It’s been just over a month—but there have been lots of learnings!

It’s been just over a month since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 1.5 metres between individuals, no more than two people at an outdoor gathering, no more than five people at a wedding, no more than ten people (including the minister) at a funeral, and certainly no gathering together as a congregation for worship, whether that be as twelve people, or 45 people, or 200 people in one church building.

There is no doubt that this will be an extended period while we need distancing and isolating. There will be weeks, even months, ahead of us in the same mode. We will have plenty of time to reflect on our situation, and to look forward to the time when restrictions are eased and regathering becomes possible.

But a month, give or take, is a good time to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? I want to offer some reflections from my own perspective. Here are a handful of things that I have learnt.

1 Relationships are critical.

Human beings are relational creatures. We like to, and need to, relate to other people. Spending far more time in our own homes, and far less time at work or at school, in social outings and family gatherings, is proving to be a challenge.

Social distancing and self isolation are essential to ensure that we minimise, as much as possible, the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But they are challenging to the very core of our being, as humans. Social engagement and interpersonal connections are what we need, and value, in our lives. We need one another. Relationships are critical.

2 Worship is important.

For people of faith, gathering together each Sunday (usually in the morning) is seen as the centre of what it is to be church. Worship is important, but conversation and connection is more important. My home congregation gathers-apart each Sunday, meeting up online via ZOOM, and people are clear that they appreciate the work of our minister (my wife, Elizabeth) each Sunday, in leading prayers, curating musical items, and offering reflections on scripture. Worship is important.

But the group “comes alive” in two moments: at the start, when people recognise others from the Congregation as they join the gathering, and see the faces of their friends appear on the screen; and after worship, during the virtual morning tea, when the conversations really flow. This is where the energy of the group coalesces and builds. Indeed, some congregations have pre-recorded worship which they then follow with live morning tea times, so people can interact over a cuppa. Connection is incredibly important.

3 Good communication is desirable.

We rely on good communication in everyday life. But how good it is depends on the ability to read subtle signs, to see body language and micro signals, to have conversations that ebb and flow in a natural rhythm, like breathing. Online communication diminishes our capacity for subtle communication. It is a blunt instrument.

Being able to see each other on the screen and talk with each other across the ether is very good—but it lacks some critical elements. We can rejoice that we live in an age when we can communicate online across vast distances. Nevertheless we need to recognise how that medium shapes our communications and inhibits deep connection with, and understanding of, one another.

Perhaps we can take this learning on into the post-COVID 19 situation and allow it to inform how we communicate with and relate to others? We need up-close, person-to-person engagement, for good, effective communication to occur.

4 Creativity can flourish under pressure.

I have watched in awe as my various ministerial colleagues have demonstrated great creativity, offering their preaching and praying gifts in new ways. I have read imaginative poems, heard engaging sermons, entered into deep prayer, watched striking short videos, and appreciated the fine photos that have been offered by ministers and pastors, lay preachers and other lay worship leaders, as they nurture their people by creative ways in worship.

Humans are innately creative beings, and creativity can flourish, even (perhaps especially) in pressured situations. Let us hope that this creativity can continue and indeed flourish into the future time, when gathering-together once again will be possible.

5 New skills can be acquired rapidly.

Given the will (and perhaps also the need) to learn new skills, people are capable of fast tracking the process and acquiring new skills very quickly. I have now been told of so many people of mature—very mature—ages, who have taken the challenge, downloaded ZOOM, learnt how to enter a ZOOM meeting, start their video camera, and mute and unmute their speakers—all skills that they never envisaged they could do, just a month or two ago!

What might our churches look like, if we learnt from this? If we took on the challenge to reshape our worship, start fresh expressions of church, adopt new patterns of gathering and sharing and deepening our faith? How might the current experience of individuals learning new skills provide a template for communities setting out on experimental or pioneering pathways? It’s an exciting prospect!

6 Patience is paramount.

In a stay-at-home situation, this is the case; even in a regular situation where we come and go each and every day, patience is at a premium. People who live by themselves are learning a new level of patience, as they wait for fleeting encounters with other people at their front doors, or on the phone, or on the screen.

People who live in families with energetic bundles of energy (children) on hand 24/7 are learning another level of patience, as they isolate together as a family and attempt to conduct the business required to draw a wage and feed a family, even whilst supervising learning-at-home programs. Patience is paramount, in these, and in every, situation that people find themselves at this time.

7 We are well off.

Yes, we are very well off. Indeed, we are very, very, very well off! The great toilet paper panic was an ugly and unsightly episode, but it illustrates how privileged we actually are. At least we have toilet paper to use. Many people don’t. The constant injunctions to wash our hands are important. But we have water on tap (literally) to wash our hands with. Many, many people don’t.

And we have space, the space in our houses and the space on our streets, to practice social distancing. Many, many, many people do not have such space; they live in crowded homes, in overcrowded city areas, where keeping appropriate distance is just not possible. By comparison, it is clear: we are well off.

8 Science is invaluable.

The advances in scientific understanding in recent centuries have enabled us to understand how pandemics (what used to be called plagues) spread. Microbiologists and infectious disease specialists are able to harness their specialised understandings and insights for the benefit of the common good. Medical researchers are able to focus on possible drug treatments, conduct experiments, and produce guidance as to what will assist, and what will not help, as we seek to minimise the spread of the virus.

Science and medicine reporters are doing a fabulous job on the media, providing us with technical insights into how diseases work and how our bodies respond, breaking this information down into understandable bites of information, assuring us of the steps that are being taken to find the vaccine for this virus. We can be grateful for scientific and medical insights.

9 Faith provides a bedrock foundation.

When living in troubled, challenging times, people have regularly turned to some form of faith, for comfort and assurance. We have seen that throughout history. Perhaps that may be happening, these days, when we see the upsurge of interest that has been experienced by churches offering online worship. Many report large “attendances” at online worship, larger than the in person gatherings of past months. It may be too early to tell—but could it be that people are turning to spiritual resources in this time of need?

Certainly, people of faith are active and to the fore, in regular times and now in this unusual time, in ensuring that the vulnerable people in our society are given care and support in these challenging times. I know of many people of faith who are making extra phone calls and offering a compassionate listening ear to people in need.

I know of other people of faith who make home deliveries of food packages to elderly people, or who are staffing food banks operating out of church facilities. Protocols about social distancing are being observed, and needy people are being supported. Looking to the material needs of people in society is important. And in this regard, we clearly see that faith in action undergirds our society. So many people of faith are involved in these kinds of projects. This demonstrates how true religion is (as James writes), “to care for orphans and widows in their distress”.

That’s what I have learnt, this far into the process of social distancing and self isolating. What do you reckon? What are your key learnings?

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

Liberating Life: a new way of being. Easter Sunday Reflections

Every Easter Sunday, Christian people greet each other with “The Lord is risen: He is risen indeed!”. And throughout the year, we repeat the central affirmation, that “God raised Jesus from the dead”. The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is central to our faith. According to Luke, this was central in the preaching of the apostles (Acts 2:24,32, 3:15,26, 4:10, 5:30, 10:40, 13:30,37). It is repeated in the letters by or attributed to Paul on a number of occasions (Rom 7:4, 10:9; 1 Cor 6:14, 15:15; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:20; see also 1 Pet 1:21).

The resurrection is regarded as the pointer to a new form of life, a liberating life, lived in the transformed state of resurrected being, which was first experienced by Jesus, and which is then promised to all believers. This promise is a liberating promise. The life of resurrection is a liberating life. Claims about the resurrection also bring points of contention and discussion within contemporary Christian thinking.

Contemporary debate has canvassed a number of options as to the nature of the resurrection: Must it be in a bodily form? Was Jesus raised ‘in the memory of his followers’, but not as a physical body? Is resurrection a pointer to a transcendent spiritual dimension? What was meant by the reference to an “immortal state” in 1 Cor 15:53-54?

Some believers aggressively promote the claim that we must believe in the boldly resurrection of Jesus, that we must adhere to a literal understanding of what the biblical texts report. I prefer to advocate for ways of responding to the story which are creative, imaginative, expanding our understandings and drawing us out of our comfort zones into new explorations in our lives.

The resurrection is not directed away from this world, into a heavenly or spiritual realm. The resurrection offers us both an invitation to affirm our bodily existence in this world, and to explore fresh ways of renewal and recreation in our lives, in our society. It is about liberating life for renewal in our own time and place, here in this world.

It is the apostle Paul who, most of all in the New Testament, provides evidence for the way that early believers began to think about the central aspects of the Easter story—death on the cross, newness in the risen life (Rom 6:3-4:23, 8:6,13; 1 Cor 15:21-23; 2 Cor 4:8-12; Phil 2:5-11, 3:10-11). Paul probably did not begin such ideas; indeed, in both arenas, there are clear Jewish precedents.

The sacrificial understanding of the death of Jesus draws heavily from the Jewish sacrificial cult (Heb 2:17, 7:23-28, 9:11-14). The notion of resurrection was developed first by the Pharisees, a teaching group within the Judaism of the time (Acts 23:8). From these bases, it is Paul who most clearly and most often articulates and develops these central ideas in his writings as we have them in scripture.

These ideas sit at the heart of what traditional Christianity has regarded as its distinctive theological understanding: that God became human, suffered for us, died for us, and was raised to inaugurate the new way of being that will characterise the kingdom of God. This expression of belief comes to form the core of the emerging doctrinal self-understanding of early Christianity, into the following centuries of theological debate. It is the whole life—death—resurrection of Jesus that forms this central doctrinal core.

A further observation regarding the theological significance of Easter is the way that the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus forms the end point—indeed, the climactic moment—of the story of his life, as it is reported in all four canonical Gospels. There were about 50 Gospels written in the early centuries of Christianity, and most of them do not lead to this dramatic conclusion.

The fact that the four Gospels which were chosen for inclusion in the canon of Scripture each end with the passion and resurrection narrative, indicates the way that this part of the story of Jesus came to have a central and defining purpose in the development of Christian doctrine. “Jesus, crucified and risen” became the centerpiece of Christian theology. That is at the heart of the Easter story. That is at the centre of Christian faith. And that comes clearly into focus in this current Easter season.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

Liminal Space: waiting and not knowing. Holy Saturday Reflections

This Easter, it is Holy Saturday that holds the key.

This week, we have travelled through Holy Week; the final part of Lent, a 40-day period of preparation leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of faith.

This year, however, will be different. In the middle of a viral pandemic, with restrictions prohibiting gathering for worship, people of faith will be walking through Holy Week in their own homes, not in gatherings at church. We are not able to gather together. This year, we are gathering-apart. All the familiar patterns are changed. All the comforting rituals are altered. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/)

For that reason, this year I have been thinking much more about Holy Saturday, which is also known as Easter Eve. This day is a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, remembering the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, his burial in the tomb, and the grief of his followers. It is a time of looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge beyond those events.

In my thinking this year, Holy Saturday is the day for our current season. Services for people of faith to gather together on this day are rare; people do not expect to “go to church” on this day, even if they go on Friday or Sunday. But this year, this day takes on deeper significance. It speaks to our situation in a more compelling way.

Last year, I offered a service of reflection and prayer on Holy Saturday—and a small group of people attended, sat in silence, offered prayers for the congregation and the world, and experienced the eerie in-between, liminal, nature of this day.

Jesus, by tradition, had been laid in the tomb; on this day, according to one letter in the New Testament, he descended into Hades and “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). It is a time when there is no apparent activity evident on earth—but in the tradition, there is something significant happening “underground”.

On Holy Saturday, the tradition offers us a moment to pass, and reflect, and wonder: in this time of grief and abandonment, how is God still at work? How is faith still being made evident?

Back amongst the followers of Jesus, there was fear and grief. Jesus had been crucified and buried. He was no longer their leader. They had been left alone, suddenly, dramatically. What they had come to know and value as their normal and regular life together, had been interrupted, turned upside down.

The Gospels give us clear indications of this distress. If we enter into the stories that are offered by the evangelists, we might begin to imagine how the disciples were feeling.

On the road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus lament that their hopes were shattered (Luke 24:21). They are completely unaware of the identity of the stranger who walks with them; they are caught in their own hopelessness.

In a room in Jerusalem, followers gather behind closed doors, their fears intensified by events (John 20:19). They are not connected in any way with the news that had begun to percolate through the city. They are behind locked doors, because their fear was dominating their every thought, their every move.

Some days earlier, Thomas had uttered prophetic words, before the critical events had occurred, when he cried, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). That speaks for how the disciples were feeling, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. That speaks also for us, in our current situation.

Could this sense of fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness, be a point or connection with the story, for us for this current time? In this time of global pandemic, we are in a period of waiting, not knowing, a time of deepened fear and broken hopes. We look around and see that things are so, so different now. We are afraid for what will happen next. We do not know what is sure and certain, what is transient and passing. Life has suddenly looked so different.

Like the disciples, on that first Sabbath day after the death of Jesus, we do not know where we are going; we do not know where this global pandemic will end up. We do not know the ending—unlike the disciples after they encountered the risen Jesus, or the evangelists when they wrote their Gospels, or preachers through the centuries, who have been able to craft their sermons so that they point, inevitably, to the Good News that resolves the tension.

Like Thomas, we do not know where this is going. Like the two on the road to Emmaus, our hopes have been shattered. Like the group gathered behind locked doors, we are caught in the grip of fear. We do not know the ending.

We can have hope; we can pray, seek solace, look for comfort. But we do not know. We just do not know. And that is a very scary place to be.

Holy Saturday is where we are now, in society, in families, in the church, in our homes. Waiting with uncertainty; living with a different pattern; looking forward, hope against hope, to a different future. We are with the disciples, separated from the one they had given their all to follow, wondering what the next step might be.

The Christian festival of Holy Week moves on, beyond this day. It reaches its climax on Easter Day with celebration marking Jesus conquering death. “The Lord is risen: he is risen, indeed!” is the greeting we exchange on Easter Sunday.

The traditional Easter affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. This leads into an expression of joy, an Easter assertion, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.

For the next period of time, the Church is in a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues.

For us, and for all in society at this moment of pandemic, the time for that celebratory affirmation will come. But it will not come quickly. It will not come on the third day. It will not even come after the third month. It will require months of social isolation, before we can step out into that time of social reconnection and the resumption of a life together for society.

But until that time, we remain, sitting, isolated, uncertain, in our own Holy Saturday. Let us not run from that experience. Let us allow this time to deepen our faith and strengthen our discipleship, as we sit, silently, waiting, lamenting, praying.

Peter Lockhart offers this reflection on sitting in the silence: https://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-silence-of-god.html

Sarah Agnew has written this prayer for Holy Saturday: https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/04/a-prayer-for-holy-saturday.html

N.T. Wright offers this insight into the significance of lament in Christian tradition: https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/

Other blogs for this Easter:

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

Sacrificial Death: to give his life. Good Friday Reflections

On Good Friday each year, we remember the death of Jesus. This event is interpreted as a fundamental theological event of significance for all Christian believers. “Christ died for us” is a key phrase found in a number of letters by Paul (Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; 1 Thess 5:10). This affirmation forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology—understanding the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers.

This area of Christian theology has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today? One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.

Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. Certainly, dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected.

In my mind, there are a number of points at which the kind of statement about the death of Jesus that I noted above, narrows the understanding of faith too much.

For a start, it focuses intensely on a personal dimension, to the detriment of the wider relational, societal, and political dimensions. Easter faith, to me, is broader, more expansive, more encompassing, than just the focus on my personal eternal destiny. I find this communal orientation expressed very strongly in scripture, both in relation to the atonement as well as in many other broader ways. The narrow expression of atonement is based on an understanding of God who is a wrath-filled, vengeance-seeking God, seeking to impact individual lives in a highly judgemental way. I don’t find that perspective in scripture.

Then, the narrow understanding of atonement plays off the will of God over against the actions of a devil figure. This is a problematic element because it contradicts the idea of an all-loving, all-just God. Is all evil in the world to be attributed to a personified devil? What has the allegedly all-powerful and all-loving God done about this?

Such simplistic dualism is problematic, if we just leave it at this. Hebrew scripture steadfastly resists any temptation to sit in a dualistic worldview, and the New Testament continues in that vein, despite pressures from the Hellenistic worldview, as direct heir of the Platonic dualistic schema.

Appreciating the sacrificial dimension of the story of Jesus dying on the cross is important. Jesus went willingly to his death. He did, in the end, offer his life as a sacrifice. The key verse often cited for this understanding is Mark 10:45 (“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many). Other verses that relate include Rom 3:25-26, Eph 5:2,1 John 2:1-2, 4:10, as well as the whole argument of Hebrews (see especially Heb 2:17, 9:23-28, 10:12, 13:12).

Understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrifice remains at the heart of our Christian faith. The option of taking up a violent path was rejected by Jesus. He did not stir up an uprising against the imperialist Roman overlords, despite opportunities to do so (on Palm Sunday, for instance). He did knowingly offer his life as a sacrifice. After an inner struggle about this matter (Mark 14:32-35 and parallels in the Synoptics), it appears that Jesus went willingly to his death (Mark 14:36, and reflected in the whole prayer that the evangelist crafts in John 17).

The preaching of Jesus in the period prior to his arrest offered a vision of a kingdom in which righteous-justice is dominant and peace is evident (Matt 6:33, 7:21, 21:43, 25:34-36; Mark 12:32-34; Luke 4:16-19, 6:20-21, 12:31-34, 18:24-25). In this preaching, he signalled his key commitments, which are instructive as we consider what he thought he was doing, when he submitted to death. We need to consider these words as we think about the significance of Jesus for our faith, and for how the sinfulness of humanity is dealt with.

The way that Jesus calls us into faithful discipleship is central to this approach. To enter the kingdom means to live in accord with the righteous-justice that Jesus advocates. The greater picture beyond the events of the cross is hugely significant. The cross, the event of the death of Jesus, points beyond to this greater vision. It is the whole life of Jesus, along with his death, which is crucial as we grapple with how Jesus transforms us from “sinful humanity” to “justified and saved” (to use the biblical terms that have become the catchcries in this debate).

His manner of death was consistent with this vision; the complete commitment of Jesus to this vision meant that his death, unjust and violent as it was, provides a glimpse into the way of faithfulness for each of us in our lives. Following the way of Jesus is treading this path of nonviolent affirmation of the greater vision.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

It was on that night that everything came to a head. Maundy Thursday Reflections.

This reflection is set in the first century. The voice is that of person who was raised in the Jewish faith and who became a committed follower of Jesus. Seven candles may be lit and then extinguished one by one as the reflection proceeds.

 

Gathering

It was on that night that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family;
a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,
some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;
but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

Yet it began in celebration.

For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries,
on this very night, we would gather, joined as family,
to remember, to rejoice, to recall the act of liberation.

So we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who have chosen us and made us holy.
Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine.
Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

 

SEVEN CANDLES MAY BE LIT

 

It was on that night that everything came to a head.

But first, we recall the story …
the story we remember each year on this night.

Recalling the Passover Meal

 We remember the way that God saves his people:
The lamb, the herbs, the bread without leaven;
The lamb, the blood, the Passover of God.

And we follow the instructions given to the priests:
“On the tenth of this month, the people are to take
a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.” [Exod 12:3]

THE FIRST CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

It began in celebration.
For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries,
on this very night, we would gather, joined as family,
to remember, to rejoice, to recall the great stories.

But as the meal progressed, the mood began to shift.
One by one, those gathered together began to look back,
to ponder what they had been a part of…
for the joy of recent times had a shadow side, a menacing feel.

THE SECOND CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Just a few days before the meal, they entered the city,
coming for the festival, riding on a donkey;
crowds were gathered to cheer him on,
singing psalms and waving palms.

Hopes were high that indeed he was the one—
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

But days later, as the palms still lay strewn beside the road,
the signs were ominous.
Is this the one to redeem the people?
Silence, and fear, as the tensions rose … …

On that night, we remembered the festival of the Lord,
as we have remembered it throughout the centuries.

On the table, in the centre: the matzah bread.
“Our ancestors ate this bread in the land of Egypt.
All who are hungry, come in and eat! come and celebrate Passover!”

On the table, beside the matzah bread, were the cups for the wine.
Four cups: cups of judgement, a reminder of God’s punishments.
But the same four cups are also cups of celebration.
Reminders of the gracious saving actions of God.

So the table was set, with bread and wine,
for this festival of the Lord, the celebration of Passover.

We met around the table; a family extended,
with brothers and sisters, children and friends;
aunts … uncles … cousins … disciples;
a cacophony of colleagues, family and followers.

As we met around the table, we joined ourvoices,
with a psalm of celebration; a psalm of hallelujah.

What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
[Psalm 116]

THE THIRD CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Recalling the Passover of the Lord

 It was on that night that everything came to a head.

For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries,
on this very night, we would gather, joined as family,
to remember, to rejoice, to recall the act of liberation.

And so, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine.

Then he took the wine, as they had always taken the wine;
and lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.
“May the one who blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
May the one who blessed our mothers,
Bless this house, this table, and all assembled here;
And so may our loved ones share our blessing.”

And when he had given thanks,
he gave it to them, saying: “Drink this, all of you”;
and then he spoke of the fruit of the vine, of the kingdom of God.

THE FOURTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

We praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

So he took the bread, as they had always taken the bread;
And lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.

Then the shank of lamb for the Passover, in the centre of the table:
“It is the sacrifice of the Passover of the Lord, for he passed over
the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt”.          
        [Exod 12:27]

And then, the herbs of bitterness;
“for their lives were bitter, with hard labour,
and mortar, and brick, and work in the fields.
All the labour which the Egyptians had forced upon them was harsh.”      [Exod 1:14]

And when he had given thanks for the bread,
he broke it, and he gave it to them,
speaking words which bled from familiar, to disturbing:
“Take this, and eat it; this bread of the Lord, manna from heaven;
take, and eat. This is my body, given for you.
Eat this in the remembrance of me.”      So they ate.

THE FIFTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED     A period of silence is kept

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve,
went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.
When they heard it, they were greatly pleased,
and promised to give him money.
So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.        [Mark 14]

The bitter moment of betrayal. Can it ever be retrieved?

It was on that night that everything came to a head;

And tonight, this year, as in every year, we remember.

THE SIXTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Recalling the Final Supper

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD’s death until he comes. [1 Cor 11]

THE SEVENTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

A period of silence is kept

It was on that night that everything came to a head;
and the shadows gathered, looming, menacing…

A gathering of friends and family;
a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,
some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;
but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

It was on that night that everything came to a head:
a commandment to love; to love one another …
a call to discipleship; take up the cross, and follow …

It is on this night that everything comes to a head.

 

Adapted from a service devised by John Squires in 2008

Holy Week: a week set apart, in a time set apart.

Today we begin Holy Week. This is the final part of a longer period leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of Christian faith.

This year, however, will be different. In the middle of a viral pandemic, with restrictions prohibiting gathering for worship, Christian people will be walking through Holy Week in their own homes, not in gatherings at church. This is a week set apart, for people of faith, in a time set apart, for all of society.

We are not able to gather together. This year, people of faith are not gathering together. Instead, we are gathering-apart, through virtual worship, online. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/)

Holy Week culminates the season of Lent, which is an ancient practice for a Christian people. It lasts for 40 days, serving as a time of preparation for Easter. But whereas Lent is an ancient tradition, Holy Week is a more recent development. Designating the week leading up to Easter as Holy Week most probably comes from the narration of chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus is understood as being in Jerusalem from a Sunday until his last meal on a Thursday.

The week starts with Palm Sunday when Christians remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and the crowds waving palm leaves as he enters the city. Jesus stays near to the city for the remainder of the week. This year, we have not remembered that event with festive processions and cheerful hymns. Many of my colleagues have provided resources for Virtual Worship, Church At Home, Postcards for Reflection, and the like. People are gathering-apart.

On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. His words are recorded in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This gives rise to the name for the day. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum—hence the name of the day, Maundy.

Some people believe that Lent officially ends at sundown on Maundy Thursday, so they celebrate that with Holy Communion, or with a meal known as an agapé or a “love feast”. It is a remembrance of the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers. Others maintain that Lent continues through into Easter Saturday, until the end of the day just before the empty tomb is discovered.

After Maundy Thursday comes Good Friday, remembering when Jesus was crucified. Why is this day called Good? It comes from the theological evaluation that, on this Friday, Jesus died on the cross “for our sins”, thereby securing our redemption. This is the basis for the “good news” which the Church has proclaimed for centuries.

Churches all around the world normally hold various rituals for people to attend. Roman Catholics have the Adoration of the Cross, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, the Stations of the Cross, and Evening Prayers. Anglicans have a three-hour service with reflections on the Last Words of Christ. Many people come for these times of gathering together. But not this year—we have to gather-apart.

The Stations of the Cross are focused around the events of Good Friday, recalling the various events which took place as Jesus made his way from his trial to his death on the cross. These Stations have been appropriated, in art or through personal creative responses, as ways of moving attention from the story as a singular ‘history’, to the significance of the story and the resonance of the events with universal human experiences.

This year, gathering together is not possible. As we gather-apart, there is the opportunity for personal reflection; perhaps, for instance, using this exhibition of contemporary art work that was specifically commissioned in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUDH-6NVr6aj6X6DAmzSKLvg

Next comes Holy Saturday or Easter Eve—a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, and looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge from those event.

(I will make a post about Holy Saturday on that day.)

After Holy Saturday, the celebration of Easter Sunday bursts through the gloom and despair with a vibrant message: Jesus is risen, Jesus has conquered death. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. So the traditional affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. This leads into an expression of joy, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.

For the next period of time, the Church moves into a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues. And so the cycle continues, death turning into life, despair breaking out into hope, frustration moving into promise.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

Pastoral Letter to the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. 31 March 2020

Dear friends across the Country and Coast, and in the Capital area of the Presbytery:

We write to express our gratitude to everyone who is working hard in the current challenging circumstances, and to offer encouragement to you as you offer ministry to the people in your communities of faith. We are experiencing a time of rapid transition and significant change, from week to week, from day to day. May you be strengthened as you continue to serve in this challenging context.

Like Christian communities right around the world, we are finding new and creative ways to worship, as we gather-apart. We are seeing that people in our congregations and faith communities are continuing to care for one another and stay connected with each other. Most of us are on a steep learning curve as we try to work out what is best for our own congregation in the light of the abundance of resources increasingly available.

As we connect online, we have an amazing opportunity to get to know one another in ways never possible before, as the distance between us vanishes with technology. Ministers, Pastors, and lay leaders in Congregations are now meeting up regularly via ZOOM to share concerns and learn from one another. From Bega to Crookwell, in Gungahlin and Braidwood, from Eden and Goulburn and Jindabyne, in Tuggeranong and Braddon, conversations have been flowing across the internet.

One exciting development in the Canberra Region Presbytery is the way in which our 28 Uniting Church congregations are willingly sharing the talent and expertise God has gifted us. Every congregation has been able to draw their people together in new ways. We have used YouTube, Facebook Live, ZOOM, Facebook groups, emails of PDFs and Word documents, the mobile phone, and Australia Post—an amazing array of options! (You can check out some of the creativity across our presbytery by looking at the Canberra Region Presbytery Facebook page.)

Last Sunday, members of Cooma and Alpine congregations shared in worship for the first time in many years. Rev. Noel Williams, taking the plunge with ZOOM, led the service from an otherwise empty St Andrews in Cooma. What resulted was a genuine worshipful experience, as Bible readers and musicians contributed from their own homes, and Noel preached a very relevant and meaningful message.

People who barely knew each other came into each other’s homes in a shared, good-humoured willingness to help make something new work well. An hour later we said cheerful goodbyes, enriched by a fellowship of the Spirit that knows no worldly boundaries.

The same happened with other groups meeting online for worship. Members of the Tuggeranong Congregation have told of their positive experience on ZOOM last Sunday (see the article contributed). Members of the Weston Creek Congregation worshipped in their own homes, using material sent to them, and then gathered on ZOOM for the after-worship morning tea time. Both groups valued the interactive element available by this platform.

There were a number of people from around our presbytery who shared in the Saltbush Sundays @9service (see the details at https://saltbushcommunity.uca.org.au/news/saltbush-sundays-9/).
Others are using the online resources at a time more convenient for themselves (https://saltbushcommunity.uca.org.au/the-word-around-the-bush/).

As our daily lives are changing to combat the COVID-19 virus, we have the opportunity to engage in new expressions of congregational life. Connecting online means we have new opportunities to study Scripture, listen to good teachers, encourage our children and youth, pray and develop our personal spiritual life, explore music, witness to our community.  

In the mist of the suffering and pain that the world is experiencing, our God has given us a way to prepare for being part of a much-changed world, which will have an unprecedented need for the healing and restorative message of the Gospel.

Maintaining an outward focus is tremendously important. We are called to continue serving the world, even—especially—in the midst of the current pandemic. Kippax Uniting Church is coordinating the Canberra Relief Network (CRN) to create the opportunity for congregations in strategic geographical locations in the urban area to become centres for food relief packages to the Canberra population.

The CRN will provide the food relief packages, and the congregations will be asked to staff the distribution following health protocols for safe distancing and hygiene. This is one of the practical ways that congregations with the needed capacity can be involved in blessing their local communities and beyond. Already Gungahlin and Tuggeranong have agreed to collaborate with the CRN and conversations are underway with more UCA congregations as well as community groups.

Even though our church buildings are closed for worship and other meetings, there are places in our Presbytery where church buildings are being used to provide essential emergency services to homeless and marginalized people. In each place, special protocols to facilitate safe social distancing are being followed very carefully. Monty’s Place in Narooma is still providing take-away meals with these strict protocols in place, both on site and at delivery, to safeguard at-risk members of the Narooma congregation. We thank volunteers like Merrick Willcocks who arranged the deliveries.

Let’s not forget, also, that whilst the COVID 19 Pandemic has captured our focus, many communities in our Presbytery are continuing the struggle to recover from Bushfires. At Narooma, “Flowers for Cobargo/Quaama” has resulted in large numbers of pots of colourful flowers to be gathered and planted to lift to the spirits of residents in these towns devastated by fire in January. We thank folk like Di White and her team.

In Eurobodalla, Duncan McDiarmid has recently commenced in part-time ministry with the Moruya and Batemans Bay Congregations. Thanks to a generous offer from two Congregations in the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery, Duncan will be funded to provide some further community chaplaincy in the region. We are currently exploring ways that other funding might support community chaplaincies in other bushfire-impacted communities on the South Coast.

There are more stories which could be told … but we will leave them for another day. We are greatly encouraged by the commitment and dedication, energy and persistence, faith and loving compassion, determination and sensitivity, that we see and hear and experience in each of the communities of faith across Country, Coast, and Capital. We hope that as we share these stories, you also are encouraged in faith, strengthened in hope, and renewed in love.

So let us continue to live the Gospel, serve one another, and offer compassionate care to our wider communities. In the name of Christ.

Judy McKinlay and John Williams, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers
31 March 2020

Holding out for hope in the midst of turmoil (John 11)

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). That’s the question posed by people who had gathered to mourn with Martha and Mary, in the days after their brother had died.

It’s a question that, with some slight rephrasing, may well be posed in the days ahead of us, as we begin to experience the savage impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on movement, imposition of social isolation, spreading unemployment, rising numbers of infections being reported, and the early stages of what threatens to be a huge death rate, all from this powerful, invasive, invisible virus.

Frustration, anxiety, fear, and anger are within us, suppressed; and around us, beginning to be expressed. These times will be turbulent, confronting, disturbing. We draw deep into our emotional reserves in anticipation of what lies ahead.

I A message from Bethany

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Lazarus was dead, lying in the tomb (and had been there for four days, 11:17), so the reality of his death had surely been registered. But why did this have to be so? The level of grief being felt by his sisters, their household, and their friends from the village, was obviously intense.

Jesus had been reticent to travel from Galilee, back into Judea, where opposition to him had been steadily increasing (6:41; 7:1; 10:39). He initially paused, wanting not to go back to the place where, twice, threatening stones had been raised against him (8:59 and 10:31).

Jesus had been to Judea a number of times previously; in the book of signs, he is found there at 2:13, 5:1, 7:10, and 10:22—unlike the Synoptics, where his only visit as an adult is at the end of his earthly life (Mark 11:11). Jesus was reluctant to return there yet again. It was dangerous territory. He was in touch with his own deep emotions, as he considered his next move. Jesus demonstrates basic, raw humanity.

II Debating with the disciples

So Jesus delayed his travel for two days (11:6). Was he procrastinating? weighing up his options? looking to hide? making a strategic plan? The Greek word used here (meno) refers to staying still with purpose, resting, abiding. It is the word that appears quite a number of times in the “farewell discourse” as Jesus spends time with his disciples, before his arrest in Jerusalem (John 13-16).

This word occurs ten times in twelve verses in John 15, where Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches, and exhorts his followers to “remain” or “abide” (meno) in him, as he “remains” or “abides” in them. This is a deliberate, carefully thought out, plan, to hold back from travelling too quickly. Jesus had a plan in mind (as he indicates, first at 11:4, again at 11:15).

Then, when Jesus finally committed to a plan of action—“Let us go to Judea again”—we are told that Thomas the Twin expressed the great fear of his fellow disciples by saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Down south (in Judea) was dangerous territory for the radical prophet from the north (in Galilee), fuelled both by the traditional antagonism between the regions, and by the plotting against Jesus that was underway amongst the leadership in Judea (5:18; 9:16: 10:39).

I tend to think that, had I been there alongside Thomas and Jesus and the rest, my words would have been more like, “What? Are you crazy? Go back to Jerusalem? And risk being stoned to death? No way. Just no way at all!!” But I wasn’t there. And this, according to the story told in the book of signs, is how Thomas responded: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Wow!

III Meeting Martha by the tomb

Then, when Jesus arrived, he was met immediately with a very strong kickback from Martha, who went out to meet the group beside the tomb, before they arrived in the house. Martha was clear and direct; she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:22).

I would think that she was angry. We can assume that she would have known the reputation of Jesus, she would have known he was able to perform miracles (signs, as they are regularly described in the book of signs). With this knowledge, Martha would have despaired that Jesus chose not to come and perform such a sign in her village, for her family. She lashed out at Jesus. Understandably. Perhaps with good reason.

Being forced into an uncomfortable place, being railroaded into disturbing emotions and unsettling experiences, means that any human being is likely, at some point, to kick back, lash out, with unrestrained raw emotion. We need to take care of ourselves lest we offend or damage people of property in such a state.

IV Mary and others join

As the story continues, Jesus begins to mollify Martha, and then invites her sister, Mary to join with her (11:28). Jesus and his group have still not arrived at the village; they are still where Lazarus lies in the tomb. Mary brings with her a group of friends and family (11:31). As the group of mourners arrive, the tension in the air would have been palpable.

When Mary came to the tomb, where Jesus was, and saw him, she knelt at his feet. She appears to be expressing due respect and reverence, perhaps. “Lord, I am so glad you are here”, we might expect her to have said.

But no—the first words out of her mouth are the same as what her sister had said, a little earlier: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). She, too, was angry. Human emotions easily dominate. How clearly these sisters reflect the way we human beings operate!

V Jesus responds with raw human emotion

Hearing these words for a second time—“look what has happened, you could have stopped this from happening”—penetrates right to the core of Jesus. The author of the books of signs uses a number of colourful words in describing how Jesus responded. My sense is that Jesus had been stirred up, to the very depths of his being. He was profoundly moved—not with compassion, but with anger.

First (according to the NRSV), we learn that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit” (11:33). The word chosen in Greek signifies the uttering of a sound from deep in the belly; a full-blooded reaction, a sound that shocks and shatters the eardrums. The most literal way of translating this would be to say that Jesus “snorted like a horse”—that deep, guttural warning that horses utter when they are distressed, cornered, angry. The basic word used here (as in a couple of other places in stories about Jesus—Mark 1:43 and Matt 9:30; Mark 14:5) signifies deep, burning anger. Jesus was thoroughly angry.

Then, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved” (11:33, NRSV) or “troubled” (NIV). This word comes from the root word which means “to shudder”. Jesus’s reaction was so strong, so extensive, that his whole body shook and shuddered. There was a clear physical manifestation of the inner emotional turmoil raging in Jesus. He was, as we say, shaking with anger. One commentator writes, “the word implies deep disturbance”; another, that it means “an expression of rage; to become indignant, be furious”; yet another simply says, that “Jesus is angry”.

After this, as he presumably draws closer to the tomb and sees where Lazarus has been laid, we are told, “Jesus began to weep” (11:35). The Greek word used here is significant. The weeping of Mary and her companions, described just a moment earlier (11:33), is weeping that a band of mourners would do. It was the weeping and wailing, the anguished crying of those deep in grief, which was the socially-expected, customary grieving form of weeping. An expression of deep human emotions, to be sure; but channelled in the appropriate and customary manner by this group of grieving family and friends.

The weeping of Jesus is described with a different word—a word that is used only once, at this exact place, in the whole of the New Testament. The word (dakruo) has its primary reference point in the tears shed by Jesus. As we read this passage in English, where the same word is used, it looks like Mary and Jesus are both weeping in the mourning customs of the day. In Greek, where completely different words are used, the weeping is different. Mary and her friends are grieving the loss of Lazarus. Jesus is thoroughly rattled, completely shattered, by what he has experienced. And he is angry. Utterly angry. Jesus weeps tears of anger.

There have been various explorations as to why Jesus was feeling such anger. Was he angry at the lack of faith he had encountered in Mary and Martha? I think that seems reasonable, given some other comments he makes in this narrative.

Other suggestions have been made. Was he angry because he was under pressure to perform yet another miracle? (a miracle far greater than any others he had performed thus far). Was he angry that sin held such a hold on his friends? Was he angry because he was realising that his own time on earth was soon to come to an end, that he would soon be grappling with the devil in the final battle? (The latter exotic suggestion was made by John Chrysostom in the fourth century.)

I am not so much interested in WHY Jesus was angry. I am more taken by the fact THAT Jesus was angry. He was human. Fully human. He had had enough. He was at breaking point. He had a plan, a carefully thought-out intention, and he was determined to carry it through. The emotional turmoil surrounding him was distracting, getting in the way. Jesus held to his purpose with a steely resolution.

I can identify with the grieving sisters, with the crowd that met Jesus. They had been thrown into confusion. Grief does that to you. A global pandemic will do that to you, too. There are restrictions that now limit how we live our lives, our news becomes more alarming, we are becoming hard pressed. Emotions surge within us. We are at risk of lashing out. We might want to play the blame game. We are losing any sense of hope.

It is exactly at this point, according to the narrative we have in the book of signs, that some of those around Jesus respond to his intense, visceral expressions of anger, with their own angry, accusing words: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Tit for tat. Accusation and counter-accusation. Throwing it back, with interest. The scene has become ugly.

The story continues, fraught with emotion. Jesus is still “greatly disturbed” (11:38)—that is to say, still uttering that deep-seated, raw emotional outburst of anger, “snorting like a horse”. Yet, in the midst of this emotional upheaval, Jesus is able to act calmly, and speak with purpose and clarity.

VI Removing the stone, unbinding the dead man

“Take away the stone”, he commands (11:39). “Did I not tell you …”, he says to the crowd (11:40), offering a clear explanation of his intent. “Father, I thank you …”, he prays (11:41), withdrawing, gathering himself together, drawing on his inner resources. Clear, measured, purposeful.

Then, he shouts, “Lazarus, come out”, crying in a loud voice (11:43)—the verb used here has a sense of a raucous outburst. Jesus becomes, once more, highly emotional at this critical point. Yet this is a more positive emotion. A sense that things are now being set right. This is what he came to Bethany, to do. There is a purpose, amidst all the upheaval and turmoil.

And, finally, the clear instruction, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:44). The deed is done, the man emerges from the tomb, walking, no longer lying dead. There are signs of hope, right at this point: Lazarus is alive, a new reality is in place, the freedom of life restored is evident. Jesus has achieved what he had intended from the start. “This illness … is for Hod’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).

VII In a global pandemic

Where do you find yourself in this story? We might really want to be at that moment at the end, where hope bursts forth. But we are not there. Not now. Not for a while. Not, most likely, for a long time. So where do you see yourself in this story?

With Thomas, fearful of what the future will bring, and yet resolute about stepping forth with confidence? With Martha, pushing back, crying out in despair at the situation we are in? With Mary, piling on with more angst, fuelled by uncertainty, angry at what has happened?

With the grieving crowd, rushing from one thing to the next, gripped by a host of competing emotions? With the astonished crowd, watching the miracle of a man once dead, now alive?

Or with Jesus, determined to hold a steady course through the upheavals he experiences? He was clear about what he intends to achieve, steadfast in working his way through the obstacles, to the place of fruition. (If we want to emulate him, we need to be careful that we do not say “God is working through the pandemic”, or “God sent this pandemic to us for a purpose”.) Holding to a steadfast goal in the current context is a daunting challenge.

This story, set in this Sunday’s lectionary, invites us to consider who we are, as human beings; how we respond, when under pressure; what it is, that we hope for, in challenging times; how our faith guides us, in the midst of fear, anxiety, and despair.

*****

I have been greatly assisted in writing this blog by the research of my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, who has a great eye for detail when it comes to matters of translation. I have also drawn on published work by Gail R O’Day, in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary vol. IX p. 690; and the wonderful commentary by Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. I pp. 425-426.

See also my other blogs on the Book of Signs:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/23/yes-lord-i-believe-even-in-the-midst-of-all-of-this-john-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery on COVID-19 pandemic

This morning a pastoral letter was sent to all people within the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, as follows:

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

On Wednesday morning the leadership of the Synod of NSW and the ACT and all the Presbyteries in this Synod met to make plans for our future as the Uniting Church, in the current context of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday evening the Moderator and General Secretary issued a statement which strongly urged all Church Councils to immediately suspend worship services and any other group meetings on Uniting Church property.

See https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/covid-19-update-for-presbyteries-and-congregations/

We are in complete agreement with this guidance. We recognise that this is a difficult decision. This situation will remain in force for some time, over some months, until we are advised that it is again safe to hold gatherings of people.

This is essentially a pastoral decision for the well-being of people in our congregations and faith communities, and in the wider communities where we live. It is an expression of love and care for our neighbours and community, as together we try to slow the spread of infection so that our health system is able to cope.

By making this decision before our community feels the full impact of this health crisis, it is our hope that we can establish and learn new, creative, alternative ways to worship and sustain community connection from home and online.

To support us during this difficult time, Synod and Presbytery leadership is working to provide worship resources via various means including: e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a Synod-hosted website, so that we can continue to pray, sing and reflect together. Adrian Drayton, of Synod Communications, and Matt Pulford, of Assembly Communications, are working to provide access to multiple resources.

Saltbush is offering a regular weekly “9am Sunday church with Saltbush” that will be a viable option. Project Reconnect provides weekly DVD resources, on a subscription basis. Some tech-savvy colleagues will provide online resources such as sermons and prayers, as well as reflections and devotions, for all to use.

We will send emails in the days ahead that will link you in to these resources. You do not have to do all of this by yourself.

As leaders within our local communities of faith, the highest priority we can have is to ensure that we provide meaningful pastoral care for one another during this time of physical separation. There are big challenges in this. We need, firstly, to be sure to support and encourage each other in our leadership roles.

Presbytery leadership will be looking to put in place opportunities for regular, online “check-in” opportunities for pastors, ministers, and lay leaders in each of the communities of faith across our Presbytery.

We are one body in Christ, even when that body is not together in the flesh. There are many ways to stay connected in spirit, and care for each others’ spiritual and practical needs. We trust that the people of our congregations and faith communities will reach out with hearts, words and practical compassion. We are capable, resilient people. The current situation invites us to explore new ways of connecting, supporting, and caring.

As we walk this wilderness journey, there will be real grief and loss in letting go of the things that usually bring us together. There will be real fear and anxiety that comes with physical distancing. This may take on added dimensions for people who already live with anxiety. We know that we are walking into difficult times. We know, also, the promise of God’s presence in the midst of this.

As you receive this news, and communicate it to others, we expect that you will encounter a range of responses: some may feel disappointed or frustrated by a perceived over-reaction, others may feel relief and cared for. We pray that all will know themselves to be held in love and prayer.

We want to be sure that Presbytery supports and equips you as you work with people in your community of faith to meet the challenges ahead.

Please do not hesitate to contact either of your Presbytery Ministers if you wish to discuss any pastoral matters relating to this situation (John on 0408 024 642, Andrew on 0437 011 338).

Canberra Region Presbytery Leadership Team;
John Williams and Judy McKinlay
(Co-chairpersons)
John Squires and Andrew Smith (Presbytery Ministers)
Elizabeth Raine (PRC Chairperson)
John Sutton (Presbytery Treasurer)
Janise Wood (Operations Manager)

The Moderator of the NSW.ACT Synod has written this pastoral letter https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/a-pastoral-message-from-the-moderator-about-covid-19/

The President of the National Assembly has written this pastoral message https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3144-a-pastoral-response-to-the-pandemic

I have blogged on the importance o placing care for one another as a higher priority than gathering for worship, at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

When you come together … reflections on community in the midst of a pandemic

“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:28). So writes Paul to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth.

In these words, Paul indicates the importance—some would say, the highest priority—of gathering together in communal worship. The body of Christ, meeting together, in one place at the one time, sharing fellowship as we share in worship, is accorded central importance in the life of the church, back then in Corinth, as now in our own times.

How do we understand that imperative, now, in the midst of a growing sense of anxiety and uncertainty, as the pandemic of COVID-19 gradually makes it presence felt more clearly and definitively? And what will we doing as communities of faith, as we face the reality that gathering together as a community of faith might become limited or prohibited?

I When you come together …

It is clear from various New Testament passages, that communal worship was regular, expected, and valued, right across the movement that arose amongst the earliest followers of Jesus. This is evident, at face value, in the fact that all but one of the authentic letters of Paul were written to gathered communities: one to Rome, two to Corinth, one to Philippi, one to Thessalonica, and one to the region of Galatia.

There is only one authentic letter which we say was sent to an individual, Philemon—but even at the start of that letter, after naming Philemon and two other individuals, Paul continues, “and to the church in your house” (Phlm 2). And even in the later letters, attributed to Paul but not directly authored by him, the individuals addressed (Timothy and Titus) are given clear instructions regarding the ordering of life within the community of faith.

Elsewhere in his first (extant) letter to the Corinthians, Paul reflects what took place in those communal gatherings (1 Cor 14:26). It sounds like many of the elements we find in our communal worship today, as Paul lists the various elements that the Corinthians brought into worship: “a hymn [singing songs or choruses], a lesson [from scripture], a revelation [sharing our experience of faith with each other], a tongue [offering prayers], or an interpretation [the function of a sermon]” (1 Cor 14:26).

It is also evident that interpersonal interaction was integral to what took place when those communities of faith gathered. “Greet one another with a holy kiss”, Paul instructs the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:20 and 2 Cor 13:12), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

II Greet one another …

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate these five verses is by referring to a “holy embrace”, rather than a “holy kiss”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of the controversy swirling around the current situation with COVID-19 (which is the technical way of referring to “the novel coronavirus disease 2019”). The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

See my reflections, from a week ago, on this, at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/05/passing-the-peace-sharing-the-elements-greeting-the-minister/

III Be separate from them

Alongside the texts cited above, there are other biblical references that we ought to consider. One cluster of passages to consider relates to keeping separate from the community in certain circumstances. Paul himself advocates keeping a certain level of separateness in his advice to the Corinthians, quoting a Hebrew scripture passage, “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; and I will welcome you” (2 Cor 6:17).

(I note there is scholarly debate as to whether this section of 2 Corinthians was actually written by Paul himself, or added by a later scribe or compiler. Nevertheless, the passage he quotes is in our scripture, and we need to make sense of it in our context.)

Paul is here quoting Isaiah 52:11, verses immediately before the famous song of the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), which sets forth the means for the redemption of Israel through the work of the Servant. Israel, the holy nation, is to be set apart, sanctified, separated from the nations which surrounded it. That is why the holy (clean, sanctified and redeemed) people of Israel are to remain separate from the common (unclean, sinful and unrighteous) peoples of the nations.

But it is entirely possible that we could (if we pursue a certain hermeneutical approach) adopt 2 Cor 6:17 into our current context, and use it as a text for advocating the kinds of distancing and separation advised by government health departments and religious institutions: do not shake hands, do not embrace, do not share a common cup, do not let there be anyway of passing on the virus to others, do not do any of the things that we value in our coming together as a community of faith—even, do not come together to worship and share together.

I am not advocating this line of interpretation, let me clear; I am just noting that some might be attracted to going down this pathway. But I think that is too simple: staying apart because we are set apart, consecrated, holy. That is sectarian thinking, and that is not how I think the church needs to be. We need to think further about “how to be church” in the crisis situation of a global pandemic.

IV Care for the needy

Alongside these biblical injunctions, there are other instructions and admonition that are found in scripture. These are equally valid and equally binding upon us, as we think about how to be church. I am thinking, at this time, particularly of the responsibilities that we have towards those who people within our midst are most in need of care and support.

In Hebrew Scriptures, the Law advocates this as a priority: take care of the needy: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour”. (Deut 15:7).

This commandment is precisely what Jesus was alluding to, in the scene set in Bethany, where Mary anoints his feet, when he says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8), where he was referring to Deut 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’”

The command to care for the needy is replicated in other places in the Bible the Psalmist exhorts is to “rescue the weak and the needy” (Psalm 82:3-4), amd in Proverbs we are exhorted to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8-9). These instructions to the people of Israel are based upon the understanding that the Lord God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18).

The ancient instructions to care for the needy are replicated in the New Testament, in instructions spoken by Jesus (Mark 10:21), in the blessings he spoke (Luke 6:20), in his signature synagogue sermon (Luke 4:18-19), and in the description of his ministry as fulfilling prophecy (Matt 11:4-5). Jesus demonstrated the priority of caring for people at their point of need.

Such an orientation is also found in directions in the epistles (Eph 4:28; James 2:1-7; 1 John 3:17), as well as in the summary description of the early community of believers who gathered in Jerusalem (Act 4:34-35, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and … it was distributed to each as any had need”).

My colleague Chris Goringe has written in a very helpful way about how we could, in fact, take the opportunity of the moment, in the pandemic crisis, to refocus and intensify our efforts to care for one another, paying particular attention to those who are in need. See

https://roseville.unitingchurch.org.au/2020/03/covid-19-and-the-church/

In the UK, a useful resource encouraging us to care for one another has been published by the Anglican Bishop of St Albans, at https://www.stalbans.anglican.org/coronavirus/

In my mind, helping the person in need is as central to our faith as it is to gather together in fellowship and worship. That, it seems to me, is the word for our times, a time of global pandemic, where the number of affected needy people is increasing on a regular—and frightening—basis.

We would do well to remember, in this instance, the words of Jesus in the last parable he spoke in the Gospel of Matthew: “just as you did it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

V Community in the midst of a pandemic

The context that the whole world now finds it in, is that of a pandemic. The alarmingly rapid spread of this virus is leading to a disturbingly rapid increase in instances of people who are significantly impacted by the virus. The rate of growth in cases is exponential, meaning that it is doubling each day. That is very worrying.

In this context, we need to ask: who are the needy? The best medical advice indicates that there a number of factors which predispose certain people towards being seriously affected by this virus. Age and health are two key factors; people aged 65 and over are more likely to contract the virus, and people with one or more of the co-morbidity factors are likewise at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Co-morbidity factors include hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease (heart problems), chronic respiratory disease (breathing difficulties), diabetes, and cancer. Anyone with one or more of these can be viewed in terms of their being one of “the needy”, who are to receive particular care from other believers. Avoiding situations where such people are exposed to a greater risk of contacting the virus, is surely a responsibility that we have, as a community of faith.

See this accessible discussion of co-morbidity factors at https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/clinical/examining-factors-that-worsen-coronavirus-severity

Occasions when large groups of people are gathered together are precisely the situations when the passing of the virus to other people can occur. People with a number of the factors that predispose them to be significantly impacted by the virus are at greater risk in such situations. Our responsibility in this situation is, not only to those in our community of faith, but, more widely, to those in the society of which we are a part. We are committed, after all, to “the common good” (see Neh 2:8 and Gal 6:10).

That raises, for me, the question as to how we balance the desire, and the felt importance, of gathering together for worship and fellowship, with the responsibility of the community of faith to care for the needy, and particularly, for the elderly and medically unhealthy individuals who are found, inevitably, across all of the Congregations of the church. What is the responsible way forward?

The worship service that I attended today was scheduled to be a service of Holy Communion. During the week, after considering the medical advice available and the evidence concerning the spread of the virus, the elders decided to hold a service without communion. An empty plate and goblet stood at the front, as the minister—my wife, Elizabeth Raine—led a time of lamenting and remembering, in place of a full communion. See https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2020/03/a-lament-for-communion.html

However, there are further questions to explore. Should we suspend our regular worship gatherings, until the peak of the pandemic has passed? Caring for the needy—ensuring that we do not place them in a situation of greater risk—would seem, to me, to mitigate the need, and the desire, to gather each week for worship. We may well be better served to suspend our gatherings for the moment. That would be a good way to show that we are serious about “opening our hands to the poor and needy neighbour in our land” (Deut 15:7).

Gathering together on a Sunday for worship and fellowship is precisely the thing about “being church” that is valued by the group most exposed to risks in the current pandemic. People over 65 make up the majority of church attenders in any denomination, as, indeed, in many denominations. Older people attending are what keeps many Sunday worship services continuing. They have a strong commitment (so they keep on telling me) to keeping the doors open, making a witness to the community, by worshipping each Sunday.

So closing worship on Sunday in the face of such intense commitment will be difficult. But it might now be the issue that we need to confront, and the decision that we need to take, if we want to ensure that the incidence if illness and, indeed, the death rate, amongst elderly and inform church members is minimised. It is that serious, that dangerous, and that pressing.

Up to date statistics on the spread of the virus in Australia can be found at https://www.covid19data.com.au/

The NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church has published guidelines for how we act during the pandemic, at https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/letter-from-the-general-secretary-regarding-the-prevention-of-novel-coronavirus-covid-19/

In the USA, the Wisconsin Council of Churches has a very helpful and comprehensive set of resources available at https://www.wichurches.org/2020/02/28/flu-season-the-coronavirus-and-the-church/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=flu-season-the-coronavirus-and-the-church