, is not diverted by this theological consideration; he moves quickly and directly to heal the man (9:3-7). It is this healing which leads him to confess faith in Jesus.

In so doing, he stands in the most unlikely company, amongst other unlikely characters who confess faith in Jesus. For my reflections on the significance of this man’s confession of faith in the context of the book of signs as a whole, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/17/in-the-most-unlikely-company-confessing-faith-in-jesus-john-9/

Further than this, the man is healed in a most unlikely way. Other healings performed by Jesus and reported already in this Gospel have taken place simply by his word of command (4:47-52; 5:6-9).

This one is different; it involves two distinctive features, both of which push against the boundaries of expected behaviour within the ancient Jewish context. Jesus uses spittle mixed with dirt to make mud, and then he physically touches the blind man as he applies that mud to his eyes (9:6).

Were these actions of Jesus seen as breaching ancient Jewish protocols relating to holiness? The man was blind; traditionally, that made him unclean under the prescriptions of the Law. Blind people were amongst the groups identified as prohibited as acting as priests in the Jerusalem Temple (Lev 21:17-21). Likewise, no blind animals could be presented as offerings for sacrifice in the temple (Lev 22:22; Deut 15:21). Blindness signalled incompleteness. Conversely, one of the promises involved in the vision of eschatological hope, at the end of time, is the removal of blindness (Isa 29:18; 35:5; 42:7).

When Jesus touches this blind man, we may consider that he is identifying himself with the man in his state of incompleteness. If that is so, Jesus appears to be deliberate in breaching that boundary by directly touching the eyes of the blind man. At the very least, he is enacting, in the present time, the eschatological hope, that the blind will see (compare Matt 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23).

There are twelve times across the four Gospels when Jesus touched a person that he healed (and four times when people reached out to touch Jesus as they sought his healing powers). This occasion, in John 9, is the one and only time in this Gospel that Jesus touched a person when he healed them. In this regard, it is a distinctive story.

What is even more distinctive in this incident is the use of spittle: it appears only here in this Gospel—although Jesus is also reporting as having used it in healings on two occasions in Mark (Mark 7:33 and 8:23).

It is noteworthy that Luke omits any reference to either incident, whilst Matthew omits the second and reduces the first to a brief summary statement in passing (Matt 15:30-31), with no reference at all to the manner by which Jesus heals in this case. This suggests quite strongly that these two evangelists saw the use of spittle by Jesus as a problematic aspect in these stories. Better to say nothing at all about them!

(Thanks to Elizabeth Raine for these insights from her research into the ways that Matthew redacted Mark’s Gospel, and also for her research in the next matter canvases, the Greek magical papyri.)

Spittle was a substance regarded, much later in Jewish tradition (in a couple of place in the Talmudic writings of the 6th century) as having healing properties in some circumstances—however, we have no evidence from Jewish sources of the time of Jesus, or before him, as to whether that view was current during the first century. It would seem not.

We do know that, in the first century, magicians and healers in the ancient hellenistic world utilised touch as one of the techniques in their repertoire. We know this from many Greek papyri which attest to the techniques of magicians and healers (the so-called Greek magical papyri). Touch was often employed by such people, along with the utterance strange words from foreign languages, or indeed simply gibberish words, and ecstatic states, as the means of effecting healings in others.

(You can read some examples at https://hermetic.com/pgm/index and explore a technical academic analysis of these papyri at https://archive.org/details/TheGreekMagicalPapyriInTranslation/page/n9/mode/2up)

So this element of the story is not strikingly unusual in the larger context of the society of that time. Wandering healers were common in the world of the day, and there are a number of records of their using spittle in their healings. Pliny recommended it for use in treating epileptics (Nat. Hist. 28.7). Two Roman historians reported that Vespasian used spittle to heal blindness (Tacitus, Hist. 4.81; Suetonius, Life of Caesar 8.7.2-3).

Because of this, some rabbis from a later time period, such as the famous Akiba (who was born two decades after the death of Jesus), were not favourably disposed at all towards spittle. Akiba is cited in a tractate of the third century work, the Mishah (Sanhedrin 10:1), as prohibiting its use because of its popular connection with the practices of pagan magicians.

Could it be argued that the reason that spittle was viewed negatively by Jewish teachers of the Law was because it was a substance which rendered someone unclean? The Law was given, in traditional Jewish understanding, to instruct as to what is holy, and what is unholy or unclean. To be rendered unclean meant to be placed outside the holy realm which is where God intends the people of Israel, the holy nation, would be. God’s desire was for Israel to be a holy nation, just as God is a holy God (Exod 19:6; Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 22:31-33).

In the midst of detailed instructions as to how to maintain this holy state, Lev 15 deals with the ways to manage bodily charges which make a person unclean (semen from a male, menstrual blood from a female). Spittle, however, is not specifically identified here; so this is an hypothesis which relies on an argument by analogy. Could it gain some support from the observation that animals with discharges are grouped with blind, maimed, or skin-diseased animals as being unfit for offering as sacrifices (Lev 22:22)? The argument cannot be sustained with any strength.

There is other evidence that relates to spittle in daily life in the ancient Jewish world, however, which shows that spitting was linked with shaming. Spitting at somebody was regarded as an offensive act, a public shaming of the person spat at. If a man did not marry his dead brother’s childless widow, in accordance with the Law, she was to remove his sandal and spit in his face (Deut 25:9). Spitting in somebody’s face was considered a great disgrace (Num 12:14; Job 17:6; 30:10; Isa 50:6).

At Qumran, there was a prescription in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 7.13) that a thirty-day punishment was given if somebody in the assembly spit in the presence of others. The same prohibition is reported by Josephus (Jewish War 2.147).

However, what is noteworthy in the story recounted in the book of signs, is that there is no indication in any way that Jesus was shaming to man. On the contrary, the author of this book takes a known symbol of shame, and turns it into a symbol of hope. Jesus spits—but does not shame. He spits, makes mud, and rubs the blind eyes—and gives hope and new life to the man. John turns this symbol upside down.

Jesus uses spittle, mixed with dirt, to create mud as a healing substance. It seems a strange, almost objectionable, action for him to undertake. And yet, through this challenging process, Hope is born, the gift of sight is given—and faith in Jesus is affirmed.

Later patristic interpretation relates this action in John 9 to the action of the divine, in Genesis 2:7, of creating the human being out of the dust of the earth. I don’t want to head in that direction, as I can’t see any clear signal in the text that invites us to consider this pathway.

And I know also that this focus on physical touching and, worse, the use of a bodily discharge, spittle, in the process of healing, sits quite at odds with the immediate contemporary context. The world is wracked by stories of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, as the pandemic streaks across the globe and permeates every corner of every country.

Looking for the healing of illness in the midst of a viral pandemic is a vain hope. People are dying, and more people will, sadly, die, in this pandemic. Prayers for healing will not turn back the tide of infection and reduce the rate of illness and death that has been unleashed by this potent virus. Perish the thought that we might even think that we could emulate Jesus, and go around spitting on sick peoples, touching them in order to heal them. Let’s not be that literalist—please!!

In our current context, we are being urged not to make physical contact with people (no handshakes, no hugging, etc), to maintain a clear physical distance between ourselves and other people, and even, now, to adopt a regime of self-isolation, not attending any group activities, until the pandemic has significantly subsided.

So this story, set in this Sunday’s lectionary, needs to be understood and applied with great care.

What is clear, however, is that there was a striking and unusual element in the story—for us, and even for people of the ancient world. Jesus heals this man in a most unlikely way. That leads him to be able to see the world, for the first time, through his own eyes; and to see Jesus in a new way, in the light of this new vision.

Perhaps it calls us to be open to unlikely engagements with people (albeit in a socially-distant nature) in different ways, in the rapidly changing context that we find ourselves in today.

*******

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

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/17/in-the-most-unlikely-company-confessing-faith-in-jesus-john-9/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

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

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Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery on COVID-19 pandemic

This morning a pastoral letter was sent to all people within the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, as follows:

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

On Wednesday morning the leadership of the Synod of NSW and the ACT and all the Presbyteries in this Synod met to make plans for our future as the Uniting Church, in the current context of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday evening the Moderator and General Secretary issued a statement which strongly urged all Church Councils to immediately suspend worship services and any other group meetings on Uniting Church property.

See https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/covid-19-update-for-presbyteries-and-congregations/

We are in complete agreement with this guidance. We recognise that this is a difficult decision. This situation will remain in force for some time, over some months, until we are advised that it is again safe to hold gatherings of people.

This is essentially a pastoral decision for the well-being of people in our congregations and faith communities, and in the wider communities where we live. It is an expression of love and care for our neighbours and community, as together we try to slow the spread of infection so that our health system is able to cope.

By making this decision before our community feels the full impact of this health crisis, it is our hope that we can establish and learn new, creative, alternative ways to worship and sustain community connection from home and online.

To support us during this difficult time, Synod and Presbytery leadership is working to provide worship resources via various means including: e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a Synod-hosted website, so that we can continue to pray, sing and reflect together. Adrian Drayton, of Synod Communications, and Matt Pulford, of Assembly Communications, are working to provide access to multiple resources.

Saltbush is offering a regular weekly “9am Sunday church with Saltbush” that will be a viable option. Project Reconnect provides weekly DVD resources, on a subscription basis. Some tech-savvy colleagues will provide online resources such as sermons and prayers, as well as reflections and devotions, for all to use.

We will send emails in the days ahead that will link you in to these resources. You do not have to do all of this by yourself.

As leaders within our local communities of faith, the highest priority we can have is to ensure that we provide meaningful pastoral care for one another during this time of physical separation. There are big challenges in this. We need, firstly, to be sure to support and encourage each other in our leadership roles.

Presbytery leadership will be looking to put in place opportunities for regular, online “check-in” opportunities for pastors, ministers, and lay leaders in each of the communities of faith across our Presbytery.

We are one body in Christ, even when that body is not together in the flesh. There are many ways to stay connected in spirit, and care for each others’ spiritual and practical needs. We trust that the people of our congregations and faith communities will reach out with hearts, words and practical compassion. We are capable, resilient people. The current situation invites us to explore new ways of connecting, supporting, and caring.

As we walk this wilderness journey, there will be real grief and loss in letting go of the things that usually bring us together. There will be real fear and anxiety that comes with physical distancing. This may take on added dimensions for people who already live with anxiety. We know that we are walking into difficult times. We know, also, the promise of God’s presence in the midst of this.

As you receive this news, and communicate it to others, we expect that you will encounter a range of responses: some may feel disappointed or frustrated by a perceived over-reaction, others may feel relief and cared for. We pray that all will know themselves to be held in love and prayer.

We want to be sure that Presbytery supports and equips you as you work with people in your community of faith to meet the challenges ahead.

Please do not hesitate to contact either of your Presbytery Ministers if you wish to discuss any pastoral matters relating to this situation (John on 0408 024 642, Andrew on 0437 011 338).

Canberra Region Presbytery Leadership Team;
John Williams and Judy McKinlay
(Co-chairpersons)
John Squires and Andrew Smith (Presbytery Ministers)
Elizabeth Raine (PRC Chairperson)
John Sutton (Presbytery Treasurer)
Janise Wood (Operations Manager)

The Moderator of the NSW.ACT Synod has written this pastoral letter https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/a-pastoral-message-from-the-moderator-about-covid-19/

The President of the National Assembly has written this pastoral message https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3144-a-pastoral-response-to-the-pandemic

I have blogged on the importance o placing care for one another as a higher priority than gathering for worship, at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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In the most unlikely company: confessing faith in Jesus (John 9)

“Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Who said this? Peter, the leader of the apostles? James and John, the sons of thunder, key leaders in the early Jesus movement? Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle of apostles?

None of these. These words come from a story told only in the book of signs (the fourth Gospel in our New Testament, usually identified as the Gospel according to John). The story concerns a resident of Jerusalem who was born blind, and lived his life into adulthood as a blind man who sat every day, negging for assistance, beside the pool of Siloam (John 9:1-41). This is the reading set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday.

And the person who utters these words of confession and faith? It was that very man, the man born blind (John 9:38). He makes this high confession of faith—a confession which stands alongside a number of other confessions of faith in this distinctive book of origins. And many of these confession are made by the most unlikely characters throughout this Gospel.

In the reading we had last Sunday, the woman who engaged in conversation with Jesus beside a well in Samaria, moves towards an understanding of Jesus as a prophet (4:19) and possibly the Messiah (4:25). The irony is that it is a woman, rather than a man, and a Samaritan, rather than a Galilean or Judean, who makes this confession.

This latter confession of Jesus as Messiah had already been declared by Andrew, a lesser-known apostle, a Galilean, the brother of Simon Peter (1:41). The former confession of Jesus as prophet is subsequently affirmed by a crowd of Galilean people (6:14). So the woman joins these characters in making confessions about Jesus.

As a result of the witness which this woman made to the people of her city (4:28-29), she led her fellow Samaritans to make the ultimate confession of Jesus: “we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world” (4:42). The irony is intensified; the first instance of widespread faith in Jesus comes from a group of Samaritans—those despised and regarded as outcasts, by the Judean and Galilean Jews.

The disciples of Jesus, by contrast, having heard the testimony of these Samaritans (4:42), as well as that of the Galilean crowd (6:14), can only complain about the words of Jesus: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (6:60).

That offers an interesting contrasting: these unnamed Samaritans recognise Jesus, but his disciples, known to us by name, cannot grasp what he is offering.

There is clear insight into the identity and significance of Jesus which continues to be offered by a collection of unlikely characters in the Johannine story. On one trip to Jerusalem, people in the crowd have a better insight into Jesus than the Pharisees. The Pharisees join with the temple authorities in a growing antagonism towards Jesus, but the crowd wonders, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (7:31).

Later, some in the crowd recognise Jesus as the prophet (7:40), and others, as the Messiah (7:41). The temple police recognise that Jesus is different (7:46), but the Pharisees dismiss this, saying to them, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?” (7:47). The difference in understanding is clear.

As the narrative continues, the antagonism of some in the crowd grows, to the point that they accuse Jesus: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (8:48). Then, they prepare to stone Jesus (8:59). Who he is provokes antagonism and opposition. To align with him is to step into that dangerous place.

That is the immediate context for the encounter that is then narrated, involving the man born blind, his parents, the Jewish authorities, Jesus, and his followers. Confessing faith in such a context is a fraught, risky, dangerous enterprise.

And yet, this anonymous man, blinded and beggared, does precisely this. And he stands with a most unlikely collection of people who recognise something special in Jesus: a Samaritan woman, a mourning sister (Martha), various crowds in Samaria, in Galilee, and in Jerusalem; and even, to some degree, the temple police in Jerusalem. How ironic.

“Lord, I believe”, he said. And he worshiped him. (John 9:38)

*************

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

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

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

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When you come together … reflections on community in the midst of a pandemic

“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:28). So writes Paul to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth.

In these words, Paul indicates the importance—some would say, the highest priority—of gathering together in communal worship. The body of Christ, meeting together, in one place at the one time, sharing fellowship as we share in worship, is accorded central importance in the life of the church, back then in Corinth, as now in our own times.

How do we understand that imperative, now, in the midst of a growing sense of anxiety and uncertainty, as the pandemic of COVID-19 gradually makes it presence felt more clearly and definitively? And what will we doing as communities of faith, as we face the reality that gathering together as a community of faith might become limited or prohibited?

I When you come together …

It is clear from various New Testament passages, that communal worship was regular, expected, and valued, right across the movement that arose amongst the earliest followers of Jesus. This is evident, at face value, in the fact that all but one of the authentic letters of Paul were written to gathered communities: one to Rome, two to Corinth, one to Philippi, one to Thessalonica, and one to the region of Galatia.

There is only one authentic letter which we say was sent to an individual, Philemon—but even at the start of that letter, after naming Philemon and two other individuals, Paul continues, “and to the church in your house” (Phlm 2). And even in the later letters, attributed to Paul but not directly authored by him, the individuals addressed (Timothy and Titus) are given clear instructions regarding the ordering of life within the community of faith.

Elsewhere in his first (extant) letter to the Corinthians, Paul reflects what took place in those communal gatherings (1 Cor 14:26). It sounds like many of the elements we find in our communal worship today, as Paul lists the various elements that the Corinthians brought into worship: “a hymn [singing songs or choruses], a lesson [from scripture], a revelation [sharing our experience of faith with each other], a tongue [offering prayers], or an interpretation [the function of a sermon]” (1 Cor 14:26).

It is also evident that interpersonal interaction was integral to what took place when those communities of faith gathered. “Greet one another with a holy kiss”, Paul instructs the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:20 and 2 Cor 13:12), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

II Greet one another …

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate these five verses is by referring to a “holy embrace”, rather than a “holy kiss”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of the controversy swirling around the current situation with COVID-19 (which is the technical way of referring to “the novel coronavirus disease 2019”). The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

See my reflections, from a week ago, on this, at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/05/passing-the-peace-sharing-the-elements-greeting-the-minister/

III Be separate from them

Alongside the texts cited above, there are other biblical references that we ought to consider. One cluster of passages to consider relates to keeping separate from the community in certain circumstances. Paul himself advocates keeping a certain level of separateness in his advice to the Corinthians, quoting a Hebrew scripture passage, “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; and I will welcome you” (2 Cor 6:17).

(I note there is scholarly debate as to whether this section of 2 Corinthians was actually written by Paul himself, or added by a later scribe or compiler. Nevertheless, the passage he quotes is in our scripture, and we need to make sense of it in our context.)

Paul is here quoting Isaiah 52:11, verses immediately before the famous song of the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), which sets forth the means for the redemption of Israel through the work of the Servant. Israel, the holy nation, is to be set apart, sanctified, separated from the nations which surrounded it. That is why the holy (clean, sanctified and redeemed) people of Israel are to remain separate from the common (unclean, sinful and unrighteous) peoples of the nations.

But it is entirely possible that we could (if we pursue a certain hermeneutical approach) adopt 2 Cor 6:17 into our current context, and use it as a text for advocating the kinds of distancing and separation advised by government health departments and religious institutions: do not shake hands, do not embrace, do not share a common cup, do not let there be anyway of passing on the virus to others, do not do any of the things that we value in our coming together as a community of faith—even, do not come together to worship and share together.

I am not advocating this line of interpretation, let me clear; I am just noting that some might be attracted to going down this pathway. But I think that is too simple: staying apart because we are set apart, consecrated, holy. That is sectarian thinking, and that is not how I think the church needs to be. We need to think further about “how to be church” in the crisis situation of a global pandemic.

IV Care for the needy

Alongside these biblical injunctions, there are other instructions and admonition that are found in scripture. These are equally valid and equally binding upon us, as we think about how to be church. I am thinking, at this time, particularly of the responsibilities that we have towards those who people within our midst are most in need of care and support.

In Hebrew Scriptures, the Law advocates this as a priority: take care of the needy: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour”. (Deut 15:7).

This commandment is precisely what Jesus was alluding to, in the scene set in Bethany, where Mary anoints his feet, when he says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8), where he was referring to Deut 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’”

The command to care for the needy is replicated in other places in the Bible the Psalmist exhorts is to “rescue the weak and the needy” (Psalm 82:3-4), amd in Proverbs we are exhorted to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8-9). These instructions to the people of Israel are based upon the understanding that the Lord God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18).

The ancient instructions to care for the needy are replicated in the New Testament, in instructions spoken by Jesus (Mark 10:21), in the blessings he spoke (Luke 6:20), in his signature synagogue sermon (Luke 4:18-19), and in the description of his ministry as fulfilling prophecy (Matt 11:4-5). Jesus demonstrated the priority of caring for people at their point of need.

Such an orientation is also found in directions in the epistles (Eph 4:28; James 2:1-7; 1 John 3:17), as well as in the summary description of the early community of believers who gathered in Jerusalem (Act 4:34-35, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and … it was distributed to each as any had need”).

My colleague Chris Goringe has written in a very helpful way about how we could, in fact, take the opportunity of the moment, in the pandemic crisis, to refocus and intensify our efforts to care for one another, paying particular attention to those who are in need. See

https://roseville.unitingchurch.org.au/2020/03/covid-19-and-the-church/

In the UK, a useful resource encouraging us to care for one another has been published by the Anglican Bishop of St Albans, at https://www.stalbans.anglican.org/coronavirus/

In my mind, helping the person in need is as central to our faith as it is to gather together in fellowship and worship. That, it seems to me, is the word for our times, a time of global pandemic, where the number of affected needy people is increasing on a regular—and frightening—basis.

We would do well to remember, in this instance, the words of Jesus in the last parable he spoke in the Gospel of Matthew: “just as you did it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

V Community in the midst of a pandemic

The context that the whole world now finds it in, is that of a pandemic. The alarmingly rapid spread of this virus is leading to a disturbingly rapid increase in instances of people who are significantly impacted by the virus. The rate of growth in cases is exponential, meaning that it is doubling each day. That is very worrying.

In this context, we need to ask: who are the needy? The best medical advice indicates that there a number of factors which predispose certain people towards being seriously affected by this virus. Age and health are two key factors; people aged 65 and over are more likely to contract the virus, and people with one or more of the co-morbidity factors are likewise at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Co-morbidity factors include hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease (heart problems), chronic respiratory disease (breathing difficulties), diabetes, and cancer. Anyone with one or more of these can be viewed in terms of their being one of “the needy”, who are to receive particular care from other believers. Avoiding situations where such people are exposed to a greater risk of contacting the virus, is surely a responsibility that we have, as a community of faith.

See this accessible discussion of co-morbidity factors at https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/clinical/examining-factors-that-worsen-coronavirus-severity

Occasions when large groups of people are gathered together are precisely the situations when the passing of the virus to other people can occur. People with a number of the factors that predispose them to be significantly impacted by the virus are at greater risk in such situations. Our responsibility in this situation is, not only to those in our community of faith, but, more widely, to those in the society of which we are a part. We are committed, after all, to “the common good” (see Neh 2:8 and Gal 6:10).

That raises, for me, the question as to how we balance the desire, and the felt importance, of gathering together for worship and fellowship, with the responsibility of the community of faith to care for the needy, and particularly, for the elderly and medically unhealthy individuals who are found, inevitably, across all of the Congregations of the church. What is the responsible way forward?

The worship service that I attended today was scheduled to be a service of Holy Communion. During the week, after considering the medical advice available and the evidence concerning the spread of the virus, the elders decided to hold a service without communion. An empty plate and goblet stood at the front, as the minister—my wife, Elizabeth Raine—led a time of lamenting and remembering, in place of a full communion. See https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2020/03/a-lament-for-communion.html

However, there are further questions to explore. Should we suspend our regular worship gatherings, until the peak of the pandemic has passed? Caring for the needy—ensuring that we do not place them in a situation of greater risk—would seem, to me, to mitigate the need, and the desire, to gather each week for worship. We may well be better served to suspend our gatherings for the moment. That would be a good way to show that we are serious about “opening our hands to the poor and needy neighbour in our land” (Deut 15:7).

Gathering together on a Sunday for worship and fellowship is precisely the thing about “being church” that is valued by the group most exposed to risks in the current pandemic. People over 65 make up the majority of church attenders in any denomination, as, indeed, in many denominations. Older people attending are what keeps many Sunday worship services continuing. They have a strong commitment (so they keep on telling me) to keeping the doors open, making a witness to the community, by worshipping each Sunday.

So closing worship on Sunday in the face of such intense commitment will be difficult. But it might now be the issue that we need to confront, and the decision that we need to take, if we want to ensure that the incidence if illness and, indeed, the death rate, amongst elderly and inform church members is minimised. It is that serious, that dangerous, and that pressing.

Up to date statistics on the spread of the virus in Australia can be found at https://www.covid19data.com.au/

The NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church has published guidelines for how we act during the pandemic, at https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/letter-from-the-general-secretary-regarding-the-prevention-of-novel-coronavirus-covid-19/

In the USA, the Wisconsin Council of Churches has a very helpful and comprehensive set of resources available at https://www.wichurches.org/2020/02/28/flu-season-the-coronavirus-and-the-church/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=flu-season-the-coronavirus-and-the-church

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From the woman at the well to a Byazantine saint: John 4, St Photini, and the path to enlightenment

Recently, I reflected on the story of Jesus and his encounter with the woman by the well in Samaria (John 4). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

There is a wonderful classic picture of this scene, drawn by the 19th century French artist, James Tissot.

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Woman of Samaria at the Well (La Samaritaine à la fontaine), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 10 5/16 x 14 13/16 in. (26.2 x 37.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.69 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 00.159.69_PS2.jpg)

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4469

In contrasting this story (in the open, in broad daylight) with the previous story of Jesus and his encounter with a Pharisee of Jerusalem (indoors, in the dark of night), I noted that we know the name of the Pharisee—Nicodemus—but the woman remains anonymous, without a name.

The tradition of the church, as it has evolved over the years, has named this woman, and even canonised her: in Eastern Orthodox churches, she is Saint Photini. The name is derived from the Greek term for “enlightenment”. By tradition, Saint Photini is dressed in red, as the pictures in this post demonstrate.

This name encapsulates the key dynamic of the story recounted in John 4. The woman moves from a (seemingly) chance encounter with Jesus, to become fully aware (enlightened) as to his status: he is prophet, Messiah, and (in the words of the people to whom she subsequently testifies), Saviour of the world.

Because of the last section of the scene beside the well, as told in the book of origins (John 4:27), the witnessing that the woman made to the people of her city (4:28-30, 39), and the resulting confession of Jesus as Saviour of the world (4:40-42), the woman was honoured in the preaching of church fathers as an evangelist, alongside the better-known apostolic figures (largely male).

As the Christian tradition evolved, more was claimed about this woman. She, along with her five sisters and two sons, were baptised. It is at this point, according to tradition, that she adopted the Christian name of Photini. The Russian Church, which also remembers her in the equivalent Russian name Svetlana, has honoured her in this hymn:

By the well of Jacob, O holy one,
thou didst find the Water of eternal and blessed life;
and having partaken thereof, O wise Photina,
thou wentest forth proclaiming Christ, the Anointed One.
(Megalynarion for St. Photina, according to the Byzantine usage.)

The developing traditions about Photini in the Byazantine period placed her, at one point in her life, in Carthage in North Africa, where she converted many people. Hearing the news of the persecution of believers in Rome under Nero, Photini and many of her converts sailed to Rome, where she witnessed to her faith as she stood before the Emperor. Nero had her and her family beaten and imprisoned.

Nero then sent his daughter, Domnina, to speak with Photini. As a result, Domnina was converted, baptised, and adopted the name Anthousa. Nero tried many ways to punish Photini, Anthousa, and their group, but the spirit enabled them to resist them all. Eventually, so the story goes, Photini have her life over to God, who called her to her heavenly reward.

Since then, generations of Orthodox Christians have prayed to this saint in these words:

Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One,

from Christ the Saviour you drank the water of salvation.

With open hand you give it to those who thirst.

Great-Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles,

pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.

On the Greek Calendar, Saint Photina is commemorated on February 26.

I have summarised the above from

http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/photini.htm

So many of the women in the Bible are known to us only in passing. Many of them, like the woman of Samaria, are accorded no name at all. There are many women in the Bible who are identified by their relationship with a named man (the wife of Noah, the daughter of Jephthah, the mother of Sisera, the wife of Job, the daughter of Jairus, or the daughters of Philip, for instance) or by their geographic location (the Shunnamite woman, the witch of Endor, the woman of Tekoa, the Queen of Sheba, the widow of Nain, and so on). Even the sisters of Jesus (unlike some of his brothers, James and Jude) remain nameless in the New Testament.

See the full list at https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/all-women-bible/Chapter-3-Nameless-Bible-Women

The tradition has sought to rectify the anonymity of the woman of Samaria in this instance. She has become Photini. Let us honour her for he pathway towards enlightenment, the full understanding of who Jesus is, and the wholehearted practice of discipleship, as evangelist, in her life. This, to be sure, is consistent with the story told in John 4.

See also

https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2009/03/20/100846-martyr-photina-the-samaritan-woman-her-sons-and-those-with-them

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The Pharisee of Jerusalem and the woman of Samaria (John 3 and 4)

The Gospel reading last Sunday (John 3) is set in a house in the dark at night, as a prominent named male member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin engages in conversation with a teacher from Nazareth, discussing faith and life.

The Gospel reading this coming Sunday (John 4) is set in the blaze of light at midday in the open air, as an unnamed woman from a village in Samaria engages in conversation with the same teacher of Nazareth, also discussing faith and life.

The contrasts between the two scenes are regularly noted: different genders, different locations, different social status of the people involved, and so on. Often the importance of symbolism in this Gospel, the book of signs, is emphasised. All of this is important, not to be overlooked.

And because of the high-status position of the male, a prominent Pharisee in the capital city, the on-the-edge location of the woman and her uncertain marital status (4:16-18) is often used to push her into a position that the text does not actually state, as a pariah, an outcast on account of her (presumed) immorality. The Pharisee—pariah contrast is enticing. But that is not what I want to support or reinforce.

What I want to offer in this blog, is a reflection on the similarities between these two scenes. Both of the individuals who encounter Jesus engage with him in conversations that move through a series of phases, going deeper into the issues raised. Both conversations proceed by means of a standard narrative technique: a question is posed, an answer is offered, leading to a further question, another response, and still further question-answer interchanges.

This is an age-old technique used in teaching and in story-telling. It was also a standard aspect of the way that teachers of the Law operated in ancient Israel. So the Pharisee of Jerusalem poses the question to the teacher from Nazareth: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” and follows this immediately with a second question, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4).

After the response from the teacher, the Pharisee asks a further question, “How can these things be?” (3:9)—to which the teacher from Nazareth responds, in the time honoured fashion (answer a question with another question), “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:9-10).

After this, the teacher launches into a longer explanation in response to the questions posed by the Pharisee—an explanation which continues on for some time, leaving many commentators to wonder, just where does the conversation with the Pharisee from Jerusalem end, and where does the interpretive narrative of the evangelist take over? The Pharisee of Jerusalem has managed to draw from the man from Nazareth a teaching of some substance and significance.

When we move on into the next extended story in the Gospel, the conversation between the woman of Samaria and the teacher from Nazareth, we find the same dynamic in play. This conversation also proceeds by means of question and answer.

That, in itself, is significant: the anonymous woman employs the same technique that was demonstrated by the named Pharisee—both of them are functioning as intelligent, thoughtful people of faith, using the regular methods employed by the teachers of the Law in ancient Israel. The woman is implicitly placed on the same level as the man. They are both engaging in the typical rabbinic-style of back-and-forth question-and-answer.

The conversation that the teacher from Nazareth has with the woman is reported in far more length than the earlier one with the Pharisee. The evangelist has maintained the role of the woman as an equal in the conversation. She asks a series of thoughtful questions which lead the conversation in the direction it takes.

The matter of water is the presenting issue. The Samaritan woman asks the man from Nazareth, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). The evangelist here intersperses an editorial comment about the tensions between Jews and Samaritans.

That question leads to a deeper level, reflecting on traditions about water. The woman observes, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep”, and then asks, “Where do you get that living water?” She cites traditions common both to Jews and Samaritans: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:11-12)

After the man from Nazareth responds, the focus turns to the pastoral need, the matter of water quenching thirst. The woman asks the man to give him this water “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (4:15). What then ensues is a deepening of the conversation once more, as the ensuing interchange (4:16-18) leads to a clear affirmation, by the woman, of the status of the man in society: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (4:19a).

It is the woman, through the process of question-and-answer, dialogue and discussion, who comes to this affirmation of faith in the man.

But this is not the end of the conversation, and the dialogue that ensues will delve into a significant theological issue, with a strong communal dimension—that of worship. This lifts the conversation out of the strictly interpersonal dimension of woman-to-man, into a broader realm of Samaritan-to-Jew. This next phase of discussion (4:19b-24) deepens the conversation considerably. And the woman, this anonymous person from the much-despised northern group of Samaritans, is holding her own,with the teacher from Nazareth.

To my mind, there are two critical affirmations in what is said to her here: “salvation is from the Jews”, and “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”. The woman has drawn these statements froth from the teacher of Nazareth.

Yet there is a still-deeper level into which the conversation moves; one which culminates in a confession of faith, articulated with caution by the woman (“I know that Messiah is coming”), which is met by a clear affirmation by the man of Nazareth, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (4:25-26). This is the first of a number of key affirmations made in this Gospel, each of which is introduced by the key phrase, “I am”. (See the later declarations, “I am … bread, light, shepherd, door, resurrection, way, truth, life”—all highly significant affirmations.)

It is the woman of Samaria who has drawn forth this first signal affirmation by the teacher of Nazareth.

The conversation ends at this point; but the story continues, with a couple of additional scenes, involving, first, the disciples of the teacher from Nazareth, and then the people of the city where the woman of Samaria lives. What happens in that final scene is of critical importance in understanding the extended dialogue, the ever-deepening question-and-answer, between the woman and the man in John 4.

At this point, we need to consider how the key characters in each of these conversations with the teacher from Nazareth (John 3 and John 4) evolve. The two characters in these conversations demonstrate a movement from their starting point, through a process that, for each of them, leads to a clear statement of faith in that person. Both the Pharisee and the woman are, at the end, clearly depicted as disciples of the teacher from Nazareth.

The Pharisee of Jerusalem, we are told later in this Gospel, followed through after his initial conversation with the teacher (John 3)—in fact, he supported him in a debate in the Jerusalem council (John 7), and after the teacher had died, he publicly joined in the task of anointing his body and laying it to rest (John 19). His belief in what this teacher had taught, was now clear for all to see.

The Pharisee of Jerusalem had taken risks, explored his faith, and made significant changes in his life. He is a named high-status follower of Jesus, at least according to this particular Gospel, and his name is remembered throughout Christian history, by believers across the world: Nicodemus.

The woman of Samaria, we learn as we follow the intricacies of the discussion in just one chapter (John 4), moves from being a curious discussion partner, to someone who recognises something deeper about the teacher and prophet from Nazareth, to making a clear connection with the enduring Hebraic hope for a Messiah—and then, in the final scene, to be the first evangelist to bear witness to this belief (at least, according to this Gospel).

This woman goes back to her city, where she testifies to the one who she had encountered. Sadly, however, she remains without a name, at least as far as the biblical witness attests. She is always “the Samaritan woman”.

Yet this impressive woman leads the people of her city to make the highest confession of faith: “we know he is the Saviour of the world” (4:42).

This week, and this Sunday, let us give thanks for this woman: thoughtful, enquiring and questioning, engaging in conversation, deepening in understanding, growing in faith, practising her discipleship by testifying to Jesus, and standing as the first evangelist in this particular Gospel record.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

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Celebrating Canberra Day

Today I am enjoying a public holiday. This is because of the peculiarities of our history as a federation of states (and those lesser beasts known as territories), and the vagaries of border demarcations from various times in the history of this country over recent centuries.

Our state boundaries evolved over many decades. Our federation was originally intended to include New Zealand, but they invoked the Tasman Sea and remained a separate nation. Five states agreed to join the federation through referenda held in 1898 and 1899. Western Australia, naturally, came to the party only late, joining up with a last minute yes vote on 31 July 1900, just in time for the declaration of Australia on 1 January 1901.

I live, as you probably known, in the #anonymousterritory amongst the #undifferentiatedeasternstates (at least, that is how #overeast is seen from #overwest). And the capital of this territory is the city of Canberra—whose day, Canberra Day—is being celebrated today.

Accordingly, all the employees and public servants and local (territory) politicians here are on holidays, for the day. Over the weekend, there have been early morning balloon flights and evening light shows, and the weekend is surrounded by a ten-day festival with concerts and all manner of festivities on offer.

The city of Canberra was named at a ceremony on 12 March 1913 by the wife of the Governor-General, Gertrude Mary Denman, known formally as Lady Denman and informally as Trudie.

The name Canberra, as I have previously blogged, is believed to have been derived from a local Indigenous word which identifies the location as a meeting place, where the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Ngarigo, Walgalgula, amd Wiradjuri people would meet each year, for a gathering focussed around the bogong moth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/30/learning-of-the-land-3-tuggeranong-queanbeyan-and-other-canberra-place-names/

So that’s what all the celebration and festivities are about today—remembering the naming of this place by the daughter of an engineer, who married a minor British aristocrat who was sent to the colonies to represent the British monarch in the fledgling federation.

So today, while people in New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia are hard at work, we Territorians are enjoying a day off—along with folks in South Australia (for Adelaide Cup Day), Tasmania (celebrating Eight Hour Day) and Victoria (celebrating the same thing as the Taswegians, but there it is called May Day—go figure!).

Canberra sits in the area around the Molongolo River, near its junction with the Murrumbidgee River, to the east of the Brindabella Ranges. The area was named Canberra, after much posturing and politicking by assorted leaders, in 1911, when the NSW government ceded the district to the federal government and the Federal Capital Territory was formed. Its name was changed to the present name two decades later.

Canberra is the only city in the Australian Capital Territory. If you look at a map, you will see that the shape of the ACT is quite distinctive. The way the borders were agreed to offers a very interesting story. They produce a territory with a very strange shape. Some might say, this quite befits the place where politicians gather from all over the continent, to work in the very strange environment of the APH (the Australian Parliament House) and to make decisions which also have some very strange aspects!

There is one section of the ACT borders that is a straight line; the rest is far from straight. The shape of the ACT is quite asymmetrical, and Canberra is bunched into just one end of the elongated shape that forms the territory. The rest of the ACT is set aside as a series of nature reserves and the Namadgi National Park.

The story of how the borders were decided, and then surveyed and implemented, is told in this ABC article:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/specials/curious-canberra/2016-04-11/how-the-act-borders-were-determined/7304358

The original intention was to form a territory around the series of rivers in the region. The ACT was going to be a horseshoe shape, since the Surveyor-General, Charles Scrivener, originally wanted to include the Queanbeyan and Molonglo River catchments, and the Queanbeyan township itself, in the Federal Capital Territory.

That proposal was—surprise, surprise!—vetoed by the NSW government, who did not want to lose the main southern train line as it earn south from Queanbeyan. You can check this by following the train line south from Queanbeyan—the eastern ACT/NSW border follows the train line precisely, through all its twists and turns, to the southern tip of the ACT.

Mind you,as the above map indicates, the ACT water catchment area still draws from all the river systems originally proposed. And in this way (along with employment and entertainment factors), Queanbeyan is integrally connected with Canberra!

So, back in the day, in place of the Queanbeyan catchment, the NSW Government offered a series of catchments to the south of the Molongolo—the Cotter, Gudgenby, Naas and Paddy’s River catchments—which gave the territory is distinctive elongated shape.

And so we rest and ponder and enjoy the day.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/18/learning-of-the-land-2-ngunnawal-namadgi-and-ngarigo/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/17/learning-of-the-land-1/

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Passing the peace, sharing the elements, greeting the minister

How do we pass the peace in a time when the COVID-19 virus (the corona virus) is spreading? What do we do to greet each other in worship (and, indeed, in everyday life) if shaking hands is not advised?

This was the topic of conversation at this week’s Canberra ministers lectionary conversation. We gave this some serious consideration to the question: how do we ensure the wellbeing (the good health) of the people in our community of faith?

One suggestion made is that, when it comes time to pass the peace, we face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.

The other place where shaking hands is common, is at the end of the worship service, when people who are present file out (usually in an orderly manner) and shake hands with the worship leader who is dutifully standing at the exit door, waiting to greet each of them personally.

The best way to handle this would be to explain, during worship, that we will not be shaking hands during or after the service, and make the suggestion that people can interact in the way suggested: face each other, place our right hand over our own heart, and greet one another.

Modes of distributing the elements during communion need also to be considered; is it wise to hold to the use of a common cup? It is a wonderful symbol, but quite possibly is a significant health hazard in this time. A discussion of this matter with elders or church council would be a sensible way to proceed.

The use of hand sanitiser by the presiding person, prior to handling the elements, has been suggested for some time. Might it also be sensible to consider having sanitiser available to be used by others assisting in leading the service, and indeed by all as they arrive at worship? This is now the status quo in hospitals and medical centres, which provide a precedent for church gatherings.

This matter relates to the wellbeing of the communities we serve. How do we ensure that we keep a safe and healthy place for people to gather? I encourage you to consider these matters in the days ahead within the faith community or congregation where you currently gather for worship and fellowship.

For helpful information on COVID-19, see https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov#how-it-spreads

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Living our faith in the realities of our own times … hearing the message of “the book of signs”

The book of signs, the fourth Gospel that we have in our New Testament, is attributed by tradition to the apostle John. It is most likely that it draws on stories that originated with that apostle, but they have been retold, elaborated, passed on, reshaped, developed, and eventually written down in a form that corresponds with the Gospel that we have today.

This Gospel contains many distinctive elements. It recounts incidents where Jesus encountered a number of individuals who do not feature at all in the other three Gospels, the so-called Synoptic Gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It opens doors into aspects of the story of Jesus which are not found when we read those first three Gospels.

We meet four such characters over the coming four Sundays, as the revised common lectionary provides us with accounts of the interaction that took place between Jesus and the Pharisee, Nicodemus (John 3), an unnamed woman beside a well in Samaria (John 4), a resident of Jerusalem who had been born blind, and his parents (John 9), and then Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus is said to have raised back to life after his death (John 11). This last story includes two characters who, it is thought, appear also in the Synoptic Gospels—Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42).

The accounts of these four characters are located in the first half of the Gospel (John 1-12), before the second half of the Gospel is devoted to an extended scene, where Jesus farewells his closest followers (John 13-17), before moving into an account of a sequence of event told also in the Synoptic Gospels: the arrest, trials, sentencing, crucifixion, burial, and then resurrection appearances of Jesus (John 18-21).

The first half of the Gospel, then, provides collection of public events in the life of the adult Jesus, some of which touch on events recounted n other Gospels, many of which are distinctive to this book. They are narrated in a long section often called the Book of Signs (2:1–12:50).

This terminology is drawn from the descriptions provided by the author (2:11, 3:2, 4:5411:4712:37, and 20:30). What was most likely the original conclusion to this book notes that Jesus did many other signs … which are not written in this book (20:30), which leads me to use the description the book of signs when referring to this Gospel.

However, these chapters contain more than simply “signs” (miracles) performed by Jesus. For instance, this “book” begins with a miracle in Galilee (2:1–11), an incident in Jerusalem (2:13–22), an encounter with a Pharisee in Jerusalem (3:1–10), another encounter with a Samaritan woman in Sychar (4:1–26), and a second miracle in Cana (4:46–54).

Relevant teachings of Jesus are interspersed amongst these happenings. The pattern of alternating encounters, teachings and miracles continues, with the addition of a sequence of controversies as Jesus engages in increasingly tense debates with Jewish leaders (5:10–186:41–50; 7:14–52; 8:12–59; 10:19–39).

Sometimes Jesus delivers his teachings in lengthy monologues (for example, 3:11–215:19–47; 9:41–10:18); more often, his teachings are punctuated by questions and responses from others. On his final visit to Jerusalem (from 12:9 onwards), Jesus summarises his teachings in a pivotal public address (12:23–28; 12:44–50).

It is important to note how this Gospel firmly locates the story of Jesus within the within the framework of his religion—that is, first century Palestinian Judaism. Jesus visits Jerusalem on a number of occasions (2:13; 5:1; 7:1011:55). This is already in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, in which the adult Jesus stays in Galilee and visits Jerusalem only once (on the occasion leading to his crucifixion—Mark 11 and parallels).

In John’s Gospel, each of his visits to Jerusalem is located within the Jewish calendar—a feature which is also unique to this Gospel amongst the four canonical Gospels.  The first visit, during the Passover festival (2:13), is the occasion when Jesus undertook his “cleansing of the Temple”.

The second visit was during an unnamed feast (5:1; possibly Pentecost, as it was some time before the Passover at 6:4). This leads to a discussion of the story of manna in the wilderness (an integral part of the Passover story). Jesus’ next visit(7:10) takes place during the feast of Tabernacles (7:2, 11, 14).

His last Passover visit, after the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:55), equates with the one Synoptic visit, for this is when Jesus is brought into direct conflict with the Jerusalem authorities. In addition to these festivals, the Feast of Dedication is also noted in the narrative (10:22). 

The activity of Jesus in this Gospel is firmly grounded within traditional Jewish religious observances. He keeps the conventional Jewish feasts. Jesus is acknowledged as a Jew explicitly by the Samaritan woman (4:9) and implicitly by Pilate (18:35), as well as by the inscription placed on his cross, “King of the Jews” (19:19–22). It is a story which is incarnate, enfleshed, grounded in earthly realities—because, in Jesus “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). 

The whole account thus provides us with encouragement to live out our faith in the realities of life in our own times. Although Jesus was a Jew, living in a different time, within a different culture, in a different location form where we are now living, nevertheless, his story indicates that God’s love is for the whole world, that the Gospel reaches out over place and time and culture, to engage each of us precisely where we are.

It is with that encouragement that we enter into the hearing and thinking about the interactions that Jesus had, with a Pharisee, a Samaritan woman, a blind Jerusalem man and the family of the deceased man, Lazarus. We hear these stories because they can inform the ways that we live out our faith today.

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

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

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Giving up? Or going deep? The opportunity of Lent

Our lives are lived in a regular cycle of seasons. The heat of summer gives way to the coolness of autumn, then to the cold of winter, before the warmth of spring rejuvenates and refreshes, and we find ourselves back in the baking heat of summer, once more.

And so, too, does the Christian year move between seasons, following an ancient pattern which was shaped to provide a focus on the central story of our faith—the story of Jesus Christ. Each December, in the season of Advent, we prepare to celebrate his birth. That is the celebrated in the season of Christmas (which largely been taken over by commercial interests) and the ensuing season of Epiphany.

In the northern hemisphere, where this cycle originated, the days at this time of year start to lengthen, and that process gave the name of the next season: Lent. It comes from the Old English word lencten, which was the old way that the season of spring was named.

Lent has been celebrated for at least 1500 years. It is typically seen as a time of self-examination and repentance, a hard season which is characterised by discipline and sacrifice, a time for giving up, a period of penitence and abstinence.

What are you giving up for Lent this year? If you have not yet decided, the pressure is on. What are you giving up?

More often, now, Lent presented as a time of “preparation” for Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then follows Pentecost, a longer season focussed on growth, lasting almost half of the year, before Advent comes around again.

This ancient pattern offers us an annual opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit our lives of discipleship and service. For myself, I do not see this as an archaic custom which we can readily abandon; rather, I view Lent as a time for regrouping and rebuilding my walk of faith. In the southern hemisphere, where I live, the days are not lengthening (in fact, the daylight hours are becoming shorter)—but the opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit, is still valid.

Each year, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This year, that will fall on 26 February. It will run until Good Friday, which this year is on 10 April, and lead into the celebrations of Easter Sunday, on 12 April.

Technically, there are 40 days in Lent, but it actually runs for 46 full days. The six Sundays during the weeks of Lent don’t actually count as part of Lent, as they remain The Lord’s Day, when the resurrection is celebrated. The other 40 days are more sombre, more reflective.

(So, technically, you can indulge to your heart’s content on those Sundays, but maintain your Lenten discipline on the other days of the week. Six days of stringent abstinence, one day of unfettered indulgence, and repeat the pattern six times. That’s the way that Lent rolls, it would seem!)

How will you spend this season of Lent? Many of the regular activities of life will still need to be attended to: shopping, cleaning, working, travelling, preparing meals, gathering with family, visiting friends, reading, gardening, listening to music … and a host of other things that fill the regular pattern of our lives, day by day, week by week. We won’t, or can’t, give up these aspects of life.

So the challenge that sits before us at this time of the year, is this: how, and when, will I find time to dedicate to nurturing my spiritual life, to strengthening my life of discipleship? Instead of giving something up, could we think about Lent as a time for going deep? That is the opportunity, and the challenge, that Lent presents.

In the midst of all the regular activities, a special focus on going deep into our spiritual life and strengthening our discipleship would be beneficial to each of us. To nurture our spiritual lives, my church (along with many others) make use of the Revised Common Lectionary—a modern version of an ancient church practice, to read systematically and listen carefully to the range of scripture passages that can nourish us in our walk of faith.

The lectionary provides four scripture passages each Sunday, drawn from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. And each year, a particular Gospel is in focus (this year, it is the Gospel of Matthew)—although during Lent, the Gospel passages are most often drawn from the Gospel of John. The schedule of passages offered for Lent 2020 can be seen at

https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu//lections.php?year=A&season=Lent

There is a wonderful website called The Text This Week, which collates links to an abundance of resources relating to the seasons of the church year, and the readings set in the Revised Common Lectionary each week.

The page for Lent 2020 is at http://www.textweek.com/lent.htm

And for personal use in reading a daily passage of scripture and reflecting on what it offers to us in terms of our faith, I can recommend an Australian resource (with which I have had a connection over four decades, and to which I regularly contribute), called With Love to the World.

This is a daily devotional guide that provides a reflection on a Bible passage for each day of the year, with questions for discussion, guidance for prayer, and suggestions for hymns and songs to sing. With Love to the World is published four times a year.

You can read about it at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/

Lent is an ancient practice which can be utterly relevant in the modern world. In this period of 40 days, or six weeks, leading up to Easter, we have the opportunity to take time to reflect seriously on our faith, to deepen our understanding and strengthen our discipleship.

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This is the world we live in, this is the Gospel we believe in

This month I have started fulltime into a regional ministry role with the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Presbytery includes Congregations, Faith Communities, and Uniting Agencies across the ACT and in coastal and rural areas in the southeast of NSW.

I am joined in another fulltime regional ministry role by Andrew Smith, a colleague minister in the Uniting Church, and we work with administrative support staff, as well as in a collegial relationship with the Saltbush Project of our church, serving rural and remote Congregations, and Uniting, building community connections in locations across the region.

My role is described as Presbytery Minister Wellbeing, and I will be working with Ministers and Pastors, Congregations and Faith Communities, to guide them in their development and growth and support their leadership in their communities. I am charged to provide pastoral care, leadership development, and other training. There is a significant administrative component in the position. Despite this (or because of this?), I am looking forward to what this role will set before me.

Andrew has been called to serve as Presbytery Minister Congregation Futures, working with Congregations and Faith Communities, Pastors and Ministers, to empower their spiritual life, develop missional capacity, strengthen missional leadership, and build strong missional networks across the region. We are already working closely, and look forward to a constructive collaboration over the time ahead.

In the Service of Induction on 21 February 2020, we were privileged to have the President of the National Assembly, Dr Deidre Palmer, preach a thoughtful and stirring sermon. She focussed on the call to serve embedded in Luke 4:16-30 and the prayer of hope expressed in Psalm 13. What follows are the words that I offered in response at this service.

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Co-Chairpersons, President, colleagues and friends, I thank you for your welcome. I am pleased to be in Canberra, here because Elizabeth was called by God through the church, to the right place at the right time, to be minister of the Tuggeranong Congregation. We are very content to be here. The cats are contented, and after a year in our house, the veggies are growing abundantly.

Maisie, Felix, and Fearghal, settled into life in Canberra

I am grateful for the support and encouragement that I have received as I have undertaken the slow and extended process, over the last year, of working my way into this role of Wellbeing within your Presbytery.

I come with a commitment to support and serve the leadership of our 29 congregations, both lay and ordained; to equip and encourage the whole people of God in order that together we might be faithful followers of Jesus; and to work to strengthen the mission and ministry that is undertaken by our congregations and faith communities.

In a world where a mother and her children can be incinerated by an act of savage fury, we need the Gospel of God, which invites us to value others deeply and to share with others in the depths of pain …

In a world where barriers are built and walls reinforced, where borders are patrolled and security is intensified, where fear and distrust leads us to keep at bay those who are perceived as different, foreign, strangers, we need to live out the Gospel of welcoming acceptance, so that we may no longer be strangers to one another …

In a world where stereotypes are promulgated and intolerance of difference and diversity in personal identity is growing, we need to reinforce that the Gospel in which we stand calls us to value diversity, love everyone, and work together to strengthen the common good in society …

In a world where land is taken, communities are neglected, the voices of Indigenous Peoples are silenced and their peoples and communities are marginalised, we need to live by our covenant commitment to honour and respect them, to listen and share with them, to seek a destiny together with the First Peoples of this continent and its islands …

In a world where vested interests cajole and threaten, pouring money into supporting ventures which continue to inflict damage on the environment and destroy ecosystems, we need the Gospel of renewal and reconciliation for the whole creation …

In a world where bushfires and cyclones wreak havoc, where droughts and floods destabilise, we need the Gospel of patient care and loving concern, looking to rebuild lives and strengthen community resilience, which all comes from the central command, that we are to love one another …

In a world where captives are tortured, prisoners are held unjustly, systems are corrupted, and injustice is contagious, we need the Gospel which calls us to set free the prisoner, enable the blind to see, and offer God’s gracious liberty as a sign of the year of the Lord’s favour …

This is the world we live in, and this is the Gospel we believe in. It invites us into wholeness, shalom, wellbeing.

The 29 Congregational units in this Presbytery cover 54 locations under the banner of the Uniting Church. Every Sunday, when people in our Presbytery gather together to worship, every weekday, when people gather in our buildings to eat and talk, to listen and learn, we demonstrate that we are committed to this Gospel, as the good news for all, that we seek to live it out to the fullest.

Our congregations and faith communities are the lifeblood of that Gospel in our region. Our pastors and ministers are the people who call and care, who proclaim and practice the good news for our world in each of those places, as we live out that Gospel.

Canberra Region Presbytery Ministers and Pastors with the Co-Chairs of Presbytery, on retreat in October 2019

I am looking forward to working with you all, to continue working with Amy and Janise in the Presbytery Office, and especially to work closely with Andrew as we offer resourcing and guidance as the ministers you have called to serve across this Presbytery, charged to support ministers and pastors as they offer their leadership, called to equip faith communities and congregations to be resilient, faithful and engaged with their local communities.

I am committed to working with you, alongside each of you, to seek the wellbeing of our church and to contribute to the common good in society. I look forward to the adventures that lie ahead, as together we serve the Gospel in the world through our church.

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The Canberra Region Presbytery website is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/About-Us

A pastoral letter that I wrote as I started into the role in early February is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-letter-from-rev-dr-john-squires/

An earlier pastoral letter from Presbytery officers, sent during the height of the bushfire crisis, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

The Presbytery newsletter for Summer 2019-2020, with the theme celebrating transitions, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/viewpoint-summer-2019/

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The missing parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6 and 7)

Over recent Sundays, as we follow teachings of Jesus that are recorded in the book of origins, the revised common lectionary has led us to hear the early section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-37) in our worship. This section of Matthew’s Gospel has been read over three Sundays during Epiphany, before Ash Wednesday arrives and introduces the season of Lent, with its thematic selection of texts from various places in Matthew and John.

However, because Lent starts relatively early this year, the length of Epiphany is shortened, and so that means that miss critical sections of this sermon from the end of chapter 5, as well as all of chapters 6 and 7. (After Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity, the lectionary Gospel selections return to Matthew’s Gospel—but they start back at the end of chapter 9!)

We have seen the strongly Jewish nature of the eight Beatitudes, or blessings, which begin this sermon (5:3-12). Soon after these blessings, Jesus announces his intention to intensify the demands of the Law (5:18) by demanding that his followers exhibit a righteous-justice that exceeds that demonstrated by the Pharisees (5:20). Then he offers a series of case studies in exactly how this intensified righteous-justice plays out in specific situations in life (5:21-48).

See my previous blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

As this first main discourse continues, the Matthean Jesus instructs his listeners on righteous-justice (6:1–18; some contemporary English translations use the term “piety”). In this context, this word indicates the means of expressing righteousness, undertaking just actions, or performing acts of piety.

By selecting alms (6:2–4), prayer (6:5–15), and fasting (6:16–18), Jesus does no less than instruct on the three forms of traditional Jewish piety (Tobit 12:8 states, “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness”).

One of these traditional forms of piety is prayer; whilst instructing his disciples how to pray (6:5–15), the Matthean Jesus offers a distinctive formula for prayer (6:9–13). Although this prayer has become known as the distinctive Christian prayer, a close study of Hebrew Scriptures shows that the concept in each clause (and in almost every case, the precise terminology of each clause) has originated in Jewish thought.

The ethical injunctions which follow on from this teaching about prayer continue the intensified approach to Torah which characterises the Matthean Jesus. He canvasses attitudes to possessions (6:19–21), absolute obedience to one master (6:24), avoidance of judgmental attitudes (7:1–5), devotion to holiness (7:6), and a focus on the essential elements of life (7:13–14).

The Sermon includes the “Golden Rule” (7:12), a rule that is repeated in various ways throughout the Gospel. All that Jesus has been teaching and encouraging in 5:17–7:11 is summarised by this rule, which is the essence of the law and prophets. This “Golden Rule” is also found in the rabbinic writings, for it is modelled on Lev 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

One example is found in the writings about Hillel and Shammai, two Rabbis who consistently held opposite interpretations of Scripture. The story goes that a Gentile asked Shammai to explain to him the entire Jewish law while standing on one foot (i.e. briefly). Shammai drove him away. The Gentile made the same request to Hillel, and was told “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.”

Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount”, makes a similar plea to focus on the essentials at the heart of the Law. A later saying likewise sharpens the view of Torah, with a reference to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23).

Towards the end of the Sermon, Jesus criticises those who mouth the confession, “Lord, Lord”, but fail to do God’s will (7:21–23). Such people are condemned as “evildoers” in the NRSV; a more accurate translation is conveyed by the phrase “lawless ones”. It is their inability to live by Torah which condemns them.

Alongside the affirmation of the Law in this Sermon (7:12) stands a fierce condemnation of those who do not follow its paths (7:23). The same Greek term (literally, “without law”) is applied in eschatological contexts to those who do not follow the Law (13:41; 24:12) and, with great irony, to the Pharisees (23:28)—those charged with the teaching of the Law! This provides a cutting edge to the stance of the Matthean Jesus: to follow his way means to take seriously the Torah—something which even its authorised teachers appear unable to do.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also 

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

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You have heard it said … but I say to you … (Matt 5)

This Sunday, as we follow the revised common lectionary, we read another section of the teachings of Jesus from the book of origins (Matt 5:21-37) which forms a part of a larger section which is traditionally called the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29). It has this name because it takes place after Jesus “went up the mountain” (5:1), and concludes with the note that Jesus “had come down from the mountain” (8:1).

Sections of the sermon feature as the Gospel passage in the latter Sundays in Epiphany. This year, we have heard Matt 5:1-37 over three Sundays, before turning next week to the Transfiguration and then moving into the season of Lent, with its thematic selection of texts from various places in Matthew and John.

Although called, by tradition, a sermon, these chapters are more a collection of many of the key teachings of Jesus. A striking feature of these chapters is that they comprise many elements of Jewish ethical teaching. Indeed, in these chapters, Jesus strengthens the Jewish ethos of his teachings.

We have seen the strongly Jewish nature of the eight Beatitudes, or blessings, which begin this sermon (5:3-12). Soon after these blessings, Jesus announces his intention to intensify the demands of the Law (5:18) by demanding that his followers exhibit a righteous-justice that exceeds that demonstrated by the Pharisees (5:20). See my previous blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Many sections of what then follows contain Jesus’ own interpretation of Jewish traditions. He is, after all, in the mind of the author of this book of origins, THE authoritative teacher, THE definitive interpreter of how the Torah is to apply in everyday life. And what he says, it is believed, needs to be understood as taking place within the context of argument and disputation with the Pharisees, who were the acknowledged teachers of the Law.

It seems that Jesus, in his interpretations, often intensifies, or strengthens, what Hebrew Scripture states concerning the Torah, the Law of Moses. It is most likely that the report that we have in the book of origins concerning these interpretive debates reflects perhaps something of what the historical Jesus said, but much more of the antagonistic and polemical context of the community of faith in which the author of the book of origins was located.

The passage set in the lectionary forms a major part of what is often called the “Antitheses” (5:21-48), because Jesus sets himself up in opposition to what his followers have heard, presumably in the teachings on the Law offered by the Pharisees. The six “antitheses” provide clear case studies in how Jesus, in the way he is presented in this Gospel, approaches the task of interpreting and applying the Torah.

This sequence of six “antitheses” demonstrates the intensification which Jesus brings to the Law. Six times, Jesus refers to a commandment, provides a common understanding of that commandment, and then provides an interpretation which strengthens the force of the commandment. (Although they are traditionally called Antitheses, because of the form, I think that the substance actually points to each of them as being Intensifiers.)

Thus, it is not enough not to kill, or not to commit adultery. It is not enough to love just your neighbour, but hate your enemy. True righteousness—living with total justice—does not even consider doing any of these things, however briefly, but forgives wrong and loves enemies freely.

And, to press his point to the full, Jesus in this sermon uses some striking images to emphasise just how challenging and just how daunting it is to follow this pathway: cut off your hand and pluck out your eye, most strikingly. And, less dramatically: do not swear oaths, and do not divorce unless there are extenuating circumstances. These are striking instances of what an intensified obedience to the Law means. These dramatic images push followers of Jesus to the very heart of our faith, and ask us to consider, how do we fully and completely live in obedience to God’s way?

It is living by this intensified interpretation of the Law set forth by Jesus, that will ensure that the righteous-justice of Jesus’ followers will be seen as greater than that of the Pharisees (5:19). The words of Jesus recorded in this section of the Gospel head towards the climactic instruction that followers of Jesus are to be “perfect” as God is perfect (5:48). They will demonstrate a totally just way of life, fully immersed in the life that God offers.

The teaching of Jesus in these Antitheses, and throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount, shows how fully God must be present in the life of the followers of Jesus. They indicate that it is God who must guide not only the deeds of believers, but also their motivations and emotions. Such striving for perfection signals the in-breaking of the kingdom, the faint dawn of the new age of righteous-justice breaking in upon the earth.

There is a cutting edge to the stance of the Matthean Jesus: to follow his way means to take seriously the Torah, to live by the commandments in every aspect of life. As is stated in Deuteronomy 30:19-20, in this exhortation: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him”. It is an all-of-life matter.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

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An excess of righteous-justice (Matt 5)

Recent scholarship has recognised the Jewish character of the first Gospel in the New Testament—the work that I refer to as the book of origins (for that is my translation of how the book begins, in Matt 1:1).

A consensus is emerging that the book of origins was most likely written for a community that was still thoroughly immersed within its Jewish tradition. One place we can see that is in what is perhaps the most famous section of the Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). These chapters stand as an excellent example of how Jesus was understood, by Matthew, to be THE authoritative Jewish teacher, interpreting and applying the Torah, the Law of Moses, to all of daily life.

In this sermon, Jesus debates with the Pharisees concerning their interpretation of scripture. His pugnacious words, “you have heard it said … but I say to you …” (occurring six times within 5:21-48) reflect the common dialectical interaction that Pharisees (and, later, Rabbis) used to tease out the meaning of each commandment found within the Law. Torah teaching was inherently dialogical in nature; those teaching the Law would argue, back and forth, over what it meant and how it was to be followed.

As Jesus uses these established Jewish debating techniques, he proposes a way of living that is thoroughly grounded in Jewish ethics and practices, such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The emphasis on righteousness is central to the discourse; four times during this sermon (5:6, 10, 20; 6:33) Jesus particularly emphasises the importance of being righteous.

Indeed, in the verse which culminates the Gospel passage set for this coming Sunday, Jesus is attributed as having taught his disciples that he is looking for an excess of righteousness: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).

That verse has followed straight after Jesus’ emphatic insistence that the Law, the whole of the Law, must still stand for his followers. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18). And then follows strict instructions to those who follow Jesus, to ensure that they keep all the commandments, and ensure they do not break any of them (5:19).

So righteousness means living in accord with the Law, obeying all the requirements that it sets out, keeping all the commandments in fine detail. That is why Jesus instructs his followers to be the “salt of the earth” (5:13), the “light of the world” (5:14), so that others “may see your good works” (5:16). This means, always living in a way that bears “good fruit” (7:17), doing “the will of the Father” (7:21), listening to the words which Jesus speaks and acting on them diligently (7:24). Giving alms, praying faithfully, and fasting regularly, are offered as three key ways by which this righteous way of living will be manifest (6:1-18).

There can be no doubt that, in the book of origins, Jesus is intensely, rigorously, Jewish, scrupulously upholding the Law in every tiny detail in the way that he understands it to apply. And righteousness is at the centre of that way of life.

The concept of righteousness is thoroughly Jewish in origin. It is closely linked with the demand for justice. Patriarchal stories remember Noah as a righteous man (Gen 6:9) and recall that Abraham was accounted as righteous by God (Gen 15:6); Ezekiel adds Daniel and Job to this list (Ezek 14:14). A number of psalms make the claim that God is just and righteous by nature and in action (Ps 7:11; 116:5; 119:137, 144; 129:4; see also Isa 5:16; 11:3–5; 24:16; 45:21) and proverbs were collected to inform people of the ways to live righteously and with justice (for instance, Prov 10:11–13:25).

Various prophetic voices regularly called for justice and righteousness within Israel (Isa 1:24–28; 26:7–9; 32:16–17; 45:8; 61:10–11; Jer 22:3; 23:5–6; Ezek 3:20–21; 18:5–9; Dan 9:24; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:20; Hab 2:4; Zeph 2:3). Malachi envisages a book in which the names of the righteous will be written as the “special possession” of God (Mal 3:16–18).

The central catchcry of Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24), exemplifies the desires of faithful Israelites in ages past and is carried over into the hopes of faithful Jews in our own times.

And this word righteousness appears frequently in New Testament books (all four Gospels, Acts, most of the letters of Paul, and the letters to the Hebrews, and from James, Peter and John). And in many of these occurrences, it can equally validly be translated as justice. The two terms become interchangeable: living in a righteous way means living in a manner that prioritises justice.

Perhaps we would do better, in English, to render the Hebrew word tsdeqah, and the corresponding Greek word dikaiosune, as something like righteous-justice. The two words, in English, tend to pint us in different directions—righteousness has a personal orientation, justice refers to the way society operates. In Hebrew, and in Greek, the words overlap because those categories of personal and societal were not clearly distinguished and separated.

It was the Torah, the Law of Moses, which was at the heart of this desire for righteous-justice. Living in accordance with the prescriptions of a holy God meant leading a life of righteous-justice. The teachings of Jesus which are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel are both grounded in a commitment to Torah, and developed in accordance with Jewish understandings of a faithful life. Obedience to the Law essentially meant living a just life, a life of righteousness, in every aspect of life.

Indeed, there is a cluster of terms that sat at the heart of traditional Jewish piety at the time of Jesus. The terms righteous-justice and lawlessness, along with the devout and the ungodly, were common in sectarian language of the late Second Temple period. Use of such language was aimed at validating the position of the writer (and the writer’s community) in opposition to other positions.

We find that righteous-justice is a key term for defining the self-identity of the sectarian communities which produced various Jewish documents 4 Ezra (7:17, 49–51; 8:55–58), 2 Baruch (15:7–8; 85:3–5), 1 Enoch (94:1, 4–5; 96:1; 99:1–3; 95:6–7), and the Psalms of Solomon (4:8; 13:6–9; 15:6–9). In each of these writings, usually within the same sentences, the terms “sinners”, “ungodly” and “lawless” are used to define those outside the community.

In similar fashion, the Dead Sea Scrolls define their community as one marked by righteous-justice (Community Rule 3, 9; Commentary on Habbakuk 8), in distinction from outsiders who are “the wicked” (Damascus Rule 4) and “the children of falsehood” (Community Rule 3). The struggle between the various sectarian communities and those in power was couched in very black-and-white terms.

The same cluster of terms is to be found in the book of origins. To live by righteous-justice is a key defining feature of faithful disciples (10:41; 13:17, 43; 25:37, 46), and righteous-justice is the keynote of Jesus’ ministry (3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33). By contrast, those who are unfaithful are depicted as “lawless” (7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:10–12). This Gospel thus draws the same distinction between its members and outsiders, as is found in other Jewish sectarian documents of the time.

To be righteous means to adhere to the Law. To adhere to the Law means to live a just life. This is what Jesus taught, and this is how Jesus lived, as we find reported in the book of origins. And so, the whole Sermon on the Mount is included in this book as a challenging statement of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, keeping the Law in every respect, living with an excess of righteous-justice.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/