Constantly devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1; Easter 7A)

During the season of Easter, we have been hearing stories from the book of Acts, with highlights this year with Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7), and then Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This coming Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the opening chapter of Acts (1:6-14), most likely in order to prepare for the reading that we will have the following week, on Pentecost Sunday (2:1-21). Here we encounter a community that was, as the NRSV translates, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”.

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, for the First Reading the lectionary offers us a passage from Acts (1:6–14) which includes the story of the ascension of Jesus (1:6–11) and an insight into that early community, gathered in Jerusalem (1:12–14). This sets the scene for recounting various scenes from the life of the community in Jerusalem, where the earliest followers of Jesus establish a pattern of faithful living through their common life, their public witness, and their persistent adherence to their Jewish traditions. The whole section is located entirely within Jerusalem (1:4,8,12; 2:5; 4:5; 5:16; 6:7; 8:1).

Ten days separate the ascension of Jesus (forty days after Passover, 1:3) from the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (2:1, fifty days after Passover). Only two things are told of these ten days; already the process of selectivity which shaped Luke’s Gospel can be seen in his second volume.

In the previous blog, I noted that the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left. In this blog, my focus is on how that community of followers begins to prepare for that enterprise.

Thus, we learn only that the community had gathered on the day of ascension (1:12–14) and that at some stage in these days a replacement was found for Judas Iscariot (1:15–26). The material relating to Judas is omitted from the lectionary offering this year (it appears in Year B); you can read my take on this passage at

The list of those meeting in the upper room of the house in Jerusalem includes both eleven of the twelve already identified (Luke 6:14–16) as well as “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). That is consistent with the notes of women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:27, 49) as well as the presence of his brothers (Luke 8:19–21). The community which met together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” was a gender-inclusive group.

Luke uses a hugely significant Greek word here; the word homothumadon. This is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with most of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. It is most often translated as “all together”.

Luke initially tells of how “they were all together in the upper room” (1:12), forty days after the resurrection of Jesus—the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, they were all together once again, in the precincts of the Temple (2:1), along with devout Jews from all the nations surrounding Israel (2:9–11).

Then in the days following, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42), they continued to be all together; “they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (2:46).

And still later, the community of believers came together to welcome Peter and John, after their hearing before the authorities, and “they raised their voice to God all together in prayer” (4:24). And then again, some days later, “they were all together in Solomon’s porch” in the Temple precinct (5:12). Gathering together, meeting in unity, was a key characteristic of the early community of Jesus followers.

As the story continues, Phillip travelled north out of Judea into the region of Samaria, where he was preaching to the Samaritans. Here, Luke comments: “the people were all together listening to those things which Philip spoke” (8:6).

Then, some time later, after Saul had his Damascus Road experience and Peter had his vision of all foods being declared clean, after Paul and Silas and Barnabas had been travelling amongst the Gentiles sharing the good news, we read that there was a gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem, who conferred together, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, being assembled together as one, decided to choose … representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (15:22,25).

So the point is, with each step along the way, this little community of assorted disciples, was all together … or, of one accord, in another translation.

In the early chapters of Acts, as we have noted, we are at a very significant point of transition. Luke is clearly marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church.

Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos meaning “temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought.” One scholar writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor. The role of the conductor is to ensure that flutes and cellos, drums and violas, trumpets and clarinets, are all making their distinctive contribution to the end result—the piece of music being performed for the audience to enjoy.

Perhaps another appropriate image, today, might be of the way that the artist sets out a palette of colours to be used in painting, and as the creative activity gets underway, those various shades and hues and colours are mixed together in such a way as to produce an intricate, complex, and aesthetically pleasing end result: a work of art.

That is how Christian community is to function. That is what we are to be, as the people of God in the place where we gather. Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who have the same passion, who share the one persuasion, who are of the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose.

Homothumadon suggests both a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.

The word first appears in Greek literature from 500 years before the time of Jesus (in the plays of the dramatist Aristophanes, the treatises of the philosopher Plato, the oratory of the general Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group which drew together when facing a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.

In a sermon I gave on this passage, I noted that believers today stand with Peter and the disciples and the women and the brothers of Jesus in a liminal place, a place on the edge. We are leaving behind the old, reaching out to the new. The dramatic events of Pentecost, that we will recall in a week’s time, invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.

These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to be all together, to ‘act of one spirit’, to unite for the common good. May we be up to the challenge!

*****

See also

You will be my witnesses (Acts 1; Easter 7A)

During the season of Easter, we have been hearing stories from the book of Acts, with highlights this year with Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7), and then Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This coming Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the opening chapter of Acts (1:6-14), most likely in order to prepare for the reading that we will have the following week, on Pentecost Sunday (2:1-21). Here we encounter the words of Jesus that charge this faithful group to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, for the First Reading the lectionary offers us a passage from Acts (1:6–14) which includes the story of the ascension of Jesus (1:6–11) and an insight into that early community, gathered in Jerusalem (1:12–14). This sets the scene for recounting various scenes from the life of the community in Jerusalem, where the earliest followers of Jesus establish a pattern of faithful living through their common life, their public witness, and their persistent adherence to their Jewish traditions. The whole section is located entirely within Jerusalem (1:4,8,12; 2:5; 4:5; 5:16; 6:7; 8:1).

The narrative of Acts has begun with a recapitulatory preface (1:1-5) which summarises the Gospel and begins to prepare for the ensuing narrative about the community in Jerusalem. First, Luke explicitly acknowledges that what follows is a sequel to an earlier volume, addressed to the same recipient, Theophilus (1:1). We know this as the Gospel of Luke; here, however, the content of this Gospel is epitomised as simply “the things which Jesus began to do and to teach” up until his ascension (1:1-2). This recapitulation makes valid the claim that the preface to Luke’s Gospel also applies to his second volume, Acts.

Then follows a summation of the various manifestations of Jesus throughout the ensuing forty days (1:3), during which he speaks of “things concerning the sovereignty of God” (basileia tou theou, 1:3), a theme which had been the focus of Jesus’ message throughout Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:20; 8:1,10; 11:2,20; 13:18,20,28,29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20,21; 18:16; 19:12; 21:31; 22:16,18).

This preface continues with a bridging section (1:4-5) which foreshadows the events of the next chapter of the narrative. Jesus instructs the apostles not to depart from Jerusalem (1:4). This instruction keeps Luke’s geographic focus on Jerusalem, in contrast to other traditions concerning the post-resurrection departure of the apostles to Galilee which are inferred (Mark 14:28; 16:7; Matt 26:32) or explicitly told (Matt 28:7,10; John 21). Remaining in Jerusalem is required so that the apos­tles might receive the promise (1:4), which is immediately explained as being the holy spirit spoken of by John (1:5; evoking Luke 3:16). The fulfilment of this promise is narrated in detail in Acts 2.

Our reading for this Sunday follows, with an expanded retelling of the ascension (1:6–11), an event already reported in brief at Luke 24:50–53. The ascension forms the pivotal moment in Luke’s narrative; it is the hinge between volume 1 (Luke) and volume 2 (Acts), and attention is drawn to the ascension and exaltation of Jesus at a number of points elsewhere (Luke 9:51; 22:69; Acts 2:33; 3:21; 5:31; 7:56). Luke expands this second narrative account of the ascension through the explicit recording of words spoken on that occasion: the last words of Jesus to his followers, and the words of the two angel-like men to the followers of Jesus after his ascension.

The dialogue between Jesus and his disciples raises the central issue of sovereignty. The disciples ask “Lord, (may we ask) if you will at this time restore sovereignty to Israel?” (1:6)—quite rightly, for the issue of sovereignty was central to Jesus’ preaching (1:3). Here, however, the orientation of the question is con­cerned with the sovereignty of Israel. Jesus replies with a sequence of three c­lauses which stand as his last words before he ascends into heaven.

The first clause of Jesus’s words in 1:8 turns the question away from Israel, back to the primary theme of God’s sovereignty, with the clear declaration that the times and seasons are under the sovereignty of God who has “set them by his own authority” (1:7). Rather than the political independence of Israel, it is God’s unfettered freedom to act in history which is crucial to his enterprise.

The next clause, “you will receive power when the holy spirit has come upon you” (1:8), is a promise which reinforces the key role of the spirit, as divine agent, throughout this volume (beginning with the events of 2:1–4). The third clause introduces the important motif of witness (1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39,41,43; 13:31; 22:15,18,20; 23:11; 26:11,22) and provides a condensed geographical summation of the course of the ensuing events: “in Jerusalem [1:12–8:3] and in all Judaea and Samaria [8:4–12:25] and to the end of the earth [13:1 onwards]”.

The precise referrent of “the end of the earth” is debated. Although Psalms of Solomon 8:15 may suggest that it refers to Rome, it is preferable to see the reference as drawn from Isa 49:6, a verse cited at Luke 2:32 and Acts 13:47. It is thus a poetic statement about the extensive scope of the ensuing events. These departing words of the Lukan Jesus neatly conjoin the geographical pattern and theological foundation of Acts: from Jerusalem outwards, the divine spirit will enable followers of Jesus to bear witness to the sovereignty of God.

The description of two men in white robes (1:10) evokes the epiphanic occurrences of earlier chapters: the two men in the tomb (Luke 24:4), the transfigured Jesus in the company of two scriptural figures (Luke 9:29–31). The prominence they have at this point establishes the important role of such epiphanies through­out Acts. The words spoken to the followers of Jesus who witness his ascension stress that his return will be in the same portentous manner as his departure (1:11), although no detailed description is provided (cf. 1 Thess 4:16; Mark 13:27; Matt 24:31).

As Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:9–11), the story pivots from the earthly period of Jesus into the time when the movement of those who followed Jesus in that time will begin to form the customs and practices that led to the creation of the church. Luke presents the whole sequence of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as both the climax to his earthly life and the foundation for the time of the church.

This is the issue in focus here: the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left.

*****

Ten days separate the ascension (forty days after Passover, 1:3) from the day of Pentecost (2:1, fifty days after Passover). Only two things are told of these ten days; already the process of selectivity which shaped Luke’s Gospel can be seen in his second volume. Thus, we learn only that the community had gathered on the day of ascension (1:12–14) and that at some stage in these days a replacement was found for Judas Iscariot (1:15–26). The material relating to Judas is omitted from the lectionary offering this year (it appears in Year B); you can read my take on this passage at

The list of those meeting in the upper room of the house in Jerusalem includes both eleven of the twelve already identified (Luke 6:14–16) as well as “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). That is consistent with the notes of women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:27, 49) as well as the presence of his brothers (Luke 8:19–21). The community which met together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” was a gender-inclusive group.

Luke uses a hugely significant Greek word here; the word homothumadon. This is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with most of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. It is most often translated as “all together”.

Luke initially tells of how “they were all together in the upper room” (1:12), forty days after the resurrection of Jesus—the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, they were all together once again, in the precincts of the Temple (2:1), along with devout Jews from all the nations surrounding Israel (2:9–11).

Then in the days following, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42), they continued to be all together; “they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (2:46).

And still later, the community of believers came together to welcome Peter and John, after their hearing before the authorities, and “they raised their voice to God all together in prayer” (4:24). And then again, some days later, “they were all together in Solomon’s porch” in the Temple precinct (5:12). Gathering together, meeting in unity, was a key characteristic of the early community of Jesus followers.

As the story continues, Phillip travelled north out of Judea into the region of Samaria, where he was preaching to the Samaritans. Here, Luke comments: “the people were all together listening to those things which Philip spoke” (8:6).

Then, some time later, after Saul had his Damascus Road experience and Peter had his vision of all foods being declared clean, after Paul and Silas and Barnabas had been travelling amongst the Gentiles sharing the good news, we read that there was a gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem, who conferred together, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, being assembled together as one, decided to choose … representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (15:22,25).

So the point is, with each step along the way, this little community of assorted disciples, was all together … or, of one accord, in another translation.

In the early chapters of Acts, as we have noted, we are at a very significant point of transition. Luke is clearly marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church.

Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos meaning “temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought.” One scholar writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor. The role of the conductor is to ensure that flutes and cellos, drums and violas, trumpets and clarinets, are all making their distinctive contribution to the end result—the piece of music being performed for the audience to enjoy.

Perhaps another appropriate image, today, might be of the way that the artist sets out a palette of colours to be used in painting, and as the creative activity gets underway, those various shades and hues and colours are mixed together in such a way as to produce an intricate, complex, and aesthetically pleasing end result: a work of art.

That is how Christian community is to function. That is what we are to be, as the people of God in the place where we gather. Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who have the same passion, who share the one persuasion, who are of the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose.

Homothumadon suggests both a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.

The word first appears in Greek literature from 500 years before the time of Jesus (in the plays of the dramatist Aristophanes, the treatises of the philosopher Plato, the oratory of the general Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group which drew together when facing a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.

In a sermon I gave on this passage, I noted that believers today stand with Peter and the disciples and the women and the brothers of Jesus in a liminal place, a place on the edge. We are leaving behind the old, reaching out to the new. The dramatic events of Pentecost, that we will recall in a week’s time, invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.

These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to be all together, to ‘act of one spirit’, to unite for the common good. May we be up to the challenge!

*****

See also

Father of orphans and protector of widows (Psalm 68; Easter 7A)

The psalm that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, is a song in which the psalmist prays for the enemies of Israel to be scattered (v.1) and the wicked to perish (v.2), celebrating that God has restored the languishing heritage of the people (v.9) and praying for God to give “power and strength to his people” (v.35).

It is a psalm most clearly marked by celebration and praise, with exhortations to “be joyful … exult before God … be jubilant with joy … sing praises to God’s name, and lift up a song to the Lord (verses 3–4, 32). It would seem that it comes from a time and a place of stability and prosperity for Israel.

Of particular importance are two verses which set out some central tenets of Israelite faith for the society of the day. Just as God takes care of orphans and protects widows (v.5), so are people of faith to do likewise. Just as God gives the desolate a home to live in (v.6a), so in Israelite society those on the edge are to be cared for. And just as God releases prisoners into prosperity (v.6b), so the Jubilee release was meant to be practised in society, as a time every fifty years during which debts are to be remitted (Lev 25:8–17; see esp. v.13).

The practice of the Jubilee is, however, dubious. The levitical prescriptions appear to be the ideal that the priests hoped for; actual evidence that this was ever implemented in Israelite society is lacking. Indeed, it is suggested that while the people were in Exile, the land of Israel would “lie desolate”, and “enjoy its sabbath years” (Lev 26:34), providing recompense for all those years when “it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living in it” (Lev 26:35).

A similar claim concludes the work of the Chronicler; the land was to keep sabbath, to “make up for its sabbaths”, in order “to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah“ (2 Chron 36:20–21). After the return to the land, under Nehemiah, the law of sabbath rest was to be followed, it was decreed (Neh 10:31); whether this was the case is not clear from this or any other biblical text.

Likewise, the only evidence before the Exile for the release of slaves, as the levitical text prescribed, comes in the time of Zedekiah, spurred on by a prophetic word from Jeremiah (Jer 34:8–9). After initial compliance, the officials reneged and “took back the make and female slaves they had set free, and brought them again into subjection as slaves” (Jer 34:10–11).

Jeremiah accordingly predicts, in very graphic terms, the disaster that will ensure. “I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth”, he declares; the bodies of those handed over to the enemy “shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth” and the Babylonian forces will capture and burn Jerusalem and make the towns of Judah “a desolation without inhabitant” (Jer 34:12–22).

On the other hand, the statement regarding widows and orphans does reflect an ethos which was both advocated and implemented in society. The evidence for this claim is prolific.

Widows in ancient Hebrew society were in a perilous position. In a strongly patriarchal society, the patronage of a man was vital: a man as husband and provider, a man as father and protector, a man as the household head. Children without fathers—orphans—as well as women without husbands—widows—were in equally perilous situations. They were vulnerable people, often at risk of being mistreated and exploited, of being pushed to the edge of society and being forgotten. They could well be the desolate who needed housing (Ps 68:6).

In our time, we require those in leadership in the church to have obtained a Working With Vulnerable People card, to signal that they are aware of the power imbalances present in situations where they minister. In the ancient world, no such system existed; but we do find in the Hebrew Scriptures that there are regular exhortations and instructions to the people to take care of widows and orphans, the key classes of vulnerable people in that society.

In the Torah, we find the command, “you shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Exod 22:22) and the instruction to gather a tithe of produce and invite “the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow to come and eat and be filled” (Deut 14:28–29). Even in ancient society, vulnerable people needed protection.

More that this, the Torah provides that the widow and the fatherless child were to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel, at the Feast of Weeks (Deut 16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (Deut 16:13–15). This was also to be the practice when the men were in the field harvesting; they were to leave some for gleaning by ”the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deut 24:19–22); and similar prescriptions govern the time when tithing (Deut 26:12–13; also 14:28–29).

A widower’s brother was expected to marry a widow (Deut 25:5–10), for it was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. If it was not possible for a widow to remarry, it was the duty of the community to care for her (Exod 22:22–23; Deut 10:18; 24:17; Isa 1:17). Beyond the biblical period, in the Diaspora, a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues was be given to the widows and poor, on the analogy of the gleaning provision whilst living in the land.

Not everyone adhered to these prescriptions. Among the prophets, Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people”, including the way that they exploit the fatherless and widows (Isa 10:1–2). Likewise, Ezekiel includes those who “have made many widows” in Israel amongst those who will experience the full force of God’s vengeance (Ezek 22, see verse 25). He observes that “the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7).

Jeremiah assures the people of Edom, to the south of Israel, of God’s care for them: “leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me” (Jer 49:11). He encourages the people of Jerusalem with a promise that God will allow them to continue to dwell in their land if they “do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … or go after other gods” (Jer 7:5–7).

In a later chapter, Jeremiah is instructed to tell the King of Judah, “do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:1–3). The prophet Zechariah speaks similarly: “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10).

Accordingly, the people of Israel would regularly have sung, in the words of the psalmist, “the Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Care for widows was central to the life of holiness required amongst the covenant people. This psalm reminds them of that claim on their lives.

This reflected the standard set by God; “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps 68:5); this God is the one who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 10:18). At the very heart of the holiness of God, the holy people are to exhibit this just and compassionate care for the vulnerable.

So the curses of Deuteronomy 27 include the declaration, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut 27:19). The book of Psalms includes a prayer for God to rise up against the wicked, who “kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless” (Ps 94:6). That psalm ends with an assurance that “the Lord … wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out” (Ps 94:23).

The prophet Malachi includes this in his vision of the coming day of the Lord: “I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness … against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (Mal 3:4).

What is wished for the wicked who persecute the faithful is expressed with vitriol in Psalm 109: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Ps 109:9). Another psalm expresses similar hopes, but in a less aggressive manner: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Who would be so foolish as to act differently? Yet people did; and prophets called, again and again, for justice.

And so we read that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). This is what the brother of Jesus, James, affirms in the letter attributed to him, summing up a strong thread running through Israelite religion and on into Second Temple Judaism.

It is no wonder that Jesus himself had positive words to say about widows (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 18:1–8) and children (Mark 10:13–16), and that the early church cared for widows (Acts 6:1–6) and honoured those who were of this status (1 Tim 5:3–16). This is, after all, the way of God, “father of orphans and protector of widows”, who houses the desolate and releases the prisoners (Ps 68:5–6).

Paul, Demetrius and Damaris: an encounter in Athens (Acts 17:16-17,22–34)

The following dialogue was written by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires,and delivers as the sermon for the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 14 May 2023.

*****

While Paul was waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy, he was greatly upset when he noticed how full of idols the city was. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the gentiles who worshipped God, and in the public square every day with the people who happened to come by.

Then Paul was brought before the city council, which met at the Areopagus in Athens. Today, as we listen to what Paul said to the council, we are also going to listen in to what might have been going through the minds of two people in his audience: a learned Greek man called Demetrius, and a woman of deep faith, known as Damaris.

Paul stood up in front of the meeting of the Areopagus and said, “People of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious.”

Demetrius: Yes, this is correct. We are very proud of our religions here in Athens. As religious people, we worship lots of gods. Just look around you, and you will see altars and temples of every size, shape, and description. Over there, is the fine temple to Zeus. And beside it, the shrine to Apollo; it, too, is a remarkable holy building. It is not for nothing that we in Athens have the reputation of great piety.

And, of course, when you turn your eyes to the top of the hill, you will see the pride and joy of our city: the magnificent temple of Artemis, where our ancestors have long worshipped the greatest of all goddesses. This temple is world famous. It is respected — even envied, dare I say — by peoples of all other nations.

And Athens has also been blessed by many famous teachers of philosophy. Plato and Socrates, Aristotle and Pythagoras, Epicurus and many more. Why, even today, I believe that you could find no better array of teachers in any other city!

Yes, all of this shows you just how religious we are. This Paul is so right when he describes us in such generous terms.

Damaris: Indeed, it is true that we do have a lot of temples in our city. And we certainly have many fine teachers, as you say. Lots of people say that we are the most religious city in the world.

But something is missing, I think. There is so much ritual and pomp and ceremony that goes on; sometimes, I think that this can get in the way of worshipping the gods, rather than helping us to worship them.

And there are so many teachers who speak truths that are complex;  sometimes it hurts my head just to listen to them all! And all those poor animals that are sacrificed to all of these gods and goddesses. I wonder whether this really is such a good idea.

I have heard it said that Paul believes in a god that cannot be depicted on stone. It’s a curious idea to us Athenians; but some of my friends have told me about the group that believes this idea. A god that exists, but that we can’t see, or know much about at all is an odd idea.

23Paul continued, “For as I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found also an altar on which is written, ‘To an Unknown God.’ That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in temples made by humans. Nor does God need anything that people can supply by working for him, since it is God himself who gives life and breath and everything else to all people. From the one person God created all human beings, and he made them live over the whole earth. God himself fixed beforehand the exact times and the limits of the places where they would live.”

Demetrius: Mmm, yes. Good point. I agree. Paul has said some important things about this God. When you boil it all down, there is a force in human history that looks over all things. Providence, or Fate, we call it.

And despite all of these shrines and images of the gods, there is a quality about the divine that is rather unknown to us. In the end, we would have to say that the gods are beyond our understanding. This is what our revered teacher, Plato, said about them. The gods transcend this earthly life and really have no need of our human worship.

Many of the priests in our city would be horrified by this, as they insist that we get access to the gods by offering sacrifices. But this kind of other-worldly god is very attractive. I like what Paul has to say.

Damaris: Yes, I too find Paul’s words attractive, Demetrius. And it is reassuring to know that all the things that happen in life are ultimately under the control of Divine Providence. But I am a little bit worried about what Paul seems to be saying. The god he is talking about seems to be rather removed from us all. I wonder how Paul thinks this god of his could be accessible to us? How could we relate to this god, if we can’t see his image?

Paul went on to say, “God did this so that they would look for him, and perhaps find him as they felt around for him. Yet God is actually not far from any one of us; as someone has said, ‘In him we live and move and exist.’ It is as some of your poets have said, ‘We too are his children.’”

Demetrius: Well, this is a surprising turn. From a god who is so far away from us, to a god who is near to us. Come to think of it, Paul is on to something here. In fact, he is quoting from our own Greek traditions here. I recognise those words he said — Aratus, I think it was, the poet, who said of god “in him we live and move and exist”. And “we are god’s children” — I know that, too. Well, that is very good, a Jew like Paul, showing that he knows our poetry and philosophical writings.

Damaris: I quite like the idea of a god who is with me all the time. All of these holy places and holy rituals can get too much, and tend to place too many things in between the gods and ourselves. Sometimes I’d just like to be able to relate to a god in an intimate, and personal way. So a god who is with me all the time — not just when I visit his shrine or place a sacrifice on his altar — is an appealing concept. “We are God’s children” — God as the one who gives birth to us, who nurtures us, who disciplines us, and who loves us. This sounds really good.

Demetrius: Yes, this is great. A god who is always with us. Why don’t we build an altar to him! I’ll get in touch with my friend Stephanas, he has a very good stone mason as one of his slaves, and we’ll see what we can come up with. I can just see it now; “To the god in whom we live and move and exist: this statue was erected by Demetrius and Stephanas” — no, “this statue was erected by Demetrius, with help from Stephanas”. Oh, why not just, “erected by Demetrius, a leading citizen of the city”. In large letters. Yes, that will look fine. And we’ll use the best stone; and have it trimmed in gold, with bright colours, so that it stands out, and….

“No!”, said Paul. “Since we are God’s children, we should not suppose that his nature is anything like an image of gold or silver or stone, shaped by the art and skill of a human being.”

Demetrius: No?

Damaris: I think I see the point. If this god is always near to us, then it would be silly to build an altar or erect a temple for him. After all, the temple is where the god or goddess lives, so that we know where to go to visit them. But if the god is always with us, then we don’t need to build him or her a home. So, if we aren’t going to build an altar or put up a statue, how are we going to worship this god?

Then Paul explained, “God has overlooked the times when people did not know, but now he commands all people everywhere to turn away from their evil ways. For God has fixed a day in which he will judge the whole world with justice, by means of a man he has chosen. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising that man from death!”

Demetrius: Oh, now he has spoilt it. What! How can a person be raised from the dead? Everyone knows that once we die, we go down into the underworld and live as shadows. Once you cross the river Styx, your previous life is left far behind. Who would want to go back into the earthly body once again?

No, this claim by Paul raises too many questions that are just not able to be answered satisfactorily. Any talk about raising the dead and bringing back their bodies is stupid.

Damaris: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve always been worried by this idea. The thought of being a shadow after I die doesn’t really hold any attraction for me. I am much more interested in the story of a god who is able to transform death. What a powerful and caring god this must be! After all, death is what we all must face, and what we all fear so much.

And further, I am starting to see something quite special in what Paul is talking about. He has mentioned a special man, a chosen human being, who will be the one to carry out God’s justice in all the world. This idea is what really grabs me. To think that a god can not only be with us, but that this god can be a human being, just one of us, is really very special.

Now that I think about, this message reminds me of a letter that I received from my sister in Corinth just recently. As I recall now, she spoke about this man named Paul, who had visited the city, and had preached about a man from Nazareth, in the province of Galilee. Paul said that this man, Jesus, was not only a great prophet, but that he had been raised from the dead, and that he is the one who will bring God’s justice into the world. Perhaps this Paul that we are listening to today is the same person that she was talking about?

As Paul puts it, this God has a presence and a power that touches human life in profound and moving ways. This kind of power is lacking in the stone images that I see around me. Paul is leading me right into the heart of this God. So I think I will take his advice, and turn away from the gods I used to worship, and wait for the coming of divine justice through this man who is raised from the dead.

When the people heard Paul speak about a raising from death, some of them made fun of him, but others said, “We want to hear you speak about this again.”

Demetrius: Well, I have to say that this Paul is a bit of a surprise. I admit that he has said one or two foolish things — but not quite as many as I thought he would when he started. But this business of being raised from death is just not on. Yet some of the things that he has said are worth pondering. He is quite a philosopher, isn’t he? I can’t make up my mind about him, and about the god that he has proclaimed to us, and the religion that he has told us about. I’ll need some time to reflect on what he has said.

Perhaps he will be back in the public square tomorrow; I hope so. Maybe I will go there with my kitchen slaves in the morning, when they go to buy our household food for the midday dinner.

Then Paul left their meeting. Some men joined him and believed; among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and some others.

*****

As we return to the 21st century, it is worthwhile pondering Paul’s words and actions, and the response that both Damaris and Demetrius had to these words.

The words of Luke suggests that perhaps Paul was “off duty”, as his prime reason for being in Athens was to wait for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him there. Unable to do nothing or ignore the temples of idols around him, Paul’s idea of “off duty” appears to be to argue with everyone he meets in the town square. However this may have been perceived, Paul’s message of “the God you are looking for, the God you don’t even have a name for, the God who is in danger of getting lost in the plethora of all the other idols you are worshipping – let me tell you about that God…” is the God that we surely could take with us into our own town squares – maybe represented today by our cathedrals of consumerism in the large shopping malls, clubs and coffee shops we frequent today.

Paul presents his “new teaching” and “strange ideas” by meeting the Athenians on their own ground, by quoting two of the Greek poets: the Cretan Epimenides (600 BCE), that “in him we live and move and have our being,” and then the opening lines of the Phaenomena by Aratus (315-240 BCE), a Greek poet and Stoic of Cilicia, that “we are his children.”

It is also worth noting that Paul does not condemn them as unredeemed pagans on a one-way trip to hell, he tells them that both he and they worship the same God. Paul plainly saw God at work in the world through all people, and we would do well to remember this as well. Paul viewed the venerable Areopagus as just another place where the Lord of all creation had gone before him and was already present; indeed, as Paul said to the Athenians, “He is not far from each one of us.”

We Christians need to be aware of isolating and insulating ourselves from our culture’s mainstream. We must avoid being inward-looking, self-absorbed, and judgmental, instead of engaging people in our contemporary Areopagus. Instead, we need to follow Paul’s example of living, learning and sharing the gospel in the marketplace of ideas, engaging real people where they live, work, and think, in order to gain a hearing for our “strange ideas” about God, grace, and the resurrection.

*****

See also

Bless our God; truly God has listened (Psalm 66; Easter 6A)

“Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard” (v.8). That’s the opening line of the section of Psalm 66 which offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Easter (Ps 66:8–20). In these words, the call is made for people to bless and praise God because he is the one “who has kept us among the living” (v.9). This makes this psalm a most suitable song for the season of Easter, when the church celebrates the new life offered to believers through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Blessing God is a favourite Jewish activity—indeed, so many prayers still used by Jews today begin with a phrase of blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God …”. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth is prayed before a meal. Blessed are You, o Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine is prayed before drinking wine.

And a favourite blessing which I learnt from Jews is Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment. It’s a prayer to mark momentous occasions in life. All of these prayers of blessing begin with the Hebrew words, Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melekh ha’olam, the same formula of approaching, acknowledging, and blessing God.

We can see that formula used in blessings spoken by David, who exhorts the people to “bless the Lord your God” (1 Chron 29:19), and the psalmist, who prays, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes” (Ps 119:12), as well as in later Jewish texts such as Tobit 3:11; 8:5, 15–17; Judith 13:17; 14:7; the Prayer of Azariah (six times), and 1 Maccabees 4:20. It appears also in New Testament texts such as Luke 1:68; Rom 9:5; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; and 1 Pet 1:3.

More familiar, perhaps, is when Jesus uses a prayer of blessing, but speaks it to human beings; “blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” (Matt 16:17), or “blessed are the eyes that see what you see”, to his disciples (Luke 10:23), or “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29), and most famously of all, in a set of blessings spoken to a crowd on a level place (Luke 6:20–22) or to his disciples on a mountain top (Matt 5:3–12). Jesus blessed people. But blessing God is something that is not unknown within Judaism.

The primary reason to bless God, then, is that we are “kept among the living” (v.9). What follows from that affirmation is the statement, “You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried” (v.10). We know that life entails testing; no human being has avoided those moments in their lives when trials and testings are presented, seeking to entice us to think or act in unhelpful ways.

Scripture reflects this reality, that life entails testing, at many places. The fundamental paradigm is set out in the paradigmatic story of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22:1–19), and then in narratives about Joseph (Ps 105:16–19), the years when the people wandered in the wilderness (Deut 8:2), the incident at Rephidim (Exod 17:1–7; Deut 6:16; 33:8; Ps 81:7), and then whilst the people were living alongside hostile nations when in the land (Judg 3:1–6). And, of course, there is the similar paradigmatic testing story in the life of Jesus (Mark 1:12-13 and parallels).

The Psalmist notes that “the Lord tests the righteous and the wicked” (Ps 11:5) and the prophet declares the word of the Lord, that “I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity” (Isa 48:10; so also Zech 13:7–9). In the words of the sage, then, “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals” (Eccles 3:18) and, using the same imagery as Ps 66, notes that “the crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Prov 17:3).

After listing various ways in which the people have been tested—“you brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water” (vv.10–11), the psalmist declares, “you have brought us out to a spacious place” (v.12 in the NRSV translation), or “a place of great abundance” (in the NIV).

The unusual Hebrew word which is translated as “spacious place”, la-yerawah, appears also in Psalm 23 in the affirmation, “my cup overflows” (Ps 23:5); the root word, ravah, has a sense of saturation, abundance, or being filled to overflowing (according to the Brown—Driver—Briggs Lexicon). The end result of testing is a place of fulfilment and satisfaction.

In response, the psalmist states, “I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows” (v.13). Prescriptions for burnt offerings, to be offered at the altar of burnt offerings (Deut 12:27; Exod 20:24), are detailed in Lev 1:1–17 and 6:8–13. They are integral to the rituals of the Temple and have a firm place in the piety of faithful people in ancient Israel.

Also integral to the temple liturgy are the vows which are to be paid to God. The psalmist elsewhere affirms, “I will pay my vows” (Ps 22:25; 50:14; 61:8; 65:1; 66:13; 76:11; 116:14, 18). The words of the psalmist are echoed by Eliphaz in one of his speeches to Job: “you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God; you will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows” (Job 22:26–27).

So the psalm continues, “I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats” (v.15). This correlates with the levitical provisions, as already noted. The psalmists inevitably write from within the religious system of the time—which makes sense, since the psalms were composed for singing within the Temple liturgy.

This contrasts with many of the words of the prophets, who in a sense stand on the edge of the religious life of the nation, and offer their criticisms of the excesses and injustices that were part of life at that time (as, indeed, they continue to be, sadly, today). We might think, for instance, of how the prophets criticised the people for their offerings and sacrifices whilst tolerating such injustice in their communal life (Isa 1:11–14; Jer 6:20; Ezek 20:27–28; Hos 8:13; 9:4; Mal 1:14).

So the prophetic critique of Temple practices (which Jesus picks up at Matt 9:13; 12:7, quoting Hos 6:6) needs to be held in tension with the psalmists’ affirmations of those practices when they are performed faithfully. Although Jesus, following Hosea, appears to place mercy (hesed) in opposition to sacrifice, both mercy and sacrifice are integral to Israelite religion.

To end this song, the psalmist offers an exhortation followed by an affirmation. The exhortation is to “come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me” (v.16). “Those who fear God” is a typical characterisation of faithful people who trust in God and adhere to God’s ways of justice and righteousness, including Abraham (Gen 22:12), Joseph (Gen 42:18), leaders appointed by Moses (Exod 18:21), and indeed all who are faithful amongst the people (Lev 19:14, 32; 25:17, 36, 43; Deut 4:10; 6:2, 13, 24; etc; 1 Sam 12:14, 24; 1 Ki 8:40–43).

As Moses declares, “O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God” (Deut 10:12).

“What God has done” is an occasional biblical phrase, appearing in assorted places (Num 23:23; Deut 3:21; Josh 23:3; Ps 64:9; Eccles 3:11; Jer 5:19; Dan 9:14). In the New Testament, it is picked up in what Jesus says to a healed demoniac (Luke 8:39) and then in writings of his disciples (Rom 3:24–26; 8:3; Acts 2:22, 36; 14:27; 15:12; 21:19; John 3:16–17). It affirms the continuing and ongoing actions of God—what a former generation of scholars called “salvation history”—which is known through the stories of Israel and then through the life of Jesus and his followers.

The affirmation which closes this psalm is offered in typical Hebraic style, with parallel phrases that repeat and develop the central idea. In verse 19, the first statement, “truly God has listened”, is mirrored in the next phrase, “he has given heed to the words of my prayer”. In verse 20, “he has not rejected my prayer” is then expressed in a varied manner in the closing phrase, “[he has not] removed his steadfast love (hesed) from me”.

From Exodus to Nehemiah, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (hesed) is praised, in a refrain which recurs in many places (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9). Here, the psalmist uses this central insight into the nature of God to conclude the song, in which human trust in God and fidelity to God’s way have been well-expressed throughout.

The final words of the psalm form a blessing (linking back to verse 8) which emphasises the hesed of God (variously translated as mercy, or steadfast love). The psalm as a whole thus ties together the religious practices of the people (vows and sacrifices) and the understanding of God’s essential being (merciful and loving). It is a reminder that we need to hold the whole of the biblical witness together as revelatory of God; not select one aspect, not preference one over another, but hold all together. For in that, we draw near to the fullness of God.

On suffering as a virtue (1 Peter 3; Easter 6A)

Continuing our reading from 1 Peter during this Easter season, the lectionary this week offers a section dealing with suffering (1 Pet 3:13–22). The reality of the suffering which is being experienced by believers is a constant refrain in this letter. It is noted briefly in the opening blessing (1:6–7) and described in more detail in this section, as well as four other occasions (2:19–20; 3:13–17; 4:1–2; 4:12–19; 5:6–11).

There is never any suggestion that this suffering involved the physical persecution or even death of the believers; the “abuse” referred to comprised verbal criticism of believers (2:23; 3:16), as the lengthy scriptural citation indicates (3:9–12). Relationships with the Roman state appear to be favourable (2:13–17); there is no sign of systematic persecution.

In all but one of these discussions, suffering is interpreted with reference to the sufferings of Jesus (2:21–25; 3:18; 4:1; 4:13). The Spirit testified to the sufferings of Jesus through the words of the prophets (1:11). Jesus provides an example of how to deal with suffering; slaves in particular are instructed to “follow in his steps” (2:21), for the way of Jesus involves endurance in suffering (2:19–20) and adopting a joyful approach to life (1:8; 4:13) even in the midst of sufferings.

Suffering is known and addressed in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The archetype of suffering in those books is, of course, Job, who although “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1), was nevertheless struck by a series of events that left his without property, without family, without animals, without servants (1:13–19).

The extended series of speeches in Job 3—42 address this situation of unjust, unmerited suffering, with a variety of points of view put forward. Although Job initially laments his fate, tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling prostrate on the ground (1:20), he maintains his faith, acknowledging that “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). Yet in subsequent chapters, whilst his friends seek to persuade him to accept his fate as God’s will, Job himself despairs at his condition: “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest” (3:26),

Job rails at God: “the terrors of God are arrayed against me” (6:4), “when disaster brings sudden death, [God] mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (9:23), “why did you bring me forth from the womb? would that I had died before any eye had seen me” (10:18), God “uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light” (12:22), “you write bitter things against me” (13:26), “God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked … I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy; he pours out my gall on the ground (16:11–13).

Mocking the words of the psalmist, “if I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there; if I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Ps 139:8–10), Job instead insists, “if I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8).

Although the psalmist insists, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12), Job persists that God “uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light” (Job 12:22), for “when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came” (Job 30:26). Job can see no joy in accepting his fate; he continues in perpetual lament and anger because of his suffering.

The other well-known passage in Hebrew Scripture which relates to suffering is the fourth and last of the “Servant Songs” found in Second Isaiah (Isa 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). In this long song, the “man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity” is portrayed as despised, rejected, stricken, and afflicted (53:3–4); wounded, bruised, and crushed (53:5); crushed with pain (53:10) and caught up in anguish (53:11). There can be no doubt that this figure—whether the corporate people of Israel, as in Jewish interpretation, or an individual chosen for this role, as many Christian interpreters prefer—is well acquainted with suffering.

Yet in the words of the song, the suffering of this servant is redemptive; although “we held him of no account” (53:3), yet “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (53:4), “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” (53:5).

Since “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6), he was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (53:8), his life was made “an offering for sin” (53:10) who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). The redemptive suffering of this servant “shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (53:11).

Such suffering is not in vain; and when later Christian writers drew from the rich theology of this song, they attributed to Jesus the same dynamic of redemptive suffering. This is clearly the case in this week’s epistle, where we hear, “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18). The words provide a strong and clear echo of the fourth Servant Song. There is hope to be found in the midst of this suffering.

This motif of hope runs throughout this letter (1:3, 13, 21; 3:15; 4:13). What follows after suffering, the author writes with assurance, is God’s “eternal glory in Christ” (5:10); this is “the true grace of God” (5:12). Elders within the community of faith are to exercise their leadership with humility, and thereby provide “examples to the flock” (5:1–5). In this way, they will “win the crown of glory that never fades away” (5:4).

This, then, is the “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” which was promised in the initial thanksgiving (1:4). This hope is what undergirds the distinctive identity of believers seeking to remain faithful to the way of Jesus in their society.

You in me and I in you: the Johannine interrelationship of Father, Son, and disciples (John 14; Easter 6A)

The fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel contains some lines spoken by Jesus that are widely known in today’s society—courtesy of the fact that they appear in many of the funeral services that are conducted each week. For people with a distant relationship with the Christian faith (as in, “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church”), this chapter is often the go-to when faced with the option of having a reading from the Bible in the funeral service of a recently-deceased relative.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2, in last week’s lectionary Gospel passage for the Fifth Sunday in Easter) often appears, as this is a comforting statement for people worrying about what the afterlife will be like. Or “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (14:18, in this week’s lectionary Gospel offering for the Sixth Sunday in Easter), as a further note of reassurance about what lies ahead.

Or, indeed, “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (14:27, in the lectionary Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Easter in Year C), as a comforting affirmation for mourners to hear at the time of parting. All quite appropriate and pastorally helpful.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday, however, contains more than this note of reassurance. It also offers one of the rare references, in this fourth Gospel, to the Holy Spirit, here identified as “another Advocate … the Spirit of truth” (14:16–17). The word translated by the NRSV as Advocate appears here, and at John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7—but nowhere else in this Gospel, nor indeed does it feature in any other canonical Gospel.

The word used is a Greek word that is capable of various English translations: Advocate, Counsellor, Helper, Comforter, or Friend; or it can simply be transliterated, as the New Jerusalem Bible does, as Paraclete. See my explorations of this word at

As well as this relatively rare Johannine reference to the Spirit, this Gospel passage has Jesus speak words that are characteristic of how the unknown author of the book of signs understands the relationship of Jesus, the Son, to the Father: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20). These words express the mystical relationship of mutual in dwelling that characterises the way that this Gospel depicts the Father—Son relationship: I in him, you in me, I in you.

“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father”, says Jesus, during an extended debate in Jerusalem (10:37–38), provoking the Jewish authorities to attempt to arrest him.

In the conflict that is reported throughout chapters 8–11, Jesus debates these Jewish authorities with quite some vehemence. At the end of his disputation, he makes a bold assertion: “The Father and I are one” (10:30). The mutual indwelling of Father and Son has merged into an essential unity of being, a complete coherence of identity—at least, in the words of the Jesus we encounter in this Gospel. (It is quite different in the Synoptic Gospels.)

Wayne Meeks (in his classic article, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972) 44–72) notes that the claims made about Jesus in the fourth Gospel function as reinforcements of the sectarian identity of the community. As this community had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus. What is said about Jesus can also be said about his followers.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community, over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. See

Some time after the conflict that took place in Jerusalem, Jesus responds to a request from Philip to “show us the Father” (14:8), saying, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10–11).

This mutual indwelling is reaffirmed in the words that Jesus prays before his arrest: “you, Father are in me and I am in you” (17:21). In that prayer, he goes on to extend the scope of his mutual in dwelling; he dwells, not only in the Father, but also in his disciples, and they dwell in him. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me … [may they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (17:21–23).

The mutual indwelling of the Son with the disciples is developed particularly in the teachings that Jesus gives concerning the vine: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” (15:4–5).

The vine, of course, was a standard image for Israel (Ps 80:8–10; Jos 10:1) featuring in this way in assorted prophetic parables (Isa 5:1–7; Jer 2:21; 8:13; Ezek 15:1–8; 17:3–19; 18:10–14). In developing this parabolic image, Jesus applies it to his followers: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:5–7).

The sense of “abiding in” is a mysterious inner connection that binds followers to their master; but because that master has likewise been bound with the Father, the intimacy of connection between Father, Son, and disciples is clear. Thus, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20), as we hear this coming Sunday. Those who are linked inextricably with the Son are linked through his intimate connection with the Father. Father, Son, and Disciples: the Johannine version of the trinity!

On my view of the way that this three-part unity is developed in John’s Gospel, see more detail at

Swearing allegiance or reaffirming reality? (2)

When Charles III is crowned as King Charles III, people across the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries across the world will be invited to cry out and swear their allegiance to the new King.

I won’t be doing that. There are two key reasons for this. The first relates to the relationship between Australia and the UK. I wrote about that in my previous blog. The second arises from my understanding of Christian faith and theology, which I will address in this blog.

This area of concern that informs my decision emerges from my own faith, and my understanding of “kingship” in the heritage and traditions of that faith. In Hebrew Scripture, the king of Israel was expected to “trust in the Lord” (Ps 21:7), “rejoice in God” (Ps 63:11), and “judge [the] people with righteousness, and [the] poor with justice” which have been granted by God (Ps 72:1–2). That was the ideal. The reality was different.

We know, of course, from the narratives that tell the story of Israel over many generations (1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles), that many kings failed in this requirement, and “did evil in the sight of the Lord”, fulfilling the predictive prophecy of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 8:10–18). Nevertheless, the idealised view of kingship, which Samuel dutifully set out in writing for the people (1 Sam 10:26), held sway through the ensuing centuries.

This idealised view was particularly developed in the portrayal of Solomon, who was seen to be filled with “wisdom and knowledge”, and granted “riches, possessions, and honour, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:7–12, especially verses 10 and 12).

Indeed, King Solomon is said to have “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of [those kings] brought silver and gold, so much, year by year.” (2 Chron 9:22–24).

This wonderfully wise, insightful, discerning man, Solomon—bearing a name derived from the Hebrew for peace, “shalom”—became a powerhouse in the ancient world. But he did not always live as a man of peace. Indeed, he used his 4,000 horses and chariots and 12,000 horsemen to good effect; we read that “he ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt.” (2 Chron 9:26).

Solomon was remembered as king over the greatest expanse of land claimed by Israel in all of history. Solomon was a warrior. And warrior-kings were powerful, tyrannical in their exercise of power, ruthless in the way that they disposed of rivals for the throne and enemies on the battlefield alike. Think Alexander the Great. Think Charlemagne. Think Genghis Khan. Think William the Conqueror.

Solomon reigned for 40 years—a long, wealthy, successful time. That is the model of kingship which survives through into the modern era. We expect kings to rule. We expect them to invade and enforce and dominate, for that is the heritage passed on. (And I won’t comment on Solomon’s marital relationships; I will leave 1 Kings 11:3 to,speak for itself!)

In a fascinating article about the coronation, British biblical scholar Margaret Barker notes that the story of Solomon, anointed by the priest Zadok and the prophet Samuel (1 Kings 1:34, 39), is central to the symbolism and mythology that informs the service of the coronation. She explains how a number of the symbols in Westminster Cathedral, the setting for this ceremony, hearken back to the glories of Solomon. The coronation taking place this week references and relies upon the story of Solomon. See https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2023/28-april/features/features/zadok-and-melchizedek-and-their-place-in-coronation

Indeed, at the moment of anointing of the King, a prayer is to be offered that draws this direct connection: “thy prophets of old anointed kings and priests to serve in thy name”, and as the anointing is carried out (in private, behind a screen, the anthem by Handel is sung, “ZADOK the Priest”, while the Archbishop declares, “as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so may you be anointed, blessed, and consecrated King over the peoples”. The connection is crystal clear.

And even the weird line that the people are invited to say, “May the King live forever”—not just “Long live King Charles”, but the impossible “May the King live forever”—is because of the story of Solomon, mediated through Handel, as my colleague Avril Hannah-Jones notes; see https://revdocgeek.com/2023/05/05/zadok-the-priest/#more-4465

*****

Beyond the symbolism, however, the reality of the British monarchy emulates the way that Solomon exercised his rule, as a fierce expansionary leader. The promise to Abraham, that he would be given land by God (Gen 12:1), was set out in full detail in words given to Moses (as it was thought), where God promises the people that “I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates” (Exod 23:31).

That great extent of territory was nowhere near what Joshua or the Judges, or David or Saul ruled over; but by the time of Solomon, it is said that “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt” (1 Ki 4:21). He had expanded his empire to the fullest extent. And the land was captured by force—pure, simple, aggressive military conquest.

The story of the British Empire is one of relentless expansion, built on the back of trading, invasion, colonisation, slavery, and systematic oppression. The British Empire stretched right around the globe; that gave rise to the saying, “the sun never sets on the British Empire”.

So the power of the King (or Queen) was felt in multitudes of countries, where local wealth was plundered and alien systems of government were imposed: India, Kenya, Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Malaya, Aden, Ireland, Palestine, South Africa—and Australia, as I canvassed in my previous blog.

On the cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the British, see https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-18/queen-elizabeth-ii-empire-colonialism-history/101430296 and https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/04/04/the-british-empire-was-much-worse-than-you-realize-caroline-elkinss-legacy-of-violence

On “stuff the British stole”—artefacts that were taken from the colonies to be displayed in the homes and museums of the Mother Country, see https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/nov/01/stuff-the-british-stole-australia-abc-tv-series-marc-fennell-colonial-history

It is only in recent years that some statements of regret and apologies have been issued by the Queen, or other key members of the royal family, relating to specific colonial situations; and that some artefacts have been returned to their countries of origin after spending decades in UK museums. That is a start towards backing away from past injustices—but much more can, and should, be done.

*****

More than this: “Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord, succeeding his father David as king; he prospered, and all Israel obeyed him” (1 Chron 29:23). He was considered to be the specific personal representation of the divine in Israelite society. That is directly mirrored in the way that King Charles III will be declared to be “Defender of the Faith” and also in the fact that he has the role of Head of the Church of England.

“Defender of the Faith” was conferred on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521, and every monarch since then has carried this title. The title of Head of the Church of England was adopted by Henry VIII in 1536, when he seized assets of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and declared the Church of England to be the established church.

The intertwining and enmeshing of state and religion is clear in these two titles—again, directly echoing the situation with Solomon and Israel. Although there is a stream within ancient Israelite religion which yearns and prays for the king to demonstrate the justice and righteousness that God desired for the nation. “By justice a king gives stability to the land”, says the sage, “but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it” (Prov 29:4).

Before being overrun by the Babylonians, one prophet in Israel declared that “the king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (Isa 32:1); another prophet, years later during the Exile, declared that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5).

That hope, in Christian theology, was taken up in Jesus, who was claimed to be the righteous branch, the one ruling with justice (Matt 12:15–21). Jesus spoke clearly about the need for justice in our lives (Matt 23:23; Luke 7:29). He provided a clear countercultural vision for his followers, and called them into a radically different way of living. Yet the church went a different pathway, thanks to the influence of Constantine and then the theologians and popes that followed after him.

And in recent centuries, the church in the UK has gleefully merged this fervent prophetic hope with the dominance of the monarchy, and blunted any of the sharpness of the message of Jesus. They have continued to support a system in which the British monarch is regarded as their spiritual leader and yet injustice continues to be perpetrated in their society, and in their Empire and then Commonwealth.

Canon Glenn Loughrey has recently reflected on this situation, writing that “the participation of church UK in the blessing of the continuation of the system which decimated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and others across the globe is both a denial of and a continuation of the church in all its forms in colonial genocide”. To continue to support the system which caused such damage is unjust and unethical.

Now, it is true that the King will be greeted on arrival at the Abbey by a young Chapel Royal Chorister, “in the name of the King of Kings”, to which the King responds, “in his name, and after his example, I come not to be served, but to serve”. And, indeed, when the Archbishop of Canterbury asks King Charles III, “will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”, he will reply, “I will”; and later, he will pray, “God of compassion and mercy, whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom, and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth”.

See https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-04/23-24132%20Coronation%20Liturgy.pdf

Well, we shall see. Will the time under this monarch simply continue the imperial power that was exercised by his predecessors? It is hard to see any different happening. The system will continue, relentless and pervasive, continuing the privileges and power established in medieval times, regardless of the personal views of the incumbent monarch. And whilst it is true that the system has adapted and changed in minor ways into the present age, the crushing authority of the system, developed by monarchs in the past, is still perpetuated by governments in the present. There have been no apologies, no reparations, no acknowledgement of past failures.

Our Prime Minister has met with the new King ahead of the coronation. “He has a long record of interest in issues such as climate change, on issues relating to Australia’s Indigenous people, on issues across the full range, particularly of the environment, and that remains the case, ” Mr Albanese said after that meeting. It would be really good to see King Charles III express regret at the actions of the invading British colonies of 1788 onwards, clearly state an apology to the First Peoples of Australia for what their ancestors experienced, and urge the Federal Government to move towards The Republic of Australia, with an Indigenous President, as soon as possible. This is what leaders of various Commonwealth countries have called for. See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/may/04/commonwealth-indigenous-leaders-demand-apology-from-the-king-for-effects-of-colonisation

But I very much doubt that this will happen.

And so, I won’t be crying out my allegiance to the newly-crowned King when invited to do so during his coronation; rather, I will be quietly reaffirming the reality of Australia at this point in time. That reality, as I have stated, is well-encapsulated by the three words, Voice—Treaty—Truth. That commitment is what we need for the present times—not allegiance to an inherited powerful foreign ruler.

*****

See also

Swearing allegiance or reaffirming reality? (1)

When Charles III is crowned as King Charles III, people across the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries across the world will be invited to cry out and swear their allegiance to the new King.

I won’t be doing that. There are two key reasons for this. The first relates to the relationship between Australia and the UK. The second arises from my own faith commitments. In this blog, I will address the first issue.

In the funeral of Elizabeth II last year, prayers were offered for the new King, with the person who holds the office of Garter Principal King of Arms praying to God, “we humbly beseech Almighty God to bless with long life, health and honour, and all worldly happiness the Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Monarch, our Sovereign Lord, Charles III, now, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter”.

Charles has many other titles, as well as that of King. In Scotland, Charles continues to be known also as “His Royal Highness The Duke of Rothesay”. In England, he likewise continues as “His Royal Highness The Duke of Cornwall”. The hegemony of the royals must continue to be buttressed by the arcane titles, it seems. In Wales, whilst he used to be “His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales”, as the heir apparent to the throne, that title moved from him on the death of his mother, to rest on his eldest son, William Prince of Wales. All of this titular profligacy relates to the history of the peoples of the UK over the past millennia. That’s their business, and they need to deal with all of that.

In Australia, on the death of his mother, the former Prince of Wales became “His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, King of Australia and His other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth”. That claim, King of Australia, is based on the claims for the land made long before in the “secret instructions” given to James Cook in 1768, before he set off for his trip to the south that included a time of sailing along the eastern coastline of the continent we now call Australia.

*****

Those instructions specified that Lieutenant Cook, in the event that he found the Continent, should chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name. Cook went one step further: on behalf of the King (an ancestor of Charles III), he laid claim to the lands he had sighted as a British possession.

Cook had navigated along the coast of New Zealand, before he turned west, reaching the southern coast of New South Wales on 20 April 1770.—the day that now is remembered each year as “when Captain Cook discovered Australia”—a statement that contains two central historical inaccuracies! Cook was then only a Lieutenant; he was promoted to Captain at a later date.

See https://www.smh.com.au/national/we-are-all-at-sea-describing-captain-cook-with-a-rank-he-never-had-20180920-p5053j.html#

Further, James Cook did not “discover” the land—other European sailors had charted the western coast in years before, and the continent itself had been home to Indigenous peoples for millennia before then.

Lieutenant Cook sailed north, landing at Botany Bay one week later, before continuing to chart the Australian coast all the way north to the tip of Queensland. There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, he declared the land to be a British possession:

“Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast . . . by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.”

Cook had recorded signs that the coast was inhabited during the voyage north, had met a number of the Aboriginal inhabitants, and here he noted as he returned to the ship the great number of fires on all the land and islands about them, “a certain sign they are Inhabited”. But he still pressed ahead with his report that he had claimed all the lands for the British Crown. This was done, despite the fact that he knew there were inhabitants in the land.

Cook planted the British flag on the continent of Australia. He demonstrated how the imperial colonising power operated: the land, and the people, were to be subsumed under imperial rule, simply because the imperial power wished that to be so. The people already living in those places were simply to bend in obedience to this greater power. And, as we know, if they resisted, they would be met with force, violence, and murder.

See more at

*****

All of this was enforcing the pattern that had been proposed centuries earlier by a papal decree that established the Doctrine of Discovery—something that all the Christian nations in Europe had willingly followed. There was a long-standing understanding amongst these European trading powers, that they had every right—indeed, a divine right—to explore, invade, colonise, and convert the “natives” of distant lands.

On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/how-was-aboriginal-land-ownership-lost-to-invaders and my reflections at

The imposition of British rule was not without cost for the people who were already inhabiting the land when the colonisers arrived in 1788. A recent venture based in the University of Newcastle has been charting the many massacres that took place across the continent, from the early years of the British Invasion, through into the early 20th century.

University of Newcastle map of sites where massacres
of Indigenous Peoples took place since 1788

We perpetuate the hurt by continuing with 26 January as our “national day”, as well as by continuing with a system of constitutional government that places the UK monarch at the top of the hierarchy, as the Head of State of Australia. A foreign hereditary ruler as the Head of State in Australia? That is an absurd arrangement for our times.

So I won’t be crying out my allegiance to the newly-crowned King; rather, I will be quietly reaffirming the reality of Australia at this point in time. That reality is well-encapsulated by the three words, Voice—Treaty—Truth.

Drawing on the experience of First Peoples, we need to tell the Truth and name the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth. This truth is that the 18th century British crown oversaw and approved of that terrible genocidal colonising invasion. See

Alongside that, I think we need to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that medieval theological foundation upon which the worldwide invasion and colonisation of lands was based—including the invasion and colonisation of Terra Australis. King George III, who was the monarch of the day, was following the Doctrine of Discovery by sending Cook to the southern seas. Repudiating this doctrine is part of our commitment to tell the truth. My own church, the Uniting Church in Australia, agreed to repudiate that doctrine in 2015. See

Furthermore, we need to be committed to talking Treaty. We need to see the formalisation of treaties with the various nations of Peoples who have inhabited, nurtured and cared for this land since time immemorial. This commitment is based on a recognition of the Sovereignty of each of those nations, sovereignty over the land that the people have inhabited, nurtured, and cared for over those many millennia.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart/

Sovereignty, as articulated in the Statement from the Heart of 2017, is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples. See

Finally—and most topical of all—we need to support the Voice that will be the subject of a referendum later this year. The Voice to Parliament will ensure that the needs and concerns of First Peoples are always given due consideration in the policy-making processes of our federal government. See

Voice, Treaty, Truth—that’s the threefold commitment that I consider to be important on this coronation weekend. Not swearing allegiance to a highly-privileged hereditary foreigner, but reaffirming the reality of what we need to do to honour the First People of this land.

*****

See also

A living stone, for a spiritual house (1 Peter 2; Easter 5A)

For the last few weeks, we have been reading through the letter known as 1 Peter during the Easter season. We have read parts of chapters 1 and 2 so far. This Sunday, however, the lectionary does something strange: it takes us back before the passage we heard last week, to a section of chapter 2 that focusses on the way that holiness is to be understood.

The theme of holiness has already been sounded earlier in the letter. The people who are receiving this letter are “the exiles of the Dispersion” (v.1), people of Israel living in other nations. For such people, holiness was an important idea. The fundamental charge of this letter was sounded earlier: “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (v.15). This is supported by a quotation from scripture (Lev 11:44), which was a foundational text for the people of Israel.

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

Holiness was also a concern of the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees devoted their lives to teaching and explaining each of the 613 commandments and ordinances that were included within the books of Torah (the books of the Law—the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures), and showing the common people how they could live in holiness, as they followed each of those commandments. Holiness was at the heart of the Law, so adhering to each commandment ensured holiness.

And holiness characterised the followers of Jesus, for he was leader of a holiness movement in a holiness society. Jesus debated often with the scribes and Pharisees. He seems to share much in common with them. They were all committed to living in accordance with the commandments of Torah, although they had differing interpretations of how to do this. Jesus advocated for the living out of holiness in daily life, as did the scribes and Pharisees. His teachings also focussed on adhering to God’s will, maintaining the justice-righteousness that God required, in all of life. He teaches his followers to adhere to that way in order the take part in the kingdom that God has planned for all.

Holiness, to all of these groups, meant being consecrated, dedicated, set apart for a designated purpose. It is often (mis)understood as signalling a superior status, an exalted place—”up there” above the unholy ones, just as God is “up there” above the earth. Of course, that old worldview is now obsolete. And the sense of elitism in “holiness” is also obsolete.

Further, whilst a holy person is to be an ethical person, overtones of morality are not the first and last aspect of holiness. To be holy is to be dedicated to the task, following Jesus with the whole of our lives, sensing the eternal in the moments of the present, experiencing the divine in the midst of human life. Excitedly, joyously (v.6), all this is to be shared with others who have not yet “caught the vision”.

There are many references to, and quotations from, the scriptures of the Hebrew people in chapter 2 of this letter. That makes sense, for—as we have seen—it was sent to “the exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1). These were their familiar scriptures. To live according to holiness (Lev 11:44) is the key principle (1 Pet 1:15).

In 2:4–10, part of the lectionary passage for this Sunday, we learn what that means, as the writer plays with a series of texts from the psalms and Isaiah. Each text contains a reference to “stone”, and relates an understanding of holiness to those hearing the letter.

The first reference point for “stone” is to Jesus, the “living stone” who is the cornerstone of the whole building. That slips quickly into applying “stones” to the people of faith who are hearing this letter: as “living stones” they are to be built into the structure as integral parts of the whole. Then, to reinforce that affirmation, a verse from Hosea 2 is quoted to emphasize how intimately and enduringly the people are connected with God.

Echoing still more scriptural terms, they are described as “chosen” (Deut 7:6), “a royal priesthood” (Exod 19:6), “holy” (Lev 20:7), and God’s own people (Hos 2:23) who are “a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6). Many passages are rolled into one sentence!

Later sections of the letter provide specific guidance as to how we are to live in that condition of holiness; what behaviours and actions are appropriate for being “living stones” in a “spiritual house”. The challenge for us, this week, as we hear and preach on this particular passage, is to help people to grasp the relevance of these important theological terms for ourselves today.

*****

See also