Featured

“The exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them”: celebrating women in leadership in the Uniting Church

The National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia has just installed the Rev. Sharon Hollis as President of the Assembly for the next three years (2021–24).

15th President Dr Deidre Palmer and General Secretary Colleen Geyer
pray over the Rev. Sharon Hollis as she is installed as the 16th President

At the same meeting (being held online because of the COVID pandemic), members of the Assembly have elected a female President-Elect, the Rev. Charissa Suli. She will serve as President-Elect for three years, and then take up the position of President in July 2024.

President-Elect, the Rev. Charissa Suli

The UCA employs a system where the current President, the immediate former President, and the President-Elect all serve as ex officio members of the Assembly Standing Committee, the body that oversees the church during the three years in between National Assembly meetings.

For the next three years, the President, the Past President, and the President-Elect will all be females: the Rev. Sharon Hollis, Dr Deidre Palmer, and the Rev. Charissa Suli, respectively. In addition, the current General Secretary of the Assembly is also female: Colleen Geyer. Her term has just been extended by the current Assembly. It is a striking symbol, when considering the national leadership of Christian churches across Australia. All of our key leadership are female.

The symbolism is potent, when Heads of Churches gather: women in such ranks have, to this point, been somewhat rare. The Uniting Church contribution has been, and will continue to be, a reminder, of the importance of providing a female perspective when issues of national social and political importance are being considered. (It’s a message that our national political leadership seems incapable of hearing and implementing—despite the power of the #EnoughIsEnough movement from earlier this year.)

Women in leadership is not an unusual thing for the UCA. To be sure, women have served in leadership roles in a number of denominations. But amongst the historic mainstream denominations, the Uniting Church stands out from Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, with many more women stepping forward in leadership.

Heads of Churches in 2018:
Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier,
President of the Uniting Church Dr Deidre Palmer,
and Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Anthony Fisher.

The same comparisons can be drawn with Baptist, Church of Christ, and Pentecostal churches over the past half century. (And a number of women in leadership in Pentecostal or other conservative churches have been in married teams, where their role has been “covered” by the “headship” of their husband—partner).

The first Moderator of the NSW Synod was Mrs Lilian Wells (1977–78) and the second Moderator of the Victorian Synod was Mrs Ethel Mitchell (1978–79). The South Australian Synod elected Mrs Elizabeth Finnegan as the sixth Moderator (1987–89) and then the Rev. Margaret Polkinghorne as the tenth Moderator (1995–97) in that Synod. The seventh Moderator of the Tasmanian Synod was Dr Jill Tabart (1984–85). Dr Tabart went on to be elected as the seventh President, serving 1994–97 in that role. She was the first female President.

Top: Moderators Lilian Wells (NSW) and Dr Jill Tabart (Tas)
Bottom: Moderator Elizabeth Finnegan (SA) with husband Paddy;
Presidents Dr Jill Tabart and Dr Deidre Palmer in 2015

This is completely consistent with the affirmation made in the Basis of Union—the document on which the formation of the Uniting Church was based. Paragraph 13 of the Basis, after recognising the existing ministries in the three participating denominations at the time of union, states, “The Uniting Church will thereafter provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them, and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission” (para. 13).

This was consistent with the practice of those three earlier denominations, which each had ordained women to serve in ministry: the Congregational Church had ordained Rev Winifred Kiek in 1927; Rev Dr Coralie Ling, a deaconess, became the first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church in 1969; and Rev Marlene (Polly) Thalheimer was ordained as the first female minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1974. You can read about these women, and more, in a fine article by Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, at https://revdocgeek.com/2013/06/22/women-in-the-uniting-church-by-a-partial-prejudiced-ignorant-historian-to-quote-the-immortal-jane/

Top left: the Rev. Winifried Kirk.
Top right: the Rev. Coralie Ling, in 1969,
and (below) in 2018.

Indeed, this practice is also consistent with the fundamental theological affirmation made earlier in paragraph 13 of the Basis, declaring that the church “acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” This, of course, derives from the crystal clear affirmations about the gifting of the Spirit that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 12. The Spirit knows no limits of gender in gracing individuals with gifts for ministry.

And Paul (despite the inaccurate ways in which his letters are portrayed) was completely accepting and affirming of women in ministry leadership as partners with him in the work they were undertaking. See my considerations of this matter at https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-1-the-positive-practices-of-jesus-and-the-early-church/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-2-six-problem-passages/

So, women in key leadership roles is a practice consistent with scripture and in accord with the central values and practices of the Uniting Church. Along with the women already noted in the opening paragraphs above, a number of the Synods have had female Moderators, Queensland being the last to elect a female in Kaye Ronalds, who was the first female in that role in that Synod, serving 2011–14 (pictured below).

Moderators Denise Liersch (VicTas),
Kaye Ronalds (Qld), and Susy Thomas (WA)

Five years ago, there were four female Moderators around the country: Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT, 2014–17), Sharon Hollis (VicTas, 2016–19), Thresi Mauboy Wohangara (Northern Synod, 2015–21), and Sue Ellis (SA, 2016–19) (pictured below).

Moderators Sue Ellis (SA), Sharon Hollis (VicTas)
Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT),
and Thresi Mauboy Wohangara (Northern Synod)
in 2016

Currently, there are three female Moderators: Thresi Mauboy Wohangara in the Northern Synod, Denise Liersch in VicTas, and Susy Thomas, in WA.

Whilst the Assembly has elected two lay women to the top leadership role—Dr Jill Tabart (1994–97) and Dr Deidre Palmer (2018–21)—lay female Moderators have been more scarce. In two Synods, lay women were elected as Moderator early in the life of the Uniting Church—in Victoria, Mrs E.A. Mitchell was the second Moderator (1979), whilst in NSW, Lilian Wells was the first Moderator (1977).

NSW subsequently elected Freda Whitlam (1985–86) and Margaret Reeson (2000–02) as Moderators. Tasmania elected Isabel Thomas Dodson (1997–99) and then the VicTas Synod elected her as Moderator for a second term (2009–13). The last Moderator for the Synod of Tasmania, before it joined with Victoria, was Colleen Grieve (2001–02).

Top: Moderators Colleen Grieve (Tas) and Freda Whitlam (NSW)
Bottom: Moderators Margaret Reeson (NSW.ACT)
and Isabel Thomas Dodson (Tas, and then VicTas)

South Australia elected Jan Trengove as Moderator (2001–03) and Dr Deidre Palmer (2013–16). In the Northern Synod, Ros McMillan served as Moderator (1996–2000)—her husband, Stuart McMillan, served as both Moderator (2010–15) and then as President (2015–18). In Western Australia, three lay women have served as Moderator: Beryl Grant (1985–87), Lillian Hadley (1993–95), and Elizabeth Burns (1999–2001).

Top: Moderators Beryl Grant (WA)
and Ros McMillan (Northern Synod)
Bottom: Moderators Jan Trengove (SA)
and Dr Deidre Palmer (SA)

Lay men have served in Western Australia (Ron Wilson, 1977–79, then Robert Watson, 2005–08), Tasmania (Neville Marsh, 1979–80, Dr Peter Gunn, 1991–93, and Don Hall, 1995–97), NSW.ACT (Bruce Irvine, 1989–92, and Jim Mein, 2004–07), Queensland (Dr John Roulston, 1990–91), South Australia (Dr Don Hopgood, 1997–99), and VicTas (Charles Lavender, 1982–83, Alex Kilgour, 1985–86, and Dan Wootton, 2013–16). In South Australia, the current Moderator is layman Bronte Wilson (2019-22).

The Rev. Charissa Suli, a second-generation Australian of Tongan heritage, is the first person of non-Anglo origins to serve in the National leadership role, although some Synods have elected non-Anglos as Moderators: Tongan Jason Kioa in VicTas (2006–09); Chinese Dr Tony Chi (1992–93) and Korean Myung Hwa Park (2014–17) in NSW.ACT. In the Northern Synod, indigenous leader Djiniyini Gondarra served as Moderator (1985–87) and now Thresi Mauboy Wohangara is Moderator. All of these leaders have been ordained people.

Top: Moderator Djiniyini Gondarra (Northern Synod),
President-Elect Charissa Suli.
Bottom: Moderators Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT)
and Jason Kioa (VicTas)

And the age of Charissa Suli is striking: she is a “young person” by church reckoning, having been ordained for just seven years, and still being in her thirties. That must surely be something not often seen in church leadership.

Of course, all of this recounting of females in prominent leadership roles hasn’t yet taken into account the numerous females who have served as Chairperson of Presbyteries, Church Councils, and Congregations—to say nothing of the thousands upon thousands of females serving as active members of Congregations and Fellowship Groups and living out their discipleship in community groups right around the country. Females outnumber males within the church by a factor of at least 2:1, so it is way beyond time that our leadership reflects this!

As we look back on 44 years of the Uniting Church, it is clear that we have sought to reflect the affirmations made in the Basis of Union, in undertaking the discernment about who would provide the leadership required in the various councils of the church. It might have looked better if the ratio of male/female, and ordained/lay, and even Anglo/CALD had been more evenly balanced. (The names of other leaders not noted in my survey above were all, like me, ordained males, usually “of mature age”.)

Nevertheless, the array of leadership we can point to provides a sign of our commitment as a church, to be open to the moving of the Spirit. We have seen that in the gifted leadership of Dr Tabart (who signed the Covenant relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in 1985) and Dr Palmer (who has steered the church through the difficulties of the 2018 decision about marriage, and who has been key to the development of a fine resource on domestic violence in 2021).

May that be what transpires under the leadership of Sharon Hollis, our first ordained female President, and then Charissa Suli, our first Pacific Islander female President.

*****

Confession: I haven’t done an exhaustive search into the names of all the Moderators. Those noted in the blog are those whose names I found in online resources (largely Wikipedia). Not every Synod has provided a full list of Moderators online. If there are other females, or lay people, who should be included amongst those I have noted, please let me know, and I will add them in!

*****

See https://uniting.church/installation-of-rev-sharon-hollis/ and https://uniting.church/rev-charissa-suli-announced-as-president-elect/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/02/the-identity-of-the-uniting-church/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/20/providing-for-the-exercise-by-men-and-women-of-the-gifts-god-bestows-upon-them-lay-people-presiding-at-the-sacraments-in-the-uniting-church/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

Featured

Looking into the mirror: what does the Uniting Church look like?

This month, the 16th National Assembly meeting of the Uniting Church is being held. Assembly meets every three years, rotating around state capitals. This year, the plan was to meet in Brisbane—but last year the decision was made to meet online.

The papers for the July 2021 meeting of Assembly are available to read online at https://uniting.church/16thassemblyresources/

Each Synod reports to the Assembly. The report of the Synod of NSW and the ACT includes a section that provides a description of “who we are” as the Uniting Church in this Synod.

That description uses data from the 2016 NCLS results and also a single respondent Census of Congregations (2019) which included an estimate of average worship attendance and an actual headcount.

I thought it was worth extracting this part of the Synod report and hinting it a wider airing. So, when we look into the mirror of these surveys, what do we see? What is the Uniting Church like, right across Australia.

The 2019 Congregational Census reported that the NSW—ACT Synod has 23570 worship attenders each week, including 2896 children under 15 and 2556 youth and young adults aged 15-30. There are 533 local churches oversighted by 375 church councils and 85% of congregations participated in the census.

80% of our churches were monocultural (more than 80% one group), 14% multicultural with one group making up 50-80% and there were 6% of churches where the largest ethnic group made up less than 50% of the population.

In 2019, just 14% of congregations had direct relationship with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, although we know from the 2016 NCLS that 26% of churches conduct an acknowledgement of country in worship.

Just 12 churches had a weekly average of more than 150 people in worship.

31% of churches had no children, 34% had less than 5 children, but there were also 29 congregations had more than 20 children involved in congregational life, 6 of which had more than 50. 40% of churches had no young adults, 30% had less than 5, but 36 congregations had more than 20 young adults and 3 had more than 50.

As reported to the previous Assembly, the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) surveyed 10,183 adults and 392 children (8 to 14) from 275 local Churches across the Synod. The 2021 NCLS will be conducted in August-September this year.

The average age of UCA members was 66, compared to the average age 38 for the Australian population at the same time. In 2016 70% of NSW-ACT UCA attenders were over 60, compared to 21% of the wider population. 63% of NSW-ACT UCA attenders were women and 37% were men.

That’s who we are, according to these surveys. Ask yourself, as you look into the mirror: do you recognise yourself?

Featured

Misunderstanding Jesus: “they came to make him a king” (John 6; Pentecost 9B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary offers us five weeks of readings from John 6, revolving around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven”. The story of the feeding of the crowd of “men … about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) replicates the story omitted from the last week by the lectionary, where the crowd also comprises “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The Gospel offering provided by the lectionary last week omitted the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44) and provided only the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56). It also omitted the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33 as well as John 6:16–21.

In doing this, the lectionary had excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). In this Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/14/whats-in-and-whats-out-mark-6-pentecost-8b/

In the book of signs, the Gospel of John, Jesus moves freely between Galilee and Judea, a number of times; but there is no indication that he visited Gentile territory, despite the question of people in Jerusalem, “does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

The story of feeding the crowd is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14). The Johannine version, as we have seen, also estimates the total number of men present as being “about 5,000” (John 6:11).

So the early sections of John chapter 6 tell of incidents that are told also by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels: feeding a crowd (6:1–14) and walking on the water (6:16–21).

Woven through this long chapter, however, are a series of encounters that Jesus had with people around him—the crowds in Galilee (6:2, 22), his own disciples (6:3, 16, 60, 66-67), and a group of leaders who had come north from Judea into Galilee, to hear and see him (6:41, 52).

Note: Most translations describe this latter group simply as “the Jews”. The Greek word used, however, can equally be translated as “the Judeans”. There is a good case that has been mounted that the way the word is used in the fourth Gospel means that it should be translated as “a group of Jewish leaders who exercise great authority among their compatriots and are especially hostile to Jesus and his disciples … it refers to certain authorities rather than to the people as a whole.” See D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John”, accessible at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel thus offers a series of encounters that reveal misunderstanding, antagonism, and conflict in the ways that people relate to Jesus, even whilst he sets forth this significant teaching that he is “the bread of life” (6:35, 48).

*****

The first of these encounters takes place in the opening scene of this chapter, near to Passover, when Jesus and his disciples are gathered with “a large crowd” beside the Sea of Galilee (6:1-15). The issue, of course, is how to feed the large crowd; the scene thus provides the pressing situation which enables Jesus to speak, at length, about the gift of living bread that he offers.

The scene, as we have noted, is reminiscent of the Synoptic scene of feeding recounted at Mark 6:32-44, Matt 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17; and also the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”.

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36), prefiguring the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

In John’s Gospel, the last supper (13:1 onwards) does not contain any such remembrance of bread (and wine); whatever Eucharistic overtones are contained in the book of signs appear later in chapter 6, with references to “feeding on my flesh and drinking my blood” (6:63-58).

In the opening scene, nevertheless, there is an allusion to this pattern in the description of Jesus as he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (6:11)—although this is immediately followed, not by drinking wine, but by distributing fish (6:11b).

The miracle that is experienced by “the large crowd”—five barley loaves and two fish (6:9), which not only feeds the crowd (6:12) but also provides twelve baskets of left-overs (6:13)—is, understandably, interpreted by the people as a prophetic sign (6:14).

Jesus is this described as “the Prophet who is to come into the world”, alluding to the eschatological expectation of “the prophet to come” (Deut 18:15–18; Mal 4:4–6). Prophets were know to be capable of performing signs, following the model set by Moses (Acts 7:36; Exodus 4:1–17; Deut 34:10–12).

*****

The insight that Jesus was a prophet has already been expressed by the woman of Samaria, beside the well (John 4:19). In that encounter, the woman moves from a recognition of Jesus as prophet, to an awareness that he is Messiah (4:25-26, 29), and then to her testimony that he was the saviour of the world (4:39-42). So the initial response of the crowd is positive, affirming Jesus as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14)

Immediately, however, it turns sour: “when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (6:15).

To make him king: this is the first misunderstanding of Jesus that can be identified in this chapter. (There are a number of other misunderstandings that can be noted in the remainder of this chapter.)

The appointment of a king in Israel was contested, according to the narratives included in 1 Samuel. The prophet Samuel did not wish to anoint a king (1 Sam 8:6) and argued against this before the people (1 Sam 8:10–18). But the voice of the people (1 Sam 8:5, 19–20) prevailed; Samuel duly anointed the first king, Saul (1 Sam 10:1) and begrudgingly declared him to be king (1 Sam 10:17–24). So Israel had kings, and they ruled for some centuries.

Of course, by the time of Jesus, the institution of the monarchy had been well established, and had flourished under David and Solomon, Omri and Josiah. Then the monarchy had been dismantled through the violence of foreign invasion and the upheaval of large scale movements into exile, from 721 BCE in the northern kingdom, then from 587 BCE in the southern kingdom.

The accounts that we have of the role of kings in Israel (in 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles) comes from later, after the return from exile on the 6th century BCE. The vision of the king in these documents was highly romanticised; the tradition about David and Solomon in particular had minimised their numerous faults and strongly valorised their virtues (1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:13–28).

In Christian tradition, this trajectory continues. Jesus is acknowledged as King of the Jews (Mark 15:2 and parallels) and even has a feast day in the liturgical cycle named after this: Christ the King. The author of the book of signs knows the irony of the fact that this is where Jesus will come undone: from the moment when Pilate put to Jesus the notion that he might be “the King of the Jews” (18:33). The very claim was enough to ensure that he would be scorned and ultimately crucified (19:3, 19-21).

To the Romans, a king was not a position to be valued. The terrible experience they had with Julius Caesar, the one-man ruler called rex, was enough to turn them away from having a king for centuries. There was a political naïveté in the Jewish crowd’s actions in acclaiming Jesus as king, at least in terms of how the Romans would have viewed him.

And to a pious Jew like Jesus, it was clear beyond doubt that only God was king over Israel (Ps 72)—indeed, over the whole earth (Ps 47). Jesus definitely wants to avoid such an acclamation about him at this point. The crowd are misunderstanding him. So he withdraws.

The author includes this clear indication, dripping (as is typical in this Gospel) with irony. The one whom the crowds excitedly wanted to crown as king, will be savagely put to death by the Romans as “King of the Jews”, pretender and aggravant.

Featured

What’s in, and what’s out (Mark 6; Pentecost 8B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary strays away from choosing the Gospel readings from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark. Next week, we will launch into a series of five weeks of readings drawn from John 6. That chapter revolves around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51). Because of this looming focus, the Gospel passage provided by the lectionary for this Sunday is curiously shaped. It takes two separate sections of Mark’s Gospel, and omits a large section that sits in between these two passages.

The story of the feeding of the crowd of “about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) which we will read next Sunday replicates the story omitted from this Sunday’s reading, where the Jesus was able to feed a crowd comprising “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The lectionary provides the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) and omits the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). It also omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33). Thus, we have a curiously disrupted passage for consideration.

We need, then, to consider, both what’s in, and what’s out, in this week’s lectionary selection.

What’s in: three key terms

The selection offered by the lectionary includes reference to Jesus taking his followers aside, to rest (6:31). We know well the words that Jesus spoke, offering rest to his followers (Matt 11:28–30). But we perhaps give little thought to the need that Jesus had, along with this followers, to rest from the bustling business that he engaged in. Mark states it well: “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (6:31).

Jesus moves away to a deserted place with his followers. He goes into the wilderness. The Greek word used here, eremon, is significant. This is where Jesus goes when he is tested by God (1:12), immediately after he had been completely immersed in the water by John the baptiser, resident in that wilderness (1:3, 4).

It was in the wilderness that Israel came to know its essential identity: a people, beloved by God, rescued from slavery, called into covenant, equipped for the battles of entry into the land, as the great myth from the past declared. It was, likewise, in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his mission in life, and where he came to know his identity as the Son of God, chosen for that mission. So it is fitting that he moves to a deserted place, seeking respite from the crowds.

Yet the crowds will not let the healer and his followers rest; they continue to press on Jesus, and as they saw him, with his followers, in the boat, they hurried on foot to that deserted place, “and arrived ahead of them” (6:33).

The response of Jesus is instructive. Here we find a second significant term. He “had compassion for them”, the NRSV reports (6:34). The distinctive Greek term used (esplangnisthē) appears here, and in the parallel of Matt 14:14 (as well as an editorial comment at Matt 9:36).

The term refers to that deep-seated churning in the gut that takes place when an emotional cord is struck. It is a profound and penetrating feeling. The same term is found in the paired story of the feeding of the 4,000, where Jesus tells his followers, “I have compassion on the crowd” (Mark 8:2, par Matt 15:32).

Such compassion is characteristic of Jesus on many occasions. The term has already appeared in Mark’s report of the leper who came to Jesus, seeking to be made clean, where it describes the way that Jesus responds to him (“moved with pity” in the NRSV, reflecting a textual variant in Mark 1:41, par Matt 10:6). It’s also used to characterise the way Jesus deals with two blind men near Jericho (“Jesus in pity touched their eyes”, NRSV Matt 20:34).

Other places where the word appears are in the story of the mute boy who suffers convulsions (Mark 9:14–29). The father of the boy begs Jesus to cast out the spirit which possesses the boy, imploring him, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (9:22). Jesus responds by rebuking the spirit, which leaves the boy (9:25–27).

In the orderly account which we attribute to Luke, the compassion of Jesus is noted when he interacts with a widow who is mourning her dead son (Luke 7:13), and is also found within two of the parables told by Jesus, reported only in this Gospel. The Samaritan has compassion (Luke 10:33), as does the father when he sees his prodigal son returning home (Luke 15:20).

A third important idea is found when the author implicitly draws an analogy between Jesus, and a shepherd (6:34). In the book of signs, Jesus explicitly calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18). This evokes the scriptural imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4). The phrase also alludes to the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

People who are “sheep without a shepherd” recall the description of Israel in Hebrew Scriptures (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17, par 2 Chron 18:16; and Judith 11:19). The narrator’s reference in Mark 6:34 contains these deep scriptural resonances. The compassion demonstrated by Jesus fits with his role as shepherd of the sheep.

A third key idea is contained in the brief statement that the compassion of Jesus is expressed as “he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). The teaching activity of Jesus runs through this Gospel. Jesus teaches beside the sea (4:1), in the synagogue (1:21–27; 6:2), beside the lake (2:13; 4:1–2; 6:34), in the villages (6:6), and as he and his followers walk along the way towards Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31).

When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, he is said to be teaching the crowd in the courtyard of the Temple (11:15–18). A little later, some Pharisees and Herodians approach him, observing that “you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God” (12:14). “Day after day I was with you in the Temple teaching”, he says to the armed crowd sent from the Jewish authorities to arrest him (14:43–49).

The same emphasis on his teaching is found on the other Synoptics (Matt 4:23; 7:28–29; 9:35; 21:23; 22:33; 26:55; Luke 4:31–32; 5:17; 6:6; 10:39; 13:10; 13:22; 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 23:5).

What’s out: two substantial scenes

So much for what’s in this week’s selection. What about what’s out?

First, the Gospel offering provided by the lectionary includes the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) but omits what it surrounds—the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). That feeding story is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14).

The scene is reminiscent also of the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”. (Luke omits this story.)

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36). This prefigures the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

So Mark recounts the scene: “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 6:41–44).

And the resonances with the central Christian ritual, the remembrance of the last supper, are surely strong and deep.

Second, the lectionary omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52) which plays an important role in Mark’s account. By omitting this, the lectionary has excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45).

In this earliest Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52).

This maritime movement makes an important symbolic point for the the author: the ministry of Jesus incorporated not only territories in Jewish areas (to 4:41, then 5:21 to 6:44) as well as the Gentile territories. Jesus firstly crosses into the Decapolis (5:1–20), where he cast out multiple demons from the tomb-dwelling man, sending them into the nearby pigs. (This story is also omitted by the lectionary during this particular year.)

One of the striking aspects in this story is that this man, possessed by an unclean spirit, fettered in chains, dwelling beside tombs, self-harming and acting inappropriately (5:2–6), becomes the first active missionary in this Gospel; after the encounter with Jesus, “he began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marvelled” (5:20). A pity we missed that this year.

Jesus is active on “the other side” again from Mark 6:53, when he enters the regions of Gennesaret (6:53). Subsequently, Jesus is located at Tyre and Sidon (7:24), and then “the region of the Decapolis” (7:31), before returning to Bethsaida (8:22) and Caesarea Philippi (8:27), in Jewish territory.

These geographical references are treated variably in the later accounts which used Mark as a source. Matthew retains Genessaret (Matt 14:34) and Tyre and Sidon (15:21), but removes the reference to the Decapolis (15:29). The geographical references from Caesarea Philippi onwards then appear in his ongoing narrative. Luke omits the whole section containing these earlier references (Mark 6:53–8:26), removing the clear indication that Jesus spent quite some time on Gentile soil.

Omitting the “crossing over” movement in the narrative lessens the significance of this observation: much of what takes place in the ensuing four chapters, takes place on Gentile soil. This is very important for our understanding of the stories that Mark reports. We need to hear that in mind as we read the later stories in this section of the Gospel: Jesus is “on the other side”, moving amongst the Gentiles of the Decapolis.

Featured

The Spirit was already in the land. Looking back on NAIDOC WEEK.

In the revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, adopted at the 2009 Assembly meeting in Sydney, our church made the affirmation that “the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.”

That statement articulates something deeply important. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies.

What our First Peoples have long known about God, is consistent with what Christian people are discovering about God through Jesus. “The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, the revised Preamble continues. So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. We hear resonances with the Gospel. And in this way, we encounter God.

I am writing this at the end of NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021). Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. And as I reflect on the themes of the past few years, I realise that each of them articulates something that is central to the faith that we hold and the Gospel that we proclaim.

In 2017, the theme was Our Languages Matter. That’s a message which is integral to the Gospel—the Gospel that says, in the beginning, God spoke … and there was life (Gen 1). The Gospel that claims that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1).

We know God best of all, most intimately of all, because God speaks, God is word. Language connects us with God. Language matters. Language connects us with one another, enables us to know one another. Languages matter for First Peoples. They communicate, they articulate deep truths. Languages matter.

In 2018, the theme was the inspired message: Because of her, we can. That is another theme that resonates with countless stories throughout scripture. Because of the faithfulness of Mary, his mother, Jesus came. Because of the witness of Mary of Magdala, exclaiming “I have seen the Lord”, the male disciples believed.

Because of the proactive intervention of Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses survived and grew to lead Israel. Because of the fiercely powerful leadership of Deborah, centuries later, Israel survived the onslaught from the troops of Sisera, commander of the army of Canaan. Because of her, we can. (And there are many more such women; just ask the people who took part in Elizabeth’s Bible Studies last year, on women in the Bible!)

Two years ago, inspired by Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the 2019 theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth. The Statement called us to listen to the Voice of Indigenous peoples. As we do so, we realise that the settlement of this continent was a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. This is the Truth we must hear.

The Voice of First Peoples speaks Truth. And truth is something that we value in our Christian faith. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6); and he declared that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Truth liberates. Truth is important.

The next year, 2020, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, we heard the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. This recognised that these lands of the continent of Australia and its surrounding islands had not, indeed, been terra nullius. Rather, a complex interrelated web of nations had been living on the land, and the islands, fishing in the seas, meeting in ceremony and trading with each other, and caring for country in a deeply spiritual way for millennia upon millennia.

We know the importance of land in biblical stories—the identity of Israel is completely bound up with land. The land where Jesus walked, we call “The Holy Land”. Land is important.

This year, the theme is Heal Country. This theme takes us to the heart of the Gospel. In scripture, Paul offers his vision of hope for the whole of creation, “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18–22). Because he can see that those who are in Christ are “a new creation”, he charges the followers of Jesus to commit to “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16–19). That includes reconciliation with people, but it also points to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” as articulated in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para. 3).

This vision of reconciliation is built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15). Furthermore, scripture tells of the ancient Israelite understanding that God made a covenant, not only with human beings, but with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; see the narrative of Gen 9:8–17).

And the view of scripture is that God will ultimately “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at that time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) and bring universal reconciliation (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10).

So the theme of Heal Country is a central motif throughout the books of scripture. And we can see how, in our time, it draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

The Spirit was already in the land, “revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony”. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies, Indeed, “the same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, as the revised Preamble states.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle. From the testimony of the First Peoples, to care for country, we are challenged.

So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. And we encounter God. Thanks be to God!

Featured

Heal Country: the heart of the Gospel (for NAIDOC WEEK 2021)

This week is NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021).

NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week (Sunday to Sunday) of July that incorporates the second Friday. Historically, it began life as ‘National Aborigines Day’, then it became known as ‘The Day of Mourning’, before it was taken on by the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). Some time later, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) was formed, and this provides the name to the week.

Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. Two years ago, inspired by the Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth.

In that same year, the NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church adopted a proposal to lobby the commonwealth government to establish a Makarratta Commission and to advocate with state governments that they make treaties with the indigenous peoples of their region.

In the Uniting Church, as we have drawn on the voices of Indigenous peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. The commission and these treaties would have Voice to the First Peoples, ensuring that their Truth was known.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/what-synod-support-for-the-statement-from-the-heart-means/

The next year, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, was the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. (It was held later in the year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

This theme recognised that these lands of the continent of Australia and its surrounding islands had not, indeed, been terra nullius. Rather, a complex interrelated web of nations had been living on the land, and the islands, fishing in the seas, meeting in ceremony and trading with each other, and caring for country in a deeply spiritual way for millennia upon millennia.

In the Uniting Church, the National Assembly adopted a proposal in 2018 that affirmed “that the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land.” The proposal noted “the Statement from the Heart’s acknowledgment that sovereignty is a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and First Peoples”. Connection to country is deeply important, profoundly spiritual, amongst all of the First Peoples of this land.

We have continued to strengthen the covenant relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) and we have worked hard to give priority to the Voice of First Peoples in our church. See https://uniting.church/sovereignty/

This year, the theme is Heal Country.

This theme takes us to the heart of the Gospel. In scripture, Paul offers his vision of hope for the whole of creation, “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18–22). Because he can see that those who are in Christ are “a new creation”, he charges the followers of Jesus to commit to “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16–19).

That includes reconciliation with people, but it also points to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” as articulated in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para. 3). Such a vision is offered in a highly imaginative, and much more detailed way, in the final book of scripture, where “a new heaven and an new earth” is described (Rev 21:1–2, 21:9–22:5, drawing on the vision of Isa 65:17–25).

These visions are built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31; so also Neh 9:6; Psalm 104:24–25; Job 26:7—14), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15; and see the laws that command respect for the land, such as Lev 18:26, 28; 25:23–24; Num 35:33–34; Deut 20:19).

Further to that, scripture tells of the ancient Israelite understanding that God made a covenant, not only with human beings, but with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; see the narrative of Gen 9:8–17). The eschatological view of scripture is that God will “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at the time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) or bring universal reconciliation (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10).

So the theme of Heal Country is a central motif throughout the books of scripture. And we can see how, in our time, it draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle.

The theme of Heal Country is important for the life of the whole of Australia at this moment in time. It is also a theme that draws deeply from the scriptural witness. It is a theme that people of faith should embrace, proclaim, and live with all our being—this week, this year, and on into the future.

*****

A whole series of statements and policies relating to the environment have been produced by the Uniting Church, at national, regional, and local levels. The national statements and policies are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment.

Many local churches of various denominations have participated in projects promoted by the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, which has its own website at https://fiveleafecoawards.org

There are links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

There is a prayer for Healing Country at https://www.commongrace.org.au/healingcountry_prayer

The Roman Catholic Church has been guided by the papal document Laudato si’, which provides an extensive exploration of environmental issues from a faith perspective. I’ve posted a series of reflections on this important statement at

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

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

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (3)

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (4)

Featured

To the saints [not just in Ephesus] who are faithful (Ephesians 1; Pentecost 7B)

This Sunday, we start a series of readings from the letter to the Ephesians. Your Bible may state that it is “Paul’s letter to the Ephesians”. Indeed, when you read the opening words of the letter, the first thing you note is that the letter says that Paul wrote it (Eph 1:1a). Then it goes on to say that the letter was written to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1b).

What do we know about the situation in Ephesians, to which this letter is addressed? This letter is not like many of the letters of Paul, where we can glean much information from those letters about the faith community in the city to which it is addressed (Corinth, in Achaea; Thessaloniki and Philippi, in Macedonia; the region of Galatia; and Rome, in Italia). We know little, if anything, about the situation in Ephesus from this letter.

The letter does not begin with a thanksgiving. In most letters by Paul, the thanksgiving identifies the key characteristics of the community to which the letter is sent, as well as the issues which will be canvassed later in the letter. Instead, here there is a lengthy blessing in which a grand theological statement is developed (1:3–14), before a brief thanksgiving is offered for the faith and love of the recipients (1:15–16).

This opening blessing (1:3–14) is the reading set for this Sunday. In the CEV, there are no less than 12 sentences in these 12 verses; in the GNB, there are 10 sentences. In the NIV, there are 8 sentences in this passage, whilst the NRSV offers it all in 6 sentences. (Decades earlier, the RSV had also used 6 sentences for the whole.) In the KJV, there are just 3 sentences, although a punctuating colon (:) appears on six occasions, with a further three semicolons (;).

Fred Sanders’ translation (in 4 sentences) of Eph 1:3–14.
For a poetic paraphrase of this section of Ephesians by Sanders,
see https://scriptoriumdaily.com/ephesians-and-the-god-sized-gospel/

But in the original Greek, this whole passage is just one long sentence — a main clause (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, 1:3), followed by a long series subordinate clauses, setting out what this God has done: “who has blessed us in Christ … who predestined us in love for adoption … in him we have redemption … according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us … making known to us the mystery of his will … according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ … in him we have obtained an inheritance … In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”.

These parallel charts (left in English, right in Greek)
show the syntactical structure and the relationship
of each subsidiary clause
in the long single sentence in Eph 1:3–14
(accessed at http://www.teleiosministries.com/ephesians.html)

Incidentally, the ASV grasps the mantle, rendering all 12 verses in one long, complex sentence (with numerous colons and semicolons interspersed). It reads very heavily in English. At the other extreme, The Message (more of a paraphrase than a translation, in my mind) takes no less than 16 sentences to translate it (in expanded, colloquial form). And the NCB takes a poetic approach,,putting the whole section into unrhymed verse, using 6 sentences for the whole poem.

(You can check out these, and more, translations, at https://www.biblegateway.com)

*****

So this blessing sets out a number of wonderful claims about Jesus—as God works through him, we have redemption, the forgiveness of trespasses; we are adopted as his children, grace is lavished upon us, revealing the mystery of his purpose; and he offers the promise of an inheritance. The blessing ends with a final exultation, “to the praise of his glory” (1:14b).

There is nothing in these opening verses—this one, long sentence—to give any indication of the specifics of the particular situation in Ephesus. And, it must be said, the existence in this letter of this mammoth long sentence—along with other complex multi-clause sentences in later section (1-9, 11-15, 19-22; 3:1-13, 14-21; 4:1-6, 7-16) is a very strong suggestion that the document was not actually written by the apostle Paul.

Like this general opening blessing, the elements which follow also have broad, generic qualities, as the general prayer which is offered (1:15–16) veers off almost immediately into further theological exposition (1:17–23).

The end of the letter also offers no clues as to what is happening in Ephesus. The final section actually replicates, almost completely word-for-word, some of the greetings at the end of Colossians, in an abbreviated form, suggesting a later writer imitating the style of an earlier letter—but in a rather clumsy way, simply copying word-for-word.

Colossians concludes, “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” (Col 4:7–9).

Compare this with the final greetings in Ephesians: “Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.” (Eph 6:21–22). It is so similar, with the same structure, and many phrases in common. (If I were looking for plagiarism—which I once did as part of a job that I had—I would rate this as a direct copy.)

Did the author of this sermon-letter actually know Tychicus? Or did he simply copy something that was at hand, to lend an air of “authenticity” to the document?

In the body of the letter, we find indications a few sparse details. We learn that Paul is a prisoner (3:1; 4:1) and that the recipients are Gentiles (2:11; 3:2). But that’s it. Not much at all to go on. After that, the final prayer and grace (6:23–24) is likewise entirely generic. These are very slim clues to work from, if we want to reconstruct a picture of the community to which the letter was sent.

*****

Another clue emerges from the first verse of the letter, for it contains a striking textual variant. Although we commonly read the letter as sent “to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1), a number of early manuscripts of this letter omit “in Ephesus”. This is a most important phrase, as it identifies the people purportedly addressed in the letter.

Whilst we traditionally read the letter as being addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus”, it is far more likely that the original document was addressed to “the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus”—a generic, all-encompassing orientation, rather than a letter to specific group of people in a particular place.

from Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the NT
at https://rdrdbiblestudy.com/bible-versions-102-textual-criticism/

Indeed, one early Christian writer knew this document as a letter “to the the Laodiceans”—not to the Ephesians!

An important fact that sits alongside this claim, and validates the idea that this was not a context-specific letter, but a widely-offered sermon, is the observation that the letter contains no other indications that it is specifically related to the city of Ephesus and the community of faith established there.

We can find references to people being “blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (3:14) and to those who “deceive you with empty words” (5:6), but these are no more than generalised description of opponents.

The main content of the letter reflects the general situation developing in the early churches, as Gentiles have found their place alongside Jews within the communities. It gives no clues of a specific context which is grounded in a particular community of faith.

The body of the letter reads more like a sermon, offering general theological teaching and ethical instruction. It’s highly likely the letter wasn’t sent by Paul to believers in Ephesus, but originated later in the first century, after the lifetime of Paul, as a sermon setting out the fundamentals of the teaching that began with Paul, and was handed on by those who followed him in proclaiming the good news to gatherings of believers.

The theological teaching in the letter—sermon provides doctrinal instruction about the divine plan, beginning in the opening blessing and prayer (1:3–23), followed by sections explaining the role of Jesus Christ (2:1–10); the inclusive nature of the church, in which Jews and Gentiles are brought into one body (2:11–3:6); an excursus on Paul’s role (3:7–21); and further reflections on the church (4:1–16).

Paul is presented as the one who reveals God’s plan, which had been hidden until his ministry (3:1–12). Key concepts in this plan include wisdom (1:8, 17; 2:10; 5:15), mystery (1:9; 3:3–5, 9; 5:32; 6:19), God’s will (1:1, 5, 9, 11; 5:17; 6:6), revelation (1:7; 3:3, 5) and fullness (1:10, 23; 3:19). These elements underline the assessment that this letter—sermon showed significant developments and elaborations of ideas, when compared with the authentic letters of Paul.

Like Colossians and the three Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians testifies to a more enculturated church, from a period later than the time in which Paul was active—a time and place in which the way of Jesus has begun to merge with the dominant ethos of the society. The sharp edges of The Way have been softened; the clear focus of the teachings of Paul, the energetic preacher of good news, has become blurred and fuzzy under the weight of pressures from the dominant Greco-Roman culture.

Although the rhetoric of this letter purports to present a distinctive Christian ethic, in fact it is becoming much more strongly influenced by hellenistic ethics. It demonstrates the way that the radical movement initiated by Jesus gradually becomes domesticated, institutionalised, and less distinguishable from the dominant culture.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

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

Featured

NAIDOC WEEK 2021

Today we start NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021). NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week of July (Sunday to Sunday) that incorporates the second Friday – which historically was celebrated as ‘National Aboriginal Day’. (Yes, like Easter, it moves around in a rather arcane fashion!)

On Australia Day, 1938, protestors marched through the streets of Sydney, followed by a congress attended by over a thousand people. One of the first major civil rights gatherings in the world, it was known as the Day of Mourning. Following the congress, a deputation led by William Cooper presented Prime Minister Joseph Lyons with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people. This was again rejected because the Government did not hold constitutional powers in relation to Aboriginal people.

From 1940 until 1955, the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day and was known as Aborigines Day. In 1955 Aborigines Day was shifted to the first Sunday in July after it was decided the day should become not simply a protest day but also a celebration of Aboriginal culture.

Major Aboriginal organisations, state and federal governments, and a number of church groups all supported the formation of the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC). At the same time, the second Sunday in July became a day of remembrance for Aboriginal people and their heritage.

In 1974, the NADOC committee was composed entirely of Aboriginal members for the first time. The following year, it was decided that the event should cover a week, from the first to second Sunday in July. In 1984, NADOC asked that National Aborigines Day be made a national public holiday, to help celebrate and recognise the rich cultural history that makes Australia unique. While this has not happened, other groups have echoed the call.

Next, the committee became known as the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). This new name has become the title for the whole week, not just the day. Each year, a theme is chosen to reflect the important issues and events for NAIDOC Week.

Last year, 2020, the theme of NAIDOC WEEK was Always Was, Always Will Be—a reference to the reality that the lands of Australia have been cared for over millennia by the First Peoples of the continent and its nearby islands. The now-discredited ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and the notion of terra nullius undergirded the colonial enterprise of “claiming the country” for Britain? See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

That focus is further developed in this year’s theme, Heal Country—a theme that draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience, and they are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. Something that has been so important from so long ago; something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle.

The theme of Heal Country is an important and entirely relevant theme for all Australians, this year!

This week, also, the Uniting Church Assembly launches its first Covenant Action Plan (ACAP) – a strategic and practical framework which gives shape to our commitment as a national church to walk together as First and Second Peoples.

The plan is being launched 27 years after the UCA formally entered into a covenantal relationship at the invitation of and with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). See https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

The plan can be read at https://mk0unitingchurcq6akw.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Assembly-Covenant-Action-Plan-2021_Feb2021-FINAL.pdf

******

The full list of themes of each NAIDOC WEEK, back to 1972, can be found at https://www.naidoc.org.au/previous-themes-posters

and posters from previous years are collected at https://www.naidoc.org.au/resources/poster-gallery

The history of NAIDOC WEEK is taken from https://www.naidoc.org.au/about/history

Featured

Casting out demons (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” (1:39) is how the activities of Jesus are characterised from the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. His earliest message was clear: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, believe the good news” (1:15). His activity, also, was striking: he rebukes unclean spirits (1:23–26), “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34).

Jesus sent out his followers on mission, propelling them into the towns and villages, to proclaim the message and cast out demons. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/29/just-sandals-and-a-staff-and-only-one-tunic-mark-6-pentecost-6b/. And if there was no welcome in any place they stopped and spoke, they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/30/shake-the-dust-off-your-feet-mark-6-pentecost-6b/

Proclaiming the message, as disciples of Jesus, is something that we are quite familiar with today—after all, Sunday worship in Protestant churches is set up to revolve around the “proclamation of the word” in the sermon. But casting out demons? That is something far less familiar to, and comfortable for, 21st century followers of Jesus.

Some of the most striking stories told of Jesus were those relating the miraculous deeds he performed: curing lepers, healing the sick, controlling the forces of nature, even raising the dead. These are miracles that resonate with us in the 21st century. By and large, we think we have ways of understanding what occurred in such incidents. But casting out demons? That sits uneasily for many 21st century people.

Not in the ancient world. Interactions with demons was part and parcel of the worldview of the time, for both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is said to have engaged in conversations with demons which were possessing individuals, and he was able to command the demons to leave those individuals (Mark 1:23–26; 5:1–15; 7:24–30). In some cases, demonic possession was manifested in the body in medical ways: what looks like epilepsy (Mark 9:19–29), or an inability to speak (Matt 9:32–33), coupled with blindness (Matt 12:22).

The section of the Gospel that is offered by the revised common lectionary for this coming Sunday includes specific reference to casting out demons. On the very first occasion when Jesus gathered all twelve apostles together, he had given them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14–15). To be with him, following as disciples; and to be sent out, engaged in mission.

In this section from the narrative, Jesus sends out his followers, and “they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13).

How are we to understand these references to demons in these first century texts? Two extreme possibilities come to mind. We can accept them as accurate and reliable historical accounts. Demons existed, as Jesus dealt with them as reported. We just have to accept these stories as they stand. Or: we can dismiss them as first century flights of fancy. Demons do not exist, and such encounters are fabrications. We don’t need to worry too much about these accounts. But neither alternative, really, is acceptable.

A further option is to consider the demon as an ancient way of understanding what today we consider to be serious cases of mental illness. In the ancient world, schizophrenia, epilepsy and serious mental illnesses were not grasped in the ways of understanding that modern psychology has provided. The ancients had their own descriptions and categories for such behaviours.

It was commonly assumed by people of that time, that some people were acting oddly because they were possessed by unclean spirits, or demons. (The same creature is called by these two names, at Mark 7:25–26 and Luke 8:29, 9:42; and Luke 4:33 refers to “a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon”). In this view, Jesus was not really casting out demons – he was rather healing people with severe mental illnesses. That might work for us today.

There is a fourth option, which has gripped the attention of a number of scholarly interpreters of the Gospels. Some understand demonic possession to be an ancient mythological way of speaking about systemic evil. Systemic evils are harmful beliefs and actions that are manifested in society in negative and destructive ways. So it is not the antisocial or destructive behaviour of individuals that is in view; rather, it is the dysfunctional and damaging patterns of behaviour manifested by individuals, groups, and indeed whole societies, under the sway of systemic “demons”.

Walter Wink wrote about the “principalities and powers” which grip society and result in terrible consequences. Herman Waetjen saw the story of Jesus as an extended conflict between political powers—Jewish and Roman leadership, on one side, and Jesus and his followers on the other.

The notion that a demon would bind the person that they inhabited is found at Luke 13:16, and in the Jewish book of Jubilees (5:6; 10:7-11). The book of the same title by Ched Myers provides a fine guide to reading the whole of Mark’s Gospel through this lens (see https://chedmyers.org/2013/12/05/blog-2013-12-05-binding-strong-man-25-years-old-month/) For Myers, the whole Gospel reflects a socio-political struggle within the society of ancient Israel. Could that be what is going on, when Jesus casts out demons, and his followers also cast out demons?

******

Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Herman Waetjen, A Re-ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989.

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995.

And see Richard Neill Donovan: ‘Mark uses “unclean spirit” and “demon” almost interchangeably. The former suggests ritual impurity or unworthiness, and the latter suggests evil. Talk of spirits and demons seems primitive and makes us uncomfortable today. We prefer to speak of poverty and mental illness as the causes of bizarre behavior. We also hesitate to use the word evil, which sounds judgmental, and look to medical science to deliver us from our demons. Medical science has accomplished a great deal in that regard, and promises to achieve even more. However, medical science is unlikely ever to solve the problem of evil, which is a spiritual problem and a present reality. We have only to read a newspaper to confirm the pervasive presence of evil in our world.’ https://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/mark-121-28/

Featured

Shake off the dust that is on your feet (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is set forth (1:16–18; 1:19–20; 2:13–14). Jesus calls people to follow him. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/29/just-sandals-and-a-staff-and-only-one-tunic-mark-6-pentecost-6b/

The narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one that ensues provides a sequence of events in which individuals, groups, and crowds all respond to this charge to follow Jesus. In this narrative, Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out, walking alongside him.

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

Later in this narrative, leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). And Jesus instructs them to “read the room” when they are welcomed into the houses in the villages and towns they visit. They are to be sensitive to the reception that they receive.

“So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent”, Mark reports (6:12). But with the caveat: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So Jesus advises his followers (6:11). What did it mean, in the ancient world, to “shake the dust off your feet”?

Dust is central to who we are as human beings. The story of the creation of human beings indicates that the man was “formed from dust of the ground” before God breathed the breathe of life into him (Gen 2:7). But in the foundational myth that is told in the earliest chapters of scripture, dust is at the centre, also, of the punishments that are handed out after the sin committed by Adam and Eve.

The serpent, as a result of its role in tempting them, is told, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Gen 3:14; Isa 65:25).

The man is told, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

Dust is used as a sign of cursing in various stories: in the plague of dust (Exod 9:8-10); in the ritual for cursing an unfaithful wife, when dust from the floor of the tabernacle is mixed into the water of bitterness (Num 5:11-31); in the destruction of the golden calf (Deut 9:21); and in various punishments by the Lord (Deut 28:24, Ps 78:27, Isa 25:12, 26:5, 2 Sam 22:43, 2 Ki 53:7, 2 Chr 34:4).

And the action of shaking out one’s clothing is integral to the scene in Nehemiah, where the leaders of the people who have returned to the land are required to “shake out their mantle” as a sign of their agreement to the economic arrangements made (Neh 5:13). Nehemiah warns them: “so May God shake out every man from his house and from his labour who does not keep this promise”. Shaking out has a sense of judgement, of being cursed by God.

However, in association with the tearing of clothes, the placing of dust on a person’s head is also a symbol of repentance. Joshua repents of the sin of Achan by tearing his clothes and placing dust on his head (Joshua 7:6). Ezekiel speaks of the people of Tyre, lamenting, as “they cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes” (Ezek 27:30). Jeremiah reports that “ the elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lam 2:20; see also Isa 25:12; 29:1–4).

The three friends of Job see him coming, and they “raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven”, before they then sat, grieving with him, “on the ground seven days and seven nights” (Job 2:12–13). Dust means mourning and repenting.

In like manner, after being raped by Ammon, Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her robe (2 Sam 13:19), as did Judas and his brothers when preparing for battle (1 Macc 3:47) and when they entered the ravaged temple (1 Macc 4:39).

The same actions involving dust are performed by Judas after being deceived by Simon (2 Macc 10:25), Jews at the news of Nicanor’s imminent invasion (2 Macc 14:15), and grieving daughters and mothers in Jerusalem when the victorious Ptolemy attempts to enter the temple (3 Macc 1:18). We might also note the messengers who arrive with torn clothes and dirt on their heads (1 Sam 4:12; 2 Sam 1:2, 15:32). These are all stories involving grief and despair.

Job himself uses dust and sackcloth to signify that “my face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness” (Job 16:15–16). As a result, he laments, “ God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes” (Job 30: 19). Returning to dust is the final state for those punished by God (Job 34:5; see also 10:9; 17:6; 20:11; 21:26; Ps 7:5; 22:15; 90:3; 104:29; Isa 26:5; Lam 2:21)—or, indeed, for all human beings (Eccles 3:20; 12:7).

In the end, though, Job “repents of dust and ashes” (42:6). He has had enough of being repentant. The book ends with a return of the defiant Job. He will have no more use for the dust and ashes of repentance.

In a number of scriptural incidents, dust is used in curses signalling divine punishment. Shimei, for instance, casts dust into the air to curse David (2 Sam 16:13). When Deutero-Isaiah speaks of the coming salvation that God will bring, to remove the punishment of exile, he exhorts Jerusalem to “shake yourself from the dust and arise” (Isa 52:2).

Dust had been a sign of the place of mourning, the place of despair, the place which signifies worthlessness and emptiness. Dust had been where the poor sat (1 Sam 2:8; Amos 2:7); it was where the enemies of Israel were pressed down and beaten into fine particles by the Lord (2 Sam 22:4 3; 2 Ki 13:7; Job 40:13; Ps 18:42; 44:24–25; 72:9; 83:13; Isa 41:2; Micah 7:17). Now, the people were called to leave that dust behind and move on in hope.

Jesus instructs his followers to shake the dust off their feet “as a testimony against them” (6:11). This seems to be an action warning the listeners that they are liable to judgement because they have failed to repent. However, the phrase could also be translated, “as a witness for their benefit”, suggesting that the action was intended to provoke the listeners to think further, after the disciples have left, about their message of repentance?

This latter sense is how the same construction functions earlier in Mark’s narrative, where the cleansed leper is to show himself to the priests “for a proof to them” (1:44). But later in the narrative, the very same phrase (eis martyrion autois) describes the function of the disciples defending themselves when on trial before “governors and kings” (13:9).

Could the action of shaking the dust off their feet signal that there would be hope, in the future, from the message of good news that the disciples proclaimed? The implication would be that this is the hope that they carry, and their “witness for the benefit” of their unwilling hosts is that this hope. This hope travels on with them as they journey onwards, with their proclamation of repentance. It also rests, along with the dust, with those they leave behind, who have not yet come to that point of repentance.

Or could the action of shaking off the dust have the function of warning recalcitrants—a graphic demonstration of the warning, ‘God will turn you to ashes if you do not repent’? As the disciples move on to the next town, they were leaving behind a warning with an implicit demand for their repentance.

That seems more likely to be the effect of the phrase, “as a testimony against them” (6:11). Certainly, that’s how it is understood in the parallel account in Matthew, where the action of shaking off the dust (Matt 10:14) is immediately followed by a reference to the fate experienced by Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement (Matt 10:15).also ev

This is ident in the Lukan parallel, where a slight tweaking of the Greek makes it clear that this is understood as “a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). Then, in the Lukan doublet of the sending out of the 72, the saying about the day of judgement (here referring only to Sodom) clarifies the expected judgement beyond doubt (Luke 10:12).

By implication from these later interpretations of the action, shaking the dust off the feet and moving on would appear to provide a sign of judgement to those who refuse to accept the message of the disciples, and repent.

Featured

Just sandals and a staff—and only one tunic (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is met each time with an immediate response: Simon and Andrew follow him (1:17), then James and John follow him (1:19), and then Levi the tax collector follows him (2:14). Each leave what they are doing and follow Jesus.

These scenes set the pattern for the rest of the narrative bout the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out following him. He reiterates the call, “follow me”, in later scenes (8:34; 10:21).

The disciples in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel readily demonstrate this response. The disciples, and indeed a larger crowd, did indeed follow Jesus in his journeys around Galilee (2:15; 3:7; 5:24; 6:1; 10:28, 32, 52) and then southwards towards Jerusalem (11:9). Indeed, a group of women who followed him in Galilee continue all the way to Golgotha, watching from a distance as he dies (15:41).

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

On the very first occasion when Jesus gathers all twelve apostles together, he gives them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve … to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). To be with him, following as disciples; and to be sent out, engaged in mission.

As the Gospel then reports how Jesus speaks and acts, the meaning of this discipleship and mission is spelled out. The apostles—and other followers—have the opportunity to learn from his teachings and to witness his actions while they are with Jesus, and then to replicate these teachings and actions through their presence in other places.

“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus are characterised from the start of the narrative (1:39). His earliest message was clear: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, believe the good news” (1:15). His activity, also, was striking: he rebukes unclean spirits (1:23–26), “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34).

These same activities form the basis for the work of the twelve as they leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). Both elements deserve careful attention.

“He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” So Jesus instructs his followers (6:8–9). In the parallel passages for this incident, Jesus is even more strict. In Luke, he prohibits sandals as well (Luke 10:3), and in Matthew, he prohibits both sandals and staff (Matt 10:10)

The description of the mode of dress for the followers of Jesus given here is often compared with the form of dress of a wandering philosopher, particularly of a Cynic philosopher.

Cynic philosophy is named after Diogenes of Sinope, who lived c.400–325 BCE. Diogenes was known as “the dog” (kunos, in Greek) because of his shameless and primitive style of living. Diogenes was given the nickname ‘the dog’ because of his shamelessness. He used to live in a barrel with his only possessions being a robe to wear and a stick to walk.

There are many stories told about Diogenes’ rebellious and nonconformist character. Those who promulgated his philosophy of life, called Cynicism, lived equally simple, basic lives. Sandals, a staff and a cloak characterised many of them (although it seems that a double cloak was worn by many).

Was Jesus telling his disciples to emulate the Cynic philosophers? They were itinerants, travelling from town to town, speaking their views with frankness and then moving on to the next town or village. The followers of Jesus were also to be itinerant, travelling from place to place, boldly proclaiming their message, and staying nowhere for too long.

The second century document, The Didache, clearly instructs followers of Jesus not to remain for more than two or three days in any one place (Didache 11–13). Jesus here is a bit more lenient; he doesn’t set a time limit, but instructs his followers to move on if they meet resistance. In this way, still, they were to emulate Jesus, as “the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

It’s not at all clear that Jesus knew Cynic philosophy; the evidence of Cynic activity comes from places outside Israel. The Cynics were active long before Jesus, but continued on into his time, and beyond. Diogenes lived four centuries before Jesus, and adherents to his type of philosophy are known three centuries after the death of Jesus.

The second century CE writer, Diogenes Laertius, includes accounts of a number of key Cynic philosophers in his large work, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The second century CE philosopher and orator, Dio of Prusa (nicknamed Chrysostom, meaning “golden-mouthed”), noted how many wandering Cynic philosophers were encountered in every town or village.

In his 32nd Oration, Dio describes the typical Cynic: “posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, [they] pass around the hat and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place.”

Dio’s criticism continues: “they declaim speeches intended for display, and stupid ones to boot, or else chant verses of their own composition, as if they had detected in you a weakness for poetry. To be sure, if they themselves are really poets or orators, perhaps there is nothing so shocking in that, but if in the guise of philosophers they do these things with a view to their own profit and reputation, and not to improve you, that indeed is shocking.”

For Jesus to be calling his followers to a way of life that could be seen as comparable to this way of living, would be quite a challenge—and quite a shock.

Indeed, there may be a sign of differentiation from the Cynics. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is reported as saying that the features which distinguish a Cynic are “his provision-bag (peran) and his staff and his big mouth” (Arian, Discourses of Epictetus 3.22.50). Jesus states that his followers should carry a staff, and speak their message—but here he prohibits them from carrying a provision-bag (peran, 6:8).

Another point of differentiation may be the command not to put on two tunics (6:9). The Greek word used is chiton. The chiton was a knee-length tunic worn as an undergarment; Josephus reports the common practice of wearing two chitones when travelling (Antiquities 17.136).

Musonius Rufus (Epistle 19) notes that Cynics typically wore two tunics—a tribon over their chiton. The tribon was a more humble garment than a chiton, so the outward appearance projected by a Cynic would have been, quite deliberately, that of a person of very lowly status. But for Jesus, the direction to wear only one tunic reflects an even more ascetic mode of living.

Was Jesus deliberately projecting an image—and a reality—deliberately differentiated from the Cynics? Certainly, direct contact by Jews with wandering Cynic philosophers was most likely reasonably rare. And I think that Jesus isn’t advocating specifically that his followers emulate the Cynics.

Jesus has his own reasons for the call he makes. Being on the move and not tied down to one place, and living simply without all the extraneous baggage, reflected an ethos that Jesus wished to cultivate. The focus was to be on the message and the key actions of the disciples, not on any extraneous or additional elements.

Perhaps what is in mind here is the Exodus story, in which the Israelites prepare themselves to be on the move, with minimal complications. They are to wear their clothes (which lasted them the whole time—Deut 8:4, 29:5). They are to fasten their belt and carry their staff (Exod 12:11), and wear their sandals (Exod 12:11; Deut 29:5). They are to take no bread—God will provide in the form of manna and quail, falling from heaven.

The attention of the disciples, as they engage in mission, proclaiming the message, healing, and casting out demons, is to be directed entirely to the task at hand. They are directed away from carrying too many accoutrements, worrying about provisions, and to focus on the task of proclamation and healing. In this way they are to follow the example and pattern of Jesus.

For that is what he himself taught: “do not be anxious, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we wear’?” (Matt 6:31). And that is what Jesus himself did: “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

Featured

Values and Principles in the context of a pandemic (revisited)

Cases of COVID-19 continue to occur in Australia. Lockdowns and enforced periods of isolation have taken place in numerous locations over the last few months; they are taking place again now across the country; and given the slow vaccine rollout and the emergence of variants that spread far more easily and rapidly, they will take place again in the future.

As these new strains of the virus emerge with greater rates of infections, uncertainty continues as to how long and and how hard the restrictions will be needed, and where the next outbreak will occur. In this context of uncertainty, people of faith would do well to reflect on how we respond to the guidance provided by our leaders.

Our faith offers us some support as we navigate the difficulties and dangers that we find ourselves in. There is comfort, as well as guidance, in the beliefs we hold, and in the ways that they are applied to our current situation of pandemic. Whether we gather together for worship and fellowship, or we are gathering-apart by online means, there are principles which hold good for us.

My 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/ and repeat what I wrote in a subsequent post, https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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 how we gather 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/

Featured

SUE: Canberra’s new Pink Sleepbus

Men in Canberra who are without a home have been able to sleep safely under the Safe Shelter scheme for the last decade. The Uniting Church has been at the forefront of assisting such men, with overnight sleeping available on the Northside at St Columba’s church hall in Braddon, and breakfast and associated services available each morning at the Early Morning Centre at Canberra City Church in Civic.

Where do women who are homeless find shelter at night? The limited spaces available in homeless shelters mean that many sleep rough—in door alcoves, under bushes, or, for the more fortunate, in their car, or couch surfing in the homes of friends. Until now. Until the coming of SUE, the Pink Sleepbus.

In a partnership including the Tuggeranong Uniting Church and the National Council of Women in the ACT, Sleepbus is about to open a service for women only, based in the Southside of the national capital. Already the Blue Sleepbus is operating in Queanbeyan, with beds available for men and women. SUE, the Pink Sleepbus, will be the first of its kind—offering safe sleeping for women, including women with children, as well as associated services such as breakfast and information about what services are available locally.

The Rev. Elizabeth Raine has had a concern for homeless women for some time. When she ministered at City and St Columba’s, she saw the value of “stop-gap” services—limited as they may be. They don’t solve the housing crisis for society, but they do offer support, care, and nourishment for those who live on the streets. When she moved to Tuggeranong, Elizabeth began exploring with her Church Council how the Congregation might reach out to needs in the community. Replicating the model of Safe Shelter, but for women, was on the cards.

Then the church became aware of the possibility of hosting a Sleepbus. Elizabeth had been involved in the Southside Homeless Initiative, which became aware of the initiative underway in Queanbeyan. Juanita Flett, of the National Council of Women in the ACT spearheaded a fundraising drive in late 2019, raising the $100,000 that is required to bring a Sleepbus to the area. By early 2020, everyone was poised, ready to go—and then COVID hit.

“We know that more than half the homeless in Canberra are currently women, and we know that the homeless rate of women over 50 is currently rising—not just in Canberra, but right around Australia”, the Rev. Raine said. She cited the most recent census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which shows:

• over half of Canberra’s homeless population are women

• 59% of people accessing ACT homeless services are women

• 53 percent of Canberrans living in low-income households are women

• older single women are the largest growing cohort of homeless people in the ACT.

“That situation is a real concern to us as compassionate people of faith”, Elizabeth said. “When I read the Bible, I see that God charged the people of Israel with providing special care for the vulnerable members of society—widows and orphans, with no males to protect and support them—as well as the “aliens in the land”, foreigners residing in Israel (Deut 10:18, 14:28–29, 16:11,14).

In his teachings, Jesus praises “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in the parable of the sheep and the goats he indicates that whenever you shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40).

“So we’re hoping that those women who are housed in very vulnerable circumstances can find a place on the Pink Sleepbus, to at least get a good night’s sleep, clear their heads, think properly, and hopefully access services that will give them a more permanent solution to their situation. That’s the least we can do for them.”

The bus is a large bus which can sleep up to 22 women each night—each in their own separate pod. Each pod (see picture above) is air-conditioned and comes with a mattress, pillows, sheets, blankets (washed daily), USB charging, portable toilet, fire extinguisher, lockable door and a television with a special channel showing services in the area for pathways out of homelessness. Inmates from the ACT Corrective Services unit, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, have been making sheets, quilt covers and pet beds for the bus.

The bus also has a special purpose-built larger pod (pictured below) that can cater for women with children, with two double bunks in its own area. There is a storage area running underneath the sleeping pods that includes pet pods, so that if women are travelling with their pets, there is somewhere for their pets to stay overnight.

The women are met each night by volunteers from local service groups and workers from employers who have a community service scheme. The pods are cleaned thoroughly each morning by a new set of volunteers, and fresh linen is provided for each night’s stay.

The front of the bus has its own self-contained section, where a caretaker sleeps at night. Juanita Flett explained that “the bus is really an emergency stop-over for the women; it’s not meant to be a permanent solution, it just provides a safe sleep for that night, and then the women can face the next day after having a good rest.”

“One of the contributing factors for some women who find themselves experiencing homelessness is trying to get away from a violent situation at home”, Juanita continues. However, the lack of available crisis and transitional accommodation in the ACT is also often a leading factor for women returning to abusive relationships and unsafe housing situations.

The ABS data indicates that over half of ACT women experiencing domestic and family violence become homeless in the first year post-crisis. “We are well aware of that”, says Juanita. “Given the extra challenges that this presents for those women, having a trained caretaker on hand at all times is important.”

Elizabeth adds, “With safety concerns in mind, the caretaker is able, if the situation requires, to drive the bus away from the scene to a safer location. Simon Rowe, the CEO of Sleepbus, has ensured that local police and other services are aware of the operations of the Sleepbus and are on hand to intervene should any situation escalate to that point.”

Simon Rowe (Sleepbus), Rev. Elizabeth Raine (Tuggeranong Uniting Church), Juanita Flett (National Council of Women ACT)

Juanita notes that “the bus is surrounded by CCTV. At night, the pods are completely blacked out, so you can’t see into them—nobody could know who is in a particular pod. All the CCTV cameras are connected to the caretaker’s cabin, and there is also security on call.” “Yes—the bus is on wheels”, Elizabeth noted, “so it can be moved if a desperate situation arose. That’s one of the things that originally appealed to us.”

The Pink Sleepbus will be stationed at Tuggeranong Uniting Church’s car park for three nights a week to start off with—Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Elizabeth notes that “We expect it will take some time to build up the service, for people to develop a trust in the volunteers who meet them. We want people to know that if you’re sleeping rough and you’re not getting a good night sleep, you don’t need to keep doing that. You can sleep on the Sleepbus, have a good breakfast, and be pointed to some of the local services that can assist you longer-term.”

Local community workers estimate the homeless population in Tuggeranong, in Canberra’s south, to be about 40 people sleeping rough at any one time, but they say it is hard to know. Georgie Fowler, President of the Tuggeranong Rotary Club, is involved in the Safe Shelter for men that operates in Tuggeranong. “The leading cause of homelessness is legal issues and family crisis,” Ms Fowler said. “So that surprised us, because there’s a common misconception that drugs and alcohol and general substance abuse lead to those situations—but that’s not the case.”

SUE the Pink Sleepbus was launched on Saturday 19 June in the car park of the Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Wanniassa, with a good crowd of almost 100 people from the Uniting Church, the National Council of Women ACT, and a number of local service organisations (SeeChange, Rotary, Lions, Communities At Work, and others).

Local members Nicole Lawder and Mark Parton attended the launch.

Mark Parton MLA, Rev. Elizabeth Raine, Nicole Lawder MLA

The bus is sponsored by ICON Water and some other local businesses, and is named after the late Sue Schreiner, feminist, lawyer, and ACT community activist. Ms Schreiner, the first woman from the ACT to be admitted to the New South Wales Bar, was a staunch advocate for finding solutions to homelessness.

SUE was “open for business” on Friday 25 June, the first night that she was stationed at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church, with a number of volunteers on hand to welcome women who were looking for a comfortable, safe, and warm sleep for the night.

Elizabeth with some of the volunteers on “opening night”

For information on Sleepbus, see https://www.sleepbus.org/why-sleep

To contribute to the costs of the Canberra Pink Sleepbus, go to https://www.sleepbus.org/fundraisers/juanitaflett40/ncwact-pink-sleepbus

See also https://the-riotact.com/a-bus-named-sue-canberra-to-get-first-womens-sleepbus/460585

Featured

On not stereotyping Judaism when reading the Gospels (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The interlinked stories of the dying girl who had lived for 12 years (Mark 5:25–34) and the woman who has bled for 12 years (Mark 5:21–24, 35–43) are stories with a Jewish focus. They each contain the number 12, a very important number in Judaism. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/23/on-twelve-in-the-stories-of-the-bleeding-woman-and-the-dying-child-mark-5-pentecost-5b/

These two stories each tell of a way that Jesus offered hope to the woman and the girl. And they each deal with matters of protocol and behaviour within the Jewish holiness system.

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

As well as overseeing the various offerings and sacrifices that were to be brought to the Temple, the priests provided guidance and interpretation in many matters of daily life, including sexual relationships and bodily illnesses, as well as the annual festivals and other ritual practices.

In the towns and villages of Israel, by contrast, the scribes and Pharisees provided guidance in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. They undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

So the encounter of the bleeding woman with Jesus had implications in terms of how he interacted with someone suffering from a physical illness. This was a matter regulated by various laws, including, most prominently, a comprehensive catalogue of laws relating to skin diseases, or leprosy (Lev 13–14) and, more relevant to this story, bodily discharges (Lev 15).

These laws specify that, if blood was being discharged from the woman as menstrual blood (“her regular discharge from her body”) that required specific actions to deal with the uncleanness that this produced (Lev 15:19-24).

If it was for other reasons (“a discharge of blood … not at the time of her impurity”) another set of laws applies (Lev 15:25-30). The woman herself is not seen as unclean; but anything she touches, anything she sits or lies on, is regarded as unclean. The processes for maintaining a clean status in her household, avoiding these items of furniture, or even direct contact with the woman, would have been onerous.

Furthermore, the request of the synagogue leader to Jesus could possibly bring him into contact with a dead body—a matter that was regulated by laws (Lev 22:4; Num 5:1-2, 9:6-12, 19:11-13). Jairus says that the girl is “at the point of death” (5:23). The cries of the crowd (“your daughter is dead”, 5:35) and the weeping and wailing of the people outside the house (5:38) suggest that the rituals of mourning for a deceased person had already begun. Nevertheless, Jesus assures Jairus that the girl is not dead, but sleeping (5:35).

Another strongly Jewish element in the story of the bleeding woman in her belief that, if she touched the clothing of Jesus (most likely the fringes or tassels), she would be cured. Whilst the laws relating to bleeding indicate that the “direction” of things is that an unclean state touching a clean state renders the clean state unclean, the direction is reversed in this story. The power that resides in Jesus is able to overcome the uncleanness associated with the woman (5:29).

The way that Christians have often read the Levitical prescriptions has been to dismiss the so-called “cultic laws” and maintain adherence only to the moral imperatives embedded within the pages of details about ritual and worship. From this perspective, the stories included in the section of Mark’s Gospel that we are focussing on, it is said, reveal that Jesus ignored or dismissed the prescriptions of the Law. Jesus is seen to validate the attitude that the laws in the Old Testament are no longer valid.

But neither of these Gospel stories give any warrant for such a negative approach to the Holiness Code. In neither case does Jesus actually breach the provisions of the Law. Indeed, the way that the Law functions is misunderstood in so many Christian readings of this story, as well as other parts of the Gospels.

Rather than operating as a constraining imposition, the Law actually deals with real life situations and provides ways that these situations are to be dealt with or managed. The woman with a discharge “beyond the time of her impurity”, for instance, could remove her uncleanness by offering two turtle doves or two pigeons (Lev 15:29–30).

The Pharisees, it is often said, imposed numerous demands on the people. They “made a fence around the law”—a phrase derived from the opening words of Pirke Aboth (The Sayings of the Fathers), a tractate in the Mishnah. The tractate begins:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.”

Making a fence around the Law is apparently derived from Deut 22:8, which in one translation instructs that when you are building a house, you must build a fence around the rook, roof in order to avoid guilt should someone fall off the roof.

The Pharisees were operating as ancient fence-makers (or gatekeepers, if you will), ensuring that people operated within the bounds of what was required by the Law. Of course, each time a particular law is invoked in a specific situation, it needs to be applied to that situation, interpreted as to how it might apply. That goes for laws in society today, as much as it does for laws in the ancient Jewish society.

The criticisms that Jesus makes of those who follow the Law and teach the Law need to be seen as debates taking place within Judaism, not as criticisms made from outside Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, living in Jewish lands, trained in understanding the Torah, engaged in applying it to situations in life. His words reflect his interpretation of the Law, not a rejection per se of the Law, as he participates in the culture, practices, and customs of his people.

Christians and Jews have had difficult relationships over the years. The difficulties have been based on misunderstandings, accusations, and the damaging intensification that comes through polemical debate, where careful listening and understanding have been absent. That has been the case, sadly, when matters associated with the application of the Law is concerned.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday reminds us of this lack of appreciation, and invites us to commit to a positive appreciation of Jewish traditions and practices, recognising that Judaism continues as a living faith today, and acknowledging that Jesus was engaged in interpretation, not rejection, of the Law. And in the midst of this, he offers hope to a woman who had suffered for 12 years, and a girl of 12 who was on the point of death.

Featured

On ‘twelve’ in the stories of the bleeding woman and the dying child (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The Gospel reading that is offered by the revised common lectionary this coming Sunday is a two-for-one deal. The story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years (Mark 5:25–34) is surrounded by the story of his encounter with one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus and his dying daughter (5:21–24, 35–43).

Jesus heals the woman who reached out to touch his clothing, telling her, “daughter, your faith has made you well” (5:34a) and commanding her to be healed (5:34b). Jesus reassures the synagogue leader with the exhortation, “do not fear, only believe” (5:36), informs him that his daughter “is not dead, but sleeping” (5:40), and raises her with the Aramaic phrase, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” (5:41).

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is simply a favourite technique employed by the writer of this Gospel. There are a number of stories that are connected in this way (often called “intercalation”, or “sandwiching”). The scene at the family home wraps Jesus’ engagement with his family around an interaction with the scribes (3:22–30). The sending out of the disciples and their return bookends the account of the death of John the baptiser (6:7–30).

The words and actions of Jesus in relation to the fig tree by the road are placed around his actions in the Temple forecourt (11:12–25). The plot to arrest and kill Jesus encompasses the account of the woman in Bethany who anoints the head of Jesus (14:1–11). Other examples are found in the apocalyptic discourse (13:5-27), the scene of the final meal (14:18-25), and the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, with Peter’s denial immediately before and after this scene (14:53-72). It appears to be a favourite technique in this Gospel.

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is the significant number 12 that links these stories? The woman had been bleeding for 12 years; the girl was 12 years of age. The woman had been bleeding since the child had been born. Was there a connection?

I’ve recently read an explanation that draws on the preserve of 12 in both stories as the linking point. James F. McGrath, in his recently-published book, What Jesus Learned from Women (cascade, 2021), notes that the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years was in danger of being considered ritually impure, and thus of being ostracised from community life. Jairus, as ruler of the synagogue, was responsible for ensuring that the requirements for ritual purity were maintained.

The number 12, McGrath suggests, provides a reminder that “these very women whose stories highlight the danger of ritual impurity associated with women in that ancient society are nevertheless part of the people of Israel, and thus worthy of healing and restoration into that community” (p.115). Indeed, as he notes, “women were the ones who made them ongoing existence of the tribes of Israel possible generation to generation thought their reproductive role and power”.

Certainly, 12 was an important number for the Jewish people who were the main characters in the stories told in Mark 5. The prominence of 12 makes the stories seem especially Jewish.

There were 12 sons of Jacob (Gen 49:1–28), then 12 tribes of Israel (Deut 27:12–13). On the table in the Tabernacle were placed 12 silver plates, 12 silver dishes, and 12 golden plates (Num 7:84–89), and the breastplate of the priest contained 12 precious stones (Exod 28:21) as emblems of the 12 tribes as they camped round about the Sanctuary.

Moses built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai with 12 pillars (Exod 24:4) and Joshua had the people take 12 stones from the River Jordan to be placed as a memorial to their entry into the land (Josh 4:1–10).

As the story continues in the Gospels, Jesus chose 12 apostles as his inner circle (Mark 3:13–19 and parallels in Matt 10 and Luke 6; and John 6:67–71). Jesus indicates that this signified the link between his movement and the traditions of Israel (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; and see James 1:1). When Jesus feeds the great crowd of 4,000 people beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:1–9), there are twelve baskets of bread left over (Mark 8:19). In another account, with 5,000 men beside the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1–14), the leftovers are again collected in twelve baskets (John 6:13).

And in the final dramatic visions written about the promised future by the aged seer John, the number 12 figures prominently. We see this first in the vision of a woman wearing a crown with 12 stars (Rev 12:1). The number then appears in the architecture of “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10), with its 12 gates with 12 angels and the names of the 12 tribes (Rev 21:12), and its 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles (Rev 21:14). Finally, there are 12 pearls on these 12 gates (Rev 21:21) and 12 fruits on the tree of life (Rev 22:2).

Is the emphasis on 12 in these conjoined stories in Mark 5 underlining the Jewish setting, and pointing to the centrality of Jewish matters in the story? It’s a fascinating hypothesis.

My wife, Elizabeth Raine, suggests that the significance of the 12 relates to being able to be married. The adult woman in the story is able to marry once her bleeding of 12 years has ended. She is healed (5:29), saved (5:34, often translated as “made well”), and made clean (5:34b). The girl, brought back from the brink of death at 12 years of age, is approaching the time when women were able to be married.

Whether you think this is a legitimate explanation, or not, it is certain that the two stories offer hope for both women. Their encounters with Jesus have each been life-changing.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/24/on-not-stereotyping-judaism-when-reading-the-gospels-mark-5-pentecost-5b/

Featured

Forty four years on …

After many years of careful conversation, three Protestant churches decided to join to form the Uniting Church in Australia—44 years ago, on 22 June 1977. The rhetoric was “we are a movement, not a denomination”. They were heady days. The new church issued a Statement to the Nation. There was front page newspaper coverage of the opening service of the new church. There was great optimism about what the future held.

44 years down the track, the Uniting Church has developed a clear identity and carved out a distinctive place within Australian society. We have made mistakes, followed some unhelpful paths leading to dead ends, and not always provided good, transparent, informed decisions. But we are human, flawed, striving, hopeful. We press on.

As the Uniting Church, we have a distinctively open and unconstricted theology, faithful to our reformed and catholic heritage, but contextualised to the contemporary Australian situation. We celebrate multicultural and linguistic diversity and exhibit a warm acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people. Across the church there is a clear and strong commitment to social justice, advocating for refugees, working to effect better housing policies, arguing against the excessive gambling addiction in society, decriminalising drug usage, and other issues.

We have a consistent and thoroughgoing commitment to living sustainably, honouring the creation, and working with community organisations devoted to environmental care. We have an enduring covenant with the First Peoples of the land, an openness to ecumenical and interfaith engagements, and a strong commitment to mission in other countries that means working carefully with partner churches and supporting local initiatives.

In each of these areas, we have ideals, goals, visions, and we have dashed hopes, failed enterprises, inadequate realisations. Yet we press on.

We still talk with orthodox, catholic, conservative, evangelical and pentecostal siblings, but don’t feel constrained by their dogmas or traditions, or by what we perceive to be their restrictions and limitations. We seek to set out in fresh directions, following untested pathways, sailing into unchartered waters, knowing that this means pushing the envelope, risking being criticised or unfriended or worse. Sometimes the fresh initiatives work well, sometimes they fail spectacularly. But at least we try—and we press on.

It’s a good place to be! We are appreciated by so many people in society. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the comment, “If I went to church, it would be to a Uniting Church”. Well, it’s OK not to go to church, but it’s great that church folk can work with others in the community on projects of mutual interest, to the benefit of all. “Uniting for the Common Good” has been one of our catchcries in recent years. “Where the wild God is” is the current theme for our consideration—we go where God is already at work.

Earlier this year I had this piece on the identity of the Uniting Church posted to the Assembly website. I thought it was worth reposting today, the 44th anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/02/the-identity-of-the-uniting-church/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

Featured

World Refugee Day 2021: “when I was a stranger, you welcomed me”

Today, 20 June, is World Refugee Day. On this day, people around the world celebrate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. It stands at the beginning of Refugee Week; in Australia, this is always held from Sunday to Saturday of the week which includes 20 June (World Refugee Day).

The first Refugee Week events were organised in Sydney in 1986 by Austcare (Australians Caring for Refugees). Austcare’s mission is to assist refugees overseas, displaced people and those affected by landmines to rebuild their lives, through the expert delivery of development programs in partnership with local communitities and other agencies.

In 1987, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) became a co-organiser of the week, and the week became a national event from 1988. RCOA took on responsibility for the national coordination of Refugee Week from 2004.

*****

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was established in 1951, when it was estimated that there were just 1.5 million refugees around the world. The UNHCR has most recently estimated that during 2020, for the first time in recorded history, the number of people forcibly displaced had reached over 80 million.

According to the UNHCR, there are now 82.4 million forcibly displaced people, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order in their countries of origin. 35 million of these people are children, aged under 18 years. 1 million of these children were born as refugees; in the years 2018 to 2020, an average of between 290,000 and 340,000 children were born into a refugee life per year.

Over half of these people (48 million) are classified as “internally displaced”, meaning that they are homeless within their own country. About 26 million are officially classified as refugees, meaning that they are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This is the definition in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees—an international agreement which Australia signed in 1951, the year it was published.

A further 4.1 million people are classified as asylum seekers. Under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. (Terms such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘boat people’ are both inaccurate and unhelpful—even though they appear in the media with saddening regularity, they are terms that should be avoided.)

More than two thirds of all refugees currently under the UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries: the Syrian Arabic Republic (6.7 million), Venezuela (4.0 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Myanmar (1.1 million).

The countries which are currently hosting the most number of refugees are Turkey (3.6 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Germany (1.1 million), Sudan (just over 1 million), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (just under 1 million). Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, and the Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total.

https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/

An analysis by the New Internationalist magazine reveals the inequities in how refugees are distributed around the world:

https://newint.org/features/2016/01/01/global-refugee-crisis-the-facts

Between January 2009 and December 2018, Australia recognised or resettled 180,790 refugees. This represented 0.89% of the 20.3 million refugees recognised globally over that period. Australia’s total contribution for the decade is ranked 25th overall, 29th per capita and 54th relative to national GDP. It is clear that, as a wealthy and robust country, we can do much better than this.

Some years ago, the Australian Human Rights Commission provided information on the number of refugees in Australia, and on various issues relating to refugees, as this graphic shows:

https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/education/face-facts-asylum-seekers-and-refugees

After intense and extended pressure, the Australian Government eventually reduced the numbers of children being held in detention. However, as recent events concerning the Murugappan family of Biloela have shown, there are still children being held in detention in this country.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/15/the-murugappans-of-biloela/

*****

Christians have a particular responsibility to welcome refugees and assist them to become fully functioning members of society. This responsibility reaches back well into the origins of the mother religion of Christianity, the faith of the people of ancient Israel.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God charged the people of Israel with providing special care for the “ aliens in the land”, foreigners residing in Israel (see Deut 10:18, 14:28–29). There were specific provisions that “sojourner in the land” were to be accorded the justice due to all Israelites (Exod 22:21–24) and they were to be included in two of the major festive celebrations each year—the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths (Deut 16:11, 14).

In the Gospels, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats and indicates that “whenever you welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give a drink to the thirsty … you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/16/a-final-parable-from-the-book-of-origins-on-sheep-and-goats-on-judgement-and-righteous-justice-matt-25/

Hospitality was a central virtue in ancient Jewish society, and was well practised by the early Christians (Mark 6:10; Matt 10:11–13, 41; Luke 10: 8–9; Rom 12:13, 15:7; 1 Tim 5:10; 1 Pet 4:9). The importance of welcoming “the stranger” is emphasised in Christian letters (Heb 13:2; 3 John 5), and Paul encourages the Corinthians to consider “the outsider” in their worship (1 Cor 14:13–17).

The Uniting Church has had a long commitment to refugee issues, advocating for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and working on the ground to welcome and support refugees as they start to live within Australian society. In 2003, the National Assembly resolved:

a) to note the important call of the gospel to welcome the stranger;

b) to commend and celebrate the work of those within the Uniting Church and wider community who work with refugees and asylum seekers as they commence resettlement within Australia;

c) to celebrate the work which has been undertaken by the NCCA National Program for Refugees and Displaced Persons over many years and for the creation in late 1998 of an ecumenical committee to support this work;

d) to commit the Uniting Church in Australia to ongoing support for refugee and asylum seeker resettlement in Australia.

A major resource on working with refugees, Shelter from the Storm, was adopted at the 2015 Assembly; see https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/refugees-and-asylum-seekers/uca-statements/item/download/893_ba4816ebfb6adadd1c721150aa8f9ccb

See also https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/refugees-and-asylum-seekers

*****

The theme for Refugee Week in 2021 is UNITY. The themes of Refugee Week in the past 16 years have been: Year of Welcome (2020), A World of Stories (2019), #WithRefugees (2018), With courage let us all combine (2015–2017), Restoring Hope (2012–2014), Freedom from Fear (2009–2011), A Place to Call Home (2008), The Voices of Young Refugees (2007), Journeys (2006) and Different Past, Shared Future (2005).

In explaining the 2021 theme of UNITY, the Refugee Council of Australia says:

“The volatility of life in recent times has shown us unequivocally that we need to work together often merely to survive, let alone to thrive and progress. Let’s take the opportunity to start afresh and rebuild our lives together. To count our blessings and to put them to work. Existing and emerging communities. Working together. The powerful potential of Unity. The special brew of ideas from all over the world that created our great way of life can continue evolving if we work together. Let’s not stop now, let’s move forward unified.

“In 2021, we are calling on you to help build a more cohesive community during Refugee Week. Whether hosting a local meal, a community event or attending an online event to hear from people all over the world, join us as we call for the spirit of unity as we recover from the isolation we have all endured in 2020. Stronger. Safer. Healthier. Happier. Together.”

See https://www.refugeeweek.org.au/refugee-week-theme/

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

The Murugappans of Biloela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one

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

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

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

Jesus did not write an account of his life. In fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader.

Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conflict between Jesus and the authorities is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated; the shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity. The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. The people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

What’s in a name? Reconciliation ruminations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

With Love to the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

The missional opportunity of Trinity Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Hans Georg Gadamer defines a horizon as follows:

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

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

*****

For earlier posts, see:

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

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

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

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

Featured

How should we read the Old Testament? Considering Genres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

and see earlier posts at

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Reconciliation: a theme for Trinity Sunday

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

For subsequent posts, see

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

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

II The relationship between the Father and the Son

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

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

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

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

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

*****

III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Now, let the accusations of heresy begin ………

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

*****

II The relationship between the Father and the Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

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

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

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

Featured

An Affirmation for Our Times

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

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

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

Affirming the Global Church

We believe in God,

who befriended a wandering people,

calling them from slavery into freedom,

yet who in Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba,

Cyrus, Darius and many others,

called outsiders to be agents of God’s purpose.

We believe in Jesus,

who was revered by Persian sages,

sought and found asylum in Egypt,

preached the love of God to Syrians,

attracted Greeks to his cause,

found his first evangelist in a Samaritan,

saw incomparable faith in a Roman,

had his cross shouldered by a Libyan,

and ascended to his native land

that he might be present in all places.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

who at Pentecost proved

that heaven has no mother tongue;

who, in the baptism of an Ethiopian,

denied racism a foothold in faith;

and who, in the ancient and modern worlds,

founded churches in different cultures.

We believe that God is supremely known in Jesus,

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

Therefore we celebrate

that God’s ways are not our ways,

that God knows whom God chooses,

and reserves the right to surpass all human expectation.

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

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

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

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

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

Interpreting the creeds “in a later age”

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

The identity of the Uniting Church

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

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

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

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

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

I In Ecumenical Relationship

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

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

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

We are an ecumenical church.

II In Covenant with First Peoples

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

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

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

We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.

III A Multicultural Church 

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

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

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

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

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

IV  All the people of God

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

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

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

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

V  Women and Men

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

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

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

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

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

VI Discernment

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

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

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

VII Professional Standards

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

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

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

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

VIII  Open to explore difficult issues

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

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

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

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

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

IX  Advocating for Justice

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

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

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

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

Environmental Sustainability

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Earth Day 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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