For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians, Pentecost 2C, 3C, 4C)

As the epistle is the lectionary for this Sunday and the following two Sundays comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, here is an Introduction to Galatians.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes.

Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians (1:6–9). In quick succession, he criticizes their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads. What do we make of this language used by Paul?

Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Graeco-Roman society—which would have included Paul.  

So Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught the Christians there things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings that apparently had been so effective amongst them.

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.

The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatians 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas: he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. (There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter: “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited.)

The key themes of this letter relate to the Law, freedom, and unity.

The gospel that Paul proclaims makes believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions: as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28).

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that these other teachers want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes, they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13).

Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12).

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Philippans 3:5 (a fact that he omits when he rehearses his past at Galatians 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?

He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts.

Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage that lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law.

Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, that secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.

This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law.

The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2) and to “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel, which brings liberation in community (3:28), will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).

Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom that it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?

Images drawn from the past, looking to the future, as a message for the present (Revelation; Easter, Year C)

During the season of Easter this year, we are following a short sequence of readings from the book of Revelation. The first such reading (Rev 1:4–8) was last Sunday, setting out the writer and the audience, as well as the key focus of the book: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).

The book begins with a striking opening phrase—in Greek, it reads apokalypsis Iesou Christou (1:1). The first word in this phrase can be translated in two ways, resulting in the two most common titles for the book—“Revelation” or “Apocalypse”.

The word revelation is related to a Latin word which means to disclose or make known; the word apocalypse is the Greek term which means to uncover or expose. This word sums up the distinctive nature of the book right at the start—this is an exposé of the highest degree!

The content of this exposé is declared to be “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2, 9). The book ends with a reminder that Jesus sent his angel to John with “this testimony for the churches” (22:16). All of this is being done in a context of some urgency: “the time is near” (1:3), for Jesus is coming soon (1:7; 22:7, 12, 20; see also 2:16; 3:11; 22:6).

The book was written to be read aloud (1:3; 22:18); it seems to invite the people listening to the story to envisage what is being described by using their own imaginations. This is already evident in the way that the dramatic tone builds in the opening sections of the work. First, in the section of the book set for last Sunday, there is a hymn in praise of Jesus, reminiscent of poetic sections in other New Testament books as well as in Hebrew Scripture (1:5–8).

Next comes a description of the author and the process of creating the book (1:9–11). This was apparently initiated by “a loud voice like a trumpet” (1:10) —a voice which belonged to a distinguished figure with an ominous presence (1:12–16), whose appearance caused the writer to “fall at his feet as though dead” (1:17). The scene is thoroughly biblical, in keeping with the pattern of portentous announcements in Hebrew Scripture as well as in the early chapters of some Gospels. This will be the first of a number of visions, in which startling creatures declare unnerving messages in vividly dramatic ways.

The Revelation of John was not the first book of this kind ever written; in fact, Jewish writers had been producing literature like this for some centuries, recounting visions of the heavenly realm and reporting teachings which have been passed on by ancient figures from the heavens. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are sections of the prophetic works which have the same kind of tone, as prophets report the visions they have seen and the oracles they have heard from the Lord.

Indeed, within other parts of the New Testament, there are indications of similar interests and ways of viewing the world—a view that is often characterized as “apocalyptic”. The figure of John the Baptist can best be appreciated as an apocalyptic figure, declaring that the Messiah has come and the kingdom is at hand (Mark 1:7–8; Matt 3:2).

Jesus continued the apocalyptic message of John by announcing that the kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) or, indeed, present (Luke 17:20). Many of the parables of Jesus and not a few of his teachings reflect an apocalyptic view of reality (for instance, Mark 13:14–37; Matt 24:45–25:46, Luke 17:20–37).

The letters of Paul contain clear pointers to the way that Paul viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens, in which the return of Jesus would take place soon and the kingdom of God would be ushered in (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 1 Cor 7:29– 31, 15:20–28; Rom 8:18–25). The view that “the last days” were to come was also held by other writers (Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Tim 2 Pet 3:1–5; Jude 17–19).

The apocalyptic worldview had been developing in Israel for some centuries. From their origins, prophets had delivered oracles in the name of the Lord; over time, they also began to incorporate accounts of visions in their messages (Isa 6; Jer 24; Ezek 1, 2–3, 8–11, 37, 40–44; Dan 2:19; Joel 2:28–32; Amos 7–9; Obad 1; Hab 2; Zech 1–8).

In the later stages of the prophetic movement in Israel, this form of communication becomes dominant. The last half of two prophetic books (Daniel 7–12; Zech 9–14) contain interrelated sequences of visions in which contemporary events, and perhaps also future events, appear to be depicted in symbolic form.

This trend continues on in a number of books written through the second and first centuries BCE, many of which still survive today. In this period we find various works which use heavenly messengers to reveal insights about mysteries and provide predictions about the future.

Most widely-known are 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch; in addition, a number of works in the Dead Sea Scrolls are apocalyptic in nature. All these works contain literary features typical of apocalyptic works, as well as certain theological elements relating to the end of the ages.

As we read the book of Revelation, we can identify certain literary features which are quite characteristic of apocalyptic literature. The authority of the author is a key concern (1:9–10; 22:8–9) and the declaration is made that what is now being revealed is a mysterious secret (1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7). This revelation comes direct from God through his authorized messenger (1:1–2, 11– 20; 22:8–10).

The warning not to change the text (22:18–19) is characteristic of apocalyptic, as is the regular reminder of the author’s expectation that the present era is coming to an end (2:26; 21:1, 4) and his description of a vision of the beginning of a new era (1:1; 7:9–17; 11:19; 21:1–22:7; 22:12, 20). The role of angels and visions reflects typical apocalyptic features.

Also typical of apocalyptic are the many coded depictions which are conveyed in numbers: four (4:6–8; 5:6, 14; 6:1–8; 7:1–3, 11; 9:14; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4; 21:16); ten (2:10; 12:3, 18; 17:3, 12–16); twelve (12:1; 21:12–14, 21; 22:2); twenty-four (4:4, 10; 11:16; 19:4); 144,000 (7:4–8; 14:1–4); and the intriguing 666 (13:18).

Of course, the number seven, which recurs in numerous places throughout the book, is very significant: there are seven letters, 1:11; seven golden lampstands, 1:12, 20; seven stars, 1:16, 20; 2:1; seven angels, 1:20; 3:1; 15:7; seven spirits, 1:4; 3:1; seven seals, 5:1; seven horns and eyes, 5:6; seven trumpets, 8:2; seven thunders, 10:3–4; seven diadems, 12:3; seven plagues, 15:1, 6; seven golden bowls, 15:7; 16:1; and seven heads, 17:3, 9–10.

Finally, there is the crucial appearance of Babylon as a coded symbol of Rome (17:5, 18). This is a code used also in Jewish apocalyptic works.

The reader (or listener) of this work is invited into a world of unfettered imagination, with evocative imagery, enticing language, and disturbing rhetoric. The book appears to be describing the events that will take place in the immediate future; these chapters set the scene set for what will later be revealed as a colossal, cosmic battle between good and evil.

However, the style of the work is never straightforward and the message is never declared in direct propositional form. Many of the scenes contain words, images, and ideas which are already familiar from the Hebrew Scriptures— although they appear to be arranged in inventive new ways. Making sense of this book requires an act of creative imagination alongside a process of careful exploration, investigation, and interpretation.

The visions that are included in this spectacularly dramatic book evoke biblical language and imagery in various ways, as the author envisages the future by drawing from the scriptures of the past and reworking the images and ideas found within them as a message for the present.

“Worthy is the lamb that was slaughtered”: a paradoxical vision (Rev 5; Easter 3C)

The third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples (John 21; Easter 3C)

The Gospel passage which the lectionary offers for this coming Sunday (John 21:1–19) includes some distinctive features worthy of comment. The scene, like many of the scenes of the resurrection of Jesus, is found in this one place only. This contrasts with the empty tomb account, which is found in all four Gospels (Mark 16:1–8; Matt 28:1–10; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–18), albeit with variations and differences in each version.

Other resurrection accounts are one-off reports: to the eleven disciples in Galilee (Matt 28:16–20); to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32); to “the eleven and their companions in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:33–49); to a group (unnamed) of disciples meeting behind locked doors, presumably in Jerusalem (John 20:19–23); and to the disciples, including Thomas, a week later, behind closed doors (John 20:26–29). (This collection of appearances is bundled up into the Longer Ending which was added to Mark’s Gospel in a later century, as Mark 16:9–20.)

There are also claims, made by Paul, about appearances of the risen Jesus, “to Cephas, then to the twelve … then to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time … then to James, then to all the apostles; last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15:5-8). None of these correlate precisely with the appearances noted in the Gospels.

The location for this particular appearance of Jesus is “by the Sea of Tiberias” (John 21:1). It is only the book of signs that identifies Tiberias as a region which Jesus visits, and then only once, when he feeds to 5,000 (6:1–14, 23). In introducing that story, the author explicitly equates the Sea of Galilee with the Sea of Tiberias (6:1). This sea appears often as the location for stories in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:16; 7:31, both paralleled in Matt 4:18; 15:29; see also Luke 5:1, where it is called the “Lake of Gennesaret”). The story told in Luke 5 is important, as we shall explore below, in considering the John 21 narrative.

La seconde pêche miraculeuse
by James Tissot (1836–1902)

Seven Disciples by the Lake

The group of seven disciples present when Jesus makes his appearance are identified as “Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples” (21:2). This list of those gathered beside the sea is interesting for who is present, and who is missing.

The author of the book of origins has begun his account with an idiosyncratic list of the earliest followers of Jesus. The first named is Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, who is introduced as one of two disciples of John the baptiser (John 1:35–40). The other one with Andrew is unnamed. Andrew draws his brother, Simon, into the story (1:40–41), providing the first confession of Jesus as Messiah (1:41); although it is Andrew who makes this confession, Jesus bestows a new name upon Simon—to be known henceforth as Cephas, that is, Peter, the “rocky one” (1:42).

Peter figures in many stories in the Synoptic Gospels; Andrew, less often. By Paul’s own admission, “James and Cephas and John” were the “acknowledged pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:9); James and Peter were key voices amongst “the apostles and the elders” in the gathering often known as the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13–19).

Also amongst the earliest followers of Jesus in the book of origins are Philip, “from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter” (1:43–44) and Nathanael, whom Jesus declares to be “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:45–47). Nathanael provides a triple declaration that Jesus is “Rabbi … the Son of God … the King of Israel” (1:49). Curiously, these earliest followers of Jesus have already made the key confessional affirmations about Jesus in their initial encounters with him—more a literary device than an historically-plausible event.

Icon of Philip and Nathanael with Jesus

Peter, of course, figures in the Johannine version of the story about Jesus—only once in the earlier narrative section (John 6:68) but a number of times in the final sections of the story (13:1–11, 21–30, 36–38; 18:10–11, 15–18, 25–27; 20:1–8). The lesser role of Peter, and the way he is contrasted a,onside “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, will be further explored below.

Philip and Andrew are noted as being present both in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (6:8–14) and when “some Greeks” worshipping in Jerusalem ask Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (12: 20–22). This request evokes a significant response from Jesus, speaking about “my hour”, the seed falling into the ground, and the familiar teaching, “whoever serves me must follow me” (12:23–26). Philip also poses one of the requests put to Jesus during his “farewell discourse”, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8–14). Nathanael, by contrast, is absent from the story until this final post-crucifixion narrative (21:1–3).

So five of the seven who gather by the sea in this post-crucifixion time are clearly identical with individuals named in the Synoptic Gospels. Simon Peter was the earliest disciple called, along with his brother, Andrew (Mark 1:16–18; Matt 4:18–20) and always heads up the list of The Twelve whom Jesus “appointed as apostles” (Mark 3:14; see the list at Mark 3:18 and parallels, and Acts 1:13).

In Synoptic tradition, the sons of Zebedee were the next two disciples called by Jesus (Mark 1:19–20; Matt 4:21–22), where they are named as James and John; they also figure in the list of The Twelve (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). These two sons are never named in John’s book of signs; nor do they appear anywhere else in the earlier stories of Jesus.

Thomas is named amongst The Twelve in Synoptic traditions (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). He is noted on three occasions in the book of signs (John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24–29); see https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

Philip, introduced by John in company with Nathanael (1:43–51) is linked with Bartholomew in Synoptic traditions (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). Bartholomew is not mentioned at all in the book of signs; could the Synoptic Bartholomew be the same as the Johannine Nathanael? The identification is often made by interpreters.

The Beloved Disciple and Simon Peter

Who were the other two, unnamed, disciples in that group of seven beside the Sea of Tiberias that early morning? The verses immediately after the section offered by the lectionary provide a clue. The narrative continues, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?'” (21:20).

The disciple whom Jesus loved has appeared earlier in the book of signs at two key moments: at the meal with the disciples that included the footwashing (13:23), and beside the cross (19:25–27). There is some question, also, that he may have been “the other disciple” with Simon Peter in the courtyard of the high priest (18:15–16; “the other disciple” is identified as “the one whom Jesus loved” at 20:2).

This disciple actually occupies a more prominent place in the book of signs than Simon Peter, who predominates in the Synoptic accounts. The Johannine narrative of the empty tomb places Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple at the tomb (20:1–10). Whilst the two disciples run to the tomb, the Beloved Disciple arrives first, ahead of Peter, and makes the first confession of faith (20:3–8).

The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb
on the morning of the resurrection
Painting by Eugène Burnand (1898)

There is a similar dynamic at work in the Johannine account of the final supper, as the Beloved Disciple reclines next to Jesus; at the request of Simon Peter, he asks Jesus about his prediction of betrayal (13:21–25). In both scenes, Peter appears to be in a subservient position to the Beloved Disciple: arriving second at the tomb, asking the Beloved Disciple to ask a question of Jesus.

This contrast is heightened in the Passion Narrative, as the Synoptic accounts of the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter (Mark 14:66–72 and parallels) are replicated in John’s book of signs (John 18:15–18, 15–17), whilst the Beloved Disciple stays close by Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross with his mother, in John’s narrative (19:15–17).

The “competition” between these two early disciples is one clue as to the origins of John’s book of signs. Raymond Brown has developed a complex hypothesis about multiple stages of development of this Gospel, with the figure of the Beloved Disciple providing a focal point of leadership and identity (and perhaps also serving as the earliest source for the distinctive Johannine traditions?). This is a counterpoint to the leadership accorded to Peter in Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-18; 8:29; 10:28; 14:29; 16:7) and the subsequent strengthening of his leadership role by Matthew (Matt 16:13-20).

I still find Brown’s proposal to be quite persuasive. There is a detailed summary and valuable critical analysis of Brown’s hypothesis by L. Jared Garcia at https://leejaredgarcia.com/2020/10/29/the-community-of-the-beloved-disciple-by-raymond-brown-a-book-review/

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/29/back-to-the-lake-back-to-fishing-a-late-resurrection-story-john-21-easter-3c/

Boaz and Phoebe, on Mary and Jesus (John 12; Lent 5C)

A dialogue between two slaves at the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, written by Elizabeth Raine, presented at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 3 April.

Boaz is a strict Jew and has a firm idea of custom and law. Phoebe is of Jewish Hellenistic origin, more liberal in her views and very interested in the message of Jesus. They have been serving dinner to the guests, including Jesus, after Lazarus’ was mysteriously raised from the dead.

*****

Boaz: It still find it creepy, I confess, being at the home of a dead man who somehow isn’t dead any more. Oh, I can understand the gratitude that Martha and Mary must have felt, and why they wanted to thank Jesus for restoring their brother to them. But you have to admit, the whole thing was strange. And that Jesus fellow, he is rather strange as well, don’t you think?

Phoebe: I thought it very kind of Martha and Mary to honour Jesus. I don’t find it strange at all. Everyone knows he is a holy man withwonderful powers from God. Lazarus’ raising was a miracle, a blessing from God. How can you think holiness in someone is a problem?

Lots of reasons. Holy men have a habit of coming to sticky ends. And I thought Mary’s gratitude was a little excessive. Fancy wasting all that expensive perfume. Where did she get the money from?

Well, I thought Mary’s anointing Jesus with that perfume was a beautiful demonstration of gratitude, and devotion. And surely you are not suggesting that she came by the perfume dishonestly.

No, of course not. But with a household to run, it seems an unnecessary expense to incur. And you must have heard the argument between Jesus and one of his disciples about it. You know, the one who keeps their accounts. Judas, I believe his name is. Judas wasn’t impressed by Mary’s action.

Well, I don’t think it is any business of Judas, or ours, or anyone else’s if Mary wished to thank Jesus in this way. How she spends her money is surely her concern and her business only.

I suppose so. But Judas had a good point. A whole jar of that perfume would be worth a year’s wages. Imagine how much good all that money could do for the poor. After all, we were commanded as Jews to give relief to the poor. Deuteronomy specifically states that we should ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’”. And look at the teachings of Jesus himself. He is always on about helping the poor. I heard he even advised one wealthy young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Yet here he is accepting perfume worth a king’s ransom be wasted on his feet!

I can see what you are saying. But Jesus and the disciples have given lots of money to the poor over the last few years. You know they have. And inspired others to do the same. And Mary has a right to spend her money as she wishes. She clearly offered this gift out of her gratitude and great love for Jesus. After all, what price her brother’s life?

Well, I am not sure Jesus should have allowed a whole year’s wages to simply evaporate into thin air. Yes, it was a nice gesture and it did make the house very fragrant and pleasant. But what business has Jesus got to ask other people to be giving away or selling their things in aid of the poor when he allows such waste on himself? I still think Judas had a good point. All those denarii could feed a lot of hungry people. How can you be sure that Mary was doing the right thing? 

I say if you are going to be generous, then do it properly. And this is also an important part of all our traditions, to be generous in hospitality to our guests and to take care to show our appreciation for the favours of others. After all, the proverb says, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.” Mary has given freely and didn’t withhold the appropriate thanks due to Jesus.

You sound just like that Rabbi Hillel with your liberal notions. I am sure this was not the intent of that proverb. But it wasn’t just the expense. It was what Jesus said in response to Judas, you know, about the poor always being around. You must admit that it was a very odd response for someone who says they are all for the poor and alleviating their suffering. He said that the poor would always be with us, but that he would not. This is not the attitude of a holy man. A holy man would think first of the poor.

I just told you that no one can accuse Jesus of ignoring the poor. Look at his recent actions. Apparently he managed to feed a whole crowd recently with only five loaves and two fish. In addition, I have heard some of the other followers of Jesus speak poorly of Judas. They say that Judas was not really concerned about the poor at all but was a thief who used to steal money from their common purse. Surely we cannot take his remarks seriously. Mary was motivated by love and gratitude,and Judas by selfishly wanting the money for himself. Mary, however, has surely given away a most precious possession with total selflessness.

Oh, you make it all sound very noble indeed. But just think about the way she went about it. Anointing his feet instead of his head. This isn’t customary. And letting her hair down in public like that, just like she was a prostitute. Whatpossessed her to do such a thing? She acted like she was repenting of something, not thanking the saviour of her brother. Or worse, making an offer of herself.

Oh, surely not. But I agree, it wasn’t the best image she presented of herself. I was a little shocked myself to see her kneeling at the feet of a man who wasn’t related to her, hair all over the place, wiping herself on his feet. I know they are good friends and all, but still – yes, there certainly was a breach of proprietary there. I just assumed she had forgotten herself in her great outburst of gratitude.

Well, though there is some truth in what you say, I wouldn’t want to make such an exhibition of myself. Wouldn’t a simple and heartfelt thank you in addition to the dinner be enough?

But you are forgetting just how great a miracle had been performed here – no wonder she knelt in worship at his feet. Jesus speaks about being humble and serving others. I am sure he wouldn’t be above anointing or washing feet himself. And only prophets anoint the heads of the great.

Hang on a minute. You are making it sound like Mary was recognising Jesus as the Messiah! Surely you are not suggesting this. Such ideas could be seen as blasphemous in certain circles. There have been whispers about this very thing.

Yes, I have heard the rumours as well. Apparently the chief priests are not happy at all with all the attention that Jesus has drawn to himselfsince the raising of Lazarus from the dead. I heard that they were trying to say that Lazarus wasn’t really dead; it was a stunt to suggest to the common folk that Jesus was the Messiah. You know, to drum up support from the peasants and get a movement going.

Yes, after Lazarus came alive, I did hear that the chief priests had called an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin. They wanted to discuss what had happened, I suppose. After all, everyone is talking about the many signs that Jesus has performed. I guess they would be thinking that if they let him keep going on like this, that soon everyone will be believing he is the promised kingand messiah. And any mention of ‘king’ and the Romans would be sure tocome and destroy both the temple and us. 

I did hear that Caiaphas, the high priest, had made some sort of plan. Someone did whisper to me that he got fed up with all the debate, and told the Sanhedrin they were all fools. I heard that they decided it was better to sacrifice Jesus. You know, better to just have one man killed to appease the Romans rather than the whole nation be destroyed.

Hmmmmm, do you think Jesus has heard about this? Might explain the very strange remark he made at the time Mary was wiping his feet. He said to Judas that the perfume was for his burial. I thought to myself at the time, ‘Who is he to be planning such an expensive burial ritual? And he is only young. Why would Mary be getting ready for his burial now?’ But if he had heard the rumours too, then that remark suddenly makes sense.

Do you really think that the priests have made up their mind to actually have Jesus put to death?

I think it possible, and what’s more, I heard that they had let it slip that anyone who might know where Jesus was should let them know, so that they could arrest him. Even heard there was a reward. If you are right about Judas being a money grubbing thief, then maybe he will try and claim it.

Oh, surely not. He and Jesus are so close. Don’t even think that. But Jesus needs to be careful. I thought I heard him say at the dinner that he was going to Jerusalem soon, and Jerusalem is a hotbed of unrest with Passover coming up. There was also some talk that the priests were planning to kill Lazarus as well, because everyone keeps coming to have a look at him. It isn’t every day that you can look at someone who has come back from the dead.


Well, Jesus wants to hope that the priests don’t hear of this latest extravagance and interpret Mary’s gesture and Jesus’ acceptance of it as some sort of symbolic anointing of Jesus as a royal Messiah. Otherwise he will be looking for a tomb, not a throne.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/01/jesus-anointed-as-a-sign-of-his-fate-john-12-lent-5c/

Mission, Evangelism, Bearing Witness, and Dialogue: some theological reflections

What are we doing when we engage in ”mission planning”? What do we mean when we talk about “mission”?

The Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church is exploring such questions this year. Our previous Strategic Plan, with its Five Key Pillars, came to a conclusion last year. This year, in conjunction with the Mission Enablement Team from Synod, the Presbytery is developing a new mission plan, to serve as the guiding document for the Presbytery for the next few years. We are taking time in each meeting of Presbytery to focus on this process, drawing on wisdom from right across the Presbytery (country, coast, and capital).

This is my contribution to the initial conversation that is taking place.

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In approaching these questions, it may be helpful to explore a series of related ideas, and distinguish them from one another. Often, when people refer to mission, they mean one of these related ideas : evangelism, testifying (or bearing witness), converting (or proselytising), or perhaps engaging in dialogue. Mission is related to each of these words, but mission is not simply one or more of these words alone.

Mission is what God is doing in the world. It began long ago with the people of Israel, when God sent (missionised) messengers, prophets to speak guidance to the people. In Christian understanding, this mission came to a head when God sent (missionised) Jesus into the world. (The word mission comes from the Latin word missio, which simply means “to send”). We are called to join with this missional initiative, to find where God is already at work in the world.

Evangelism is work that is related to the good news (the evangel, originally a Greek word) … work that is carried out through words, through actions, through being a presence. We are called to undertake this work in the ways that are most appropriate and most fruitful in each particular circumstance. The aim is to make that good news known as a reality for other people. That can be by words, by actions, in personal relationships, in working groups, in communal undertakings.

Testifying or Bearing Witness is offering our words to explain how we have experienced God, how we have been swept up in the mission that God is undertaking in the world, how we have experienced the good news (evangel) in our lives. We are called to communicate our personal experience of this good news carefully, in contextually relevant ways, and in respectful relationship with others. The story is ours to tell!

Conversion is an effort made to change someone’s mind, to turn someone FROM something and TOWARDS something else, to turn them so that they join WITH you in your understanding of things. It necessarily involves persuasion, a focus on convincing, an intention to arrive at a clearly-defined goal. It can all-too-easily teeter over the edge of respectful relationships into unhealthy pressurising behaviour. It needs to be undertaken (if it is seen as important) in a very careful, measured way.

Proselytism is a term that has gained a hard edge over time. It appears in scripture, when new converts to the Jesus movement are called proselytes in Acts. It literally means “coming towards”. But in modern usage it has a harsh edge, often indicating the following of a prescribed formula, involving the use of pressure tactics, sometimes with verbal force that goes beyond mere conversation. It’s not something that I personally see as important—or even valid—in undertaking mission.

Dialogue is another word that needs to be considered when we think about mission. Dialogue means to “speak across”; to speak another person and appreciate them in their own right, valuing who they are and what they have to offer, engaging them in conversation that seeks mutual growth and deepened understanding of each other. Inevitably, in my experience, such conversations, when they facilitate genuine mutual encounters, can lead to new understandings, renewed commitments, and revitalised faith. And that is at the heart of mission!

So there is a cluster of activities that need to be considered when considering mission:

evangelism and witnessing to your faith (telling and showing the good news from your personal perspective)

developing respectful relationships with other people (building respectful relationships that enable deep sharing)

community engagement with local groups (working in practical ways on a common cause, and in so doing, deepening relationships)

the ministry of presence in the community (simply “being there”, indicating that you are open to engagement and conversation with others)

developing faithful disciples (working intentionally to deepen understanding, enliven passion, broaden commitment, strengthen capacity)

growing your church (working with others to develop the worship, witness, service, and fellowship of the local community of faith)

advocating for the least (taking a stand on issues of justice, seeking the common good for all)

Each of these aspects has a place when we think about “doing mission”. For when we focus on mission, we start with a very simple premise: God is present and active in the world. From that premise, we can begin to see that people around us are engaged in activities that God has inspired. There are stories from people all around us, about how God is at work—in our congregations, in our families, in our communities, in any part of the world.

We join in the mission that God is already carrying out when the spirit leads us to find these people and join with them in partnership. The gospel then becomes declaring what God is already doing in our midst, in our time; interpreting the actions that we undertake together as expressions of God’s loving care for the world.

In the midst of all of this, we will know that the church is formed in its fullness through this process of partnering with others. The community is the place where being disciples and being church is lived out. The mission that God is already undertaking in the world through these assorted people is the enterprise in which we participate, enthusiastically, hopefully, energetically.

Cutting the covenant (Gen 15; Lent 2C)

The saga of Israel begins with stories about the ancestors held in highest regard as the mother and father of the nation: Sarai and Abram. The command that they heard is set out at the beginning of their story: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). The saga of this couple will reach fulfilment, many chapters and many centuries later, when their descendants enter the land and settle in Canaan (Joshua 1–6).

For the moment, Abram set off, with his extended family: “his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran” (12:5). Haran was a strategic city in the upper reaches of the area we know as the Fertile Crescent, far from the land of Canaan (over 12,000km). The call was to travel that distance, to Canaan.

That call, to enter the journey and remain persistent along the way, is a call that we do well to recall each Lent, as we navigate the journey of this season, calling us towards the climactic story of the Christian faith, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

For support and sustenance along the way, Abram and Sarai were called into covenant relationship with God. The formalising of the covenant is reported later in this chapter, at 15:18, with a promise that the descendants of Abram and Sarah will indeed have the land that is specified. That, I would argue, resonates also with the Lenten journey; these current weeks of preparation for Easter beckon us to re-commit to our covenant, the one that we ourselves have with God. So these later verses are included in our reading for this Sunday.

(The question about the people already living in the land—those specifically identified in 15:19–21, merits separate consideration. The invasion of Canaan and conquering of these people by the people of Israel raises difficult questions.)

Abram and Sarah had left their homeland with some assured promises from God; they would be parents of a great nation, blessed by God, remembered as having a great name, and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them (12:1–3). Those promises were intended to hold Sarai and Abram to the journey, despite all that they might encounter. The end result would make the travails along the way bearable.

However, Abram expresses some doubt that the promises made by God would come to pass (15:2-3). God’s response is to provide further reassurance; the multitude of stars in the sky is testimony to that (15:5). Abraham’s resulting affirmation of faith leads to the famous phrase, so central to Paul’s later argument about righteousness: “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6; see Rom 4:3, 9, 22). In a way, this story sets the foundations for later Christian faith, as we see the grace of God at work in relating to Abraham.

The ceremony that follows adheres to the traditional cultic practices of the time. A collection of sacrificial victims, two animals and two birds, are offered and slaughtered, and the animals are cut in two (15:9–11). (The phrase, “to make a covenant” in Hebrew, can literally be rendered as ”to cut a covenant”.) Such practices signal the seriousness of the moment and send the message that each party will keep their word on pain of death.

Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah later alludes to this specific provision, when he warns recalcitrant Israelites that “those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts” (Jer 34:18, referring to Gen 15:10). The prophet continues, “their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth” (Jer 34:20, an allusion to Gen 15:11).

This ancient cultic sacrificial practice of cutting animals does not reflect modern practices and is, in fact, distasteful to contemporary sensitivities. That might prod current readers to dismiss this passage as archaic, irrelevant, obsolete. That would be a shame. It remains relevant to us in a striking way.

Abram and Sarai reveal both trust in the promises they have been given, but also articulate some uncertainty about whether God would continue to be faithful to those promises. How human this is! In this regard, they reflect the somewhat ambivalent way that each of us relate to the promises of God: living out our trust and hope in the midst of the challenges, changes, and obstacles along the way, yet still holding back, somewhat dubious, about the ultimate reality this all.

It’s a perfect vignette for Lent, for the period when we reconsider how God had been at work in our midst, when we reconsider our commitment to the covenant we have made with God, and how live out that covenant in the realities of discipleship. It reminds us of the call to full-blooded, whole-scale, all-of-life commitment to the covenant that we have with God through Jesus.

See also