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/

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/

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!!

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.

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/

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.

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/