When we look back over history, and explore it in the traditional framework that we use to mark the periods of history, people of the Christian faith see a large watershed around the time of Jesus.
Traditionally, we have marked this watershed by using the letters BC and AD—Before Christ, and Anno Domino (“in the year of our Lord”). Those letters stand us in good stead, however, when we reflect on the past year. The years prior to 2020 are BC years; we consider them to be “Before COVID”.
But then, from early in 2020, and spreading rapidly across the globe through the months of that year, we experienced a major disruption. COVID interrupted familiar patterns, forcing everyone to refrain from gathering together, pressing upon us all the imperative of using technology to connect, inviting us to provide pastoral care, worship, learning opportunities, and social gatherings in the virtual space online.
The disruptions of this time were extensive, reaching widely and deeply into our familiar patterns. From late 2020, then, we have been living in the years we can mark as AD: After the Disruption. Things are different. Events have made things different. Society has learnt to function in different ways—use the check-in app, sanitise, maintain social distancing, count numbers on the space, practice good personal hygiene, stay at home if you are unwell, or vulnerable.
People in the church have also learnt to function in different ways. We check in when we arrive for worship. We gather to worship and do not sing or hug. We support the church financially by online giving, not by “passing the plate”. We participate in regular learning opportunities online, and engage with people who are geographically quite distant from one another. We continue to offer worship in hybrid ways, both in person and online.
We continue the provision of worship resources in hard copy or via email to people who are vulnerable or frail. We have adapted to having morning tea after worship, served by people wearing masks and gloves, with individually-packaged food. We may not like all of these changes, but we recognise how important they are to ensure the safety of all our people.
When the Canberra Region Presbytery met on 20 March, we heard from the Secretary of Synod, the Rev. Jane Fry, who urged us to consider the new things that are emerging out of this change. “COVID erupted into society, and the church, bringing chaos”, Jane observed, “and we know, from scripture and history, that God works best through chaos.”
So what has been taking place in this time of chaos, as we move from BC (Before COVID) to AD (Anno Domino)? What changes have we recognised to be important? What new things is God doing in our midst, as a result of the chaotic disruptions of COVID. We explored various ideas during the Presbytery meeting conversation with Jane Fry.
Traditionally, we have ensured that stipended ministry is offered in places that can afford them; the challenge, now, is for us to move to a model that places community chaplaincy in an area with significant need. Work is underway on this exact matter, as Presbytery considers how to provide grater ministry resourcing in the South Coast regions which have been impacted so greatly by the bushfires.
We noted the importance of continuing our pastoral care of ageing people who have been faithful over many decades. The Synod Secretary affirmed that, and invited such groups to consider, “what is our legacy for the future?” Rather than “keeping the lights burning until we all done”, how might ageing congregations best envisage “how do we serve as midwives to the future?”
Relating to people outside the church is another challenge, and opportunity, facing us as the Uniting Church. The dominant voice for “Christianity” in the public arena has, for some time, expressed very different perspectives on many matters, when compared with the way the Uniting Church operates in society and what we value in our communities. How do we strategise to provide a stronger voice, in our distinctive tones, into those public conversations?
How do we leverage off the many assets that we have, as church, to ensure that mission and ministry are resourced and developed? What place does the “rationalisation of property” play in this process? Whilst church properties in the ACT have, in effect, a “zero dollar value”, nevertheless we are stewards of many properties—how do they figure in the ways that we foster our core activities as the people of God?
So, lots of important and helpful questions have been raised. How do we respond to them and work through them, is the challenge for the coming time.
As we head into the future After the Disruption, I personally yearn for a church where active discipleship is the key marker of membership; grace is the benchmark of who we are when we gather in community; the heart of the Gospel is known to be justice for all, where we work towards that goal for all people; and we take seriously those fearsome words that we pray all-too-easily, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
Footnote: many people will know that I have long operated with the scholarly convention to refer to “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “Common Era” (CE), as this offers clearer respect to our Jewish brothers and sisters and avoids the sense of Christian supercessionism in our language. But, for the purposes of this reflection, I have reverted to the old BC—AD language. It seems to fit.
During the weeks that stretch out after Easter Sunday, we are in the season of the year (in the church calendar) that is called, simply, Easter. This coming Sunday will be the second Sunday in Easter (the second of seven, running through to the middle of May). During this season, the lectionary we use replaces the first reading from Hebrew Scripture with sections from the book of Acts—the second of two volumes attributed to Luke.
Acts recounts, from one perspective, the way that the church emerged as the key organisational response to the teachings and example of Jesus. Luke, the presumed author of the two volumes which provide an orderly account of the things fulfilled among us (Luke 1:1, 3), takes pains to indicate multiple lines of connection and continuity between his account of Jesus (the Gospel of Luke) and his subsequent account of the church (the book of Acts).
In this second volume, there are many indications of how Luke understood the emergence of the church to have occurred. It began as a series of loosely-connected Jewish communities, bonded by their common belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (Acts 2:31,36,38; 3:6,18; 4:10; 8:5,37; 9:22; 10:36,48; 11:17; 15:26; 16:18; 17:3; 18:5; 20:21; 28:31).
They were messianic communities, followers of ‘The Way’ (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22) which grew, over time, into groups identified as Christians (11:26)—and from that developed the Christian church. From these descriptive narratives, the church has drawn guidance for ways to shape its life in subsequent eras.
How do we characterise the church? A classic way from the traditions of the church is to cite ‘The Marks of the Church’: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Those four descriptions have been derived from various biblical sources (including the narrative shaped in Acts), and have certainly influenced theology, church organisation, and preaching over the centuries.
The first mark is unity of purpose (4:32; see 2:42,46). A second mark refers to the powerful testimony to the resurrection that the church offers (4:33; see 2:24,32; 3:15; 4:2). A third mark is the manifestation of grace (4:33b; see 2:47).
The major focus in this summary description is on the first feature, which is introduced with a striking phrase: the believers were “one in heart and soul”, to which is added a repetition of the earlier comment that “for them all things were common” (4:32; see 2:44).
Fellowship is identified as a key aspect of the community (2:42). The precise term koinonia occurs only here in Acts; however, the notion of sharing or togetherness which is inherent in it is evident in other ways. Members of the community gather with one mind (2:46) in a way that will consistently characterise the community (4:24; 5:12; 15:25).
These phrases used evoke the traditional Greek proverbs, ‘friends have one soul’ and ‘the goods of friends are common property’, which were known since the time of Aristotle (Aristotle, Nicomedian Ethics 9.8.2; Cicero, De officiis 1.16.51; Plutarch, On Brotherly Love 490E, How to Tell a Flatterer 65A and De amic. mult. 96E; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 65A; Dio Chrysostom Oration 34.20; Diogenes Laertius Lives 5.20, 8.10).
The Essenes were described in a similar way by Philo, Every Good Man is Free 85, and Josephus, Jewish War 2 §122. The first phrase is also reminiscent of the common Deuteronomic reference to ‘heart and soul’ (Deut 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 13:4; 26:16; 30:2,6,10). The early messianic communities shared in this central characteristic. For the author of this book, it was to be a defining mark of the messianic communities in each place they were found.
2. A second mark refers to the powerful testimony to the resurrection that the church offers (4:33; see 2:24,32; 3:15; 4:2). The proclamation the apostles, of course, is a regular element in the story of Acts: there is a comprehensive list of no less than thirty-six speeches in Act at
Proclaiming the good news about Jesus was at the centre of these messianic communities, as Acts takes pains to indicate (2:23; 3:7, 15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30-37).
3. A third mark of these communities was the manifestation of grace (4:33b). The community in Jerusalem was earlier described in this way, as “having grace towards the whole of the people”—the NRSV translates this, less accurately, as “having the goodwill of all the people” (2:47). This introduces another term which will have significance in the narrative of Acts: charis. In 2:47, charis is linked with the inner life of the community as they “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having grace towards the whole of the people”.
Grace is a characteristic which also marks Stephen, enabling him to perform “great wonders and signs” (6:8); in his speech, he notes that God ascribed grace to Moses (7:10) and to David (7:46). It is this grace of God which is evident in the growing community in Antioch (11:23) and continues to be a characteristic of the community in Iconium, where once again it is evident through the signs and wonders granted by God (14:3).
Such grace is regarded as the means of salvation (15:11) which enables people to believe that Jesus is Messiah (18:27-28). This same grace of God is attested by Paul throughout his ministry (20:24,32). It thus forms another of the characteristics of messianic communities in Jerusalem and beyond.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).
Events in Australian society over recent weeks have seen the emergence of a powerful hashtag: #IBelieveHer.
The announcement of Grace Tame as Australian of the Year for 2021 set in train a dramatic series of events. Grace’s testimony to the abuse she has suffered is powerful. Her appointment to this role validates the stories of countless survivors with similar stories.
Since Australia Day, it has been fascinating, and disturbing, to see how the announcement of this particular Australian of the Year has set in train a powerful and disturbing sequence of events in Australian public life. Sexual abuse, and especially male mistreatment of females, has been in the news each day since then.
The announcement about Grace Tame was soon followed by the testimony of Brittany Higgins, about being raped in Parliament House. This was another key catalyst in the public discussion of sexual abuse and misogyny in our society. In contrast to the shocking and shameful characterisation of her testimony by a Federal minister, her public words invited the clear response: #IBelieveHer.
The turmoil swirling around these revelations soon encompassed a matter that, apparently, had long been a widely-known secret in the corridors of Parliament House and amongst the media in the national capital. That secret started to leak into public awareness; rumour and supposition spread.
When the then Attorney General eventually spoke publicly, identifying himself as the subject of the rumours, we were offered the options: believe him, with his emotionally theatrical presentation of denial; or listen to the testimony of the sadly-deceased woman, as she grappled with her recollection of events in 1988, and attested to friends of her abuse by him at that time. The opportunity arose, once more, to consider our response; and many have responded with heightened intensity: #IBelieveHer.
And in the ensuing weeks, many other females: members of parliaments, parliamentary staffers, public figures, and private individuals, have borne testimony to their experiences of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Each of them invites us to consider whether #IBelieveHer.
In this context, it is sobering for us to read and reflect on the Gospel texts which provide the underlying narrative for The Easter Story, which we remember and reflect on each year at this time.
The earliest of our Gospels affirms that women were involved with the movement started by Jesus. They were present, they experienced life on the road with him, they heard his words and saw his deeds; and they remained faithful until the very end.
In his beginning of the good news about Jesus, Mark reports:
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40–41)
The passage raises questions: how do we know about what happened to Jesus on the cross? Do we attend to, and give credence to, the testimony of the women? Do we respond, #IBelieveHer ?
Just a few verses later, Mark provides the first account of the scene at the tomb, where a group of female followers of Jesus were the first to discover that the tomb was empty. He ends the scene with the women fleeing, and the abrupt observation that “they said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Was that because they feared that nobody would believe them?
However, others who report this scene feels that this ending is quite inadequate—after all, we do have a story about that empty tomb encounter, so surely someone there must have spoken about it?
With that in mind, in his book oforigins, Matthew modifies the story, even as he repeats it: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matt 28:8) And the silence of the text about how this news was received, invites the unspoken question about their testimony: do #IBelieveHer ?
In narrating his orderly account of things being fulfilled, Luke provides a more nuanced account of the scene, more directly reflecting an awareness of the strong patriarchal context of his day. Why would men believe this report from the women? Would not the typical response be that this was simply women, gossiping, repeating hearsay, even causing trouble??
Luke notes: They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:10-11).
The male apostles (identified so by the same author at Acts 1:13) clearly did not believe the women. #IBelieveHer appears not to apply here.
So Luke continues: Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24:12)
Male authorisation of female claims was still needed, even in this Gospel where women appear to have a stronger voice. Those male leaders did not respond with #IBelieveHer, until they were able to see and experience for themselves. In the house where they gathered in Jerusalem, them men at last believe the women—because one of their own had validated their words.
The latest of the four canonical Gospels locates this response of disbelief at the empty tomb, rather than in the house in Jerusalem. In this Gospel, the book of signs, Mary has come by herself to the tomb, found it empty, and returned to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple of this news.
As a result, John notes:
Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. (John 20:3–8)
Yet again, the males were required to inspect and authorise the claims of the women. In this Gospel, “seeing is believing” (see John 1:39, 46, 50; 4:29; 4:48–53; 6:30: 7:3; 9:15–17, 25; 11:9; 11:34–40; 12:21; 20:25–27). #IBeliveHer was conditional on male affirmation. They saw; we believe. Yet we take the story of Mary, in the garden, seeing Jesus, as part of our “Gospel truth”. It is clear that believers affirm: #IBelieveHer—even when the early male leaders did not!
John recounts another, more personal, more profound story, focussed solely on Mary of Magdala, who later encounters a man in the garden. Uncertain of his identity, she thinks he is the gardener. It takes only one word from the man to persuade her that he is, indeed, Jesus:
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:16)
This story ends, as the earlier accounts do, with a woman testifying to the male (and presumably other female) followers of Jesus:
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18).
#IBelieveHer. This is the logical deduction to draw from each of these narratives—at times, in counterpoint to the males in the story, but eventually, in relation to each account, with assurance that the voice of the females is acceptable, trustworthy, believable. #IBelieveHer.
And other Gospel narratives contain stories in which women are placed alongside men as experiencing the ministry of Jesus (most notably, Luke 8:1–3; John 11:20–27; Mark 1:29–31; and many other scenes), as well as accounts where the word of a woman was heard and believed: for instance, the woman of the Samaritan village (John 4:39–42); the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (Mark 14:3–9 and parallels); and the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre (Mark 7:24–30), whose pushback against Jesus convinces him! In these stories, also, our response is: #IBelieveHer!
Of course, the passages noted above with women as the key protagonists raise the question: who told the evangelists about these incidents? Are they based on eye-witness testimony? Are they historical narratives, attested from the very beginning? Or are they stories developed and expanded over time, imaginative recreations of what is assumed to have taken place, shaped as stories for later generations?
One of these criteria was “dissimilarity”: does the saying sit uneasily, both with Judaism of the time, and in terms of what we know about the early church? The same criteria can be used, by extension, to consider narrative accounts in the Gospels: they are more likely to have been authentic if they reflect “dissimilarity”. Why would an author create something that sat uneasily within the worldview of the day?
On this basis, placing weight on the testimony of women might be seen to be as close as we can get to an authentic account. There is an argument that women were not regarded as valid witnesses—a passage in the Talmud (Shavuot 30a) interprets Deut 19:17 as requiring males only to be witnesses.
And they shall stand the two men, who have them the conflict, before God. Before the priests, and the judges, that will be, in those days.
Deliberately casting doubt on the testimony of women (Mark 16:8; Luke 24:11; John 20:3–8) would be a counter-productive move, if that testimony was to serve as the earliest account of what happened to Jesus. More likely than not, this was a tradition received and valued as plausible, perhaps even historical.
Indeed, feminist theological reflection on these and other narratives moves away from the “kyriachal” nature of these male-generated criteria, and into a “hermeneutic of remembrance” in which the voices of women—present, but often diluted, softened, or hidden in the final,form of the biblical text—are valued and accorded primary significance.
(See a useful discussion of the hermeneutics of remembrance, focussed on the writings of Schüssler Fiorenza, at https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/opth-2020-0117/html) In this approach to the texts, we read carefully and listen attentively, to hear the voices of ancient women, and respond affirmatively: #IBelieveHer.
At any rate, however we assess these early narratives, the way they have been handled throughout the ensuing two millennia is clear: #IBelieveHer. That is how we deal with the narratives of cross and resurrection that we receive in the scriptures. #IBelieveHer. And that principle is surely valid and valuable to guide us in life today. #IBelieveHer.
During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.
In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.
This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.
It was during that week that everything came to a head.
A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.
Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.
So we stood at the foot of the holy place, the Temple first built by Solomon, then rededicated and rebuilt in the time of Herod; the Temple where the Lord God dwelt, where he dwelt in the Holy of Holies.
So we prayed, and sang, once more, with hope: I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore. (131) In the silence, reflect on Psalm 131
It was here, surely, that we would meet God; For, as we sang, The LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation:“This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.” (132) In the silence, reflect on Psalm 132
So we gathered around the table, friends and family, a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine, some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together. And we celebrated in song: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (133) In the silence, reflect on Psalm 133
And again, in song, we sought to bless each other: Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,who stand by night in the house of the LORD!Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the LORD.May the LORD, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion. (134) In the silence, reflect on Psalm 134
So our songs of ascent had come to an end. We were in the holy city, near to the holy place, gathered once again for a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine, some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together; but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial.
It had begun in celebration. For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries, on this very night, we would gather, joined as family, to remember, to rejoice, to recall the act of liberation.
It was on that night that everything came to a head.