Disturbance, disruption, and destabilising words (Mark 8; Lent 2)

The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise.

Disturbance. The disturbing element comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.

There is a curious end to the words Jesus spoke: “after three days, rise again”. How did the disciples understand this? Why did they not show any understanding of this, when Jesus was crucified and buried?

In my reading, this prophecy placed on the lips of Jesus is the work of the author who crafted this Gospel narrative. The author knows the end of the story. He seeds these words into the narrative to give greater authority to Jesus, portraying him as a person in tune with the way of God, knowing in advance the fate in store for him.

But the fact that when these things happen, the disciples fail to remember, let alone comprehend, what Jesus had said, makes me suspicious. Death by crucifixion was a fate reserved by the Romans for political rebels and criminals. How could the disciples not remember that Jesus was identifying himself with this marginalised, despised group?

Immediately after this passage, Mark narrates the Transfiguration (which was offered by the lectionary two weeks ago, on the Sunday at the end of Epiphany, the season of light). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/08/transfigured-lives-in-the-here-and-now-mark-9-and-1-kings-2/

And after that revelatory mountaintop event, the same prophecy of Jesus that he uttered (according to Mark) prior to the Transfiguration, is repeated and expanded, on two further occasions, in the narrative that follows. Mark asserts that Jesus persists with his prophecy.

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35).

This is followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

These three predictions, followed immediately by challenging teachings, form a central pivot point in the overall storyline of this Gospel. They pivot from the activities of Jesus in Galilee (chapters 1-8) and the fateful events that take place in Jerusalem (chapters 11-16). The pivot is emphasised by the bracketing, around this whole section, that is provided by two accounts of Jesus healing blind men: first in Bethsaida (8:22-26), then later in Jericho (10:46-52). These bracketing scenes cry out: do the followers of Jesus not see what he is saying?

This is a literary device, intentionally planted here by the author, to sharpen the focus on to the central characteristic of following Jesus. And that is what Jesus then elucidates, with piercing insight, for the first time, after the prophetic words of 8:31.

Disruption. The teaching which Jesus provides is destabilising for his followers. Jesus leads into this destabilising teaching with a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33).

Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?

However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7).

Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words.

Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death. (The Greek uses the tiny word dei, signalling the inevitable fate, the inescapable future: the Son of Man must suffer.

This pathway is set to follow the way of the Servant of Israel, set out in the series of great poems reflecting on the fate of the servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:13). For in each of these songs, the servant faces opposition, harassment, violence–and then, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”, he encounters his fate: “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed … by a perversion of justice he was taken away … he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 52:3-5, 8).

That Jesus saw the relevance of these songs to his mission is signalled in various places in Mark’s narrative–see, for instance, his words at 10:43-45, on being a servant, and especially 10:45 (“giving his life as a random for many”).

The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.

Destabilising words. So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. (This might be behind the accusation raised against followers of Jesus in Thessaloniki, where they were known as people who have been “turning the world upside down”, Acts 17:6).

Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels.

In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295).

In the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate). Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously.

This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life.

Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity–precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)

Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person.

The honour—shame culture runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15). The same idea is expressed in the version of Isa 28:16 which is cited at 1 Pet 2:6, which modifies the ending to provide explicit reference to the claim that God will not shame believers.

God can thus honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19)–and conversely, God could shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth (1 Cor 1:27).

Honour was likewise praised by Greek philosophers as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3).

Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Life of Abraham 264).

Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful.

However, that’s not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.

So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

And that’s the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.

Forty days, led by the Spirit: Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1; Lent 1)

This week we once more read and hear from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark. We hear specifically this Sunday from the very beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the very early stages of the public activity of Jesus.

We have already read about John the baptiser during Advent (Advent 2), and heard Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1). Now, in this week’s Gospel reading (Lent 1), Jesus is baptised, plunged deep into the water, from which he emerges changed (1:9-11).

This scene is sometimes regarded as Jesus attesting in public to a deeply personal religious experience that he had in his encounter with John, who had been preaching his message of repentance with some vigour (1:4-11). His encounter with John deepens his faith and sharpens his commitment.

The relationship between Jesus and John is interesting. In the orderly account of things being fulfilled, which we attribute to Luke, it is clear from the start that John is related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). By tradition, they are considered to be cousins–although the biblical text does not anywhere expressly state this.

It seems also that some of the early followers of Jesus had previously been followers of John himself. This is evidenced in the book of signs, which we attribute to the evangelist John. Andrew, later to be listed among the earliest group of followers of Jesus, appears initially as one of two followers of John (John 1:35-40). They express interest in what John is teaching (John 1:39).

Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter, later acknowledged as the leader of the disciples of Jesus. He tells his brother about Jesus. It is Peter who comes to a clear and definitive understanding of the significance of Jesus, even at this very early stage: “we have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Andrew and John are thenceforth committed disciples of Jesus.

Was Jesus engaging in “sheep-stealing”? Certainly, the dynamic in the narrative is of a movement shifting away from John the baptiser towards Jesus the Messiah; the juxtaposition of these two religious figures can be seen at a number of points (John 1:20, 29-34, 35-36; see also 3:22-30).

See further thoughts on John the baptiser in John’s Gospel at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/07/the-witness-of-john/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

None of this is in view in the account we read in this Sunday’s Gospel. The rapid-fire movement in this opening chapter simply takes us from John, baptising in the Jordan, to Jesus at the Jordan and then in the wilderness, and on into Galilee, beside the lake and in Capernaum (Mark 1:1-45).

See my comments on the character of Mark 1 at https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

Mark has no concern with exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. He wishes only to indicate that, at the critical moment of the beginning of the public activity of Jesus, it was through contact with John, his message and his actions, that Jesus was impelled into his mission.

*****

The Gospel account moves quickly on from the baptism, to a very different scene, set in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested, challenged about his call (1:12-15). The wilderness was the location of testing for Israel (Exod 17:1-7; Num 11:1-15; Deut 8:2). By the same token, the wilderness was also the place where “Israel tested God” (Num 14:20-23), when Israel grumbled and complained to God (see Exod 14-17, Num 11 and 14). Wilderness and testing go hand-in-hand.

The reference to Jesus being forty days in the wilderness evokes both the “forty years” of wilderness wandering for the people of Israel (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7, 8:2, 29:5; Neh 9:21; Amos 2:10, 5:25), as well as the “forty days” that Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9-11,18,25; 10:10).

Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.

We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).

David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable!

Other instances of forty point to the same generalised sense of an extended time. Elijah journeyed from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:8), whilst the prophet Ezekiel’s announcement of punishments lasting forty years (Ezekiel 29:10-13) is intended to indicate “for a long time”, not for a precise chronological period. Jonah’s prophecy that there will be forty days until Nineveh is overthrown (Jonah 3:4) has the same force.

So the story of the testing of Jesus for “forty days in the wilderness” is not a precise accounting of exact days, but draws on a scriptural symbol for an extended, challenging period of time.

Details about the conversation that took place whilst Jesus was being tested in the wilderness are provided in the accounts in the Gospels attributed to Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). This is not the case in Mark, where the much shorter account (1:12-13) focusses attention on the key elements of this experience: the wilderness, testing, wild beasts, angels–and the activity of the Spirit.

For more on Jesus in the wilderness, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/08/sacred-place-and-sacred-scripture-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/

*****

The Markan account of this period of testing is typically concise and focussed. The constituent elements in the story continue the symbolic character of the narrative.

The note that “he was with the wild beasts” sounds like the wilderness experience was a rugged time of conflict and tension for Jesus. However, commentators note that the particular Greek construction employed here is found elsewhere in this Gospel to describe companionship and friendly association: Jesus appointed twelve apostles “to be with him” (3:14); the disciples “took him [Jesus] with them onto the boat” (4:36); the man previously possessed by demons begged Jesus “that he might be with him” (5:14); and a servant girl declares to Peter that she saw “you also were with Jesus” (14:67).

If this Greek construction bears any weight, then it is pointing to the companionable, friendly association of the wild beasts with Jesus—a prefiguring of the eschatological harmony envisaged at the end of time, when animals and humans all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Hosea 2:18). The wilderness scene has a symbolic resonance, then, with this vision.

Alongside the wild beasts, angels are present—and their function is quite specifically identified as “waiting on him” (1:13). The Greek word used here is most certainly significant. The word diakonein has the basic level of “waiting at table”, but in Markan usage it is connected with service, as we see in the descriptions of Peter’s healed mother-in-law (1:31), the women who followed Jesus as disciples from Galilee to the cross (15:41), and most clearly in the saying of Jesus that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). The service of the angels symbolises the ultimate role that Jesus will undertake.

Finally, we note that the whole scene of the testing of Jesus takes place under the impetus of the Spirit, which “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). This was the place that Jesus just had to be; the action of the Spirit, so soon after descending on him like a dove (1:11), reinforces the importance and essential nature of the testing that was to take place in the wilderness.

And the action of driving out is expressed in a single word which contains strong elements of force—the word is used to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38) and is also used with great force at 11:15. The testing in the wilderness becomes a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. The more developed dialogues in Matthew and Luke expand on this understanding of the encounter.

*****

Both of the key elements in this reading (baptism and testing) serve a key theological purpose in Mark’s narrative. They shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. The two elements open the door to the activities of Jesus that follow in the ensuing 13 chapters, right up to the time when the long-planned plot against Jesus, initiated at 3:6, is put into action (14:1-2).

Of course, this story is offered in the lectionary each year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It serves as an introduction to the whole season. Jesus being tested in the wilderness points forward, to the series of events taking place in Jerusalem, that culminate in his crucifixion, death, and burial.

The narrative arc of Mark’s Gospel runs from the baptism and wilderness testing, through to death at Golgotha and burial in a tomb. The weekly pattern of Gospel readings during Lent follows a parallel path, from the wilderness testing of Lent 1, to the entry into Jerusalem on Lent 6, the farewell meal on Maundy Thursday, and the death and burial on Good Friday.

That is the path that Jesus trod. That is the way that he calls us to walk.

Celebrations in Canberra (in the Uniting Church Presbytery)

Before I moved to Canberra, people told me about the north/south divide: people north of the lake rarely venture south of the lake, and vice versa). As I was moving from Perth (where people north of the river rarely venture over the river, and vice versa), this was not a new experience for me.

This past weekend, in Canberra, there were joyous celebrations taking place on both sides of the lake. And some people even crossed over the lake to take part in those celebrations!

North of the lake, the Gungahlin Congregation was celebrating 25 years of ministry and mission in the northern-most region of our capital city. The Congregation started as a church plant, beginning from almost nothing—Mark Greenlees arrived in January 1996 to a rented house, one couple willing to work with them, and three partly-completed new housing estates with a population of 12,000, surrounded by paddocks and hillsides.

Over a decade, Mark and his wife Robyn worked with a growing group of dedicated disciples, building a faith community that was in a position then to call a new minister, plan and build a purpose-built church and community complex (opened in 2010), and develop a distinctive identity as an inclusive, community-oriented gathering of people.

Mark Faulkner came to ministry at Gungahlin in 2007. He reflected on this group as “a genuine Christian community, where people of all ages, relationships, cultures and theologies sat side by side, where people were welcoming to the stranger, the hungry, the troubled, the refugee … a community who shared leadership, encouraged ideas, took risks and sought to live out their faith”.

Darren Wright is now in placement with a strong group of lay leaders, sharing the site with a Korean UCA Congregation, looking to harness the energy of the people into engagement with the neighbours that now surround them—households with two working parents, refugees moving into the region, with places of worship for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Bahai, Buddhists, and other faiths.

A group of people which which filled the worship space and foyer (with the requisite social distancing) heard stories from each era in the Congregation’s life, tapped and clapped as the band played and sang worship songs, shared in prayer for the local community and for people beyond, and then shared in fellowship for an extended time after the worship had ended.

It was worth the trip all the way from the southern-most suburb of Canberra, to this northern urban region, for this joyful celebration!

Meanwhile, south of the lake, another celebration was taking place, as the Woden Valley Congregation formally came into existence. Ross Kingham, Co-Chair of the Canberra Region Presbytery, presided as the members of two existing southern Canberra Congregations joyfully and wholeheartedly pledged their commitment to working together as a unified Congregation, seeking to express itself in worship and service in the Woden Valley in ways that are appropriate and relevant for the context.

Two parallel processes had led to this conjunction of Congregations. As Chris Lockley neared his retirement, throughout 2019 and 2020 he worked with the St James Curtin Congregation to explore possibilities for their ministry and mission in that part of Canberra’s inner south in future years.

Janet Kay, Chair of the St James Congregation, notes that “we started meaningful planning conversations early in 2018, after a significant number of people from St James had attended the Pathways conversations and had come back with ideas about what makes a healthy church.” Over time, explorations of these ideas were undertaken with every church in the southern region of Canberra.

At the same time, the South Woden Congregation, which was sharing the ministry leadership of Gary Holdsworth with the Weston Creek Congregation, was exploring their future. Chair of Church Council, Stephen Brand, explains that they wanted to “take a new and dynamic approach to our place in the community and also to seek out a like-minded congregation with which to consider working closely or merging.”

In the best of timing, the two processes converged about a year ago, and—working through all the challenges that COVOD-19 restrictions imposed—the two Congregations each came to a consensus decision about their future together.

Janet Kay observes, “our combined enthusiasm, talents and skills are now available to make something greater than the sum of the two parts.”

Stephen Brand notes, “we were considering a future horizon of 5 to 10 years and not reflecting an immediate terminal ‘decline’. In fact, the congregations [each] remain strong communities of faith with energy and purpose.” So, this is a merger made at a moment of strength, with a clear mutual commitment to a shared future—a most hopeful sign!

Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minster for Congregation Futures, notes that “after vows by the members of the new Congregation and a welcome by Presbytery, there was a gathering coloured pieces of wax from all those present to form a community candle. The worship music filled us with hope of new light streaming in this place as God gathered us in, and we were sent out trusting in God who gives us a future, daring us to go.”

Canberra Region Presbytery is also celebrating the commencement of new ministry leadership in three Congregations—Apelu Tielu at Queanbeyan, Geoff Dornan at Wesley Forrest, and Andrew Jago at North Belconnen. It is exciting to be in the middle of multiple communities of faith where hope for the future and commitment to the present are expressed so strongly!

Congregations in the Canberra Region Presbytery

Coping in the aftermath of COVID-19: a global perspective, a local response

Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.

We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.

One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.

For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.

We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.

So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.

These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.

As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.

The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.

Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)

Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)

Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)

Ratio of doctors to population (per 1,000)

Gender-based violence. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the stresses introduced by the pandemic. Women are always the vast majority of victims in such situations. (See the discussion by UN Women at https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures)

Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.

If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.

We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.

Transfigured lives—in the here and now (Mark 9 and 1 Kings 2)

Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.

Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.

Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).

Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.

Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?

In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.

Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.

But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?

The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.

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The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).

Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).

But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?

Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.

Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?

Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?

Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.

Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.

Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)

Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).

However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.

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Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.

The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.

For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.

As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.

As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.

Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/02/26/bringing-his-exodos-to-fulfilment/

The whole city? (Mark 1) Let’s take that with a grain of salt

Should we take everything we read in the Bible as clear, unquestionable fact? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that we toss everything out. We need to be critically discerning.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a case in point (Mark 1:29-38). There’s a brief reference to a crowd scene, outside the house of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, in Capernaum. After the healing that took place inside, word spreads, and people begin to gather outside. That then provides the basis for the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus (1:29-34).

How big was the crowd that gathered outside the house? Mark makes the claim that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). Now that is some crowd: the whole population, outside one house in the town!

It is thought that the population of a town like Capernaum in the first century would have been about 1,500 people. So that’s quite a crowd squeezed into the street next to this little house!

For myself, I take such a claim with a pinch of salt. (That’s a saying that is thought to have originated with Pliny the Elder, who included a recipe for an antidote to poison, in his Natural History, that included “a grain of salt”.)

In other words, whilst there is some truth to what is said, let’s not take it uncritically, unthinkingly, literally. There were lots of people there; but not every one, not every single inhabitant of Capernaum. Mark most likely is here exaggerating.

He has already indicated that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). After his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), he becomes renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33).

Then he is told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and so he sets off, touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). Much later in the story, Mark declares that in Jerusalem, “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).

Lots of exaggerations there!

We find the same in Luke’s writings. For instance, after they were arrested in Philippi and incarcerated in prison, Paul and Silas are praying. Suddenly, we read that “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration. Everyone was set free? Really?

This is characteristic of the Lukan narrative—notice how many times “all” the people say, or do something (Luke 3:21, 4:14, 20, 22, 28, 36, 40, 5:26, 6:17, 19, 7:16, 17, 29, 8:37, 40, 52, 9:43, 13:17, 18:43, 19:7, 48, 21:38, 23:5, 48, 49; Acts 3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). That’s a lot of “all the people” doing things and saying things in complete unison! I take this as a sign of his literary licence. He’s a garrulous story-teller, not a clinical historian.

And Matthew is not immune from the same tendency. Some of the sayings of Jesus that are reported in this Gospel reveal the same tendency to extremism, hyperbole, exaggeration. For instance, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29). Who obeys that command?

And similarly, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A splinter, maybe— but not a log. And when Jesus condemned the Pharisees , he berated them as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh. That has to be excessive exaggeration, told for dramatic impact, and not an actual documentary description.

So let’s not get hung up on rigid literalistic readings of scripture. Let’s allow for the artistic input of each evangelist—and, indeed, for the creative impact of Jesus himself, as he exaggerates and overdraws his words for the sake of making an impact. And let’s read with careful attention to the symbolic sense of the story, rather than focussing on the words as the literal truth.

And have that pinch of salt at the ready!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

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